Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best DVD/Blu-Ray and Streaming of the Week (12/31/13)

My final professional piece of the year, a round-up of a spotty week for DVD releases but one with at least one gem in the fine DTV movie Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear (full review forthcoming). Check out my picks at Film.com.

Him: Why Joaquin Phoenix Is America’s Greatest Contemporary Actor

I fell in love with Spike Jonze's newest movie, Her, not only for its nuanced and empathetic view of how technology has rewritten, maybe even corrupted, human sociability and our capacity to handle anything outside predictable, programmed parameters, but also for the showcase it provides to Joaquin Phoenix, who knocks it out of the park as well as he did with last year's The Master. (I'm still mixed on that film, but not on Phoenix's performance.) The foregrounded relevance of Her got me thinking about how Phoenix has for some time now been the actor who has best conveyed shifting cultural attitudes over the last decade or so, so I wrote a piece about his more culturally immediate performances, and how this Gen Xer so skillfully reflects millennial life.

You can read my full article at Film.com.

The 10 Best Criterions of 2013

I felt routinely disappointed this year by Criterion's offerings when they were announced each month, yet when I took stock of all I got this year, I found it to be, as usual, a great year for the label. I'm especially intrigued by their enthusiastic turn to more box sets, something reflected in my top 10 picks. If Criterion keeps churning out boxes like that monolithic Zatoichi set, I can only fathom what next year has in store for us.

Check out my picks (as well as brief words on my 10 favorite non-Criterion home video releases) at Film.com.

Best DVD/Blu-Ray Streaming of the Week (12/17/13)

Title says it all. Check out my picks at Film.com.

All the Light in the Sky (Joe Swanberg, 2013)

Swanberg’s prolificacy has allowed those who follow at least a portion of his rapidly-multiplying filmography to effectively see him gain more and more understanding of his craft with each project, and in terms of visual acumen, it’s hard to believe this is the same man who made the captivating but aesthetically enervating Hannah Takes the Stairs. If Swanberg does not cede to his rarely broached sustainability topic to add illusory depth to the movie, he nevertheless folds the idea of a more naturally sustainable lifestyle into his lush cinematography, which lovingly depicts Marie’s beachside home without the critique of, say, Sofia Coppola, and cuts elegantly from Dan helping out with handiwork to a scene of him and Marie walking on the sand.

Highly recommended. Read my full review at Spectrum Culture.

Martin Scorsese, Ranked

I had originally planned to do a long-form essay of some kind about Martin Scorsese for Film.com, but as the year-end deluge of deadlines (to say nothing of personal time-consumers such as an impending departure from my day job and a move back to Atlanta) sapped so much energy that I restructured the overview as a ranked list. As such, I hope I managed to use each blurb to discuss each film on its own merits, rather than in competition with the others. While I clearly prefer some of the master's movies to a few lesser efforts, I'm routinely struck by Scorsese's range, and I tried to use this piece to call attention to just how diverse a filmmaker he is, and how he has delivered surprises every single decade of his professional life.

You can read my full article at Film.com.

White Reindeer (Zach Clark, 2013)

I saw White Reindeer earlier in the year, and it was in my top 10 until the very last week before I had to submit polls to various publications. It trades in all the usual holiday irony expected of a Christmas-set black comedy, but I was taken aback by the sincerity that routinely bubbled up from its superficial snark, its deep reservoirs of character that emerged from even the most facile types. It's exactly what I want from indie filmmaking, not merely cheek but an adventurousness that would never be allowed in a bigger production.

Read my full review of this great film at Spectrum Culture.

Year-End Polls

I always enjoy lists; as tedious and nakedly clickbait-y as they can be, I often use the more idiosyncratic lists out there to direct my attention to movies not previously on my radar. This year, I managed to get year-end polls up at both Indiewire and the Village Voice(!). To view my picks, either check out my Voice ballot here, or go to my profile page at Indiewire and scroll through my poll responses to see me actually write blurbs to go with my picks (sorry for the hassle; IW really needs to add a view all for individual critics' responses).

The Worst Films of 2013

I must confess I no longer get the immature thrill out of lambasting films that I once did, nor are worst-of lists worth the inevitable hassle of angry commenters that reward pithiness in kind. But still, an assignment is an assignment, and Lord knows I despise the 10 films I listed enough to rant about them at length to anyone unfortunate enough to listen. By writing this, however, I got them out of my system so that I might devote more time to talking about the films I loved. My full piece is up at Film.com.

Blu-Ray Review: The Big Gundown

Major props to Grindhouse Releasing, who have put out a few Blu-Rays but truly come into their own with their handling of The Big Gundown. A gorgeous restoration results in the finest looking Blu-Ray for a Western since Once Upon a Time in the West hit shelves, and a solid batch of extras only sweetens the pot. I can't wait to see where they go from here, but in the meantime, check out my review of their great release at Slant.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)

[The following is a belated Blind Spots entry.]

The precision of Raymond Chandler’s prose is rendered almost sleepily in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, trading the laconic for the lethargic. “Rip van Winkle” is what the filmmaker termed his version of Chandler’s most iconic creation in reference to how Elliot Gould’s Marlowe is a 1953 detective carrying on according to his period as he roams the radically different America of 1973, yet the sobriquet could equally apply to how punch-drunk, confused and tired Gould plays the part. Chandler’s books may have been mysteries, but like the best of pulp fiction they were intensely focused. The Long Goodbye, on the other hand, ambles along in confusion, puncturing Marlowe’s hard-boiled competence as both the narrative and even the cinematography seem unable to focus on anything, much less the task at hand.

Friday, December 27, 2013

My Top 50 First-Time Watches of 2013

This was the year I was fortunate enough to see a notable rise in my freelance bookings, and thus my writing mainly focused on new releases (I will try and include some blog-exclusive material in the coming year, but I admit it's a low priority compared to my deadline gigs). Even with my attentions turned to new material, however, I still made a number of thrilling discoveries this year, from the Westerns I binged on to write a piece related to marathons of directors like John Ford and Roberto Rossellini. All in all, I saw many new-to-me films I adored, but these 50 are the cream of the crop. Several have already settled in among my favorite movies.

1. The Age of the Medici (Roberto Rossellini, 1973)

A stand-in for the many Rossellini films I watched for the first time this year, all of which were rewarding and a hefty amount of which I would call some of the best films I've ever seen. The best, though, was this three-part work for Italian television, which conjured the Renaissance in material terms that made the strongest depiction of the ineffable inspiration that drove the single greatest artistic movement in history. Rossellini's period Italy is free of the grimmer realities of peasantry, but the case he makes for the Renaissance as a once-in-a-millennium meeting point of art, science, religion and, most important of all, monetary funding is his finest offering of making tangible the intricate, nuanced realities (and the myths that grow from them) that make up history. And the subtle manner in which he turns every shot into an echo of Renaissance painting and sculpture thoroughly debases the notion that his TV work represented an abandonment of formal properties.

2. Duelle (Jacques Rivette, 1976)

Mythology and verité converge in Jacques Rivette, in which female archetypes are drawn equally from paganism and pulp and are then collapsed through cross-pollination that sands away binary distinctions into something more abstract and complex. Noir provides the foundation for the film, but its gray areas are ones of identity, not morality, a fitting shift for a filmmaker so attuned to performance as a theatrical affect and a natural state of human interaction.

3. Je Vous Salue, Sarajevo (Jean-Luc Godard, 1993)

Godard, armed with a single photograph, summarizes a specific war, war in general, the inadequacy of art to effect positive social impact and why the artist must continue on anyway. And he does it all in just over two minutes. Late Godard is cryptic and cerebral, but never so concisely ordered as this gorgeous, far-reaching thesis.

4. French Cancan (Jean Renoir, 1955)

Jean Renoir does not make the sets of French Cancan pop so much as he folds his people into their two-dimensional space, making moving Belle Epoque paintings that avoid the still life of tableaux vivants for exuberantly mobile flatness. Color and motion have rarely been rendered more vividly, and for all the ebullience of the film, it hones in on a complex vision of art in all its maddening and affirming glory.

5. Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)

Beau Travail is a work of total poetry, narratively simplifying its source Melville text (turning the ambiguous motive of Billy Budd's harassing officer into an all but openly stated case of violent sexual repression) but aesthetically abstracting its content. The images by now are legion: sweating bodies of Legionnaires training in the desert, a man dying of thirst as he lays in a salt field that looks like a patch of snow amid the sand, and, of course, the oneiric coda of the film, in which a man at last admits his urges in the second before he pulls the trigger against his head, a self-confession in the form of interpretive dance that may be Denis Lavant's finest on-screen moment to date. How has this film not been snapped up by one of the specialty DVD labels for a high-quality release?

6. Love Streams (John Cassavetes, 1984)

Not technically Cassavetes' final feature, this is nevertheless his true send-off, and what a swan song it is. After getting past the surface-level understanding of the director—"naturalism" and "improv" (the latter of which is not even accurate—I've become more attuned to his genuinely adventurous, well-considered direction, which is on full display here. Look at how he cuts across Rowlands' divorce deposition diagonally, honing in on the daughter as she shatters her mother's world by calmly stating she wants to live with her father, or the detached, empathetic humor of shots of characters caving under the pressure of their connection (or lack thereof) to loved ones. Its last act, which culminates in a sly role reversal of siblings, is downright operatic, yet it still feels so lived-in and raw as to be tangible.

7. Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932)

More sharply lensed than most of the early-'30s American films, Love Me Tonight is also one of the most effortlessly charming, so infectiously giddy that even its social context of withering, hollow aristocracy is second to its good vibes. Solos do not last long in this film, as a romantic song begun by one yearning soul soon attracts others who take up its verses, until a kind of message relay is made as that song is carried far and wide. Its use of early sound is every bit as impressive as Fritz Lang's in M, complex and ambitious from the composition that arises from street noise that opens the film. As a Pre-Code musical starring Maurice Chevalier, Lubitsch comparisons are inevitable, but this just may top even that director's early musical work.

8. Ulzana’s Raid (Robert Aldrich, 1972)

About as close to a fitting adaptation of Blood Meridian as we're ever likely to get, and it was released a full decade before Cormac McCarthy put out his magnum opus. The film envisions all-out war between white and red, a war of attrition in which neither side will show mercy in order to obtain or defend what they feel is rightfully theirs. Racism and desire collide, leaving only total annihilation in their wake. Labeled as a Vietnam allegory, the film is outside any one conflict, instead an unbearably real vision of war as a concept, an event of total devastation for all who fight it, and those who happen to be within firing distance.

9. The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940)

Has the Lubitsch touch ever been so self-evident as it is here, a film so good-natured, and gently wry that even a suicide attempt comes off as liltingly comic instead of grotesque? Minuscule ironies abound, especially when the lovers reveal themselves to each other, their illumination occurring in a room where they have just turned out all the lights. I love, love, love Jimmy Stewart and struggle to think of a better performance than the one he gives here, which is just huffy enough to let him have fun while also playing it straight.

10. Percevel le Gallois (Éric Rohmer, 1978)

Rohmer's simple (but never simplistic) direction is set totally aside for this surreal realization of Arthurian language, though in truth it is merely the logical reflection of Rohmer's faithfulness to his chosen texts. Perceval resembles a medieval tapestry, colorful but basic, limited in movement but vast in the epics it conjures with its images. The finale, which honors the incomplete nature of Chrétien de Troyes' story, adds a vicious, ironic punch by cutting away from the Passion Play just as the dead Jesus descends into Hell before resurrection to show Perceval himself heading into an unknown future. It is a caustic comment on blind, self-denying devotion from the New Wave's most devout member, and all the more scathing for its maker's religiosity.

Best of the rest:

11. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)
12. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)
13. Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944)
14. The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925)
15.Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985)
16. Floating Clouds (Mikio Naruse, 1955)
17. (tie) Zabriskie Point/The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1970/1975)
18. The Girl Can’t Help It (Frank Tashlin, 1956)
19. The Sun Shines Bright (John Ford, 1953)
20. From the Journals of Jean Seberg (Mark Rappaport, 1995)
21. Mandingo (Richard Fleischer, 1975)
22. Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)
23. Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1950)
24. The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)
25. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
26. Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)
27. Throw Down (Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai, 2004)
28. I Am Cuba (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964)
29. By the Bluest of Seas (Boris Barnet, 1936)
30. Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971)
31. Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondō, 1995)
32. Charulata (Satyajit Ray, 1964)
33. Touki Bouki (Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1973)
34. Halloween II (Rob Zombie, 2009)
35. My Friend Ivan Lapshin (Aleksei German, 1986)
36. The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1988)
37. Yeelen (Souleymane Cissé, 1987)
38. All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)
39. The Patsy (Jerry Lewis, 1964)
40. The Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1975)
41. The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci, 1968)
42. Millennium Mambo (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2001)
43. The Color of Pomegranates (Sergei Parajanov, 1968)
44. Still Life (Jia Zhangke, 2006)
45. Zelig (Woody Allen, 1983)
46. The Thomas Crown Affair (John McTiernan, 1999)
47. 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002)
48. Shoot the Piano Player (François Truffaut, 1960)
49. Nightjohn (Charles Burnett, 1996)
50. Track of the Cat (William A. Wellman, 1954)

Friday, December 20, 2013

Blu-Ray Review: Assault on Precinct 13 (Shout! Factory)

For a film that holds so few surprises, in which everything has been chosen for its economy, not its mystery, Assault on Precinct 13 nevertheless impresses itself on me even more with each new viewing. Contrary to Shout! revelatory work with neglected Carpenter masterworks like They Live and Prince of Darkness, Assault is on a disc that is only a marginal improvement over Anchor Bay's now-OOP disc, so those who have that are likely fine with what they've got. For everyone else, though, this is an essential purchase.

Read my review at Slant.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

DVD Review: Computer Chess (Kino)

I belatedly caught up with Computer Chess when I received a DVD copy to review, and oh what an utter delight of a picture, what reassurance that American independent cinema can still stretch beyond the now-horrid confines of "Sundance" (there were a surprising, delightful number of movies that accomplished that this year, or maybe I'm finally getting a hold of the right screeners). This film is a new high for the great Andrew Bujalski, a work that starts with programmatic logic befitting its topic before slowly collapsing, its surreal dips a match for how the programmers' own sense of their narrow world is thrown off by the unpredictability of life. Perfectly cast and boasting the year's best script, Computer Chess should be seen by anyone who feels that indies have become as hidebound as blockbusters.

Read my full review at Slant.

The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)

Oh, I'm starting to hate Paolo Sorrentino. After his decent but Scorsese-cribbing Il Divo, I never got to his This Must Be the Place, and after this ostensible magnum opus, I'm in no rush. A florid blend of Fellini, Antonioni and other Italian masters that replicates their gloss but none of their rich inner life, The Great Beauty instead comes off as the artiste's rant against the ills of society, almost none of which have to do with the pitfalls of Berlusconi's Italy and instead go after real power targets like pretentious performance artists, wannabe Marxists and vain nuns (oh, and did I mention practically every target is a woman?). Sure, Toni Servillo's director stand-in comes in for some criticism of his own, but that is delivered so lightly, with such affection, such an apology for the light rap of the knuckles, that to conflate it with the hostility spared for the film's low-hanging fruit is disingenuous.

My full review is up at Movie Mezzanine.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Breakfast with Curtis (Laura Colella, 2013)

Breakfast with Curtis starts out with a man threatening a child and the child's father threatening the man, yet the movie proves otherwise free of conflict, a light, warm observation befitting its summertime bliss. Perhaps its parade of types is easy to take because I've known all of them: the burnout hippie for whom YouTube is a means of making the world listen to his babble; the benign yuppies; the shy millennials who, all in all, wouldn't mind just staying indoors at a computer over dealing with people. Just short enough to not overstay its welcome, this is a pleasant divertissement in the midst of Serious Movie season.

My review is up at Spectrum Culture.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Faust (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2013)

By turns intoxicating and repellent, Faust is definitely a Sokurov film, but its adaptation of the Faust legend is so perverse I cannot help but find it fascinating. Never mind infinite knowledge: this Faust just wants a reason to live in his shit-stained, death-filled world, and to find something pleasant in Sokurov's world is worth all the omniscience in the universe. It's so strange (and I'm so half-used to Sokurov) that I have my doubts, but I have a feeling that future visits will prove even more rewarding than the first one.

Read my full review at Spectrum Culture.

