Category Archives: movies

“Who Are You Pretending To Be?” John Blake and The Dark Knight Rises

ImageMy favorite character in The Dark Knight Rises was John Blake, the police officer played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. At almost every stage of his young life, Blake has been let down by institutions supposedly designed to serve, protect, and provide for Gotham City’s downtrodden and impoverished. He’s almost a cartoonish embodiment of many of the institutional critiques present across all five seasons of The Wire (What if one of the boys at the center of season 4 grew up to become McNulty?), only he’s got the good fortune of inhabiting a heroic narrative with a happy ending.

Continue reading

God is A Kachina Doll: Prometheus

An animal more like the gods than these,
more intellectually capable
and able to control the other beasts,
had not as yet appeared: now man was born,
either because the framer of all things,
the fabricator of this better world,
man out of his own divine
substance—or else because Prometheus
took up a clod (so lately broken off
from lofty aether that it still contained
some elements in common with its kin),
and mixing it with water, molded it
into the shape of gods, who govern all.

-Ovid, Metamorphosis, Book One(Trans. Charles Martin)

The first scene of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) resembles Ovid’s creation myth, particularly the description of Prometheus in these lines (and given that Martin’s translation is one of the more popular versions of Ovid, I would not be surprised if Scott had read them). There are important revisions as well. The Promethean figure we see in Scott’s sequence – member of a humanoid race called “Engineers” – is more clod than god, and it is “he” who get thrown in the mix when he falls into water, poisoned by a black liquid that rewrites his DNA at an alarming clip and dissolves him into..into what, exactly? Scott may be making a bad pun here: as the figure dissolves, so too does his film, and Prometheus is off to the space races.

Continue reading

The Tree of Life and The Limits of Psychoanalysis

[I posted this on 7/11, but I went back and added to / revised the last seven paragraphs on 7/12 because I wasn’t entirely happy with where I ended things. Like I said, I was trying to make last call at the bar!]

I’ve been racking my brain over Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Not because I couldn’t comprehend the basic plot and demanded a refund. Instead, I’ve been trying to find a suitable response to my friends and to critics who’ve leveled some justifiable concerns against the film. One friend was infuriated with the film’s depiction of women, describing Jessica Chastain’s maternal figure as a character who did little more than prance around the yard and care for her children. Another friend found the staging of Sean Penn’s struggles with his upbringing little more than a “vulgar” reading of Freud’s psychoanalytic work. These buddies also hated the dinosaurs, but I’d rather focus on these particular concerns and tease out why I still like (but don’t love unconditionally) The Tree of Life.

Continue reading

Meek’s Cutoff: American Landscape and The Gaze of Man

Michelle Williams in Meek's Cutoff

In Shifting Ground, Reinventing Landscape in Modern American Poetry, Bonnie Costello reminds us that “Landscape is the world under the gaze of man” (10). Meek’s Cutoff is a film preoccupied with landscape, the gaze of men, and most visibly, the gaze of women. The film caused me to return to Costello’s book not only because it is a favorite of mine, and not just because Meek’s Cutoff has been described as “a collaboration between John Ford and Wallace Stevens,” (the latter’s work is discussed at length in Shifting Ground).   I admire Meek’s Cutoff for the way it lines up with the work of the poets surveyed by Costello: like the poems she describes here, the film “reveals the entanglement of nature and culture, the interplay between our desires, our concepts, and our perceptions, and possibilities for renewal and vitality within that entanglement” (14). Like the modern poems Costello favors, the film “is not designed to establish epistemological or ethical truths, but neither is it indifferent to epistemological inquiry or immune from ethical motivation or scrutiny” (14).

Continue reading

Adapt or Die: Hanna and The Breakdown of Binary Oppositions

I spent part of yesterday listening to a recent episode of comedian Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, which featured Maron and The State alum Michael Showalter discussing, of all things, semiotics. Showalter, who is currently teaching grad classes in film at NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of The Arts, was discussing his interest in semiotics as an undergrad, and he was running through a general overview of how signs function in film: bad guys in westerns wear black hats, good guys wear white ones, etc.

The conversation ended up being a great warm-up for my afternoon screening of Hanna, a film marketed as what passes for a conventional in its unconventionality, comic-book-meets-pop-art action film in the tradition of Run Lola Run, Kill Bill, and Oldboy. While it’s certainly in conversation with the conventions and aesthetics of action films, Hanna is more interesting to me in the way that it turns a fairly routine story about coming-of-age into a hot mess about the limits of control. The Jarmusch reference is intentional there, as I think Hanna covers terrain mapped about by that director’s most recent film in a more immediately engaging and compelling manner (that being said, I do like The Limits of Control, and Hanna still loses out to Dead Man if you are prone to treating movies like American Gladiators).

