Apes. Together. Strong.

I remember seeing the trailer for The Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes and hearing Andy Serkis' character Caesar gruffly say "Apes. Together. Strong." I also remember many of the people around me in the theater laughing out loud throughout most of the trailer for Apes. I sat there truly hoping that they were laughing out of some kind of ignorance of the reboot's first installment Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, which, admittedly surprised me with a truly beautiful tale of friendship, family, and every living thing's desire to simply be free. I knew I couldn't delude myself though. Most people have heard of the original run of Planet Of The Apes films and despite the fact they're generally well-regarded, they do carry a stigma. Namely, that of a cast dressed in monkey suits that don't totally hold up forty-six years later. And then there's the Tim Burton reboot from 2001 which didn't do too much to improve the series' persona in the eyes of the movie going public. So here I go urging people of all walks of movie going life to band together and pay some money to see Dawn. It's worth it for a number of reasons.

The first of which is that director Matt Reeves decided to take his two most recent films and mash them together tonally. Cloverfield is a non-stop shaky-cam thrill ride with explosions, screaming, and firefights. Let Me In is a much quieter film that focuses far more on building atmosphere and letting relationships between the characters have time to breathe and stretch their legs. Each film hinges respectively on its traits and what's so great about Dawn is that not only does it make a virtue of the action filmmaking that elevated Cloverfield but it also manages to spend as much time on the kind of quiet, emotional character building that attracted Reeves to remaking Let The Right One In in the first place. What this all boils down to is that Dawn really does have something for everyone. 

I saw the film in a theater that's really only a step down from IMAX and I recommend that everyone do the same. The action is thrilling and the sound mix is top notch. But more importantly this film needs to be seen on a giant screen with a stellar projection system because the time and effort put into the apes faces is frankly, out of this world. Motion capture has become a truly amazing tool for almost any type of filmmaker and the advances they've made in even the short time since 2011's Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is astounding.

But it's not just there to look pretty. The motion capture is essential to getting the film's true message across. Just like it's predecessor, Dawn was made to tell a story about family. The broad strokes of the film pit human families against ape families and that can be broadened further to a battle of species v.s. species. But the reason Dawn pulls it off differently than so many other films is because the versus aspect of the story is actually the B storyline. At least as far as I'm concerned. The trailers for the film portrayed it as a story of apes on horseback with M-16's riding in slow motion through flames. And yes that does happen but it's not important. What is important is watching all kinds of creatures simply trying to survive. When violence begins to rear its head before the eyes of the main characters they all attempt to avoid it at all costs. It's only when a villain, and this film does a great job of showing that they exist on all sides, tries to capitalize on the primal fear that all creatures possess and respond to. Fear drives more decisions than any of us would ever like to admit but the sad truth is that when we're scared we'll do anything to survive. Even if that means dashing the hope for peace at our own feet. 

It's incredibly refreshing to see a film that does its best to portray the participants in its big budget action sequences as unwilling. Unlike so many other summer blockbusters and large scale battle films, only a handful of characters in this film actually preach violence as an answer. Almost every violent decision in the film is driven by fear and though it's easier to understand something primal with apes occupying half the screen time it really doesn't take much to translate their behaviors to our own. Late in the film Caesar has the epiphany that apes and humans are more similar than he could have ever imagined. He's devastated in this moment because despite trying so hard to be free and independent of man, the apes still wound up behaving just like them. And because these two species are so similar they're doomed to repeat the violence of the past and eventually find their way to the future represented in the original Planet Of The Apes

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is a film that has its characters trying desperately to create a better world for themselves but more importantly for their families. For their children. They go to all kinds of lengths to promise their children a better world than they had. A world that is peaceful and safe for their families to simply live in. But what the film continues to challenge us with is the idea that if we're so willing to turn a blind eye to the peace we want so badly in order to remove any threat to it, then why can't we simply turn a blind eye to the size of our family? Why can't we see our whole species as our family all the time rather than just when we feel threatened? Shouldn't peace, our ultimate desire, be guiding our decisions rather than fear? If we're such advanced thinkers, then why can't we escape our most primal urges and simply be together, strong?

New Dawn Fades

Joanna Hogg made one of the best films of 2010, a calm but ill wind called Archipelago, but hardly anyone outside the UK ever heard about it, let alone saw it. This despite a star turn from Tom Hiddleston who'd recently proclaimed himself king of Asgard and was about to force The Avengers to assemble so he could shamelessly steal their movie. In Archipelago Hogg's keen, cool gaze focused on a family coming apart the seems in the most reserved way imaginable, her compositions turning the upper class in dioramas ready for display in a modern anthropology museum. That brute honesty and careful, precise blocking returns, along with Hiddleston in a small but choice role, in Exhibition, Hogg's newest feature, and it's been augmented with abstraction and theatricality. The two artists at the film's center are always on display, for each other and the world outside, and slowly, thrillingly, the walls between performance and reality begin crumbling. 

Viviane Albertine, former guitarist for artrockers The Slits, and the conceptual painter/sculptor Liam Gillick, who could have a long career reading audiobooks in his damp Aylesbury tenor if the whole art thing ever dries up,  play a married couple who've become strangers to each other. They seem to occupy different levels of their James Melvin-designed modernist cube of a house, communicating largely through an intercom system, their conversations filled with as much blank space as their walls. The one thing they share is that they constantly try to outrun each other to avoid the other's scrutiny. Albertine's D doesn't want to share her work with Gillick's H, for fear that he'll disapprove or exact some psychological toll on it. H similarly doesn't share anything about himself that D can't already see on his face. He never talks about his emotions, but his dissatisfaction and detachment are never less than evident. The two recently decided to sell the house (Hiddleston is their broker, and as usual he’s far more captivating playing normal than he is as a god in the Marvel movies) and though it's never discussed it's obvious that D is not ready to give it up. While they prepare to sell, they go about their work, fail conspicuously at intimacy and try to avoid each other on the big spiral staircase that runs through their house. 