Blu-Ray Review: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Criterion)

[Originally published at Cinespect]

“Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion” unfurls with an aesthetic concision that belies its increasingly erratic narrative. Tautly edited but patiently held takes establish a man (Gian Maria Volonté) looking up into a woman’s apartment, and the woman (Florinda Bolkan), staring back. Tracking shots briskly follow the man into the building and up the stairs to her room, where a playful rapport turns with one obscured action and a moan of surprise and pain into murder. Rather than slip out undetected, the man proceeds to deliberately leave his mark all over the crime scene, roughly smudging his fingers on glasses, hooking a loose thread of his tie under the victim’s fingernail, even tracking through blood to leave shoeprints.

Elio Petri’s camera takes all of this in with an impartial inquisitiveness shot through with a slight thrill of transgression, though one senses that the former tone is a reflection of the central character’s subjective response as much as the latter. As much as the man’s cryptic actions, this has a puzzling effect, one that only gets more confounding when it is revealed that he is, in fact, not merely a police officer but the chief of Rome’s homicide division. For the remainder of the film, Volonté’s unnamed chief does everything he can to lead his subordinates back to him, only for each glaring clue to be rationalized, every near-confession ignored as cops look everywhere but right in front of them. To spice things up further, he begins to present personal and political enemies as possible scapegoats, especially student anarchists that the police have been eager to suppress for some time.

Petri’s political statement—concerning the lawlessness of those appointed to keep the law in Italy—is forthright, but the oddity of the narrative, and the grim satire it produces, tangles the explicit commentary in a series of comic digressions. As in the later “American Psycho,” “Investigation” routinely has its protagonist confess to his crimes, only for people to assume he’s joking. When forensic investigators turn up his fingerprints at the crime scene, they simply attribute this to the chief’s carelessness, and they do not even chastise him for that. Flashbacks reveal the sadomasochistic bond between the cop and his doomed mistress predicated on the policeman’s power, which sexually excites the woman and in turn helps drive the man to übermensch delusions. But are they really delusions if a man can glibly confess to murder and still get away with it?

Volonté plays the chief’s toying villainy worthy of Iago, all rage flecked by a self-awareness that is all the more terrifying for making the character not insane but super-sane, logical on a level above that of those around him. A faint smile tugs at even his most impassioned and fiery countenances, giving away that, for all his efforts to be caught, the fact that he constantly evades arrest brings him immense pleasure. Yet Volonté also helps to foreground an occasional sense of acute terror that replaces the satirical approach to police brutality with its more direct implications. The flashbacks are charged with an eroticism that dies when the chief actually acquiesces to the woman’s desire that he “interrogate” her, the speed with which he assumes total control of her physical and mental state is frightening. Similarly, a single cut separates the defiant, chanting face of an incarcerated student radical and that same young man, shivering and sweating on his knees in an interrogation room, so obviously ready to confess to anything that the several minutes spent torturing him just a bit more for the camera are unbearable.

“Investigation” proved to be eerily prophetic: The discovery of a suspicious bomb providing a convenient excuse to target left-wing groups was an event that occurred in real life just before the film ended production. But the film’s vision of a police force that exploits democracy to shore up totalitarian authority extends well beyond contemporary Italian politics into an enduringly relevant critique of unwatched watchmen. Ennio Morricone’s score, with its tinkling but discordant piano, sounds like a music box going out of tune, a fitting accompaniment to Volonté’s chief first tinkering with, then being driven mad by the limits of his self-contained world. That world is gutted yet superficially maintained by the finale’s grim punchline, in which the same system that beats confessions from every usual suspect suddenly rallies valiantly—and violently—to prevent a respectable member from indicting himself. Apparently the only crime a lawman can commit is to admit that he committed a crime.

As a critic says in a feature-length documentary included in Criterion’s superlative package, time has effectively forgotten Elio Petri, something this disc seeks to single-handedly rectify. And what a job it does: Apart from the aforementioned 80-minute doc on Petri’s career, Criterion’s release comes with an overview of the film by scholar Camilla Zamboni, an old interview with Petri for French television, an hour-long documentary on Gian Maria Volonté, and an interview with Ennio Morricone about his collaborations with the director. Each of these features digs deep not only into this single film and its sizable contemporary impact but into the careers of all the major players, with emphasis on the rich history they had together. The net effect raises enthusiasm for this superb feature even further, but, more importantly, it encourages the viewer to seek out more of the director’s work and to rediscover a popular political artist whose name no longer registers immediate recognition.

As for the movie itself, a 4K restoration results in a breathtakingly detailed image, be it in the dulled textures of Rome’s omnipresent history, or in the surreal splashes of vividly chromatic equipment in the seemingly limitless police headquarters, with bright blue databanks and orange-tinted office glass. Catch glimpses of the film formatted for analog TV in some of the extras to get the best idea of how crisp the film is now, though a healthy level of grain preserves the original image information. Similarly, the uncompressed mono soundtrack ensures that the dialogue and Morricone’s infectious score are always strongly replicated. All in all, this is one of Criterion’s finest offerings of the year, and a semi-annual reminder of what they do best: rediscover forgotten gems, then put them forward with such a strong case one wonders how these movies ever left the cultural consciousness at all.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Charlie Chaplin's Features, Ranked

I've ranked Chaplin's features before on this blog, but I tweaked that list order and some of my thoughts for a revised piece for Film.com. Check them out.

The Best Charlie Chaplin Short Films

Oh, Chaplin. The director I once thought was too simple compared to Keaton and too maudlin in otherwise great comedies has since emerged as one of my three of four favorite filmmakers, having finally understood his consummate genius in regards to every level of film production. Unlike most silent stars, his features bear that out better than his shorts (itself a suggestion of his higher, more textured artistic capacity), but those shorts nonetheless made him a global superstar and, what's more, show him constantly tinkering with ideas that would serve him well when he moved to more ambitious projects. The 10 films I listed for this piece are all works of an unending evolution, an artist who knew how to please a crowd even while pushing himself as a performer, writer and director, and they are as entertaining as works of riotous comedy as they are glimpses into a master's working process.

Check out my picks at Film.com.

DVDs/Streaming Picks 12/03/13

Last week's picks for new DVD and streaming releases for Film.com. I especially recommend the two Criterions, obviously. Read my post here.

Criminally Underrated: Paul W.S. Anderson

I could (and, hopefully someday, will) go longer and more in-depth on Paul W.S. Anderson given the time and inclination, but for now this is a brief overview of one of the handful of interesting genre filmmakers working in America today, certainly one of the few who makes films designed for multiplexes and makes them worth watching in any way, shape or form. There's no denying his scripts are stiff, but I could watch his establishing shots and his fluid action all day, to say nothing of his gift in putting forward Milla Jovovich as, with Jason Statham, the only credible modern action star in English-language film.

Read more of my thoughts on Anderson and Spectrum Culture.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Best DVDs/Streaming of the Week 11/19/13

I've started trading off weekly capsules on the week's best home video and streaming options at Film.com. My first was late last month and covers stuff like a reissued Ozu and the charming and surprisingly rich Violet & Daisy. Dig deep into those wallets people.

Read the rest of my picks here.

The Internet in Movies

After seeing the howling bad The Fifth Estate, I got to wondering about how Hollywood repeatedly and utterly fails to comprehend the Internet, even in otherwise great films on the subject like The Social Network (which works only because it hides Aaron Sorkin's complete confusion over the Internet under slabs of classical Hollywood drama that makes Facebook a MacGuffin and an allegory). So I collected some of my favorite recent examples (sorry, Hackers) and speculated about why no one can seem to get this topic right. Read my brief thoughts over at Film.com.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Capital (Costa-Gavras, 2013)

Oof, Costa-Gavras, how the mighty have fallen. Capital could have been any one of the recent Hollywood spate of disgustingly sympathetic portrayals of financial fat-cats, and its stabs a satire—from characters' confusion over the hedge fund schemes they themselves concoct to a coda that gives the equivalent of a "boys will be boys" justification with a sly wink—is so obviously rendered as to be neither funny nor piercing. Perhaps the issue is that for all the protagonist executive's jet-setting and skirt-chasing, we get little sense of his unchecked depravity, which only makes me more eager to see Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Final Warner Archive Picks

Sadly discontinued (I enjoyed this feature, not to mention free access to Warner's streaming service), here are the last few weeks of my picks of great films on Warner Archive Instant. I still highly recommend the service for cinephiles.

