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
I would so deeply have loved to claim that Pitch Perfect 2 takes advantage of its premise with a tidal wave of bubbly, giddy affection and camaraderie that even I, born and bred A Capella enemy, could be swayed by its sheer cataclysmic force and gallant reluctance to submit to the screenwriting essentials of the cinematic world. By all accounts, the original Pitch Perfect (unseen by me) was an achievement primarily for its low-key, shaggy-dog bonding and unforced, almost non-narrative chill-out vibe. Ideally, in Pitch Perfect 2, singing scenes would double as bonding sequences for characters, and individual moments of plucky, even spunky, post-narrative fluff doctored up with flashy camera movements and zippy staging and framing would be the order of the day .
Pitch Perfect 2, unfortunately, makes the mistake of thinking it is a real film with things like a narrative, and it desperately, punishingly wishes that we accept this unearned narrative fixation from the get-go. The premise – the Barden Bellas, an all-female A Capella group, accidentally cause a snafu in front of the First Family of the United States, and the group has to win an international A Capella tournament in order to get their good name back, is functional and fine. But on top of this, the film piles a pair of romances, inter-group friction about the future of the Bellas, and a secret internship for main Bella Beca Mitchell (Anna Kendrick) in her attempt to enter the music recording industry that causes an identity crisis and a handful of solid belly laughs from Keegan-Michael Key. Continue reading
Yankee Doodle Dandy really doesn’t make it easy for itself. Consider the strikes against it. It is a Grand Old Biopic madly in love with its own subject matter. It is filmed by a director, who, for all his multitudinous strengths, was never all that invested in subverting or transforming his screenplays, a filmmaker who drew his vigor and interest precisely from the subject matter and the screenplay he was tackling. It is also a quintessential work of matching a great actor to an important historical figure, just about the biggest talent-suck set-up any film could possibly dread. With a performance and a subject to fill the box office and wow the middlebrows, a director has carte blanche to indulge in all the soporific tendencies of a screenplay, to blindly and blandly fill the screen with blasé Important Moments rather than to actually prop up the storytelling with invigorating artistic gestures. It is, in other words, a work that was dead in the water – artistically speaking at least – even before its release. Continue reading
Stop Making Sense is, and this is not nearly as common and ubiquitous a statement as you might imagine, a truly singular film experience. Sure, there are great concert films; Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz is very likely a superior concert film with more to say about the nature of music as it exists in the ether. But Stop Making Sense isn’t a concert film, at least in the traditional sense. It is a film about cinema, and about what cinema can do to transform the ethos of a concert beyond what a concert is in person. If this extends it beyond the realm of a concert, it also does more to make us think about what a concert entails as a realm for voyeurism and socio-spatial art. Stop Making Sense does not merely hit the mark for a concert film; it transforms it. Continue reading
An attentive, quick-witted potboiler with the physical mechanics of a fine, boisterous thriller matched to the mind of brash, brutal critique of inspirational dramas, Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s full length version of his award-winning short film on the same subject, is a fierce and frenzied treat for the late 2014 movie season long lulled into a drowsy, seemingly endless sleep by milquetoast Oscarbait. That it isn’t quite as good as its now-rampant fanbase suggests is definitely noticeable, but that does little to distract from its pent-up, thoroughly-agitated charm and vicious, viscous frustration. Continue reading
This is Spinal Tap is so inescapably rife with over-the-top zaniness and gleeful, knowing stupidity. But for all its exuberance, what’s most astounding about this concoction of sugar and spice is how easy-going, relaxed, and even lethargic it is. The tone of the film conveys a sort of laid-back afternoon, with sly, subversively restrained performances complementing characters rather than stealing them and running away with them. This is not one of the many throw-shit-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks-films becoming popular around the time of this film’s release; it’s a comedy with a difference. The batting average for jokes is remarkable, with each one seemingly assembled with care and craft. It is a thoroughly composed, careful, willful, and even delicate motion picture, and it is one of the sharpest comedies ever released.
