Thoughts On: September 2019


Shorts #105

Short Thoughts: Escape Plan (2013), Rambo III (1988), Rambo (2008), Days of Being Wild (1990), Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)

Silly, and yet not that fun. Escape Plan simply lacks character; it functions something like a Sherlock Holmes narrative without stakes. We are left wondering how Sly and Schwarzenegger (and this is unquestionably who appears on screen - acting not required) will be pulled along a half-clever script full of bad dialogue and much nonsense it hopes you look past. The entire background of the world is wholly questionable; whilst it is established that the prison space is 'evil', why are we put on the side of convicts, and why are we to accept all the murder? The lack of logic is very distracting.

Not much more can be said. This is watchable, but not something you find yourself particularly wanting to watch as it unfolds.

Rambo III is a step-down from parts I and II. The series never ceases to take itself somewhat seriously, but there is little of substance in this third part. Whilst nothing about the first two films is particularly ingenious, they balanced theme, character and action better than this. Rambo III is a confusing tribute to Afghan freedom fighters with somewhat cheap melodrama and too much going on in the realm of political commentary without nuance and particular insight. We do get to see a tank crash into a helicopter though - and without one drop of CGI. The writers of modern day action melodramas (like the Fast & Furious films) think they're brash and ludicrous on the page, but Rambo III goes to show that the likes of Hobbs & Shaw is nothing - aesthetically speaking - too new.

It's a Rambo movie, but it's not. More blood, more guts, more violence and decimation and then some CGI. Characterisation (of the titular character alone) is well defined, yet character arcs and their motivation are meandering and ill-justified. Political context also gives way to thematic debate--nothing of great calibre. These are common traits of the Rambo film, but intensified and brought into the late 2000s. What changes most significantly in Rambo is the presentation of the titular character. He is elevated to the level of archetype here: a reluctant, pessimistic hero. In elevating J. Rambo to this status, this narrative contrives a sense of wholeness and completion, but lacks failure and stakes (a key structural beat of the previous film). This leaves Rambo front-end heavy, overflowing with action and melodrama emerging from the interior of an archetype, but rather light in the ass.

Days of Being Wild feels like the work of a filmmaker who has yet to come into his own. The technical aspects of the script and montage are mired by a lack of substance in the realm of character. Though this tries to say much about time, its persistence, its solid yet abstract nature, its formlessness that shapes ones personal history to sometimes devastating effect, it lacks affective impression. The structuring is obnoxiously obfuscated - likely in an attempt to conceal the shallow, ill-defined paths characters walk.

Days of Being Wild impresses with its conception of time and abuse - both cyclical and droning ripples through space and time - but does not do too well in other respects.

There is a subtle genius embedded within Chaplin's comedic sensibilities. It emerges most famously via his narrative constructs and gags, but Kid Auto Races at Venice allows him to demonstrate a rare Keaton-esque conception of the cinema screen as a window into a version of reality. Most of Keaton's best jokes - the screen sequence in Sherlock Holmes Jr. being of particular brilliance - were conscious interrogations of the realities a screen can present. This play with the screen as something of a window of diegesis is almost as old as the cinema itself, and Chaplin makes a fine go at not only muddying the line between documentary and narrative, but does so with an acute yet subtle understanding of the frame as the audience's eye - thus the world it shows the only world extant to the audience. How he plays in and perturbs it is first and foremost warmly amusing, but, secondly, a demonstration of a rather nuanced conception of cinema and its relationship with the spectator.


How It's Made - Movie Machine

Thoughts On: How It's Made (2001-19)

A consideration of the value of spectating moving picture machinery.

What is the greatest T.V show of all time? You may have your answers, but there is only one correct response: How It's Made. The show is so good because it not only reveals the manufacturing process of everything from eggs to disc brakes to tequila, but it captures a strange dance of construction; it makes engrossingly explicit the state of something's existence. There are many ways one may define art, and many feel very similar. A definition I have always clung to concerns communication; all other definitions I have found use of complexify, and thus reduce back down to, this basic idea. This is true of the definition of art as a process of making engrossingly explicit the state of something's existence.

