Author: Ezekiel Yu

Ezekiel Yu is a writer based in North Texas. He graduated from the University of Texas at Dallas with a degree in Literary Studies. His main focuses are in literature, cinema and culture. He may be contacted at ezekielyu11@gmail.com.
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A stylized shot from Joe Carnahan's "Narc", depicting a murder scene in a teal-tinted winter scene.

The Brutal Record: On Joe Carnahan’s “Narc” (2002)

There are movies that overwhelm (even, at times, repel) us with their greatness, and there are movies that either pass through us like a soporific or delight our baser pleasures with inanities and/or the strictest adherence to certain handy, and crowd-pleasing, conventions. And then there are movies that inarguably fall in with none of these camps, and yet, because of their very distance from the extremes, seem to pass public appreciation somewhat unnoted, blipping into the limelight but for a moment before ending up in the bargain bin with the rest of the stale classics and poppy pablum.

Narc seems to belong to this oft-overlooked category, which is a shame, considering its merits as both a stylistic feat and an acting vehicle for not just Ray Liotta (a producer on the film, as well), who is predictably incendiary, but most of the supporting cast, especially Jason Patric’s troubled ex-undercover cop Nick Tellis.

Yes, for all its occasional bravura, Narc still follows a rather conventional track, and in this way its predictability (for plot and character) drags it down a tier from the more innovative examples of the crime/neo-noir genre. However, its attention-to-detail when it comes to the methodical process of criminal investigation, the realistic brutality of those who commit crime and (especially) those who police it, and its honing-in on the lives of its characters so as to avoid mere stereotype lifts Narc up into that field of art which, in spite of its limitations, invites meaningful engagement from an experienced and/or dedicated viewer. […]

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A shot of Julie in Chantal Akerman's "Je tu il elle", depicting her head resting against a window as she looks meditatively at the viewer.

Leaving, Waiting, (Not) Doing: on Chantal Akerman’s “Je tu il elle” (1974)

The woman occupies an emptiness—spare furnishings, glass doors, a dingy bathroom—and it occupies her. There has been a separation, and an exile, likely self-imposed (“And then I left”). She arranges and re-arranges the furniture, lies in silence, disrobes and walks around naked. She writes letters to someone and, copying and re-copying, obsesses over their details. In her nakedness, she flirts with exhibitionism when a faceless man skirts the windows of her room. And she devours spoonfuls of sugar out of a bag, staring out the window, or at nothing, until the sugar is a pile on the floor.

There is activity, agency, even, but of a stifled and confused sort. More than once, the behavior shown onscreen contradicts the narration of her voice-over. They are small deceptions, but clear ones, and a nice touch of Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s to show the fickleness, the inner dissatisfaction, of the character.

I am largely unfamiliar with Akerman’s filmography, and Je tu il elle is my first of hers. I, of course, knew the name, even before the minor controversy surrounding Sound & Sight’s catapulting of her Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) to the No. 1 spot on their Greatest Films list. I’ve never seen that particular film myself, but critics I trust deem it a tedious mediocrity, so I came to Je tu il elle with my analytic hackles up, somewhat. […]

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A stylized shot of actor Jesse Plemons wearing fatigues, red sunglasses, and a rifle in Alex Garland's "Civil War".

America Falls Flat: on Alex Garland’s “Civil War” (2024)

Alex Garland’s Civil War has already generated a decent amount of controversy not long into its US release—at least as much as its producers surely intended it to. It is an election year, after all, and with a not unsignificant number of Americans worried about the possibility of there being another civil war on the horizon, it is no wonder A24 would support Garland (the two having previously partnered on his 2022 gender-parable Men) to draw audiences whose grimmer curiosities might be piqued by an English auteur’s take on American self-evisceration, ideological or otherwise. Much of this controversy stems from dissenters’ claims that showing such a film now would be to irresponsibly stoke either viewers’ anxieties or their potential aggressions.

The film, however, for all its purported untimeliness, is too evasive, too pointedly nonpartisan, for these concerns to hold water. The title will likely evoke, for its US audiences, the war between the Union and the Confederacy in the 1860s, but its usage is more about the concept as such than about any particular instantiation. Garland, in simply transplanting the scenes that have played out and are still playing out in stages all across the developing world to the streets of New York City and Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., seeks to explode any remaining “It Can’t Happen Here” sentiments without committing himself to any specific political stance. Not any, at least, stronger than a traditional, almost nostalgic, belief in the need for our institutions (government, economic structures, the media, etc.) to be safeguarded from the ravages of internecine conflict. […]

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A stylized shot from Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin", depicting an alien (Scarlett Johansson), in profile, at the beach.

