Read More
A short-haired Nicole Kidman gives a skeptical glance in Jonathan Glazer's "Birth".

Man-Child: Reviewing Jonathan Glazer’s “Birth” (2004)

Jonathan Glazer’s Birth is certainly one of the oddest love stories ever told, powered throughout by a most compelling performance by Nicole Kidman, and an effectively impassive one by the child actor Cameron Bright.

Kidman is Anna, a beautiful and very well-off Manhattanite who, recently widowed, gets engaged to Joseph (Danny Huston). A lavish party is thrown in celebration of the event, and there a few key characters are introduced: Clifford and Clara (Peter Stormare and Anne Heche, respectively) and, most significantly, a grim-faced ten-year-old boy named Sean (Bright).

There is an air of mystery, undergirded by something like menace, as Clifford and Anne seem perturbed, distant from one another, and the boy simply stares. Clara rushes to the woods, under the pretense of a forgotten ribbon, in order to bury the gift she has brought for Anna and Joseph in a mound of dirt and leaves. […]

Read More
A stylized shot of French toast on a cast iron skillet.

Breakfast Stories: Toast, French

I’ll admit I wasn’t then a particularly sensitive human being. I should say “yet” instead of “then,” so you won’t think that my growing up in Queens excuses or explains my being like that. There are plenty of good people living there, but this happens to be a story about a pimp. When was it? That would be 1983. I finished high school that year, so I must have been eighteen. I was eighteen, I’ll swear to it.

I had stayed over with my Puerto Rican call girl girlfriend. She was no streetwalker. A call girl’s got a lot more class. A streetwalker’s got it rough, standing out in the weather (she only walks when a cop happens by), and, often as not, working fast in some alley or in the seat of a trick’s car. A trick, I hope you know, is not just what a guy wearin’ a cape does with his hands. You might still say that whorin’ is whorin’, but with a streetwalker that’s nearly all it can be. She’s got no time for conversation. You’ve seen her. She’s the one waiting at the bus stop, only, when the bus stops she doesn’t get on. Another difference for a streetwalker is that her working numbers increases her chances of trouble, of disease, of mixing up with some bad-ass dude, or with cops, who’re mostly son’a-bitches. The literal-minded will like it that call girls, as the name implies, might work up their business on the phone. Even call girl language has more class: client instead of trick. And when it comes to sex, that’s going to happen inside somewhere probably on a bed, not in some family sedan. […]

Read More
The album cover for Burial's "Boy Sent From Above", featuring a black X with a white album label.

Angelmaker: Reviewing Burial’s “Boy Sent From Above” (2024)

I’m not sure to what extent the readers of Automachination are familiar with the work of Burial. All things considered, there’s probably a dearth of people on this website with an interest in the UK garage music scene, much less its most esoteric (and aggrandized) figurehead.

Burial is, like Banksy, a kind of pseudo-anonymous mystery artist. When he was nominated for a Mercury prize during the 2000s, popular tabloid The Sun began a national campaign to reveal his name and identity. Unsurprisingly, the artist was unmasked, not as a celebrity pseudonym, but a fairly normal, and recalcitrant young man from Croydon, South London.

Burial’s music is a hybrid of late twentieth century club styles that share a markedly British provenance: specifically jungle, dubstep, acid, drum & bass and UK garage (UKG). He came of age during London’s heyday of urban pirate radio and this perhaps explains the unmistakable overlay of DIY nostalgia in his production style – a kind of bittersweet sentimentality that permeates every part of his work. Listening to a Burial track often makes one wistful, or forlorn. […]

Read More
A stylized portrait of an intense-looking, squinting Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) from Jonathan Glazer's "Sexy Beast".

Viva Don Logan: On Jonathan Glazer’s “Sexy Beast” (2000)

In a remote Spanish villa, near a house on a hill, lives a retired gangster named Dove (Ray Winstone) who lounges beside his pool in the sun. Muttering to himself—are these his speaking words or his thoughts? He has nothing to do. It is afternoon, quite hot, and his skin has pinked. Does he jump in the water? Luckily no. On the other side of the pool stands a local Spanish boy who does work around his house. ‘Sweep harder,’ Dove orders.

Getting up from his lounge chair, the aged gangster wanders near the pool’s edge to where only inches away a large boulder falls from the cliff, barely missing him. It lands in the pool. Dove’s life is spared, and the worst is that the pool’s flooring, which consists of two hearts overlapping, is now chipped. When his wife Deedee (Amanda Redman) returns from shopping (she is a retired porn star), they both can’t believe his luck. ‘I could have died,’ Dove says. Given his life of crime, one is inclined to believe that this has not been the first time death escaped him. Unfortunately for him, however, the boulder seems less dangerous than his sociopath nemesis, Don Logan, played by Ben Kingsley. Have you ever thought that the man who played Gandhi could curse, spit, and scream? Oh, you just wait.

