Monday, August 31, 2015

Wes Craven, 1939 - 2015

“Horror films don’t create fear. They release it.”

That quote – as well as many morsels of seasoned wisdom, both on screen and off – is now all that is left of the man that once was the gifted Wes Craven. Gone at the age of 76 due to brain cancer, the assemblage of dedicated fans that he acquired over the course of a prosperous 40-year career must now unite in contemplative pause, jolted by the shock of his sudden passing all while trying to remain in perspective of celebrating an extensive backlog of notable film accomplishments. Many referred to him as the “Master of Horror” during the height of his popularity, and perhaps that title is as apropos as any singular classification can be; he was a pioneer that brought foreboding ideas to the height of their fearsome possibilities. What was a scary movie, really, other than a collection of grotesque visuals meant to inspire momentary outburst in local multiplexes in the early years of cinema? When he took hold of the concept, he did the unthinkable: trapped it all into a context of shuddering realism.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Precious Wisdom from a Silent Balcony

From the first moment that movie criticism awakened these youthful senses, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert have been at the driver’s seat of my creative aspirations. In life, they took on an almost mystical essence as figureheads of a quiet destiny; while they years have chugged along, the remains of their influence reverberate with the kind of astounding richness that settles within, and adds drive to an evolving perspective. That their careers – and their interactions – now remain frozen in a stasis of countless YouTube videos and ongoing personal discussions is as inspiring as it is haunting, and for nearly every week of my adult life I have ventured into their world for more thoughtful insight. That world seems much smaller now that their guidance in informing our future has been silenced by mortality, and yet they remain a symbol of the enduring work ethic of movie journalists. How they did it for so long, and so tirelessly, is a prospect few of us can begin to comprehend, much less compete with.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Purge: Anarchy / ** (2014)

Sometimes a long stretch of time between two horrible moments can transpire in a rapid flash (at least if they are planned for). A good year or so went by between the arrival of the first and second “Purge” movies, but I would wager that our fearful anticipation could never match that of the characters, many of whom are not so much witnesses to dreadful realities as they are victims earmarked for extermination. For them, a year must move by in a blink of awareness. That’s because they occupy space in a world where the politics of power forces are interlaced with the cruelest (and most narrow) perspective of Darwinian superiority. Every year, on one night for a straight 12 hours, the “New Founding Fathers” of America commence the annual “purging,” a nationwide ceremony in which all crime is legalized and ordinary people are given the opportunity to “free the beast” from within, assuming they aren’t killed by someone else possessing an even more bloodthirsty urge than their own. What that means – at least in the movies – is that the human race becomes a living example of corruption in action. Who are the ones who take advantage of their rights? Who is more successful? In a world landscape where lower income classes are circumvented by the pull that comes with having money, the rich must become the target of study in a picture like this, otherwise there is little need to ponder how else a situation like this might play out in a genuine civilized society.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Hedwig and the Angry Inch / **** (2001)

Perhaps it is just a cruel irony that drag queens and transsexuals, often reduced to caricatures and sneered at by mainstream society, adopt makeup patterns that allow them to appear so lively. Under the elaborate image of sharp eyebrows, heavy eye-liner and broad smears of lipstick and rouge, the face often hides melancholy; they are usually carrying the sorts of secrets that can only be escaped by acting out, usually in theatrical impulses or with biting sarcasm. That is not necessarily the absolute truth when it comes to their presence in queer culture, but it is surely the most prominent running theme of John Cameron Mitchell’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” To contemplate that prospect is to open a gate in which we can begin to understand the fractured mental state of the hero, a man who has endured harsh pain and betrayal at the hands of treasured loved ones, and yet wanders into his nightly performances with frontal ambivalence; he is going to sing his heart out, tell stories and always do so with flamboyant gusto. Behind the scenes, unfortunately, very little of that carries over, and in an existence that is made miniscule by negative public perceptions, a thorough portrait emerges that is sad, haunting, dynamic and even rousing. We are not just experiencing the life of a person here; we are embodying his agony like friends in powerless observation.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Lessons from Criterion:
"The Killing" by Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick was a mere 27 years old when he undertook directing responsibilities for “The Killing,” but his overwhelming sense of perspective was indicative of a natural-born talent reaching the frenzied thrust of possibility. Seldom (at least up to that point) had a relatively new face in the world of film so audaciously risen to the demand of such ambitious challenges; with a small budget and an even tighter shooting schedule (not to mention no personal salary), his endeavors yielded a picture of reputable prowess that declared his impending importance over the coming years. For a time as volatile as the late 50s, that was more profound than it was revelatory. Because Hollywood was fairly impenetrable in the days of dominant personalities like Cecil B. DeMille and Billy Wilder standing behind the camera, how far could a lowly aspiring photographer from New York realistically go? Against all odds and a plethora of obstacles that would have instigated mental collapse in a host of others, here was a man who possessed distinct vision, controlled every element of his composition and orchestrated an end result that was as sharp as it was methodical. In its gorgeous frames rests one of the greatest prophecies of modern cinema: the coming of the most important filmmaker of his generation.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Tangerine / ***1/2 (2015)

Our natural instinct to consider Sean Baker’s “Tangerine” from the perspective of an unlikely buddy comedy is, perhaps, not at all surprising. There is consistency in the film’s tone that suggests it is exactly what the filmmakers were going for; throughout the Hollywood misadventures of two transgender prostitutes on the hunt for a cheating boyfriend/pimp, an abundance of quips and one-liners are hurled at the screen in rapid supply, usually bookended by instances of flamboyant flair or uproarious confrontations filled with attitude. We laugh frequently – sometimes out loud, at other times uncomfortably. But then the movie’s true nature comes to light in a final two minutes of sobering conviction, in which we are reminded that in all things, none of what these two leads endure here should be at all hilarious. Why does the movie seem to mislead in that way? I suspect given the times we live in, the twist is metaphorical for how we look at the transgender minority in this country. It’s easy to find comedic value in the presence of someone who walks through life like they are play-acting, but maybe, just maybe, they do so because they are hiding darker realities: namely, the realization that they remain such glaring outcasts in a very slow trek towards social acceptance.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Tusk / 1/2* (2014)

Mere words cannot adequately describe Kevin Smith’s “Tusk” – only obscene gestures. In the lengthy pass of time we spend discovering bad movies, so rarely does one come along that fills our heads with such toxic impurities, and does so on part of some cheeky in-joke that only the director and his close buddies seem to understand. Based entirely on a dare that originated from one of Smith’s very own podcasts, what exists on screen is an exercise in random debauchery, a self-indulgent vomitorium that knows no limits of tact or plausibility, and misses every note in orchestrating an effective rhythm in carrying its bizarre ideas forward. The greatest tragedy, I suspect, is the intention. What gave Smith, a guy with a fairly established directing career, the shameless conceit to put any of this on screen? Did he really find it funny (or worse yet, scary)? A great many disgusting things occur in abundance here for the majority of the 100-minute running time, but none of them even approach the discomfort we feel in knowing just how pathetic these filmmakers look. One hopes they all remind themselves that they were once good at their professions before sinking further into this maw of stupidity.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Ant-Man / *** (2015)

Somehow the setup always amounts to the same structure: a brilliant mind in a giant business organization experiments with something that can alter human gene structure, and inadvertently gives birth to a superhuman being that becomes targeted by a corrupt villain within the corporation. It is the tried-and-true formula of many a comic book series in the Marvel Universe, and minus subtle variations the results yield stories about unlikely heroism in the presence of innocents who barely understand their immense possibilities. That was certainly the selling point of turning “Spider-Man” and “Hulk” into film adaptations, and now comes one of the more obscure examples in the Marvel line: “Ant-Man,” about a guy who puts on a special suit that, bewilderingly, transforms him into a tiny object no bigger than an insect. What was such a suit made for? To hear this bizarre plot tell it, such a creation would allow the corporation to build an army of tiny soldiers to sell to the military, who would be skilled enough to undermine the operations of enemy nations without ever being seen by their opposition. Right, because men the size of ants are really agile enough – even in a super-strong suit – to completely destroy the momentum of national enemies possessing weapons of warfare.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Mirror of Perspective

I am slowly emerging from the shadows of the worst period of illness in my life. Never one to resist the attractions of common viruses, 2015 stuck me with three (four, if you can residual contagions). The first, commencing on Mother’s Day after a visit with sickly family members, was the Norovirus. A crippling cold came just a month later. And three weeks after that, I developed a throat infection – later discovered to be bacterial in nature – that quite literally paralyzed me in the clutches of fever and weakness. We thought it might have been strep throat, but after symptoms dissipated in four days, I paid the idea little regard (no one near me contracted anything, either, which violates the principle of strep as a very contagious infection). But then that relapsed further into heavy breathing problems, uncontrollable body sweats and a concerning heartrate. For the first time in most of my adult life, I was fearful that I might have contracted something life-threatening.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Mr. Holmes / *** (2015)

The general perception of Sherlock Holmes is that he was a man of impeccable observation and droll sensibilities, often wandering through his story arcs with tongue-in-cheek self-awareness. His legend is embellished further by rather silly devices of presence: a deerstalker hat that was traditionally worn by men in hunting parties, and a long pipe that was as absurd as it was overkill. To any who might have read any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s yarns about the British detective and his loyal sidekick Watson, his was a persona that leapt from the pages as if a cartoon trapped in live action backdrops. And yet we admired him tremendously in spite of his more zany values, mostly because he legitimately was good at what he did, and we believed he did it all for the sake of bettering the world. Those core qualities are replicated in the underlying narrative current of “Mr. Holmes,” but something starker has crept into those realizations. Old age changes men as fast as the tide changes a shoreline, and what once was the visualization of an all-knowing detective has become a portrait of a frail man seeking penance for wrongs that seem to cast ominous shadows.