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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Spies Wide Shut: Steven Spielberg's "Bridge of Spies"



Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is a fact-based espionage drama set during the simmering cold-war Fifties. The film’s main character, James Donovan (Tom Hanks), is a successful insurance lawyer selected by his firm to represent Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), then chosen by the CIA to negotiate with the Soviet Union and German Democratic Republic an exchange of Abel for captured U.S. spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). Donovan is a Greatest Generation relic representing an outmoded ideal. Likewise his journey through mid-century realpolitik is ostensibly mediated by Spielberg’s mawkish cornball schmaltz. Compared to a zippy twenty-first century journalism procedural like Spotlight, it is tempting to classify Bridge of Spies as an enjoyably frivolous bit of throwback prestige—a period piece by a celluloid filmmaker of diminishing importance in an age of digital reproduction.  


And yet Bridge of Spies is an estimable accomplishment in Spielberg’s body of work. With its deft storytelling and urgent parallels to the fiery rhetoric of the media in the summer of Trump, Bridge of Spies is magnificently self-reflexive. The film continues the director’s meditations within the arena of the American Argument—the Constitution being, for Donovan, a frame through which an alert citizenry engages with itself as language and whose borders fluctuate. The dynamic of the American “frame” resembles the cinematic one. The title of the film itself suggests seeing as a means of connection across barriers. Spielberg’s admonition is that we close our eyes at our peril.

Read more at The Point Magazine:  

http://thepointmag.com/2015/criticism/bridge-of-spies#footnote-1

Friday, December 25, 2015

Adam McKay's "The Big Short"

In a 1990 interview with David Lynch, David Breskin asked if the filmmaker, hot off Twin Peaks, had ever heard of the “Moment of Shit.” Lynch was interested to know what it was. “The ‘Moment of Shit,'” Breskin replied, “is what TV writers call it when everything comes together, and you have that edifying moment, when you are supposed to get the Message, and the Morality comes across…”
The Big Short
Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling in “The Big Short”
Breskin was complimenting Lynch on how Twin Peaks had “turned the fan on all that” with its more offbeat approach to TV. I bring it up here because the Moment of Shit, when it hits the fan and the audience can see below the detritus of conflict, is running throughout the whole of Adam McKay’s surprisingly well-received true-life satire The Big Short, based on the Michael Lewis (Moneyball) bestseller about a handful of credit default swap players who, simply by doing the math, forecast the 2008 economic collapse. An estimable ensemble of eccentrics–played by Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Finn Witrock, John Magaro–guides us through the inevitable bubble burst of obscene wealth, where lines between absurdity, stupidity, and fraud swirl into a scrumptious cone of wealth.

J.J. Abrams' The Force Awakens


Remembering a particular movie pageant from the past, “This may seem an unusual procedure…but we have an unusual subject.”
Entering biblical themes, so Cecil B. DeMille introduced The Ten Commandments. And so I introduce a review (or something like it) of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Short of bringing up the saga’s religious significance or the cultural parallels we could draw on a canvas of space opera metaphor, there’s the pressure on anyone approaching this shrine of letting loose a damn spoiler, for fear of becoming a social pariah. Also, in reviewing, offering criticism, however modest, is risky when online Jedi Jihadis don’t exactly have much tolerance for anything short of the same assessment Tony the Tiger has for his Frosted Flakes. If I wanted to ensure people asking me to quit writing film criticism, I’d just have to hand in a mixed review of The Force Awakens. I mean, The Phantom Menace had a highly positive Tomatometer reading for chrissakes.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

'Twixt Myth and Ornament: Ron Howard's "In the Heart of the Sea"


The advertising for In the Heart the Sea, Ron Howard’s maritime adventure of the Nantucket whaling vessel Essex in 1820, presses how this is the true story that inspired “the myth of Moby-Dick,” myth being an operative word, because the image of the immense sperm whale is collectively tattooed in our minds without anyone, English Majors aside (and even then I’m not sure), having read Herman Melville’s confounding 1851 novel. The book fits Mark Twain’s criteria for classic status, something that everyone’s heard about and that no one’s read, interesting because it represents—more so than Twain’s own Huckleberry Finn, which at least a majority of the public has probably skimmed through for high school homework—the ultimate American text. It’s a canonical document for Know Nothing Know It Alls (I’ll plead the Fifth presently for myself), hilariously central to Woody Allen’s parable of conformity Zelig (1982), the human chameleon lying about having read it in order to fit into intellectual circles; we’re told that at the end of Zelig’s life “the only annoying thing about dying was that he had just begun reading Moby-Dick and wanted to see how to came out.” In the Heart of the Sea purports itself as spectacular history, insinuating a raw taste more tart than imaginative fiction, and while it’s unnecessary to criticize Howard for not being quite so abrasive with a $100 million 3D production, its frame story—with Melville having the Essex story told to him by one of the survivors, 30 years later—is a launching port reducing both the novel and its contexts to an easily digestive meal, regardless of the scrumptious intimations of whale fat and cannibalism. It’s not the myth of Moby-Dick that’s generated by Howard, but the  of Moby-Dick.

