Category: Film

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A shot of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) watching TV in James Cameron's "The Terminator" (1984)

Great Action is Great Storytelling: James Cameron’s “The Terminator” (1984)

I have a long history with the first two Terminator films. James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) I watched on VHS, following a visit to a video rental store. I was nine and the film came recommended. Those who were never kids in the ‘80s will never know what it was like to ‘rent a movie,’ where it wasn’t uncommon to spend upward of an hour poring over empty cassette cases, carefully deciding on which one. This required commitment, in contrast to today where one can begin streaming and stop if the film is boring.

So, what I am getting at is that these first two films carry personal significance. Not that I was ever excessively into sci-fi, but I must have known quality writing, even then. Now, years later, I have watched this film numerous times and so I am able to view it from a distance. The Terminator isn’t a poetic film per se, but rather, it is well-written, ‘prose-driven’ cinema. Its success is proof that a film can be commercial and of quality, but more on that later. […]

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A shot of the female lead in Steven McQueen's "Widows"

Why Steve McQueen’s “Widows” (2018) Disappoints

British director Steve McQueen’s first three feature films – Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave – can’t quite be called a trilogy, but there’s enough common thematic resonance in all of them that it wouldn’t be totally foolish to bind them together in a sort of loose trilogy, or perhaps the beginnings of a cycle of sorts. If Antonioni had his Alienation trilogy, then McQueen’s might be called Mortification, since some kind of physical denial/suppression takes centerstage in each.

In Hunger, Bobby Sands fatally denies himself sustenance in retaliation against British suppression; in Shame, the audience is left to wonder if Brandon can rein in his obsession with sex/masturbation and forge meaningful human connections; in 12 Years a Slave, the abduction of Solomon Northup into slavery forces him to repress his full humanity in order to survive. […]

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A shot of piano-playing from Ingmar Bergman's "Autumn Sonata"

Love’s Demands: Ingmar Bergman’s “Autumn Sonata” (1978)

Often, we sit apart from another—presuming to know what that person is thinking. We imbue our motives into them, where we admit to not understanding why someone else has chosen the life they have. Why are they not more ambitious? More career-driven? What is ambition, anyway? Before we begin, we at least need to define ambition, and how goes this definition that varies person to person? For some, a career and kids are enough. Yet others might long for artistic success and recognition. Yet what does that entail, exactly? And where and how does that person become? I’ve often traveled to old towns and have marveled over the abandoned—be it buildings, forts, roads. Who lived then? Who defined those now expired standards? And where are those standards now?

Ingmar Bergman’s 1978 film, Autumn Sonata, is what most closely resembles a play by Chekhov or Strindberg. The words and the women are intense—feelings are felt and painful and abrupt, and moments have been brushed aside, but are not forgotten. Liv Ullmann plays Eva, a quiet wife married to Victor. She has an inner intensity brewing. Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) is her mother. She is a self-centered concert pianist who is paying a visit upon Eva’s request. The shadow amongst them is Helena—Charlotte’s ‘other’ daughter who is suffering from a debilitating disease. Charlotte does not deeply care for either of her daughters and yet she makes an appearance for the sake of convenience. When Eva informs her mother that Helena is here, Charlotte is not pleased. […]

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A scene with a crying infant and a crying Mouchette from the Robert Bresson film of the same name.

The Misery, Cruelty, and Beauty of Robert Bresson’s “Mouchette” (1967)

There is an understated quality to Robert Bresson’s filmic technique that it is almost easy to miss. For one, he regularly refused to hire actors and rather preferred ‘everyday’ folks to play his roles. His intention was that after so many takes, the process would become so natural to the non-actor that rendering the role would be akin to breathing. I have watched Mouchette probably close to 10 times, and each time I notice subtleties that I did not before. His form is so natural that you almost can’t see it—it is that good. As compared to Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, which is high artifice, with Bergman you know you are watching a film. Tarkovsky often makes you feel like you’re in a dream. But Robert Bresson makes you believe that you are a witness, and that life really does unfold this naturally and poetically.

Mouchette tells the tale of a poverty-stricken girl (played by Nadine Nortier)  living in rural France. Her mother is dying. Her father is an alcoholic. She walks to school looking slovenly in her mismatched clogs. Her hair is greasy and unkempt—forced into loose pigtails. Her classmates are indifferent towards her and her teacher is cruel, as she shames the poor girl in front of the class for not singing. Mouchette begins crying. Her teacher doesn’t think to ask how she is doing. […]

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A shot of the protagonists from Richard Linklater's "Before Midnight".

