Brian De Palma looks back over his career in the documentary ‘De Palma’

Brian De Palma is an under-celebrated director, responsible for some of the most stunning sequences in American cinema. Just to name four personal favorites of mine: the split-screen prom massacre in Carrie, the Langley heist sequence in Mission: Impossible, the Grand Central Station steadycam chase in Carlito’s Way, and even the failed spacewalk rescue in the otherwise not-so-great Mission to Mars.

Like his touchstone Alfred Hitchcock, he’s also fascinatingly problematic enough to fuel a thousand hours of analysis and debate. Instead, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary provides only a quick overview of his work, solely from one point of view.

In what appears to have been a single sitting, De Palma reminisces over his filmography. The feature-length running time allows only a few minutes to cover each work, reducing his observations about each to a bullet point or two. His stories range from the gossipy (Bobby De Niro wasn’t motivated to learn his lines for The Untouchables), to dismissive (of the criticism over his violent & scopophilic treatment of women), and ultimately philosophical (on knowing when to retire, with Hitchcock and Wilder as exemplars).

There is of course great value in getting such a notable and controversial filmmaker on the record, after his career appears to be complete. But this documentary’s scattershot episodic structure is too broad and shallow, without a central thesis to hang a movie on. It would be serviceable as a value-added-material featurette, but not as a standalone theatrical feature film.

three out of five stars

Kids gone wild in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers

Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers was hotly buzzed about on release, but eventually settled down to a 63 on Metacritic and 3-stars-out-of-five on Letterboxd. Both of which aren’t great, but a lot higher than my personal estimation. This would be certainly not the first time my personal reaction to a movie has been against the consensus, but I am usually able to understand the other points of view. Spring Breakers is an extreme case where I just flat-out hated a movie to the extent that I can’t comprehend another reaction.

Is it the Gatsby-esque exposé of the essential hollowness of the American Dream? Is it the showboating performance by an unusually engaged James Franco? Is it Korine’s return to his wheelhouse subject matter of unsupervised youth gone astray? Or, as I strongly suspect, is it really just the teenage girls (including pop star Selena Gomez) in bikinis? Come on, admit it.

I myself never went anywhere on spring break, and the culture as portrayed here is totally alien to me (even accounting for any exaggeration). So it’s possible that of the certain percentage of American kids that do “go wild” on sprrrraaaanng break, a percentage of that percentage does get mixed up in criminal activity. Perhaps I grew up in a sheltered environment, predisposed to just not get it, man. But Spring Breakers feels like science fiction to me, even less relatable than actual science fiction. Or maybe an anthropological documentary film about an isolated culture in a rainforest.

Spring Breakers and Kids (Korine’s 1995 debut as a screenwriter) both masquerade as slice-of-life looks inside the teenage mind, cynically employing a cinéma vérité style to make everything feel real. They were both ostensibly marketed for teenage audiences, with the promise that their authentic experiences would be represented for the first time. The cynic in me worries these movies are actually cautionary tales intended for smotheringly overprotective older generations, indulging the darkest fantasies of a scolding right-wing puritanical mainstream culture.

I’m not kidding. Please, someone please explain to me how Spring Breakers is anything other than “Kids Redux: It’s 10PM, Do You Know Where Your Kids Are and Are You Sure They’re Not Doing Coke, Having Unprotected Sex, Binge Drinking, Playing With Guns, and Sassing Their Elders?”

one out of five stars

Avengers: Infinity War collapses under the weight of its own continuity

Like a teeter-tottering pile of mint-condition, unread, bagged & boarded collector’s edition comic books, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is quickly collapsing under the weight of its accumulating continuity.

Joe and Anthony Russo’s Avengers: Infinity War may be an edifying experience for the dedicated fan who’s seen all 19 or so preceding movies, and paid enough attention to the details to be able to follow what’s going on. But were it not for Tom Holland adding some levity as Spider-Man, and Josh Brolin as the relatively interesting villain Thanos (atypical for the superhero genre, to say the least), there isn’t much substance here beyond callbacks to previous installments and teasers for the next round of punch-punch boom-boom.

Picture the little kid coming to this for the first time. She is enamored by the idea of Spider-Man swinging through New York City, Captain America punching out baddies, and Iron Man fighting crime with his neato gadgetry. She has read and re-read her handful of comics, and is excited that her parents are taking her to the movie theater to see her heroes come to life on the big screen. Imagine how she feels when what she gets is more of a Wikipedia entry than a story.

It’s the same paradox that affects all indefinitely ongoing comics: the more pages that pile up, the more complex the continuity, the more impenetrable it comes, and before you know it the only people reading comics are grownups.

