A new version of life is available. Do you want to update now?—Josh Trank’s Chronicle (2012)

This review originally appeared in its entirety on the website Screen Machine.

Contemporary consumerism is marked by planned obsolescence. Our devices, our phones, our computers, our social medias, go through an endless and artificial progression of updates. Software becomes outdated. Hardware becomes outmoded. Upgrades are required in order to stay current. The logic of the upgrade is deeply embedded in our capitalism. It’s the reason why your iPhone probably won’t last more than three years, and thus is the reason why the gross revenue of Apple as of January this year is more than the GDP of 105 countries, including Slovenia.

But this logic is fundamentally exclusionary. Upgrades are for those with the means to procure them. And so the realm of consumerism is demarcated by class. Upgrades are a decadent conflation of utility and luxury, and they exist first and foremost for those with the means to make aesthetic choices about how their lives are lived, meaning the wealthy. The relationship of the classes to their technology is a division between functionality and aestheticisation; the un-upgraded tech of the poor is merely functional, a means to life itself, while the upgraded tech of the bourgeois is a means to aesthetic pleasure.

In Josh Trank’s Chronicle this consumerist logic is articulated through the current blockbuster trope du jour, the superhero origin story. Three high school students discover a mysterious glowing crystalline object, and subsequently develop telekinetic abilities – the ability to move objects with their minds and, eventually, cause themselves to lift off into flight. Sophomoric fun ensues. But one of the trio, Andrew – the poor one – is mentally destabilised by his new powers. Violence erupts, and he must be put down.

…continued at Screen Machine.

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Making a spectacle of montage: Christopher Nolan picks up where the Russians left off

This article appears in its entirety at Screen Machine.

Has there ever been another great art so persistently mis-apprehended? I refer not, of course, to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises—which is by no measure great art, and by some measures bad art—but to the cinema itself. And I avoid the term misunderstood deliberately. It’s not that the cinema has not been understood, in some fashion; it’s that the terms on which it is grasped are so often the ones of least significance. So much of the contemporary dialogue around cinema—and especially around blockbuster events, like The Dark Knight Rises—is tuned to the wrong frequency.

An audience may ask any number of questions to decide the worth of a film. Is the narrative coherent? Are the characters believable? Do I find its politics acceptable? But a great deal of contemporary critical discourse tends to neglect those questions most fundamental to apprehending film; like, is this really cinema? Does this film instantiate, in some notable and compelling way, the qualities of cinema as art? The issue here is not one of enjoyment, but of understanding the fundamental criteria that delineates cinema as a unique art form.

The fact of the matter is: a bad movie can also be great cinema.

…continued at Screen Machine.

Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010)

This review originally appeared on a now-defunct version of the website Screen Machine.

Olivier Assayas’ Carlos is a project of epic proportions; a five and a half hour, three part, made for French television, biopic of notorious 20th century terrorist Illich Ramirez Sanchez (known as Carlos ‘the Jackal’), the film is an incisive portrait not only of one revolutionary, but also of the radical Left in the Cold War, and, indeed, of the methods, means, and reality of terrorism per se. Carlos, a Venezuelan-born, Moscow-educated, would-be Che, began his career as an agent for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, before the murder of two unarmed policemen at a Paris party in 1975 sealed his notoriety. A highly publicised turn in the spotlight as the bad-boy of international terrorism followed in the late 70s and early 80s, including a lead role in the famous OPEC raid in Vienna, and then a slow decline as a revolutionary for hire in Arab states like Syria and Jordan, until his arrest by French authorities in 1994 in Sudan.

Part 1 gives a propulsive account of Carlos’ early days with the PFLP, leading up to an exquisitely staged depiction of the murder of the policemen in Paris. Part 2 is largely taken up with an incredible, minute account of the Carlos’ raid on an OPEC conference in Vienna, as the initial paroxysms of violence when the terrorists storm the conference deteriorates into threats of murder that never erupt, planes idling on tarmacs as the group and its hostages are turned away by Arab nations who don’t want them, and tedious logistics of sleep, fuel, and food (the Austrian authorities send a room full of Muslim hostages ham sandwiches). The raid a failure, Carlos – who was ordered to kill a Saudi Arabian delegate, but accepted a bribe instead (for the ‘good of the revolution’) – is dismissed by the PFLP, and begins his extended exile behind the Iron Curtain and in sundry Arab states. Part 3 finds him as something like a mercenary, alternately protected and passed around by governments who aren’t sure they want him, his ideology and scruples growing increasingly thin as he himself get fatter.

