Category: Film

Cry Macho – Clint Eastwood’s Requiem

Cry Macho – Clint Eastwood’s Requiem

Cry Macho is a powerful elegiac film from Clint Eastwood. At 91 years old, it seems odd to see Eastwood acting in a western, but he still has a lot to say about a genre which he spent much of his life in. He is quite aware of his age and casts himself as a retired cowboy reaching the end of his life. It is really a chance to deconstruct the western genre, and American myths which it mirrors, in a more calm and quiet way than his classic masterpiece, Unforgiven.

Both films are critiques of the mythology of the western film. It’s a genre that used to be one of the most important for Hollywood, but that is only rarely revived nowadays. This is for good reason. Society has moved on from that era quite a bit in terms of morals, social composition, and technology. At the same time, westerns are essential for the way they capture so many American myths. While westerns are guilty of spreading a mythology of American progress that really destroyed much of the natural and indigenous world that used to be here, often spreading violence and economic exploitation rather than civilization, progressives of today still hold to the same mythology of moving the world forward with progress while they attack other people, even though that instead appears to be the ideology of conservatives.

Clint Eastwood’s film collapses all of these conventions, and in doing so, it manages to critique much of American ideology itself. While otherness in most westerns took the form of native Americans, Eastwood here focuses on Mexicans. The border with Mexico is somewhat untamed, as has often been associated with Trump complaining about it, but Eastwood turns this chaotic world into a part of the West, an unpredictable frontier of different people encountering one another. For Eastwood though, none of the groups involved are inherently good are bad. They are complex, and all of them face economic problems and have people who just want to live. 

The portrayal of Mexicans in Cry Macho is as normal people with aspirations, needs, and problems quite similar to anyone else. They mostly just happen to be poor. They also have to deal with corruption, as the film shows us Mexican authorities not really acting in the interest of their own population. In the running time of the movie, much of what most people might believe about Mexico and its border is collapsed into a different world that is foreign in a cultural sense but completely familiar to us as people deal with normal issues of seeking a decent life. 

The expectations for cowboys are upended as well. Eastwood’s character is no conservative. He is a nature loving gentle person who likes fresh air and open spaces and tries to get along with other people. In keeping with his own real Hollywood self, Eastwood’s version of a cowboy is more progressive than anyone thinks of someone in a red state as being. He just happens to have zero interest in politics and prefers to be nice to other people and worry about normal problems, such as staying alive and healthy and having money and food. Isn’t that what everyone should be thinking about instead of arguing with one another over political ideologies?

Much like Unforgiven demythologized the West, showing exploitation of women and nature, a corrupt sheriff, racism, violent idiots portrayed as heroes, and a hard drinking antihero with a heart underneath it all, Cry Macho takes apart the American mythos even further, not only critiquing the western genre, but using it as a mirror for contemporary America that shows a hollowness to preconceptions Americans often have about one another and about Mexico. To Eastwood, life is about basic needs more central than any of that, commonly shared by all, and best satisfied with a common shared humanism. 

Cry Macho is an important, sad, slow, meditative film with far more than it seems at first glance, but it is made to be touched by and thought about rather than existing as a piece of entertainment. It’s the kind of film someone could only make late in his career after saying everything he needed to say and being in a position to be self indulgent enough to reflect back on the whole ride and leave something thoughtful behind to help everyone else avoid getting lost. Clearly, Eastwood has both a conscience and a soul, and that humanism is what made his film career so amazing and engaging for so long. It’s nice to see that he cared enough to make a noncommercial film like this. 

As Eastwood gets nearer to the end of his life, he has made a powerful and elegiac poem about both Eastwood and the genre of the western riding into the sunset. It’s a film for thought and not for action.

Tenet – movie review

Tenet – movie review

Christopher Nolan’s new film, Tenet, was released under possibly the most bizarre conditions a movie has ever been released within. During the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, theaters are often closed, require masks if open, and play films to empty rooms. Outside the theater, people are jobless, sick, or scared of both. Perhaps the oddness of that was just too much for Nolan to resist for his new film, which has an innovative temporal structure that might be the only thing weirder than the behavior of the Trump administration. It’s a bleak but brilliant film for bleak times which are as out of joint as what the film portrays.

A visually powerful director with bold composition and tendencies towards epic storytelling, Nolan made Dunkirk about hope and humanitarian aims amidst the worst possible situation. Interstellar showed the worst world of perhaps any film, with humanity on the midst of extinction after destroying earth, something which should cause the film to resonate far more now that California is burning thanks to capitalists exploiting the environment just about to death. Nolan’s Batman trilogy showed a dark and collapsing world looking for a savior, and A Dark Knight Rises has often been used to show parallels to social deterioration under the Trump era.

With Tenet, Nolan has made the oddest film of his whole career. The movie seems like it should be a European arthouse work instead of a mainstream Hollywood film, much less one that cost $200 million, but Nolan has been successful enough with idiosyncratic large films that he was able to do as he pleased. The result is brilliant, strange, and disquieting. The narrative moves through time in an odd enough way as to make the plot quite hard to follow. In particular, I found it impossible to tell when the film should end, because the temporal playfulness of Nolan’s central idea makes it unclear how his film should be edited and leaves one wondering what should be before or after and given scene.

In spite of that, it’s an excellent film, beautiful in a grand visual sense with sweeping depictions of how the world might head to its end with science and capitalism both run amok. Buildings collapse and then rise again in reverse. People move forward and backward, displaced from themselves and their own history.

The film explores interesting intellectual puzzles about the nature of personal identity, history, and time. One of the puzzles of physics is why time moves forward and never backward. The same equations that describe motion that happens forward in time work equally well when moving backwards through time. The intriguing scientific bit here is that insofar as physics effectively reduces natural phenomena to equations, for an event to move backwards instead of forwards makes perfect sense. After consulting physicists like Kip Thorne for Interstellar, Nolan is aware of this and made a film that fully works out how the consequence could play out in cinema as well as showing how it raises issues about major themes for human beings. 

If time can move backwards just as well as forwards, it’s not irrational to suppose that making this happen could be a future scientific discovery. It’s quite possible, of course, that things really can’t go backwards for reasons not presently understood, but this is a plausible science fiction scenario much like Interstellar was, something that may never actually happen but theoretically could happen.

That is an interesting cinematic terrain to explore, and doing so requires a grand level of skill, to which Nolan may be the only person up to the task. Working out a way to fit this chaotic material together, film it so grandly, and edit such a massive jigsaw of events is an analytical undertaking on a massive scale. While the drama suffers from a certain deflation given the problems this structure creates with the normal cause and effect sequence of a protagonist’s actions, Nolan is rather brilliant for seeing how this shapes and reshapes who a person is and also for seeing how human history itself would become a muddle.

The great Marxian project was one of showing how history could be understood as an empirical science, and this has influenced major thinkers for generations. This important intellectual consideration of a major philosopher / economist is often lost in the world of anti-communism that took over the West after the failures of the Soviet era brought such horrors such as the gulag and Chernobyl, and I often commiserate that the serious intellectual appreciation of a thinker as influential as Marx gets lost in this, but at bottom Marx treated history as a sort of materialist machine that bifurcates between shaping human beings and itself being shaped by human choices. This idea of an an engine of history encounters something remarkable in the disjointed plot of Tenet as it skips through time in more than one direction. 

Nolan is smart enough to appreciate this mixing of history with personal actions as shaping every person, every society, and effectively the world, and he undoes the meaning of this in a radical way by mixing up the flow of time. If time could move backward as well as forward, this would bring with it a remarkably postmodern world of things in flux, being broken and put back together again. 

So this is what happens to the protagonist of the film, and it has a strong resonance, as even without technological manipulation of time, the imposing world of technology, corrupt institutions, mixtures of violent terrorists and violent governments, and science run amok rips society to shreds right before our eyes while the coronavirus rages through our societies, economies, and hospitals. The disjointed picture of the world in Tenet looks shockingly similar to the world we all live in during 2020, a world where we sit waiting for a big scientific discovery (a vaccine) while we are powerless in the midst of chaos as we wait. 

