Tuesday, July 30, 2013

2013 Films (The Fourth 10)

Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler) 3/4

Fruitvale Station has, to my eye, yet to draw comparisons to Paul Greengrass's United 93, but that's the film that kept coming to mind during my viewing. Like that film, Fruitvale takes a docudrama, almost real-time approach to its known, fortold tragic end. Such an end being the case, one must question the significance for a re-enactment. That is - films of this sort can quickly become exploitive in their desire to manipulate confirmation bias viewers. In Greengrass's case, he seeks an unseemly blend of docudrama aesthetics and pornographic insistence on visualizing the unknowable terrorist event. Fruitvale, however equally problematic in questions director Ryan Cooger leaves unresolved/unaddressed, nevertheless employs an interpretive lens - an almost fable-like moralism - that, even if heavily reliant on narrative coincidence and appeals to cosmic disgrace, is far more truthful, compelling cinema. Also unlike United 93, Fruitvale is anchored by a true actor in Michael B. Jordan, whose naturalistic, though undeniably measured performance commands the screen over Coogler's rather pedestrian visual sensibilities, though give him credit for pulling such visceral performances from Jordan, Melonie Diaz, and Octavia Spencer. Wesley Morris has said it best in his recent discussion of this film in relation to the Trayvon Martin ruling.

The ABC’s of Death (Lots of People) 1/4

Nothing about The ABC’s of Death suggests anyone  involved (of importance) took the proceedings very seriously. At 26 films and roughly two hours, this omnibus dump represents the worst, most solipsistic inclinations of indie filmmaking - that anyone with a camera is a filmmaker worthy of having their voice seen/heard. Perhaps it is best to look at the top talent involved; Ti West chose to make an entry that barely runs two minutes, and essentially consists of a woman deciding whether or not to flush a fetus down a toilet. Hardly chilling, the jokiness of it suggests apathy over understatement. Moreover, Adam Wingard chose to go faux-reflexive for his film, ending with himself and screenwriter Simon Barrett accidentally shooting each other to death. Truly hilarious (but a big "fuck you" to anyone who took this seriously).

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (Werner Herzog) 2/4


A misfire such as Happy People reveals just how difficult convincing documentary filmmaking can be. Like Grizzy Man, Werner Herzog has sifted through hours of previously shot footage in order to appropriate them for his typically lyrical, incisive voice-over commentary. I say typical, because neither adjective fits here. Though outwardly his Siberian ethnography appears detailed and nuanced, the progressively empty postulations would barely pass for adequate Discovery channel insights, much less Herzogian. Moreover, the seams show in the stitching of footage, which lacks the idiosyncratic juxtapositions and questioning commonly found in his films.





Yossi (Eytan Fox) 2/4
More or less picking up where Yossi & Jagger (2002) tragically ended, Yossi finds...Yossi (Ohad Knoller) moping through life in Tel Aviv as a cardiologist ten years later. Eventually, he meets Tom (Oz Zehavi), and it starts to look like Yossi may be able to love again. I use rather cliched narrative terms because that’s precisely how Fox plays the material - much like Linklater’s Before Midnight, Fox assumes the material holds significance merely because of the cultural capital earned by his 2002 film. However, where that film had sensual and political resonance, along with The Bubble (2007), Yossi plods through indulgent and rather obvious dramatic traumas, though Knoller’s captivating performance helps to combat Fox’s complacency.



Fairhaven (Tom O’Brien) 2/4


Indies usually aren’t shot with nearly the eye for composition as Tom O’Brien’s Fairhaven; the excellent use of cinemascope lends even simple dialogue scenes a tightness and clarity that suggests mid-70’s Woody Allen - unfortunately, that’s the only way O’Brien’s film resembles Allen. Narratively, the Boston-set reunited friends premise barely registers as cinematic, given a rather made-for-TV pathos that, frankly, isn’t hard to predict if you’ve seen the poster, which features all of the characters smiling, laughing, or staring in singular frames. O’Brien’s dialogue strains to be authentic and clever, but with exchanges such as: “Do you light candles during sex?” “Well, I don’t light them during sex - like, not while I’m having sex,” these strains rarely yield worthwhile insight.
Ginger & Rosa (Sally Potter) 2/4

Sally Potter’s latest is a fascinating film, though not for the reasons one might like or expect. In an odd move, Potter settles into an historical narrative with the simplicity, straightforwardness, and plodding sensibilities that Orlando, her 1992 masterpiece disgraced. There’s the fascination: why has Potter seemingly forsaken her earlier interests? Simply a coming-of-age tale that’s content to pay almost no attention to formal significance, only the compelling performances of Elle Fanning and Alessandro Nivola retain interest.

Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn) 4/4

Nicolas Winding Refn's neon-saturated images, disaffected, statuesque characters, and Cliff Martinez's ambient-electronic oriented score achieve a rather profound philosophical, borderline academic discursive mode, making it the most Kubrickian film since Eyes Wide Shut. Refn dedicates his film to Alejandro Jodorowsky, which will inevitably send cinephiles fleeing to seek correlations between the two filmmakers. Rather than seeking Tarantinoesque, direct referencing, one would be wiser to accept Refn's dedication as one of acknowledging cultural inheritance - particularly an inheritance of the absurd, surrealist dimensions that are indispensable at informing how curious minds understand cultural formation. Refn is not the heir to Jodorwosky, he is not the heir to Kubrick - rather, with Only God Forgives, he assumes a rightful place beside them as radical conceptualizers of cinematic representation.




The best documentaries transcend simply montaging together facts to present a “case” to an audience: they live, breath, and often call upon other cinematic genres for their effect. The Thin Blue Line, perhaps the greatest documentary of all-time, took those aims to unprecedented levels in its fusion of fact and fiction (via staged re-enactments). While Blackfish does not attain such an audacious means of expression, its outrage comes through just as forcefully in the tight, measured filmmaking, built for maximum effect, as it complexly weaves together disparate interviews, timelines, and even animation sequences to illustrate a deep-seeded narrative of corporate corruption, which takes the form of a psychological murder mystery - all involving killer whales. Equal parts activism and tightly-wound genre film, the punch of Blackfish comes in its straightforward, but heart-wrenching reveal of the damage and pain caused by deceitful narratives of peace and happiness overlaid atop extreme negligence and ethical lack. Martin Scorsese recently called for more education of visual culture in schools. The implications here suggest such a focus is not only necessary, but urgent.

