Thursday, June 21, 2018

Scream 2 / ***1/2 (1997)

The opening scene of “Scream 2” contains a dialogue on horror films as a device of exploitation on minorities – particularly for African Americans, who are routinely the first to die at the end of a knife-wielding madman. That the comment is delivered by a character played by Jada Pinkett is not ironic; because the movie knows it must play by similar rules, however self-aware, her observation will serve as prophecy as she and her boyfriend are murdered by a masked maniac at a local screening on the night of her proclamation. No, the true irony is found above them: the film they have shown up to see is a Hollywood retelling of the Woodsboro murders from the year prior, which have been sensationalized into a cheap slasher knock-off at the expense of the survivors. This reality is expressed with a striking clarity during the close of the opening scenes, in which Pinkett’s character is stabbed with incessant conviction by a hooded figure just as the audience behind her engages in uproarious cheers at the murder going on in the light of the projector. Only when she walks up towards the screen and lets out one last horrific scream do they realize a fatal tragedy has transpired among the crowded seats of the screening room: their embrace of the violence has inherently created a perfect storm for their ambivalence to a literal manifestation of it.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Annihilation / **** (2018)

The fundamental component of any descent into the unknown is an unresolved emotional wound lurking beneath the exterior, consistently haunting the main character as they confront dangers in the present. A riveting acid test frequently rises in this duality: without the ability to reach closure with the past, how does one find the courage to confront something sinister staring back at them? It is a measure of psychology scurrying deeply through a great number of modern thrillers that puts heightened emphasis on the stakes of the survivors, and somehow as they attempt to outwit devilish creatures, ambiguous aliens or supernatural terrors we become facets of their struggle, right down to the obligatory climactic moment when they have no choice but to relive the old pain just as mortality seems within reach. Think of the grief of losing a daughter and how it propels the heroine of “The Descent,” for instance, who is forced to relive memories of her child’s final birthday as monsters in a dark cave close in towards her location: is it the idea of the creatures that is disturbing, or that a universe who spawns them is unwilling to spare a woman who is already barely functioning?

Monday, June 4, 2018

Lessons from Criterion:
"The Bridge" by Bernhard Wicki

The bridge persists as a stubborn link between a decaying empire and imminent liberation, defended enthusiastically by seven young men on the precipice of mortal danger. They wear masks that distort their notion of the inevitable, but not merely out of ignorance; they have been molded by the vehement enthusiasm of nationalism, which remains unchanged even after buildings have crumbled and soldiers have been erased from the battlefields. Most of them are all too eager to step in as defenders of their treasured Reich, though the faces of their parents reflect a more anxious concern. In one notable moment, for instance, one of the mothers tearfully pleas with her son to ignore the drafting letter he has received, insisting that he flee to the country to stay with relatives. He declines, grinning the whole way, which places emphasis on the underlying conflict: can these teenage boys be faulted for being slaves to the pure and idealistic, even as the possibilities of triumph seem lost in a haze of downtrodden confessions? Perhaps it is more sobering to see them as symbols of the uncultivated, especially under the rule of the Nazis: because this essentially made them the most expendable in an impending fight against enemy combatants, an obligatory defeat only aggravates the wound created by their destructive occupation.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Lessons from Criterion:
"Nashville" by Robert Altman

To ponder Robert Altman’s “Nashville” is not merely to examine a profoundly important movie, but to deal with the very birth of a filmic ideal: the thorough gestation of a concept that rings with persistence even in these times of redundant outlooks and simplified meanings. Some have referred to it as the first fully improvised screen endeavor of its kind, but that only trivializes the point; born from a 140-page screen treatment – and one that was famously dismissed by studio heads as an inconsequential exercise – the endeavor reflected the resonant artistic yearning that followed its filmmaker through much of his early career, where narratives became increasingly secondary to behavior and atmosphere. At the threshold of those desires, under the firm hand of his own control, his most famous film found a footing and, in the process, transformed the very cinema that was already knee-deep in irreverence and counterculture. A first-time observer might absorb the images and see only a snapshot of a series of lives as they descend on a single event, but those who contemplate underlying ramifications will recognize almost oracular insights: the threat of political populism, the deceptive lure of entertainment and even the indifference of casual onlookers. No other picture of its kind so accurately predicted the social transitions of the modern age, or did so with such casual assurance.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Lessons from Criterion:
"The Ascent" by Larisa Shepitko

