Update late 2018: Watching the film again, its vaguely exoticizing view of Brazilian culture is a more important discussion point than I let on in my original review, but as is its frequently scintillating signifying on Greek drama, its navigation of the Afro-diasporic tradition of updating and reconfiguring the Western canon in ways which both appreciate and assess the immanence of European thought by exploring how applicable Western narratives may or may not be to non-European cultures. Plus, it’s intoxicating cinema.
signifies both on the tradition of carnivalesque inversion of the world in the Carribean and … culture and on social mimicry to … and subvert white forms of …, including conjuring the spirit of classical tragedy and … to …
certainly a question for debate, whether … is merely essentializing, or whether, as many Negritude philosophers have debated for decades, there is a way to think-through what were once considered, in an Orientalist manner, “gifts” of … “bestowed” by the non-white world, in a way which takes seriously their critique of Western rationality and ascetic … – their denial of play, rhythm, etc – without …
Black Orpheus opens with a gesture that is both instantly transfixing and entirely pragmatic. A close-up in static of a classical Greek marble bas relief presented with stately respect and disquiet, and then a cataclysm of percussive instrumentation and flamboyant color from a Brazilian festival bursting through the image, almost blowing it up as we are pulled right into the vivaciousness of Brazilian culture and everyday life. It is an instantly lovable, provocative jab at the regal historicism of European art lulled into submission by the weight of relying on the past. It is a pop-art statement to the fire and enticing chaos of Brazilian life. An instant announcement that this film is not going to be your classical Orpheus myth, deriving instead from another artistic and cultural tradition entirely, one brimming with life and present-day presentational zest and movement. Continue reading →
Spike Lee’s crowd-funded erotic vampire blaxploitation film remake (and how glad am I to be able to type those words) is a sanguine, sultry, swaggering, sensuous smorgasbord of film history, chilled-over-icy Euro cinema cool, and simmering, low-key empathy. It is also slightly confused, off-handedly comic, and unusually bizarre in the mode of mid-’90s Spike Lee. For his part, Lee has always been a confused director, a director whose aspirations have almost always exceeded his grasp, and his ode to African American cinema is no different.
But Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (a name almost as wonderful to type as the film’s genre) is the right kind of mess, a kind of filmmaking in free fall. It’s like a Spike Lee joint right after a bar-room brawl, and that’s a ticket anyone should want in on. It opens on a recollection of the seminal opening to Do the Right Thing, where Rosie Perez flailed with fire and lust over the confrontational, brimstone-flinging “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy and Lee’s chalked-up street pop-art. In Da Sweet Blood, however, the tone and tempo are the polar opposite of Do the Right Thing. Charles “Lil Buck” Riley dances, surely, but he doesn’t flagellate. He shimmers and quavers. He pursues dance as interpretive surrealism, marking the film as something less pop-art sermon and more art-house eulogy. Continue reading →
John Sturges, mostly famous for his two later rugged process-driven films, The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven, drew out a mostly forgotten niche of manly not-quite-action films. They weren’t really violent, but they had the soul of action entertainment in their braggadocio and mechanics-first brand of raspy storytelling. His two most famous films are given at least the repute of minor-classics, but he is not particularly associated with them. He was a man who worked with groups of talented actors, and they often dwarfed him in the final analysis, not because he was appreciably under-skilled, but because he always subsumed his skill to the mechanics of the narrative, and we as a society tend to focus on actors and narrative at the expense of directors. He didn’t have a truly unique style, so to speak, but he was an ultra-competent director, and arguably the ultra-competent director. And his competence never tipped over into out-right genius quite like it did in Bad Day at Black Rock. Continue reading →
A white woman and a black nation are the subjects of Claire Denis’ exotic, lush White Material, a sort of harrowing The Tree of Life with meditation on the nature of god replaced with a careful deliberation on colonial identity. Denis has spent the better part of two decades dissecting the aftereffects of colonial rule with a careful mixture of composed authenticity and poetically floating clarity, rejecting the lo-fi approach of many modern indie filmmakers for a more confrontational form of bile-spewing visual splendor. White Material may be her most harrowing film ever, and its cryptic meditation on the nature of identity in a continent where identity is defined primarily by ownership reminds that the after-effects of colonialism still loom large over African conflict, and they may not only effect native Africans anymore. Even though the whites who still live in Africa may deny it, the chickens are finally coming home to roost. Continue reading →
In Lee Daniels’ The Butler, there’s a shot of a man walking across a bog, depicted from the perspective of a silent observer looking down into the water and seeing naught but a reflection of a shadow barely present in the water, threatening to disappear at any moment. Beautiful and expressionist-tinged, it potently captures, better than any word ever could, the reality of race in America – African-Americans torn down to whispers of human flesh almost unobservant to the white eye, seen only through the prism of mirrors and reflections when you’re really looking at something else, glimpsed only in fleeting, peripheral moments by powerful forces who don’t want to acknowledge the presence of race. Continue reading →
Ahem. “Faced with the overwhelming stubborn mule that is the American girth of racism and backward stagnancy, Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) uneasily fuses together a coalition of the willing (and unwilling) toward showing America the full extent of its wrongs and doing whatever he can to pursue a greater right”. With a story like that, one would be forgiven for assuming all the hype around Selma boils down to a work of reigned-in Oscarbait, safe and streamlined and ready and willing to fall in love with its own saccharine self. It would seem this crowd-pleasing lull is the de facto state of the corporate biopic, flying high on easy, over-written drama and hagiography, indifferently filmed, edited, composed, and photographed, and resting almost entirely on the laurels of the main actor/ actress in the lead role.