Crystal Fairy (Sebastian Silva) 4/4

With Crystal Fairy, Sebastian Silva takes a significant step not only in his own oeuvre, but in setting the bar for filmmakers focused on representing contemporary generational angst. Making the whiny/pouty uncertainty of films like Juno and Garden State look absolutely frivolous and naive by comparison, here are characters, scenarios, and an astute formal interest that deserves discussion alongside the films of Rohmer, Truffaut, and Hellman - there’s not a false note to the neurotic and fidgety Jamie (Michael Cera), drifting and chill Champa (Juan Andres Silva), or the uber-free spirited Crystal Fairy (Gabby Hoffman). Even better, Silva denies almost all psychological causality to explain his characters’ hang-ups, demeanors, and desires - excepting a single, devastating reversal near the film’s conclusion. That’s where Silva’s strength lies here - an ability to reveal morality without either forcing or sacrificing an interest in underlying truths of human interactions. Sharply ironic and wholly seductive, nearly every scene in the last half has either a built-in reversal or a keen sense of its characters desires to hover within the moment, which Silva never treats with a simplistically condescending or condoning lens. In an era where raunchy, douchebag comedies overfloweth, Silva’s gentler approach is the long awaited antidote.


Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski) 4/4


Computer Chess is dangerous, volatile satire masquerading as goofy mockumentary. Christopher Guest generally makes funny films, but he’s never made anything that cuts as deeply as Andrew Bujalski’s unnervingly simple, yet deeply conceptualized and existential presentation of cultural obsession and technological determinism. Outwardly, humor comes from the awkward interactions of computer programmers bickering and stressing over a chess tournament - though as one member stresses, “I’m not a chess player - I’m a computer programmer.” Such a seemingly slight distinction, however, speaks volumes to the film’s inherent tensions regarding academic discourse and its tendency to obfuscate and isolate those who seek its bearings - or is it capitalist structures that pervert and, ultimately, sustain corporate power (as one player puts it, that was “like Goliath beating David”). At times almost Kafkaesque in its absurdist exchanges and scenarios, then seemingly Bunuelian in juxtaposing absurdity on absurdity, nothing about Computer Chess is either simple to comprehend or easy to discard - an exquisite case of form complementing content.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Box Office Rap: The Wolverine and Post-Comic-Con Malaise

I have started writing a new column for The House Next Door entitled Box Office Rap. To see the inaugural column, click here!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013) 4/4

Stanley Kubrick once said (and I'm paraphrasing) that a film should be more like music than fiction  - that it should be a progression of mood and feelings before (but not rather) than a theme.

Hmm.

Julian (Ryan Gosling) enters a hallway. He is half-lit, primarily by an overhead red light that allows his turning head and furrowed brow to be seen. Julian stands in a bathroom, looking into a mirror, this time bathed in a soft, blue light. Julian lounges on a couch, staring up at Mai (Yayyaying Rhatha Phongam), then looks to his left at two men laughing, drinking. What can he be thinking? More importantly, perhaps - what is he feeling? When he clenches his fists - what is the takeaway?

By the time you reach that question in Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn's directorial talons should already be lodged underneath your skin and, regardless of what answers may come from such a set-up within the course of the film, the established devotion to attaining a mood - a sensorial environment - should take precedence and become the ultimate consumption.

That is not to say that Only God Forgives seeks to articulate style over substance (remember: before, not rather). In fact, Refn's neon-saturated images, disaffected, statuesque characters, and Cliff Martinez's ambient-electronic oriented score achieve a rather profound philosophical, borderline academic discursive mode, making it the most Kubrickian film since Eyes Wide Shut (Larry Smith, the DP for Eyes Wide Shut, also shot this).

However, saying that Only God Forgives is Kubrickian is not an end, so much as a means to express, in words, what Refn might be up to here. Three karaoke scenes feature Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a retired Bangkok Policeman whose notion of justice is self-appointed executioner. These scenes are perhaps the key to the film, though there are numerous other sequences of essential relevance to consider. For now - Chang is called upon to kill Billy (Tom Burke) for the rape and murder of a 16 year-old girl. Seeking vengeance, Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) demands Julian avenge his brother's death by hunting and killing Chang, himself. I leave narrative at this point because, well, discussing Only God Forgives as a genre film will prove as futile as discussing Breathless as a gangster film - only as a jumping off point are these films interested in genre inquiry. Rather, Refn is interested in audio-visual capabilities of a controlled, almost stifling rigidity. Like Kubrick, items are strategically placed within the frame to articulate depth and space and characters often look or stare rather than speak.

Once one ceases looking for narrative meaning as end through normative means, the film unlocks as an existential place of absurd, fetish-driven fears come to life, though in a post-human sense. That is - Refn employs human figures rather than human beings to inhabit his quest for the 21st century heart of darkness, while following the philosophical logic of Kubrick's oeuvre. Kubrick, often flippantly labeled a misanthrope, never made a film that did not hold the value of human and moral decency with the highest regard - it was his growing conclusion that such aspirations were unattainable with capital as a human being's driving force. Thus, the final scene of Paths of Glory (1957) offers hope of communal capability and cooperation - that cultural unity could be central in ending human destruction. These hopes became progressively lessened for Kubrick, perhaps culminating with The Shining (1980), where an inherent, cyclical subjugation of one race over another would remain constant. Finally, with Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick announced the pending death of Western civilization due to hubris, unchecked avarice, and psychosexual instability. With Only God Forgives, Refn is one of the first filmmakers to attempt and resurrect Kubrick's end goals, but has fully taken them into the post-human era, where speech and affect can no longer resonant to create a meaningful discourse. What's left in futurism is nihilism - that is, a continued acknowledgement that meaning is dead. Thus, Chang's presence is a personification of these losses - the death, as well, of order, justice, and morality. When these possibilities become lost, all that's left are the senses, which Chang can also take away, as he does with a man who refuses to "see" and "hear" him. The disobedient man might as well also be the viewer who continues to demand significance via 20th century means.

Refn dedicates his film to Alejandro Jodorowsky, which will inevitably send cinephiles fleeing to seek correlations between the two filmmakers. Rather than seeking Tarantinoesque, direct referencing, one would be wiser to accept Refn's dedication as one of acknowledging cultural inheritance - particularly an inheritance of the absurd, surrealist dimensions that are indispensable at informing how curious minds understand cultural formation. Refn is not the heir to Jodorwosky, he is not the heir to Kubrick - rather, with Only God Forgives, he assumes a rightful place beside them as radical conceptualizers of cinematic representation.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

2013 Films (The Third 10)

No (Pablo Larrain) 4/4
Instead of constructing a docudrama that paradoxically pays reverence to the rebellious spirit of its key figure by rendering the circumstances in the most banal, middlebrow narrative/form conceivable (they almost all do), Pablo Larrain renders the Chilean National Plebiscite of 1988 with much the same tonal inclinations as Rene Saavedra's (Gael Garcia Bernal) "no" campaign ads within the film, creating a perceptive film-within-a-film structure that nevertheless refuses to offer itself as "only" that. In choosing a fuzzy, videotape aesthetic, one can't help but think of Kiarostami's Close-Up (1990), and while No doesn't manage that level of ingenuity and immediacy, the ambivalent assessment of tele-visual narratizing often thunderously (though silently) suggests that propogandizing, whether "good" or "bad," "si" or "no," will continually yield consequences of commodification, even as democracy seemingly reigns. Thus, the "no" vote attains an ironic incantation, suggestive of an unfinished phrase. I have in mind the title of Lee Edelman's book No Future. Larrain questions negation as a means of subsistence in an era where Late Capitalism would be championed as a revolutionary solution, given the inevitable outcome of drastic income inequalities. By boiling capital to a yes/no binary, Larrain, much like the vote depicted, suggests one form of subjugation always follows another.

