The Hired Hand (1971)

SCORE: 4/5

A flop when it was first released, Peter Fonda’s directorial debut The Hired Hand (1971) is now widely considered a minor classic in the then-burgeoning anti-Western subgenre (otherwise known as ‘revisionist Westerns’ , e.g., Little Big Man, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Sam Peckinpah’s westerns), with splashes of experimental ‘Acid Western’ stylizations (e.g., The Shooting). It is a simple but extraordinarily powerful film.

After the huge success of Easy Rider (1969), Universal Studios helped launch the brief New Hollywood phase of the industry by giving Peter Fonda $1,000,000 to make a movie (it is Fonda’s directorial debut), granting him full artistic control, as they had similarly done with Dennis Hopper, who would make the acid-drenched The Last Movie in the same year.

Fonda and a superb Warren Oates (Fonda gave up part of his producing fee to bring Oates aboard) play world-weary drifter cowhands at something of an impasse in life. Seven years prior, Fonda had left his wife and child for the ‘freedom’ of the open terrain of the American Southwest; he now longs to return home, unsure of how his wife will receive him but nonetheless determined to try. Although Oates would rather continue westward to California and the Pacific Ocean, he is game for returning to Fonda’s old homestead. (In many ways, Oates’ balanced and nuanced performance is the centerpiece of the film, the gravity upon which all events revolve around).

Verna Bloom plays Fonda’s forlorn wife, a woman hardened by loneliness and abandonment, yet still vulnerable and emotionally fragile in the presence of her husband… and Oates. She doesn’t initially accept Fonda back into her life in the role of traditional husband, but allows both he and Oates to stay on as ‘hired hands’. While Fonda plays a sort of aimless Odysseus returning home, Bloom is an all-too-human Penelope who, in the seven year interim, has both succumbed to various suitors’ advances and made her own advances to various cowhands she’s employed.

The screenplay by Scottish novelist Alan Sharp has some extraordinary dialogue, subtle and existential in the best of Western traditions. There is one scene between Bloom and Oates that is one of the most moving scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie.

The terrific cinematography is by the now-legendary Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe and Mrs. Miller; Deliverance; The Long Goodbye; Close Encounters of the Third Kind; The Deer Hunter; Heaven’s Gate), but it is Frank Mazzola’s editing of Zsigmond’s footage that gives The Hired Hand such a unique feel. Moving images stop in freeze-frame and then dissolve into another, similarly-shaped still which then proceeds into new moving imagery, providing a poetic element to the visuals. This further coalesces vis-à-vis the haunting and atmospheric soundtrack self-recorded by Greenwich Village folk scene fixture Bruce Langhorne. Minimalist instrumental pieces involving banjo, sitar, and fiddle perfectly matches the film’s mood. The movie’s heralded, opening montage sequence – which consists of slow-motion footage of Oates bathing in a river while Fonda fishes – is a mini-masterpiece: the soft light and deliberate sunlight-infused lens refraction, the slow dissolves, and Langhorne’s simple banjo-centered melody collectively create a powerful and emotional backstory… without a single word. It is bookended by the film’s silent and very moving ending.

There is a sense of foreboding throughout the film, with incarnations of death (as well as unmitigated evil in nature) all around: a boy crying out for his mother as he lays dying; the corpse of a young drowned girl slowly cascading down a river. Christ symbolism (a widely-used trope in hippie films of the era) is present, but not in an overbearing way. The film’s longevity, however, is assured through its overarching thematic elements: With age comes the abandonment of youthful dreams and idealism (represented here through the discussions of California), the yearning to return ‘home’, the pragmatic acceptance of one’s limited lot in life and love, and the resignation that comes with seeing these truths.

