Category: Film

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A stylized shot of director Alex Winter discussing his 2015 documentary, "Deep Web".

Libertarian-American: Alex Winter’s “Deep Web” (2015)

Let’s get aesthetics out of the way, first. If a film about a drug boss starts with an anarchic proclamation, it needs- at a minimum- for that proclamation to be well-phrased. This will at least offset some of the political clichés surrounding drug prohibition, and might make it easier to repeat them without hurting the film on more substantive grounds. But if after engaging with the writing- “giant Fuck You to the system”, “fascists”, “real base of power lies with us”- one wonders WHY the film was even made, that question IS a relevant lens through which to view the film’s subject. I mean, just consider any other work on any other drug dealer: from the experts’ self-pillory in Mr. Untouchable, to the dread and ennui of Mean Streets, to the dum-dum brutality of American Gangster, the world’s mobsters are rarely presented as unequivocal heroes. In most cases, they aren’t allowed to have childhoods, nor to wax philosophical from home videos (although, in the coming decade, some will). They do not earn science degrees, and certainly were not nurtured by a loving family driven to exonerate them. In fact, if they were street-peddlers, their stories simply gain no traction at all, and cannot, on an individual basis, ever be the face of a grassroots political movement. That Ross Ulbricht, the incarcerated founder of darknet website Silk Road, gets to enjoy all of these things, and more, is a story far more interesting than Alex Winter’s Deep Web allows it to be. Indeed, one ought to ask why Ross Ulbricht is a cult figure for so many libertarians, if only because the answer sheds light on how awful the parsing of more important questions has become. The war on drugs, I’m afraid, attracts dupes and hypocrites on both sides, and by stripping his film of all artistic appeal, Alex Winter gives an inadvertent glimpse into how both sides conduct themselves. […]

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A stylized shot of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the T800 in James Cameron's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day".

Father & Son: On James Cameron’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991)

I recently reviewed Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy, wherein I noted the hardening of Celine’s character. We see her in the first film, where she goes from a Romantic idealist, to the third film, where she expresses both disillusionment and anger within her marriage. While Celine’s evolution is not as extreme as Sarah Connor’s (Linda Hamilton) in James Cameron’s Terminator series, over time we witness both women engendering a toughness to their respective characters.

The first Terminator film is well-crafted, excellent sci-fi. While it lacks the emotional and intellectual depth of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, craft is still omnipresent. My reasons for wanting to review The Terminator films alongside Bergman, Bresson, and Tarkovsky is not to make claim that they rank among those other auteurs, per se, but rather to debunk the notion that 1) Hollywood commercial films can’t be great; and 2) if something is an action film, then it must immediately lack depth. While I do think that most sci-fi genre is trite and doesn’t qualify for the greatness canon, with well-sketched characters, transcending the genre is most possible. Also, the other problem I have is sci-fi lovers who rank ‘plot-driven’ narratives above everything else. (Were that true, there would be no reason to ever rewatch anything.) […]

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A stylized shot of Nixon with his Cabinet from Oliver Stone's "Nixon" (1995)

Better Than Sincere: On Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” (1995)

The America in me belongs to no exterior reality, a foggy beast that sleeps in a global mind. This piecemeal country I have never known, merely seen, is loud, brash, decadent, and is beautiful as wildernesses are beautiful. I cannot trace where this country began: perhaps in flickers of television, western cartoons imported to local channels. It germinated in the sort of juvenile fuzz that would background the onscreen spectacle of superheroes and caricatures. Soon, the internet would broaden it, and books deepen its avenues. But it is not real, cannot be real. The buildings forever deny trespass; the inhabitants wear shadow faces.

Safe to say, I am not the intended audience for Oliver Stone’s film, “Nixon”. Though I knew brief details of Watergate, bits and pieces of the president’s trajectory into villain of the American political mythos, he amounted to little more than an encyclopaedia entry to me. Stone’s film deals with much of that historical detritus. Nixon sits in conference with talking heads. They spew out names and schemes that whizz by, ephemeralia of the moment. What concerns me is the undercurrent: the way actor Anthony Hopkins poses in his power, fidgety, immersed. It is clearly what Stone’s Nixon lives for, despite the paranoia, the humiliation and gradual distancing of all that holds him close. Oceans away, I recognize that intensity, man’s love for his own show. I see that love within the personages of my own environs. In art, it turns out, the unintended audience is more important. […]

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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. […]