Issue #185: Three flavors of film criticism

This week, I decided to put on my film critic hat and try looking at films in a few different ways. In the first segment, you’ll find my normal critical lens applied to the criminally underrated Reminiscence (2021). The next is a qualitative review of the upcoming Marvel film. And the last zooms out from a single film to consider my entire normative apparatus.

Paradox Newsletter
Audio Supplement to Issue #184: A universe of radical split
Listen now (107 min) | In the second edition of the Audio Supplement, Jared Pence, Kelly Schairer, and I discuss The Bachelorette season seventeen, “Queering Psychoanalysis” by Jack Halberstam and Marie-Hélène Brousse, and “The Real of Sexual Difference” by Slavoj Žižek. This is a companion to the…
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Just as a reminder, last week we did release an audio supplement to issue #184 and I think it turned out pretty good. I know people like odcastpays, so you can always tune into this while you’re mowing lawns for quarters to pay for all your patreon subscriptions. Speaking of subscriptions, doing the Audio Supplement takes a ton of work, so now would be a great time to consider a paid one to this newsletter.

Finally, the semester is fast approaching. I’ll be teaching the first session of my class on television this Friday. If you’d like to see my syllabus for the class, please feel free to shoot me an email. I’m very excited about the viewings and readings that I have assembled. Including… this:

Hugh Jackman in the Chinatown Suit

Everything important about Lisa Joy’s Reminiscence (2021) happens in the first twenty minutes. Destined to be critically reassessed in twenty years, like the classic noir of the 1950s, Joy has crafted a flawlessly tuned neo-noir, humming with efficiency like her Westworld (2016) hosts. To whatever extent you can accuse Joy of the same flaws attributed to her husband, Jonathan Nolan, and her brother-in-law, Christopher Nolan, the mechanistic language with which I describe the film doesn’t mean there’s no humanity here. Despite the surface level coldness, her refined eye for visual allusion and substantive symbolic resonance show that this is a labor of love and a true B-movie for our time.

The opening scene is the overview of the flooded Miami cityscape, but Joy’s eco-criticism is merely the film’s backdrop. The focal point is the nature of memory and our relation to it. The panning across Miami is accompanied by pitch-perfect narration from Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman):

The past can haunt a man. That’s what they say. And the past is just a series of moments. Each one… perfect. Complete. A bead on the necklace of time. The past doesn’t haunt us. Wouldn’t even recognize us. If there are ghosts to be found. It’s us who haunt the past.

As the movie progresses, Joy shows audiences that Bannister is an ‘oarsman’ along the ‘stream of time’ — not one of the 50 of the Argo, but rather Charon, guiding his charges into the painful fatalism that characterizes the film’s view of the present. He operates the sci-fi invention of the ‘tank’ that can allow those submerged in it to relive memories of their choosing. Even though his vocation doesn’t “deal in linear time,” Watts (Thandiwe Newton) says “yet we charge by the hour.”

Watts and Nick both regularly compare diving into one’s own memories to an addiction. The comparison becomes explicit when Hank (Javier Molina), a fellow veteran of the “Border Wars,” offers the pair a fictional drug called “baca” in lieu of payment. When Watts warns Hank about the dangers of using the drug, Hank replies that there’s “nothin' worse than what the world’s already done.” This mentality is the same that governs the film’s treatment of memory as a whole. For most characters, the present of sinking cities and superheated climates has little to offer. Better to retreat into the past — just as the film does through its very form.

In fact, we find that the early portion of the film is actually Nick himself reliving his own memories. Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), the paradigmatic femme fatale who enters wrought in light like so many women before her, has disappeared after striking up a romance with Nick. Nick relives the memories of their meeting, courtship, and relationship to find a clue as to where she’s gone. The film is obsessed with clues and their disappearance. In an early exchange between Nick and Mae he tells her:

Forgotten things can always be fished up and dusted off. But the lost, those things people never really took much notice of until they were gone. They’re defined by their absence.

This dichotomy evokes the oft-repeated psychoanalytic joke of a cafe customer’s preference for coffee without cream rather than coffee without milk. It’s not simply the Deconstructionist vase, but a lack that is defined by absence without knowing exactly what is absent. Something missing of an indeterminate shape, structure, dimension, and character. It is not simply negative space, but negativity. But this constitutive lack is substituted for several different well-defined lost objects, such as a playing card and a pair of jade earrings.

The earrings in question, belonging to Mae, are lost even in the moment they are present in the film. Watts prompts Mae before her dive into the tank, “you’ll have to lose those.” And lose them she does. Leaving one behind inside Nick’s place of business draws him into the caper that makes up the film’s plot. Later in the film, she leaves another outside of Nick’s building to try to communicate to him her return to Miami. But none of these objects ever fill the void Nick describes when he talks about objects that are not lost, but forgotten.