Compared to Unrelated, Hogg’s debut, and Archipelago, the Antonioni-influenced Exhibition is a much more concentrated dose of its director’s proclivities. Hogg, like Ben Wheatley and Clio Barnard, emerged a few years ago with a clear vision of modern life in the UK and has jut gotten better at articulating herself. The tension that once haunted her characters here moves from palpable to excruciating. Surfaces once impeccable are now immaculate, and the emotions they conceal are three times as large in order to mimic the energy expelled keeping them at bay. By choosing to make her lead character a female artist, Hogg has allowed herself a degree of psychological acuity that leads deeper into a character’s mind than she’s ever gone before. D is the first totally subjective character in Hogg’s canon and we see things that plainly are the work of, if not her imagination, then her subconscious. There’s a degree of guess work involved in collating D’s flights of fancy into her life, not to mention Hogg’s typically unblinking realism, and it makes the film all the richer an experience. They could be memories, or actualizations of D’s thoughts on her less than ideal marriage, or they could be brainstorming sessions for her newest installation, but they’re definitely one more piece of the performance piece that she’s constantly engaged in. The question is whether she’s on a stage or in a cage and will the silence in the house ever break? 

Exhibition rarely leaves D and H’s residence, but it does frequently take to the streets and look in on her. The big windows become a way for her to externalize her dissatisfaction, the loud, indifferent streets below her unwilling audience. In one awe-inspiring scene she undresses in front of them, the blinds her only protection, until she uses them as part of her dance. It’s nerve-wracking at first but It becomes comic and tragic when it’s clear that no one is going to look up and see her giving away her image for free. Dramatic irony is a new addition to Hogg’s kitbag and she uses it like an old master. H doesn’t want to perform for D, whom she considers her harshest critic (Gillick’s stilted, half-hearted praise of her ideas stings worse than if he’d dismissed her work outright), yet she’s always on display for an equally difficult crowd. The house she can’t bring herself to surrender forces her to put her most vulnerable self in front of people. It even accidentally gives her husband a front row seat to her creative process, which, like her sexuality, is nothing she never would have given willingly. H routinely secrets himself away from his wife and when he steps out, she wants to investigate his office but seems aware that she’s being watched. The scene shouldn’t be half as tense as it is, their marriage and relatively even tempers would preclude anything rash happening, but this deep into D’s worldview, it’s almost terrifying. H’s passive criticism and active withdrawal create a barrier between the two lovers, but it’s only as thick as a window and a set of blinds. In Exhibition, life is an endless rehearsal for a piece that will never be perfected. 

Sleeping Beauty

A little while ago I read that Marco Bellocchio is going to release another movie in 2014, which is the best news I've heard in an age. Like Scott Foundas before me, I'm of a mind that Bellocchio is the greatest living Italian filmmaker (Naturally Olmi, retired, and Bertolucci, very recently unretired, are also high on that list) and very possibly the greatest living filmmaker period. His work has the crisp elocution and delicious texture one typically associates with opera, yet they hit with the force of a brick thrown by an angry rioter. He's given the cinema some of its most ravishing rallying cries, lighting a fire under the comfortably crooked who sit at the top of the junkheap that is the Italian political landscape and in the process refracting the problems facing most political systems. That Italy just happens to have just as many problems as the US and half the filmmakers attempting to assign blame to the right shower of bastards means Bellocchio has had to speak twice as loud. He isn't alone, of course, but he's been at it longer than the incredibly capable likes of Matteo Garrone and Paolo Sorrentino, though the latter seems to have given up muckraking for complaining (both have made films about beauty, but only one of them understands it). In Dormant Beauty, a spiritual cousin to his earlier films China Is Near and Slap The Monster on Page One, Bellocchio presents a Sonata of political machinations from down in the orchestra on up to the balcony. The theme is euthanasia and the way it effects doctors, protestors, politicians, the rich, the poor and the troublingly committed and the effect is like riding through parliament on a motorcycle. Religion, family, illness and unbreakable wills harmonize like a chorus as Bellocchio conducts one of his most surefooted pieces yet.

With Carlo Crivelli's luscious score sweeping everyone toward their date with destiny and Daniele Ciprì's grey-and-blue hues keeping the lid on a boiling pot, Dormant Beauty is one of the maestro's most satisfying watches. Since he started his career exploring the dispossessed accidental life of a malicious dreamer in Fists In The Pocket, Bellocchio has functioned a little like modern Italy's activist attorney, sympathizing with the guilty poor and trying to understand why the rich can't stop tormenting them. He wants the best from a country that he can't bring himself to give up on even as he keeps uncovering new crimes of which to be ashamed. I distantly recall someone describing Marlon Brando in Julius Caesar as like watching steam escaping from a vent, or something to that effect, which is exactly how I'd describe Lou Castel in Fists In The Pocket and the general milieu of Bellocchio's films. He finds Individuals and situations that cause untenable friction and waits to see if a fire starts. Lately though he's added a smooth, seductive momentum to help ease the passing of horrifying circumstance. Call it a coping mechanism but it's made his films hum with new fervor. Starting with 2003's Good Morning, Night he suddenly seemed a 20 year old with an old pro's budget, passion and fury mixing freely while charging like a bull towards...well, that depends. 

In stark contrast to his last masterpiece, 2009's Vincere, there is hope in these disparate tales of loss. It's in the angelic face of Alba Rohrwacher, the annoyingly dogged conviction of a doctor who won't let a patient die, the love between family members despite differences in belief. When the subject is the loss of control and the loss of life and the truly horrifying place they intersect, not even someone like Bellocchio can commit to cynicism. It may be that even having witnessed the death of idealism many times over he still has hope for the future. Or it could be that he has enough faith in cinema to know that no matter how bad things get, it can always be reflected on screen. Bellocchio may never have been this focused before, his rhythm beautiful, his images powerful, his conviction unwavering. It's crucial here that he's turned something of a corner on that front, at least in regard to humanity. In Fists the climactic act of mercy isn't toward its characters, but toward the society they infect, and it's one he feels conflicted about administering. Here and now, he returns to that gesture and grants mercy not to an unfeeling society, but those stuck inside the maelstrom, those who need it most. Even after a banquet of tragedy like Dormant Beauty, the film has inarguably and slyly reminded us that there are still good people, and we shouldn't ever give up on the ones who need us (though in a perfectly bitter twist, that often means doing just that). As long as Marco Bellocchio's making films I'll be watching them and thanking no one in particular that someone should know cinema and its secrets so intimately.