The gifted Larisa Shepitko was 39 years old, four films into her career and on the verge of more when “The Ascent” first emerged as a blip on the radar, placing her among the most promising new commodities of 1970s Russian cinema. Patterned in the tradition of a persistent arsenal of anti-war hits about the Nazi occupation, hers was an adjunct that also drew upon more precarious sources – particularly the legend of Jesus Christ, who like the hero of her story became a willing sacrifice as penance for the sins of others.  Was there a thread running parallel between both that she felt mirrored the context of the war? Perhaps a reasoning, or a justification, for the history we know was to follow? Her protagonist, the stone-eyed Sotnikov, is not exactly a warm and embracing personality, and early on he is handicapped by ailments – and then a gunshot wound – that keep him from more profound gestures. But even as the prey in a doomed hunt he materializes, unbroken in his humanity, as a willing casualty in the jaws of fate, even though the key figures among him seem all too eager to use his martyrdom as their own safeguard.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Vertigo / **** (1958)

So many essays have been penned about Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” generally considered to be his greatest film, that a barrier occurs in any attempt to say something fresh or stirring about the material on screen. Most conversations tend to begin with the parallels of his life and that of his hero – how a methodical conductor of creative impulses sought so earnestly to achieve a perfect technical modulation from behind the camera that he manifestly wrote his obsessive qualities into the visuals, giving it the dual function of an off-the-record autobiography. But then there is the more secondary consideration of the premise, involving a retired detective who is assigned to follow and protect a beautiful woman before ultimately falling in love with her on the eve of her demise. If less is said about how Jimmy Stewart’s persona endures the curse of his director’s paralyzing vulnerabilities, it is because his predicament was ultimately overpowered by the shadow of its author. The Hitchcock identity carried so much gravity, such dominating influence, that it is entirely possible to see his films for their exhibition of talent and not necessarily for their narrative points. How many still remember “Psycho,” for instance, as being about a man who murders strangers while posing as his deceased mother? Today, is it not more about how a composer of macabre visual symphonies shamelessly inspires hysterics in a subservient audience?

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Images / ***1/2 (1972)

While the seed of Robert Altman’s “3 Women” is said to be contained in “Persona,” the key bridge between them may be “Images,” a daring film he made in 1972 during the pinnacle of his first (and some say greatest) commercial peak. Like those films, it was an experiment that embodied the bold risk of an emerging method of cinema, where a garden of new filmmakers was being driven by themes more than characters or story – and though Altman was still refining his own voice, it presented the sort of audacious challenges that horrified those resting comfortably in convention. Yet today it rarely comes up in a discussion about his most prominent work, other than a vague reference to the confusion it first caused in the film festival circuit; initially, no one could decipher the intricate meanings between the overlapping narrative arcs, and many gave up in frustration too early to realize their concealed resonance. Was it simply ahead of its time? Or did “3 Women” cast a shadow impossible to move out of? Some, fortunately, have kept the material active in discussion despite a trend to elevate the more populist achievements of his early days, and thanks to internet theories and a new digital restoration it can finally be seen with the tool of modern hindsight, where its power becomes obvious.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Last Days / ***1/2 (2005)

