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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Showing three separate, colored, stylized shots from Larry Blamire's "The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra"

More Ambition Than Talent (& Knowing It!): Larry Blamire’s “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra” (2001)

There’s nothing like a young artist’s early ambition whose talent has not yet come to fruition. Often, with pretension abound, the results don’t equal their enthusiasm and so what ultimately results is something less than amateurish. But hey, at least they are trying so who can fault them? (Only their embarrassment years later, perhaps? e.g., Stanley Kubrick’s Fear and Desire, anyone?)

The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is a film that, much like Frank Whaley’s The Jimmy Show, has gone overlooked in recent years. While garnering initial praise, (unlike The Jimmy Show, which also debuted in 2001) Roger Ebert only gave The Lost Skeleton of Cadavara one and a half stars, noting, ‘The writer and director, Larry Blamire, who also plays the saner of the scientists, has the look so well mastered that if the movie had only been made in total ignorance 50 years ago, it might be recalled today as a classic. A minor, perhaps even minuscule, classic.’ […]

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A stylizaed triptych of Joan Didion, author of "The Year of Magical Thinking", in sepia, blue, and orange-red hues.

Where Else Is There? Reviewing Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking”

Actor Keanu Reeves, when asked in an interview the question of what happens when we die, truthfully responded with, ‘I know that the ones who love us will miss us.’ Reeves’ response, while honest, was likely not what the audience expected. Many, unless having experienced the death of a loved one, never conceptualize it happening, as it remains a far-off abstraction. As a 19-year-old, I didn’t think about ‘being gone forever,’ or ‘being missed.’ Romanticized in literature, it’s not uncommon for thoughts on death to change over time. From the young artist who wishes to be immortal (often tragically dying young, e.g., Keats, Shelley, Plath, Van Gogh) to the older adult hoping she can easily pass away in her sleep—these perspectives will shift with age.

In March 2012, my beloved orange cat, Apollo, died suddenly while at the vet. He’d had some obstruction in his gut, but in no way did I think my dropping him off that morning would be the last time I’d ever see him alive. Struck with heartache, I called my mom who recommended I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. She informed me that this was an excellent memoir on grief and that she’d just read it in her book club. While reluctant to read anything recommended by my mom’s book club given its propensity for convention, I knew of Didion’s work and that she wasn’t the typical MFA writer. So, I placed that book on my mental ‘to-read’ pile and then didn’t think about it until 11 years later. […]

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A stylized shot from Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory", as Kirk Douglas and a general argue.

An Examination of Egos: Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957)

Stanley Kubrick’s oeuvre has often been labeled ‘cerebral’, wherein emotion remains not the primary objective. Feelings are there, of course, but to witness them one must remain patient because quite simply, unlike a lesser director, Kubrick is not going to instruct you on how you should feel. Rather, his films have been compared to a game of chess—intricate, meticulous, and deliberate, where the moves unfold the narrative slowly, as one scene leads into the next. Paths of Glory is the fourth film within Kubrick’s corpus, having directed The Killing only one year prior. As noted in my review of The Killing, this earlier film contains no fat and it succeeds because of the sharp narrative intricacy—one scene into the next, like a deliberate game of chess—all this, in addition to Sterling Hayden’s performance. Now, we’ve got Kirk Douglas who, within his first shot, made sure to have his shirt off. (Apparently, shirtlessness was a requirement in his film contract.)

Paths of Glory is set during World War I, in 1916, in a place where the Germans and French have been fighting, with both sides yielding bloodshed. However this is a film about egos, where one’s rank is all that matters, and intelligence, ideas, and inventiveness matter only insomuch as one’s hierarchy. (How often have you, reader, experienced something similar at a toxic workplace?) The area that centers on the battle is the Anthill, for which the men are ordered to attack, only with one problem—to do so is pretty much a suicide mission. Yet in the Generals’ minds, only the dead are brave. To be alive is akin to cowardice. ‘If they were brave, they would be at the bottom of the trenches,’ they claim. Kirk Douglas plays Colonel Dax who is opposed to the mission, but he begrudgingly follows orders, as he keeps his anger in check. And so what is in it for them? Well, a promotion. To summarize: […]

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A stylized black-and-white shot of a gunman from Stanley Kubrick's "The Killing".

Heist Gone Wrong (& Right): On Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” (1956)

Rare is it that a heist film could yield success through failure. No, I am not talking about the film itself, as The Killing is a near-perfect suspense noir that in many ways transcends its genre, but rather that this perfectly plotted undertaking not only goes awry but still satisfies its viewers. Too often audiences are spoon-fed the suspense, wherein we witness the anti-hero tackle the battle through luck and cleverness, only to get away with it in the end. This, we’ve been trained to believe, is the only way to indulge an audience. Well, Kubrick killed all that with this film (no pun). Indeed, there is no grand sigh at the film’s end.

As his third full-length feature, Stanley Kubrick’s first two films contained varying degrees of quality that, despite their convention, were needed for him to achieve the tautness herein. Finishing at 84 minutes, with the use of perfunctory voiceover, the tone is unemotional, detached. (Rendered by radio announcer Art Gilmore, his voice is 180 from the later 1990s trailers that begin with, ‘In a world…’) Throughout, every move is plotted and carefully crafted. Roger Ebert noted this in his review and correlated the film’s intricacy with that of Kubrick’s chess ability. “The game of chess involves holding in your mind several alternate possibilities. The shifting of one piece can result in a radically different game,” Ebert says. […]

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A stylized shot from Stanley Kubrick's "Killer's Kiss", in which a man and a woman are speaking face-to-face against a brick backdrop.

Celebration of Failure: Kubrick’s “Fear and Desire” (1953) & “Killer’s Kiss” (1955)

Whenever studying an artist’s work, it is important to note not just the home runs, but also the near misses. Perhaps even the failures. This is because most often technique can be spotted within those early, easily dismissed achievements, and upon witnessing the raw potential without polish, one can spot the growth. What is to be found there? Think of the great, later works of any writer or artist and ask yourself how often do you feel lost within that approach. Sure, Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” reads great but what the hell did he do to achieve that? How does he make it look so easy? How about Michelangelo’s David, where the sculpting Master claimed that all he need do was to ‘chip away’? Again, all looks great but if one is a young sculptor, how does he get there? On one hand, 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of those ever so perfect films with a narrative that unfolds like a poem. But what did Kubrick have to undertake to create it? Well, the answer resides in his early films.

Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss are both early films that I’ll not bother summarizing with excessive detail. At their best, both show potential differently. Each finishing at around an hour, brevity seems to be their strongest quality, as anything longer would surely bore the viewer. To begin, I will first address Fear and Desire. As a war story, Kubrick tried to have all versions of his film destroyed, as he thought so little of it. (Amateurish was the word used.) While not a good film, it isn’t terrible either. I might even give it a slight pass, as in 60/100 if for nothing else at least there are some good shots. To contrast, think of Herk Harvey’s first and only film, Carnival of Souls that, like Fear and Desire, is also a B film full of hammy acting. The difference, however, is that Carnival of Souls moves about as if one were in a dream, and so the situations that might otherwise come off forced, actually work. Such is not the case with Fear and Desire. So where to begin? […]

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A stylized, sepia-colored shot of the pocketknife from Sidney Lumet's "12 Angry Men".

12 Decisions, 1 Life: On Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” (1957)

In a New York courtroom, on what is said to be the “hottest day of the year,” 12 jurors must decide the fate of a young man who has presumably stabbed his father following a fight one night. Is he guilty or not? The punishment that awaits him is the electric chair if he is found guilty, and so we are witness to what Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men must decide that afternoon within a single room. All must agree, lest the jury will be ‘hung.’ But this is one man’s life, and one can’t merely decide in five minutes.

At first, the case seems pretty clear—11 votes guilty save for juror number 8 (Henry Fonda) who votes Not Guilty. It’s not that he is convinced the man is innocent as much as he believes there might be a reasonable doubt. Might. And as anyone knows, to be found guilty means that one must be beyond a reasonable doubt. As Fonda slowly makes his case, he reevaluates the evidence and recreates scenes from the trial. As example, would it take the witness, a stroke victim who walked with a limp, 15 seconds to reach the door to see the murderer flee? Could he reach the door in time? Also, we are shown the murder weapon, which some believe is a shoo-in for a guilty verdict, only for Fonda to share that he has the same weapon in his pocket—indeed, this common switchblade that can be purchased anywhere. […]

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A stylized shot of Frank Whaley's character (Jimmy O'Brien) in Frank Whaley's "The Jimmy Show" (2001).

An Underrated Gem: On Frank Whaley’s “The Jimmy Show” (2001)

‘This isn’t funny,’ says Jimmy O’Brien (Frank Whaley) on what is presumably his last night as an open mic stand-up comic. For years, he’s been delivering his stale routine to a handful of patrons, none of whom ever laugh. And why would they? Not only is Jimmy not funny, but rather, very sour in his humor, wit, and delivery. It’s only at the film’s end that he comes to realize this. The years of occasional heckling, stone faces, and coughs in the crowd didn’t deliver the hint, but that he comes to accept this on his own is the important thing. What did it? Perhaps the fact that he’s managed to push everyone away? Something in him tells him to stop. ‘No more jokes,’ he says.

The Jimmy Show opens with Jimmy driving his dilapidated car to the Laugh In comedy club, located in suburban New Jersey. His invalid grandmother is in the passenger seat, ‘I thought we were going to get my pills,’ she says. ‘Wait here, I’ll be right back,’ Jimmy replies, as he eagerly enters and asks about open mic night. The manager is annoyed by his presence, ‘Did you get that tape I sent in?’ Jimmy asks. ‘Look, just sign your name and you get 10 minutes—it’s open mic.’ Here is perhaps the first glimpse of Jimmy’s cluelessness, as he believes that open mic night is his ‘big break,’ then only afterwards does he come to learn that his girlfriend Annie (Carla Gugino) is pregnant. (Jimmy ultimately suggests the name Wendy for the child—after Peter Pan, a reflection of this man refusing to grow up.) […]

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A stylized shot of Candace Hilligoss anxiously driving a car in Herk Harvey's "Carnival of Souls".

Company of Others: On Herk Harvey’s “Carnival of Souls” (1962)

Imagine a film where the only time we witness a woman alive is in the first few moments when, following a drag race, the car she is in careens off a bridge and into a river. Following, all are dead, save what appears to be her, who pulls herself out from muck and swamp like a zombie, walking slowly and claiming to not remember anything. Then flashes the title and the eerie, ambient organ music that accompanies. It’s not that the scene is scary insomuch as otherworldly. So who is she exactly?

Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls stars Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) as an attractive young woman who seems to move about in a dream, where she remains detached, and reviles human contact. After the accident, she informs her employers about her new job as a church organist in Utah (she studied organ in college). Astute and cerebral, Mary appears as though something else is continually on her mind. When she’s pleasantly asked to ‘come back and visit,’ she replies coldly, ‘thank you, but I am never coming back.’ Throughout, this emotional detachment is paramount to assessing Mary’s character. ‘I have no use for the company of others,’ she says. At one moment, she seems head strong and alien, as though she does not belong with the human race, but then, when inundated with fear due to the presence of a strange man who continues to follow her (played by director Herk Harvey), she is emotional, feeble, needy. She does not want to be alone. […]