Author: Brandon Irvine

April 10, 2017 / / Main Slate Archive

By Brandon Irvine

Arrival’s premise, though fairly original as far as movies go, is so intuitively appealing that you would guess it must be derivative: Twelve alien ships have just shown up on Earth, scattered around the globe, and governments around the world are rushing to figure out why they’re here. Our protagonist is Louise, an academic linguist enlisted by the military to communicate with who- or what-ever is in the enormous pod suspended over a field in Montana.

January 28, 2017 / / Main Slate Archive

You might have the feeling, watching Targets, that director Peter Bogdanovich has welded together two unconnected movies. I’m not talking about the intercutting of two plots – a ubiquitous storytelling technique – but the weaving together of two narratives that feel starkly dissimilar. We begin the movie following Byron Orlok, an aging actor who resembles, in almost all ways, Boris Karloff, the actor playing him. Orlok is sick of being an actor, tired of the same-y scripts and the inanities of being a thespian in slow decline. His back-and-forth with the various facets of the Hollywood machine trying to get him into another picture is a farce, setting the tone for half the movie.

December 15, 2016 / / Main Slate Archive

If you look at the biggest neo-noirs of the aughts and squint, you can almost see a series of controlled experiments, each taking the noir concept in a new-ish direction. Memento filtered the grit of the genre through non-linear storytelling; Sin City was Grand Guignol, a comic book come to life; Mulholland Drive was a baffling art film; Brick was half farce, half tragedy and set in high school; and The Man Who Wasn’t There was, well, a Coen brothers movie.

A lot of people are baffled by Mulholland Dr., and they have a right to be.

Superficially, it presents itself as a movie like the ones we’re used to. We’ve got some stock characters, like Rita, a brunette suffering from the staple of melodramas, complete retrograde amnesia, and Betty, the blonde ingénue so fresh to L.A. that we literally meet her getting off the plane. Together they undertake to find Rita’s true identity, and a fairly conventional plot unfolds.

December 12, 2013 / / Main Slate Archive


Near the beginning of TRUE GRIT, there’s a scene that I think nicely encapsulates what the Coen brothers do in their movies. The scene’s worth seeing even if, maybe especially if, you already know what you think about the work of Joel and Ethan Coen. It’s set in a dusty town in the Old West where three men are about to be hanged. Each has a turn to say his peace.

October 8, 2013 / / Main Slate Archive


It’s hard for me to hear the voiceover at the beginning of THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA and not feel like Sam Spade is gearing up to tell a story of dark deeds. After all, the movie begins at a burial, it’s raining, and Humphrey Bogart is narrating, so we are set up for a certain kind of movie, even if the details are not what they usually are.


Some movies are best explained by telling you what they aren’t and by shooting down theories about what they mean. Federico Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA is one of these, and the following will mostly be embroidery on that point: The movie is best described as a series of provocative scenarios that don’t reduce well to a slug line or any kind of distillation. At least superficially, the film is about Marcello (played by Marcello Mastroianni), a tabloid journalist in Rome that we follow from party to bedroom to photo op in scenes that seem more or less complete in themselves, and only very lightly related by theme and plot. The tapestry of story, in other words, is only loosely woven here.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – 2004 – dir. Wes Anderson

Among the star indie directors that emerged in the 1990s, Wes Anderson probably has the most consistent and recognizable style. A comprehensive exegesis of his tics would take all day, so I’m just going to focus on a single film that I happen to love and defend a specific theory on it: The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou was actually directed by a child.

March 22, 2012 / / Main Slate Archive

The 39 Steps – 1935 – dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Tone, in novels and films, has always been a make-or-break affair: In a work with thousands of parts, the wrong word in the wrong place, or the wrong image at the wrong time, can unravel the emotive state the storyteller is trying to induce in the audience. Balancing two different tones together in one work is an even greater challenge, especially when the thrilling and suspenseful is being mixed with the carefree and jokey. Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps attempts just that, and succeeds for reasons that are well worth examining.

January 17, 2012 / / Main Slate Archive

Beetlejuice – 1988 – dir. Tim Burton

You often hear that movies are a “visual medium,” but a list of the most popular movies that emphasize the power of what is seen would start off with animated children’s films, comic book adaptations, and Transformers. Though at times their avid visual invention can become glorious spectacle, ideologically these movies usually limit themselves to reiterating conventional bromides about love and loyalty winning the day or tolerance being a virtue.

But what would a film be like if it reveled in dazzling entertainment without also resorting to moral comfort food?