>Rene Clair didn’t have it easy. Soundly trounced by the French New Wave and never really forgiven in the public consciousness, Clair was a hot button go-to guy in the early days of sound cinema, a born-and-bred scientist with tools in sound and space who saw cinema – like all the great early masters – as an expressive, flexible plaything more than a get-the-job-done tool. Play he did, although his somewhat overly-formed style admittedly hit a limit when it traded in the dangerous waters of experimentation for something a touch more gentle and composed. Clair enjoyed a good composition as much as the next director, but there was his compositions always ran the risk of boxing him in to a settled path, rather than letting him loose to ravenously tear down the walls and traverse new, unsettled regions of cinema. He had his limits, in other words, but the 2010s hardly even acknowledge him. Clair was a class act, and whatever his American films did to keep him away from true adventure and challenge, he never gave a film less than his full attention. The no man’s land that is his reputation today seldom takes into account his very real, if somewhat overly-rigid, talents as a filmmaker. Continue reading
Anyone familiar with Jacques Tourneur doesn’t need to read a review for evidence to the claim that Out of the Past is one of the best film noirs ever made. But that doesn’t mean establishing and specifying what is so undeniably great about it isn’t a worthwhile pleasure all the same. Cutting his teeth on Val Lewton’s near poverty-row horror unit for RKO, a team that single-handedly saved American horror in the 1940s by injecting a dose of the European, and a team which counted Tourneur as its most valuable member, Tourneur is one of the unheralded masters of the medium of cinema and one of the most poetic genre directors ever to grace the silver screen. Pairing him to noir like a fine wine to a slab of deliberately indelicate beef is too obvious to be a stroke of genius, but the results are no less marvelous for the “why didn’t they think of this earlier” nature of the film.
Pairing Robert Mitchum – ever the heavy – to a noir, however, was a stroke of genius, precisely because he made indelicate slabs out to be fine wine, making him the perfect bridge for the flavors milling around in Tourneur’s stew. Mitchum was a known face by 1947, but not even close to a star, and seeing his ambiguity flourish in Out of the Past is a tormented, deceptive beauty so perfectly matched to the material it almost approaches non-performance. Mitchum went on to fame as the cinema’s ultimate heel, concocting deliberately vague piles of blunt force that slithered and skulked across the land and directly into the dark hearts of humankind. The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear find him too close and comfortable with pure evil for words. Nothing about him felt like acting, like trying; he conveyed an evil that simply existed, an unexplainable devil that could only be approached by running away. The problem with running away from Mitchum… he constructed figures so impenetrable and unknowable they couldn’t but chill the blood into stagnancy. Continue reading
That Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning exists indicates something is wrong with the world. That it is, against its better judgment, a near masterpiece, at least in terms of filmmaking principles and matching those principles to its narrative concerns, implies something is far worse with the world than anyone could have imagined. But yes, the fourth or eighth or ninety-sixth film in the bro-fest science fiction routine slaughterhouse that is the Universal Soldier series, tangled up in its Roland Emmerich-directed roots and choking on them for decades now, is good. In fact, in its own way, it’s fairly great. And how shocking that this way approximates ’70s art-house horror/crime/thriller/ sci-fi that only passingly gestures toward any idea of “action” and even then does wonders to detach “action” from anything resembling Roland Emmerich. What a strange, strange film. Plus, if it means anything to you, it is probably, by several orders of magnitude, superior to anything Dolph Lundgren or Jean-Claude Van Damme have starred in (although the post-structuralist JCVD, a sly little nightstalker of a film, comes pretty close for the latter star). Pleasures abound in this weird, weird world of ours, folks. Continue reading
Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright simply “get” genre comedy. They may be the only ones to really nail it since Sam Raimi, and for the same reason. What Raimi understood is that making a comedy out of a noted “serious” genre was about more than making fun of it. It was about teasing out the fundamental intersections between emotions and exploring how filmmaking – that is the literal process of shot to shot structuring of a film – could divulge different and seemingly contradictory emotions simultaneously. His preferred contradiction, of course, was between lingering dread and gut-busting Warner Bros comic anarchy. His masterpiece Evil Dead II was not simply about scaring us and then making us laugh, but about dissecting the language of film to explore the intersection of technique and emotion in prismatic, multitudinous ways. Put simply, it was about exploring the way that something, be it a shot or a performance tick or a line or the film itself, could be both funny and scary, rather than, say, take a funny scene and follow it with a scary one. Continue reading
