Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Yards (James Gray, 2000)

James Gray's The Yards is, like everything else he's made in his sadly infrequent career, a bold mix of classical, Fordian technique and Cassavetian acting whose alchemical properties transcend the clash of sensibilities into something simultaneously raw and operatic. Uniformly excellent acting never plays the material as merely symbolic, even if its view of corruption as a fixture of post-industrial commerce certainly offers its share of commentary. Its ending works because of its deflation, a true abstention from a system that offers no good option and therefore makes a simple act of quitting a kind of victory in its admission of defeat.

My full article is up at Movie Mezzanine.

Re-Make/Re-Model: Rollerball (1975) vs. Rollerball (2002)

My latest Re-Make/Re-Model column looks into dubious futuristic satire of corporate power that spawned one cult classic and the most scathingly reviewed film of a great but neglected artist's career. Surprise, surprise, it's John McTiernan's remake, a jumbled and mediocre affair dotted with bad acting and chaotic patterns, that handles the material with more honesty and moral depth. Norman Jewison's holds the conduit of its satire at arm's length, treating the sport, and, more specifically, the television medium through which it is transmitted, with disdain. McTiernan recognizes how much cinema has tried to keep ahead of TV since its inception (widescreen, color, 3D, etc.), and with cinema about to fall behind and start desperately trying to keep up with TV, his Rollerball makes no distinction between prestige cinema and boob-tube brain-drain, shooting everything with the same rollicking, occasionally incomprehensible style. At the very least, it indicts Hollywood in the material's vision of a society tamed through bloodsport. I'll take that over Jewison's sense of superiority any day.

My full piece is up over at Spectrum Culture.

Duelle (Jacques Rivette, 1976)

The following is my April submission for Blindspots.

The first of an aborted quartet of planned films that variated on the same theme, Jacques Rivette’s Duelle (une quarantaine) is a noir-cum-sci-fi fantasia, a tale of goddesses locked in an immortal struggle for the right to be mortal that plays out in an oblique homage to the films of the 1940s. Dividing its four central women into various generic archetypes, Duelle then pits them against each other in a series of frictive encounters that gradually push characters outside their oppositional definitions and into new binaries until Rivette breaks through to areas outside constrictive either/or boundaries.

Even the film’s basic conceit operates on two levels filled with their own distinct dialectics. The quest for a precious diamond juxtaposes naïve bystanders (Hermine Karagheuz’s Lucie) and manipulated molls (Nicole Garcia’s Elsa, née Jeanne) against more duplicitous criminal elements (Juliet Berto’s Leni and Bulle Ogier’s Viva) in classic noir terms that fit the MacGuffin in with such coveted items as the Maltese Falcon. But the diamond itself carries mystical properties, capable of granting godhood to mortals and vice-versa, adding fantastical oppositions of mortal/immortal and sun/moon.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956)

I belatedly got around to this excellent science-fiction picture, and it may be my favorite sci-fi film of the '50s. Trading the Cold War commentary for a psychological free-for-all for barely contained Freudian urges, Forbidden Planet is realized through some of the most impressive matte paintings ever made, along with some great animation. There's just something wonderful about seeing a caricature of '50s all-Americanism launched into space to confront not Soviets or aliens, but their own id.

My post is up over Movie Mezzanine.

Netflix Instant Picks 4/26/13—5/2/13

This week's picks are up over at Movie Mezzanine. Heads up, a lot more is expiring on May 1 than I went into. Be sure to double check your queues to see what might be lost.

The Vulgar Cinema (and letters to John McTiernan)

I am excited to announce that a group of writers I admire tremendously invited me to contribute to a new blog devoted to what has been termed "vulgar auteurism." Not so much a movement as a loose form of advocacy, it celebrates undervalued craft in critically overlooked genres, as well as the termitic properties of the best works. The term originated in discussion about primarily American entries in predominantly masculine genres, but we plan to discuss a wider variety of works outside our borders and in other equally ignored generic areas.

Our first posts are individual letters to John McTiernan, the recently incarcerated director of such great films as Die Hard and Predator. The responses are all nicely varied but uniformly adoring, and I doubt it will be the last time we discuss him.

So check out The Vulgar Cinema, and you can read my own letter to McTiernan here.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Lords of Salem (Rob Zombie, 2013)

Rob Zombie strikes me as one of the best B-movie makers working in America today, and certainly one of the preeminent horror directors of late. The Lords of Salem only solidifies that opinion, a work that extrapolates from the boldest, most experimental aspects of his more tightly controlled productions that results in a work of vivid expression. A host of referential touchstones is smoothed into a singular creative vision through a stripped-down variant of Zombie's usual grindhouse aesthetic, as well as his unorthodox sympathy for his tormented characters. There's a perverse comedy throughout the film, from the freeze-frame on a goat forced to witness a coven at the start to hellspawn paying little attention to that same coven at the end, but the comedy is always directed at the evil forces, not those who are already suffering enough. A major work.

My full review is up over at Spectrum Culture.

