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Understanding Screenwriting #12: John Michael Hayes, Quantum of Solace, Boomerang!, Boston Legal, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #12: John Michael Hayes, Quantum of Solace, Boomerang!, Boston Legal, & More

Coming Up In This Column: John Michael Hayes, Quantum of Solace, Boomerang!, Boston Legal, Law & Order, Two and a Half Men, Desperate Housewives, The Twilight premiere and opening.

John Michael Hayes (1919 – 2008): An appreciation.

Screenwriter John Michael Hayes died November 19th at the age of 89. It took The New York Times six days and the Los Angeles Times eight days to get around to doing an obituary on him. Score one for the East Coast.

Hayes was one of the best screenwriters of the fifties and sixties, moving into films after being a successful radio writer in the forties and early fifties. His most commercially successful film in the fifties was Peyton Place (1957). You might think that would be an easy one: adapt a hugely successful novel. But for the fifties it was virtually unfilmable because it told in lurid detail the secrets, mostly sexual, of nearly everyone in a small New England town. Hayes got the job because he had let his agent know he wanted to do a small town story since he had grown up in one. At first he could not get a handle on the book. Finally he talked to the producer Jerry Wald “because he was like Knute Rockne at halftime,” as Hayes put it. Wald encouraged him not to give up. Finally the solution occurred to Hayes: tell the story from the point of view of Allison McKenzie, the teenage girl who was more or less the author’s surrogate. The script humanized the story and, yes, certainly softened it, but as critics noted, it also made the film much fuller and richer than the novel.

Hayes went on to do many other high profile adaptations, including the 1964 film of the Harold Robbins novel The Carpetbaggers, a VERY thinly disguised take on Howard Hughes. Hughes was very much alive and so were his lawyers, to the point that Hayes said later, “The end of it was written more by lawyers than by myself.” The film is not good, but is a lot of trashy fun, more so than some of Hayes’s other Robbins adaptations such as Where Love Has Gone. Hayes was also the writer, credited or not, on such films as The Matchmaker, Separate Tables, BUtterfield 8, and The Children’s Hour.

The headline for the Los Angeles Times obituary was “Screenwriter wrote 4 Hitchcock films,” which is probably how Hayes will be most remembered. The films were Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, To Catch a Thief, and The Man Who Knew Too Much. When Hitchcock asked Hayes to adapt the Cornell Woolrich story “Rear Window,” Hitchcock had not had a successful film for several years. Three of the four films that Hayes wrote for him put him back on top, and the fourth, The Trouble with Harry, I think is better than both To Catch a Thief and The Man Who Knew Too Much.

The Woolrich story gave Hayes only a rough idea to work with: a man unable to get around suspects a neighbor of murder. Woolrich has his main character slowly realize what happened. Hayes has him jump to conclusions, proved wrong, jump to more conclusions, proved wrong again, etc, until it turns out he is right. Much more dramatic. Hayes created a character for Jeff, as well as a girlfriend for him and a wonderful insurance nurse, who can say all the grotesque things everybody in the audience is thinking. What Hayes brought to the table was a sense of humor and an ability to create characters. (For a more detailed look at the development of Rear Window, see the chapter on it in my book Understanding Screenwriting, and if that is not long enough for you, look up my article on it in the Winter 1997 issue of Creative Screenwriting, and if THAT is not long enough for you, read Steven DeRosa’s excellent 2001 book Writing with Hitchcock, which deals with the entire Hayes-Hitchcock collaboration. Better yet, just start with DeRosa’s book.)

Hayes brought something else to the table. When he and Hitchcock first discussed Rear Window, Hitchcock said he wanted Grace Kelly to play Jeff’s girlfriend. Hitchcock was then making his first film with Kelly (Dial M for Murder) and told Hayes she was a little “stiff,” which Hayes agreed with. Hayes and his wife Mel spent a week and a half with Kelly and discovered that she was “full of life, bright, and snappy,” as Hayes puts it in the fifteen minute interview that appears on the DVD of Rear Window. Since Mel had been a fashion model, Hayes put Lisa into the world of fashion, and several of Mel’s comments into her mouth. Look at Kelly in Dial M for Murder and then Rear Window. See the difference? That comes from Hayes both understanding Kelly and creating a character for her.

It doesn’t come from Hitchcock. OK, sacrilege time. Hitchcock, like a lot of directors enamored of the technical side of movies, had very little interest in character, which made him a terrible director of actors. Yes, there are many good performances in Hitchcock’s films, but they usually come when the writers have written great characters and the parts are well cast. When you have Charles Bennett (without whom there is simply no Hitchcock), Robert Sherwood, Thornton Wilder, Ben Hecht, John Michael Hayes, and Ernest Lehman creating characters for you, it is easy for the actors to be good. When the writing is not there, or when the parts are miscast, Hitchcock did not know how to work around it, as indicated by Kelly’s performance in Dial M for Murder. Look at all the BAD performances in Hitchcock’s films: Robert Cummings in Saboteur, Alida Valli in The Paradine Case, John Dall and Farley Granger in Rope, Ruth Roman in Strangers on a Train (Roman had a wonderful earthiness in her other films, but Hitchcock had not a clue how to make it work in this film), Kim Novak in Vertigo, Tippi Hedren in The Birds and Marnie, Sean Connery in Marnie, and Julie Andrews and Paul Newman in Torn Curtain. And that’s just the stars; the list goes on and on when you count supporting actors.

Hitchcock occasionally showed a brilliant instinct for casting, such as putting Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train and, in his wildest and most successful casting decision, putting Anthony Perkins, at the time a sort of junior-varsity James Dean, into Psycho. For all his use of stars, Hitchcock seems to have thought actors were interchangeable. Need a good looking guy in a suit and you can’t get Cary Grant? Put Frederick Stafford into Topaz. It’s not the same thing. Need a cool blonde and you can’t use Madeline Carroll? Get this new girl Grace Kelly. It was not the same thing in Dial M for Murder. It was in Rear Window. Because of John Michael Hayes.

And Hitchcock’s gratitude? When François Truffaut asked Hitchcock about Hayes’s contribution to Rear Window, all Hitchcock said was, “John Michael Hayes is a radio writer and he wrote the dialogue.”

Quantum of Solace(2008. Written by Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. 105 minutes): William Wyler was right.

In 1958, when Wyler was directing the big budget western The Big Country, he recalled in an interview that the B westerns he did in the silent days at Universal all had the same structure: Action-plot-action-plot-action-plot-big action at the end. There you have the basic structure not only for B westerns, but boxing movies, auto race movies, musicals (musical numbers instead of action scenes), pornos, and almost any kind of action movie.

North by Northwest was the template for the James Bond series in many ways. One of Hitchcock’s great looking guys in an even greater looking suit gets involved with suave spies and beautiful treacherous women. Outdoor action. Trains. Technicolor. Big Screen. And the old B western structure: plot and character scenes around the action scenes: driving the car while drunk, the killing at the U.N., the crop duster, the finale on Mount Rushmore. In writing contemporary reviews of Hitchcock’s films in the early thirties (see the essay “Directors of the Thirties” in Grierson on Documentary), John Grierson noted Hitchcock’s basic flaw was that he was more interested in scenes than stories. That remained true the rest of Hitchcock’s career, and has often been true of the Bond films. And many contemporary action films.

