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Understanding Screenwriting #24: Monsters vs. Aliens, Grey Gardens, Parks and Recreation, Southland, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #24: Monsters vs. Aliens, Grey Gardens, Parks and Recreation, Southland, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Monsters vs. Aliens, Grey Gardens, Parks and Recreation, Southland, 30 Rock, Saving Grace, Desperate Housewives, but first…

Fan Mail: In response to Matt Maul’s question about The Dirty Dozen, Franko does try to kill Reisman in the book, which Nunnally took over into the script. It would have made the ending a whole lot less conventional, but that’s true of Nunnally’s script as a whole.

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009. Screenplay by Maya Forbes & Wallace Woldarsky and Rob Letterman and Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger, story by Rob Letterman & Conrad Vernon. 94 minutes): List-making, not screenwriting.

In the opening scene, a computer geek at an Antarctica tracking station knocks a paddle-ball out into the faces of the audience. Since this is one of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s hopes to dominate the world with 3-D movies, I thought it was kind of cutely nostalgic that the opening scene imitated one of the most famous in-your-face moments from House of Wax, one of the best of the 1950s 3-D movies. But then the other references began to pile up: The Day the Earth Stood Still, George Lucas (the movie starts in his home town of Modesto), Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, War of the Worlds, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Mulan, Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Blob, The Three Stooges, Star Wars Episodes II and III, and on and on and on. It was as if the writers felt it was enough just to make the connections, a technique that has thoroughly been discredited by such disastrous move parodies like Date Movie, Meet the Spartans, and Disaster Movie. Just referencing other films without doing anything more simply gets exhausting. Although I should mention that my wife, who has not seen as many science fiction movies as I have—she is a scientist and always objects to the science parts—enjoyed the film more than I did, as did the audience we saw it with.

The film is also very clearly one of those films and television shows (see below) that were conceived and created in the last years of the Bush administration and now seem slightly dated because of it. One of the characters is a general named W.R. Monger and in the beginning he sounds like Bush and acts like Cheney. When we get to the war room scenes, which are modeled on Ken Adam’s design for Dr. Strangelove, he morphs into General Ripper, but the damage has been done.

There is one character the writers have come up with that shows what the film should have been. He is a version of The Blob, here called B.O.B. In the original The Blob it was just that: a pile of Jello that ate people. Here is given a doofus personality, with a voice by Seth Rogen to match. Rogen may end up with Eddie Murphy’s career: much more successful doing voices for cartoons than live action films. B.O.B, in what may be a reference to Dory, the amnesiac fish in Finding Nemo, has no brain and simply picks up on what anybody else says or does. The character, both as written and animated, has a freshness the others don’t. The voice cast is first rate, but the writing for the rest of them blends together so that none of them other than Rogen shine.

Ah, yes, the 3-D elements. The system is used very effectively to give us a sense of the space the characters inhabit, which given that Susan/Ginormica changes sizes several times in the film helps. On the other hand, when Entertainment Weekly recently ran an article hyping the return of 3-D, their letters column a couple of weeks later had two replies, both of them complaining about the return of 3-D. I particularly agree with Mike W. Barr of Akron, Ohio, who asked, “how about some solid scripts and good stories?”

Katenzberg’s millenium is not quite here yet. And you still have to wear those damned glasses.

~

Grey Gardens (2009. Screenplay by Michael Sucsy & Patricia Rozema, story by Michael Sucsy, inspired by the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens. 104 minutes): Back up the truck.

As we have talked about both in this column and in various comments on it, documentaries, particularly in the last forty years, have given us a lot of great characters. As cameras and sound recording devices became lighter weight, it began to be easier to show the audience what people are like. In America, this resulted in films mostly in the direct cinema style, in which the camera follows people as they run for president (Primary), attempt to integrate a university (Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment), treat the criminally insane (Titicut Follies), or sell expensive Bibles to people who cannot afford them (Salesman). In Europe and occasionally in the United States, the lighter-weight equipment was used to interview people, as in the French film Chronicle of a Summer or the American Word is Out. Using the lighter-weight equipment to interview is the style known as cinema verité, although that term has come to be used interchangeably with direct cinema and even documentary itself.