(Spoilers Below: the short review is Go See Hanna)

Continue reading

Let’s Be Franc(o)

Photo Copyright Jason Goodman (via Poetry Foundation)

I am a vocal fan of James Franco. I am loudest and proudest about my love of this actor slash student slash author slash mixed media artist slash probably also a martial artist on Facebook, where I frequently post articles, film clips, and other Internet malarky concerning Franco on my wall.  In fact, just last night I concocted a plan to slowly transform my Facebook profile into an even creepier shrine to the star: first I would change my first name to “James” (no real stretch, as my current first name on Facebook is “Jim”), then I would start changing my interests to match Franco’s (we like a lot of the same poets as it is!), and so on, until one day the entire page was given over exclusively to talking, thinking, and acting as Franco as possible.  And I would have gotten away with it too, had a friend of mine not reminded me that I should be devising ways to spend less, not more, time on Facebook.

Continue reading

Curiosity Killed The Wolf Man

(Note: This post reveals major plot elements of the latest Wolfman film.)

Many film critics, like my buddy Ken Lowery, have drawn our attention to the cinematic lineage of the latest Hollywood version of The Wolfman, a genealogy the film proudly acknowledges by assigning the Talbot family name to its troubled protagonist (wolftagonist?). And it’s certainly tempting to read the film’s basic conflict – between a father and a son, both of whom are werewolves – as a playful acknowledgement of the large shadow cast by cinematic history: the elder Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) refuses to vacate the now-dilapidated Talbot estate in the same way that Lon Chaney’s famous depiction might resist being supplanted by a flashy young upstart (played here by Benicio Del Toro and Rick Baker and company’s fantastic makeup effects). But rather than reinvigorating the lineage, the younger Talbot’s conflict with his past wipes out the family completely, leaving no male successors and a pile of ash where the family’s stately manor once stood. While the filmmakers certainly don’t wish the same fate to befall the Wolfman franchise, I did find the film’s plot rather odd in this regard: what larger thematic issues are at work in the resolution of this 2010 re-telling?

The film is framed by a bodiless voice asking us to think about the thin lines that separate the designations of man and beast. This seems like a topic that a movie about a dude turning into a wolf could pretty directly engage. Pal Dorian Wright summarized the basic beats that get drummed by most werewolf tales a few months back:

There is a strong suggestion with lycanthropy stories that Man is at heart savage. That there’s an unavoidable primitive core in humanity. Were creatures are just letting that hidden side come to the surface. Lycanthropes also bring up the uncomfortable to many reminder that Man is, when you get right down to it, just an animal.

Lycanthropy is typically depicted as the result of being cursed, but the point of most Wolfman tales seems to be that we’re all cursed: the fate of the tormented individual (or in this case, the tormented family) at the center of these narratives dramatically enacts this morality tale in a way that makes it easy for audiences to recognize that all are punished. This is sort of how many of Shakespeare’s tragedies unfold: the protagonists aren’t suffering from distinct “tragic flaws” but are in their messy states because something is rotten in the order of things. But in Shakespeare the problems are usually socially derived and determined, whereas in Wolfman tales the root of the matter is naturalized, or it has religious connotations: humanity exists in a fallen or imperfect state.

What’s going on in the 2010 Wolfman narrative? I’m not exactly sure. Both Talbots get bitten while wandering in search of answers. The elder Talbot gets bitten while on some kind of archaeological (or is it anthropological?) expedition, the sort of trips folks interested in larger questions about human nature tend to find themselves embarking upon. Is the lesson here that we don’t need to go to such lengths to answer these questions, as our savage nature is visible in the mirror? If so, ugh. The younger Talbot is chomped on while attempting to figure out why his brother died. Is the lesson here that we’re all going to die, so we shouldn’t bother with the details? If so, double ugh. The film seems almost relentlessly nihilistic in this light, but such a reading seems in line with Gwen’s (Emily Blunt) inability to help her Wolfman brother-in-law: she must kill him in the end because people can’t change, so let them eat silver lead. I’m getting glib at the close here, mainly because I’m annoyed by the glib, shallow worldview this movie seems to offer audiences. At least the effects were cool.

One last thing: this here Wolfman is set in 1891, presumably so the filmmakers can invite an historical Scotland Yard inspector, Frederick Abberline, to the proceedings. As IMDB informs us, Abberline, played here by Hugo Weaving, has been portrayed previously by Johnny Depp (in 2001’s adaptation of the graphic novel From Hell) and Michael Caine (in the 1988 TV movie Jack The Ripper). The film makes a quick reference to Abberline’s work on the Ripper case, possibly to imply that he has plumbed some dark depths himself in search of answers to questions about the human condition. And his fate here (yup, he gets bitten by a werewolf too!) seems to further encourage a reading of the film’s universe as one that punishes folks who ask about what makes us tick.