Category Archives: Film Reviews

Lagging the Popgeist: Submarino (Denmark 2010)

As you’d expect from an alumnus of Dogme 95, Thomas Vinterberg’s Submarino employs light deftly as a means of emphasizing dramatic content. There are several remarkable scenes– an improvised baptism, for example, and shots of a man in the grip of addiction– where set lighting is key to the audience’s response. Notably, however, Vinterberg has chosen not to adhere to Dogme 95’s purist admonition to use only natural light sources as he did in 1998’s Celebration. As a result, this aspect of the mise en scene is textured by contrasts: the saturated flash of television sets in an electronics store window counterpoints a pale grey afternoon sky or the sickly fluorescence of a pub men’s room.

Submarino‘s story is fairly unsparing: two brothers raised by an alcoholic mother briefly encounter each other as adults after years apart. The eldest, Nick, has just been released from prison, while his younger brother (who is referred to only as “Nick’s brother” or “Martin’s father”) struggles to manage a heroin addiction as he raises a son. A quiet foreboding accumulates as the plot advances (and regresses), one that made me think of Requiem for a Dream. Indeed, if there is an obvious criticism to be made of the film at the level of content, it is that Submarino‘s characters suffer far too much. The parallel with Aronofsky’s Requiem— especially one of the physical forms this suffering takes– seems more of a repetition than a correspondence. This echo could be down to the source material, a novel by Jacob Bengtsson that has yet to be translated into English. Not to be cryptic, but once you’ve seen both films you’ll see what I mean.

Still, Vinterberg offers the surviving characters a shot at redemption. And if he does so quietly, almost tacitly, the final sequences of Submarino lighten a burden the audience has been compelled to share.

Looking Forward: Japanese Crime Film (HUM425)

Take Aim at the Police Van (1960), directed by Seijun Suzuki evinces a few subtle indications of the subversive film art he would create for (and largely against the wishes of) Nikkatsu studios in the mid- and late-1960s. The Criterion Collection classes this film as a “Japanese noir,” and certainly many of the formal and thematic hallmarks of the noir mode are present here.

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Bullhead (2011)

I’ll probably use this Belgian film for HUM415 during summer session. Not only does it address the core subject matter of the course– what, at this point, I”m calling “crime and system”– but it dramatizes in a very compelling way the relationship between masculinity and the male body. Briefly, Jacky, a Flemish rancher, uses illegal bovine growth hormone (BGH) to maximize the mass of his beef cattle. He becomes entangled with elements of the so-called hormone mafia, who have taken control of this market of the shadow economy in the aftermath of the EU’s ban on BGH. An undercover police officer is murdered. Other police agencies begin to surveil Jacky. Yet behind these crime-thriller developments is a terrible, life-altering event that occurred when Jacky was a boy.

Formally, Bullhead is innovative without being smug or flashy. The use of camera tilt, tracking, back-lighting, and narrative analepsis emphasize the anguish of Jacky’s loss, deepening the film’s human dimensions, even as it propels the story.  Fantastic cinema. It’s streaming on netflix so maybe check it out.

Chile, La Memoria Obstinada (HUM455)

One of the striking moments in Chile, Obstinate Memory comes when we see a painting based on a photograph of the golpistas (from the Spanish golpe, a strike or a blow– i.e. “the coup-ers”) standing next to heap of prone and supine government loyalists. The painter, Jose Balmes, remarks

“I like all these little details. As if there’s a movement, this part is more blurry, more ambiguous, much less clear as far as the image goes. In this kind of movement, you can definitely see, there’s a hazy area something undefined. You can’t tell where the clothes begin in relation to the body and the head. It makes the movement seem very alive, suggestive, rich, and at the same time very open.

“Look, there, you can see. I made several photocopies which I altered.

“Memory and forgetting are recurring questions. It’s like the positive and negative of human action and man’s reflection throughout his life, upon what really matters.” (transcript)

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Lagging the Popgeist: From Paris With Love

From Paris With Love (2009)

The title is a warning: From Paris With Love will attempt to compensate for the exhaustion of its ideas by outgunning the facile pleasures of earlier thrillers, most obviously the James Bond franchise. Yet it is only with the arrival of Charlie Wax (John Travolta, who fuses his performances in Pulp Fiction and The Taking of the Pelham 123 in order to recycle them) that it becomes apparent how empty pastiche can be. As the film unravels, the Pulp Fiction reference is revisited, a Training Day theme crops up, elements of District B-13 (an earlier film by director Pierre Morel) come into view– several scenes occur in the multicultural ghettoscape of a postmodern banlieue– in addition to a mishmash of War on Terror motifs: swarthy djellaba-wearing men, women in hijab, even a kind of Al-Qaeda sleeper agent in the form of James Reese’s (Jonathan Rhys-Meyer) erstwhile fiancee.

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Jesus Camp

Gallup polls suggest that 39% of Americans (out of 311,892,000) identify as evangelical christians, which translates into roughly 121,637,880 million people. Given the rise of the Christian Right in the United States, particularly since the 1960s, that religious identity constitutes a very significant political force. As we’ve seen with the Bush administration, the Christian Right has jettisoned any doubts about participating in the “fallen” world of secular politics.