David and Albert Maysles were two of the pioneers of the direct cinema style, but in the late sixties, they began to sneak beyond it into a hybrid style called self-reflexive documentary, which was a mixture of direct cinema and cinema verité. In direct cinema you are usually not supposed to be aware that the filmmaker is there, but in self-reflexive films, you are aware that you are watching a film being made. Why pretend the camera is not there? So in the Maysles’s 1970 film, Gimme Shelter, we watch Mick Jagger’s reactions as he watches the footage the Maysles caught at Altamont of the Hell’s Angels killing a member of the audience.

When the Maysles came around to making Grey Gardens, about two bizarre relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who were living in a decaying mansion in the Hamptons, it was impossible for the film to avoid being self-reflexive. The two women, Big Edie and her daughter Little Edie, kept talking to the brothers. What the film gave us was a stunning and often hysterically funny portrait of two of the most memorable characters in the history of documentary film. Once you saw the original Grey Gardens, you never forgot the Beales. So Albert Maysles (David died in 1987) put together the outtakes into the 2006 documentary The Beales of Grey Gardens, and there was a 2006 Broadway musical Grey Gardens. You would think all of that would have exhausted the subject. Not so.

The original documentary, done in the combination of direct and verité, could only deal directly with the present, one of the limitations of the styles. We get the Edies’ versions of what happened in the past, but they are the epitome of unreliable narrators. The musical dealt with the past by setting the first act in 1941 and the second in 1973, but a film can, more easily than a stage play, jump back and forth between time periods. What Sucsy and Rozema do is set the “present” in the time when the Maysles are filming their documentary. So we get something similar to the self-reflexivity of the documentary, as well as a comment on the documentary making process, AS WELL AS the opportunity to see the Edies go through their routines once again. The documentary making process then becomes a structural element of the film. The second structural element is the backstory in which we find out how they came to be living the way they were. This involves going back to the thirties and coming up to the present. The documentary is not noted for its structure, although there are subtle structural elements in it. We tend to be more demanding of feature films, even if they do premier on HBO.

Sucsy and Rozema bring the two structural lines together in the scene of the Edies watching the completed documentary. This is followed by a brilliant scene in which Big Edie tells Little Edie it would not be good for her to go to the film’s premier, since Little Edie is “an acquired taste.” Little Edie runs out, comes back, and Big Edie admits it was her fault she did not let Little Edie stay in New York City, but insisted she come back to the house. Little Edie replies she could have gone away any time. The women have come to understand how they came to where they are. Little Edie goes to the premier and is delighted to be the center of attention.

That confrontation between them is not the only great scene in the film. When news gets out that two of Jackie O’s relatives are living in squalor, Jackie comes to visit (we have seen her as a seven-year-old earlier, not knowing who she is until someone calls her “Jacqueline”). Now how would you write this scene? You could make Jackie imperious, or disgusted. You could make the Edies ashamed. Or you could do it the way Sucsy and Rozema do it. Jackie is serious (this may be one of the few film portraits of Jackie that takes her seriously) and wants to help. Big Edie is trying to be the gracious hostess. Little Edie is more and more agitated as the scene progresses, then lashes out at Jackie. Little Edie insists she was dating Jack’s older brother Joe, who was supposed to be the one to run for president but was killed in the war, and Little Edie thinks Jackie ended up getting the life of First Lady that she should have had. After she is gone, Big Edie reminds Little Edie that she only met Joe once, at a party, and they never dated.

Another reason for doing a feature film on the subject, beyond giving us their backstory, is to let two actresses have at these two characters. Now let me explain what I meant by “back up the truck.” When you watch a movie, you know fairly early on if it is going to work (I knew a guy who insisted he could tell from the first shot, but I’m not that good). Then there are movies that you know immediately are doing everything right. This films opens with a bit of the scene of the Edies watching the documentary, and we see their reactions. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. This is it. This is the real deal. I felt the same way I did after the first ten minutes of John Adams: forget holding the Emmy nominations and ceremonies, just back up the truck and start shoveling them out to everybody connected with this. I am not an Emmy voter, so I do not know how I could choose between Jessica Lange’s Big Edie and Drew Barrymore’s Little Edie. Lange we are used to giving great performances, from King Kong on (yes, I know the critics slaughtered her for that, but look at it again: it is a brilliant comedy performance), but Barrymore is a revelation. She has done nothing to suggest she has this kind of range. Jeanne Tripplehorn is not obvious casting for Jackie O, but she nails the nuances the writers have given her. And for best supporting actor, look at Ken Howard husband and father, Phelan Beale: Phelan knows what he has to deal with and he knows when he has to get out. I have already told what makes the script great. And Sucsy’s direction follows my general rule for how directors should work: get a great script, get great actors, and then get the fuck out of their way. And, unlike Tom Hooper on John Adams, he does not screw it up by shooting everything at off-kilter angles. As Olivier once said to/or about Orson Welles, “If you’ve got a good script, you don’t have to shoot up the actor’s pantsleg.”

~

Parks and Recreation (2009. Episode “Make My Pit a Park” written by Greg Daniels & Michael Schur. 30 minutes): The bastard child of 30 Rock and The Office.

Here’s one problem with this new show: like Monsters vs. Aliens, it is very much of the George W. Bush era. In the 30 Rock episode “Cutbacks,” which aired the same night as “Make My Pit a Park,” Liz has to deal with the cutbacks that the company has asked for. We get a number of scenes of Jack firing, or about to fire, assorted people, and a discussion of where to cut Liz’s show, as well as her seducing the company hatchet man. In “Park,” on the other hand, the Parks Department seems to be going along just fine, with no budget problems. The satire is Bush-era “bureaucracies screw up all the time,” a descendant of Reagan’s “Gummit [I could never completely trust a man who mispronounced the name of the organization he worked for] is the problem, not the solution.” Bush seemed to make a concerted effort to make his government not work. Granted, though there has been a lot of satire of bureaucracies since long before Bush and will continue to be, the tone in Parks and Recreation still seems a little off. They may recover.

I love 30 Rock, as you have gathered, but I have never gotten into either the British or American versions of The Office. One reason for my not caring for both The Office(s) and this first episode of Parks and Recreation is the use of the faux-documentary style. Christopher Guest makes it work in short 90-minute doses in films, but it can get unwieldy over the length of a series. But wait a minute, this is just the 30-minute pilot for the new show. Yes, but the basic problem is the concept is inconsistently used. Are the characters being filmed in a direct cinema style or in a cinema verité style? It seems to be a combination of both, which certainly can work in documentary films such as Grey Gardens. If you are going to shoot the show in that way, then the writing has to be very particular to that style, and in Parks and Recreation it’s not. As JJ said in comments on my item on Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 in US#21, “documentaries are unbeatable resources for writers in regards to authentic dialogue and unforgettable characters.” Listen to what Frederick Wiseman HEARS people say in his documentaries. Daniels and Schur have not come anywhere close to that in this script.

The other part of what JJ said dealt with characters, and at least in this pilot episode, the characters are not nearly as interesting as those in Grey Gardens, the Wiseman documentaries, or the Guest mockumentaries. Here is also where 30 Rock has it all over Parks and Recreation. There is no one the equivalent of Jack or Jenna here. Amy Poehler may have a wider acting range than Tina Fey, but the character of Leslie Knope does not so far fit her talents the way Liz fits Tina.

Hmm. Could that be because Tina Fey also writes the character of Liz?

~

Southland (2009. Episode “Pilot” written by Ann Biderman. 60 minutes): FROM THE PRODUCER OF ER JOHN WELLS.

That’s the way the hype for this new show went, and you can understand why. With the series finale of ER, Wells was in the news. And NBC ran this in the old ER timeslot. And the IMDb seems to have gone along with the hype, since Biderman’s name does not yet show up on the page for the show, nor does her credit appear on her page (ed. note: Biderman’s name has subsequently been added). She already won an Emmy for writing the “Steroid Roy” episode of NYPD Blue back in 1994, and she is the co-writer of the new (lower voice here to show respect) MICHAEL MANN FILM Public Enemies. According to the on-screen credits, she is not only the writer of the pilot, but also the creator of the show. What does a girl writer have to do in this town to get noticed?

