It’s an age-old story: boy meets girl; boy sleazes on girl, then steals girl’s brother’s scooter and wrecks it; girl’s brother reclaims the scooter and gets beaten up in the process; girl confronts boy with repair bill, which he refuses to pay; boy’s father will pay, but only if girl lets him have sex with her, repeatedly; girl’s brother accidentally shoots boy’s father in the arm; girl, brother, and their friends go into hiding at an abandoned miniature-golf palace while Peter Coyote makes bewildered faces. You know…that age-old story.
Digging further into The Legend of Billie Jean raises many more questions than it answers, because as contrived and frail as the main “plot” sounds, it’s got nothing on the various B plots. Everyone remembers that Billie Jean chops her long blonde hair off à la Joan of Arc—a tortured parallel the film refuses to drop—and becomes a folk hero. Nobody remembers the rest, but along the way, the eponymous Billie Jean (Helen Slater) and her scooter-crossed brother, Binx (Christian Slater, in his film debut), acquire a hostage in Lloyd (Keith Gordon), a bored rich boy who’s eager to test his district-attorney father’s love by not only letting the Billie Jean Kids kidnap him but in fact suggesting it himself—this, after they’ve broken into his house and eaten all the food in the fridge and Billie Jean has hit him in the nuts with a guitar.
Later, Billie Jean rescues a small boy from his physically abusive father, a scene that is played for laughs; gets shot at by a hillbilly who wants the reward money offered for Lloyd’s safe return; celebrates her friend Putter’s (Yeardley Smith, a.k.a. Lisa Simpson) first menstrual period; and tries to exchange the “hostage” for the fixed-up scooter, except it isn’t Billie Jean making the exchange. It’s Binx, wearing a dress and make-up. Don’t ask. …No, really: don’t. I don’t know.
Did I mention that Dean Stockwell plays Lloyd’s father? There’s just a lot going on.
Twenty-five years ago, I accepted all of that without question. The idea that these kids would hit the road instead of just explaining what happened to a trusted adult made perfect sense to me at the time—as did the adoption of Lloyd into their gang (he had a slide connecting his dad’s study and the swimming pool, after all!). Watching it again in 2010, I realize that I don’t know what the hell is going on after all. Join me and Monkey See’s Linda Holmes as we try to make heads or tails of the plot, the costume design, and the Corpus Christi PD. Fair is fair!
Sarah D. Bunting: The Legend of Billie Jean is one of those movies HBO had the rights to back in the day that I watched probably 30 times as a result…but I don’t think I’ve seen it since 1987.
Linda Holmes: Yes. I was thinking this morning that it’s the least impressive movie I’ve ever seen many, many times.
Sarah: I didn’t know what to expect, re-watching it, and it isn’t all that bad, but I kept asking myself, what are we doing here? Why was this movie made? …Although it fits nicely into that subgenre of ‘80s movies about have-not outlaws bucking the system (or whatever)—Wisdom, Turk 182!, there must be others.
Linda: It’s very interesting in its self-seriousness. They’re not trying to be Adventures in Babysitting. It’s supposed to be really a heavy tale about the media and…cutting your hair? There’s a lot of tension between the absurdity of the actual story and the morality tale.
Sarah: Some of that seriousness doesn’t quite get dealt with, either.
Linda: Yeah, the tacked-on ski-lodge ending is not really wrapping up everything that needs wrapping up.
Sarah: [The scooter-trasher’s skeezy father] Mr. Pyatt’s most grave transgression, in my view, is that he was fixing to rape Billie Jean when the others came into the store after her. But the movie just forgets about that for an hour, and fixates on the money Billie Jean and Binx are owed for the scooter.
Linda: Yes. I think the rape is used to negate the accidental shooting, but gets a little brushed aside as she pursues the money.
Sarah: If the script had folded that incident into her decision to butch it up, it might have made more sense, trite though that would have been. And on a side note, and I speak from some experience here…you just aren’t going to get that many girls to cut their hair that short, I don’t care if you actually are Joan of Arc.
Linda: Yes. The Billie Jeanettes are not a very convincing element of the story. But her brother did shoot the guy.
Sarah: Well, Hubie [the scooter-wrecker] told Binx the gun wasn’t loaded.
Linda: “Binx.” I’m just stepping back and marveling.
Sarah: This is another problem: the names of the characters.
Sarah: Billie Jean, Binx, and their friends Ophelia and Putter.
Linda: Don’t forget her boyfriend Lloyd. And seriously, where are they from? And why does Binx have no accent, and Billie Jean sounds like she’s in Gone With The Wind? And Lisa Simpson sounds like Lisa Simpson.
Sarah: Chicken-fried Lisa Simpson.
Linda: Chicken-fried Lisa Simpson Gets Her Period. That should be the title.
Sarah: And when she does, they act like she got shot. “You’d better lie down in the back of the car.” She’s not giving birth, guys.
Linda: You know, I noticed that, too. “You take it easy. You lie down. You go home.” Not very Joan-like, the intense fear of menstruating women.
Sarah: The grandiosity of the Joan of Arc parallel is the part I can’t get past. Watching it again, I could remember what I liked about the movie—the whole plan in the mall with the GI Joe walkies and the marbles, I remember thinking that was really clever. But the papier-mâché Billie Jean toppling into the flames…come on. What exactly is she crusading against? General unfairness?
Linda: Yes. The kids-on-the-run business, supported by a reasonable argument that they would never be believed, that was okay, as a middle-school diversion.
Sarah: Exactly. But even that, I felt it was approached the wrong way.
Linda: When it becomes some sort of a parable, not just about Joan of Arc, but about the media and public madness, that was where I jumped off the train. Not to mention the fact that Peter Coyote’s character knew where it was at the whole time.
Sarah: And Billie Jean uses the media herself! Okay, it was Lloyd’s idea, but don’t deliver a videotape (and by the way, it was a VHS tape and Lloyd’s camera was a Beta…just saying) and then get annoyed at the gap between your reality and your image. And the police won’t believe her or Binx because they’re poor, not because they’re kids. She says it herself: “We live in the trailer park.”
Linda: Right. I find it odd to be like, “I’d respect it more if it were more of a broad commentary about social class,” but there you go.
Sarah: In the second place, this class-based antipathy between characters is an aspect of ‘80s movies that, even at the time, I thought was overblown.
Linda: Hey, Andie couldn’t date Blane because of the side of the tracks she lived on, either.
Sarah: And Amanda Jones had her class struggle in Some Kind of Wonderful…the list is endless. I’m sure it’s tied to Reagan-era anxiety about the divide between the “richies” and the nots getting wider, but even at the time, I felt like that was a problem teenagers had primarily in the movies.
Linda: Well, Mr. Pyatt owned a store, but it wasn’t like he was swimming in gold coins, either.
Sarah: That, and the utter lack of subtlety in the bullying. I’m a product of girls’ school, where it’s much more covert, but still.
Linda: Oh, and the bullying.
Sarah: It’s like the villains in One Crazy Summer—don’t these people have anything better to do?
Linda: You mean “Hubie”?
Sarah: You know, he popped up shortly thereafter as Wolfman in Top Gun.
Linda: I actually thought about Top Gun at one point while watching Billie Jean. There was some chase with Kenny-Loggins-ish music playing, and I thought, “This is the ‘80s, right here. This, and Top Gun.”
Sarah: As you said, it’s not an undiverting place to start from; the whole “fair is fair,” “we’re not coming back until you admit that you’re wrong and pay us back” thing is something that would really appeal to a kid’s innate need for justice. Tying it to Jeanne d’Arc? Mistake. Having Billie Jean save a child from a beating, and then play it for laughs at the end of the scene? Even bigger mistake.
Linda: Yeah. At the end, when they’re all throwing their swag on the fire like it’s a book-burning, just so we can see the “Billie Jean is being BUUUUURNED!” imagery? That’s just flat-out goofy. And I have never, ever understood why the abused child is in the story. Speaking of things that aren’t actually cleaned up in the script.
Sarah: Well, he goes to stay with his grandma, but still. It’s Billie Jean’s first and last act of heroism, unless you count the torching of Pyatt’s Billie-Jean-swag sales booth. And I was watching the fire and thinking, “But…they paid for that stuff. They’re collector’s items now.”
