Coming Up In This Column: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Angels & Demons, The Dam Busters, In Plain Sight, Glee, The End of the Television Season, but first…
Fan Mail: First of all, thanks to those who mentioned in their comments on US#25 that they liked the column even if they disagreed with it. As I said near the beginning of the run of the column, I like to start discussions.
A couple of readers took me to task for not understanding Sugar. “Wrongshore” listed a number of reasons he felt Sugar had left the farm team, so it was clear to him as it was not to me. I agreed with him that every one of the reasons he mentioned might be the reasons, but I just did not think the film did the work that Wrongshore did in figuring out what the reasons were. “Anonymous” mentioned that a Chinese woman and a Thai woman at a Q&A in San Francisco both felt the film was their lives. I’m glad they did, but there are a number of films that cover the immigrant experience better. I have mentioned El Norte in writing about a couple of films and it is still one of the best. A more obscure one that I just love (and showed again a couple of weeks ago in my History of Documentary Film class at LACC) is Mai’s America, about a teenaged Vietnamese girl who comes to the U.S. as an exchange student. My foreign students feel that film is their life. I think it’s available on DVD, or you could just come and take my class the next time I show it.
I agree with “Max Winter” that State of Play is not as rushed as we were all afraid it might have been, what with condensing a mini-series into a feature. Credit the three screenwriters with knowing what they needed to have. “Anonymous” thought the miniseries was great, which means I will have to check it out some time. Meanwhile, here’s some stuff I have checked out lately.
Ghosts of Gilfriends Past (2009. Written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore. 100 minutes): Sometimes it’s the writers.
To see or not to see? The trailers for this one looked moderately amusing, and I like Jennifer Garner enough to put up with Matthew McConaughey. There were at least a couple of good lines in the trailer. Then the reviews were generally poor. And a clip on one of the talk shows suggested nobody knew how to cut the cake-falling scene. But then I learned that the writers were two of the four writers on Four Christmases, which you will remember from US#13 that I liked a whole lot more than the critics.
Well, this one has its moments, but is not quite up to that one. The structure of Four Christmases, which probably came from the other two writers (they get credit for the story and are the first credited on the screenplay, which usually means they worked on it first), was more inventive than this one. While the earlier film worked several variations on the family-holiday genre, this one at first seems to be a wedding film, although that turns out to be less true than you might think. Then there is the obvious romantic comedy element: Connor Mead, a womanizer, will realize the error of his ways and end up with Jenny, the girl he has had an off-and-on crush on since they were kids. So we pretty much know the road we are taking in a way we did not in Four Christmases. As anyone can tell from the trailer, that road is a variation on A Christmas Carol (and Charlie Dickens needs to get a new agent—he is not mentioned anywhere in the credits). So Lucas and Moore have three sets of constraints to work with.
Which they do reasonably effectively. Conner’s anti-love attitude is as much a disruption at the wedding as Kym’s was in Rachel Getting Married, and his change of heart rectifies the problems he causes earlier. One problem is that the writers keep harping on Conner’s horn-dog attitudes, which you do not need to do if you have cast Matthew McConaughey. If you have Clint Eastwood walk into the film as a tough cop, you don’t need to keep telling us he’s tough. After McConaughey was cast, they should have gone through the script and condensed it a lot. On the other hand, Lucas and Moore write several other interesting characters for the wedding, including the bride’s father, an old (older in the script than he can possibly be in Robert Forster’s performance) Army man. The bride’s mother, is not given a lot to do, other than a nice early scene with Conner. I like that Lucas and Moore have continued what they started in Four Christmases in creating some nice roles for more mature actors. Men of a certain age such as myself still think Anne Archer, who plays the mother, is a fox.
Jenny is a good fit for Jennifer Garner, since it enables her to use her considerable charm. Jenny is also smart. Let me say that again. She is also smart. I don’t know if this is in the script, or just a great detail from the set decorator, but she has an uneven stack of books on the floor by her bed. Like she actually reads them. She is a doctor and we believe she is, unlike Cameron Diaz in There’s Something About Mary. From very early in the picture, Jenny has Conner’s number and on several occasions takes him down a peg. Not quite up to Hildy and Walter in His Girl Friday, but the thinking is the same.
The writers have written a nice version of Marley’s Ghost for Michael Douglas to play, and the first ghost that visits Conner is Allison Vandermeersh, the 16-year-old he lost his virginity to. Emma Stone is terrific, even if she does overdo it. At one point she shows Conner a lineup of all the women he has ever had, and several of them tell him how long they were his girlfriends. Some for a very short time. This is a domesticated version of the great harem sequence in Fellini’s 8 ½ and funny, if not quite as magical. The ghost of the present is Melanie, Conner’s assistant, whom we just thought was a minor character in the opening scene, but she gets more to do in the center of the film. The ghost of things yet to come is a blonde in a diaphanous gown who never says a word, a nice change of pace from all the talk in the other scenes. She does get one great bit of business near the end of the film. In the morning after, Lucas and Moore throw in one direct steal from A Christmas Carol that produced the best laugh in the film for me. By then we are into Conner’s story more than the Carol connection, but pay attention to the little kid shoveling snow.
Not only do Lucas and Moore make Jenny smart, they give her another potential boyfriend, whom the bride (who is not written as a conventional bridezilla, just a woman who wants her wedding to be perfect) has invited as a possible hookup for Jenny. He is Brad, he is a doctor, and he is wonderful. In many ways we would be happier if Jenny went with him (how much you feel that way may depend on what you think of McConaughey). I don’t know when he was cast, but it may not be an accident that he looks more than a little like Barack Obama. When Jenny and Connor finally get together, I kept wondering what happened to Brad. The writers did not let me down: he gets paired off quickly with someone you would not expect.
Oh, and the editing of the cake scene. It is much better in the film than it was in the trailer or the film clip. Leave film editing to the professionals.
Angels & Demons (2009. Screenplay by David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Dan Brown. 138 minutes): Sometimes it’s not the writers.
To see or not to see, take two. You may remember (US#2) that I really did not like The DaVinci Code. So what am I doing seeing the sequel? In a theater, no less First of all, it’s May and the BIG summer movies are coming out one a week, and I was in the mood for a big noisy movie. Since I have no taste for or intention to see stuff like Wolverine, Star Trek, Terminator or the upcoming Transformers, that sort of leaves Angels & Demons. The trailer has its interesting moments, including a relatively light one in which Tom Hanks’s Professor Langdon reacts to some problems the Vatican guys are giving him with, “Hey, you fellows called me.” A perfect line for Hanks. Then it seemed as though it was going to have a little more action than the first one. A friend of mine who has read both The DaVinci Code and this book said this one was more likely to make an interesting film. Ewan McGregor, who plays McKenna, showed up with a clip on The Tonight Show and suggested he and Hanks were able to get a little actor stuff going. And the deal maker was that it was shot in some of my favorite places in Rome, one of my most favorite cities in the world. So why not?
Well, it’s no Roman Holiday or Three Coins in the Fountain, but it is not as awful as The DaVinci Code. I suspect that Goldsman, who wrote the first one, and Ron Howard, who directed both, realized this was a chance at a do-over to show they were not as incompetent as the first film suggested. (I have always thought that Spielberg did the second Jurassic Park movie because he knew how badly he had geeked the first one—see the chapter on the three Jurassic Park movies in my book Understanding Screenwriting for details.) The Koepp-Goldsman script here is much less talky than Goldsman’s for Code. We get some lengthy, repetitive exposition (the newscast voiceover at the beginning made me a little nervous), but nothing like Sir Leigh Teabing in the first one. And a lot of the exposition is delivered while everybody in the movie is running around all those great Roman locales, such as the Pantheon and the Bernini Four Rivers fountain in the Piazza Navona. I did not notice any credits for physical trainers for the cast, but they must have had them, given all that running.
The plot, while preposterous in MANY different ways, at least moves fast, so you do not have time to think about it. All right, sometimes you cannot avoid noticing the plot holes. How can one guy have kidnapped the four cardinals? How did that other guy know that they would find the canister at exactly that time? Why did the College of Cardinals let McKenna into their conference? And then why did they let him make the longest and dullest speech in the film? Generally though, the story moves quickly enough, and with a lot more suspense than that of The DaVinci Code. There is more at stake here than the doctrinal question in the earlier film, and the find-them-before-they-blow-up-the-Vatican timeline keeps our attention.
The script does go on too long after the big St. Peter’s Square scene. I must admit I looked at my watch when that scene was finished and said to myself, “This is going to go on for another twenty minutes?” It does, and not in a good way.
While there is nothing in here like the story in Code that will offend the Church, the script does get in a couple of little digs that Howard skates over in his direction. For example, at one point after an early vote for the Pope, newscasters from each country are shown announcing that the cardinals from their country are the favorites. It doesn’t have the comic punch it should. And a reference to the Vatican not being a large corporation is done while passing a Mercedes the Vatican owns. O.K., but you could do more with it.
A scene early in the film is a good demonstration of the hit-and-miss quality of the film. Langdon and Vittoria Vetra (I can only assume that name is Dan Brown’s inside joke, since it is close to Victoria Vetri, the 1968 Playmate of the Year who, under her stage name Angela Dorian, appeared in Rosemary’s Baby, in which Mia Farrow asks her character if she is Victoria Vetri) have been granted access to the Vatican Archives. They find the rare manuscript they are seeking and then, even though the lives of the kidnapped cardinals are at stake, TALK about the meaning of it. Maybe that is Ron Howard’s fault, but I would have thought that Langdon would start looking through it AS they talk. But then Vetra brings the scene to a funny and surprising close. Vetra, by the way, is played by the great Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer, who was Avner’s wife in Munich. Unlike Audrey Tautou in Code or, going back further, Emmanuelle Béart in Mission Impossible, she is a non-American actress who instinctively understands how to hold her own is a big noisy American film. She even steals a couple of shots from Tom Hanks, which is more than just petty larceny.
The Dam Busters (1955. Screenplay by R. C. Sherriff, based on the book by Paul Brickhill and the book Enemy Coast Ahead by Wing Comdr. Guy Gibson. 125 minutes): The British version, “N” word and all.
Nearly every Memorial Day I pay tribute to those who served in the armed forces by watching a war movie. You have to pick carefully, of course. One year it was Bridge on the River Kwai, which does not exactly honor those in the military. I figured this year it would be my DVD of The Great Escape. I recently read Glenn Lovell’s Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges, a solid, modest (under 300 pages, in comparison with those door-stop director biographies we usually get) book on a director whose films (Bad Day at Black Rock and The Magnificent Seven in addition to Escape) give as much pleasure as anybody’s. Then TCM, in its usual 36 hours of war movies on the Memorial Day weekend, ran the British version of The Dam Busters. So even though Memorial Day is an American holiday, I paid tribute to our cousins and their efforts to blow up three important German dams during World War II.
I had seen and liked the American cut when I saw it in 1955 and have not seen it since. The American cut is 22 to 23 minutes shorter depending on who’s counting. There were two obvious areas that were probably cut (I remember a lot about movies, but there are limits, even to my movie memory) for the American release. The first half-hour of the film includes some nice scenes of B.N. Wallis, the Vickers engineer who devised the scheme, trying to convince the British bureaucrats it might work. The bureaucrats are not shown as stupid, just skeptical, as well they should be. Wallis’ idea was to drop a bomb on the reservoirs behind the days and have it bounce over the defenses, then sink to 30 feet under water, and explode at the base of the dam. Would you believe such an idea? The second section that was probably condensed was the slower portion leading up to the raid, where we watch the airman writing letters to loved ones and getting their affairs in order. While I am generally of the opinion, often expressed here, that longer is not better, both sets of scenes add to the film.
One change that had to have been made for the American market was the nickname of Wing Comdr. Gibson’s dog. Apparently he really was called a word beginning with “N” that rhymes with digger. It’s there all the way through this version, but it was probably looped in the American version.
The film is very much in the tradition of the British documentaries of the war, and a lot of the bombing raid, which takes up the last 45- or so minutes of the film could come straight out of Harry Watt’s 1941 Target for Tonight. There is the usual British understatement throughout the film. Michael Redgrave plays Wallis as one of those slightly distracted but obsessive British scientists, the forerunner of Q in the Bond films. Richard Todd plays Gibson as a little nicer than he apparently was in real life, but with more of a hearty, friendly quality than a stiff upper lip.
Sherriff’s script is great at not telling us things until we need to know them. We have no idea in the opening scene why Wallis is skimming marbles out of a water tub, but we want to find out, so we are hooked. It is well past the hour mark when Wallis finally tells the bureaucrats where the idea originally came from. The one scene everybody who saw the film remembers is Gibson getting the idea of how to keep the plane at the right height—since they have to fly so low the altimeters do not work. We have already been told what the problem is, and then we have what we first think is a little throwaway scene of Gibson and a friend at a theatrical show. We see Gibson thinking, and we see what he looks at, but there is no dialogue about it. Next we see his plan in action. And only in the next scene do we get an explanation, which by then we really want to hear.
