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 scene from "Office Space", which was likely influenced by "Clockwatchers"

Dual Doldrums: “Office Space” (1999) vs. “Clockwatchers” (1997)

Shortly before cult classic Office Space (1999) hit the scene, another late 90s critique of corporate American work culture premiered at Sundance and won a handful of festival prizes, only to fade into obscurity – that was Jill Sprecher’s debut independent film Clockwatchers (1997), a drama focusing on a group of female temps at a credit company. Seen as a precursor to, and “female version” of, Mike Judge’s satirical comedy (if anything, it’s the other way around), it was met with some critical acclaim but has yet to receive its due, especially in the light of Office Space’s reputation. Despite being different films, tonally, their manifest similarities in terms of themes and subject matter invite comparison, with the more serious-minded Clockwatchers sometimes hailed as the superior work. Even Roger Ebert, in his review of Office Space, views the two as companion pieces, but does not go into why exactly he rated the drama (he calls it a comedy, but it’s really more of a drama; even the filmmaker herself concurs) a half-star higher. It’s certainly tempting to scale the two in such a way: Clockwatcher’s slower-paced, European arthouse-style aesthetic seems the more highbrow affair, as opposed to the zany, endlessly quotable, hip-hop-tracked Office Space. I can imagine artsy young people coming to Sprecher’s debut for the first time and denigrating Office Space as the lesser film, especially since its male centric POV is out of vogue in today’s cultural landscape. Is it even useful, however, to see the two films in terms of male vs. female perspectives in a soulless work environment? On the surface, it would seem so, but such interpretations skim over the films’ deeper workings and how Sprecher and Judge have their characters resolve – or be subsumed by – their struggles, sex bedamned. Both films, actually, are character-driven, and while Clockwatchers is certainly more introspective and realistic, it’s not without its missteps – the price for its dramatic ambitions, whereas Office Space gets a lot of leeway due to its nature as a satire. […]

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A screenshot of the protagonist from Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven"

The Grace of Spectacle: On Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” (2005)

Straight out of the gate: Ridley Scott’s 2005 epic Kingdom of Heaven is not a great film. It’s not near-great. It’s not even that good. It is seriously flawed and oftentimes disappointing. However, I argue that despite its flaws, Kingdom of Heaven is not garbage, nor even very bad. My judgment: Kingdom of Heaven is a so-so film with a weak screenplay, subpar acting from its male lead, and some glimmers of what could have been a great film. I also argue that although many rightfully skewer the film for its historical inaccuracies, historical in/accuracy is not the end-all-be-all criteria for evaluating historical films. In addition, I argue that the film’s saving grace is its look, and Ridley offers the viewer enough of a spectacle that Kingdom of Heaven rises just above the murk, however stained.

THE NARRATIVE

It is 1184. The film opens in a gloomy, miserable France, where we are introduced to Balian (Orlando Bloom), the protagonist. He is the resident blacksmith, ex-soldier, as well as a widower (his wife having committed suicide after the death of their infant) and wears an “expression” of bleak, handsome indifference which may or may not alter in minute degrees during this three-hour-long epic. He has a half-brother (Michael Sheen), a sniveling, greedy priest, who wants Balian’s property for himself. He half-asses the burial of Balian’s wife, which will later prove his undoing.

The events of Kingdom of Heaven are kicked off by the arrival of a crusader named Baron Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) with a cohort of other warriors, including a Hospitaler (David Thewlis). Godfrey reveals himself to be Balian’s father, and asks him to join their journey back to the Holy Land. Balian refuses, and the crusaders leave. Miffed by Balian’s stolidity, his brother admits to beheading the corpse of his wife, the “true” punishment for a suicide, in an effort to enrage Balian into leaving. Of course, it backfires, and Balian murders him via impalement and burning. […]

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A soldier on the beach from Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk (2017)

Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” (2017): Style, Not Substance

Is there a better example this year of a film carried along by pure technique than Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk?