Assayas’ technique throughout each part is largely to just get out of the way of the material; scenes are built faithfully from the accounts of participants, and dialogue is even lifted straight out of Stasi recordings from bugs planted in Carlos’ home. He guides us with a minimum of fuss through the proceedings, using skilful blocking, long takes, and a nimble, floating camera for an elegant, distanced perspective on each episode, and the film benefits in richness and durability from the confident simplicity of this approach. I’m increasingly fond of formally and theoretically minded directors like Assayas and Steven Soderbergh (whose scandalously underrated Che is an obvious companion piece to this film) who apply themselves to factual material in this fashion, and who don’t waste time trying massage ideological shapes out of the raw materials of history (Spielberg’s Munich, I think, suffers from this). Carlos has a lot to say about its subject, and about our recent history (and as Assayas is a child of May ’68, how could it not?), but real life and real history has enough unintended ironies that all it really takes is someone with the wit and skill to get it on screen.

The most overt bit of authorial meddling is the music: Assayas has cannily chosen to soundtrack the film with a selection of 70s and 80s Punk and New-Wave songs, and it’s a resonant complement to the heady juvenility of the revolutionary goings on. One scene has a particularly wild German terrorist, Gabriele ‘Nada’ Tiedemann, being chased down and apprehended to the ‘fuck authority’, ‘don’t need no mum and dad’ ersatz-nihilism of The Dead Boys ‘Sonic Reducer’. I was reminded, and not just because of the New Order on the soundtrack, of Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, his chronicle of the haphazard rise and fall of Factory Records and the ‘madchester’ music scene, wherein the midwives of that cultural moment are shown to be just as clueless, ineffectual, and rudderless as anyone. Trying to wage a revolution must be a little like trying to be a hit band. There’s a time, and a place, and a cultural moment, and those who catch it are never any greater, more talented, more special, than those who don’t. Carlos, for all his braggadocio, and for all that he is one of the most famous terrorists of the 20th century, is something of a joke, along with all his compatriots. They literally couldn’t hit the side of a plane with a rocket launcher. Their most practically successful operations are also the most vindictive and cruel: throwing a grenade into a crowded bank; leaving a suitcase bomb on a train, both petulant reactions to the failure of more ideologically higher-minded schemes. Carlos understands that the mythologising of a movement, be it punk or Marxist, is largely built from the outside in; by the teenagers putting The Clash posters on their walls, or spouting ideology in coffee shops. Being part of the song, the band, the group, the scene, the revolution always looks better, sharper, realer, for those on the outside. On the inside it’s just a bunch of crap people, no wiser than the rest of us, and usually a good deal more myopic. Punks are never really all that punk, and revolutionaries rarely ever revolt.

X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn, 2011)

This review originally appeared on a now-defunct version of the website Screen Machine.

Although any and all think-pieces on the state of contemporary film (or the ‘here’s what wrong with film today’ article) are detestable, I’m going to propose to you that there is a crisis in contemporary action filmmaking, and that Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class is a form of relief.

Spearheaded by filmmakers as diverse as Michael Bay, Paul Greengrass, and Peter Jackson, the contemporary action sequence is generally marked by spatial disorganisation, incoherence in shot structuring and sequencing (often passed off as ‘kineticism’), and an unmotivated emphasis on spectacle. Basic rules of thumb dictating that action should be motivated by character and grounded in conflict, result in tediously arbitrary obstacles in these sequences (we have to get to that MacGuffin through this burning building!), and embarrassingly schizophrenic characterisation (I cannot go with you through this burning building!).

Vaughn, throughout his brief four-film career, has demonstrated an innate understanding of the primal dynamics of action cinema, aided by a crack conductor’s sense of tempo and pacing. He knows that the best action scenes are at heart equations of cause and effect, with events breeding inevitable and escalating consequences, and logistical problems, where character’s established capabilities can be activated at pre-ordained moments but only with already intuited limitations and nullifications. More importantly, he and his writers (frequent collaborator Jane Goldman, I think, deserves a lot of credit) understand that these rules cannot be shoe-horned post-conceptually, but must grow organically out of the demands of the narrative and the characters. He also knows that upping the stakes of an action sequence is not the same as upping the antics – a single bullet fired, if grounded in a moment of revelation for the character, is worth a thousand exploding buildings.

This is all just a long way of saying that my enthusiasm, both emotional and analytic, for the climax of First Class, is boundless. The film is cleverly structured as a giant coming out party both for mutant characters and for mutant-kind in general, as they take up or test their abilities and enter onto the world stage. The opening salvo of the climax and big-money moment, familiar from the trailers, has Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (played by Michael Fassbender) levitating an entire submarine out of the sea and dumping it on a Cuban beach. The moment connects both as a galvanisingly cathartic character beat (the film is in part the story of Lehnsherr’s ascension into his full abilities) as well as an appalling display of power that sets the course for the fate of the mutants throughout the close of the narrative.