Posted in Film | Comments Off on The Hired Hand (1971)

The Pentaverate (2022)

SCORE: 1/5

I used to love Mike Myers’ movies: the Austin Powers franchise, So I Married an Axe Murderer, etc. But something happened to him after the critical panning of his last comedic film The Love Guru (2008), which was 14 years ago. It appears a deep introspection followed. Mike Myers got way more serious (with small roles in more serious films) and, unfortunately, as we see in this really bad and embarrassingly unfunny 6-episode Netflix series… he became woke.

My first clue that this was going to be bad was by via the simple fact that I had to search for it on Netflix. One would expect that a new and rare Mike Myers project would be featured prominently on the main Netflix page, but nada. Red flag #1.

Then I saw how The Pentaverate has a 33% critic score on RT, which is generous to say the least. Red flag #2.

Then I read a Hollywood Reporter interview with Myers where he extolls the virtues of The Obamas™ and warns us that “Right now, in the global war between fascism and democracy, the first casualty of war is truth.” Throughout the series, there are lots of nods to Kubrick (whom Myers worships), including the conspiracy theory that he was involved with the U.S. moon landing ‘hoax’, the ‘eye in triangle’ of A Clockwork Orange, HAL from 2001, and the creepy piano motif from Eyes Wide Shut.

Qua past Myers, the series is chock full of his usual over-the-top Britcom scatology, except that none of it is funny. I hate to say it but it is cringeworthily juvenile and facile, and in a non-transgressive way, signaling that Myers has outlived his comedic usefulness. (I think I laughed maybe 3 times across all 6 episodes).

Myers plays a variety of #WhiteMenAreDumb characters:

  • Ken Scarborough, the series’ primary protagonist (that is, until a Strong Young Black Female colleague tells him what to do) who is a Canadian journalist tasked by his Strong Black Female Canadian Boss to expose something big or else lose his job due to his career expiration date. He is a naïve and bumbling senior citizen who is aided and abetted by his much smarter and able young black female colleague Reilly Clayton, who works with him at the Canadian TV news channel “CaCa”.
  • Anthony Lansdowne, a middle-aged incel Bronx-accented conspiracy theorist who sports a “Take the red pill” sticker on the side of his van, and who is easily rattles by the ‘reasoning’ of young Reilly.
  • Rex Smith, an Alex Jones knockoff.

Even the members of The Pentaverate (a benevolent secret society that runs the world and holds Davos-like global meetings, etc.) are portrayed as Dumb White Guys whose time has passed:

  • Lord Lordington, a rather pointless Derek Jacobi impression who heads the current (and short-to-be-of-this-world Pentaverate).
  • Shep Gordon, a faithful impression of the rock and roll manager that Myers is a close friend of and whom Myers directed the biopic documentary Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon.
  • Mishu Ivanov, a Rasputin-like ancillary to Russian oligarchy.
  • Bruce Baldwin, who also serves as the series’ villain, an Australian tabloid tycoon who is an obvious impression of Rubert Murdoch (owner of Fox News).

Throughout the entire series, young Reilly wears a black T-shirt with white lettering that reads: “Canada: Living the American Dream violence-free since 1867”.

In the first 2 episodes, Keegan-Michael Key (of “Key & Peele”) plays a streetwise, jive-talkin’ Black Man recruited into The Pentaverate who is… drumroll… the world’s greatest nuclear physicist who is on the verge of solving cold fusion. Think Eddie Murphy from 48 Hours but also as the most brilliant scientific mind alive. (“Y’all know you kidnapped a black man!?”). Naturally, Myers checks off the miscegenation box with Key getting it on with the one Cishet White Woman in the series.

As the show progresses, we are lectured by young Reilly on how both the media business and The Pentaverate is nothing but “white man after white man after white man”, how the Cishet White Chick working for The Pentaverate has tried to increase Diversity™ in the organization, but all too often only at low levels of the org, not at the top.

The series culminates in the benevolent Pentaverate members (sans the dastardly Rupert Murdoch member, who escapes for a sequel that will never be) agreeing to… and I’m not making this up… commit suicide in order to pave the way for what becomes The New Pentaverate: a group of progressive and smarter-than-the-white-guyz POCs and Women.