Political leaders are depraved, ruthless, calculating, and corrupt in the film, much like the insipid ones we really do live around, psychopathic manipulators of events and opinions all aimed to make themselves more powerful. One of the masterful strokes of the film is that it is unclear who protagonist X works for. We know it’s the government, but this is kept so amorphous that it could be almost anyone. After spending some time lately reading the spy novels of the great John Le Carre, whose latest is about our present predicament of Brexit, Trump, Putin, and… endless nonsense, the most true thing about the spy world is that nothing is left clear. It’s a world of opaqueness which fits perfectly amidst Nolan’s strange world of people who don’t know themselves, and who sometimes even unmake themselves.

It’s hard to tell who really works for who and who or what the players are really loyal to. As Le Carre describes this, the difficulty is that criminals and thieves are hired as spies. So when they go bad, no one knows where to look or what to do, and when they are good, they do the same things as the bad spies. This makes for a messy world of nonsense, and it leaves spying as the perfect place to encapsulate Nolan’s idea of a world where science reduces meaning to nonsense by manipulating time. 

This director has manipulated time in a more realistic way in Interstellar, a film that holds more importance than most intellectual books about time, because while a lot of fuss has been made about the meaning of the theory of relativity’s clear observation that time is not a stable thing (that it changes with gravity amongst other variables), I doubt very seriously how much anyone really understands that. Nolan’s film forces one to make sense of it by showing people try to explore space while they experience time at completely different paces based on where they are. With film being an instrument of time, both these films should rank as among the most important cinematic works for so carefully exploring time itself.

Tenet is an oddity that does not defy criticism. The way this inventive approach to time shapes drama is important to examine, but its cleverness may well fall outside the bounds of the mainstream audience it was released for. The sheer spectacle of the film may lead to it making more money in the long run than is anticipated, but this is an intellectual arthouse work at bottom that is lucky to receive the grandiose budget that was needed to make such an important film.

His Master’s Voice – movie review

His Master’s Voice – movie review

His Master’s Voice is a provocative science fiction film from Turkey that places the genre in a much more intellectual setting than is the norm. It is based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, as was Andrei Tarkovsky’s important classic film, Solaris. Like the film from Tarkovsky, this work asks far deeper questions than does the typically entertaining science fiction film. Tarkovsky used science fiction to ask deeper intellectual questions. With a deep sense of aesthetic symbolism and mysticism, Tarkovsky would embed complex visual ideas in every frame of his movies. Solaris featured a talking ocean, and the director of His Master’s Voice mentioned this to me after the screening as an intriguing way to view otherness and a much more open palette of considering alien life than is the case with more traditional science fiction. 

The director is very much able to view his subject matter from a less than obvious position. In a post screening Q&A, he told an interesting story about where he was from. Gyorgy Palfi moved from Turkey to Mexico City after Erdogan came to power, because the political environment in his home country had become repressive and scary. Since then, things have opened up, and he is returning home. It is an intriguing back story for someone who has made a film with such a wandering narrative.

The film examines multiple narratives intersecting with one another in very disjointed encounters. It seems to operate almost as a collage of different narrative perspectives. While Palfi is interested in the question of responding to contact from an alien civilization, he treats this as a problem of dealing with normal interaction between very typical human beings. Individuals are separated from one another psychologically and linguistically and have imperfect ties to culture. So how our own narratives relate to one another is always embedded in complex ruptures and intertwining, a moving system of encountering otherness through a larger field of discourse, life, and civilization. 

In this film, the disconnect between the protagonist and his father becomes metaphorical for seeking communication from far outside of humanity. The voice of the father becomes a metaphor for alien life. So Palfi is showing us that as individuals we seek meaningful dialogue from without, and as a species we do the same thing seeking for a communication from something different from ourselves. This makes a great deal of sense psychologically, as it basically studies an innately human structure of looking for meaning in language from outside ourselves. 

The director is excited about the possibility of humanity one day encountering life from off of our own planet, and his intent with the film is caught between realistic science making this very plausible and the complexity of how both oneself and culture as a whole could deal with the discovery. The movie then is a very intelligent dialogue with contemporary psychology and philosophy, especially of the European variety with thinkers like Lacan and Derrida who study complex narrative, breaks in language, and how culture shapes our understanding of our own very unstable identities. This is a film where science meets a sophisticated view of culture and where the fictional part of science is meant to be imaginative exploration of serious possibilities. 

The odds of life or its remains being found on a moon or planet within our own solar system look very reasonable, and as expanding NASA missions learn more about the astronomical environment around us, evidence points towards what should have been obvious: nature is uniform. So what exists on earth as chemical, biological, and geological processes almost certainly exists in other places, and probably in lots of places given the scale of the universe. The real scandal is not that life can exist somewhere else, but that human thinkers have been unable to process the information due to having a self centered worldview. Barring some bizarrely deluded commitments, chemistry, biology, and physics work sufficiently as sciences that there are probably similar things to find throughout the universe. Photos from probes sent to Mars and Saturn’s moon Titan show what looks like amazing variations on what is already familiar on earth, and that is from an absurdly small sample size out of trillions of planets and moons.

One thing that stood out to the filmmaker as important when we spoke after the screening was the development of quantum computing and AI. This itself opens the door to new possible types of intelligence that are alien to our own. The movie begins with a view of computer code, and this is a striking attempt to show a language we all encounter daily as somewhat alien. Programming is not so dense that someone who knows a computer language can’t tell what code does, but it is complex enough that there are unintended parts that are only known once code is deployed. That’s why bugs exist in software. As the complexity and speed of computers increases, the unknown portions of programming grow, and there can indeed be questions about computer languages posing issues as an otherness that we don’t quite grasp. Eventually they may well evolve into very sophisticated forms of AI. 

I would point to Jacques Derrida’s musings in The Animal that Therefore I Am showing us how alien, but also how similar, we already are in the face of animals. Given that alien life is likely to simply be a different configuration of biochemical processes from our own organisms, I would suggest that there is already alien life all around being taken for granted: every other species of animal on earth. Rather than connecting with the intriguing difference in thought that animal intelligence presents, human beings have very callously undertaken a process of destroying their own planet. Pet owners and other animal lovers all over the world are aware of being around other intelligences. So one thing I appreciate about the film is its willingness to challenge what “intellect” might be. I fear the reality is that human society is so motivated by economic exploitation of other beings that it refuses to acknowledge the obvious existence of important types of life besides the human being, and that insistence on living inside an enclosed bubble of language and culture is exactly what Palfi poses would be ruptured by contact with extraterrestrial life. 

Perspective, language, thought, and varying types of potential life are themselves so complex and multifaceted that there is not one narrative, and it is not easy for human beings to get themselves around the likelihood of other kinds of intelligence. Ample evidence shows that other organisms are quite intelligent already, but we can’t share a narrative with dolphins or with cats. The lack of communication or a linguistic interaction leaves the false impression that only human beings think. 

The encounter of another species from another planet with technology would certainly be an eye opener, and given the range of possibilities, age of the universe, and the absurdly rapid rate that computers have already advanced, the possibilities of how advanced some other life could be are endless. So it is reasonable to be excited about AI and quantum computing opening new domains of thought and technology that could lead the way to contact with other intelligences. 

How that happens can vary from Palfi’s point of view. The filmmaker was aware of Tarkovsky’s interests in mysticism and agreed that this is a way of conceiving otherness in the form of intelligence. This question of otherness is really the guiding issue of the film, otherness and voices. The voice of the father and the speaking as a breaking into the world of another, or a disruption of the expectations of the world formed by a civilization if the speaking comes from something outside of it, is the central point of concern for the film. 

The director said that the film went through many changes during editing to the point of having unveiled multiple narratives with heavy deviation from the screenplay that he started with. He discovered his film through the editing and chose the most straightforward version of the movie as the final. Yet, he likes the multiplicity of stories that the editing room discovered and plans to release other variations of the film over the internet. So there are many ways that this ruptured discourse of a voice from outside can happen, and many more narratives to be seen from the same film.

His Master’s Voice screened at the 42nd Denver Film Festival.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – movie review

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – movie review

Some remarks from George Takei at Denver Pop Culture Con prompted me to revisit the classic film, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The film came out in 1991 at the end of the Cold War. The Soviet Union had just been dismantled in the very same year, and the writers built an allegory that did an excellent job of mirroring contemporary political events. This was also the last Star Trek movie with the original cast. So it is trying to provide a summary of the series and Gene Roddenberry’s ideas that can serve as a strong conclusion for the show.

