20th Century Women, 2016 – ★★★½ [Movie Log]

Despite a paucity of narrative, the often clever dialogue, nostalgic aesthetic, and—more than anything else—powerhouse performances keep the viewer engaged as the runtime seems to stretch while it waits for something important to happen. Annette Bening, to no surprise, carries the film, giving it the emotional and intellectual profundity it otherwise searches for; likewise, Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig imbue the scant story with the depth that comes with human variety, offering a kaleidoscope of rich characters that make it feel like there is more on screen than actually occurs. In many ways, this feels like a love letter to the indefatigable indefinability of womanhood—”la Femme n’existe pas,” wrote Lacan: Woman (with an ideal, capital W) does not exist—albeit mostly from the awed perspective of the letter writer himself.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

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The Music Lovers, 1970 – ★★ [Movie Log]

Ostensibly like Tchaikovsky’s own (and especially later) music, the film vacillates wildly in tone, shifting from scenes of intense and serious passion to moments ebullient and blithe—unlike Tchaikovsky, however, Russell’s film fails to strike a balance among the extremes and ends up being rather pathetic in the end. The topsy-turvy tonality fails to achieve the melodramatic import of lived experience that Tchaikovsky’s work aspires to, instead coming across as ironic, inauthentic kitsch—the furthest thing from the romanticism at the heart of the music itself. Tellingly enough, the best sequences—the drunken sex scene in the train, in particular, which is absolutely fabulous—are those that embrace Russell’s characteristic ironic bathos, exposing the vulgar absurdity at the hidden core of 19th Century sensibilities, rather than the more generic temptation here to see in Tchaikovsky an analogue for queer experience today.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

Give My Regards to Broad Street, 1984 – ★½ [Movie Log]

As an album and as a movie, GMRtBS—terrible title, btw, of the same cloth as Macca’s late “Kisses on the Bottom” (yuck)—both showcases the extent of the songwriter’s wonderful creative genius and its limits. The best scenes of the movie depict McCartney and his band—here including Linda, Ringo, and Dave Edmunds, with assists by George Martin and Geoff Emerick in the studio—playing a mix of new (largely catchy, sometimes mawkish, always interesting) tunes and re-recordings (though not rearrangements) of classic Beatles pieces. As a songwriter and a performer, there are few musicians who are capable of such intimacy and warmth as McCartney, and those scenes of him simply playing himself and playing his heart out—which take up the majority of the runtime—are somehow tender and moving in a film otherwise devoid of passion or plot. The problems really arise for GMRtBS when the problems arise for McCartney-the-character: The confused narrative about stolen tapes (reminiscent of something that happened to the real McCartney while recording “Band on the Run” in Lagos) only detracts from the better bits; then again, that’s the syuzhet of the movie, I suppose, a McCartney daydream to get through the doldrum of being an ex-Beatle. While the revelry is appropriately irreverent and often clever, the emotional tone of the film never quite matches the power of the music, so that in the end, the movie feels flat and lifeless in comparison to the personal depth of McCartney’s songwriting.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

Spartacus, 1960 – ★★★★★ [Movie Log]

Although the film may suffer from comparison with the rest of Kubrick’s oeuvre, on its own SPARTACUS stands as one of the great cinematic epics, and among the best of the sword and sandal genre, often more memorable and engrossing than modern semi-digital analogues like GLADIATOR. The excitement of the latter is also its downfall: It is a movie about spectacle, about carnal violence, which it partakes in as much it critiques, the story of a virtuous individual who must regain his rightful position of dignity, the spiritually true heir set against the corruption of the undignified usurper—a classic tale of riches to rags to riches, of the prodigal hero returned to his rightful position of power. On the other hand, the story of SPARTACUS is as much about those he inspires as it is about the man himself, a person born into slavery and who flatly rejects claims of hierarchy and power—when given the opportunity, he denies any royal bloodline and, like Cincinnatus or Washington, refuses authority beyond that which is necessary and thrust upon him, breaking the system of violence and inequity rather than trying to beat by playing the gladiatorial games. The titles illustrate this dichotomy perfectly: GLADIATOR looms large and threateningly, a role for Maximus to step into a fill as the true, Platonic, paradigmatic warrior; SPARTACUS, instead, is not only the name of the historical figure who led a slave revolt, but becomes a signifier for all who join that cause, for all of righteous heart, a name we might even claim as our own: “I am Spartacus.”