The rest of climax unfolds, to my mind, as a model of what all superhero films, or indeed all action films, should aspire to. Multiple groups of adversaries (here including Navies both American and Soviet, and mutants both good and evil) confront each across a spatially well-defined arena of conflict, and as sub-groups split off to conduct their own battles, Vaughn and his writers carefully and speedily collapse these sub-conflicts until all parties are drawn inexorably together into one final showdown. The axis of the arch-conflict shifts cleanly as these sub-conflicts are dispatched, obstacles arise, are overcome, and are re-formed (an admirable amount of business is found, particularly, in the mechanics of where and when James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier can extend his telepathic abilities). By the time the whole thing comes to a head the orientation of individuals and parties, as well as the consequences of the entire conflagration, has shifted perceptibly in a way that’s thrilling, emotionally resonant, and motivated by character. It’s kind of structurally perfect, and a joy to watch, and proof that Vaughn and his collaborators just plain get this kind of filmmaking on a cellular level, and have a sure grasp on the principles which are otherwise misused and abused by their contemporaries.

 

Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010)

This review originally appeared on a now-defunct version of the website Screen Machine.

I write on Martin Scorsese’s new film Shutter Island mostly as an excuse to cross reference it to one of my favourite quotes I’ve encountered in my time spent reading film criticism. The author in question is NY Press’s noted contrarian Armond White, who wrote of Brian DePalma’s maligned 2000 sci-fi flop Mission to Mars that “It can be said with certainty that any reviewer who pans it does not understand movies, let alone like them”.  As declarations go it’s pretty deliciously outrageous, but it nevertheless says something important. I suggest to you that any reviewer who dismisses Shutter Island as one might dismiss Mission to Mars can similarly be said to not understand movies. Here’s why:

Most who dismiss the film will focus, not without reason, on the story, and the various narrative twists and turns. And it is true that on this account Shutter Island is pretty silly. The narrative is basically a shell game, and when people figure out they’re being fooled with, probably quite early, they’re going to get cranky. And the major turns, when they come, are going to get scoffed at, especially since the narrative logic that gets them there is tenuous at best. US Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule head to an isolated island, taken up entirely by an institution for the criminally insane, to find a missing girl. As Daniels’ troubled past rises to the fore, the line between sane and insane becomes blurred. You see where this is going. You can feel the filmmakers trying to get a two handed grip on the narrative, and for the most part the tone and intention is quite clear, but the tale itself has insurmountable logic and structural flaws.

The big issue is that Scorsese, a master filmmaker by anyone’s definition, has decided to employ all the bombast and trickery and playfulness he can muster at the service of what is essentially a weak story. And for people for whom the story is the most important element, who treat cinema as little more than recorded theatre or literature, who, in short, don’t really understand or like cinema, this is going to be major discrepancy, and an insurmountable flaw.

For the others, who know how to and enjoy engaging film on a purely formal level, it’s not such a big deal, particularly when Scorsese is just throwing big dripping gobs of pure cinema up on the screen like a guy having a seizure. It’s so much fun; just a series of punchy episodes organised around the central themes of memory, madness, and trauma. Scene to scene he‘s doing something different, and weird, and bizarrely affecting. From the strangely clunky opening dialogue scene, to the back-projection-like green screen effects he drops into otherwise normal location scenes, to the handful of gob smacking dream-sequences he pulls off, along with two or three achingly moving flashbacks, it’s pretty much a sensory feast. The formal elements that Scorsese is so good at, the kind of stuff he serves up here, is the essence of cinema, and it’s often too easy to forget that story, dialogue, ideology should be mostly secondary concerns.

I read Dennis Lehane’s book before I saw it. I’d recommend even just reading the Wikipedia page. Remember: play along, don’t get played.

MIFF ’09—Mother (Bong Joon-ho, 2009) and Thirst (Park Chan-wook, 2009)

These reviews originally appeared on a now-defunct version of the website Screen Machine.