As the film ends, Nick lowers himself into the tank never to be awoken from his nostalgic dream. His ultimate retreat into the past is the victory of cynicism and nihilism rather than the testament to enduring love the film would have you imagine it is. But this fact makes the film all the more powerful. The harshness of its environs are absolute. And, despite Nick’s persistent modesty, there’s no Production Code to guarantee a happy, ideological ending. This is neo-noir that exceeds film noir’s own notion.

The film’s greatest flaw, for all its rigid dedication to the genre, is that Hugh Jackman dons a fedora in the film for all of three minutes. Was there an issue with his contract? Perhaps I can take a dive into my own memories and think about how much better the film would have been were it part of his uniform.

I Decided Not To Break The Shang-Chi Review Embargo

The anxiety that plays out between fathers and sons has made itself powerfully known in everything from the most aesthetically ambitions works of cinema to the film-by-committee Hollywood schlock. Like Evangelion 3.0+1.0 (2021) covered last week, Shang-Chi (2021), the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s newest, adheres to the Freudian logic of Misato in 3.0+1.0, “the only thing a son can do for his father is pat him on the shoulder or kill him.”

But this isn’t an analysis of Shang-Chi that would elucidate these themes. Shang-Chi is a movie nobody has seen that I’ve only gotten the opportunity to watch because of an advance screening last week. Instead, I can offer a ‘spoiler-free’ review of the film. To that point, the Simu Liu and Tony Leung led film is standard MCU fare. It does not reinvent the wheel nor does it distinguish itself nearly enough from your average superhero film. That alone may be enough for many to dismiss the film and stop reading right now.

Despite this, I found Shang-Chi thoroughly enjoyable, among the best the MCU has to offer. It has great leads, a sharp script, action choreographed by the recently deceased martial arts legend Brad Allan (which is only occasionally marred by the ugly, inadvisable cutting that characterizes so much MCU action), and a compelling villain. It also has all of the MCU’s standard problems: occasional thematic whiplash, a deeply ideological story arc, an underutilized villain, and a heinously ugly CGI-filled final act set piece. The film devolving into illegible computer generated nonsense is all the more noticeable in a film that, up until the conclusion, sets the standard for action in superhero films. The best that can be said for the film’s final turn is that it has decent art direction.

While not formula defying, there are other elements of Destin Daniel Cretton’s MCU debut. As far as origin stories go, this may be the unqualified benchmark. Instead of front-loading the film with exposition or weighty flashbacks, the film nicely weaves explanatory flashbacks into the forward-moving ‘present-tense’ text. It’s not quite a parallel structure, but instead only diving into Shang-Chi’s past when a question is raised about it in the ongoing narrative. Cretton moves the plot along quickly, but doesn’t feel beholden to chronology when dealing with flashbacks. We might see Shang-Chi as a child, then an adolescent, then a child again. Even better, this structure complements the thematic considerations regarding the past and the present. In terms of construction, Shang-Chi should be a case study for filmmakers when trying to launch a franchise character.

MCU action has often followed the Jackie Chan model that Brad Allan always uses, whether working with Chan or not, blending physical comedy, clever one-liners, and great action. Shang-Chi is the apotheosis of this approach, but still falls prey to some of the overzealous editing that is the franchise’s nadir. Sometimes you just wish they would hold their perspective, or at least pan without a cut, instead of just cutting quickly to a new perspective. This kind of cutting cheapens the action. How many takes were necessary to get the desired effect? It’s always more impressive to see what actors and stunt performers can do in as few takes as possible. The flow of a fight scene is almost always disrupted by a cut, so they must be used sparingly.

Ultimately what keeps audiences coming back to these films are the characters, and Shang-Chi doesn’t disappoint. Liu and Awkwafina (playing Shang-Chi’s friend Katy) have incredible chemistry and Meng’er Zhang (playing Shang-Chi’s sister, Xialing) is a commanding, clever, badass. Florian Munteanu’s (Razor Fist) performance leaves a lot to be desired, but Andy Le has great presence as Death Dealer. Tony Leung, the absolute acting legend playing the film’s villain, Wenwu, is criminally underutilized. But even Leung has his moments, despite the script not giving him much, though most of them have been repeated ad-nauseam by the trailer. One thing I didn’t expect was the allusive texture of Wenwu’s relationship with Jiang Li (Fala Chen), drawing from Leung’s performance in In the Mood for Love (2000). It’s these little details which make Shang-Chi one of the better MCU films, even if it fails to shake off the franchise’s worst habits.

This might be the most I’ve written about a film that has such a fervent audience already poised to see it and an equally committed group of detractors. MCU agnostics, few though you might be, should definitely see this film. Otherwise, you’ve either already got your tickets or know you’re going to be catching this one on TV — if you watch it at all. But I, for one, am happy we’ll be seeing Simu Liu in a litany of Marvel movies going forward. 