George Takei’s comments about both Gene Roddenberry’s vision and this film had a surprising depth to them. He talked about how he grew up in an internment camp for Japanese people that was set up by the U.S. government. He had essentially no rights, and his entire family was under the control of soldiers who treated him as the enemy because of his race.

Takei placed this against Roddenberry’s ideas, and it was one of most moving sets of comments I’ve ever seen. He described Roddenberry’s vision as one of humanity working together and ignoring superficial differences between people to find a common good and improve things for everyone. The starship Enterprise was meant to represent earth, and the show’s idea was about bringing people together to solve problems of the human species. With environmental collapse posing an imminent threat to life and civilization, these ideas are even more prescient now than when the show was made.

Star Trek VI explores Roddenberry’s ideas in the Cold War context very well. The relevance after nearly 30 years is stunning, and this is deepened by the extent to which Russia and the former Soviet Union continue to impact American politics and security issues, with tensions that started out of suspicion of American intentions after the invasion of Iraq and following efforts to expand NATO into East Europe, the most extreme tension happening over Ukraine and then spilling into retaliation from Russia through hacking.

The film deals with race, and it has an engagingly unsubtle way of doing so. Roddenberry’s original show foresaw a future where racial conflict no longer exists, but when Nicholas Meyer made The Undiscovered Country, he was clearly bothered by the extent to which it still existed, and he set up a conflict between this, expectations of a better world after the Soviet collapse, and Roddenberry’s vision of a perfect future. In many ways, the film foreshadowed the present, where a large part of society expected racial issues to have been overcome by now and are shocked by the extent to which these conflicts are very much still part of the present and have troublingly reemerged in sometimes extreme ways. The twofold reaction that is most obvious is on the one hand disappointment over liberal dogma turning out to be fiction and revulsion at conservative pursuits of militancy and racism. Both sides are basically a disaster, and the film sees a world where nothing works except the heroism and good intentions of its central characters.

Indeed, the end of the Cold War had a lot to do with how the world looks today along the lines of that issue and many others. The expectation of the 1990s was that nuclear war would not happen, that peace would prevail, that racism would become obsolete, that environmental problems would be worked out, and that capitalism would last forever. Those views have collapsed in a sadly violent way after the September 11 attacks, Iraq War, 2008 financial crisis, growing environmental collapse due especially to global warming, deforestation, and biodiversity reduction, and Russia conflicts. The Undiscovered Country was well received at the time, but it deserves new analysis in light of how accurately it predicted a disturbingly violent backlash against the progressive ideas that were prominent with the Cold War’s dissolution. It offers stunning echoes of crises that are happening in the present.

Nicholas Meyer returned as director for this film having previously directed what is usually considered the best film with the original cast, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That film was responsible for reviving the entire series in many respects. George Takei surprised me by going over the story of what happened after the show was cancelled and thanked long time fans for reviving it. That’s a history worth briefly recounting here. The original show ran for two seasons, and was expensive as well as very odd for its time, and CBS cancelled it. Then a letter writing campaign from fans brought it back for a third season. Then it was cancelled yet again. Then it became a hit in syndication, and yet another letter writing campaign led to a film being made.

So with that, Star Trek: The Motion Picture brought back the franchise. It was a good movie but not entirely successful at bringing Trek to the mainstream. Still more letters were written by fans for another film. Finally, Star Trek II brought in a highly intelligent director who spent a lot of time researching the show and working to create its most crucial qualities in a work of cinema, and it is probably the point at which the show reached a level of popularity that made it a somewhat permanent phenomenon that keeps finding new stories, new movies, new casts, and new series in what seems like an endless space opera.

Leonard Nimoy directed the next two films which continued the story from the second film, and Star Trek saw three very successful films in a row. That success led to the creation of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and because Nimoy had been so successful as a director, Paramount made Star Trek V under the direction of William Shatner. Sadly, it turned out to be the only original cast film that collapsed with audiences and critics. It had bold and smart ideas, but perhaps too many of them shoved into one movie, and Shatner was reputedly very nice and accommodating to everyone on the set out of love for the show, possibly with the price of not controlling the production as tightly as needed. He also had to deal with the studio creating some issues with reduced budgeting and had to work with a special effects house that wasn’t adept at the material. The result is a sort of meandering guilty pleasure that didn’t leave the Trek film series in the best position. So Paramount wanted a better conclusion for the the original cast and brought back Nicholas Meyer to direct with Leonard Nimoy as a major contributor.

That turned out to be an excellent choice, and the writing found inspiration in the pairing of Rodenberry’s ideas with the Cold War. This is especially potent, because the series as developed in the 1960’s during the height of the Cold War had the Klingons metaphorically standing in for the Soviets, and the entire show is heavily infused with 60’s ideas. That romantic and futuristic optimism during the economic boom of a world still being rebuilt after World War II gave way to grittier realities that would eventually lead to our present, and the film handles both sides of this adeptly enough to build an inherent conflict between them. In essence, Meyer’s film builds classic drama from the conflict of Roddenberry’s vision with depressing observations of the world.

Secrecy plays a major role in the film, and we see that the powerful often operate in the dark to bring to light impulses that would not be acceptable if they were held out in full view. Shakespeare is also used very well, and indeed his plays often portray similar conflicts, those between the intentions of the powerful and the natural good of humanity. The Elizabethan England that was Shakespeare’s central place of reference was a more orderly world of expectations but one that dealt still with gritty chaos in the streets of London. Certainly in his plays, the powerful plotting of the nobility and royals in their castles have motives that can be very twisted away from the relative harmony that he saw in nature, and so in this film we see elites within the military and political circles plotting together to ensure that profitable conflicts will continue, at the expense of everyone else. 

The cinematography is uniformly beautiful with very skillful and gritty choices for dark photography. It does create a more realistic atmosphere both for space and for paranoia , and it can be seen as a predecessor to the very dark and gritty turn that science fiction would take in the 21st century through examples like the recreation of Battlestar Galactica.

George Takei also recounted the film from Sulu’s perspective and described his efforts to create a series for himself as captain of the Excelsior. This turned very amusing with his appreciation of the film going well into a shot by shot analysis which to say the least, puts Sulu in the most positive and heroic light that could be read into the film. It was a deeply moving speaking engagement, and what stood out the most is that Take takes Gene Roddenberry’s ideas very seriously as offering something important for humanity that is needed now more than ever.

The fourth film, made in 1986 also helps to show the seriousness of this. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home takes a serious look at the environmental crisis, but it’s worth remembering here that the 1980’s was the high point of the environmental movement. Since then, that optimism and seriousness of trying to save both the planet and natural areas have been replaced by dire predictions and empirical observations showing very little to be left of a healthy ecosystem. Insect populations which are essential to the ability to do something as simple as grow food have declined so severely that mass extinction and complete collapse are possible within decades. Sadly, with Roddenberry dead, we are left with his powerful ideas but in need of someone with a creative vision as powerful as his at translating those into narrative art.

Game of Thrones – Season 8 – First Half – review

Game of Thrones – Season 8 – First Half – review

The last series of Game of Thrones is turning out to be a powerful combination of moving and thrilling cinema. I don’t think it should be considered television. That is too meager of a medium to describe the accomplishment. The scope of this series is so vast, and the concluding episodes show such beautiful cinematography, that it simply has to be called a long form work of cinema. Yes, HBO has produced it. Still, Emilia Clarke’s acting is so much more expressive, subtle, and powerful than the large quantity of garbage sent to multiplex theaters that I prefer to accept Game of Thrones as cinema rather than the Avengers movies.

The series is so filmic that it almost rediscovers film. This is a medium that is in serious need of fixing in the 21st century. Film has largely been withering under the force of even worse commercialism than before, tiny screens with junk social media content for an increasingly dumbed down and artistically numb population. Cinema needs a shot of life with new ideas and new perspective. Game of Thrones is closer to that than most films, though to be fair, cheaper distribution and digital production for smaller works has allowed for some good independent filmmaking to exist. The vision of this series though is truly cinematic while its dramatic portrayals are subtle and complex. Added to that is a willingness to challenge social norms and conventions, to slay sacred cows, that makes it one of the few challenging 21st century cinematic works.