Three movies in Gus Van Sant’s filmography make up what is commonly referred to as his “death trilogy,” and like similar multi-picture endeavors by Ingmar Bergman and Lars von Trier they are linked less by story or characters and more by deep thematic echoes. But to describe the material in them as being just about “death” would be to simplify the nature at which they originate; while death itself awaits many of the important players, it is the journey towards it that stirs uncomfortably in the mind of their curious author. Consider the long and arduous walk towards nothing in “Gerry,” or the almost haunting silence preceding the chaos of the final hour of “Elephant.” Van Sant’s theory is not that some are meant to die young or tragically, but that they often do so because of a decay in stability brought on by lifelong alienations – many of them either self-imposed or clandestine. In these worlds, taking one final breath well before the mortal clock has wound down may just be a release from a routine that has already killed their goal to persevere.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A Quiet Place / ***1/2 (2018)

In many respects “A Quiet Place” is pitched as a silent film, without verbal cues or explanations underscoring the plot’s core function. Immediately that prospect will conjure up a befuddling uncertainty in the audience: how are they to establish a setting, who the players may be and what’s occurring to them? What is the context? Are mere physical observations enough? Any number of sensationalist outings would freely risk continuity without a well-modulated visual device, but to see it done here is to discover a filmmaker who has studied, mastered and executed the great doctrines of Hitchcock and Kubrick, whose own stories were usually incidental to the orchestration of a mood. What he accomplishes here, in a horror film set somewhere in the modern world, is astounding: a survival study that says little but observes, impeccably, as a family braves the unknown in a place that has been (apparently) wiped out by bloodthirsty monsters. And when two verbal exchanges do occur on screen, the words have no importance; they are gestures to supply the characters with a reminder of their hard push for endurance, and why they refuse to surrender to a fate that has isolated them in the cold clutch of despair.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Witches of Eastwick / *** (1987)

The solution to enduring the absurdity that is “The Witches of Eastwick” involves distancing yourself from any measure of logic. Here is a movie that invites an explosion of disbelief, assembled from pieces of a reality that looks as if it might have been plausible in the early stages. But to gaze at the screen any longer than a moment’s notice is to find the New England locales, the happy faces and the passive daily routines to be the cloak surrounding a supernatural fantasy – and a ludicrous one at that. In a way, George Miller depends on our trust in his ability to shed a light of purpose; after “Mad Max” made him a cool commodity in the eyes of nerd culture, it became obvious that he could make a long and successful career out of playing against convention. And somehow he manages to sustain that prospect even here, in a film that audaciously asks us to believe characters played by Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer can not only dream up the same ideal love interest, but that each of them would be ok sharing him at a mansion just outside of town with little sense of jealousy or insecurity.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

My Friend Dahmer / ***1/2 (2017)

I was a prepubescent teenage boy when the media first sounded the alarm against Jeffrey Dahmer, the mysterious serial killer from Milwaukee that stalked his community with almost silent precision. Ingrained by news headlines and evening bulletins as the Midwest cannibal, here was a shy, young and handsome man keeping horrendous secrets: over the course of his life he had murdered 17 young men – most of them gay – and then decimated their remains like an overzealous butcher. Many of those victims were never found, while others were discovered in mere pieces: a carved-out torso, several skulls and various other parts decorated the interiors of his apartment, where they served the purpose of feeding or arousing him. The concept of mass murder had hardly been a new commodity to contemplate in the public eye, but rarely had one’s methods so deeply penetrated the membrane of the mainstream, or done so with such austere consequences. Just as local towns in the Midwest heralded the aftermath with newfound caution, so was the gay community confronted by the great demon of negative stereotypes; it was as if Dahmer risked becoming a symbol against the lifestyle, a microcosm for disparaging perceptions running deeply through the moral majority.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Geostorm / 1/2* (2017)