Linda: It’s almost like they have to give her heroism some heft, so she’s not just a sideshow. Which…she is.
Sarah: Which is fine!
Linda: Well, once they’ve paid for the swag, what good does it do to burn it? He’s already got the money!
Sarah: If you’re going to have her make some statement on commercializing her without her consent, then—make that statement. Or boiling her life down to a slogan—a perfectly good idea that the script could have explored. I for one was irritated that she didn’t demand Pyatt’s entire gross of all the shit he sold, plus a fine for using her image without her permission.
Linda: Can I also just mention the hambone acting from young Christian Slater, who hadn’t quite decided to be Nicholson quite yet?
Sarah: I didn’t think he was terrible. Whoever mixed the fake blood after he got beat up: terrible. Blood is not pink, friends.
Linda: I didn’t think he was terrible, but there’s a certain…I don’t know. I am never persuaded by his entire scooter dilemma, entirely.
Sarah: If they’re that poor and it costs that much to fix, how’d he get the scooter in the first place? He doesn’t appear to have a job…oh, wait, they mentioned that he bought it with the settlement money after their dad died. So it’s the Dad Memorial Scooter, I guess. With that said, the decision to kidnap the scooter back from Hubie, like, six hours after the inciting incident played oddly.
Linda: I wasn’t sure I understood why Hubie hated him so much in the first place. Binx doesn’t really play like “victim nerd.”
Sarah: No. “Mosquito-ish pest,” maybe.
Linda: Well, and maybe because Hubie couldn’t get anywhere with Billie Jean? I agree that the re-kidnap was odd, and that it was hard to believe he got away with the scooter despite being soundly beaten.
Sarah: And then he went straight to bed with pink blood all over his face. Not even a quick trip to the sink? Really?
Linda: I do remember that from the first time I saw it, I found Billie Jean’s confrontation with Mr. Pyatt up in the upstairs of the store to be so, so creepy.
Sarah: I’d forgotten how she got out of it—or if she got out of it. I actually said out loud, “Gross.” And what does he think he’s doing, anyway? Didn’t Hubie just run out for a sandwich? Couldn’t a customer walk in? Or is overhearing a rape in progress just par for the course at Pyatt’s Souvenir ’n’ Sexual Assault Shoppe?
Linda: Or couldn’t she…I don’t know, TELL HER MOM? I mean, once Binx shoots him, then I understand they’re over a barrel, but yes, until that happens, I don’t understand how he’s so sure she won’t tell the police. All he’s offering her is money she already doesn’t have.
Sarah: It’s also worth noting that Pyatt is, like, the one male character she doesn’t kick in the slats. I’m not trying to blame the victim, but God knows she’s quick enough with the knee on Hubie and Lloyd. Actually, she racks Lloyd with the neck of a guitar, and that’s a whole other conversation. I know you’re lonely, rich boy, but she’s trespassing and she just ruptured your testis.
Linda: Yeah, as I said, once the shooting happens, then I buy the sort of “now it’s completely out of hand and you’ll never prove what happened” angle. Before that? They’re just asking for money. Why is Mr. Pyatt going to think she’ll keep coming back to be sexually assaulted for money?
Sarah: I suspect it was almost entirely so he could make that sleazy “layaway plan” pun.
Linda: Good point. And yes, Lloyd really is kind of a punching bag.
Sarah: Lloyd and his daddy issues. And his asthma, like, of course that character has an inhaler.
Linda: Yes, another situation where they packed too much in the movie to ever deal with. The whole “self-kidnap because Dad doesn’t love you” stunt…nothing ever really comes of that in the end. Or the asthma.
Sarah: There’s that whole chase scene through the golf course, too, where I kept thinking, does his asthma come back to bite them at this point? But then they cut away from him and we don’t find out.
Linda: Well, you have to think…why does he have asthma? Why is that in the movie? Along with the dad stuff, the media stuff, Peter Coyote’s feelings…TOO MUCH.
Sarah: There’s a quotation from Jonathan Bernstein’s brilliant book, Pretty In Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies—and I’m damned if I can find the line, of course—in which he says, more or less, that absentee/single parents are the McGuffin that drives half these plots, and this movie is a great example.
Linda: I like your point about the outlaw angle, too.
Sarah: Let me see what Bernstein has to say about this movie specifically…
“What the hell was The Legend of Billie Jean supposed to be? Was it a modern Joan of Arc story or a parody of how a modern Joan of Arc would be embraced and devoured by the media? Was it a clarion call conceived to shake up apathetic eighties youth? Or was it an attempt to reverse the impression left by Supergirl that Helen Slater was a wimp? In all aspects, and especially the latter, it failed. But it was an engrossing failure.”
That brings up an interesting point: I wonder if it would have worked better, even with the scattershot script, with someone else in the lead. Helen Slater just looks itchy most of the time.
Linda: I think it’s partly that she’s so uncomfortable in the look and the accent. She just looks and sounds like such an actress.
Sarah: That’s part of it. Even the way she has the character walk is very studied. But then whenever she’s “angry,” she just shouts the lines telegram-style with no modulation.
Linda: I also just didn’t think they nailed it as far as what an authentic rebellious style would look like. All of a sudden, not only the short hair, but the vest we’ve never seen and the one dangly earring?
Sarah: The vest cut down to Jesus? Here’s a tip for all you aspiring lady folk heroes: when you go on the lam, don’t forget a bra.
Linda: Right. It’s not really a practical road look.
Sarah: Nor does the movie discuss the fact that 1) the most logical reason for her to cut her hair is to avoid recognition, which, 2) unless she already knows every other teen girl in Corpus Christi is going to cut her hair the same way, won’t work anyway, because a girl with a buzz cut is more noticeable than a girl with long straight hair. And that doesn’t even get into why they never leave town. Ophelia (Martha Gehman, who drives the getaway station wagon) says it’s because they don’t have enough gas, but they’re driving ALL AROUND CORPUS CHRISTI, like, if you’re going to burn the gas anyway, LEAVE THE FRICKIN’ STATE. Also, gas was $1.09 a gallon. Cry me a river, Oph.
Linda: How about the guy who decides he’s going to shoot at them? Just on his own?
Sarah: I understood why he shot at them—he wanted the reward—but then his big oafy 4×4 turns over in that ditch like 28 times, and we never find out if he got his and his girlfriend’s asses killed. At least on The A-Team they showed the guys crawling out of the wreckage.
Linda: That part did surprise me. But I still think the idea that he would just shoot at them is sort of…at that distance? Yeah, you’re going for the tires, but do you want the hassle if you happen to shoot them? Or somebody else?
Sarah: I thought that too, at first, and then I remembered: Texas. Although I’m probably giving the movie too much credit.
Linda: I still think the abused kid is the weirdest part.
Sarah: If the kid is AUDIBLY being beaten, why don’t these neighborhood kids who approach Billie Jean for help just call the cops? Billie Jean isn’t famous for rescuing people; she’s famous for wanting her money. Unless the dad owes her $608, why not just call the law? Oh, that’s right: the Rangers are all occupied setting up roadblocks to stop this one girl. Who didn’t even shoot anyone her own self.
Linda: I’m not sure why they thought it was going to go well when they brought the hostage to the crowded carnival at gunpoint anyway.
Sarah: With Binx wearing a dress. What kind of damn-fool sharpshooters don’t use a scope and can’t see that that’s not her?
Linda: Yeah, that part didn’t make a lot of sense to me either. What was the function of the dress again?
Sarah: To fool them into thinking Binx was Billie Jean, who was actually lurking in the crowd in her curly brown wig. Do you…want to know what the function of THAT was? Because I don’t know.
Linda: That’s my whole thing. Why did she need to be in the crowd with the Amy Irving wig?
Sarah: She pulled the tarp off the scooter, to show him it was legit, but anyone could have done that. And why did Binx have to have six pounds of mascara on? He was wearing sunglasses, and they’re not going to get that close. I don’t know what the kids thought was going to happen at this hostage exchange, honestly.
Linda: Well, and really, the fact that the scooter is there doesn’t mean they’re not just going to pull a double-cross and arrest you.
Sarah: Or shoot you.
Linda: Right! I daresay, the logic of this movie falls apart at the end.
Sarah: Then again, the police let Hubie run right past the cordon to start capering around all “IT’S A BOY IN A DRESS,” so the idea that they could get away from the cops in this instance is not all that far-fetched. And then Binx gets shot, there’s a big fire, and they’re just…in Vermont.
Linda: Yes, what is WITH that ski-lodge ending? WHAT? Other than seeing that Binx lived.
Sarah: And that he’s eyeing a snowmobile, the northern version of a scooter. Wah wahhhhh. Credits!
Linda: It is a very, very weird ending. Where’s Lloyd? What happened with Putter’s period? I MUST KNOW.
Sarah: Did Ophelia’s dad get really mad about the car? Did any Pyatt get arrested for anything?
Linda: I MUST KNOW!
Sarah: Did anyone CALL THE FUCKING FIRE DEPARTMENT? I understand you’re going for the imagery, but there was a lot of hay around that carny stand.
Linda: There sure was.
Sarah: Pyatt’s yelling repeatedly that someone needs to get some water, but no, everyone just lines up to throw their Billie Jean novelty visors solemnly onto the pyre one by one, while looking thoughtful. 9-1-1, YOU DOLTS!
Linda: And then they all just let it buuuuuuurn! Including the cop.
Sarah: I KNOW! Get on the radio, Coyote, good grief. Even if it’s not in the script, just ad-lib it. It’s not like he hasn’t played this role many times before.
Linda: That is true. He is playing the Peter Coyote part.
Sarah: He was good, actually, given that his character is one of the more inept detectives in film.
Linda: What does he do, seriously? What does he do except ineptly give chase?
Sarah: And glower at Hubie?
Linda: Yeah, he did do that.
Linda: And let the stand burn down.
Sarah: And wore a gold chain. What was that about? I still have so many questions.
Sarah D. Bunting is the head rodeo clown at TomatoNation.com.
Linda Holmes writes and edits NPR’s pop-culture and entertainment blog, Monkey See. Neither of them knows what became of Lloyd Muldaur.
Review: Trolls: World Tour Is a Weird, Busy Exegesis on the State of Pop
At its best, the film doesn’t just privilege altered states of consciousness, it is an altered state of consciousness.2
The Trolls movies, like many children’s entertainments, function by way of double coding, providing exuberant absurdity for kids and hidden risqué jokes to keep their parents from wasting away from boredom. However, it’s perhaps the only such property that overcomes the threat of adults’ indifference to the romance of a fantastical land inhabited by sentient plastic dolls by appealing directly to stoner sensibilities. Tune out the dialogue—or don’t, it might not matter—in Walt Dohrn and David P. Smith’s Trolls: World Tour and you’ll observe neon-soaked environments built of wildly incongruous details, backgrounds that slowly shift and shimmer while characters in the foreground mumble incoherent phonemes, grinning faces whose features undulate like they’re being glimpsed through a glass jar, and manic irruptions of noise and color that abide by no rules of story pace or rhythm.
At its best, Trolls: World Tour doesn’t just privilege altered states of consciousness, it is an altered state of consciousness. Witness the soprano sax-playing Troll, who emerges from the fabric sea of the Trolls’ handcrafted world spewing valentines’ hearts from the end of his instrument, which, when inhaled by the film’s main characters, Branch (Justin Timberlake) and Queen Poppy (Anna Kendrick), send them, and us, on a hallucinogenic trip that includes visions of leaping narwhals, a glowworm with bodybuilder’s arms who emerges from the sand extending a plastic teal phone, and a two-dimensional tiger leaping over a Lisa Frank sunset directly toward the camera. And it all culminates with the almost Buñuelian image of Branch and Poppy’s heads materializing on the ends of some nigiri sitting on the beach.
Alongside sharing certain visual schemas with surrealist classics and laser light shows, Trolls: World Tour might be described as a jukebox musical, though it slices or mashes every song—from Daft Punk’s “One More Time” to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” to Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” to LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” to Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces”—into highlights or medleys, never completing a single one before zinging onto the next. It’s like listening to an obnoxiously impatient, sonically incurious person’s Spotify playlist.
But the film also manages to outline the contours of a plot, somewhere between the scene in which a hot-air balloon (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) with Gumby-like lips sloppily shouts non sequiturs that no ostensibly conscious character acknowledges and the one in which a country-singing centaur Troll’s (Sam Rockwell) ass tears itself off to reveal that he’s actually two German-accented yodeling Trolls. The first Trolls, we learn, was set entirely in the Pop Kingdom, where bouncy pop music rules. But in the world of this film, there are other realms representing the other genres of music: techno, country, classical, funk, and hard rock. You know, the six kinds of music. (The existence of hip-hop as an offshoot of funk somehow surprises Poppy, even though she personally knows a tiny, diamond-encrusted rapping Troll named Tiny Diamond, voiced by Kenan Thompson.)
Dissatisfied with the Trolls’ musico-national alienation, the evil Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom) of the Hard Rock Trolls has embarked on an imperialist mission to unite all of Trolldom under the banner of rock n’ roll. To do so, she travels across the land in her deep-sea anglerfish-shaped flying vessel, stealing the magical lute strings that give each realm its music and using them to string her guitar, in the process laying waste to each kingdom in some vague way. Learning the history of the strings from the Pop Kingdom’s royal scrapbook, Poppy and Branch set out in their animate hot-air balloon to stop Barb. Along the way, their perception of the historical innocence of pop music, as well as that of the kingdom they call home, comes to be challenged. As Prince D (Anderson .Paak) of the funk royal family puts it, “scrap books are cut out, glued, and glittered by the winners.” No doubt.
If the by-now obligatory social conscience of the bewilderingly trippy Trolls World Tour falls a bit flat, it’s because the film inevitably effaces the differences in musical-cum-ethnic identities it supposedly values, in a grand musical finale that synthesizes all said styles into the blandest imaginable pop medley. At the risk of taking Trolls too seriously—though one could argue that the film’s moral about tolerance invites such serious consideration—it would seem that Queen Barb’s totalitarian quest is realized, rather than refuted, by the pseudo-diversity of a world synchronized to a single beat and available for purchase in standardized plastic molds.
Cast: Justin Timberlake, Anna Kendrick, James Corden, Rachel Bloom, Anderson .Paak, Ron Funches, Kelly Clarkson, Sam Rockwell, George Clinton, Mary J. Blige, Kenan Thompson, Kunal Nayyar, Da’Vine Joy Randolph Director: Walt Dohrn, David P. Smith Screenwriter: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky, Elizabeth Tippet Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 90 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Review: We Summon the Darkness Coasts Lazily on an Empty Twist
The film’s cat-and-mouse antics play out with no sense of escalation or invention.1
Genre movies these days are rife with self-conscious subversion, and at the cost of cohesiveness. Into this climate strides director Marc Meyers’s 1980s-set Satanic-panic thriller We Summon the Darkness, which drops its twist inside the first 30 minutes and then aimlessly limps toward a rote conclusion for close to another hour.
Alexis (Alexandra Daddario) and her friends (Maddie Hasson and Amy Forsyth) attend a heavy metal concert, where they meet a group of boys (Keean Johnson, Logan Miller, and Austin Swift) and head to a remote location for an after-party. A satanic ritual ensues, except here’s the twist: It’s fake. There are no Satanists. There’s only Alexis and her friends, who are all Christian church girls killing headbangers and staging the scenes to look like murder-suicides, hoping to draw people to their congregation by scapegoating heavy metal.
Viewers are meant to write off some of the early red flags about the girls’ true intentions only to remember them in hindsight, as in how Alexis needs to be reminded of a prominent guitarist’s death. But if the film’s big twist seems to express the “fake fan” fears of dweeb gatekeepers the world over, even those anxieties remain underexplored. We Summon the Darkness struggles to conjure any discernible themes beyond a lot of too-easy jabs at religious hypocrisy, as in a scene about church donations being misappropriated.
The boys spend much of the film’s back half locked in a closet, which is still more engaging than the boilerplate scuffles in the dark that make up the final third. The cat-and-mouse antics play out with no sense of escalation or invention. Like many a film before it, We Summon the Darkness spends such a long time trying to subvert a concept that it neglects everything that might have been appealing even in a straightforward take on its premise.
Cast: Alexandra Daddario, Keean Johnson, Maddie Hasson, Amy Forsyth, Logan Miller, Austin Swift, Johnny Knoxville Director: Marc Meyers Screenwriter: Alan Trezza Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Sea Fever, Though Eerie, Delivers Body Horror in Half Measures
Writer-director Neasa Hardiman’s film is undone by earnestness.2
With occasional exceptions, humanism doesn’t benefit the horror film, which generally thrives under the inspiration of artists who exploit social vulnerabilities through various formal means. Case in point, Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever is undone by its earnestness. Hardiman is very fond of her protagonist, Siobhán (Hermione Corfield), and the writer-director is striving to make an impassioned point about the value of intelligence and rationality in the midst of a quarantine, an especially resonant theme in the age of COVID-19. In the film, a remarkable amount of time is devoted to the strategy of containing and combating a parasitic creature that invades an Irish fishing trawler, yet Hardiman has virtually no interest in goosing the audience, offering up a monster flick with no pulse.
At its heart, Sea Fever is another single-setting horror film in which an exotic animal systematically infects a blue-collar crew. Conscious of this tradition, Hardiman offers variations on a couple of the genre’s greatest hits: the misleadingly tranquil dinner scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien and the “testing for infection” sequence in John Carpenter’s The Thing. Filmmakers have gotten quite a bit of mileage out of ripping off The Thing over the years, but Hardiman stages this latter scene simply as a scientific inquiry, deriving no suspense from it, and delivering the punchline as an afterthought. Much of the trawler’s crew is the usual collection of burly, hairy studs who look so much alike that you expect a joke to be made of it, except that Hardiman evinces no sense of humor. Even the tension between the men and Siobhán—a student studying unusual sea creatures and therefore an intellectual who must maintain calm in a crisis, rising to the fore to become the next Ripley—often falls flat.
Alien and The Thing are sadistic films whose power derives, in part, from how expertly they surpass our worst suspicions of what’s going to happen. In each case, the monsters are more awful than we expect them to be, continually growing stronger, more disgusting, and more primordial—more, well, alien. By contrast, Hardiman offers a giant, multi-tentacled jellyfish that’s barely in the film, suggesting a wan and naturalistic riff on the thing from Deep Rising, as well as sea maggots that yield one instance of respectable body horror. These are mild returns on over half a running-time’s worth of exposition and foreshadowing.
Yet Sea Fever does have an eerie setting, as the creaky, claustrophobic trawler and the misty water inform the narrative with the aura of an Irish myth or ghost story, which is revealed to be very pertinent. And Corfield gives a poignant and vivid performance, especially during the film’s unexpectedly moving ending, which finds Siobhán weirdly rewarded, as her desire for knowledge and personal expansion is gratified at the expense of disaster. The final scenes clarify Hardiman’s intentions, which somewhat cancel themselves out: an attempt to fuse a monster movie and a poetic myth with a coming-of-age character study.
Cast: Hermione Corfield, Connie Nielsen, Dougray Scott, Olwen Fouéré, Jack Hickey, Ardalan Esmaili, Elie Bouakaze Director: Neasa Hardiman Screenwriter: Neasa Hardiman Distributor: Gunpowder & Sky Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
The 20 Best Zombie Movies of All Time
If zombies seem infinitely spongy as functional allegories, it’s their non-hierarchic function that retains the kernel of their monstrousness.
Zombie movies not only endure, but persist at the height of their popularity, neck and neck with vampire stories in a cultural race to the bottom, their respective “twists” on generic boilerplate masking a dead-eyed derivativeness. For the zombie film (or comic book, or cable TV drama), that boilerplate was struck by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and its subsequent sequels established a loose conception of the undead threat: lumbering, beholden to no centralized authority, sensitive to headshots and decapitations.
If, according to Franco Moretti’s “The Dialectic of Fear,” the vampiric threat (at least as embodied in Count Dracula) operates chiefly as a metaphor for monopoly capital, binding those English bourgeois interlopers to his spell and extracting the blood of their industry, then the zombie poses a more anarchic, horizontalized threat. In post-Romero, hyper-allegorized zombie cinema, the hulking undead mass can be generally understood as the anti-Draculean annihilation of capital. Flesh and blood are acquired but not retained; civilization is destroyed but not remodeled. If zombies seem infinitely spongy as functional allegories for this or that, it’s their non-hierarchic function that retains the kernel of their monstrousness.
At their apex of their allegorical authority, zombies may fundamentally destroy, as attested by our favorite zombie films of all time. But that doesn’t mean their inexhaustible popularity as monster du jour can’t be harnessed to the whims of real-deal market maneuvering, their principally anarchic menace yoked to the proverbial voodoo master of capital. John Semley
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on October 21, 2019.
20. Night of the Comet (1984)
Night of the Comet’s scenario reads like the bastard child of countless drive-in movies, in which most of humanity is instantly reduced to colored piles of dust when the Earth passes through the tail of a comet that last came around—you guessed it—right about the time the dinosaurs went belly-up. Then again, just so you know he’s not adhering too closely to generic procedures, writer-director Thom Eberhardt irreverently elects a couple of pretty vacant valley girls—tomboyish arcade addict Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and her blond cheerleader sister, Sam (Kelli Maroney)—and a Mexican truck driver, Hector (Robert Beltran), to stand in for the last remnants of humanity. With regard to its bubbly protagonists, the film vacillates between poking not-so-gentle fun at their vapid mindset, as in the Dawn of the Dead-indebted shopping spree (obligingly scored to Cindi Lauper’s anthemic “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”), and taking them seriously as agents of their own destiny. Lucky for them, as it happens, that their hard-ass old man taught them how to shoot the shit out of an Uzi—and look adorable doing it. It also doesn’t hurt that Eberhardt filigrees his absurd premise with grace notes like the cheeky cinephilia informing early scenes set in an all-night movie theater. Budd Wilkins
19. The Living Dead Girl (1982)
In The Living Dead Girl, the gothic ambience that elsewhere suffuses Jean Rollin’s work smashes headlong against the inexorable advance of modernity. The film opens with the vision of bucolic scenery blighted by the scourge of industrialization: rolling hills sliced up by concertina-capped fences, billowing smokestacks visible in the hazy distance. When some dicey movers deposit barrels of chemical waste in the family vault beneath the dilapidated Valmont chateau, a sudden tremor causes the barrels to spring a leak, reanimating the corpse of Catherine Valmont (Françoise Blanchard) in the process. Despite the gruesome carnage she inflicts on hapless and not-so-hapless victims alike, it’s clear that Rollin sees the angelic Catherine, with her flowing blond tresses and clinging white burial weeds, as an undead innocent abroad in a world she can no longer comprehend. The flm builds to a climax of Grand Guignol gruesomeness as Hélène (Marina Pierro), Catherine’s girlhood friend, makes the ultimate sacrifice for her blood sister. It’s an altogether remarkable scene, tinged with melancholy and possessed of a ferocious integrity that’s especially apparent in Blanchard’s unhinged performance. The film’s blood-spattered descent into positively Jacobean tragedy helps to make it one of Rollin’s strongest, most disturbing efforts. Wilkins
18. They Came Back (2004)
They Came Back is a triumph of internal horror, and unlike M. Night Shyamalan’s similarly moody freak-out The Sixth Sense, Robin Campillo’s vision of the dead sharing the same space as the living isn’t predicated on a gimmicky reduction of human faith. Campillo is more upfront than Shyamalan—it’s more or less understood that the presence of the living dead in his film is likely metaphoric—and he actually seems willing to plumb the moral oblivion created by the collision of its two worlds. Though the fear that the film’s walking dead can turn violent at any second is completely unjustified, the writer-director allows this paranoia to reflect the feelings of loss, disassociation, and hopelessness that cripple the living. It’s rather amazing how far the film is able to coast on its uniquely fascinating premise, even if it isn’t much of a stretch for its director: Campillo co-authored Laurent Cantet’s incredible Time Out, a different kind of zombie film about the deadening effects of too much work on the human psyche, and They Came Back is almost as impressive in its concern with the existential relationship between the physical and non-physical world. Ed Gonzalez
17. Zombi Child (2019)
Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child is a quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments in in the film where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper than race relations. Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. The film’s off-kilter mix of horror, historiography, and youth movie affords Bonello plenty of opportunity to indulge his pet themes and motifs. He spends much time lingering throughout scenes set at the academy on the sociality of the young women and their engagement with pop culture. In fact, Bonello’s fascination with the dynamics of these relationships seems to drive his interest in the horror genre more so even than the film’s most obvious antecedent, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie—as is indicated by a pretty explicit homage to Brian De Palma’s Carrie. Sam C. Mac
16. Train to Busan (2016)
When divorced of message-mongering, the film’s scare tactics are among the most distinctive that the zombie canon has ever seen. The zombies here are rabid, fast-moving ghoulies that, as Train to Busan’s protagonists discover, are attracted to loud sounds and only attack what they can actually see. This realization becomes the foundation for a series of taut set pieces during which the story’s motley crew of survivors manipulate their way past zombies with the aid of cellphones and bats and the numerous tunnels through which the train must travel. The genre crosspollination for which so many South Korean thrillers have come to be known for is most evident in these scenes (as in the survivors crawling across one train car’s overhead luggage area), which blend together the tropes of survivor-horror and disaster films, as well as suggest the mechanics of puzzle-platformer games. Gonzalez
Review: Nafi’s Father Is a Raw and Immediate Look at a Collison of Faith
The film vibrantly articulates all that’s lost when people are held under the draconian decree of warlords.3
Writer-director Mamadou Dia’s feature-length debut, Nafi’s Father, hinges on the contentious relationship between two brothers, each one devoted to an opposing version of Islam, and how their bid for primacy leads to rising tensions in the small Senegalese town they call home. For Tierno (Alassane Sy), who’s well on his way to becoming an imam, the religion is a justification for peace and self-reflection. And while his practices are largely traditional, he’s lenient about some of the more repressive rules that many other imams would blindly enforce. But for his greedy, duplicitous brother, Ousmane (Saïkou Lo), Islam is merely a stepping stone to achieving control over their town. As Tierno struggles to keep his followers on the path of righteousness, Ousmane repeatedly arrives on the scene with stacks of cash from a fundamentalist sheikh looking to draw supporters to his cause.