A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (Roman Coppola) (2/4)
A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III cheerfully embraces its on-and-off screen sense of Hollywood privilege, essentially casting Charlie Sheen to play himself (CS and CS - "Hey! Same initials!"), while director Roman Coppola takes the given (yes, given) opportunity to make a feature film and produces a snarky shrug, disinterested in coherence or, for that matter, significance. The film's wandering, non-sequitur approach initially appears to be a riff on It's a Wonderful Life meets Unfaithfully Yours meets 8 1/2  meets The Big Lebowski meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I'm sure that concoction sounded fun to Coppola, but like a child who just got everything he wanted for Christmas, there's little mystery to ponder and it's simply time to just bang everything together.

Evil Dead (Fede Alvarez) 2/4
The tagline on Evil Dead's poster should read: "The most terrifying film you will ever experience...if you haven't experienced much else." Film Critic Armond White has a great line of thought that claims no one under 30 should be allowed to review films, since such a person has not had enough life experience to know much about art or life - if you haven't seen or done much, then everything is amazing/a masterpiece. While I express White's words rather facetiously here, the continued trends in horror films towards a desired intensity and extremity (cloaked in hyper-realism) have yet to articulate their numbing effects rather than simply embrace them. Alvarez provides a high level of gore, but so does every other slack-jawed director who continues to use horror merely as an "experience," rather than articulating contemporary fears through proficient, allegorical means. The drug addiction elements added here to stoicize Sam Raimi's 1982 gonzo-laugher original are funny, but only because of how astonishingly stone-faced the material is meant to be taken.

Renoir (Gilles Bourdos) 1/4
Renoir exemplifies a particular type of intended art house venture that's ultimately as intolerable as run-of-the-mill studio fare. Jean Renoir (Vincent Rottiers) returns after being wounded in WWI to his pastoral, summer home on the French Riveria to find Andree Heuschling (Christa Theret) posing for nudes with his father, world-renowned painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet), whose health is in a deteriorating state. It is both amusing and disheartening to read critics who say that Renoir is "sure to be one of the most visually stunning films of the year," since the only way one could think that is if one's ideal of cinematic beauty has more to do with setting than composition. Let's put it like this: everyone knows the French Riviera is "beautiful." Thus, even if a toddler pulls out an iPhone and starts shooting, the images will still look rather agreeable. I don't intend to compare Gilles Bourdos with a toddler - I simply mean to say that beauty within the frame is not the same as the beauty of the frame - the latter of which Renoir lacks in almost every scene. Rather, this bourgeois pablum, meant to be consumed by half-rick folks who want to feel "cultured" for an evening, merely wallows in its setting and voluptuous leading lady (you know, art), while dealing with decay and death as if Amour didn't happen (or Make Way for Tomorrow, for that matter). Are the images pretty? In an artificial, postcard sort of way, yes - but who considers postcards art?

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach) 4/4
The density of Frances Ha is likely to be missed by those quick to view it as merely a trifle - though Noah Baumbach pitches his latest at the tone of an ode to a city, a woman, and a film stock, the implications resound to the (mumble)core and, even, the feel and breadth of Woody Allen inspired by Francois Truffaut inspired by Jean Renoir. These perceived influences, however, which could undoubtedly be batted around and debated by cinephiles for hours, would too easily overlook what Baumbach is onto here - that being something of a cinematic crossroads, where the oppositional refusal to adhere to meaning, progress, and significance (DIY cinema) has reached a faux-apotheosis - the myth that everyone is a filmmaker. Frances Ha obliterates that notion not with outright self-reflexivity, but an implicit, underlying sense of how audio-visual idiosyncrasy and, as a by-product, societal malaise as filtered through self-identification have taken ironic detachment to its logical, "we blew it" ends. Frances Ha is to mumblecore what Scream was to slasher - Baumbach lays the belly of the beast bare, but in a multi-faceted, tumultuous manner that cannot be boiled down to a singular essence.

Man of Steel (Zack Snyder) 3/4
Christopher Nolan's fingerprints would be all over Man of Steel were it not for Zack Snyder's unmistakable eye for objects in-motion. Snyder has taken a bum rap for his previous, uber-spectacle work and, I must say, I've never particularly found much to his films beyond their kinetic experimentations. In Man of Steel, those interests are rooted in a Goyer/Nolan narrative of lost time, traumatic memories, and albatrossal duty, yet find a levity in combination with Snyder's CGIgasms and Hanz Zimmer's soft-when-it-wants-to, mean-when-it-needs-to score. Frankly, I could do without ever seeing another superhero film muddle its way through aggrandizing its titular hero as a Christ figure (especially after Neveldine/Taylor's Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance already proficiently deconstructed that tendency), but Snyder's knack for keeping the image and sound at a pulse-quickening clip, not just in terms of pacing, but actually paying attention to gravity within the different axes of the frame, remains impressive and, at times, exhilarating.

I'm So Excited! (Pedro Almodovar) 3/4
Like Frances Ha, Almodovar's latest is destined to be seen as a whimsical fluff piece for the director to occupy himself with before undertaking something weightier - wrong. One of the most Bunuelian films in years, I'm So Excited! takes Almodovar's acid-soap opera visual/narrative tendencies, then places them within a situation of near Exterminating Angel absurdity - a group of first-class passengers, unable to exit an airplane, which keeps circling its landing pad. The conceit also allows for aside jabs at American disaster films like Airport and Airplane, but the film's success rests in Almodovar's peppy tone and refusal to make matters simple. Plots remain necessary convoluted, but delightfully so, since these characters - all with a hang-up of some sort - co-exist through open sexual dialogue, innumerous shots of tequila, and tales of those walking below, which the film seldom visits in corporeal form. I'm So Excited is not the significant film Frances Ha is, but its altogether lively and sardonic sense of cinematic expression cannot be chalked up as a mere dalliance.

Maniac (Franck Khalfoun) 4/4
Those familiar with William Lustig's 1980 original should understand that film's significance - the articulation of urban space as concurrent with psychopathic insanity gained purchase through its use of empty streets, fragmented glimpses of the cityscape, and a de-centering of city space offered a proto post-modernist articulation for the alienation of the individual subject. Of course, these issues had previously been located at the heart of film noir, though it took Lustig's horror-noir to recognize the severity of the shift from paranoia to outright insanity. Keeping such a genesis in mind, one should not be surprised by Franck Khalfoun's decision to film the new Maniac almost entirely as a POV shot from Frank's (Elijah Wood) perspective. Savvy viewers will immediately make the link to Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake (1947) - not a very well made film, but fascination for its very same ploy. By recalling both Lustig and Montgomery, this Alexandre Aja/Gregory Levasseur scripted terror potentially bestows Khanfoun's film the same immediacy as Lustig's over thirty years ago. Rather than insist on fragmenting the city even further through a digital networking logic, Khalfoun's ingenious ploy to restore classical noir as the regime of vision, yet still concurrent with the beats, shades, and breathlessness of hyper-urbanity invigorates the bounds horror can push for socio-psychological expression.

