Coming Up In This Column: ER, Duplicity, Coraline, Sin Nombre, Tokyo Sonata, Pictures at a Revolution, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice, but first…
I may have given some people the wrong idea that I thought Sunshine Cleaning was better than Little Miss Sunshine. I don’t think it is, primarily because of the problems with the ending I mentioned. Joel thought that Little Miss Sunshine was just as dark as Sunshine Cleaning. I think it has its dark moments, but I think the overall tone of Sunshine Cleaning is darker. Tone seems to be a theme in this edition of this column, as you will see. I would agree with Adam’s witty equation: Sunshine Cleaning = In Her Shoes + CSI.
On US#22, Anonymous raised the question about the supernatural element of Saving Grace. I agree with him that those scenes seem unnecessary, but I read somewhere they are part of series creator Nancy Miller’s plan. I will deal with this a little more in the next column after the half-season ending episode.
ER (2009. Episode “And In The End…” written by John Wells. 120 minutes): Not great, but hugely satisfying.
This series finale episode will probably not go down in TV history as one of the great series finales. It is not as spectacular as the ending of Newhart, which is one of the few “It was all a dream” endings ever that actually works. In that one, Bob Hartley, from Newhart’s earlier The Bob Newhart Show, wakes up in bed with his wife Emily saying he had a weird dream about running a Vermont inn, i.e., Newhart. Nor is it as surreal as the ending of St. Elsewhere, where the entire series was shown to have been completely in the mind of Dr. Westphall’s autistic son. What Wells does is do a lot of different things very, very well.
Since this is an episode about endings, it is not surprising that there are two major deaths among the patients. A pregnant woman is brought in and, after a troubled delivery of twins, she bleeds out and ultimately cannot be saved. In a more extended death scene, we get the death of Mrs. Manning, whom we first met when she was brought in in the “Old Times” episode. She has come back in with her husband Paul, who hopes against hope to save her. As I mentioned in US#21 when writing about that episode, we do indeed see Ernest Borgnine as Paul again, and again Borgnine delivers the goods as he watches his wife die. ER has always been realistically ruthless about killing off patients, more so than any other hospital show. The show has also been good about putting together episodes that have internal thematic connections, although they have never taken it as far as St. Elsewhere did. Here the deaths connect with the fact that we are seeing these characters and this location and this institution for the last time—excluding syndication, DVD’s, YouTube and any other delivery systems to be invented in the future, of course.
Wells also makes connections for us with other episodes in the series. Early in the teaser, Lydia, a nurse, wakes up Archie, just as she did Dr. Greene in the pilot film, and the scene is shot the same way, not surprising since this episode’s director, Rod Holcomb, directed the pilot. The death of the mother recalls one of the series’s most devastating episodes, “Love’s Labor Lost” from the first season. The crew waiting at the end for the ambulances to arrive recalls the end of the first act of another season-one episode “Blizzard.” There are others, I am sure, some of them probably unrecognizable to anyone other than Wells himself. Combined, they give us a sense of the texture of the show.
Connections with characters are also crucial to this episode. Many of the characters, and not just the stars, are people we have known and lived with for 15 years. ER, while groundbreaking in several ways, followed the pattern established in the 1970s landmark series Police Story. When that series began, Joseph Wambaugh, ex-cop and novelist and the co-creator as the series, told the writers to “Play the emotional jeopardy, not the physical jeopardy.” Ed Waters, a writer and later story consultant on Police Story, said that this was later expressed as “The cop works on the case, the case works on the cop.” In police and medical shows before Police Story, the professionals went about their business untouched emotionally by what they did. That was not true in Police Story or the shows that followed in its wake: Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, NYPD Blue and many others. ER followed in that pattern and we have been through the wringer with the characters. Sam is still an active duty nurse, and she handles the death of Paul’s wife. Paul has been talking about how devoted he has been to his wife. His daughter shows up and tells Sam, out of earshot of her father, that her mother was hell on wheels and she does not completely understand how her father could have been so devoted to her. Sam calls her mother, with whom we have seen she has a similarly unhappy relationship. We do not need to see the mother, since the writing and Amy Madigan’s performance several episodes ago was enough to stick in our mind.
Wells brings on other characters from the past. Carter’s separated wife arrives, and it may or may not be a happy reunion. Wells writes a nice little scene between Benton and Corday, who once had a brief fling. They are a bit awkward and tentative and there is no way this is going to be a happy reunion. Two of Wells’s less interesting returns are Susan Lewis and Kerry Weaver, to whom he does not give a lot to do in this episode. Weaver was a great character: prickly, difficult, but not completely unsympathetic. Laura Innes, who played her, did a masterful job of straddling the line between likeable and unlikeable with the character, and it is too bad she was not given more to do in this episode.
