Search This Blog


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

"Boyhood" and Robin Williams Essays at RogerEbert.Com

Hello, dear readers, wherever you are. Just a little update. I've been fortunate enough in the past to have some pieces linked by, Slant, the House Next Door, and the Dissolve, and in the past month even more fortunate by having the fine folks at Ebert publish my work on their website, a thrilling honor. 

Richard Linklater's Divine Comedy: "Boyhood"

 The first is an essay about Richard Linklater's Boyhood, probably the best film of this summer, about which I draw some parallels with Dante's Comedy. It's admittedly a little book report-ish, or Lit major-y/Religion minor-y, but fans of The Tree of Life stuff from the past might find worthwhile stuff in it. Please click here to read and share with friends throughout your social media outlets.

The second was sparked by the tragic death of Robin Williams last week. I look at my favorite Williams movie, Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King (1991), written by Richard LaGravenese, and its relationship to trauma, mental illness, and the healing power of storytelling. Click here to read and, again, share. 

Retrieving the Grail: Robin Williams and "The Fisher King"
I will continue to post material at L'etoile Magazine out of Minneapolis. I recently got a bad haircut, which should be keeping me indoors. 

In other news, my friend Tommy Mischke has a new podcast up and running, and I hope you give it a try. The Mischke Roadshow is now several episodes in and has Tommy back in action and form. 

Thanks for visiting,

When Soul Meets Body: Steven Soderbergh's "The Knick"

New York City at the turn of the century. In Knickerbocker Hospital, a medical theater oversees the formalities of anatomical procedure, documenting knowledge and progress as abstraction while the stakes are life and death and the stage is doused with blood. The “Chorus” of the scene is J.M. Christiansen (Matt Frewer), whose confidence as teacher and ceremonial master is reassuring enough, yet he retains muted human warmth, smiling at the patient, a pregnant woman whose child is being strangled by her placenta, when she begs him to save her baby. Minutes later, mother and child are dead. The only consolation is reverting to formality, as the head surgeon struggles with his composure and says, “It seems we are still lacking. I hope, if nothing else, this has been instructive for you all.” “Backstage,” Christiansen’s colleague and protégé John Thackery aka “Thack” (Clive Owen) tells his gloomy mentor, “The procedure failed. You didn’t.” Christiansen accepts the friendly gesture, which Thack has padded with a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part III (“And many strokes, though with a little axe, hew down and fell the hardest timber’d oak”), retreats to his private quarters, delicately lays a white sheet on a loveseat, says “Fuck it all” and shoots himself in the head.

The Knick

The defeated march to death is spread on top of Cliff Martinez’ anachronistic electronic drones, the score conjoining the jarring and decisive moment of suicide to a closed casket decorated with flowers. Thackery, now Christiansen’s replacement, gives a church eulogy that becomes an impassioned manifesto, addressing God as an antagonist while men of science tirelessly will work to unriddle the maze of mortality. Thack will advance surgical instruments and techniques, struggling to satisfy the demands of hospital backers and the corporate hierarchy, with ramifications extending outside the hospital walls and touching the city’s government bureaucracy, bullying ambulance men, local religious parishes, and activism for social progress. He also, thanks to Christiansen’s tutelage, has a bugger of a drug addiction. It’s his burden and his elixir, the chemical supplication enabling him to function for ungodly hours.

This is The Knick, Steven Soderbergh’s 10-part Cinemax series created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, launched into production after the filmmaker’s retirement double-feature of Side Effects and Behind the Candelabra. Unlike other acclaimed movie directors leaping into the business of TV by directing a pilot and then surrendering much of the control to the writing staff—think Martin Scorsese and Boardwalk Empire or David Fincher and House of Cards—Soderbergh, like Cary Fukunaga and True Detective last year, directed the entire series (in addition to photographing and editing it), and the formal flourishes are hugely affecting from the first shot: Thack’s POV on his untied white shoes in a Chinatown opium den and brothel, a loosely robed prostitute hovering in the hazy corner as the perspective tries to find focus. It’s a new world, not just in regards to setting, but tone.