Battle Beyond the Stars is Star Wars gone wrong

Battle Beyond the Stars is the rare bad movie worth experiencing. How can you not be at least a little curious about a Roger Corman-produced Star Wars pastiche, starring John-Boy from The Waltons, Hannibal from The A-Team, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., with a screenplay by John Sayles and special effects by a young James Cameron?

Like Starcrash a few years earlier, Jimmy T. Murakami’s Battle Beyond the Stars crassly copies a number of superficial elements from Star Wars: sassy robots, radial wipes, exploding planets, severed arms, and heavy borrowing from Akira Kurosawa and John Sturges (Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven in this case). But it betrays a total cluelessness regarding the real feat George Lucas pulled off: iconic characters, mythic underpinnings, and a tantalizing sense of a larger world worth exploring. Its spaceships, lasers, and robots are all in service of the story, not the other way around — otherwise you wind up with Battle Beyond the Stars, essentially a special effects reel with cursory linking material. As much as Star Wars gets right, Battle Beyond the Stars gets wrong.

As for those aforementioned James Cameron special effects, there sure are a lot of them. The ratio of effects shots to live-action studio footage must be near-equal. There’s a tremendous discrepancy between the level of effort expended on the models and matte paintings, vs the dialogue, characterization, and story.

The performances certainly don’t commend it. Robert Vaughn sleepwalks through it, and George Peppard hambones as an Earth cowboy. Richard Thomas doesn’t seem to have a handle on his character, which I suspect is due to a lack of clarity in the writing & direction. Like Luke Skywalker, he’s an everyman farmboy with aspirations to be a pilot. What appears to make him unique among his people is his ability to pilot a A.I.-powered spaceship, but he later claims to not know anything about computers. He’s also an embittered jerk who seems resentful for the ragtag army that sacrifices everything for his world.

And it would be a waste of time to outline the ways in which it is ridiculously sexist. It’s only 3 years younger than Star Wars, but decades more retrograde.

An Excerpt From the Sequel to Mike White’s Brad’s Status

An excerpt from the screenplay to Mike White’s forthcoming sequel to Brad’s Status, under the working title Get the &%#$ Over Yourself, Brad:

FADE IN:

INT. BRAD’S DEN – NIGHT

BRAD slumps in his sofa, staring morosely at his TV as the end credits of Mike White’s movie Brad’s Status scroll past. An array of remote controls are on a coffee table.

BRAD (V/O):

I was watching Brad’s Status, the movie Mike White made about me, but all I had to eat today was Pringles so I tried to pause it go grab a snack. But I accidentally clicked the regular TV remote instead of the AppleTV remote, and my system got all fouled up. I thought about how my more successful friends never use the wrong remote. I saw a copy of Middle Aged Bro Digest at a dinner party, and it had this whole article on how rich people get beautiful young women and men in bathing suits to operate their remotes for them. And provide sex and cocaine too, I assume.

TV REMOTE:

Don’t drag me into your midlife crisis, Brad. Look, it’s not my fault if you click one of my buttons and nothing happens because I’m not even on. You’re only using the AppleTV because streaming movies online makes you feel younger and “with it”, but I remember when antennae and co-ax was all you had.

BRAD eats a Pringle.

BRAD (V/O):

I think the cable TV remote hates me. When I was younger, more virile and idealistic, I didn’t care what any of my gadgets thought about me. But then I realized that was before AppleTVs and DVRs and whatever were even invented, and I could just watch a movie without having to keep track of all this crap. But that just made me sadder as I pined for a simpler time when I played hacky sack on the quad all day, with friends that respected me. I’m such a sad pathetic failure.

APPLETV REMOTE:

Check your privilege, Mr. Patriarchy. I don’t see what we have to do with your feelings of inadequacy. You can’t even tell which way I’m facing, which let’s be honest, is a sign of your mental decline.

ROKU REMOTE:

Hi guys! Long time no see! I saw on Facebook that you’re having a fun-looking party on Brad’s coffee table. I guess you just forgot to invite me, which is OK. Or NBD, as the kids say, right AppleTV? I’m sure you’re all busy.

TV REMOTE:

Not now, Roku. And you shut the &%#$ up, AppleTV Remote. NOBODY can tell which way you’re facing. I saw your Instagram selfie, looking all clean and shiny in a sunbeam on Brad’s coffee table, when EVERYBODY knows you’re always covered in gross fingerprints and lost in the sofa cushions.

BRAD (aloud):

Well, to be honest, it’s true that I did only find the AppleTV remote because I was cringing so much during Brad’s Status that I practically sank into the sofa too.