Week of 10/18

Week of 10/25

Week of 11/01

Week of 11/08

Ben Watson — Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation

Despite my love for free jazz, I've long struggled with some of the guitarists to circle around that movement, most especially Derek Bailey, whose brand of playing makes even the loose tag of "jazz" insufficient and limiting. I'd hoped this book would help sell me on him a bit more, and while Watson at times makes Bailey sound so fascinating, so worthy of repeated listening, the author often resorts to Marxist caterwauling about the superiority of nonmaterial music over commercial product (and you oughta see some of the people he argues are mainstream sell-outs). It picks up toward the end when Bailey's own period of comfortable, rewarding musicianship seems to make the biographer happy and content as well, but this was a sadly frustrating read that only deepens the sense that Bailey is for "superior minds," with all the tedium that entails.

Read my full review at Spectrum Culture.

10 Great Silent Horror Films

Ignore the headline chosen for the piece proper: I wouldn't classify these as truly the 10 scariest movies of the silent era; I still have much to see and I also tried to prevent any one director from getting too much in. Instead, this is more of a sampler, from German expressionism (natch) to an abstract Japanese short that is one of the most discombobulating things I've ever seen. I know it's December now and this ran back in, of course, October, but these films are worth watching anytime.

Read my full piece at Film.com.

Blu-Ray Review: Violet & Daisy (Cinedigm)

[Originally published at Cinespect]

The first 10 minutes of “Violet & Daisy” are among the most unbearable of the cinematic year, a gender-flipping riff on “The Boondock Saints” that proves definitively that even a goof on that film cannot be anything more than tedious and self-consciously hip. Violet (Alexis Bledel) and Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) are hitwomen first seen heading to an assignment wearing nun habits and carrying pizza boxes that hide their pistols, a too-precious image by half that miscalculates the novelty of seeing young women play ultraviolent parts. Punctuating a lifeless shootout with the sort of sub-Tarantinian banter that was old hat by 2000, “Violet & Daisy” threatens to collapse in on itself before the story can even start.

Everything changes, however, when Violet and Daisy head out to a new assignment and find their target eager for death. Michael is played by James Gandolfini, whose lumbering nature instantly slows down the bubbly, dark-chic tone of the film. He greets his killers cordially, encourages them to finish the job, and even makes them cookies when they hesitate to kill him. He does not even try to defend himself when he comes home to find them waiting for him asleep in his bed, a sort of reverse Goldilocks scenario in which the bear unsettles through his welcoming acceptance. The actor dissipates the noxiously cute tone that pervades the film’s opening, turning what promised to be an ironically chipper slaughter picture into a melancholic chamber piece that ducks wan genre tropes for true character study.

Gandolfini’s role is the sort it’s now all too easy to read too much into, a character who spends the entire film assembling his own eulogy. Yet it’s a far greater testament to the late actor’s skills that this was just another job for him, and the wealth of emotion with which he imbues the part proof of his preternatural ability to suggest an entire lifetime in a glance. Gandolfini was a huge man, but the heaviest things on him were always his eyelids, as if in a feat of reverse physics they were what propped up the rest of him. He gives even the smallest glance gulfs of pain, though he always ducks inchoate self-pity for a clarity so rare it’s no wonder the young women sent to kill him are too fascinated by it to carry out their job. Nevertheless, Gandolfini also helps ground the film in a more natural, effective humor, even when getting into macabre conversations in which he tries to help his would-be assassins kill him. A sample: Michael tries to save Violet the trouble of a trip to buy bullets by telling the girls, “I’ve got a pretty good steak knife…” and he even manages to make his silly follow-up, “Just tryin’ to help,” sound earnest and believable.

As a rising tide lifts all ships, so too does Gandolfini bring out the best in his co-stars. This is not Ronan’s first time playing a young professional whose innocence makes her capacity for violence all the more disturbing, but she never allows Daisy to be Hanna lite. Hanging around with Michael as Violet fetches bullets allows Ronan to bring out the childlike qualities of the child she plays, the bubbliness that grated so badly in the opening scene at last given a proper outlet to add cheer to Michael’s life without suffocating the film. As for Bledel, she has not shined like this since “Gilmore Girls,” overcoming the inevitable stiffness of her delivery with a slight huff that successfully masks her sometimes awkward cadence as professional impatience. And if Violet is the more dangerous and uncompromising of the two, she has the moments of greater vulnerability, especially as implied details of her treatment at the hands of rival, male assassins make her sudden, paralytic fear around them all the more horrifying.

Geoffrey Fletcher’s script keeps a surprising number of twists at the ready, and all of them succeed not only in throwing the viewer for a loop but also in deepening the increasingly inescapable quagmire in which the characters find themselves. Betrayals of others’ trust and one’s own convictions threaten to tear already loose bonds even as Michael helps bring the two killers closer, and the film itself ultimately becomes a light treatise on everything from female friendship to the morality of dishonesty to the question of whether a death on one’s own terms is preferable to a life without resolution. A flurry of gunfire punctuates both of the film’s stabs at action, but it’s a single gunshot that truly communicates loss, and those who cannot make it past the film’s rocky start to get to the beautiful work within are missing out.

“Violet & Daisy” wears its virtues on its sleeves, and as such Cinedigm’s Blu-ray goes to no great lengths to defend the film from its generally hostile reception, with only a slideshow of posters and the theatrical trailer included as extras. Still, it faithfully preserves the balance that Fletcher and cinematographer Vanja Cernjul strike between bright color palettes and the somber, duller tones that creep into the frame with Gandolfini’s introduction, and the audio track is subtly mixed to favor dialogue over gunshots. It’s a modest package for a modest but rewarding film, a spare release that keeps all focus on the actors, which is where it belongs.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Toad Road (Jason Banker, 2013)

I hate to kick an independent trying to get their start, but I also cannot abide the laziness with which so many treat horror as a cynical means to a quick paycheck. Toad Road has aspirations to a commentary on drug dependency but its improvisational style requires too much of its nonprofessional cast, who struggle to articulate anything even resembling humanity as the film lurches toward a final act that plays at psychological terror but instead looks like a high-schooler dicking around with iMovie effects. To even call it a film is about as charitable as one can be about it.

Read the rest of my review at Spectrum Culture.

How I Live Now (Kevin Macdonald, 2013)

I've somewhat cooled on this already tepid response in the month since I reviewed it, but I nonetheless feel there are aspects of How I Live Now to admire, mainly in the first act when the kids act naturally against a looming threat of war. After the bombs go off, though, I'm not so sure, and the atrocity exhibition of the final act is particularly gross, especially when it ends with an affirmation of a creepily reactionary family unit of teens. Still Ronan is great, as ever, and there are enough moments to make it worth at least one viewing.

My full review is at Spectrum Culture.

The Cobweb (Vincente Minnelli, 1955)

Vincente Minnelli stages a madhouse drama around the psychological impact of poorly chosen drapes. In other words, this is about as Minnelli as it gets. Naturally, it's wonderful. Read my review at Spectrum Culture.

Paradise (Diablo Cody, 2013)

I've previously been a defender of Diablo Cody's but her directorial debut is everything her detractors have accused her of being: simplistic, condescending, so caught up in her cute dialogue that character is left out in the cold. Its insultingly reductive view of religion can make even a staunch atheist blanch with embarrassment and sympathy, and any film that must rest on the shoulders of Julianne Hough is doomed from the start. A heinous picture.

Read more at Spectrum Culture.

Blu-Ray Review: Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project (Criterion)

Been super busy for a month now, about to be even more so as I take on end-of-year assignments and get set to move to Atlanta. Will be updating this blog with links over the next week or so to try and make sure I've got everything here. For now I'll put up my latest piece, a review of the films in Criterion's new, essential World Cinema Project box set, a collection of six films from various corners of the globe that are as distinct stylistically as geographically yet are linked by their ability to subtly break out of Western film language to illuminate some aspect of their historical, mythological and social lives. It is one of the best releases the label have put out in years, and I hope but the first of its kind.

Read my full review at Film.com.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Dirties (Matthew Johnson, 2013)

The Dirties is one of my favorite films of the year, an exceptionally timed black comedy about a lonely, movie-obsessed boy getting lost in the project whose vicarious revenge against his bullies tips ever more precipitously into a literal quest for vengeance. Matt Johnson, director, co-writer and star, captures with uncomfortable accuracy the young man who can communicate only in obvious and obscure references, and who gets so fixated on the one thing that gives him solace that it becomes an escape from reality that threatens to horribly alter that reality. Yet it remains funny, Johnson's pubescent cherub face an open book as he naïvely carries on, deluded with flashes of self-awareness. And in the end, where his decisions start to become less about his rational, human choices than a slavish devotion to the narrative arc of his movie, that grim humor becomes fully tragic.

