Monday, June 27, 2011

Weekly Viewing June 20th - June 26th

THE GREEN HORNET (Michel Gondry, 2011) -- 2/4

Aside from an expected degree of self-awareness, little separates Michel Gondry's The Green Hornet as a distinguished genre work. One wouldn't even be able to tell it's the director's film were his name not on the credits, since less than a handful of scenes alter, challenge, or defy conventional presentation. Moreover, the script by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, while sporadically amusing and insightful regarding both genre heroics and media distortion, lacks comedic consistency and fails to make Britt Reid (Rogen) even remotely compelling. The film's highlight is Jay Chou as sidekick Kato, a fleet physical presence, not bad comedically either, but nothing about the film dazzles, even if it remains intermittently amusing throughout. Given the real-world setting, Gondry's pedigree would suggest at a bare minimum, a solid film should have manifested. What's on screen instead is silly, limp, and not playful enough to be any real fun.

VANISHING ON 7TH STREET (Brad Anderson, 2011) -- 2.5/4

Deliberately evoking the minimalist mold of John Carpenter, Brad Anderson's Vanishing on 7th Street works in a similar way to J.J. Abrams' Super 8, in that it's a rather adept imitation of each filmmaker's boyhood idol. However, while Super 8 may be slightly more functional as easily digestible pop entertainment, Anderson works on a tougher scale, integrating sincere economic and existential anxieties into his rather ordinary apocalyptic scenario. Set in the streets of Detroit, the locale has a distinct allegorical place, as darkness sets in, often only the flickering headlights of cars (and thus, the flickering out of the automobile industry) as a source of safety. Sparse music cues, an almost complete lack of jump scares (a miracle these days), and a building sense of dread place Anderson above many of his contemporaries, in that he at least understands the convictions (formally and thematically) of the genre he's working in. While nowhere near the ranks of Carpenter's best, it's terse, tense, and has something on its mind.

I SAW THE DEVIL (Ji-woon Kim, 2011) -- 1.5/4

Nothing about I Saw the Devil extends past pretense. The violence, vengeance, and brutality are conducted to merely titillate, with requisite solemnity and faux-introspective shots meant to intimate deeper, spiritual lacking. They do not. Only gorehound freaks who love horror for its blood rather than its convictions will be excited and fooled. Moreover, director Ji-woon Kim bloats an incredibly basic premise (man's finace murdered by serial killer, seeks revenge) to an indulgent, perverted, and nonsensical length (142 minutes), quite an embarrassing choice after Joon-Ho Bong's Memories of Murder, a humane, thematically rich film about obsession, excavating nuance and compassion out of horrific, morbid material. Kim is content to exploit while being superficially caustic, castigating violence and gruesome retribution while indulging it at every turn. Soulless material for soulless moviegoers.

BAD TEACHER (Jake Kasdan, 2011) -- 1/4

FULL REVIEW

TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN (Michael Bay, 2009) -- 2.5/4

The excesses of excess are reached by Michael Bay's Transformers follow-up, a two and a half hour labyrinth of warring robots, intergalactic exposition, lame jokes and sight gags, governmental jargon, endless uses of hi-tech military weaponry, and yes, Megan Fox's body. Whether intentional or not, Bay's opus plays like parody and self-critique simultaneously, hurling these numerous elements into one giant Americana pan, and simmering to (im)perfection. Needless to say, many scenes, sequences, (hell) maybe even the entire film doesn't work - but even admitting that, there's a chaotic persistence and odd charm to the whole thing, seemingly honest and unorthodox, whereas other Blockbusters walk a tight-rope of formula and political correctness. As always, Bay's eye for visual wonderment remains intact, but only in small doses, since he can't manage to string together a prolonged sequence of compelling action set-pieces, sans the desert denoument. Unwieldy doesn't begin to explain it - but Bay's filmmaking rarely takes a break, making even his bad decisions far more interesting than the boring, easy ones made by 3/4 of the other action directors working today.

THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (Martin Ritt, 1965) -- 3/4

As if to wholly rebut the sexy, Romanticized cold war spy mythology of the first few James Bond films, Martin Ritt's adaptation of the John Le Carre novel removes all passion, fun, and joviality from the proceedings - at least, in terms of his protagonist's (Richard Burton) worldview. While deliberately distanced from the material, Ritt rigorously and tightly composes shots, allowing his mise-en-scene to evoke spiritual crisis, much like the formal aspirations of Ingmar Bergman. In fact, many scenes recall Bergman's ascetic visual space, and while Ritt lacks the intangibles to make such scenes more than simply style, his sensibilities maintain a palpable lament, supplemented by Burton's washed-up face, emanating a lifetime of pain and regret. The ending is quite silly in its mostly unearned straight-faced tragedy, but scene-in, scene-out, Ritt's film earns its chilly title.

THE CONVERSATION (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) -- 3/4

Coppola's methodical tale of cultural and political paranoia resonates through the crisis of its central character, rather than formal or thematic emphasis. Certainly, Coppola maintains a firm grasp on both (modern audiences will likely get restless fast with the deliberate pacing), but it's Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) that's in nearly every scene, much like David Hemmings in Blow-Up, slowly deteriorating spiritually and losing faith in an altruistic humanity. While Coppola's film lacks Antonioni's precise, cheeky eye for bittersweet irony, the underlying tone and sense of loss build to a gripping, but still understated climax, suggesting a nightmare of imprisonment with little to no end in the foreseeable future.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

BAD TEACHER (Jake Kasdan, 2011) -- D

Comedies can usually at least pacify their ineptitude with genuine affection and charm, uninviting hostility because of a degree of good will and sincerity. Then there are comedies like Bad Teacher, not so much vile as punk-ass, rolling its sleeves up to get dirty - only in the most puerile, absent-minded, and below-the-belt manner. There's hardly a scene or line that doesn't either puzzle or disgust in its carelessness. Lacking the gall to be provocative (much less any broader perspective to be remotely engaging), the film insults intelligence more than anything - and in fact, makes absolutely no sense.

Even on a basic narrative level, there's little operational rationality. Mid-30's Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) seeks one thing - a sugar-daddy who can cover her materialistic, high-maintenance needs. She's also inexplicably a middle-school teacher, indifferent and apathetic to any and every one of her students. The film neglects to explain why Elizabeth got into education (much less why she's now so disillusioned), and it's an unforgivable omission, since she would have presumably been teaching for many years prior, allowing numerous opportunities to be outed by her ridiculous behavior. Furthermore, the film begins at the end of a school year, with Elizabeth leaving the very school she will eventually return to. So - let's try and follow the faulty logic. The remainder of the film will primarily be about her lying, stealing, and conning money in order to get a tit job so she can bag noob teach Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), who apparently comes from wealth and could satisfy her expensive tastes (she thinks she needs bigger tits because his previous girlfriend had them, which is explained in merely a brief photo on his phone), while fending off straight-arrow shrew Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch) from outing her fraudulence. What isn't explained is how Elizabeth's pedagogical traits (such as screening films instead of having lesson plans) went unnoticed in the previous year, nor how she would be utterly clueless that her students both needed to pass a year-end exam AND that the highest scoring class earned the teacher a lucrative bonus. Seems like someone with her priorities would have caught onto that. Moreover, why is she obsessed with Delacorte, a sexually incompetent buffoon (he prefers dry-humping over actual fucking), when she could roam the country clubs or high-end nightclubs to rope in a true hotboy, not some millionaire who's inexplicably a grade school teacher? Such questions remain unanswered, meaning even on the lowest common denominator, Bad Teacher doesn't work. If only that were the worst of its problems.

The humor. Where is it? What's the joke? Ask this question as the film begins and try to solve it by the end - it's an arduous task given the confluence of contradictory tones and vibes, ranging from scatological (a teacher takes an exploding shit) to situational (faculty meeting gags) to behavioral (men gawk as Diaz sprays herself with a hose). All trite, horribly unfunny stuff, but this is relatively innocuous, without offense. Where Bad Teacher really screws up is with the Diaz character; she smokes a bowl in her car, takes shots of Jack at her desk, embezzles money, and eventually even manages to steal a copy of the state-wide exam (roofying the helpless schlep in charge while posing as a reporter, natch). These actions range from contextually meaningless (the drinking and drug use) to off-the-rails tasteless (she even blackmails the guy to keep him quiet). How about some satire here? None at all? Why make a comedy about an egregiously careless teacher and not tailor it to address educational woes (and, at this point, crisis)? Weed and blackmail gags are the best scribes Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky could muster apparently and director Jake Kasdan (Orange County, Walk Hard) remains in pretend mode, feigning scandal and shock-value, neglecting to engage the material with even the slightest proclivity for social consciousness. A late joke in the film sums up Bad Teacher's sour totality; having been framed for drug use, Amy is assigned to a new location, the worst in the district: Malcolm X High School. I'd give Bad Teacher an F, but it doesn't deserve even that shallow gesture.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Weekly Viewing June 13th - June 19th

