Saturday, August 29, 2015

Gifted

Rebecca Hall in The Gift (2015)

The Gift (2015, directed by Joel Edgerton) is one of those psychological thrillers that it's best to approach without any fore-knowledge of its plot. All the better to surprise the viewer. Unlike many such films, this isn't a film that turns on a single transparent plot point--a twist, as it were--because it's scenario doesn't deliver just a single shock at the end. It delivers multiple shocks at the end. Almost anything I say about this film is a spoiler, by the way, so if you're inclined to see the film and you're sensitive to spoilers, you should stop reading now and come back after you've seen it.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Trans Women Scorned

Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Tangerine (2015)

It's been a while since I've been as conflicted about a film as I am about Tangerine (2015, directed by Sean Baker). It's a film that pulses with cinematic invention. Famously filmed on iPhones, it's a film that pushes at the edges of the ever-advancing boundaries of what low-budget filmmakers can do. In spite of its formal qualities, though, it's a film that gets snarled in the politics of representation. True, its various trans characters are played by actual trans people, and it forgoes that laziest of trans storylines, the process of transition. But troublesome representations remain.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Say, UNCLE

Henry Cavill in The Man From UNCLE (2015)

The Man from UNCLE (2015, directed by Guy Ritchie) finds Hollywood trying to breathe life into another pre-sold "franchise," preferably one that it doesn't have to do any heavy lifting to reanimate. God forbid anyone have to pay writers and directors to create something new and untested. The marketing department would shit bricks. I think Warner Brothers may have over-extended themselves on this one, reaching back too far into the past, well beyond the nostalgic memories of their core audience. Who under forty remembers The Man from UNCLE? It's not as if TV reruns are even a thing anymore to put it in front of a potential audience. This is the trap that the Mission: Impossible films avoided by getting things started twenty years ago, when its own source material was still in the cultural memory, and by making its own brand out of it with Tom Cruise's face. The new Man From UNCLE film doesn't have the benefit of a branded movie star, either. I feel bad for Armie Hammer, who has been at the epicenter of two flailing attempts to capitalize on the fading memory of old cultural white noise. He's like a guy who keeps getting struck by lightning. The movie itself? Well, a movie can stand or fall on its own, and if it's good, maybe it will work. In truth, the new version of The Man From UNCLE isn't bad, per se, though it's not particularly good, either.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Clobberin Time

Fantastic Four (2015)

I don't hate Tim Story's Fantastic Four films. Oh, don't get me wrong: they botch a lot of things (most notably Dr. Doom and Galactus) and apart from Chris Evans, they're mostly miscast. And yet, there are parts of those films I really liked. I liked seeing Johnny Storm go all Super Skrull in the second one (a flaming rocky fist at the end of  a stretchy arm made me laugh out loud when I saw it). I liked The Silver Surfer, who was wonderfully well-realized. Story's films understand one important thing: the Fantastic Four ought to be fun, and that's a tone that his films strove for throughout. In some ways, they're out of step with the zeitgeist. They appeared right as the Christopher Nolan versions of grimdark superhero appeared, and their goofy naivete withers in comparison, at least in the fanboy massmind that equates grimdark with "realistic." They never really stood a chance in the marketplace of ideas.


The Fantastic Four are the bedrock of what became Marvel Comics and they deserve better than they've gotten from the movies. They certainly deserve better than Fox's new version of the characters. Fantastic Four (2015, directed by Josh Trank), which caves to the grimdark aesthetic. It's a glum film, shot in desaturated colors, fraught with angst and psychological theorizing. It's also occasionally incoherent, as if two separate movies had been stitched together in post-production, one a post-modern horror movie, the other a dumb superhero movie. It's an uneasy mixture, and tonally wrong almost from beginning to end.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Hitting the Small Time

Paul Rudd in Ant-Man (2015)

Ant-Man (2015, directed by Peyton Reed) finds the Marvel superhero franchise experimenting with genre. The superhero film is flexible if you're not hellbent on destroying cities. Marvel, more than their cinematic competitors, have been more committed to this idea than you might expect. They've placed their superheroes within epic fantasies, space operas, and conspiracy thrillers. Ant-Man is a heist film. Given the backstage drama that accompanied its production, it's a surprisingly nimble and fun movie. It's not without its drawbacks, though, not least of which is its gender politics and Marvel's gender politics more generally. Still, it manages to be Marvel's best film of the summer, which isn't something I expected.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Rich and Famous