Wells uses two other interesting characters, one we have seen since the beginning of the series and one we are only just introduced to in this episode. The first one is Rachel Greene, Mark Greene’s daughter. We saw her in the pilot and off and on throughout the series. She has been played by two actresses, Yvonee Zima from 1994 to 2000 and by Hallee Hirsh from 2001 to 2009. Here she shows up as a group of possible medical students touring the ER. Holcomb’s direction, presumably from suggestions in the script, just lets us catch a couple of glimpses of her, so we say to ourselves, “Wait a minute. Isn’t that Rachel?” Eventually it is revealed that she is and she talks to the staff, people she has known since she was a child. At the end of the episode, she is talking with the nurses and word comes in that eight patients from an explosion at a power station are on their way in. A young doctor says to Rachel, “You want to be an ER doc? This is the fun part.” Rachel joins them in the loading area to wait for the ambulances. The patients arrive and the crew goes into action. Carter is giving a set of scrubs and joins in. As he passes Rachel, he says, “Dr. Greene. Coming?” and Rachel, even though she is not even a med student yet, joins them going into the ER. A circle is at least partially closed.
Just as Wells and Holcomb are subtle about reintroducing Rachel, they give us another young doctor floating around in the early scenes. We eventually realize it is Alexis Bledel, the former Rory Gilmore of The Gilmore Girls. Rory did not go to medical school and the character we have here is Dr. Julia Wise, whom we have never seen before. She is involved in the treatment of the pregnant woman and watches the situation turn to shit with Bledel’s gorgeously expressive eyes. We can see the case working on her the way we saw the case work on Dr. Greene in “Love’s Labor Lost.” Dr. Wise will eventually grow into being a great…wait a minute, the series is over.
One of the great strengths of ER has been, more than almost any other television series, its openness to the real world. So many television shows exist in hermetically sealed universes. ER did not. Perhaps it was the central location of the series, but the show always made you aware that there was a real world out there, somewhere. Patients would come in and go out. Patients, like Paul’s wife, would return. And die. “Love’s Labor Lost” would make women aware of a potential medical problem in pregnancy. Doctors and nurses would leave and come back. Doctors and nurses and patients would leave and not come back. The world would go on. Dr. Wise will become a good doctor.
Duplicity (2009. Written by Tony Gilroy. 125 minutes): Duplicitous fun, for a while.
As I suspected when I saw the trailer for this one (see US#19), it’s a lot more fun than The International. Clive Owen smiles, laughs, seduces and has great chemistry with Julia Roberts. Julia Roberts smiles, laughs, seduces, and has great chemistry with Clive Owen. And Gilroy has written a script that really takes advantage of the starpower he has. Ray and Claire are spies, working for MI-6 and the C.I.A., respectively. They meet, go to bed, and she steals secrets from him all before the wildly funny opening credit sequence. We know Gilroy is writing in the major key of fun and games with spies and con men. They then end up working for two major cosmetic firms and run a con on them both. We get a lot of the mechanics of the con, which Gilroy keeps very clear, not always an easy task. If you are an adult and paying attention, you can follow it, even though Gilroy does several nice bits of jumping back in time. And Gilroy writes some wonderful supporting characters for such actors as Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson, Denis O’Hare, and Kathleen Chalfont. Yes, the same Kathleen Chalfont who starred in Wit on stage in New York. You write good parts, you get good actors.
Gilroy, as you may remember from Michael Clayton, is nothing is not ambitious. So he writes a relationship piece here as well, dealing with whether Ray and Claire can trust each other. Can spies trust anybody, especially those they love? The tone here is minor key, especially in comparison to the rest of the film. The problem with the script is that with the particular twist ending Gilroy uses, the film closes very much in the minor key of the relationship story. It doesn’t seem quite enough for what has gone on before. He could have used it to set up a sequel, but that does not appear to have been on his mind.
Coraline (2009. Screenplay by Henry Selick, based on the book by Neil Gaiman. 100 minutes): Writing for animation, or, where’s Walt Disney when you need him?
There is a reason that Walt Disney was the only animator of his time to make a successful, continuing shift from short cartoons to feature-length animated films. He knew the importance of story and characters. If you compare any of the Disney cartoons of the thirties to those turned out by other studios, his all have solid story lines. The others are collections of gags. The reason that DreamWorks Animation and Pixar have had continuing success in feature-length animation is because they have Jeffrey (EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE IN THE WORLD IN THE FUTURE IS GOING TO BE IN 3-D) Katzenberg and John Lassiter, respectively, in charge. Both of them have a strong sense of story and push the people they work with in that direction.
Henry Selick is a whiz at stop-motion animation, as seen in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996). Story, alas, is not his strong suit. Coraline takes FOREVER to get going. The girl and her mom and dad move into an old house out in the country, divided up into apartments. It is a long time before Coraline goes through the secret door and finds a “nicer” version of her mom and dad. Then, after she realizes they are not “nicer,” she has to collect several items to manage her safe return. The rules of that game are not clear. I thought she had to collect the eyeballs of the three ghost children, but it appears that each round ball contains both eyes, which does not make a lot of sense. Then when Coraline has escaped from the word behind the door, the film goes on for another ten minutes, including introducing a character we have only vaguely heard about before, and then not showing us what Coraline is going to tell her. Why bother?
As you may gather from my parenthetical jab at Katzenberg, I am not quite as devoted to 3-D as he is. The 3-D in Coraline is well-used and Selick has obviously thought about it a lot, but I am not convinced it is essential to the story. I do have to admire Selick the director for not throwing a lot of stuff in our faces. Stay through the credits, because there is a lovely use of objects floating out over the audience at the end.
Sin Nombre (2009. Written by Cary Fukunaga. 96 minutes): We’ve traveled this road before, and in better company.
Sin Nombre is not exactly the first film to show Latin Americans coming across Mexico to the United States. El Norte (1983), written by Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas, is still the classic in the field, and I think the 2004 film Maria Full of Grace, written by Joshua Marston, is the best of them all. After doing several years worth of research on people who work as “mules” bringing drugs to the U.S., Marston focused his script on one woman, Maria. He provided her with a lot of different motivations to get into that line of work, and then a lot of reactions to what happens to her.
Fukunaga, who also spent time researching people riding the freight trains up Mexico to the border, has not created any character as interesting as Maria. The girl in the film is Sayra and in spite of how the IMDb describes the plot, she really has no particular desire to go north. Her father, who has been living in the U.S., was deported to Honduras. He now wants to take her with him and his brother back to the states. She goes reluctantly, and we get very little of her reactions to what is going on. Then, an hour into the picture, she does something really stupid. She gets off the train and leaves her father. And almost every action she takes after that is more stupid than the last.
She gets off the train because of Casper. He is a member of a gang in Mexico who ends up killing the leader of his own gang for killing his girlfriend. Needless to say, the gang puts out a hit on him, and gang members, as well as gangs related to his gang, track him down. Casper is first established as the cliché of the sensitive tough guy, but we get very little of him beyond that. And the gang members all seem the same. That may be sociologically true, but dramatically it is not very interesting to watch. Casper and Sayra sort of develop a friendship, but you would be hard put to call it a romance, which is why her behavior makes no sense.
In Maria Full of Grace, Marston, who also directed, had the advantage of a great performance from Catalina Sandino Moreno as Maria, but Fukunaga either does not have the acting talent available to him, or simply does not know how to direct them. If he’d written better parts…
Tokyo Sonata (2008. Written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Max Mannix, and Sachiko Tanaka. 119 minutes): Another one goes off the rails.
Sasaki is a Japanese salaryman who loses his job. Because it would undermine his authority in his house if it were known he was jobless, he doesn’t tell his wife and two sons. He tries to get work, but he spends most of his days at a field where a lot of other men in his position spend their days. At 45 minutes into the film, his wife happens to spot him at the field, but she doesn’t confront him. Meanwhile the eldest son, Takashi, decides to join a (fictional) unit of the American army to go fight in Iraq. Kenji, the youngest son, takes piano lessons without telling his parents because he knows his dad would refuse to give him permission. So far we are in a Japanese equivalent of The Bicycle Thief: a low-key, neorealist, look at contemporary Japan.
Eighty minutes into the film the family’s house is robbed and the robber takes the wife hostage. She sort of decides to go along with robber. She sees Sasaki in his job as a janitor at a mall when she stops to buy food for her and the robber, and Sasaki runs away from her. He runs into the street and appears to be hit by a van, which leaves him lying in the gutter. Kenji meanwhile tries to protect a friend from getting beaten by the friend’s father. It is like the writers have suddenly gone off the deep end in the way the characters have. Screenwriting instructors are generally so busy talking about structure they never get around to tone. The tone in Tokyo Sonata shifts so drastically at the robbery that we seem to be in a totally different film. Yes, you maybe could defend it on intellectual terms: it represents the rage going on underneath the placid exteriors of the characters. This is something Japanese horror movies and anime use very effectively, but the actions here really come from others in this sequence, not from the family members. In terms of THIS film, it is merely disruptive. The fact that when they all return home, they behave as though nothing had happened does not help, either.
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008. Book by Mark Harris. 477 pages): Imagine: mentioning screenwriters.
Harris’s book, which is now out in paperback, uses the five films nominated for Best Picture of 1967 as a way to examine the changes that were taking place in Hollywood at the time. It is a great, simple idea, and Harris does it more than justice. He seems to have talked to almost everybody who worked on the five films. He follows the development of each of them from the first idea through to the night of the Academy Awards (and his collection of comments from people who were at the Oscars will give you a great inside look at what it is like to be there as a nominee).
Harris is also one of the younger generation of writers about film who actually mention screenwriters and the writing process. Some of that may come from his being married to playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Munich), but there are a growing number of film historians who deal with the screenwriting aspects of films they write about. Sam Staggs, in his books about All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Imitation of Life, always goes into detail on the development of the story and script. Jennifer Smyth, in her monumental Reconstructing American Historical Cinema: From Cimarron to Citizen Kane, a look at thirties historical films, writes as much about writers as directors.
