Wonder Woman (2017). Credits. Benefits from a woman's touch with director Patty Jenkins, if that's what it takes or what's responsible for slowing the superhero CG action thing down so we can smell some flowers. In that regard what was perhaps most like this before were the first two Spiderman movies. Where this movie is at it's best is the figuration that goes on for woman / outsider / AND superhero-goddess -- perhaps "pariah" is the best term for all of those. Under the Skin induced some similar play of thought, if it wasn't doing it outright. There are several layers to how Diana is an outsider: what's clever here is the way she is more naive and more sophisticated than the modern world and its people. Having that be World War I era is -- thank the gods -- not just an origin story, which this movie is, but also a better contrast for the Amazonians. With women barely sufragettes, it's the war that violently knocked the monarchies into the modern era, of mass production, the full consequences of the nation state beyond aristocracy, modern warfare's toll on innocents and civilian centers (and ships), "collateral" damage the end of warfare as honor or career. Perhaps the best microcosm comment about this, and a genuinely laugh-out-loud moment, is when Wonder Woman walks out in her new feminine "modern" wardrobe but still carrying her sword and shield. The topsy-turvy of all this, too, is fun and given room to breath -- we've had so much apocalyptic overkill of vast cities and earthly or otherwordly vistas. The war where actual cavalries could still go up against tanks and machine guns is where a Greek conceived woman warrior is the most powerful weapon to upset the stalemate of the trenches. But to be sure, all of this is a superhero movie, still couched in fairly dripping terms: as mentioned, this is an origin story -- there needs to be a moratorium; the Amazons' island often looks like a tonier Star Trek resort; there's gimmicky stuff in all the scenes, including the requisite villain characters shtick (it's that sort of inflated environment that keeps superhero movies from being evocative -- by contrast here, note the scene with the play between the inside and outside of the cafe, how much better that is at giving us a whiff of time and place); the conflict with Ares is reduced to a boss fight. On that last note, they missed a great chance for deus that wouldn't be just ex machina: a matter of who wields the thunderbolts in the family. I hesitate to even dip in the waters of a discussion about Gal Gadot, because of how it gets reduced to the same stupid options for women, some of this cleverly commented on in the movie. She's a striking figure in her own right and as Wonder Woman, in more than one way, and carried as such. Perhaps the best way to express it is how she exceeds any reduction: she's not just beautiful, she's not just sexy, not just athletic, not just brains or composure or emotion. While her path so far, via the "Fast and Furious" series, suggests not the most profound pop sensibility, Gadot has a presence that's not just that. [6/3/17]
Right Now, Wrong Then (2015). Credits. If you want a meditation on versions of a screenplay and versions of reality, on recounting, on the various impulses to conceal or reveal or how to represent, on truth and gossip and reputation, on just what candid or frank would really be, on even the loops and feints and redundancies of the qualifier "really," this would serve. But Hong Sang-soo's way of doing this may not be what you expect, so much so that you may not realize it has anything to do with any of this for quite a while. Hong doesn't go about this by making some grandiose "meta" gesture. In this respect, he falls more generally into company with Abbas Kiarostami or Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It's as if he's subtracting as much effect and demonstrativity as possible, certainly cinematic artifice. He's trying to do the opposite of
making a big production. He's trying even to avoid showy muckraking or the formal rules of a realism or naturalism. It's as if he's trying to subtract as much affect as possible from the movie-making or presentation to show the way in which affect is there itself, already, with the minimal contribution by any representation. There are fixed shots with minimal editing, almost no dialog cutting. The movie is almost reduced to just acting, which in a way makes Hong the reverse of Robert Bresson, who draws the acting down to minimalism while still using composition techniques, close-ups, insets, cutting, etc. Hong makes the same movie over and over, so this version meditation works that way, too. He stays very close to home, himself. (My favorite and still I think the best is "The Day He Arrives," but each one also casts back over all the others, re-collates.) A good deal of his movies have this autobiographical character of the director dealing with the kind embarrassing banality of conceit, shame, reputation and, well, embarrassment, never feeling adequate to what others make of him, which comes from what he makes of others, including himself, in his movies. Can these two meet? Even that question is being played out. Hong's brilliant stroke is what he does not comment in the larger way with the frame. When the same "story" is repeated, but then takes a different path, we see all the play between the versions, what might have been left out of one or the other, and then whether either is truth or fiction, or nothing but the director's own imagination, etc. In one scene where a lecture host prompts an outburst from the movie director character, there is suddenly another cast to this, an overbearing sense of unmediated truth that seems the opposite of even the perception or keenness involved to make the movie. Does this separate the character, or is it an awareness of a streak in himself? Does it make a division external or internal? Doubtless there are plenty who would be bored by this, but as the "characters" here say of themselves, there are the types who don't get bored and find that the endless alleys and curves and tangles of relation and recounting go on in life "itself," not just in wild stories -- or perhaps the way to put it is, life already is a wild story. [5/6/17]
Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 (2017). Credits. Marvel really has the act down, crowd pleasing, having cake and eating it too. With the tongue in cheek reflexive bit, they're to be CG blockbuster and hipper at the same time. For the better, the slickness is more fun than the original because the silly origin story mechanics are out of the way. (Well, sort of.) It's more of the superhero parody commenting out or aside, reframing like the opening credit sequence, and it actually makes the pure wish-fulfilment power stuff a lot easier to take when it's just this song and dance. While Antman was already taking this quality from the other movies -- Ironman's Tony Stark was a pretty think slice of it -- and making it a major key, Deadpool was the most blatant play for it. "Guardians", especially here, is more supple about it -- if it makes any sense to use such a term where everything is demonstrativity, hyperbole -- because it's not quite so cheeky and smug about it's
