Coming Up in This Column: Sunshine Cleaning, Everlasting Moments, Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, Horton Foote, Teaching the Young: Take Two, The Mask of Dimitrios, Burn Notice, Castle, ER.
Sunshine Cleaning(2008. Written by Megan Holley. 102 minutes): Not Little Miss Sunshine.
Yes, it has “sunshine” in the title. Yes, it has Alan Arkin as a crusty grandpa. Yes, it has a light colored van. Yes, it is set the Southwest. Yes, the poster is similar. But does Little Miss Sunshine start with a man bringing a shotgun shell into a sporting goods store, asking to look at a shotgun and blowing his head off with it? No. Sunshine Cleaning is a darker film (in spite of what you may think from the trailer), further along the continuum of dramedy to drama than to comedy.
While the trailer and promotion focus on the company set up by Rose and Norah to clean up crime scenes and the hijinks involved in that, the film’s focus is on the relationship of the two sisters. Rose is the oldest and most responsible, Norah the younger and flakiest. But Holley is pitching all kinds of interesting changeups. It is, to our surprise, Norah who feels the need to connect emotionally with a daughter of one of the victims. We don’t find out why until late in the film, but the scenes between her and the daughter Lynn have an edgy uncertainty. Compare the scene where we think Norah may be coming on to Lynn to the scene in the recent “Story of Lucy and Jessie” episode of Desperate Housewives where we think Susan may be coming on to a teacher she works with. In the Housewives scene we know where we are all the time; in Sunshine we are never quite sure, which is much more realistic.
Holley has written great characters for Amy Adams (Rose) and Emily Blunt (Norah) to play, and director Christine Jeffs is smart enough to simply observe the two of them, individually and together. Adams particularly disappears into the character and makes every moment alive. Look at her in the scene where she is explaining to some old high school classmates what she does for a living and how Rose seems to be understanding for the first time the good that she is doing. Another actress might have just assumed Rose had already thought about that, but Adams makes the realization happen NOW, which is what acting is all about.
The structure of the film is the development of the relationship between the sisters, and the one less than believable moment is the ending, when another character does something we would not expect them to do. Holley, in focusing on the sisters, has not developed the other character enough to make the action completely convincing. That may leave you somewhat disappointed by the ending. I don’t think you will be disappointed by the heart, in both senses, of the movie.
Just so long as you keep in mind that it is NOT Little Miss Sunshine.
Everlasting Moments(2008. Screenplay by Niklas Rådström, story by Jan Troell & Agneta Ulfstäder-Troell. 131 minutes): Pictures, still and moving.
The story comes from tales Agneta Ulfstäder-Troell’s mother told her about her grandmother. Maria Larsson is the wife of a rather brutish husband in Sweden in the early 1900s. She learns how to use a still camera she won in a lottery (and be sure to get there at the beginning of the film to hear the wonderful throwaway line of how the camera led to the marriage). The camera provides a relief from her husband and ultimately seven children. Simple enough, but the script gives us not only the story of the marriage (the husband has his virtues as well as his flaws), but a look at life in Sweden of the time. We get details about work, the role of the lower classes, political action, and how World War I affected Sweden. The script brings us slowly into the life of Maria and Sigge, as the husband is called, and it takes a bit before she begins to explore with the camera. But the camera does not automatically change everything in her life, as it probably would in an American version of the story. Her life goes on, and somewhat to our surprise, so does the marriage. The film is a highly textured look at the characters and their lives. To take only one example, look at the details used to show the relationship between Maria and the owner of a photography studio.
The downside is that it begins to run out of steam in the last hour, where there is very little additional development of the story and characters. Like many films based on true stories, it loses its focus in an effort to get everything in. There are a couple of subplots, including one that goes unresolved for the audience involving Maria’s eldest daughter, who grew up to be Ulfstäder-Troell’s mother, that take us away from the main story. For family reasons I can understand why they are there, but they are part of the reason the film is longer than it needs to be.
Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (2008. Written by Kevin Rafferty (O.K., there is no official writer credit on the film, but stick with me on this one). 105 minutes): Structure and character.
Kevin Rafferty, the great documentarian of Atomic Café and Blood in the Face, is the producer, cinematographer, production designer, sound man, and editor of this film. Since the “writing” of a documentary involves the selection of the subject (in this case a legendary, at least in the Ivy League, 1968 football game in which underdog Harvard manages to come up with a tie in the last minute or so of play) as well as the way it is put together, Rafferty as producer and editor gets the de facto writer’s credit on the film. The film of the game provides a relatively easy basic structure, as Rafferty admits in an interview with The New York Times: “I’ve never had a movie jump together so quickly and joyfully. The movie almost cut itself. I’ve spent years cutting a movie and this was the fastest movie I ever cut.” The tricky part was intercutting the interview material he got from many of the participants in the game, since they go off onto other issues, either consciously or not.
Rafferty, a Harvard man, does cheat a little in the beginning when he introduces several of the players, pointing out that the Harvard players seemed to be mostly blue-collar. Well, the team was the underdog, but Harvard is hardly the heart of blue-collar America. Rafferty does let the Yale men seem to be a little more upper class, and one of the more entertaining interviewees, J.P. Goldsmith, does admit that the Yale men were somewhat isolated in New Haven. That’s an understatement. I’m a Yale graduate (class of ’63, boola, boola) and when I was there, a few years before the game in the film, Yale was an incredibly provincial place.
The characters, oh sorry, the people, Rafferty selected will show you why. They are all white and male, as the Ivies were at the time, although Harvard had Radcliffe right down the street. When I was accepted at Yale, I was their 1959 idea of affirmative action: I was a straight, white, Episcopalian male, but I was middle class and from the Middle West. There were virtually no people of color in my class (and Rafferty was not able to interview the one black player on the Harvard team), and of course no women. One of the Yale players admits to having dated a young woman named Meryl Streep, but listen to how she is talked about, which will tell you all you need to know about the sexual provincialism of the Ivy League at the time. The players do talk about the politics at the time, which were more varied than you might expect from the Ivies, but not as varied as the rest of the world. And from several of the players you get a sense of the entitlement they felt. Listen particularly to Yale player Mike Bouscaren talk about the plays he was involved, or thinks he was involved in. It’s enough to want you to send your kids to a good solid community college.
Horton Foote (1916-2009): An appreciation.
Horton Foote, playwright, screenwriter, and television writer, died March 4th at the age of 92. As screenwriting fans, you may best remember him as the author of the great 1962 Oscar-winning adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird. There are those who think Foote’s adaptation improved on the novel. Foote won an Oscar again for his 1983 original screenplay Tender Mercies, a title that could have applied to almost anything Foote wrote. I have never seen as many uses of the word “gentle” as I have in the obits for Foote.
For all his fame as a screenwriter, his experiences with Hollywood were sometimes awful. His play The Chase was adapted by Lillian Hellman (can you think of any writer less suited to adapting Foote?; no one ever use the word “gentle” about Hellman) into one of the legendary flops of the sixties. Hurry Sundown the following year (1967) was slaughtered under Otto Preminger’s hamfisted direction.
Foote is best known and best served as a playwright. But even there the commercial Broadway theater did not do well by him, since his plays were generally not “big,” i.e. melodramatic, enough for the commercial theatre. He had greater success Off-Broadway and in regional theatre, although he finally won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his play The Young Man From Atlanta.
Most his television work were plays and stories he adapted for Public Television in the eighties and nineties, but to me some of his most important and influential work was done for the so-called Golden Age of live television in the fifties. He had already had three plays produced on Broadway when his theatrical partner Vincent Donehue asked him to work on … The Gabby Hayes Show. It was a children’s show that ran from 1950 to 1956 with the cantankerous B-western sidekick as the host. Foote wrote historical stories for the show and Donehue directed. It was produced by the about-be-legendary Fred Coe. Fortunately Coe moved Foote and Donehue up with him when he moved into the hour-long live dramas. Foote’s “gentle” stories were perfectly suited for the limitations of live television. Because the shows were done mostly in New York in the early fifties, there were considerable space limitations for sets and casts. Foote’s classic 1953 teleplay “A Trip to Bountiful” takes place mostly on a bus, which is represented by a couple of seats. Foote said later that live television “was more like theater in those days,” meaning that you did not need elaborate realistic sets. It’s a tossup whether the longer stage version and the 1985 film were better. The stage play was one of the first, if not the first, adapted from an original television play for the stage, helping convince people good writing could come out of television. Yes, that was a LONG time ago.
A month after “A Trip to Bountiful” first aired, Foote’s teleplay “A Young Lady of Property” appeared on The Philco Television Playhouse. It deals with a young woman who is afraid her father, who is going to remarry, will sell the family house. A typical Foote touch has the dramatic face-off between the girl and the fiance off-camera, and we learn about it only from the girl telling her aunt about it. Talk about restraint. And talk about a smart producer: Coe thought it the face-off should be on camera, but figured that Foote knew what he was doing and let him do it his way. Foote later said Coe was “marvelous to work with, very supportive” of the writers.
When I was interviewing writers for my 1992 book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing, I especially wanted to interview Foote, since I remembered his teleplays from my childhood. The quotes above from Foote come from that December 1990 phone interview. It was one of the worst interviews I have ever done. And it was all my fault. When I started doing oral history interviews at UCLA in the late sixties, I quickly developed two rules: 1) do your homework before the interview, and 2) ask your question and shut up. It was not adhering to the first rule that got me into trouble with Foote. I had found a couple of his teleplays, but I could not run down the published edition of his major teleplays. None of the local libraries or bookstores had it. The main UCLA Library was supposed to have the collection, but it had somehow been misplaced. I had to prepare my questions without it.
So when I starting asking him the questions, he kept referring to his introductory essay in the book, which covered everything I was asking. I could tell he thought that if I was not THE village idiot I was certainly his first cousin. I still managed to recover a bit until I used the phrase “a regional writer.” All trace of Foote’s gentleness disappeared, replaced by the toughness he needed to survive as a writer in television, film and theater. Because he wrote about his native Texas and the south, he had been slapped with the “regional writer” label early in his career. He hated it, and rightly so. After all, the New York critics never referred to his contemporary Paddy Chayefsky as a regional writer, and what could have been more regional than “Marty”? The interview ended shortly after that. Sorry, Horton. I tried to make it up to him by dealing with the “regional writer” issue in the book, for whatever good it might do.
It might have done some good. None of the obits that I saw referred to him as a regional writer. I am sure that was less me and more that people have come to realize the region Foote wrote about was America, and the regional (yes) theaters that keep his works in the repertoire know that. Check out his movies, and if and when they show up in New York, check out the plays of a truly ALL-American writer.
Teaching the Young: Get them early, take two.
Readers will remember that a month ago my seven-year-old grandson Noam got caught up in the well scene in Lawrence of Arabia and wanted to watch the movie with me. I figured that would be a couple of years off. Never underestimate the power of a seven-year-old.
A couple of weeks ago we got a call from my daughter Audrey, offering us the chance to spend some “quality time” with our grandson. As usual that meant she had to work, her husband had to work, and their 16-year-old daughter had rehearsal. Audrey had given Noam the option of having a babysitter on that Saturday or going to Grandma and Grandpa’s. He opted for the grandparents and said he wanted to see a movie with me. Audrey suggested one of my Buster Keaton stash, but he said, “No, I want to see Lawrence of Arabia.” Ah, ha.
So he came up and we started. He was not that crazy about the overture or the titles, but began to get at least somewhat into it. He did not care for all of Robert Bolt’s great dialogue and political and character nuances. He had trouble telling the British and the Turks apart, since they all dressed in khaki. He loved the action scenes (he grew up on the Pirates of the Caribbean films, after all), and he loved Maurice Jarre’s music. He did not sit still that much, and was really up and dancing to Jarre’s music.
By the end of the film he was tired of it, and asked me during the scene in Allenby’s office, where Allenby, Feisal, and Dryden dismiss Lawrence, if there were any more battle scenes. When I said no, he went into the other room and continued playing the computer game he started during the intermission.
Afterwards, he said he thought the movie was “good,” but he was disappointed there were no castles or statues in it. He and his parents had been in Jordan a few years ago and seen Petra, the hidden temple seen in the final sequence of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Noam was expecting something like that. He was not alone. In Michael Wilson’s original screenplay there was a scene set in Petra, because David Lean had been there and wanted to shoot it. The sequence included some of the same kind of self-glorification Lawrence shows in the sequence on top of the train. Lean was not able to shoot at Petra because of a combination of technical problems and producer Sam Spiegel’s insistence on moving the second half of the production from Jordan to Spain. Noam did not get all of the nuances of the film, but he understood at least some of what it was about.
It’s a start.
The Mask of Dimitrios(1944. Screenplay by Frank Gruber, based on the novel by Eric Ambler. 95 minutes): Astaire and Rogers.
This is one of those minor classics it took me until now to catch up with, and boy was I glad I did. The story is a little tricky for a studio film of the period. As Leslie Halliwell puts it in his Film Guide, it is “Remarkable for its time in that the story is not distorted to fit romantic stars: character actors bear the entire burden.” A shady character named Dimitrios is killed and his body washes up on the shores of Turkey. Colonel Haki (yes, the same Turkish policeman who shows up in Ambler’s Journey Into Fear, but not played here by Orson Welles, which may be just as well) tells the Dutch author Leyden about his attempts to capture Dimitrios over the last twenty years. Leyden goes looking for more information about Dimitrios and we get several flashbacks of Dimitrios’s adventures. You can see Frank Gruber’s problem: what’s the star part? Well, Leyden is just asking questions and getting bullied by friends and associates of Dimitrios. Dimitrios appears as the star in the flashbacks, but as much time is spent on the scenes with Leyden. So the obvious choice is to just make it a character actor’s holiday.
Leyden is played by Peter Lorre, and since he does not have to whimper around Humphrey Bogart, he can come into his own. It is one of the richest performances he ever gave in an American film, with all kinds of textures. Leyden is employed, bullied, and harassed by Mr. Peters, who is played by Lorre’s occasional film partner, Sydney Greenstreet. Gruber has given them four or five great scenes together, and watching the pair get the most out of them is like watching Astaire and Rogers dance; if you are like me, you will giggle with pure delight. Lorre is the more flexible actor, but Greenstreet plays his voice like a Stradivarius, and both seem giddy knowing that Bogart is not going to break in and stop their fun. Jean Negulesco is the director, and his reputation was that he never talked to the actors, but let them do what they wanted. Sometimes that is a wise move with actors like these.
Dimitrios is the first film role of Zachary Scott, and Gruber establishes him as a sleek cad, which Scott played better than anybody else, including George Sanders. Not to give too much away, but keep in mind this film was made in 1944, the same year as Laura. Undoubtedly it was a time when many people hoped that people they thought were dead would turn out to still be alive. Because the ending is all character actors all the time, it is more suspenseful than most movies of the period, since you have no idea who will shoot who and who will survive.
It is not yet out on DVD, but Turner Classic Movies ran it recently so keep an eye out for it.
Burn Notice(2009. Episode “Lesser Evil” written by Matt Nix. 60 minutes): Transition time.
This was the half-season finale of Burn Notice, and Nix, the series creator, pulled a fast one on us. Since the beginning of the show, Michael has been trying to find out who burned him. This half season he and we thought we were getting closer, since the mysterious Carla seemed to be promising him the information. Of course, she also sent Victor to try to kill him, but what’s a little attempted murder between friends?
In a twist early on in the episode, Victor becomes Michael’s “client” as Michael tries to protect him from Carla, since Victor has promised info that will help them deal with her. A number of car chases ensue, since the producers have saved up a lot of money this season for a number of big action scenes they whipped up for this episode. Victor tells him Carla is no longer with “the company” and is doing “black ops” on her own, which we all pretty much know. She has been trying to hustle Michael into working for her the way she hustled Victor. But Victor also suggests that it was not one person in the company that burned Michael, but simply the way the machine works. This would be an anti-climax except we are still in the middle of the chases and shootouts and are more concerned about them.
Then Fi and Sam manage to kill Carla and a helicopter arrives with a character only identified as “Management,” who reveals to Michael that far from leaving him on his own with the burn notice, they did it to protect him from enemies he made in his spy days. Lots and lots of enemies. Management offers to continue to protect Michael, but he refuses the offer by jumping out of the helicopter and swimming to shore.
O.K., what this means for the series is that the writers no longer have to deal with who burned Michael, which is good, since how much more can you dance around that issue? It also opens up a whole can of new bad guys for Michael to have to deal with. How many enemies did he make in his spy days? As many as the writers need to keep the show going for several years. And since Management is played the always-welcome John Mahoney, we probably have not seen the last of him, either.
Castle(2009. Episode “Flowers for Your Grave” written by Andrew W. Marlowe. 60 minutes): Murder She Wrote meets Moonlighting.
Burn Notice stops, this one starts. Life goes on.
Richard Castle is a mystery novelist and he is questioned about a murder that uses a scene similar to one of his novels. He is questioned by Detective Kate Beckett. He’s cute. She’s cute. He smirks, since Nathan Fillion who plays him gives good smirk. She rolls her eyes, since Stana Katic gives good eye roll. Needless to say, he gets involved in the case and equally needless to say, by the end of the hour they have solved it. She wants nothing more to do with him, but his friend the mayor has let her boss know that Castle is going to be hanging out with her to study her as a model of the heroine of his next series of books. Series started.
Marlowe does give us the kind of grace notes you hope for in a genre piece like this. Castle has a teenage daughter who seems more mature than he does, and his freewheeling mother is living with them. Not much is done with the mother this time out, but since she is played by the great Susan Sullivan, there should be some fun with her later on. In a gimmick in the pilot that probably will not be repeated that often, Castle’s poker buddies are real-life mystery novelists James Patterson and Steven J. Cannell, who offer him advice on the case. And one other touch that I really, really loved. Castle is wrong. Just once, in this episode, but it was nice to see the smirk go missing for a couple of minutes.
ER (2009. Episode “Old Times” written by John Wells. 60 minutes): Old times indeed.
This is why we go to the theater. This is why we watch movies. This is why we watch television. We watch actors act out stories that move us and tells us about the world we live in, past and present, real and fictional. And creating those stories is not as easy as John Wells makes it seem here.
One problem the writers of ER have had the last few months has been balancing the ongoing stories, the single episode stories, and the coming end of the series. In US#19 I discussed this in regards to the “A Long Strange Trip” episode, and it was a problem in the March 5th “What We Do” episode, which tried to balance a documentary unit in the ER with ongoing stories. The series pulled that off better in the “Ambush” episode that opened the fourth season.
This episode’s teaser has a young woman on the Chicago subway, carrying a baby. We follow her off the train and into the ER, establishing the usual chaos of the ER, which we know now the way we did not when the series started. The fact that the baby is black and she is white helps us believe her story that she found the baby. The fact she leaves the ER almost immediately makes us doubt her story. The baby has a seizure, and over the episode we watch the doctors stabilize the baby and Banfield bond with it. About the only expected thing in the episode is that we pretty much guess early on that this is going to be the baby Banfield adopts before the end of the series.
Act One: At Northwestern Hospital Carter is about to be released when Dr. Kurtag sweeps in announces they may have a kidney for him. Here’s the first surprise. Kurtag is played, with all the arrogance of every surgeon you ever met, by Christian Clemenson. Clemenson just got off Boston Legal playing Jerry Espenson, and Kurtag could not be further from Espenson. Part of the joy of watching a theatrical repertory company is seeing the actors play a variety of parts. Television especially is our national repertory theater and seeing a variety of performances from a single actor is part of the pleasure it gives us.
We cut to Washington University Medical Center in Seattle. Thank God there is not a crossover with, eewww, Grey’s Anatomy. We follow a woman walking into a waiting room, where we discover she is Carol Hathaway, whom we last saw nine years ago. Wells makes no big deal out of it, which makes it the more moving. She is still a nurse and checking with a variety of people who are here from other hospitals awaiting possible organs for transplant. Neela and Sam are awaiting a heart for the 36-year-old mother we have seen in previous episodes. Hathaway tells everyone there may be a delay. Billy, a 16-year-old boy on a bicycle, was hit and is brain dead, but his grandmother, the only family member they can find, held his hand and felt a squeeze. The doctors know this reflex is common, but the grandmother is convinced the boy will survive. And who walks in but Dr. Doug Ross, Hathaway’s husband, whom we have also not seen for nine years. Again, no big deal. He explains in more detail, then Hathaway goes off to try to convince Nora, the grandmother. A simple scene, and since Wells, who also directed, knows that he has Juliana Margulies as Hathaway and Susan Sarandon as Nora (well, you write great parts, you get great actors) he does not have to overdramatize the scene, either in the writing or the directing. As Christine Jeffs on Sunshine Cleaning knows and Jean Negulesco in his whole career knew, Wells knows if you have good material, you can let the actors carry the scene. Hathaway comes back to the waiting room and asks Neela and Sam if they could take a kidney that will become available back to Northwestern, since they are going to Chicago. We know who the kidney is for, even if Neela and Sam do not. Nora insists her daughter has to be there to decide the fate of the boy.
Act Two: We get Hathaway and Ross talking, reminding us of how charming he can be, and then he finds out that Neela and Sam are from County. Now how would you write that scene? Wells handles it with great simplicity. Ross mentions that he was there. He asks about people we know have gone, such as Weaver and Lewis. We and Ross lived through a lot with them, which Wells is reminding us in an off-hand way. Back in Chicago a woman is brought in for vomiting, and who is her devoted husband Paul but Ernest Borgnine, who won the Oscar 54 years ago for the film version of Marty. Borgnine has done a lot of crap in his career since, but in his early nineties he still has the chops. Wells does not give him big scenes here, but we may see him later. At Northwestern who shows up in Carter’s room but Benton, who terrorized Carter when Carter first came to County. Now they are like two old veterans, which the actors are, catching up. In Seattle, Ross talks to Nora about Billy, asking about him. At one point he asks, “Generous?” We see from Hathaway’s reaction she knows he’s sprung the trap. I had to watch Sarandon’s reactions twice to realize that Nora knows, at least subconsciously. Ross asks again for permission, Nora shakes her head, then almost imperceptibly nods, then nods again, all the while dealing with her grief. Now you know why Wells got Sarandon to do the part, and why Sarandon did it. Sarandon takes you into the woman’s heart, without a lot of speeches. Wells has been at this a long time and worked with a lot of great actors, and as is true of most great screenwriters, he understands what actors can bring to the moment and how to write to let them do that.
Act Three: Nora watches as Billy is brought through on a gurney. Look at how little Sarandon does and how much she gets out of it. After a bit back in Chicago, we see Neela and Sam getting into an elevator, each with her own cooler. That’s all you need for that scene. After another Banfield and the baby scene, we pick up Neela and Sam at the airport. Their plane has had to return, but the clerk (Wells’s attention to detail: look at her reaction to learning there is a heart in the cooler) manages to get them to hitch a ride on a private jet with … a reggae group. Now imagine all the scenes Wells could write with Neela and Sam, ganja, music, etc. He does not give us any of them because that is not what the story is about. And it’s often better to let the audience imagine something like that. At Northwestern Benton asks Carter if he has let his parents or his wife know, and Carter tells him no. We may or may not remember Carter’s African adventures, but we do remember his wife. He does have a picture of her, leading to Benton’s great line, “You married a sister?” Sam arrives with the kidney, and Neela arrives with the heart, going past the woman’s daughter.
Act Four: At Northwestern, Benton stays with Carter through the surgery, irritating Kurtag by insisting they all go through the pre-surgery checklist. The checklist turns up a missing item, which they get before the surgery starts, and which they need, of course. Just like cop show are supposed to reassure us that justice will prevail, doctor shows are supposed to reassure us that good doctors will prevent mistakes. And lawyer shows, at least David E. Kelly’s, show us that none of that is true. At County there are problems with the heart, but Neela insists the patient has a better chance with it than without. She persuades an older, white, male doctor she is right. Remember the problems that Neela has had asserting herself? They’re gone. And then there are problems with the heart and Neela has to use the paddles. After a scene with Banfield and the baby’s mother, who came back to check on her, Neela comes in and asks the daughter if she would like to see her mom. At Northwestern Benton is there when Carter wakes up and shows him the bag of 800ccs of urine to prove his new kidney is now working. Carter has Benton speed dial his wife, and Carter tells her he has “some really good news.” In Seattle, Ross and Hathaway are asleep when Hathaway gets a call from the hospital. Chicago has called and the heart is working fine. She tells Ross that the heart went to a 36-year-old mom. Even if you are looking at the clock, you are now awaiting the big reveal: Ross and Hathaway realizing the kidney has gone to John Carter, whom they started working with fifteen years ago. Have you learned nothing from the way Wells has written this episode? Hathaway adds, “And the kidney went to some doctor.” They cuddle and we fade out.
Life does go on. People connect, lose touch, connect again. Films and television shows connect, sometimes lose touch, sometimes connect again. That’s why we can’t not watch.
Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.
Review: Days of Cannibalism Bears Witness to a Culture War, Western Style
The film ultimately depicts a world in which people are left with no other option but to devour their own.3.5
A frontier story about the tension between settlers and natives, director Teboho Edkins’s Days of Cannibalism may technically be a documentary, but at heart it’s a western. Filmed in and around a small cattle-herding community in Lesotho, where Chinese immigrants have recently begun to settle and open up various types of stores, the film is packed with mythopoeic vistas of men on horseback roaming through fearsome yet spectacular mountain landscapes—shots that feel like they could’ve been cribbed straight from an Anthony Mann oater. There are scenes of cattle rustling, banditry, and frontier justice, as well as a Leone-esque vision of a town riven by suspicion, resentment, and racial hostility.
Edkins’s artistic project here isn’t simply to make a documentary that feels like a genre film, but rather to use the trappings of the western to explore the power dynamics at play on the extreme margins of global capitalism. Edkins’s former film professor at the dffb Film Academy in Berlin, Valeska Grisebach, has described the western as “a film about a space in which the rules are still in flux, and the balance of power is in negotiation.” And that struggle for authority and dominance is precisely what Days of Cannibalism explores.
Edkins casts the local Basotho people as “indians” and the Chinese migrants as the “pioneers,” but he then spends much of the film problematizing these distinctions. The Basotho are neither the bloodthirsty savages of early westerns nor the forlorn, eternally wronged victims of the genre’s revisionist period. Rather, they’re basically just ordinary people struggling to find a sense of equilibrium in a fast-changing world that seems to be leaving them behind.
The spiritual significance that the Basotho impute to cattle—cows are even referred to as the “wet-nosed god”—may at first seem like superstitious animism. But the belief turns out to also have a ruthlessly economic basis, as we see when some local men, who’ve turned to cattle rustling after being unable to find work, are hit with a lengthy prison sentence for the crime of stealing a couple of cows. Their crime isn’t a spiritual one so much as a social one: As the judge informs them, to steal a cow is to steal a community member’s livelihood.
Days of Cannibalism reveals the Chinese immigrants’ unwillingness to understand the Basotho people’s cow-herding practices as one of the major sources of resentment between the two groups. The immigrants make money by setting up small shops, as well as Walmart-like “wholesale stores.” “The Chinese have no idea how to take care of cattle,” one Lesotho herder angrily laments. Another more rueful local—the host of a radio show that interweaves pop music with thoughtful discussions of issues impacting the community—wonders why the Chinese immigrants can’t teach the locals how to set up shops in exchange for the Lesotho training them in the ways of cattle-herding. Instead, the two groups remain hopelessly alienated from each other, rarely interacting outside of business transactions.
But this isn’t a clear-cut tale of settler colonialism. The Chinese people who come to this underdeveloped corner of the globe don’t do so with any grand scheme of displacement and exploitation, as they’ve also been shunted aside by the savage machinery of globalization. In Lesotho, which is surrounded by South Africa, they simply seek to carve out some kind of life for themselves. With its microcosmic focus on this one particular community, the film exposes the brutal dynamics that undergird a globalist system that pits not only nation against nation, but people against each other. The violence of the system simmers beneath the surface of Days of Cannibalism until it finally boils over in a scene, captured in security camera footage, of an armed robbery at a wholesale store. As its title suggests, the film ultimately depicts a world in which people are left with no other option but to devour their own.
Days of Cannibalism had its world premiere last month at the Berlin International Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Indie Sales.
Director: Teboho Edkins Screenwriter: Teboho Edkins Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
The 100 Best Westerns of All Time
The western has proved itself a durable and influential way of talking about the human condition.
The classic western was conceived from an undeniably Euro-centric, colonial perspective, with white characters upholding their supposed birthright of freedom and property. In the western, the immense country beyond the Mississippi River figures at once as the sublime object that exceeds the human grasp and as a quantifiable possession. And the prototypical cowboy straddles these paradoxical poles: at home on the dusty, timeless landscape, but also facilitating its incorporation into a society marching toward the Pacific. In 1925’s Tumbleweeds, the herder hero played by William S. Hart reluctantly makes way for the newly arrived homesteaders; in 1953’s Shane, Alan Ladd’s eponymous character rides off after making the West safe for the American family; and in Sergio Leone’s 1968 opus Once Upon a Time in the West, Jason Robards’s Cheyenne sacrifices his life not to end the expansion of the American empire, but to facilitate a more just one.
But this standard narrative mold, to paraphrase John Ford’s 1962 classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, only represents the printed legend. The historical American West was more diverse and less male-dominated than the one Hollywood imagined for many years. Life in the Western territories demanded just as many determined women as it did men, and suffragettes had their first major victories in the West: Wyoming was the first state to grant women the vote, and the first to have a woman governor. A third of all cowboys herding cattle on the Great Plains were black—a fact that’s only surprising until you consider which groups were most in need of self-reliant vocation and freedom from the long arm of the law in the wake of the Civil War. Every once in a while, these historical realities break through the filtered screen of the Hollywood western: Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich play no-nonsense saloon owners in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar and Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, respectively, and Sidney Poitier’s often overlooked Buck and the Preacher from 1972 is one of the too-few films that are centered around black frontiersmen.
When Europeans, influenced by decades of dime novels and Hollywood flicks, got around to making westerns, the resulting films would be part of this swing toward revisionism. By this time, European filmmakers were coping with the aftermath of the most devastating conflict in human history, and Italian westerns like Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence and Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly are infused with the lived-in existentialism of postwar Europe. In them, the American West becomes an otherworldly wasteland of pure brutality and diminished—rather than heightened—agency. Europeans’ estrangement of western film tropes would help spur a revisionist take on the standards of the genre that infuses films produced to this day.
However, for all the observations that such “postmodern” westerns are about the end of the West—in Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales and elsewhere, represented by the arrival of new technologies like the Gatling gun—the western has always been about endings. It’s no coincidence that the genre’s proverbial image is that of a figure “riding off into the sunset.” The American frontier was declared closed after the 1890 census, a decade before the first western on our list (Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery) was produced. Right-wing New Hollywood directors like Sam Peckinpah, Don Siegel, and Eastwood have tended to identify this perpetual fading of the West with the decline of a virile and violent, but honorable masculinity.
The bloodbaths that end films like Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch arguably represent what Freud would have called “screen memories,” a compromise between repressed memory and images we’ve invented to defend ourselves against terrible truths. The true bloodbaths in the West were the military campaigns against Native Americans, genocidal conflicts that many big-budget westerns keep on the margins, with natives appearing as stereotypical noble savages or town drunks. Ford’s films, as often as they rely on racist characterizations, were often the prestige westerns to look most directly at these wars: The Searchers and Fort Apache explore, in their own flawed fashion, the morally degrading racism in their main characters’ hearts. Some decades later, Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves became the paradigm of a post-‘70s cultural sea change: When it comes to “cowboys versus Indians,” the cowboys are no longer the automatic locus of our sympathy.
Today, infusing familiar iconography with new meaning, such revisionist representations of the American West have helped to explode the boundaries of the genre, allowing filmmakers as well as critics to explore cinematic tropes about life on the frontier in non-conventional western narratives. In contemporary films like Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Chloé Zhao’s The Rider—and looking back to ones like Victor Sjöström’s The Wind and John Huston’s The Misfits—we can recognize something like a western mode, a broader and more expansive cinematic language that has been suffused by the symbols of the American West. The western has proved itself a durable and influential way of talking about the human condition—one that needs not be confined within the frontiers drawn by the Euro-American colonial imagination. Pat Brown
100. Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford, 1939)
If John Ford was, per Jonathan Lethem, “a poet in black and white,” he became a sharp impressionist in color. The finely calibrated stillness of his shots, occasionally ravished by the greens, reds, and blues of the colonial wardrobe, gives Drums Along the Mohawk a painterly quality, as if Ford had animated a William Ranney portrait. Each frame radiates rugged beauty, but this doesn’t soften the filmmaker’s no-bull directness when depicting the eruptive landscape of the Revolutionary War. Frontier man Gil (Henry Fonda) and his new wife, Lana Martin (Claudette Colbert), are without a home of their own for most of the film, their first cabin being burned to the ground during an attack, and when Gil and the troops return from the bloody Battle of Oriskany, the director details their immense casualties and injuries with unsparing detail. Chris Cabin
99. Tombstone (George P. Cosmatos, 1993)
Tombstone succeeds by re-appropriating the stylistic quirks of many a great western before it, from “the long walk” of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch to the candlelit saloons of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller, spitting them out in a spectacle of pure pop pastiche. It tells much the same story as John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, but it reinterprets that film’s mythical, elegiac sense of wonder through bombastic action and performances. There probably isn’t a western as quotable as this one, which also succeeds through its rogues’ gallery of memorable character actors and firecracker script. A drunken Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), when accused of seeing double, says, “I have two guns, one for each of you.” Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), as he pistol-whips Johnny Tyler (Billy Bob Thornton), belts out, “You gonna do something? Or are you just gonna stand there and bleed?” The lines between good and evil blur as the law switches sides to fit the plot. Cliché layers over cliché, exposing what the genre is all about: the foundations of American myth, told again and again to suit each generation. The ‘90s was the remix era and Tombstone fits it perfectly. Ben Flanagan
98. True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969)
The Duke casts a large shadow in any instance, but especially here. Rooster Cogburn is one of John Wayne’s most identifiable roles, not just because he won an Oscar for it, or because his True Grit is popular, or because he played the character twice (the second time in 1975’s Rooster Cogburn), but mostly because Rooster’s personality is so intertwined with Wayne’s iconic persona. Wayne’s detractors often note that Wayne lacked range, and that, given his consistent trademark drawl, about the only way to distinguish one Wayne character from another is by observing his costume. But while that’s roughly accurate, it doesn’t mean that every character Wayne ever played had a similar effect. His Rooster is one of those special roles that seemed indelibly Wayne’s—because he wore that eye patch so well, because his inherent presence and stature made him a natural to play the “meanest” marshal around, because his inner softness allowed the bond between Rooster and Mattie (Kim Darby) to feel convincing and because Wayne was born to be the cowboy who puts the reins in his teeth and rides toward four armed men with a gun in each hand. Jason Bellamy
97. Death Rides a Horse (Giulio Petroni, 1967)
In 1967’s boldly cinematic Death Rides a Horse, Giulio Petroni fixates on the inextricable link between a man’s memory and his thirst for vengeance. In the 15 years since watching his entire family get murdered by bloodthirsty bandits, Bill (John Phillip Law) has carried with him a single physical relic of this trauma: a lone spur. His memories, meanwhile, are filled with haunting and vivid reminders of that moment when his life changed forever, but also with specific visual cues related to each of the bandits: a silver earring, a chest tattoo of playing cards, a skull necklace. Bill’s overwhelmingly obsessive quest for revenge takes on an extra layer of perverseness once he’s paired up with the mysterious Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), an older man who playfully competes with Bill to hunt down and kill these same men first. Through an array of carefully crafted visual and aural motifs, and clever, judiciously employed narrative twists, Petroni weaves together these two crusades, building to an explosive finale that delivers equally cathartic doses of redemption and rage. Derek Smith
96. The Violent Men (Rudolph Maté, 1955)
Polish-born filmmaker Rudolph Maté worked for a little over a decade as a cinematographer in Hollywood before starting to crank out potboilers as a director in the late ‘40s, many of them marked by a distinct pictorial flair. He was a mainstay by the mid-‘50s, and The Violent Men counts among his most ravishingly shot films, and indeed one of the unheralded Technicolor westerns of the golden era. The central California frontier, where the majestic flatland meets the imposing Sierras, has rarely been more reverently photographed, and a single montage of Glenn Ford’s John Parrish galloping from one range to another as Max Steiner’s strings howl on the soundtrack is stirring enough to validate the invention of CinemaScope. Fittingly, the land itself provides the conflict here, with Ford’s Union veteran-cum-landowner trotting out his old fighting spirit when the vicious owners of a neighboring estate—Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson in wonderfully belligerent performances—try to exploit his ranch for pennies. A cathartic war against greed ensues, and the result is finely wrought big-screen entertainment. Carson Lund
95. Westward the Women (William A. Wellman, 1951)
Based on a story by Frank Capra, William Wellman’s Westward the Women shares the collective triumphalism of Capra’s greatest films but salts it with the grueling hardship and random cruelty that are hallmarks of Wellman’s storytelling. The premise is ludicrous on paper: A large farm in a California valley is suffering a shortage of the fairer sex, so it sends a wagon train headed by Robert Taylor to Chicago to haul back 150 brides for the workers—no short order in the middle of the 19th century. Several treacherous landscapes, bleakly depicted deaths, and a mid-film memorial service later, the plan is fulfilled in grandly hokey fashion, though not without a striking reordering of business-as-usual sexual politics. As the women prove as resilient, if not more so, than the men, ideals of male heroism fall by the cliffside (literally) and members of the ensemble who would normally be relegated to extras emerge as fully shaded and complex heroines. As a result, the film amounts to a portrait of hard-won joy that’s nearly spiritual in its belief in the power of cooperation. Lund
94. The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925)
What’s surprising when one takes a fresh look at The Gold Rush is how serious it is about depicting the hard life of prospectors. The comic soul of the film is, in fact, quite black, even if Charlie Chaplin exploits every opportunity (beautifully) to transform the environment into a vaudeville stage. Lonely as the wastes are, the town in the film is sinister and lurid, full of sex and violence, despite the fact that Chaplin always seems to find a way to invest in it the personality and tone of his early one-reelers. He makes the town funny but retains its barbarism. Chaplin pursues deliverance not in the miracle of hitting pay dirt, but in the promise of a woman, and it’s this promise that Chaplin would keep after, well into his sync-sound period. Around the film’s midpoint comes a sequence that cuts between the townsfolk singing “Auld Lange Syne,” and the Tramp, alone in his cabin, listening, longingly. It’s as perfect a moment as any other in the great silent period. Some accuse the director of succumbing to sentimentality, but he’s never less sublime than when he reaches for ridiculous, grandiose highs in romance, coincidence, and naked emotion. Jaime N. Christley
93. Destry Rides Again (George Marshall, 1939)
Destry Rides Again’s Bottleneck is essentially the same town as the one in “Drip-Along Daffy.” The opening crane shots of Bottleneck show the standard storefronts that western audiences are accustomed to seeing: feed and general stores, the jail, the Saloon. As the camera moves along the street, we see just about every possible vice happening all at once with bullets whizzing about the crowded streets—and all the while, Frank Skinner’s intense score adds to the feeling of utter lawlessness. Every stereotype of the wild western town is represented in George Marshall’s film: crooked gambling above the saloon, land-hungry town bosses, a hot dancing girl named Frenchy who can douse the fires of her rowdy fans with a shot of whisky, and killin’. Lots of killin’. Back when the western was really coming into its own in 1939, the genre had already been around long enough to warrant this satire. Bottleneck is a parody of the western town. Jeffrey Hill
92. The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1927)
So many late silent films are infused with a delirious energy, a sheer delight in the transportive powers of the cinema, and Sweden’s original film genius, Victor Sjöström, was renowned as a master of subjective, otherworldly moving images. With the hallucinatory The Wind, he delivered his most captivating visual play of subjective and objective realities, casting Dorothy Gish as an East Coast virgin who’s tormented on an ineffable psychical (and ambiguously erotic) level by the overbearing winds of the Great Plains. After circumstances force her into an unwanted marriage, she’s left alone in the small cottage she shares with her unloved husband as the personified wind blows open doors, whips up dust, and…takes the shape of giant stark-white colts who buck across the open sky. In a career-defining role, Gish grounds the film, giving a performance that humanizes the sensational and sensual inner conflict of a woman left alone in a vast, empty wilderness. Brown
91. Run of the Arrow (Samuel Fuller, 1957)
Writer-director Samuel Fuller’s Run of the Arrow stars Rod Steiger as Private O’Meara, a disaffected Confederate soldier who lights out for the western territories, only to wind up living among (and ultimately adopting the ways of) a Native American tribe. Fuller’s typically two-fisted tale essentially prefigures Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, absent all the bombast and self-aggrandizement. Granted, the film succumbs to the longstanding Hollywood tradition of utilizing a motley crew of decidedly non-native actors in pigment-darkening makeup to portray its Sioux tribe, including a young Charles Bronson and Spanish actress Sara Montiel, but it also endows these characters with a degree of respect and agency practically unprecedented in a 1950s American western. As the film comes full circle with the return of the man O’Meara shot and then saved in the opening scene, Fuller’s story reveals itself as a morality play concerning the destructive nature of hatred and bigotry, as well as a touchingly earnest plea for tolerance. Budd Wilkins
Review: Vivarium Looks Aloofly at the Nightmare of Conformity
This a parable about adulthood boasts deeply cynical takes on home, community, and childrearing.2
Lorcan Finnegan’s high-concept sci-fi mystery Vivarium is a parable about adulthood with deeply cynical takes on home, community, and childrearing. Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are a young couple who one afternoon tour a housing development called Yonder with its sales agent, Martin (Jonathan Aris), who dresses like a Mormon missionary. The colorless subdivision is startlingly homogenous, with identical homes in creepily neat rows (shades of Edward Scissorhands), stretching from horizon to horizon. Martin shows them house “number 9,” then disappears, and when they also try to leave the neighborhood, every road circles back to the house until their car runs out of gas. Yonder is, well, not quite even a maze, because there’s no way out. It’s a trap.
The couple is thus ushered into a nightmare of conformity, emphasized by the film’s production design. The streetscapes, often seen from overhead, are vividly and uneasily artificial, suggesting a model town; even the clouds appear painted onto the sky above. The sound design is deathly quiet except for the echoes of Gemma and Tom’s footsteps, evoking a soundstage. Yonder is a windless place, the ultimate in featureless suburbs that young city dwellers fear, where the air is odorless and the strawberries flavorless. There are no neighbors and no friends, just forced isolation—an extreme form of social distancing.
The couple is coerced into this life in service of the next generation. After trying to burn down house number nine (which just reappears in the morning), they receive a box containing a baby and a message, instructing them to raise the boy in order to be released. It’s as if bringing up children were just a form of forced labor resulting from a mistake—in this case, having toured Yonder. The boy (Senan Jennings) grows at a rate faster than dog years, reaching about seven years old in just 98 days. He screeches when he’s hungry and is otherwise eerily precocious, like a tiny adult; suspiciously observant, he recites his adoptive parents’ spats and quarrels back to them verbatim. He’s terrifying, like some sort of alien spy, and Tom and Gemma despise him, becoming physically and psychologically abusive.
Finnegan and screenwriter Garret Shanley strip away the comforts and niceties we associate with concepts of home and family, as the neighborhood here is a prison, the house a cell, and children are creepy invaders who torment their parents. It’s a fully nightmarish vision of adulting; Tom starts digging a hole in the yard, which consumes his daytime hours, keeping him from his family, as though it were his job—a jab at the meaninglessness of middle-class employment. Stuffing a lifetime into the span of less than a year, the film posits the nuclear family as something you have to submit to or go crazy should you fight against it.
As intriguing as this allegory can be to parse, it weighs down the storytelling. Vivarium, at heart, is populated with stock characters trapped less in a purgatorial suburbia than in a metaphor. Eisenberg invests Tom with his trademark arrogance, which here just makes the character flatly unlikeable. Tom comes off as a schlub, a rotten guardian and an irredeemable partner, yet the film suggests his wife loves him. Poots sells that with a rawer and more nuanced performance, making Gemma hateful yet decent, bitter but loving, trying yet fed-up. Her character is awful, like Tom, but she’s also sympathetic.
Gemma complains that all she and Tom wanted was a home, and she’s told she is home—as though this hellscape is all that a home could be. It’s an indictment of bourgeois living that stings less than it’s meant to. Vivarium is sad, but it’s too removed to be devastating, lost inside itself and its puzzles of meaning. It’s not a drama so much as an intellectual exercise.
Cast: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Senan Jennings, Eanna Hardwicke, Jonathan Aris Director: Lorcan Finnegan Screenwriter: Garret Shanley Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Resistance Is an Old-Fashioned Tribute to Marcel Marceau
The film is an old-fashioned and straightforward tale of brave opposition to the Nazi occupation of France.2.5
Writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Resistance is an old-fashioned and straightforward tale of brave opposition to the Nazi occupation of France whose most potentially intriguing angle becomes its least satisfying dimension. While featuring many familiar elements, including a sarcastically reluctant hero, a mentally unbalanced sadistic villain, and nail-biter last-minute escapes, it’s centered on a character who one doesn’t often see in World War II movies: a Nazi-fighting mime.
The mime in question is Marcel Mangel (Jesse Eisenberg)—he later changed his surname to Marceau—the son of a Jewish butcher living in Strasbourg, France. Tired of wearing a smock and cutting up meat in his father’s shop, he prefers putting on a Chaplin mustache and applying greasepaint to his face in order to clown around in cabarets. His more traditionally minded father, Charles (Karl Markovics), disapproves of Marcel’s creative life, while the audiences who Marcel performs for are clearly more interested in the dancing girls.
This light family drama might seem inappropriate following the gutting opening scene, in which Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey), a young Jewish girl in Munich, sees her parents gunned down during the Kristallnacht pogrom. But the comfortingly low-stakes nature of these early scenes skillfully illustrates the gently melancholic nature of Marcel’s clowning. At the same time, they also establish just how little the future superstar and his community appreciate the extent of the genocidal danger brewing just a few miles away in Germany.
Marcel’s call to arms comes with the arrival of a truckload of Jewish orphans, including Elsbeth. Ransomed from the Nazis, the orphans are put up in a nearby castle and watched over by a troop of somewhat adult-looking Jewish Boy and Girl Scouts. Guilted by his activist brother, Sigmund (Édgar Ramirez), into helping out, and eager to impress the willowy Emma (Clemence Poesy), Marcel uses his clowning to keep the kids entertained.
At this point, with its light comedy and rapturously beautiful Rhone Valley scenery, Resistance runs the clear risk of traipsing into Life Is Beautiful territory. But with the exception of one awkward scene, in which Marcel and Emma dress up as brownshirts and mug buffoonishly while trying to scare the kids into learning how to hide, Jakubowicz mostly steers clear of any unctuous sentimentalizing of responses to genocidal evil.
This determination to keep the story’s focus on the fight against the Nazis becomes clearer once war breaks out, France is occupied, and all Jews in the country have targets on their backs. Now responsible for even more orphans, Marcel and his compatriots relocate to Lyon and join the resistance. Heightening the stakes in Lyon is the presence of Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer), a blithe sadist who likes to play the piano while executing people in the drained pool of his luxury headquarters at the Hotel Terminus. While Schweighofer’s portrayal of Barbie as a bright-eyed torture-happy sociopath who always looks on the verge of giggling veers close to movie-villain shtick, the character’s dark presence keeps the immediacy of Marcel’s mission front and center.
Jakubowicz’s strengths as a director become more clear in some of the set pieces staged after the action shifts to Lyon and Marcel’s group has to balance keeping themselves and the orphans alive in France or escaping to Switzerland. Showing a strong feel for crisply capturing the tense and buttoned-down panic of undercover operatives in occupied territory, Jakubowicz also leverages Eisenberg’s skill for simultaneously signaling vulnerability and resolve.
Where Resistance is likely least effective for many audiences is its attempt to portray Marcel as a masterful performer. It’s hard not to think of Richard Attenborough’s pushy and unfunny Chaplin in some of Eisenberg’s energetic but flat scenes performing as a clown or a mime. A couple of these are fairly stiff, particularly one where Marcel clowns to keep the orphans quiet while German soldiers prowl nearby, and another of him miming for a rapt crowd of American soldiers after being introduced by General George Patton (Ed Harris). (While this latter scene is somewhat inexplicable, it appears to have actually happened, following Marcel’s work for Patton as a liaison officer—a phenomenal pairing of sunny-gruff personalities that seems worthy of its own film.) In most other aspects, however, Resistance functions as a handsomely mounted biopic that tells a little-known story with considerable passion.
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Clemence Poesy, Édgar Ramirez, Bella Ramsey, Géza Röhrig, Matthias Schweighofer, Karl Markovics, Ed Harris Director: Jonathan Jakubowicz Screenwriter: Jonathan Jakubowicz Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: Atlantis’s Future Vision Grapples with a Past That Never Was
The film’s use of scale to drive home the absurdity of its characters’ actions recalls Werner Herzog’s tragicomic existentialism.3
The use of apocalyptic settings has become so prevalent in fiction over the past couple of decades, perhaps more than in any time since the Cold War era, that it seems difficult to find new ways to make the concept resonate. This is particularly true as the real world starts to resemble a uniquely mundane version of the most vivid renderings of dystopia. Atlantis, Ukrainian director Valentyn Vasyanovych’s fourth feature-length fiction film, succeeds in part because the situation it depicts is barely even fictional.
Vasyanovych was inspired to make the film by a visit to the Donbass region in the eastern part of his home country, which is the site of regular clashes between government troops and pro-Russian separatists, and which has been left environmentally ravaged due to the war there. Atlantis is set in an imagined 2025, five years after the war has ended, with the Donbass area no longer fit for human habitation—as will likely be the case in reality.
Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk) and Ivan (Vasyl Antoniak) are PTSD-addled ex-soldiers who fought and killed for a place that wasn’t worth saving, and who are under no illusions of finding a better life elsewhere. They now work at a steel mill that’s about to fall victim to the same capitalist whims they were defending as part of the victorious pro-Western forces. A glimmer of hope is eventually offered by a volunteer group that drives around the region picking up the bodies of those who fell in the war, to identify them and provide them with proper burials.
Despite the film’s basis in current geo-political and economic realities and its obvious parallels with the broader climate crisis faced by the world, it rarely engages directly with these themes. Instead, it’s more interested in how people adjust to desperation and scarcity, showing a society where armed conflict and corporate neglect have poisoned the environment and devalued human life to such an extent that people aren’t even able to grieve their losses. Vasyanovych employs long takes with almost no camera movement, combining naturalistic lighting with pictorial framing and a relatively large depth of field. As well as affording the time and space to appreciate the routines of their hardscrabble existence, this striking aesthetic serves to distance the viewer from the characters, showing these stoical figures alienated from themselves as much as they’re dwarfed by desolate industrial landscapes.
The unrelenting bleakness of this situation often becomes almost cartoonish in proportion, and the film’s slow pace occasionally conjures a tone of deadpan humor. An early scene sees Sergiy and Ivan setting up a row of life-sized dummies in the snow for shooting practice, and the depiction of this task in real time, with their truck’s engine running conspicuously in the background throughout, draws out the childish inanity of their adherence to military discipline. Later, a 1984-aping scene of assembled workers being informed of their impending redundancy by a face on a giant projector screen, with an interpreter’s Ukrainian translation disrupting the flow of this British company executive’s ruthless corporate-speak, wouldn’t be out of place in a more straightforward work of political satire.
The film’s use of scale to drive home the absurdity of its characters’ actions sometimes calls to mind Werner Herzog’s tragicomic existentialism, as well as early silent cinema. In a feat of resolve and improvisation that would make Fitzcarraldo proud (not to mention Charlie Chaplin’s shoe-eating tramp from a similarly barren locale a century prior), Sergiy cobbles together a hot tub for himself in the middle of the wasteland, filling a large digger’s bucket with water from a hose and burning petrol-soaked timber underneath it for heat. His soak in this makeshift bath is Atlantis’s most indelible image, a sight gag that also underlines his stubborn but admirable commitment to making a home where few other people dare to stay.
Appropriately for a study of humans physically engulfed by their surroundings, Atlantis is bookended by shots apparently captured with a thermal imaging camera. Initially coming across as gimmicky, representative of a broader style-over-substance artificiality that prevents the film from reaching the heights of its cinematic forebears, its final use is still surprisingly affecting. It highlights two people merging together in the warmth of postcoital intimacy, finding a new sense of belonging in the ruins. They jointly refuse to mourn a lost Atlantis that, given the state of our current reality, likely never existed for them in the first place.
Atlantis premiered last year at the Venice Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Best Friend Forever.
Cast: Andriy Rymaruk, Liudmyla Bileka, Vasyl Antoniak Director: Valentyn Vasyanovych Screenwriter: Valentyn Vasyanovych Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Red Moon Tide Is a Haunting Elegy to Nature’s Supremacy
The film is predicated on such ineffable dread that the impact of climate change becomes a sort of Lovecraftian force.3
Lois Patiño’s Red Moon Tide is a work of unmistakable horror, one predicated on such ineffable dread that the impact of climate change becomes a sort of Lovecraftian force. Shots of flooded plains next to stagnant and drying reservoirs capture the contrasting, even contradictory ways that the world is being destroyed by the rippling effects of our hubris. The opening title sequence is a roving close-up of an ancient maritime map dotted with mythical, perilous creatures, and the hypothetical existence of a nautical monster pervades the entire film. Yet the true threats here are invisible, malignant forces of misery that cast a pall over everything, poisoning nature and rendering humans motionless.
Patiño’s extreme long shots conjure unsettling moods through their use of natural backdrops and light. Waves at moonlight crash onto a beach, the ocean as dark as arterial blood. And in a recurring image, we glimpse an inactive hydroelectric dam, its face shot at angles that turn the concrete into a frame-spanning expanse of blank space. The soaked floodplains, meanwhile, fill the air with so much mist that sunlight casts a spectral glow over the Galician countryside.
This is the perfect backdrop for the loose, haunted narrative of a local fisherman, Rubio (Rubio de Camelle), who becomes convinced that a monster is hunting the shores of his coastal town as he discovers more and more human corpses when he takes his boat out each morning. At the start of Red Moon Tide, Rubio’s boat has run around and the man himself is missing, making him a protagonist referenced more than seen as other townsfolk ruminate on whether or not the man’s hunch was right as they themselves sink deeper into malaise.
The town where these locals dwell is shot in even starker terms than the landscapes, evoking Hopper-esque portraits of stasis and alienation. The non-professional actors are arranged like mannequins and frequently silhouetted, distanced from each other and often looking in opposite directions. People rarely speak aloud, instead silently stewing in internal monologues heard in somber voiceovers in which they contemplate the monster, giving it mythological properties such as having its behaviors dictated by the wax and wane of the moon.
Mythology is a crucial element of Red Moon Tide, with a trio of witches appearing nearly a half-hour into the film in search of the missing Rubio. These women spend the remainder of the film roaming around the countryside and the seaside town, often the only people in motion in the frame. Eventually, the witches start to drape the stock-still townspeople in sheets, making them look like ghosts. Rubio himself, well before he appears on screen, becomes an unwitting Charon figure ferrying the dead when his nets turn up fewer fish than corpses of those slain by the monster, returning their bodies to land for burial.
Buried beneath this mythic text are contemporary anxieties about climate change that gives Red Moon Tide an underlying logic, but the film is at its best when surrendering entirely to its hypnotic imagery. Andrei Tarkovsky is invoked at several junctures, from a shot that studies grass waving like strands of hair in a gently flowing brook to an image that moves through silhouetted trees with mountains in the distance that fittingly reflects the last shot of 1975’s Mirror. The film thus ends with an apocalyptic intensity that gives a climactic confrontation with the lurking monster a feeling of meeting with destiny, of the creature embodying mankind’s accelerating self-destruction in the face of nature reclaiming its supremacy.
Red Moon Tide had its world premiere last month at the Berlin International Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Lights On.
Cast: Rubio de Camelle, Ana Marra, Carmen Martinez, Pilar Rodlos Director: Lois Patiño Screenwriter: Lois Patiño Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Pushpendra Singh’s The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs
The film speaks lyrically to a peoples’ determination to find a meaningful way to live in a rapidly changing modern world.3
Based on a folktale by Vijaydan Detha and further influenced by the life and poetry of 14th-century Kashmiri mystic Lalleshwari, Pushpendra Singh’s The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs tells the story of a young nomadic shepherdess, Laila (Navjot Randhawa), who finds herself exploited by foolish, lustful men. Using traditional folk songs—each revolving around a central idea, such as marriage, migration, and attraction—Singh loosely divides the film into seven parts. Each of these musical interludes—some diegetic, some not—mark a transitionary phase in Laila’s spiritual growth and path to self-realization as she navigates a world that remains indifferent to her own dreams and desires.
After being taken as a bride by a spineless young herdsman named Tanvir (Sadakkit Bijran), Laila migrates, along with their Bakarwal clan, to a more populated area of Kashmir, where we get clear sense of the territorial conflict currently playing out between India and Pakistan. Border police and local officials badger the nomadic shepherds, asking for permits and identification cards that have never before been required of them. This rapid social change limits the mobility of the clan and threatens their way of life, but once they arrive at their destination, it’s talk of Laila’s great beauty that spreads rapidly throughout the land.
As the young woman is met by unwanted advances by the regional inspector (Ranjit Khajuria) and his goofy but somewhat charming subordinate, Mushtaq (Shahnawaz Bhat), she’s left to fend for herself by her feckless husband who constantly kowtows to their authority. Laila uses both her fearlessness and intelligence to protect herself, first pushing and slapping the inspector and, later, fooling Mushtaq time and again by setting up nighttime meetings with him, only to thwart his plans by showing up with Tanvir by her side.
These various nocturnal rendezvous with Mushtaq play out in a repetitious manner, like the episodes of a fable. While Mushtaq is relentlessly aggressive in his pursuit of Laila, Tanvir’s oblivious, overly deferential responses to the increasingly absurd manners in which the man shows up on his land in need of bananas or a sheep are threaded with deadpan humor. When Tanvir calmly says of Mushtaq, “What a kind man. He cares so much for us,” a look of resignation and frustration settles on Laila’s face as she realizes how vulnerable she is and that she alone must cope with the dangers and challenges of her life.
As Laila is further isolated and confronted with her lack of agency, the film draws parallels between her vibrance, toughness, and persistence in the face of oppression and that of the Bakarwal community, who’ve roamed the Kashmir region and maintained their cultural mores there for centuries. The forest is marked early on as not only a space that requires great fortitude in which to survive, but also a realm of potentially fantastical transformation. When Laila’s friend asks her when she began to fear the forest, she replies that she never has and that Lalleshwari “also discovered herself here” and “abandoned everything to find God.”
This proclamation foreshadows Laila’s own journey of self-discovery and enlightenment just as a gorgeous shot in which Tanvir, sitting on a tree stump below his wife, transforms into a sheep alludes to the brief flashes of magical realism that will creep into The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs from time to time. Such poetic scenes are more frequent as the film proceeds, and enhanced particularly by the cinematography, which features slow, roving camerawork that, as in Terrence Malick and Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, exhibits a reverence for and connection to the landscape and the protagonist’s deep connection to it.
In its final minutes, the film becomes increasingly expressionistic, as Laila symbolically sheds her clothes and wanders from the forest into the rocky landscape of the Himalayas. There’s a remarkable visual play between darkness and light and aural juxtaposition of folkloric music (a song of renunciation) and the crashing sounds of thunder as Laila drapes a snakeskin over her shoulder and contemplates her position in life with a pensive stare into a mirror. It’s a stunningly beautiful and mystical passage laden with sorrow, uncertainty, and the inevitability of change. But it also speaks quite lyrically and evocatively to both Laila’s, and, by extension, her peoples’ enduring determination to find a meaningful way to live in a rapidly changing modern world that’s less and less inclined to ensure their survival.
The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs had its world premiere last month at the Berlin International Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Pascale Ramonda.
Cast: Shahnawaz Bhat, Sadakkit Bijran, Ranjit Khajuria, Navjot Randhawa, Mohammed Yassen Director: Pushpendra Singh Screenwriter: Pushpendra Singh Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Blow the Man Down Is a Sharp and Memorable Nautical Noir
The film never veers into wink-wink self-consciousness that its opening might have suggested.3
Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s Blow the Man Down starts on a literally self-aware note. The opening sequence shows the fishermen of a coastal Maine hamlet not just hard at work netting, spiking, and chopping up their catch, but also singing a rousing rendition of the 19th-century sailors’ song that gives the film its title. Full-throated and haunting, the piece is sung right to the camera as though it were a music video for some Americana band. But even though what follows is shot through with a keen understanding of genre necessities and an impatience for wasting more time on them than is necessary, the film never veers into wink-wink self-consciousness that its opening might have suggested.
When we first meet the ghostly pale Priscilla Connolly (Sophie Lowe) and her anxious and messy sister, Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor), they’ve just buried their mother and are trying to extract themselves from the hole she left them in. While Pris takes the need to keep running the family store and the looming loss of the family home somewhat in stride, Mary Beth is furious. Hating their “shithole” town and eager to leave for college, she goes to a bar to blow off steam following their mother’s wake and makes a poorly considered connection with a scuzzily larcenous-looking guy named Gorski (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). Many drinks, some bad driving, a baggie of cocaine, and one well-aimed harpoon later, Mary Beth has a body on her hands and a situation that suggests calling the police would be a poor idea.
Blow the Man Down’s first third or so moves briskly along the well-traveled terrain of the What Do We Do with the Body? genre. Savage Cole and Krudy seed their screenplay with somewhat stock elements, from the sack of cash that causes more problems than it’s worth to the small town rife with hypocrisy to the inexpertly cleaned crime scene with one crucial clue left behind that could send Pris and Mary Beth to prison. But even though some of these narrative beats are highly familiar, the filmmakers handle them with a light touch that keeps things fresh and entertaining until the film throws viewers a neat curveball.
At first, the three tsk-tsking women (June Squibb, Marceline Hugot, and Annette O’Toole) in matching pale Talbots-like outfits who drift through the film appear to be merely a decorative chorus of crones. They’re initially somewhat like the fishermen who come back in from time to time to deliver more bloody-minded sea shanties. But once the women start targeting their disapproval at Enid (Margo Martindale), the apparent proprietor of a cozy old bed and breakfast, the film opens up an entire secret and seamy underbelly to the town that the sisters are about to be pulled right into even if they manage not to be charged with murder.
In between the choral interludes, Blow the Man Down is layered with a discordant and eerie yet also slightly playful soundtrack that enhances both the setting’s chilly isolation and the sisters’ sense of panic and displacement. Overall, the performances are solid, if short of standout, with the great exception of Martindale’s. In her role as the town’s unapologetic scarlet woman, the character actress swings Enid through her scenes, balancing on a cane and fueled by whiskey and a white-hot sense of grievance. “Go back to your casseroles and crochet,” Enid tells the chorus of three old busybodies with a dry and spare tone that pushes the line from petty insult into veiled threat. Without Martindale, Blow the Man Down would be a sharp and tightly constructed nautical noir. With her, it becomes a memorable one.
Cast: Sophie Lowe, Morgan Saylor, Margot Martindale, June Squibb, Marceline Hugot, Annette O’Toole, Gayle Rankin, Will Brittain, Ebon Moss-Bachrach Director: Bridget Savage Cole, Danielle Krudy Screenwriter: Bridget Savage Cole, Danielle Krudy Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2020
25 Underrated Movie Gems to Stream Right Now on the Criterion Channel
It’s worth taking a dive into the channel’s obscure but vibrant depths.
It’s encouraging that, about a year after its launch, the Criterion Channel remains with us. Less encouraging—from an end-of-days perspective—is that most of us now have an abundance of time to explore it. If self-isolating to prevent the spread of a deadly pandemic has upsides, though, having time enough to poke around the varied corners and depths of the streaming service counts as one of them.
The selection of films on the Criterion Channel rotate quickly, making the films it highlights as “leaving at the end of the month” more vital than most other sites’ similar sections. In a sense, this makes the Criterion Collection’s streaming platform feel more alive than services that have more stable caches and their own in-house content. The new films that pop up at the beginning of the month—in March, the channel has included Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life and a number of German silents—are akin to special events. The shifting library of films functions like a vast, curated program available in our homes.
The sense that the channel is driven by curation rather than algorithm is no doubt intentional. If, with its esoteric film library and novel programming, the streaming service seems rather offbeat, this is in large part because we’re now used to receiving viewing suggestions from systems that emulate only in outline the mechanism of recommendation. We’ve grown reliant on the facile generic groupings (“drama,” “adventure,” “comedy”) typical of algorithm-driven services. Criterion pointedly ignores genre in favor of auteur, country of origin, or cultural context; a mainstay on the site for several months, amid the controversy over another male-dominated Oscars season, has been its prominent featuring of women filmmakers.
As the Criterion Collection continues to hold on to its niche in an arena dominated by Amazon, Netflix, Disney, among other hopefuls, it’s worth taking a dive into the channel’s obscure but vibrant depths. Many of the films below are rare finds—not only in the world of streaming, but in the era of home video. Pat Brown
Editor’s Note: Click here to sign up for the Criterion Channel.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger, 1926)
Now justly recognized as the first fully animated feature film, Lotte Reiniger’s masterpiece—composed of cut-out animation of silhouettes on monochromatic painted backdrops—transports us to dreamlike realm. Closely related to the contemporaneous experimentations in animation carried out by figures like Oscar Fischinger and Walther Hans Richter, The Adventures of Prince Achmed lends the orientalist fairy tales it recounts a rhythmic grace. As Prince Achmed journeys through various motifs from the “Thousand and One Nights,” the visual pleasure lies in the reverie of watching the cinema imbue mere shapes with life. Brown
The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko, 1977)
A World War II film in which heroism is a myth, Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent focuses on two Soviet partisans (Boris Plotnikov and Vladimir Gostyukhin) who are left for dead in the snow-covered Russian countryside. Shepitko’s camera alternates between passages of realism and lyricism, entrenching her characters within a course of almost certain death. If Sheptiko’s soldiers experience only pain at the hands of their merciless German captors, it’s to better articulate the tragedy of their fundamental innocence within the war machine. Clayton Dillard
Asparagus (Suzan Pitt, 1979)
A Jungian psychosexual mescaline trip in the form of an 18-minute animated short, Asparagus is at once a vibrant blast of psychedelia and an unsettling journey into the depths of the subconscious. Suzan Pitt’s film was famously paired with Eraserhead on the midnight-movie circuit back in the late ‘70s, and it’s as equally resistant to interpretation as David Lynch’s classic. Proceeding with a dream logic that recalls the symbolist experimentalism of Maya Deren, Asparagus’s imagery ranges from the lushly verdant to the uncannily profane—often within the same scene, as in the film’s haunting climax in which a faceless woman robotically fellates an asparagus spear. Watson
Begone Dull Care (Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambart, 1951)
If a jazz combo hired Stan Brakhage to direct their music video, the result might look something like Begone Dull Care. Set to the buoyant bebop of the Oscar Peterson Trio, Evelyn Lambart and Norman McLaren’s zippy animated short is one of the purest marriages of music and image in the history of cinema. Using lines, shapes, and abstract textures painted and drawn directly onto celluloid, the film grooves along to the jazz music—at times using particular colors to represent individual instruments, at others delivering a frenetic freeform visual accompaniment to the music, but always delivering a dazzling showcase of the animators’ inventiveness and dynamism. Watson
Body and Soul (Oscar Micheaux, 1925)
Body and Soul, Oscar Micheaux’s melodrama about sexual violence within a southern black community, was controversial even among black audiences. Noted as the film debut of Paul Robeson, the film bucks expectations by casting the handsome singer as Isaiah T. Jenkins, a criminal masquerading as a preacher. Jenkins beguiles a local worshipper, Martha Jane (Mercedes Gilbert) into leaving him alone with her daughter, Isabelle (Julia Theresa Russell). He rapes Isabelle and steals Martha Jane’s savings. As Jenkins palms the hard-earned cash, Micheaux inserts a woeful montage: Martha Jane’s hands ironing clothing, anonymous black hands picking cotton off the plant. Brown
Review: Deerskin Eerily and Evocatively Reflects on a Man’s Fragility
In Deerskin, Quentin Dupieux mines the absurdism that is his signature with newfound forcefulness.3
Underneath the absurdism and narrative mindfuckery of Quentin Dupieux’s films resides a sadness that the French writer-director mines with newfound forcefulness in Deerskin. The film has an eerie, evocative premise. Drifting through a mountainous town in France, Georges (Jean Dujardin) tracks down a vintage deerskin jacket. Smitten with the garment, Georges spends his entire savings on it, before then holing up in a nearly abandoned hotel and passing himself off as a filmmaker to the locals, especially to a young and attractive bartender, Denise (Adèle Haenel), who claims to be an aspiring film editor. We also learn that Georges is navigating a divorce, and that his wife has frozen his savings, which obviously leads one to believe that he’s in the midst of some sort of midlife crisis, electing to buy a jacket instead of, say, a Porsche, which he couldn’t afford anyway.
A little heftier than he was in The Artist, with an elegant graying beard, Dujardin bears a resemblance to Terrence Malick, and Georges, in his ludicrous way, even goes about pretending to make films in Malick’s register, shooting footage that Denise will shape into something free-flowing and subjective. Georges, like many a failure, is obsessed with the image of success above all, as a gratification of himself, and seems to have few passions or interests that might lead to its actual realization. An early scene suggests that Georges may have been a bored office drone, as he stops in a store and makes a ritual out of attempting to flush his old blazer down the toilet; he requires a more obvious totem of manliness, and he frequently references the deerskin jacket’s “killer style,” even talking to it on occasion.
These masculine symbols are somehow explicit and mysterious at once. If Dupieux had added any expositional dialogue, having Georges openly riff on his frustrations for instance, Deerskin’s spell would probably be dispelled. The film’s melancholic, comic charge springs from Georges’s commitment to his new reality, which comes to mirror the commitment of a real artist. The town is also visually resonant, suggesting a secluded village in a western; its landscapes imbue the film with a beauty that’s ironic—suggesting our addictions to the illusions of westerns and other masculine pop art—as well as wistful.
This beauty is also counterpointed with the crushing loneliness of the town’s citizens. Denise goes along with Georges’s schemes because she’s looking for direction, and there’s a brutally effective joke in which Georges is informed that a hotel clerk has killed himself—information that’s related with the sort of casualness that one might reserve for ordering breakfast. Georges walks into a room to steal something from the corpse, which is revealed to be a mannequin with a hole in its face. This is one of the great surreal flourishes of Dupiex’s career, the mannequin suggesting the desolation of people who choose to annihilate themselves.
Deerskin eventually takes a gruesome turn, as Georges decides that he must be the only person in the world with any jacket. As he begins a killing spree, the film, in its rhyming of the vocations of art-making and serial murder, recalls a lean and more playful version of The House that Jack Built, minus Lars von Trier’s laborious self-justifications. Dupiex, then, finds another macho totem to parody: the self-consciously intellectual art-house auteur who lards their fantasies with delusions of grandeur. But Dupiex also has a kindship with Georges, recognizing him to be the epitome of the toxic male as well as a lost soul in the tradition of men who are conditioned to play it safe with boring jobs, only to be self-shamed for that very dependency on safety. By killing others, Georges is announcing that he wants to die.
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Adèle Haenel, Albert Delpy, Coralie Russier, Marie Bunel, Panayotis Pascot Director: Quentin Dupieux Screenwriter: Quentin Dupieux Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment Running Time: 77 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
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