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Understanding Screenwriting #16: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, 30 Rock, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #16: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, 30 Rock, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Seven Days to Noon, Desperate Housewives, NCIS, Privileged, 30 Rock, and Damages, but first…

Fan Mail: Matt Maul raises the question of Robert Wise’s complicity in the gutting of The Magnificent Ambersons, so let me shock you with this: I think the film is better for Wise’s cutting. And worse than that, I think the final scene as it appears in the film is better than the one in the script.

I had an opportunity years ago to read Welles’ screenplay for the film. I liked the script, but it is very wordy. There are a number of long dialogue scenes that were blessedly cut from the final film. In the end of the script, Eugene goes to the hospital, but no scene is played there. Instead he goes home and writes a letter to Isabel, describing being with Lucy at George’s bedside in the hospital. We hear it in voiceover. Putting the scene in as a scene works better in the film, I think.

And both the script and the film have a major problem: we don’t see George’s accident. We only see a newspaper clipping of it, and get some narration. I’m sorry, but the movie has been promising us George’s “comeuppance” since the opening montage. Not showing it to us is like not blowing up the Death Star at the end of Star Wars. If you are going to promise the audience something, you had better deliver it.

The Curse of Benjamin Button (2008. Screenplay by Eric Roth, screen story by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. 166 minutes): Poor Scott.

F. Scott Fitzgerald spent time as a screenwriter in Hollywood, but never truly learned the craft. The films based on his novels, missing the elegance of his prose, do not work. The current film, even though based on a whimsical 1922 short story that is not his finest writing, continues the trend.

The short story follows the life, from birth to death, of a man who is born old and grows younger, eventually dying as a baby. It is set in Baltimore from the beginning of the Civil War to the 1920s as we watch his family and friends deal with his peculiarity. He attends Harvard, later tries to attend Yale, gets married, and inherits his father’s button business. The story is about Benjamin dealing with his world. Characterization is slight, which is acceptable in a short fable.

You can see why the idea of the story has appealed to any number of film people along the way. There are all kinds of ways to play with the central conceit. What Roth has done is update the story, taking it from Benjamin’s birth at the end of World War I through to 2005. The script is a picaresque tale, very similar in structure to Roth’s screenplay for Forrest Gump: Benjamin has a strong mother figure, then goes out into the world and meets a gallery of characters, including the love of his life. Both Forrest and Benjamin are primarily reactive characters. In Gump, part of the fun is the blankness of Forrest’s reactions to the world, since he does not quite know what is going on. In Button, Roth has not created much of a character for Benjamin, and his reactions seem very conventional. Look at the scene where the middle-aged Benjamin meets his love, Daisy, during her dancing days in New York and realizes she has other friends and probably lovers. He is pained. Yeah, so? Roth is not helped here by Brad Pitt, who is awfully uneven as Benjamin. In my book Understanding Screenwriting, I made the distinction between Brad Pitt, the character actor, and Brad Pitt, the movie star. The character actor is the more interesting of the two, as we see here in the earlier scenes when he is an old man, but Pitt is not all that good as the middle-aged Benjamin. As Benjamin grows “younger,” we get the movie star, who is gorgeous but inexpressive.

The other characters should take up the slack, but they are simply not that interesting. Queenie, his black adopted mother, starts out as a quiet, solid mother figure, but in the middle of the story she shows up as a noisy black stereotype. The tug captain Benjamin sails with is a conventional sea dog. The wife of a British trade representative he seduces/is seduced by has a little more edge to her, but that may come as much from the wondrous Tilda Swinton as the script.

For all the traveling in the film, we don’t get as much of a sense of activity of the world as we did in Gump. In that film, the people Forrest met, such as Jenny, Lt. Dan, and Bubba not only have more character than the people in Button, but have more connection to the real world. Daisy in Button is a dancer, Jenny was involved in all kinds of issues. Gump’s lack of understanding of what was going on in their worlds was part of the intended satire of the film. (What, you didn’t realize Forrest Gump was intended as a satire of the stupidity of average Americans? Audiences took it seriously, which conservatives loved, because the film suggested white male Americans who accepted everything they were told would survived, but those who wanted change in the world, women like Jenny and blacks like Bubba, would die. Robert Zemeckis, the director, was gobsmacked that people took the film as seriously as they did, a fact he has generally avoided discussing, although if you listen to one of the interviews with him on the DVD of Gump it sort of slips out. Look at Zemeckis’ Used Cars and Back to the Future to see where he was coming from.)

Because of the lack of characterization and reactions, the scenes do not have the emotional punch they should have. Would they have worked better with a director more suited to the material? Possibly. Look at the emotions John Ford gets out of the scripts for Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, which I discussed in US#15. Ford was a master at getting the emotions in a scene, or even a single shot. Look at the farewell scenes in those films, or any scene in any Ford film. David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) is a rather cold director and the material needs more warmth than he can provide. He is so focused on the production values and technical aspects (and the film is vastly overproduced, with more sets, costumes, extras, and CGI effects than needed) he loses the core emotions of the story.