Read my full review at Spectrum Culture.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, 2013)

I've been dying to see this film for nearly a year and a half, and I'm thrilled to say that Leviathan more than lives up to its reputation as very possibly the greatest and most singular cinematic achievement of the decade so far. My review scrambles for a few literary and filmic touchstones just to process it, but this film feels so unlike anything I've seen, even other works by the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab. I cannot recommend it enough, and even though I lack a reference to the film's theatrical impact, I can safely say that Cinema Guild's Blu-Ray gets the job done.

Check out my review of the film and its home-video release at Slant.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Pauline Kael—5001 Nights at the Movies

There's been a resurgence in publication of Pauline Kael's work in the last few years after a 2011 mini-renaissance that saw some biographies and a new collection issued. It's long overdue, though part of the frustration of having to clamor together Kael's pieces around the Internet when most of her work was OOP is realizing how narrow your concept of her really was. Case in point, I was so used to digging out her more famous and easily available long-form pieces that I had no exposure to her capsule writing. This collection, then, was a bit of a surprise once I cracked it open, and honestly a bit of a disappointment. I'm enraptured when Kael gets going, even when I disagree, but this format doesn't allow her to build an argument, so that each dismissal has a nasty curtness to it. I admit a bias in that I think most capsules read this way (including mine), and that I can count on one hand the critics who seem to make an art of it (Agee and Fernando Croce) being the best. Still, it's good to have a fuller portrait of Kael's work, even if this aspect of it does not thrill me at all like her essays.

Read my full review at Spectrum Culture.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Smashing Pumpkins—Siamese Dream

I was never into the Smashing Pumpkins growing up, but a recent relisten to their catalog has been revelatory. Of them, Siamese Dream is obviously the crowning achievement, a work that splits the difference between early-'90s alternative vagueness and experimentation and classic rock ambition and results in something patently calculated yet undeniably compelling. It's made to be listened to over and over, but at least Billy Corgan did us the solid of making it more than worth the time.

My retrospective review is up at Spectrum Culture.

I Declare War (Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson, 2013)

Meaningless display of young machismo that mistakes depiction of extremity as commentary. A waste of time. Read my full review at Spectrum Culture.

24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002)

Post-punk is my favorite genre of music (one of these days, I must get back to my series of posts on The Fall, possibly my favorite band), and Michael Winterbottom's glibly self-referential, knowingly material work is not only the greatest possible snapshot of that freewheeling mini-era of music in the wake of punk's return to zero, but maybe the single best evocation of a musically defined time period put to film. Hilariously funny, the film's put-upon, sad-sack nature fits its subject well, not only quixotic Factory Records head Tony Wilson but the broader post-punk movement, which infiltrated pop charts with subversively catchy rhythms before becoming simply the new pop, period, intellectual exercises ultimately hoisted on their own petard. There's something grimly amusing about the film being at its brightest when misery purveyors Joy Division start to gain traction and at its lowest when ecstasy hits the clubs, but that's the contradictory, witty way of the film in a nutshell.

Read my full review at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, October 21, 2013

In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey (James Cullingham, 2013)

John Fahey is one of the best and most overlooked guitarists of the 20th century, and James Cullingham's mini-feature does about as good a job as one can do in bringing the recluse to life. Fahey left little in the way of anecdotal or personal value, which leaves little for the director to sink his teeth into. But then, Fahey left behind a considerable back catalogue of avant-garde but eminently listenable music, a nexus point of Eastern classical and Memphis blues that found constant variation in repetitious structures. Cullingham is at his best when he finds ways to visually ape those compositions, but in all this is one of those documentaries that succeeds artistically only in the sense it makes you want to see out the subject's work.

My full review is up at Spectrum Culture.

Talking Mystery Train with Allison Kupatt

I loved Jim Jarmusch's latest, Only Lovers Left Alive, so much when I saw it at TIFF that I was eager to revisit some of the director's other work and talk about it, particularly the films that reminded me most of Only Lovers, Down By Law and Mystery Train. I had a back-and-forth discussion with Allion Kupatt of Nerdvampire about the latter, a transcript of which has been reproduced below. I had a great time talking to Allison about the film, which is one of the Jarmusch films I love best but the one I've had the hardest time articulating what it is about the movie that grabs me. Having a companion to discuss it was a great pleasure, not only to hear what someone else took from this intimate movie but to help clarify my own long-clouded thoughts. Anyway, if you haven't seen Mystery Train, I highly recommend it (you can watch it on Criterion's Hulu+ channel, which is the best $8/month you can possibly spend). If you have, check out our breakdown, after the jump.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Canyons (Paul Schrader, 2013)

I neither think of The Canyons as a maligned film maudit nor a justified one. Instead, it is a film whose flaws are readily apparent but also, on occasion, the thing that makes the film so fascinating. It's hard to watch Lohan in this, not just for the times in which it looks as if she definitively wasted her potential but for the fleeting moments in which she shows she still has something to give. In all likelihood, the work is her Wrestler, a role so specifically calibrated around her downfall that she could never match it again, nor could any role offer the chance. Now, she's no Mickey Rourke, and this movie's no Wrestler (though it's tawdry, ramshackle nature reveals itself to be the level on which Bret Easton Ellis' coke-dusted nonsense should operate, instead of shinier, higher rises), but if Lohan doesn't get at least some boost from this—and she won't—part of the reason is encoded into this movie and its caustic look at an industry that sets upon anyone who dares to stop pretending that it is all good times.

My full review is up at Spectrum Culture.

Stranded (Roger Christian, 2013)

Poor Roger Christian, director of Battlefield Earth: who else could have a film this bad and it not be the worst of his career by a long shot? Another belated link, check out my review at Spectrum Culture.

Camille Claudel, 1915 (Bruno Dumont, 2013)

This was my first Bruno Dumont film, and I've heard it's something of a departure for casting so prominent a star as Juliette Binoche. On the evidence of this film, though, I'm not exactly rushing out to catch up on his filmography. Nakedly exploitative, the film relies on a cast of actual mental patients to hammer home the point that Binoche's sculptor does not belong in an asylum, lending the numerous close-ups of blank smiles or pained facial contortions a grotesque element that draws no humanity from their faces. Elsewhere, the blandly ascetic frames, suggesting no inner life, only the starkness of external patriarchy weighing down on the artist, suggest Bresson by way of someone who hasn't paid much attention to Bresson, and for all the didactic fuss the film attempts to make about Claudel's outrageous silencing, the camera itself only ever takes the point of view of the men.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Halloween II (Rob Zombie, 2009)

Originally published at the now defunct Cinespect.

Rob Zombie’s 2007 “Halloween” remake loosely applied the director’s quickly coalescing tics to the John Carpenter-directed original, recasting the blank, seemingly motivationless killer Michael Myers as a hollowed-out hick with family issues and eyes that looked as if they’d taken on a paint-huffing-induced glaze while still in utero. Yet the film, Zombie’s open concession to mainstream genre demands, while cementing his style, left cracks in it. Those minuscule fissures are blown open by “Halloween II” (2009), an ostensible cash-grab that proved, especially in its slightly but meaningfully altered director’s cut, the best horror film of the last five years.

The sequel continues the story along a path that seems logical until one realizes how few horror franchises do it, caring less for the further exploits of monsters and their victims than for the aftershocks of the original trauma. “Halloween II” presents a group of characters irrevocably poisoned by their brush with evil, among them Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), who is hawking a book to profit off his ghastly failure to cure—or even contain—Michael’s psychosis, and Michael’s sister, Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton), who is in total emotional freefall.

Laurie’s situation establishes the film’s focus as one in which the monster is as much post-traumatic stress disorder as it is Michael Myers. Taylor-Compton is no great shakes as an actress, but she gives what may be the most Cassavetian performance to ever grace a horror film. It’s an unvarnished, all-consuming portrait of madness that makes it difficult to sympathize with Laurie, especially when her caustic emotional pain is juxtaposed with the more visible scars adorning her friend Annie, who tries to handle her own trauma with more poise.

