Fan Mail: A bit of old business first. A few days after I sent #101 off to Keith, “AStrayn” added some comments to US#100, although he described himself as a “lurker not a commenter.” I welcome all kinds, but the more “commenters” the better, since the high class readers of this column tend to have very interesting stuff to say. He, as do I, appreciates David Ehrenstein’s comments and rebuttals. AStrayn also was delighted I am going to continue the column, since he has read every one. I hope he has a life as well.
David was back with comments on #101. He thinks Struges could have made up for Grable’s lack of edge in The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend by giving more edge to the other characters. I am not sure that would have been enough. Zoe’s granddad tried that in his direction of Jeanne Crain in Pinky (1949). He let her blandness stand in for a kind of shock at her situation and the intensity of the other characters. It sort of works there, but I don’t think that would work in Sturges’s film, since in the case of Blonde Grable’s character may just seem more out of it than she already does. But it’s certainly something to think about.
And David informs me that Jacques Rivette and I actually agree on something (Winslet’s performance in Titanic). That’s another sign of hell freezing over. Congratulations also to David on his new book on Roman Polanski. Sometime I will tell you about meeting Polanski and Sharon Tate…
“outsidedog” mentions that he found the transcript of the first of the Kasdan-Spielberg-Lucas discussions on Raiders on the Internet. I haven’t seen it, but he says it is easy to find. Well, maybe for someone who is not a Luddite about computers as I am, but I may give it a try. Meanwhile the rest of you can see what you can find.
The Master (2012. Written by Paul Thomas Anderson. 137 minutes.)
Can we all stop thinking about L. Ron and Tom Cruise and just watch the damned movie?: I always seem to have mixed feelings about Paul Thomas Anderson’s films. I never saw Hard Eight (1996), but I thought Boogie Nights (1997) was an interesting mess. I remember reading in an interview with Anderson at the time that the script for Boogie Nights was originally much longer than the film, which still clocked in at 155 minutes. It struck me in watching the film that there were several scenes that were obviously intended to be part of a longer film and that Anderson had not gotten around to cutting them, either at the script level or in the film editing, to fit the running time of the film. Some of the scenes with Julianne Moore’s character Amber dealing with her legal problems are the most obvious examples.
Magnolia (1999) was also a sprawling script, but it hung together better than Boogie Nights, not so much on a narrative level but on thematic levels, especially with the recurring Anderson theme of fathers and sons. Plus the deluge of frogs, structured to hit at just the right moment in the running time of the film. Punch-Drunk Love (2002) was Anderson’s mostly tightly controlled film and closer to a more conventional film, as if Anderson was saying, “See, I can do that if I want to.” There Will Be Blood (2007) had a sprawling plot, like Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but without the range of characters of the two earlier films. Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday were both very emotionally closed off characters, which reduced audience involvement with the story. In terms of its narrative, There Will Be Blood has a lot going on outside of what we actually see in the film, and our suspicions grow that those elements may have been more interesting to watch than those we actually see.
The Master first introduces us to Freddie Quell, a Navy enlisted man in the South Pacific at the end of World War II. You might assume you are back in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), since the photography is gorgeous, but given the sailors frolicking on the beach, you might expect them to break into “There is Nothing Like a Dame” from South Pacific (1958). But Anderson is of the show, not tell, persuasion, so the sailors make a sand model of a naked woman on the beach, which Freddie proceeds to have simulated sex with. He’s the most interesting, and also most creepy, character among the sailors, and therefore the one we most want to follow. So we do, into post-war therapy. The shots in the group lecture are exactly like the close-ups John Huston uses in his banned documentary Let There Be Light (1945-1948-1980; it was shot in 1945, copyrighted in 1948, and finally released to the public in 1980). Anderson also uses dialogue from Light, slightly varied for this film. And then Freddie is off to a series of jobs he seem unable to keep. If Daniel and Eli are closed off characters, Freddie lets it all hang out; we never know what he is going to do or say. Most of what he does and says is usually the wrong thing for the occasion. As interesting as he is to watch, we sort of want him to get his shit together.
He wakes up one morning on a yacht captained by Lancaster Dodd, who runs what we can only call a cult, the Cause. Dodd has been compared to L. Ron Hubbard, but Anderson only uses Hubbard as one of many models for Dodd, and the Cause could be any cult. Anderson is creating his own world here, and if you are paying attention to the film, you will quickly stop making comparisons with Hubbard. Anderson could have simply made this a satire of Scientology, but that is only a very minor element in the film. Dodd is a much more open character than most cult leaders, and the kicker is that he is funny. Not funny in the sense of being satirized, but a character with a real sense of humor. Rumor has it that Anderson and the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Dodd, based the character in part on Orson Welles, and I can believe it. Hoffman as Dodd is absolutely charismatic.
So shortly we get a great two-person scene between Freddie and Dodd as Dodd starts what he calls “processing.” See my comments on Hope Springs in US#99 for how most shrink scenes don’t work and why. The scene here works beautifully for several reasons. It is not strictly speaking a therapy sequence. Freddie does not unload his woes with Dodd nodding politely. Dodd is asking Freddie a series of quick questions, repeating a question when he thinks Freddie is not telling the truth, which is most of the time. We are also well past the half-hour mark in the film, so we are very invested in both Freddie and Dodd. And finally, with Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie and Hoffman, you have two actors at the height of their powers.
Freddie fascinates Dodd, who rightly calls him a scoundrel, and Dodd thinks if he can “cure” Freddie, then it will be a great triumph for him. That’s the film’s plot, for those of you who did not think the movie had one. Eventually Freddie goes through the complete processing experience. Now that should be as compelling as their two-man scene, since it shows a process, something that movies are usually very good at. In fact, this is one of the weakest sections of the film, since it is very repetitive. You will probably get as tired as I did of Freddie crossing the room from window to wall again and again.
Meanwhile we get hints of what is going on outside Dodd’s group. Police show up at one point to arrest Dodd for financial shenanigans. The yacht we saw when we first met him belongs to a rich woman who wants him to pay for damages. The group moves from house to house, each house owned by a member of the Cause. We learn there will be a big convention in Arizona, but it’s in a large storefront office rather than a convention hall. Anderson gives us only what we need to know about the Cause and the outside world as it affects the story, unlike the activities outside the main story in There Will Be Blood. Freddie and Dodd are more interesting as individuals than Daniel and Eli, and they hold our interest. Anderson and Hoffman keep Dodd just this side of absurdity, so we at least half believe in what he is doing. And we hope he will be successful with Freddie.
Freddie runs away from the Cause and returns to see Dodd only several years later. Dodd is now in England, which you would think would not be susceptible to the Cause but apparently is. We get another great two-man scene between Freddie and Dodd. Both are disappointed Freddie did not work out, but his demons are still in control of him. Dodd is sympathetic, but with an edge, and then he begins to talk about time travel and we realize how flaky he is. Is Freddie better off out? With all his demons? Could the Cause have eventually worked for him? We’re both happy he’s out and sorry it did not work out in the group. With Freddie and Dodd we have another of Anderson’s surrogate father-and-son, but done in more depth. The film is also a very American story, with Dodd standing in for any number of movements toward self-empowerment. Americans love the idea that we can make ourselves into better persons, and in this sense The Master is a tragedy, since Freddie has not changed by the end of the film. Except that he is having sex with a real woman rather than a sand model. And he is using some of the Cause’s terminology to seduce her. How much more American can you get?
Robot & Frank (2012. Written by Christopher D. Ford. 89 minutes.)
Charm, take one: I used to tell my screenwriting students that if you were going to write a film in a well-known genre, you had better bring something fresh to mix. This is exhibit A for the prosecution. We have had over the last hundred or so years about a million or so movies about robots. We have had them sexy (Metropolis ), stalwart (The Day the Earth Stood Still ), lethal (2001: A Space Odyssey ), and cute (Star Wars ). So the degree of difficulty for Ford to make something fresh was very high. Give the man a 10.
We are in the near future. Frank is a retired jewel thief who has serious memory problems and does not seem to take very good care of himself. Hunter, his son, gets him a help robot that will make food, clean the house, etc. Frank, like most curmudgeons in their seventies, hates the idea. OK, Frank and the robot are obviously going to bond and become buddies. Nope. Ford is great at establishing Frank’s humanity, giving Frank Langella a lot to do in the role. On the other hand, Ford is also great at not establishing the robot’s humanity. Most robot movies make us think there is some humanity in the robot. Here there is not. None. Not a jot, not a tiddle. The robot is a machine, but he is very smart in the kind of mechanical intelligence that robots can have. Ford doesn’t turn the robot cute, but gives him lines that can come legitimately out of the kind of intelligence that robots have.
So when Frank figures out he can use the robot’s mathematical skills to pick locks and its mechanical skills to do things he can no longer do, the robot does not develop a moral conscience. He is more into the mechanics of what they are doing. And he is very good at them. Ford makes his robot very consistent. When he is introduced to “Mr. Darcy” (a great name), the robot who will be taking over the local library as it goes all digital, the two robots have no small talk because they are robots, for Christ’s sake.
The living actors (Langella, Susan Sarandon as the local librarian, and James Marsden and Liv Tyler as Frank’s children) are given enough to do. The robot is “acted” by two people. The human inside the suit is actress Rachel Ma, who is thoroughly convincing, and the voice is perfectly done by Peter Sarsgaard. Sarsgaard makes Ford’s dialogue smart in exactly the right ways. Sarsgaard gets my vote for voiceover of the Year.
Liberal Arts (2012. Written by Josh Radnor. 97 minutes.)
Charm, take two: Radnor’s trying to rely a little too much on charm here. Radnor, who also directed and plays the lead, has written a starring role for himself. Here is he Jesse, a New York college admissions interviewer in his mid-thirties. We get a nice scene at the start when we see him responding to a variety of unseen applicants about college. You can tell that a lot of them don’t belong in college, and that he is rather tired of dealing with them. So when a former professor of his, Peter, asks Jesse to come out to Ohio (the picture was filmed on the campus of Radnor’s alma mater, Kenyon) for Peter’s retirement dinner, he goes. And meets Zibby, the 19 year old daughter of friends of Peter. Radnor as a writer does not give himself much to do, but as a director he holds on himself more than he needs to. As a writer, he does not give Zibby that much to do, and he doesn’t get very deeply into how she feels about the developing relationship with Jesse. As in the similar Hello I Must be Going (see US#101), there is not enough texture in the characters. Zibby, on the other hand, is played by the luminous Elizabeth Olsen. As happened in Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, see US#86), the script does not give her enough to do, but Olsen has more star quality than Radnor and she wipes him off the screen. She has the charm to carry their scenes, and he doesn’t. He is also upstaged by Richard Jenkins as Peter, Zac Efron as a campus flake, and Allison Janney as a former professor of his. He has written good parts for them, and they get the most out of them. Maybe Radnor should not star in his own scripts.
Radnor is also sloppy in the script about not giving us the interesting details. Jesse is a reader, and on the campus he meets Dean, an emotionally wounded student. Dean is reading a big thick book and Jesse tells him it is his favorite book too. But we have no idea what the book is. Later Jesse and Zibby get into a disagreement over her love for a trilogy of vampire novels. They are obviously supposed to be the Twilight novels, but we can see the cover of one of the books, and it is not a Twilight book. For a film that promotes reading, and that’s good thing, not being precise about what is being read is rather tacky.
Taken 2 (2012. Written by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen. 91 minutes.)
Just a typical take-your-daughter-to-work day: You may remember from US#20 that I liked Taken (2009) for what it was: a good, fast, who-cares-about-the-plot implausabilities B-movie. The sequel is in that same tradition. I was amused by one review that went on and on about how this is just the same as the first one, but when the review come to describing the plot it picked up on one major plot element that’s different. And that’s not the only thing.
Taken père mostly takes place in either a nighttime Los Angeles or a nighttime Paris, with Bryan Mills killing a lot of anonymous baddies in dark rooms and even darker hallways. Taken fils starts with some great aerial shots of a truck going through the mountains of what turns out to be Albania. In the back of the truck are several boxes that look to be caskets. Which they are. They carry the bodies of some of those anonymous baddies, who were not anonymous to their family and friends. Especially not to the father of one them. He is Murad Krasniqi, and he is determined to get the man who killed his son.
So then we get Bryan and Kim, his daughter who was kidnapped the last time. They both seem to have adjusted to what happened, and Bryan comes to pick her up for her driving lesson. She has failed her driving test several times, and Bryan is determined to help her. That sounds like filler, doesn’t it? Stay tuned.
Bryan has to go off to a mission in Istanbul and suggests Kim and his ex-wife Lenore join him. This is another example of Besson and Kamen going so quickly you don’t question it. So they all end up in Istanbul and Kim is kidnapped again. Nope. Here’s where it gets interesting. The baddies want to get all three of them, but they end up getting only Bryan and Lenore. Kim avoids capture. And so for the next half hour or so Kim is trying to rescue Bryan and her mom. Bryan manages to communicate with her—don’t ask—and tells her to go to his equipment bag in his hotel room closet and bring two grenades and one gun. Not three grenades and two guns. Bryan is like Q in the Bond movies: only bring to a fight what you will need. It works and soon Bryan and Kim are free, escaping the bad guys in a car. Kim insists Dad drive. He says, “Can you shoot?”
“Then you drive.” Those lines are the epitome of what the Taken movies are all about. And see what I mean about the driving test scenes earlier? Eventually it comes down to Bryan having to rescue Lenore, or as he says when Kim asks him what he is going to do, “What I do best.” Well, since that is the franchise, of course we want to see him in action, but it’s the least interesting section of the film. Since Lenore is played by Famke Janssen, who was memorable as Xenia Onatopp in the 1995 Bond film GoldenEye, you’d think she would get a chance to kick a little bad guy butt, but not here.
Besson and Kamen use the fast pace they set for a nice payoff at the end. The threesome is back in Los Angeles and is having lunch at a seaside restaurant. Eventually Kim’s boyfriend of the moment shows up and joins them. The scene goes on just a little longer than it should, and we just know something is going to happen…to set up #3 if for no other reason. But it doesn’t. Given how much money Taken 2 is making, I am sure there will be a 3, and I hope they let Xenia Onatopp in on some of the action.
Trouble with the Curve (2012. Written by Randy Brown. 111 minutes.)
Where are the great lines?: A lot of people think of Clint Eastwood as the strong, silent type who seldom says anything in his pictures. As we have talked about before here, that’s not true. In US#18 I wrote about how the dialogue in Gran Torino (2008) brilliantly caught American male attitudes about race. In US#44 I started the discussion of The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) with a list of several great lines from the film. And then there is “Do you feel lucky, punk?” and “Go ahead, make my day.” The major weakness with Brown’s script here is that the dialogue is completely flat and literal. Everybody says exactly what they think and how they feel, and they don’t say it in any interesting ways. This is a script set in the world of baseball, so Brown is going up against Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham (1988) and Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s Moneyball (2011). No contest.
Trouble almost feels like a response to Moneyball, which showed how modern managers learned how to use statistical analyses to figure out which players to buy. The older scouts were seen as out-of-touch dinosaurs in that film. Here the main character, Gus, is one of those dinosaurs, but he and his fellow scouts are shown to have much more of a feel for the game and the players than the computer nerds. Gus, with the help of his daughter Mickey, warn his team not to hire a hot-shot hitter, but they do anyway and he flops. Gus is a curmudgeonly type, like Walt in Gran Torino, but Brown does not give Eastwood anything more to do than squint, which of course Eastwood is great at. Amy Adams is fun as Mickey, but she is inconsistently written. Sometimes she says she was happiest as a kid when she was watching games with Gus, but then gets on his case for palming her off on relatives most of her youth. You could bring those two elements together with a couple of lines, but Brown doesn’t.
The Racket (1928. Scenario by Del Andrews, adaptation by Bartlett Cormack, based on the play by Bartlett Cormack. Titles by Tom Miranda. 84 minutes.)
Getting into the movies: I first brought Bartlett Cormack to your attention in the item about Fury (1936) in US#79. This is the film that got Cormack into the movies. The stage play opened on Broadway in 1927 and had a reasonable run of 119 performances, closing in early 1928. It’s set in a suburban police station where Police Captain McQuigg has been sent by his corrupt bosses, who are under the thumb of racketeer Nick Scarsi. McQuigg is determined to nail Scarsi, and when Scarsi’s younger brother kills a woman in a hit-and-run accident, McQuigg uses that to get Scarsi out to the station. Violence ensues. Since Cormack was a reporter, he has two reporters, Pratt and Miller, hanging around the station, and neophyte reporter Ames, who looks as though he may get involved with Scarsi’s brother’s gold-digging girlfriend. I sort of assumed on reading about the play that it was a rip-off of the more famous play dealing with cops and newspaper people, the Hecht-MacArthur The Front Page. But a check of the Broadway Data Base shows that Cormack’s play opened and closed before The Front Page opened in later 1928.
While the play is all on one set, the film does not get to the station until 35 minutes into the film. We see a lot of what was probably exposition in the play acted out in a variety of locations. Then the tension tightens as we focus on the events in the station. While the titles are credited to Tom Miranda, I can’t help but think many of them must have come from the play. The girlfriend says to the young reporter, “Didn’t your mother tell you not to speak to strange ladies?” When somebody asks McQuigg why he’s ready for a fight with Scarsi, he says, referring to the suburban location, “It’s the country air.” The director of The Racket is Lewis Milestone and it is not surprising that three years later, when he came to make the first film version of The Front Page, he had Cormack working on the script. Milestone obviously recognized good writers.
The General Died at Dawn (1936. Screenplay by Clifford Odets, story by Charles G. Booth. 98 minutes.)
On the other hand…: Milestone directed this film as well, and it’s a mess. Based on Odets’s 1935 New York playwriting successes Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing, he was brought to Hollywood and assigned to this film. Why anybody at Paramount thought the poet of the American proletariat would have been a good choice for an exotic melodrama set in China is anyone’s guess. It is not a match made in heaven. The dialogue is clunky and overwritten, and there is a slightly-more-than modest amount of left-wing speechifying. The Hollywood actors, most of them first rate, are at a loss with how to deal with Odets’s language, and Milestone gives them no help at all. Normally excellent actors like Madeleine Carroll and Porter Hall give bad performances, while Gary Cooper is smart enough to protect himself by underplaying the dialogue.
Not only is the dialogue bad, the plotting is awful. Cooper plays O’Hara, an arms dealer trying to get a supply of weapons to some rebels. In the early scenes he is told by several different people to fly to his destination and under no circumstances to take the train. Cut to O’Hara on the train, hanging out with Carroll’s Judy Perrie, whom he seems to already know. Comments on the IMDb raise the question of whether a reel is missing, but the current running time is the same as its original. There is probably a scene or two missing that got cut, without any additional reshoots of either the cut scenes or the remaining scenes. Paramount seems to have been satisfied with what they had; Thalberg at MGM would have cleared up the mess. If what we see is what Odets wrote, he did a worse job than I thought.
Not only is Milestone’s direction of the actors bad, he does not capture the exotic look the film is going for. One critic said the film looked as though it was shot on the sets left over from Shanghai Express (1932), which pretty much tells you what Paramount had in mind for the film. But to bring something like that off you need Jules Furthman and Josef Von Sternberg, not Clifford Odets and Lewis Milestone.
The Fall Television Season, 2012.
New and returning: As I write this, it has not been a great season for new shows, but there are a few with potential. Let’s start with the lesser ones. Go On brings back Matthew Perry as a talk radio host getting over the death of his wife by going to group therapy. I am not sure what the franchise is here. Is it the radio scenes or the group scenes? I think the group scenes, but the other people are rather standard issue.
The New Normal is about two gay guys (Brian’s the flamboyant one, David’s the “straight one”—isn’t it time for a new set of cliches?) who hire Goldie to be the surrogate mother for the child they want. Maybe, but Goldie’s Nana shows up, spouting the anti-gay cliches the industry assumes people in fly-over parts of the country all believe. They don’t, and we might, maybe, forgive her if the comments were funny, but they are not. I also have to wonder about Goldie’s eight-year-old daughter Shania, who after watching Grey Gardens once is suddenly swanning around the house as Little Edie. Ben & Kate are brother and sister. She is the mature one, and he is staying with her and her young daughter. He is the classic man-child and the writers are relentlessly obnoxious about it.
The Mindy Project is about an ob-gyn whose personal life is messy. How’s about we have an ob-gyn whose personal life is not messy? Just for a change. Emily Owens, M.D. is about a surgical intern whose person life is… yeah, you guessed it. The pilot, written by Jennie Synder Urman, spends way more time than it needs to comparing the hospital to high school. Maybe on Grey’s Anatomy, but not most hospitals I know. Still the show does have the luminous Mamie Gummer as Emily.
Neighbors is about a family that moves into a gated community where all the other residents are aliens from another planet. The wittiest thing about the show is that the aliens have renamed themselves after sports figures. Other than that, there is nothing you have not seen on 3rd Rock from the Sun, or longer ago, My Favorite Martian.
666 Park Avenue is a haunted apartment house show, as opposed to just a haunted house show. A young couple moves in, with the wife taking over as the manager. The owners, Gavin and Olivia Doran, are probably up to no good. Well, we know Gavin is because we see him at it. He may in fact be the Devil. But Vanessa Williams, who plays Olivia, should be collecting unemployment insurance for all she is given to do. The show may amount to something, but it seems pretty much standard issue for now.
Partners is a sitcom about two guys, one of whom is the flamboyant gay guy and the other is the straight guy. No, really, he’s straight. And he just got engaged to Ali. The show is based on the real-life relationship of its two creators, David Kohan and Matt Mutchnick, but so far all the episodes have focused on Louis, the gay one, interfering with the straight one Joe’s love life. A little of that goes a long way, although I am a big fan of Michael Urie, late of Ugly Betty, as the straight one. No, not really. He’s the gay one, and he brings a lot of energy to the show.
Nashville is created by Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise, Something to Talk About), and I knew it was in trouble when two minutes into it my wife said, “It’s another All About Eve.” Right you are, dear, as Khouri makes so obvious so immediately. One thing I love about Mankiewicz’s script is that he doesn’t let us know for sure that Eve is a bitch until very far into the movie. We suspect, but we don’t know. In the pilot for Nashville, Khouri established that the older country music star, Rayna, is nice to her husband, her kids, and anybody who crosses her path. She does her own makeup, for God’s sake, whereas the younger Juliette has lots of people doing her makeup and hair, and she treats them like shit. The show is putting the two singers together on a tour, but I doubt if there will be many surprises. On the other hand, the show does capture the flavor of Nashville and the country music scene better than Smash did Broadway. Snails and oysters, as Crassus would say; I happen to prefer Broadway to Nashville.
Elementary is another redo of Sherlock Holmes, this time in modern New York and with a woman as Dr. Watson. She is a former doctor who has been hired by Holmes’s father to be a “sober companion” for Holmes. She is also smart about medical stuff, and in the first few episodes is given a little more to do than Dr. Watson usually does. And she is played by Lucy Liu, who brings a lot of colors to the role.
The new show that I like the best is Vegas, co-created by Nicholas Pileggi, the author of the book and screenplay for Casino (1995), and in Vegas he gets a chance to correct the mistake that Scorsese made with the film. As I wrote in my 2001 book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, “I also think that Scorsese was so into the tragic, melodramatic view of gangsters that he did not understand that for everybody living west of the Hudson River, the story was basically a comedy: Goodfellas Go to Vegas and Get Their Clocks Cleaned by a Bunch of Cowboys.” Pileggi gets that the story is a comedy, and we are encouraged to laugh as Sheriff Ralph Lamb gets the better of gangster Vincent Savino. The interplay between the two as Savino tries to figure out how to deal with Lamb makes for some interesting scenes, as does the kind of documentary material about the casino business that Pileggi brought to Casino. That material is more interesting so far than the typical crime stories the show deals with.
On the returning front, NCIS, NCIS:LA, and CSI all had a lot of cleaning up to do their first episodes from the kind of cliffhanging stuff they left us with in the spring. If you had not been watching in the spring, you would have had no idea what was going on in these episodes. The Good Wife showed how to handle the transition. Yes, Lockhart Gardner is undergoing financial problems, so we have a trustee appointed to study the financial situation. He is Clarke Hayden (played by the most restrained Nathan Lane you have ever see in your entire life—and he’s wonderful), and in the first episodes, we don’t quite know where he stands. The first episode, “I Fought the Law” (written by Robert King & Michelle King), brings on Hayden, but he is secondary to the situation where Alicia’s son Zach gets into a tangle with a cop in another county. Alicia, with some technical help on the Internet from Zach, finds out that the area the cop stopped Zack was a bit of the highway where a lot of drug stops are made. That would be enough for some shows, but not The Good Wife. The drug cars on this part of the road that are stopped are going northbound. Which means they are not the cars bringing drugs into the county, but taking the drug money back to Canada. Needless to say, the cops confiscate the money. And the police union threatens not to support Peter for governor if Alicia carries through the case, which would close down this lucrative practice. Our guys win, at least for now. And in following episodes we get return engagements by some of the great guest stars the show has built up over the years.
On Castle last spring Castle and Beckett finally fell into each other’s arms. Now they are trying not to let anyone know about. Yeah, fat chance. Castle’s mom and daughter pick up on it almost immediately. In “Murder, He Wrote” (written by David Grae), the two other cops, Ryan and Esposito, are determined to find out who Beckett’s secret boyfriend is. She and Castle have gone out of his county estate in the Hamptons for a romantic weekend. Yeah, fat chance. A guy falls into Castle’s swimming pool and dies, and Castle and Beckett reluctantly help the local sheriff, who has never handled a murder case before. Castle gets Ryan to look into some New York connections, and Ryan figures out from one of the people he interrogates that Beckett is with Castle. Now, does he tell, or not? If not, how do you show he is not telling? Well, in this case, Esposito is pushing him to say what he learned in the interrogation, and Ryan is deliberately not telling him about Castle and Beckett. This episode also lets Stana Katic, who plays Beckett, be looser, funnier, and sexier than she normally gets to be. I’ll vote for that.
On Modern Family Gloria is now pregnant, and in the first episode (“Bringing up Baby,” written by Paul Corrigan & Brad Walsh), Jay has to find out. It’s his birthday and Phil and his friends take him fishing. Gloria tells her son Manny, who thinks that Jay will be upset, as do we. Jay hears from his friends all day long about how miserable being old will be, so he turns out to be delighted that Gloria is pregnant, which will give him a second chance at fatherhood. Everybody is surprised at his reaction. On Two and a Half Men, we are still getting more of Walden and less of the others, which is too bad since he is the least interesting character on the show. In “Four Balls, Two Bats, One Mitt” (story by Chuck Lorre & Eddie Gorodetsky, teleplay by Don Reo & Jim Patterson), Alan suggests to Lindsey they have a threesome. Lyndsey thinks it’s a great idea, but it should be two men and her: Alan and Walden. Alan’s not happy, but we get a great scene of them all trying it (as much as you can on network television), and then when Alan and Lyndsey pick up a girl for their threesome, the girl falls for Walden. It’s risque and funny, and it tells us a lot more about Alan and Lyndsey than it does about Walden. On How I Met Your Mother, we still haven’t met the mother. And on Two Broke Girls, Max and Caroline are still trying to make it with their cupcake business, but at least they have stopped saying “vagina” in every other sentence.
30 Rock came back from hiatus with “Episode 701” (written by Jack Burditt), which was just silly, as Jack is trying to run NBC into the ground by putting on bad shows. He thinks he can then buy it cheaply. “Episode 702” (written by Robert Carlock) is a little better. It showed on October 6th, the night of the vice-presidential debate, and started with the news that Paul Ryan had been thrown off the ticket because it was discovered he was born in Kenya. He was replaced by Bob Dunston, a Herman Cain-type buffoon, who is a dead ringer for Tracy Jordan. Jack does not want them to do political satire, since it always raises the ratings. He makes Liz promise she will not write a single word about Dunston. Jack is upset when he sees the sketch, but Liz points out she did not write anything, just selected quotes from the actual Dunston. The whole Dunston plot surely comes out of Tina Fey’s experience doing Sarah Palin four years ago. But in this episode it is not as well developed as it could have been, and the episode was cluttered with a lot of other subplots. Carlock should have re-read the section in Fey’s book on the Sarah Palin business.
Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.
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
Review: Red Moon Tide Is a Haunting Elegy to Nature’s Supremacy
The film is predicated on such ineffable dread that the impact of climate change becomes a sort of Lovecraftian force.3
Lois Patiño’s Red Moon Tide is a work of unmistakable horror, one predicated on such ineffable dread that the impact of climate change becomes a sort of Lovecraftian force. Shots of flooded plains next to stagnant and drying reservoirs capture the contrasting, even contradictory ways that the world is being destroyed by the rippling effects of our hubris. The opening title sequence is a roving close-up of an ancient maritime map dotted with mythical, perilous creatures, and the hypothetical existence of a nautical monster pervades the entire film. Yet the true threats here are invisible, malignant forces of misery that cast a pall over everything, poisoning nature and rendering humans motionless.
Patiño’s extreme long shots conjure unsettling moods through their use of natural backdrops and light. Waves at moonlight crash onto a beach, the ocean as dark as arterial blood. And in a recurring image, we glimpse an inactive hydroelectric dam, its face shot at angles that turn the concrete into a frame-spanning expanse of blank space. The soaked floodplains, meanwhile, fill the air with so much mist that sunlight casts a spectral glow over the Galician countryside.
This is the perfect backdrop for the loose, haunted narrative of a local fisherman, Rubio (Rubio de Camelle), who becomes convinced that a monster is hunting the shores of his coastal town as he discovers more and more human corpses when he takes his boat out each morning. At the start of Red Moon Tide, Rubio’s boat has run around and the man himself is missing, making him a protagonist referenced more than seen as other townsfolk ruminate on whether or not the man’s hunch was right as they themselves sink deeper into malaise.
The town where these locals dwell is shot in even starker terms than the landscapes, evoking Hopper-esque portraits of stasis and alienation. The non-professional actors are arranged like mannequins and frequently silhouetted, distanced from each other and often looking in opposite directions. People rarely speak aloud, instead silently stewing in internal monologues heard in somber voiceovers in which they contemplate the monster, giving it mythological properties such as having its behaviors dictated by the wax and wane of the moon.
Mythology is a crucial element of Red Moon Tide, with a trio of witches appearing nearly a half-hour into the film in search of the missing Rubio. These women spend the remainder of the film roaming around the countryside and the seaside town, often the only people in motion in the frame. Eventually, the witches start to drape the stock-still townspeople in sheets, making them look like ghosts. Rubio himself, well before he appears on screen, becomes an unwitting Charon figure ferrying the dead when his nets turn up fewer fish than corpses of those slain by the monster, returning their bodies to land for burial.
Buried beneath this mythic text are contemporary anxieties about climate change that gives Red Moon Tide an underlying logic, but the film is at its best when surrendering entirely to its hypnotic imagery. Andrei Tarkovsky is invoked at several junctures, from a shot that studies grass waving like strands of hair in a gently flowing brook to an image that moves through silhouetted trees with mountains in the distance that fittingly reflects the last shot of 1975’s Mirror. The film thus ends with an apocalyptic intensity that gives a climactic confrontation with the lurking monster a feeling of meeting with destiny, of the creature embodying mankind’s accelerating self-destruction in the face of nature reclaiming its supremacy.
Red Moon Tide 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 Lights On.
Cast: Rubio de Camelle, Ana Marra, Carmen Martinez, Pilar Rodlos Director: Lois Patiño Screenwriter: Lois Patiño Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Pushpendra Singh’s The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs
The film speaks lyrically to a peoples’ determination to find a meaningful way to live in a rapidly changing modern world.3
Based on a folktale by Vijaydan Detha and further influenced by the life and poetry of 14th-century Kashmiri mystic Lalleshwari, Pushpendra Singh’s The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs tells the story of a young nomadic shepherdess, Laila (Navjot Randhawa), who finds herself exploited by foolish, lustful men. Using traditional folk songs—each revolving around a central idea, such as marriage, migration, and attraction—Singh loosely divides the film into seven parts. Each of these musical interludes—some diegetic, some not—mark a transitionary phase in Laila’s spiritual growth and path to self-realization as she navigates a world that remains indifferent to her own dreams and desires.
After being taken as a bride by a spineless young herdsman named Tanvir (Sadakkit Bijran), Laila migrates, along with their Bakarwal clan, to a more populated area of Kashmir, where we get clear sense of the territorial conflict currently playing out between India and Pakistan. Border police and local officials badger the nomadic shepherds, asking for permits and identification cards that have never before been required of them. This rapid social change limits the mobility of the clan and threatens their way of life, but once they arrive at their destination, it’s talk of Laila’s great beauty that spreads rapidly throughout the land.
As the young woman is met by unwanted advances by the regional inspector (Ranjit Khajuria) and his goofy but somewhat charming subordinate, Mushtaq (Shahnawaz Bhat), she’s left to fend for herself by her feckless husband who constantly kowtows to their authority. Laila uses both her fearlessness and intelligence to protect herself, first pushing and slapping the inspector and, later, fooling Mushtaq time and again by setting up nighttime meetings with him, only to thwart his plans by showing up with Tanvir by her side.
These various nocturnal rendezvous with Mushtaq play out in a repetitious manner, like the episodes of a fable. While Mushtaq is relentlessly aggressive in his pursuit of Laila, Tanvir’s oblivious, overly deferential responses to the increasingly absurd manners in which the man shows up on his land in need of bananas or a sheep are threaded with deadpan humor. When Tanvir calmly says of Mushtaq, “What a kind man. He cares so much for us,” a look of resignation and frustration settles on Laila’s face as she realizes how vulnerable she is and that she alone must cope with the dangers and challenges of her life.
As Laila is further isolated and confronted with her lack of agency, the film draws parallels between her vibrance, toughness, and persistence in the face of oppression and that of the Bakarwal community, who’ve roamed the Kashmir region and maintained their cultural mores there for centuries. The forest is marked early on as not only a space that requires great fortitude in which to survive, but also a realm of potentially fantastical transformation. When Laila’s friend asks her when she began to fear the forest, she replies that she never has and that Lalleshwari “also discovered herself here” and “abandoned everything to find God.”
This proclamation foreshadows Laila’s own journey of self-discovery and enlightenment just as a gorgeous shot in which Tanvir, sitting on a tree stump below his wife, transforms into a sheep alludes to the brief flashes of magical realism that will creep into The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs from time to time. Such poetic scenes are more frequent as the film proceeds, and enhanced particularly by the cinematography, which features slow, roving camerawork that, as in Terrence Malick and Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, exhibits a reverence for and connection to the landscape and the protagonist’s deep connection to it.
In its final minutes, the film becomes increasingly expressionistic, as Laila symbolically sheds her clothes and wanders from the forest into the rocky landscape of the Himalayas. There’s a remarkable visual play between darkness and light and aural juxtaposition of folkloric music (a song of renunciation) and the crashing sounds of thunder as Laila drapes a snakeskin over her shoulder and contemplates her position in life with a pensive stare into a mirror. It’s a stunningly beautiful and mystical passage laden with sorrow, uncertainty, and the inevitability of change. But it also speaks quite lyrically and evocatively to both Laila’s, and, by extension, her peoples’ enduring determination to find a meaningful way to live in a rapidly changing modern world that’s less and less inclined to ensure their survival.
The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs 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 Pascale Ramonda.
Cast: Shahnawaz Bhat, Sadakkit Bijran, Ranjit Khajuria, Navjot Randhawa, Mohammed Yassen Director: Pushpendra Singh Screenwriter: Pushpendra Singh Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Blow the Man Down Is a Sharp and Memorable Nautical Noir
The film never veers into wink-wink self-consciousness that its opening might have suggested.3
Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s Blow the Man Down starts on a literally self-aware note. The opening sequence shows the fishermen of a coastal Maine hamlet not just hard at work netting, spiking, and chopping up their catch, but also singing a rousing rendition of the 19th-century sailors’ song that gives the film its title. Full-throated and haunting, the piece is sung right to the camera as though it were a music video for some Americana band. But even though what follows is shot through with a keen understanding of genre necessities and an impatience for wasting more time on them than is necessary, the film never veers into wink-wink self-consciousness that its opening might have suggested.
When we first meet the ghostly pale Priscilla Connolly (Sophie Lowe) and her anxious and messy sister, Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor), they’ve just buried their mother and are trying to extract themselves from the hole she left them in. While Pris takes the need to keep running the family store and the looming loss of the family home somewhat in stride, Mary Beth is furious. Hating their “shithole” town and eager to leave for college, she goes to a bar to blow off steam following their mother’s wake and makes a poorly considered connection with a scuzzily larcenous-looking guy named Gorski (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). Many drinks, some bad driving, a baggie of cocaine, and one well-aimed harpoon later, Mary Beth has a body on her hands and a situation that suggests calling the police would be a poor idea.
Blow the Man Down’s first third or so moves briskly along the well-traveled terrain of the What Do We Do with the Body? genre. Savage Cole and Krudy seed their screenplay with somewhat stock elements, from the sack of cash that causes more problems than it’s worth to the small town rife with hypocrisy to the inexpertly cleaned crime scene with one crucial clue left behind that could send Pris and Mary Beth to prison. But even though some of these narrative beats are highly familiar, the filmmakers handle them with a light touch that keeps things fresh and entertaining until the film throws viewers a neat curveball.
At first, the three tsk-tsking women (June Squibb, Marceline Hugot, and Annette O’Toole) in matching pale Talbots-like outfits who drift through the film appear to be merely a decorative chorus of crones. They’re initially somewhat like the fishermen who come back in from time to time to deliver more bloody-minded sea shanties. But once the women start targeting their disapproval at Enid (Margo Martindale), the apparent proprietor of a cozy old bed and breakfast, the film opens up an entire secret and seamy underbelly to the town that the sisters are about to be pulled right into even if they manage not to be charged with murder.
In between the choral interludes, Blow the Man Down is layered with a discordant and eerie yet also slightly playful soundtrack that enhances both the setting’s chilly isolation and the sisters’ sense of panic and displacement. Overall, the performances are solid, if short of standout, with the great exception of Martindale’s. In her role as the town’s unapologetic scarlet woman, the character actress swings Enid through her scenes, balancing on a cane and fueled by whiskey and a white-hot sense of grievance. “Go back to your casseroles and crochet,” Enid tells the chorus of three old busybodies with a dry and spare tone that pushes the line from petty insult into veiled threat. Without Martindale, Blow the Man Down would be a sharp and tightly constructed nautical noir. With her, it becomes a memorable one.
Cast: Sophie Lowe, Morgan Saylor, Margot Martindale, June Squibb, Marceline Hugot, Annette O’Toole, Gayle Rankin, Will Brittain, Ebon Moss-Bachrach Director: Bridget Savage Cole, Danielle Krudy Screenwriter: Bridget Savage Cole, Danielle Krudy Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2020
25 Underrated Movie Gems to Stream Right Now on the Criterion Channel
It’s worth taking a dive into the channel’s obscure but vibrant depths.
It’s encouraging that, about a year after its launch, the Criterion Channel remains with us. Less encouraging—from an end-of-days perspective—is that most of us now have an abundance of time to explore it. If self-isolating to prevent the spread of a deadly pandemic has upsides, though, having time enough to poke around the varied corners and depths of the streaming service counts as one of them.
The selection of films on the Criterion Channel rotate quickly, making the films it highlights as “leaving at the end of the month” more vital than most other sites’ similar sections. In a sense, this makes the Criterion Collection’s streaming platform feel more alive than services that have more stable caches and their own in-house content. The new films that pop up at the beginning of the month—in March, the channel has included Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life and a number of German silents—are akin to special events. The shifting library of films functions like a vast, curated program available in our homes.
The sense that the channel is driven by curation rather than algorithm is no doubt intentional. If, with its esoteric film library and novel programming, the streaming service seems rather offbeat, this is in large part because we’re now used to receiving viewing suggestions from systems that emulate only in outline the mechanism of recommendation. We’ve grown reliant on the facile generic groupings (“drama,” “adventure,” “comedy”) typical of algorithm-driven services. Criterion pointedly ignores genre in favor of auteur, country of origin, or cultural context; a mainstay on the site for several months, amid the controversy over another male-dominated Oscars season, has been its prominent featuring of women filmmakers.
As the Criterion Collection continues to hold on to its niche in an arena dominated by Amazon, Netflix, Disney, among other hopefuls, it’s worth taking a dive into the channel’s obscure but vibrant depths. Many of the films below are rare finds—not only in the world of streaming, but in the era of home video. Pat Brown
Editor’s Note: Click here to sign up for the Criterion Channel.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger, 1926)
Now justly recognized as the first fully animated feature film, Lotte Reiniger’s masterpiece—composed of cut-out animation of silhouettes on monochromatic painted backdrops—transports us to dreamlike realm. Closely related to the contemporaneous experimentations in animation carried out by figures like Oscar Fischinger and Walther Hans Richter, The Adventures of Prince Achmed lends the orientalist fairy tales it recounts a rhythmic grace. As Prince Achmed journeys through various motifs from the “Thousand and One Nights,” the visual pleasure lies in the reverie of watching the cinema imbue mere shapes with life. Brown
The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko, 1977)
A World War II film in which heroism is a myth, Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent focuses on two Soviet partisans (Boris Plotnikov and Vladimir Gostyukhin) who are left for dead in the snow-covered Russian countryside. Shepitko’s camera alternates between passages of realism and lyricism, entrenching her characters within a course of almost certain death. If Sheptiko’s soldiers experience only pain at the hands of their merciless German captors, it’s to better articulate the tragedy of their fundamental innocence within the war machine. Clayton Dillard
Asparagus (Suzan Pitt, 1979)
A Jungian psychosexual mescaline trip in the form of an 18-minute animated short, Asparagus is at once a vibrant blast of psychedelia and an unsettling journey into the depths of the subconscious. Suzan Pitt’s film was famously paired with Eraserhead on the midnight-movie circuit back in the late ‘70s, and it’s as equally resistant to interpretation as David Lynch’s classic. Proceeding with a dream logic that recalls the symbolist experimentalism of Maya Deren, Asparagus’s imagery ranges from the lushly verdant to the uncannily profane—often within the same scene, as in the film’s haunting climax in which a faceless woman robotically fellates an asparagus spear. Watson
Begone Dull Care (Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambart, 1951)
If a jazz combo hired Stan Brakhage to direct their music video, the result might look something like Begone Dull Care. Set to the buoyant bebop of the Oscar Peterson Trio, Evelyn Lambart and Norman McLaren’s zippy animated short is one of the purest marriages of music and image in the history of cinema. Using lines, shapes, and abstract textures painted and drawn directly onto celluloid, the film grooves along to the jazz music—at times using particular colors to represent individual instruments, at others delivering a frenetic freeform visual accompaniment to the music, but always delivering a dazzling showcase of the animators’ inventiveness and dynamism. Watson
Body and Soul (Oscar Micheaux, 1925)
Body and Soul, Oscar Micheaux’s melodrama about sexual violence within a southern black community, was controversial even among black audiences. Noted as the film debut of Paul Robeson, the film bucks expectations by casting the handsome singer as Isaiah T. Jenkins, a criminal masquerading as a preacher. Jenkins beguiles a local worshipper, Martha Jane (Mercedes Gilbert) into leaving him alone with her daughter, Isabelle (Julia Theresa Russell). He rapes Isabelle and steals Martha Jane’s savings. As Jenkins palms the hard-earned cash, Micheaux inserts a woeful montage: Martha Jane’s hands ironing clothing, anonymous black hands picking cotton off the plant. Brown
Review: Deerskin Eerily and Evocatively Reflects on a Man’s Fragility
In Deerskin, Quentin Dupieux mines the absurdism that is his signature with newfound forcefulness.3
Underneath the absurdism and narrative mindfuckery of Quentin Dupieux’s films resides a sadness that the French writer-director mines with newfound forcefulness in Deerskin. The film has an eerie, evocative premise. Drifting through a mountainous town in France, Georges (Jean Dujardin) tracks down a vintage deerskin jacket. Smitten with the garment, Georges spends his entire savings on it, before then holing up in a nearly abandoned hotel and passing himself off as a filmmaker to the locals, especially to a young and attractive bartender, Denise (Adèle Haenel), who claims to be an aspiring film editor. We also learn that Georges is navigating a divorce, and that his wife has frozen his savings, which obviously leads one to believe that he’s in the midst of some sort of midlife crisis, electing to buy a jacket instead of, say, a Porsche, which he couldn’t afford anyway.
A little heftier than he was in The Artist, with an elegant graying beard, Dujardin bears a resemblance to Terrence Malick, and Georges, in his ludicrous way, even goes about pretending to make films in Malick’s register, shooting footage that Denise will shape into something free-flowing and subjective. Georges, like many a failure, is obsessed with the image of success above all, as a gratification of himself, and seems to have few passions or interests that might lead to its actual realization. An early scene suggests that Georges may have been a bored office drone, as he stops in a store and makes a ritual out of attempting to flush his old blazer down the toilet; he requires a more obvious totem of manliness, and he frequently references the deerskin jacket’s “killer style,” even talking to it on occasion.
These masculine symbols are somehow explicit and mysterious at once. If Dupieux had added any expositional dialogue, having Georges openly riff on his frustrations for instance, Deerskin’s spell would probably be dispelled. The film’s melancholic, comic charge springs from Georges’s commitment to his new reality, which comes to mirror the commitment of a real artist. The town is also visually resonant, suggesting a secluded village in a western; its landscapes imbue the film with a beauty that’s ironic—suggesting our addictions to the illusions of westerns and other masculine pop art—as well as wistful.
This beauty is also counterpointed with the crushing loneliness of the town’s citizens. Denise goes along with Georges’s schemes because she’s looking for direction, and there’s a brutally effective joke in which Georges is informed that a hotel clerk has killed himself—information that’s related with the sort of casualness that one might reserve for ordering breakfast. Georges walks into a room to steal something from the corpse, which is revealed to be a mannequin with a hole in its face. This is one of the great surreal flourishes of Dupiex’s career, the mannequin suggesting the desolation of people who choose to annihilate themselves.
Deerskin eventually takes a gruesome turn, as Georges decides that he must be the only person in the world with any jacket. As he begins a killing spree, the film, in its rhyming of the vocations of art-making and serial murder, recalls a lean and more playful version of The House that Jack Built, minus Lars von Trier’s laborious self-justifications. Dupiex, then, finds another macho totem to parody: the self-consciously intellectual art-house auteur who lards their fantasies with delusions of grandeur. But Dupiex also has a kindship with Georges, recognizing him to be the epitome of the toxic male as well as a lost soul in the tradition of men who are conditioned to play it safe with boring jobs, only to be self-shamed for that very dependency on safety. By killing others, Georges is announcing that he wants to die.
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Adèle Haenel, Albert Delpy, Coralie Russier, Marie Bunel, Panayotis Pascot Director: Quentin Dupieux Screenwriter: Quentin Dupieux Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment Running Time: 77 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Interview: Eliza Hittman on the Poetic Odyssey of Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Never Rarely Sometimes Always breaks new ground for Hittman as a filmmaker.
The level of vivid detail with which writer-director Eliza Hittman renders the procedural elements of procuring an abortion in Never Rarely Sometimes Always might stand out as the film’s most obvious point of discussion. A teenager’s journey to assert her bodily autonomy spans from a “crisis pregnancy center” in rural Pennsylvania meant to trick women out of terminating a pregnancy to the halls of a Planned Parenthood in Manhattan, illuminating structural biases and barriers along the way. But a focus primarily on what happens in Never Rarely Sometimes Always overlooks aspects of Hittman’s filmmaking that prevent the film from seeming like a sermon, or agenda-driven.
Don’t call Never Rarely Sometimes Always a neorealistic film, Hittman told me during a recent conversation, in spite of what the title of the special prize she received at this year’s Sundance Film Festival might suggest. As in her prior two features, It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats, Hittman both effectively dramatizes and stylizes the interior struggles of teenage characters forced to define their sense of self and sexuality in an unforgiving society.
But even as Autumn (Sidney Flanagan) takes on a relentless series of bureaucratic challenges, struggling to receive the medical care she seeks without parental permission, she can at least rely on the steadying presence of her cousin and confidant, Skylar (Talia Ryder). Their empathetic relationship operates on such a deep level of understanding that Skylar requires no protestation or persuasion to accompany Autumn on the journey. In the film, Hittman proves as adept at translating these ethereal and non-verbal moments of sororal support into grace notes as she does chunks of dialogue full of legal and medical jargon.
I interviewed Hittman the week of the film’s opening in New York. Our conversation covered how Never Rarely Sometimes Always expands and explores some of her previously evinced fascinations while also breaking new ground for her as a filmmaker.
Your films all have such distinct opening scenes, usually revolving around some measure of kind of performance for an audience or for the camera. How are you developing these first touch points that the audience has with the characters?
They’re all very different, I think. With Never Rarely Sometimes Always, I really wanted to playfully disorient the audience about the period of the movie.
That was successful. I was like, wait, what’s going on here?
And as a kid, I used to do all these really cheesy ‘50s talent shows. And it’s this moment in time that we romanticize, and the music is all saccharine about the myth of romantic love. Things that I’m interested in challenging. I thought it would be an interesting way to bring in the audience into the themes and the worlds. Set it in high school, because none of it really takes place in a high school. Introduce the character instantly as somebody who is in opposition to the feelings of the moment.
Aren’t the lyrics of the song Autumn sings “he makes me” or something like that?
“He makes me do things I don’t want to do.” It’s an Exciters song from the ‘60s.
Your films put on display this dichotomy between how teenagers conduct themselves in public versus how they do so in private. You’ve discussed watching them and developing your observations from an anthropological lens. How have you sharpened your instincts to tell whenever they’re performing and when they’re being authentic?
I think my goal, primarily, is to bring audiences into these private and painful moments. I’m giving this perspective about what they’re thinking and feeling lonely and isolated. I don’t know if Autumn is performing so well in public. We can feel her discomfort in the world and the weight of what she’s going through. It’s more than Harris’s character [Frankie, the closeted male protagonist of Beach Rats] performing masculinity. I don’t think that Sydney’s character is performing femininity as much in the world. She’s hiding herself. She’s wearing these clothes that hide her body. In a way, she’s pushing against showing her body and herself.
Your films capture the solitude of being young. It’s so crucial to that period of your life, but it’s very tough to render on screen. How are you taking this space for your characters to deal with their feelings from the concept or the script to the screen?
I think that there’s a lot of threads that the film juggles. You know, one is the sort of painful moment alone, you know, where she’s trying to terminate her own pregnancy. But it’s also about the friendship and the procedural aspect of what she’s going through.
And how do you go about bringing all that to life?
Originally, when I wrote the treatment for the film in 2013, it was actually just trauma. And I felt like that didn’t work. So, I knew that the narrative wouldn’t be successful if it was just her alone. It’s about her alone in the most vulnerable places in the story, like the procedure, navigating these adult situations and clinics by herself. Her cousin never has perspective on these things. So, I was just interested in [the fact that] even though she has somebody on that journey with her, she’s still very much alone with the burden of the pregnancy.
The way that you shoot a lot of those scenes with those really tight close-ups puts us right there with her.
They’re all subjective. The visual strategy is all subjective. And it’s about proximity and aligning the audience with what she’s thinking and feeling. It’s not just optically. So, the camera lingers close to her and then is wider on other people because it represents her distance and her keeping people from a distance. That’s all shaped on the page that way to conceptualize in the shot list that way.
Like the scene from which Never Rarely Sometimes Always derives its title, you also shot a scene from It Felt Like Love where the protagonist talks with her doctor about emergency contraception in a single unbroken close-up. As a man, I don’t pretend to understand what that moment feels like, so would you mind elaborating on why you’ve chosen to portray this moment in such a way?
The other one is definitely part of a building block to know what happens. The one in It Felt Like Love is different because she’s never had sex. So, she’s going through the discomfort of this kind of sexual history questionnaire. But she’s very innocent, and that’s the tension of the scene. But yeah, there’s a long take in it, so it has a similar shooting strategy. I think that scene was, in a way, the basis for the scene in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. I think it’s important that men watching it are never in those rooms. And they’re never asked those questions. And I think when men watch the scene, they always talk about it as being really invasive, and women watch it and talk about it as being really empathetic. Men are always, like [switches into a macho voice], “the scene is so invasive.”
Invasive in a good way, or invasive in a bad way?
In a really uncomfortable way. Whereas women are more accustomed to that sort of medical, clinical interrogation.
You mentioned starting Never Rarely Sometimes Always with the head fake that it might be a high school movie. The film also somewhat belongs to another genre, the New York movie. We see stories all the time about young people who come to the city to get what they want, and it’s usually some kind of magical or transformative experience for them. And in some ways, this kind of is that, because she comes here and gets what she wants, but it doesn’t feel particularly inspiring.
No, it’s not a sentimental or romantic look at New York. Her experience here is almost liminal, and she’s in liminal spaces. Wherever she’s in Port Authority, on the train, on the subway, she never has a moment to get comfortable or really take anything in.
Were you aware of and engaging with those tropes?
I was aware of them. I think New York is a really hard place to visit. And I don’t think people from out of town necessarily love it. I don’t think there’s anything intuitive about the way that it’s organized. And I don’t think it appeals to everybody.
The scene where Autumn emerges from Port Authority and kind of comes to the edges of Time Square was so striking because that’s a space that’s usually shot in such a fun way. But this is the actual experience going to Times Square. It’s terrifying.
Yeah, with that scene in particular, I wanted to show how disorienting it can be.
Your films put faces to a lot of things that we often engage with primarily on a conceptual level: toxic masculinity, homophobia, and the pro-birth extremism as shown by the crisis pregnancy centers. How do you go about personifying these things without turning them into caricature?
I mean, I think some men are a bit grumpy about the representation of men in the movie. But I think, for me, I was really trying to explore the tension that exists as a young woman, between you and an environment full of men. You learn to navigate their advances and how you can deflect…and ultimately become desensitized to it. I tried to find the balance between all of those male characters in their moments and glimpses; that part of the story is maybe a little bit conceptual. With the women in the crisis center in Pennsylvania, I went and met those women and took that test. Because I was concerned there about Christian caricatures. I’m just trying to do the best job that I can do and not make them things that I’ve seen before.
I don’t need to tell you we’re in a scary time with the Supreme Court even just last week, hearing this Louisiana case that could potentially imperil Roe v. Wade. What is the impact that you hope to have with this movie right now?
I think that the film is effective in putting a face to somebody who might otherwise be faceless and just a statistic and giving a voice to voiceless in a way. And I hope that the film helps people see the deep impact that these barriers have on lives. It’s a real impact. I think with documentary, and even in the research of this film, it’s harder to find because of confidentiality. You know, it’s hard to find people who really speak up about these issues.
With the freedoms of fictional filmmaking, too, and not having to be quite so married to the actuality or the reality, you can probe more deeply.
I didn’t want to be didactic. I really wanted to explore it from the point of view of a character study, and a poetic odyssey, a movie about friendship, and it’s not just about the issue. I hope that the story for people is layered and dimensional, not overly political or message-driven.
Interview: Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles on Bacurau’s Politics
In our wide-ranging conversation, we covered the hazy distinctions between past, present, and future in both Brazil and the United States.
It takes a rich cinematic text to inspire not one but two separate repertory programs in New York, and Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau fits the bill. When I caught up with the Brazilian filmmaking team, they were in town for an extended stay to help kick off Film at Lincoln Center’s “Mapping Bacurau,” a series of their genre influences ranging from horror to action to westerns. (This series, unfortunately, will no longer proceed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.) While they had a direct hand in choosing the films in that lineup, they had no involvement in the second program, BAM’s “Rise Up!: Portraits of Resistance,” which placed Bacurau in conversation with such protest films as Glauber Rocha’s Antonio das Mortes, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, and Mati Diop’s Atlantics.
It’s the latter thematic thread that I spent most of my time discussing with Mendonça Filho and Dornelles, his longtime friend and collaborator. While an appreciation of their cinematic antecedents and inspirations for Bacurau enhances the viewing experience, it isn’t as vital as a knowledge of Brazilian history and politics. Mendonça Filho’s third film, his first sharing a directing credit with Dornelles, feels like both a continuation and escalation of his previous features, Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius. Both films located simmering tensions in Brazilian society surrounding corruption and inequality that explode in the near future of Bacurau. Residents of the titular village, facing an invasion by mercenaries willing to quite literally wipe them off the map, must take up arms in solidarity to protect their lives and land.
Don’t mistake the film for a statement on Jair Bolsonaro, however, as it was conceived years ago and shot months prior to his election. As Mendonça Filho and Dornelles pointed out, Bacurau speaks to the present only by coincidence. Yet in their recognition of history’s cyclical nature, their dystopian romp about society’s unaddressed faults can remain relevant through just about any president or administration. In our wide-ranging conversation, we covered the hazy distinctions between past, present, and future in both Brazil and the United States.
Your three features feel like they’re circling similar questions about land, heritage, and resistance, and community against a backdrop of capitalist crisis and inequality. In Bacurau, there’s this all-out warfare against imperialist intruders. Is that a reflection of the country and the world around you, or something completely separate?
Kleber Mendonça Filho: It’s interesting how we never really discussed any of that while making the films. But once we begin to talk about them, we learn a lot from critics and observers. It’s then that we realize that each one of the films has a very specific tone and speed, and it seems to match the times in which they were made. So, Brazil was actually very stable in the later years of the last decade when I wrote and shot Neighboring Sounds, but, of course, stable doesn’t mean that everything is fine. It means that there’s some disturbance, some diffused tension in society like all societies have. And I think that’s what the idea of “neighboring sounds” is. It’s kind of ethereal, and you can’t quite put your finger on what exactly is wrong and what [has the potential to] happen. Then there’s Aquarius, which was done in 2015. By 2013, things were beginning to go very wrong in Brazil, and I think the film rose out of that. We have been talking for years about Bacurau, and, of course, with everything that happened in 2016 in Brazil, when millions of Brazilians saw a soft coup d’etat—
Juliano Dornelles: I don’t see it as soft.
KMF: It’s soft because you expect tanks. That’s when Brazil began to deviate from what we see as democracy. And then, incredibly, we got to Bacurau, and it’s almost like we’re entering what should be dystopian fiction, literature or film, but it’s actually reality. I have to say, Mr. Trump’s election in the U.S. was part of what we were feeling, a change in the rotation of the political temperature. And then, we just wrote the film, feeling very connected [to the moment]. Then people, even in Cannes, tried to insinuate that the film was, or even interpreted the film as, a vision of Bolsonaro’s Brazil. This, of course, doesn’t make any sense because we shot the film seven months before he was elected. When we were shooting the film, I don’t know if you [to Darnelles] ever thought…he wasn’t even a candidate.
JD: It wasn’t even a possibility in the same year that he got elected. The beginning of the year, it was just a joke. It all happened pretty fast.
KMF: But it’s fascinating how you can be truthful to tone and atmosphere, which doesn’t really go through fact. I think truth is stronger in the atmosphere of things in society, than if you start discussing actual fact. I think we were truthful to what was happening.
Each of the films, by chance of what happened in between the time that they were shot or conceived and when they were released, looks prophetic in a way. You’re picking up on the tremors that lead to these earthquakes that we see and observe.
JD: Yeah. It’s interesting because we’re about to show 20 Years Later, Cabra Marcado [the directing duo had programmed this film in Film at Lincoln Center’s “Mapping Bacurau” series]. It’s a documentary about, how can you say?
KMF: A community leader and a peasant…
JD: …a community leader in the moment of the dictatorship, the ‘60s and ‘70s. He got assassinated in ‘64, the same year of the beginning of the coup. The other coup.
KMF: A hard coup, with attacks and guns.
JD: In this film, it’s crazy because it started like your definition [of how the film picked up on political undercurrents]. And then began to be an idea.
KMF: Maybe we’re moving on to the second [a hard coup in Brazil].
JD: Probably, I don’t know. So, in this film, they show some images of newspapers. The film is filled with fake news, calling people communists. They aren’t communists, but they’re called that. So it’s crazy because it’s the same thing. It’s crazy because this film is prophetic, and now Bacurau can be called prophetic. But it’s interesting because it’s just a look into the past. You can find the same situations all of our history.
KMF: I can almost see some place in the world using guillotines to punish people, kill people through the power of the state. And then, of course, we go back to almost 300 years to the French Revolution. I don’t think that’s too far off. It’s very scary to think about that.
Nowadays, I think you could get away with that but for the optics. If you could somehow do it in a more palatable way—
KMF: There’s a very frightening moment that I don’t know why we didn’t subtitle. Maybe because we thought it would become a political event inside the film, and it was designed just to be on the corner of the screen, which is a very white screen. When Terry [one of the mercenaries] is inside one of the houses in Bacurau, there’s a television which is on. And it says that public executions are restarting at 2 p.m. And it’s like a live feed. So, there are executions. There are executions all over the world. They’re in Brazil, in America, in Mexico.
JD: Black and poor people are being executed. Right now [points to watch]. Another one. Another one.
KMF: We don’t quite have a public execution on television at 2 p.m. That’s one thing we don’t have, but we have all kinds of different executions. It’s a fascinating idea when just the use of words takes things one notch up, and it becomes tougher.
The setting of Bacurau is “a few years from now.” Was it always this indefinite looming specter of the future as supposed to a fixed date? If you enumerate it, you start thinking, “Okay, how long did it take to get to this point, and that point?”
KMF: I love those questions the viewers find themselves with when they see the film. We always talk that it’s the best and cheapest special effect in film. Just five words.
JD: A few years from now.
KMF: It puts you in a heightened state of alert. So, you begin to scan the screen and look for evidence of the future. There’s very little evidence of anything related to the future because the future is actually now.
Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius open with montages of black-and-white vintage photographs of the past. It’s not how Bacurau opens, but we see the same types of photos inside the museum and inside the houses. It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that the climactic battle takes place inside the museum, the past and the future overlapping.
KMF: My mother was a historian so maybe that’s one explanation. I love documents, photographs, archives. Aquarius is actually about that, but it doesn’t tell you that. You can tell by watching the film that this is gone. This [film] is completely obsessed with objects, archives. Neighboring Sounds doesn’t really feel that way. But it’s very much about the weight of history and how people carry history on their back. And of course, in Bacurau, people keep inviting other people to come visit the museum.
JD: One thing that I like to think also is that we come from the big city, not from that particular region. We’re from the northeast region, which is a huge region. So, the culture is very different there. We were always concerned about not making a film of people that we don’t really know. So, I think this contact, this wish to use archive images and history, it kind of gives us more safety to walk into this terrain. And, yeah, it brought a beautiful confirmation when we started to look for this particular location, that village, we discovered that many other little villages like that had their own museums. But these museums, we didn’t know about them, and we just wrote them. It was great.
KMF: But I think we were familiar with the kind of cultural profile that these communities have. We loved them very much. And they’re so full of culture and understanding of history. It doesn’t mean that everybody is into all of that. We have the special people in each community.
JD: And this kind of thing about people from the sertão [the “outback” region in which the film is set] is starting to change more and more because, of course, everything that happened in the bigger cities is starting to happen there. The growing of the evangelical Pentecostal churches, for example. And everybody is very connected to the internet. So, they have access to the same stuff that we do so. They’re starting to change.
KMF: Have you seen Central Station by Walter Salles?
I have not.
KMF: It was shot in ‘97. The sertão that Walter shot doesn’t exist anymore. That was 20 years ago. But the sertão he shot still resembles very much the sertão from the ‘80s, ‘70s, and ‘60s, which means that, economically speaking, it’s a region that was pretty much left to its own devices. Just by having a complete lack of access to goods from the industry, it protected itself. Not because it wanted to, but just because it had to, in terms of not really changing much architecture and clothing and colors and things like that. But then, in the last 20 years, two things happened: the internet and Lula’s presidency, which brought quite a lot of change to the sertão. So, the sertão we shot in Bacurau is actually, I think, a modified version of the classic images of the sertão. It’s not the only film project [to depict the region]. There are a number of other interesting films: Love for Sale by Karim Aïnouz, and I Travel Because I Have to, I Come Back Because I Love You is a wonderful documentary.
JD: They have already observed those kinds of changes.
KMF: And then when we do the futuristic thing, we basically use the system we have now with some touches [of the future], which come from costumes, art direction, and production design.
That’s a very interesting way to kind of approach the past because a lot of filmmakers, whenever they look backwards, employ a nostalgic glance. And you’re recognizing that it’s not just that. The past is a prologue. We’re living with the past all the time in the present, and when we try to go forward, we can’t seem to escape our history. We’re locked into repeating the cycle.
JD: We actually say this a lot in the Q&As!
KMF: You’re saying that we look towards the future by thinking about the past. Yeah, that’s what I said about the guillotines. We made a film about the future, which is basically about all the mistakes and keep being repeated in Brazilian society and, well, maybe other societies also. It’s a classic situation. For instance, we have a classic problem with water in the northeastern region, and it’s been going on for over 100 years. And, of course, we have the technology, and Brazil is a rich country. Brazil can fix that, but apparently, a number of people aren’t interested in fixing that. I don’t know why.
JD: Uh, we can guess why! [laughs]
We’re sitting here eye-rolling about how the past is going to keep repeating itself, and I’m curious, do you feel any hope that maybe we can break the cycle? Is it going to take all-out violent rebellion to arrive there, or even move the needle at all?
JD: My way of thinking is that we have this kind of cycle that always tries to go backwards, and we have other cycles where we try to make some advances. We start to do it, and we build something. I’m trying to believe that what we build in people’s spirits and minds, maybe it’s hard to destroy. Because talking about the Brazilian government, they can instantaneously destroy a lot of stuff. But it’s kind of hard now to convince a lot of poor people that were used to being helped with money, actual money from the government, to improve their lives. It’s very difficult now to take this [back] again. So, he [Bolsonaro] tried, and he couldn’t do this, he needed to restart. Everybody will understand that 10 years ago, 15 years ago, life was much better. So, I think this is some something that it’s not easy to just destroy. And, on the matter of the education also, I think we didn’t advance everything that we could. But we were seeing many people from lower classes, black people are just getting their college degrees now.
KMF: Because of the investment that was done 15 years ago.
JD: This can be something that will make some difference in the future.
KMF: The investments done 15 years ago are beginning to bear fruit. Now we’re beginning to get doctors, engineers, and judges coming from the lower classes and from people coming from the racial divide. Now, we have a government that actually believes that the poor part of the population really has to basically only do manual labor. Not necessarily go to university because universities are for those who “deserve” to. You actually hear people from the government saying that. We are now stuck in a moment of history, which will inevitably lead to good things, but there’s a lot of terrible events, which are still taking place.
JD: We are in the middle of the bad cycle, but I believe that it will change.
KMF: Juliano made an interesting point about how people remember. The problem is, I’m not sure they remember. We all go and have an amazing time at a friend’s house some Saturday evening, and we all remember that evening with great affection. It was a wonderful gathering of people. And then, over the following months, we begin to read about that gathering as the worst, most horrible, nastiest experience that human beings have ever experienced. And then, slowly, we begin to change our own memory of what happened that day. And now, we believe what was written about that evening, and we never say, “But wait, guys, we were there. It was. It was amazing. It was just wonderful people. We had great conversations. It was fantastic.” But, no, people are actually believing the official story. And the way this has been rewritten is quite scary. Because they use technology and the internet for bombardment of this other version. And now, in Brazil, it’s crazy because people just do not remember what was happening in the last decade. They’re now using the official version, which came in the shape of press, the internet, and what we now understand as fake news.
JD: I want to believe that there are two ways. One, all that suffering from before the Lula years…[there] was huge suffering, hunger, and poverty. The highest rates of poverty that are still the same now. If this kind of thing returns, maybe they will remember, that’s my point. Because now we’re on the verge of currency devaluation. So, people will start to not be able to buy anything more. And when it starts to hurt their pockets, they will [remember].
KMF: The Financial Times ran a great piece on us in London on Saturday. However, in one paragraph, he writes about when [the cast and crew of] Aquarius did the protests on the red carpets against the ousting of Dilma Rousseff, who at the time was facing corruption charges, which means we support a corrupt president. The word that was missing in the piece was who was facing trumped-up corruption charges. That’s the way it should have been written. And I wish I could have a cup of coffee with that journalist and say, “Listen, do you know what you’re doing? Are you aware of what you’re doing?” Because it’s not accurate information.
It’s buying into the alternate history that you’re talking about and erasing what actually happened.
KMF: Exactly. It’s very subtle, but I keep thinking about, I don’t know, some student in Berlin reading this over breakfast, or some guy reading this in South Africa, and then you spread this version of things, which I find quite incredibly naïve.
It’s an interesting choice that, at the end of the film, the villagers choose to bury Udo Kier’s mercenary character alive rather than just finishing him off. That feels like it’s setting the stage for this to happen again, as we all know what happens to bodies that get buried in genre films.
KMF: We actually wrote a war-style execution engine, like with hands tied in the Second World War. Pacote [a villager] would come and just shoot him in the head, and he would fall into the hole. But I just told Juliano, I don’t want to shoot this.
JD: It’s boring.
If you’d done that, too, I think you might have opened up the film to “both sides” criticism around violence.
KMF: We have this image of fascism coming back. It’s a little plant, which it is, over the last 10 years.
JD: It starts little, and then it’s a big tree.
KMF: I remember 20 years ago, when I was a child, the whole idea of fascism was just impossible. It never worked. It’s horrible. It killed millions of people. And now, it’s like, time has passed. It’s like [people think], oh, maybe fascism is interesting.
JD: It’s started to flourish again.
KMF: So, Udo is like a seed. A plant.