The Weight of Years: Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight” (2013)

At the end of Before Sunset (2004), Jesse (Ethan Hawke) walks Celine (Julie Delpy) up to her apartment moments before he is set to catch a plane for America. As with the first film, Before Sunrise (1995), there is a pressing urgency to get to know and to say as much as possible within a short span of time. In fact, by the end of the second film, the characters have only now spent a total of two days together, yet their connection is undeniable. Before Midnight (2013), however, doesn’t carry this time-sensitive urgency as we come to learn that the couple is now married with twins.

Alright, this must be a happy ending (or beginning) then. Jesse is a published writer who also works as a professor. Celine is involved in activism and has recently been offered her ‘dream job’. They live in Paris. The couple, while vacationing in Greece, sees Jesse’s son Hank off at the airport, and this gets Jesse wondering if he has been present enough within his son’s life. Everything seems like a fairy tale. While in Greece, they visit a writer’s home and are offered copious amounts of food and drink. It is a seaside villa along the Mediterranean, and how many would be offered such an opportunity, much less how many writers live well off enough to afford such? It’s not that the couple is excessively extravagant, just that their situation, while real, is perhaps the most unrelatable. […]

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A still of the lead actress in Ryusuke Hamaguchi's "Asako I & II"

Beauty’s Filth: On Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Asako I & II” (2018)

Stillness, aesthetic rest, relaxed pacing, static, almost banal, framing – these are all hallmarks of the great Japanese classics of Kurosawa, Ozu, and co., and even contemporary directors like Hirokazu Kore-eda. Yes, other directors from other countries deploy these techniques, but it was Japanese cinema (particularly in the early part of the prior century) that engraved them into custom and international renown. Think of the great shots in Ozu’s Tokyo Story, of characters doing nothing yet exemplifying everything within the interplay of objects in the frame: the pairs of shoes in the bathhouse, an old couple by the sea, or the father sitting alone as the ship in the distance drifts past.

Stillness, aesthetic rest, relaxed pacing, static, almost banal, framing – these are all words you can use to describe Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s 2018 film Asako I & II. It is a solidly built thing, in terms of its structure (you are never lost or confused as to what is happening), but composure can be deceiving. What might be construed as elegance, an aesthetic serenity, is really just detached posing, a pretty exterior that mirrors the elfin perfection of the film’s protagonist, Asako – and just as empty, within. […]

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A shot of the two leads from Richard Linklater's "Before Sunset", second film of the "Before Trilogy"

The Magic, The Sunset: Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunset” (2004)

We’d like to think that being a few years older and a few years wiser could offer us our much needed life do over. Scenes replay in our minds: if only I could have met that person now, I might have reacted differently. And it is not so much the events and eras that change, but rather, our perspectives. Only time can help shape that. Life will often, more or less, remain the same.

It is now nine years later, and Jesse and Celine are both nine years older. He’s written a book and is giving a reading in Paris, which is where Celine lives. She shows up. The book is about their night together, and Celine admits that she’s read the book twice. At the end of Before Sunrise, we don’t know if the characters will meet in six months. In Before Sunset, we come to learn that Celine’s grandmother died and was buried on the day they were supposed to meet. Hence, she could not come to Vienna. But he did. He admits to waiting and feeling that disappointment and perhaps this missed meeting was the thing that jaded them both to the idea of Romantic love.

The characters, now that they’re older, are also more levelheaded. Celine has an environmental job and Jesse works as a writer/professor. He is in a loveless marriage and she is dating a guy who is never around. She admits that men enter her life, only to depart, but not before thanking her for showing them what love is. This makes her angry and resentful. Celine, while still the same, is more outspoken than her earlier character. She is a feminist who punishes herself for still having these Romantic longings. ‘The concept that we should find one person to spend our lives with is evil,’ she says. […]

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A shot of Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise" (1995)

Wistful Dissolve: Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” (1995)

Within one of my short story collections, I have a tale that begins, ‘Only the summers counted as time.’ The story, while having a very different setting than that of Richard Linklater’s 1995 classic Before Sunrise, captures somewhat similar ideas. ‘That was 30 years ago, and so that means 30 summers,’ a summer camp counselor said. This quote stuck with me, so much so, that my childhood summers felt like they stood outside as a sort of time.

I recall my first moment watching this film. It would have been summer, 1995 after renting the cassette from Blockbuster. I worked my job, and late into the night I watched the film on VHS and felt myself brought to Vienna, wandering the streets with these two characters. Oh, and how I wished I could find a guy as cute and as deep as Ethan Hawke who, within this film, embodies the young, artistic girl’s fantasy. ‘I didn’t just go to Europe to read Hemingway,’ he tells Celine (Julie Delpy). ‘I came to be anonymous.’ […]