Mar 162019

This is a movie whose influence on me is difficult to exaggerate, and I couldn’t say how many times I’ve seen it, even if it’s been out of mind and sight for awhile now. Then yesterday, not feeling well and spending the afternoon playing slug on the couch with the remote, I found myself watching it.

Three things stood out for me. First, the movie is nearly perfectly made. Its success was an achievement not a fluke, and that achievement holds up. Second, Keanu Reeves is so young. The film’s twenty years old now, and the handsome older brother I had watched become “The One” now seems so delicate, inexperienced and fragile that I found myself worrying for him in a way I never had before as the danger grew. I’m getting old.

Finally, I could see in a way I hadn’t before the roughness of these early digitally worked images. The breaks in the illusion were usually subtle, but still, the color work and digital avatars kept standing out as … primitive or drawn. Seeing this film so soon after Dracula I wondered how much my attention to the distinction between collage and illusion there had been rooted in the experience of encountering a historical object rather than a different medium.

Mar 162019

I hadn’t seen this film since the early 90s and so, despite some pretty clear memories of scenes and shots, I wasn’t sure what I was going to be seeing. Interestingly, the things I remembered were there as I remembered them, which surprised me, because memory is a tricky thing.

What I wasn’t expecting though were all the superimpositions and overt analogue collage aimed at creating in-frame montage. These don’t exist in today’s cinema, and when they do—meaning, when images read as “assembled”—I can’t think of a case in which they aren’t read as failures of continuity or polish. Here though, they read as discursive and meaningful. Watching the film was a different and deeply satisfying experience for this reason alone.

A quick note for later: the photo-chemical image provides a basis for collage. Does the digital? Or, as an image more closely related to animation—i.e. an iconic signifier—or even perhaps writing—i.e. a symbolic signifier—is the digital image, that string of stored 1s and 0s, however disparate it’s referent’s part, always itself, fundamentally “unified” making the notion of non-illusion or collage non-functional?

Mar 132018

A reboot of The Matrix with Freedom standing in for The Real World and Keanu Reeves played by an autistic.

Less cheeky: part of what is compelling about Henry James’s novels is the pleasure of reading third person narration that is close enough to a character’s experience of their selves as to be near synonymous with it and yet that is also calmly, devastatingly clear-seeing to an extent that exceeds what we imagine to be possible for most people. That I thought this thought watching Elliot interact with the people in his life tells you which gear the first two episodes of the show shifted my mind into.

I’m excited for the rest of the season.

Oct 302015

I rewatched this series of movies for the first time since they were in the theatre. (I’d seen the first many times, but the last two each only once.)

It’s better than I remembered.

Filming multipart releases in one extended shoot has become more common post-Lord of the Rings. The Wachoskis were ahead of their time in this regard and many of the things that drove me batty the first time watching the series were, I now realize, missteps in handling the episodic realities of an ambitious three-part story.

Oct 292015

Man of Tai ChiOn a second viewing this film holds up well. The plotting is much tighter than I remembered and, as a result, this time around I noticed the controlled changes in mis-en-scene less than I did the first time around.

Jun 282015

John Wick

John Wick is violent, simple, and flashy, and so it feels very contemporary. Yet, it is also — in a way that reminds me of Reeves’s directorial debut Man of Tai Chi — a film with deep roots in 90s action cinema in Hong Kong and, so, a generic throwback.

Story-wise this movie is lean and seductive, imagining a complete world with minimal strokes. Information comes though casting, acting, set design, location selection, costuming dialogue, point-of-view — from all of the various channels the film has at its disposal really — yet there is little or no unnecessary duplication between them. The result is a rich story space that manages to feel roomy despite its intensity and limited scope.

Jan 152014

As far as heros go, it’s hard to find one more retiring than Reeves’s character here. Yet, the film moves. It assumes a world, introduces it in an economical voice-over, and then fills it in, scene-by-scene. The tightly driven narration reminds me of the best aspects of films like Total RecallKrull and The Beastmaster, only better. So there’s something old fashioned here that has little to do with the costumes or the narrative’s source.

On another note, in films such as Speed and Johnny Mnemonic, Reeves’s choice of roles anticipated shifts in Hollywood taste. He’s done it enough that I take his genre films as fingers to the wind. So coming on the heels of The Man of Thai Chi, this film makes me wonder if Hollywood’s nursing a new Orientalism driven by Chinese efforts to push product back across the Pacific and into North American theatres.

Jan 152014

Man of Tai Chi (wide)

Keanu Reeves directed this film, but what exactly was his role? (Call this a note to self: the answer will take some research.) The movie is in Chinese. The genre is Asian, as are the actors and settings. Reeves is working with collaborators from previous movies. The fight choreography is familiar. What is not familiar are the odd (and often oddly beautiful) moments like:

  1. The flicker effect that opens the film; several slow cuts through black; a dramatic time-lapse sequence; the weird  and self-conscious white-screen transition to a dot.
  2. The beautifully ordinary cityscapes. Their muted warm colors contrast with the garish, vivid colors of the fight scenes in the show-within-a-show and with the dull greys and blacks of the the security firm. The changing color palettes suggest a carefully controlled visual style.
  3. The slow beautiful 360-degree pan from a rooftop that the final credits roll over.

Do these moments belong to Reeves? Are they a directorial signature? And if they do and they are, then what about the plotting, which is complex, tight and rapid? Does the tale well-told belong to Reeves as well? And if the visual flourishes, the colour and the plot all do belong to Reeves, then has he made a strong movie?

Reeves’s carefully cultivated star persona makes the answer an obvious (and obviously wrong) “no.”


Sep 072013

Two action movies that I saw quickly, one after the other.

2 Guns was better and smarter than I expected it to be. I especially liked two moments. The first was the cubical scene from The Matrix transposed to a non-sci-fi genre: Mark Wahlberg directs Denzel Washington through a firefight from a neighbouring roof over a cellphone. It was overt, clever and well done. The second was the representation of Washington’s insight through his memory of a ring. It looks like the film is using a familiar convention–a cutaway to a character’s memory of an earlier image planted by the film–but it isn’t. Washington’s cutaway memory is of a ring, and the ring has nothing to do with anything. What matters is that he was in a motel room when he saw the ring. So the represented memory which typically brings us up to speed only shows us the first step of the main character’s mental work and leaves us in the dark until he has found the money. A very nice bit of storytelling.

Point Break surprised me. I hadn’t seen it since the late nineties, but since that time I had read quite a few references to it in film studies publications. It was eye-opening to realize how many of the interpretations I knew of were simply wishful thinking. They remain interesting and fun, but they cannot claim any validity as accounts of what the film is on its own terms.

On those terms, Bigelow’s film presents an invisible-because-normal masculinity pushed toward extremes. The film’s criticism of that masculinity is subtle and arises from the ways the ideal masculinity nurtured in sports and on the playground becomes unsustainable within established social norms of the adult male workplace. Patriarchy cannot accommodate the masculinity it cultivates and idealizes. This makes the movie a fascinating–and ultimately unsettling–look at why men break down.

On a different note, it was refreshing to see action progress in real environments in relation to ordinary obstacles. The long chase scene through suburban homes and yards near Point Break‘s midpoint is quite simply one of the best action sequences I know of, bar none.