Just when you though Wokeness couldn’t possibly create any more droll and predictable activist programming, Mike Myers comes along with with his pick-axe to prove that the virtue-signaling of Hollywood’s most insulated celebs has no boundaries.

Posted in Film, Hollywood | Comments Off on The Pentaverate (2022)

Slow Horses (2022)

When I learned that this new 6-episode spy series on Apple TV – of which the first two episodes have aired — starred Gary Oldman, as well as Jonathan Pryce and Kristin Scott Thomas, I was in. Based on the 2010 novel by Mick Herron, Slow Horses is a spy thriller in the understated, mundane, John Le Carre mode rather than the over-the-top James Bond mode. Adapted from the novel by Will Smith (The Thick of It; Veep), the show follows the goings-on at ‘Slough House’, a dumpy administrative place-of-demotion (resembling the worse precinct police station one can imagine) for spycraft misfits who have made career-ending mistakes. Their miserable boss, Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman), is intent on making each and every one of them quit from drudgery or boredom.

E01 begins promising enough, with the show’s premise launched, and various characters introduced, but by the end of E02, insufferable wokeness rears its ugly and ubiquitous head. The antagonists of the show’s heroes are shaping up to be various “right-wing” and/or “fascist” individuals. Every character in the spy agency voices their unanimous contempt of a conservative, immigration-restrictionist politician who simply expresses his wish to “keep Britian British”, a sentiment that the characters all find odious. A ‘disgraced rightwing journalist’ (who an MI5 agent has been tasked with spying on) is depicted as a mean, ugly, wiry man who has never tipped at the small Greek eatery he’s been going to for 5 years (says the restaurant’s owner). Just so we get the idea that he’s a bad person.

He’s been ‘disgraced’ and unemployed apparently for having contributed to a fictional UKIP or English Defense League-type group, whose “Keep Britain British” mission statement is #LiterallyHitler. A former high-level MI5 employee (Jonathan Pryce) justifies the doxing of this journalist and other individuals (via orchestrated MI5 leaks), saying something to the effect of “We can’t have these fascists walking around openly in our midst.”

Plotwise, the nefarious terrorist incident that is captivating the nation involves… get ready for it…. white skinheads (at least one of which we can infer is an active policeman) kidnapping a young Muslim Paki (who’s a business student at university!) and promising to behead him on camera because, presumably, they want to “Keep Britain British”. We get lots of sequences of the skinheads being mean and cruel to the crying, terrified Vibrantly Diverse One who is tied to a chair in a dingy townhouse basement somewhere in London.

The cold female MI5 higher-up (Kristin Scott Thomas), who humiliates/emasculates various men underneath her (basically telling one “don’t speak unless your spoken to”) lectures some colleagues that MI5 has been so preoccupied with Muslim domestic terrorism that they’ve ignored white supremacist domestic terrorism. Just like in real life!

And, of course, by the end of E02 there is an office romance miscegenation in the works. (Yes, there’s even a black MI5 misfit… Wait, is that progressive casting or racist ‘incompetent blacks’ casting?)

I’m not sure I’m going to stick it out with this one. I may, if only to see more of Oldman, who embodies his role with relish. His Jackson Lamb character is a severely unkempt (e.g., holes in his socks, often on display), foul-mouthed alcoholic, who sleeps at his desk, in between ashtray-overflowing, chain smoking marathons. I imagine we’ll eventually find out what led Lamb to be sent to Slough House himself.

Posted in TV | Comments Off on Slow Horses (2022)

Vanishing Point (1971)

SCORE: 5/5

This movie is a f*cking revelation. A cult fave, I was expecting a more conventional muscle car movie, but this is so much more. Directed by the underrated Richard Sarafian, with stunning cinematography by John Alonzo. A mythopoetic road movie + existentialism + knockout performances from everyone, especially from the lead actor, the equally underrated Barry Newman who plays ‘Kowalski’, the guy the police are chasing and who challenges authority and all around him in his souped-up Dodge Challenger. He downs a supply of amphetamines to reach his Sisyphean goal of driving from Denver to SF in record time, for an unspecified goal. All the secondary actors are top-notch. Though countercultural ala Easy Rider, it is incredibly based and salient for the New Right of today, who are today’s counterculture.

