Howard Hampton

  • film July 10, 2020

    Abyss Ahead

    THE FEARLESS CHINESE DOCUMENTARIAN Hu Jie’s Spark is a group portrait of a small circle of dissidents who, in 1960, put out a clandestine publication of that name. (Icarus is releasing the film on DVD paired with 2019’s The Observer, a useful but rather too brief documentary about Hu.) They were mostly students or academics who had been banished to the hinterlands during the “Anti-Rightist” campaign of 1956–57 for deviating from Communist Party doctrine. Disillusioned patriotism is a truer description: They wanted the Chinese revolution to live up to its proclaimed ideals and become genuinely

  • film May 13, 2020

    Isolation Tank

    IN CONFINEMENT, the captive mind cycles like a broken karaoke machine. Little Caesar’s last words bleed out over vintage Doors: “Mother of mercy, is this the end?” Is this perilous moment the inevitable fulfillment of our dystopian fantasies, nihilist reveries, catastrophist theories, jaundiced forecasts, and intellectual doomsday-prepping? Oh, mama, has the Groundhog Day of reckoning come round at last—only with charnel nursing homes and fatal equipment shortages in place of SFX hordes and burning cities?

    But let’s not get ahead of our civilizational demise. Instead of doubling down on rote

  • film March 06, 2020

    Bird Lives

    BARELY A SPECK ON A SATELLITE MAP: That’s Bacurau, an imaginary one-street town in strife-torn northeastern Brazil “a few years from now,” until the moment it isn’t there anymore. Fifteen minutes into this carnival of subterranean cross-pollination, a teacher (Wilson Rabelo) tries to show his students on his iPad where their village is, to find that it’s no longer on the grid, erased from Google Earth. Bacurau is also a name for a “cryptically colored” nighthawk known for its ability to go unseen—a real bird with a place in legend and folklore, also known in some quarters as a “goatsucker.”

    After

  • film December 05, 2019

    Heaven Scent

    A TRUE “HOTHOUSE FILM,” Little Joe opens with a fluid overhead shot from a rotating surveillance camera, circling rows of genetically modified plants. They’re the creation of workaholic geneticist Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) and her team of plant breeders: a purported “happiness” flower, whose scent releases a precursor to oxytocin, the hormone that facilitates bonding between mother and child. Alice’s smitten associate Chris (Ben Whishaw) makes this artificial attachment sound warm and gushy: “What this plant really needs is love.”

    The flower, which Alice names Little Joe, after her son,

  • film November 21, 2019

    Bullseye

    AESTHETICALLY PROMISCUOUS, confoundingly likable, and intermittently unhinged, Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) is a crash course in mid-twentieth-century Hollywood mores and backlot intrigue. Taking Citizen Kane (1941) for its template (and enlisting Kane midwife John Houseman as producer, for good measure), it ricochets off so many touchstones that you could a construct an entire class in postwar American film from the scintillating shards. Coming two years after Billy Wilder’s baroque tragicomedy (traumedy?) Sunset Boulevard and in the same year as Stanley Donen’s

  • film October 10, 2019

    Cul de Sacked

    IF BONG JOON-HO’S PARASITE WERE AN EQUATION, it would be expressed as Space = Class2. Bong’s rippling socioeconomic comedy lays out inequality in both schematic and organic terms: two diametrically opposed worlds, two status-indicative smells (pristine affluence, dank deprivation), two intertwined households (each consisting of father, mother, son, and daughter). In one tight corner are the scrappy, underclass Kims, struggling to stay afloat in jury-rigged “semi-basement” living quarters (their toilet is perched on a counter) at the wrong end of a flood-prone, bug-infested cul-de-sac. “Open the

  • film March 12, 2018

    The Goon Show

    OSTENSIBLY A WILD-EYED, CORROSIVE, CONVULSIVE SATIRE, Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin (2017) comes off like George Orwell’s Animal Farm staged as a Comedy Central roast. Trading scabrous put-downs and obsequious equivocations about Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) and one another are a Who’s Who of grimly cackling reapers: Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), and Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs). This crew of vile ideologues and heartless Communist party hacks jostles for position and power