Unfortunately, what I am noticing is that her script is not very interesting. It is one more cop show that looks and sounds like all the others. One of the main cases, the cops deal with is a missing child, could have come straight out of Law & Order: SVU. The other is a gang drive-by shooting that could have come out of any number of shows.

Well, what about the characters? The pilot primarily follows new officer Ben Sherman on his first day of patrol. Standard way to start a series, even if it does bring to mind Training Day. But Ben is a blank (and it does not help that Benjamin McKenzie is no Ethan Hawke). We get no sense of his inner life, if he has one. We have no idea how he is reacting to what he sees and what he does. His partner is John Cooper, and his rants are not nearly as wonderful as those of Denzel Washington’s Alonzo. We also get very little sense of the other cops, with the slight exception of the black woman detective Lydia Adams, but she does not seem that swift when it takes her longer than the audience to figure out the significance of the ants at her crime scene. Yes, it is nice to have a black woman detective, but it’s been 35 years since Get Christie Love and even longer since S. Epatha Merkerson came to Law & Order. And while there is one cop that may be Latino, there are no Asians in Biderman’s LAPD. The racial and sexual makeup of the LAPD has changed a lot, but this series makes it look like the LAPD of Police Story in the 1970s. The cinematography, by the way, also recalls the bleached out look of Police Story, so at least they have the light right.

Even the one potentially interesting plot twist is 28-years-old. In one of the final shots we see macho training officer Cooper at a bar. He notices a guy he had previously seen arrested for gay prostitution. We notice it’s a gay bar. O.K., but the discovery at the end of the pilot for Hill Street Blues that Public Defender Joyce Davenport and Captain Frank Furillo, whom we have seen arguing all episode, are in the bathtub together got there first. O.K., that one was heterosexual, but still…

~

Parks and Recreation (2009. Episode “Canvassing” written by Rachel Axler. 30 minutes): Episode two.

Episode two is a slight improvement. I don’t know what the time gap was between when the pilot was filmed and when the second episode was written, but the writing has begun to take into consideration that we are now in the Obama era. Ron, Leslie’s boss, has a to-the-camera speech in which he talks about how with all the stimulus money coming in, the department will actually have to DO something, which obviously offends his bureaucratic heart.

Axler has also begun to add layers to the character of Leslie. In the pilot she was sort of a general doofus, but she gets an edge in here, since we see her manipulative side. While canvassing the public, she tells one of her co-workers that she learned from Karl Rove how to phrase the questions so you get the answers you want. We see her sneaky in some other ways. Amy Poehler can do all that and more, so this is a good trend. And she was joined in this episode by the great Pamela Reed as her mother Marlene, who appears to be successful in every way Leslie is not. If the writers are looking for ways to separate this show from The Office, they may have found it with Marlene.

I am still dubious about the faux documentary style, but with better character definition with Leslie, I did not find it as objectionable.

~

Southland (2009. Episode “Mozambique” written by Ann Biderman. 60 minutes): Second episode. And Biderman’s name is still not up on the Southland page on IMDb (ed. note: see above Southland entry).

This one has not improved. Ben is a little livelier than he was in the pilot, but we still do not get much of a sense of an inner life. The plot lines are still very conventional and the other characters are not showing much definition. And we get the old plot gimmick of one of the cops sleeping with a TV reporter, which Boomtown did better. There was one flicker of life in that storyline. The cop and the reporter are making out and his daughter sees them. And the daughter is not that upset, since she thinks mom’s a bitch. Boy, could you run with that, but Biderman doesn’t.

We also get no more about Cooper’s homosexuality, and we still don’t have the racial and gender mix of the real LAPD.

~

30 Rock (2009. Episode “Jackie Jormp-Jomp” written by Kay Cannon & Tracey Wigfield. 30 minutes): That’s how you do it.

Liz has been suspended for sexual harassment for seducing the corporate guy and is going nuts trying to figure out what to do with her days. She falls in with a group of rich women in her building who get massages and go shopping. The writers wrote in a nice semi-montage in which Liz is talking how she cannot spend the day with them as, behind her, the day passes by. Sharp writing, sharp acting, and a nice use of computer technology. And a great payoff: just as Liz thinks she can adjust to this lifestyle, she discovers the women are so lacking in any emotional connection to the real world that they are in fact a fight club. That’s taking an audience around a corner they did not even know was there.