Dia delicately balances this depiction of the gradual arrival of more restrictive, fundamentalist forces within the town’s borders with a small-scale family drama that plays out after Ousmane’s son, Tokara (Alassane Ndoye), asks Tierno’s daughter, Nafi (Aïcha Talla), for her hand in marriage. Tierno’s fears for his daughter were she to become Ousmane’s daughter-in-law are legitimate, but his refusal to consent to the union is driven more by his lingering jealousy of his brother, who was favored by their parents, and a desire to keep Nafi from venturing out to the nearby city, where she wants to study neurosciences.
While Tierno sees through his brother’s nefarious methods and justly fears the terrifying sheikh, his own restrictive treatment of Nafi, who genuinely loves and wants to marry Tokara, lends the film’s central sibling rivalry a potent irony; no one here is free from blame in the tragic events that will follow. Just as Ousmane courts the sheikh for his own benefit, so does Tierno impede his daughter’s desires only to serve his own ego. Dia nimbly reveals how this battle of headstrong wills reverberates through both the entire local community and within Tierno’s own family. As the sheikh’s presence is felt more forcefully, we also see how even those with the appearance of authority and respect in such an oppressed society, such as Tierno and Ousmane, are ultimately rendered as helpless as those in their own flock when someone with money and guns arrives on the scene, licking their chops like a wolf at the door.
Shooting in a small town in northeast Senegal, near where he grew up, Dia counters the film’s central tragedy with an emphasis on the region’s sparse beauty and its cultural mores and artifacts, from its marriage rituals to the vibrantly colorful, intricately designed costumes. The richness and cultural specificity that Dia brings to Nafi’s Father lends it an authenticity that helps articulate all that’s lost when such towns are held under the draconian decree of warlords. The film’s pacing is quite deliberate, and while it could perhaps use some tighter editing in the middle stretches, it’s the acute attention paid to how seemingly trivial acts of greed and selfishness can, over time, lay the tracks for an outright takeover by violent fundamentalists that gives a familiar subject such a gripping, raw immediacy.
Nafi’s Father had its world premiere last year at Locarno and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact JoyeDidi.
Review: Days of Cannibalism Bears Witness to a Culture War, Western Style
The film ultimately depicts a world in which people are left with no other option but to devour their own.3.5
A frontier story about the tension between settlers and natives, director Teboho Edkins’s Days of Cannibalism may technically be a documentary, but at heart it’s a western. Filmed in and around a small cattle-herding community in Lesotho, where Chinese immigrants have recently begun to settle and open up various types of stores, the film is packed with mythopoeic vistas of men on horseback roaming through fearsome yet spectacular mountain landscapes—shots that feel like they could’ve been cribbed straight from an Anthony Mann oater. There are scenes of cattle rustling, banditry, and frontier justice, as well as a Leone-esque vision of a town riven by suspicion, resentment, and racial hostility.
Edkins’s artistic project here isn’t simply to make a documentary that feels like a genre film, but rather to use the trappings of the western to explore the power dynamics at play on the extreme margins of global capitalism. Edkins’s former film professor at the dffb Film Academy in Berlin, Valeska Grisebach, has described the western as “a film about a space in which the rules are still in flux, and the balance of power is in negotiation.” And that struggle for authority and dominance is precisely what Days of Cannibalism explores.
Edkins casts the local Basotho people as “indians” and the Chinese migrants as the “pioneers,” but he then spends much of the film problematizing these distinctions. The Basotho are neither the bloodthirsty savages of early westerns nor the forlorn, eternally wronged victims of the genre’s revisionist period. Rather, they’re basically just ordinary people struggling to find a sense of equilibrium in a fast-changing world that seems to be leaving them behind.
The spiritual significance that the Basotho impute to cattle—cows are even referred to as the “wet-nosed god”—may at first seem like superstitious animism. But the belief turns out to also have a ruthlessly economic basis, as we see when some local men, who’ve turned to cattle rustling after being unable to find work, are hit with a lengthy prison sentence for the crime of stealing a couple of cows. Their crime isn’t a spiritual one so much as a social one: As the judge informs them, to steal a cow is to steal a community member’s livelihood.
Days of Cannibalism reveals the Chinese immigrants’ unwillingness to understand the Basotho people’s cow-herding practices as one of the major sources of resentment between the two groups. The immigrants make money by setting up small shops, as well as Walmart-like “wholesale stores.” “The Chinese have no idea how to take care of cattle,” one Lesotho herder angrily laments. Another more rueful local—the host of a radio show that interweaves pop music with thoughtful discussions of issues impacting the community—wonders why the Chinese immigrants can’t teach the locals how to set up shops in exchange for the Lesotho training them in the ways of cattle-herding. Instead, the two groups remain hopelessly alienated from each other, rarely interacting outside of business transactions.
But this isn’t a clear-cut tale of settler colonialism. The Chinese people who come to this underdeveloped corner of the globe don’t do so with any grand scheme of displacement and exploitation, as they’ve also been shunted aside by the savage machinery of globalization. In Lesotho, which is surrounded by South Africa, they simply seek to carve out some kind of life for themselves. With its microcosmic focus on this one particular community, the film exposes the brutal dynamics that undergird a globalist system that pits not only nation against nation, but people against each other. The violence of the system simmers beneath the surface of Days of Cannibalism until it finally boils over in a scene, captured in security camera footage, of an armed robbery at a wholesale store. As its title suggests, the film ultimately depicts a world in which people are left with no other option but to devour their own.
Days of Cannibalism had its world premiere last month at the Berlin International Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Indie Sales.
Director: Teboho Edkins Screenwriter: Teboho Edkins Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
The 100 Best Westerns of All Time
The western has proved itself a durable and influential way of talking about the human condition.
The classic western was conceived from an undeniably Euro-centric, colonial perspective, with white characters upholding their supposed birthright of freedom and property. In the western, the immense country beyond the Mississippi River figures at once as the sublime object that exceeds the human grasp and as a quantifiable possession. And the prototypical cowboy straddles these paradoxical poles: at home on the dusty, timeless landscape, but also facilitating its incorporation into a society marching toward the Pacific. In 1925’s Tumbleweeds, the herder hero played by William S. Hart reluctantly makes way for the newly arrived homesteaders; in 1953’s Shane, Alan Ladd’s eponymous character rides off after making the West safe for the American family; and in Sergio Leone’s 1968 opus Once Upon a Time in the West, Jason Robards’s Cheyenne sacrifices his life not to end the expansion of the American empire, but to facilitate a more just one.