SPOILERS BELOW:

The layers of symbolism and allegory here are many. Though he doesn’t show it, Kowalski is damaged goods. He served with distinction in Vietnam. He became a cop but left that role after acting against police corruption. He then became a race car driver, but saw some die in wrecks and nearly died himself. And he is haunted by memories of his lost surfer girlfriend. For the most part, he refrains from the temptations of pot, ‘free love’, and whatnot for a higher purpose… getting to SF in record time, but does succumb to a desert seduction by a young hitchhiker (Charlotte Rampling) who, in her downhearted musings about waiting and eternity, may represent death itself.

In getting the car he’s driving to SF, we never learn why it is so urgent to get it there in record time, and it seems that Kowalski’s urgency is a purpose-in-itself, where the ultimate telos of one’s ‘vanishing point’ – the eyes fixed as far as one can see down the road — is the annihilation of being which comes with death.

The fantastic era-specific soundtrack, with its evangelical rock tinge (which serves as meta-commentary on the film’s proceedings), accentuates the Christ allegory of the protagonist. In the third act, Kowalski is aided by a guardian angel of sorts, a blonde hippie biker dude named ‘Angel’, who lives in a trailer in the middle of the desert with his gorgeous blonde girlfriend (who herself rides around the house naked on a motorcycle).

The role of the desert is central throughout. The sequence where, in the middle of Death Valley, Kowalski (fixing a flat tire) is stumbled upon by an old man snake collector, is like something out of the Bible. While the movie leans to the left for the time, by today’s standards this is less apparent. For example, on a lone stretch of desert highway, Kowalski picks up two gay hitchhikers whose car had broken down (one is carrying a “just married” sign that was on the back of their car), but this humorous interlude soon turns dangerous when they pull a gun on Kowalski to rob him. He bests them in the end though.

George Miller must have been greatly influenced by this movie when making Mad Max. From the centrality of desert highway, to the highway chase sequences, to the similarity in names between Kowalski, Max Balchowsky (the ex race car driver who maintained the five 1970 Dodge Challenger R/Ts used during filming), and Max Rockatansky, the name of Mel Gibson’s character in Mad Max.

If you haven’t seen this movie, do check it out. It’s achieved cult status for very good reasons. The cinematography is sharp, wide, and spectacular. The car driving is top-notch. And the deeper allegorical levels of the film will pull you in.

Posted in Film | Comments Off on Vanishing Point (1971)

Normism: The Philosophy of Norm Macdonald

Normism: The Philosophy of Norm Macdonald, a short book I wrote about a great comedian, is now available on Amazon.

***

Norm Macdonald’s philosophy of life, comedy, and death is sketched out thematically from his original material, as well as from extant interviews with him and profiles of him over the years.

Among his fellow comedians, Norm Macdonald was widely hailed as one of the funniest men alive, a DGAF Mark Twain whose unique combination of cadence, persona, material, and delivery left a cultural impact that greatly outsized the limited commercial success he experienced. To his fans, Norm’s everyman persona engendered a sense of relatability and connection.

But there were aspects of his life not well known. He was a child prodigy who graduated high school at the age of 14. His experiences with cancer since his youth led to a lifelong existential obsession with death, which was also the dominant theme of his comedy throughout his career. In the last decades of his life, he led a notably ascetic lifestyle and was largely unconcerned with achieving breakout success.