So pervasively does Taylor-Compton yoke the film into her character’s warped soul that one could argue that Michael Myers never truly returns in this film, and that his subsequent rampage is but a product of her mind. Various dream sequences offer some support for that notion, though buried amid Laurie’s own anxieties of genetically inherited and trauma-induced mania are explicit critiques of the Oedipal and misogynistic traits that the character of Michael Myers set loose upon the slasher genre, which the original “Halloween” (1978) helped establish 35 years ago.

The nightmares break up Zombie’s style, which was previously marked by a use of medium and long shots to capture action. The camera frequently presses in close on Taylor-Compton’s face, but not without a hint of resistance that suggests it wishes it could pull away.

Other aspects of Zombie’s aesthetic change as he shakes the cornmeal breading off his demented carnival look, adopting a more dreamlike state that can be seen fully realized in his latest film, “The Lords of Salem” (2012). His humid imagery gives way to an autumnal chill, light flickering through cool blue air as demons inevitably begin to stalk Laurie and those around her. And the deliberation of Michael’s slashes—pneumatic extensions of the elbow that send the knife down with mechanical simplicity—bring brute poetry back to a genre that arguably had not enjoyed it since the first time Michael Myers invaded the screen.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Metallica: Through the Never (Nimród Antal, 2013)

I've long outgrown my metal phase, but I still love to listen to Metallica. Even so, I never expected to like Through the Never as much as I did. Antal wisely does not chase that rabbit of replicating the concert experience (impossible when cameras reside on-stage), but the film actually does end up putting forward a vision of both the material reality of putting on a Metallica show, and the subjective interplay between the band and the reaction their music prompts. In other words, it's almost the film Godard wanted Sympathy for the Devil to be, albeit with a half-assed approached to politics that thrillingly fades away into the simpler pleasures of getting your skull pounded out by riffs.

My full review is up at Movie Mezzanine.

Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener, 2013)

Belatedly linking to last week's review of the fine, sometimes beautiful Enough Said, which sports two incredible lead performance that are so good that the film hits a wall whenever the two main actors aren't both on-screen feeding off each other. In particular, it is hard to see Gandolfini, as he did in Not Fade Away, truly move away from Tony Soprano, and to know that we will never get to see the full development of this next stage of his career. But at least there's this performance, and at least Julia Louis-Dreyfus continues to enjoy a renaissance of her own. So many ancillary elements of the film weigh it down, but these two are alchemical.

Read my full review at Movie Mezzanine.

Warner Archive Instants Picks of the Week (10/11/13—10/17/13)

The next Warner Archive picks. This time I'm joined by Ty Landis, who provides his own pick. Read 'em both here.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Warner Archive Instant Picks (10/4/13—10/10/13)

My first round of Warner Archive picks. Read 'em here.

King Lear (Jean-Luc Godard, 1987)

My Godard posts have all been first impressions, for better and worse (especially worse during my early attempts to grapple with him), but I had to watch King Lear three times before I felt comfortable writing about it in any capacity. Possibly Godard's densest work, at least to that point, it is also my favorite of his, an enervating, funny, autocritical and far-reaching work that castigates the artist for his pretentious ambition even as it defends his self-annihilating desire to make cinema all he thinks it can be. Crying out for a proper home video release; maybe Olive Films, who have presented some crucial later Godards already, will pick up the slack.

Read my full review at Spectrum Culture.

TIFF Capsules

Here are links to the capsules I wrote for Movie Mezzanine during TIFF.

This link contains capsules for Bastards (Claire Denis), Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch) and La última película (Raya Martin and Mark Peranson).

This one talks about Horns (Alexandre Aja) and 'Til Madness Do Us Part (Wang Bing).

This link features capsules for A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Ben Rivers and Ben Russell) and Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt).

Also, here are Dork Shelf capsules for Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi and Kambuzia Partov), A Field in England (Ben Wheatley) and Manakamana (Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez).

Blu-Ray Review: The Big Parade (Warner)

Warner outdid themselves with this nearly flawless transfer of King Vidor's amazing The Big Parade. Barring some inevitable dropped frames and a scant amount of irreparable print damage, I've never seen a silent film look this blemish-free, and if it weren't for the healthy grain I'd assume they'd gone overboard with digital touch-ups. The film itself overwhelmed me, a foundational war film that outdoes nearly all the movies that followed in its wake and shamelessly cribbed its elements. A work of great, ambivalent humanism, rarely castigating patriotic fervor even as it stares honestly at its consequences.

My full review is up at Slant.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

TIFF Review: Gravity

My other post makes my feelings more plain, as this was a quickly written mini-review, but these were my first thoughts on the disappointing Gravity. Read them at Movie Mezzanine.

TIFF Review: Stray Dogs

I don't know when this will get distribution, but for now it is safely my favorite film of 2013, and, if it comes out next year, an extremely high bar for 2014's slate. If this is Tsai Ming-liang's last film, he leaves cinema richer, more evocative and, with his startling use of digital as an extremity of length over assembly, more advanced than he found it. His mostly static takes, stretching for minutes at a time, elicit gulfs of Kuleshov-esque interpretation from actors' subtly modulating faces, playing out a commentary of economic strife, existential isolation and emotional longing with few words. It was the last film I saw in Toronto, and the that best proved that cinema still has new territories to explore.

Read my full review at Film.com.

Anti-Gravity: Why Alfonso Cuarón’s Space Odyssey Is Shortsighted About Long-Takes

So, I was one of a precious few people who found Gravity to be a mediocre film, not just in its weak script (which has been noted even by admirers) but in its meaningless, programmed long-takes. CGI and digital cameras have unlocked new possibilities for extended shots, but I find them to be so hollow, and I place Gravity among films like Episode III and The Avengers that use massively scaled, digitally rendered long-takes that highlight to me only their falsity and the unimpressive accomplishment of adding a shot's mise-en-scène during post-production.

My full essay is up at Film.com.

Blu-Ray Review: Prince of Darkness (Shout!)

I cannot recommend the new Blu-Ray of Prince of Darkness enough. Having seen it alternately on DVD and streaming services, I was blown away by how clean the film looked, how clear its black levels were and how detailed the low-budget film could look at times. Carpenter has enjoyed a solid spate of Blu-Ray releases lately, and Shout! Factory's Scream sublabel seems hellbent on giving us as many of his films in good condition as possible. Add in some solid extras (all Carpenter commentaries are great affairs) and you've got an essential release for genre fans.

Read my full post at Slant.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Alain Badiou — In Praise of Love

As Badiou lays out in the early portions of his chat with Truong, love relies on risk, the cautious willingness of both parties to expose themselves to someone different. That in and of itself is not a particularly bold observation, but Badiou constructs philosophical language on top of a layman argument. The risk, then, is not merely rewarding for its sense of the unknown but for the very difference between people, of learning to see things “from the point of view of two and not one.” Even the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas insufficiently accounts for this radical reorientation, in Badiou’s view: Levinas sees the Other as a means for discovering the Self, but Badiou conceives of love as a means of bridging Self and Other into a shared third perspective that sees the world in an entirely different way.

Read the rest at Spectrum Culture.

Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter, 1987)

My initial review of Prince of Darkness was mostly negative, but it is the Carpenter film I have returned to most often, and the one that has gradually emerged as my favorite of his. I was glad to get the chance to re-evaluate it, and though this is a belated link, it fits nicely within October viewing. I highly recommend the film, and its new Blu-Ray, which I also reviewed and will link to shortly.

Read my post at Spectrum Culture.

Netflix Instant Picks (9/20—9/26)

Here's my final set of Netflix picks for Movie Mezzanine. I'll now be covering good finds on Warner Archive's excellent instant service. Check out my picks.

An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951)

Yet if Singin’ in the Rain offers the more appealing, fluid movie, An American in Paris surpasses it as a work of filmmaking for its own sake. In Singin’, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s effusive, colorful frames compose around the dancers, an understandable artistic decision and one that does not preclude well-crafted mise-en-scène. But Minnelli’s film is on another level, a union of body and camera that wholeheartedly embraces the gaudy heights of pure cinema that Singin’ occasionally keeps at arm’s length with winking acknowledgements.

Read the rest at Spectrum Culture.