The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski) 4/4
In his 2012 memorial of Andrew Sarris, Armond White rightly lambasted pundits who remembered Sarris by claiming he "loved movies," and that his work was "greater than any fanboy obsession," which speaks to what is happening within The Lone Ranger that ultimately separates it from the textually shallow Django Unchained. Interested in mining films for significance (visceral and narrative), rather than wallowing in their capacity for affectual bliss, Verbinski achieves a gamut-running effort to truly revise not just the Western, but the Action film as well (and within that, the Superhero film) - the Western's inevitable Urban spawn. Yet, like the Action film, The Lone Ranger views the progress towards Metropolis both an endlessly alluring and detrimental prospect. The greed of the villains (William Fichtner and Tom Wilkinson) corrupts a devoted officer (Barry Peppar) - the particulars of which intimate Wall Street lasciviousness for capital gains at the expense of values both material and symbolic. In that sense, the tidy moralist/lawman John Reid (Armie Hammer) is the Batman to Fichtner's Joker and Wilkinson's Two-Face - though, he is ultimately more Robin or, if you prefer, Jack Burton to Tonto's Batman (or Wang Chi). A Bruce Wayne-type that must ultimately embrace violence if he wishes to rid his community of corruption (and wear a mask, natch), Reid is a rather pathetic figure, given how naive his character plays within Verbinski's context. An idealist unable to understand underlying concepts of progress and evolution (in many senses), Reid aligns nicely with 2012's Dredd, another Urban-Western that infused such questions of law-abiding violence with noirish fatalism, particularly that of Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953). These men all believe they act out of a law-driven, secular righteousness. Reid proudly holds a copy of John Locke's "Two Treatisies of Government" and claims "this is my bible." Thus, the actions of rational men are aligned (and as anti-humanist) as religious dogma - though Verbinski implies that each are a necessary component of nation building. Yet, it speaks to an underlying idea of the revisionist Western - that the very sensibilities one uses to build a community (ambition, community, individual freedoms) will inevitably tear them apart. By locating such a logic across multiple genres, not just through visual signifiers, but through an ethos, The Lone Ranger is certain to remain one of the most textually (and visually) rich films of 2013.

Pacific Rim (Guillermo Del Toro) 2/4
Since Guillermo Del Toro's filmmaking has been almost neatly divided into two halves (three Spanish-language horror features and four horror-oriented Hollywood films), the arrival of Pacific Rim - easily the director's "largest" undertaking, at least in terms of budget - signifies something of a symbiosis of those two disparate career tracks, and asks an essential question: can one fuse small horror interests into a massive-budgeted sci-fi actioner? Moreover, an even more essential question: what is at stake in making these two lines join? The answer, it seems, is both muddled and troubling - at least, that's the central conclusion one must reach from viewing Pacific Rim, a film that is perhaps too smart for its own good, helmed by a man too knowledgeable (but in a geek's way) of films past, and altogether unpleasantly dedicated to winking replication of ethos past, rather than establishing one of its own for the 21st century. The film, which involves giant monsters (called Kaiju - they are bad) fighting giant robots (called Jaeger - they are man-made, thus good), the latter of which are created, manned (or wo-manned as it were) and funded with the explicit purpose of combating these mysterious creatures, is less an art film than an artfully-made commercial venture for Del Toro, meant to celebrate and embrace fanboy/girl proclivities rather than satirize them.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Queer Rurality: Nicole Seymour's "Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination"

Ecocriticism meets Queer Theory in Nicole Seymour's Strange Natures, a dense, multi-faceted examination of the ways in which recent works of literature and films have sought to overturn the notion that queerness is inherently against nature. In doing so, Seymour discusses films such as Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995) and Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005) to demonstrate how queer behavior not only transgresses the realm between public and private space, but also ways in which these outwardly queer films are also heavily concerned with economic and financial issues, such as the neoliberal shrinking of the public sphere, along with privatization of land ownership as concurrent with the privatizing-to-publicizing transformation of GLBTQI life. Moreover, the heart of these inquiries can be traced to an identification of queerness with urbanity - as being "unnatural" to spaces more often affiliated with nature, and that the juxtaposition of the two - the queer with the "natural," is inherently at odds. Seymour seeks to show how such inclinations are not only incorrect, but that futurity is explicitly tied to queer concepts, and political underpinnings as such have revealed themselves to demonstrate that tenets such as "denials of global warming so often seem to go hand in hand with homophobic agendas." Seymour aims to reconceptualize not just the dividing line between humans and non-human animals, but also embrace interdisciplinary modes of thought to bridge these often disparate methodologies.

Like many a monograph, Seymour adheres to a familiar structure: introduction, four chapters of case-studies, and a brief conclusion. The introduction serves the most rigorously theoretical function, though continuous engagement with theoretical concepts persists throughout. Basically, Seymour is interested by the ways in which approximately three decades (1960-1990) of thought have contested "nature" as a concept, and sought to "denaturalize" in order to reinterpret the underpinnings of dominant ideologies. The most rigorous (and convincing) study comes via Brokeback Mountain; in this chapter, Seymour convincingly demonstrates how queerness is, within the film, not only dealing with sexuality, but also, and perhaps predominately, the transgressions of lost capital for private interests. As Seymour explains it, Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) hires Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) as ranch hands to "maximize the profits of the private businessman using public land...the queerness of their actions, in other words, lies in how they disregard private, capitalist demands on public, natural space." Moreover, Seymour demonstrates how Aguirre's language ambiguously relates to both homosexual behavior and poor business practices. Thus, the language used is as much related to class-based equations (poor = lazy) as queer. Also entwined is the expression of "unruly desire" in public spaces, which Seymour nicely ties with the film Surf Party (Maury Dexter, 1964), which is briefly seen on-screen by Ennis at the drive-in. For Seymour, even dating back to such beach-blanket films, the inclination to relegate desire out of public space has primed an articulation for the queer ecological that Brokeback Mountain makes explicit.