ROKU REMOTE:

This is fun! Are you guys talking about Mike White? I was a little troubled by Year of the Dog, but I loved Enlightened, and thought Beatriz at Dinner was one of the best movies of the year until it kinda went off the rails in the last few minutes. Did you ever wonder that maybe White has a better feel for female characters than male?

APPLETV REMOTE:

Zip it, Roku! Look, how about we all go out and get so drunk we say really embarrassing stuff and give Mike White more material for his next movie?

TV REMOTE:

&%#$ off. It’s so cute that you think movies are made just for you.

FADE OUT

Foolproof and Incapable of Error: Christopher Nolan’s 70mm Unrestoration of 2001: A Space Odyssey

If any excuse were necessary to rewatch Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a new print projected in a proper theater would certainly be it.

To mark the film’s 50th anniversary, Warner Bros. commissioned filmmaker and Kubrick aficionado Christopher Nolan to create a set of new 70mm prints. Nolan’s team located an intact 70mm preservation print, and strove to reproduce its inherent color and picture quality without digital effects. In theory, this new version of the film would be closer to what original audiences saw in 1968, intrinsically more authentic than any subsequent prints, broadcasts, or home entertainment releases — all of which were multiple generations removed (more details in this interesting Ars Technica piece).

Perhaps wary of historical revisionism, Nolan has described the result as “unrestored”. Why coin a marketing buzzword, for surely, if a new print struck from the best available elements is not a restoration, then what is? A colleague of mine suggested a better way of describing it: “not remastered”.

If Nolan’s goal was to recreate the authentic analog celluloid experience, warts and all, then I suppose it would have to be judged a success. The particular print I saw (at New York City’s Village East Cinema in May 2018) had likely already been screened numerous times. It was rife with dust and scratches throughout, with a distracting jitter during most of the Dawn of Man sequence, and inexcusable vertical scratches throughout the entire Beyond the Infinite chapter. This print certainly had greater contrast and depth of color than any version I’ve ever seen, but I wouldn’t complain if digital technology were employed to ameliorate some of this distracting damage.

Film Comment states the Nolan version was “struck from the original camera negative of the earliest screening version of a film that later underwent panicky last-minute edits”. It’s true enough that the film was not initially well-received upon its 1968 premiere, and Kubrick made judicious cuts of up to 19 minutes of footage. But Film Comment seems to imply that the Nolan version includes cut material. I’ve seen this movie at least 10 times (including the 2011 blu-ray), and there wasn’t a single moment that I didn’t know well.

Thanks to articles like Film Comment’s, and the “unrestoration” marketing, I experienced a double disappointment. I even briefly wondered if the Village East Cinema had screened an existing print of the film. But I should have known not to expect a mythical longer cut, or blu-ray-like visual perfection. But the brilliant film itself transcends all this.

Foolproof and incapable of error. A masterpiece.

Gorging on Nostalgia: Solo: A Star Wars Story

Like a big bowl of candy, Solo: A Star Wars Story certainly went down easy. But also like a big bowl of candy, generations raised on too much Star Wars are going to gorge themselves sick on nostalgia. Who filled that bowl, and why? When Disney acquired the Star Wars rights, and promised a new movie every year, I don’t think I was alone in imagining there would be more than enough room for original stories. But so far Disney has spent more time facing backwards than forwards.

To recap: The Force Awakens was in many ways a phantom remake of the original Star Wars, rationalized as rebooting the franchise with a new foundation for future stories. Rogue One and Solo are essentially neu-prequels, plastering in the gaps deliberately left in the original foundation. Solo is especially focussed on continuity and nostalgic callbacks, and teasing future nostalgic callbacks yet to come. It isn’t about anything other than itself. Four films in, The Last Jedi stands alone in striking out for new territory. It’s the first to really surprise.

Maybe I’m being overly cynical, but what is the point of the neu-prequels, if not mere fan service? Aren’t the missions to steal the Death Star plans and the Kessel Run better left to the imagination? Did anyone really wonder how Chewbacca came by his diminutive nickname? Do we feel we understand Han more now that we know where he got his surname? The one major new detail we learn about him — that he is an Empire deserter — loses its impact when even this idea is recycled: q.v. Finn in the mothership films.

The most egregious fan service in the film is of course the confounding cameo by Darth Maul — confounding, that is, only for those evidently undedicated Star Wars fans like myself that haven’t seen the spinoff animated series. My reaction was not “wow, Darth Maul survived being sliced in half!”, but rather “All this took place before The Phantom Menace? How old is Han Solo? Does Darth Maul always fire up his lightsaber before hanging up the phone?”

