Tag Archives: Film Favorites

Film Favorites: Zodiac

screen-shot-2017-03-06-at-9-25-42-am-e1565367625930Doom-and-gloom maestro David Fincher has taken the 2000s and 2010s as his time to find respect, and as we all know, that is one of the worst things for a filmmaker to do. Mainstream success is one of the surest trains to cinematic acquiescence, and there ain’t nothing like acquiescence to numb the lifeblood of cinematic passion. Sure, 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was his only overtly Oscarbaity film, and he did follow it up with his second best work, 2010’s The Social Network. But recent years have seen him look back to his lurid earlier days with nostalgia and a drive to recreate his darker and more nihilistic earlier efforts, and his efforts have proven one thing: slick has replaced sick, and Fincher’s desire to find commercial success has smothered any breathing room for his pitch-black cinematic treats to truly submerse themselves in operatic melancholy and deranged lunacies.

The results haven’t been less than good, but the magic of the hungry, go-for-broke Se7en, produced on the fringes in a special place of not-quite-social-acceptance, have given way to a corporate variant on midnight cinema, an overly safe interpretation of something that absolutely should be nowhere within striking distance of safety. The Middlebrows want to get dark without actually going to a dangerous place, to drive to the edge without going over, and to witness human wrath and envy from the safety of their home, and Fincher has made the mistake of obliging them.
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Film Favorites: Black Narcissus

black-narcissus-1947-644x356Update late 2018:

Upon another re-watch, I remain enamored of Black Narcissus, not only the truly sublime potency of its art but its more silent intimations of unknown forces and mysterious evocations beyond the mental capacity of its protagonists, and possibly us, to register. With Black Narcissus, Powell and Pressburger, with an irrevocable assist from cinematographer Jack Cardiff, conjure the transcendent powers of terrifying, exhausting melodrama. Not melodrama as it is usually understand, as a beacon of deceit, but melodrama as the possible reality which we repress from considerations of the rational, the moments and suggestions and sensations which fluctuate and flutter outside the bounds and demarcations of European rationalism’s vision of realism and reality.

Insofar as the narrative is essentially the push-pull of colonial forces colonizing the boundaries of the sensible, to cop from Ranciere, the most telling intimations in Black Narcissus are not the ones which seemingly corrupt the missionaries at the heart of the tale but the ones which intoxicate and haunt the film’s periphery, the ghosts of other realities and mysteries which are not assimilable to that colonizing vision of what kinds of images can and should be “sensible”. It is the alluring mystery of Black Narcissus that the film transcends the “sensible” reality the protagonists would wish to impart upon it. Not so we can transcend to a higher reality inaccessible to them, but so the film can evoke the unknown intrinsic to any state of being. And, unforgettably, to revoke the supposed ability of British empire to truly colonize that unknown.

Original Review:

Michael Powell, especially when paired with his long-time partner in crime Emeric Pressburger, was a director cripplingly ahead of his time (although they shared credits, Pressburger favored writing and Powell handled most of the behind-the-camera work). Literally crippling, in fact, for his provocative, lurid, deeply confrontational 1960 horror Peeping Tom, at that point perhaps the most daring and subversive commentary on filmmaking and film-watching ever released, essentially killed his career. Dark-hearted in a way even Hitch’s fellow 1960 release, Psycho, never approached, Peeping Tom grabbed a world not ready for it and shoved itself right up into humanity’s soul with voyeuristic, directly implicating POV filmmaking and sickly green hues to induce malaise and shock. It was an atomic final gasp on one of the all-time directorial careers. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Monsieur Verdoux

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.
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Film Favorites: Up

Ratatouille was in love with whimsy and fable and Wall-E with romance, minutiae, and slapstick humanism, but Up is at its proudest when it is having the most fun in the world being itself. It all begins with a boy, Russell (Jordan Nagai) asking curmudgeonly old drag of a man, Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), to help him earn a merit badge, but it most certainly doesn’t stay there for long. Pixar’s trip through surrealism, Warner Bros’ Bunuel-inspired Wackyland, Road to movies, ’30s adventure serials, and filmic flights of fancy more generally, Up sees the then-world’s most recognized film production company end their residency with practically owning filmic invention in the 2000s by paying tribute to all that allowed them to be what they had been so well and so singularly for fifteen years.
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Film Favorites: Ratatouille

If Ratatouille suffers in any meaningful way, it is simply because it does not redefine the possibilities of cinema like its immediate successor Wall-E, a contender for film of its decade and one of the two greatest American animated films since the original Disney Golden Age (yes, the original Golden Age, the one that ended in roughly 1942 and saw Disney fundamentally reorganize the state of film no less than four times).  That aside, it is an impeccable work, and although I suspect the if is more definitive, that is damning as enormous, transcendental praise.