Amy Winehouse in Amy (2015)

I wasn't a fan of Amy Winehouse during her lifetime. Not because I disliked her music--I rarely heard her music in the radio wasteland where I live. She just wasn't on my radar beyond what was printed in the tabloids, and even then my familiarity consisted only of headlines glimpsed in supermarket lines. This says more about how music is marketed these days than it does about her music by itself. One of the legacies of Amy (2015, directed by Asif Kapadia), the new documentary about her life, is to establish the magnitude of Winehouse's talent, which was immense. That's a fitting enough epitaph for an artist whose creative life was tragically short. But appreciation of Amy Winehouse isn't the ultimate effect of the film. One walks away from the film feeling a mixture of sadness and rage. It's an indictment of the fame monster (to borrow a phrase from another pop diva), of the machineries of stardom, of our culture's insatiable obsession with celebrity. In documenting the life of Amy Winehouse, this film is holding up an accusing mirror to the culture that destroyed her.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Final Problem

Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes

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

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Salting the Soil


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


Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Future, Postponed

Terminator: Genisys

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


Saturday, June 20, 2015

Fang and Claw

Chris Pratt in Jurassic World

My long-suffering partner has much simpler demands of movies than I do. For example: when she sits down to watch a movie about dinosaurs, she expects to see those dinos eating people. In this regard, she was mildly disappointed in the original Jurassic Park, in which very few people were actually eaten by dinosaurs and only one was spectacularly eaten on-screen. Mind you, she approved whole-heartedly of the film's disposition of the lawyer character, but in the long run, it was a brief moment. It's fair to say that she was thrilled with the newest "Jurassic" film, Jurassic World (2015, directed by Colin Trevorrow), though. This is a film that throws plenty of chum to the dinosaurs. I suppose I can't fault it for giving the audience what they paid to see.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Ultron Unbound

Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, and Jeremy Renner in Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) finds the Marvel Cinematic Universe entering its decadent period. I'd almost call it the series' Bronze Age, to borrow the nomenclature of comics. This should be a period when the storytelling in these films ramps up because the need for origin stories has been satisfied by the previous movies, a period when it should be doing its Galactus trilogy, its Kree/Skrull war, its Dark Phoenix saga. Certainly, that's part of why Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the best of the Marvel movies. That movie also had crackerjack storytelling and a defined source text. This film, on the other hand? It's stuffed to the gills with new characters, but not many new ideas. More, it's obviously the middle child in a trilogy, one that's weighted down with far too much franchise-building. Does it provide superheroics? Sure. But at this point, it should be providing more. Maybe I'm asking too much. I mean, it's not awful by any means. I suspect that after 38 movies based on Marvel Comics (with a 39th and 40th due in the next couple of months), I'm suffering from superhero fatigue.

Monday, June 01, 2015

White Elephant Blogathon: Voyage To The Bottom of the Sea


When I opened the email containing this year's White Elephant, I was convinced that I had seen my film before. It turns out that I was confusing Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea with The Neptune Factor. I saw The Neptune Factor at a kid's matinee when I was seven or eight. That film had dodgy special effects that pit its all-star cast against giant goldfish. In comparison, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea looks pretty good. In truth, it's faint praise.


Two of the most arresting scenes in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961, directed by Irwin Allen) come in the first act. In the first, during the tour of the Seaview, the film's super submarine, we come across a trumpeter playing for his mess buddies and for the Admiral's secretary. In the film's only unconventional shot, the camera focuses on Barbara Eden's gyrating bottom. The second finds the submarine being pummeled by boulders of ice sinking from the polar icecap. Ice. Sinking. Or how about that shark pool that doesn't spill over its banks when the ship dives at steep angles. Given that the motivating disaster for this movie finds the earth's Van Allen belts catching fire and roasting the world, it's fair to say that this is not a film for anyone with even a passing acquaintance with science. Indeed, it's a film that probably plays best to nine year-olds. If anyone older than that makes the mistake of thinking about what's on screen, then, well, the whole thing falls apart early. And that's before it even gets to its big special effects scenes.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Start Your Engines

Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron in Mad Max Fury Road

There was a guy on Twitter assigning "Mad Max" names the week after Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, directed by George Miller) opened. I missed out on that, because I'm sure he got swamped almost immediately. Fury Road is an instant cult classic of a sort that hasn't been seen in many a long year, so it's inevitable that its devotees will want to commune with it. Like its predecessors back in the day Fury Road has some unusually splendid names. I doubt the Twitter guy was able to improve on them, even as people lined up to get one. I mean, how does one improve upon names like Rictus Erectus or Cheedo the Fragile or Corpus Colossus? To say nothing of Imperator Furiosa.