An imaginary yarn about an angry mother nature seeking vengeance against filmmakers who exploit her dangers frequently enters my head. The story would center on the likes of Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich, two of the most consistent offenders, who see the big budgets of the Hollywood machine as the means to destroy Earth in increasingly violent ways. The elements, sensing this viscous cycle of the blockbuster scene, would take revenge against the industry by unleashing a plethora of deadly disasters on their hills – tidal waves, tornados, flash floods, perhaps even earthquakes. The possibility of irony would be lost on them, no doubt, because directors of these pictures are rarely self-aware. But oh what a pointed irony it would inspire, to see audiences rally against this boring formula and find, underneath the muck and wreckage of an elaborately demolished landscape, a mirror to be held up to their dimwitted deeds. Added relevance would come because of a narrowing capacity of brain cells needed to get through each new venture. At one time it was possible to be amused – however superficially – by a “Dante’s Peak” or “Deep Impact”; now, thanks to the avid energies of visual effects artists paired with the comatose intentions of newer filmmakers, it’s ok to simply show up half-conscious.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Demon House / ** (2018)

“Demon House” is a well-made film study about little of consequence, fashioned from a scorching creative eagerness that seems held back unnecessarily by a fear of visual or thematic excess. Given the familiar groundwork of the premise, that’s hardly a surprise; when it comes to any number of stories about evil forces haunting the living – however true or fictional they claim to be – a great risk persists in exploiting their suffering for the benefit of shocking an audience. But anyone going into Zak Bagans’ endeavor may yearn for the possibility of a happy medium: something between a balance of jolts intercut with perceptive discussions about what may be causing the quiet chaos in these lives. For a good while things gradually move towards that direction, as Bagans, an apparently skilled investigator, involves former eyewitnesses in a descent into the mysteries of a Midwest house filled with supernatural energies. But by the end we are no closer to understanding – or caring about – the source of these evils or the suffering they inflict on others. If a conventional horror film shows people slowly unravelling by the strange events going on in their homes, here is one that settles on raising an eyebrow or two before droppings its subjects in the maw of successive boredom.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Fifty Shades Freed / *1/2 (2018)

Perhaps the issue is the constraint of an acceptable running time, or the attitude of a conventional outlook. Some conflicts are not meant to be easily resolved in the span of a two hour film; to do so is to gloss over the intricacies of moral gray areas, even if they may run as shallow as the intentions. Some part of me holds onto this possibility when attempting to deal, in any capacity, with the “Fifty Shades” films, and now I’m confronted with a third venture, in which characters gather to experience life after the fairy tale has ended and find themselves in the embrace of deficient dramatic throes. I guess this idea could possess enough complexity to justify a trilogy of pictures, but is there not a responsibility to anyone involved to make the best use of our commitment? If what exists on screen runs parallel to the written works of E.L. James, then here is a woman who seems incapable of modulating the human rhythm on the tightrope between eroticism and danger. Imagine spending a day in the company of people who raise legitimate doubts about their situations but never come to terms with them, essentially because they have discovered an orgasm that negates their need to contemplate troubling histories.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Killing of a Sacred Deer / **** (2017)

Now comes a rare moment of creative ascension. After the ambitious tests of “Dogtooth” and “The Lobster,” young Yorgos Lanthimos has distanced himself from the mere notion of promising filmmakers and made “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” a movie so strikingly perceptive that it moves him into the company of greater, more assured voices in the medium. And that is a rare feat to reach in this time of artistic saturation, much less limited thematic accessibility. This is a man who, like P.T. Anderson and the Coens before him, hit the ground in a frenetic sprint from the first moment his hands found a movie camera, and at a mere four films has created an anxious anticipation in audiences that have come to see his stories as the groundwork for a deeply resonant critique of the human condition. Would it surprise any of his admirers, then, to discover yet another one of his pictures has used a splendid screenplay to mask a statement about the nature of our flawed operation? Or that his characters move less like human beings and more as tottering platitudes with rather mechanical perceptions? Lanthimos conducts these elements with the precision of a maddened provocateur and finds a great underlying horror, just as the opposing forces of creation and destruction seem to clash in what can be described as a moral minefield.