Bryan Singer saves the Future, Past

I’m going to jump in here and disagree with Scout. I thought Days of future past was not terrible. In fact, I would argue that that should be Bryan Singer’s byline. Bryan Singer: Not Terrible. His whole career could be summed up by those two words. But what interested me is how, despite frequently roaming between shrug-worthy and laughably bad, the X-Men movies have always been about way more than just being X-Men movies. But this most recent movie has somehow become a closed cultural loop. An allegory for nothing but itself. Which I kind of liked.

The first X-Men movie is a product of its age. It was the first superhero movie that didn’t suck. And to all you guys who love Donner’s Superman or Burton’s Batman, I’m sorry, but those movies suck. I’m not going to say X-Men is fabulous. It is simply not shitty. It turns being a mutant into an allegory for being institutionally ostracized.  And it is pleasant. Talented actors bring home the various ways in which we handle our stigmas and there are some not laughable super hero fight scenes. All in all it is a sort of bland film, but a strong statement. This genre does not have to suck. Singer opened a door which other more talented people (Raimi, Favreau, Whedon, Black, the Russo Brothers) eventually walked through.

X2 is what people are talking about when they say “Hollywood’s Gay Agenda,” and I love it for that, and Alan Cumming, who is just too much fun. The movie brings its allegory sailing home with a coming out scene to boot. There are less cringe-worthy one liners than its predecessor, and one ingenious action set-piece for the ages. It is about being gay and it has no interest in beating around the bush.

The X-Men and Wolverine movies went on to continue to use mutant powers as allegories for lots of things and with varying success. But the whole franchise became wildly uneven without Ratner’s intense middle ground directing.

I was interested in what Singer would do when he finally returned to his franchise after so many years apart. Now that we are in a golden age of super hero films (an age he helped create), what would Days of Future Past be about. Because it would sure as shit not be about the characters and plot. Well, weirdly enough, the movie is actually an allegory for itself. It is two hours and ten minutes of Bryan Singer saying “Look, guys. We’ve really fucked this all up. Somewhere in the past we made a mistake and now our once golden franchise is ruined. Let’s go back in time, ditch everyone except Hugh Jackman, and make the whole thing about Jennifer Lawrence. Because people seem to really like Jennifer Lawrence.” This movie is so aware of its own place as a movie in a franchise that it manages to ret-con out, entirely, the Brett Ratner shit show that was X-Men: Last Stand and give all the old stars the happy ending they deserved. It’s a nice sentiment. The stakes have always been the franchise, not any of these people’s actual lives, and in the end, it was not “the day” that was saved. It was the franchise.  

The Simple Art of Codependency - Hannibal Season 2

The finale of this season of Hannibal isn’t titled “Imago” because it wouldn't have fit the season’s theme of Japanese food preparation. However, about halfway through the season’s final episode, two characters let us know why it would have made a perfect alternate title. For those who don’t already know it’s the final form of an insect’s transformation from larva to adult and bringing it up anywhere in the second season would have been appropriate. The fact that the Bryan Fuller and his team of writers decided to keep this conversation close to the chest until the finale was a great idea though. It packed far more of a wallop when it arrived because Hannibal allowed itself to change this season. It stopped being a series that followed a case of the week formula (albeit a more gruesome take on the recipe than any on record) and only allowed itself a thin overarching season plot. I can’t stand television like this but Hannibal did it so well that it became a tolerable formula. From week to week the show presented its viewers with a ballet of blood that turned murder into a legitimate art form in every way that shows like Dexter, which frankly can go fuck itself, managed to fail at. But by changing the formula that the series' fans had come to know and love, season 2 of Hannibal knocked our expectations of the show on their ear. The show slowed waaaaaay down. No more was it merely a killer of the week kind of show. Hannibal tried for a new kind of horror. It took Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) who we’d all begun to rely on as an infallible source of true justice and has him switch sides with Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen). The pair begin taking pages out of each other’s books and the result is a season that shows us what can happen when two men who are each incredibly dangerous in their own way begin to allow the boundaries between them to blur. 
Hannibal got itself famous (at least with critics) for being one of the most beautifully shot and beautifully violent (again, just with critics) series to ever grace the small screen. The fact that it lives on NBC is a mystery to rival the Tunguska event. I watched the series after having seen all but the latest Hannibal film (Hannibal Rising) and enjoying all of them despite Brett Ratner’s horrific track record as a filmmaker - Red Dragon is by far his best film - and the pure awfulness of the series’ final chronological installment, 2001's Hannibal, which is up there with Ridley Scott’s worst films. It got me wondering why none of the films, with the exception of Hannibal, ever attempted anything as inventive as the visual style that the TV series has made its bread and butter. Director of Photography John Mathieson uses the already gorgeous palette provided by Florence, Italy to help Scott's Hannibal take on new life as a thing of visual beauty. Hannibal’s series cinematographer James Hawkinson seems to have taken brief inspiration from Mathieson before going off on a wild quest to create a show that would rival even Game of Thones in how painfully beautiful it was to look at.  