Keep Your Right Up (Jean-Luc Godard, 1987)

Mostly shot before King Lear but not completed and released until after that film’s Cannes premiere, Soigne ta droite, a.k.a. Keep Your Right Up, represents something of a bridge between Detective’s larkish return to Godard’s early days of cinephilic moviemaking and the denser treatise on creation and artistic martyrdom captured in his Lear. Pop Art colors explode in a throwback to the director’s first color work, while a convoluted array of image and sound editing continues to parlay Godard’s innovative video techniques back into film, as ever focused on the material elements of filmmaking as said elements also fold into the director’s preoccupations with artistic creation.

As much as King Lear, with its literal apocalyptic backdrop, Keep Your Right Up depicts the act of creation as an act of self-annihilation, externalizing an interior conflict through a dizzying, confounding use of form. If so much of Godard’s “return” to cinema parallels the films of his original run, then this so often recalls Weekend, tipping its cap toward specific plot elements, especially an ancillary plot of Jane Birkin and her boyfriend shooting off toward Paris in a Mercedes especially recalls the earlier film’s narrative. More generally, this film touches upon its loose ancestor’s destructive impulses of creation while also updating that film’s nihilistic, politicized conclusion for an older, more reflective filmmaker.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

I Married a Witch (René Clair, 1942)

Over at Film.com, I've got a review up for René Clair's light but pleasing comedy I Married a Witch, out now from Criterion. It's a bit of a weak film, with obvious tensions behind the camera and a script that left some connective tissue unwritten among all the people who had a hand in it (as far as I can tell, after Lake's character takes a love potion, she is simply smitten from that moment on, with no snapping out of it). Still, Lake's a bombshell and Clair's delicate touch gets some elegant laughs out of situations that might have otherwise played too much on the effects.

My full review is up at Film.com.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)

The following is October's entry in my (much-delayed) Blind Spots series.

Dario Argento’s Suspiria is a film that only lets its audience know what is going on mere minutes before it concludes, yet provides more than sufficient immersion into its world within seconds. The director sets his tone without monsters or suspense, merely an insert shot that occurs as soon as Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), an American student bound for a German dance academy, leaves a Munich airport in the film’s opening. As she exits, Argento cuts to a close-up of the automatic door’s locking mechanism hissing open and folding back into place, a tossed-off flourish that communicates such blithe menace that one is instantly primed for both the film’s horror, and its effervescent embrace of the extremes that horror can explore.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, 2013)

The stretch of Captain Phillips in which the Maersk Alabama container ship is approached, boarded and scoured by pirates, suits the contours of Paul Greengrass’ well-honed aesthetic to a tee. His style of assembling a sequence from coverage—if one can call his disorienting, close-proximity, handheld movements “coverage” of anything but synecdochical fragments of actors’ bodies—matches the bewilderment of a ship crew untrained and unprepared for a potential combat situation suddenly thrust into a scenario for which they have only ever drilled with perfunctory remove.

Better than most, Greengrass understands the potential to enact the hyperactive “chaos cinema” he helped popularize along a kind of gestural cinema. Thus the action segments, in which the camera jolts and snakes after a noise, or steps unthinkingly with a barefoot pirate into a room filled with broken glass, actually achieve the style’s presumed level of intimacy. In Greengrass’ hands, the shakycam aesthetic truly can make one feel like one of the crew as they mount their unarmed and exposed defense.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Wong Kar-wai, Ranked

Another ranked piece, this one again commissioned by Film.com. To be honest, it's not one I planned on doing, both because Wong's filmography is small and most of it is of such a quality as to make "ranking" even more irrelevant than usual, but then if it lets me write capsules for this great director's work, so be it.

My list is up at Film.com.

TIFF Review: The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld (Errol Morris, 2013)

First up from TIFF, the new Errol Morris documentary, a worthy (if inferior) companion to The Fog of War that finds another defense secretary who presided over a military disaster. To see Rumsfeld, so close to the wars that have yet to fully cease, smiling and justifying himself provokes a special kind of rage, yet what really stuck out watching his benign support for war on the thinnest grounds was how much the unlearned lessons of Rumsfeld's tenure seemed prime to take us into yet another conflict. Since this review was filed and published, America's seemingly inevitable move into Syria has been thankfully stalled (at least for the moment), but The Unknown Known still seeps into the skin as a glimpse not only into the self-delusion that made the first stage of the War on Terror possible but into the lingering insanity that may lead us into the next era of it.

My full review is up at Film.com.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Fanboy Contra Fanboy: The Genius of Edgar Wright

Managed to get this done just before leaving for Toronto. I loved The World's End as I have loved all of Edgar Wright's work, as ever for its critique of fan culture as its embrace of that culture's irascible childishness. Writing about the director's latest thus necessitated an overview of his entire career, which I find to be a subversive comment on everything the filmmaker holds dear. To call The World's End (or any of the others) "mature" is to miss the more complex relationship with nerdiness that Wright explores, and that he explores it with such exciting, seemingly forgotten mainstream chops only makes him more engaging.

My full piece is up at Movie Mezzanine.

TIFF Review: Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

 I wasn't the biggest fan of Birth, as this blog will attest, but I found Jonathan Glazer's return to feature filmmaking one of the year's most exciting events. In a time when an enjoyable trifle like the derivative Moon can be hoisted up as great conceptual sci-fi, Under the Skin appears as a singular object, stark to the point of being surreal even before it steps into sequences of inky voids and doomed, horny men. Admittedly, the film comes with its own reference points (chief among them The Man Who Fell to Earth), but what's remarkable is how many of the films that come to mind have little to do with sci-fi, instead recalling the work of Abbas Kiarostami or Morvern Collar. And as its hypnotic rhythms are disrupted in a final act of intimate chaos, it becomes clear that the film stands as one of the finest explorations of female sexuality and society's shaping of it. Women taught about sex as an external process learn the hard way about its actual, physical properties in ways both benign and terrifying.

Check out my full review at Movie Mezzanine.

Love Is a Battlefield: The Romantic VIolence of Wong Kar-wai

With Wong Kar-wai's masterful (if you stick to the Chinese cut) The Grandmaster out now, I was drawn to the parallels between this ostensible commercial Wong and the last time he dabbled in populist Chinese genre with Ashes of Time. Both films seem such major departures for their maker, but they reveal Wong's cinema of regret and longing through action tropes, in some ways distilling his work to its most ineffable essence. His violence is thrillingly mounted, but Wong's wuxia films devote most of their time to the corrupting effect of that violence, and both films hold the keys to his entire oeuvre.

Read my full thoughts at Film.com.

Brian De Palma, Ranked

I hear a lot of valid objections to ranking a director's filmography, most of which I share, but the format at least allows me to argue for some of the more idiosyncratic and neglected entries in a director's oeuvre, which is what I tried to do with the work of Brian De Palma. The nice thing about De Palma is that even hardcore fans can disagree wildly on what constitutes his best work, and I hope some of my more unorthodox loves convince a few people to give movies like Mission to Mars and The Black Dahlia another shot.

My full piece is at Film.com.

Leos Carax Retrospective

This event was Toronto-specific and has since passed, but I still got to write some words about each of Leos Carax's remarkable features for Dork Shelf. Give it a read if you want some brief thoughts on the man's work.

Austenland (Jerusha Hess, 2013)

My slackness in updating this blog has gotten embarrassing. I still need to link to all my TIFF coverage and even put up links for material that preceded my Toronto trip. In the meantime, though, I'll post my review for a film I saw just before TIFF started, for the abysmal and mean-spirited Austenland. Nominally concerning a woman's obsessive Austen love, this film soon drops just about any connection it might have to the author's writing or even stories beyond a Darcy fixation. In fact, the film is by and large hostile to the notion of female sexuality, a cruel irony given how exciting Austen's prose was for stretching the restrictive boundaries of female social life in her time and the manner in which she could critique her characters without mocking them. A game cast is wasted on a despicable script.

My full review is up at Dork Shelf.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Blu-Ray Review: Charulata

If Criterion's recent releases sometimes feel a bit too safe (the forthcoming gargantuan Zatoichi box set and Bergman/Rossellini collabos not withstanding), their acquisition and planned release of a massive portion of Satyajit Ray's filmography represents a major coup and an essential service for American cinephiles. Charulata tops even The Music Room in both the quality of the film and the breathtaking perfection of a restored transfer that forever obliterates memories of horrid DVDs that looked worse than bootlegs sourced from VHS. And thank God for the revitalized image: this Ophülsian melodrama is told so beautifully through its frames that surely the film's power would be sapped by awful AV quality. Some nice extras round out the disc, one of Criterion's best and most important releases in years.

