Category Archives: Criticism

Five films: a Spring Break roundup

For the last few years, I have found less and less of the emotional energy I need to concentrate on a proper film, so I don’t watch many movies these days. I’m far more likely to binge TV shows or watch one piecemeal over the course of the week, as time permits. That said, this last week was spring break for me, and these are five films I took the time to watch.

 

John Wick (d. Chad Stahelski, 2014)

For purity of tone and generic convention, this one reminded me of Payback and A Bittersweet Life. As straightforward of an underworld revenge flick as you can get, John Wick relies almost entirely on nailing the atmosphere and cadence of the alternate reality inhabited solely by hitmen, crime bosses, and femme fatales, who seem to spend most of their time partying in neon-hued cellar nightclubs, perpetually renovated old cathedrals, and posh estates in the hills with lots of windows and austere, minimalist decor. Directors like Stahelski and Nicolas Winding Refn seem to be the heirs to Michael Mann, populating their films with who’s-who faces and cleanly-shot scenes of violence. Keanu Reeves is wonderful in this film, channeling his charisma into a subdued smolder for most of the film and explosive, calculated lethality in some really stellar action sequences. The karmic themes are perhaps a bit thin, and the climax feels a bit tacked-on after a sustained, single-minded drive toward one bloody goal, but it’s a great film for fans like me of noir pastiche actioners.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (d. Matthew Vaughn, 2014)

I’d forgotten that Vaughn had directed Kick-Ass until I saw that this was based on a comic written by Mark Millar, who can be incisive and tasteless, but never incisively tasteless or tastelessly incisive (if that makes sense). Among the things that work in this film are Vaughn’s feel for kinetic, deft action sequences and a marvelous eye for production design. Colin Firth is his typical amazing self, and I always like Samuel L. Jackson when he does over-the-top villains. Among the things that don’t work are the structure of Kingsman as an origin story; we’re in Joseph Campbell territory here, so fans of Star Wars and Fellowship of the Ring won’t be terribly surprised (or terribly emotionally moved, I suspect) by a moment in the film’s midpoint that I’m sure Millar thought would be “shocking” or “unconventional.” (Even as he probably thought it was “mythical” or somesuch thing.) Watching Taron Egerton come of age as a superspy is fun, but Egerton doesn’t have Firth’s charisma, though he might get there in ten or fifteen years. Then there’s the fact that the cultural politics of this film are weirdly ambivalent. The aesthetics of a scene where Firth kicks the crud out of some bullies near the beginning of the film are identical to a scene where he massacres a churchful of American bigots. There’s a sense in which each group “gets what’s coming to them” that, to viewers of one stripe, might seem “anarchically subversive.” For viewers of another stripe (and you don’t need to look too closely to see these stripes peeking above my collar), the revelry in this violence (set to “Freebird,” as such things are) seems genuinely gleeful, and therefore genuinely gratuitous. It’s tough not to conjoin the revelry in gratuitous violence with the validation of juvenile androcentrism at the film’s end, when our young hero slays the (metaphorical) dragon, then goes to fuck a princess in the ass. (This is not metaphorical.) So there’s fun to be had with this movie, but it’s a sleazy fun. It dredges all the innuendo and sanitized brutality that lurks barely beneath the surface of of the James Bond franchise, then dives into it headfirst, like a Hustler centerfold doing graceful backstrokes through a wake of chum.

Hotel Transylvania (d. Genndy Tartakovsky, 2012)

Honestly, this movie was delightful. The A-plot was a funny, sweet story about an overprotective father learning to let his little girl grow up and bring a strange boy into the family. The B-story (allow me to read a bit much into the subtext here) is about how a group of bad boy outsiders (literalized here as monsters) grew up to become the establishment. It’s hard not to see the cast of monsters voiced by Adam Sandler, Kevin James, David Spade, and Steve Buscemi (though I’ll admit I’ve no idea who CeeLo Green is) as a metaphor for their place in the Hollywood ecosystem: a group of former enfants terribles who are now among the elder statesmen of popular entertainment. Again, I admit that I’m perhaps reading a bit much into it. At any rate, I laughed a great deal with Hotel Transylvania, and I look forward to seeing the sequels (someday).

The Last Witch Hunter (d. Breck Eisner, 2015)

The best thing about this film was watching Vin Diesel as a relatively chillaxed seeker of vengeance. Playing an immortal can go any number of ways, but the mixture of amiable, aloof, and ruthless Diesel cooked up for Kaulder, the title character, went a long way toward lugging this B-film across the finish line. As a mid-budget tentpole flick, it’s very slick, moderately-paced, perhaps boasting a bit too much grayscale production design for its own good (although I credit Eisner with not shooting the whole thing through those damnable blue/gray/brown color filters that directors seem to have loved so much for the last decade or so), but definitively unambitious. For urban fantasy junkies, this’ll scratch an itch, but it won’t quench your thirst.

The BoxTrolls (d. Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable, 2014)

Laika does pretty amazing things with stop-motion animation; ParaNorman is easily a high point in mainstream use of that technique. BoxTrolls is charming; it tries to balance the truly horrific implications of its cosmos (where genocide, fatal political malpractice, torture, and sadism, are narrative engines, just to name a few lovely aspects) with heartfelt relationships and positive messages about choosing one’s own path/identity and whatnot. It is one of the few children’s films that I’ve felt was appropriately cynical about the world. Yet it ultimately manages to resolve the major plot points without long-term negative consequences, and given the darkness this movie treats with, it felt like a bit of a cheat. If this film is a disappointment overall, it should be restated that Laika set the bar pretty high for itself with Coraline and ParaNorman. While I did totally buy into the relationships that Eggs, the boy hero, cultivates with Fish, his Boxtroll foster-father, and Winnifred, the girl who becomes his partner in heroism, the character dynamics of the bad guys worked especially well. Mr. Gristle is a chilling parody of unfettered cruelty, and Archibald Snatcher is the kind of main villain who is better precisely because his ambition and evil are so thoroughly human (and thus more monstrous); Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles are the evil henchmen with enough of a glimmer of self-awareness to recognize at the vital moment in the narrative that they’re not on the side of the angels. This rogue’s gallery gives you a pretty good snapshot of the spectrum of human frailty, and it is they who emerge as the most compelling figures in the ensemble. ☕


Jodorowsky’s Dune ☕ d. Frank Pavich, 2013

Three films are competing for screen time in Jodorowsky’s Dune: a love letter to the greatest film never made, a Herzogian tale of a mad genius doomed to failure, and (drumroll) Jodorowsky’s Dune, the film itself.

Having not seen any of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s work, I may be at a bit of a disadvantage in suggesting ways in which this particular documentary does or does not take his oeuvre into account. Alejandro Jodorowsky himself is a transfixing raconteur; (apparently) a consummate artist, nothing he says is delivered at a rhetorical pitch below eleven. By his own account, his plan for Dune was that the film itself, like Paul Atreides, would become a prophet, leading humankind into a new age of enlightened consciousness. By the account of everyone else who worked on the project, Jodorowsky was perfectly sincere in his ambition. The film’s narrative trajectory traces Jodorowsky’s quest to assemble a fellowship of “spiritual warriors”—likeminded artists who, regardless of their film experience or credentials, had the soul needed to bring his project to fruition. Many of these people had never heard of Jodorowsky before he sought them out for this project; they, too, knew nothing of his oeuvre. What compelled them to drop everything and move to his headquarters in Paris was much the same as what this documentary expects will compel its own viewers, many of whom may not be familiar with Jodorowsky’s work: the charisma and prophetic vision of the man himself. Of a film that might have been, and which might have revolutionized human consciousness. Continue reading


Sinister ☕ d. Scott Derrickson, 2012

Sinister

 

