Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Witch

In some ways,  The Witch suffers from problems similar to those that crippled the box office on Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak last year.  Though touted as the scariest thing to come out of Sundance and hyped – steadily – in cinema circles for the better part of a year, Robert Eggers’ debut feature is less horror film than academic exploration of the formal devices surrounding the idea of what horror is.  I wrote previously about Crimson Peak as a fever dream for anyone with a cultivated interest in the literary gothic. While not pedantic in its approach, that film buried itself into set of tropes and conceits that ran the risk of boring a contemporary audience. It was almost too specific. Glossy and visually appealing, yes, but in a way that seemed to almost demand its viewer follow-up with some extra credit reading.  

The Witch offers a similar kind of specificity, but shirks the Romantic trappings of the Gothic for the plain-clothed Puritans.  It has roots both in dark American literary traditions as well as in historical reenactment.  It’s telling that some of the buzz around Eggers’ film centers not on the horrors of its story, but on the time and energy spent constructing accurate representations of the time period. Eggers had a real working farm built for his characters to reside on, for example, and part of the budget went to hiring a roof thatcher specializing in a specific New England of tradition. Trivial facts like these point to a commitment to something beyond simple visual storytelling.  The Witch is deeper than that, possessed of a real desire to try to make sense of the cultural illogic and fear that gripped the people of that mid-seventeenth century historical moment.  Eggers wants to try to understand, to get to the root of how something could seem plausible or scary instead of simply presenting us with the object itself.  In telling the story of a family slowly torn apart, The Witch tries to recreate the conditions that would allow for irrational fear to trump all else.  In doing so, the film becomes a very smart study of a past moment that allows us to see the way obvious built-in problems, prejudices, and religious restrictions fostered the most hostile of environments.  

Sunday, February 28, 2016

45 Years

45 Years is the story of a marriage in crisis, a film that burns to a final moment of quiet devastation. It is a a domestic drama about secrets and realizations in which revelations arrive as subtly as they tend to in real life, and a creeping dread sets in that never quite comes to a Hollywood fever pitch. Director Andrew Haigh understands that what is happening in this relationship is not something that can be satisfied by an event or by true confrontation.  There are no moments of histrionic overacting, only a kind of stillness that pushes us just to the brink of narrative climax before breaking away, pausing, and leaving the audience haunted by the very ghosts inserting themselves into every scene.  

Thursday, February 25, 2016


While watching Deadpool I was reminded of the scathing one-star review Roger Ebert wrote on Kick-Ass. In it, he decided to shirk "being cool" to call the film "morally reprehensible" -- for him, Kick-Ass was not successful satire. Instead, it was an uncomfortable nightmare in which a bunch of cursing, psychopathic kids engaged in brutal violence played for laughs. I didn't really agree with Ebert's view on that film, but I kinda felt something similar during Deadpool and have to wonder what Ebert would've made of this "other" costumed mercenary's brand of snark and gore.

As comments on the superhero genre repetitions, both Kick-Ass and Deadpool function in relatively similar ways: they up the ante on familiar plots, go for the hard-R, and get shamelessly brutal.  They are positioned differently: these "heroes" don't save the world, they just battle other, possibly bigger assholes. Sure, Deadpool stars adults, but it's hard to watch it without knowing it's paying special fan service to loudmouthed teenage boys. This is an aggressive comedy made up of all spattered brains, dick jokes, shit jokes, and a collage of metafictional, pop culture-driven one-liners designed to make semi-aware dude-bros feel smart when they "get" the reference (see also: Family Guy).

Deadpool is clever about what it does, and in certain ways it might even be brilliant.  Yet, I have to admit that when it comes to crass, violent comic books, I think I found the game more interesting when the point was to see what would happen if real world fan-kids tried to fill the roles of masked vigilantes, disturbing results and all.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Zoolander 2


The original Zoolander was a cult success largely because those who bothered to watch it wound up finding themselves pleasantly surprised.  It was spirited and quotable, absurd in a way that worked both as clever satire and dumb, belly-laugh comedy.  Sequels rarely replicate the experience of watching that film for the first time for a couple reasons: the audience now has real expectations and well, the people involved are self-aware enough to try and make good on those.  This is a problem with this type of comedy film, and one we've seen happen time and again in lackluster sequels like Anchorman 2 and The Hangover 2.  More often than not, you can see the talent involved confuse what made the first outing work.  Instead of an attitude or a spirit, we find a doubling down on repeated events, celebrity cameos, or supporting characters and the jokes come off as a desperate attempt to cash in.  Zoolander 2 is guilty of a great many of these sins.  It repeats and extends jokes, it becomes unclear about what makes its stupid characters funny and often makes them a little mean-spirited, it clunkily tries to adapt an idea for a different cultural moment, it has been embraced by exactly the thing the original criticized.
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