Martin Scorsese’s lived-in film adaptation of The Band’s legendary, star-studded farewell concert, cheekily titled “The Last Waltz”, is wholly at odds with the fundamental logic of the conventional concert film, and it is all the more fascinating for it. At the eve of their dissolution, Scorsese chose to film the Band warts and all. He captures, more than anything, their own distance from the music they no longer necessarily want to call home. You can feel his love for the energy of raw music, yet he uses this energy to capture a fundamental malaise. His camera becomes their most knowing fan, giving the film a live, human physicality even as it deals in the deadened decay of men too tired to care anymore. The Rolling Stones’ documentary Gimme Shelter, itself fairly stunning, is haunting for the way a single tragedy intervened and permeated the celluloid of the whole film. Here, however, we come to understand something more deadening: the perpetual tension of joy and melancholy of life on the road, something a tragedy wouldn’t so much break-up as become one small portion of. On this tension between the lively and the embalmed, the film presents a fascinating vision of humanity and performance equaled by few films. Continue reading
Edited and updated mid-2015
This being the first in a (slightly delayed) series on music movies for the month of October.
Two years before its release, Billy Wilder gave the world Hollywood’s greatest anti-Hollywood poison-pen-hate-letter by taking equal parts film noir fakery and haughty Grand Damery, putting them into a blender, and turning it to “positively eviscerate”. Perhaps populist Hollywood was listening. Just as that film peered behind the Hollywood lens, so too does Singin’ in the Rain give us a peek behind the cameras and into the unease of the filmmaking process. But while Billy Wilder came from a place of deep concern and perturbed, quiet nervousness, Singin’ in the Rain comes from a place of unabashed, borderline-oppressive, love. Continue reading
The central reality of The Muppets, the thing which many are afraid to speak but which virtually any opinion of the film fundamentally rests on, is nostalgia. One might expect, considering that the film’s director James Bobin is most known for co-creating the archly-dry Flight of the Concords, that this film would follow suit and place the emphasis squarely on the reality that everything which made the Muppets so lovable was also extremely lame (and I mean this in the best way possible, since the Muppets were always proud of their lameness and held it in high regard).This is not so, for Bobin and co-writers Jason Segel and Nick Stoller in fact adopt not arch-irony but arch-genuineness in the film. The humor, while occasionally pointed, is mostly of the gentle and sweetly grinning variety, clearly in an attempt to mimic the original show. In today’s hyper-cynical world, this is quite a wonderful thing, and it makes the film curiously out-of-touch (in a good way) with a modern society that can’t seem to enjoy anything without its daily dose of irony on the side. Continue reading
After uploading two of the most depressing British films I can imagine, I decided a nice counter-balance would be in order: a couple of bonus reviews of just about two of the damn cheeriest films in existence. It’s been my pleasure.
Update 2018: As is the case with so many of these roughly college-written reviews, I don’t exactly agree with this anymore, especially in my expression of my ideas, and often in terms of my ability to perceive the film’s ideas in the first place. I’ll let this review stand as is, but at this point in my life, I’d be inclined to argue that the film isn’t really taking pop to task as artificial, proposing a leaden pop and reality dichotomy, but rather using pop dialectically, to discover other avenues to truth – the truths of experimentation, adventure, silliness, spontaneity, artifice – that lie not necessarily outside but at least beyond observational documentary reality as it is conventionally understood.
It’s a rare and beautiful thing that something that should in any sane universe be nothing more than a phoned-in cash-grab is in fact one of the great pieces of pop-anarchism ever essayed on film. A Hard Day’s Night, the film accompanying the album of the same name (the Beatles’ first all-time classic album) in 1964, played a big part in asserting the band’s dominance in the Western world. And, intentionally (wonderfully) it has no real narrative. There’s something in here about the boys and how they get caught up in protecting an old man from his own tomfoolery while they are dealing with preparations for a TV show they are to appear on. But this is merely a clothesline for not only a series of great jokes and gags and the film’s central tension between its technique and its content, but for one of the most thoroughly deconstructive pop manifestos ever committed to celluloid. Continue reading