The long running time of the series allows for Shakespearean stories of fights for power, fatal downfalls, and twisted intentions to get real life on the screen. That allows for Game of Thrones to reflect the world we live in better than most films can ever touch. The sheer lack of subversiveness in cinema as a medium has by contrast become frightening as it prevents organic real life from slipping in, replaced by cold technological simulations that are designed to please bureaucrats and consumers rather than human beings. Where Alfred Hitchcock once delved into psychology most would deem untouchable for the screen in Vertigo, today film is so absurdly scared to upset the powerful that the legal system is misrepresented as being just, reliable, and rule bound in spite of voluminous factual empirical evidence to the contrary, while rich authoritarians are made to look good in almost every movie. Then there is Game of Thrones.

In a masterwork, we see the powerful laid bare as corrupt, psychotic, perverse, stupid, and greedy in a way that American culture tries very hard not to admit. If HBO is able to air such original ideas, their production team for the series should be accepted as one of the only good parts of 21st century cinema. The first half of the final series has brought us to complex character dynamics with hints of resolution to some long conflicts, but the show does not go to the point of wrapping things up neatly. It brings resolutions alongside questions and still more dynamics of conflict and far reaching motivation. The willingness to not shy from controversy but to instead portray popular and powerful people as depraved and mentally deranged just like they really are is perhaps given more life by being shown in the home thanks to HD broadcasting. 

There is no concern about pleasing movie theaters or having a big glitzy and expensive opening weekend. Instead, there are hours and hours of very good acting and complex screenwriting. We see portrayals that challenge our perceptions of people in power around us, and we recognize truth. While America’s Attorney General is accused of committing a crime under the law by the Speaker of the House for lying to the U.S. Congress about a criminal investigation of the President, Americans are able to see themselves as being ruled by plotting idiots very similar to Cersei Lannister on HBO’s excellent television series. Game of Thrones has a subversive way of showing that American culture has become so corrupt that people are ruled by deranged people with fat stomaches and excited genitalia instead of honorable, intelligent, wise, just, or competent people. Much like Game of Thrones, violence perpetrated by the rich against everyone else has become the normal state of life.

If cinema were willing to go there the same way as David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, and Emilia Clarke it might have a chance of becoming a relevant artistic medium again, the way it used to be when George Romero made Dawn of the Dead as a rich allegory of American consumerism ultimately destroying all of us, and the way that people have to discover now by watching restored classics instead of new movies filled with CGI, pablum, and dialogue written for people so attached to their phone screens that they are unable to distinguish between fact and fiction any longer, a serious limitation that makes superhero movies very popular with the general population. For Game of Thrones, we instead get a gritty view of life where power and money have corrupted everyone of prominence. To some fans of the show, the Night King seemed like a savior for that very reason.

The beautiful third episode though, halfway through the final series, has brought us his death at the hands of the diminutive Arya Stark. It suggests power in the hands of the smaller and the weak, a principle of democracy entering the show in the background of a series that has shown us so much of how corrupt and depraved the powerful really are, with obsessions for gold and sex with their own family members or less powerful people very close to them much like politicians, businessmen, and academic leaders of today behave. While the powerful in America threaten journalists, point fingers at each other, frame their critics, and abuse logic to manufacture twisted lies and propaganda in desperate efforts to obfuscate their own corruption and abuse of power, Game of Thrones shows us the truth about rich and powerful predators who can’t wait to sink their teeth into everybody else just to steal more stuff.

Money is what really rules Westeros, and those who follow ethics and strive to be virtuous and to help other people pay the price for it. Sophie Turner’s portrayal of Sansa Stark showed us this as the meek and kind child of the just Ned Stark was brutally tormented by the rich and powerful Ramsay, a person of little intellect and no virtue but instead violent obscene power, much like the heads of organizations in our own society. We love the Stark family, because they stand up for normal people and virtue and don’t bow to wealth. 

The first two episodes of this last season of Game of Thrones set up the middle war episode deftly. They offered subtle character developments. We see the side of especially Jon and Dany along with their companions preparing for the worst and trying to form bonds with people they care for. That effort to care about each other in conflict is what made the first two episodes so very moving. The biggest revelation is Jon’s lineage making him a Targaryen and heir to the iron throne. Hopefully the show will have him and Dany decide that it doesn’t matter, because the iron throne is not worth very much after all. It’s too bloody, to corrupt, too vicious to matter as much as people being just and caring for one another.

Bird – movie review

Bird – movie review

Bird by Clint Eastwood is one of the most interesting and underrated film of the 1980’s. It has always enjoyed a good reputation and is routinely considered one of the best films on jazz, but it never seems to quite reach a higher status of being a universal study of art, and I think it deserves a bit better. It’s one of the best films about music that I’ve seen and does an interesting job of turning Charlie Parker into a tragic hero of the tough and uncompromising variety that director Eastwood is enamored with in his films, which have always been very influenced by the grittiness of westerns. Parker is a tough and direct character who maintains his path in spite of great opposition and oppressive circumstances.

Eastwood is a hardcore lover of jazz, and the deep appreciation for the medium comes through the entire film, imbuing every shadowy and smokey club scene. We see Parker as an emblem for the jazz world which was mainly made of African American musicians who were not accepted by the society of their time due to racial paradigms even while they created the popular music of the era, were loved by audiences for their creations, and were in the best cases artistic geniuses. That is one of the deepest paradoxes of American society, and Eastwood is a much loved but gritty personality who was in a unique position to seriously portray that in the 1980’s.

That decade saw the rise of commercialism in film pushing out artistic integrity (it’s gotten worse since), and it saw a massive backlash against progressive movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Eastwood in some respects takes on that entire decade with a film that shows that American art is deeply formed by outsiders from its most vital roots. Jazz and blues are often called the only original American art forms, and it’s not a leap to make the case for that. They also are entirely formative for later rock music that grew out of them. Rock and roll is the music of opposition and freedom, and it inherited that from jazz being a great art form made by the descendants of slaves, some of the most oppressed of people.

Eastwood dedicated the film to musicians all over the world, and the movie is enamored with the freedom, profundity, creativity, and universally moving power of music. I can certainly express appreciation for that viewpoint, but Eastwood is masterful with how well he carries that idea. Jazz breaks through every barrier, but the fact of doing that so successfully also meant living on the edges of society, because not only was America deeply racist in Charlie Parker’s era, but the racism caused more concern about successful and talented people of color than even the average oppressed person.

The scenes of Parker playing are beautiful. Forest Whitaker does a nice job of filling his troubled and inspired suit in an era of smokey clubs, rampant racism, and creative people who were by contrast very accepting of anyone. Parker is caught between two worlds for much of his life admired as a great musician and having played with prestigious people in excellent venues but also treated with scorn for having dark skin. This may have helped fuel his use of drugs as an escape, but that led to him being even more scorned. Eastwood’s focus on the problem of addiction makes Parker seem a bit paradoxical much like William Burroughs, genius and creative saint but also a deeply flawed, fallen, and troubled person.

Charlie Parker was addicted to drugs and this is an important part of the film. It’s been criticized for that as well, but I don’t find that theme to be overdone. Parker’s drug abuse was serious and unfortunate. It played a part in explaining his sadly shortened life, and drug abuse has been harmful to a number of musicians. Eastwood tries to find answers for that without ever acting too certain that he has them, and he also tried to warn other art lovers of the dangers inherent with that.  Parker seems to be drawn to them in the film for a few reasons. One side comes from the brokenness of his life. Caught up in conflict, he escapes through heroin. Another part of it seems to come from his outsider status creating its own pressures. Both of those issues could help to explain the presence of drug problems in poor and minority communities, an escape from desperation.

The other part of Parker’s drug use has to do with ecstatic art though. The experience of music is a being outside of oneself in an altered state produced by melody and sound, and it may then be no surprise that so many musicians have traveled that path of destructive drug use. Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue was also addicted to heroin much like Charlie Parker, and the list goes on. Other people have observed the damaging effects of this, and it has served to clean up the music scene in more recent times very well to the point that alcohol is the far more likely substance of abuse, but stories and works of art like this film have done a lot to give artists and art lovers the realization that drugs are a dangerous world best avoided and a road to nowhere.