Perceived a certain way, How It's Made is a meta-work, one that overtly discusses the being of aspects of nature - or rather, technological artefacts. Yet it operates on a fundamental level much like a movie. Replacing the technological artefact - a can, balloon or spring - in a narrative is the abstract concept of a theme. A theme is that element of nature that a narrative (inherently mimetic) requires to exist; it is that which is dramatised, given mode, logic and style. In respect to this, movies can be considered machines of sorts that not only make explicit, but engrossing, some element of being - a theme. That said, 'explicit' as a descriptive term must be used with caution. In regards to cinema, a theme is no simple entity; difficult to define, maybe impossible to perceive in its truly fundamental form, a theme cannot be explicit like the construction process of a basketball. Or maybe it can? How It's Made reveals how a basketball is contrived, but it does not attempt to explain he game of basketball or even the significance of the ball, culturally, historically or existentially. Furthermore, it does not make explicit the chemical composition of various polymers nor answer and solve questions concerning the relationship between science, reality and human. Why do these elements - science, reality, humanity - in tandem produce the technological artefacts we are so interesting in seeing made?

With consideration, one can suggest that the explicitness of that which engrosses in art is never quite fully lucid. Yet, the documentary has a greater sense of lucidity in regards to its thematic content or item of interest than a cinematic narrative. So, again: themes are never made explicit in that they are bared and understood as a process wholly and fundamentally. Alas, a good narrative is an affective one. Affect demarcates the reception of theme; when one feels touched, it is because they understand; photogénie and lyrosophy cycle; theme is made explicit to the senses, to the unconscious and corporeal intelligence. It is this output that is produced by the movie machine via the process of making a theme engrossingly explicit. That said, it must be mentioned that art forms differentiate in various ways, and one key manner in which one can separate, say, cinema and music, is considering the haptic function of thematic revelation, of affect, explicitness and, indeed, ambiguity. Put simply, theme is received and transmitted along unique systems between art forms. Comparing the book to performance to cinema to music makes this obvious. A book holds its themes in syntax, performance in the language of the body, cinema, in visual communication systems and music along sonic planes and vibration. Each transmission-reception system effectively produces affect, but the character of thematic processing is wildly different. To exemplify: all art forms can produce a feeling of joy. Alas, to perform joy, to narrativise joy in a novel or on a screen, or to make music out of joy, are emphatically different processes. Music, on one hand, will teach one's body and senses joy, but provide little to consciousness. A book, a scientific textbook or even a novel, can make far more tangible a description of joy as a theme, subject or topic.

I find myself writing about this as I have struggled of late to find a reason as to why films should be written and spoken of. Despite the struggle I remain in love with movies as machines. It only makes sense that they be spoken of as machines that make explicit theme via affect. Abruptly, then, I will end, leaving a loose definition of the movie machine among the above lines.


Shorts #104

Short Thoughts: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), War For the Planet of the Apes (2017), Dave Chappelle: Sticks & Stones (2019), Bill Burr: Paper Tiger (2019), Parasite (2019)

All at once silently esoteric and boisterously thunderous, Beasts of the Southern Wild uses distance to great effect. We are not allowed too close to characters - there is a silence that prevents this; we can only know so much as we weave between unpredictable happenings. We are also repelled by characters' booming personalities; they make queer a story of survival, of grounding one's feet in the soil and remaining strong. This consistent juxtaposition of the silent and harsh keeps the audience at, at least, an arm's length from character interiority and, in the end, makes rather impactful the final symbolic gestures the narrative makes with its beasts. Successful this film's distance management is then at generating affect. Alas, the clarity of this affect is the problem of this narrative for me. The feelings this generates are cloudy and left a haze despite being strong. This narrative is then easily turned away from. Easily forgotten? I do not know yet.