But this standard narrative mold, to paraphrase John Ford’s 1962 classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, only represents the printed legend. The historical American West was more diverse and less male-dominated than the one Hollywood imagined for many years. Life in the Western territories demanded just as many determined women as it did men, and suffragettes had their first major victories in the West: Wyoming was the first state to grant women the vote, and the first to have a woman governor. A third of all cowboys herding cattle on the Great Plains were black—a fact that’s only surprising until you consider which groups were most in need of self-reliant vocation and freedom from the long arm of the law in the wake of the Civil War. Every once in a while, these historical realities break through the filtered screen of the Hollywood western: Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich play no-nonsense saloon owners in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar and Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, respectively, and Sidney Poitier’s often overlooked Buck and the Preacher from 1972 is one of the too-few films that are centered around black frontiersmen.
When Europeans, influenced by decades of dime novels and Hollywood flicks, got around to making westerns, the resulting films would be part of this swing toward revisionism. By this time, European filmmakers were coping with the aftermath of the most devastating conflict in human history, and Italian westerns like Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence and Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly are infused with the lived-in existentialism of postwar Europe. In them, the American West becomes an otherworldly wasteland of pure brutality and diminished—rather than heightened—agency. Europeans’ estrangement of western film tropes would help spur a revisionist take on the standards of the genre that infuses films produced to this day.
However, for all the observations that such “postmodern” westerns are about the end of the West—in Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales and elsewhere, represented by the arrival of new technologies like the Gatling gun—the western has always been about endings. It’s no coincidence that the genre’s proverbial image is that of a figure “riding off into the sunset.” The American frontier was declared closed after the 1890 census, a decade before the first western on our list (Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery) was produced. Right-wing New Hollywood directors like Sam Peckinpah, Don Siegel, and Eastwood have tended to identify this perpetual fading of the West with the decline of a virile and violent, but honorable masculinity.
The bloodbaths that end films like Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch arguably represent what Freud would have called “screen memories,” a compromise between repressed memory and images we’ve invented to defend ourselves against terrible truths. The true bloodbaths in the West were the military campaigns against Native Americans, genocidal conflicts that many big-budget westerns keep on the margins, with natives appearing as stereotypical noble savages or town drunks. Ford’s films, as often as they rely on racist characterizations, were often the prestige westerns to look most directly at these wars: The Searchers and Fort Apache explore, in their own flawed fashion, the morally degrading racism in their main characters’ hearts. Some decades later, Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves became the paradigm of a post-‘70s cultural sea change: When it comes to “cowboys versus Indians,” the cowboys are no longer the automatic locus of our sympathy.
Today, infusing familiar iconography with new meaning, such revisionist representations of the American West have helped to explode the boundaries of the genre, allowing filmmakers as well as critics to explore cinematic tropes about life on the frontier in non-conventional western narratives. In contemporary films like Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Chloé Zhao’s The Rider—and looking back to ones like Victor Sjöström’s The Wind and John Huston’s The Misfits—we can recognize something like a western mode, a broader and more expansive cinematic language that has been suffused by the symbols of the American West. The western has proved itself a durable and influential way of talking about the human condition—one that needs not be confined within the frontiers drawn by the Euro-American colonial imagination. Pat Brown
100. Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford, 1939)
If John Ford was, per Jonathan Lethem, “a poet in black and white,” he became a sharp impressionist in color. The finely calibrated stillness of his shots, occasionally ravished by the greens, reds, and blues of the colonial wardrobe, gives Drums Along the Mohawk a painterly quality, as if Ford had animated a William Ranney portrait. Each frame radiates rugged beauty, but this doesn’t soften the filmmaker’s no-bull directness when depicting the eruptive landscape of the Revolutionary War. Frontier man Gil (Henry Fonda) and his new wife, Lana Martin (Claudette Colbert), are without a home of their own for most of the film, their first cabin being burned to the ground during an attack, and when Gil and the troops return from the bloody Battle of Oriskany, the director details their immense casualties and injuries with unsparing detail. Chris Cabin
99. Tombstone (George P. Cosmatos, 1993)
Tombstone succeeds by re-appropriating the stylistic quirks of many a great western before it, from “the long walk” of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch to the candlelit saloons of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller, spitting them out in a spectacle of pure pop pastiche. It tells much the same story as John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, but it reinterprets that film’s mythical, elegiac sense of wonder through bombastic action and performances. There probably isn’t a western as quotable as this one, which also succeeds through its rogues’ gallery of memorable character actors and firecracker script. A drunken Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), when accused of seeing double, says, “I have two guns, one for each of you.” Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), as he pistol-whips Johnny Tyler (Billy Bob Thornton), belts out, “You gonna do something? Or are you just gonna stand there and bleed?” The lines between good and evil blur as the law switches sides to fit the plot. Cliché layers over cliché, exposing what the genre is all about: the foundations of American myth, told again and again to suit each generation. The ‘90s was the remix era and Tombstone fits it perfectly. Ben Flanagan
98. True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969)
The Duke casts a large shadow in any instance, but especially here. Rooster Cogburn is one of John Wayne’s most identifiable roles, not just because he won an Oscar for it, or because his True Grit is popular, or because he played the character twice (the second time in 1975’s Rooster Cogburn), but mostly because Rooster’s personality is so intertwined with Wayne’s iconic persona. Wayne’s detractors often note that Wayne lacked range, and that, given his consistent trademark drawl, about the only way to distinguish one Wayne character from another is by observing his costume. But while that’s roughly accurate, it doesn’t mean that every character Wayne ever played had a similar effect. His Rooster is one of those special roles that seemed indelibly Wayne’s—because he wore that eye patch so well, because his inherent presence and stature made him a natural to play the “meanest” marshal around, because his inner softness allowed the bond between Rooster and Mattie (Kim Darby) to feel convincing and because Wayne was born to be the cowboy who puts the reins in his teeth and rides toward four armed men with a gun in each hand. Jason Bellamy
97. Death Rides a Horse (Giulio Petroni, 1967)
In 1967’s boldly cinematic Death Rides a Horse, Giulio Petroni fixates on the inextricable link between a man’s memory and his thirst for vengeance. In the 15 years since watching his entire family get murdered by bloodthirsty bandits, Bill (John Phillip Law) has carried with him a single physical relic of this trauma: a lone spur. His memories, meanwhile, are filled with haunting and vivid reminders of that moment when his life changed forever, but also with specific visual cues related to each of the bandits: a silver earring, a chest tattoo of playing cards, a skull necklace. Bill’s overwhelmingly obsessive quest for revenge takes on an extra layer of perverseness once he’s paired up with the mysterious Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), an older man who playfully competes with Bill to hunt down and kill these same men first. Through an array of carefully crafted visual and aural motifs, and clever, judiciously employed narrative twists, Petroni weaves together these two crusades, building to an explosive finale that delivers equally cathartic doses of redemption and rage. Derek Smith
96. The Violent Men (Rudolph Maté, 1955)
Polish-born filmmaker Rudolph Maté worked for a little over a decade as a cinematographer in Hollywood before starting to crank out potboilers as a director in the late ‘40s, many of them marked by a distinct pictorial flair. He was a mainstay by the mid-‘50s, and The Violent Men counts among his most ravishingly shot films, and indeed one of the unheralded Technicolor westerns of the golden era. The central California frontier, where the majestic flatland meets the imposing Sierras, has rarely been more reverently photographed, and a single montage of Glenn Ford’s John Parrish galloping from one range to another as Max Steiner’s strings howl on the soundtrack is stirring enough to validate the invention of CinemaScope. Fittingly, the land itself provides the conflict here, with Ford’s Union veteran-cum-landowner trotting out his old fighting spirit when the vicious owners of a neighboring estate—Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson in wonderfully belligerent performances—try to exploit his ranch for pennies. A cathartic war against greed ensues, and the result is finely wrought big-screen entertainment. Carson Lund