In this way, the epic continues to speak to our times: It is easy to see the scenes of the Senate and recognize the backstabbing, the corruption, the hypocrisy of our own political system; and when Crassus speaks of using his wealth to return Rome to its former glory, it is hard not to recognize the terrible parallel avant la lettre: MRGA might be the new SPQR. In its best moments, SPARTACUS achieves a brilliant synthesis of the ancient and the modern—whether America during the creeping fascism of the Red Scare and the Black List, or during the creepy fascism of the Red Caps against BLM—the epic and the personal (in its love story), the heroic and the tragic. For a story set two millennia ago and made a half-century ago, SPARTACUS still feels fresh and alive even without the benefit of added computer graphics or action choreography, because the film doesn’t just put the viewer on the edge of her seat, but asks you to rise up and join the chorus in your own voice: I, too, am Spartacus.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

American Animals, 2018 – ★★★★ [Movie Log]

As ever, the objet a—that obscure object (that kicks) of(f) desire, the meaningless but much lionized McGuffin, like that most American of animals, the Maltese Falcon—hardly matters here, and functions merely as a prop (fitting enough for a movie about movies) for the wider story, propping up the motivations, an excuse for their pursuit of self through the pursuit of it. What makes AMERICAN ANIMALS so much better than the typical caper film, however, is that the heist itself functions in the same way as the Audubon books the kids on display here try to steal: The heist in effect plays second fiddle to the emotional drama and character arcs of these real people, an act both central to the story yet secondary to it at the same time. Mixing real interviews with the remarkably reflective and articulate robbers with a compelling, well-written and well-shot dramatization of the events, a smart and self-aware genre film in the middle of a true crime documentary, director Layton juggles weighty themes of desire, self-worth, entitlement, fantasy, reality, media, violence, finding a striking balance between intelligence and humor and pathos and suspense. In the end, the story here is not about a failed art robbery—neither the crime nor the art is the point—but about the motivation to transgress the invisible yet visceral line into wrongdoing, about what makes a failure a failure, about the line between the movie we sometimes live out in our head and the movie as it will eventually be filmed, the camera lingering on the violence of the assault and not keeping the effects offscreen.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

The Imposter, 2012 – ★★★★★ [Movie Log]

A gripping page-turner (or reel-spinner, I suppose) of a documentary, brilliantly blending candid, heartbreaking interviews with the real subjects of the story, and narrative reenactments shot with a true eye for cinematic aesthetics. In the vein of F FOR FAKE, for example, the result transcends generic expectations of what makes for an honest and objective documentary, forcing the audience to question what truths they are willing to believe and how they came to be convinced this way or that. In a sense, then, this is less a documentary about historical facts or a narrative feature about compelling characters than is a study in rhetoric, the art of persuasion—why do we so readily fall for liars, and why, despite the ostensible thrust of documentary filmmaking toward factuality, are we so hesitant to admit truth? Are not both—truth and lies—rhetorical constructs of which we need to be convinced? And how do we come to be persuaded when there is no master rhetor, no primordial agent, no super sujet-supposé-savoir who is in control of the facts here, the con as much a victim of the whims of his marks as they are of his?

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

The Accused, 1988 – ★★★★ [Movie Log]

How tragic it is that a film about the everyday neglect of sexual violence by our social institutions, about the moral necessity of listening to and believing victims, about the mundane professional and personal injustices suffered by women still feels so relevant, even so timeless, thirty years after the fact. Foster’s performance is rightly celebrated for its depth and power, a mixture of fierceness in the face of toxic patriarchy and fragility in the wake of extreme sadism. It is a terrible irony that Foster-the-actress is at her strongest when the character is at her most vulnerable, during the infamous scene of the assault itself—smartly told in flashback, after it has already been verbally described by Foster herself, so that we understand it largely through her perspective, its savagery somewhat negated by our expectation. As a viewer, it feels strange to wish a movie was both less of its time and, simultaneously, less familiar today, but while the utterly 80s hairstyles, shoulder pads, and drum machine hits date the movie, far too much here is still far too relevant.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan