Author: Jessica Schneider

Jessica is a novelist and poet. Visit her Amazon Book page for a glimpse into what she's shared. Her unreleased works include several trilogies and poetic novels on religious themes. She is currently working on a poetry collection on French painters. She also runs a YouTube channel on the arts.
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Tom Cruise smiling at his bar in Roger Donaldson's Razzie Award winner, "Cocktail".

The Wistful Longing Under the Drink Umbrella: On Roger Donaldson’s “Cocktail” (1988)

Imagine a guy whose life goals are to become a simple-minded millionaire and own a bar, albeit not necessarily in that order. How he gets there, though, is not by owning the bar, but by marrying a ‘rich chick,’ who will not only fund his shallow endeavors but also provide the down payment for the bar, or at least her father will, but we don’t know for sure. Do we care?

The 1980s spawned a plethora of bad films that rivaled the 1940s paint-by-number melodramas where the simple script is churned out with a particular star in mind. Enter in some friction where the guy goes off to hustle another woman for a while, but in the end love triumphs. After all, it’s not difficult to think you’ve met your soul mate while screwing for a week on the beach in Jamaica.

Cocktail stars Tom Cruise as Brian Flanagan (who I will just refer to as Tom Cruise throughout this review), a materialistic dullard just out of the service and desperate to open a bar and become a millionaire. He reads lots of ‘get rich quick’ books, but none work. He wants a high-paying job with influence, but his lack of a degree is getting in the way. Then he meets a seasoned bartender named Doug (Bryan Brown), who offers him a job. Doug also happens to be the only entertaining character in the film, and is full of lots of advice, like how a bartender is the ‘aristocrat of the working class.’ ‘The waitresses hate me,’ Tom Cruise says. ‘Wait till you’ve given them crabs. Then they’ll really hate you.’ Huh? […]

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A stylized shot of Christian Friedel as Rudolf Höss in Jonathan Glazer's "The Zone of Interest".

Another Side: On Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” (2023)

Have you ever encountered someone who valued his or her veneer above all else? Who was able to forgo any empathy for those suffering in order to maintain such a veneer? Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest is not so much about the Holocaust as it is about our reactions to it, enforcing the notion that even the most extreme suffering, that is, these crimes against humanity, can become—for some—as ordinary and perfunctory as planting a bed of flowers.

The film opens with three and a half minutes of black screen and accompanying sound, to which we are expected to listen (evoking the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). Yes, listen, because the sound within this film is every bit a character as the people themselves. Set in beautiful, bucolic Poland, we are presented with scenery that would otherwise seem idyllic, were it not for the Auschwitz death camp within walking distance. […]

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A photo of a young, red-haired Bruce Ario in a hat, eating seafood.

The Revered Rebel: Bruce Ario’s “The Lovely Tree Branches”

It’s not uncommon for the artist to live in search of validation. After all, life’s navigation can be painful, especially when forced to interact with those unable to appreciate or recognize the value in one’s work. Just reading about Vincent Van Gogh and how his many peers thought him a nobody, or how Paul Cézanne’s father would rather his son have become a lawyer or banker—the frustration is evident. Sure, a parent wants his kid to make money, but at what expense? What if Cézanne had instead become Banker Paul rather than Painter Paul? What a loss the world would have suffered.

The life of an artist is one of sacrifice. To pursue it, one must be willing to adapt to the slog of overlooked, lower-rank jobs, and forgo the material. This is not to say that one must inevitably accept a life of poverty, but to expect a high-rank career is highly unrealistic, given such an occupation would likely leave one with little creative time. Yes, Wallace Stevens was president of Hartford Insurance, but he chose that job over an academic career because the work yielded little drain on his brain. While providing him with a comfortable living, selling insurance is far from glamorous. Moreover, Hart Crane was lucky enough to land a job as a copywriter, and Vivian Maier worked as a nanny, affording her the freedom to walk with her employers’ kids and photograph.

And as for me—even while spending several years working in a technical field, I recognized the lack of glamour in such a pursuit, but it paid the bills. This did not, however, stop me from encountering the small-minded and envious individuals who felt the need to reduce my writing talent to a moment of air quotes, dismissively referring to me as a “writer” who “took herself too seriously.” (Must I have the imprimatur of fame?) […]

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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.’ […]

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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? […]

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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. […]

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A stylized shot from Andrzej Wajda's "A Generation", depicting the protagonist as he observes Nazi soldiers walking towards him. There is text of the director's name and the film title.

Gathering Resistance: Andrzej Wajda’s “A Generation” (1955)

It is always interesting to watch a film trilogy where one can see the progression of a director’s talent. However, unlike Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors Trilogy, which consists of three film narratives interdependent upon one another, Andrzej Wajda’s War Trilogy connects only through its similar theme—resistance. Before Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds, Wajda directed A Generation, which is set around the survival of a group of young men during the Nazi occupation of Poland. The film’s straightforward narrative details a young protagonist, Stach, who joins an underground communist resistance movement once he learns what little value his wages offer vis-à-vis those his employer makes off his labor. Young enough to still carry idealism, it is this idealism that Stach uses to comfort his depressed mother who lives in squalor with a rabbit that runs loose. He reassures her that he will find work, and in doing so, this young, idealistic man joins the resistance believing that this will be for some greater good because, as is, life can’t get any worse.

The opening scene contains Stach’s first-person voiceover informing us that he grew up in a slum outside Warsaw, and that to entertain himself, he and his friends (one played by Zbigniew Cybulski from Ashes and Diamonds) flick knives into the haystacks. The three seem to be enjoying this last moment of playfulness as rebellious youths who were forced to grow up too fast. […]

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A stylized shot from Andrzej Wajda's "Ashes and Diamonds", depicting an upside down crucifix.

Perilous Betweens: On Andrzej Wajda’s “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958)

Before an abandoned church in a patch of sunned, country grass, two men wait to assassinate the Secretary to the Polish Workers’ Party. The assassination takes place, except their target is the wrong man.

This is the opening scene of Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds, the third installment within Wajda’s War Trilogy. (The first two are A Generation and Kanal, respectively.) Based on the novel by Polish writer Jerzy Andrzejewski, I immediately was struck by the film’s presence of hierarchy. For what does one exist? Is individuality merely a function of action? Through the effective use of shadow and low shots, an astounding modernism pervades throughout that, much like Orson Welles’s Citizen Cane, creates a bleak interior landscape. Set on the last day of World War II in Poland, the Germans have lost and are vacating the city. Despite this time of celebration, there is, however, something tragic about not only the ending of life when history indicates it should be a beginning, but also the dearth of opportunity for the protagonists. Following Wajda’s earlier film, Kanal, Ashes and Diamonds introduces a more complex sphere of human nature—not just survival, as is the case within Kanal, but the prevalence of power and to whom should one answer? […]