Undeniably though, the sound of intoxication is present in Parker’s saxophone playing.  He is so fluid and colorful in his playing that if he had been on guitar rather than sax, his sound would be recognized as psychedelic. Of the many jazz greats, Parker alongside Miles Davis may be the closest to what became rock and roll. The bebop sound Parker helped to form was certainly a part of that development, and the speed of his sax playing alongside the strange gliding play between notes into a hazy synesthesia is where the guitar would go later on with rock. Sadly, his drug use as well predicted what would happen to a number of rock musicians who were similarly harmed or destroyed by the same thing.

Clint Eastwood’s film is then a lasting achievement. As time marches on, cinema has the beautiful ability to be a store of forgotten and lost times, and this 1980’s film captures the earlier era of jazz in a way that would be hard to do later on. Dizzy Gillespie was still alive when this movie was made, and some of the cultural issues the jazz era dealt with were easier to see in the 1980’s before digital developments changed music and culture to a much more packaged and reactionary place of over simplification. The film is gritty, fluid, and organic as real physical film is capable of, and it is sad to say that that both jazz and cinema seem to be leaving us. This was a topic well displayed later on by Damien Chazelle in his fine works Whiplash and La La Land, but Chazelle can only mourn what is gone. Eastwood still had some of it left to show us, and Charlie Parker’s memory and radical creativity can live on better with that.  

As an uncompromising and troubled artist in a flawed and oppressive time, Bird is clearly a hero for Eastwood. He is as forceful a personality as anyone Eastwood has ever acted or directed, and the most fascinating thing about his direction of the film is that he is able to give so much personality to that perspective. Every cut, lighting choice, blocking decision, and camera angle seem to reinforce that. People beat up on bird, and he dies young, but he stays a great musician. Compared to the anti-hero, William Munny, of Eastwood’s great Unforgiven who drank way too much and lived to excess at times against a life he would later prefer of love and domesticity, Parker is also addicted, and he ventures out into music clubs to try to support his family. Where Munny could be cruel though when crossed, Parker is fundamentally a lover who had limited means but exceptional gifts. The force of those great gifts made jazz a different place and made rock and roll possible later on. The film deserves a full restoration and reappraisal as a major 20th century work.

Game of Thrones – Season 7 – review

Game of Thrones – Season 7 – review

With Game of Thrones about to air its final season, it’s an exciting time to think back on the series as we await the conclusion. The George R. R. Martin derived series has become one of the most successful dramatic works of the 21st century. It’s taken seriously both aesthetically and as cult entertainment and has even revived interest in medieval storytelling.  Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen is one of the most enigmatic and interesting personalities to be put on the screen, and the high quality cinematography and expansive dramatic situations do a lot to suggest that HD streaming series can compete with film both on aesthetics and dramatic storytelling.

The extremely long running time that a series affords allows for more dramatic development than a film can permit, and Game of Thrones has used this expertly. The series is typically exciting to watch in anticipation of what happens next, but the beauty of it is that this happens in the sense of character development rather than typical Hollywood action as what we anticipate. There is a great deal of subtlety and depth to the portrayal of characters in Game of Thrones. In particular, Cersei Lanister has shown the excesses and horrors of a twisted personality in ways that would be hard to imagine in most dramatic works. There is a psychological richness to this that adds to Game of Thrones as a work of art and cultural achievement as well as entertainment.

With series seven complete and about to give way to the series’ conclusion, we can see paths charted out by these characters that reach very rich depths. Cersei started as someone who seemed innocuous in the first series. As King Robert Baratheon’s wife, she was on the sidelines too much for us to know at first how manipulative and destructive her character would become. As things unfolded though, we saw Cersei whittle away at any shred of decency the kingdom might have had in what would have been only a small way anyhow. Series seven saw her becoming desperate to hold the kingdom that she took control of by destroying so many people. The beginning of a rupture between her and her brother, Jamie, opens exciting possibilities and questions, both in terms of the show’s resolution and in terms of her own psychology starting to fracture. Cersei is so deeply twisted that it’s hard to find much of a personality with consistent values within her. She loves power, corruption, and destruction as much as a depraved politician, and we don’t see anything that is important to her besides that other than having sex with her brother. It’s an interesting twist of perversion becoming dementia that happens in a show that might have been positive towards fetishism like the great band the Lords of Acid are, but instead we see the medieval world unveiling perverse insanity through Cersei.

The shocks that go with the series follow a true medieval logic of shock and horror. This became the precedent of the time partly from kings using terror to maintain and structure their power over kingdoms. They used depraved and shocking violence to woo the population into submission. This is why torture was practiced, and it was used to produce so much shock that the populace would fear the king rather than rebel against being oppressed, as Michel Foucault so excellently charted out in his masterwork, Discipline and Punish. The show takes two basic possibilities of ruling. One involves the use of violence to control people and amass wealth, the model America follows as it abuses poor people very regularly through corrupt scheming with the wealthy. This has led to the show creating great excitement about how accurate it is in portraying contemporary times. The other possibility involves the use of power to support average people and represent their interests in order to raise up society. That model of power doesn’t really exist in the corrupt world of today, but on the show Daenerys and Jon Snow represent this as they fight for larger ideas of justice and protect people who support them. It is likely part of why so many people love the show and identify with its two heroes in great preference to their own crooked leaders. 

Jon Snow stands in series seven with a new alliance between him and Daenerys that is brought on both by necessity and good intentions. They see a common desire for justice and and a personal need to actually help the people who support them that leads them to fight together. They also see practical advantages of dealing both with an army of undead people and with Cersei. Magic and mysticism imbue both characters. In the case of Jon, it is through his having been revived from the dead. With Daenerys, it’s through her dragons. The dragons are somewhat up in the air now in how they will impact the show. This was a base of power and uniqueness for Daenerys throughout the whole series, but now a dragon has been taken by the Night King and turned into one of the undead. So we can anticipate an epic fight over this.

The character of Daenerys really is the show’s best invention, and it is somewhat unique to the series more than the books, because the character is so tied to Emilia Clarke’s dramatic portrayal. She is the most just character on the show and the only one who seems to be inspired by something that isn’t at all common. One of the better sides of medieval life and aesthetics was an appreciation for exceptional things, an idea that was often captured by nobility, kings, and varying views of god or magic. Emilia Clarke’s character places that idea in a much larger and otherworldly place by suggesting that she is divinely inspired. This also fits the medieval world well.

One advantage to living in the medieval world was that population sizes were far smaller and distractions far less. There was no environmental crisis in that era. A major reason to be disappointed by industrial civilization is that while we are told propaganda about higher standards of life, in reality resources have been depleted while populations have boomed to a noisy, nonsensical, and unsustainable level while the wealthy horde the planet’s stolen resources. Daenerys wants a more just world, and this is why so many people of today love her, but she does better than that. She wants justice all around. The beauty of the show and her characterization through Emlia Clarke’s slightly removed performance, made to suggest that she is in touch with higher powers like a sort of Joan of Arc (a character of great cinematic lineage through Jacques Rivette and Carl Dreyer), is that we see all of the enigma that goes along with that. She wants justice, and she knows that part of it involves a world of far more equality and less oppression, but she doesn’t know all the specifics of what justice really is. She is inspired by it but also admits that it is hard to define, and this is her greatest relevancy in portraying a just ruler.

By associating her with dragons in Game of Thrones, we see that there is a mystical side to wanting a better world. The good isn’t described by what everyone around her wants or normal human conventions, because the people around her are too corrupt to know what anything good is in the great game of thrones with so many players. Daenerys looks above herself and everyone else to get a sense as to what would be better. She wants to rule Westeros, because medieval conventions of divine bloodlines give her a reason to think that the throne belongs to her, but she also wants to rule simply because she knows she would be less corrupted than others and would do something better, whatever it turns out to be, something that is predictable based on her lack of selfishness. 