KABOOM (Gregg Araki, 2011) -- 3/4

Gregg Araki's kaleidoscopic tale of young lust, ennui, and angst is also a perversely subversive rebuttal to both Indie and Hollywood filmmaking, where sex is either sugar-coated or ignored altogether. It may be the director's most accomplished satirical work to date - though Mysterious Skin remains his magnum opus, Kaboom intricately sets itself up as playful auto-critique, especially in the final third, when literal apocalyptic doom becomes a credible threat, inherently making fun of Blockbusters that take such spectacle-driven nonsense seriously. That the protagonist's roommate is named Thor is not a mistake - Araki is fusing his own intimate pop sensibilities (what must unfortunately be called esoteric) and imploding them (thus the title). The results are giddy with sophistication: Kaboom does to the summer Blockbuster what Scream did to the slasher film.

GREEN LANTERN (Martin Campbell, 2011) -- 2.5/4

Sharper, cannier, and (shockingly) more adult than any superhero adventure since The Dark Knight, Green Lantern is an entirely different beast, but epitomizes what a summer Blockbuster should strive to be in terms of pop spectacle. There's a kinetic energy driving Martin Campbell's class A production, a gloss that shines not just in the gorgeous CGI world, but in more intimate scenes too, consistently prizing visuals over content, which the film treats accordingly as mostly filler for its dizzying array of sexy sensibilities. It's like classical Hollywood made a CGI superhero movie - taut, attractive leads (who actually have a sexual history), mad scientist become hilariously obsessed and disfigured, and sonic-driven action sequences that have a definitive rhythm. Green Lantern is the best wide-release film of the summer (which isn't saying much), but that back-handed compliment should not misconstrue its genuine enthusiasm and vitality.

DRIVE ANGRY (Patrick Lussier, 2011) -- 1.5/4

A regurgitation of action movie tropes, slathered in excess - Drive Angry is bloated kitsch, misunderstanding the ethos that "drive" cinema's most maligned genre. Instead of the brilliant formal revision applied by Nevaldine/Taylor's Crank films, director Patrick Lussier makes the same mistakes as with his My Bloody Valentine remake, electing for unsophisticated mugging and winking, treating his film as an ephemeral theme-park ride rather than a critical work. Are there yucks, groans, and absurdity? Without question, but lacking even a moderate degree of sincerity behind them, what remains is hollow and puerile, fit only for viewers with a novice's sensibilities, unable to distinguish genre critique from genre diarrhea.

IN THE COMPANY OF MEN (Neil Labute, 1997) -- 3/4

Sociopathic narcissism is par-for-the-course in Neil Labute’s world – yet one would be remiss to label this cynic a misanthrope, since his formal ambitions reflect the inescapable pain and banality (conveyed mostly through long, stagnant shots) present when “because I can” mores dominate social interaction. Give Labute credit for keeping the proceedings on an even keel, scathing without histrionic pandering or fashionable ambivalence. There’s a steady indictment of both unchecked assholery and its passive acceptance (after hearing Eckhart’s deranged plan, sheepish best buddy Malloy can only fashion a “sure”). Labute isn’t embracing anomie – he’s recognizing its presence and, without moralizing or trivializing, plants his tongue firmly in his cheek, takes a step back, and lets the material speak for itself.

