Category: Film

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A stylized shot from Roman Polanski's "Repulsion", which features a dim-eyed Catherine Deneuve walking aimlessly on a bridge.

A World as Violent and Predatory: Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” (1965)

When it comes to praise, anyone who is familiar with Roman Polanski also knows that he’s never going to win any awards for his person. An individual who fled the US to avoid jail, to put it kindly, the man is no Fred Rogers. While a talented director at his best, as with the work of any quality artist, his best still deserves to be addressed irrespective of his shitty nature as a person.

Which brings me to his great 1965 film Repulsion. ‘Pay attention to what she does,’ might be the best advice when experiencing this film for the first time. Few screenplays achieve such a level of depth through minimal use of dialogue. Firstly, let us examine the subject. Carole (Catherine Deneuve) is a beautiful young woman who shares a London flat with her sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux). Right away, we notice there is something off about her. She works as a manicurist for a high-end salon and is prone to ‘spacing out.’ She appears easily distracted and distant. Meanwhile, Helen is having an affair with a married man whom Carole does not like. ‘So this is the beautiful younger sister,’ he says patronizingly while pinching her cheek. Disgusted, Carole pulls away. She also does not like that he places his toothbrush and razor in her cup, which she comes to throw away, and is ultimately chastised by Helen as a result. […]

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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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From the director of "Oppenheimer" (2023) and "Following" (1998), a snapshot of Christopher Nolan's latter film, featuring a black-and-white portrait of a man staring out into a city.

Vanishing Act: Review of Christopher Nolan’s “Following” (1998)

Having watched this year’s 3-hour-long Oppenheimer a few weeks ago, I decided it’d be neat to go back to the very beginning, to Christopher Nolan’s first feature, 1998’s independent Following, the tale of an unemployed, would-be writer who gets caught up in the schemes of a charismatic criminal. At a miniscule 70 minute runtime, one might be tempted to think that the two are wildly different. On the surface, yes, they are, but even in Nolan’s debut his cinematic brand is evident.

Jim Emerson’s point that Nolan arrives here nearly fully formed as an artist isn’t far off the mark. All the tricks (sans the lavish budgets and big-name casts) of his trade are present: the fragmented, dove-tailing plot(s); un-telegraphed cuts (the film was shot by Nolan, and edited well by him alongside Gareth Heal); his affinity for doubles; an icy femme fatale; and the presence of a conniving mastermind who manipulates the events unfolding onscreen unbeknownst to either the characters or the audience. (Sometimes this mastermind is the protagonist, sometimes the antagonist, sometimes Nolan himself.) Nolan is one of those puzzle-box directors, less keen on profound themes and deep character portraits than he is on malleable chronology and upending audience expectations through deft narrative turns. When he does try to tackle big themes, such as with love in Interstellar, he fumbles, although the end result is almost always still entertaining. […]

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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 shot of Stephen and a parson from Alan Clarke's "Penda's Fen" (1974).

Child Be Strange: On Alan Clarke’s “Penda’s Fen” (1974)

Stephen Franklin, son of a parson (not a priest, mind you) and enjoyer of Elgar, is about as self-serious an eighteen-year-old boy can get. Self-serious to the point of silliness, as his mother is quick to point out when she interrupts his deep listening of the English composer’s The Dream of Gerontius. The moment’s humor is not altogether obvious, since it is surrounded by Stephen’s high-minded musings over God and mortality and the soul in relation to the musical notation unfurled before him. But it’s there, and serves to deflate Stephen’s supercilious self-conception in the form of earthly reality’s interruption of the ideal. It is this tension that is among the film’s primary concerns, and is further buttressed by the boy’s prayers being quickly set aside when the swaggering, bare-armed milkman arrives to their doorstep with his delivery.

That Stephen harbors lust for the milkman is seemingly not yet clear to him, although it is only one of many essential facts concerning his self that will eventually be made clear, whether he likes it or not, amidst the backdrop of the Worcestershire countryside and the imposition of its various institutions: Church and public school and the provincial mind. […]

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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. […]