And Fincher is not the only director not appropriate for Fitzgerald. Entertainment Weekly is reporting that Baz Luhrmann is considering directing a new film of The Great Gatsby. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Frost/Nixon (2008. Screenplay by Peter Morgan, based on his play. 122 minutes): Character. Drama. And Opie.

I was sort of not looking forward to seeing Frost/Nixon. It is in theaters now and the stage version will finally show up in Los Angeles later this spring. How much Tricky Dick can one person be expected to absorb? Well, having seen the film, I am dying to see the play.

If you did not know it going in, you would probably not guess that the film is based on a play. Not having seen the play (and I may return to this after I see it), I do not know how Morgan handled it on stage, but the script flows as though it was conceived for film. We get a montage that establishes the fall of the Nixon presidency, and short scenes setting up both Nixon and Frost. We SEE by their actions how different they are. Frost is a smarmy talk show host, Nixon is a lion in winter. Morgan is also great at setting up the secondary characters, especially the three who help Frost. Nixon’s entourage is slightly smaller and Morgan focuses on Jack Brennan. Given how rich most of the characters are, I assume it is part of the joke that one of Nixon’s assistants, Diane Sawyer, yes, THAT Diane Sawyer, is given virtually nothing to do or say.

Very quickly Morgan sets up not only the characters, but the drama. Unlike Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon is FOCUSED. Frost sees the interviews with Nixon as a way to regain his diminished celebrity. Nixon sees them as a way to get some sort of redemption. Everything is at stake for both men. We are rooting for Frost (well, at least most of us are) so Morgan gives him the most difficult problems to overcome (the networks refuse to be part of the programs, major sponsors pull out, Frost has to invest his own money). Both Frost and Nixon are their own worst enemies, Frost a lightweight, Nixon too much a heavyweight.

When the taping of the interviews begins, a little after halfway into the film, you might expect the film to get less interesting as it gets more talky. Was it talky? It didn’t seem that way to me. Yes, on the one hand it is, but on the other hand, well, if you have been reading this column for any length of time you know where I am going with this … Yes, dammit: REACTIONS. At least half of what we get in the second half of the film we get from the reactions. Remember how I said that Morgan is good at setting up characters? Here is where it pays off. When any one of the characters (except Diane Sawyer) reacts, we know where the reaction comes from and why.

Much of the film is based on the public record, but Morgan has created a scene that probably never took place. He has a drunk Nixon call Frost before the final interview. This is probably Nixon’s scene on stage, since he has most of the dialogue. After all, Nixon is the smarter of the two, so it makes sense that he can articulate how the two men, whom Morgan has made us see are so different, are in fact very much alike, which Morgan has much more subtly set up. But Frost’s reactions are crucial. We can see him realizing, finally, what he is up against and what he has to do to win. And Morgan gives us a great moment in the final scene between the two, days after the final interview. Nixon cannot remember the phone call. He asks Frost what they discussed, and Frost accurately if not completely tells him. “Cheeseburgers.”

If David Fincher was the wrong director for Benjamin Button, Ron Howard is the perfect director for Frost/Nixon. I had not thought so when I first heard he was doing it, but seeing is believing. Howard is an underrated director critically. He is not very flashy in his direction, although here he uses the differences between film and video effectively. He shoots in video for the “after the fact” interviews with the participants that are so convincing that my wife, who is not stupid in these matters, thought they were interviews with the “real” people rather than the actors. As an actor for fifty years, he understands actors, and better, he understands character (not always the same thing; look at early Spielberg). All the actors are on the top of their game here, one of the best signs a picture has been well directed. Even the often stiff Rebecca Hall, playing a girlfriend of Frost’s, is loose and charming.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois(1940. Screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood, adaptation by Grover Jones, based on the play by Robert E. Sherwood. 110 minutes): Different president, different film.

Of the two Lincoln films from 1939-1940, this is the one that rarely gets shown. Everybody knows Young Mr. Lincoln, simply because of John Ford’s reputation, but it works better because Lamar Trotti’s screenplay is thought out in terms of film. I am sure it was the script that gave Ford the idea to say to Henry Fonda, when Fonda demurred about playing the future president, “He’s not the president. He’s a young, jacklegged lawyer out in Springfield.” (Ford undoubtedly threw in some harder-edged expletives, but that’s the gist of what he said.)

Abe Lincoln in Illinois is based on Sherwood’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize winning play and you can see the scene breaks. There are some cinematic details (a flatboat stuck on a film dam), but mostly it is talk (a bit of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln’s farewell as he leaves for the White House). Even in his early scenes, Lincoln is talking like he is going to be president. A folksy president, but still. The dialogue is theatrical rather than cinematic. Lincoln is played by Raymond Massey, who won plaudits for his performance on stage. Unfortunately, the director here, John Cromwell, was not John Ford, and let him get away with playing the Future President of the United States. Look at him as he takes the oath of office as postmaster for New Salem, Illinois. Massey was 44 when he made the film and is completely unconvincing in the early scenes where he is playing Lincoln in his twenties. He is better in the later scenes, but it is still a stage performance of a stage play.

Sherwood, who was best known as a playwright, had written for movies off and on since the twenties, but he really only developed as a screenwriter after this film. He eventually won an Academy Award for his near-great screenplay for the hugely popular film The Best Years of Our Lives. He won three Pulitzer Prizes for drama and one for his nonfiction book on Franklin Roosevelt. If there was anybody the Pulitzer committee would have given a Pulitzer Prize for screenwriting to, if they gave such a prize, it would have been Sherwood.

Seven Days to Noon (1950. Screenplay by Frank Harvey and Roy Boulting, story by Paul Dehn and James Bernard. 94 minutes): The granddaddy of all “red wire, blue wire” thrillers.

A letter arrives at 10 Downing Street. It is passed on to Special Branch at Scotland Yard. An underling does not take it seriously. Superintendent Folland thinks it is worth looking into. He goes down to the government laboratories and inquires about a Professor Willingdon, who seems to have gone missing. He takes one of Willingdon’s assistants to the professor’s house. The professor’s wife and daughter don’t know where he has gone. We are ten minutes into the film and we still don’t know what’s in the letter. As Folland and the assistant drive away, Folland tells him the letter says that unless the PM declares by the following Sunday that England will destroy all its nuclear weapons, Willingdon will explode an atomic bomb in London.

Now that we are on the edge of our seats, we are all going to sweat while Folland and the cops try to find Wellingdon, since the technology he has can only set off the bomb on a 15 minute timer. We have learned that the device is small enough to fit into his suitcase. Lots of shots of the suitcase, anyone? We meet the professor and he is not the wild-eyed crazy we expect, just a man who has been driven to this act by his awareness of what he has been doing by creating bombs. We also meet a cross section of Londoners whom he and the police meet.

The script works in the first half because of the documentary quality not unlike that in a number of police procedurals both before and after this film. Made only five years after the end of the war, it harks back to the British wartime documentaries, especially when we get into scenes of the more or less calm evacuations of London. With all the ghostly shots of empty streets, the film is also at least a granduncle of the end-of-civilization films of the fifties and later, such as The World, the Flesh, and the Devil and the more recent I Am Legend. As the net tightens around the professor, the film starts to go a little flat, at least for a contemporary audience, simply because we have seen so many of its children, grandchildren, grandnephews, and great-grandchildren. The restraint, which helps the suspense in the first half, seems a little too much toward the end, although the writers and directors (the Boulting Brothers) do give us a lot of sweaty close-ups as Wellingdon’s assistant tries to disarm the bomb. No, there are no discussions of which wire to cut. You can’t expect grandpa to do everything; he’s got to leave something for future generations to do.

Desperate Housewives(2009. Episode “Home is the Place,” written by Jamie Gorenberg. 60 minutes): The laughers.

The networks, including the cable networks, have finished running their repeats of old holiday specials and are back with some new episodes. This one is a relatively minor one, but Gorenberg does something I have been waiting for a long time for the show to do. In her talk show appearances, Eva Longoria Parker has demonstrated that she has a wonderful, borderline lewd, laugh. Gaby takes herself so seriously we never get to hear the laugh on the show. In this episode, Gaby is listening to Susan dither over whether she had sex with Lee, one of the gay men in the neighborhood, and Gaby lets loose with Longoria Parker’s great laugh.

That alone would have made the episode for me, but Gorenberg also introduced a new character, Melina, who is the mother of Alex, the gay doctor Bree’s son Andrew is now engaged to. Bree and Melina duel over who can get the kids to love each of them the most. Melina is a definite contrast to Bree: casual and earthy. And the show has cast in the role Joanna Cassidy, perfect for the part. Gorenberg has given her and Marcia Cross a lot of fun scenes to play. But here is the potential beauty part: Cassidy has one of the greatest laughs in the history of movies. You don’t get her laugh in this episode, but I for one am looking for a laugh-off between Cassidy and Longoria Parker. As a British critic wrote several years ago, there is no more revolutionary image than that of a woman laughing. How about two?

Alas, in the following episode, “Connect! Connect!” Malina was nowhere to be seen. Bring back the laughs and the laughers.

NCIS (2009. Episode “Caged” written by Alfonso H. Moreno. 60 minutes): Know it all.

I’ve never gotten caught up in NCIS, since it is usually on Tuesday nights when I teach and I have enough on my DVR. My wife is a big fan (she remembers when hunky Mark Harmon was the quarterback at UCLA), so since I am off teaching during January, I gave it another watch. Nice set of characters. Interesting actors. In this episode, McGee, the geekiest investigator of the bunch, is sent into a woman’s prison to try to get a confession from a woman prisoner for a decades-old murder. The inmates riot and McGee is held hostage. So Harmon’s Special Agent Jethro Gibbs comes into the prison and gives the warden a hard time, repeatedly asking him if he has ever dealt with this kind of situation. The warden gets flustered, and Gibbs takes over. Why is it that the stars in these shows always know best? Why doesn’t the warden tell Gibbs that he has dealt with these situations many times. Or why doesn’t he ask Gibbs if HE has ever dealt with this situation? I know, the star’s the star, but still. Make your supporting characters strong and interesting and it challenges you to make your lead characters all that much more stronger.

Privileged(2009. Episode “All About What Lies Beneath” written by Anna Fricke. 60 minutes): Clueless meets The Gilmore Girls.

I had never seen this show before, but in the coverage on LA’s Channel 5 (the local CW outlet) of the Rose Parade they kept running trailers for this episode. It had a scene you don’t often see in teen romantic comedies. One of the girls is trying to seduce one of the guys and jumps on her bed. Forgetting the bedspread is satin. She slides off and lands on the floor.

So I gave it shot, without looking up anywhere what it was about. There are three girls whom we take to be teenagers, although played by actresses in their twenties. I assumed they were sisters, but it turns one of them is actually supposed to be in her twenties, and she has been hired to tutor the younger girls. The younger girls are living in a mansion in Palm Beach, I think with their grandmother, although in this episode we do not see her. In this episode we never see Megan, the Yale grad in her twenties, teach the kids anything. The kids decide that since they have to give away some of their foundation money, they will have a benefit lunch for Cuban children. They decide on this since one of the girls has the hots for the Latino chief of the house, assuming he is Cuban. He is not, and the girls’ lack of interest in Cuba is about to be revealed to all at the lunch when it turns out one of the girls actually knows about Cuba. Where did she learn that? Or rather when did she learn that? The show is trying to have it both ways: the girls are silly rich girls, but they are not that silly. The movie Clueless sort of managed that, but Privileged is rather clunky about it.

Oh, the scene with satin bedspread? Funny, and there ought to be more of it.

30 Rock(2009. Episode “Senor Macho Solo” written by Ron Wiener. 30 minutes): Do not adjust your set. Salma Hayek is taking over Thursday nights on all networks.

In US#13, I expressed delight that 30 Rock was getting away from using guest stars. Well, consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, as Madonna always says. Here we have two guest stars, both beautifully used. Liz is still obsessed about having a baby and is cooing at every baby she sees, as well as patting kids on the head. Oops, that one is not a kid. It is Stuart, a little person, played by Peter Dinklage. Liz insists she did not think he was a kid, and they try to date. It does not work out. She wants another chance and they agree to meet on the Brooklyn Bridge at a certain time. Well, of course, the Empire State Building is booked for years in advance for that sort of thing. They meet, she screws up again. So we may not see Stuart again, but I hope we do. Anytime you can get Dinklage being testy, you are ahead on points.

The other guest star is Salma Hayek. Not content with exec producing Ugly Betty, here she’s a nurse Jack hires to take care of his mother. The writing between her and Jack is not as sharp as the Liz-Stuart scenes, since it involves Jack getting sentimental about her family, but the acting chemistry between Alec Baldwin and Hayek is dandy. They kiss at the end of the episode, so she may be back. Unless she shows up as Laurence Fishbourne’s new boss on CSI in the May sweeps.

Damages(2009. Episode “I Lie, Too,” written by Todd A. Kessler & Glenn Kessler & Daniel Zelman. 70 minutes): Patty’s back.

I watched most of the first season of this show, but eventually it got wearying. All those people doing nasty things to each other, most of them in secret. Yes, the acting was great, but the plotting got excessive.

Now the gang is back, including Arthur Frobisher, whom we all assumed was dead. This first episode spends most of its time setting up the several hundred plot and character lines we are going to have to follow. Like a lot of good openings—see the summary of the opening of Seven Days to Noon above—it raises more questions than it answers. But it is 70 minutes’ worth of questions, and the question I was left with is, do I really want to invest the amount of time it is going to take to work all this out? The characters are not as fresh as they were last year, and we are EXPECTING the surprises this year, so they probably won’t be that surprising.

What Damages is running into here is the problem that many shows have: they develop such complicated plots and mythologies (24, Lost, Battlestar Galactica) that it takes an enormous effort to keep up. Is it worth it? As you may guess from that, I’m still undecided on Damages.

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.

3.5

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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.

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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.

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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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