"It's Old Fashioned": Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut"

It’s no mystery that Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, is a film about marriage. It’s also, in itself, a marriage, or conjunction—between different eras and cultures, Europe and America, bridging an older era of studio filmmaking (Kubrick began his career in the 1950s and the film’s principle cinematic influence is probably Max Ophüls) to the faster world of 1999’s summer blockbusters. It ties together contemporary New York to fin de siècle Vienna, theater with murder, dreaming with waking life. In pace with the more deliberative beats of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barry Lyndon than A Clockwork Orange or Full Metal Jacket, in addition to being what seemed like a non-genre exercise for a filmmaker whose cult followed him work against more excitable backdrops (war, science fiction, horror, and hyperbolic satire, sometimes all commingling), its chances for success were slim, a condition exacerbated by how its enigmatic author—who allegedly this time would been more open to interviews—was not living to defend it, or properly midwife the film through the complex web of movie marketing he was notorious for meticulously overseeing (he undoubtedly would have also been tweaking the final cut until the final release date, as it’s known he cut whole sections from 2001 and The Shining after they’d been screened for critics). Sold as an erotic thriller in the decade of Basic Instinct, Indecent Proposal, and Sliver, it’s a movie about sex that was criticized because an alleged lack of chemistry between its two married stars, and then the consequent lack of fulfilling voyeuristic orgasm for the audience. Kubrick was known for taking viewers places—outer space, dystopia, 18th century Europe, a haunted hotel, Vietnam—and Eyes Wide Shut seemed to take people nowhere, its ideas on sex antiquated and part of a bygone era.


Which is to say that it’s an absolutely extraordinary and singular work, and one of the most spectrally fascinating journeys Kubrick was ever to take us. Watching Eyes Wide Shut, as I have many times, I am transported, through the present and to an unknown past and an unknown place. I am in Kubrick’s 1950s New York just as I’m in 1990s New York, or even the 1890s Vienna of the Arthur Schnitzler novella Traumnovelle, upon which Kubrick and Frederic Raphael’s screenplay is based. As in a dream, one person doubles for another, and then a third person, just as locations are themselves amalgamations. The dreamer, meanwhile, is positive he’s awake, though treading uncannily between past and present.  When the dreamer is “here,” it is never an exact replica of here. Much like Kubrick’s Shepperton Studios set of Manhattan, it’s not a real New York but a dream New York. It’s the New York that Kubrick left behind and to which he never came back. The bizarre sensibility is reinforced by how he uses color, lighting, and space. My eyes are marveled looking at it: the red and blue in a dueling contrast, then the colors of Christmas and the multitudes of light bulbs diffused by Kubrick’s lenses to give a strange halo effect to everything.

Remembrances of Matinees Past

We’ve been reminded this week of how Tim Burton’s Batman, the Jack Nicholson/Michael Keaton box office smash that altered how a generation of moviegoers responded to hype and marketing, just turned 25. Discussing the Burton Batman has been quelled in recent years, thanks in part to Christopher Nolan’s trilogy with Christian Bale as the caped crusader, to say nothing of the campy and dreadful Joel Schumacher sequels (the first of which credited Burton as a producer) from the decade before that. Suddenly, this Batman is news again, and very much appreciated. In 1989 it inaugurated a renewed interest in comic books, the silly old Adam West TV series from the ’60s was suddenly back in syndication, and Hollywood studios had a fresh orchard of published ideas and characters from which to pluck and plant new franchises (the Superman series with Christopher Reeve had by this time died; and we don’t have time to discuss Howard the Duck).


Of course when we compare Batman‘s impact to how novelty characters have worked in the last 10 years, it’s a fairly limp resurgence. The first comic book movie, as I recall, to follow up was a straight-to-video Captain America. There was also a tedious television series of The Flash which could never get its pace in order and was soon canceled. Burton’s hotly anticipated all-star sequel, Batman Returns, had the indelible mark of its director, but the Wagnerian noir of the first film was replaced by fetishistic Gothic indulgences (personified by Burton’s grotesque–and doubtlessly personal–rendering of Danny DeVito’s Penguin) that could not excite the movie fanboys as much–in fact, it repelled some of them. Then you had The Shadow, The Phantom, Batman Forever, and finally Batman and Robin, which kind of crapped on everything, with a cherry on top. Batman did change hype and blockbusting (even in a summer when it was one of the few big releases that wasn’t a sequel–Ghostbusters II, Lethal Weapon 2, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were all released around this time), and Burton’s touch broke out of the MTV music video style that became trendy with Rocky III and Flashdance. But its impact is not as powerful as Jurassic Park would be four years later, Steven Spielberg once again (as he had with Jaws in 1975 and E.T. in 1982) setting summer movies on a whole new trajectory. Whereas Batman‘s environs are somewhat retro, an artful futurism groomed with the fabric of German Expressionism, with two loudly dressed men at its center, Jurassic Park heralds the future with new creations that quite literally gobble up the human caretakers, the filmmakers, to quote Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond, “sparing no expense” in the spectacle, or as 1993′s other Spielbergian hero, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), says, it’s less about the work than “the presentation.” The tumult within Gotham City is rather intimate when set against the non-stop propulsion of Speed, tornado touchdowns in TwisterIndependence Day‘s alien invasion, and Armageddon‘s catastrophic asteroid. The popular notion of the journeying hero–like Rocky, Luke Skywalker, Tom Cruise in Top Gun or Days of Thunder, Indiana Jones, or Batman–was, for a time (Harry Potter and Frodo arrived in 2001), replaced by extreme sound and fury (which is still here, yes, though at a kind of Ludicrous Speed kind of sound and fury).

Caught in a Loop: Tom Cruise

The lumbering thesis here could be, “Whatever, you guys, Tom Cruise is great and has always been great.” Every so often we hear about how lame Cruise is from our friends and in the press, followed by two weeks of forgiveness as whatever film being released turns out to be, at the very least, not bad, often with Cruise impressing with his indomitable movie star charm. And then, like in Groundhog Day–or Cruise’s latest, the comic sci-fi actioneer Edge of Tomorrow–the same sequence begins with everyone, save for the valiant if out-of-breath Cruise defenders, back to their original dismissals.

Edge of Tomorrow

Cruise was able to carry a large movie on his name for about 20 years, slipping between genres–action (Mission: Impossible), romance (Jerry Maguire), thriller (The Firm), and character-driven drama (Magnolia)–while, like a classic movie star, always maintaining his Cruise-ness, his Cruise-osity, his Cruisoise: the indelible grin and charm underwritten with a kind of basic Cruise character arc detailing a cocksure guy whose world is crumbling. This week the overheard banter at a neighborhood coffee shop, as relates to Edge of Tomorrow, featured some guy complaining about Cruise (in the manner of Clint Eastwood to the Chair), “You have no talent and you play the same boring guy over and over again.”

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Kelly Reichardt's 'Night Moves' of the Soul

Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves delivers as a relentlessly intense suspense story while, despite the familiar, “movie heist” tropes of its plot, being in perfect accord with the director’s notoriously sparse, quiet, observant, but tacitly explosive previous films—Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and Meek’s Cutoff. A shuddering before/after narrative about a Portland-based eco-terrorist trio’s (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard) plot to blow up a dam, Night Moves faultlessly strums the tune of crime-film contingency with the same relentless tension of Kubrick’s The Killing, while crucially building on Reichardt’s theme of modern day economic disparity and the problem of progressive ideals at odds with progressive action.

Night Moves

The opening image, of the dam in question as plotter Josh (Eisenberg) grimly looks on, shows the subduing of the natural world by human invention which has become a background banality. This young man could be weighing the ramifications of an illegal transgression he’s preparing or, saturated with exhausted melancholy, fixating on the end of the world. There’s mention of Science’s prognosis of the End a few times, but maybe it strikes the budding activists in this film with the same faith coupled with doubly-bound intangibility as the “World Vision” eschatological Christians referred to by Dena (Fanning) at an environmentalist film screening. Following the insolubility of Meek’s Cutoff, where frontier travelers trying to outrun the expanding Republic westward encounter a perplexing “Tree of Life” at the conclusion, Night Moves examines the ramifications of both ideas and actions, enveloping much of the eerie wilderness and haggard urban outposts in darkness. It’s a film with a deep social conscience that proceeds to excavate intimate Dostoyevskian layers of individual psychology, where decisive action begins. Social activism/politics and individual psychology prove to be similarly murky.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Dziga Vertov's Doors of Perception

Recently editor and New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote an impassioned call-to-arms for film critics to consider the formal elements of what they were evaluating. “I see a lot of writing that describes what a piece of art is about, not so much how it is about.” Consequently film criticism skates on surfaces, using adjectives regarding the artifice without digging in and asking why the artisans behind these ingenious visual and aural behemoths have made their decisions. The negation has increasingly fed into a film culture consumed by celebrity and easy to take political stands, while the idiosyncrasies of creativity, subject to myriad tools of machinery, are largely ignored.
Grand Budapest Hotel
Considering the author’s formal design: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Seitz is a film lover fascinated by the sensual touch of authors, and he understands the pressing need to anatomically dissect a film’s connective tissue and sinews. Look at his visual essays on Michael Mann and Terrence Malick—two of the most accomplished formalists in feature narrative filmmaking—or his book The Wes Anderson Collection. Anderson’s newest project—and arguably 2014’s best film—The Grand Budapest Hotel, is as interested in its own storytelling medium as Cervantes was with Don Quixote, with fictions constructed within fictions through an artificial pre-war Europe of false capitals, liveries, and armies, Anderson and cinematographer Robert Yeoman’s camera aspect ratio alternating through different historical periods, beginning and ending with a contemplation on the beguiling sepulcher of the “Author” and the mystery of what the creator wants to communicate to us.