What a great time to be a horror fan the past year has been. After a several decade lull in the medium that felt like an eternity, a collection of scrappy filmmakers with minds and styles to match have turned to the horror genre with remarkable consistency over the past few months, constructing deliberate haunts and melancholy ghouls that deserve the lingering spirit of the classics of the genre. Even better, they do so without openly copying the specifics of horrors that have been before; rather, they divulge their understanding of the past but skyrocket the genre into the future with tools and tricks only fringe, obscure talents could dream up. Under the Skin, The Babadook, A Girl Walks Alone at Night, and now It Follows, have all shocked the world in the past year or so, and they’ve done it without mimicking each other either. Whether it’s the prismatic abstraction of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, the classical formalism of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, the omnivorous sensual high-style of Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Alone at Night, or , now, David Robert Mithcell’s high-flying, postmodern sepulcher to the slasher genre, all are great films. And they are four giants with their own individual voices.
One doesn’t have to do any research to guess that it is customary to slant The Hunger for being, essentially, a feature-length Goth rock music video. Or to imagine that it is not generally construed as a masterpiece of storytelling or characterization. Or to assume that the script falters indefinitely and never much goes anywhere. Or to reduce the film to “style over substance”. These are also all true statements for the most part, excepting the last one. For “style over substance” is and shall always be a misguided attempt to reduce film to a false dichotomy, the visual and the script-based, and to imply if not openly state that the visual is secondary to the script, and that it is less nuanced too. Even in instances where the argument is rightfully used to imply a film lacks substance, say for instance Transformers or any other corporate blockbuster of your choice, the argument folds in on itself, for such films generally do not in fact have any sense of style at all. They are films without style and without substance, and cinephiles ought to be more quick to object to claims that what Michael Bay accomplishes every couple of years genuinely qualifies as “style” in any meaningful sense.
Now I get to go off the deep-end! To some extent, if only some, reviewing Rob Zombie’s greatest film thus far, The Devil’s Rejects, is an excuse to discuss Rob Zombie’s work on the whole. Yes he’s schlocky and his films are often messy and chaotic and have no idea what the hell is going on, but boy if they don’t have the damnedest time of their lives doing it. For all his faults, Zombie knows what he wants and isn’t about to see that vision sullied by a production company. He’s impassioned, cock-sure, self-centered, angry, obsessive, and perverse – which happens to sound like a laundry list of features that have composed many (most) of the great directors of the past hundred years. And the most important bit, lest I forget: he absolutely loves movies, and he wants us to know it too.
It is within this frame-set that I approach The Devil’s Rejects, Zombie’s most fully realized, most gloriously depraved, most caustically subversive, most oddly, uneasily touching, and most visually witty pieces of filmmaking yet made, and it is wrapped up in some of the finest genre clothing I’ve seen in years, exuding a positively desperate love of cinema in every frame. It’s disgusting, undoubtedly, and it doesn’t want you to think otherwise. But disgusting does not a bad film make, especially when it’s about disgust in cinema and how we cartoon-coat violence when we want to make it seem respectable. For Zombie, much like a Tarantino gone off the deep end of his own anarchism, there is an awareness that films mostly end up entertaining with violence even when they pretend not to. Unlike Tarantino however, Zombie doesn’t so much want to make violence cool as explore the tension between violence being cool and violence being disgusting, for his films are disgusting and they don’t hide their disgust away with corporate sleekness, composed formalism, and clean filmmaking. Devil’s Rejects is sloppy, amorphous, and sickly looking, showcasing film grain and making no bones about how ugly it looks.