Friday, October 31, 2014

Milkyway Goes America: John Wick

"In Hollywood films, repetitions of situations or lines of dialogue tend to measure an arc of progress or degree of development. Art cinema tends to use repetition to establish mundane routine, to suggest psychological states eddying underneath behavior, and to create symbolic parallels. Wong Kar-wai’s repetitions often fulfill these functions. With To and Wai, repetition is used as an almost mechanical device, rhyming characters, bits of business, and settings in ways that suggest a closed world ruled by rather narrow laws [...] The tendency toward mechanical, somewhat absurd repetition of action, tics, and props goes along with another method for tightening the plot. To and Wai turn from the Hong Kong episodic norm by creating more intricate chains of action than other local filmmakers attempt. But instead of relying on character development, they devise schemes—plans, usually devious, that central characters put into motion. In To’s plots,characters plot."
—David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong 2.0

John Wick, a Keanu Reeves-starring revenge thriller developed by Chris Stahleski and David Leitch (responsible for 2012's The Package), features only two scenes of elongated fabula, where a character explains motivations, backgrounds, or other details that usually create the theme of a film. While I doubt if Wick's screenwriter Derek Kolstad has even heard of Milkyway Image (he cites The Raid in an interview), the film's screenplay can't help by recall Johnnie To's motto to "leave blank spaces" (liú kōng) and have audiences fill in the edges of the minimal exposition. While the simplicity of the plot (a standard revenge tale, which sadly involves the death of a poor puppy) is miles behind the complexity of To and producer Wai Ka Fai, John Wick doesn't follow the rules of the way Hollywood tells it, and instead relies on inference.

I understand why my colleague Vadim Rizov could see the various schemas built by Kolstad's screenplay to be in service of some cinematic building universe scheme in the Marvel, but the construction of the dialogue never emphasizes these points: no character ever explains what a gold coin is nor the "dinner reservations" hot line. Or it is better to say, these narrative events only make sense as plot elements as they are happening in the moment. The relationship between Reeves and Willem Dafoe's hit men follows a similar schema: their background is left ambiguous, and Dafoe's motivations via his two "helping hands" only make sense via an inference pattern based on previous information. Additionally, the latter of these two scenes works as both narrative surprise and payoff as built on the previous scene—there is no set up or even hint of a set up. When Dafoe later returns in a scene with Main Baddie Michael Nyquist, there is never any forced explanation of how Nyquist jumped from Assumption A to Conclusion B. This isn't completely in the realm of Milkeyway Image's even more didactic elliptical storytelling, but it's getting closer to a terse style of dialogue that minimizes any forced exposition.

John Wick, however, is primarily an action film, and thus has been rightfully praised for the film's intensely choreographed and brutally graphic violence. As both Ben Sachs and Stephanie Zacharek have eloquently elucidated, the action sequences rely on a series of steady long takes in carefully choreographed minimalist spaces (not abstract, but clear lines, backgrounds, and diagonals) with enough distance by the camera to capture the movements while never diluting their visceral impact. But there's more to Wick, however, and it isn't that the film build some relationship to ballet as many action films are now compared to. In fact, what makes the film both brutal but also stunning is the specificity to the sequences. Wick treats each bullet like a part of the physical matter. Men aren't just shot—they are hit in the arm, a leg, or a head. Reeves actually holds and aims a gun, so that there is a clear visual eye-line created between the aim of the weapon and the eventual entry point of every bullet, and most random baddies require multiple shots in a variation of bodily locales to actually sedate them. And then there's the reloading, which is constantly happening throughout the film, even made into one of the film's funniest jokes during the Red Circle sequence. John Wick thus slowly plays between its more expressionist functions—lush, saturated colors that reflect into the film's over-accentuated drama—and its realist attitude of relating each body on screen to a physical presence, while also implementing the film's coded language to avoid any forced awareness of the narrative schemas at play.

This is all to say, John Wick treats violence in a way different from To's movies and instead via the same way the titular protagonist does so: violence is violece, which is both an amoral and essential act.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Images of the Day 10/13/2014

Norman Rockwell, Freedom From Want, USA, 1942
Tobe Hooper, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, USA, 1974

Monday, October 13, 2014

The End Is Here! "Approaching The End" Now In Stores

This week sees the release of Approaching The End: Imagining Apocalypse In American Film, better known as my book. I couldn't be more excited to share this essentially three-year-in-the-works project with you. First things first: you can buy the book right now here from the website! Please put in an order!

Need to be convinced? How about an excerpt. Read part of the section I wrote about John Carpenter's awesome Reagan-era satire They Live, and why living in doom is the best option possible.


How about another excerpt? Over at RogerEbert.Com, I go backwards in time to examine how Days of Heaven turns noir's urban anxiety into a universal one.

How about something more contemporary? I wrote about the Liam Neeson thriller A Walk Among The Tombstones, which turns out to be the best apocalyptic movie of the year


How about a review of the book? Scott Von Doviak writes, "Idiosyncratic choices make for engaging film criticism, and Labuza’s arguments are generally persuasive."

How about a video essay? Here's a new video essay on re-thinking film noir, written and narrated by yours truly and edited together by Jason Elrod!

More to come later this week! Keep watching this space for writing, event announcements, and more!

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Closed For Interpretation: Lars Von Trier's Nymhomaniac

Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac: Director's Cut is now available on VOD, and will play select theaters. The following essay reveals the ending of the film, along with many other narrative aspects that may be considered spoilers.