Brad Bird came to Ratatouille with two films under his belt, the incomparably underrated tribute to ’50s genre cinema The Iron Giant and the morally questionable but zippy and whiplash recreation of American comic book history The Incredibles (if I felt Bird was some sort of radical, subversive genius, I might claim this film a mockery of the rampant elitism and individualist bootstraps twaddle inherent in Superhero lore; they don’t call it America’s Modern Mythos for no reason). Yet, while Brad is not looking to stoke the flames of film technique to redraw the lines of the form, or to indict that which he invests time in to with the fury of a New Wave auteur, what he is absolutely interested in, capable of, and brilliant at, is having fun with classical cinema given to new airs. With Ratatouille, he channels his talents into classical Hollywood fluff and has a grin on his face so big it’s ready to jump of and kiss the audience while he’s doing it. Continue reading

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: Vertigo

A man is tempted by an insidious, curvaceous force that feigns the feminine form and he slowly finds himself wound up like a ball of yarn for the cats’ night out. That’s how Vertigo begins, but only in the most superficial sense how it dissolves. It stars James Stewart as Scottie Ferguson, a private eye hired by a friend to spy on the friend’s wife Madeline (Kim Novak), whom the man believes is possessed by a familial specter who has long overstayed her tenancy in the human body. Soon enough, Scottie finds himself in love, and perhaps so too does Madeline. Things truck along in ghostly romantic chiller fashion from this point on, but director Alfred Hitchcock couldn’t resist slopping some blood on the tracks.

In 1958, Hitch was on top of the world, but he was about to blow the roof out. Over the next three years, he would release perhaps his tripartite masterpiece, spinning wildly from the psychoanalytic modernism of Vertigo to the boisterous, brash thrills-a-minute of North by Northwest, and sticking the landing with the black-hearted chiller Psycho, which would forever redefine horror filmmaking. All apologies to his latter two efforts, Vertigo is his time-capsule piece, and arguably the most singular and unclassifiable American film of released post-Welles. The reason for the film’s success is simple: it is quite clearly Hitchcock having the most fun he ever did behind a camera, cackling some of his most dementedly grotesque chuckles in the process. It’s a maddening, cataclysmic, ungodly little curio that plays a downright mean trick on the audience, and goes home laughing all the way. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Some Like it Hot

Update late 2018:

Watching again four holiday-seasons later, Some Like it Hot is such a prickly affair, so spirited and yet so suspicious of society, so generous and joyous and yet so acrid and jarring, so innocent and compassionate and yet loaded so deviously with subterfuge. And, in some ways, so much less and more transgressive than some critics make it out to be, with so much less to say about gender in the traditional sense – it doesn’t really dispell any stereotypes or even advocate for fluidity per-se – and yet so much more to say about the intersection between social identity and achievement, and the intersection of desire, gender, and capital, more broadly, insofar as the two protagonists perform alternative genders to fill a role in society when their existing roles are questioned or eliminated.

But Some Like it Hot confounds expectations at every turn. It’s practically baked into the film’s structure, beginning with a gorgeous prologue which rather seditiously feigns full-on gangster drama, and even though the protagonists escape that genre, the film never gets out of dodge: its always nervous, always serious, and never dethrones its characters or their anxieties for the sake of a joke. The famous final line, so hilarious in the moment, intimates a full history of tragedy and dashed expectations. Other scenes presage the vicious ecstasy of Wilder’s later One, Two, Three, but this film stages a truly mordant drama that always makes its empathy legible, frustrating any desire to mock the males’ foolishness for wanting to dress up or believing they can easily pass off as women without any understanding of the social codes of gender which until that point in their lives had been essentially preordained or written-off as “natural”.

Worthy of absurdity though their fumbling attempts to realize the performative nature of gender may be, the film never sabotages or demeans their inexpressible desires which are veiled in rhetoric and miscommunicated encounters. Instead, it frustrates their ability to express them clearly and cleanly. Thriving in the pragmatic space between internal dreams and external manifestations of those dreams, Some Like it Hot explores both the tragic and absurdist dimension of the fact that we must mediate desires through social roles which cannot fully explain or express those desires.

Original Review:

No one did Old Hollywood like Billy Wilder. And by did, I mean toyed with. He made Old Hollywood film stylings his pet. And if Billy Wilder was your owner, you were liable to succumb quite quickly to his oppressive, cynical charm. You’d grow up an ass, but you’d have a lot of fun in the meantime. He perfected perhaps the most Old Hollywood genre of all, film noir, in 1944 with his nihilist fable Double Indemnity, sent Old Hollywood off in fine style with his late period The Apartment, and generally dived deep into Old Hollywood and ripped it into little pieces from the inside out with his masterpiece among masterpieces, Sunset Blvd. But America never loved a Billy Wilder film like Some Like it Hot, and it’s easy to see why. Never before, and probably never since, has a comedy been so carefully assembled to walk a thin line between sauce and sweetness, between bouncy, lascivious swagger and prim-and-proper airs. And perhaps never before was Wilder so gosh-darned fun. 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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