Mad Max: Fury Road is the kind of film where incoherent babbling is almost a reasonable response to what one has just seen. When I got out of the theater, I muttered, "Well, that's the goddamnedest thing." It's been a long while since I walked out after a movie ready to turn around and walk right back in to see it again. I almost wish that I had before sitting down to write about it, because it's a film of such baroque imagining that I'm sure that I missed countless offhand details. The first experience of the film is overwhelming. It's a film designed to overwhelm, but unlike many other films similarly conceived, this is a film that manages to accomplish this aim and then some. I suspect that, like its predecessors, it's a film that will generously repay repeat viewings.



Sunday, May 24, 2015

...I Am Rather the Fallen Angel

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina

Ex Machina (2015, directed by Alex Garland) has the great misfortune of following too soon after Her, a legitimately great film about artificial intelligence and the idea of The Singularity that dealt with its themes with grace, wit, humanity, and a sense of hope that humanity's children will take from us love and mercy and everything else that is best about us. Although it shares some basic ideas about the nature of artificial intelligence and name-checks The Singularity in the text of its dialogue, Ex Machina is not similarly hopeful. Ava, the artificial intelligence in Ex Machina, has a very real grievance with her creator, who fails to realize the moral and ethical implications of dismantling a thinking, self aware being in order to "improve" it.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Heinlein in Hollywood part 3: Closing the Loop

Ethan Hawke in Predestination

Robert A. Heinlein is typically considered one of the grand masters of the so-called "Golden Age of Science Fiction," that period just before World War II when the genre began to take itself seriously as literature. The Golden Age writers were typically hard nosed about realistic science within the boundaries of what was then known. Sometimes, their rigor resulted in startling predictive powers. Mostly, they resulted in complicated problems for the characters in the stories. In many ways, Heinlein was the architect of this movement. He was the most popular writer in John W. Campbell's Astounding, the primary outlet for the Golden Age writers, and his mixture of plain-spoken Americana and futurism was the template for science fiction for the next two decades. His characters may have worked in outer space, but they smoked Luckies and chased girls like everyone else. Toward the end of the 1950s the landscape of literary science fiction began to change. Social sciences began to form as much of the background of future societies as the physical sciences. Writers like Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester, and Cyril Kornbluth began to explore the effects of the future on the psychology of its characters rather than having those characters just act in response to plot. By the late fifties, a new crop of writers was waiting to upset the apple cart. Science fiction's "New Wave" was less beholden to science and more interested in literary values like character, theme, and language. Older writers, brought up on the technocratic Golden Age, either adapted or found other work. Robert Heinlein turned out to be particularly adaptable. His major novels of the 1960s are a fusion of the old and the new. The technological future is still there, but the problems are dramatically different. Heinlein's fiction turned inward.


Predestination (2014, directed by the Spierig Brothers) is the first film since Destination: Moon to approach Robert Heinlein on his own terms. It's a very different species of movie, though. The story it's based on, "...All You Zombies," is as close to the science fiction New Wave as Heinlein ever came, and this film reflects that pedigree. It's not a film that will wow you with technology or with its vision of the future. It's a dingy movie that exists as much in the past as it does in the future. Its central motivating idea--time travel--wasn't even novel in 1959, when the story was written, let alone in 2015. There are time travel stories without number these days. Instead, this is a movie about extrapolation from that idea, intent on pulling it inside out and twisting it almost to the point of breaking. Where previous films based on Heinlein have been cartoons, based only on the plots of his books and not their underlying ideas, this film dives into the core of what makes Heinlein's fiction so memorable in the first place. Perhaps, this is because it's faithful to its source material almost to a fault. Or perhaps it's because its source material isn't the rockets and warfare and aliens stuff that has attracted other filmmakers to Heinlein over the years. Instead, this is a film that dives into the interior of its characters and speculates on matters of identity and existence.