That visual style really ends up being the only thing about Hannibal’s second season that resembles its first. The plotlines this time around have felt more like Lecter himself was listening to music and painting to the tempo. It began at a fairly rapid clip with familiar faces dropping like flies but as it carried on it began to slow down and spend a lot of its time meditating on Will and Hannibal’s relationship. Hannibal tries as hard as he can to drag Will down (or up?) to his level and become a killer while Will resists. We, of course, begin to see cracks, sometimes big ones, in Will’s defense and we begin to genuinely fear for him in a way we never had to in season one. We now have to fear for his very soul.
This season also manages to invert the previous season’ structure by making Will a reliable narrator once again. When we first met Will in season one he was a good but troubled cop who was beginning to unravel by the end of the pilot. We had to watch over the subsequent twelve episodes as Will came completely apart at the seams due to his time in therapy with Hannibal Lecter. But after last season’s left field (though not unwelcome) finale, we got to watch Will rebuild himself back into someone who’s both sane and very dangerous to those who continue to walk the earth doing evil. He becomes the only person with enough mental capacity to outsmart Hannibal but because the writers never make it easy on him we really never know how it’s going to go down. This matching of wits may actually be why the writers decided to make Hannibal and Will some kind of genius sadistic team in the season’s latter half and pit (sorry for the incoming pun) them against Mason Verger (Michael Pitt) whose appearance represents both a wonderful callback to Gary Oldman’s stellar performance but also a unique source of total fear. Mason is a dangerous foe and even though lovers of the film series know his fate we still aren’t quite sure if the tv version is going to take the same road to get there so all our favorite characters are suddenly in harm's way.
Watching the season back in a rapid fire fashion results in some very thrilling television. Apart from a court room drama episode (the season’s low point for sure) the first half of the season moves incredibly quickly and the framing device presented in the premiere’s opening minutes keeps you aching to get back to it at the end of the season. Hannibal plays a much larger role this season than he did before. He gets his hands far more dirty and doesn’t just come off as some kind of god that the law abiding characters of the series waste their efforts trying to stop. Instead we see Hannibal as a fallen angel who's so enamored with humanity that he allows others to see a very human side of him and even though he rarely makes a mistake, he’s a much more sympathetic monster than we got in the first season and it makes it that much more interesting when Will finally goes toe-to-toe with him. The odds are finally evened up. Fuller and his writing staff have established that they like their creative liberties, which means the stakes are quite high.
Hannibal’s second season allowed itself a lot of creative license and I applaud them for doing so. The show pulled back on its gruesome nature but it traded a gimmick for far better long form storytelling. Not to beat a dead horse but I can’t believe this show ran on NBC. It’s astounding when you think about the kinds of themes this season focused on and how many times it made its viewers stare into the heart of human darkness and didn’t let them look away when it opened its eyes and stared back. The second season is the series’ imago; its final transformation. I have no fear for the third season but it became clear while watching the finale that the writers were prepared to throw in the towel. The series was renewed but extremely late in this season’s run and the finale’s final moments are certainly geared toward the idea that they could have been the shows last. I await it excitedly but I think Hannibal will be forced to reinvent itself again in order to keep becoming the best thing it can be.

In The Future Past

I could, in actual fact, not have been anymore excited for X-Men: Days of Future Past than I was. It could have been fucking killer. I don't care for the X-Men films as entertainment or art. No one should. They're neither. We all know what we go to those movies for. Names. Endless slews of the silliest names ever written down delivered with gravitas usually reserved for announcing the death toll following a natural disaster. "There's a very powerful mutant named Erik Lensherr, known as Magneto." "This is Doctor Jean Grey." "Logan!" "Scott, don't." "Jean" "Logan, meet Hank McCoy." "Jean?" "Jean." Can't get enough names. For years now I've cracked up in public at the mere thought of Patrick Stewart looking into a camera and saying "Dr. Jean Grey."  No one says "Dr. Jean Grey" better than Patrick Stewart. Sadly he doesn't say it in Days of Future Past. No one does. That's problem number one. There are a bunch more. The biggest issue I have with the X-Men movies is that they want to be taken seriously. What's that they say about people who are always quick to invoke Hitler and the Holocaust? Well Bryan Singer does it right out of the gate in the first X-Men, announcing to everyone that Marvel Movies were serious art and needed to be considered so. And they're called Graphic Novels! While he was doing this he was also evidently molesting teenage boys on an island. I believe the victims who've come forward and said this. Why? Because the man who made X-Men: Days of Future Past quite plainly suffers from arrested development of the sort that cop shows always tell me is endemic to child rapists. In fairness I might wake up tomorrow and find that Singer's innocent, but he'll still be a terrible director. He'll always be a terrible director. I used to think his success was harmless enough. Those days are over. You might say they're in the future past, if you were a stupid asshole. 

It bears repeating that this movie is called Days of Future Past. Adults, many of them, said, "yeah, great." In college my friend and Apocalypse Now's TV critic Tucker Johnson made a short movie called Time Cops. It's still on youtube if you're curious. In that dumb fucking bullshit, I say the words "Future Past" in a voice strongly redolent of Roger Rabbit's cousin from the Bronx. Let's call him Salvatore Rabbit. That, like "Future Past" was a bad joke. One that I came up with as soon as Tucker said "I'm rolling." The whole film took five minutes to write and shoot. What excuse do the makers of this movie have? I'd like to know. And can we talk about Dawn of Justice? But seriously folks. I had a fine enough time giggling like a dickhead at the first twenty-five minutes of dumb shit and there are good performances buried in here, but let's not lose sight of what a fundamentally lazy and awful movie this is. 

Open on characters wearing fetish gear with painted faces. Capes are used a lot. Some of them are half-capes. You know, like in Schindler's List. They run around and get properly murdered and then we're reintroduced to characters we all know because we're sitting in the audience. We've seen the X-Men movies because we can't get enough of the rapid fire name-dropping of fictional characters. That was established above but I'm restating it for you in case you skipped to this paragraph. The same way Singer assumes at random that we don't know what the fuck is going on. Rather than explain his rip-off apocalypse, the one he stole from the even more boring Matrix movies, right down to the name of his evil drones, he proceeds to tell us a lot of stuff we already know. 