~

Saving Grace (2009. Episode “But There’s Clay” written by Danitria Harris-Lawrence & Talicia Raggs. Episode “So What’s the Purpose of a Platypus” written by Mark Israel. Episode “I Believe in Angels” written by Nancy Miller and Roger Wolfson. 60 minutes each.): Hello Maggie. Goodbye Maggie. Goodbye Leon.

“But There’s Clay” introduces us to another new foil for Grace, now that Abby has gone back to IA. And Grace is just as restrained as she was with Abby, which suggests a change on the part of the showrunners about Grace’s character. The new character is Maggie, and the widower of Grace’s sister is attracted to her. We can see why: she is earthy and lively and fits right in. Grace is suspicious and in “What’s the Purpose of a Platypus” she discovers that Maggie is part of a two-person team of con artists who are out to scam Chuck, the widower of the money he got from his wife’s death. Too bad, because as played by Kathy Baker, Maggie could have been an interesting addition to the show. That’s always a problem with introducing new characters into an ongoing show: how does it affect the mix? It may have been that Maggie was too similar to Grace.

As I mentioned in my comments on reader’s comments in US#23, I have put off dealing with the increasing time spent with Leon, the man on death row, since I wanted to see how it played out. It did seem to take away from those two episodes mentioned above, but in “I Believe in Angels” the episode focuses on Leon’s execution. I think what they were doing was wrapping up Leon’s story, since they had gone about as far with him as they could. What the episode does do is end up with a suggestion of another plot line involving Earl and the black girl Grace goes to see at the end. Grace asks her if she knows an angel named Earl, and the girl’s lack of a “What the hell you talking about, crazy white lady?” suggests she does. I, for one, got tired of the Leon story and am interested to see where they take the new one when the series resumes.

~

Desperate Housewives (2009. Episode “Look Into Their Eyes and You See What They Know” written by Matt Berry. 62 minutes): Drat! Edie really is dead.

I did not write about the “A Spark to Pierce the Dark.” (This show, having run out of the titles of Sondheim songs for their episodes, is now using lines from within the songs; as one of the 73 straight men in the U.S. according to the last census who likes Sondheim, I find the habit only mildly amusing.) I noticed that at end of “A Spark,” after Edie had wrecked her car and been jolted with electricity, her hand was still moving. Yes, I know about all the on-and-off line discussions, arguments, etc. about Nicollette Sheridan leaving the show. But perverse character than I am, I hoped it was just showrunner Marc Cherry and Sheridan setting us up so they could pull a fast one on us. No such luck.

This episode does give Edie a very nice farewell. The surviving wives and Mrs. McCluskey are taking Edie’s ashes to, well, we don’t know where at first. In each of the acts, one of the wives tells of some dealing with Edie that gives us a rounder picture of her. Each one is appropriate for the character it is given to. I particularly liked the scene of Edie taking Lynette, suffering from chemo treatments, to a biker bar to “teach her how to flow her own pillows,” i.e., be the strong person that Edie knew Lynette is.

Given all the Sondheim references, I was a bit surprised by the end. As Edie’s ashes float around Wisteria Lane (her son did not want them), Edie gives us a voiceover that sounds cribbed from Emily’s speeches about appreciating life at the end of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Hey, if you are going to steal, steal from the best, whether it’s Sondheim or Wilder.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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

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

3.5

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Days of Cannibalism
Photo: Berlinale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 100 Best Westerns of All Time

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

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The 100 Best Westerns of All Time
Photo: United Artists

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

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

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

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

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

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


Drums Along the Mohawk

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

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


Tombstone

99. Tombstone (George P. Cosmatos, 1993)

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


True Grit

98. True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969)

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


Death Rides a Horse

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

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


The Violent Men

96. The Violent Men (Rudolph Maté, 1955)

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


Westward the Women

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

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


The Gold Rush

94. The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925)

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


Destry Rides Again

93. Destry Rides Again (George Marshall, 1939)

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


The Wind

92. The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1927)

So many late silent films are infused with a delirious energy, a sheer delight in the transportive powers of the cinema, and Sweden’s original film genius, Victor Sjöström, was renowned as a master of subjective, otherworldly moving images. With the hallucinatory The Wind, he delivered his most captivating visual play of subjective and objective realities, casting 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


Run of the Arrow

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

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

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Review: Vivarium Looks Aloofly at the Nightmare of Conformity

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

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Vivarium
Photo: Saban Films

Lorcan Finnegan’s high-concept sci-fi mystery Vivarium is a parable about adulthood with deeply cynical takes on home, community, and childrearing. Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are a young couple who one afternoon tour a housing development called Yonder with its sales agent, Martin (Jonathan Aris), who dresses like a Mormon missionary. The colorless subdivision is startlingly homogenous, with identical homes in creepily neat rows (shades of Edward Scissorhands), stretching from horizon to horizon. Martin shows them house “number 9,” then disappears, and when they also try to leave the neighborhood, every road circles back to the house until their car runs out of gas. Yonder is, well, not quite even a maze, because there’s no way out. It’s a trap.

The couple is thus ushered into a nightmare of conformity, emphasized by the film’s production design. The streetscapes, often seen from overhead, are vividly and uneasily artificial, suggesting a model town; even the clouds appear painted onto the sky above. The sound design is deathly quiet except for the echoes of Gemma and Tom’s footsteps, evoking a soundstage. Yonder is a windless place, the ultimate in featureless suburbs that young city dwellers fear, where the air is odorless and the strawberries flavorless. There are no neighbors and no friends, just forced isolation—an extreme form of social distancing.

The couple is coerced into this life in service of the next generation. After trying to burn down house number nine (which just reappears in the morning), they receive a box containing a baby and a message, instructing them to raise the boy in order to be released. It’s as if bringing up children were just a form of forced labor resulting from a mistake—in this case, having toured Yonder. The boy (Senan Jennings) grows at a rate faster than dog years, reaching about seven years old in just 98 days. He screeches when he’s hungry and is otherwise eerily precocious, like a tiny adult; suspiciously observant, he recites his adoptive parents’ spats and quarrels back to them verbatim. He’s terrifying, like some sort of alien spy, and Tom and Gemma despise him, becoming physically and psychologically abusive.

Finnegan and screenwriter Garret Shanley strip away the comforts and niceties we associate with concepts of home and family, as the neighborhood here is a prison, the house a cell, and children are creepy invaders who torment their parents. It’s a fully nightmarish vision of adulting; Tom starts digging a hole in the yard, which consumes his daytime hours, keeping him from his family, as though it were his job—a jab at the meaninglessness of middle-class employment. Stuffing a lifetime into the span of less than a year, the film posits the nuclear family as something you have to submit to or go crazy should you fight against it.

As intriguing as this allegory can be to parse, it weighs down the storytelling. Vivarium, at heart, is populated with stock characters trapped less in a purgatorial suburbia than in a metaphor. Eisenberg invests Tom with his trademark arrogance, which here just makes the character flatly unlikeable. Tom comes off as a schlub, a rotten guardian and an irredeemable partner, yet the film suggests his wife loves him. Poots sells that with a rawer and more nuanced performance, making Gemma hateful yet decent, bitter but loving, trying yet fed-up. Her character is awful, like Tom, but she’s also sympathetic.

Gemma complains that all she and Tom wanted was a home, and she’s told she is home—as though this hellscape is all that a home could be. It’s an indictment of bourgeois living that stings less than it’s meant to. Vivarium is sad, but it’s too removed to be devastating, lost inside itself and its puzzles of meaning. It’s not a drama so much as an intellectual exercise.

Cast: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Senan Jennings, Eanna Hardwicke, Jonathan Aris Director: Lorcan Finnegan Screenwriter: Garret Shanley Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Resistance Is an Old-Fashioned Tribute to Marcel Marceau

The film is an old-fashioned and straightforward tale of brave opposition to the Nazi occupation of France.

