Category: Film

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A shot from Peter Mullen's "The Magdalene Sisters", depicting a young man and woman flirting.

Art As Issue: On Peter Mullen’s “The Magdalene Sisters” (2002)

I sometimes wonder how my life would’ve been if I’d been born 50 or 100 years before. Typically, these ponderings are answered by the sense of having made a narrow escape. Learning that the last of the Magdalene laundries was shut down just the year before I was born is almost surreal, having grown up in an Ireland experiencing its first flushes of wealth and donning a newfound secularism. The abuses of the church were becoming something to be taken for granted, rather than being trapped in whispers. Yet, the truth that Peter Mullen’s The Magdalene Sisters depicts is that mental freedom is much harder come by than the physical kind. I’ve heard the quiver that lingers in so many older people’s voices when they speak of the nuns that tormented them back in primary school—70 years on. The suspicions that they lacked the language to express, back then, about the parish priest’s strange behaviour.

Of course, most of these people remain devout Catholics. The label of “anti-Catholic” is typically tossed out as a lazy attempt to refute those who are frank about the abuses the Church allowed and facilitated. The Magdalene Sisters predictably got this same tarring, yet there is no condemnation of any religious doctrine here. In fact, it’s pointed out that many of the women retained their faith, as their real-life counterparts overwhelmingly did. The abuses depicted here are not solely the domain of those in habit and cassock, but are recognisable wherever complacency and fear allow cruelty to fester. […]

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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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Posters over time depicting Fritz Lang's classic silent film, "Metropolis" (1927).

Myth in Motion: Review of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927)

Sometimes, restriction can push greatness into being, heightening what’s left in its confines. I’ve often noticed this in poetry, with certain writers reaching their zeniths in formalism while their talent slackens in free verse. But my recent attempts to become more acquainted with silent films have provided me with another example of this principle at work. In fact, I often find myself thinking that silent cinema seems like a whole different medium to the “talkies” (it’s really kind of a shame that it couldn’t have continued to develop alongside the latter as a parallel variant of film, but I digress). Silence instils its own demands, and so, its own unique opportunities for pay-offs. What clearer demonstration could be had of this than watching Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis?

Viewing Metropolis in 2024, I’m left with an impression of something both familiar, and somehow alien. The film’s depiction of its setting has created a wake of imitators over the last almost 100 years of science fiction—its skyscrapers continue to loom in pop-culture’s view of The Future. Metropolis’s towering imagery has left its imprint, and yet this does nothing to diminish the distinctive power that it holds. Part of the visual signature of the film, and in my opinion, one of the most striking and unusual (to modern eyes) aspects, is in the stylised way its actors move. I often felt like I was watching a dance. From the opening scenes of workers mechanically trudging like cattle at their shift change, we move to the fluid frolicking of the city’s young elites in their gardens above, and through their movement, we understand all that we need to about this unequal world. It’s not altogether realistic—but this is a strength, since it’s very much in keeping with the fable-like tone of the story. […]

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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 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 stylized shot of a man's naked back in a dimly lit room in Emerald Fennell's "Saltburn".

Petty Bourgeois: Why “Saltburn” Stings

Another film gains notoriety on social media—albeit among people who don’t watch films. There are some notorious scenes (better not watch that with your mum in the room!). The word of mouth creates imaginative hyperbole. Next thing you know, it’s the film of the season. Variety and BuzzFeed start up the click factory. YouTube essays. Think-pieces. Heavy-breathing equivocation.

Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn is the latest in a long line of chic millennial horror films—the word ‘horror’ here meaning: ‘something to titillate middle class consumers’. Over a decade of darlings from A24 have laid the ground for New Hollywood. And what’s more, these are filmmakers with a social conscience: a social critique, even. Narratives of classism, bourgeois excess and social injustice have become the default subtext of the genre, its cause celebre. Triangle of Sadness and The Menu number among the recent additions to social media’s ‘Eat the Rich’ hashtag.

My problem with Saltburn is that it feels tired. Its message lacks force. Its means lack originality. In short, it’s a film that lacks even as it throws everything and the kitchen sink towards a resolution. […]

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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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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.’ […]