So in Harris’s book we get not only the development of Bonnie and Clyde, which has been written about before, but the writing of The Graduate, which included not only the two credited writers, but two others you may not have known about. William Rose, who wrote Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, turns out not to be quite as liberal in matters of race as you might think from the film. Most fascinating of all is Harris’s looking at Stirling Silliphant’s papers dealing with his ideas of In the Heat of the Night. None of the pictures (the fifth was Doctor Doolittle, and nothing could help it) would have been as good as they were without the development processes he shows you.
Harris’s book is remarkably error-free for a book of its size and scope, but there is one howler I must call him on. Talking about another 1967 film, The Dirty Dozen, he mentions that the first drafts were written by the “seventy-year-old” Nunnally Johnson, and that director Robert Aldrich thought Johnson’s script “would have made a very good, acceptable 1945 war picture. But I don’t think that a good 1945 war picture is a good 1967 war picture.” Aldrich brought in Lukas Heller to make it a 1967 war picture. Harris obviously saw this as part of the generational change he was writing about: the old making way for the new.
Having read the novel, Nunnally’s script, and seen the final results, I have to tell you that Nunnally’s script would have made more of a 1967 picture than the film was. This in spite of the fact that he was sixty-six, not seventy, when he wrote it (he turned seventy later in 1967, after the release of the film). In E.M. Nathanson’s novel, the author gets into the heads of the assorted criminals that make up the “dozen.” By the end of the novel that have all convinced themselves they have become heroes, although it is clear they have not. Movies cannot get into the heads of the characters the way novels do. What Nunnally did was show that in the attack on the chateau, which is only a minor afterthought in the novel, the “dozen” are just as criminally inclined as they were before. For example, early in the film, Franko (John Cassavettes) attempts to kill Major Reisman. In Johnson’s script he tries again at the chateau. That was dropped in Heller’s script and the film. It is only the army report in Johnson’s script that makes them out to be heroes. In the film they become conventional war movie heroes. Johnson’s script is much more anti-authoritarian than the film. The film suggests the army was right to try to turn them into heroes. Most of the ironies of Johnson’s script have been eliminated in the film.
You would think Mark Harris would know better than to take a director’s word in an issue involving a writer.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (2008. Episode “Pilot,” screenplay by Richard Curtis & Anthony Minghella, based on the novel by Alexander McCall Smith. 110 minutes): A new P.I. joins the team.
We’re not in New York. We’re not in L.A. We’re in Botswana. Look it up.
This is the two hour pilot for the new HBO series, and I was shocked, I tell you, to see the TV rating come up at the beginning and NOT have it warn us of sex, violence, language. This on the network of Tony !&[email protected]#^! Soprano and Samantha #%^* Jones and Al %$^@!!*^ Swearengen. Who’da thunk it?
The lack of foul language and explicit sex and explicit violence is a wonderful relief. Here the detective setting up her own agency is Precious Ramotswe. She’s not an ex-cop, just somebody who is very observant. While even the women cops in the American shows are tough as nails, Mma Ramotswe is just a genuinely nice person who wants to help. So her clients discuss their problems over a very civilized cup of tea. Precious does get a secretary, since this is a pilot for the series. The secretary, who never tires of telling us she got 97% on her typing final, is a bit of a prig and a nice counterpoint to Precious (although I worry for the physical well being of the always wonderful Anika Noni Rose; she has developed a funny, awkward walk for the character that may require physical therapy when the series ends). The pilot also establishes a male garage owner who can help Previous out, and a gay hairdresser who works next door. The latter may be a cliché, but at least the writers avoided the obvious: Precious is a large black woman, but they did not give her a skinny white sassy friend.
The tone is very different from American shows. Not only is Precious’s manner quieter than most American P.I.s, but the stories (the pilot involves three cases) are obviously told, very much in the tradition of both African griots (storytellers) and African cinema. We are looking at them from the outside, as opposed to being sucked into the story. Precious does perform the western function of bringing us into the stories, but the stories of the cases have that exaggeration typical of African storytelling. This may not work over the long run for American audiences, since it may make the stories seem unrealistic. In the pilot, the story of the straying husband became slapstick comedy while the missing child story was done in a more melodramatic way. That all may have been part of the planning for the pilot, to let the audiences know there will be several different kinds of stories and storytelling in the series.
The Librarian: The Curse of the Judas Chalice (2008. Screenplay by Marco Schnabel, based on characters created by David Titcher. 90 minutes): He’s back!
Readers may remember from US#14 that in December I watched the first two Librarian films on DVD. This one had just been broadcast but I had missed it. I thought after the first two I would give this a watch some afternoon I had free, so I did.