A crisp end to the prequel trilogy that follows in Dawn's footsteps by falling into the philosophical and ethical mires of civility. It is then this trilogy's greatest strength and complexity that the apes not only become more fundamentally human, but grow to understand their own 'humanity'. Humanity's folly indeed creates them, and humanity indeed destroys itself over the course of this extended narrative. Alas, ape civilisation, too, is broken and continues to break despite its achievements. And maybe that is the element of gold about this part of the trilogy especially. It is not the presence of humanity--which, due to the trans-species, post-human narrative is a quality defined as something near-natural and a product of consciousness and society--it is not that the presence of humanity determines success and is that which should be celebrated, but that the successes of the inherently troubled humanity must be celebrated - because who knows when it will fail next. Dark, but warm.

Not a masterpiece, but it secures some sense of peace within itself. Funny, yet not clever, but seemingly - and maybe entirely so - honest. Unassuming, even humble, despite its opinionated and rather sharp facade, Chappelle's comedy exists in a closed bubble. What is said is done with; jokes like moods and judgements come and go, eventually dissipating in amused chorus and witty loops. As implied: peaceful, or at least, at peace, in a weird way.

Oh no...

A dud from one of my favourite comedians. Forget funny for a moment, what about originality? Burr spends a seriously significant proportion of the hour either rehashing uninspired rants that were in circulation between 2013 and 15, reworking old points and reviving already used up premises. I found myself scratching my head, asking myself, haven't we heard a better version of the First Lady segment? He even throws out a story he was once filmed unable to tell without breaking down whilst telling. This is a strange throw-away special that I can't see being anything but weird to anyone who has seen a lot of his work. That said, the material that felt fresh (all 15 minutes of it) was a joy to hear... and... this was pretty painful to write.

Bong Joon-ho has created a stupendous work of intelligence and deep drama. Though previous works of his such as The Host, Memories of Murder, Okja and Snowpiercer are good (Okja less so than any other), Parasite reveals a complexity and sophistication of a much higher level in the character department. The thematic concerns across these films have in common a rather overt socio-political critique, but it is Parasite that uses these themes as a place of departure. It explores more than caste: the terror of flirting between the social classes and the perturbances of character that this excites.

Deeply engrossing, subtly and brilliantly impressionistic, smooth, humorous and grounding, Parasite is a truly fantastic film; a world cinema staple in the making.


Crawl - Mid-Level Monster Movie

Quick Thoughts: Crawl (2019)

An estranged father and daughter are trapped in a gator-infested homed during a flood.

Crawl is an effective mid level monster movie and thriller. There's much to enjoy and a little to scratch your head about. The set up and general logical construction of the narrative is not egregious in any way, which is to say, this is in the most basic of ways, quite believable. This matters because this film centralises a game of logic, of trying to figure ones way out of a situation; if the characters act stupid, why should the audience forgive them. And whilst characters are drawn out as rather clichéd and simply written, the representation of a father daughter team trying to survive is grounding and engaging.

Onto what the film lacks. Firstly, thematic weight; Crawl isn't trying to build a narrative of incredible substance despite some efforts to capture a sense of pride and persistence - which holds some affect. Next, the monsters, or rather, alligators. The gators look like huge Nile crocodiles, they move far too slow and are too clearly a device in a narrative. Though some of the kills are enjoyably silly, the unrealistic rendering of the alligators is something that audiences will inevitably find too obvious. Second to this, though lead characters are put in danger and are even maimed across the narrative, they appear rather invincible in all of the scenes in which they aren't being chewed on. That is to say, the damage sustained by characters has no real lasting dramatic weight as a bite may give a character a limp in one scene, but won't stop them fighting or swimming in another.

In total, Crawl lacks a needed impressionism. We do not feel characters pain and the severity of their circumstances enough. This is not a lifeless film, but, it rather desperately needed better storyboarding and more time put into the visual-linguistic construction of scenes and maybe less put into CGI. That said, I enjoyed this quite a bit.