Alden Ehrenreich has caught some flak for his performance here, but he was given an impossible job: impersonate Harrison Ford and get criticized, or don’t impersonate Harrison Ford and get criticized. He either chose the latter or was not able to pull off the former. Whichever explanation, he looks bad opposite Donald Glover, who successfully channelled Billy Dee Williams while still doing his own thing.

By the standard set by the original trilogy and prequels, Solo’s three prominent female characters should count as progress. Or, it would have, had the film not quickly killed two of them off. The original Star Wars infamously included only one woman among its cast, but Carrie Fisher’s force of personality made her instantly iconic, and that’s lacking here.

Also, Paul Bettany was fine but Michael K. Williams got robbed.

The Future is a Tasteful Monochrome: Anon

Andrea Niccol’s Anon is a rather quaint throwback to the techno-paranoia cyberpunk genre, once common in the late nineties — remember Virtuosity, Johnny Mnemonic, and Paycheck? The ultimate modern incarnation of is of course the BBC series Black Mirror, which out-Philip-K.-Dicked Philip K. Dick., and set a newly high bar for cynical, pessimistic takes on the future. But reality has outpaced all these cautionary tales, as we’ve come to understand that of course governments surveil our movements and communications, while unchecked corporations build detailed consumer profiles on all of us. Logging off is little protection.

If Anon’s future America without the Constitutional right to privacy were to come true, society’d have bigger problems than a sexy serial killer (Amanda Seyfried), exploiting the system to murder those who exploit the system. Ultra-grim detective Sal Frieland (Clive Owen) must fight the ambiguities of his digital historical record to entrap her. After, of course, bedding the much younger woman under false pretenses (for there are sleazy erotic thriller tropes and a nudity quota to fulfill). Privacy is the foundation for many civil rights we enjoy today, a topic Anon only glancingly acknowledges in-between

And if we ever start installing apps into our eyeballs, I somehow doubt the GUI will be a tastefully-designed monochrome. Everyone who’s ever touched a computer or smartphone knows we’ll be blinded by punch-the-monkey banner ads, gem-matching games, and tweets from President Kid Rock.

A Clique of Cranks: Room 237

Room 237 is not about The Shining. It is about those lost in its labyrinth.

For better or for worse, Stanley Kubrick is one of the most potent gateway drugs for young cinephiles, and for many the early obsession proves lifelong. The addictive nature of his films is partly due to their own air of grandeur and carefully-crafted perfection, but the the popular perception of Kubrick as a total mastermind sweating every single detail of his films is belied by some accounts, such the surprisingly seat-of-his-pants making of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And the weight of reputation and self-seriousness often disguises the satire and sometimes even silly wit. Personally, I was exposed to 2001: A Space Odyssey as a child, and it wasn’t until years later that I realized how much of it was intentionally funny.

Perhaps even moreso than 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining is treated as a kind of holy book by a clique of cranks. And like all holy books, The Shining is big, deep, and rich enough to support almost any interpretation one might bring to it. If one looks hard and long enough for something, one will find it.

These Shining superfans evince little distinction between conscious authorial intent vs. after-the-fact critical deconstruction by outside observers. What is for most movie buffs a fun parlor game of spotting continuity errors is for them a deadly serious matter of asking what it all meeeeaannnns, man. In particular, the symbolism of the Overlook Hotel’s garden labyrinth tempts an examination of its indoor floorplan, which is indeed full of evident inconsistencies. But rather than consider the challenges of building a movie set, it’s more fun to read it as an exploration into the psychogeography of madness.

Some of the obsessives make interesting observations, but often undercut themselves. For instance: one egomaniac believes he has “solved” the film as Kubrick’s coded confession that he was involved in faking the Apollo moon landing footage. He interprets the hotel key lettering “ROOM No.” to be an anagram for “MOON”. He forgets “MORON”.

Exhaustively exhausted: Ben Affleck’s Live by Night

Has any topic been more exhaustively dramatized than Prohibition-era gangsters?

Live by Night seems especially redundant so soon after HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, which covers a lot of the same ground: the Florida/Cuba liquor pipeline, the Irish/Italian mob conflict, the pivot to legal gambling, etc. The explanation being pretty simple: original novelist Denis Lehane also contributed to Boardwalk Empire. The few elements not already done to death by the gangster genre, including additional conflicts with evangelicals and the Klan, are in this case simultaneously not enough and too much.

Also, did Ben Affleck always play every role as a man in a deep depression, or is this a recent development?

Two out of five stars.