Why I Keep Watching Terrible Movies

A few weeks ago, I sat down to watch the movie Infinite (2021). I treated it with some analytic seriousness despite the fact that the film had been harshly panned by critics and lay-viewers alive. What would motivate me to embark on such a task, you might wonder? As a rule, I believe every film deserves its due. A serious critical eye for all the time it is on my screen. But, there are elements about Infinite that drew my attention to it more than the average disowned studio film. One element of fascination of the film is its villainous lead, Chiwetel Ejiofor. And, to not bury the lede, he does a shit job. Only occasionally does he appear to have even the slightest bit of fun, the best you could expect for a film like this. But what really made Infinite a must-watch for me is the director, Antoine Fuqua. Fuqua, a frequent Denzel Washington collaborator, is responsible for decent films like Brooklyn’s Finest (2009), Olympus Has Fallen (2013), The Equalizer (2014), and The Magnificent Seven (2016), as well as the chef d’oeuvre, Training Day (2001).

It’s not unusual to have a director who commands one’s attention regardless of how many average-to-terrible films they seem to helm, but thinking about why I watched Infinite in the first place led me to some thinking about my framework for aesthetic assessment that I believe will benefit from being committed to writing. And, no, this is not an essay to assert a critical re-examination of Infinite. The movie sucks. Badly. Please do not be tricked into watching it — take it from a Fuqua fan. But my mode of judging artistic output may be of some interest.

Among the greatest bands of all time, I would rank Sick Of It All, Madball, and Agnostic Front. It doesn’t matter how many Death To Tyrants (2006), SOIA turns in, they’ll always be the band that made Blood, Sweat, And No Tears (1989). AF could re-release My Life My Way (2011) every year from now until oblivion, but that would not ever tarnish Victim In Pain (1984). And, as for Madball, I don’t really think their later albums are that bad — but nothing comes close to Ball Of Destruction (1989), and it doesn’t have to. In defining the legacy of a band or artist, I judge them by their best. No amount of bad material changes how much I associate someone with the work of theirs that I value the most highly. Hence why Fuqua will always be, in my mind, a brilliant director. He made Training Day. Still, between music and film, I’m a little inconsistent here. I would be lying if I said I was going to ever give Wake The Sleeping Dragon! (2018) a serious spin. Many bands have jumped the shark so much that I am pretty confident in just ignoring everything they release after a certain point. It’s not like I’m checking for new Metallica records. But, when it comes to film, maybe I’m a little more forgiving. Something about the release cadence or the scope of the work will draw me to Fuqua’s work again and again, even as much as he’s failed to make a compelling film.

Perhaps another reason why I treat music and film differently is because giving the work of great directors (who mostly make bad films) a chance has worked out for me pretty well. As bizarre as Dan Gilroy’s output has been, the goodwill garnered by Nightcrawler (2014) motivated me to give the critically maligned Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017) serious consideration — consideration to which I believe the film is entitled. Kôji Shiraishi’s bad movies far outweigh his good ones, but his found footage trio of Noroi (2005), Occult (2009), and Cult (2013) are must-watches. Virtuosity (1995) proves that Brett Leonard might be a secret genius. And even though The Tall Man (2012) was such an unrepentant piece of crap, Pascal Laugier will always be the guy that made Ghostland (2018), to say nothing of the film that made him famous in the first place, Martyrs (2008).

Yes, it didn’t quite work out with Fuqua’s Infinite. But we’ll always have Training Day. No matter how many missteps, I’m pretty attached to this framework. Giving someone more credit for their hits than their misses, assigning the most value to the things someone has done well rather than poorly, is a comforting manifestation of the golden rule. After all, I would hope that my worst newsletter editions don’t diminish my best ones.

Weekly Reading List — You’ll notice I have Tony Leung on the brain, so we’ll start with the recent profile from Elle. Likely because of COVID, Leung has done very little press for Shang-Chi. Even though this interview was conducted to fulfill his contractual obligation to Marvel Studios, there are some great tidbits here.

This fantastic ‘video essay’ gives a fascinating overview of Tony Leung’s career and highlights some of his most memorable roles. — Young Thug, after having been gifted one-hundred acres of land for his birthday, has declared his intent to create ‘Slime City.’ What could go wrong? I’m already eyeing property values there.

It’s finally here. After months of anticipation, Sony has released the first trailer for Spider-Man: No Way Home. For eagle eyed viewers, you can see The Lizard’s tail at 2:26, Sandman protecting Peter from Electro at 2:27, and, yes, that’s Willem Dafoe’s laugh along with a Spider-Man (2002) era pumpkin bomb at 2:28. New Rockstars, eat your heart out.

Until next time.