The Mustang - Self-Redemption

Quick Thoughts: The Mustang (2019)

A self-isolating convict seeks reformation through a wild horse taming and training programme.

Though lacking a touch of needed subtlety and hush, The Mustang is a poignant tale of redemption. It constructs a somewhat transparent allegory between man and animal, depicting the taming of wildness as a process of belated individuation. In addition, this is so much so about moments that shape lives, about the ease with which a house that took a decade to build can be knocked down. Digging for the foundations of character, The Mustang achieves success in its method of representing subjectivity. I found this to be particularly highlighted by the horse that is played (somewhat metaphorically) against the reforming convict. The horse is given character, and supplies character, without humanisation. That is to say that the horse stands as a character without being personified, without the script treating it as a person. This nuance and clarity of realism supplies the narrative with something rather unique and affecting. This achievement sits central in the film's dramaturgy, the place upon which all complex characterisation is built. Before noting the films slight shortcomings, the beauty of certain images must be commended. Motion is where the cinematography team find near perfection. It is in unclichéd and deeply affecting shots of horses in motion that then emotionally stir whilst seemingly symbolising the all important element of persistent, fluid transformation and change across the narrative.

These details make for an easily overlooked film well worth seeing. However, this isn't flawless. The drama bears too much melos, which is to say the script, direction and performances do not manage the fictional melodrama and realism brilliantly. Without balance here, photogénie around the human subject is tinged and unclarified. There is then something of a distance embedded in close ups and intimate stretches of narrative put in place by an element of clear contrivance that seems to have no place in the film. This downfall ripples quite far out. It effects the aesthetic texture of the film and depersonalises the cinematic space ever so slightly. Furthermore, there is an explicit element of the realism that feels unnecessary and forced. What, we are then left questioning, is the necessity of emphasising contextual facts and the rest real-world truth of the story? As implied, however, I think this is a rather wonderful film and a very impressive directorial debut.


Shorts #103

Short Thoughts: Zombieland (2009), Carnival of Souls (1962), Tokyo Drifter (1966), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

A rather brilliant film composed of sharp characterisation, great world building, sublime narration, but betrayed by its own logic. The opening is light and fun, the slow build of character relations is well paced and nicely set along a journey into their intimate inner-worlds. Alas, the third act sees so much fall apart. The opportunity for spectacle in the fair is missed and the character decisions motivating the move into that part of the world is entirely unjustifiable. Why turn on all of the lights and machines and then be surprised when 1000s of zombies swarm? Why crash your car into a lake in response to this? All tension meant to be produced here falls flat leaving the narrative on a dull note. However, the rest of the film remains in tact - though, I'm not sure of the necessity of a sequel.

Though this suffers from weak direction and editing, there are sparks of competence about Carnival of Souls. It is a film that does not work. Alas, the silent, somewhat impressionistic, sequences of the film imply that this may have found so much more success as a straight silent film. After all, so many problems are found in the dialogue and sound-montage; choppy performances would be hushed and the cacophonous and often confusing (due to the blundering lack of distinguishment between diegetic and non-diegetic organ music) sound design would be less intrusive. If put in the hands of a Jean Epstein maybe the gothic horror would work and the meandering and obtuse narrative would find itself more enigmatic and thematically compelling. That said, the neighbour character pretty much ruins all of intrigue about this clunky psychological horror. I don't know if Epstein would be able to save this entirely.

Though I was consistently confused and rather unsure what was going on with plot and character arcs, I thoroughly enjoyed Tokyo Drift.

Character is reduced to an aesthetic immersed in a world of style; a flurry of colour pallets all balanced and contrasted in fluffy light to perfection. They operate in a musical drama exuding thematic statements like items of fashion. The result is a truly New Wave kind of cinema that steps, leaps and bounds from cinematic norm to deliver a form alien and unique, yet in some way functional. What conclusions can be made as the narrative closes are lost on me, but Tokyo Drifter is as striking as it is immersive.