The first two films were very much outdoor adventure movies in the King Solomon’s Mines/Indiana Jones tradition, but this spends most of its time indoors. Flynn, our hero, has gone off to New Orleans on vacation after having a meltdown. He gets involved with a bunch of baddies who are looking for the Judas Chalice, since it will bring vampires back to life and they can rule the world, etc. His female partner this time is Simone Renoir, a French singer. She is, at least for a while, a more conventional romantic foil for Flynn, which makes her a little less interesting than the women in the first two. In one way I am glad I did not get to see this one until now, since Simone is played by Stana Katic from Castle, and it is nice to see her doing something different. She does no eye-rolling here, but a little lower-lip biting, which becomes weird when we find out she is…a vampire.
Noah Wyle is more at home in the romantic adventure genre that he was in the first two, but Flynn is still something of a klutz, although the filmmakers cannot seem to settle on how much of a klutz. In the opening sequence he is neatly dressed in a tuxedo, then sneezes when he drinks some not-quite-real champagne. Fine, but then he immediately turns out to be an excellent swordsman in a duel with one of the baddies. In a museum. With a lot of people there for an auction. With guards. Who don’t try to stop the duel. Even when it threatens to destroy what we think is a valuable painting. The film barely recovers from the idiocies of that scene. It is not up to the first two.
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: Nafi’s Father Is a Raw and Immediate Look at a Collison of Faith
The film vibrantly articulates all that’s lost when people are held under the draconian decree of warlords.3
Writer-director Mamadou Dia’s feature-length debut, Nafi’s Father, hinges on the contentious relationship between two brothers, each one devoted to an opposing version of Islam, and how their bid for primacy leads to rising tensions in the small Senegalese town they call home. For Tierno (Alassane Sy), who’s well on his way to becoming an imam, the religion is a justification for peace and self-reflection. And while his practices are largely traditional, he’s lenient about some of the more repressive rules that many other imams would blindly enforce. But for his greedy, duplicitous brother, Ousmane (Saïkou Lo), Islam is merely a stepping stone to achieving control over their town. As Tierno struggles to keep his followers on the path of righteousness, Ousmane repeatedly arrives on the scene with stacks of cash from a fundamentalist sheikh looking to draw supporters to his cause.
Dia delicately balances this depiction of the gradual arrival of more restrictive, fundamentalist forces within the town’s borders with a small-scale family drama that plays out after Ousmane’s son, Tokara (Alassane Ndoye), asks Tierno’s daughter, Nafi (Aïcha Talla), for her hand in marriage. Tierno’s fears for his daughter were she to become Ousmane’s daughter-in-law are legitimate, but his refusal to consent to the union is driven more by his lingering jealousy of his brother, who was favored by their parents, and a desire to keep Nafi from venturing out to the nearby city, where she wants to study neurosciences.
While Tierno sees through his brother’s nefarious methods and justly fears the terrifying sheikh, his own restrictive treatment of Nafi, who genuinely loves and wants to marry Tokara, lends the film’s central sibling rivalry a potent irony; no one here is free from blame in the tragic events that will follow. Just as Ousmane courts the sheikh for his own benefit, so does Tierno impede his daughter’s desires only to serve his own ego. Dia nimbly reveals how this battle of headstrong wills reverberates through both the entire local community and within Tierno’s own family. As the sheikh’s presence is felt more forcefully, we also see how even those with the appearance of authority and respect in such an oppressed society, such as Tierno and Ousmane, are ultimately rendered as helpless as those in their own flock when someone with money and guns arrives on the scene, licking their chops like a wolf at the door.
Shooting in a small town in northeast Senegal, near where he grew up, Dia counters the film’s central tragedy with an emphasis on the region’s sparse beauty and its cultural mores and artifacts, from its marriage rituals to the vibrantly colorful, intricately designed costumes. The richness and cultural specificity that Dia brings to Nafi’s Father lends it an authenticity that helps articulate all that’s lost when such towns are held under the draconian decree of warlords. The film’s pacing is quite deliberate, and while it could perhaps use some tighter editing in the middle stretches, it’s the acute attention paid to how seemingly trivial acts of greed and selfishness can, over time, lay the tracks for an outright takeover by violent fundamentalists that gives a familiar subject such a gripping, raw immediacy.
Nafi’s Father had its world premiere last year at Locarno and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact JoyeDidi.
Review: Days of Cannibalism Bears Witness to a Culture War, Western Style
The film ultimately depicts a world in which people are left with no other option but to devour their own.3.5
A frontier story about the tension between settlers and natives, director Teboho Edkins’s Days of Cannibalism may technically be a documentary, but at heart it’s a western. Filmed in and around a small cattle-herding community in Lesotho, where Chinese immigrants have recently begun to settle and open up various types of stores, the film is packed with mythopoeic vistas of men on horseback roaming through fearsome yet spectacular mountain landscapes—shots that feel like they could’ve been cribbed straight from an Anthony Mann oater. There are scenes of cattle rustling, banditry, and frontier justice, as well as a Leone-esque vision of a town riven by suspicion, resentment, and racial hostility.