tailoring. Or at least they just play it better. Chris Pratt, for example, is much more relaxed than the Ryan Reynolds act which is now taken everywhere with him (cf. "Life"). It also works as or acts like a spoof of "The Fast and the Furious" -- there's the Vin Diesel connection and Dave Bautista, who's at least a more interesting actor than Diesel or The Rock, as Drax is more clever as misfit machismo identification and comment -- but it certainly gets fast and furious with the families stuff, which means bogging down with it, too many epilogues and too much wringing it at the end. Marvel completely panders with closing credit easter eggs now, and the audiences stay on lappting it up. Despite some more interesting strokes and uses of CG, the movie doesn't really get out of the problem of the CG overload look. Not that proponents want it to. As several trailers -- Valerian, the latest Transformers heap, mess, orgy, splatter -- before the film demonstrate, it's part of the colossal gloss. Kurt Russell has his juiciest part in a long time. The use of effects here for a young Russell are almost frighteningly good, as opposed to the just bad CG Peter Cushing of "Rogue One" or the by now run-of-the-mill over-the-top stuff at the end, like Russell melting and distingrating and re-integrating and being all manner of elements, etc. Although I have no idea how intentional, there's an allegory for Trump here, or at least for sheer narcissism or ego-centricity. There's nothing subtle about it, a show-off for effects, and it falls into predictable, boring all-powerful supervillain who nonetheless can't win plot, but it's interesting in the context of other things we're seeing in pop now, "Fury Road," the tone especially with the ending of "Rogue One," "Logan," and it's that expression of the scheme: do you reduce everything to the self, or expand the self with everything. [5/4/17]
The Fate of the Furious (2017). Credits. Cuba is a really hip place, the classic American cars and the butt cheeks. And a Cuban mile is really long. It's even cooler to make the Bond-like change of locations more conspicuous by having the place name set giant in the landscape. They kept asking what does Cipher want, when everyone knows she wants world domination. Super hackers can just type really fast, which is how and why it takes just a few seconds for them to crack anything in the world. There is no security. But since the super hacker smart Cipher is a strategic genius, she also knows that the best way to infiltrate anywhere is to send in one guy in a really fast car. Everyone has their own really fast car. The "team" simply lands their really fast cars wherever they are attacking -- New York City, Siberia -- and then drive the cars really fast, instead of just landing right on the target. When you want to go really fast, you press the turbo boost button, then after that you press the extra boost button, then the extra extra boost button, and so on. Always have another boost button or switch or cleverly rigged option, like using a Coca-Cola can to make your engine heat up like a steel mill and then blow up. That car must have 2,000 horsepower. No 3,000. More like 5,000. They really said that. The scintillating dialogue. You could just hear the teen boy gears turning when they were thinking this up. "And then the car flips over!" "Yeah!" "Ew, stud!" [4/25/17]
King Kong (2005). Credits. King Kong inflated. Big, dumb, overwrought, sometimes looking like The Fellowship of the Rings: Skull Island, this is everything bad about reboot and CG trumping and if that is homage, then about homage too. At more than three hours, it even destroys that charm of the original, and the very fact Peter Jackson doesn't update the tale makes it almost worse. Trying to inject the 30s with modern blockbuster steroids is no better than trying to outbid Jurassic Park, which is essentially what this does. The first dinosaur attack is a dopey dance of narrow misses under foot, a bad view of the bad parade balloon CG look, stretched out way too long, and then that is carried to even more absurd degree with a stupid chase of brachiosaurs down a colossal self-perpetuating roller coaster ravine with raptor-like predators and humans under foot. This is trying to top "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and the Tyrannosausus car chase scene in Jurassic Park at once. And trumping up even more movie lore, there's a famous cutting room floor sequence from the 1930s King Kong, where after the men are tossed off the tree bridge and hit the floor of the ravine below, they are eaten by giant spiders. This caused such a reaction at the first screening of the movie it was removed, never to be seen in release again. This becomes hyperbolic one-upmanship, a Jackson gross-out fest. He gets the place crawling with so many oversized bugs and worms the rescue becomes ludicrous. And then for his big match-up, Kong fights not one T-Rex, not two, but three. The conceit of this is below juvenile. It's playground. Every ravine has to be hyperbolically deeper, every fight and chase has to involve an absurd choreography of impossible elements and conditions, and of course what this always does to the effect on whole is make it silly, bouncy, cartoonish, the exact opposite of what it's trying to do. It's effect inflation. [3/11/17]
The Bad Seed (1956). Credits. I don't know if Maxwell Anderson's play is like this, but this screenplay by John Lee Mahin is a model of so many bad, annoying, embarrassing things about playwriting, which is why it makes an even worse movie. It's staged parlor talk. There's one scene where they turn on a radio just in time for it to provide not only the primary action of the plot, reported, but the man reading the news flash also provides very careful exposition of all the clues, laying them all out for the conclusion we're supposed to draw, which somehow isn't obvious to anyone in the play, er, movie. That's dragged out insufferably when the school teacher and the poor victim's mother come as stage entrance contrivances to the house of the bad girl to pitch monologues at her mother. This declamation between the mother and school teacher is layers and layers of sheen, 50s politesse and indirection and formality, the "real" conversation as conveyed through writing that is itself like that, all taking so ridiculously long for them to get to the point of actually saying, "Why, you're not suggesting she had anything to do with it," when the whole play has been nothing but the most honking "suggestion," and besides we knew she did it from the damned title! And then comes the showboat scene of the grieving drunken mother whose husband was kind enough to drive her to her contrived entrance and then protest for her not to make a spectacle of herself. Everyone who enters is designed to explain the concept for you. They might as well come in and say, "Hello, ladies and gentlemen, I'm hear to explain the next bit." So if you're teaching a class or just want an example of the difference between telling and showing, between exposition and dramatizing, even in just dialogue, this is it. If you can bear it. [3/11/17]
Rogue One (2016). Credits.
Logan (2017). Credits.
The rebellion strikes back. The family and fantasy era grows up.
