Category Archives: Film Reviews

Blind Alley


1939. Charles “King” Vidor (dir.) Starring Ralph Bellamy, Ann Dvorak, Chester Morris. avers  Blind Alley is “one of the very first Hollywood films” accurately described as noir, though the basic premise– a crew of criminals on the lam take a bourgeois family hostage– depends heavily on the gangster genre. In addition the film’s claustrophobic locale– the interior of a psychology professor’s lakeside mansion– tends to render the action fairly static. The primary conflict between the main antagonists takes the form of the pipe-smoking academic (Shelby) and a neurotic yet sadistic escaped convict (Wilson), who wrangle over the content of the latter’s  expressionistic dreams, which ultimately lend stylistic verve to an otherwise literalist interpretation of childhood trauma. The crushingly obvious Oedipal conclusion Shelby and Wilson arrive at– “every time you kill a man you kill your father”– disarms the gangster with self-knowledge, precipitating his sudden death. Ann Dvorak plays an appealing moll, not only devoted to her killer-lover but aroused by his spontaneous acts of violence.

On the Road (2012)

I’m watching Walter Salles’s adaptation of On the Road, trying to remember what exactly it felt like to read Kerouac’s novel for the first time when I was fifteen. There’s a nice little montage after Sal and Dean and Marylou leave Old Bull Lee’s farm in Louisiana that comes close. They’ve picked up two hitch-hikers, and a series of long shots showing the landscape they’re passing through counterpoints several close-ups. Thunderheads lowering down to the horizon, rain balling up on the windshield and slipping off, dust pluming out from the car’s rear tires. There then follows a shot of Marylou, striped in gold by late afternoon light slanting through the car window. She turns at the sound of one of the hitchhikers singing a mournful song. The actor who plays Marylou, Kristen Stewart, gives the singer a look which at first could be taken as irritation, but then gradually transforms: from interest to lips-parted absorption to a flicker around the eyes that verges on tears. The next shot is on the Golden Gate bridge, which is drained of color by a thick white fog. The driver, Dean, looks into the rear view mirror, where Marylou’s face is framed, her features blanched grey and white. Dean is going to abandon her.

The quality that Salles adds to Kerouac’s story amounts almost to an extra dimension: the subjectivity of women. In the novel women are relatively flat characters who function primarily as sexual playthings, romantic entanglements, and nurturing/suffocating maternal figures– in other words, the standard repertoire of female types culled from the masculine literary imagination. (The most gothic of these women is poor crazy Joan, who sweeps the trees at night with a broom, trying to dislodge the creatures her mind has put there.) Salles’s film improves upon Kerouac’s novel because it gives greater insight into the damage wrought by Dean’s charismatic psychopathy. Camille, Dean’s second wife, kicks him out when she realizes that regardless of many sacrifices she makes or how many obligations he accumulates, he cannot sustain empathy and concern for others. The last shots of the film resonate with anyone who knows the circumstances of the death of the historical personage, Neal Cassady, who inspired the character Dean Moriarty. The camera jolts along after Dean as he stumbles down desert railroad tracks. From the open road– which offers a sense of elation and freedom– to the tracks, which are always only going in a single direction.


Here’s a list of some of the films I screened this semester.

Oculus (2013): Pretty spooky in parts. The interwoven narratives are definitely confounding and the gore factor is relatively light. Writer-director-editor Mike Flanagan understands the primal magic of mirrors, which have the uncanny power of both doubling and distorting the world.

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003): Another “family” horror flick. I think it’s the intimacy of family relationships that make them prime terrain for disturbing films. Certainly the perversion of that intimacy and the violation of trust are linked to the gothic mode. Secrets, darkness, sudden aggression, the gap between perception and reality: all of these elements work to construct an off-kilter storyworld.

Gothic (1989): A Ken Russell film starring a very young Natasha Richardson as Mary Shelley. A relentlessly batty, hallucinatory account of one of the most famous house visits in English literature, when Polidori, Byron, and the Shelleys told one another ghost stories and Frankenstein was born. The print that’s available on dvd is murky and awful but it’s worth watching anyway.

His Kind of Woman (1951): If you’re a fan of Robert Mitchum then you’ll likely forgive him this over-the-top crime drama with the wooden yet sultry Jane Russell.

Twixt (2011): This is a beautiful looking film that loses energy as it moves along, but has the virtue of imagining a lengthy conversation with Edgar Poe (Ben Chaplin) about plot and narrative.

Poklosi (2012): A better-than-average Polish thriller that is concerned with the crimes of the past.