George R. R. Martin has fused magic, mysticism, fantasy, and politics in an exciting way that captures the flare of the medieval world very well. Game of Thrones has taken this and shown us endless political allegories placed in the context of very complex character development, but it has also managed to keep the fantastical on the edge of the world of Westeros. It allows for Game of Thrones to be magical without being overtaken by it. That’s a far better accomplishment than what Peter Jackson was able to do with Lord of the Rings. Rather than hitting us over the head with supernaturalism, we see glimpses and hints of it that fit the way medievalists were far more obsessed with magic and divine things than people of the present and how it also affected the way that people actually live and the wild world of corrupt politics around them.

The medieval world also had a real sense of physical things and tangible stuff. Unlike the carefully structured unreality of the present day world where people are surrounded by propaganda, fake news, and distracting electronic screens all built by money and greed, the medieval world Game of Thrones recreates snippets of so carefully as it deconstructs power relations actually had tangible objects. So when someone bought a chair it was made by nearby craftsmen instead of factories in China with the profits going to billionaires, and even though people were ruled by kings, it was at least a physical person in a nearby building rather than a psychotic person thousands of miles away propped up by tools of war so violent that nuclear weapons designed to incinerate the entire earth are stockpiled by the violent and insane leaders of today.

At the same time, kings were violent in maintaining their rule, and the population was treated as a game with people to exploit, much like they are today. So the endless comparisons of the old world before capitalism and democracy shown in Game of Thrones and the present are quite fascinating to unravel. I do suspect that medieval storytelling may gain even more popularity as people get ever more sick of their electronically controlled busy and false lives. The medieval approach of seeing a forest by walking out into an actual physical one is in many ways more attractive than the popular method of today in which people just look at a photo app, but it’s too bad there aren’t any dragons to save us.


A few days after this was posted, Emlia Clarke authored a very moving piece in The New Yorker about suffering from a brain injury. After the first season of Game of Thrones was completed, she nearly died of a brain aneurysm. It was a tragic and painful close call involving multiple surgeries and two serious aneurysms. One surgery fixed an artery less invasively by working a probe up through her circulatory system. Things later got worse with a second brain artery rupturing and nearly killing her. That led to invasive surgery which removed part of her skull to access her brain and repair the damage. She suffered tremendous pain and loss of memory and personal characteristics and did not know if she would survive. The sad tragic nature of the story deserves a mention here, because it adds still more to the character of Daenerys and the inspiring power of the show.

The cinematic persona she most resembles is Joan of Arc, especially the Carl Dreyer version in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Dreyer’s Joan suffers, yet is innocent and more than anything someone unusually inspired. She inspires the best in others, and there is a poetic resonance with such a powerful background story for Emila Clarke. She shaped her experiences into something positive by both recovering and starting a charity to help others with the same condition. Her charity is called SameYou, because brain injury can cause people to lose their identity, not know who they even are, and lose much of what made them their former selves. The terror of traumatic brain injury leaves many people uncomfortable with talking about it, and her charity is aimed at changing that and offering assistance. It’s also worth noting that she was in the last days of her health insurance when the near death injury requiring invasive surgery happened, and in the United States many people don’t have health insurance still. The ability to pay for treatment can be a life or death consideration with brain injuries, and her charity is calling attention to something very important.

Anna and the Apocalypse – movie review

Anna and the Apocalypse – movie review

Anna and the Apocalypse is a deliriously fun movie. Set against the end of the world as the title suggests, it turns that setting into a horror comedy centered around a high school, but on top of that, it’s also a musical. Anna is played by the excellent new actress Ella Hunt, and she dances and sings songs while she kills zombies. It’s a wonderfully odd movie that manages to blend a musical reverie of horror with serious topics, and it all happens at Christmas time.

There are so many unusual things happening just in those key ideas to make this an exciting project from the moment it took shape as a screenplay, but the execution of the film is remarkable for maintaining tight control over so many elements that each seem capable of dominating the film. The very first shot of Anna and the Apocalypse demonstrates how well controlled director John McPhail is of his subject matter. We see Anna’s family driving along in a shot that immediately is reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s remarkable zombie classic 28 Days Later. Her father is at the wheel, and the family is clearly dressed for Christmas with the appropriate music playing, but the way the scene is shot looks like horror instead of celebration even though nothing has happened yet.

This is a British film, and like 28 Days Later, it centers around the end of the world happening due to a virus turning people into zombies. Like Boyle’s film, it also deals with serious social topics within its entertaining guise, but the similarities mostly end there. By setting his film within a school, McPhail is able to have mostly innocent people just beginning to make their way in the world offer us a perspective on a society that seems doomed. We all live amidst a rapidly worsening environmental crisis. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein was recently caught on video telling a group of children that she isn’t very concerned that the way her fellow elite leaders are trashing the environment will leave them with effectively nothing to live from. While powerful people like her are more disgusting than the zombies in John McPhail’s excellent film, Ella Hunt gets to play a heroic part as Anna, a lost innocent girl looking for hope amidst a collapsing world.

She fights zombies with her friends, and they are all saddened by how much their lives are shaped by technology instead of human interaction. McPhail is astute for seeing the way that smartphones and other high tech gadgets are ruining society and the future of young people rather than enhancing them. This art magazine was designed around the idea that the internet is high tech garbage. By having nothing besides in depth and clear content, I’m aiming to give readers something that is not an endless pile of ads, tracking services, and consumption and allow them a chance to think and engage exciting works of art. In that vein, I admire Anna and the Apocalypse for finding so much wrong with our world and for having an artistic vision that turns zombies into its metaphorical depictions and a singing girl into its heroine.

Anna runs around with a giant candy cane smashing and killing the zombies who took over her school, and in a remarkably odd scene she uses a seesaw to behead a zombie. To make that even better, she finds the seesaw on a children’s playground that inexplicably sits next to a graveyard she was dancing and singing in, and the beheaded zombie was dressed up as a furry. Anna and the Apocalypse is so inventive that I worry it might be missed for its high quality simply by virtue of being so fun that viewers might not realize how strange and meaningful the entire work is.

Ella Hunt is cast perfectly here. She has the right blend of ordinariness, innocence, and willfulness to convince us that Anna is an average girl made into a heroine. It reminds me of the best classic horror films from the 1970s and 1980s when directors like Dario Argento and George Romero were churning out masterful and inventive films that took cinema to new places it had never seen before. When films like Deep Red, Suspiria, and Dawn of the Dead came out they were controversial, but they were also aesthetically coherent works with powerful and deep themes and comments on our world within them. Anna and the Apocalypse is using a horror musical to do something similar, and it is a challenging film even though it is incredibly fun.

The students dance in an obviously well choreographed way that makes absolutely no sense for high school kids, and the headmaster has a gigantic and frightening academic beard he wears around the school while he pretends everything is fine as children are being eaten by the zombies. There is a lovely homage to George Romero when the zombies finally surround and eat him, and Anna spends a lot of the film singing about how much she wants to escape her dismal surroundings. For viewers who read between the lines, Anna and the Apocalypse has a very rich story, because we see scenes of Anna doing things like singing and dancing about her own misery and decayed world which is already so bad that she doesn’t even realize there are zombies at first, even though they walk right past her eating people.

As someone living in America, a country with such appalling violence in its schools that I am left thinking the leaders here should be locked up, this film does a beautiful job of showing exactly that much social deterioration. It is very much in the vein of George Romero’s work, because as most serious students of film know, Dawn of the Dead is a profound portrayal of American consumerism run amok in its depictions of people eating each other in a shopping mall. While many people wanted to see Romero’s film banned when it came out, his social commentary was right on the money as we now see selfish consumerism having reached the point of the planet nearing environmental collapse with major food sources threatened by disappearance and politicians living more corrupt lives than The Godfather.

In many respects, our civilization has gotten so bad that it is hard to even depict it in a work of art, and I love Anna and the Apocalypse for being inventive enough to be up to the task. The most memorable and beautiful line of the songs in the film, many of which are extremely funny, is surely, “There’s no such thing as a Hollywood ending.” After the recent success of Damien Chazelle’s excellent La La Land, that is a potent line. Chazelle revived the musical in a serious way by going backwards and revisiting a lot of classic Hollywood. His debut film, Whiplash, established him as a fine lover of jazz, and that certainly gives him classical credibility to have been up to the task, and La La Land is another important work of art. Chazelle is using Hollywood in that film to support dreams and artistic aspiration to be something more and something better than mundane life.

