Sunday, January 31, 2016

Suburban Ghosts Revisited

Poltergeist (2015)

If you ever want an object lesson in the things that make a good movie vs. the things that make a bad movie, you could do worse than make a study of the remake of Poltergeist (2015, directed by Gil Keanan). In its broad outlines, the remake is essentially the same damned movie, but where the original was a film that was fun and scary and inhabited by real people in a palpably real place, the remake is just...tired. I never really thought of the original Poltergeist as a foundational horror film, but damned if the remake doesn't wind up putting the original into perspective as one of the most influential films of its era. Any comparison is likely to favor the original film if the original is good enough to inspire a remake, but the fact that the remake completely craps the bed all on its own doesn't help things.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Blunt Force

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I don't hate the Star Wars prequels. Indeed, there's a lot about them that I like quite a bit. I like the emphasis on politics, given that the eponymous "wars" don't exist in a vacuum. I like the small throwaway gags, like the V8 in Annakin's skycar in Attack of the Clones. I like their ambition.


A right-thinking prequel-hating Star Wars fan would have no truck with my relationship with Star Wars. It is complicated and in no way abject or adoring. They're fucking movies, after all, and if movies are also a lifestyle, then I'll choose another hill to die on, thank you very much. But that's just me. As with matters of love and sex, it's not my kink but I don't care if it's yours.


That's not to say that Star Wars and I don't have a history. Lordy, lordy, do we! My first encounter with Star Wars was a sold-out showing in 1977. My dad took my brothers and I to the theater intending to see this cultural phenomenon, only to be turned away. We went to see The Deep instead, and the image of Jacqueline Bisset in a wet t-shirt was indelibly etched in my mind, perhaps more so than anything in Star Wars. But I digress. We finally made it into another sold-out showing of Star Wars a week later. I only ever saw it once in the theater. I was too young at the time to be seeing movies on my own and my parents weren't interested in multiple viewings of a movie they'd already paid to see. I was moviegoing on my own by the time Empire came out and I saw it nine times when it was in theaters. It's the only one of the original trilogy I paid to see when the films were re-released in the late 90s. I thought George Lucas's revisions of Empire were mutilations, but of the three, it was the one he fiddled with the least. I hated Jedi. You cannot convince me that the prequels are any worse than Jedi. Still and all, Star Wars is part of movies and movies are my version church. It's not like I wasn't going to go see the new film, in spite of my dislike of J. J. Abrams.


Our showing did not get off to a good start. There were twenty minutes of previews. Twenty minutes! And all of them were for fantasy action/adventure films like the new Captain America film, the new X-Men film, the belated Independence Day sequel, something called The Fifth Wave which looks like an teen version of Independence Day, and--god help me--Gods of Egypt and Warcraft. The only preview that held any charm was Legendary Beasts and Where To Find Them, which was not suffused with apocalyptic unease or ever-escalating stakes. This is the legacy of Star Wars: a cinematic landscape where every tentpole movie is some variety of fantasy film. It's a mark of how relentless this influence is that it's burned me out. I cut my teeth on horror movies and Ray Harryhausen, back when good cinematic fantasias were as rare as the teeth of the hydra. I used to love them. Now, they're so ubiquitous that they're just noise. Just so you know where my prejudices lie.


The Gods of Egypt trailer is useful, though. A few weeks ago, the filmmakers on that project made a public apology for the whiteness of their film. If cultural mores continue to shift, there's a fair possibility that Gods of Egypt will be among the last artifacts of our culture's default setting of "straight white male." So let me start with praise for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, directed by J. J. Abrams). Set apposite Gods of Egypt, it's radically new. It's radically forward-looking. Its diversity is refreshing. Its diversity is organic. Its diversity, positioned as an integral part of such a cultural white elephant (if you'll pardon the pun), is significant. At no point in the film was I jolted out of the narrative because the protagonist was a black man and because I am not a black man. At no point was I jolted out of the narrative because its other protagonist is a white woman, even though, as a white woman, I'm not used to seeing myself represented in big action tentpoles. Hell, the only time I really lost my identification with the film was when it focused on the legacy characters: Leia, Han Solo. Han Solo. Old white dude. I felt like the filmmakers included the older characters out of a sense of validation, as if to distance themselves from the prequels by importing elements that tell the audience that, yes, this is the genuine article. Only Luke Skywalker himself--positioned like Harry Lime as a presence often mentioned but never seen and also as the film's Maguffin--seems organic to the narrative. Significantly, he has about a minute of actual screen time. The parts of the film that focused on these characters rather than Finn (the black conscientious objecting stormtrooper) and Rey (the scavenger turned chosen one force warrior) struck me as a facile forgery.