The CGI continues to date, but the narrative is always surprisingly incredible. I have written about this film and the others in the prequel trilogy to no end, so I have run out of things to say. But, I'm always left in awe. This trilogy as a whole is one of the greatest achievements of modern American cinema, and the opening film is flawless. Astounding.

The CGI of Maurice and select shots of Caesar still blows me away. The narrative, still incredible.

An intricate navigation of the line dividing family and society, of moral optimism and moral discrimination, of trust and betrayal, Dawn is so deep and simple, profoundly human, and incredibly weaved. I felt less of a disdain for the human characters in this narrative than I have previously. There are scenes with them that could certainly be thrown away, but so many make tangible and visible the battle raging within Caesar; a contemplation of the good and the bad in humans and apes (in conscious, intelligent beings), of how to operate and communicate the lessons of that battle. Whilst slightly more faultable than Rise, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is astounding.

Shorts #102

Short Thoughts: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019), The Lion King (2019), Fast & Furious: Hobbs and Shaw (2019), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), Chappie (2015)

Whilst I wish I didn't see this, images of DiCaprio's stellar performance and the feel of the tamer side of this world stick with me. This is an utterly pointless psuedo-exploitation film of the Manson movie sub-genre bloated incredibly by the egoic stylings of the horribly present Tarantino - a vortex of cringe and pretence so devastating he defies description. If it wasn't for the extended DiCaprio scenes, this would undoubtedly be the worst of the director's cannon. He is the only performer that stood his ground on set, not bending to the splurging auterism cock-blocking all other artistic expression in this 3 hour slow vomit. If only DiCaprio could have been dealt a better Tarantino script to lead.

An embarrassing reminder that part of the reason for cinema's existence is to make money. I thought Aladdin was shameless, but The Lion King has no excuses and escapes all the blame. How? I don't know.

Better than any Fast & Furious film I've ever seen.

Stripped of Vin Diesel's ass-eating performances, Hobbs & Shaw does well to boil the cast down, letting much of the Fast & Furious series' pop-star scum and mediocrity simmer away. Less a cockeyed off-shot of a self-encapsulated genre, Hobbs and Shaw is a spy thriller, somewhat reminiscent of an early Guy Ritchie film in parts - in other parts, this is a cinematic Rock affair. That makes this as fun as it is ridiculous--albeit a little stilted. Idris Elba's performance could have been better managed, but his character provides some of the best slow-motion spectacle that I actually was left wanting more of. Enjoyable.

A mess that only the late 90s could provide.

Semantically confusing, too political, equal parts conscious and dreaming, this is a rather bluntly incisive teenage (translation: naive) melodrama. I imagine this can only become more of a cultural embarrassment as the years pass. The music, the fashion, style and the taste... yeesh. I can only hope this comes nowhere near an accurate representation of anyone's high school experience. That said, through the chaos comes some levity and light enjoyment.

I don't know exactly why I avoided this when it was first released. Chappie surprised me. I found the film to be heartfelt and, when coupled with District 9, a rather eloquent and affecting documentation/contemplation of trans-human metamorphosis.

Blomkamp's sense of humour needs to be a little reigned in here as it is in District 9, but I cannot recall a film that I have found to be so crushingly hilarious after the viewing. For reasons unbeknown to be, explaining the car theft scene put me in fits. It cannot be ignored, however, that the casting choices made in this film were a big risk that didn't really pay off. Despite this, as a technical and thematic achievement, I believe Chappie stands strong: a touching bookend to District 9.

Shorts #101

Shorts Thoughts: Us (2019), I Think We're Alone Now (2018), Dawg Fight (2015), High Life (2018), The Meg (2018)

A longer review is certainly necessary, but Us... hmm... I'm not sure. The score and soundtrack of Us makes the film; in fact, maybe it oversells it. I then found the austere opening making promises (tonally and atmospherically) that weren't really fulfilled.