Let’s get the goings-on out of the way, first. Luckily, there’s not that much to explain:

It is World War II. Allied forces have been effectively ousted from France by the Germans. The last of the French hold the Germans at bay, while the British await evacuation off the port town of Dunkirk in Northern France. Home is a Channel away, but as falling pamphlets early in the narrative indicate, the Germans surround them with Luftwaffe, U-boats, and infantry. The film is divided in three parts: Land (“The Mole”), Sea (“The Sea’) and Air (“The Air”), interconnected by event, but not necessarily by time. Typical of Christopher Nolan, the film’s conclusion contains a dovetailing of each section, tying the plot, and diegetic time, neatly together. We mainly follow a few officers, infantrymen, citizens on volunteer vessels, and RAF pilots, each in their respective section. Essentially, the officers fret over time and attack, the infantrymen die in hordes and attempt to escape, and the RAF pilots pick off attacking Luftwaffe until the citizen volunteers arrive, and the British ferry around 300,000 to safety across the Channel. The film ends with the surviving ground forces back in a celebratory Great Britain, one of the officers overseeing the evacuation of French troops, and one of the RAF aces captured by Nazis after his plane is downed.

And that’s the plot, really, save for that we follow select individuals along the way…and yet, do they matter all that much? […]

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Character pointing gun in John Sayles's Lone Star

John Sayles’s “Lone Star” (1996): Racial Drama, Greek Tragedy, Western

At its core, John Sayles’s Lone Star is about such demarcations, and who, ultimately, gets to do the demarcating. It’s also about the oftentimes tense relations between the multi-ethnic populations of a small town on the US-Mexico border, as well as the corruption that stems from evil; and, as if those weren’t enough to handle, there’s enough time for a tender tale of star-crossed lovers. It’s a testament to Sayles’s skills as an artist that Lone Star manages to juggle all these narratives (and more) while still coming across as a coherent whole, its themes bold enough for most audiences to detect their presence but deployed with such subtlety to reward repeated viewings. It’s the above quotation, however, that reveals John Sayles as not only the great American independent filmmaker but one of the medium’s keenest observers of societal conflict, whether it be in urban cityscapes (City of Hope), the colonial tropics (Amigo) or more fantastical, rustic settings (The Secret of Roan Inish). That he puts these words in the mouth of a mildly bigoted bartender, in a moment of seemingly throwaway comedy, shows his attention to detail, as even tertiary characters are given more than one dimension and are treated not as window dressing but as ordinary people with their own wants, aims, and philosophies, despite their brevity. It’s ordinary people, after all, who live among such demarcations, and it’s ordinary people who suffer men like Charlie Wade and Buddy Deeds to administer, encourage and/or expunge them. […]

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Man carrying thing, used as a photo for the Wallace Stevens poem

Analysis: Wallace Stevens’s “Man Carrying Thing”

I won’t miss this day. In fact, I’ll try to make up for it by jotting down my thoughts on a Wallace Stevens poem, “Man Carrying Thing”. I just memorized it (hopefully it sticks) and it’s a fun thing to rattle off and attempt to wrap your head around. He wrote these incredibly eloquent, philosophical puzzles that require multiple readings and deep thought to unpack, if not fully understand. I’m not sure most of Stevens’s poems have a singular, unitary meaning. Perhaps some of the simpler ones do. However, most of the famous, great Stevens poems possess a multiplicity (not infinity) of meanings that merge and interweave and clash. The act of reading his poems isn’t trying to find out what they mean – as if each one came with a packaged, one-sentence definition. It’s parsing out each part, uncovering different meanings and how they interact to form a complex yet congruous whole – certainly one that requires many paragraphs, if not entire pages (books, even!), to elaborate on. The thing I love most about Stevens’s poems is how many questions unravel after landing on a likely answer. Again, there’s a limit to these questions, but the point is that his poems are a delight to return to again and again, since they seem to grow in stature and meaning as one grows in life experience. Without further ado, here’s the poem. […]

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A shot of two actors from Lino Brocka's Manila in the Claws of Light

Classic? Re-evaluating Lino Brocka’s “Manila in the Claws of Light” (1975)

A dirty corner of the street. Late evening. Julio Madiaga’s face in the lamplight. The vibrancy of his eyes is caught in desperation: a silhouette in the window above him. A woman arranges her hair. A memory from a past paradise flashes into frame. Madiaga had a girlfriend, once upon a time. Their paths diverged after a cruel woman took her away on a boat to the capital. She vanished shortly thereafter. He can only guess at her fate, but the city provides him with many educated guesses. (The pimps who cajole him on the curb with their wares – prostitutes, often blank faced, or simply faceless – suggest some sinister end.) Already the city has battered him into destitution, and on the intersection of Misericordia and Ongpin, what he’s come from the provincial town of his birth to find is barred behind a rectangle of light, which immobilizes him, brightens every twitch on his face, and discloses the answer to his question within a shadow – the claws of light, indeed. Illumination, in this story, is no comfort, and often is representative of some misery of either Madiaga or, more cogently, the city which consumes him. […]