There’s something a little bit magical about The American’s devious nature; I’m not sure it was intended by director Anton Corbijn, but you have to admire the way it gallantly seduced American audiences into approaching it like a classical ’70s spy-action film starring George Clooney (a perfect match for that sort of role if ever there was one) and then tricked them into watching what is a deliberately challenging, resistant film. Vaguely setting itself up with a harried narrative about an assassin scoping out and setting up for a contract in a small town in mountainous, rural Italy, the film is instead a thoughtful, reflective, molasses-slow work about an old soul and the resolution only a natural cleansing in a small-town locale can bring. It is a meditative film, above all, and an extremely effective meditation at that. Continue reading
It is said that the best horror films traffic in the slithering, slimy replacement of the mundane by the uncanny. True, to some extent, but the best of the best posit something more. Take 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre by Tobe Hooper, a work that posits the mundane as the uncanny, locating a world where the mundane regions of American society were the most uncanny. A world where mundane and innocent society never really existed except in the romantic dreams of the American imagination. A world where everyday life is actually an uncanny abyss of demonic activity just waiting to swallow goodness and human life up whole. Continue reading
By and large, this adaptation of David Mamet’s 1984 update of middle-century tales of economic middle-American woe is a trenchant, vital work of writing enlivened by a cornucopia of destabilizing performances of the highest order. It is, admittedly, hard to square with the cinematic adaptation when so little of the piece actually benefits at all from being made into a film, visually speaking. But sometimes the felt force of the writing is so affective on its own you just have to let measly little things like “filmmaking” slide.
Admittedly, there’s something to Mamet’s harshly, claustrophobically stripped writing style that coalesces with the jagged edges of the acerbic visual storytelling that works in spite of its would-be failures as filmmaking. Specifically, the decision not to particularly open-up the play beyond its suffocating two-day focus is essential, allowing the material a claustrophobic feel to capture the claustrophobia of men torn apart by a job that encircles their lives. For the film, Mamet slightly altered his play about four real estate salesmen who will be fired at the end of the week if they don’t sell enough marks, but he made the crucial decision to avoid any and all hints of these men at home or their family lives. The end result is a work that captures the four as round-the-clock victims and agents of capitalism, left working for home lives that the film tacitly avoids depicting. Thereby, the film exposes the central paradox of capitalism: the need to work to benefit one’s everyday life, only to have that work overtake one’s life so that the purpose of the work becomes the work itself, thus folding in on itself as capitalism strangles its governing justification. Continue reading
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, being both a welcome surprise and a disappointment. A surprise because, ultimately, it is good, and in some ways more than good, and a disappointment because the ways in which it is good are essentially carbon-copies of its predecessor. Still, they are improved carbon-copies, and if we are in the business of deciding whether Catching Fire is better than The Hunger Games, it would be a great quest to find a way in which it is not.
Certainly, director Francis Lawrence is a notable improvement over Gary Ross, and although he doesn’t create the best version of this tale, he understands how to treat a scorched-earth with a tempo that seems poetic and evocative rather than simply solemn and stoic. It is no Malick film, although the filmmakers would probably want you to think otherwise, but there is a definite sense that Lawrence understands how to link shots together with an eye for the distressing dejection of a corrupt world without ever sinking into outright miserablism. It also helps that he is a distinctly superior action director to Gary Ross, but we will get to that when the film does, namely, near the end. Continue reading
The Hunger Games is not a bad film, although it must be said that it is a decidedly superficial one. Which isn’t a bad thing, per-se. When Phillip Messina’s production design does wonders to sell the contrast between the dusted-earth Appalachia of District 12 and the pop-fiction of the Capitol district (locations which you can probably derive a function for without specific information from me), the film is a veritable hoot anyway. When the superficial is this good – take Judianna Makovsky’s loopy but dementedly blissful David-Bowie-at-the-circus costume design, for one – it can be easy to overlook how insubstantial all of it is.
Not to mention, this adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ young adult fiction book boasts a startlingly cinematic realization of its main heroine in the form of Jennifer Lawrence, now a household name but just three short years ago merely the girl from Winter’s Bone. A film of note, as Lawrence was clearly cast on the back of that eye-opening slice of Southern Gothic, being that she here plays a largely identical wise-beyond-her-years teenager transposed to the fictional but not too fictional world of Panem. After displaying her chops wandering with an unnatural forcefulness and determination through the perilous limbo of the Southern mountaintops of Winter’s Bone, she wears the monumentally Appalachian name of Katniss Everdeen here with all the nervous anxiety and dogged persistence it calls for. Continue reading
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the novel, is naughty. Alice in Wonderland, the Tim Burton film, is just nasty. An expatriated perversion of Lewis Carroll if ever there was one, it is the culmination of Tim Burton’s decade-long trek to shoot in the back any of the good will he earned doing more with film history than any mainstream American director during the 1990s.
Burton spent the better part of his early career falling in love with film and selling his love to the public on a silver platter. In their own ways, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Ed Wood, and Mars Attacks are infected with pure cinema, and they do everything in their power to show it, warts and all. Alice in Wonderland is all warts, not remotely invested in anything that makes its source material tick and not even passingly committed to finding a genuine visual and filmic translation of a literary text of madness, insecurity, and stream-of-consciousness insanity.
It takes a big movie to thrive with so many obvious flaws as Life of Pi, and it takes an even bigger director to get it to that point of success. For Life of Pi, that director is Ang Lee, the spiritually lush aesthetic artist who is as frequently benefited as he is hurt by his incomparably luminous romantic streak, and he does what is simultaneously his best and his worst job yet directing a film. His best, in that his spiritual streak is at its most alternately transcendent and restful in the large swaths of Life of Pi where it is putting all of its energy in being a purely presentation-focused work of feeling, breathing beauty and magisterially cinematic color-and-shape as mood-and-space. His worst, in that his spiritual streak leads him into some painfully cumbersome thematizing and immature and pandering feel-zones where characters drone on and on in alternately dulcet and exclamatory tones about petulant soul-searching and adolescent identity quests. Life of Pi, despite its restfulness, is a deeply temperamental film, moving between truly awe-inspiring nadirs of incompetence (such as a spellbindingly awful frame narrative) and acmes of blinding, truly side-winding transcendence that wash over you and put you in one of the finest pure mental spaces in 2010s cinema this side of The Tree of Life. Continue reading