Through the Void: on Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” (2013)

Jonathan Glazer might not be the greatest director still active, but his filmography is surprisingly varied, considering how relatively few films he’s made compared to the other top dogs in the business. His third film, Under the Skin, further estranges itself from the others in terms of its subject matter, and while it may be his weakest film (particularly in light of its finale) it still bears an unmistakable Glazer imprint, and, like Birth, manages to carry itself most of the way through in spite of an outlandish premise.

But not so outlandish, really. We’ve seen alien sci-fi before, but what distinguishes Under the Skin from other such movies is its distinct style. There is an almost Kubrickian detachment from its genre elements, an arthouse stylization that mixes a strong sense of formalism with authentic guerilla filmmaking.

Now, I’ve never been the biggest Scarlett Johansson admirer, and that’s not because I think she’s a bad actor—on the contrary, I’ve only ever seen her be passable to good. Maybe it’s simply due to the fact that I watched a lot of those Marvel blockbusters and I’m used to her being utilized as kickass eye-candy and not much else. […]

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A shot of a nervous-looking Talia Ryder in Sean Price Williams's "The Sweet East" (2023).

Whirling Girl: Review of Sean Price Williams’s “The Sweet East” (2023)

Here is an interesting, if haphazard, debut from Sean Price Williams, script courtesy of noted film writer Nick Pinkerton. Is The Sweet East a bildungsroman? Is it a picaresque? Many (including the filmmakers themselves) have attached these labels to the film, but if they are true, then to its credit the film resists conventional approaches. The Sweet East is unafraid to play with form, and this is clear from the get-go: a tender post-sex scene between two young lovers (one of them Talia Ryder’s Lillian, our protagonist) with an almost Cassavetes feel transitions to jump-cuts between the iPhones of several dirty-mouthed, bird-flipping students on a school trip to D.C. Then, in the middle of this raucous grungy indie opening, Lillian seems to notice the camera cramped alongside her in a squalid karaoke bar bathroom and suddenly, forlornly, sings right to it. Are we watching a musical now?

What follows is a journey along the wilds (urban, rural, cultural, emotional, etc.) of the American eastern seaboard as Lillian attempts to improvise a personality that’s commensurate with whatever her adolescent longings seem to signal.

Is she a flat character? I wouldn’t wholesale deny such a description, but I’d say instead that she is a fundamentally simple sort of person: a beautiful girl from Nowheresville, South Carolina who knows she’s beautiful and knows even better how to utilize her looks—as well as others’ assumption of her naivete/guilelessness—to her advantage. What’s most striking, though, is how blasé she is with the rather extraordinary sequence of events she finds herself in: from the ramshackle home of a rich-kid-turned-revolutionary-punk-wannabe with a pierced penis to being kidnapped by a young man who camps out with homosexual Muslim isolationists, she takes it all in stride and always manages to slip away whenever a good opportunity arises. She is continually insulated from real danger, as protected by her beauty and youth as she is by her pluckiness. […]

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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. […]

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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. […]

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A stylzed shot from Emerald Fennell's "Saltburn", depicting candles, mirrors, and a reflected face.

Sordid Romp: On Emerald Fennell’s “Saltburn” (2023)

What’s there to say about Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn? On the one hand, it is a very attractive movie, full of attractive people, aimed towards the sort of moviegoers who spend a lot of time on Letterboxd and gorge on A24 films. This is not an A24 film, but the studio who produced Saltburn, LuckyChap Entertainment (also responsible for the billion-dollar-grossing Barbie), certainly knows of the audience overlap between them, and knows even better the sorts of aesthetics best displayed to trap their gaze. Aesthetics, as well as thematics: a little something about class, here, and a smattering of queerness, there. Best of all, it knows how to create “conversation,” and how to mix into that hodge-podge of thematic currency a dash of sensationalism: “Wait, he did what to the bathwater? Goodness me.” These are not novel strategies, by any means, but they are strategies, nonetheless; strategies which today’s studios will happily utilize in their bid for cultural clout.

On the other hand, this is a movie about a conniving murderous pervert, whose chosen prey falls easily to the most blatant manipulations only because they are written to be rich and gullible (richly gullible?) dimwits. The audience is clued into his manipulations pretty early on, which is not an unwise decision, but the trick after that is to surprise the audience with, perhaps, the cleverness of the manipulator’s tactics, and how deftly he might weave his trap around the glamorous inhabitants of the estate. […]