Seymour's other chapters perform in much the same way - sharp, adept, and convincing, though the discussion of Safe slips a little too often into basic formal analysis disguised as a larger discussion on rethinking "regimes of visibility." Even in these lesser chapters, however, Seymour renders refreshing, revisionist readings. Furthermore, as any proficient scholar would, Seymour offers recourse to previous theory, from heavy-hitters such as Lee Edelman and Judith Butler to essential articles - namely, John D'Emilio's "Capitalism and Gay Identity," which "explains how capitalism produces the conditions necessary for individuals, and queer individuals in particular, to live outside of familial and reproductive structures, - but also produces homophobia and other forms of regulation to maintain the family and biological reproduction, thus reproducing itself by ensuring the next generation of workers." These types of inclusions make Seymour's line of thought difficult to dispute, as the paradoxical forms of late capitalism both ensure the presence, but guarantee the suppression, of queer life, much like the perpetuation of queer-as-urban discourses have afforded credence to a "nature-over-nurture" ethos that dominates many arguments against same-sex marriage. Seymour says that since "queer ecology and ecocriticism have been conceptually constrained by homophobic discourses that position queers as 'against nature,' as well as by queer discourses that embrace the designation as a form of dissonance," sound, alternative readings must appear to correct these errors in order to allow a "queer ecology" to emerge. Doing so would both reshape means for understanding nature/queer relations, but also end the idea that a queer ecology would be "strange." With brazen, well-wrought scholarship, Seymour has given such an endeavor a commendable dawn.

Strange Natures was released by University of Illinois Press on May 22. To purchase it, click here.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Digital Rebellions: Ulises Ali Mejias's "Off the Network: Disrupting the Digital World"

Activism and academia would seem to go hand-in-hand, but often, too much of the former is seen as a detriment to the latter, thus leaving many an academic monograph equivocating its political inclinations. Such is not the case with Ulises Ali Mejias's Off the Network: Disrupting the Digital World - one of the most provocative academic texts to be released in 2013. Provocative, not because of extreme claims regarding network ontology per se, but because Mejias makes his claims so fluidly and sensibly, that poking holes in his line of thought becomes not only difficult, but undesired. The overall thesis, in an exceedingly reductive form, is that networks (or, as a singular presence, the network) create inequality amongst users while perpetuating a myth of equality through democratic access to information and the ability to increase social capital through social media usage. That is, the network episteme, as Mejias calls it, "reinforces a narrative where participation is productive, while nonparticipation is destructive." Ultimately, these issues have resulted in a "nodocentrism," which accounts only for that which exists within the network, as only these nodes can be mapped, explained, or accounted for. Moreover, the network creates a monopsony, where there is only a singular buyer for a multitude of sellers (YouTube, Twitter). All of these inequalities, threats to democracy, and perpetuating of class-based income deficiencies can be traced to a network logic, which commodifies that which once belonged to the public sphere, in exchange for a fallacious sense of subjecthood belonging to individual users. Essentially, the public receives subjecthood through the network, while corporations see profit margins rise. The issues are confronted by Mejias, who seeks methods to disrupt both the network, itself, and its underlying logic. Mejias is not, however, calling for an outright rejection of the network, or its demise through illegal means such as hacking or piracy. However, he proposes that the way in which the network can ultimately crumble is if it were to be intensified to the point at which it negates itself, which can be achieved through what Mejias calls "unmapping."

If all of that sounds a tad abstracted, it's simply my attempted brevity. Mejias rarely leaves his theoretical claims as such without providing recourse to examples from the network. Referencing "Quit Facebook Day," colleges converting to Gmail, and YouTube videos, among others, Off the Network functions as a text for those new to such discussions, but would also be a welcomed addition to the bookshelves of the most hardened new media theorist. Mejias self-admits this wide-ranging desire for the book and, all things considered, he has ventured an excellent would-be manifesto, were the writing not as equally informative as it is political.

Underlying Mejias's claims are a theoretical framework drawing from the likes of Gilles Deleuze and Manuel DeLanda, primarily the former, from whom Mejias appropriates a discussion of the virtual and actual to explain network logic. Such a section serves a twofold purpose - to explicate the specificity of how the network is being conceptualized, but also to reintroduce readers to Deleuze's concepts, in a manner that is less introductory than explanatory. I am always struck in monographs by how the scholar chooses to handle information that most anyone affiliated with the field would already be familiar with. Here, Mejias introduces Deleuze not only by giving his first name, but by labeling him as "philosopher." Such is to be expected as in accordance with Mejias's introductory remarks, but he does not sacrifice rigorous scholarship for the sake of potential introductory readers - the analysis, itself, will be a challenge even for those steeped in Deleuzian language and philosophy, yet the end relation between the network and Deleuze proves apt, since as more and more aspects of the public sphere become controlled by private interests, the need to more concretely define the socio-economic functions of the network drastically increases.

If anything slacks Mejias's work, it's what often sullies any manifesto: a lack of real solutions, in favor of experimental suggestions. In other words, Mejias establishes the stakes with nuance, clarity, and compelling arguments, but the proposed resolutions, while fascinating in a theoretical sense, seem more ripe for their catchy alliterative potential than actual, practical basis. According to Mejias, the ways of disrupting or unthinking the network are to address three tenets: paradoxes, parasites, and paralogies. Unlike his earlier discussion of the network with example-based reasoning, Mejias opts to explain each of these proposed tactics through other theorists, substituting their claims for empirical evidence. For example, when discussing paralogies, Mejias simply explains the term from Jean-Francois Lyotard with quotes from Lyotard himself, as if his claims for their "resistance" capabilities suffices as data. In this case, after explaining the network through theory-example based reasoning, abandoning the earlier logic is detrimental to offering an applicable alternative. Furthermore, Mejias seemingly drops these proposals shortly after their introduction, mentioning paralogies only a single time more in the entire monograph.

These frustrations with a lack of examples are culled somewhat by a passage near the end concerning Alternate Reality Games (AGR), though it remains difficult to understand exactly how these tools pose any perceptible threat to disrupting the digital world. Nevertheless, any reader of academic-manifestos likely understands that concrete answers are seldom offered and, in most cases, even desired. Off the Network is perhaps an addendum to that rule, given the proficiency of the first half in making the economic inequalities of the network seem so egregious as to be obvious - though, of course, the user-as-product rule continues to operate unchallenged. At its heart, that is what makes Mejias's book so indispensable - its rigorous explanation of the ubiquitous on a comprehensible level. Though solutions for disruption remain unconvincing and largely absent, the idea of "unmapping" can seemingly take shape merely from the awareness of network ontology offered here. Mejias has provided an excellent starting point for further, "disruption"-based scholarship.

Off the Network was released by University of Minnesota Press on May 21st. To purchase the book, click here or to download a PDF, click here.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Interpellating Gurupá: Richard Pace and Brian P. Hinote's "Amazon Town TV"

The interdisciplinary aims of Richard Pace and Brian P. Hinote's Amazon Town TV make it a worthwhile venture, perhaps more than the actual scholarship itself, which breaks little new theoretical ground in terms of television studies, but does serve as a fascinating ethnographic study of the potential for television's sociocultural effects in Gurupá, Brazil. Of course, though Gurupá is the specific focus here, the approach is what will really be of importance to television scholars; Pace and Hinote spend the first section of the book defining their nearly 40 years-in-the-making project, which begins with a seemingly straightforward question: "What do you think of television?" Naturally, the rhetorical aspect is contingent upon the cultural standpoint of the respondent, and Pace and Hinote utilize this question throughout as a means to better understand "the long-term sociocultural impacts of television programming and thus pay critical attention to those messages that have been repeated over and over again for decades." These sociological aims are rather straightforward and expected for any such study; however, the methodology is what's of import here. As such, the pair adhere to what Jenny Kitzinger has termed "New Media Influence Research," which is a "hybrid assemblage of studies researching the interface between media's representations of reality and how viewers talk, think, and behave in response." Subsequently, major names such as Stuart Hall and his tripartite categories of reception (appropriated here into four) are discussed, as well as Pierre Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital. The methodological background is fleet and sparse, functional as both an introduction and refresher to these varying theoretical concepts.

Nevertheless, it is Louis Althusser's notion of interpellation which serves the basis for the monograph - that is, "the point at which an outside voice calls an individual, who by acknowledging or responding to the call becomes subject, in a sense being defined by the call." Thus, what's sought is an identification whereby the viewer acknowledges herself as subject and acts in response to being identifies as such. The key for Pace and Hinote is that they do not reject "positivistic epistemology" as a valid source of attaining information - something that a more "practice theory" based approach would reject.

The bulk of the book seeks to contextualize the ethnographic ends, which essentially involve much quantitative data related to the emergence of television within households, the types of programming that dominate much of the limited airwaves, and, finally, how the emergence of widespread televisions has potentially affected social views/behavior within Gurupá. As such, several chapters are subsequently devoted to the four reactions one may have to interpellation, which is Pace and Hinote's major theoretical contribution: heeding, missing, ignoring, or resisting. Tables, charts, and other empirical data contribute to forming the presence of each form of receiver communication. The rather rigorous data convincingly offers each of the four as not only distinct possibilities, but that they are not singular responses in-and-of themselves. That is, "even the most straightforward heeding of television's messages leaves room for viewer interpellation." These conclusions, if not revelations, function well as reinforcements.

Amazon Town TV, while a functional ethnographic study using television theory-based methodologies, reads a bit too much like an exercise/case study to be truly remarkable. Much of that can be attributed to the modest tone, which never claims to be reforming the field - instead, a contribution to it. Pace and Hinote seek a "nuanced understanding of how media influence operates," though their theoretical formations are less nuanced than appropriated, while their conclusions regarding Gurupá remain the heart and strength of the monograph. Therefore, as an area specific ethnographic study, Amazon Town TV is a rather proficient examination of the ways in which mediated-representations within a domestic space can have significant sociological effects.

Amazon Town TV was released by University of Texas Press on May 15th. To purchase, click here.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Pacific Rim (Guillermo Del Toro) 2/4

Since Guillermo Del Toro's filmmaking has been almost neatly divided into two halves (three Spanish-language horror features and four horror-oriented Hollywood films), the arrival of Pacific Rim - easily the director's "largest" undertaking, at least in terms of budget - signifies something of a symbiosis of those two disparate career tracks, and asks an essential question: can one fuse small horror interests into a massive-budgeted sci-fi actioner? Moreover, an even more essential question: what is at stake in making these two lines join? The answer, it seems, is both muddled and troubling - at least, that's the central conclusion one must reach from viewing Pacific Rim, a film that is perhaps too smart for its own good, helmed by a man too knowledgeable (but in a geek's way) of films past, and altogether unpleasantly dedicated to winking replication of ethos past, rather than establishing one of its own for the 21st century. The film, which involves giant monsters (called Kaiju - they are bad) fighting giant robots (called Jaeger - they are man-made, thus good), the latter of which are created, manned (or wo-manned as it were) and funded with the explicit purpose of combating these mysterious creatures, is less an art film than an artfully-made commercial venture for Del Toro, meant to celebrate and embrace fanboy/girl proclivities rather than satirize them.

As artfully-made product, Pacific Rim begins like many a sci-fi, near-apocalyptic feature, with a prologue that establishes the stakes. Voice-over spoken by the deep, throaty-masculine Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnan) explains the Kaiju's emergence on Earth, in a globe-trotting montage of destruction that goes from San Francisco, to London, to Hong Kong. Del Toro and cinematographer Guillermo Navaro do an excellent job of maintaining a sense of movement and clarity throughout these CGI sequences (nearly every scene of the film is CGI-laden), though there is seldom anything particularly note-worthy about the compositions, beyond their bend towards comprehension. The same could be said for the voice-over, which denies mystery through explication, rather than affording it through audio-visual exploration. Perhaps the highlight sequence of the film is the first battle sequence between a Kaiju/Jaeger, as the relinquishing of music gives way to a symphonic clanging, scraping, and wonking of mechanical/electronic ambiances that demonstrate how proficient Del Toro can be at constructing pure spectacle through sound/art design. The exchange of blows, much like the exchange of gunfire in John Woo films, attains a balletic grace and offers a visceral charge at the giving over to embracing noise and fury over language.

Problem is, Pacific Rim cannot maintain its interest in such spectacle because feature filmmaking necessitates a narrative as well. That narrative is less an ingenuity-guided deconstruction of genre principles than a reinforcement of them - only less mindful viewers will find anything subversive here. Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) needs a squadron of pilots to helm a newly constructed series of Jaegers to combat a new-and-improved breed of Kaiju. He thus calls upon Raleigh, now working as a construction worker since his brother was killed in the prologue (past trauma); Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a brainiac, but untested noob with past trauma; and Dr. Newt Geiszler (Charlie Day), a goofy scientist who stumbles upon a special ability to communicate with Kaiju. The central conceit of the first 1/3 is a knowing construction of camaraderie between an initially contentious, but ultimately strong core of individuals. However, screenwriter Travis Beacham and Del Toro find little truly intelligent avenues to take these characters and their backgrounds. Unlike, say, Starship Troopers, which gave itself over to more absurd, darkly violent inclinations, Pacific Rim has its players simply spar, both in simulated (and innocuous) sequences of hand-to-hand combat and a slew of "She's ready!"/"She's not ready!" exchanges. Once the new Jaegers fight the new Kaiju, the sequences become a rehash of the opening's strengths (which become less with each subsequent copy) and are sullied by a silly premise that the Jaegers must be piloted by two people, each of whom must "drift" together (or place their minds on an identical frequency) in order to operate the machine. This necessarily leads to a moment when one pilot is paralyzed by a memory and the other pilot must "go in" and break the drift. Instead of using such a premise to engage surrealistic imagery, Del Toro plays it like Inception-lite, using a nearly identical sequence structure and sensibility. The remainder of the film, though it features several gorgeous monchromatic, neon-infused shots/sequences, plays out on much the same knowingly goofy frequency.