For comedic effect, early on his career Macdonald carefully crafted a ‘dumb guy’ persona, but there was a trickster element to this. Largely hidden from public view was his Christianity, his cultural conservatism, and how well-read he was in literature, philosophy, and theology, all of which he would subtly weave into his material. From a position of anti-intellectualism, he played the Philosopher-Fool. Through both his original works and the various interviews he did over the years, Macdonald would touch upon subjects ranging from the nature of comedy, to culture, politics, and religion, to his all-consuming fear of death.

More than just a comedian telling jokes, Macdonald embodied his material — the comedy and comedian were one and the same.

‘Normism’ was his philosophy, his way of being.

Long live Norm.

Posted in Culture, Humor | Comments Off on Normism: The Philosophy of Norm Macdonald

Avanti! (1972)

SCORE: 4.5/5

This vastly underrated comedy directed by Billy Wilder stars Jack Lemmon, Juliet Mills, and the criminally underrated British actor Clive Revill, who is a comic revelation (his comic timing is absolutely perfect) as Italian hotel manager Carlo Carlucci. The supporting cast is terrific, especially Gianfranco Barra as Bruno, the valet who desperately wants to get to America, and Edward Andrews in a small but hilarious role as a swinging-dick, conservative State Dept official.

Based on a 1968 play by Samuel A. Taylor, and with a script co-written by Wilder and longtime script partner I.A.L. Diamond, dialogue was tailored to Jack Lemmon, who is at the height of his comedic powers in this movie, playing the son of a recently deceased corporate magnate who has traveled to Italy to claim his father’s body, and is rushing to get back in time for a high-profile funeral already scheduled in the U.S. He soon learns that his father did not die in his traffic accident alone, but a woman he’d been having a passionate, 10 year-long affair with died with him as his passenger. Juliet Mills plays wonderfully a carefree British woman of very modest means, who has similarly come to claim her mother’s body, her mother having been the mistress of Lemmon’s father. Through a series of farcical misfortunes, and the classic situational comedy that Wilder excels at, Lemmon & Mills are drawn together.

Wilder wanted to make a film “a little like Brief Encounter, which I always admired,” but the comedic element supersedes the romantic. Mills agreed to gain twenty-five pounds for her role, and a couple of scenes involving explicit nudity (breasts and buttocks, not the other bits), at first seem out-of-place, but ultimately resonate satisfactorily given the associated existential sub-theme of mortality and physical imperfection.

The movie has great poignancy today, with anti-Nixon, political jokes that — while being topical — still have relevancy today, as well as a subplot involving the theme of people desperately wanting to immigrate to America. The movie is chock full of hilarious Italian stereotypes and pokes fun at Italian inefficiency, bureaucracy, and the norm of 3-hour lunches during the work week.

After viewing a number of Italian films, Wilder selected Luigi Kuveiller as his cinematographer, which was a superb choice. Avanti! is beautifully shot on the islands of Ischia and Capri, and along the spectacular Amalfi Coast. Both exteriors and interiors pop with a vibrant color that are masterful in their composition.

Upon its release, the film’s stars were rightfully hailed (Lemmon, Mills, and Revill were all nominated for Golden Globes for their performances here), but reviews were mixed. Some critics felt Wilder was floundering here, trying to stay hip with post-60s, Euro-cinema nudity and sex, but the the script makes some veiled self-referentiality on this. Wilder himself expressed disappointment with the end product, having wished the comedy to be secondary to the romance. Some also found Avanti! to be 30 minutes too long (it stands at 140 minutes), and while I agree that some scenes could have been trimmed or excised altogether, the movie’s length is a minor critique for what is otherwise a hidden masterpiece.

Posted in Film | Comments Off on Avanti! (1972)

Rifkin’s Festival (2020)

SCORE: 3/5

Woody Allen has had an incredibly prolific output of films – an average of one per year over the past 45 years – and I, as a big fan of his work, have seen them all. With that volume of material, there are bound to be misses among the hits, but a mediocre Allen movie is still better than 95% of what Hollywood puts out. Now a 100% persona non grata in Hollywood circles, Allen was unable to get a single U.S. distributor for Rifkin’s Festival, a movie which was filmed in (and is set in) the beautiful Spanish coastal city of San Sebastian.

Throughout his entire career, Allen has obsessed over existential questions about mortality and the fundamental meaningless and pure contingency (moral luck) of existence. Now 85, Allen surely realizes his own existence is reaching its conclusion. As such, the themes and concerns depicted in Rifkin’s Festival (one of Allen’s worst films) serve as a distillation, of sorts, of Allen’s own psyche and its ever-narrowing and repetitive concerns: the certainty of death; the meaninglessness of existence; disintegrating marriages; art and passion and sex (invariably involving the ‘excitement’ of infidelity) as primary pursuits, ways to feel young again, and a means to distract us from nihilism and the repetitive boredom of domesticity, which is itself a distraction of sorts. But whereas his early films in the late 70s through the mid-80s explored these themes brilliantly, vis-à-vis hilarious characters & plots or characters mired in relatable pathos, Allen’s films of the past 10 years feel like uninspired copies of a copy of a copy.

His last truly great film was Midnight in Paris (2011), but since then his movies have lost any sense of originality and, worse, reflect the rarified insularity in which Allen himself has been living in for more than half his life. For instance, the first dialogue of Rifkin’s Festival is the following voiceover by Wallace Shawn (the surrogate for Woody Allen’s typical nebbish on-screen persona, even down to the Allen’s signature, green military field jacket):

I actually don’t know where to begin. I had to stop work on the novel I was writing and accompany my wife to the San Sebastian Film Festival. Well, Sue had to go. For her it was work. She represented several clients who were there, and did the press for them. Now the ironic part was that, you know years ago when I taught my film class, the thought of going to any film festival would’ve been very exciting to me.

But film festivals are no longer what they were. I mean it was no longer what I was teaching. I taught cinema as art — the great European masters. I only went because I couldn’t shake the suspicion that she had a little crush on this bullshit movie director she did publicity for.

The layers and surfeit of elite lifestyle and concerns alluded to here are almost bottomless. In Woody Allen movies, nearly everyone is either a writer, an artist, a filmmaker, or some other extension of the culture industry, all living in magnificent apartments in exciting cities. They are rarely ever middle-class characters, or low-level white collar workers working tedious jobs, or blue collar people. This is a reflection and function of Allen’s own closed-circle lifestyle and cadre of friends.

Movies often require us to suspend disbelief, but Rifkin’s Festival stretches this concept to its breaking point in that we are expected to find plausible the idea that someone with the looks of Gina Gershon would be the wife of Wallace Shawn, or that (even more implausibly) a strikingly beautiful, middle-aged, Spanish female doctor would almost fall in love with Shawn’s character: a whiny, chinless, balding, pot-bellied, hypochondriac, septuagenarian Jew from NYC, all because Shawn’s character mentions he taught film on the ‘European masters’ (e.g., Fellini, Bergman, Godard, Truffaut).

While the mutual attraction between Shawn’s character and the doctor is not consummated (it does not get to the stage of even a kiss), there are revealing depictions of how Allen sees the ‘artist’ as having license for infidelity and, presumably, other discretions. “He has affairs,” the doctor says to Shawn’s character, regarding her tempestuous artist husband, “and I accept it. After all he’s an artist. And you can’t judge an artist by bourgeois standards.” (This theme has been in several Allen films, most fully in Vicky Cristina Barcelona).

Rifkin’s Festival inserts several dream sequences that are direct homages to several of Allen’s favorite films: Fellini’s 8 & ½, Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, and several films by Ingmar Bergman (Allen’s favorite director) such as The Seventh Seal and Persona, but the gimmick falls flat in most instances. 

As has been increasingly true with Allen’s career as it has progressed, Rifkin’s Festival contains several explicit references to Jewishness and, ipso facto, characters separating the outside world of Gentiles and their culture from that of Jews and their cosmopolitan culture. And, to me, that has been the allure of Allen’s films: one gets the universality of existential and moral philosophical concerns and also the particularism of the quintessential NYC Jewish worldview.

