Ad Astra suffers from an identity crisis: it's a visceral, sometimes jaw-dropping piece of genre cinema, ricocheting from action to sci-fi to horror, in the guise of a ponderous male melodrama. This is a common ailment for movies desperate to prove how important they are, as if weighty backstory and solemn voiceover narration automatically lend a film greater value. It's a shame that Ad Astra feels the need to obscure its propulsive, exciting vision through pseudo-profound rambling about the nature of man in an unknowable universe; if the film had embraced what it truly is, it could have been a thunderous success.
White Dog is part of "my canon," a totally arbitrary and subjective list of my 100 favorite movies. For reviews of other movies on this list, look for the Top 100 category on the right sidebar.
Nearly forty years after it was made, Samuel Fuller's White Dog is timelier and more sobering than ever—an outraged depiction of how white supremacy pervades a society, rotting it away from the inside. That such an indictment takes the guise of a visceral, pulpy thriller only adds to its intensity, though it's probably also (in part) what led to accusations that the movie was racist upon its release. (Calling this movie racist is like calling Fox News progressive; it's antithetical to their very reasons for existing.) The movie's central metaphor is overt but no less profound: it bears witness to the destruction of an innocent creature for the sake of domestic terrorism.
Harakiri is part of "my canon," a totally arbitrary and subjective list of my 100 favorite movies. For reviews of other movies on this list, look for the Top 100 category on the right sidebar.
Edo, 1630: in the city that will become Tokyo, only three decades into the Tokugawa shogunate’s 250-year reign of Japan, a ronin appears at the House of Iyi. Disheveled, dour, compelled by a grim resolve, the ronin, Tsugumo Hanshiro (Tatsuya Nakadai), requests the use of the clan’s forecourt to commit harakiri, or ritual suicide by disembowelment. Though harakiri (or seppuku, to use its formal Japanese name) was perceived as an honorable action by samurai who had lost their masters and were forced to roam Japan during peacetime, there seems to be an ulterior motive in Hanshiro’s request; he speaks with the stoic dignity that defines the bushido code of honor, but his piercing glare simmers with rage. So begins one of the finest samurai films ever made: Harakiri (1962), a haunting, bitter allegory by Masaki Kobayashi that reflects Japan’s postwar “economic miracle” as much as it does the movie’s 17th-century feudal setting.
Blade Runner 2049
Replication plays a major role in Blade Runner 2049, not only in the centrality of its replicant characters—uncanny androids who have developed (or learned how to imitate) the human capacity for rebellion—but also in its status as a sequel to 1982’s influential sci-fi neo-noir. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner envisioned a near future bathed in neon and obsessed with simulacra, smuggling themes of affect and reality into a pulpy story of a grizzled “blade runner” tasked with eliminating troublesome replicants. Those themes might not be as profound as Blade Runner often makes them out to be—the question of what it means to be human is posed in a broad, cursory manner, more of a plot device than a thematic exploration—but the film is a stylistic masterwork, offering a chaotic, cyber-dystopian world that has become entrenched in our pop-culture consciousness.
The line between law and larceny has always been fuzzy in America, but that doesn’t mean we need another rote crime saga about how cops and criminals are flipsides of the same corrupt coin. This is a lesson Scott Cooper could have learned before making Black Mass, a blunt and tacky gangster film that offers absolutely nothing new in the way of thematic insight or visceral excitement. As the credits and promotional materials proudly state, the movie is “based on a true story”: that of James “Whitey” Bulger, a notorious South Boston kingpin who partnered with the FBI to take down the Italian mafia, only to exploit those connections to expand his crime empire throughout the city. Despite its real-world origins, though, Black Mass can only come off as forced and generic, developing a bloodsoaked storyline familiar to anyone who’s seen Goodfellas or American Gangster (or Prince of the City or The Godfather or Serpico or pretty much any crime picture you can think of).
Why Don't You Play in Hell?
Though the Japanese director Sion Sono has released 30 features to date (with four more in the can already), I have to admit I have only seen one: 2008’s Love Exposure, a four-hour mindfuck involving upskirt photography, religious cults, kidnapping, crucifixion, and other perversions. It also happens to be one of the best movies of the 21st century, a jam-packed blitzkrieg on how faith, sex, love, and media intersect in the modern age. Needless to say, I was eager to see Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, a bloodstained ode to cinema that has been bouncing around film festivals’ midnight programs for the last year and a half. While it doesn't have the same audacious insanity of Love Exposure (what does?), his latest offering is a deliriously entertaining movie about the allure of movies: perpetually cranked up to 11, reveling in its own outrageousness, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is the perfect film for those who think Tarantino is too mild-mannered.
The Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès are often credited with laying the foundation for two divergent paths in film history: a documentary-like inclination towards realism in the former, and an emphasis on fantasy and spectacle in the latter. It is indeed hard to overstate the importance of both traditions in the ensuing century-plus of movies, but there’s a third and maybe equally significant influence that emerged from early French cinema. The crime serials that started populating storefront cinemas in France in the 1910s—by which point the powerhouse production companies (like Gaumont and Éclair) had already been established and urban audiences had begun flocking to movies as the modern era’s pop-culture medium of choice—walked a fine line between mainstream entertainment and subversive surrealism. French artists like Louis Aragon and Andre Breton praised such serials for inscribing the headlong velocity of the twentieth century onscreen.
Ms. 45 is part of "my canon," a totally arbitrary and subjective list of my 100 favorite movies. For reviews of other movies on this list, look for the Top 100 category on the right sidebar.
In 1981, the grindhouse theatrical circuit—which had been holding steady for more than a decade in New York, where the sex shops and pornographic theaters of Times Square served as a dreary reminder of the city’s mounting seediness—received an electrifying shot to the head from Ms. 45. The predominantly male moviegoers who frequented such theaters at the time must have expected a tawdry rape-revenge fantasy, in which a beautiful, mute seamstress is raped twice in one day, sparking her to go on a bloody and sadistic shooting spree in Manhattan. In the most simplistic way possible, this synopsis describes Ms. 45—but it doesn’t suggest the film’s surprising intelligence and humanity, which ironically might be Ms. 45’s most shocking and unexpected elements.