In 1977 when Star Wars was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, Jane Fonda made a backhanded remark about how four of the five nominees were serious
movies. Jane Fonda's path would actually be quite similar to Star Wars, George Lucas's -- enterprising, opportunistic, sellout, suckup, or just plain sucking, depending on your stance -- just nowhere near the same level, unless you count marrying into it. What was serious in movies in the 70s, a period roughly between 1966 and 1977, is what got quickly displaced by the blockbuster ("Jaws" started it) and the family values of the Reagan era, in large part a backlash to much of the grown-up sensibility of
that movie period (which was the exception to prestige pictures in all Academy history). The whole ethos of America has been ratcheted down to that of a pre-teen boy and the movies have played a huge role in this, although they have also suffered by the same sword of pandering, not just artistically, but even by the bottom line standard they helped install.
Computer technology, in a kind of diffuse way, has displaced movies, though also ensured their survival. This aiming low, in more than one sense, has so thoroughly saturated all culture by way of the movies, that everything is part of the Empire (see my comments about Lucas's second trilogy, especially Revenge of the Sith). Everything must contend with this sellout principle and mostly everyone went to the dark side: Lucas, Fonda herself. When aiming low is the height of your civilization, then even the leaders can be stupid, the demonstration of which we're paying for in spades now. The sinking tide lowers all boats. To quote perhaps the patron saint of all this via the movies, Forrest
Gump, stupid is as stupid does. He was righter than they knew.
Although there have been ways that this blockbustering, pulping, kiddy pandering has tried to be more grown-up -- which mostly means badass -- and there have been things like "The Watchmen" that have tried to enter some critical reflection of the pop, and the apocalypse is such a cliche of all this fare, there is a new way in which this pop is now getting grown up. Mad Max: Fury Road was the most striking case, but now we have the latest entry in the Star Wars franchise, that is supposed to be officially outside the main sequence, and the latest X-Men / Wolverine entry, "Logan".
Rogue One is by far the least kiddy of the Star Wars movies, the really bad turn of that started in "Return of the Jedi" (cf. Ewoks) and continued in the latest entry of the main line, The Force Awakens. Director Gareth Edwards is clever enough to know that tone and style can do better by a sort of minor key move. The whole series needs a kind clearing of the palet, and the way this shifts away from all too iconic characters to a group that's in the wings (in more than one way), and not quite so cosmically chosen and fated, also works to create a kind of collective heroism that makes the rebellion more worthy of its allegory. By the time we realize where this is going, it works within the frame of the Star Wars series to give so much more dimension, somewhat like that amazing moment in "The Seven Samurai" when the Toshiro Mifune character opens up the social depth to the situation and even ambivalence for the samurai. It's not only that we get to see Darth Vader at his most no-nonsense badass -- not even swashbuckling nonsense -- but this tone and dimension have already opened up as relief for it. The stroke itself is enough to make the rather easy Star Wars allegory suddenly sync with the times, the rebellion reverberate with the sense of not only what has been lost in a movie series, and the sinister sense that really hangs over the times. If the tone weren't already, the ending is a surprisingly grown-up move for Star Wars. And as with "Fury Road" this is not just the adolescent posturing "darker" tone of The Dark Knight or the Daniel Craig Bond films.
In the same way, "Logan" presents something much more broken and defeated, a future even beyond the doom of the X-Men, where Wolverine finally feels like the lost cause hero he's supposed to be. Again, pulling everything down a bit, bringing it back to earth from quite the CG fantastic of even the X-Men, seems to make it more in tune with a pessimism not merely for movie
suspense. A kind of super-hero version of disease and decrepitude, with a more morbid emphasis than previously for mutants, both with a character played by Stephen Merchant, and with Patrick Stewart's Dr. Xavier taking on catastrophic proportions, gives a different relief to these powers. The tremors of the latter are more affecting here than the constant stupid cliche of colossal waves of whatever disintegrating cities or planets. The exchange between the decidedly less patient Wolverine and the little girl are given a much more grown-up slant, which again works much better as counterpoint.
It's time for some more salt with those sweets. [3/4/17]
Lincoln (2012). Credits. Daniel Day-Lewis may as well have been a Tyrannosaurus Rex playing Lincoln. Trying to figure out whether his stretched legs and strange gate are mechanical or digital effects is distracting early on and his makeup and then the lighting and "photography" of his face look so much like applied CG, and finally the whole look of the movie, the color of it, the "lighting," look so much like post-production digital treatment that you wonder any more whether it makes sense to give separate Academy Awards for makeup, costume, cinematography and special effects. Why not just call it the look? The script is actually some clever phrasing and couching of the paradoxes of abolition and the Civil War, but so effusive as to be another effect hand-picked by this toybox collector of them,
Stephen Spielberg. The script is delivered most of the time at such ridiculous pace you wonder if he decided most people would be bored but the ones who cared might still give him credit. And then of course the ridiculous Disney-like montage of the lobbying efforts, as if this kind of former chicanery needed to be whipped up that way, and it is a whole other kind of Disney-ism going on here, not only like the Audio-Animatronic presidents, but the sort of currency sensibility of the times. So much of the time it has the feeling of a great clockwork all grinding to one point or tilt. Why is this called "Lincoln" when it's really so much about the vote for the end of slavery? Day-Lewis's very well wrought performance almost contrasts with all this the way Lincoln's character is supposed to. [2/26/17]
Doctor Strange (2016). Credits. It looks like it will be another CG orgy with colossal scale, then settles down into something more interesting. It takes a turn, like vampire movies, into propaganda for the superstitious or mystical, the reversal of "open mind" and science and physics that has really always been the derivative basis of that. In case you don't get it, science is the real magic, power, judo move of letting everything be and getting into "being," etc. Please notice where the thunderbolts really are and what they mean in the world. The magic falls back to cool stud CG and martial arts choreography crap. [1/26/17]
The Goddess of 1967 (2000). Credits. Clara Law is a really good director, maybe a great one, if not de facto from her career. This movie affirms how, fills it out, from her 1992 "Autumn Moon," which has the main obvious similarity of the detached, perhaps even deracinated Japanese bachelor visiting another country and becoming a catalyst for a native's experience. What's great is her composition, which is not merely decorous but evocative. It's both graphic and dramatic, a sense of context. This is what makes the ability of directors so intangible sometimes, because it can't be located as any one thing, and it's often a matter of what is not there, the choices not made, what has been avoided, as well as what is implied or suggested. Like a conductor. The framing uses context as what's in it, but also what is outside the frame, and sometimes this is more specific and obvious, sometimes more generalized and indirect. The best examples here are the dance scene and the sex scene, but throughout there are so many touches, such as an opening sequence's montage style, very cleverly skimming and cutting, and in single shots, like one that shows an accident from overhead but then includes a passing monorail. Despite obvious influences of Tarantino -- the very intentionally artificial rear projection (since there is also focus on the car that is the object of the movie's title), the Ventures -- the dance scene has its own expression of spontaneous joy, its own pallet. But the sex scene is what really shows the principle for even the rest. There's a necessary impossibility with sex scenes in that presenting those involved is not the same as being involved, being immersed in that relay of perception from one side of it. It makes us more consciously voyeurs than empathetically involved. No matter how romantic you try to make the scene, or how idealized you try to as a viewer, you are negotiating this relay (which is not to say there isn't something of this relay always involved in sex, too -- a different discussion). Law shoots this scene from angles that are not just more discreet or flattering, but that include more of the scene. The room they're in has a big window with blinds. The tone of the light, sort of dusky or overcast, emphasizes this atmosphere of the surroundings, which is also such a strong part of sexual or amorous moments. And the line of action, here, too, goes from working through hesitations, starts and stops, an attempt, to the way that turns into something not as planned, catching them both up in the movement together. Like the car itself, the whole movie is shot with beautiful contrast of dark and light as well as color, thanks to Law and her cinematographer's sense of this. But this is all in spite of the much more ambitious breadth, here, for the script by Law and husband Eddie Ling-Ching Fong. The sheer length of it makes it strain even more as incongruity between quirky Australian comedy and the sort of graspy, gut-feeling symbolism of the "The Piano," not to mention where shotgun killings, impromptu car chases and guns, and incest instituted across generations fall in this. "Autumn Moon" was much more clever and knowing even in its frankness for not trying to be so epic. And the car: this is possibly the greatest movie love letter to the Citroen, including scenes that might as well be a commercial, complete with a Roland Barthes quote. [12/24/16]
Yentl (1983). Credits. The real drag here is the old world Jewish, so that when Barbara Streisand puts on clothes to pass as a boy, that's passing off for the way the movie is passing her off as traditional and a scholar. As Pauline Kael points out, Streisand uses montage to make something else interesting of a musical. It's internal monologue. She's the only one who sings, and this if nothing else bucks the "Fiddler on the Roof" airs. (That movie had some great, even significant cinematography; this one starts out looking terrible, like miserly TV production, but then gets more into that look too.) While there's great business from this about relaying the gender roles, and even for Streisand to play out, writer, director, actor and singer, and that does start to poke through the stagey, if movie version, period piece sheen, this stays right in movie tradition of montaging intellectual activity, alluding to it, holding it off at arm's length, which is both a mystification and short shrift. There are some clever jokes, as when Streisand and her buddy/lover are asked if they are agreeing or disagreeing, and they each say a different one. But that's the extent. We don't know what they were actually discussing. We don't see the meat of this desire for learning, what Yentl has been fortunate enough to partake of, and even more through her ruse. The farcical turns are played so seriously that it makes the coy stringing along more tedious. I wanted to shout, have a ménage à trois already! And this makes the ambivalence of the ending fall more heavily on the portrait itself, rather than just what it's portraying, the ultimate sexism of even a spiritual partner, and that this desire for learning cannot a wife make. Yentl's acceptance of this is also perhaps too good natured, towards the man, but she doesn't acquiesce. She strikes off on her own on a ship to America and apparently her musical career, as this last scene, complete with sweeping aerial shots, is a complete brassy, belting Streisand number. [11/26/16]
Ragtime (1981). Credits. "Ragtime" is an appealing ambitious bust. And also bustle. It's sprawling and farcical, sociologically giddy and bracing at once, the Keystone cops through hindsight lens. Milos Foreman is giving something like his "Firemen's Ball", but in his style it's more like an Altman movie and the risks of that. The spread of the movie is of too many strands that seem like they're going to tie together, but don't really, so they're like dead ends or wrong turns, especially the way the drama then falls to Coalhouse Walker Jr. and the incident with his car. It might have all been the backdrop out of which this emerged, the relief, showing this society and what could emerge that was otherwise a part of the fabric, but there is the feeling that this is indeed fabric, but cut out of something larger, as if a lot more material was edited down and pieces or connections are missing. If this had been a mini-series or like the kind of cable series we have now, it might have had the time for all this, as well as to make one of its principals more of a star in movies, too. Howard E. Rollins Jr. does a fine job, even great in places, but this didn't serve to change his course from mostly TV to major movie roles. [11/25/16]
Sausage Party (2016). Credits. Maybe it's a double trick, one trick passed for another, but then the first one is right there with the title and that joke is played out almost right off. The obvious guffaw snicker is one kind of joke to play on the pixel movies ostensibly for children. But even the fun of the low humor double entendre gives way to something much more clever, and that's a muck-up of the anthropomorphism of the pixel animation movies. Just as time travel movies have all kinds of implication and conundrums they conveniently leave alone, personification -- animation itself in a larger sense -- presents problems never really dealt with. That is really the joke of this movie. The food in the grocery store sets this off immediately on bursting into song, the musical number that spells out their enchanted personified vision of the world, where they will be chosen for the great beyond of the store. The characterization of anything that is disillusionment is where the real adult punch comes in, far more than the naughty wiener and bun, or pot jokes. Seth Rogen, James Franco and company seem to be including themselves as objects of parody here, another way to hook and punk their audience. And there's a setup for even another turn of cleverness. Even though the meta-level is a dose of real grown-up not suspending disbelief, this still creates suspense: how will the plot resolve itself? The grand disillusionment, the food holocaust? A similar turn to the happy ending when all the food turns? Or a melodramatic happy ending that's now been made utterly ridiculous? [11/11/16]
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016). Credits. In this year of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War, it's clear the effect X-Men has had on all superhero movies, even those upstaging them. In the 80s, the X-Men were the mainstream comic that had the best appeal to the new wave of indie comics, and Marvel exploited this more conscientiously with things like The New Mutants (Bill Sienkiewicz's art). And "mutant" was the key. All superheros live in ambivalent space in their worlds. Even if we know they are the good guys and pure wish fulfillment, they are also vigilantes, existential anti-heroes, myths -- demigods (in one case an actual god of myth, Marvel's Thor, to make the connection explicit). Batman dealt in this symbolic fudging and swapping and Superman was an illegal alien from another planet. But they were heroes, and their superpowers were used for good, to protect from other super powers, and they acted out the simple wishes for us to exceed our limitations, to be capable, able, to have the power to. Marvel came along with the idea to call this mutant. And the appeal was then shifted: now the empathy, identification, was more explicitly for prodigies, misfits, freaks, rebels, mavericks, the greater ambivalence of the exceptional. When the X-Men movie came out in 2000, the tone for superhero movies after was set. Now The Avengers are threatened with legal control, just as the X-Men were that first movie. In the DC universe, they're doing the same to Batman, Superman, and now using the term "metahumans."
The X-Men have some more clever mechanics built into their conception, and the movies have set the standard for this, using the script to build circumstance from which all the effects follow, and the way all the various powers shift axes, divide, interplay, and here again, after a fall into more standard cram-it-in, hyperbolic fare with the last entry, the X-Men have more interesting convolutions, if not depth, than those other big superhero internecine events this year. The movies are going through a phase that comics have gone through many times over, having to top levels of, well, apocalypse with each installment. This movie certainly has its share of that kind of cliche hyperbole, along with the concern for origins that has become so de rigueur and thus annoyingly tiresome. (See "Batman v. Superman" and more on that in a minute.) But even though Egyptian gods are sought as the origin of all mutants, what really only goes back to the 1960s and 70s' Chariots of the Gods, the usual X-Men ambivalence is given that extra dimension, and besides that Oscar Isaac is the actor who lends his extraordinary powers to the all-everything mutant. Isaac has such bearing for everything he does, without being demonstrative, whether it's as truly complex as "Inside Llewyn Davis" or " Show Me a Hero", or as melodramatically serious as "Star Wars" or this. His appeal to the mutants to stop being human, all too human, and take back over the world, outbidding Magneto's bid for that (which came earlier in the movies but later in the stories' chronology) is at least interesting here in the way the villainy is all about the appeal of power.
What this revamping -- if not "rebooting," and the speciousness of this term is pertinent to the speciousness of all this -- of Egyptian myth makes more apparent is the interarticulation of myth itself with the modern day cycles of these comic book tale structures. This is where origin tales come in. Just as with iteration in myth, where basic parts of the structure are repeated, but many elements or details are changed, varied, due to oral tradition, memory, embellishment, tailoring and pandering, we see these comic book stories redone every few years, now even in new movie cycles. Hindu mythology, for example, is an accumulation of many earlier traditions and myths, Vedic and pre-Vedic, where even the consequences of this accumulation can take their place in the myth themselves: cf. Aditi and Daksa, who are both creator gods, possibly each from a different strand, hypothetically even a matriarchal cosmology replaced by a patriarchal one, and now fixed in the supernatural conundrum of each creating the other. In the same way, each of the two big comics companies, DC and Marvel, has bought up many smaller labels over the years, incorporated those characters, and then rewritten the continuity of its cosmos (as if that were necessary). The mad spiral of economic self-consciousness of this, to enhance the saleable event-ness of issues an d series, leading to mini-series and constant "reboots" to make new number one issues, to the point of canceling out the effect, is interesting cross-articulation with that transformation of myths: to see even Greek mythology in light of this as much as vice versa. [9/10/16]
Love and Friendship (2016). Credits. Based on a novella written by a very young Jane Austen, this has the advantage over many costume dramas, especially of those periods, the 18th and 19th centuries, drawing room pieces, of being a quick stroke of a feature film too. The manipulations and gyrations in gossip and letters of a widowed woman for herself and her daughter are given in a clean take-down, one, two, three. There is some jaunty posturing with its own style of portrait introductions and a closing credit sequences. Most interesting about the look of it is photography that allows incidental light, giving space to the rooms, cutting through the lush patina effect of a lot of big costume movie productions. Despite that, and the costumes and sets, the way it's directed it's so atwitter you can barely keep up. It's a whirlwind of dialog, with very little variance in pace to allow characterization in other ways. The one character who does break this pace is overworked quickly, a kind of 1790s version of David Brent. [9/10/16]
Happy End (1967). Credits. As "Anomalisa" was able to give frank depiction of sex, and even other banalities, with stop-motion puppets, this 1967 Czech film has perhaps the bonus of demonstrating how dismememberment can be tolerable if not funny. Of course this is a film process fake dismemberment, at least of a human, but just like the slaughtering of a real cow and things like eating, it has a whole other fascinsation when presented backwards. This may be the definitive use of reverse for an entire feature film, and it's a pretty straight shot plumbing the gags both for scene and plot. The dialog is delivered forwards per statement or sentence, but those in reverse order, perhaps the most interesting technical feat of the film, and this exploited for humor repeatedly, where a comment appears to follow another and then you get the next one to understand what it really would come after. Example: at the wedding, the priest says "Do you take this woman," then the groom says, "Not at all," but next the priest says, "Are you uncomfortable?" In certain moments, the dialogue is allowed to run backwards too, verbatim, to signify blah blah blah: boring speeches. There's a particular fascination with eating in reverse, the way food is fabricated out of the mouth, and this leads to the most absurdly silly funny scene of the movie, when the clandestine couple eat a plate full of tea cookies. We've already seen their interrupted love-making, so that it has the sense of their being ravenous afterwards, but we also know this really precedes the act, and see their cheeks fill up as soon as they spit out a cookie, over and over, and how many stack up on the plate. Voiceover narration delivers the further throughline to all this, framing it by saying how all love stories begin and end the same way. This one does not, we are told, by the man who sews what he reaps, and he begins with his birth at the guillotine. The whole thing is posed as a fancy, a device, an artifice, and has that air throughout. In this way, that sort of straightforward inventive jaunt, it's one of the best of this whole period of Czech movies spanning the 60s and 70s that began with the new wave and played with the art in all kinds of ways. (See Tomorrow I'll Wake up and Scald Myself with Tea.) [9/4/16]