The trick in writing the Bond films is to balance the plot and action. The writers of Quantum of Solace have unbalanced the formula by throwing in too much action. Or rather the plot and character scenes are underwritten and underdeveloped. Where are John Michael Hayes or Ernest Lehman when you need them? In the series reboot, Casino Royale, the writers gave us a younger, rawer Bond, which Daniel Craig was the perfect actor for. Here the “character” scenes do not give him the kind of emotional scenes he had with Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. Bond is one-note here. M and Felix Leiter seem to have more to do emotionally than Bond. The dialogue is very flat. I don’t think they need to return to the wise-cracking era of the Roger Moore Bonds, but an occasional Conneryesque pun might provide a little counterpoint.

This is the first Bond film that is a direct sequel to the previous one, and the writers run into the problem of all sequel writers. How much of the previous story and characters do you need to recap for the audience? We all remember that Vesper was killed, but how many of us remember who was involved or why? This gets to be a problem at the very end, where we meet a character who was involved with Vesper, but for the life of me I could not remember how. So the scene did not have the impact it should have. See the chapters on the Jurassic Park and American Pie movies in my Understanding Screenwriting book for discussions of this problem and some of the other problems in writing sequels.

Boomerang! (1947. Screenplay by Richard Murphy, based on the article “The Perfect Case” by “Anthony Abbot” (Fulton Oursler) in the December 1945 Reader’s Digest. 88 minutes): In spite of what the Fox DVD marketing department tells you in their packaging, Boomerang! is not a film noir.

Louis de Rochemont, the producer of Boomerang!, first came to the public’s attention as the producer on the documentary series The March of Time in the thirties. One feature of those shorts was the recreation of events, often using the real people as themselves. You have no idea how bad an actor Albert Einstein was until you see him try to play himself in Atomic Power. After World War II, de Rochemont produced a group of semi-documentaries based on real events. Boomerang! was his third such film. It was acclaimed at the time for its documentary quality, since it was shot entirely on location in Connecticut.

Later the film was viewed as an early example of its director’s work. He was Elia Kazan, and this was his third feature. Looked at that way, it was seen as a mostly a warm-up exercise for the masterpieces that came later, A Streetcar Named Desire and especially On the Waterfront, which was marked by its location shooting. Now that we are so familiar with On the Waterfront, it takes a little getting used to watching Lee J. Cobb and Karl Malden, the antagonistic characters representing Evil and Good in that film, working together as cops in Boomerang!.

The recent DVD release of Boomerang! is part of the Fox Film Noir series. The only possible way you could consider Boomerang! a film noir is that it was made in 1947, is shot in black and white, and deals with a crime. There is no doomed hero, no femme fatale, no sense of existential dread. Film noir was not even a term in use when the film was made. In the seventies the term became a favorite of film critics and historians. In the 1971 first edition of Gerald Mast’s A Short History of the Movies, there is no reference to the term. By the sixth edition in 1996, there are references on 18 pages. The term has worked its way so much into public use it is now a marketing ploy.

Looking at the film itself and not its marketing, Richard Murphy’s screenplay is a fast, tight tale of an unusual case. A priest is shot on the street and a man is arrested. The case against him seems solid, but the prosecuting attorney begins to have doubts. When the case goes to trial, the prosecutor begins the case by laying out all the reasons he thinks he does NOT have a case. Not the usual situation with an ambitious prosecutor. The case is dismissed and I will not tell you what Murphy’s (and probably Oursler’s) great punchline to the whole story is.

What Murphy does so well is give you the case in the context of the small town. The prosecutor’s wife is seen early as part of a committee trying to get a park built. That seems like just a textural detail, but one of the city fathers she is dealing with is also putting pressure on the prosecutor. The current local administration is a reform administration attacked by the local newspaper, which supports the previous administration. Murphy, a World War II veteran, would go on to write excellent scripts in the same vein, such as Panic in the Streets.

Kazan directed Panic as well, since he had come to appreciate Murphy. His first reaction to the script for Boomerang! was “I thought it a routine little drama, and it had no interest for me.” It was his wife Molly, the intellectual one in the marriage, who convinced him “something good could be made of it,” according to Kazan. Sometimes you have to hit directors upside the head with a two-by-four to get their attention.

Perhaps now that Fox is quickly coming to the end of films they can fit into their film noir marketing, they should consider marketing boxed sets of the work of their screenwriters. You could get several out of the films of Nunnally Johnson, Philip Dunne, and Lamar Trotti. How about a Richard Murphy four-pack, with Boomerang!, Cry of the City, Slattery’s Hurricane, and Panic in the Streets?

Boston Legal (2008. Episodes “Kill, Baby, Kill” written by Lawrence Broch & David E. Kelly, and “Thanksgiving” written by David E. Kelly. 60 minutes each): Torn from the headlines!

One of the reasons Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of production at 20th Century-Fox, encouraged the Louis de Rochemont films mentioned above is that Zanuck started the whole “torn from the headlines” genre back when he was at Warner Brothers in the early thirties. Television has of course picked up on that, even more so these days than theatrical films, since television can speed things to audiences more quickly. These two Boston Legal episodes are such examples. “Kill, Baby, Kill,” which was broadcast less than two weeks after the election, includes discussion of the election. But if you listen carefully, a lot of the discussion is very generic and was probably written before the voting. There are only a couple of lines that mention the outcome and were written and shot after the election. Setting up the script that way is rather tricky and very inventive. “Thanksgiving,” in which most of the major cast members, and some minor ones, end up at Shirley Schmidt’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, ran the following week. It includes long, typical David E. Kellyish discussions of the election. Kelly does love his talk, but at least the conversation occasionally goes around corners you did not know were there.

Law & Order(2008. Episode “Falling” written by Stephanie Sengupta & Keith Eisner. 60 minutes): Talking as we were about stories torn from the headlines.

Dick Wolf is our Darryl F. Zanuck. In this series, which has been running since before the birth of Philo T. Farnsworth, he goes Zanuck one better. Zanuck and a million movie and television producers since simply tell the stories, with an occasional variation. (See my comments on Changeling in US#11.) Wolf, the super showrunner of the Law & Order franchise, has recognized that the docudrama approach has been done to death. When Law & Order, the mothership series, takes a well-known public incident, it uses it only as the jumping off point. Wolf’s writers quickly turn it on its head, upsetting audience expectations. Although by now, our expectations are that Wolf’s writers will do this, and we tune in to show how perversely inventive they can be. “Falling” is a good an example of their approach.

Everybody read the stories this past summer about a couple of construction cranes collapsing in New York City. A show of hands please as to how many of us knew that was an L&O episode waiting to be written. So we start “Falling” with a woman complaining of the noise on a construction site to Talbot, the foreman. She goes back to her apartment and almost before she can talk to her husband, the house shakes as the crane collapses. The two detectives tell the builder that until they determine the cause of death, the collapse is a crime scene. Ca-Ching, opening credits. I love, by the way, how the series writers come up with characters for the opening who have nothing to do with the main story except, usually, to discover the body.

Right away the cops discover the crane was smaller than called for, so to an L&O virgin, if there are any left, you would think the show is going to be about corruption and payoffs. The first act seems to be about that, including the fact that Talbot has been using money to pay for the medical care of Emilia, the wife of the workman who was killed in the collapse. But at the beginning of the second act, the corruption case is being put on the back burner, since Emilia’s coma is now suspicious, as is Talbot paying money that was supposed to be for bribes for her care. The cops assume she and Talbot were having an affair. No, she was working for Talbot’s wife Sandra, taking care of the Talbots’ disabled daughter. Emilia was objecting to a surgical procedure the Talbots were going to have to—well, you see what I mean about twisting the “headline” story into something else all together.

Eventually Cutter, the Deputy District Attorney, tries to work out a plea arrangement for Sandra, who sort of attempted to kill Emilia. Part of the deal is that the Talbots will not have the operation, which would prevent her from growing into an adult, on their daughter. Jack McCoy, now the District Attorney, not only objects, but comes into court while Cutter is trying to close the deal. McCoy withdraws the provision. Later, Cutter is upset and points out than in a previous case McCoy had set up a similar provision. McCoy admits he had been wrong then. What we get is a nice character scene, which we generally don’t get among the stars on L&O, if only because the storytelling is so fast. Look at this way: Wolf and his writers are squeezing a one-hour cop show and a one-hour lawyer show into a single hour. Speed is of the essence.

Two and a Half Men (2008. Episode “The Mooch at the Boo” written by Eddie Gorodetsky & Susan Beavers, story by Lee Aronsohn & Chuck Lorre. 30 minutes): Jake and a girl! Sort of.

In US#7, I made the point that this show was going to have to deal with Jake and Angus T. Jones, the actor who plays him, reaching puberty. The writers (the story is by the two show runners) sort of do that in this episode. Charlie catches Jake looking at their new next door neighbors, especially the daughter, and he takes Jake over to introduce him. Jake and the girl go off together. Then the dad, Jerome “Mad Dog” Burnett, an ex pro football player, comes looking for her, since he can’t get her on her cellphone. The rest of this story is played out with Charlie and Jerome, rather than with Jake and the girl, Celeste. Charlie of course is the main character in the show, and him dealing with an alternately outraged and tearful father by telling him about all the women with father issues he has dated is right in the writers’ comfort zone.

And they deliver at least one great scene. Charlie calls Jake on his cellphone. Which Jake has left on the table by the door. Its ring tone is a rather nasty rap song. Did I mention that Jerome and Celeste are black? There is approximately a minute of Charlie reacting to the phone, Jerome reacting to the phone, Charlie trying unsuccessfully to stop it, and Jerome glaring at him. Some of this I am sure was in the script. Given the way television shows are made, I am sure some of it was developed in rehearsal. The writers’ job here was to set up the situation, provide the general action and let the actors and director see how they can develop it. It helps that you have Charlie Sheen as Charlie. Sheen does not get enough credit for making it look so easy. It also helps that you have Michael Clarke Duncan, who gives great glare, as Jerome.

Eventually Jake and Celeste come home and Charlie and Jerome find them kissing at the front door. That’s the Act II curtain, and the end teaser has Jerome telling Charlie that Celeste said Jake was a perfect gentleman and she kissed him. Well, it is a 30 minute (22 minutes of actual screen time) sitcom episode, so you do need your happy ending.

Desperate Housewives(2008. Episodes “City on Fire” written by Bob Daily and “Me and My Town” written by Lori Kirkland Baker. 60 minutes): Plots and characters.

The “City on Fire” episode was the last sweeps episode and was designed to bring in twists to send us into the period before the next sweeps. In the episode the men of Wisteria Lane have actually arranged to play at a local club’s Battle of the Bands, so nearly everybody in the show is there. Julie, Susan’s daughter, has brought her much older and much married boyfriend to town. He has the club play a CD for Julie so he can propose, but she eventually, to everybody’s relief, turns him down. She has always seemed the smartest person on the show. Lynette is trying to deal with Porter’s affair with Anne, but in rather conventional scenes. Anne’s husband runs the club, and Porter threatens the husband in public for beating up Anne. David’s shrink is in Fairview, alerted by the call from the McCluskey sisters, whom we are seeing less and less of; I only hope the show is saving some good scenes for them for later. The shrink confronts David after realizing that “he” (presumably the person David has come to town to harm) is in the band. David kills him and sets a slow-starting fire, which destroys the club. David manages to save Mike, saying to his unconscious form, “Hang in there. I’m not done with you yet.” In many other shows that would tell us Mike is the one he is after, but not on this show and not with David.

Somebody has died, but we do not learn who.

In “Me and My Town,” we learn that seven people died in the fire, but we still do not know who. Mrs. Hildebrand, whom we saw talking to Gaby in the club, is the logical choice, since there is no appearance or even mention of her in this episode. It may have been the McCluskey sisters, since they don’t appear either.

One of the difficulties of writing for a large ensemble is servicing all of the major characters. This is one reason actors leave what to us mere mortals seem like good jobs: not getting as much screen time as they want. Often a showrunner’s time is taken up dealing with actors who want more scenes. And who then complain when they get too many. What Baker does in this episode is give us some terrific scenes with the major characters. Gaby becomes determined to get her looks back (although in any real universe there is nothing wrong with Eva Longoria Parker) and starts eating right. Parker gets a great scene with her two, ahem, zaftig daughters trying to convince them to eat right too. Later Gaby learns than an operation will let Carlos see again, so she is more determined than ever to get back into shape. When the operation is moved up three weeks, she tries to delay it. Parker has always been great at Gaby’s turn-on-a-dime emotions and is so here.

Susan is worried that Mike is dating a friend of hers, since she still has not dealt with the end of her marriage. She realizes it is Catherine, and the two of them have a couple of good scenes together, one the recognition scene (good use of cookies as props in this one), the other the reconciliation scene.

Lynette drives Anne to the bus station, giving her cash so she can go away. We get a nice, slightly off-center scene between the two them, and one that plays to Felicity Huffman’s (Lynette) strengths (edgy but powerful). The great punchline is Anne’s: she is not pregnant at all. But by then she’s got Lynette’s money.

Orson has resisted Bree’s request that he get an operation to cure his snoring, but after he messes up, a gleeful Bree explains to the doctor who proposed the operation that power shifts in relationships. Quintessential Bree. And Baker’s punchline is good here too. After Bree leaves, the doctor calls his significant other to say he never wants them to become like that. The other is Andrew, Bree’s gay son.

The Twilight Premiere and Opening: SHRIEK!

On November 17th I got a call from my daughter asking if I would be a good grandpa and take my 16 year-old granddaughter Ilana into Westwood to see the premiere festivities for Twilight. Ilana grew up in Denver and they only recently moved to the Los Angeles area. She is a huge fan of the books and wanted to see what a real Hollywood premiere (most of which are held in Westwood) was like. Well, sure, I’ll do it, because that’s the kind of grandpa I am. The pictures that accompany this item were taken by Ilana.

Don’t believe what you heard about there being thousands of people there. It was MAYBE one thousand, tops, and some of those were just trying to get through the crowd to the local restaurants. The premieres are held in Westwood because there are two theaters on opposite corners they can use. (And you had better believe that there are screaming matches over which theater you are assigned if you have tickets. Hollywood people can turn anything into a question of status.)

The crowd was of course mostly teenage girls. They shrieked when each of the actors arrived. They shrieked when the actors were introduced by the local DJ’s emceeing the event. They really shrieked when one of the actors came over and shook hands and signed autographs. They shrieked when the creators of one of the songs was introduced. They shrieked when the director was introduced. They did not shriek when the screenwriter was introduced.

She is Melissa Rosenberg. We need to start teaching the children earlier.

The following weekend the film opened to a weekend gross estimated at $70.5 million (later adjusted to just under $70 million). The highest estimate anybody in the industry made before was that it might, possibly, maybe, stretch to $60 million. As one studio guy (of course) was quoted, “It’s only a quadrant and a half movie,” meaning it would bring in young girls and some slightly older women, as opposed to a “four quadrant” movie that brings in young and old, male and female.

When the first Harry Potter movie opened, the Time-Warner marketing crew nearly broke their arms patting themselves on the back for “opening” the film so well. They were full of crap. The one person who “opened” that film was J.K. Rowling.

Twilight is being released by Summit Entertainment, a small company without the marketing manpower, skill, energy, experience, and clout of Time-Warner. The one person who “opened” Twilight was the author of the novels, Stephenie Meyer.

To paraphrase the slogan from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign: IT’S THE WRITERS, STUPID.

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.

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Review: We Summon the Darkness Coasts Lazily on an Empty Twist

The film’s cat-and-mouse antics play out with no sense of escalation or invention.

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We Summon the Darkness
Photo: Saban Films
Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers.

Genre movies these days are rife with self-conscious subversion, and at the cost of cohesiveness. Into this climate strides director Marc Meyers’s 1980s-set Satanic-panic thriller We Summon the Darkness, which drops its twist inside the first 30 minutes and then aimlessly limps toward a rote conclusion for close to another hour.

Alexis (Alexandra Daddario) and her friends (Maddie Hasson and Amy Forsyth) attend a heavy metal concert, where they meet a group of boys (Keean Johnson, Logan Miller, and Austin Swift) and head to a remote location for an after-party. A satanic ritual ensues, except here’s the twist: It’s fake. There are no Satanists. There’s only Alexis and her friends, who are all Christian church girls killing headbangers and staging the scenes to look like murder-suicides, hoping to draw people to their congregation by scapegoating heavy metal.

Viewers are meant to write off some of the early red flags about the girls’ true intentions only to remember them in hindsight, as in how Alexis needs to be reminded of a prominent guitarist’s death. But if the film’s big twist seems to express the “fake fan” fears of dweeb gatekeepers the world over, even those anxieties remain underexplored. We Summon the Darkness struggles to conjure any discernible themes beyond a lot of too-easy jabs at religious hypocrisy, as in a scene about church donations being misappropriated.

The boys spend much of the film’s back half locked in a closet, which is still more engaging than the boilerplate scuffles in the dark that make up the final third. The cat-and-mouse antics play out with no sense of escalation or invention. Like many a film before it, We Summon the Darkness spends such a long time trying to subvert a concept that it neglects everything that might have been appealing even in a straightforward take on its premise.

Cast: Alexandra Daddario, Keean Johnson, Maddie Hasson, Amy Forsyth, Logan Miller, Austin Swift, Johnny Knoxville Director: Marc Meyers Screenwriter: Alan Trezza Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Sea Fever, Though Eerie, Delivers Body Horror in Half Measures

Writer-director Neasa Hardiman’s film is undone by earnestness.

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Sea Fever
Photo: Gunpowder & Sky

With occasional exceptions, humanism doesn’t benefit the horror film, which generally thrives under the inspiration of artists who exploit social vulnerabilities through various formal means. Case in point, Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever is undone by its earnestness. Hardiman is very fond of her protagonist, Siobhán (Hermione Corfield), and the writer-director is striving to make an impassioned point about the value of intelligence and rationality in the midst of a quarantine, an especially resonant theme in the age of COVID-19. In the film, a remarkable amount of time is devoted to the strategy of containing and combating a parasitic creature that invades an Irish fishing trawler, yet Hardiman has virtually no interest in goosing the audience, offering up a monster flick with no pulse.

At its heart, Sea Fever is another single-setting horror film in which an exotic animal systematically infects a blue-collar crew. Conscious of this tradition, Hardiman offers variations on a couple of the genre’s greatest hits: the misleadingly tranquil dinner scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien and the “testing for infection” sequence in John Carpenter’s The Thing. Filmmakers have gotten quite a bit of mileage out of ripping off The Thing over the years, but Hardiman stages this latter scene simply as a scientific inquiry, deriving no suspense from it, and delivering the punchline as an afterthought. Much of the trawler’s crew is the usual collection of burly, hairy studs who look so much alike that you expect a joke to be made of it, except that Hardiman evinces no sense of humor. Even the tension between the men and Siobhán—a student studying unusual sea creatures and therefore an intellectual who must maintain calm in a crisis, rising to the fore to become the next Ripley—often falls flat.

Alien and The Thing are sadistic films whose power derives, in part, from how expertly they surpass our worst suspicions of what’s going to happen. In each case, the monsters are more awful than we expect them to be, continually growing stronger, more disgusting, and more primordial—more, well, alien. By contrast, Hardiman offers a giant, multi-tentacled jellyfish that’s barely in the film, suggesting a wan and naturalistic riff on the thing from Deep Rising, as well as sea maggots that yield one instance of respectable body horror. These are mild returns on over half a running-time’s worth of exposition and foreshadowing.

Yet Sea Fever does have an eerie setting, as the creaky, claustrophobic trawler and the misty water inform the narrative with the aura of an Irish myth or ghost story, which is revealed to be very pertinent. And Corfield gives a poignant and vivid performance, especially during the film’s unexpectedly moving ending, which finds Siobhán weirdly rewarded, as her desire for knowledge and personal expansion is gratified at the expense of disaster. The final scenes clarify Hardiman’s intentions, which somewhat cancel themselves out: an attempt to fuse a monster movie and a poetic myth with a coming-of-age character study.

Cast: Hermione Corfield, Connie Nielsen, Dougray Scott, Olwen Fouéré, Jack Hickey, Ardalan Esmaili, Elie Bouakaze Director: Neasa Hardiman Screenwriter: Neasa Hardiman Distributor: Gunpowder & Sky Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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The 20 Best Zombie Movies of All Time

If zombies seem infinitely spongy as functional allegories, it’s their non-hierarchic function that retains the kernel of their monstrousness.

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The 20 Best Zombie Movies of All Time
Photo: Well Go USA

Zombie movies not only endure, but persist at the height of their popularity, neck and neck with vampire stories in a cultural race to the bottom, their respective “twists” on generic boilerplate masking a dead-eyed derivativeness. For the zombie film (or comic book, or cable TV drama), that boilerplate was struck by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and its subsequent sequels established a loose conception of the undead threat: lumbering, beholden to no centralized authority, sensitive to headshots and decapitations.

If, according to Franco Moretti’s “The Dialectic of Fear,” the vampiric threat (at least as embodied in Count Dracula) operates chiefly as a metaphor for monopoly capital, binding those English bourgeois interlopers to his spell and extracting the blood of their industry, then the zombie poses a more anarchic, horizontalized threat. In post-Romero, hyper-allegorized zombie cinema, the hulking undead mass can be generally understood as the anti-Draculean annihilation of capital. Flesh and blood are acquired but not retained; civilization is destroyed but not remodeled. If zombies seem infinitely spongy as functional allegories for this or that, it’s their non-hierarchic function that retains the kernel of their monstrousness.

At their apex of their allegorical authority, zombies may fundamentally destroy, as attested by our favorite zombie films of all time. But that doesn’t mean their inexhaustible popularity as monster du jour can’t be harnessed to the whims of real-deal market maneuvering, their principally anarchic menace yoked to the proverbial voodoo master of capital. John Semley

Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on October 21, 2019.