At one point in the movie Shawn’s character voices a sentiment that Allen has made in numerous films: “There’s no doubt the American [Hollywood] masters were wonderful, but generations of Americans were mislead into thinking that Hollywood endings were real and not make believe. And then the Europeans came along and movies grew up.”

Rifkin’s Festival ends as an antithesis to the happy ‘Hollywood ending’, not with any intense or sudden or violent apogee, but by conveying the contingency and randomness of existence, and how even the rich cannot escape the despised routinization of the bourgeois, the plodding, almost uneventful, meandering of life itself.

Posted in Film | Comments Off on Rifkin’s Festival (2020)

Cleopatra (1963)

SCORE: 4/5

At 4+ hours in length, I’d been putting this one off for years, but I’m glad I finally got around to it, as this sometimes maligned, big budget film — skillfully directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz — is excellent. As far as swords-and-sandals epics go, this one ranks among the best. The lavish production (a record-setter for the time) is something to behold, tastefully and not egregiously deployed.

The film follows the true-to-life-events of the historical timeline. Per Wikipedia (and the film’s opening credits), the film’s screenplay was “adapted by Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman from the 1957 book The Life and Times of Cleopatra by Carlo Maria Franzero, and from histories by Plutarch, Suetonius, and Appian.”

There are fine turns from all of the primary actors: Liz Taylor, Rex Harrison (Julius Caesar), Richard Burton (Marc Antony), Hume Cronyn (Sosigenes), Andrew Keir (Agrippa), Martin Landau (Rufio), and Roddy McDowall (Octavian aka Caesar Augustus). It is Burton’s performance, as the tortured soul of Marc Antony, that really shines here, a bravura performance with some terrific dialogue and line-readings. (Shakespearean dialogue stylization is used in the film, but not in a distracting way). Some of the screenplay’s dialogue – especially the third act’s ruminations on mortality – is poetic and downright beautiful.

My only beef was that, in Hollywood’s narrative need for a villain, such a role is largely filled by Roddy McDowall’s snotty and petulant Octavian (Augustus), something not historically accurate. Augustus wasn’t unusually cruel for the time but was, in fact, a paragon of the benevolent dictator and arguably Rome’s finest Emperor.

Posted in Film | Comments Off on Cleopatra (1963)

Devs (2020)

SCORE: 4/5

Devs is an outstanding 8-part mini-series with a conservative slant on FX, that I highly recommend to Dissident Rightists. The series, which plays like an extended episode of Black Mirror, is written and directed by Alex Garland, one of the more talented and interesting figures making films today. From his novel The Beach (which was turned into a pretty good movie with Leo Dicaprio) to the excellent film Ex Machina (2014) to the enthralling film Annihilation (2018), Garland has demonstrated a flair for embedding deep philosophical conundrums into his films, particularly philosophy of mind. Garland also often engages critiques of utopianism, especially technology utopianism and the accompanying ethos of accelerationism that we see saturating our culture, all within a cinematography that is part Kubrick, part Nolan, part Fincher.

Fans of corporate espionage flicks (e.g., The Parallax View) will enjoy Devs. The show plays to our current fears and anxieties about Silicon Valley, of their wildly outsized and growing power over our lives (internationally), a power with too little oversight, where the massive wealth involved inoculates itself by campaign contributions to both parties, ensuring oversight is minimized.

In Devs, the fictional company Amaya, is clearly modeled on Google, with its sprawling high-tech corporate campus nestled within a forest of redwoods outside of SF. As with Google, company buses pick up employees in downtown SF each morning, hustling them in comfort to their workplace. In the process, we see San Francisco as a shithole (e.g., litter; homeless people on doorsteps) and as a harbinger for the rest of the country in due time: a small elite class living in high-security, rarified bubbles… and then everyone else.

Nick Offerman (of all people) is terrific as Forest, the joyless and obsessive founder and head of Amaya. A mouthpiece for the implicit (and sometimes explicit) ethos of Big Tech as the altruistic visionary gods of a new age, Forest expresses contempt for both patriotism and national borders. The show’s religious symbolism accentuates both the Jesus complex and the sense of being quasi-gods, that Big Tech can exude. The underrated Zach Grenier (who folks will remember as Ed Norton’s office boss in Fight Club) plays Kenton, the resourceful and merciless head of security at Amaya.

There is at least one overt jab at Wokeness, and the de-sexualization of the show’s female characters is most interesting. As the show’s protagonist, the actress Sonoya Mizuno – who was the highly sexualized AI robot Kyoko in Ex Machina) – here has a plain, boyish look. A similarly desexualized (and completely androgynized) Cailee Spaeny plays Lyndon, a Woke millennial Devs team member who we can’t figure out is male or female.

In Devs, we get suspense and thriller qualities, including subplots involving Russian spies, and passing references to an ascendant China. But the prevailing theme of the show is the playful philosophical speculation about various quantum theories of mind/existence, and paradoxical idealized imaginings of where it all might go, and what a quantum computing endpoint might be. There are references to Roger Penrose and the Wheeler interpretation (multiverse). There are discussions of free will vs determinism, as well as simulation theory (whether we might be information in a higher-level simulation).

While the tail end of the third act is a bit disappointing, the journey there is absolutely terrific.

Posted in Film, Philosophy of Mind | Comments Off on Devs (2020)

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

SCORE: 4/5

On many ‘best film noir’ lists, I thought I was going to hate this film due to the “racist white guy and good black guy” aspect of the film. Boy, was I wrong.

Robert Wise’s late-era noir features Robert Ryan, Harry Belafonte (a passable but not very good actor), and an excellent Ed Begley, with smaller roles played effectively by Shelly Winters and Gloria Grahame. The arcs of individuals who are all down on their luck, or who otherwise or painfully conscience of what little their lives have amounted to, intersect with the prospect of a bank robbery scheme planned out by a jaded ex-cop (Begley).

In terms of plot and conflict, one has to get over the film having a black jazzman with a serious gambling problem (Belafonte) as its moral center. (This is established rather clumsily via his relationship with his young daughter and his estranged wife, as well as his hesitations to join the caper). But this dimension does not reduce the film to mere racial sermonizing. Sure, Robert Ryan’s cheating ways, general contempt for blacks, and racial insults – delivered in a slight and elusive southern accent (his character comes from Oklahoma) – make him the ‘racist’ cad of the film, but… so what? In one way or another, all the characters have flaws. While they don’t’ have much screen time, Winters’ desperate neediness and Grahame’s lax marital scruples (and desire to be dominated by a ‘bad boy’) make for terrific performances.

Stylistically, metaphors of doom and foreboding creep into the frame and aural experience: the ominous wind that will sweep things away; the balloon that pops; the image of a dilapidated wooden bridge displaying a river that cannot be crossed. There is an uncanniness, an oddness, to this film, of the sort that Wise put to great effect with his masterful horror film The Haunting. The unusual and jazzy score is also quite effective in punctuating manic emotion as well as a quieter sense of foreboding as well. Exterior shots are effectively framed by the architectural largeness of NYC, dwarfing individuals to accentuate what bit players we are on the stage.

In terms of the cinematography, there is more kinetic camera movement than in typical 1950s noirs, and in this regard Odds Against Tomorrow (much like 1958’s Touch of Evil) serves as a transition point between the standard 1940-1950s noir and the more exploratory if not radical stylizations of 1960s and 1970s films.

There’s an almost Shakespearean feel to Odds Against Tomorrow, with an overarching theme that man’s fate is overdetermined by chance and chaos. The film’s final sequence leads to a great and unexpected ending, a variation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, where failure to cooperate leads to a less than optimal outcome for all involved.

Posted in Film, Film Noir | Comments Off on Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)