Sunset Song (2015). Credits. If you want an antidote to the clamorous style of predominate movie fare, Terrence Davies usually provides it, and especially so here. Like Tarkovsky in some respects, Davies shows how it doesn't have to be fast to emphasize the moving in the picture, and Davies is better than Tarkovsky in many ways at the other sense of moving. In this film, there are also dissolves that transfer other senses while also giving a sense of time, of longer duration, and then other apparently transition sequences that are even more significant dramatically, not merely picturesque. Davies doesn't just show pretty pictures or, even more so here than in for example House of Mirth, scenery. Even the reserve with close-ups falls into this integration. There's a sequence here with the sky, a hymn, a group of people, the wheat, a road: it's a dramatic beat of its own for music, image, setting. There's something anachronistic about it, suggesting an earlier era, maybe Dovzhenko or even musicals of the 30s or 40s, but it also doesn't belong to those pasts, either. As patient and unassuming as Davies can be, though, that can become posey in its own right, as with the theatrical performance art piece that was "Distant Voices, Still Lives", and there are moments here that are more strained for acting and dramaturgy. The arc of the story, which is that of a long, if not epic novel, gives a biopic feel that may lend to that, hard to defeat despite Davies' touch and sense of movement and duration. [9/3/16]
Oleanna (1994). Credits. "Oleanna" is articulate and cleverly devised in a certain respect. It sets up the willingness of the professor character to break through the ceremony of education to explain the terms of, perhaps not only education, but even communication. The professor even sees already how the perception of roles and status are getting in the way of what's being said -- even about that. But he doesn't see just what the student's naivete and resistance really consist of, just what the, or how much of a, stance or position there really is. David Mamet's play and even the movie came at a crucial time, just when "PC" was taking hold in this way in universities, and it does frame the problem in an astute way, keen to what happened before in the 60s as well as in a different way in the 80s and 90s. Not just students on the barricades in 68, or women at Yale reacting to a French language program in 1990, but any student of any teacher, any parent of any child, or anyone in a position to receive information from another, can turn this into an absolute demand on the terms of the relationship. This tyranny of ignorance is demonstrated in microcosm here when the student doesn't know what the word "paradigm" means. The professor says it means "model," and she retorts, "then why don't you say that?" The reduction, provincialism, homoiosis, prejudice, is the student's, justified by whatever prejudice imputed to the professor: elitism, classism, sexism. The broadest reach of this, that can be even more depressing, is the tragedy of the double blind of communication: miscommunication and misapprehension are operative, unavoidable, but that can be used as the ego, born of defenses, reflexively or actively, to make even more of a trap, a zero sum game. But Mamet in his way forces the issue. It's a sort of well-made play version of melodrama or suspense, the yarn spun or stretched to draw out the drama just so, and even if it's a theatrical version, and somewhat high minded at that, there's still the cost to framing this matter and this discussion this way. Of all Mamet's work, this shows up most the problem with his dialog. It's not even so much a problem for Mamet the writer as Mamet the director. His writing is paying attention to false starts, checks, interruptions, repetitions for various reasons, but he directs the actors to deliver these with such theatrical formality, such enunciation and diction, it clashes. In movies this is even worse. Even his wiseguy characters in movies like "Things Change" and "House of Games" come off sounding awkward. He's got great actors like Joe Mantegna and here William H. Macy who can even manage to minimize this, but it's still the way, specifically, Mamet directs the delivery. The timing, the cadence, is so artificial it makes me wonder about some other intention, perhaps a Brechtian distancing tactic. Mamet's understanding of Chekov, however, in a preface to his own translation, does not give me confidence in his desire or ability with such a tactic. (I won't take up the doctrinal battle of Stanislavsky v. Chekov, psychologistic reduction in the theatre directly counter to the observation and thrust of perhaps the greatest realist work The Cherry Orchard, and Mamet's place for this in American theatre, not to mention Mamet's finally making this more express as a conservative political stance.) For this situation, where a professor might use language or at least vocabulary that's not so colloquial, but has this called to attention by the student, and where the professor even recognizes and makes explicit that education can be a ceremony, even a ritual of deference or esteem, and sees the necessity to break through that, it becomes more difficult to accept the well-written or carefully crafted or even crafty manner of the script itself. By the third act, where we see the professor strained and pressed, it's hard to believe he has not been more frank, that there hasn't been more frank manner, expression, language from either of them, until the planned breaking point. [9/2/16]
Batman v. Superman v. Captain America v. Iron Man
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). Credits.
Captain America: Civil War (2016). Credits.
"Captain America: Civil War" is really an Avengers movie, but it's put under the title of the Captain America "franchise" or series. Or whatever this entity is. "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice" (how much title to do you need) is really the beginning of the Justice League. So what's next? Giving the movies issue numbers? Or is that the same as sequel numbers like Iron Man? Because now the superhero movies are playing the comics game, spreading all the threads around to tie everything up, and tie you into it, as if they didn't already have a vast obliging audience that's like a super-huge colossal cocaine addict boss (like the giant adenoid in Gravity's Rainbow) absorbing all the powers of entertainment so that nothing can slake it's thirst anymore, and the superhero fare is being drained of all its powers of holding attention for longer than opening weekend. Of course it's fun to see strife among the gods, wonder what would happen if this hero fought that hero, what should result from one imaginary power pitted against another, and there's even more to be gleaned from dealing with all this as figure and the division of power, but when it gets heavy-handed it's superhero worship, and the obligatory selling even of the fun becomes something ceremonious, if not religious. Bread and circuses. "Captain America: Civil War" shows how Marvel is leaner and lighter, more agile at all this, even the melodramatic seriousness, compared to DC's "Dark Knight" conceit, which Superman now carries the mantle of as well as Batman. On that score, by the way, Captain America is useful and significant in two ways: he's the old-fashioned superhero, and World War II moral scheme, "literally" (in terms of the plot) brought into the modern world to contrast the modern complications (mainly with arms dealer Tony Stark who was already like Bruce Wayne building a super suit of armor), and he also provides the exception to how all this tainting and complexity have become such a cliche, Alan Moore's "Watchmen" notwithstanding. That is another source for it, an innovation now made currency, like the real "Dark Knight" of Frank Miller, which this "Batman v. Superman" borrows it's central idea from, but is no more like in essential ways than the "Dark Knight" movie trilogy "reboot." The first Captain America movie offered some relief, against the grain of these modern CG assembly line movies, to see a goodie-good guy hero, and even to see him go on a winning streak. Of course, as with Moore's vision of all this, things are not moralistically simple, either for World War II or any era, and a superhero would not just experience this complexity, but cause it. Now, the "Captain America" title carries the load (it was "The First Avenger" to begin with), all this tie-in, pile-it-on free-for-all. Here the entire plot is built of jags. The ridiculous extent of this, however, is "Batman v. Superman" where -- not just origin rehash, and another superhero, and three other superheros, and a famous villain and another run-of-the-mill superbogey that surpasses all power until it is defeated, none of them with even fight card billing, and the fight with the senate, and relationships with co-workers, butlers, editors, mothers and dead fathers -- a whole setting, adventure and fight sequence pop out of nowhere and it's a DREAM Batman is having! And why must all these movies go over the damned origin stuff? The scene in B v. S with the bats in the well is the perfect example of these terms of outbidding. No matter how appealing this is as the structure of the myth, we -- filmmakers and audience -- can't trust the ability of the dream, image or symbol itself to make an impression. You couldn't just see a bat and get the idea? [5/26/16, 8/31/16]
Soylent Green (1973). Credits.
Tron (1982). Credits.
Days of future past. What's interesting about seeing these movies now is certainly the parallax of pertinence, the anachronisms in all sorts of directions because these are movies projecting: technology, and into the future more or less. But in some ways it's not so much the contrast of what they got wrong and what they got right. It's the way that what they got wrong is right. The 70s' "Soylent Green" is as famous for the 90s Phil Hartman relay of the icon of Charlton Heston through parody as anything else. Looking backwards from now -- it's the 2022 of 1973 -- it's a fairly effective -- bracing -- view of where we are. What it got right was the overpopulation and climate change, referred to then as the greenhouse effect. What it fell into by a funny double turn is retro late 60s, early 70s style, particularly the thicker parts in the penthouse pad decor and the "furniture," a term also used in the movie to refer pejoratively to women who come with the pad. The gift the aging Joseph Cotton makes his "furniture" is also humorous as a double projection on throwback: the white, curvy, bulby 70s space age style casing of a video game, which looks like Space Invaders, so only about 5 years into the future, but for the fact those arcade games are a part of the computer and nerd retro of now. Elsewhere you see an old tube TV set, but that's not even available as used or discarded goods anymore.
That also makes this movie's projection about up to "Tron," but one other point before we get there is the way "Soylent Green" achieves its point in terms of Heston. The movie makes much of all the things that are lost in this dystopia, something more shrewdly dramatic, at least for the script, for evocation of the past as much for the future. As Walter Benjamin suggests, better to instruct in remembrance than fall prey to soothsayers. (His "Theses on the Philosophy of History," or "On the Concept of History," in toto is just such a meditation on history as this refraction of the future through the past.) Having Heston constantly refer to these scarce pleasures, and quickly and easily defer to them with his privilege as a cop, humanizes him in perhaps a surprising way. To see that head on high, as Gore Vidal put it in "The Celluloid Closet," of "Ben-Hur" or "The Ten Commandments" here express the pleasure of air conditioning or vegetables and beef or a hot shower makes Heston more mundane than we've seen him, even in "Planet of the Apes" or "The Omega Man." By contrast particularly that latter has Heston as a former colonel living in his fine nest as the gentry of the apocalypse. What gives Vidal's tale such punch is precisely that stature undermined by covert desire, played at Heston's expense. Here, it's like seeing him come out just for some liquor or strawberry jam.
"Tron" is now interesting -- maybe even more than it was then -- as a prototype of the idea of the avatar in computer technology, not just preceding the movie "Avatar", but the more general idea. What's interesting is that they imagined it more specifically as being inside the computer, more in the circuitry or the data itself than in the "cyberspace" of its representation. The fantasy, already in 1982, was to be a programmer, and then to be projected, not just into a video game, but into its programming. This of course still resulted in something expressed as human characters and action, specifically video game like action, and all of that in the melodramatic trumping up of movie plots. So what we get is really computer programs personified, but also behaving as the same kind of action that would be their output. This was under the auspices of Disney, which at that time was making its move to generalize, diversify, sophisticate, away from strictly children's fare. The result here is something well in line with American movies themselves as technocratic: technically sophisticated and really flat-footed. The allegory is bad, the set-up, framing is clunky. Why even bother with that, a silly explication scene in Jeff Bridges, the pirate programmer's cool arcade pad? Why not leave it to be figured out -- leave it to figure -- what's going on, program or user?
The one way this all comes off is the look, the art design, which is even matched well between the computer world and the regular live action. Helicopters and buildings trimmed in red light in the dark echo the imaginary world of the movie effects. The programmer's infinite screen or amorphous space, with the grids giving to line graphics, a mathematically begot topos, and the black and white photography for the humans provides something inadvertently constructivist, or with an anachronistic resonance like the "somewhere in the 20th century" of "Brazil". "Tron" already looked like something else then, which is perhaps why now it doesn't suffer from just looking like passe computer stuff, despite the fact it also benefits from that retro. The actors have a matted, posterish look and echo-y sound, against the more cartoonish but sparse lines, which gives them a distance, something emblematic but more uncanny, and this works against the much more banal effect of the movie cliche plot. The irony of coming from this future to that past is the way that every character in a movie now can be computer generated, but this saturation of computer graphics has also lost the charm of even that representation. Art, at least devising, is also limit, subtraction, not just sheer excess. More notable is the whole rebel v. empire populism being played out in terms of open source v. closed box. Here's Disney, already an empire, selling the new personal computer rebel myth, all the users fighting the overlord, while Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were already leading the way to develop precisely Master Control Program operating systems, expanding far beyond their boxes today, the most legitimate protection racket. Pop culture means always buying it. Don't be evil. Soylent green is people! [8/20/16]
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). Credits. In the Japanese version of the film (available outside Japan on video) there's a scene where the minister of the imperial household is leading the head of the navy to a meeting with the emperor, and tells him this is an empty ceremony, a formal briefing of the navy's readiness for war, decided by the prime minister and cabinet, between two men who were opposed to it. We see the navy commander in chief, Admiral Yamamoto, and then the facing, empty throne. Emperor Hirohito, like President Roosevelt, is one of the historical personages given deference by not being portrayed in the person of an actor. This scene affects a drama of indirection, implication and dramatization of historical comment perhaps better than any in the movie, but it emphasizes what the ceremony of this movie is and unfortunately how it does't do it very well most of the time. Actors are portraying the events and actions of people in past moments as if they were happening, but they are saying things that are historical comment. Even something that was supposedly said at some particular meeting is involved in the complication of citation, varying memories, sources, the matter of confirmation. Of course lots of things do this, and in fact it's what much of Shakespeare is. But this movie makes us more aware of the problem because it's less artistic license or even just artistry and more a kind of historical novelist technical standard, as if that were something between drama and dramatization, or Shakespeare (the history plays or tragedies anyway) and documentary, often sacrificing the merits of either. A Japanese-American co-production, and in fact made like two films put together, the Japanese parts are better and more interesting, even for the intrigue about whether they should attack the U.S., in the larger context of whether they should attack or ally with European powers. The fact they're also in Japanese, with subtitles, helps in not reducing to pat teleology of the victors or the Americans, and in fact, even the foreshadowing of that with a famous saying attributed to Yamamoto adds to the movie's reverse sense of Japanese victory the precarious or at least provisional sense of any situation. [8/13/16]
What are they?
Monsters (2010). Credits.
Alien familiar, familiar alien. Two movies demonstrate two opposite paths, or at least takes in monsters or sci-fi. "Monsters" tries to be more evocative in effect by creating a more realistic or mundane environment to situate the monsters, from which they can occur more incidentally. Of course the situation itself is not so mundane, at least not for snug Americans. It's that of a war zone. Across the top of Mexico, on the U.S. border, is an in infected zone, where alien creatures brought back by a failed space mission are lurking. As if the allegorical suggestions aren't enough, with Juarez and its gang killings, or any of the other civil or ethnic or warlord situations in the world, there's also a giant wall the U.S. has constructed along its border, across the river, to keep the large monsters out. (They're more like dinosaur size, not Godzilla.) Strangely prophetic of Donald Trump? Another way to suggest how outrageous his proposition, or did he see this movie? Is he like Ronald Reagan too? This is more in the vein of "Cloverdale" though its characterization, more that of an indie road romance, is not of such bad characters, nor quite so annoyingly "real" with the extent of handheld or camera phone. "Pandorum" on the other hand is giving Event Horizon a run for the money, in the category of strange hybrid. This is zombies in space, although the cannibal creatures here are high-speed to be more like the alien variation in "Alien 3". Like Event Horizon, this is steroid pop, trying to be cult, so balls out and frenetic and constantly throwing new twists and at that pace and in that manner also pitching it's high-minded sci-fi concept stuff, which nonetheless is still pretty schlocky. "Pandorum" is a made-up word, perhaps a mash of "pandora" and "pandemonium". [7/30/16]
Sleeping with Other People (2015). Credits.
An opportunity to deal with an interesting complication is at first just too clever, then turns out quite a smug "romcom" -- lots of critics blurbed on Metacritic use the term -- and actually tilted badly toward the male in all kinds of ways, so that if it's not sexist, it sure would have a hard time avoiding being taken for it. It's unregenerate convention dressed up in the modern selfie media shit, including even more outright embracing of cutesy-assed texting scenes, but the guy truly sleeps around whereas the girl's "perversion" is to be hung up on one guy and not understanding what good sex is. The guy -- Jason Sedaikis -- "mansplains" female masturbation to her! Very hard not to see this as some guy writer thinking he's having his cake and eating it too, being sensitive and understanding and talented, but also hip as in shoot from the hip, the presumption that frankness, abruptness, calling out is more truthful than patience or sifting or editing, although even that is really glib passing for genuine. But, oh, wait -- the writer, also the director, is a she. I don't know if the joke about selfie sex in the title is intended, or another way to put it, if this movie is in on the joke about its people. [2/12/16]
All text of film comments ©[year noted in each] Greg Macon