Read my full thoughts at Slant.

Blu-Ray Review: The Muppet Movie

Over at Slant, I reviewed the new Blu-Ray of The Muppet Movie. It's a fine disc from Disney, with a transfer that faithfully preserves the occasionally questionable quality of late-'70s film stock while restoring a great depth of color and texture. As for the film itself, what is there to say? I instead wrote a little about what the Muppet mean to me, and how The Muppet Movie reflects that better than any of the other big-screen adaptations of Jim Henson's creations, fun as so many of them are.

Read my full review over at Slant.

Crystal Fairy (Sebastian Silva, 2013)

Yet another catch-up, this time with an odd film that only grabbed me intermittently. Michael Cera's subtly self-lacerating corruption of type is great, but it is Gaby Hoffman's bizarro neo-hippie who steals the show, so good at pushing through her awkward insistence on good vibes to actually create some that offset Cera's spiky narcissism. She's so good that a final revelation about her character seems an especially cheap maneuver to give her character context that the actress was creating well enough on her own.

Read my full thoughts over at Spectrum Culture.

Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, 2013)

Stretching way back into July to belatedly update this blog (sorry gang, it's been a hectic month and a half) to post this review of what is, so far, my favorite film of the year, Jem Cohen's elegant and elegiac Museum Hours. An excerpt:

The parallels start simply: a match-cut of painted birds in mid-motion and real ones taking off from a branch; a close-up on some extraneous details of a Bruegel epic that catch Johann’s eyes echoed in similar shots of refuse in the Viennese streets. Yet even these moments do not settle for mere reflection. To notice Bruegel’s carefully ordered, almost imperceptible waste adds a form of grace to the real world, not only the mirroring details interwoven into the montage but in earlier shots like the reflection of a tower seen in a litter-ridden puddle. Centuries-old art pulled from around the world make the reality outside seem that much livelier and in the moment.

Read the full thing here.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Netflix Instant Picks (8/8/13—8/15/13)

This week's Netflix picks are up now at Movie Mezzanine.

Netflix Instant Picks (8/2/13—8/8/13)

Another round of Netflix picks from me and Ty Landis. Peep them here.

Netflix Instant Picks (7/27/13—8/1/13)

Some Netflix picks from a few weeks ago. Read 'em here.

Alternative Westerns

Catching up on month-old articles to post here. I don't like the headline for this piece for Film.com (it's hard to argue that many of these films in question "aren't racist" when they cast whites in Native American roles), but in response to The Lone Ranger I sought out some Westerns that actually try and delve into deeper depictions of American Indians than savages or noble sufferers. Check out my full piece here.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Lightning Strikes Twice: The Digital Rebirth of Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola's post-2007 comeback is vexing, bewildering, esoteric and, to these eyes, his most exciting work since the 1970s. Funding his own projects with wine money, Coppola has used digital not only as a means of keeping shooting costs down but to explore new forms of cinematic grammar and assembly. The most classical of New Hollywood has emerged its most postmodern. I delve into this aspect of Coppola's rejuvenation for Film.com, from his masterpiece Youth Without Youth to the uneven but unexpectedly personal Twixt. Form and content may not converge like they did during the '70s (but then, did they ever for the director after that gold run), but I would sooner watch these experimental works than the bulk of the director's corpus.

Check out my full piece at Film.com.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Johnnie To FIlms, Ranked

I haven't been updating this blog like I should to link to everything I've been up to the last month (I hope to catch up on that this weekend), and part of the reason for that is that I've devoted every spare minute the last few weeks to tracking down and watching all of Johnnie To's films for this piece for Film.com. I'd seen about 20 already, but watching everything for this ranking, even the weaker, early years, has only confirmed Johnnie To as, along with Abbas Kiarostami, my favorite contemporary director.

If you're a fan or you've never seen a Johnnie To film (no time like the present!), I hope you'll take a look at my list for Film.com.

Bonus, the film I list as my favorite is on Hulu, and the link is in the article.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Blu-Ray Review: Bullet to the Head

I'm very pleased that, after an earlier review copy was never sent to me, I am finally writing for Slant Magazine! My first review is for the Blu-Ray of Walter Hill's not-bad/not-great (but closer to the latter) Bullet to the Head. The film is above-averagely average, if that makes any sense, and the Blu-Ray matches, with a faithful transfer of an inconsistent image and a paltry extra. Nevertheless, I still enjoy this return to theatrical filmmaking from Hill, and I hope it finds at least a minor life on home video.

Read my full review at Slant.

Netflix Instant Picks (7/19/13—7/25/13)

I'm joined this week at Movie Mezzanine by Ty Landis, who offers three Netflix picks of his own. Check 'em all out here.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Atmospheric Horror Films

Today's release of The Conjuring brings with it ample praise for the film's well-crafted jump scares, but my hatred of that form of horror got me thinking about some of the more atmospheric, long-lasted terrors that I love. So, I talked about just a few of my favorite unsettling pictures for Film.com. From Tourneur to Kiyoshi Kurosawa, these are films that may not make me leap out of my seat, but they'll weigh heavily on my mind long after the movie ends.

Check out my full piece at Film.com.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Showgirls (Paul Verhoeven, 1995)

More belated link posting, this time on my piece for Showgirls, one of my favorite films of the '90s. You can read my article over at Spectrum Culture.

Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2013)

"The soft-focus images that introduce Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio directly place attention on the sound to get one’s bearings. It’s a fitting calibration of the senses for a film that tackles the process of audio engineering in film production. The aural collage of whirring reel-to-reel recorders and soft footfalls has an abstract, impressionistic tone that meshes with the hazy, half-legible lines of objects in the cloudy frame. The industrial whiz of the recorders spooling tape suggests a professional sound setting, while the echoing steps ring with loneliness and isolation."

Read the rest of my article here.

I Dood It (Vincente Minnelli, 1943)

I was even less taken with Minnelli's second film than I was his first. A project thrown at his feet when its original director was fired, I Dood It simply should have been canceled altogether. An unfunny, incomprehensible mess than nicks from Buster Keaton but has none of that comic's sense of order or timing. An excerpt of my piece:

I Dood It rapidly outpaces its thin material. Adapted, sometimes shot for shot, from Buster Keaton’s final silent, Spite Marriage, the film adds 25 minutes to Keaton’s 80, despite cutting some of the wandering the protagonist gets up to after being rejected by his reluctant bride. That leaves excessive longueurs that even Skelton’s considerable comic talent cannot fill, leaving him to mug at every possible moment to try and keep the audience entertained.

You can read the rest of my article here.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

A Hijacking (Tobias Lindholm, 2013)

The hijacking that gives Tobias Lindholm’s new film its title does not even occur on-screen. After being introduced to the crew of a Danish cargo ship bound for India, the audience is then taken to the Copenhagen headquarters of the shipping company that owns the vessel. As the camera is still settling into this second location, an assistant interrupts Peter (Søren Malling) during a client meeting to show him a message. Calmly, the executive excuses himself, walks normally out of the room and, once out of the client’s line of sight, breaks into a sprint that fills in all the unseen details of Somali pirates suddenly seizing the cargo ship to make hefty monetary demands.

Read the rest of the article here.

Cabin in the Sky (Vincente Minnelli, 1943)

Minnelli's first film has the theatricality he brought with him from Radio City and would be with him for his whole career, but it lacks much of the cinema. The movement, the actors' projection, the use of sets, it's all a bit too stiff. Furthermore, for all the promise of a film with an all-black cast, Cabin in the Sky eschews some stereotypes only to embrace others, and its morality tale relies on deeply dated misogyny. You can kind of see where Minnelli would go from here, but this is still a long way off even from the dynamics of his third film.

My full review is up at Spectrum Culture.

They All Laughed (Peter Bogdanovich, 1981)

I've seen They All Laughed twice, and the second time felt as magical as the first even as I could better settle in and appreciate the delicate mastery of Bogdanovich's direction and the actors' perfectly timed performances. It's an exquisite delight of a film, so wistful and breezy that its fraught, tragic behind-the-scenes parallels are crowded out during the movie and blunted into more of a melancholy. Lumped with Heaven's Gate as one of the final nails in New Hollywood's coffin, but also like Heaven's Gate it shows the degree to which that method might still have taken things before blockbusters moved in to take over.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.