Netflix Instant Picks 4/12/13—4/25/13

Been neglecting the blog once again, so here's the last two Netflix roundups I wrote for Movie Mezzanine. Been a lot of quality stuff hitting lately, so be sure to check out our recommendations. I will also have tomorrow's up on time, I promise. Anyway, the links:



Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2013)

Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines turns its 140-minute length into a grueling gauntlet of class, gender and racial missteps strung together by relentless plot mechanics, but it at least has the decency to let the audience know what’s in store from the opening shot. Tracking Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) smears color and sound as he walks a fairground to his motorcycle show, barreling past the ugliness as Cianfrance hones in only on the forward motion, a sense of purpose divorced from all context in a self-contained bubble.

The rest of the film follows the same path, with showy technical skill put in service to a story that aims for Great American Novel status even as it cares at all times for plot. Each cut in the first act adds another broad stroke to its class caricature: Luke heads to the house of old flame Romina (Eva Mendes), only to discover he has an infant son, which leads him to Romina’s place of work, naturally a greasy spoon diner. The whiplash-inducing jumps of cliché only get worse when Luke, with hick accomplice Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) swiftly turns to bank robbery to provide for his child. This turns into an entirely different set of reductive class signifiers when Luke’s criminal ways bring him, and the focus of the narrative, into contact with police officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) and a lurch into middle-class woes that, gosh darn it, don’t look so different after all.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Brass Teapot (Ramaa Mosley, 2013)

Starting with a thin premise it then laboriously and inconsistently hammers home for 100 minutes, The Brass Teapot disappointingly wastes two game performances from its leads and an occasional pulp insight into post-recession Millennial life. There's no sense of order to the self-harm that dispenses money, leading to leaps from extremities like burning to innocuous measures such as spanking. Then, sudden lurches completely redefine the MacGuffin multiple times over in the span of minutes. It throws off the drab tonal constancy, but not, unfortunately, in a way that breathes life into a static picture.

My full review is up at Spectrum Culture.

Sun Don't Shine (Amy Seimetz, 2013)

Amy Seimetz's Sun Don't Shine adds a rough edge to Badlands, dragging primal emotions of fear, rage and desperation out of its characters as they threaten to give themselves away at every turn. Kate Lyn Sheil's performance, raw and flushed with jealous rage and childish regression, collides with Kentucker Audley's more constrained and strategic, if still instinctual and spiky, to make a volatile mix. The plot falls into places slowly and deliberately, albeit in such a way it almost seems secondary to their tense interactions and coping behaviors, and even its major reveal serves primarily as more fodder for their verbal attacks on each other.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Favorite Film Discoveries: March 2013

Belatedly putting this post up, partly out of forgetfulness/sloth, but partly out of indecision on which of the many fine films I saw last month for the first time to include. Keeping track of my film viewing can be maddening: it only reminds me how much I still have to discover. Still, if I can find films of this quality to experience freshly each month, I only end up believing in the vast beauty of cinema more. The 10 films below are but a sampling of the quality I continue to find wherever I look.

1. Duelle (une quarantaine) (Jacques Rivette, 1976)

Rivette tips his hat to noir, then supersedes its moral ambiguities for ones of identity. As sun and moon goddesses duke it out for the chance to feel like a mortal for more than 40 days of the year, the humans they manipulate shift their own responses in relation to the constant siege of manipulation, seduction and threats of beings of higher existence (and, in more tactile terms, class). One character comes into such strength at the end she nearly steps outside noir tropes to inherit Final Girl traits as well. Full review to come.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Blu-Ray Review: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

I wrote about Criterion's Blu-Ray of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp at Movie Mezzanine. It is hands down one of Criterion's best, featuring a breathtaking restoration that eclipses even the work done on the more boldly colored Archers films in the collection, while the extras are not as numerous as some packages but stuff each documentary or interview full of information. Scorsese dominates, of course, but editor Thelma Schoonmaker may beat him for direct eloquence in voicing the personal attachment this unorthodox epic inspires. Hell, even the damn cover is dynamite.

My full review of the disc is up now at Movie Mezzanine.

Shelf Life: The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol. 1

I briefly touched on a handful of Kenneth Anger's early works contained in a compilation disc for Movie Mezzanine. Anger is one of the more accessible avant-garde filmmakers, though it can be hard to tell from some of the dense, symbolic, sexual imagery contained herein. These are rapturous movies, confrontational while being flagrantly sensual in a way I've not seen elsewhere. Highly recommended.

Check out my piece at Movie Mezzanine.

Somebody Up There Likes Me (Bob Byington, 2013)

I never thought I could find so little to love in a film that uses Nick Offerman as the teeing-off position. But Somebody Up There Likes Me is a millennial comedy that gets consumed by its own disaffect, troublingly coming into focus only when its sarcastic treatment of inclusive semantics puts a target to the general air of superiority. There are some laughs in here, but even they are snuffed out in the film's vacuum, brief flickers in an oppressively dull sermon about life's swift, unappreciated passage. At least Byington obliges by keeping the whole movie short, but it's not nearly short enough.

