Category: Film

Read More
A stylized shot from Joe Carnahan's "Narc", depicting a murder scene in a teal-tinted winter scene.

The Brutal Record: On Joe Carnahan’s “Narc” (2002)

There are movies that overwhelm (even, at times, repel) us with their greatness, and there are movies that either pass through us like a soporific or delight our baser pleasures with inanities and/or the strictest adherence to certain handy, and crowd-pleasing, conventions. And then there are movies that inarguably fall in with none of these camps, and yet, because of their very distance from the extremes, seem to pass public appreciation somewhat unnoted, blipping into the limelight but for a moment before ending up in the bargain bin with the rest of the stale classics and poppy pablum.

Narc seems to belong to this oft-overlooked category, which is a shame, considering its merits as both a stylistic feat and an acting vehicle for not just Ray Liotta (a producer on the film, as well), who is predictably incendiary, but most of the supporting cast, especially Jason Patric’s troubled ex-undercover cop Nick Tellis.

Yes, for all its occasional bravura, Narc still follows a rather conventional track, and in this way its predictability (for plot and character) drags it down a tier from the more innovative examples of the crime/neo-noir genre. However, its attention-to-detail when it comes to the methodical process of criminal investigation, the realistic brutality of those who commit crime and (especially) those who police it, and its honing-in on the lives of its characters so as to avoid mere stereotype lifts Narc up into that field of art which, in spite of its limitations, invites meaningful engagement from an experienced and/or dedicated viewer. […]

Read More
A shot from Robert Bresson's "L'Argent", depicting the protagonist (Christian Patey) being confronted about his counterfeit 500-franc note in a restaurant.

Less Is More: On Robert Bresson’s “L’Argent” (1983)

Robert Bresson is a master ascetic. In no other filmmaker’s oeuvre is value more clearly added by subtraction. In 1956’s A Man Escaped, he sets most of the narrative within the confines of a prison cell. He employs little music, no flashy shots, and no sophisticated editing techniques. Still, he manages to craft a more compelling experience than most prison-break movies because he does not tell his audience what to feel or try to distract them with excessive stimuli. What propels Bresson’s films to greatness is what he does not do. His refusal to partake in certain conventions shows viewers the superfluity of these tropes and how much more interesting it can be to play around them. This is an approach he never veered away from throughout his career, and which he refined in 1983’s L’Argent, a film detailing the events caused by the passing on of a counterfeit bill, and one of the best swan songs in cinema history.

As L’Argent begins, a young man from a well-off family (Marc Ernest Fourneau) enters his father’s study to request his monthly allowance. When he asks for more, his parents refuse, so the kid attempts to pawn his watch to a friend, who gives him a forged 500-franc note. The viewer is immediately struck by the performers’ unusual acting style. Bresson preferred to think of his actors as “models,” non-actors who deliver each line with a poker face, defying the scenery-chewing approach prominent in most films. One would be tempted to call these performances wooden were it not for the fact that this approach allows the audience to imbue character motivation and engage with the narrative on a more intimate level. This is the film’s first example of how the French auteur adds depth to his work by simply abstaining from what most filmmakers are doing. […]

Read More
A stylized shot from Chantal Akerman's "News From Home", depicting a 1970s New York City skyline and red buses, as reviewed by Jessica Schneider for the AUTOMACHINATION literary magazine.

Metal, Stone, & Zip Codes: On Chantal Akerman’s “News From Home” (1976)

Oscar Wilde once said something like, ‘Criticism is the highest form of autobiography.’ Or rather, what he actually said was, ‘the highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.’ The rest can be attributed to my misremembering.

Admittedly, I do believe that criticism is the highest form of autobiography, as in, what one thinks is good or bad in the arts can say more about how that person thinks than is realized. As example, if romance novels and spy thrillers drive you, then you’re likely not going to be very interested in James Joyce. Furthermore, if you think the ending of Saving Private Ryan with old Matt Damon asking his wife to ‘tell me I’m a good man,’ before the film ends with the American flag is deep filmmaking, then you’re probably not going to enjoy Andrei Tarkovsky.

This brings me to Chantal Akerman whose films, in my mind at least, resemble the poetry of Adrienne Rich in their lackluster quality and pretension. Coincidentally, those who praise Akerman are likely to praise Rich because both are academic darlings who engage in joyless, meandering art that involves ideas better expressed by others. I have seen three of Akerman’s films, the first being Je tu il elle, Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, and News From Home. Of the three films, I enjoyed News From Home the most, largely due to my not remembering the first two.

Read More
A shot of Julie in Chantal Akerman's "Je tu il elle", depicting her head resting against a window as she looks meditatively at the viewer.

Leaving, Waiting, (Not) Doing: on Chantal Akerman’s “Je tu il elle” (1974)

The woman occupies an emptiness—spare furnishings, glass doors, a dingy bathroom—and it occupies her. There has been a separation, and an exile, likely self-imposed (“And then I left”). She arranges and re-arranges the furniture, lies in silence, disrobes and walks around naked. She writes letters to someone and, copying and re-copying, obsesses over their details. In her nakedness, she flirts with exhibitionism when a faceless man skirts the windows of her room. And she devours spoonfuls of sugar out of a bag, staring out the window, or at nothing, until the sugar is a pile on the floor.

There is activity, agency, even, but of a stifled and confused sort. More than once, the behavior shown onscreen contradicts the narration of her voice-over. They are small deceptions, but clear ones, and a nice touch of Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s to show the fickleness, the inner dissatisfaction, of the character.

I am largely unfamiliar with Akerman’s filmography, and Je tu il elle is my first of hers. I, of course, knew the name, even before the minor controversy surrounding Sound & Sight’s catapulting of her Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) to the No. 1 spot on their Greatest Films list. I’ve never seen that particular film myself, but critics I trust deem it a tedious mediocrity, so I came to Je tu il elle with my analytic hackles up, somewhat. […]

Read More
A stylized shot of the protagonist watching a lightning storm in David Lynch "The Straight Story".

Beauty in the Ordinary: David Lynch’s “The Straight Story” (1999)

Have you ever watched a film that made you wonder where it has been all these years? Alright, perhaps I do recall when this came and went in the theatres—I think the poster looks familiar, but admittedly, this isn’t the sort of film I would have gone to see at the time of its release. Furthermore, this has to be the most un-David Lynch film of David Lynch films, and yet the narrative is so simple and the character development is so good that I am left scratching my head. Sure, David Lynch is a director with talent enough to at least acquire obsessive fans—and I have seen several of his films, including Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Dune, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, and others. It’s not so much that any of his films are bad per se, just dull.

Granted, Lynch’s narratives tend to veer on ‘weirdness’ and ‘random shit’ happening just so someone can say how much ‘weirdness’ and ‘random shit’ happens, all the while neglecting to mention the lack in character development and arid dialogue. Honestly, I can’t say I have ever connected with any of Lynch’s characters, and I remain adamant when I say that having weird shit happen for the sake of weird shit happening offers an easy way to distract from shallow character development much in the same way that forced politics in bad art attempts to distract from clichés. But I digress. […]

Read More
A stylized shot of actor Jesse Plemons wearing fatigues, red sunglasses, and a rifle in Alex Garland's "Civil War".

America Falls Flat: on Alex Garland’s “Civil War” (2024)

Alex Garland’s Civil War has already generated a decent amount of controversy not long into its US release—at least as much as its producers surely intended it to. It is an election year, after all, and with a not unsignificant number of Americans worried about the possibility of there being another civil war on the horizon, it is no wonder A24 would support Garland (the two having previously partnered on his 2022 gender-parable Men) to draw audiences whose grimmer curiosities might be piqued by an English auteur’s take on American self-evisceration, ideological or otherwise. Much of this controversy stems from dissenters’ claims that showing such a film now would be to irresponsibly stoke either viewers’ anxieties or their potential aggressions.

The film, however, for all its purported untimeliness, is too evasive, too pointedly nonpartisan, for these concerns to hold water. The title will likely evoke, for its US audiences, the war between the Union and the Confederacy in the 1860s, but its usage is more about the concept as such than about any particular instantiation. Garland, in simply transplanting the scenes that have played out and are still playing out in stages all across the developing world to the streets of New York City and Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., seeks to explode any remaining “It Can’t Happen Here” sentiments without committing himself to any specific political stance. Not any, at least, stronger than a traditional, almost nostalgic, belief in the need for our institutions (government, economic structures, the media, etc.) to be safeguarded from the ravages of internecine conflict. […]

Read More
A stylized shot from Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin", depicting an alien (Scarlett Johansson), in profile, at the beach.

Through the Void: on Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” (2013)

Jonathan Glazer might not be the greatest director still active, but his filmography is surprisingly varied, considering how relatively few films he’s made compared to the other top dogs in the business. His third film, Under the Skin, further estranges itself from the others in terms of its subject matter, and while it may be his weakest film (particularly in light of its finale) it still bears an unmistakable Glazer imprint, and, like Birth, manages to carry itself most of the way through in spite of an outlandish premise.

But not so outlandish, really. We’ve seen alien sci-fi before, but what distinguishes Under the Skin from other such movies is its distinct style. There is an almost Kubrickian detachment from its genre elements, an arthouse stylization that mixes a strong sense of formalism with authentic guerilla filmmaking.

Now, I’ve never been the biggest Scarlett Johansson admirer, and that’s not because I think she’s a bad actor—on the contrary, I’ve only ever seen her be passable to good. Maybe it’s simply due to the fact that I watched a lot of those Marvel blockbusters and I’m used to her being utilized as kickass eye-candy and not much else. […]

Read More
Stylized shot of David Dastmalchian speaking to a live audience in Cameron and Colin Cairnes's "Late Night with the Devil".

Eyes on the Dream: David Dastmalchian in “Late Night with the Devil” (2023)

I often joke about how I enjoy horror films as ‘light entertainment.’ Well, it’s not a joke really, as I do view them as light entertainment, which in turn, results in a bemused expression from the listener. But they are light entertainment! However, what I mean is that I enjoy them for their attempts at suspense and eeriness more so than for anything intellectual, as the best horror will be able to at least build the viewer’s curiosity without resorting to clichéd jump scares and gore.

This is how I felt watching Cameron and Colin Cairnes’s Late Night with the Devil, starring David Dastmalchian as Jack Delroy, a 1970s talk show host for the late-night fictional variety show Night Owls. The show, mirroring many of the variety hours throughout the 1970s, can’t seem to reach Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show ratings. And while I do not find the film scary, it is at least clever in its delivery. With the orange carpet and the multi-colored striped set, the filmmakers did an excellent job detailing this era—combining character sketches, spinning wheels, channel interruptions, and words from their sponsors. While initially successful, over the years Night Owls’s ratings begin to drop, which resorts to Jack desperately pandering to more Jerry Springer-type routines. […]