Morality tales aren’t really about nuance; they’re about getting across a point clearly and forcefully. I’m willing to forgive Sinister its one-dimensionality because it achieves two modest goals requisite for most great horror films: 1) it’s creepy, and 2) it is about evil. The first goal ought not be much of a stretch for someone as well traveled in horror filmmaking as Derrickson or the producers of Blumhouse, which has recently rolled in the dough with other morally-inflected shockers like Insidious and the Paranormal Activity franchise. Sinister is of a piece with those films, relying primarily on atmosphere, suspenseful build-up, and cheap-but-effective jump scares. Continue reading


The Winter 2013 anime review

spacebros2

Apart from my reading schedule, the most media I’ve consumed in the last few months has mainly been anime. Since anime has comprised most of my entertainment diet, and since the 2013 winter season ended just a few weeks ago, here’s a set of capsule reviews of the stuff I’ve been consuming… Continue reading


George Lucas, filmmaker of the millennium?

While I presume that most of you have seen the Star Wars prequels, I expect that many of you have not heard of Camille Paglia, who thinks that Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith is the greatest work of art in the last thirty years. My ignorance is great, and therefore I hadn’t heard of Paglia until Sonny Bunch referenced her in a confession of his ten biggest blown judgment calls from the past decade. The interview to which he linked is long on art snobbery and short on art discussion; nerds the world over excerpted Paglia’s comment that asserts quite a place for George Lucas on the Iron Throne of contemporary culture:

Yes, the long finale of Revenge of the Sith has more inherent artistic value, emotional power, and global impact than anything by the artists you name. It’s because the art world has flat-lined and become an echo chamber of received opinion and toxic over-praise. It’s like the emperor’s new clothes—people are too intimidated to admit what they secretly think or what they might think with their blinders off.

The interview was conducted in the wake of Paglia’s book, Glittering Images, which concludes with a chapter aggressively defending and reframing Lucas’s stature as an artist and his life’s work as a cultural touchstone. In reviewing the book, New York Times Sunday Book Review critic John Adams retorted:

There is something deeply depressing about having to argue over the cultural dominance of an immensely successful and beloved filmmaker like George Lucas in the context of art history. In anointing Lucas, Paglia has signed on to a currently popular thesis that blames serious artists who, because of their arrogance, have lost touch with the general public and brought about their own marginalization. This argument claims that the conventional fine arts have diminished in significance, leaving only those innovators who have “embraced technology” as worthy of our attention. This is a thin thread on which to hang the appraisal of a living artist. A “technology” is no more than a way of doing something, a means to an end, and throughout history artists have been stimulated by new technological and conceptual ideas. […] What matters is not the technology itself (and your 9-year-old will tell you that the original “Star Wars” films look fairly clunky by today’s standards). What speaks to us in a work of art and makes it resistant to the passage of time is the depth of the humanity it expresses. There is entertainment, and then there is something infinitely richer: what we call “the sublime,” the true rec­ord of our spiritual condition that we get from serious and complex artworks. The films of William Kentridge, the serene Land Art of Andy Goldsworthy, the paintings of Anselm Kiefer, “Einstein on the Beach” — all these are sublime. “Star Wars” is not.

At first glance, this entire micro-conflagration threatened to overflow the banks of the River Pretension into the Flood Plain Bullshit. Neither Paglia’s Vice interviewer, Sean Craig, nor Adams bothered to press the case for or against the film itself. It was simply taken for granted by Craig that Paglia must be onto something when she asserts that Episode III is one of the greatest works of art ever made, just as it was taken for granted by Adams that, simply put, it’s not.

I’m fully aware of the stakes within geekdom. On my side are the haters, those who have a myriad of problems with the prequels, much of which is borne of an overattachment to nostalgia (the original trilogy was better because we imprinted on it first), but a lot of it stemming from Lucas’s hackneyed handling of cliches he did so much to inject into the mainstream. A big sticking point with me is that Anakin’s conversion to the Dark Side never feels authentic; it is a plot point shoehorned into by plot necessity, with weak writing undercutting character development at every turn. On the other side are those who either genuinely love the prequels (and many of them are younger, never having grown up with the original trilogy like my generation did, and who are utterly besotted with the digital f/x while being turned off by the dated look of the Episodes four through six) or who forgive their flaws because… well, those battle scenes are freakin’ sweet. Or so they say.