Edkins’s artistic project here isn’t simply to make a documentary that feels like a genre film, but rather to use the trappings of the western to explore the power dynamics at play on the extreme margins of global capitalism. Edkins’s former film professor at the dffb Film Academy in Berlin, Valeska Grisebach, has described the western as “a film about a space in which the rules are still in flux, and the balance of power is in negotiation.” And that struggle for authority and dominance is precisely what Days of Cannibalism explores.
Edkins casts the local Basotho people as “indians” and the Chinese migrants as the “pioneers,” but he then spends much of the film problematizing these distinctions. The Basotho are neither the bloodthirsty savages of early westerns nor the forlorn, eternally wronged victims of the genre’s revisionist period. Rather, they’re basically just ordinary people struggling to find a sense of equilibrium in a fast-changing world that seems to be leaving them behind.
The spiritual significance that the Basotho impute to cattle—cows are even referred to as the “wet-nosed god”—may at first seem like superstitious animism. But the belief turns out to also have a ruthlessly economic basis, as we see when some local men, who’ve turned to cattle rustling after being unable to find work, are hit with a lengthy prison sentence for the crime of stealing a couple of cows. Their crime isn’t a spiritual one so much as a social one: As the judge informs them, to steal a cow is to steal a community member’s livelihood.
Days of Cannibalism reveals the Chinese immigrants’ unwillingness to understand the Basotho people’s cow-herding practices as one of the major sources of resentment between the two groups. The immigrants make money by setting up small shops, as well as Walmart-like “wholesale stores.” “The Chinese have no idea how to take care of cattle,” one Lesotho herder angrily laments. Another more rueful local—the host of a radio show that interweaves pop music with thoughtful discussions of issues impacting the community—wonders why the Chinese immigrants can’t teach the locals how to set up shops in exchange for the Lesotho training them in the ways of cattle-herding. Instead, the two groups remain hopelessly alienated from each other, rarely interacting outside of business transactions.
But this isn’t a clear-cut tale of settler colonialism. The Chinese people who come to this underdeveloped corner of the globe don’t do so with any grand scheme of displacement and exploitation, as they’ve also been shunted aside by the savage machinery of globalization. In Lesotho, which is surrounded by South Africa, they simply seek to carve out some kind of life for themselves. With its microcosmic focus on this one particular community, the film exposes the brutal dynamics that undergird a globalist system that pits not only nation against nation, but people against each other. The violence of the system simmers beneath the surface of Days of Cannibalism until it finally boils over in a scene, captured in security camera footage, of an armed robbery at a wholesale store. As its title suggests, the film ultimately depicts a world in which people are left with no other option but to devour their own.
Days of Cannibalism had its world premiere last month at the Berlin International Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Indie Sales.
Director: Teboho Edkins Screenwriter: Teboho Edkins Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
The 100 Best Westerns of All Time
The western has proved itself a durable and influential way of talking about the human condition.
The classic western was conceived from an undeniably Euro-centric, colonial perspective, with white characters upholding their supposed birthright of freedom and property. In the western, the immense country beyond the Mississippi River figures at once as the sublime object that exceeds the human grasp and as a quantifiable possession. And the prototypical cowboy straddles these paradoxical poles: at home on the dusty, timeless landscape, but also facilitating its incorporation into a society marching toward the Pacific. In 1925’s Tumbleweeds, the herder hero played by William S. Hart reluctantly makes way for the newly arrived homesteaders; in 1953’s Shane, Alan Ladd’s eponymous character rides off after making the West safe for the American family; and in Sergio Leone’s 1968 opus Once Upon a Time in the West, Jason Robards’s Cheyenne sacrifices his life not to end the expansion of the American empire, but to facilitate a more just one.
But this standard narrative mold, to paraphrase John Ford’s 1962 classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, only represents the printed legend. The historical American West was more diverse and less male-dominated than the one Hollywood imagined for many years. Life in the Western territories demanded just as many determined women as it did men, and suffragettes had their first major victories in the West: Wyoming was the first state to grant women the vote, and the first to have a woman governor. A third of all cowboys herding cattle on the Great Plains were black—a fact that’s only surprising until you consider which groups were most in need of self-reliant vocation and freedom from the long arm of the law in the wake of the Civil War. Every once in a while, these historical realities break through the filtered screen of the Hollywood western: Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich play no-nonsense saloon owners in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar and Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, respectively, and Sidney Poitier’s often overlooked Buck and the Preacher from 1972 is one of the too-few films that are centered around black frontiersmen.
When Europeans, influenced by decades of dime novels and Hollywood flicks, got around to making westerns, the resulting films would be part of this swing toward revisionism. By this time, European filmmakers were coping with the aftermath of the most devastating conflict in human history, and Italian westerns like Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence and Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly are infused with the lived-in existentialism of postwar Europe. In them, the American West becomes an otherworldly wasteland of pure brutality and diminished—rather than heightened—agency. Europeans’ estrangement of western film tropes would help spur a revisionist take on the standards of the genre that infuses films produced to this day.