  • film February 21, 2018

    Meta Man

    QUENTIN TARANTINO WAS JUST A TYKE PLAYING DIRTY DOZEN with G.I. Joes in his backyard and “meta” was a mere prefix when English director-writer Mike Hodges’s Pulp (1972) poked its proto-postmodernist nose out a wormhole. This elusive contender for the title of “Curiouser and Curiouser Movie of 1972” then vanished into the footnotes of star and coproducer Michael Caine’s career. Riffing, for starters, on Mickey “I, the Jury” Spillane and Lewis Carroll, Pulp has an inexplicably serene sense of its B-movie preposterousness, and is awash in droll echoes and allusions. A quarter century of hardboiled

  • film October 16, 2017

    Hyde and Seek

    PERHAPS MOTHER!, that self-gormandizing envisaging of Roman Polanski’s Stardust Memories as an all-you-can-swallow buffet of metaphysical leftovers and creamed corn à la mode, left you unsatisfied. Then Stephen Frears’s much-maligned and oft-magnificent Mary Reilly (1996) is the perfect Goth-Hitchcock antidote. A subliminally satirical reworking of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tale from Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, Mary Reilly is a batty extension of their previous Dangerous Liaisons into the overlapping terrain of Victorian manners and sexual horror. The film is a world of

  • film September 18, 2017

    Eight Ball

    IF YOU SAW 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE (1986) via the movie equivalent to Downbeat Magazine’s Blindfold Test—sans credits, prior knowledge, or preconceived context—it could seem like a film that had come unstuck in time. Draping itself in the moody trappings of neo-noir action-romance, it boasts minimal action and its romantic pièce de résistance features a drunken failed seduction that culminates with the femme fatale vomiting down the hero’s pants. Its slouching posture suggests an affinity for Robert Altman’s loser-reverie The Long Goodbye (1973), updated with all the cold accoutrements of mid-’80s

  • film April 25, 2017

    After Darko

    RICHARD KELLY’S now-legendary debut, Donnie Darko (2001), forged a bittersweet, nutty-poignant idiom from the pop-culture overload of the writer-director’s late 1980s suburban Virginia youth. (It feels as if Kelly was possessed by Donnie instead of merely being his creator.) Most impudently, the film juxtaposes the grinning title teen (Jake Gyllenhaal, exhibiting a quirky Travis Bickle–as–Boy Scout air) below a movie marquee featuring the dream Halloween team of The Evil Dead and The Last Temptation of Christ.

    That combination sums up Donnie Darko as well as anything: a comic-book Passion Play

  • film December 31, 2016

    No Angels

    IT’S HIGH TIME to take Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962) and elevate it to its rightful place as a holiday—any holiday—classic. For one thing, its exquisitely paralyzed time-spatial continuum leads straight to Groundhog Day’s looping perpetual déjà vu machine. Buñuel’s inexplicably stranded, upper-encrusted partygoers—prisoners of their own karmic device—are doomed to snipe their looping, arrogant-respectable way through a mazy purgatory of socialized entropy, Catholic hypocrisy, and primal malevolence dressed as good manners. To rephrase a certain beloved yule-riptide airing-of-grievances

  • film September 28, 2016

    On the Road Again

    EVERY GENERATION SHOULD HAVE A ROAD HOUSE OF ITS OWN—a gamy little refuge on the outskirts of good taste, reeking of smoke, liquor, cheap music, oiled pecs, pin-up legs, clenched fists, paperback sex, bad blood, and bad hair. The 1948 and 1989 films claiming that title have just been separately but almost simultaneously reissued on disc: Sharing naught but a commitment to period-specific cheese/beefcake and endearing/enduring tawdriness, these lean-to Road Houses represent an all-American continuum. Jim Morrison encapsulated their lowdown philosophies in the Doors’s “Road House Blues” (1970):

