Tuesday, September 24, 2013

2013 Films (The Fifth 10)

The To Do List (Maggie Carey) 3/4

With The To Do List, writer/director Maggie Carey offers an honest, mostly shame-free teen-sex comedy - perhaps the best since Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982). Carey's only mistake is setting the film in the early 90's, which adds unnecessary nostalgic leanings (the kitsch-irony of Beaches for example. When Seinfeld playfully satirized Beaches and its syrupy-saccharine take on love-and-loss in 1993, the joke was of-its-time, related to an immediate zeitgeist and spoke directly to contemporary pop cultural significance. Doing so in retrospect is too easily digested, too cutesy-smarmy to carry more than nominal cultural capital. Carey is making less a critique of period-love than embracing it for presumably solipsistic expressions). Nevertheless, the sexual agency given to Brandy (Aubrey Plaza), as well as the film's playful sexual/gender politics (BFF/love-interest Cameron (Johnny Simmons) sheds the most tears in the film, while Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele) offer the most sexual knowledge/advice) directly refute the conservative, regressive bromance cycles championed by Judd Apatow and Todd Phillips. Whereas Knocked Up seeks laugh through its manchild protagonists, The To-Do List understands collective social progress through self-discovery and evolution, of which sexual, bodily knowledge is a primary tenet. Every sexual encounter (sans a BJ for Van (Andy Samberg)) locates some degree of sincerity for its participants, whether embarrassment, elation at newly discovered pleasure, or some combination thereof - a rare feat in contemporary American comedy.

Magic Magic (Sebastian Silva) 4/4

Quietly, and almost completely off-the-radar, Sebastian Silva and Michael Cera have made two films that rival, and arguably best, the recent work by Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling. With Crystal Fairy, they boiled the road-trip movie down to its minimalist, character-driven essence, as if attempting to outwardly sustain a feeling of drug-induced euphoria, yet undercut by the angst and uncertainty that accompanies both ascendancy into adulthood and the literal, geographical discovery of new places. In Magic Magic, those interests are maintained, but instead of drug-induced euphoria, the converse applies: absolute, unshakable madness. Here, Alicia (Juno Temple) is the geographical novice, introduced by her cousin Sarah (Emily Browning) to an odd group of friends including bitchy Barbara (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and creepy Brink (Michael Cera). Silva is intent from the opening -  a nearly five minute montage of changing skies, animal sounds, and shifty landscapes - of unsettling any sense of narrative complacency, which persists throughout, as Alicia's grip on reality appears to gradually slip away from her, as the characters are frustratingly, maddeningly, unable to articulate emotions, establish meaningful relationships, and accomplish anything resembling unity. Silva doesn't blink in these aims and only truly game audiences will be interested in engaging with his staring contest, which sustains a sense of insanity in ways perhaps only previously achieved by Bergman, Polanski, and Altman. Magic Magic is even better than Martha Marcy May Marlene for its opaque resilience and refutation of concrete psychological significance. Chillingly shot by renowned DP Christopher Doyle, Silva's film is less a puzzle than a remarkably sustained experimental piece on the ways in which cinema can replicate, perhaps more than any other medium, the effects of psychological illness and distress. In a just world, Magic Magic, not The Conjuring, would be the sleeper horror hit of the summer.

Lee Daniels' The Butler (Lee Daniels) 2/4

Any film that insists upon covering 50+ years time - not to mention a national history that comes along with that time - has a necessarily troublesome endeavor from the onset, in terms of representational significance. For the most part, director Lee Daniels elects to go the Cliff Notes route, selecting highlights and instantly accessible historical signposts to guide the life of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a man who worked as a butler in the White House from the Eisenhower administration through the end of Reagan's two terms. Daniels has never been a director comfortable with nuance, and The Butler is no exception. The film opens with Gaines's father being gunned down by a malevolent, almost robotic plantation owner (Alex Pettyfer), whose few, brief minutes on-screen count as one of the year's worst performances, but the blame must go to Daniels, who establishes the film's comprehensive father/son impetus with a cloying, pandering sensibility that is, more or less, sustained throughout. Moreover, the film's visual style is wholly unremarkable and Daniels does a fairly atrocious job of making a small budget ($25 million) cover for the film's large-scale aspirations. Daniels has little eye for effective storytelling economy, with family-dialogue scenes hitting obvious, repetitive beats, sometimes incoherently so. Nevertheless, Daniels does nicely establish a through-line to refute easy binaries, as he suggests generational conflict - and not just racial injustice - as a primary obstacle for societal harmony. Of particular note is a montage which juxtaposes Cecil's son Louis (David Oyelowo) refusing to leave a whites-only restaurant, while Cecil serves a party in the White House. Each man, with varying notions of progress, problematizes easy resolutions, in a comparable way that the conflicting quotes that end Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989) suggests easy resolutions to deep-seated hatreds are impossible. Then, visual discourse synthesizes to literal discourse as the two debate the symbolic value of Sidney Poitier nearly a decade later. In this thread, Daniels achieves a compelling coherence. Otherwise, The Butler is serviceable only to viewers that like their historicizing resolute, peppered with period-piece humor, and whose idea of research begins and ends with skimming a Wikipedia page.

Elysium (Neill Blomkamp) 3/4

Perk up, Michael Bay - The Cinema of Attractions has a new contender in Neill Blomkamp, whose Elysium elides its narrative underpinnings in mostly delightful ways throughout, rectifying the unconvincing apartheid allegory put forth by the faux-documentary conceit of Blomkamp's first, District 9. Blomkamp proves himself an immaculate world-builder here, constructing a hybridized reality-future that envisions dystopian gloom less as Ridley Scott and more as George Miller, loaded with grimy, dusty baddies, tatted-up, lugging endless amounts of hardware. A gear-head's wet, fetishized dream, the perfunctorily masculine protags, antags, and toadies embody Blomkamp's Darwinian cinematic mode with a ferocious brutality that revels in surfaces over depths. While that could potentially be read as a knock against the film, Blomkamp's embrace of these desires rather than attempted suppression offers pure spectacle, unencumbered by a need for consistent narrative address. Only the film's third act use of a sick child sullies DP Trent Opaloch's year-best cinematography, Sharlto Copley's sword-wielding maniacal howl, and Wagner Moura's screamo speaking cadences. Elysium flirts with satire, but refrains, which prevents it from entering the ranks of great gonzo action works like Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984), Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987), or the Crank films (Neveldine/Taylor, 2006/2009), but its complex devotion to rendering high-tech swagger makes it something of a hardware masterpiece.

The Conjuring (James Wan) 1/4

The Conjuring is one big red herring, a distraction meant to obscure just how derivative, complacent, and unimaginative its proposed horrors are. Look past the sleek cinematography and you're left with a series of similarly scaled and executed jump-scare sequences, predicated less on screen-space than soundtrack submission. Look past the ghost house creeps to find archetypes that began with at least James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932). Look past the family-in-danger conceit to find a lack of dread or terror lurking elsewhere. Look past the protagonist ghost-hunting couple to see the simplicity of their constructed motivations. Look past The Conjuring and see Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968), The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977), Possession (Andrezj Zulawski, 1981) or Pulse (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001) instead.

The Canyons (Paul Schrader) 2/4

Whereas Terrence Malick and Brian De Palma have delivered late-career masterpieces in 2013, Paul Schrader has made a deliberately unpleasant film, meant to gong the end of cinema; no, literally, Schrader opens the film with a credits sequence displaying abandoned movie houses. Whether the intent is a coup de la mort or the passing of an era, what follows does little to either expound upon the suggested opening, nor do Schrader and screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis have much of note to offer, beyond the hollowed titillation-but-not...titillation. Lindsay Lohan fares best in a performance much better than the film she's in - unfortunately, Ellis sticks her with tinny dialogue ("Who's happy? Who's really happy? Tell me!" or "We couldn't pay the fucking rent Ryan. We couldn't pay the fucking rent!"), so even her game effort is somewhat diluted. Perhaps most disheartening is the ignoble, unremarkable nature of the entire film. Schrader offers little by way of narrative or formal ingenuity.