Check out my full review at Spectrum Culture.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Netflix Instant Picks 4/5/13—4/11/12

Man, Netflix is really justifying their subscription fee lately. Second week in a row with so many noteworthy additions that I devoted all my picks to new stuff, while Corey recommended one of my favorite John Ford movies (and, therefore, one of the greatest of all movies). So head over to Movie Mezzanine and check out this week's selections.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

Roger Ebert has been in my life as long as I can remember, starting with the sight of him bickering with Gene Siskel on TV when I could not have been older than 4. His television appearances, commentary tracks, (much later) his tweets, and, of course, his vast collection of film reviews have provided a such a wealth of material that I could spend a lifetime tracking it all before running out of something new and undiscovered.

Yet the memory of Roger Ebert that sticks closest to me has nothing do with his long, illustrious career as a film critic. It came instead when he emerged in the wake of the surgery that removed his lower jaw, refusing to hide away from recoils (and worse, pity) and instead appearing in a number of interviews to recount his condition with the same open frankness that defined his film writing.

The interview that made the biggest impact was an appearance on his old friend Oprah Winfrey’s show, where he was accompanied by his wife, Chaz (an astonishing woman who deserves separate accolades I hope are coming her way in all this). At the time, my mind reeled from Ebert’s condition. How could he bear it? The pain? The disfigurement? I was so caught up in my own insecurities that I could not fathom how he found it within himself to go on.

Then, I watched that interview. I watched the way life danced in his eyes, utterly unfazed by his situation. I watched how he made the uncomfortable wait inherent in relying upon a computer to speak for him by playfully and earnestly pantomiming his emotions. Most of all, I watched the way he put so much love into the way he squeezed his wife’s hand that even if he still had the power of speech, he could not have spoken more eloquently of his feelings for her than he did in that gesture. I realized then that this was not a man who, in my perception, had lost so much. He was a man who had everything, not one but two loves of his life, neither of whom left his side for a second. His increased connection to the Internet would later bear this out more vividly, but in that one moment I saw someone who had only gained reasons to live and would not give up on them until the very end. And he never did.

I have often been frustrated with Ebert, and at times I have viewed him as an influence to overcome. But it is always in the way children look to step outside their parents’ shadow, more an indirect display of respect and admiration than a true rejection. Even as I seek out rarer and more complex films and film writing, it is Ebert’s capacity for concise but profound observations I strive to emulate in writing about them, the way he could, at his best, distill an entire film into a sentence of precise but evocative thought. Yet it is that interview that truly motivates me at my lowest. I often wrestle with self-doubt, wondering if I will ever distinguish myself as a writer, whether to even bother to keep going when so many of my peers have a way with analysis and language that seems so far beyond my grasp. At those times I think of the fire and joy in Ebert’s eyes, the dedication to life and work not for money or prestige or Pulitzers, but for the simple, affirming act of experiencing movies and talking about them, of continuing and sometimes even beginning conversation of film that could approach it intellectually without sacrificing the ineffable awe of moviegoing. Roger proved that the critic’s drive to discuss, contextualize and, above all, share, is more than an occupation. It is a way of being in the world.

Extraordinary Stories (Mariano Llinás, 2008)

I finally got the chance to see Mariano Llinás' much-praised festival epic, Extraordinary Stories, and it more than lived up to its reputation. Four hours whiz by as narratives never intersect plotwise but blur emotionally and stylistically, creating a swirl of docudrama, suspense, romance, even essay that, for all the film's length, serves primarily as a distillation for the capacity of art for communication, for bringing people into the world around them. Nowhere is this more evident than when one man's quest for literal treasure leads him to discover the far richer reward that he is sociable and capable of finding happiness with those who initially alienate him. As if that's not enough, the tale of men struggling to break out of their insular subjectivity to connect to the world even comes with its own variant of the Molly Bloom chapter to disrupt everything we think we know about the story. A great work indeed.

My full review is up now at Movie Mezzanine.

Blu-Ray Review: Monsieur Verdoux (Criterion Collection)

Monsieur Verdoux is firmly ensconced as my favorite of Chaplin's features, an appreciation that only ever deepens with each viewing. What few quibbles I once had, primarily leveled at its direction, now seem merely follies of ignorance, as it is precisely the horror and black comedy coded into every frame of his sparkling bourgeois interiors that gives the film so much of its bite. Criterion's new Blu-Ray cannot fully overcome some irreparable elements of the extant print, but it nevertheless looks better than ever and bears out the genius still at work in Chaplin's visual and aural design. Some intriguing extras round out of vital addition to the Collection.

My full review is up now at Movie Mezzanine.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Something Old, Something New: Duelle/Spring Breakers

I finally caught up with Jacques Rivette's mysterious, beautiful Duelle this weekend and was instantly struck by how much it reminded me of Harmony Korine's new feature, Spring Breakers. A quartet of typed women establish themselves through and against a lone male figure who is whatever the women want him to be instead of the other way around. Korine's film, of course, aims for more social matters as his dream sinks into a strange hyperreality, while Rivette pushes his realist exteriors and initial class distinctions first into the realm of cinematic genre, then into dream itself. But both link up again in pushing their various binary distinctions until they collapse, but then, that makes them so much harder to describe.

My full piece is up now at Movie Mezzanine.