Category: Film

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A short-haired Nicole Kidman gives a skeptical glance in Jonathan Glazer's "Birth".

Man-Child: Reviewing Jonathan Glazer’s “Birth” (2004)

Jonathan Glazer’s Birth is certainly one of the oddest love stories ever told, powered throughout by a most compelling performance by Nicole Kidman, and an effectively impassive one by the child actor Cameron Bright.

Kidman is Anna, a beautiful and very well-off Manhattanite who, recently widowed, gets engaged to Joseph (Danny Huston). A lavish party is thrown in celebration of the event, and there a few key characters are introduced: Clifford and Clara (Peter Stormare and Anne Heche, respectively) and, most significantly, a grim-faced ten-year-old boy named Sean (Bright).

There is an air of mystery, undergirded by something like menace, as Clifford and Anne seem perturbed, distant from one another, and the boy simply stares. Clara rushes to the woods, under the pretense of a forgotten ribbon, in order to bury the gift she has brought for Anna and Joseph in a mound of dirt and leaves. […]

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A stylized portrait of an intense-looking, squinting Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) from Jonathan Glazer's "Sexy Beast".

Viva Don Logan: On Jonathan Glazer’s “Sexy Beast” (2000)

In a remote Spanish villa, near a house on a hill, lives a retired gangster named Dove (Ray Winstone) who lounges beside his pool in the sun. Muttering to himself—are these his speaking words or his thoughts? He has nothing to do. It is afternoon, quite hot, and his skin has pinked. Does he jump in the water? Luckily no. On the other side of the pool stands a local Spanish boy who does work around his house. ‘Sweep harder,’ Dove orders.

Getting up from his lounge chair, the aged gangster wanders near the pool’s edge to where only inches away a large boulder falls from the cliff, barely missing him. It lands in the pool. Dove’s life is spared, and the worst is that the pool’s flooring, which consists of two hearts overlapping, is now chipped. When his wife Deedee (Amanda Redman) returns from shopping (she is a retired porn star), they both can’t believe his luck. ‘I could have died,’ Dove says. Given his life of crime, one is inclined to believe that this has not been the first time death escaped him. Unfortunately for him, however, the boulder seems less dangerous than his sociopath nemesis, Don Logan, played by Ben Kingsley. Have you ever thought that the man who played Gandhi could curse, spit, and scream? Oh, you just wait.

Sexy Beast does a great job of building the tension before Logan’s arrival. When the news is shared that he will be flying to Spain, Jackie, who is the wife of Dove’s friend Aitch, looks visibly upset. She and Logan had a fling in the past and all seem to know how aggressive he can be. In his review, Ebert sums him up well: ‘Logan is dangerous not because he is tough, but because he is fearless and mad. You cannot intimidate a man who has no ordinary feelings. Logan is like a pit bull, hard-wired and untrainable.’ […]

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A stylized black and white photo of Glenn Gould performing Bach.

An Artist’s Overtaking: François Girard’s “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould” (1993)

When thinking back on the sum of our lives, we don’t recall moments within some linear narrative. Rather, life becomes a series of snapshots, portraits, and photographs that manifest not just physically but also internally. How often do we see a photo that transports us to that moment, and yet in the interim, where has the present gone? Invariably, memory is similar to a time machine where in one minute we are in the present day only for us seconds later to become a child once again. Gone go the linear narratives of the everyday.

No other biopic depicts this better than François Girard’s 1993 film, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. Although listed as a documentary, the film functions as a biopic, and its technique works so well that I can’t help but wonder why more directors don’t attempt this approach. Instead, within most biopics we’re often presented with too long a lifetime, too many facts, and we never get to know the person on the inside. We remain distant, outside observers. In contrast, Thirty Two Short Films operates as a memory, because what else is time but compartmentalized moments within our minds? […]

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A shot from Bradley Cooper's "Maestro", depicting Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) smoking a cigarette and looking ahead.

The Artist’s Overwhelm: On Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro” (2023)

Upon watching Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, what struck me was how the narrative felt like two films. In the first half, we see the young Leonard Bernstein in black and white overtaking the scenes with energy and extroversion, as he admits to loving people so much that he finds it difficult to be alone (something that would plague him when it came to composing since composition requires alone time). He even goes to the bathroom with the door open. This tidbit aside, the film is not so much about Leonard as it is about his wife, Felicia Montealegre (Cary Mulligan), whom he meets at a party one night.

The film opens with an aging, chain-smoking Leonard sitting at a piano and speaking to a documentary maker about how much he misses Felicia, who died of breast cancer in 1978. The scene is shot in color and already sets the narrative up for that of a predictable soap opera, rather than a deeper exploration of an artist. And Bradley Cooper, while rendering his performance well, speaks like he is continually congested. Add a lot of makeup and prosthetics and one knows that an Oscar is not far behind. […]

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Two stylized shots from Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru" and Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life", focusing in on the portraits of each film protagonist, set side by side.