GLENGARRY GLENN ROSS (James Foley, 1992) -- 2.5/4

BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE (Paul Mauzursky, 1969) -- 3/4

Sunday, June 12, 2011

THE TREE OF LIFE (Terrence Malick, 2011) -- A+

"Subjective, you know the difference? It means it's in your head. No one can tell you that you’re wrong." These words are spoken by Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) nearly 3/4 of the way through Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, and it's awfully tempting to attribute such a philosophy to the director himself, whose nearly four decade filmmaking career (this being only his fifth film, of course) has been defined by utterly Impressionistic reverie, harkening back to the silent cinema, where images, music, and movement provided all the narrative needed. However, to assert this brief, beautiful, fleeting moment/line of dialogue (aren't they all in Malick's cinema?) as representative of the artist, himself, would be misguidedly reductive, since nothing about The Tree of Life can, nor should be tried to fit into any summation, because the viewing experience - being in the film's presence as it miraculously, devastatingly unfolds - refutes even the boldest attempts of immediate definition.

Nevertherless, a framework can be established for Malick's aesthetic (the underlying philosophical construction), where images (without concrete temporality) and music are evocative tools, presenting time and space as stream-of-conscious flashes, tied together by human response (laughter, smile, tears, screams) and juxtaposed with differing milieus, not wholly existential so much as experiential - how does one convey empirical memory in a finite, concrete medium, as to be comprehendible, but transcend the limitations and constraints that any art form inherently holds? Filmmakers have struggled with this question for decades, many finding formal methods to project their content onto a higher plane of affectual meaning, a discursive mode operating on an internal logic of feeling and emotion over rational cause-and-effect. Such an approach does not give the director free reign to claim subjective superiority (it's never impermeable to criticism), but to claim Malick's formation of knowledge and remembered experience in The Tree of Life as strained art (some critics have) or, even worse, pretentious, demonstrates an inability to discern phenomenological yearnings from purely intellectual, since Malick is not a pretentious artist - pretension stems from intellectual shallowness (or artlessness) masquerading as profundity. Malick's passion runs far deeper than philosophical or textual assertions, since his visions of spiritual and subjective placement are self-critical, without explicit monstration to provide closure.

Multiple viewings reveal the specificity of Malick's vision. Opening with a quote from the book of Job ("Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?"), the film seeks to address, through sensory exegesis, the formation of morality via micro and macrocosmic scales. At least, that is one of its many operative levels. Transitional cosmic cards segue between sections, with three distinct time periods: the genesis of life in the universe, 1950's Waco, Texas, and contemporary Dallas. Each one produces a discourse on moral grapplings. Malick wisely interweaves the three, creating a surreal evocation of corporeal presence, time-imagery as the formal answer to memory as content. Certainly, 2001: A Space Odyssey is the primary cinematic referent in terms of conceptualization, but Malick's film in no way mimics or replicates Kubrick's terse coldness; instead, the non-linear, non-causal achieves transcendence through warmth and reverie, supplemented with classical music as a means of hybridizing visual/aural into a single streamlined, visceral emotion.

Immediately, Malick introduces his aesthetic goals, using John Taverner's "Funeral Canticle" and voice-over by Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) to explain her philosophical attitude on the dichotomous differences between nature and grace - each providing a distinct path towards achieving ultimate communication with God. Images of idyllic youth, movement, and quintessential Americana are not meant as literal instances of lived experience - rather, they encapsulate a comprehensive metanarrative of societal and familial mores (the conception of perfection), where traditional values manifest in the form of visual splendor. Nostalgia this is not - it's full-blooded introspection, negating any claim of sentimentality through symphonic virtuosity, where what's presented is "ideal," but only in the historical sense. What establishes societal and personal pursuits? Instead of utilizing hackneyed narratological deconstruction, Malick strives to answer this by unearthing various essences. He's seeking the source, rather than its ends.

Weekly Viewing June 6th - June 12th

THE SPANISH PRISONER (David Mamet, 1997) – 3.5/4

There's a playful intelligence running throughout the entirety of David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner, so much so that it approaches an almost overwhelming delight (physical as much as cerebral) as the director consciously (but not explicitly) produces a work functioning as both cultural artifact and virtuoso ingenuity. It's enough to make one completely forgive the egregious missteps of House of Games - here is genre filmmaking on the edge, oddly perverse but restrained, exhilarating but understated. Mamet doesn't so much wear his influences on his sleeve as under his hat, deftly suggesting dozens of classic films without ever actually pointing directly (unlike Soderbergh's The Good German, one of the worst films ever made). Layering formal excellence, amusing metaphors, and truly Wellesian, overlapping dialogue, it's Mamet at his most enjoyable, but also his most sincere, spinning a yarn while questioning narratological legitimacy, as well as the director's own role as puppeteer, manipulator, and con-artist.

SUPER 8 (J.J. Abrams, 2011) – 2.5/4

J.J. Abrams's Super 8 is a striking, vivid example of the Blockbuster virus, where a well-drawn, compelling coming-of-age narrative is sullied, worn-down, and made almost completely tiresome by the hackneyed integration of a worthless sci-fi element, which culminates in tedious monster-movie carnage, combined with the adolescent wonder and Spielbergian awe Abrams is so clearly indebted to. The film's first third is quite good, capturing the artistic spirit and humor of its youthful cast with ease and grace - effortlessly delightful. However, as if it were a nervous tick, Abrams consistently undermines narrative progression through hollow sci-fi suspense, devoid of any real expositional meaning, other than to turn his "small" story into a "big" story. Abrams's sensibilities tend towards indulgent nostalgia and transient sentimentality, but the presence and performances of the young cast members, particularly uncanny in their ability to look and sound like 1979 small-town kids, adequately compensates for Abrams's errors, even though the film runs at least 20 minutes too long.

FAST FIVE (Justin Lin, 2011) – 2/4

The first 10 minutes of Fast Five are everything an action movie should be - terse, elliptical, and visceral. What follows the brilliant opening is pure cultural product, a series of middlebrow chase sequences, shootouts, and faux-pithy exchanges, off-set by thinly drawn, sentimental gravitas (familial reminiscences, pregnancy). Moreover, the film panders to its socio-cultural demographic, fostering pugilistic masculine and sexual roles (though the film's playfulness negates any offense) and facilitates ethnic behavioral stereotypes with enthusiasm - problem is, none of it plays with conviction, right down to the uniformly worn "Under Armor" shirts by The Rock and his team. It's all been manufactured. There's very little interesting here, much less challenging, but were director Justin Lin given a chance to make a truly avant-garde action film, there's no doubt he has the sensibilities to pull it off.

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (Matthew Vaughn, 2011) – 1.5/4

X-Men: First Class is a stunningly inert excuse for an action film no matter which angle you come at it. Visually, director Matthew Vaughn has no distinct aim, sometimes shooting in washed-out gray and blue, others going much brighter, but with little consistency or discernible purpose. He prefers cuts to camera moves - fine, but it stagnates an already lifeless composition. In terms of content, the script (credited to four scribes) is all over the place, attempting to juggle nearly two dozen characters, cold war anxieties, and a pathetic allegory for homosexual discrimination (asked why he didn't reveal he's a mutant, a character says: "You didn't ask, so I didn't tell."). Bits and pieces are cut from each thread here and there, as if merely restating the same phrases and themes means a discourse is being constructed. The cast is an embarrassment (the only person who more than acquits himself being Michael Fassbender, perhaps the sexiest, most elegant male actor working today) and slog through most scenes with either whiny angst or pouty-faced gloom. It's a two-hour pilot for the CW masquerading as cinema - and filmgoers deserve much better than this hodge-podge of ideas, sensibilities, and frequencies.

THOR (Kenneth Branagh, 2011) – 1.5/4

If Fast Five and X-Men get slaps on the wrist for franchise nonsense, Thor deserves a mallet to the grill. Here's a flick that's so busy setting up its characters for the upcoming The Avengers film in 2012, that it neglects to find a reason to exist on its own, sloppily assembling some make-believe story about a gargantuan and his brethren, who exist on some make-believe planet, only to suddenly find himself CAST OUT! and sent to Earth, where he stumbles into three scientists, none of which can figure out why this fellow acts so darn peculiar. Fish-out-of-water hijinks, combined with silly, bloodless action sequences, juxtaposed with the twinkly-girlish sexual feelings of the Natalie Portman character, makes one question what could have compelled the usually sharp, keen eye of director Kenneth Branagh to make such dopey, adolescent drivel.

WONDER BOYS (Curtis Hanson, 2000) – 1.5/4

Lightweight would be a kind way to describe Wonder Boys - let's go with aggressively inconsequential. Moreover, here's a textbook case of a screenplay that's been "written" into oblivion, neatly organizing character neuroses into slight ticks and condensed dialogue/scenarios, meant to seem taut, instead of contrived, which is what it is. The film expresses the plights of an aspiring writer (and the cast of characters he associates with/encounters) with postcard depth, settling for convenient ironies and sour situational humor over any sincere attempt at introspection. From the lazy voice over to the down-and-out to up-and-at-em' narrative arcs, it's one massively cloying mechanism, concocted by scribe Steve Kloves (the writer of all seven Harry Potter films) and one of the reigning kings of the Hollywood middlebrow: director Curtis Hanson.

TAKERS (John Luessenhop, 2010) – 2.5/4

A sincere genre film that addresses socio-cultural dilemmas as much as it revels in slo-mo shootouts (John Woo and Michael Mann are undoubtedly the cinematic referents), Takers is undeniably coarse, but it doesn't front, offering a refreshing aptitude for navigating pop gravitas, pretentious but rooted. It takes the convictions of genre seriously, not quite on the level of Walter Hill or Sam Peckinpah, but somewhere adjacent in spirit, as each character grapples with his own masculinity, morality, and mortality. The logistics are a few clicks off at times (director John Luessenhop has trouble with consistency), but between several compelling exchanges (Idris Elba and T.I. give the strongest performances) and suitably kinetic sensibilities, it more than supplants the drove of jokey, smug actioners genre fans have had to endure for the last decade.

MYRA BRECKINRIDGE (Michael Sarne, 1970) – 2/4

To the susceptible eye, Myra Breckinridge would seem like potent farce, brazenly flaunting Hollywood conventions, good taste, and expressing a fervent irreverence for traditional notions of identity formation and sexual behavior. Keen viewers, however, will wade through the gorgeous cinematography, ingenious use of film clips (opening with a song and dance number from Shirley Temple), and highfalutin political rhetoric to reveal a temper-tantrum at the core, puerile in its "spare no one" aim, devoid of pain or a palpable sense if injustice - satire's central genesis. Director Michael Sarne does one thing brilliantly, using an eclectic lot of classical Hollywood clips (often placed without rationale) to implicitly suggest indoctrination through visual consumption, the mores and fabric of a microscopic few as exemplars for the macro - a worthy satirical revelation. Problem is, Sarne negates much of the impact with his "everything but the kitchen sink" mentality, not so much Carnivalesque as carnivorous, each subsequent scene devouring the previous, as the director's uncertainty in destination and purpose begins to show. Satire is (or can be) more than a slew of semi-cogent ideas slapdashedly thrown on the screen.

MARKED FOR DEATH (Dwight H. Little, 1990) – 2/4

Though a marked improvement over Above the Law, Seagal essentially enacts an identical scenario as ass-kicking vengeance seeker, here against a lot of Jamaican drug lords, with the effervescently macho Keith David at his side. The action is streamlined and the narrative suitably clich├ęd – but it’s still a remarkably lazy effort, as hilariously indicated by the film’s final shot, where the guys having just killed the last baddie, simply walk away as the credits roll.

IF I WANT TO WHISTLE, I WHISTLE (Florian Serban, 2011) – 1.5/4

Director Florian Serban certainly feels his tale of societal injustice, juvenile delinquency, and the inescapable restraints placed upon such individuals, but he has nothing nuanced to communicate, nor the formal sensibilities to dramatize. His style is part Dardenne brothers personalism, part indie hysteria - and neither transcend the bitter taste of imitation, a filmmaker attempting to further come to grips with his own aesthetic sensibilities, rather than maintaining a firm handle or vision. The narrative hits various poverty porn beats, nearly fetishizing dysfunction and despair to the point of perversion. A compelling lot of ideas and themes are certainly swimming somewhere around in the director's mind, but he's simply ill-equipped to convey much of anything with a sure-handed artfulness.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Weekly Viewing May 30th - June 5th

REPO MAN (Alex Cox, 1984) -- 4/4

Repo Man holds its status as a cult classic firmly - but it deserves more than that, since it's one of the greatest American films of the 1980's, a Carnivalesque emanation of a burgeoning postmodern ethos, told via a tightly wound narrative of punk/youth culture run hilariously amok, amidst larger issues of cultural homogenization and consumerist uniformity. Moreover, Cox's film is masterfully in-touch with its own convictions and sensibilities, nearly every line of dialogue funny and consistent, nearly every scene an extension of either thematic or character dilemmas. Take Bud's (Harry Dean Stanton) proclamation: "Look at 'em, ordinary fucking people, I hate 'em." Not only a rallying cry for disavowing the status quo, the film navigates its rebellious vernacular with thorough aplomb, using language, image, and wonderfully alternative (perhaps abrupt) scene transitions to comprehensively offer a different kind of vision, one that's distinctly uncanny in its ability to appropriate (and transform) mainstream filmmaking practices. Repo Man's satirical through-line applies to more than generic food labels, TV Evangelicals, and Punk thoughtlessness - by drawing upon various cinematic genres, Cox inherently critiques limited artistic expression, completely resetting the table of possibilities by radically reasserting humor and chaos as central to societal growth - not Reaganite political drones. When Duke says: "Fuck this! Let's go do some crimes," it's the film's most prescient line of dialogue, hilariously suggesting societal rebellion as a means of merely reasserting individuality - obviously just as brainless as unquestioned uniformity, but Cox is not a judge of character, more an extraordinarily acute surveyor of a socio-cultural zeitgeist.

PALE FLOWER (Masahiro Shinoda, 1964) – 4/4

Without having seen any of his other films, it doesn't seem like too much of a stretch to say that Pale Flower is Masahiro Shinoda's masterpiece, one of the most jaw-droppingly focused, composed, and powerful films of the Japanese New Wave - and perhaps all of cinema. Every frame radiates energy, suggesting a grander kineticism and transmutability beneath, where the cinematic art form comprehensively reflects human affect and essence. The use of diegetic sound hones this artistic drive, put to no greater use than in the film's opening sequence, a bravado introduction to an allegorical underbelly of crime and corruption; yet, Shonoda's focus remarkably reconstructs genre archetype, using the release of a criminal from prison (standard fare) to implicitly question how such templates can be altered, manipulated, and fitfully applied to deal with far greater social and artistic issues. Every sequence, scene, and shot is an ontological suggestion, relating to various Lyotardian meta-narratives, where the text stands on its own (certainly), but extends to address adjacent and hovering implications regarding the construction of knowledge and experience. To call Pale Flower a "gangster film" is to reduce its scope and its aspirations beyond the cinematic. Nevertheless, Shinoda is not a cocksure deconstructionist, merely probing form and meaning. Though formally profound, the film integrates its various interest in such a streamlined manner as to negate any claims of willful irreverence, simply for the sake of it. Shinoda's vision for cinema's capabilities is no punk move - he's a full-blooded iconoclast, genuinely having both something incredible to say, and knowing precisely the methods to achieve it. A staggering achievement.

THE TREE OF LIFE (Terrence Malick, 2011) – 4/4

Essay forthcoming.

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (Woody Allen, 2011) – 3/4

To appreciate Woody Allen’s latest film, it is necessary to accept its premise on its own terms. Meaning: an evocation of artistic fervor, self-knowledge as tied to those who have unquestionably developed one’s own psychology and worth. What might seem like dodgy terrain in theory plays effortlessly enthusiastic – the most euphoric kind of fantasy, rooted in personal identity rather than communal angsts. Certainly, the laundry list of name-drops is enough to give any intellectual a bit of nausea and be inclined to roll the eyes more than a few times – but Allen embraces his unashamed premise so wholly that to deny its jubilee is both unmerited and callous. There’s nothing threatening about the film, but therein lies its beauty, unassuming in the way of Rene Clair’s Under the Roofs of Paris, where such human vitality trumps conscious objection.

TITICUT FOLLIES (Frederick Wiseman, 1967) – 4/4

Unquestionably the film that changed documentary filmmaking in terms of fearless investigation, Frederick Wiseman’s first film is loaded with an undercurrent of satirical melancholy, feeling a wide range of frustrated emotions at the scenes captured, yet never failing to offer a vantage point, even though he never says a word. The integration of a titular song and dance routine, which repeats throughout, slyly (and boldly) suggests the cruelty of mankind as fodder – only to comprehensively redefine the word’s bounds through extensive sequences of psychological investigation, physical torment, and the frightening convictions of the mentally disturbed. Moreover, as an historical expose, Wiseman’s film is invaluable, depicting the unthinkably cruel and real scenarios inside mental health facilities – but also consistently questioning both how documentary film can reveal such destitutions (social/psychological “ugliness”) and never blinking in the face of literal madness. Disturbing and devastating, but the epitome of essential.

