This week’s pair of Midnight Screenings will return us to the far-flung past of 2006 and 2007, a more innocent time in film history …
It is quite possible that Richard Linklater is the only currently functioning director who really could have directed A Scanner Darkly in the fidgety, twitching tone it so desperately begged for, and thus it is a little bit of magic that he managed to acquire the film at all. Firstly, this is because Linklater, the homegrown Texan with an eye for slacker culture and the distance imparted by time and memory, strips away the science fiction trappings from Phillip K. Dick’s story and renders it all the more pressingly intimate in doing so, without ever sacrificing the essence of the novel about drug abuse and melancholic social anomie. Which is itself important; so many science fiction films rationalize themselves by claiming they are necessarily informing us about the weight of a current world crisis, but as many other Dick adaptations show us, they frequently devolve into glorified techie action flicks. The science becomes a diaphanous masquerade, a meager attempt by a film to convince its audience of its intelligence when it offers nothing but pyrotechnics and quasi-futurism. Linklater doesn’t need a trip to the future; he creates a piercingly grounded tale about trips of a different variety. Continue reading →
With each rewatch, the sheer abyssal emptiness of The Matrix’s “social critique” is all the more apparent, and the lazier the film’s self-positioning as a messianic, imaginative emissary to “truth” feels. Rather than a real debate between multiple planes of or perspectives on reality, The Matrix sanctifies itself as revelation, its needlessly self-important tone matched only by the hopelessly blinkered texture of its philosophizing. It strikes me increasingly that the film’s problem is that its metaphysical, pseudo-post-modern ruminations on the problem of perspective imbricate upon rather than actually problematizing its resolutely, almost faultlessly classical narrative structure. Which is to say: the film remains, above all, committed to its hero’s quest storyline about the achievement of final consciousness – and “pure” truth – rather than a more fundamental doubt that this new reality is any more viable or legitimate than the old one the film fetishistically pats itself on the back for “teaching” us out of. Whenever new vision and old storylines come into conflict, the film imagines them as inimical, always and faultlessly choosing and defaulting to the later rather than trying to work through how to image a truly modernist blockbuster. For a film about the terrifying beauty of new perception, The Matrix boasts an astonishingly narrow corridor of perceptual possibilities, and it remains truly choked in its field of vision, never exposing its aporias, never curious about the peripheries that haunt it. It remains only interested in shoring up its knowledge rather than questioning it.
The Matrix is an aggressively, almost violently, superficial film, which isn’t a bad thing. That it doesn’t realize it is aggressively superficial? That is a bad thing, and arguably the overriding “bad thing” about genre films in the years to come since The Matrix. In particular, the sci-fi genre has descended into a mess we seem only to just be coming out of. There was a great long period post-Matrix where science fiction seemed wholly unable to exist as either thoughtless puff piece or hard-working, idiosyncratic social commentary. Films consistently and inescapably combined the two to sums that were less than the sum of their parts, questing for a maturity without earning said maturity in genuine craft, all while eventually falling back on techno-fried action as an avenue for popular appeal when the ideas of the film failed to pan out. Take Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 for one. Not a bad film, but definitely a post-Matrix work of trying to have its edgy, thoughtful sci-fi cake and trying to eat its robot-alien action cake too. Continue reading →
In a sane world, Point Break would have been released, forgotten, and then rediscovered and mocked for years on end as an early ’90s curio of archly-’80s action film types hyperbolically peacocking in a most philharmonic register, pushed to near-aneurysm limits of male moodiness no ’80s film ever dared to threaten. It should be terrible, simply put. Like, really really terrible. But then we do not live in a sane world. And Point Break is a pretty terrific barnstorming action monstrosity the likes of which the ’80s proper produced only a handful of times.
Even stranger: why it absolutely should have been horrible and why it is undoubtedly successful are inextricably and forever bound together in a Frankensteinian brew of knuckle-dusting, live-wire, allegro kinesis and full-tilt, pulpy bafflement. Director Kathryn Bigelow was infamously labeled a sell-out, a woman playing in a man’s world and joining the testosterone rat race to achieve success at the cost of her own soul. In reality, she turns the mirror on the rats and lets them bask in their roided-out bodies until they drown in the pungent masculine sweat. This inferno of action is actually a purgatory of caricature, a self-conscious orchestration of action movie types maddened and stirred to the realm of outright nonsensical hysteria. Parody not by distancing itself from the genre’s adolescence but by fulfilling the genre’s wildest, most adolescent fantasies until they puncture themselves with their own self-importance, Point Break is murder by flattery. Continue reading →
Update June 2019: Another watch-through in light of the internet love for Keanu Reeves these days, and I still find Bill and Ted’s earnestness and innocence, their undying and seemingly unawares appreciation for a way of life that doesn’t even seem to register as a choice for them, to be ludicrously intoxicating all these years later. Sometimes this works to the film’s detriment: almost none of the scenes where Bill and Ted themselves aren’t on-screen work at all. Still though, the slightly elegiac tone that undercuts the otherwise spirited slapstick fracas is the real surprise here. The year-long delay in the film’s release date practically stamped it as a time-capsule of a bygone era even for its initial audience, and that sense of wistfulness is perhaps more evocative today in light of rock music’s own existential conundrum just two years after the film’s release (when grunge melancholy soundly ripped hair metal earnestness to shreds). Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure feels less like a time capsule than a dream that seems to know that its own era is already passing, and for that reason, it can’t but refuse to admit its own premature burial in order to salvage its soul and preserve its sanity.
Most, and too many, reviews of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure focus on the contrasting futures of its two main stars. That Keanu Reeves went on to temporary mega-stardom while Alex Winter is just “the guy who’s not Keanu Reeves” is one of those endlessly befuddling, perplexing mysteries of pop culture that people love to ponder on about without rhyme or rhythm. Perhaps it was luck, or some vague sense that Keanu was more attractive, but discussing their futures misses the point. For in 1989, we only had Bill and Ted to go on, and in 2014, we should judge Bill and Ted on the merits of Bill and Ted, not the future careers of its two stars.
In particular, this time-lapse avenue of criticism misses the point for this film, because there really isn’t, nor is there supposed to be, a difference between the two performers. Based on their performances here, neither seem long-lost talents as individuals. What both performances are, however, is completely and entirely fit for their roles here, which is all that matters in an immediate sense. The point has been made about Reeves on end: he is effective when the role requires him to be himself, and that was never more-so true than here. And the same could be said about Winter, assuming anyone knew anything about his personal life. Continue reading →
For all John Wick’s bad-to-the-bone street cred, the most surprising, and rewarding, fact of the film is that it is essentially a character study. It just happens to study a man who knows only action and killing, a la Le Samourai and Point Blank. All other concerns are ephemeral. Wick is spare, stripped, and rivetingly efficient, and the entire last half of the film is wall-to-wall action, leaving little room for “traditional” character development. But in John Wick it is precisely that beaten-and-battered resistance to emotion that drives John Wick (Keanu Reeves). He’s a tragic figure, but not one who’s tragedy is expressed through emoting. Rather, it is expressed through his not emoting, and his essential inability to understand life outside of his single-minded pursuit of vengeance, a vengeance pushing him toward death even as it is the only thing keeping him alive and vigorous. He’s a cold man, and his film brings an icy chill. The effect is crippling, brittle, and unexpectedly heartbreaking. The script, and the terse filmmaking, strips the whole story of emotion, never letting us into its world, for Wick can’t truly be a part of ours. Continue reading →