Category: Film

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A shot of Isabelle Huppert in Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher.

The Quest For Control Within Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher” (2001)

Few films successfully essay a troubled individual without resorting to sentiment. It is a difficult line when the subject is uncomfortable with closeness and yet the audience continues to act as voyeur. In Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, Isabelle Huppert plays Erika Kohut, a respected piano teacher within a Vienna Conservatory. When we witness her publicly, she is confident and cold. Her students revere her. Her colleagues admire her. ‘A wrong note in Beethoven is less offensive than mangling the spirit of it,’ she says. But there is something deeper going on, and no, I am not referring to the sex parts. Rather, Erika suffers from pathological envy. Her mother, with whom she lives (as well as shares a bed) informs her daughter that she mustn’t let anyone be better than she. ‘If you want your pupils to have a career over you, no one must outdo you, my girl.’

These words are not to be overlooked, as we witness Erika’s contempt towards any pupil who might outshine her. She knows just how to break them down, too. No, she doesn’t scream like Fletcher in Whiplash, but rather uses their self-shame against them. Huppert is excellent in this role, as her austere face alone is enough to reveal her resentment. But it doesn’t stop there. When a young, handsome student named Walter Klemmer (played by Benoît Magimel) wishes to enter the Conservatory, she votes against him when her colleagues recognize his talent. They, however, override her decision and he becomes her student. She eyes him from afar and it is clear he idolizes her. Yet her knowing this is still not enough. When one of her timid female students (named Anna Schober) is overcome with stage fright, Walter goes to comfort her. As result, Erika silently seethes with envy. She cannot take it, and so she disappears into the coatroom, wherein she finds a glass and breaks it, dumping the broken shards into Anna’s coat pocket. One can only imagine what happens when Anna inserts her hand. […]

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A stylized shot from Robert Bresson's "A Man Escaped", depicting Fontaine being interrogated by a prison guard

Hours & Sound: On “A Man Escaped” by Robert Bresson (1956)

Few films contain the technique employed by Robert Bresson within his film A Man Escaped. In fact, Roger Ebert called it ‘a lesson in the cinema’, noting much what Bresson chooses not to do. Here, we are immersed within a prison cell and inundated with detail. Time and shadow are immanent. How one looks at you when your meal arrives could mean dire consequences. As a prisoner, one is forced beneath the brunt of whatever guard. As the days pass into weeks, moments carry a cautionary silence. Any sudden cough feels like an explosion.

François Leterrier plays Fontaine, a French resistance fighter who has been jailed within a Nazi prison camp. His expressions carry minimal emotion but his hands remain busy. In the opening scene, we see him attempt to escape from a car, but not before feeling the right push and press of the door handle. His motion is meticulous, deliberate and subtle and there is no music to accompany it. Events play out as they might in real life, where after enough tragedy, one will begin to suffer more from apathy than fear. […]

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A stylized shot of coal miners from John Sayles's "Matewan"

Gathering Storm: On John Sayles’s “Matewan” (1987)

In the wake of the recent unionization victories within/against corporate titan Amazon in New York, I got to thinking of the great John Sayles film Matewan, about a community of West Virginian coal miners and their families who unionize to protect themselves from Stone Mountain Coal Company and their hired guns, the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. It is a dramatized re-imagining of actual historical events, complete with a gallery of fictional and non-fictional characters, that brought a certain level of class-consciousness to the big screen, despite years in development purgatory and a tight budget with only seven weeks of shooting. It was positively reviewed by critics for its quality writing and performances, but flopped at the box office (what else is new?), and is only now resurging into public attention – generously assisted by a Criterion Collection DVD/Blu-Ray edition in 2019.

Smart writing, good acting, low budget, poor-to-modest box office performance: these are sine qua non to a John Sayles picture. In his invaluable book Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie Matewan, Sayles makes the distinction between the sort of characters a good number of moviegoers satisfy themselves with and the sort he wants to write. […]

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A stylized photo of John Cassavetes talking to Peter Falk from Elaine May's "Mikey and Nicky"

Morning’s Consequence: Elaine May’s “Mikey and Nicky” (1976)

What is time to a decaying friendship? And what do we make of that friend who hangs around a little too long? That person that we should have cut from our lives eons ago? Here is a film that takes place within a single night, when the dark evening begins, only to then have time slowly creep towards sunrise. Elaine May’s neglected 1976 filmic gem reveals someone behind the screen with not only a sharp eye, but also a sharp wit. May is most known for her comedies (her two earlier films were such) but Mikey and Nicky will certainly impress drama upon the audience—friendship, masculinity and a lowlife involvement in crime. (And perhaps the consequences of keeping that one friend around for too long.) The film succeeds most notably due to the excellent acting but also due to May’s keen screenwriting skills.

Nicky (John Cassavetes) is a low-level gangster who has stolen money from his mob boss. As result, he is now held up in a grimy hotel room on the edge of town, in an attempt to evade capture or even death. Mikey (Peter Falk) is Nicky’s childhood friend. In a moment of need, Nicky calls Mikey up in the hopes that maybe his friend might be able to offer a hand, or even get him out of trouble. Mikey thinks that Nicky should leave town, but events and distractions unfold and that doesn’t happen. Nicky is suffering from a stomach ulcer and so Mikey goes to retrieve some creamer from a diner, but not before erupting into a rage at the cashier. Rage is a recurring theme throughout the film, as it often manifests as one’s temper. But it goes further than this. Neither man knows how to function in life. They wander and they exist. They blow up when things don’t go their way, and then there are the women who sit at home. Not necessarily waiting for them, but more so telling them to leave when the men shove their way in. Both Mikey and Nicky have wives and they both cheat. They are mooches who come and go. Mikey seems to be better off, but not by much. […]

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A screenshot of the diegetic Jonathan Larson in Lin Manuel Miranda's "tick, tick...BOOM!"

Jonathan Larson & Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “tick, tick…BOOM!” (2021)

I’m certain that Jonathan Larson was an outstanding waiter. With his engaging, outgoing personality, he must have certainly earned a copious amount of tips in order to manage within his small, New York City flat. Working Friday through Sunday, he would then spend the rest of his week composing. A personal hero of mine, Larson is the mind and composer behind the rock musical Rent, which ran on Broadway for 12 years. It also won the Pulitzer Prize. It ran so long, in fact, that its success makes it easy to take for granted. But it wasn’t always this way. Larson, a musical theatre major, worked as a waiter and never deviated from his life mission (albeit not without his personal frustration). His goal was to write music and eventually break into the industry and this he did inevitably. Unfortunately, he did not live to see it.

tick…tick…BOOM! (directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda) is a Netflix Original musical, which renders the story of Jonathan Larson’s adult life, as well as his creative struggle. Set in 1990, just days before his 30th birthday, Larson is attempting to complete the final song within Supurbia, his first musical. He has been working on this musical for eight years, apparently. He lives in near poverty, wherein he can’t even manage his electric bill. At times, he feels like a failure for not having achieved the success he so covets, like that of his peers. Constantly comparing himself to earlier, younger musicians, the film recreates Larson’s One Man Show, wherein he details these frustrations—his creativity, his friendships, and his ‘career’ as a waiter while using them as creative fodder. ‘Hi, I’m Jon. I’m a musical-theatre writer. One of the last of my species.’ […]

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A stylized screenshot of the Stalker from Andrei Tarkovsky's "Stalker"

Awakening & Escaping Happiness: Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” (1979)

In watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, I found myself missing a man I’ve never met, who died when I was only 10. He is one of those directors who, amid the visual, transcends film as a medium and moves it into something other, something ethereal, and something understandable. Yet, as for what that understanding is—it will vary upon audience. Upon rewatch (as I’ve seen the film a number of times), Russia invaded Ukraine only a day earlier. The sad news of events only adds to the film’s relevance. I also recently reviewed Antonioni’s Red Desert, wherein I refer to the human intrusion that has desecrated nature. By contrast, Stalker is almost a rebellion to all of that—nature’s uprise perhaps? After all, where do humans fit amid all this? Where exactly are we supposed to fall?

The story, shot in long, dreamlike sequences, is meant to immerse one into a sort of dream. (I often thought that watching a Tarkovsky film is the closest to observing dream.) The film, set in an unknown country in an unknown time, begins with a journey involving unnamed citizens. Stalker, Writer and Professor are the titles distinguishing these three figures who, in their search through the Zone (a site supposedly loaded with traps) contains a Room where one can wish for their secret desires to come true. The anonymity of the characters serves a purpose—that this could be any one of us. And what of the Zone? How do we interpret this place that is ever so difficult to navigate? Here, weeds are overgrown (according to human standards, anyway) and the flowers hold no scent. When the Writer is asked what he writes about, ‘My readers,’ he replies. […]

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A stylized screenshot of the protagonist in Jane Campion's "An Angel at My Table"

All Sweet Things: On Jane Campion’s “An Angel at My Table” (1990)

One of the key exchanges in Betty Smith’s great novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn involves the young protagonist, Francie Nolan, and her schoolteacher. Francie, a budding writer, is being upbraided by the older woman for reasons the girl cannot yet make perfect sense of.

Something similar occurs more than once in Jane Campion’s 1990 film An Angel at My Table, an adaptation of a three-set memoir by New Zealand author Janet Frame. Like the Smith novel, it also follows the childhood and maturation of a young girl who is a budding, and then famous, writer. The first scene is when Janet is a child, and, after first acquiring a taste for poetry due to a kind teacher’s instruction, she is trying her hand at it at home. One of her older sisters peeks at her paper and asks: […]

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A screenshot from Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" of two characters arguing

Life, Death & Romance: Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947)

I first heard about The Ghost and Mrs. Muir via Harry Nilsson, who appeared in the 1960s television series. Nilsson played—you got it—a singer who’d been forced to spend the night at this seaside abode due to impending rain and thunder. Such a strange concept, I thought. A ghost who haunts a woman he loves only in afterlife? I watched the episode, and aside from Nilsson’s performance, I found it dull. The show didn’t last and was cancelled after two seasons. Thus, imagine my surprise when I learned this was a film directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Really? They made a series from this film? How very odd.

Following recommendation, I watched it, and afterwards, I watched it again. And what a darling film this is. Love, death, longing, and romance—what else does one need? The film begins with Lucy (Gene Tierney), a widow who longs to live by the sea. Despite opposition from her in laws who want her to remain in London out of respect for her late husband, headstrong Lucy goes to purchase an abandoned cottage that is now overrun with four years’ vegetation. Gull Cottage, is what it is called, and it is supposedly haunted. In fact, no one is willing to stay there for more than a night. But upon Lucy’s visit, she falls in love with the house instantly, as though something is pulling her towards it. Oh, and what could this be other than Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison)? […]