Mother

I think with Mother, his fourth feature length work, Bong Joon-ho cements his place as my favourite working director of any nationality. I’ve seen him compared (on the basis of his two previous works; The Host, and Memories of Murder) with Spielberg and Hitchcock, and unlike most such analogies this description manages to be both utterly foolish and somewhat apt. It’s easy to scramble for such names when discussing Bong’s work for two reasons. First, because despite defying most generic narrative descriptions, Bong’s films nevertheless feel like they belong in the thriller tradition in which those two directors made their names. Secondly, because it’s rare to find a director so utterly, even supernaturally, in control of his material, and with such an unerring grasp of timing and audience response. Scene after scene unfolds with strange tonal and formal zigzags, but Bong never seems anything less than confident in his ability to string the audience along. And unlike most other directors who are intent on keeping the audience in their palm (think of, perhaps, Michael Bay or Peter Jackson), Bong’s films feel totally effortless.

While Mother, which follows the frenetic attempts of a woman to exonerate her simple, sweet son of the brutal murder of a teenage girl, may present less immediately engaging, or obvious thematic subtext than the law and order and institutional indictments of The Host and Memories, I feel confident that repeated viewings will illuminate a critical portrait of contemporary Korean family and social dynamics. Regardless, the film’s formal thrills more than make up for this on first viewing. Also interesting is the way Bong recycles scenarios and dynamics from his two previous works: the endlessly compassionate parent guiltily caring for a mentally diminished child; an indifferent police force coercing culpability for a murder out of a simple man-child; staged public re-enactments of crime scenes; unconventional families and absent parents.

Equally exciting is the way Bong carefully replays and recycles moments two or three times, tracking their changing significances. It’s such a simple narrative trick, and often the hallmark of a well-structured script, that I’m surprised it’s something more directors don’t utilise. In particular, observe the progress of a golf club, a box of acupuncture needles, a little-known pressure point on the thigh, and the way a certain name appears; twice humorously, once tragically.

The film also contains my very favourite single shot of the entire festival, perhaps of the entire year. The mother has snuck into the house of her son’s callous friend, suspecting him of framing her child. When he returns home with his girlfriend she is forced to hid in the closet, clutching a piece of potentially damning evidence. Bong plays out a scene of high tension as the two lie post-coital on the floor, and the mother must navigate her way past a forest of half-empty water bottles. As one tips over, Bong, almost outrageously, cuts to a close detail of the water slowly seeping towards the man’s dangling, twitching fingers: so simple, so mundanely hilarious, so stunning. And it got the best audience reaction I heard all MIFF.

Thirst

With Thirst, Park Chan-wook, best known for the excellent Vengeance Trilogy of the past few years (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) takes a welcome step into full on Grand Guignol horror melodrama; only it takes him a bit too long to get there. Park’s best films, particularly Mr Vengeance and Oldboy, are models of dramatic construction; beginning with a simple set-up that slowly, inexorably, spirals down into violence. You come out feeling like you’ve been put through the wringer, and thinking that Park may be a modern master of tragedy. Thirst, on the other hand, fumbles around for its first half, never quite finding its footing, and while it’s never anything less than interesting, you can almost feel it relax in relief when it finally gets its ducks in a row.

The film follows an aimless priest, Sang-hyeon, who volunteers for medical experimentation to help cure the illness that threatens his flock. Just as the deadly, and grotesque, disease is about to kill him, a last minute blood transfusion saves him, and begins to effect strange transformations. Park wisely gets all this vampire business out of the way pretty quickly (it isn’t long before Sang-hyeon is sucking blood out of a comatose patient’s hospital tubes) and moves on to the priest’s desperate, carnal affair with the battered wife of a childhood friend. Here the film becomes a free adaptation of Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, before a not entirely unpredictable narrative turn propels the film into its immensely satisfying conclusion.

Thankfully, even when the film is fumbling around, the two leads, Song Kang-so as Sang-hyeon and Kim Ok-bin as Tae-ju (the wife), keep it engaging. Song (seen also in Bong Joon-ho’s The Host and Memories of Murder, as well as Park’s Mr Vengeance) seems to be the most effortlessly expressive, and quietly chameleonic, actor working anywhere today. He’s so good you could watch him reading the phonebook quietly to himself. And Kim, whom I don’t believe I’ve seen elsewhere, is incredible; it’s not a coincidence that the film is at its best when she is allowed to dominate. With Tae-ju (weak; naïve; duplicitous; steely; crazy; sexy; totally awesome) she creates my favourite monstrous feminine in a festival that seems unusually full of them (see also, Antichrist).

While the second half cannot satisfactorily tie up Thirst’s myriad narrative, thematic, and tonal loose ends, when it is at its best (as with a relentlessly violent climatic sequence at the couple’s apartment), the film is fabulously sick fun.

Observe and Report (Jody Hill, 2009)

This review was first published on a now-defunct version of the website Screen Machine.

With Observe and Report, director Jody Hill cements his place as my new favourite American satirist.