It is in this context that the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp ought to be viewed. Briefly, the film follows several kids who attend the Kids on Fire School of Ministry. Though the film eschews a voice-over which would explicitly direct our response to the film, the editing– particularly the sequences which counterpoint the indoctrination of young children with on-air remarks by Mike Papantonio, a Christian talk radio host– clarifies the sympathies of the film-makers.  Papantonio clearly grasps civil institutions such as the separation of church and state and is exceedingly wary of the sort of evangelism which proselytizes pre-adolescents in order to imprint them with a set of religious views which are ultimately the source of political activism.

In my view the documentary represents a subculture which is, frankly, terrifying. Generally speaking, religion is based not on reason but in revelation– i.e. the evidence of things not seen. If a person simply believes strenuously enough then s/he belongs within the community of the faithful. Yes it’s true that earlier christian such as Thomas Aquinas attempted to conjoin spiritual belief and Aristotelian philosophy. Yet by and large the amazingly fragmented protestant sects present in the modern United States have tended to marginalize even the scientific method where it seems to conflict with faith. Thus the denial of climate change, a political project funded with millions by Exxon Mobil and other vested interests,* like skepticism about the principle of biological evolution, mesh somewhat seamlessly with a worldview governed not by the demands of empiricism but by strength of feeling.

You can watch Jesus Camp on netflix (instant view) or at

http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/jesus-camp/

*Between 2005 and 2008 Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries, a petroleum and chemical company ranked second behind Cargill as a privately run US business, donated $8.9 million dollars and $24.9 million dollars respectively to organisations involved with challenging the science and politics of climate change. According to Greenpeace, “Koch industries’….funding of the climate denial machine… through a combination of foundation-funded front groups, big lobbying budgets… and direct campaign contributions makes Koch industries…amongst the most formidable obstacles to advancing clean energy and climate policy in the US”. (See http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=705&issue=129)

Lagging the Popgeist: Avatar

Avatar is well-suited for ideology criticism, and though I’ve not read many reviews of it (with the notable exception of Zizek’s, who apparently did not see the film before publishing an article in New Statesman) James Cameron’s blockbuster solicits us to flex our critical skills in order to excavate its “hidden content.”

The PG-13 rating, of course, was unavoidable, and largely an economic decision, though one that reflects a general tendency in American cinema to appeal to the pubescent in all of us. CGI-heavy films are expensive, and thus require large audiences to realize a hefty enough profit. This is why you’ll never see a Cameron-style spectacle rated NC-17, except, perhaps, as a director’s cut. To date, Avatar has grossed $2,772,605,563 world-wide, or over 10 times its $237 million budget.

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Howl

This weekend I watched Howl, starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg. Odds are it won’t be out for long, and because of the film’s extremely limited release you might consider watching it now while you can. Franco nails his character, particularly in the sequences representing Ginsberg’s interview and his reading of the poem “Howl.” All of Ginsberg’s charming verbal ticks– the nasal, incantatory drone of his elocutionary style, his tendency to toss out phrases and images in conversation in order to make a point– are referenced in this performance. Franco– whom a friend, on seeing Freaks and Geeks, once described as “alternately repulsive and hot”–  seems to have a genuine intellectual dimension, and for this reason– coupled with his apparent commitment to the roles he plays– he appeals to audiences who like to think about film.

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300 As Geopolitical Allegory (HUM415)

The following very short essays are not, strictly speaking, required reading though I hope that you might at least look them over. The first, by Gary Leupp, performs a spirited demolition job on 300 as a racist, historically inept piece of postmodern propaganda. The second– by Slavoj Zizek, whose First as Tragedy, Then as Farce we’ll be reading at semester’s end– inverts that kind of reading.

A Racist and Insulting Film: 300 vs. Iran (and Herodotus)

The True Hollywood Left

Shutter Island

Johanna Isaacson, who will be teaching a course on San Francisco literature at SFSU in the Fall, kindly offered this film review of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island for exclusive publication at analepsis.

Shutter Island’s Valuable Things

Johanna Isaacson

1954, a paranoid moment– US doctors have lobotomized 18,000 people with no end in sight, top CIA officials purchase ten kilos of LSD from Sandoz Labs, the House of Un-American Activities is ramping up the Red Scare, the Cold War is launching into a protracted period of crisis and escalation.  Enter Teddy Daniels, a working class detective, ex WWII soldier who was present for the liberation of Dachau and the exposure of its horrors.  He is now approaching yet another nightmare zone, Ashecliff Hospital, a  mental institution/penal colony for the criminally insane where the benign gardens and open air treatment mask an insidious world of physical and psychological torture.  We’re not certain, but all the signs point to Ashecliff as a gothic no man’s land where  non-compliant patients are disappeared and converted into drugged or lobotomized zombies– soldier-fodder for history’s insatiable maw of militarism and violence.  Fortunately, our detective exhibits an acute critical capacity and intuition, he will not be put off the scent by the Warden Dr. Cawley’s transparent front as humane doctor, he knows that the experiments at Shutter Island are anything but benign and compassionate.  Crawley says of his experimental methods, “Valuable things have a way of being misunderstood,” and we, with Teddy, shudder at the sinister implications.

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