Howard Hampton

  • film October 16, 2020

    Byrne Medicine

    IS AMERICAN UTOPIA A STATE OF MIND or a state of obliviousness? A bohemian house party transplanted to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood or a cunningly intellectualized, Dadaist turned soccer dad musical of It’s a Wonderful Life? This concert film collaboration between the singer-conceptualist David Byrne and the director Spike Lee is “of the moment” but feels either brazenly or haplessly out of sync with actual America. In the lifetime between the show’s Broadway run back in late 2019–early 2020 and this doom-struck October, social uplift wrapped in musical euphoria has become suspect. “Precarity” having

  • 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 by the same 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 and academics who had been banished to the hinterlands during the Anti-Rightist campaign of 1956–57 for deviating from the Communist Party doctrine. Disillusioned patriotism is a truer description: They wanted the Chinese revolution to live up to its proclaimed ideals and become

  • 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