However, for all the observations that such “postmodern” westerns are about the end of the West—in Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales and elsewhere, represented by the arrival of new technologies like the Gatling gun—the western has always been about endings. It’s no coincidence that the genre’s proverbial image is that of a figure “riding off into the sunset.” The American frontier was declared closed after the 1890 census, a decade before the first western on our list (Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery) was produced. Right-wing New Hollywood directors like Sam Peckinpah, Don Siegel, and Eastwood have tended to identify this perpetual fading of the West with the decline of a virile and violent, but honorable masculinity.
The bloodbaths that end films like Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch arguably represent what Freud would have called “screen memories,” a compromise between repressed memory and images we’ve invented to defend ourselves against terrible truths. The true bloodbaths in the West were the military campaigns against Native Americans, genocidal conflicts that many big-budget westerns keep on the margins, with natives appearing as stereotypical noble savages or town drunks. Ford’s films, as often as they rely on racist characterizations, were often the prestige westerns to look most directly at these wars: The Searchers and Fort Apache explore, in their own flawed fashion, the morally degrading racism in their main characters’ hearts. Some decades later, Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves became the paradigm of a post-‘70s cultural sea change: When it comes to “cowboys versus Indians,” the cowboys are no longer the automatic locus of our sympathy.
Today, infusing familiar iconography with new meaning, such revisionist representations of the American West have helped to explode the boundaries of the genre, allowing filmmakers as well as critics to explore cinematic tropes about life on the frontier in non-conventional western narratives. In contemporary films like Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Chloé Zhao’s The Rider—and looking back to ones like Victor Sjöström’s The Wind and John Huston’s The Misfits—we can recognize something like a western mode, a broader and more expansive cinematic language that has been suffused by the symbols of the American West. The western has proved itself a durable and influential way of talking about the human condition—one that needs not be confined within the frontiers drawn by the Euro-American colonial imagination. Pat Brown
100. Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford, 1939)
If John Ford was, per Jonathan Lethem, “a poet in black and white,” he became a sharp impressionist in color. The finely calibrated stillness of his shots, occasionally ravished by the greens, reds, and blues of the colonial wardrobe, gives Drums Along the Mohawk a painterly quality, as if Ford had animated a William Ranney portrait. Each frame radiates rugged beauty, but this doesn’t soften the filmmaker’s no-bull directness when depicting the eruptive landscape of the Revolutionary War. Frontier man Gil (Henry Fonda) and his new wife, Lana Martin (Claudette Colbert), are without a home of their own for most of the film, their first cabin being burned to the ground during an attack, and when Gil and the troops return from the bloody Battle of Oriskany, the director details their immense casualties and injuries with unsparing detail. Chris Cabin
99. Tombstone (George P. Cosmatos, 1993)
Tombstone succeeds by re-appropriating the stylistic quirks of many a great western before it, from “the long walk” of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch to the candlelit saloons of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller, spitting them out in a spectacle of pure pop pastiche. It tells much the same story as John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, but it reinterprets that film’s mythical, elegiac sense of wonder through bombastic action and performances. There probably isn’t a western as quotable as this one, which also succeeds through its rogues’ gallery of memorable character actors and firecracker script. A drunken Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), when accused of seeing double, says, “I have two guns, one for each of you.” Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), as he pistol-whips Johnny Tyler (Billy Bob Thornton), belts out, “You gonna do something? Or are you just gonna stand there and bleed?” The lines between good and evil blur as the law switches sides to fit the plot. Cliché layers over cliché, exposing what the genre is all about: the foundations of American myth, told again and again to suit each generation. The ‘90s was the remix era and Tombstone fits it perfectly. Ben Flanagan
98. True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969)
The Duke casts a large shadow in any instance, but especially here. Rooster Cogburn is one of John Wayne’s most identifiable roles, not just because he won an Oscar for it, or because his True Grit is popular, or because he played the character twice (the second time in 1975’s Rooster Cogburn), but mostly because Rooster’s personality is so intertwined with Wayne’s iconic persona. Wayne’s detractors often note that Wayne lacked range, and that, given his consistent trademark drawl, about the only way to distinguish one Wayne character from another is by observing his costume. But while that’s roughly accurate, it doesn’t mean that every character Wayne ever played had a similar effect. His Rooster is one of those special roles that seemed indelibly Wayne’s—because he wore that eye patch so well, because his inherent presence and stature made him a natural to play the “meanest” marshal around, because his inner softness allowed the bond between Rooster and Mattie (Kim Darby) to feel convincing and because Wayne was born to be the cowboy who puts the reins in his teeth and rides toward four armed men with a gun in each hand. Jason Bellamy
97. Death Rides a Horse (Giulio Petroni, 1967)