Faust (2011): If you can get past the opening autopsy, you’ll find this adaptation of the Faust legend is very engaging. Sokurov’s Satan bears a passing resemblance to the figure hallucinated by Ivan Karamazov as he suffers from a virulent “brain fever” in Dostoevsky’s novel. Note also the role that Sokurov’s cinema art seems to be playing in Russia’s efforts to assert its cultural presence on a global stage.

Wolf Hall (2015): I am a huge fan of Hillary Mantel’s historical novels, particularly Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. This miniseries is a really well-executed adaptation of both of them. Clare Foy is just remarkable as Anne Boleyn.

App (2013): I actually enjoyed this film. Cultural anxieties about new tech are usually pretty interesting to consider, and if App is fairly ridiculous it does have something to say about the subsumption of human consciousness into “social” media.

Noah (2014): Initially I was wary of this film but then I realized it was directed by Darren Aronovsky, who basically treats a Judeo-Islamo-Christian myth as science fiction. Check it out.

Pontypool (2008): This original take on the zombie flick picks up William S. Burroughs’s conceit that “the word is a virus” and transports it to strange places.


Lagging the Popgeist: Paranoia (2013)

Post-crash cinema includes a few notable efforts to get to the root of the latest crisis of capitalism by exploring its human dimensions. Given its status as an abstract logic, ontological principle, or centerless system, global capitalism’s fundamental unrepresentability requires a framework that can provide some measure of proportion. Perhaps the most familiar method of introducing this necessary scale is to focus on characters caught up in the machinations of profit and exchange. Unfortunately, such a tactic usually results in a narrative which reiterates the thesis that our problems stem not from structure but from individual malfeasance– thus granting capital a false alibi. The gambit of post-crash films is to explore that which is inhuman by attending to the human and in doing so to effectively cede the possibility of showing capital in its totality.

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Lagging the Popgeist: Pacific Rim (2013)

As a general but far from inviolate rule PG-13 films, often action genre blockbusters, are written with 12 year boys in mind. Pacific Rim tends to follow this convention, featuring stock characters, awesome visuals, and a formulaic plot that predictably offers the barest gesture at psychological interiority in its undeveloped themes of intimacy and loss. Rather than recapitulate that narrative structure, it might be more interesting to focus on a handful of related signs that should be interpreted as speaking to the desires and anxieties of Pacific Rim‘s intended audience. For example, the character of Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), an attractive and damaged orphan raised by the film’s dominant (though not sole) father figure, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). In semiotic terms, Mori’s hair style speaks volumes about the nature of early adolescent male heterosexuality– a fraught topic to be sure, but one mobilized in the most innocent, perhaps even prudish, fashion. The touch of blue coloring Mori sports indicates a personality that is not entirely bound by the traditional sense of modesty western audiences have been led to believe via a charged orientalist discourse that women of Asian descent share.

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Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands (Denmark 2004) [415]

It’s taken me some time to get around to screening this second installment of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher Trilogy— a mistake on my part, it turns out, because this is a crime film that demonstrates perfectly what a “genre picture” can do to achieve psychological depth. Given Refn’s reputation for on-screen violence, Pusher II is relatively reserved in terms of punches thrown and weapons fired. Instead the film builds to an increasingly inevitable violent climax, though the image the audience is left with speaks to a sense of fragile optimism. Mads Mikkelsen plays Tonny, a somewhat slow-witted, even child-like, criminal who is treated with barely concealed contempt by those around him. That he sports a skull tattoo of the word “respect” emphasizes his plight; Tonny gets respect from no one, whether it’s the junkie who claims he has fathered her son or his own father, the calculating leader of a car theft ring. Pusher II thus focuses on cruelty and intimacy, and in particular meditates on the pain and disappointment of family relationships that have been instrumentalized. The Duke, Tonny’s father, for example, holds Tonny to a debt he didn’t incur, demanding that he kill The Duke’s ex-wife (Tonny’s stepmother) to square things. Refn establishes Tonny’s vulnerability and bewilderment by tightly framing Mikkelsen’s wounded though artfully controlled facial expressions. But, again, it is the final sequence that underscores Tonny’s emotional nakedness. Having taken the infant that may or may not be his biological son, Tonny boards a street car. Seated against a black window streaked by street lights, the child on his lap, he looks forward out of frame. The identification of this new father with his son is asserted by a visual parallel between Tonne’s shaved head and the hairless baby.

The trailer below promotes the Pusher Trilogy as a whole: