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 (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


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


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.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Final Problem

Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes

I'm reading Neil Gaiman's new collection of short stories, Trigger Warnings, right now. One of the stories in that book is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, in which the retired Holmes keeps bees, travels to Asia in pursuit of a particular bee, obsesses over his last case, and deals with his impending mortality. There's a cottage industry in Holmes stories set during his retirement. It's a vast area of terra incognita in the Holmes canon, and writers have been rushing to map it out ever since the detective bowed out in "His Last Bow." Elements of such stories are often very similar. This can create a sense of deja vu if you read enough of them. I had a little bit of that while I was watching Mr. Holmes (2015, directed by Bill Condon), in which Holmes retires to keep bees, travels to Asia, obsesses over his last case, and ruminates over his impending mortality. It is otherwise very different from the Gaiman story I read this week. Based on the novel, A Small Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, Mr. Holmes presents a more vulnerable Holmes, one whose mental faculties are failing as he nears the end of his life and one who lives with regrets over events he can no longer remember. Holmes can sometimes come across as inhuman--Sherlock's portrayal of the detective as a "high functioning sociopath," for one example--something that this film sets out to deconstruct. The Holmes one finds here is very human indeed.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Salting the Soil

The Salt of the Earth (2014, directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado) is one of those documentaries that confounds expectations, particularly among documentaries about photography. The art of photography is front and center here, don't get me wrong, and not just in the inevitable still frame images that litter the movie. One of my first impressions of The Salt of the Earth is that the era of film as the medium for motion pictures--or for the capture of images more generally--is well and truly over. The shot beneath the title card is as beautiful an image as anything ever captured on silver nitrate on celluloid. That's not what this film is about, true, but it's a subtext that wormed its way into my mind as I watched. Hell, this film may not even be about its nominal subject, the photographer Sebastião Salgado, though it is through his eyes and through his images that the film extrapolates its broad themes. Director Wim Wenders suggests this when he describes his reaction to the first of Salgado's photographs that he ever saw. "This is a man who loves humanity," he thought. Too much as it turns out.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Future, Postponed

Terminator: Genisys

Terminator: Genisys (2015, directed by Alan Taylor) is not as bad as you may have heard. It's certainly no worse than any given city-destroying blockbuster of current vintage, but then again, it's also not really any better. It's kind of fun, if you're in the right frame of mind. At the bare minimum, it's anonymous and professional. In spite of all that, its existence in the first place is fundamentally immoral, in so far as it robs the audience of something new for their money almost to the point of self-parody. It's easy to hate the film for that. Looking at it as a critical observer involves a certain amount of double vision, because this is a case when the text of the movie and the meta-text of the movie are two entirely different animals. There's some cognitive dissonance involved.