Read the rest here at L'etoile Magazine.  

Monday, November 30, 2015

Back to the Future: Ryan Coogler's "Creed" and "Fruitvale Station"

Creed begins in a cold institutional hallway rattled by the strident echoes of unfortunate tenants who’ve slipped through this monochrome and mechanistic birth canal , stripped of purpose and packaged for predetermined cycles of reprocessing through similarly dead-hum environs. That’s quite a stretch from the inspirational Bill Conti-scored vigor and working class solidarity with cultural sanctioned ring violence under Christ opening this picture’s progenitor, the Rocky franchise, where Philadelphia’s Italian Stallion Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) became an American avatar for accomplishment and determination, the simple underdog standing up to insurmountable odds again, and again, and again…But then again, the kid we meet in Creed‘s opening minutes set in Los Angeles in 1998 is a forgotten child estranged from his wealthy progenitors, fighting every day and locked up in solitary detention. This is a Hall of Infamy, the dark side of the urban black experience juxtaposed against the Red White & Blue Hall of Fame trunks of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), a ring sacrifice for a Soviet monster (Dolph Lundgren) in 1985’s hilariously jingoistic so-bad-it’s-well-at-least-pretty-funny blockbuster Rocky IV, where the martyred black man is the functional catalyst for the white hero’s revenge and triumph.

Read the rest at L'etoile Magazine:  http://www.letoilemagazine.com/2015/11/25/the-niles-files-back-to-the-future/

The Laying On of Hayes: Todd Haynes at the Walker

While not exactly prolific, few filmmakers have had as rich a body of work over the last 25 years as Todd Haynes. While his experimental and infamous (and widely unseen because of copyright issues) student short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) reads in the abstract like a precocious academic’s theory-laden art project in vogue as postmodernism defiantly pokes its strychnine needles into the Reagan ’80s–the tragic ’70s pop star is given a biopic starring Barbie dolls–as a feature director Haynes has expertly refined his themes, craft, and performances from star players as his moving pictures ponder the beautiful sheen of surfaces and performances of identity in glamorous environments of rigid social censure. Unlike his fellow Bard College associate Kelly Reichardt (for whom he serves as a producer), who inspects disenfranchised lower class individuals unable to keep up with the accelerating economic demands of a “normal life,” Haynes looks at people blessed with privilege and money but with inner lives out of conjunction with the visible world around them. Both Portlandian filmmakers highlight how evanescent people are as the world is determined to be fixed in concretely defined and constructed essences; there’s an unlikely similarity then between Reichardt’s ne’er-do-wells and activists and Haynes’ spotlight on pop celebrity (including Carpenter, David Bowie, and Bob Dylan).

Read the rest at L'etoile Magazine: http://www.letoilemagazine.com/2015/11/05/the-niles-files-the-laying-on-of-haynes/

Of Rats and Men: "Black Mass" vs. "The Departed"

James “Whitey” Bulger spent about 15 years on the lam as #2 on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and yet “Black Mass,” the new Warner Bros. drama documenting his reign of terror over Irish Catholic South Boston, directed by Scott Cooper and headlined by Johnny Depp as Bulger, indicates he still eludes us. Guided by witnesses’ recorded testimonies, “Black Mass” is like an old chronological scrapbook from 1975 to the late 1980s reorganized for bureaucratic eyes.  Yet as Cooper emphasizes objectivity, Johnny Depp’s Bulger is an unnerving anomaly—a hybrid of Nosferatu, Pazuzu and Gollum DNA, a horror movie presence contaminating an Irish Catholic period canvas. That a character should be reading “The Exorcist” when Depp’s Bulgerferatu knocks on the door is less period correctness than an allusion to the character’s satanic prowess. In such a thin film, Bulger evades perspective. “Black Mass” cannot make sense of Bulger. Even when he's taken away in handcuffs, he still isn’t “there." It’s as if he needed to be a cosmeticized special effect because Cooper finds his evil unfathomable.

Read the rest at RogerEbert.com:  http://www.rogerebert.com/balder-and-dash/of-rats-and-men-black-mass-vs-the-departed