Sexy Beast does a great job of building the tension before Logan’s arrival. When the news is shared that he will be flying to Spain, Jackie, who is the wife of Dove’s friend Aitch, looks visibly upset. She and Logan had a fling in the past and all seem to know how aggressive he can be. In his review, Ebert sums him up well: ‘Logan is dangerous not because he is tough, but because he is fearless and mad. You cannot intimidate a man who has no ordinary feelings. Logan is like a pit bull, hard-wired and untrainable.’ […]

Read More
An illustration from Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows", depicting the Water Rat in its nest.

Their First Small Beginnings: On “The Wind in the Willows”

It’s often said that the greatest of children’s literature is accessible to the appreciations of both child and adult alike; appealing, indeed, to that self still sensitive to certain finely-phrased simplicities which ought to remain alive in every reader, of any age. It is literature that respects the child’s intelligence not because it expects every child to be somewhat precocious (and thus capable of understanding high-level metaphor, and/or possessed of a preternaturally large vocabulary) but because it is mindful of the adult that the child will become; the adult whom, in nostalgic fits, will likely look back on the books she enjoyed in her youth with the discernment that maturity normally brings, and then effect a kind of culling, asking of them: Which of you commands similar authority over my intellect and delight as from years ago? Which of you will I find did not condescend to who I was when I had so much yet to read, with little sense of what was good and bad?

Maybe it is that lack of condescension which marks the very best of children’s literature. Despite the obvious, and necessary, limitations set in place for such works, there is a distinction reserved for the book that holds almost nothing back from its young reader, while at the same time nurturing that mind’s naïveté into a fuller awareness of what she might come to expect from more mature art in the years to come. […]

Read More
A stylized black and white photo of Glenn Gould performing Bach.

An Artist’s Overtaking: François Girard’s “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould” (1993)

When thinking back on the sum of our lives, we don’t recall moments within some linear narrative. Rather, life becomes a series of snapshots, portraits, and photographs that manifest not just physically but also internally. How often do we see a photo that transports us to that moment, and yet in the interim, where has the present gone? Invariably, memory is similar to a time machine where in one minute we are in the present day only for us seconds later to become a child once again. Gone go the linear narratives of the everyday.

No other biopic depicts this better than François Girard’s 1993 film, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. Although listed as a documentary, the film functions as a biopic, and its technique works so well that I can’t help but wonder why more directors don’t attempt this approach. Instead, within most biopics we’re often presented with too long a lifetime, too many facts, and we never get to know the person on the inside. We remain distant, outside observers. In contrast, Thirty Two Short Films operates as a memory, because what else is time but compartmentalized moments within our minds? […]

Read More
A shot from Bradley Cooper's "Maestro", depicting Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) smoking a cigarette and looking ahead.

The Artist’s Overwhelm: On Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro” (2023)

Upon watching Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, what struck me was how the narrative felt like two films. In the first half, we see the young Leonard Bernstein in black and white overtaking the scenes with energy and extroversion, as he admits to loving people so much that he finds it difficult to be alone (something that would plague him when it came to composing since composition requires alone time). He even goes to the bathroom with the door open. This tidbit aside, the film is not so much about Leonard as it is about his wife, Felicia Montealegre (Cary Mulligan), whom he meets at a party one night.

The film opens with an aging, chain-smoking Leonard sitting at a piano and speaking to a documentary maker about how much he misses Felicia, who died of breast cancer in 1978. The scene is shot in color and already sets the narrative up for that of a predictable soap opera, rather than a deeper exploration of an artist. And Bradley Cooper, while rendering his performance well, speaks like he is continually congested. Add a lot of makeup and prosthetics and one knows that an Oscar is not far behind. […]

Read More
Two stylized shots from Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru" and Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life", focusing in on the portraits of each film protagonist, set side by side.

Imagined Shores: on Frank Capra and Akira Kurosawa

What does it mean for someone to give to the world? To live their life as to leave an imprint? It’s easy to contemplate this concept as it relates to the types of figures who are name-dropped in the history books. The means to this is relatively straightforward (in idea if not execution) if you are an artist, or a scientist, or an activist, leader, even an athlete. You do what you’re best at and do it as well as you can (to put it simply). But what about the rest of us? For the majority of the human race, any individual’s scope of influence is a narrow groove, constrained to those immediately around them. Any impact is going to be brief and light-handed.

With this idea on my mind, I recently rewatched two films that explore the impact of the non-Exceptional individual- Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952) and Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). In my opinion, both are great films (Ikiru is more complex, especially structurally, but that is not to dismiss the fact that It’s A Wonderful Life is of a higher quality than it is often given credit for). But right now, I don’t care so much to embark on a work of intricate criticism. Sitting at the brink of a new year, I just feel like pulling a few of the threads presented by both films. […]