2.5

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Resistance
Photo: IFC Films

Writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Resistance is an old-fashioned and straightforward tale of brave opposition to the Nazi occupation of France whose most potentially intriguing angle becomes its least satisfying dimension. While featuring many familiar elements, including a sarcastically reluctant hero, a mentally unbalanced sadistic villain, and nail-biter last-minute escapes, it’s centered on a character who one doesn’t often see in World War II movies: a Nazi-fighting mime.

The mime in question is Marcel Mangel (Jesse Eisenberg)—he later changed his surname to Marceau—the son of a Jewish butcher living in Strasbourg, France. Tired of wearing a smock and cutting up meat in his father’s shop, he prefers putting on a Chaplin mustache and applying greasepaint to his face in order to clown around in cabarets. His more traditionally minded father, Charles (Karl Markovics), disapproves of Marcel’s creative life, while the audiences who Marcel performs for are clearly more interested in the dancing girls.

This light family drama might seem inappropriate following the gutting opening scene, in which Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey), a young Jewish girl in Munich, sees her parents gunned down during the Kristallnacht pogrom. But the comfortingly low-stakes nature of these early scenes skillfully illustrates the gently melancholic nature of Marcel’s clowning. At the same time, they also establish just how little the future superstar and his community appreciate the extent of the genocidal danger brewing just a few miles away in Germany.

Marcel’s call to arms comes with the arrival of a truckload of Jewish orphans, including Elsbeth. Ransomed from the Nazis, the orphans are put up in a nearby castle and watched over by a troop of somewhat adult-looking Jewish Boy and Girl Scouts. Guilted by his activist brother, Sigmund (Édgar Ramirez), into helping out, and eager to impress the willowy Emma (Clemence Poesy), Marcel uses his clowning to keep the kids entertained.

At this point, with its light comedy and rapturously beautiful Rhone Valley scenery, Resistance runs the clear risk of traipsing into Life Is Beautiful territory. But with the exception of one awkward scene, in which Marcel and Emma dress up as brownshirts and mug buffoonishly while trying to scare the kids into learning how to hide, Jakubowicz mostly steers clear of any unctuous sentimentalizing of responses to genocidal evil.

This determination to keep the story’s focus on the fight against the Nazis becomes clearer once war breaks out, France is occupied, and all Jews in the country have targets on their backs. Now responsible for even more orphans, Marcel and his compatriots relocate to Lyon and join the resistance. Heightening the stakes in Lyon is the presence of Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer), a blithe sadist who likes to play the piano while executing people in the drained pool of his luxury headquarters at the Hotel Terminus. While Schweighofer’s portrayal of Barbie as a bright-eyed torture-happy sociopath who always looks on the verge of giggling veers close to movie-villain shtick, the character’s dark presence keeps the immediacy of Marcel’s mission front and center.

Jakubowicz’s strengths as a director become more clear in some of the set pieces staged after the action shifts to Lyon and Marcel’s group has to balance keeping themselves and the orphans alive in France or escaping to Switzerland. Showing a strong feel for crisply capturing the tense and buttoned-down panic of undercover operatives in occupied territory, Jakubowicz also leverages Eisenberg’s skill for simultaneously signaling vulnerability and resolve.

Where Resistance is likely least effective for many audiences is its attempt to portray Marcel as a masterful performer. It’s hard not to think of Richard Attenborough’s pushy and unfunny Chaplin in some of Eisenberg’s energetic but flat scenes performing as a clown or a mime. A couple of these are fairly stiff, particularly one where Marcel clowns to keep the orphans quiet while German soldiers prowl nearby, and another of him miming for a rapt crowd of American soldiers after being introduced by General George Patton (Ed Harris). (While this latter scene is somewhat inexplicable, it appears to have actually happened, following Marcel’s work for Patton as a liaison officer—a phenomenal pairing of sunny-gruff personalities that seems worthy of its own film.) In most other aspects, however, Resistance functions as a handsomely mounted biopic that tells a little-known story with considerable passion.

