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.

The Hateful Eight

I have not wanted to write about The Hateful Eight.  Like, really, I'm pulling myself through this in a kicking and screaming way.  Like, it feels as though actually drafting something about the film feels like a homework assignment that will ultimately fail because what needs to be said is a project involving multiple viewings, careful dissection, and a traced politics of the Tarantino filmography. The Hateful Eight isn't a film that should be reviewed so much as analyzed.  It's both a kind of cinematic triumph and a total disappointment; immaculately made, but nihilistic and pointed in a way most Tarantino films are not.

Nihilism is not a stand-in term for violence, here.  Tarantino's films are always violent, and often gleefully so.  This is part of what so many of us love about what he does: he's a director who knows how to transform gore into a kind of pure pop art, a master of the glib death and the artful blood spurt.  He's a playful cinephile, an archivist who actively uses the histories he collects in a way that shows us the value of so-called lesser genres.  Tarantino slices up old films and makes brand new ones, and it's clear -- in the editing, in the writing -- that he loves doing so.  The joy of a Quentin Tarantino movie is that even when the narrative itself is the most harrowing, there's a kind of smile behind it. You know it was crafted with something like love or excitement, and that translates to the audience.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Revenant

Remember when people - especially critics - seemed to look at Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's body of work and sort of assume a predilection for pretension?  In the wake of Amores Perros, he seemed to enter a spiral of stuffiness.  The projects he took on were beautiful in some ways, deeply flawed and try-hard in others.  He wasn't some kind of new century Kubrick or an experimental visionary, he was dude bro in a writing workshop who declares his intention to write a philosophical novel as everyone else struggles to smother a grimace.  For me, Birdman wasn't a significant departure from his earlier films.  It was a more entertaining, slightly lighter version on the same force feeding of heavy ideas, and one that only really worked when fully embracing the theatrical artifice of its setting.  I said it then and I'll say it now: Birdman is an entertaining film and an oddity, but suffers from an undergrad-thesis logic that suffocates it by the final act.  Damn near everyone seemed to disagree last awards season, and in the courses I teach I've sat back and listened as kids who can't figure out how to analyze The Graduate (let alone Godard) have declared Birdman a work of genius.

So, it's been interesting to see how The Revenant has been received in the wake of so many accolades and heated discussions, and to watch the cross section of what people now want and expect from Inarritu and Leonardo DiCaprio blend with what we want and expect from a movie about dudes surviving in the wilderness.  Since seeing the film, I've been trying to conduct a running tally of conversational reviews. In first place? The almighty: "Well, I wouldn't say it's not worth seeing, but you should definitely lower your expectations."  In second place? "Oh, it's a piece of shit. Everything that happens in it is totally impossible and it's just another unenlightened action movie."  These are paraphrased, of course, but both sentiments are a bit surprising.  While I certainly have reservations about Inarritu's work and probably wouldn't upvote The Revenant as an honest to god contender for Best Picture, I can say this: it's perhaps Inarritu's most solidly constructed film.  The Revenant is a good movie in the way many a revisionist epic or western tends to be. It is beautifully crafted, visually striking, and knows precisely when to exchange real world logic for fictional impossibility.
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