In 1967’s boldly cinematic Death Rides a Horse, Giulio Petroni fixates on the inextricable link between a man’s memory and his thirst for vengeance. In the 15 years since watching his entire family get murdered by bloodthirsty bandits, Bill (John Phillip Law) has carried with him a single physical relic of this trauma: a lone spur. His memories, meanwhile, are filled with haunting and vivid reminders of that moment when his life changed forever, but also with specific visual cues related to each of the bandits: a silver earring, a chest tattoo of playing cards, a skull necklace. Bill’s overwhelmingly obsessive quest for revenge takes on an extra layer of perverseness once he’s paired up with the mysterious Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), an older man who playfully competes with Bill to hunt down and kill these same men first. Through an array of carefully crafted visual and aural motifs, and clever, judiciously employed narrative twists, Petroni weaves together these two crusades, building to an explosive finale that delivers equally cathartic doses of redemption and rage. Derek Smith
96. The Violent Men (Rudolph Maté, 1955)
Polish-born filmmaker Rudolph Maté worked for a little over a decade as a cinematographer in Hollywood before starting to crank out potboilers as a director in the late ‘40s, many of them marked by a distinct pictorial flair. He was a mainstay by the mid-‘50s, and The Violent Men counts among his most ravishingly shot films, and indeed one of the unheralded Technicolor westerns of the golden era. The central California frontier, where the majestic flatland meets the imposing Sierras, has rarely been more reverently photographed, and a single montage of Glenn Ford’s John Parrish galloping from one range to another as Max Steiner’s strings howl on the soundtrack is stirring enough to validate the invention of CinemaScope. Fittingly, the land itself provides the conflict here, with Ford’s Union veteran-cum-landowner trotting out his old fighting spirit when the vicious owners of a neighboring estate—Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson in wonderfully belligerent performances—try to exploit his ranch for pennies. A cathartic war against greed ensues, and the result is finely wrought big-screen entertainment. Carson Lund
95. Westward the Women (William A. Wellman, 1951)
Based on a story by Frank Capra, William Wellman’s Westward the Women shares the collective triumphalism of Capra’s greatest films but salts it with the grueling hardship and random cruelty that are hallmarks of Wellman’s storytelling. The premise is ludicrous on paper: A large farm in a California valley is suffering a shortage of the fairer sex, so it sends a wagon train headed by Robert Taylor to Chicago to haul back 150 brides for the workers—no short order in the middle of the 19th century. Several treacherous landscapes, bleakly depicted deaths, and a mid-film memorial service later, the plan is fulfilled in grandly hokey fashion, though not without a striking reordering of business-as-usual sexual politics. As the women prove as resilient, if not more so, than the men, ideals of male heroism fall by the cliffside (literally) and members of the ensemble who would normally be relegated to extras emerge as fully shaded and complex heroines. As a result, the film amounts to a portrait of hard-won joy that’s nearly spiritual in its belief in the power of cooperation. Lund
94. The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925)
What’s surprising when one takes a fresh look at The Gold Rush is how serious it is about depicting the hard life of prospectors. The comic soul of the film is, in fact, quite black, even if Charlie Chaplin exploits every opportunity (beautifully) to transform the environment into a vaudeville stage. Lonely as the wastes are, the town in the film is sinister and lurid, full of sex and violence, despite the fact that Chaplin always seems to find a way to invest in it the personality and tone of his early one-reelers. He makes the town funny but retains its barbarism. Chaplin pursues deliverance not in the miracle of hitting pay dirt, but in the promise of a woman, and it’s this promise that Chaplin would keep after, well into his sync-sound period. Around the film’s midpoint comes a sequence that cuts between the townsfolk singing “Auld Lange Syne,” and the Tramp, alone in his cabin, listening, longingly. It’s as perfect a moment as any other in the great silent period. Some accuse the director of succumbing to sentimentality, but he’s never less sublime than when he reaches for ridiculous, grandiose highs in romance, coincidence, and naked emotion. Jaime N. Christley
93. Destry Rides Again (George Marshall, 1939)
Destry Rides Again’s Bottleneck is essentially the same town as the one in “Drip-Along Daffy.” The opening crane shots of Bottleneck show the standard storefronts that western audiences are accustomed to seeing: feed and general stores, the jail, the Saloon. As the camera moves along the street, we see just about every possible vice happening all at once with bullets whizzing about the crowded streets—and all the while, Frank Skinner’s intense score adds to the feeling of utter lawlessness. Every stereotype of the wild western town is represented in George Marshall’s film: crooked gambling above the saloon, land-hungry town bosses, a hot dancing girl named Frenchy who can douse the fires of her rowdy fans with a shot of whisky, and killin’. Lots of killin’. Back when the western was really coming into its own in 1939, the genre had already been around long enough to warrant this satire. Bottleneck is a parody of the western town. Jeffrey Hill
92. The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1927)
So many late silent films are infused with a delirious energy, a sheer delight in the transportive powers of the cinema, and Sweden’s original film genius, Victor Sjöström, was renowned as a master of subjective, otherworldly moving images. With the hallucinatory The Wind, he delivered his most captivating visual play of subjective and objective realities, casting 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