Thursday, December 5, 2013
A mesmerizing, haunted red herring of a movie, the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis is full of glancing blows and half-hidden truths. Every once in a while some kind of meaning or pattern emerges for just a brief shimmering second and then disappears from view, like the cats that keep slipping away from our lonely, dour protagonist. But if this beautiful film seems unnaturally elusive, there’s a good reason for that: The real story is happening somewhere else.
Friday, November 29, 2013
Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan-wook's Oldboy is getting trashed left and right and flopping with audiences. But sue me, I kind of liked it. And while I love, love, love the original to death and still vastly prefer it to this one, I figured it might be worth noting down some things about Lee's film that I thought worked. It ain’t exactly Losey’s remake of M (though let it be noted that that film too was much hated for many decades before its reputation slowly began to repair) but I think this new Oldboy is worthwhile. I’d certainly be interested to see the rumored longer version some day.
Friday, October 11, 2013
The real-life piracy thriller Captain Phillips opens with what feels at first like an inelegant bit of exposition. Preparing at home to embark on his next voyage, Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) checks the itinerary on his computer for his date of departure, and his destination: Mombasa, Kenya. You may find yourself asking: Wouldn’t the captain of a major cargo ship know where he’s headed well before the day he leaves? You may even have similar thoughts a couple of scenes later, as Captain Phillips listens to one of his crew members tick off the contents of their container ship, the Maersk Alabama. Again, shouldn’t he already know all this?
But what seems early on like awkward filmmaking convention soon reveals itself as the first hint that Captain Phillips, for all its expert, armrest-tearing suspense, is about more than just a ship taken hostage by Somali pirates. “Companies want things faster and cheaper…You gotta be strong to survive out there,” Phillips says in another early scene, and it becomes clear that, for all his protestations of strength, he is a mere cog in the engine of global commerce. It doesn’t matter if he knows where he’s going, or what he’s carrying. But soon enough, he and his men, speeding through international waters off the horn of Africa, are being pursued and boarded by a ragged band of pirates led by a gaunt, intense teenager named Muse (Somali-American actor Barkhad Abdi, in a remarkable debut performance). “Relax, Captain. Just business,” the young pirate tells the middle-aged sailor. He’s right.
Friday, August 2, 2013
Okay, it’s hard to do five posts on the best action films of the 1980s and try and sneak in anything remotely surprising in there. (I guess the closest I got to was yesterday’s post on RoboCop, if only because most folks who know me know I’m fairly cool on Verhoeven.) And this, of course, is another no-brainer. It’s certainly the best of the Star Wars films (though a couple of the prequels are better than people like to give them credit for being). But it bears looking into, still: Why does The Empire Strikes Back continue to work so well?
Thursday, August 1, 2013
Paul Verhoeven, I still don’t entirely know what to do with you. Yes, you were one of the signature action auteurs of the ‘80s and ‘90s, with films like Total Recall, Basic Instinct, and Starship Troopers to your name, and that reputation is still solid, even though individual films may wax and wane in influence and estimation over the years. Total Recall at the time was thought of as the kind of soulless action flick Hollywood churned out on a regular basis; it’s aged now into a weirdly personal and very, very surreal fantasy, a consciously outsize macho wish fulfillment dream for the Age of Schwarzenegger. Basic Instinct was a bit better liked, mainly for its sleaze; I still like it, mainly for its sleaze. Starship Troopers wasn’t a huge popular hit but a certain subset of critics loved it because of its constantly self-aware, bright neon meta-meta-ness; I never really got it. Along the way there was Showgirls, which I haven’t been able to like even ironically, and Hollow Man, which is exciting and insane in equal measure. And then there were the Dutch films, made before he came to the U.S., many of which are excellent and all of which are idiosyncratic in their own little ways. Anyway, I find him fascinating, but Paul Verhoeven, it goes without saying, is far from my favorite director.
But he did have one absolutely perfect movie. One film where his signature fascination with gore and gratuitous violence really paid off thematically, while his natural perversity made for an ideal match with the story. Certainly among Verhoeven’s American genre films, RoboCop is his masterpiece. Who else but this director would take what could have been a fairly standard tale of a cop who is turned into an indestructible, crime-fighting cyborg, and then underlined its utter strangeness in such a way that still did justice to its narrative? With overtones of both Brazil and The Terminator, RoboCop is equal parts satire, tragedy, grand guignol gorefest, and sensitive human drama, and it manages to be a parody of itself even as it delivers the goods. (Put another way: It’s the movie everyone seems to think Starship Troopers is.)
Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Although the series would define what so many viewers now think of as “post-apocalyptic,” the first Mad Max was not really a sci-fi film at all. Rather, it was a low-budget gearhead thriller about a loose-cannon Aussie cop who takes on some violent motorcycle gangs. Its director, George Miller, a doctor, had been inspired to make it after spending a little too much time around the emergency room – hence all the random cutaways to eyeballs and the film’s almost clinical fascination with realistic violence.
It was with this second film, known to most of the world simply as Mad Max 2, that director Miller and star Mel Gibson took Max (who lost his wife and child in the earlier film’s shattering finale) and projected him into a post-WWIII future. Now, society had fully crumbled and small, ragged bands of ruthless warriors fought desperately for oil across a bleak desertscape. It was an epic gesture, to be sure, but it wasn’t a particularly grandiose one. I don’t know what kind of budget he was actually working with, but Miller craftily used the natural terrain of Australia to create his science-fiction wasteland. In effect, he did with The Road Warrior what Jean-Luc Godard did with Alphaville, creating a faux-futuristic prism through which to see the present.
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Yes, it’s still good. Steven Spielberg’s 1981 masterpiece hasn’t dated one bit, in part because it was already something of a throwback – a blend of cutting-edge effects and technique with a defiantly old-fashioned sensibility. Spielberg took the template of the action serial – those corny, disposable, cliff-hangery pieces of escapist pulp from the ‘30s and ‘40s – and crafted something whose speed, narrative shorthand, and element of surprise were very much of the moment. Its hero, wisecracking archeologist adventurer Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) was a combination of Buster Crabbe, Clark Gable, and, well, Harrison Ford himself, whose cynical cool had just made Han Solo one of the most iconic heroes in movie history. In a sense, this is what Spielberg has always done. (Heck, he did something similar in Lincoln – mixing a post-Nixonian study of the infernal American political machine with an earnest, Capraesque belief that men of good will can still accomplish great things.)