"The apocalypse starts in 1973. 1973. You've got to go back to 1973." says Patrick Stewart. Then he says it again. Then again. And once more. And then again. It's no "This is Doctor Jean Gray," but I still laughed like an idiot everytime he said it. "Hi, I'm Wolverine, you might not know this but I regenerate after being wounded." He doesn't say this to us, which, might have actually been helpful to newbie audience members, he says this to the people he's spent every day of the last ten years with. That's just smart writing. These mutants, who were ok the last time we saw them, are now being hunted by drones who were never a thing before now. Why? Because Singer's liberal enough to invoke the holocaust, piss on Obama's leg about drones, and then sexually assault young men. Don't get me wrong, every filmmaker who's made a movie about the evils of drones was right to do so. Where were y'all during the Bush administration? If you're Bryan Singer I guess you were sexually assaulting young men on your private island and making holocaust movies starring Tom Cruise. And how dare this guy make movies whose message is: "it's ok to be different" when you were ensuring that kids had to walk around with secrets like one of your mutants. For a culture that treats women like an afterthought most of the time, we still made a huge deal out of Woody Allen's rape scandal. As we should have. Why aren't we making a bigger deal out of Singer's? Because this country has even less time for gay men than it does women? Great. 

After Patrick Stewart narrates us into the future, the film picks up a lot of stupid momentum and never lets go. This is good because it gets us away from Bryan Singer painting the faces of young people so they look like anime characters and giving everyone a cape. It also gets us to the real acting. Ellen Page is fine, nothing bad to say about her. There was once a time when Halle Berry was above this. Not anymore. She fits the milieu perfectly. Patrick Stewart and Ian Mckellen look shockingly like two men waiting to get back to the Cort and finish their run of Waiting For Godot. Hugh Jackman, wisely realizing that after The Wolverine he was never going to be in a better movie about this character, has thrown in the towel. He can't stop smirking at everything, he doesn't scowl anymore, he seems to have bought into the premise so deeply that he's currently in the mind of his younger self on a beach spending all that sweet, sweet X-Men money. Good for him. He just happens to look like a terrible actor because he's caught between James MacAvoy and Michael Fassbender, both of them GOING FOR IT. Like Oliver Reed before them, neither man knows the meaning of phoning it in. McAvoy is all wet earnestness and Fassbender is absolutely terrifying as a man who knows he's capable of getting what he wants. Good on Matthew Vaughn for casting them. Singer gets no credit because he squeezes them into a film so fucking goofy it couldn't begin to earn them. The only thing I'm willing to give Singer credit for is a half-great sequence where silver-haired Whiplash or whatever his name is goes around a wet room changing minute details, set to Jim Croce. The problem with that is he's listening to the song on...what? A portable 8 track? I heard the word "1973" fifty eight hundred times before anyone went back in time, so how could you, the director, have possibly forgotten when your goddamn movie is set? And besides it's too shiny and plastic and safe, like the rest of the movie. Jennifer Lawrence is largely pretty awful, for which there's no excuse as she's a great actress. Singer didn't direct her performance, just her tits and ass in that blue body suit. Like any adult might. Who needs to make sure his lead actress doesn't look ridiculous when he can ensure that she looks like a perverse fanboy wetdream. It's Amy Adams in American Hustle all over again. At a certain point it's not filmmaking, it's just pointing a camera at a prop and fuck you. Also, she's the film's only female character other than Ellen Page, who gets maybe ten minutes of screentime. Awesome. 

How do you fall asleep at the wheel when your car cost a half a billion dollars? It's not just careless, it's fucking rude. McAvoy's young Professor X reads the thoughts of people gathered for fat, melty-faced president Nixon's address. One young woman's thoughts: "I'm Pregnant." To quote every critic on twitter: Are you? Are you pregnant? When the drones are revealed some marines salute them, including a headband wearing hippie who could be Ron Kovic. Fuck off. The drones themselves look like child-friendly versions of something out of Trigun, and in no way resemble anything from before 1985. They also see in MS-DOS. What year is it supposed to be again? I forget. He quotes Apocalypse Now (the gall), he rips off Terminator 2, he claims JFK's a mutant, he pays backhanded compliments to Nixon, he lets Fassbender exit by floating away and lifting his arms as if to say "I don't know anymore." Me fucking neither. 

I never liked Singer. I hate The Usual Suspects, which is approximately weird men in well-lit rooms talking up a plot that never shows up. Forgettable doesn't even begin to cover the likes of Valkyrie and Superman Returns. Did anyone like Jack The Giant Killer? One thing is clear throughout his work, the fetishization of handsome supermen. He was never good but he's been getting worse ever since X-Men, which truly does look like Schindler's List next to The Usual Suspects. X-Men Days of Future Past's strongest scenes that don't involve McAvoy and Fassbender involve well-dressed men standing in small groups. Not much to hang a film on. Singer is a man obsessed by a fantasy world he refuses to leave, both on and off screen. It just so happens that all this time his ineffable mediocrity was the least of his crimes. I'm sure those box office figures are going to seem like a comfort so allow me to be the first to say: You're not an artist, you deserve to go to jail, and your boring, sloppy movies will be forgotten long before your sexual assault charges. 

A Rebuttal

The following is Noah Lyons' response to Armond White's review of Under The Skin:

To Armond,

I am not sure how or why you have distilled this film into a crude case study of antiquated Freudian analysis, Armond. This film is not anti-"sex". It is a film shot from the perspective of an alien; thus, our world is objectified through the camera indiscriminately. The alien, most likely genderless, is not expressing any anti-male sentiment nor motivated by a 1970s "feminist revenge" . This is not I Spit on Your Grave, not Species, nor an adolescent "Everynerd moral". It is a study of perspective, the (in)compatibility of antipodal modes of consciousness, and the ineffability of a truly Other - the extreme Otherness of the "Face" of Levinas, of an unknowable "God", the empty blank spaces between and behind "text" and "image".

Freud is to blame for the prevalent notion, among both conservative essentialists and liberal pluralists, that everything is reducible to sex, the phallus, castration, and the like. The alien in Under the Skin is an entity that objectively apprehends and engages our planet. Once this would have played as a male alien (both in sci-fi and horror). An obvious misogyny there, reacted to by the rape-revenges of the 70s and bold feminism thereafter. It is curious that, in the 21st century, a female alien threat is automatically read as "anti-sex" and "anti-man". The film is not a Freudian castration, but such a view as you espouse is certainly a fear of castration. Even if there was some Manichean element at play here, following your lead, the second half of the film is a reversal (in form and narrative) of the sexual dynamics, thus revealing the fallibility of any POV from before.