I think Anna and the Apocalypse has a perspective that would agree with that being a worthwhile goal, but it wants to bring us down to earth about how bad our surroundings really are even while giving us space to dream past them. So we get an innocent girl wearing a tie to her school having to pick up a giant candy cane and slay zombies while she dances and sings.

The cinematography in the film is appropriate to the subject matter and is beautiful in a muted sort of way. Fans of black and grey aesthetics will enjoy it a lot, and I love the way the film is able to use those images to combine both hope and decay. Clearly, we live amidst a broken monstrosity, but there is still some hope. We can wish for entirely different people to take things over and fix them by throwing out the past, and that is what Anna and the Apocalypse has its heroine doing.

The director deserves a lot of credit for how he blocks his actors. Musicals introduce the additional element of choreography, and combining that with drama and a story can be a difficult task. Even when the singing is incredibly funny, such as Anna’s ex-boyfriend singing, “When it comes to killing zombies, I’m the top of my class. While you were hiding, I’ve been kicking some ass,” the actors are well blocked. The story unfolds through every line and every shot, and drama continues on a consistent level.

We also care about John McPhail’s characters. Anna is too innocent and her dream of getting away to a normal life too respectable to not like her. When I see a new actress in a really good film that she completely nails like this my hope is always to see her in more good parts, because there aren’t enough good characters and scripts to go around. This one is a true gem, and Anna and the Apocalypse deserves to be taken very seriously even while its musical numbers manage to succeed at decadent horror comedy.

The Love Witch – movie review

The Love Witch – movie review

With The Love Witch, Anna Biller has crafted one of the finest films of the 21st century. A beautifully photographed story about witchcraft, love, and an odd personality, the film deconstructs enormous amounts of Hollywood iconography by reaching back to films of the 1960s to re-envision classic horror and love stories. The witch at the center of her story fills in for femininity and horror at the same time as she kills only because she wants to be loved. It’s a charming, funny, and odd touch to see a horror movie so centered around love.

The love witch of the title role, Elaine, has an interest in magic that is treated as a blend of occultism and female mystique, but both are laden with cinematic trappings. Director Biller treats them all as inseparable things. It means that the magic of cinema, women, and witches are the same poetic idea in her film, and we see a rich study of Elaine’s character using intricate scenery and bright color schemes. It’s as though Biller takes her starring witch’s psychology of love and extrudes it into the movie’s scenery as one fantastical but incredibly normal place, which is part of why this is a horror comedy.

I enjoyed learning that Alfred Hitchcock’s underrated and great psychological film Marnie was a major inspiration for the cinematography. Shot by Benjamin Loeb, The Love Witch has some of the most creative use of color I’ve seen since Michelangelo Antonioni. Like The Red Desert, it is able to use colors to portray the psychology of its characters. This is especially true of Samantha Robinson’s love witch, who is seen as a sympathetic and loving witch who just wants to be appreciated. We see her framed alongside vivid bright colors and soft pastels as well as darker facades of rich blackness. It shows the intensity of her emotion while also emphasizing gentleness and mystery. She’s supposed to be a dangerous witch, but she’s really funny and cute, and anyone with a heart has to like what Samantha Robinson does with the part. The cute mystique reminds me very much of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and that classic sensibility is exactly what The Love Witch is after. 

The cinematography is exquisite and recreates technicolor very well. The director and cinematographer spent a lot of time studying 1960’s films, and Hitchcock was a major touchstone. Marnie is one of his greatest and most underrated films. Tippi Hedrin’s character has secrets of her own psychology that she has no idea about, and they tie back into past trauma and actions by her mother, a story of sexual derangement drawn from Hitchcock’s fascination with psychoanalysis and Freud. Sean Connery’s character tries to understand and help her, but he has a hard time working his way in. In some ways, Hitchcock’s film is about the impossibility of love and the search for it. Impossible, because people are by nature separate, but desire calls us to one another even though no companionship is really a unity, and with the masterly techniques of the thriller and his past studies of psychology, Hitchcock makes love into horror. It’s a brilliant psychological turn, and the beautiful diffuse lighting with its dreamy qualities and sharply defined colors play major roles in the film. The Love Witch is openly indebted and also fascinated with the gender roles at work there, particularly the rational assertiveness of Connery and the vulnerability and confusion of Hedrin.

Psychologically we delve into the love witch herself in deep and gentle ways that cross fantasy and reality in manners that remind me of the great Spanish surrealist Luis Bunuel. Elaine’s key motivation is simply love, and Anna Biller uses this as a comic trope. It also allows the development of horror and magic to happen, because her desire for love pushes her to extremes. Mystery enters the film as she explores the occult in her efforts to make someone love her, and she is open to other people through both love and magic. The film makes fun of the convention that women only care about love while also using it to define its characters through remarkably rich iconography that confronts the entire tradition of cinema and deeply embedded cultural ideas of gender. Elaine is only happy when she is outside of herself loving someone else, and being a witch becomes her vehicle for achieving that. Part of the film’s humor is that she is using magic to get something that is entirely normal and doesn’t require witchcraft at all.

The acting has a wonderful classic sense to it. Samantha Robinson embodies classic beauty as Elaine, and she is very up to the task. Biller shoots her amidst bright surrounding colors most often with classic dress, makeup, and hairstyles that offer small hints at traditional depictions of witches. The goal is obviously to merge the idea of the witch with the idea of being female. Jennifer Ingrum plays a cute and funny pagan priestess in a witch cult, and she captures the irony of the film the best of any of the actors. Elaine’s boyfriend is a cop who wants to be masculine and tough and is thus afraid of loving Elaine, and her previous boyfriends were killed by her when she couldn’t get enough love. The funny quirk of Elaine as a witch is that she really just wants love in spite of all her odd involvement with witchcraft and its horror trappings. When she can’t get enough love, she kills. It’s a bit of a joke about feminine portrayals in cinema.

The editing gives the film a slow and realistic pace. With editing having gotten so out of control with brief shots that make no sense in most cinema of today, Anna Biller is remarkable for taking us back to organic filmmaking. I want to say that the use of Avid and related software has done cinema a disservice. When actual film was cut on a flatbed machine, there was an impulse to make things actually fit into a structured narrative and logical film. Now that it is so easy to put an edit in with software, the cuts go in places where they don’t belong in order to move ultra fast and maintain short attention spans while masking bad shots. The Love Witch is a welcome improvement.

Anna Biller follows her characters and develops them instead. We understand her locations for their longer shots. Emotion develops in the film. Time has a real sense like this, and it is a better way to make movies. The degree to which this film is informed about cinematic technique and history is masterful, and Biller went to great effort to make sure this was made on actual film. Digital has overtaken the industry so much that it is hard and expensive to even shoot on film any longer, and we should be thankful to have such an organic and analogue example of great filmmaking. I recently watched Scarlet Diva by Asia Argento, and that film was one of the first shot on digital, back in 2000. 18 years later it still seems innovative, because Argento had to work to use a new form for her medium. Anna Biller’s use of real film in The Love Witch has the same magical sense to me now, because she had to seriously think and work at her use of an old form for a medium that has been cheapened by easily shot digital video being far too common now. 

Feminist themes are a major touching point for The Love Witch. Anna Biller is fascinated by traditional roles of women and closely examines them in 1960s cinema. I have to agree with her that Hitchcock is the lion of all that iconography. He constructed Hollywood cinema perhaps more than anyone, and his take on gender roles is something popular culture has inherited as traditional gospel. Biller uses Samantha Robinson’s character of Elaine to deconstruct those traditional roles, and she obviously knows that Hollywood tradition is a foundation for shaping the present in that very same sense. Our minds are shaped by these conventions, and getting inside the love witch’s head is a deconstruction of how they operate within and around us, and on the screen in its flickering light.