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Clemence Poesy, Édgar Ramirez, Bella Ramsey, Géza Röhrig, Matthias Schweighofer, Karl Markovics, Ed Harris Director: Jonathan Jakubowicz Screenwriter: Jonathan Jakubowicz Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Atlantis’s Future Vision Grapples with a Past That Never Was

The film’s use of scale to drive home the absurdity of its characters’ actions recalls Werner Herzog’s tragicomic existentialism.

3

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Atlantis
Photo: Best Friend Forever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Red Moon Tide Is a Haunting Elegy to Nature’s Supremacy

The film is predicated on such ineffable dread that the impact of climate change becomes a sort of Lovecraftian force.

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Red Moon Tide
Photo: Berlinale

Lois Patiño’s Red Moon Tide is a work of unmistakable horror, one predicated on such ineffable dread that the impact of climate change becomes a sort of Lovecraftian force. Shots of flooded plains next to stagnant and drying reservoirs capture the contrasting, even contradictory ways that the world is being destroyed by the rippling effects of our hubris. The opening title sequence is a roving close-up of an ancient maritime map dotted with mythical, perilous creatures, and the hypothetical existence of a nautical monster pervades the entire film. Yet the true threats here are invisible, malignant forces of misery that cast a pall over everything, poisoning nature and rendering humans motionless.

Patiño’s extreme long shots conjure unsettling moods through their use of natural backdrops and light. Waves at moonlight crash onto a beach, the ocean as dark as arterial blood. And in a recurring image, we glimpse an inactive hydroelectric dam, its face shot at angles that turn the concrete into a frame-spanning expanse of blank space. The soaked floodplains, meanwhile, fill the air with so much mist that sunlight casts a spectral glow over the Galician countryside.

This is the perfect backdrop for the loose, haunted narrative of a local fisherman, Rubio (Rubio de Camelle), who becomes convinced that a monster is hunting the shores of his coastal town as he discovers more and more human corpses when he takes his boat out each morning. At the start of Red Moon Tide, Rubio’s boat has run around and the man himself is missing, making him a protagonist referenced more than seen as other townsfolk ruminate on whether or not the man’s hunch was right as they themselves sink deeper into malaise.

The town where these locals dwell is shot in even starker terms than the landscapes, evoking Hopper-esque portraits of stasis and alienation. The non-professional actors are arranged like mannequins and frequently silhouetted, distanced from each other and often looking in opposite directions. People rarely speak aloud, instead silently stewing in internal monologues heard in somber voiceovers in which they contemplate the monster, giving it mythological properties such as having its behaviors dictated by the wax and wane of the moon.

Mythology is a crucial element of Red Moon Tide, with a trio of witches appearing nearly a half-hour into the film in search of the missing Rubio. These women spend the remainder of the film roaming around the countryside and the seaside town, often the only people in motion in the frame. Eventually, the witches start to drape the stock-still townspeople in sheets, making them look like ghosts. Rubio himself, well before he appears on screen, becomes an unwitting Charon figure ferrying the dead when his nets turn up fewer fish than corpses of those slain by the monster, returning their bodies to land for burial.

Buried beneath this mythic text are contemporary anxieties about climate change that gives Red Moon Tide an underlying logic, but the film is at its best when surrendering entirely to its hypnotic imagery. Andrei Tarkovsky is invoked at several junctures, from a shot that studies grass waving like strands of hair in a gently flowing brook to an image that moves through silhouetted trees with mountains in the distance that fittingly reflects the last shot of 1975’s Mirror. The film thus ends with an apocalyptic intensity that gives a climactic confrontation with the lurking monster a feeling of meeting with destiny, of the creature embodying mankind’s accelerating self-destruction in the face of nature reclaiming its supremacy.

Red Moon Tide had its world premiere last month at the Berlin International Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Lights On.

Cast: Rubio de Camelle, Ana Marra, Carmen Martinez, Pilar Rodlos Director: Lois Patiño Screenwriter: Lois Patiño Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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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.

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The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs
Photo: Berlinale

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

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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.

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Blow the Man Down
Photo: Amazon Studios

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

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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.

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25 Underrated Movie Gems to Stream Right Now on the Criterion Channel
Photo: Janus Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Deerskin
Photo: Greenwich Entertainment

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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