Imagined Shores: on Frank Capra and Akira Kurosawa

What does it mean for someone to give to the world? To live their life as to leave an imprint? It’s easy to contemplate this concept as it relates to the types of figures who are name-dropped in the history books. The means to this is relatively straightforward (in idea if not execution) if you are an artist, or a scientist, or an activist, leader, even an athlete. You do what you’re best at and do it as well as you can (to put it simply). But what about the rest of us? For the majority of the human race, any individual’s scope of influence is a narrow groove, constrained to those immediately around them. Any impact is going to be brief and light-handed.

With this idea on my mind, I recently rewatched two films that explore the impact of the non-Exceptional individual- Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952) and Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). In my opinion, both are great films (Ikiru is more complex, especially structurally, but that is not to dismiss the fact that It’s A Wonderful Life is of a higher quality than it is often given credit for). But right now, I don’t care so much to embark on a work of intricate criticism. Sitting at the brink of a new year, I just feel like pulling a few of the threads presented by both films. […]

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A stylzed shot from Emerald Fennell's "Saltburn", depicting candles, mirrors, and a reflected face.

Sordid Romp: On Emerald Fennell’s “Saltburn” (2023)

What’s there to say about Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn? On the one hand, it is a very attractive movie, full of attractive people, aimed towards the sort of moviegoers who spend a lot of time on Letterboxd and gorge on A24 films. This is not an A24 film, but the studio who produced Saltburn, LuckyChap Entertainment (also responsible for the billion-dollar-grossing Barbie), certainly knows of the audience overlap between them, and knows even better the sorts of aesthetics best displayed to trap their gaze. Aesthetics, as well as thematics: a little something about class, here, and a smattering of queerness, there. Best of all, it knows how to create “conversation,” and how to mix into that hodge-podge of thematic currency a dash of sensationalism: “Wait, he did what to the bathwater? Goodness me.” These are not novel strategies, by any means, but they are strategies, nonetheless; strategies which today’s studios will happily utilize in their bid for cultural clout.

On the other hand, this is a movie about a conniving murderous pervert, whose chosen prey falls easily to the most blatant manipulations only because they are written to be rich and gullible (richly gullible?) dimwits. The audience is clued into his manipulations pretty early on, which is not an unwise decision, but the trick after that is to surprise the audience with, perhaps, the cleverness of the manipulator’s tactics, and how deftly he might weave his trap around the glamorous inhabitants of the estate. […]

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A stylized shot from Andrzej Wajda's "A Generation", depicting the protagonist as he observes Nazi soldiers walking towards him. There is text of the director's name and the film title.

Gathering Resistance: Andrzej Wajda’s “A Generation” (1955)

It is always interesting to watch a film trilogy where one can see the progression of a director’s talent. However, unlike Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors Trilogy, which consists of three film narratives interdependent upon one another, Andrzej Wajda’s War Trilogy connects only through its similar theme—resistance. Before Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds, Wajda directed A Generation, which is set around the survival of a group of young men during the Nazi occupation of Poland. The film’s straightforward narrative details a young protagonist, Stach, who joins an underground communist resistance movement once he learns what little value his wages offer vis-à-vis those his employer makes off his labor. Young enough to still carry idealism, it is this idealism that Stach uses to comfort his depressed mother who lives in squalor with a rabbit that runs loose. He reassures her that he will find work, and in doing so, this young, idealistic man joins the resistance believing that this will be for some greater good because, as is, life can’t get any worse.

The opening scene contains Stach’s first-person voiceover informing us that he grew up in a slum outside Warsaw, and that to entertain himself, he and his friends (one played by Zbigniew Cybulski from Ashes and Diamonds) flick knives into the haystacks. The three seem to be enjoying this last moment of playfulness as rebellious youths who were forced to grow up too fast. […]

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A stylized shot from Andrzej Wajda's "Ashes and Diamonds", depicting an upside down crucifix.

Perilous Betweens: On Andrzej Wajda’s “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958)

Before an abandoned church in a patch of sunned, country grass, two men wait to assassinate the Secretary to the Polish Workers’ Party. The assassination takes place, except their target is the wrong man.

This is the opening scene of Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds, the third installment within Wajda’s War Trilogy. (The first two are A Generation and Kanal, respectively.) Based on the novel by Polish writer Jerzy Andrzejewski, I immediately was struck by the film’s presence of hierarchy. For what does one exist? Is individuality merely a function of action? Through the effective use of shadow and low shots, an astounding modernism pervades throughout that, much like Orson Welles’s Citizen Cane, creates a bleak interior landscape. Set on the last day of World War II in Poland, the Germans have lost and are vacating the city. Despite this time of celebration, there is, however, something tragic about not only the ending of life when history indicates it should be a beginning, but also the dearth of opportunity for the protagonists. Following Wajda’s earlier film, Kanal, Ashes and Diamonds introduces a more complex sphere of human nature—not just survival, as is the case within Kanal, but the prevalence of power and to whom should one answer? […]