DARK VICTORY (Edmund Goulding, 1939) – 2/4

Dark Victory, or Spoiled Bette Gets a Brain Tumor, beats its melodramatic drum with such dim-witted glee, that it neither morphs into a lurid hot-flash, nor a streamlined shriek of feminine ennui. Instead, director Edmund Goulding languidly executes the medical bent (woefully dated at this point, to boot) and finds no excuse to let Bette live beyond her midpoint brain surgery. For some reason, everyone loves this shrew, and Goulding neglects to address the obvious metaphor: self-entitlement as social cancer, narcissism as alienation. Nope, the last hour tediously ticks away, seemingly oblivious to the film’s inherently flawed premise.

YOUR FRIENDS & NEIGHBORS (Neil Labute, 1998) – 3/4

Neil Labute presents self-absorption (and, thus, self-destruction) as the only response to a time without genuine meaning or feeling – his nihilistic characters are consistently played (brilliantly) as emanations rather than critiques, thus making their pitiful attempts to sustain human sexual connections all the more lamentable. The arrangement is only seldom strictly lewd (Jason Patric’s sauna confession being the primary offender), but perhaps it reinforces Labute’s underlying modus operandi, where taste (and by extention, all sensory decency) falters when cruelty reigns. After all, any misanthrope hates himself as much as the rest of humanity, something Labute understands and communicates nicely, enabling ironic compassion even as his characters are imprisoned by imitation and social mores, all of which derive from their own narcissism, masquerading as self-awareness.

POSSESSED (Clarence Brown, 1931) – 2.5/4

Possessed is owned by Joan Crawford, elevating a rather pedestrian premise of social ladder games and melodramatic dialogue, much of which is amusing, if slight. It is Crawford's performance that makes the film more delightful than it has any right to be, especially since director Clarence Brown only sporadically displays the visual aspirations in his silent Garbo masterpiece, Flesh and the Devil. Which is not to imply the film lacks merit in terms of playfulness or theme - there's a consistent address to double standards, as when Crawford says: "Why should men be so different? All they've got are their brains and they're not afraid to use them. Well neither am I!" Hardly subtle, but it is Crawford's sincerity that emanates beyond the dialogue's frankness, instilling a palpable degree of pain and regret which transcends high-strung histrionics. Despite the film's flaws, Crawford is always convincing: the epitome of grace, beauty, and classiness. Where have such movie stars gone?

PRIVILEGE (Peter Watkins, 1967) – 3/4

Though detached in Watkins’ usual style, Privilege maintains a perverse degree of engagement, almost more fascinating because the director uses the medium against itself, denying the viewer’s ability to pleasurably “enjoy” its narrative of cultural obsession gone awry. It works precisely because Watkins suitably matches form and content, disabling a biopic ethos which would necessarily mythologize. The difference between something like this and Soderbergh’s Che is that Watkins has talent.

ABOVE THE LAW (Andrew Davis, 1988) – 2/4

Seagal is a proper action star, but his “acting” debut is muddled in a film that neither adequately lets him demonstrate his ass-kicking proficiency, nor provides any discernable narrative other than the requisite conservative jargon, which Stallone put to better (at least, more exhilarating) use in several of his 1980’s flicks. Watch the trailer instead – brevity is certainly preferable in these cases.

THE HOUSE OF YES (Mark Waters, 1997) – 1.5/4

Detestable in many ways, The House of Yes lacks fortitude on aesthetic, moral, and logical levels. The scant runtime could have been even scanter, especially since director Mark Waters proves inept at transforming the one-act scenario into anything more compelling than a series of 3rd rate glances and exchanges, little of which resembles anything remotely insightful or artistically taut. Parker Posey navigates the muck well, but even she doesn’t come close to making a single scene worthwhile, much less salvaging this embarrassing effort.