Occultism was researched extensively by Biller to make The Love Witch, and she obviously references Wicca and Thelema throughout her film. One is an effort to recreate traditional witchcraft by reconstructing it historically, and the other is a later creation by Alistair Crowley which claims divine inspiration and also love, but both have influenced hippies, the arts, and California pop culture. In Anna Biller’s hands, magic becomes a natural part of art, and true magic is spread throughout this movie in its beautiful and vivid images that suggest something more than the mundane, a closeness to fantasy that fascinated Maya Deren in her experimental films of much earlier. Meshes of the Afternoon was about finding magic in the everyday and the self and thus bringing that into cinema. The Love Witch has similar lofty goals in bright color and a long feature running time of two hours, and I think Anna Biller is in many respects the inheritor of Maya Deren.

Iconography of women, men, and horror trappings are studied carefully throughout The Love Witch, and one of Elaine’s fantasies is to have a man become sensitive and experience intense love like a woman. This is taken to comic extremes of crying sensitive men who want to be held, and the way it all comes together to successfully explain Elaine’s motivations in a traditional narrative sense while being at the same time absurd is a delight. It’s a remarkably light take on witches while at the same time delving deeply into their iconography, and I find it fascinating to explore against One-Eyed Dolls’ excellent album Witches about the Salem witch trials, which was a tragic time compared to the freedom of Anna Biller’s remarkable film about witchery.

The 1960s are lovingly recreated and examined all through the film. I agree with Biller about this being a seminal period in cinema and find the beauty of the colors, fluid camera work, slow editing, and self-referential sense of cinema to be at a high point in that era. It’s a wonderful period for horror, because people were thinking about social roles and psychology quite a bit, and it would lead to the works of directors like Dario Argento and George Romero in the next decade. Roman Polanski’s great horror film, Rosemary’s Baby, is of this era, and it also examined gender closely. This is my favorite 21st century horror film. So don’t miss The Love Witch if you don’t already know her technicolor aura.

Mandy – movie review

Mandy – movie review

Mandy is one of the most exciting films I have seen in years.  It combines hallucinatory imagery with a strange plot that is not exactly linear. Nicholas Cage plays a man on a quest for revenge after his girlfriend is slaughtered by demons. That alone makes it sound like an odd movie that leaves some curiosity about how such a story would be executed. Panos Cosmatos is more than up to the task, and he uses this odd storyline as a vehicle for surreal imagery and symbolism that is refreshing and enrapturing. Cosmatos earlier on directed Beyond the Black Rainbow, an odd and absorbing film that is so hallucinatory it is hard to figure out what is happening. It’s a very interesting and psychological film, but it was flawed for not allowing drama to develop in its odd visual wrappings. Mandy manages to balance surrealism with dramatic storytelling very effectively and features fine acting and interesting psychological development of its characters and their motivations.

The way the characters are portrayed is intriguing and different. We see them in impressionistic glimpses with deep emotion, but we don’t get full explanations or a linear story about Red Miller and Mandy Bloom. We mainly see that they’re in love and are both dreamy people. They seem to inhabit a world of their dreams and are intentionally disconnected from everyday life as much as possible. She likes to draw, and he works as a logger. While logging is hard work, the Nicholas Cage character of Red seems to enjoy it for being so apart from society. The two of them have a home in the woods, and they shut everything out. She works at a local convenience store and comes home to draw, and they both love to look at the stars. Mandy is wonderfully dreamy, and it combines dreaminess with horror in a way that manages to be disorienting and oddly beautiful. Nicholas Cage gives one of his strongest odd and enraged performances of a man psychologically shattered, and I am reminded of his work with David Lynch in Wild at Heart, another strange and surreal film from a highly stylized director. Both films are a journey, but this one is a descent.

The demons are shown in a wonderfully visceral way. Instead of supernaturalism, we get crazed bikers who would make Mad Max proud. They offset the calm gentleness of Andrea Riseborough’s character of Mandy very well. We also get a religious cult that allows for commentary on religion and hipsterism in a darkly skeptical way that is absorbing as a bit of social analysis. Horror films don’t have the social commentary force they once did when George Romero was working, and it is well appreciated to see Cosmatos work to resurrect this in his film about a dead girlfriend. The cinematography is beautiful and odd. The color grading uses bright color schemes but softens them and has them flow into cloudy pastels. So part of a frame will appear harsh while another part looks soft and dreamy. It’s a beautiful and strange effect, and it seems to fit the psychology of its two protagonists who have their dream like world intruded on by harsh violence and madness. 

The descent of Red and Mandy is reflected brilliantly in the film score by Johann Johannsson with its harsh echos and musical screams of breakage amidst eerie haunting sounds that resemble industrial music. It sounds like an exploration of hidden interiors that are too apt to break us apart for it to be a good idea to explore them. Like a lot of movie scores, the opportunities for experimentation are ripe, and in this case, it sounds like a genuine musical advance. There are odd influences from heavy metal, psychedelia, Pink Floyd, Goblin, John Carpenter, industrial sounds, and other horror movies. I strongly suggest watching Mandy first, then listening to the soundtrack, and then watching the film again to absorb it all and see the psychological richness on display. Johannsson recently died, and this is his last score and quite a legacy.

Cosmatos has said he’s always been suspicious of hippie cults, and his previous film also explored that idea. The new one takes some of its discoveries and puts them into a more sensible narrative based on characters, where the other one seemed like a straight entry into distended madness with little explanation or exit. Mandy is killed by a group led by cult leader Jeremiah. He is a David Koresh like figure who is worshiped by his followers, and he likes to preach the end of the world and use hallucinogenic drugs. Cosmatos is taking the hippie interest in psychedelics and consciousness expansion and turning it into a dangerous upending of reality and normality. We see a shot of Mandy in her convenience store next to an American flag while one of Jeremiah’s gang visits and examines her. The flag can mean a lot of things to different people, but for Cosmatos it is just about a normal expectation of ordinary American life, a quiet life with her own place where her and her partner are left alone. Jeremiah’s insanity disrupts that. Mandy is not a conservative film, but it is suspicious of radicalism breaking things and taking away the basic pleasures of life.

The films of David Lynch are a nice reference point here, because he also deals with surreal themes and threats to ordinary safe domestic life. Lynch loves to reference the 1950s and paints it as a time of basic normal living in an undisturbed world of simple expectations. It’s his image of Amerrican tradition and its better norms. Underneath everyday life though, there are seedy and corrupt undercurrents of horror. Blue Velvet handled that exceptionally well with the white picket fence at the beginning of the film decaying into Kyle McLachlan finding a severed human ear in a cornfield and never being the same after. Cosmatos sees a similar world based on insanity. Jeremiah’s gang take LSD and become crazed killers with inhuman and depraved sensibilities, like a surreal vision of the Charles Manson gang of past fame. The suggestion seems to be that we should dream, but that it needs to be tied to normal lives. The basics of love, work, and domestic life are good things that give us the space to have real dreams and to see past ourselves in fulfilling ways, while Jeremiah’s hallucinatory decent and radicalism breaks the minds of himself and his followers. 

Eventually it also breaks Mandy. She is kidnapped and treated horribly by the gang, tormented and then burned alive while idiots laugh about it. Her portrayal is heartbreaking. Cosmatos has a scar on her face, but Cage finds her beautiful. She seems to be kind and dreamy, and she just wants ordinary things, a simple job, home, love… and art. She likes to sit around reading and drawing, and we see at the end of the film that she liked to draw Nicholas Cage and saw him as her safety. Cage becomes enraged by what happens to her, and her death takes place at exactly the midpoint of the film and is its dividing point. He goes on a quest for revenge, and the last hour of the film is his search for resolution through avenging her death. He gets a crossbow with arrows that cut through bone, and he makes his own axe. It’s an impressive device and reminds me of Bruce Campbell’s iconic chainsaw in The Evil Dead.

His revenge quest is bloody and violent, but most of all, it seems like a descent into hell and madness. The way that Cosmatos is able to portray this cinematically is genuinely brilliant. He uses harsh angles, bright colors, deep blacks, and diffuse lighting as Cage’s world gets more disoriented in the closing segments of Mandy. Hippie legends about LSD start to look like hell on earth, and the wilderness that is safe on its own is twisted into an apocalyptic landscape. Cage does seem redeemed by killing everyone who killed his girlfriend, but we don’t get the sense that he will ever be happy or normal. Jeremiah went searching for extremes, and he twisted the lives of two normal people into hell.