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
Update 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.
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
First things first, Christopher Nolan is not a particularly good writer. Generally working with brother Jonathan Nolan in their most archly self-important holier-than-thou register, their scripts reek of arbitrary complication and self-important puzzle-box trickery designed to bowl you over with their highfalutin airs. He doesn’t have an acerbic bone in his body, and his films mask their non-personal nature by confusing better story with more story. Interstellar may be his messiest screenplay yet, shifting course every half-hour, developing certain ideas only to drop them almost completely because it saw something shiny in the distance. And then it has the gall to return to them later like they are the capper to a fully nourished, satisfying through-line when in reality they are simply shots in the dark. On paper, Interstellar is pretty terrible. Continue reading
Perhaps fitting for this film’s ominous, imposing, pointedly direct title, Maleficent’s best element is put right up in your face unadorned, and it’s Maleficent herself. Specifically, it’s Angelina Jolie. The scripting provides a nice groundwork of mythic broadness and nuanced character, and the figure’s visuality lends her an imposing and dominant yet frail and brittle figure, with costuming that approximates what small amount of expressionist grandeur a gargantuan summer blockbuster in 2014 with the Disney name could possibly hold on to. But this is a movie star piece through an through, and this film’s Maleficent is Jolie. It’s rare indeed that I play ball for an actor as the most important feature of a film, but then few actors have the raw, lascivious, deliciously commanding screen presence of Angelina Jolie. In addition, the film privileges her in shots, clearly reflecting director Robert Stromberg’s understanding that she is the center of the film, and his desire to show her off. So, that fact noted, it seems not only acceptable, but necessary to center Jolie in any consideration of Maleficent’s failure or success. Continue reading
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a difficult film to review. Usually this means one of two things: the film was mediocre and I find myself struggling to say something substantive about it, or I’m fascinated by it but I have not yet figured out how to unlock its mysteries. Usually the latter means I will love the film for its confounding, maddening tension and hate it for the same reason, at least until I see it again. Neither of those is the case for Andrew Dominik’s second film. I know exactly what I think of this film, and it is far from mediocre. The issue with this review is quite simple: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was all-but made for me. And gushing over something does not a review make, so I must try to formulate my jumping up and down into something coherent. Here we go.
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
The Tree of Life isn’t easily explained through conventional filmic analysis. I don’t have the resources within me, for instance, to explain why Sean Penn is in this movie, or why director Terrence Malick felt the need to spend thousands of dollars on a CGI-heavy recreation of the forming of the world. But, for every fault to be found in the film, none can replace the eternal face that I fell – positively, undeniably fell – under the director’s spell for just about every minute of the 135 minutes I spent watching this film, in a way I never have in a movie theater before. The human story found here doesn’t recall my own childhood in the slightest, and yet watching the film, I couldn’t help but feel connected to not merely the characters but the world they inhabit in a way I didn’t quite understand at first. I felt something that, if I may, might be the foremost (and perhaps only, but that says more about me than the film) spiritual experience in my life. I wasn’t so much watching a film as accepting it and letting it wash over me. I wasn’t “analyzing” shots or dialogue, as I tend to do in order to stake my claim as a film critic worth his salt. I was just there, and also not there – in some sort of weird limbo where I existed less as a physical body and more as conception of myself. It was an experience, but perhaps, a passive one. I let the film take me and it accepted – part of me is still swimming around in there. Continue reading