Then, of course, there are those who patrol the murky waters of academic criticism, like Paglia. Opponents in that realm are much more attuned to larger ramifications like Lucas’s famed reliance upon world mythology or the implicit critiques of our various political systems. Generally speaking, Lucas has enough fans across the spectrum — low, middle, and highbrow — to ensure that all six parts of the Star Wars saga will remain ensconced in the minds of at least another generation or two. My side has effectively lost this cultural skirmish in populist terms, even though I suppose the ivory tower set has our back for different reasons.

But even the biggest fans of the prequels would rarely venture to say that Episode III is, like, the best thing EVER (in living memory), which is why Paglia’s comments in interviews (like this one) generated heated discussion. What I needed to know was why the hell such a mediocre film grabbed a famous art critic’s attention and blew her mind. Fortunately, a simple Google search sated my curiosity (as it often does). Paglia published an adapted excerpt of the Episode III chapter from her book in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, she states her case that Lucas’s wedding of technical innovation to his artistic imagination is essentially a perfect union of vision and craft; though she doesn’t acknowledge it as such, it is a strikingly auteurist piece of criticism, with all the strengths and drawbacks that entails.

Note that it’s not necessarily the entire film that raptured Paglia to fangirl heaven, but the climactic duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin in particular:

A miniature set (at 1132 scale) of Mustafar’s craggy black landscape was carved out of foam on a massive platform, which was raised so that the 40-foot-long lava river (composed of 15,000 gallons of the translucent food additive methylcellulose, tinted bright yellow) could be under-lighted to glow fiery red and burnt orange. Then the entire platform was tilted so that the river, recycled by a pump system, would flow. Clumps of ground cork simulated floating lava crust, while real smoke was fanned overhead. The result was a collaborative triumph of modern installation art.

The Mustafar duel, which took months of rehearsal, with fencing and saber drills conducted by the sword master Nick Gillard, was executed by Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor at lightning speed. It is virtuosic dance theater, a taut pas de deux between battling brothers, convulsed by attraction and repulsion. Their thrusts, parries, and slashes are like passages of aggressive speech. It is one of the most passionate scenes ever filmed between two men, with McGregor close to weeping. The personal drama is staged against a physical one: Wrangling and wrestling, Anakin and Obi-Wan fall against the control panels of a vast mineral-collection plant, which now starts to malfunction and fall to pieces. As the two men run and leap for their lives, girders, catwalks, and towers melt and collapse into the lava, demonstrating the fragility of civilization confronted with nature’s brute primal power.

We could debate the validity of Paglia’s interpretations of the mise-en-scene. The way she Armonds the production design into a nature/civilization dichotomy is an interesting tangent that she doesn’t bother to justify, as are most of her observations about the film. That said, it’s apparent that she’s given the matter a lot of thought, and as criticism, it’s a great performance. Especially if considered from an auteurist perspective, it’s easy to understand why George Lucas, of all people, emerges for Paglia as the most significant figure in contemporary art. The man’s impact on pop culture has been seismic, and, narratively speaking, the Mustafar battle is arguably the lynchpin of the works for which Lucas will be remembered. Couple that with Paglia’s implication that the industrialist figure is an artist of a peculiarly late-capitalist kind, turning mass production and technological advance into his palette, with postmodern society as his canvas, and you do have a pretty strong (if unintentionally cynical) case that Lucas is the pre-eminent artist of the most pre-eminent art form of the early 21st century. Only a cineaste Tony Stark could have created something like Episode III’s climax, therefore Iron Man is the filmmaker of the century. Or something to that effect.