Previously known for micro-budgeted indie The Foot Fist Way, and HBO comedy series Eastbound and Down, Observe finds Hill with an increasingly sure grasp of the complex tonalities that marked his previous work, and a high budget, studio-sanctioned playground in which he can let them loose. There’s something excitingly transgressive about watching such subversive, disturbing material delivered straight to multiplexes in a film populated with the hot comedy stars of the moment. Humour is pulled from date-rape, recreational drug use, sexual perversion, mental illness, serious alcoholism, and violence against minors. The key, somewhat contradictorily, is the way Hill plays the laughs, and the characters, so close to real life.

The story depicts the huge, inevitable and massively violent nervous breakdown of Ronnie Barnhart, a mall security guard, as he becomes fixated with catching a local flasher who is terrorising patrons. Ronnie, overweight, bigoted, narcissistic (and bi-polar to boot) follows in the tradition of Hill’s earlier protagonists. Foot Fist shows the collapse of Fred Simmons, the tin-pot fascist dictator of a small town taekwondo school. Eastbound portrays the ritual shaming of over-the-hill ex-baseball player Kenny Powers, as he finds himself reduced to a position as a substitute gym-class teacher in his home town, after a steroid-induced exit from the major leagues. In a bit of an image tweak, Ronnie is played by Seth Rogen: Apatow protégée and unexpected comedy star of the past few years. Rogen turns in a surprisingly capable physical performance, throwing his weight around in way that abruptly turns him from cuddly to menacing.

Hill gets a lot of mileage out of sticking the audience with a genuinely awful protagonist whom he asks us to follow and identify with, but for whom redemption rarely comes to pass. Every time his men approach the comeuppances they so richly deserve, they somehow manage to swerve away and emerge deficiencies intact; lessons come tantalisingly close to being learned but in the end are brushed aside. While Hill’s protagonists may be the most distinctively dislikeable, Observe is populated many dysfunctional characters; from the slutty beautician who guzzles tequila and prescription meds on a date with Ronnie, to the local cop who is more interested in chatting up attractive witnesses to pursuing suspects. In one of the subtlest jokes, Nell, a sweetly innocent fast-food staffer who crushes on Ronnie, is revealed to be a ‘born again’ virgin; such self-interested, eyes-blinkered, delusional behaviour runs rampant. The best thing is the way all these people are such recognisable types; there’s no Ron Burgandy-esque mania here. You could find all these characters on any street in any city. Hill’s is the kind of comedy that’s millimetres away from being drama.

What I love about Hill’s narratives, but most particularly in Observe, is the way they serve as a framework for nothing less than a critique of the modern American national character. His stories play off well-known fantasies of American exceptionalism, and the familiar trajectory of the hero’s journey, to conclusions that are so sick and repulsive they become a full-blown attack on the culture that spawns such structures. Remember those distinctively American narratives of Good versus Evil, where virtue, clean-living, goodness, and piety always win the day? Remember how these tend to manifest in stories grounded in violence; westerns, film noir, America vs Nazis, America vs Communism? In Hill’s America these structures replay themselves over and over again on a micro-level, where they become perverted.

Middle America, the heartland, has turned into a concrete wasteland, stuffed with big-box chain stores and a fat, lazy, morally complacent population, where every single person feels that these grand cultural myths are their birth-right, and insists on playing them out in their everyday lives. But nobody seems to recognize that what is suitable for the macro-level is not suitable for the micro; so in lieu of Nazis or communists they fight their neighbours; the guy that slept with their wife; the person at work who’s more successful. But, lazy and complacent as they are, the notions of personal change and acquisition of virtue that accompany these grand narratives, the idea of earning victory, are discarded: self-improvement is simply too much effort. The one constant—and here’s where Hill’s work gets really cruel—is the notion that violence and power still go hand in hand. America built its myths on notions of conquest in battle, and this aggression spirals down into the micro level. Delusional Ronnie just seems like a fat joke until a very clever 2nd act scene where his innate capacity for physical brutality suddenly manifests. A twofold realisation occurs: not only do his crazy fantasies actually have the potential to really hurt people, but he might just have the strength to get his way. This kind of disturbing emotional territory is pretty unusual for a comedy to traverse.

The final sick joke of Observe is that Ronnie really does win the day, glory, and the love of a good woman. The use of aggression as power is so rampant, and so unconditionally accepted, even when it is manifestly in disproportion to the situation, that no one even really blinks. Violence really can make you a hero, no matter how little you deserve it, and victors write history. You don’t have to be virtuous, good, or smart. In fact, chances are, you aren’t. Maybe it was always this way.

As one character says, “I thought it would be funny, but it’s really just sad”.