There is nothing, and I mean nothing, like a “based on a true story” historical biopic and a popular lead actor/ actress to lull a film, and its director, to sleep. Released in late 2014, at one of the most pressing and pointed periods of racial tension and heated, boiling conflict in the modern era of the US, the thought of a work like Selma is exciting and invigorating. And the worry, the ever-crawling feeling that it may just be hope, is even greater. In this state of the world, if Selma was simply a work of moderate visual panache, it would be a godsend, but as we know, biopics like this, works about the “great men” of history with their great performances backing them up, are not the friends of “visual panache”. Prior to release, the fear that Selma was just another embalmed, wheezing biopic about the past, designed almost entirely to make the people of the present feel good and sufficient about themselves, couldn’t have been greater. Continue reading →
On January 1, 2009, a young African-American male named Oscar Grant was fatally shot by a police officer named Johannes Mersehle at the Fruitvale Train Station near San Francisco. He was not armed. At the same time, his story is one of many, too many. But individualism sells, and thus, for a Western audience, Oscar’s story will appeal more than something broader and more explicitly political. This is a right shame, itself predicated on the violence of individualism that denies the communal stories behind Grant’s tragedy, ironic considering this film’s assumed challenge to Western racism. But all of this aside, Fruitvale Station exists in this format, and in this format, Grant’s story is America’s, or minority America’s. And Ryan Coogler is here to share. Continue reading →
I Walked with a Zombie was the second film Val Lewton produced once given complete control of RKO’s horror unit, and it was released only a year after Cat People, his most famed horror film. Given this, one might expect a retread, but I Walked with a Zombie is certainly not the film anyone then or now would be expecting. A tension seethes in the air and grasps all, but the film doesn’t demand in the way a work like Cat People is so tersely constructed to fight for our attention. Absent are the soul-deep colors of Cat People which lighted up the screen with black energy. And in place of the rampant diluted German Expressionism of American horror throughout the ’30s and ’40s, all caught up in harsh and angular nightmares, we have something that more closely approximates a hazy dream, a curious cross between an English period drama and a work of French impressionism that centers mournful, elegiac long takes and has room enough for lost secrets deviously begging to get out . It is, above all, wholly distant from anything resembling horror logic, and it is all the more fascinating for it. Continue reading →
First, a note: If not for plot synopses, I might write twice as many film reviews. A synopsis is that desperate time when I have to actually remember (!) what I just saw in narrative terms and commit violence upon my mental understanding of visual storytelling by reducing it to words on paper (well, internet paper) about the “plot” of a film. I have to pretend as though a paragraph explanation of the “event” of a film is an accurate description of what can make a film good or bad. It is no secret that I am a firm believer that just about any plot description can amount to a terrible film as much as a great one, and that it is the storytelling and not the “plot” that a story makes. So this causes me great dysfunction.
Note: this review is something of a repurposed college-age article, so be kind to the writing…
Edited May 2015
Armed with a 114,000 dollar budget, a few low-quality cameras, a non-professional cast, and its hopes and dreams (not to mention its fair share of nightmares), George A. Romero’s 1968 game-changer Night of the Living Dead wouldn’t seem an “ambitious” project on the surface. Or even one destined for competence. And that’s exactly why it’s so thrillingly disconcerting. It has, and needs, only one ambition: to scare. It eschews any hope of middlebrow competence. And due to its lean, mean, guerrilla filmmaking and single-minded obsessiveness, it doesn’t just scare – it instills a creeping, gnawing fear and doesn’t let up. Night of the Living Dead is, famously, about as economical as a film can be, with no shots wasted and nothing left up to chance – it’s a study in efficiency, but it’s more than that. It’s a study in terror.