I think you are making the common fallacy of misplaced concreteness, i.e. misplaced subjectivity. A misogynistic character does not imply the artist is misogynist. When a film is clearly as self-aware of its codes and structure as this one, you should entertain the notion that your perceived misogyny and sexphobia is maybe your own critical praxis pushed upon the film?

To impose one thematic conclusion: it is about inter-relationality; is such relation contiguous with emotions, or is it a mere sensory necessity of the body? There is more to male-female relationships. The danger of an extreme reading such as yours, ( that employs gender theory so heavy-handedly that it becomes rather absolutist and objective) is it limits the possibility of Being and perspective. This is the whole point of the science-fiction genre; to dismantle our language and society's binaries, categories, et al.

Finally, I would point out that your review exhibits more sexphobia than the film. The film challenges you and I to consider the human body, and how we relate with each other, from a viewpoint completely alien to even our academic liberal theories. Not everything is a metaphor for the phallus. Not every relationship or theory revolves around the male. And most importantly, a character or symbol is always particular - it is not universal or categorical.

-Noah Adrien Lyons

The Encyclopedia of Film Criticism: Ben Sachs

Ben Sachs
...the ending of a life drags the entire movie to a halt, forcing the viewer to reflect on what an extraordinary object his or her body is...Of all the arts, cinema may provide the best vehicle for inspiring this sort of reflection, as the manipulation of time is such an important aspect of the medium.

Contributed to: The Chicago Reader, The Bleader, CINE-FILE, MUBI.

Noted champion of: Takashi Miike, Robert Mulligan, Alain Resnais, Johnny To, Ulrich Seidl's "Paradise" trilogy, Leos Carax, Pedro Almodóvar.

Influences: Lindsay Anderson, "What is Cinema? by Andre Bazin, Films and Feelings by Raymond Durgnat, The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan by Robin Wood, and every film critic who’s written for the Reader."

Ben Sachs (1983-) was born in Waukegan, IL and over the last four years has become one of the most consistent writers in the fertile Chicago critical scene. Sachs moved to Chicago in 2005 after graduating from Macalester College in St. Paul, MN. From his bio on the Chicago Reader website, where he's been a full-time critic and blogger since 2011: I started writing film criticism for the Reader in September 2010 with a capsule review of the wrestling movie Legendary; since December 2011 I've written daily posts for the Bleader. Before that, I had been a regular contributor to the local website CINE-FILE, for which I'd been writing since its conception in 2007....In other movie-related business, I've introduced screenings at Doc Films, taught classes at Facets Multimedia, and continue to volunteer regularly at Bucktown’s Odd Obsession Movies. Before he started contributing to CINE-FILE, Sachs wrote plays, drummed for a band, and worked odd jobs, all without a huge measure of success. CINE-FILE isn't only where he honed his critical chops, it's also where his wife Kathleen Sachs (née Keish) writes.  

That last is not included arbitrarily. Perhaps more than any other critic or blogger, Sachs' family defines and broadens his writing. Whether ecstatic or melancholy (one of the most endearing and engrossing modes he writes in), his writing is deepened by his understanding of what his family means to him and has given to him. Recently he wrote a brief, touching piece about his cousin Naomi entitled "The family member who most influenced me as a critic." His nakedness in front of memory and the impact of this very special person is overwhelming. As in his writing on films, he reaches for small, tactile details hiding in his recollection, trying to better understand his cousin, his relationship to her and who he is. How he fits into the world, starting with his home in Chicago. From a piece about watching the films of Alain Resnais: At the time, I was either unemployed or working part-time—I don't remember which, but I was in a position to go to the movies on weekday afternoons, and I did this often to save money. The small audiences often consisted of retirees, specifically old women who went in pairs and chatted through the films. I liked sharing the theater with them; they made the auditorium feel fuller than it was, and they made me think of my paternal grandmother, a lifelong moviegoer who, in her last days of spectatorship, would convince reclusive old women in her apartment building to accompany her to the show. This leads into a discussion of his grandparents, alive with little tidbits about their habits, the things they'd say, etc. Being at the movies with my grandparents the day before I went back to school, it felt somehow heavier than going at other times or with other people. In autumn and winter, the sky would be bright when we went in and dark when we came out—it only added to the feeling that I was hiding from my responsibilities when they indulged me this way. The memory give way to an unbearably sad final sentiment, after meeting an elderly woman who in no way reminds him of his grandparents after a screening of Private Fears in Public Places: the movie made us equals in loneliness. Whatever that feeling was on all those Sunday afternoons, this was its opposite, a quiet terror that I had nothing to return to after watching the film. Exquisitely upsetting. Sachs' blogposts at the Bleader often read like passages from a novel, one that I hope he some day finishes. 

Sachs is never less than honest about his own bias; just this week he wrote a piece about his slight re-evaluation of a documentary he reviewed earlier in the year. He allows himself hindsight and admits when he's made mistakes. He opens himself up to visions he doesn't connect with or understand, meets everyone halfway when he can. Sachs' first major coup as a critic was a series on the films of Takashi Miike for Mubi's Notebook. His writing here takes on the same darkly profound current that colours so much of the Japanese Auteur's work. His phrasing is bold and sticks in the brain with the power of Miike's best images. They make for a great entrée into both Miike and Sachs, and they introduce a concept that serves as something like an unspoken mantra to his criticism. The idea, appropriated from Miike, that he never left a room or walked out of a film because it was ugly or bad. "Even the most routine action film, he argued, will contain some moment of beauty; you just have to keep your eyes open and find it." And finding the beauty in the most unusual places is one of Sachs' strengths, whether in an obscure 70s film like Sometimes a Great Notion or a modern comedy like The To Do List. His optimism as a critic ultimately outweighs his melancholy, no matter how beautiful and engrossing the latter is. To quote a poem Sachs brought to my attention: ...we receive but what we give, And in our life alone does Nature live...To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd, Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud Enveloping the Earth...