Note: here there be spoylers.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Spectres and Apparitions

Daniel Craig as James Bond in Spectre

Daniel Craig's fourth outing as James Bond, Spectre (2015, directed by Sam Mendes), has a valedictory quality to it, as if it intends to sum up the previous three films and tie them up in a tidy bow. This is a film haunted by the ghosts of past Bond films, both in the text of the film's action set-pieces and in the way it establishes a continuity with its predecessors. I don't know if Craig is planning to make a fifth Bond film, but if he isn't, this is a film where he can exit the franchise and not look back. Craig has his transcendent Bond film, something the last three Bonds never managed. If his last turn in the role (if it IS his last turn in the role) is less than transcendent, well, there's no shame in that.



Note: here there be spoylers.


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Criterion Blogathon: Viridiana

Silvia Pinal in Viridiana

Luis Buñuel's late career has been described as one of the great artistic flowerings in cinema. Starting in (roughly) 1961, the conventional wisdom suggests, Buñuel began making masterpieces as a matter of course. I'm not entirely sympathetic with this point of view. By the time he made Viridiana (1961), he had already made Los Olvidados and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo De La Cruz. It is, perhaps, more correct to say that after 1961, the world noticed that Bunuel was making masterpieces whenever he was given his head. The revival of his reputation occurred, perhaps, because he was no longer working in the ignored cinematic backwater of Mexico. The film cognoscenti can be Eurocentric, sometimes, especially the French. Even two years before Viridiana, French critics were wondering what had happened to Buñuel after the promising start to his career. And then Viridiana happened and Buñuel's fortunes changed. Even if one accepts that Buñuel's late flowering is an illusion or a trick of one's point of view, Viridiana remains a film upon which his career seems to turn.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Deeper Red

Mia Wasikowska in Crimson Peak

The heroine of Crimson Peak (2015), Guillermo Del Toro's return to horror filmmaking, is named "Edith Cushing," a name with a double dose of allusion. "Cushing" signifies the film's debt to Hammer Studios and the great Peter Cushing, a debt that seems relatively small to my mind. "Edith," on the other hand suggests Edith Wharton, whose savagely genteel melodramas of the turn of the 20th Century the film takes as primary texts for its first act. Wharton, it should also be said, was a crackerjack author of ghost stories which, germane to this particular film, are rife with repressed sexual desires and economic anxiety. Like Wharton, Crimson Peak's heroine is a patrician writer of ghost stories, though from Buffalo, New York rather than the big apple. The allusion is on point. This is a very self-aware movie.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Returned to Life

Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Hoss in Phoenix

One of the reasons that film noir has persisted in the cultural massmind is because films noir are so often epistemological. Questions of "who am I?" or "what really happened" or even "what is real?" or "what is identity?" litter films like Somewhere in the Night and No Man of Her Own and Dark Passage and Hollow Triumph. As film noir became self-aware in the late 1950s and onward, this tendency has intensified. Contemporary film noir is as apt to be a mind fuck as it is to be a suspense thriller or a crime story. That's certainly the case with Phoenix (2015, directed by Christian Petzold), a film in which identity is shifty and endlessly mutable.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

An October Challenge Trick or Treat Bag

Tales from the Darkside: The Movie

I'm not "officially" doing The October Horror Movie Challenge this year. I'm not aiming to watch all the films and I'm definitely not going to break my back to blog about it all, but it's still October, and October still means horror movies here at Stately Krell Laboratories. Therefore...

Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Wolf Cub In the Desert

Theeb

Theeb (2014, directed by Naji Abu Nowar) finds its title character, a young Bedouin growing up in 1916, roped into a grand adventure. For its first half, Theeb plays like an answer to Lawrence of Arabia. It views its Lawrence figure from the point of view of the Arabs. It's not necessarily a flattering picture--this film's British officer is vaguely dismissive of his hosts and brittle and bossy--but it's not necessarily critical, either. This narrative strategy proves to be a feint. It's not really what the film is about. Half-way through the film, there's a turn of the plot that transforms the film into something completely different. The film remains a coming of age story, but it's a coming of age story set in a crucible of violence and revenge. It becomes more of an Arab translation of the Western than a David Lean-ish epic. In both halves of the film, its politics remain personal.


Sunday, September 13, 2015

Innocence, Experience, Sex, and Drugs

Bel Powley in Diary of a Teenage Girl

In Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015, directed by Marielle Heller), a film set in the sexually liberated, doped up 1970s, the title character has a sexual relationship with her mother's boyfriend, a relationship enabled by the freewheeling nonchalance around some pretty fucked up things. It's a journey from innocence to experience that goes to some pretty dark places that may surprise anyone unfamiliar with its source material. Based on a comix novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, this comes from the underground comix tradition, and as such it's very much in tune with that tradition's dedication to breaking taboos. This is as frank a movie about sexuality--particularly the sexuality of teenage girls--as American movies have produced in recent years. Maybe ever.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Gifted

Rebecca Hall in The Gift (2015)

The Gift (2015, directed by Joel Edgerton) is one of those psychological thrillers that it's best to approach without any fore-knowledge of its plot. All the better to surprise the viewer. Unlike many such films, this isn't a film that turns on a single transparent plot point--a twist, as it were--because it's scenario doesn't deliver just a single shock at the end. It delivers multiple shocks at the end. Almost anything I say about this film is a spoiler, by the way, so if you're inclined to see the film and you're sensitive to spoilers, you should stop reading now and come back after you've seen it.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Trans Women Scorned

Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Tangerine (2015)

It's been a while since I've been as conflicted about a film as I am about Tangerine (2015, directed by Sean Baker). It's a film that pulses with cinematic invention. Famously filmed on iPhones, it's a film that pushes at the edges of the ever-advancing boundaries of what low-budget filmmakers can do. In spite of its formal qualities, though, it's a film that gets snarled in the politics of representation. True, its various trans characters are played by actual trans people, and it forgoes that laziest of trans storylines, the process of transition. But troublesome representations remain.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Say, UNCLE

Henry Cavill in The Man From UNCLE (2015)

The Man from UNCLE (2015, directed by Guy Ritchie) finds Hollywood trying to breathe life into another pre-sold "franchise," preferably one that it doesn't have to do any heavy lifting to reanimate. God forbid anyone have to pay writers and directors to create something new and untested. The marketing department would shit bricks. I think Warner Brothers may have over-extended themselves on this one, reaching back too far into the past, well beyond the nostalgic memories of their core audience. Who under forty remembers The Man from UNCLE? It's not as if TV reruns are even a thing anymore to put it in front of a potential audience. This is the trap that the Mission: Impossible films avoided by getting things started twenty years ago, when its own source material was still in the cultural memory, and by making its own brand out of it with Tom Cruise's face. The new Man From UNCLE film doesn't have the benefit of a branded movie star, either. I feel bad for Armie Hammer, who has been at the epicenter of two flailing attempts to capitalize on the fading memory of old cultural white noise. He's like a guy who keeps getting struck by lightning. The movie itself? Well, a movie can stand or fall on its own, and if it's good, maybe it will work. In truth, the new version of The Man From UNCLE isn't bad, per se, though it's not particularly good, either.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Clobberin Time

Fantastic Four (2015)

I don't hate Tim Story's Fantastic Four films. Oh, don't get me wrong: they botch a lot of things (most notably Dr. Doom and Galactus) and apart from Chris Evans, they're mostly miscast. And yet, there are parts of those films I really liked. I liked seeing Johnny Storm go all Super Skrull in the second one (a flaming rocky fist at the end of  a stretchy arm made me laugh out loud when I saw it). I liked The Silver Surfer, who was wonderfully well-realized. Story's films understand one important thing: the Fantastic Four ought to be fun, and that's a tone that his films strove for throughout. In some ways, they're out of step with the zeitgeist. They appeared right as the Christopher Nolan versions of grimdark superhero appeared, and their goofy naivete withers in comparison, at least in the fanboy massmind that equates grimdark with "realistic." They never really stood a chance in the marketplace of ideas.


The Fantastic Four are the bedrock of what became Marvel Comics and they deserve better than they've gotten from the movies. They certainly deserve better than Fox's new version of the characters. Fantastic Four (2015, directed by Josh Trank), which caves to the grimdark aesthetic. It's a glum film, shot in desaturated colors, fraught with angst and psychological theorizing. It's also occasionally incoherent, as if two separate movies had been stitched together in post-production, one a post-modern horror movie, the other a dumb superhero movie. It's an uneasy mixture, and tonally wrong almost from beginning to end.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Hitting the Small Time

Paul Rudd in Ant-Man (2015)

Ant-Man (2015, directed by Peyton Reed) finds the Marvel superhero franchise experimenting with genre. The superhero film is flexible if you're not hellbent on destroying cities. Marvel, more than their cinematic competitors, have been more committed to this idea than you might expect. They've placed their superheroes within epic fantasies, space operas, and conspiracy thrillers. Ant-Man is a heist film. Given the backstage drama that accompanied its production, it's a surprisingly nimble and fun movie. It's not without its drawbacks, though, not least of which is its gender politics and Marvel's gender politics more generally. Still, it manages to be Marvel's best film of the summer, which isn't something I expected.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Rich and Famous

Amy Winehouse in Amy (2015)

I wasn't a fan of Amy Winehouse during her lifetime. Not because I disliked her music--I rarely heard her music in the radio wasteland where I live. She just wasn't on my radar beyond what was printed in the tabloids, and even then my familiarity consisted only of headlines glimpsed in supermarket lines. This says more about how music is marketed these days than it does about her music by itself. One of the legacies of Amy (2015, directed by Asif Kapadia), the new documentary about her life, is to establish the magnitude of Winehouse's talent, which was immense. That's a fitting enough epitaph for an artist whose creative life was tragically short. But appreciation of Amy Winehouse isn't the ultimate effect of the film. One walks away from the film feeling a mixture of sadness and rage. It's an indictment of the fame monster (to borrow a phrase from another pop diva), of the machineries of stardom, of our culture's insatiable obsession with celebrity. In documenting the life of Amy Winehouse, this film is holding up an accusing mirror to the culture that destroyed her.