Perhaps the only refreshing aspect to Pacific Rim is its unit-based sense of meaning, built less on introspection than teamwork. However, that is only refreshing given current aesthetic/narrative trends and is less new than retrograde - empty Nationalism devoid of real-world referents. That is, above all, what makes Pacific Rim so harmless and too-easily digestible - its preference for "we saved-the-day", rather than "we blew it" discursive measures. If Pacific Rim is just supposed to be "a good time," then that says more about its makers and audience than the film itself.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski, 2013) 4/4

The Lone Ranger is destined to be the most underappreciated mainstream release of 2013, primarily because critics are unable to comprehend (and deciper) sophisticated revisionist filmmaking. Take even the opening ten minutes here: set against the Golden Gate Bridge's construction in San Francisco 1933, the CGI image is as wonderfully metonymic as the deteriorating buildings that open Antonioni's L'Avventura (if not as suitably relegated to the background of the film's "subjects'). That is - in Antonioni, the fractured structures are deterioration, while with Gore Verbinski, the image is a symbol of progress - or is it? The question of destruction or progress becomes a key theme and visual metaphor throughout The Lone Ranger, whose revisionism is fully conscious of it's anti-Western 1970's brethren, though it also acknowledges the indisputable mythos and glee that informs both genre filmmaking and pre-Vietnam Westerns. Perhaps a viewer could call this dual-tact hypocritical, but such an estimation would forgo an understanding of where the Western both came from, was morphed into, and how it - as a relic - can still hold meaning today.

Can societal construction, much like genre filmmaking, be simultaneous destructive and enriching? Is there truly a double bind that accompanies mythologizing and archetyping, one so inextricably entwined within a visual-verbal lexicon, that do defy signifiers is merely a reversal, one that simply replaces an old with new? For Verbinski - yes - these heads/tails options leave little room for understanding the depths that not only inform Nationalistic narratives, but also very little room to actually feel rather than think the mythos, which is what The Lone Ranger seeks, and is quite proficient, at doing.

To the film specifically: a young boy wanders around the fairgrounds of that 1933 setting to find a small wax museum. In it, a Native-American statue stands, with the name plate "The Noble Savage." Such an explicit use of the term, in addition to having the statue "narrate" the film (the statue is actually an old, craggily make-up Tonto (Johnny Depp) will immediately recall Arthur Penn's Little Big Man for those who know it), immediately announces itself as interested in grappling with mythos. Unlike Django Unchained, for all its allusion-heavy, often striking visual palette, The Lone Ranger is interested in film-as-essay, while Tarantino is interested in film-as-wish-fulfillment. The former is a more daring, difficult approach - yet again one unappreciated by tamed-attraction seeking critics. The explicit identification of an archetype through visual-textual means pays reverence to both a cultural and critical past, while being irreverent enough to question its legitimacy. Moreover, Verbinski seeks to marry the big-budget action film with the politics of a revisionist Western, a move that, to my knowledge, makes it a rather one-of-a-kind film. Yet, the merging of high politics and low spectacle is one that ultimately makes a great deal of aesthetic sense, as it unveils a true understanding of film lore (and fascination with such lore) that is not only founded upon cinephilia, but its capacity to indoctrinate.

In his 2012 memorial of Andrew Sarris, Armond White rightly lambasted pundits who remembered Sarris by claiming he "loved movies," and that his work was "greater than any fanboy obsession," which speaks to what is happening within The Lone Ranger that ultimately separates it from the textually shallow Django Unchained. Interested in mining films for significance (visceral and narrative), rather than wallowing in their capacity for affectual bliss, Verbinski achieves a gamut-running effort to truly revise not just the Western, but the Action film as well (and within that, the Superhero film) - the Western's inevitable Urban spawn. Yet, like the Action film, The Lone Ranger views the progress towards Metropolis both an endlessly alluring and detrimental prospect. The greed of the villains (William Fichtner and Tom Wilkinson) corrupts a devoted officer (Barry Peppar) - the particulars of which intimate Wall Street lasciviousness for capital gains at the expense of values both material and symbolic. In that sense, the tidy moralist/lawman John Reid (Armie Hammer) is the Batman to Fichtner's Joker and Wilkinson's Two-Face - though, he is ultimately more Robin or, if you prefer, Jack Burton to Tonto's Batman (or Wang Chi). A Bruce Wayne-type that must ultimately embrace violence if he wishes to rid his community of corruption (and wear a mask, natch), Reid is a rather pathetic figure, given how naive his character plays within Verbinski's context. An idealist unable to understand underlying concepts of progress and evolution (in many senses), Reid aligns nicely with 2012's Dredd, another Urban-Western that infused such questions of law-abiding violence with noirish fatalism, particularly that of Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953). These men all believe they act out of a law-driven, secular righteousness. Reid proudly holds a copy of John Locke's "Two Treatisies of Government" and claims "this is my bible." Thus, the actions of rational men are aligned (and as anti-humanist) as religious dogma - though Verbinski implies that each are a necessary component of nation building. Yet, it speaks to an underlying idea of the revisionist Western - that the very sensibilities one uses to build a community (ambition, community, individual freedoms) will inevitably tear them apart. By locating such a logic across multiple genres, not just through visual signifiers, but through an ethos, The Lone Ranger is certain to remain one of the most textually (and visually) rich films of 2013.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

2013 Films (The Second 10)

Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay (Molly Bernstein) 2/4

Filmmakers are not required to be reflexive by profession, but more often than not, it sure would help. Such is the case with this rather pedestrian documentary about a rather extraordinary man - one whose face cinephiles will undoubtedly recognize from the films of David Mamet and Paul Thomas Anderson (the latter's films are not even mentioned in this doc). However - Deceptive Practice is much more concerned with Ricky Jay the magician - a master sleight-of-hand whose live performances sell-out auditoriums and even get put on Broadway (directed by Mamet, no less). Yet, Molly Bernstein's doc lacks the pulse-quickening disappearing acts that make Jay's work (and life) so fascinating. Rather than use Jay's self-account as a means to explore cinema (and especially documentary) as historical narrative - one whose abilities to turn impossibility into reality has remained an illusion since Melies and the Lumiere bros first help create the medium - Bernstein lacks even the ability to establish a coherent timeline, jettisoning from interview to interview across decades, and ultimately seeing Jay as an end in-and-of himself. Such would be the case were the filmmaking not so content to maintain such an even keel.

The Lords of Salem (Rob Zombie) 3/4

2013 is making a wonderful case for the fact that originality within the cinematic medium has died. That is - nearly every film under consideration here draws heavily upon prior cinematic influences. Such should not be a surprise with Rob Zombie, whose entire oeuvre to date has been built upon homage and revisionism. The Lords of Salem is no different, but the mean through which Zombie finds his one-two punch here is more in-depth than usual. Picking up where Halloween II's psycho-surreal sequences left off, Zombie has decided to fully embrace his inner-Jodorowsky, placing wife Sheri Moon's radio DJ into bizarro scenarios that frequently slip into ambient sounds and ritual-sexual imagery. The combination is often striking, even alluring, but it would be difficult to commend Zombie for anything more than eloquent pastiche. There's a certain beauty in the ugly here, especially in several domestic set scenes, that echos Polanski's best work. That's really all it is though - an echo. Zombie is too far from the referent, too wallowing in his own desire to be an original, that even the sharpest moments lack the audacity and fervor found in those 1970's real-deal classics.

Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski) 2/4

A Dune-like effort that's more slog than slick, Joseph Kosinski's sophomore film seeks to replace the sheen and gloss of Tron: Legacy with an existential air to carry the current of his mundane vision of post-human existence. That's not to say the images aren't striking - perhaps they are, but mainly in terms of effects-driven images, rather than an acute eye for framing. Even more disappointing, the score from M83 routinely slips into what could be mistaken as a scratch-score for nearly every sci-fi Blockbuster. If there's anything distinguished about Oblivion, it would be the insistence on maintaining a particularly muted tonal pitch, which ebbs-and-flows at times whenever an action sequence is required. Even so - the bombast remains low, the interest in rhythm strong - but said interest rarely translates into productive, affectual rhythms. Give Kosinski credit for the effort, but not too much credit for the relatively limp final product.

Mud (Jeff Nichols) 2/4

Jeff Nichols is going the way of David Gordon Green. Shotgun Stories, his first feature, had a hard-edged grit, which lead Michael Shannon superbly performed. Take Shelter, his second, remained a strong work focused in psychological deterioration as product of latent Biblical fears, though the edge wasn't quite as refined. Now - with Mud - Nichols has lapsed into Oscar-baiting territory, providing an ensemble cast with "big" moments to satisfy their actorly urges, dialogue heavy scenes that reveal fairly simplistic binaried philosophies, and a coming-of-age core that remains reductive throughout. Moreover, Nichols's camera is often steady rather than audacious, his editing straight-laced. There are also questionable gender issues, such as young Ellis's (Tye Sheridan) interest in an older girl as evidence of his desired manhood. Young Ellis sees women betray both himself and Mud (Matthew McConaughey) throughout and that underlying perspective is less examined that perpetuated. Finally, once a ridiculous shootout commences as the denouement, it is clear that Mud is merely muck.

Pain & Gain (Michael Bay) 3/4

The hate against Michael Bay has always been unfair. He is what scholar Tom Gunning calls "The Cinema of Attractions." There is something to be said for spectacle over narrative - it tends towards affect far more, even if the images are "stupid," as Julia Kristeva might say. But - there's nothing very stupid at all about Pain & Gain - more an embrace of the absurd. In fact, Bay's cinema has always tended towards achieving a sort of visceral bliss which, to Bay at least, seems to come through loud, industrial/mechanic sounds, bombastic music, and grandiose figures in movement. Instead of robots here, it's body builders, but the effect remains nearly the same. Of course, there are no clanging-metal battles atop sky-scrapers, but the pursuit of Adonis-like perfection, be it physical, material, aesthetic, or psychological, is the driving force of Bay's work. Has a filmmaker ever been so over-loaded with signifiers? The images will singe the retinas with their humor-based suggestivity.

The Iceman (Ariel Vroman) 2/4

The Iceman might be my last biopic. On the whole - they are terrible. For whatever reason, those who direct them rarely have any playful or worthwhile sensibilities. The one significant exception is Frank Perry's Mommie Dearest - likely the best of all-time. That's because the film routinely descends into anarchic historicism - of course, this likely explains why that film won many Razzies. Here, Michael Shannon's titular hitman is give Goodfellas-Sopranos-lite material, none of which ever finds an even modestly satisfactory insanity. Shannon seems game - you can practically feel the rage seething from his eyes - but director Ariel Vroman does not capitalize on his actor, nor the inherently domestic-absurd scenario - hitmen with kids. The material is ripe for satirical melodrama, perhaps even a Written on the Wind - with mafioso. Alas, Vroman hits the matinee beats with seeming disinterest. Why make these movies if they aren't going to be batshit?

Star Trek Into Darkness (J.J. Abrams) 3/4

All of J.J. Abrams's films suck - except this one. Brilliantly, Abrams has instilled the latest Star Trek with a truly 21st century attitude, from the dancefloor-like shootouts - the noises of which could be mistaken for EDM drops - to the urban-spaces gone post-human, epitomized by Benedict Cumberbatch's mechanical-electronic posturings, the affect here is fully palpable. The lens flares actually work here too, since the idea that everything-is-a-light-show has become part of a refracted digital reality, within and outside of the film. The cast is affable enough and all look great in both their suits and Abrams's effective canted angles. Close-ups pop - the flick moves at a nice clip. The title is a misnomer - this is Star Trek Out Of Geekdom Darkness, and into the rhythmic flows of a fully post-human realm, where electricity is required. There's nary a power outage here - shit sparks.

Before Midnight (Richard Linklater) 3/4

The titles of Richard Linklater's so-far trilogy deliberately recall both Yasujiro Ozu and Eric Rohmer. Each of those incomparable directors used seasonal settings as a means (more a backdrop, perhaps) to explore the seeming peccadillos of human relationships, though the ramifications of time past/lost often bestowed those outward trifles with a much deeper resonance. Through sensibility, Linklater is seeking to marry the two - Rohmer's sexual dance, Ozu's socio-familial dynamics. Linklater is not as successful as either of those filmmakers, however, since his moves are borrowed - this is not the original. Not that these cribs render Before Midnight unworthy - in fact, the pleasure of hearing the lead pair converse often functions as reason alone to stay engaged. Yet the whole of it is rather manufactured and vacillates between homage and revision - albeit deftly. Thus, a smart curator would pair this and The Lords of Salem for a double feature. Discerning cinephiles would nod in approval.

This is the End (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg) 3/4


A would-be The Day of the Locust for the 21st century comedian, the unlikability of a host of vain celebrities is the point of the film. These guys are dicks. That's why they weren't saved and left to fend for themselves. Their "celebrity" status behavior has rendered them so. To complain that the film is unsuccessful because it features selfish, petulant characters is to misunderstand the satirical bent - these characters are meant to be reviled, while laughing riotously at both the inherently ridiculous scenario and their outrageous behavior. The satire comes up a bit short, especially in the last 1/3, however. The celebrity-as-sinner conceit is mostly given lip-service in favor of extended, frantic exchanges and scenarios, 90% of which are inspired and hilarious, though do little to deepen and darken the inevitable judgments. When the film should get real, it goes soft, and doesn't follow through on earlier convictions. Still - the satirical elements make this a must-see for anybody remotely interested in these actors, their previous films, or questions involving celebrity vanity.

The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola) 2/4

Discern the difference between Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring, and you are on your way to mastering the notion of effective affect. The former is produced through a complex formation of affectation through disaffection, which manifests in the film's form and interests, themselves. Sofia Coppola's latest, whose oeuvre I have always been a fan of, has apparently been caught in David Fincher's headlights, as each beat desperately tries to mimic the tone and pitch of The Social Network, down to even cutaways to courtroom segments and interviews. Coppola's idea of affect is slow-motion club scenes, Fincher-fake montages, and a shot to culminate the film's final courtroom scene so hokey and Van Sant-inspired, that any sense of feeling or meaning collapses on Coppola's "feel nothing" ethos. Even the use of several tracks from Ye's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" feel late as fuck.