Not a straight art-house thriller/horror, Us has may genre inflections that make it distinctly--let's say American. The comedy works at times and the horror aesthetics do, too, but characterisation doesn't go too far in my view. Without many stakes, Us is then quite unaffecting. But, worse than this, Us appears slightly pretentious in my view. There is an awful lot that could be postulated and proffered when it comes to subtext, but, whilst I see many ways of reading this film, none of them enhance the filmic experience or resonate with the narrative as whole. More needs to be said, but Us left me dissatisfied.

A rather fascinating film, I Think We're Alone Now is quiet and subtle; it doesn't attempt to do much at all beyond slowly build character and assert something rather simple.

This constructs a post-apocalyptic narrative that is essentially about the failures of Utopianism. Presented here is a question of: What if humanity got to start again in a somewhat grim Garden of Eden? What should become the priority, painting the garden in brighter colours, or planting the seeds for a tree of knowledge of good and evil? These questions are explored with an uncanny feeling of originality that is only somewhat perturbed when sci-fi genre elements become more prominent and drama intensifies. But, beyond these minor limitations, I Think We're Alone Now is a brilliantly angstily contemporary post-apocalyptic film well-worth watching.

Formally speaking, Dawg Fight hasn't got much going for it. However, it successfully tunnels into a world erupting with the bitter and ugly truths reality doesn't care to hide.

All too easily could you suggest that Dawg Fight glorifies and buffs over a world with much texture. There is, however, a genius in the boisterously naive posturing that the camera indulges. Behind the facade of a Rocky-esque narrative is a story of minor success and, above all else, a discovery of how small one's world truly is. One has to be able to see past much of the strutting and talk to realise this, but defeat and shame prowl on the edges of the realism; the world is bigger than we think; we, too, are smaller than we can conceive of; cover your eyes and march forward. $25 to lose a fight in the backyard. 25.

Aesthetically derivative of Tarkovsky - more an achievement than anything else - yet tonally dry, High Life is unfortunately lifeless. Its dull sense of character and story make drudgerous the thematic journey Denis attempts to take us on. That leave this too abstract and seemingly depthless a rumination on death, sex and life.

Not much can be said for the performances and script. Robert Patterson calmly falls into a mould of a silent French character archetype, yet is left half-baked - the script fails him, the camera oversells him. The rest of the cast only provides trouble with their clunkily constructed and delivered dialogue. The only light in this film are the shots of a baby taking her first steps. Not much more is to be found here.

Not as fun as it wants you to believe it will be. Whilst individual characters provide somewhat comical caricatures, too often do they come together to create a mess. Whilst entirely undermined by the absurd melodramatic monster-horror-spectacle, only our male and female leads' bond creates something worth watching

What would have made this work better is, put simply, less smart-assery. Those strains of plots lead by Rainn Wilson's dumb billionaire typify elements of self-consciousness emergent from the too-present sci-fi sides of this story. Why not make the giant shark 100ft bigger? Why not let there be 3 of increasing size? Why can't Statham's final gratuitously stupid kill have been the first? More stupidity required.

Blog News

The shorts are coming back. I've been on holiday for some time - also trying to figure through a few things, and so the work on the blog has slowed. But, for those who are still eager to read, I have news: the shorts are back. For 100 weeks straight (ish - maybe we missed a week, I'm not sure), we released 7 or more reviews every Sunday. Over those weeks, more than 800 movies were reviewed. You can view the list of them all here, and you can see the shorts in their entirety here.

I stopped with the shorts as 100 weeks felt like a nice round number - and I grew somewhat tired of them. In truth, I hit a bump with film and writing in general. Such is life, and life goes on. And, as it happens, so will the shorts. But, the format will be different now. I have decided to release the shorts when I have 5 in the bank. At least one series of shorts should appear each week - I do not feel like releasing them on the same day each week as of now. That may change. I hope you enjoy the shorts.

All the best, and thanks for reading.