Lars Von Trier has made a career out of stunts: explicit material, crass juxtapositions between the high and low, casting of unexpected actors, and outlandish statements. This makes Von Trier at once a nuisance in contemporary cinema—someone who thinks he is telling the Real Truth when it’s just a satirized form of regular ideology—and perhaps a necessity. It'd be great if the American vision of contemporary Euro-Art cinema was, say, more Alain Guiaurdie or Thomas Arslan, but instead we have Von Trier and Herr Haneke, mostly because the way they directly invoke and challenge the expectations of Hollywood cinema. In a way, they urge us to balance our diet of Hollywood cinema with their “cultural vegetables.” Von Trier’s cinema wouldn’t exist without someone to gasp at it.

This is all to say, the easy reading of Nymphomaniac, his five and a half hour opus, would be as a self-critical examination of the director’s own career. One could even place each of the chapter's into the various sections of his filmography: plot points from Breaking The Waves, a direct quotation of a scene and the music from Antichrist; is the scene of Joe and the African men is a play on Manderlay? Even Joe's discussion of Hitler and the way Seligman misinterprets her point of evokes Von Tirer’s indiscretion at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Notes Toward A "Late" Soderbergh

I have an upcoming piece on Steven Soderbergh's The Knick, his fantastic medical drama now showing on Cinemax. While writing it, I revisited a piece I began over a year ago on what I called the "Late Soderbergh" period (a poor name in hindsight), covering an era beginning with The Girlfriend Experience and assumably ending with Behind The Candelabra. It was a wild and ridiculous essay, trying to cover way too much ground with flimsy cohesion. I eventually abandoned it. Revisiting the 10,000 word document, however, I found some insights that helped me contextualize The Knick as well as my own thoughts on how Soderbergh evolved in this era. What follows are some excerpts from that, which I found still managed to make sense, and hopefully have some use.

Young and naive Adam (Alex Pettyfer) sits on a couch, pumped up from adrenaline from the experience he just had. On a complete whim, he has does stripped down to almost his bare ass for a loud of screaming young women. He was awkward and a bit silly, unsure of what to do, which made his so-called “performance” all the more exciting for the crowd. He sits on a couch while the rest of his now-colleagues celebrate and joke around for another successful night. Still dressed in only underwear, dollars are flowing out of his pants, as if his cock was spewing it. His body has a value, and we can see it right there.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Link Round-Up: Sunny Pastures

A brief summary of recent work...and as noted before, I am now located in Los Angeles! If you are here too and would like to meet up, shoot me an email sometime!

The Toronto Film Festival is well underway, and I am sadly not there. Luckily I was at Cannes, so my coverage of that covers many of the major titles. I did write about two Locarno premiers, however: Matias Pineiro's The Princess of France, a beguilingly wonderful chapter in his continuing Shakespeare series (I wrote about Pineiro's other films here). And Songs From The North, an interesting if limited essay film from Soon-Mi Yoo examining life in North Korea.

Approaching The End, my first book, is now available for pre-order. BUY BUY BUY! (You can also buy off Amazon, but it'll ship slower and for what its worth, the giant corporation inhales over half the profits. I note this not for my own royalties, which don't change, but the press is blooming and could use your help!)

For its new Criterion Blu-Ray, I wrote about Bresson's Pickpocket and its more technical aspects, attempting to put it in conversation with Warners Gangster films and less with ideas of "transcendent" cinema.

Three more episodes of The Cinephiliacs, and all fantastic ones: Former Chicago Reader critic and MoMA curator Dave Kehr on Columbia crime films and The Whistler series, critic and Double Play director Gabe Klinger on Raoul Walsh's The Bowery, and Village Voice critic Stephanie Zacherek on The Dave Clark Five in John Boorman's Having A Wild Weekend.

New Letterboxd Updates:, 
The Contemporary Cinema: Boyhood (Linklater), Lucy (Besson), Ida (Pawlikowski), Venus In Fur (Polanski), 22 Jump Street (Lord/Miller), Policeman (Lapid)
The Canonical Cinema: 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick), The Abyss (Cameron)
The Silent Cinema: Why Be Good?, The Eternal Grind, Travelin' On, Lilac Time
Orson Welles!: Too Much Johnson
Auteurist Cinema: Our Man In Havana (Reed), Eva (Losey), Nothing Sacred (Wellman), Escape in the Fog (Boetticher), Panelstory (Chytilová), Niagara (Hathaway), Crooklyn (Lee), Tale of Cinema (Hong)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Art of Oneself — Michael Bay's Transformers: Age of Extinction

In many ways, the Transformers movies have always been somewhat plagued by a weird quasi-meshing of Spileberg's penchant boy-growing-up-among-the-awe narratives with Michael Bay's own crass maximalism (a meaningless word, but how else to describe what's on screen). Age of Extinction eliminates the main component of the former director's hand - Shia Labeouf's alienating and always too smug every-boy - in favor of Marky Mark Wahlberg, who mutates into whatever he needs to be from scene to scene (techie, overly concerned parent, football star, machine gun expert). It's a good metaphor for the film itself, which struck me as a work completely outside of its own interest as a film made by a studio for entertainment. Instead, it morphs into a parade of advertisement for each of its backers — Hasboro, Victoria's Secret, Chevrolet, and Budweiser (not to mention numerous Chinese sponsors I didn't recognize). The last of those companies comes up in a scene so crassly made that you could snip that 30 seconds from the film and it could have easily been a spot during the Super Bowl. A colleague of mine once posited that movie theaters are slowly morphing into the mall—a space for people to hang out more than experience film, and this film certainly made that experience seem like less a warning of doom than a proposition of truth. Goodbye Cinema, Hello Capitalism 2.0.