Monday, January 23, 2006

We've Moved!

I know what you came here looking for and aren't finding. Let me hasten to add - it's here! Sure, it's only mp3s with cryptic references and glossy images now, but it'll be the temp-to-perm home of The Dark of the Matinee unless I decide to create a dedicated film blog. Meanwhile, update your links.

The bad news is that these "articles" won't be making the trip. Read up as much backstory as you like, and we'll be shutting these doors very shortly. You see, it's Blackmail Is My Life's 2nd birthday and it would be The Matinee's first. Pump the celebratory music into the house and let's dance!

[Oct 18, 2006 EDIT] Thanks to Wordpress, this whole site was transferred to "miscellany" at Blackmail Is My Life some time ago. I think it's time to shut this down and move on. However, keep an eye open for Blackmail version 1.5 coming soon! [I know, starting a new blog in January, bored with the format by October? Pretty sweet, right? Expect changes.]

Monday, January 02, 2006

News of the World

This page will be moving very shortly to a new home, which will be found here. The Dark of the Matinee will continue as a film diary, with an eye more toward criticism than review, although I don't like treating those subjects discretely.

Tell me what you think of the new page. I'm trying to come up with a header image right now and I'm sifting through several films. We'll see what happens.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

What's The Matter with Kansas, Revisited: Capote

Tonight. Such fertile land for storytelling.

Monday, December 26, 2005

What C. Wright Mills Already Knew: Syriana

Turns out, power is something worth discussing, even if you thought Who Governs? explained that troublesome bogeyman away. Get out your Gramsci, Fanon, Reuther, Niebuhr, Foucault, Said and Anderson, put on a pot of coffee and theorize Blackwater, Bechtel, Halliburton and The Carlyle Group. As an incipient, lacksadaisical political scientist, I'd say the film lacked an additional layer of complexity and subtlety by missing the role played by NGO's and nonprofit corporations mining a lucrative third way. Why bother with shadowy front operations when the money can be funneled back and forth between well-meaning third parties?

From a moviegoing perspective, Syriana does things that confuses Americans (read: non-ideological thinkers) by violating certain principles of fairness which automatically subverts the exoticist rampage storyline. This is Melville and Conrad territory, albeit less poetic, suspended in a value neutral vacuum. This is beyond good and evil; these are tactical losses and collateral damage, tit for tat. Finally a metaphor for the movements of portfolio capital, embodied in the several persons animating the drama.

Unlike Moore, Gaghan and Clooney (channeling something he must have learned under David O. Russell) conspire to create a nearly unimpeachable political film, so restrained it can't be considered exciting or suspenseful or any of the Oscar-worthy blurb cliches that will doubtless be imputed to it. Syriana refutes Soderbergh's hamfisted lecture on the war on drugs and complicates matters by presenting a story in which allegiances change, lessons are learned and time overlaps, rather than evolving from one point through an arc, creating a story rife with coincidence and stinking with serendipity. Unlike the revelations of Medium Cool, Syriana's message breaks across faces with the same grim realization undergone by the executioner in Kafka's In the Penal Colony, not out of enlightenment, but painful necessity.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Let's Play Get the Guests: The Incident

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The Incident unravels like an Albee-an nightmare, as if his stuff weren't nightmarish enough. From the moment the film begins, the characters pouring in to their own Manhattan Transfer, each with a tiny narrative of their own, we get a grandiose prisoner's dilemma (or collective action problem) in which we see the worst of humanity in acts of high cowardice. This is the stuff of the real Calvin and Hobbes.

The Incident pits randomly selected individuals against two menacing hooligans. The hostages come from all walks of life and somehow the criminals suss something about each individual that paralyzes the others with fear. It's a vulgar Freudian nightmare at cross purposes with Darwin - sexuality and power are in the fore and these wounded animals can't defend themselves adequately, leaving the cats to play with the mice before they kill them.

It's a powerful film. Deeply naturalistic, this is McTeague without the money; the criminals have figuratively chained themselves to the car, at once putting them in a position of strength and weakness. Spectacularly cruel, The Incident seems like an answer to Elia Kazan's so-called do-gooder politics, Peerce thumbing his nose at those who believe collective action to be inherently red, or inherently anything. Equally interesting is that this film could be remade, set in the eighties, before any notion of "quality of life" crime and other police vocabulary had yet to be created and the legendary, pre-Giuliani New York that was mythologized as the province of junkie warlords and gangbangers, open to the promise of a police state.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Stranger than Fiction: Good Night, And Good Luck.

A film that proved fresh and exciting because it feels like fiction. As Anderson Cooper skulks in the desert, dragging the Vanderbilt fortune behind him somehow plays like cinema verite. With the post-Network era of infotainment so engrained in our epistemic reflex that local and national no longer registers as inane and asinine commentary or pleasant fictions more likely opposite the truth, ushering in a reality reduced to simulacra: the shared experiences remembered through bizarre anecdotes of cultural memory littering our psyche with the sort of useless knowledge helpful solely for Quizzo and Google searches. We've reached a societal disconnect that transgresses escapism and blunders fecklessly past citizenship into the new, weird Americana that represents the country's international reputation.

But Good Night and Good Luck doesn't say that, nor does it preach to its audience. Unlike Network, a film that presaged the era of soft news, Good Night and Good Luck comes across as a rote history with no catchphrase to speak of or even cartharsis. In fact, history is presented as it ought to be: an unfolding process, not some triumphal arc replete with the pompous class president speeches leading to easy, ludicrous conclusions. More importantly there is no point in nostalgia; the direct continuum past to present, from McCarthy and Hoover, to COINTELPRO and Hoover, to Ashcroft, Gonzalez and the PATRIOT chorus, there's nothing worth rhapsodizing. Analytically speaking, this is the stuff of a Benjamin aphorism.

David Straithairn's Murrow is breathlessly reserved, forthright and filled with conviction. Opposite him, Clooney plays his equally cool producer, the aptly named Fred Friendly, Clooney being careful to write himself out of St. Peter status as Jesus' footman. The remaining cast offer lovely supporting performances, Jeff Daniels perhaps foremost among them as the stern but fair management man and secret couple Joe and Shirley Wershba playing the skeptics with something to lose.

Good Night, and Good Luck. succeeds among biopics for its restraint; at under 90 minutes there's no time for meandering flashbacks that place characters in irrelevant context. The film is present to itself and its subject and leaves out the messianic qualities for which is hagiography's renown. A film so lavishly produced, shot in gorgeous black and white to remind audiences that this isn't some science fiction, gives historic weight and Dianne Reeves plays a jazz singer whose interstitial performances are as much evidence of television's Golden Age as they are the choruses corresponding to each scene in turn.

With message films being the order of the day and so few delivering on their promises, Clooney exceeds expectations. Unlike his predecessor Robert Redford and mentor Steven Soderbergh, Clooney as a writer and director undoes all the things that made HBO's K Street so unbearable. By avoiding cant and cliche and presenting a realistic portrait of an important, but minor historical figure, Clooney has a faith and optimism that perhaps more likeminded people lack. As politicians struggle to define their legacies and shore up support for upcoming elections, films like this one are like quiet cautionary tales instead of morality plays and dumb shows pantomiming to the choir.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

What's The Matter With Kansas: The Ice Harvest

This perverse Dickensian tale has the makings of a modern day Christmas classic: a morality play gone awry in almost too many ways to count, with a Scrooge who realizes that even if he's generous, the bank account's still full. There's Christmas past, present and future, all rolled into one icy rainstorm as a Benz whisks Cusack from tense to tense.

If it sounds like another maudlin Christmas movie to you and if you've had enough of The Christmas Story to last a lifetime, consider this: Cusack plays a mob lawyer involved in a "perfect crime," partnered with Billy Bob Thornton as the muscle guy with motivation. Set in Kansas, we're made aware of the contradictions at play; you can almost hear Sen. Brownback chiding his congregation, ahem, constituency against the evils portrayed herein. This is the other Kansas - one that was left behind as rock 'n' roll moved out of Kansas City for Detroit, New York and Los Angeles. The political ambiguity still allows for a critique of greed and hypocrisy, something Daniel Kasman notes in his review.

Ramis returns to a familiar theme: small town claustrophobia. But unlike Groundhog Day, the danger in Wichita Falls is as palpable as it is inevitable. As Cusack skirts the cops and his would-be killer, we learn how desperate everyone is to escape; think of a thousand toasters dropped into a thousand bathtubs in the name of existential freedom. But for Cusack and his company, there are no easy outs.

If The Pardoner's Tale were a Christmas comedy or Groundhog Day a noir soaked in rain and bourbon, then The Ice Harvest would be a brown paper bag waiting for you Christmas morning beneath the tree, decorated with blood red ribbon.