It’s an incredibly Marxist argument, even if it subverts every conclusion you might expect a Marxist to draw from the success of the Star Wars saga. For Paglia, the pudding’s proof is in the detailed litany of material factors at play. The cameras, the models, the toys, the Lucas family history, the worshipfulness of consumers… Paglia’s essay is a sort of masterpiece of interpretation factual material details as artistically significant in themselves. But she neglects style. For someone whose background is art history, the lack of detail in her discussion of things like composition, the juxtaposition of edits, the significance of the sound design — it’s all a bit vague. It’s like she’s aware that all these things exist, yet what’s most important is her idiosyncratic understanding of what Lucas is “saying” with Revenge of the Sith’s climax. It’s the sort of thing an amateur blogger like me can sort of get away with, provided nobody out there has the energy to call him on it, but it’s not the sort of thing a renowned academic — especially one so assiduously contrarian — can or ought to get away with.

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith may very well be a the supreme (or sublime) expression of George Lucas as an artist, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great film or a great work of art. Hundreds of shoddy or meh films have been made by unique artists; the singularity of an artist’s vision doesn’t guarantee greatness or quality, even if it is of interest to those who find such a vision to be appealing or fascinating. It’s telling that Paglia’s apology of Episode III concludes not with a summation of the film’s artistic strengths, but with a biographical gloss on the relationship between the saga and the man who wrought it: “The exquisite tenderness with which strong men handle babies here surely reflects Lucas’s own experience as a single parent who retired for two years to raise the first of his three adopted children. “Expand our universe!” Lucas commands his artists and technicians. He is a man of machines yet a lover of nature, his wily persona of genial blandness masking one of the most powerful and tenacious minds in contemporary culture.”

Absent the protestations of a true believer (who would likely argue for no more or less than for the prequels being solid entertainment), there are two prevailing defenses of the Star Wars prequels offered by thoughtful fans at the moment. One, the auteurist defense, argues that because the films adhere to or explicate Lucas’s grand artistic vision, they achieve greatness. This appears to be Paglia’s quintessential argument. Two, the relativity defense, argues that the prequels may not be masterpieces (especially in relation to the beloved original trilogy), but they’re not as terrible as haters make them out to be, and Episode III is the best of them.

The Star Wars prequels have certainly raked in tons of money, and tons of people enjoyed forking over cash for tickets and rewatching them on DVD. McDonald’s has probably served more cheeseburgers than any other restaurant chain, but any beef connoisseur will tell you that, yes, 22 billion people can be wrong. The success of McD’s is a testament to the shrewdness of Ray Kroc’s business model, not his skill as a gourmet. Just as a chef is not judged on the value of his personality, but the taste of his food, so Lucas’s films are not judged on the basis of his supposed “vision,” but of their quality; and praising Episode III for being the best of the prequels is like praising a bowl of soup for not being served with a fly in it.


Exaggerating redemption: the premature postmortem of Ben Affleck

I won’t pretend that Ben Affleck has always been established as one of our country’s foremost artists. He spent a long time with his name framing the question of, “What the hell happened to…?” When Zach Baron states in his Argo review, “It’s hard to explain for those who weren’t there how bad this got, circa 2004,” he’s not exaggerating a whole lot. A mere six years after winning an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for Good Will Hunting, Gigli became an all-consuming punchline. People who hadn’t even seen the film (that is to say, virtually everyone in the world, apart from professional critics and amateur faux-masochists) turned it into an easy reference point for how bad things really could get. “Hey, Bush never found WMDs in Iraq, but at least he didn’t make Gigli!” That sort of thing. The fact that nobody ever brings the film up right now is a testament to how transitory it was, even at the time. In fact, I think it’s a testament to how bad things didn’t get for Affleck that only cynical film nerds would be terribly surprised that a guy who won an Oscar for screenwriting would turn out to be a pretty decent director, too. Continue reading


Poor babes lost in the Woods

Spoilers after the jump. Continue reading


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