  • film September 09, 2016

    Spore Reports

    THE BACKWASH OF 1960S shock waves broke down the firewall between serious cinema and genre films. (In the “P” column alone, the mid-’70s had Polanski’s Chinatown, Penn’s Night Moves, and Pakula’s The Parallax View.) Hollywood wrestled—flailing, kicking, and squirming—to assimilate disruption and ambiguity into an updated commercial playbook. Remember that Robert Altman, funky high priest of alternative, independent-minded cinema, got his break with a wacky military-service comedy (MASH), hit his zenith with a poet-junkie-woodpecker western (McCabe and Mrs. Miller) and a shambling private eye

  • film July 07, 2016

    Military Might

    KICKING BACK AND CHILLING in an undisclosed concrete-reinforced location, you would be hard pressed to corral two vintage Hollywood comedies separated by a deeper chasm of sensibility than Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). However the gleaming new Blu-ray editions of them disclose certain endearing and disconcerting affinities. With their blatant aerial motifs and cloud-dappled intimations of afterlife (or radioactive half-life), inadvertent themes and stammering anxieties—transferred à la the bomber-refueling ballet

  • film August 03, 2015

    Laundry Days

    A KICK IN THE LILY WHITE TEETH to England’s gilt-hedged public imagery back in 1985, My Beautiful Laundrette raised thirty-year-old mixed-race writer Hanif Kureishi from a stymied playwright (“the theater thing hadn’t been working out for me”) to a counterculture hero, established forty-four-year-old vet Stephen Frears as a world-class director, and gave a struggling twenty-eight-year-old aspirant named Daniel Day-Lewis his first Brando-Dean close-up. Kureishi now likens Day-Lewis’s iconic intro under a lamppost to the image of a rent-boy Clint Eastwood; Frears compares his come-hither gaze to

  • film July 05, 2015

    Dinner Sanctum

    LOUIS MALLE’S My Dinner with Andre doesn’t fit the usual definition of a great movie, but it has an inexhaustible, omnidirectional confidence. It’s the most subliminal piece of magic realism—expansive, incantatory words jousting with monotonous matter—ever put on film. Playing amusingly distilled, intensified versions of themselves, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn sprang this cantankerous cerebral doubles act—part doleful Vladimir and Estragon, part verbal Laurel and Hardy—on an unsuspecting world in 1981. The oblique eccentricity of this archetypal pair of dissatisfied, failure-haunted “men of

  • film April 18, 2015

    Behind the Music

    MGM’S BEST MUSICALS personified Show Business as bipolar cottage industry—miracles of scrambled, collaged, precision-tooled, toe-shoe equilibrium. Star-struck, self-aware, and ruthlessly efficient, these engines of chaste desire merged revels and reveries into the ever-present bottom line. Poised betwixt gee-whiz uncomplication and sophisticated manners, their escapades showcased hyperbolic performers, idealized characters, and dazzling shades of homogeneity. Yet the same storylines also incorporated a cheeky penchant for relaxed displacement and rib-poking irony into otherwise corny affirmations.

  • film February 16, 2015

    Roeg State

    NICOLAS ROEG WAS ALMOST FORTY in 1968 when he got his big break. After kicking around the British film industry for ages—shooting dazzling second-unit footage for Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but fired by David Lean from Doctor Zhivago (1965); at last getting a foothold by photographing Julie Christie’s next three films, Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), and Richard Lester’s kook-descending-a-staircase Petulia (1968)—he suddenly was the hottest, hippest London cinematographer around. Elevated to codirector alongside writer–novice filmmaker Donald Cammell to shepherd

  • film September 19, 2014

    Midnight’s Children

    IT’S FRIDAY NIGHT, a couple days before the end of 1979. A young woman is driving past a movie theater on Santa Monica Boulevard, going nowhere but away. She argued with a boyfriend while trying to watch an X show at Madame Wong’s: Sick of his macho-crybaby shit, she shoved him into some angry skinheads, jumped in her rusty Datsun, and bolted. On KROQ, Frazier Smith’s following “Search and Destroy” with “Baby’s on Fire”...

    It’s almost 12 AM now, though who trusts the clocks in LA? Streets are pretty deserted, but she sees an orderly queue of people lined up at the theater’s box office. MIDNIGHT