95. Westward the Women (William A. Wellman, 1951)
Based on a story by Frank Capra, William Wellman’s Westward the Women shares the collective triumphalism of Capra’s greatest films but salts it with the grueling hardship and random cruelty that are hallmarks of Wellman’s storytelling. The premise is ludicrous on paper: A large farm in a California valley is suffering a shortage of the fairer sex, so it sends a wagon train headed by Robert Taylor to Chicago to haul back 150 brides for the workers—no short order in the middle of the 19th century. Several treacherous landscapes, bleakly depicted deaths, and a mid-film memorial service later, the plan is fulfilled in grandly hokey fashion, though not without a striking reordering of business-as-usual sexual politics. As the women prove as resilient, if not more so, than the men, ideals of male heroism fall by the cliffside (literally) and members of the ensemble who would normally be relegated to extras emerge as fully shaded and complex heroines. As a result, the film amounts to a portrait of hard-won joy that’s nearly spiritual in its belief in the power of cooperation. Lund
94. The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925)
What’s surprising when one takes a fresh look at The Gold Rush is how serious it is about depicting the hard life of prospectors. The comic soul of the film is, in fact, quite black, even if Charlie Chaplin exploits every opportunity (beautifully) to transform the environment into a vaudeville stage. Lonely as the wastes are, the town in the film is sinister and lurid, full of sex and violence, despite the fact that Chaplin always seems to find a way to invest in it the personality and tone of his early one-reelers. He makes the town funny but retains its barbarism. Chaplin pursues deliverance not in the miracle of hitting pay dirt, but in the promise of a woman, and it’s this promise that Chaplin would keep after, well into his sync-sound period. Around the film’s midpoint comes a sequence that cuts between the townsfolk singing “Auld Lange Syne,” and the Tramp, alone in his cabin, listening, longingly. It’s as perfect a moment as any other in the great silent period. Some accuse the director of succumbing to sentimentality, but he’s never less sublime than when he reaches for ridiculous, grandiose highs in romance, coincidence, and naked emotion. Jaime N. Christley
93. Destry Rides Again (George Marshall, 1939)
Destry Rides Again’s Bottleneck is essentially the same town as the one in “Drip-Along Daffy.” The opening crane shots of Bottleneck show the standard storefronts that western audiences are accustomed to seeing: feed and general stores, the jail, the Saloon. As the camera moves along the street, we see just about every possible vice happening all at once with bullets whizzing about the crowded streets—and all the while, Frank Skinner’s intense score adds to the feeling of utter lawlessness. Every stereotype of the wild western town is represented in George Marshall’s film: crooked gambling above the saloon, land-hungry town bosses, a hot dancing girl named Frenchy who can douse the fires of her rowdy fans with a shot of whisky, and killin’. Lots of killin’. Back when the western was really coming into its own in 1939, the genre had already been around long enough to warrant this satire. Bottleneck is a parody of the western town. Jeffrey Hill
92. The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1927)
So many late silent films are infused with a delirious energy, a sheer delight in the transportive powers of the cinema, and Sweden’s original film genius, Victor Sjöström, was renowned as a master of subjective, otherworldly moving images. With the hallucinatory The Wind, he delivered his most captivating visual play of subjective and objective realities, casting Lillian Gish as an East Coast virgin who’s tormented on an ineffable psychical (and ambiguously erotic) level by the overbearing winds of the Great Plains. After circumstances force her into an unwanted marriage, she’s left alone in the small cottage she shares with her unloved husband as the personified wind blows open doors, whips up dust, and…takes the shape of giant stark-white colts who buck across the open sky. In a career-defining role, Gish grounds the film, giving a performance that humanizes the sensational and sensual inner conflict of a woman left alone in a vast, empty wilderness. Brown
91. Run of the Arrow (Samuel Fuller, 1957)
Writer-director Samuel Fuller’s Run of the Arrow stars Rod Steiger as Private O’Meara, a disaffected Confederate soldier who lights out for the western territories, only to wind up living among (and ultimately adopting the ways of) a Native American tribe. Fuller’s typically two-fisted tale essentially prefigures Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, absent all the bombast and self-aggrandizement. Granted, the film succumbs to the longstanding Hollywood tradition of utilizing a motley crew of decidedly non-native actors in pigment-darkening makeup to portray its Sioux tribe, including a young Charles Bronson and Spanish actress Sara Montiel, but it also endows these characters with a degree of respect and agency practically unprecedented in a 1950s American western. As the film comes full circle with the return of the man O’Meara shot and then saved in the opening scene, Fuller’s story reveals itself as a morality play concerning the destructive nature of hatred and bigotry, as well as a touchingly earnest plea for tolerance. Budd Wilkins
Review: Vivarium Looks Aloofly at the Nightmare of Conformity
This a parable about adulthood boasts deeply cynical takes on home, community, and childrearing.2
Lorcan Finnegan’s high-concept sci-fi mystery Vivarium is a parable about adulthood with deeply cynical takes on home, community, and childrearing. Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are a young couple who one afternoon tour a housing development called Yonder with its sales agent, Martin (Jonathan Aris), who dresses like a Mormon missionary. The colorless subdivision is startlingly homogenous, with identical homes in creepily neat rows (shades of Edward Scissorhands), stretching from horizon to horizon. Martin shows them house “number 9,” then disappears, and when they also try to leave the neighborhood, every road circles back to the house until their car runs out of gas. Yonder is, well, not quite even a maze, because there’s no way out. It’s a trap.
The couple is thus ushered into a nightmare of conformity, emphasized by the film’s production design. The streetscapes, often seen from overhead, are vividly and uneasily artificial, suggesting a model town; even the clouds appear painted onto the sky above. The sound design is deathly quiet except for the echoes of Gemma and Tom’s footsteps, evoking a soundstage. Yonder is a windless place, the ultimate in featureless suburbs that young city dwellers fear, where the air is odorless and the strawberries flavorless. There are no neighbors and no friends, just forced isolation—an extreme form of social distancing.
The couple is coerced into this life in service of the next generation. After trying to burn down house number nine (which just reappears in the morning), they receive a box containing a baby and a message, instructing them to raise the boy in order to be released. It’s as if bringing up children were just a form of forced labor resulting from a mistake—in this case, having toured Yonder. The boy (Senan Jennings) grows at a rate faster than dog years, reaching about seven years old in just 98 days. He screeches when he’s hungry and is otherwise eerily precocious, like a tiny adult; suspiciously observant, he recites his adoptive parents’ spats and quarrels back to them verbatim. He’s terrifying, like some sort of alien spy, and Tom and Gemma despise him, becoming physically and psychologically abusive.
Finnegan and screenwriter Garret Shanley strip away the comforts and niceties we associate with concepts of home and family, as the neighborhood here is a prison, the house a cell, and children are creepy invaders who torment their parents. It’s a fully nightmarish vision of adulting; Tom starts digging a hole in the yard, which consumes his daytime hours, keeping him from his family, as though it were his job—a jab at the meaninglessness of middle-class employment. Stuffing a lifetime into the span of less than a year, the film posits the nuclear family as something you have to submit to or go crazy should you fight against it.
As intriguing as this allegory can be to parse, it weighs down the storytelling. Vivarium, at heart, is populated with stock characters trapped less in a purgatorial suburbia than in a metaphor. Eisenberg invests Tom with his trademark arrogance, which here just makes the character flatly unlikeable. Tom comes off as a schlub, a rotten guardian and an irredeemable partner, yet the film suggests his wife loves him. Poots sells that with a rawer and more nuanced performance, making Gemma hateful yet decent, bitter but loving, trying yet fed-up. Her character is awful, like Tom, but she’s also sympathetic.
Gemma complains that all she and Tom wanted was a home, and she’s told she is home—as though this hellscape is all that a home could be. It’s an indictment of bourgeois living that stings less than it’s meant to. Vivarium is sad, but it’s too removed to be devastating, lost inside itself and its puzzles of meaning. It’s not a drama so much as an intellectual exercise.
Cast: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Senan Jennings, Eanna Hardwicke, Jonathan Aris Director: Lorcan Finnegan Screenwriter: Garret Shanley Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Resistance Is an Old-Fashioned Tribute to Marcel Marceau
The film is an old-fashioned and straightforward tale of brave opposition to the Nazi occupation of France.2.5
Writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Resistance is an old-fashioned and straightforward tale of brave opposition to the Nazi occupation of France whose most potentially intriguing angle becomes its least satisfying dimension. While featuring many familiar elements, including a sarcastically reluctant hero, a mentally unbalanced sadistic villain, and nail-biter last-minute escapes, it’s centered on a character who one doesn’t often see in World War II movies: a Nazi-fighting mime.
The mime in question is Marcel Mangel (Jesse Eisenberg)—he later changed his surname to Marceau—the son of a Jewish butcher living in Strasbourg, France. Tired of wearing a smock and cutting up meat in his father’s shop, he prefers putting on a Chaplin mustache and applying greasepaint to his face in order to clown around in cabarets. His more traditionally minded father, Charles (Karl Markovics), disapproves of Marcel’s creative life, while the audiences who Marcel performs for are clearly more interested in the dancing girls.
This light family drama might seem inappropriate following the gutting opening scene, in which Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey), a young Jewish girl in Munich, sees her parents gunned down during the Kristallnacht pogrom. But the comfortingly low-stakes nature of these early scenes skillfully illustrates the gently melancholic nature of Marcel’s clowning. At the same time, they also establish just how little the future superstar and his community appreciate the extent of the genocidal danger brewing just a few miles away in Germany.
Marcel’s call to arms comes with the arrival of a truckload of Jewish orphans, including Elsbeth. Ransomed from the Nazis, the orphans are put up in a nearby castle and watched over by a troop of somewhat adult-looking Jewish Boy and Girl Scouts. Guilted by his activist brother, Sigmund (Édgar Ramirez), into helping out, and eager to impress the willowy Emma (Clemence Poesy), Marcel uses his clowning to keep the kids entertained.
At this point, with its light comedy and rapturously beautiful Rhone Valley scenery, Resistance runs the clear risk of traipsing into Life Is Beautiful territory. But with the exception of one awkward scene, in which Marcel and Emma dress up as brownshirts and mug buffoonishly while trying to scare the kids into learning how to hide, Jakubowicz mostly steers clear of any unctuous sentimentalizing of responses to genocidal evil.
This determination to keep the story’s focus on the fight against the Nazis becomes clearer once war breaks out, France is occupied, and all Jews in the country have targets on their backs. Now responsible for even more orphans, Marcel and his compatriots relocate to Lyon and join the resistance. Heightening the stakes in Lyon is the presence of Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer), a blithe sadist who likes to play the piano while executing people in the drained pool of his luxury headquarters at the Hotel Terminus. While Schweighofer’s portrayal of Barbie as a bright-eyed torture-happy sociopath who always looks on the verge of giggling veers close to movie-villain shtick, the character’s dark presence keeps the immediacy of Marcel’s mission front and center.
Jakubowicz’s strengths as a director become more clear in some of the set pieces staged after the action shifts to Lyon and Marcel’s group has to balance keeping themselves and the orphans alive in France or escaping to Switzerland. Showing a strong feel for crisply capturing the tense and buttoned-down panic of undercover operatives in occupied territory, Jakubowicz also leverages Eisenberg’s skill for simultaneously signaling vulnerability and resolve.
Where Resistance is likely least effective for many audiences is its attempt to portray Marcel as a masterful performer. It’s hard not to think of Richard Attenborough’s pushy and unfunny Chaplin in some of Eisenberg’s energetic but flat scenes performing as a clown or a mime. A couple of these are fairly stiff, particularly one where Marcel clowns to keep the orphans quiet while German soldiers prowl nearby, and another of him miming for a rapt crowd of American soldiers after being introduced by General George Patton (Ed Harris). (While this latter scene is somewhat inexplicable, it appears to have actually happened, following Marcel’s work for Patton as a liaison officer—a phenomenal pairing of sunny-gruff personalities that seems worthy of its own film.) In most other aspects, however, Resistance functions as a handsomely mounted biopic that tells a little-known story with considerable passion.
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Clemence Poesy, Édgar Ramirez, Bella Ramsey, Géza Röhrig, Matthias Schweighofer, Karl Markovics, Ed Harris Director: Jonathan Jakubowicz Screenwriter: Jonathan Jakubowicz Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: Atlantis’s Future Vision Grapples with a Past That Never Was
The film’s use of scale to drive home the absurdity of its characters’ actions recalls Werner Herzog’s tragicomic existentialism.3
The use of apocalyptic settings has become so prevalent in fiction over the past couple of decades, perhaps more than in any time since the Cold War era, that it seems difficult to find new ways to make the concept resonate. This is particularly true as the real world starts to resemble a uniquely mundane version of the most vivid renderings of dystopia. Atlantis, Ukrainian director Valentyn Vasyanovych’s fourth feature-length fiction film, succeeds in part because the situation it depicts is barely even fictional.
Vasyanovych was inspired to make the film by a visit to the Donbass region in the eastern part of his home country, which is the site of regular clashes between government troops and pro-Russian separatists, and which has been left environmentally ravaged due to the war there. Atlantis is set in an imagined 2025, five years after the war has ended, with the Donbass area no longer fit for human habitation—as will likely be the case in reality.
Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk) and Ivan (Vasyl Antoniak) are PTSD-addled ex-soldiers who fought and killed for a place that wasn’t worth saving, and who are under no illusions of finding a better life elsewhere. They now work at a steel mill that’s about to fall victim to the same capitalist whims they were defending as part of the victorious pro-Western forces. A glimmer of hope is eventually offered by a volunteer group that drives around the region picking up the bodies of those who fell in the war, to identify them and provide them with proper burials.
Despite the film’s basis in current geo-political and economic realities and its obvious parallels with the broader climate crisis faced by the world, it rarely engages directly with these themes. Instead, it’s more interested in how people adjust to desperation and scarcity, showing a society where armed conflict and corporate neglect have poisoned the environment and devalued human life to such an extent that people aren’t even able to grieve their losses. Vasyanovych employs long takes with almost no camera movement, combining naturalistic lighting with pictorial framing and a relatively large depth of field. As well as affording the time and space to appreciate the routines of their hardscrabble existence, this striking aesthetic serves to distance the viewer from the characters, showing these stoical figures alienated from themselves as much as they’re dwarfed by desolate industrial landscapes.
The unrelenting bleakness of this situation often becomes almost cartoonish in proportion, and the film’s slow pace occasionally conjures a tone of deadpan humor. An early scene sees Sergiy and Ivan setting up a row of life-sized dummies in the snow for shooting practice, and the depiction of this task in real time, with their truck’s engine running conspicuously in the background throughout, draws out the childish inanity of their adherence to military discipline. Later, a 1984-aping scene of assembled workers being informed of their impending redundancy by a face on a giant projector screen, with an interpreter’s Ukrainian translation disrupting the flow of this British company executive’s ruthless corporate-speak, wouldn’t be out of place in a more straightforward work of political satire.
The film’s use of scale to drive home the absurdity of its characters’ actions sometimes calls to mind Werner Herzog’s tragicomic existentialism, as well as early silent cinema. In a feat of resolve and improvisation that would make Fitzcarraldo proud (not to mention Charlie Chaplin’s shoe-eating tramp from a similarly barren locale a century prior), Sergiy cobbles together a hot tub for himself in the middle of the wasteland, filling a large digger’s bucket with water from a hose and burning petrol-soaked timber underneath it for heat. His soak in this makeshift bath is Atlantis’s most indelible image, a sight gag that also underlines his stubborn but admirable commitment to making a home where few other people dare to stay.
Appropriately for a study of humans physically engulfed by their surroundings, Atlantis is bookended by shots apparently captured with a thermal imaging camera. Initially coming across as gimmicky, representative of a broader style-over-substance artificiality that prevents the film from reaching the heights of its cinematic forebears, its final use is still surprisingly affecting. It highlights two people merging together in the warmth of postcoital intimacy, finding a new sense of belonging in the ruins. They jointly refuse to mourn a lost Atlantis that, given the state of our current reality, likely never existed for them in the first place.
Atlantis premiered last year at the Venice Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Best Friend Forever.
Cast: Andriy Rymaruk, Liudmyla Bileka, Vasyl Antoniak Director: Valentyn Vasyanovych Screenwriter: Valentyn Vasyanovych Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
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