Bullet to the Head (Walter Hill) 3/4

Bullet to the Head articulates the macho-malaise that each Expendables film has muffed. Leave it to veteran master Walter Hill; his sense of narrative economy has rarely been keener, articulating genre pathos with both gusto and an underlying critique of recent films that view violence as fodder for cinematic kicks. Ever the philosopher of the genre image, Hill's mise-en-scene deftly interrogates the film's themes of generational divide and misguided justice. James Bonomo (Sylvester Stallone) sees no out for himself except through violence - that is, violence which he carries out in the name of justice and rationale. Nevertheless, the "die for the code" ethos gives way to more bloodshed, yet the pacifist attitudes of beat cop Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) are even less effective amidst an underworld of unfeeling, bloodthirsty, psychopathic drug runners. Much like AMC's Breaking Bad, Hill is interested in what happens when violent men with supposedly honorable intentions meet even more violent men with no intentions.

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer) 4/4

Few films transcend the confines of cinema to become something bigger - something that so shatteringly defies representational logic and aesthetics, that it becomes less a film and more an indelible statement about representation, as it relates to trauma and atrocity. Forugh Farrokhzad's The House is Black (1963) is one. Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (1985) is another. Now, add Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing to that short list - offering the horror of violence through an absurdist, genre-based critique, Oppenheimer's film is inherently critical of the unthinking manner with which Hollywood cinema deploys violent, masculine-coded imagery and ultimately offers such a critique in relation to the implications on a global scale. In stating this, I am not suggesting Oppenheimer elides the specificity of Indonesia's trauma; rather, the film remains intensely focused on detailing the effects of such violence on those involved, while implicating global capitalism and "movie-as-commodity" exportation in such acts.

The World's End (Edgar Wright) 2/4

The World's End finds Edgar Wright taking a step back from the wonderful, ingenious formal play of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Making his fourth feature, with three of them dedicated to his "Corenetto Trilogy," Wright makes the best of this final entry, locating storytelling economy through a fantastic early sequence, as lifelong fuck-up Gary King (Simon Pegg) recruits his now-corporate mates to rekindle their youthful selves by embarking on a twelve pub bar-crawl known as "the golden mile." Pegg and Wright's script deftly establishes character and theme, positioning their reunion (and navigation of space) as a geographical imperative as much as a nostalgic one. All of this is great - except, the film does itself a disservice by taking such a well-defined, streamlined premise and insisting upon devolving into genre deconstruction. This go-around, Wright steeps himself in a sewer of sci-fi cliches, only to see if he can maneuver himself (and his characters) out of them. Presumably, the introduction of sci-fi elements is meant as an allegorical forum to exercise these established themes. Rather, Wright loses his grip on each and, for the first time, cannot decide how character informs genre and vice-versa, instead muddling both with yuppie "blue-blooded" (har har) aliens. The World's End is more convoluted than complex.

You're Next (Adam Wingard) 4/4

Touting a stunning blend of self-awareness and genre ingenuity, Adam Wingard's You're Next understands true horror works in relation to social and spatial uncertainty. Thus, a family reunion turns into a "navigate-the-domestic-space" blood bath. Would it be that Wingard ended there, he would have a good film. Instead, he ups the ante by casting fellow directors Joe Swanberg, Ti West, and Amy Seimetz as family members! Let's just say each of their fates are not exactly uplifting. Wingard solves the puzzle that neither omnibus horror film VHS or The ABC's of Death could: he figures out how to unite the collaborative short structure with the feature, "mapping" narrative structure on both diegetic and meta levels. Moreover, the film's final third parses its narrative down to image/sound relation, subsuming narrative to formal play. No horror film has done this so effectively since Amy Holden Jones's The Slumber Party Massacre (1982).

Monday, September 23, 2013

Remediating the Avant-Garde: Yuriko Furuhata's Cinema of Actuality: Japanese Avant-Garde Filmmaking in the Season of Image Politics

Check out my review for the Yuriko Furuhata's excellent new monograph Cinema of Actuality: Japanese Avant-Garde Filmmaking in the Season of Image Politics over at The House Next Door.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Most Assassinated Woman in the World: Exporting Perilous Pauline: Pearl White and the Serial Film Craze

Check out my review for the excellent edited collection Exporting Perilous Pauline: Pearl White and the Serial Film Craze over at The House Next Door.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Box Office Rap: Insidious: Chapter 2 and the Twitter Index

This week, I question if box-office analysis is now just a glorified form of Fantasy Football.

Click Here to Read.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Box Office Rap: Kick-Ass 2 and the Hollywood Reporter Snafu

This week, I offer critiques of The Hollywood Reporter, Nikki Finke, and Richard Roeper.

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.


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.