On Sometimes a Great Notion
"The human body wants to live," I remember a high school teacher saying, after explaining to our class how difficult it was to asphyxiate yourself. Once you lose consciousness, he told us, you can't apply pressure to whatever it is you're pushing to your mouth and nose, and air reenters your body. (He taught world history; I'm not sure how the subject came up.) In most cases it takes a long time before a body expires—even typically demure people discover unknown strength when violently attacked or pinned beneath a heavy object. This is why the climax of Sometimes a Great Notion is so devastating. As the scene goes on, the voice of instinct tells you that this victim must survive, no matter how terrible the situation gets. It's an instinct supported by countless narrative films, which train us to think that death happens quickly and that long, suspenseful sequences will resolve well.

On Robert Mulligan
Still, Mulligan's filmmaking was more powerful when he was working with less-straightforward material. As a case in point, check out his other feature of 1965, the movie-land drama Inside Daisy Clover. The script, by former film critic Gavin Lambert, is rife with allusions to Hollywood history (the movie takes place in the 1930s, though it invokes scandals that go back to the silent era) and contains several shocking plot twists. Mulligan's direction grounds the material, which might have become hysterical or overly cerebral in other hands, in a firm sense of character. Better yet, the straight-ahead presentation of the early scenes gives you no idea how dark the story will get in the second half—in this case, Mulligan's borderline squarishness proves an excellent poker face.

On Izo
Surprisingly, the film is most wearying when it’s at its most violent. Miike’s directed some of the most audacious scenes of violence in modern cinema, not to mention dozens of generic crime movies: It’s no secret he can shoot a decent action scene pretty much reflexively. In Izo, the swordfights generally occur in an unremarkable pattern of several-clashes-then-victorious-blow familiar to anyone who’s ever seen ten minutes of a samurai film.  There are also a lot of them. The fights’ maddening regularity is the main reason why the film is so difficult to watch, but not for the obvious explanation that they’re too graphic. (In fact, the violence here is relatively restrained for Miike.) The awful truth is that they’re boring. It’s by now a cliché to say the atrocities of the 20th century were the most inhumane that have yet been conceived. Less often said is what our responsibilities are, as inheritors of those atrocities, in the 21st century. For most people, the default response is a kind of paralysis. The information has been shoved down our throats, and we see enough violence on TV to know it isn’t pretty. (Izo reflects this numbing familiarity with sequences of stock footage that show up throughout the film. They show more familiar stuff: the Nuremberg rallies, the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, et cetera. One of the movie’s great jokes is to insert benign images into these montages—people on amusement park rides, old advertisements—that further deny them any power.) Perhaps that cliché is ultimately comforting: If things were definitively bad in the last century, we don’t have to worry about them getting worse. And yet the impulse to cause others harm is never far from us.  Look at any news report about a terrorist attack or, more tellingly, the way ordinary people respond to them with calls for vengeance.  Again, this is nothing new; but how often do we think about the weight of past atrocities when impelled to violence ourselves? The great accomplishment of Izo is that it forces the viewer to do just that, over two hours of unrelenting focus analogous to prayer

The 2013 Monsieur Oscars

This is a clearly well overdue appraisal of my favourite stuff in motion pictures from 2013. The Monsieur Oscars. I've adapted the categories as the year in film called for it. Each year has to be pliable or I risk not meeting the films on their own terms.

Favourite Fiction Film of the Year

1. The Immigrant
2. Inside Llewyn Davis
3. Dormant Beauty
4. The Past
5. You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet
6. Computer Chess
7. The Wolf of Wall Street
8. 12 Years A Slave
9. A Touch of Sin
10. A Field In England
 11. The Congress

Favourite Non-Fiction Film of the Year

1. Leviathan
2. The Act of Killing
3. Traveling Light
4. Let The Fire Burn
5. Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?
6. A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness
7. White Epilepsy
8. An Oversimplification of Her Beauty
9. The Last Time I Saw Macao
10. The Jeffrey Dahmer Files 
 11. The Source Family

Favourite Performance by a Director

 1. Marco Bellocchio - Dormant Beauty
2. James Gray - The Immigrant
3. Andrew Bujalski - Computer Chess
4. Ben Wheatley - A Field In England / Sightseers
5. Chantal Akerman - Almayer's Folly
6. Raúl Ruiz - la Noche de Enfrente
7. Sofia Coppola - The Bling Ring
8. Ari Folman - The Congress
9. Pablo Larraín - No
10. Rob Zombie - The Lords of Salem
 11. Jia Zhangke - A Touch of Sin

Favourite Screenplay

1. Computer Chess - Andrew Bujalski   
 2. Dormant Beauty - Stefano Rulli, Veronica Raimo, Marco Bellocchio
3. It's A Disaster - Todd Berger
4. A Field In England - Amy Jump
5. Moebius - Kim Ki-Duk
6. The Congress - Ari Folman
7. The Immigrant - James Gray & Ric Menello
8. Wadjda - Haifaa Al-Mansou
9. Alpha Papa - Peter Baynham, Steve Coogan, Neil & Rob Gibbons & Armando Iannucci
10. Drug War - Wa Ka Fai, Yau Nai Hoi, Ryker Chan, Yu Xi

Favourite Cinematography

1. Darius Khondji - The Immigrant
2. Renato Berta - Gebo & The Shadow
3. Antonio Riestra - Mama
4. Daniele Ciprì - Dormant Beauty 
5. Chung-hoon Chung - Stoker
6. Lucian Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel, and the crew of a boat - Leviathan
7. Steven Soderbergh - Side Effects
8. Bruno Delbonnel - Inside Llewyn Davis
9. Philippe Le Sourd - The Grandmaster
10. Anthony Dod Mantle - Rush / Trance
11. Luca Bigazzi - The Great Beauty
12. Emmanuel Lubezki - To The Wonder
13. Oleg Mutu - In The Fog
14. Rob Hardy - Shadow Dancer
 15. Feliksas Abrukauskas - Vanishing Waves

Favourite Performance by an Actress in a Lead Role

1. Jessica Chastain & Megan Charpentier - Mama
2. Barbara Sukowa - Hannah Arendt
3. Jane Levy - Evil Dead
4. Elizabeth Moss - Top of the Lake
5. Marion Cotillard - The Immigrant
6. Missy Keating - Dark Touch
7. Juliet Binoche - Camille Claudel 1915
8. Jeong Eun-Chae - Nobody's Daughter Haewon
9. Waad Mohammed - Wadjda
10. Andrea Riseborough - Shadow Dancer
11. Abigal Breslin - Haunter

Favourite Performance by an Actor in a Lead Role

1. Oscar Isaac - Inside Llewin Davis
2. Leonardo DiCaprio - Wolf of Wall Street
3. Michel Lonsdale - Gebo & The Shadow 
4. Johan Philip Asbæk - A Hijacking
5. Toni Servillo - Dormant Beauty
6. Chiwetel Ejiofor - 12 Years A Slave
7. Ben Affleck - To The Wonder
8. Reece Shearsmith - A Field in England 
9. Vincent Gallo - The Legend of Kaspar Hauser
10. Robert Redford - All Is Lost

Favourite Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

1. Isabelle Nélisse - Mama
2. Lupita Nyong'o, Adepero Oduye & Alfre Woodard  - 12 Years A Slave
3. Jeanne Moreau - Gebo & The Shadow
4. Rachel McAdams - To The Wonder
5. Debbie Reynolds - Behind The Candelabra 
6. Emma Watson - The Bling Ring
7. Daniella Kertesz - World War Z
8. Noomi Rapace - Dead Man Down
9. Alexandra Maria Lara - Rush
10. Joey Lauren Adams - Blue Caprice

Favourite Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

1. Forest Whitaker - Out of the Furnace
2. Pier Giorgio Bellochio - Dormant Beauty 
3. Sharlto Copley - Elysium / Oldboy / Europa Report
4. James Franco - Spring Breakers
5. Javier Bardem - To The Wonder / The Counselor
6. Martin Landau & Adam Goldberg - Anna Nicole
7. Jeremy Renner - American Hustle / The Immigrant
8. Stacey Keach - Nebraska
9. Jim Caviezel - Escape Plan
10. Paul Dano - 12 Years A Slave
11. Michael Parks & Bill Sage - We Are What We Are
12. David Wenham - Top of the Lake

Special mention for actors I'm always happy to see who didn't get much screentime: Ralph Brown - Stoker, Kyle Chandler - The Spectacular Now, Mark Rappaport - Kiss of the Damned, Oliver Platt & Timothy Spall - Ginger & Rosa

Favourite Performance by an Ensemble

1. You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet
2. A Hijacking
3. It's A Disaster
4. 12 Years A Slave
5. Wolf of Wall Street
6. The Counselor
7. Gold
8. In A World...
9. Blondie
10. Out of the Furnace
11. Drug War
12. Last Days On Mars
13. A Touch of Sin
14. McCanick
15. For Love's Sake

Special mention to Dario Argento's Dracula, which had a perfect cast, directed terribly. 

Favourite Duet Performances

1. Jean-Nicolas Dafflon & Hélène Rocheteau - White Epiliepsy
2. Tom Hanks & Barkhad Abdi - Captain Phillips
3. Will Forte & Bruce Dern - Nebraska
4. Daniel Bruhl & Chris Hemsworth - Rush
5. Frank Langella & Christopher Plummer - Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight
6. Isaiah Washington & Tequan Richmond - Blue Caprice
7. Matt Damon & Michael Douglas - Behind The Candelabra 
8. Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy - Before Midnight
9. James Gandolfini & Julia Louis Dreyfus - Enough Said
10. Noam Chomsky & Michel Gondry - Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?
 11. Helena Bonham Carter & Dominic West - Burton & Taylor

Achievement in Sound Design

1. Leviathan
2. White Epilepsy
3. Stoker
4. The Wolf of Wall Street
5. To The Wonder
6. A Field In England
7. The World's End
8. The Immigrant
9. Inside Llewyn Davis
10. The Lone Ranger

Favourite Original Score

1. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis - West of Memphis
2. Frankie Chan - The Grandmaster
3. Roque Baños - The Evil Dead
4. James Williams - A Field In England
5. Cliff Martinez - Only God Forgives
6. Alex Ebert - All is Lost
7. Christopher Spelman - The Immigrant
8. Carlo Crivelli - Dormant Beauty
9. Arcade Fire & Owen Pallett - Her
10. Sara Neufeld & Owen Pallett - Blue Caprice
11. Hans Zimmer - The Lone Ranger

Achievement in Art Direction

1. The Congress
2. Dormant Beauty
3. Vanishing Waves
4. The Immigrant
5. Trance
6. 12 Years A Slave
7. Inside Llewyn Davis
8. The Lone Ranger
9. For Love's Sake
10. The Bling Ring
 11. A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III

Achievement in Production Design

1. The Grandmaster
2. Stoker
3. Evil Dead
4. Trance
5. Inside Llewyn Davis
6. Mud
7. No
8. The Immigrant
9. Drug War
10. The Lone Ranger

Hardest I Laughed

1. It's A Disaster
2. The Wolf of Wall Street
3. Hellbaby
4. Alpha Papa
5. The Bling Ring
6. Frances Ha
7. Moebius
8. Nebraska
9. In A World...
10. White House Down
 11. Paradise: Faith

I cried during...

1. Vanishing Waves
2. Inside Llewyn Davis
3. Frozen
4. Her
5. Me & You

Special mention...

Tactile old-fashioned Action films

1. Riddick
2. Elysium
3. Drug War
4. Outrage Beyond
5. Shield of Straw
6. White House Down
7. Bullet To The Head
8. The Lone Ranger
9. The Wolverine

Satisfying arthouse headtrips

1. Vanishing Waves
2. The Congress
3. The Legend of Kaspar Hauser
4. Stranger By The Lake
5. The Wall
6. A Field In England
7. Computer Chess
8. Stranger By The Lake
9. Gold
10. In The Fog

I hardly saw any animated films but loved The Congress and Frozen.