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 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. […]

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A stylized shot from Franco Piavoli's "Voices Through Time", depicting a young boy entering a deep and dark forest.

Cease & Concern: on Franco Piavoli’s “Voices Through Time” (1996)

A shared language is almost inessential. Even certain specifics—place-names, surnames, titles and designations—might for the viewer remain indefinite for the entirety of Voices Through Time’s eighty-or-so minutes and still, precious little would be lost.

It’s how I saw it, anyway. I don’t speak Italian but I found that Franco Piavoli’s documentary about the lives (or the flashes of lives) of various inhabitants of the village Castellaro, in the Lombardy region of Italy, doesn’t really require of its viewer to know the language. What is spoken is subordinate to what’s being shown, and although the title of the film is Voices Through Time (Voci nel tempo, in the original) it might also be appropriately titled Volti nel tempo, or Faces Through Time, as Piavoli’s priorities seem focused just as well (if not more so) on the changing physical features of the human body as it matures as he is on the changing of its voice.

This is a gorgeous film, and one whose attractions reach the viewer rather straightforwardly; and certainly not from the same aesthetic distance as come in Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac. Its pleasures, comparatively, are simple, as they find joy and beauty in the places most people everywhere find them: in beautiful faces and locales and music. […]

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A stylized shot from Robert Bresson's "Lancelot du Lac", portraying the king, queen, and standing soldiers.

Craft & Cutting: On Robert Bresson’s “Lancelot du Lac” (1974)

The violence that opens the film will, of course, be mirrored in the end. It is portrayed in graphic detail, with the distance one might expect from Robert Bresson. It is austere, yes, and almost hilariously so: can a beheading, complete with a great spurt of too-red blood, be shown more matter-of-factly? The sequence is mechanical in its depiction: armored knights in a forest slay each other, and ride their steeds through the same forest. Corpses are strung up on trees, or burned, and churches ransacked. Bresson’s camera drives these faceless warriors again and again through the backdrop of their carnage. The repetitions seem to set up the inevitability dogging the film’s primary characters, who should be familiar to anyone acquainted with Arthurian lore. And the trees, which vertically stake the frame together—their tightness creating a cloistering effect for the figures within—will echo throughout the film in the reappearance of other lines, among which those aforementioned figures continually stare, as if entranced by the narrative they cannot help but dutifully enact. […]

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A shot from Terrence Malick's "Badlands", as Martin Sheen smokes a cigarette in a white t-shirt.

Some Stuff to Say: Reviewing Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” (1973)

A moment that stays with me in Terrence Malick’s Badlands occurs near the end of Kit and Holly’s flight from authorities through South Dakota up into the US-Canada border. There is a lull both in their pursuit and in their relationship, which so far has been one of passive submission by Holly to Kit’s cold-blooded murder spree.

Holly has concluded that she is done with Kit, for their destination in the far north, even if arrived at, would be fruitless. He knows seemingly nothing except to charm and kill. Her future thus vouchsafed by refusal of him, she tells Kit this on their night drive (or so she tells us, in her narration) and he responds as the audience has been primed to expect him to respond: with almost nonchalant indifference. His protests, in another man’s voice, might be strained by discordant rage; another man’s eyes might gleam with thoughts of loss. His, however, betray no such passions. He catalogs his prospects, but Holly isn’t really listening (although a part of her is). Kit’s acknowledgment of her inattention is blithe. […]

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From the director of "Oppenheimer" (2023) and "Following" (1998), a snapshot of Christopher Nolan's latter film, featuring a black-and-white portrait of a man staring out into a city.

Vanishing Act: Review of Christopher Nolan’s “Following” (1998)

Having watched this year’s 3-hour-long Oppenheimer a few weeks ago, I decided it’d be neat to go back to the very beginning, to Christopher Nolan’s first feature, 1998’s independent Following, the tale of an unemployed, would-be writer who gets caught up in the schemes of a charismatic criminal. At a miniscule 70 minute runtime, one might be tempted to think that the two are wildly different. On the surface, yes, they are, but even in Nolan’s debut his cinematic brand is evident.

Jim Emerson’s point that Nolan arrives here nearly fully formed as an artist isn’t far off the mark. All the tricks (sans the lavish budgets and big-name casts) of his trade are present: the fragmented, dove-tailing plot(s); un-telegraphed cuts (the film was shot by Nolan, and edited well by him alongside Gareth Heal); his affinity for doubles; an icy femme fatale; and the presence of a conniving mastermind who manipulates the events unfolding onscreen unbeknownst to either the characters or the audience. (Sometimes this mastermind is the protagonist, sometimes the antagonist, sometimes Nolan himself.) Nolan is one of those puzzle-box directors, less keen on profound themes and deep character portraits than he is on malleable chronology and upending audience expectations through deft narrative turns. When he does try to tackle big themes, such as with love in Interstellar, he fumbles, although the end result is almost always still entertaining. […]