Night of the Comet

20. Night of the Comet (1984)

Night of the Comet’s scenario reads like the bastard child of countless drive-in movies, in which most of humanity is instantly reduced to colored piles of dust when the Earth passes through the tail of a comet that last came around—you guessed it—right about the time the dinosaurs went belly-up. Then again, just so you know he’s not adhering too closely to generic procedures, writer-director Thom Eberhardt irreverently elects a couple of pretty vacant valley girls—tomboyish arcade addict Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and her blond cheerleader sister, Sam (Kelli Maroney)—and a Mexican truck driver, Hector (Robert Beltran), to stand in for the last remnants of humanity. With regard to its bubbly protagonists, the film vacillates between poking not-so-gentle fun at their vapid mindset, as in the Dawn of the Dead-indebted shopping spree (obligingly scored to Cindi Lauper’s anthemic “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”), and taking them seriously as agents of their own destiny. Lucky for them, as it happens, that their hard-ass old man taught them how to shoot the shit out of an Uzi—and look adorable doing it. It also doesn’t hurt that Eberhardt filigrees his absurd premise with grace notes like the cheeky cinephilia informing early scenes set in an all-night movie theater. Budd Wilkins


The Living Dead Girl

19. The Living Dead Girl (1982)

In The Living Dead Girl, the gothic ambience that elsewhere suffuses Jean Rollin’s work smashes headlong against the inexorable advance of modernity. The film opens with the vision of bucolic scenery blighted by the scourge of industrialization: rolling hills sliced up by concertina-capped fences, billowing smokestacks visible in the hazy distance. When some dicey movers deposit barrels of chemical waste in the family vault beneath the dilapidated Valmont chateau, a sudden tremor causes the barrels to spring a leak, reanimating the corpse of Catherine Valmont (Françoise Blanchard) in the process. Despite the gruesome carnage she inflicts on hapless and not-so-hapless victims alike, it’s clear that Rollin sees the angelic Catherine, with her flowing blond tresses and clinging white burial weeds, as an undead innocent abroad in a world she can no longer comprehend. The flm builds to a climax of Grand Guignol gruesomeness as Hélène (Marina Pierro), Catherine’s girlhood friend, makes the ultimate sacrifice for her blood sister. It’s an altogether remarkable scene, tinged with melancholy and possessed of a ferocious integrity that’s especially apparent in Blanchard’s unhinged performance. The film’s blood-spattered descent into positively Jacobean tragedy helps to make it one of Rollin’s strongest, most disturbing efforts. Wilkins


They Came Back

18. They Came Back (2004)

They Came Back is a triumph of internal horror, and unlike M. Night Shyamalan’s similarly moody freak-out The Sixth Sense, Robin Campillo’s vision of the dead sharing the same space as the living isn’t predicated on a gimmicky reduction of human faith. Campillo is more upfront than Shyamalan—it’s more or less understood that the presence of the living dead in his film is likely metaphoric—and he actually seems willing to plumb the moral oblivion created by the collision of its two worlds. Though the fear that the film’s walking dead can turn violent at any second is completely unjustified, the writer-director allows this paranoia to reflect the feelings of loss, disassociation, and hopelessness that cripple the living. It’s rather amazing how far the film is able to coast on its uniquely fascinating premise, even if it isn’t much of a stretch for its director: Campillo co-authored Laurent Cantet’s incredible Time Out, a different kind of zombie film about the deadening effects of too much work on the human psyche, and They Came Back is almost as impressive in its concern with the existential relationship between the physical and non-physical world. Ed Gonzalez


Zombi Child

17. Zombi Child (2019)

Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child is a quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments in in the film where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper than race relations. Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. The film’s off-kilter mix of horror, historiography, and youth movie affords Bonello plenty of opportunity to indulge his pet themes and motifs. He spends much time lingering throughout scenes set at the academy on the sociality of the young women and their engagement with pop culture. In fact, Bonello’s fascination with the dynamics of these relationships seems to drive his interest in the horror genre more so even than the film’s most obvious antecedent, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie—as is indicated by a pretty explicit homage to Brian De Palma’s Carrie. Sam C. Mac


Train to Busan

16. Train to Busan (2016)

When divorced of message-mongering, the film’s scare tactics are among the most distinctive that the zombie canon has ever seen. The zombies here are rabid, fast-moving ghoulies that, as Train to Busan’s protagonists discover, are attracted to loud sounds and only attack what they can actually see. This realization becomes the foundation for a series of taut set pieces during which the story’s motley crew of survivors manipulate their way past zombies with the aid of cellphones and bats and the numerous tunnels through which the train must travel. The genre crosspollination for which so many South Korean thrillers have come to be known for is most evident in these scenes (as in the survivors crawling across one train car’s overhead luggage area), which blend together the tropes of survivor-horror and disaster films, as well as suggest the mechanics of puzzle-platformer games. Gonzalez

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Review: Nafi’s Father Is a Raw and Immediate Look at a Collison of Faith

The film vibrantly articulates all that’s lost when people are held under the draconian decree of warlords.

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Nafi's Father
Photo: Locarno

Writer-director Mamadou Dia’s feature-length debut, Nafi’s Father, hinges on the contentious relationship between two brothers, each one devoted to an opposing version of Islam, and how their bid for primacy leads to rising tensions in the small Senegalese town they call home. For Tierno (Alassane Sy), who’s well on his way to becoming an imam, the religion is a justification for peace and self-reflection. And while his practices are largely traditional, he’s lenient about some of the more repressive rules that many other imams would blindly enforce. But for his greedy, duplicitous brother, Ousmane (Saïkou Lo), Islam is merely a stepping stone to achieving control over their town. As Tierno struggles to keep his followers on the path of righteousness, Ousmane repeatedly arrives on the scene with stacks of cash from a fundamentalist sheikh looking to draw supporters to his cause.

Dia delicately balances this depiction of the gradual arrival of more restrictive, fundamentalist forces within the town’s borders with a small-scale family drama that plays out after Ousmane’s son, Tokara (Alassane Ndoye), asks Tierno’s daughter, Nafi (Aïcha Talla), for her hand in marriage. Tierno’s fears for his daughter were she to become Ousmane’s daughter-in-law are legitimate, but his refusal to consent to the union is driven more by his lingering jealousy of his brother, who was favored by their parents, and a desire to keep Nafi from venturing out to the nearby city, where she wants to study neurosciences.

While Tierno sees through his brother’s nefarious methods and justly fears the terrifying sheikh, his own restrictive treatment of Nafi, who genuinely loves and wants to marry Tokara, lends the film’s central sibling rivalry a potent irony; no one here is free from blame in the tragic events that will follow. Just as Ousmane courts the sheikh for his own benefit, so does Tierno impede his daughter’s desires only to serve his own ego. Dia nimbly reveals how this battle of headstrong wills reverberates through both the entire local community and within Tierno’s own family. As the sheikh’s presence is felt more forcefully, we also see how even those with the appearance of authority and respect in such an oppressed society, such as Tierno and Ousmane, are ultimately rendered as helpless as those in their own flock when someone with money and guns arrives on the scene, licking their chops like a wolf at the door.

Shooting in a small town in northeast Senegal, near where he grew up, Dia counters the film’s central tragedy with an emphasis on the region’s sparse beauty and its cultural mores and artifacts, from its marriage rituals to the vibrantly colorful, intricately designed costumes. The richness and cultural specificity that Dia brings to Nafi’s Father lends it an authenticity that helps articulate all that’s lost when such towns are held under the draconian decree of warlords. The film’s pacing is quite deliberate, and while it could perhaps use some tighter editing in the middle stretches, it’s the acute attention paid to how seemingly trivial acts of greed and selfishness can, over time, lay the tracks for an outright takeover by violent fundamentalists that gives a familiar subject such a gripping, raw immediacy.

Nafi’s Father had its world premiere last year at Locarno and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact JoyeDidi.

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Review: Days of Cannibalism Bears Witness to a Culture War, Western Style

The film ultimately depicts a world in which people are left with no other option but to devour their own.

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Days of Cannibalism
Photo: Berlinale

A frontier story about the tension between settlers and natives, director Teboho Edkins’s Days of Cannibalism may technically be a documentary, but at heart it’s a western. Filmed in and around a small cattle-herding community in Lesotho, where Chinese immigrants have recently begun to settle and open up various types of stores, the film is packed with mythopoeic vistas of men on horseback roaming through fearsome yet spectacular mountain landscapes—shots that feel like they could’ve been cribbed straight from an Anthony Mann oater. There are scenes of cattle rustling, banditry, and frontier justice, as well as a Leone-esque vision of a town riven by suspicion, resentment, and racial hostility.

Edkins’s artistic project here isn’t simply to make a documentary that feels like a genre film, but rather to use the trappings of the western to explore the power dynamics at play on the extreme margins of global capitalism. Edkins’s former film professor at the dffb Film Academy in Berlin, Valeska Grisebach, has described the western as “a film about a space in which the rules are still in flux, and the balance of power is in negotiation.” And that struggle for authority and dominance is precisely what Days of Cannibalism explores.

Edkins casts the local Basotho people as “indians” and the Chinese migrants as the “pioneers,” but he then spends much of the film problematizing these distinctions. The Basotho are neither the bloodthirsty savages of early westerns nor the forlorn, eternally wronged victims of the genre’s revisionist period. Rather, they’re basically just ordinary people struggling to find a sense of equilibrium in a fast-changing world that seems to be leaving them behind.

The spiritual significance that the Basotho impute to cattle—cows are even referred to as the “wet-nosed god”—may at first seem like superstitious animism. But the belief turns out to also have a ruthlessly economic basis, as we see when some local men, who’ve turned to cattle rustling after being unable to find work, are hit with a lengthy prison sentence for the crime of stealing a couple of cows. Their crime isn’t a spiritual one so much as a social one: As the judge informs them, to steal a cow is to steal a community member’s livelihood.

Days of Cannibalism reveals the Chinese immigrants’ unwillingness to understand the Basotho people’s cow-herding practices as one of the major sources of resentment between the two groups. The immigrants make money by setting up small shops, as well as Walmart-like “wholesale stores.” “The Chinese have no idea how to take care of cattle,” one Lesotho herder angrily laments. Another more rueful local—the host of a radio show that interweaves pop music with thoughtful discussions of issues impacting the community—wonders why the Chinese immigrants can’t teach the locals how to set up shops in exchange for the Lesotho training them in the ways of cattle-herding. Instead, the two groups remain hopelessly alienated from each other, rarely interacting outside of business transactions.

But this isn’t a clear-cut tale of settler colonialism. The Chinese people who come to this underdeveloped corner of the globe don’t do so with any grand scheme of displacement and exploitation, as they’ve also been shunted aside by the savage machinery of globalization. In Lesotho, which is surrounded by South Africa, they simply seek to carve out some kind of life for themselves. With its microcosmic focus on this one particular community, the film exposes the brutal dynamics that undergird a globalist system that pits not only nation against nation, but people against each other. The violence of the system simmers beneath the surface of Days of Cannibalism until it finally boils over in a scene, captured in security camera footage, of an armed robbery at a wholesale store. As its title suggests, the film ultimately depicts a world in which people are left with no other option but to devour their own.

Days of Cannibalism had its world premiere last month at the Berlin International Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Indie Sales.

Director: Teboho Edkins Screenwriter: Teboho Edkins Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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The 100 Best Westerns of All Time

The western has proved itself a durable and influential way of talking about the human condition.

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The 100 Best Westerns of All Time
Photo: United Artists

The classic western was conceived from an undeniably Euro-centric, colonial perspective, with white characters upholding their supposed birthright of freedom and property. In the western, the immense country beyond the Mississippi River figures at once as the sublime object that exceeds the human grasp and as a quantifiable possession. And the prototypical cowboy straddles these paradoxical poles: at home on the dusty, timeless landscape, but also facilitating its incorporation into a society marching toward the Pacific. In 1925’s Tumbleweeds, the herder hero played by William S. Hart reluctantly makes way for the newly arrived homesteaders; in 1953’s Shane, Alan Ladd’s eponymous character rides off after making the West safe for the American family; and in Sergio Leone’s 1968 opus Once Upon a Time in the West, Jason Robards’s Cheyenne sacrifices his life not to end the expansion of the American empire, but to facilitate a more just one.

But this standard narrative mold, to paraphrase John Ford’s 1962 classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, only represents the printed legend. The historical American West was more diverse and less male-dominated than the one Hollywood imagined for many years. Life in the Western territories demanded just as many determined women as it did men, and suffragettes had their first major victories in the West: Wyoming was the first state to grant women the vote, and the first to have a woman governor. A third of all cowboys herding cattle on the Great Plains were black—a fact that’s only surprising until you consider which groups were most in need of self-reliant vocation and freedom from the long arm of the law in the wake of the Civil War. Every once in a while, these historical realities break through the filtered screen of the Hollywood western: Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich play no-nonsense saloon owners in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar and Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, respectively, and Sidney Poitier’s often overlooked Buck and the Preacher from 1972 is one of the too-few films that are centered around black frontiersmen.

When Europeans, influenced by decades of dime novels and Hollywood flicks, got around to making westerns, the resulting films would be part of this swing toward revisionism. By this time, European filmmakers were coping with the aftermath of the most devastating conflict in human history, and Italian westerns like Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence and Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly are infused with the lived-in existentialism of postwar Europe. In them, the American West becomes an otherworldly wasteland of pure brutality and diminished—rather than heightened—agency. Europeans’ estrangement of western film tropes would help spur a revisionist take on the standards of the genre that infuses films produced to this day.

However, for all the observations that such “postmodern” westerns are about the end of the West—in Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales and elsewhere, represented by the arrival of new technologies like the Gatling gun—the western has always been about endings. It’s no coincidence that the genre’s proverbial image is that of a figure “riding off into the sunset.” The American frontier was declared closed after the 1890 census, a decade before the first western on our list (Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery) was produced. Right-wing New Hollywood directors like Sam Peckinpah, Don Siegel, and Eastwood have tended to identify this perpetual fading of the West with the decline of a virile and violent, but honorable masculinity.

The bloodbaths that end films like Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch arguably represent what Freud would have called “screen memories,” a compromise between repressed memory and images we’ve invented to defend ourselves against terrible truths. The true bloodbaths in the West were the military campaigns against Native Americans, genocidal conflicts that many big-budget westerns keep on the margins, with natives appearing as stereotypical noble savages or town drunks. Ford’s films, as often as they rely on racist characterizations, were often the prestige westerns to look most directly at these wars: The Searchers and Fort Apache explore, in their own flawed fashion, the morally degrading racism in their main characters’ hearts. Some decades later, Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves became the paradigm of a post-‘70s cultural sea change: When it comes to “cowboys versus Indians,” the cowboys are no longer the automatic locus of our sympathy.

Today, infusing familiar iconography with new meaning, such revisionist representations of the American West have helped to explode the boundaries of the genre, allowing filmmakers as well as critics to explore cinematic tropes about life on the frontier in non-conventional western narratives. In contemporary films like Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Chloé Zhao’s The Rider—and looking back to ones like Victor Sjöström’s The Wind and John Huston’s The Misfits—we can recognize something like a western mode, a broader and more expansive cinematic language that has been suffused by the symbols of the American West. The western has proved itself a durable and influential way of talking about the human condition—one that needs not be confined within the frontiers drawn by the Euro-American colonial imagination. Pat Brown


Drums Along the Mohawk

100. Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford, 1939)

If John Ford was, per Jonathan Lethem, “a poet in black and white,” he became a sharp impressionist in color. The finely calibrated stillness of his shots, occasionally ravished by the greens, reds, and blues of the colonial wardrobe, gives Drums Along the Mohawk a painterly quality, as if Ford had animated a William Ranney portrait. Each frame radiates rugged beauty, but this doesn’t soften the filmmaker’s no-bull directness when depicting the eruptive landscape of the Revolutionary War. Frontier man Gil (Henry Fonda) and his new wife, Lana Martin (Claudette Colbert), are without a home of their own for most of the film, their first cabin being burned to the ground during an attack, and when Gil and the troops return from the bloody Battle of Oriskany, the director details their immense casualties and injuries with unsparing detail. Chris Cabin


Tombstone

99. Tombstone (George P. Cosmatos, 1993)

Tombstone succeeds by re-appropriating the stylistic quirks of many a great western before it, from “the long walk” of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch to the candlelit saloons of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller, spitting them out in a spectacle of pure pop pastiche. It tells much the same story as John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, but it reinterprets that film’s mythical, elegiac sense of wonder through bombastic action and performances. There probably isn’t a western as quotable as this one, which also succeeds through its rogues’ gallery of memorable character actors and firecracker script. A drunken Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), when accused of seeing double, says, “I have two guns, one for each of you.” Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), as he pistol-whips Johnny Tyler (Billy Bob Thornton), belts out, “You gonna do something? Or are you just gonna stand there and bleed?” The lines between good and evil blur as the law switches sides to fit the plot. Cliché layers over cliché, exposing what the genre is all about: the foundations of American myth, told again and again to suit each generation. The ‘90s was the remix era and Tombstone fits it perfectly. Ben Flanagan


True Grit

98. True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969)

The Duke casts a large shadow in any instance, but especially here. Rooster Cogburn is one of John Wayne’s most identifiable roles, not just because he won an Oscar for it, or because his True Grit is popular, or because he played the character twice (the second time in 1975’s Rooster Cogburn), but mostly because Rooster’s personality is so intertwined with Wayne’s iconic persona. Wayne’s detractors often note that Wayne lacked range, and that, given his consistent trademark drawl, about the only way to distinguish one Wayne character from another is by observing his costume. But while that’s roughly accurate, it doesn’t mean that every character Wayne ever played had a similar effect. His Rooster is one of those special roles that seemed indelibly Wayne’s—because he wore that eye patch so well, because his inherent presence and stature made him a natural to play the “meanest” marshal around, because his inner softness allowed the bond between Rooster and Mattie (Kim Darby) to feel convincing and because Wayne was born to be the cowboy who puts the reins in his teeth and rides toward four armed men with a gun in each hand. Jason Bellamy


Death Rides a Horse

97. Death Rides a Horse (Giulio Petroni, 1967)

In 1967’s boldly cinematic Death Rides a Horse, Giulio Petroni fixates on the inextricable link between a man’s memory and his thirst for vengeance. In the 15 years since watching his entire family get murdered by bloodthirsty bandits, Bill (John Phillip Law) has carried with him a single physical relic of this trauma: a lone spur. His memories, meanwhile, are filled with haunting and vivid reminders of that moment when his life changed forever, but also with specific visual cues related to each of the bandits: a silver earring, a chest tattoo of playing cards, a skull necklace. Bill’s overwhelmingly obsessive quest for revenge takes on an extra layer of perverseness once he’s paired up with the mysterious Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), an older man who playfully competes with Bill to hunt down and kill these same men first. Through an array of carefully crafted visual and aural motifs, and clever, judiciously employed narrative twists, Petroni weaves together these two crusades, building to an explosive finale that delivers equally cathartic doses of redemption and rage. Derek Smith


The Violent Men

96. The Violent Men (Rudolph Maté, 1955)

Polish-born filmmaker Rudolph Maté worked for a little over a decade as a cinematographer in Hollywood before starting to crank out potboilers as a director in the late ‘40s, many of them marked by a distinct pictorial flair. He was a mainstay by the mid-‘50s, and The Violent Men counts among his most ravishingly shot films, and indeed one of the unheralded Technicolor westerns of the golden era. The central California frontier, where the majestic flatland meets the imposing Sierras, has rarely been more reverently photographed, and a single montage of Glenn Ford’s John Parrish galloping from one range to another as Max Steiner’s strings howl on the soundtrack is stirring enough to validate the invention of CinemaScope. Fittingly, the land itself provides the conflict here, with Ford’s Union veteran-cum-landowner trotting out his old fighting spirit when the vicious owners of a neighboring estate—Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson in wonderfully belligerent performances—try to exploit his ranch for pennies. A cathartic war against greed ensues, and the result is finely wrought big-screen entertainment. Carson Lund


Westward the Women

95. Westward the Women (William A. Wellman, 1951)

Based on a story by Frank Capra, William Wellman’s Westward the Women shares the collective triumphalism of Capra’s greatest films but salts it with the grueling hardship and random cruelty that are hallmarks of Wellman’s storytelling. The premise is ludicrous on paper: A large farm in a California valley is suffering a shortage of the fairer sex, so it sends a wagon train headed by Robert Taylor to Chicago to haul back 150 brides for the workers—no short order in the middle of the 19th century. Several treacherous landscapes, bleakly depicted deaths, and a mid-film memorial service later, the plan is fulfilled in grandly hokey fashion, though not without a striking reordering of business-as-usual sexual politics. As the women prove as resilient, if not more so, than the men, ideals of male heroism fall by the cliffside (literally) and members of the ensemble who would normally be relegated to extras emerge as fully shaded and complex heroines. As a result, the film amounts to a portrait of hard-won joy that’s nearly spiritual in its belief in the power of cooperation. Lund


The Gold Rush

94. The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925)

What’s surprising when one takes a fresh look at The Gold Rush is how serious it is about depicting the hard life of prospectors. The comic soul of the film is, in fact, quite black, even if Charlie Chaplin exploits every opportunity (beautifully) to transform the environment into a vaudeville stage. Lonely as the wastes are, the town in the film is sinister and lurid, full of sex and violence, despite the fact that Chaplin always seems to find a way to invest in it the personality and tone of his early one-reelers. He makes the town funny but retains its barbarism. Chaplin pursues deliverance not in the miracle of hitting pay dirt, but in the promise of a woman, and it’s this promise that Chaplin would keep after, well into his sync-sound period. Around the film’s midpoint comes a sequence that cuts between the townsfolk singing “Auld Lange Syne,” and the Tramp, alone in his cabin, listening, longingly. It’s as perfect a moment as any other in the great silent period. Some accuse the director of succumbing to sentimentality, but he’s never less sublime than when he reaches for ridiculous, grandiose highs in romance, coincidence, and naked emotion. Jaime N. Christley


Destry Rides Again

93. Destry Rides Again (George Marshall, 1939)

Destry Rides Again’s Bottleneck is essentially the same town as the one in “Drip-Along Daffy.” The opening crane shots of Bottleneck show the standard storefronts that western audiences are accustomed to seeing: feed and general stores, the jail, the Saloon. As the camera moves along the street, we see just about every possible vice happening all at once with bullets whizzing about the crowded streets—and all the while, Frank Skinner’s intense score adds to the feeling of utter lawlessness. Every stereotype of the wild western town is represented in George Marshall’s film: crooked gambling above the saloon, land-hungry town bosses, a hot dancing girl named Frenchy who can douse the fires of her rowdy fans with a shot of whisky, and killin’. Lots of killin’. Back when the western was really coming into its own in 1939, the genre had already been around long enough to warrant this satire. Bottleneck is a parody of the western town. Jeffrey Hill


The Wind

92. The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1927)

So many late silent films are infused with a delirious energy, a sheer delight in the transportive powers of the cinema, and Sweden’s original film genius, Victor Sjöström, was renowned as a master of subjective, otherworldly moving images. With the hallucinatory The Wind, he delivered his most captivating visual play of subjective and objective realities, casting Lillian Gish as an East Coast virgin who’s tormented on an ineffable psychical (and ambiguously erotic) level by the overbearing winds of the Great Plains. After circumstances force her into an unwanted marriage, she’s left alone in the small cottage she shares with her unloved husband as the personified wind blows open doors, whips up dust, and…takes the shape of giant stark-white colts who buck across the open sky. In a career-defining role, Gish grounds the film, giving a performance that humanizes the sensational and sensual inner conflict of a woman left alone in a vast, empty wilderness. Brown


Run of the Arrow

91. Run of the Arrow (Samuel Fuller, 1957)

Writer-director Samuel Fuller’s Run of the Arrow stars Rod Steiger as Private O’Meara, a disaffected Confederate soldier who lights out for the western territories, only to wind up living among (and ultimately adopting the ways of) a Native American tribe. Fuller’s typically two-fisted tale essentially prefigures Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, absent all the bombast and self-aggrandizement. Granted, the film succumbs to the longstanding Hollywood tradition of utilizing a motley crew of decidedly non-native actors in pigment-darkening makeup to portray its Sioux tribe, including a young Charles Bronson and Spanish actress Sara Montiel, but it also endows these characters with a degree of respect and agency practically unprecedented in a 1950s American western. As the film comes full circle with the return of the man O’Meara shot and then saved in the opening scene, Fuller’s story reveals itself as a morality play concerning the destructive nature of hatred and bigotry, as well as a touchingly earnest plea for tolerance. Budd Wilkins

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Review: Vivarium Looks Aloofly at the Nightmare of Conformity

This a parable about adulthood boasts deeply cynical takes on home, community, and childrearing.

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Vivarium
Photo: Saban Films

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

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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

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Resistance
Photo: IFC Films

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

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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

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Atlantis
Photo: Best Friend Forever

The use of apocalyptic settings has become so prevalent in fiction over the past couple of decades, perhaps more than in any time since the Cold War era, that it seems difficult to find new ways to make the concept resonate. This is particularly true as the real world starts to resemble a uniquely mundane version of the most vivid renderings of dystopia. Atlantis, Ukrainian director Valentyn Vasyanovych’s fourth feature-length fiction film, succeeds in part because the situation it depicts is barely even fictional.

Vasyanovych was inspired to make the film by a visit to the Donbass region in the eastern part of his home country, which is the site of regular clashes between government troops and pro-Russian separatists, and which has been left environmentally ravaged due to the war there. Atlantis is set in an imagined 2025, five years after the war has ended, with the Donbass area no longer fit for human habitation—as will likely be the case in reality.

Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk) and Ivan (Vasyl Antoniak) are PTSD-addled ex-soldiers who fought and killed for a place that wasn’t worth saving, and who are under no illusions of finding a better life elsewhere. They now work at a steel mill that’s about to fall victim to the same capitalist whims they were defending as part of the victorious pro-Western forces. A glimmer of hope is eventually offered by a volunteer group that drives around the region picking up the bodies of those who fell in the war, to identify them and provide them with proper burials.

Despite the film’s basis in current geo-political and economic realities and its obvious parallels with the broader climate crisis faced by the world, it rarely engages directly with these themes. Instead, it’s more interested in how people adjust to desperation and scarcity, showing a society where armed conflict and corporate neglect have poisoned the environment and devalued human life to such an extent that people aren’t even able to grieve their losses. Vasyanovych employs long takes with almost no camera movement, combining naturalistic lighting with pictorial framing and a relatively large depth of field. As well as affording the time and space to appreciate the routines of their hardscrabble existence, this striking aesthetic serves to distance the viewer from the characters, showing these stoical figures alienated from themselves as much as they’re dwarfed by desolate industrial landscapes.

The unrelenting bleakness of this situation often becomes almost cartoonish in proportion, and the film’s slow pace occasionally conjures a tone of deadpan humor. An early scene sees Sergiy and Ivan setting up a row of life-sized dummies in the snow for shooting practice, and the depiction of this task in real time, with their truck’s engine running conspicuously in the background throughout, draws out the childish inanity of their adherence to military discipline. Later, a 1984-aping scene of assembled workers being informed of their impending redundancy by a face on a giant projector screen, with an interpreter’s Ukrainian translation disrupting the flow of this British company executive’s ruthless corporate-speak, wouldn’t be out of place in a more straightforward work of political satire.

The film’s use of scale to drive home the absurdity of its characters’ actions sometimes calls to mind Werner Herzog’s tragicomic existentialism, as well as early silent cinema. In a feat of resolve and improvisation that would make Fitzcarraldo proud (not to mention Charlie Chaplin’s shoe-eating tramp from a similarly barren locale a century prior), Sergiy cobbles together a hot tub for himself in the middle of the wasteland, filling a large digger’s bucket with water from a hose and burning petrol-soaked timber underneath it for heat. His soak in this makeshift bath is Atlantis’s most indelible image, a sight gag that also underlines his stubborn but admirable commitment to making a home where few other people dare to stay.

Appropriately for a study of humans physically engulfed by their surroundings, Atlantis is bookended by shots apparently captured with a thermal imaging camera. Initially coming across as gimmicky, representative of a broader style-over-substance artificiality that prevents the film from reaching the heights of its cinematic forebears, its final use is still surprisingly affecting. It highlights two people merging together in the warmth of postcoital intimacy, finding a new sense of belonging in the ruins. They jointly refuse to mourn a lost Atlantis that, given the state of our current reality, likely never existed for them in the first place.

Atlantis premiered last year at the Venice Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Best Friend Forever.

Cast: Andriy Rymaruk, Liudmyla Bileka, Vasyl Antoniak Director: Valentyn Vasyanovych Screenwriter: Valentyn Vasyanovych Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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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

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Red Moon Tide
Photo: Berlinale

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

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