Rumor has it that Peter Jackson is producing a remake. I am sure it will be bigger, and the special effects (which seem chintzy to us these days, but which got an Oscar nomination) will be much more elaborate. I am not sure he can improve on Sherriff’s script, but if he does not mess up the story and have Hobbits flying the planes, I’ll be there.
In Plain Sight (2009. Episode “Rubble With a Cause” written by Alexander Cary. Episode “Aguna Matatala,” written by David Slack. Each episode 60 minutes): Ah, the road not taken.
In “Rubble,” Lewis, a witness in a bombing, got heroic when he saw another building bombed and went in to try to save people. Unfortunately this got his face on television before he was trapped under some of the rubble. So Mary and her team have to try to a) protect him from being shot by a sniper, b) protect him from being outed by a nosy reporter, and c) keep him from dying. Mary of course is the one who threads through the rubble to sit by him. After all, she’s the star of show. Unlike a lot of other episodes, there is not a lot of running around in this one. And the witness is not a flake, unlike the pot farmer and the woman with three kids (see US#25). Lewis is an ex-military man who now works for a private security firm. In one of the best scenes, he and Mary talk about how you deal with having killed somebody. The suspense is structured well and there are multiple twists. What Mary’s partner Marshall thinks is a sniper on a roof is just the reporter and her cameraman. Lewis’s former partner, the defendant in the case, is not trying to kill him as we all thought. This A story is a good one, well told.
The problem is Brandi. She keeps calling Peter, the man she met at AA when she pretended to be her mom. He won’t return her calls. She goes to the meeting place, but he won’t talk to her. She shows up at a meeting and admits to one and all what she did. She apologizes, says they are doing a great thing, and leaves.
In “Aguna Matatala” Peter shows up at Mary’s house to thank Brandi for speaking up and ask her out. It also turns out he’s very rich. So what does he want with Brandi? Has his sobriety made him so dense he does not realize she is a flake? He wants to take her to a swell society function. What is this man thinking? The episode ends with Peter and Brandi, who does look gorgeous (with a little help from Jinx, who is visiting on a day off from rehab) heading off to the ball. Do you have the same suspicion I do that the AA Thought Police forced the showrunners to turn Peter and Brandi into something conventional, rather than the unconventional approach I suggested in US#25?
Glee (2009. Episode “Pilot” written by Ryan Murphy & Brad Flachuck & Ian Brennan. 60 minutes): Not as smart-assed as it thinks it is.
Fox promoted this new show as being so good they could show the pilot in May and then not run the rest of the series until the Fall. Good luck with that. The hype was that this was fresh and original, like Murphy’s cable show Nip/Tuck. It is not that fresh nor original. The setup is that Will Schuester, a high school teacher, is taking over running the glee club. Ah yes, another straight white male who will enlighten the multi-culti heathens. We also have the dumb football coach, the uncaring principal, the sports jock who can sing, the talented but bossy girl, the nerd in the wheelchair and of the course the fat and sassy Black girl. There is also a lot of snarky dialogue, which gets tiresome very quickly, since there does not seem to be a lot of point to it. The intent was to be a sort of satire of the “high school musical” type. There are moments that suggest that, but then there are other moments when the writers seem to be taking all this seriously, as in Will’s dropping the club, then deciding to come back. That is played for unearned sentiment. O.K., this is the pilot, and there are trying to stuff as much into it as they can, a flaw in most pilots, but they simply have not got the balance right.
The End of the Season: And maybe an era.
While cable tends to go on year around, or at least at times the networks are into reruns, the network shows are finishing their seasons. In this item I am going to look at a few of them, and make a few guesses on what the future will bring for writing for the networks. First up is Castle, which has developed nicely since I first wrote about in US#21. There has been a lot less smirking by Castle and eye-rolling by Beckett. Castle’s daughter Alexis is still the most mature one of the bunch, and Susan Sullivan has been given several good scenes as Castle’s mom. As I suspected when I first wrote about it, they have not repeated Castle’s poker games with real mystery writers. Castle and Beckett have developed a working relationship that is not all flirting and bantering. Beckett seems a real professional.
The story structures seem to borrow from Law & Order: what we first suspect is true turns out not to be, as is the next thing, etc. This works nicely with Castle coming up with way out suggestions for what the case may be about. Beckett and the other cops know he is probably wrong, as Castle will cheerfully admit when he is proved wrong. Castle also uses his connections, including those on the other side of the law. In the final episode, “A Death in the Family” (teleplay by Andrew W. Marlowe, story by Marlowe and Barry Schindel), Castle talks to a Mafia guy he knows to find out whom the mob has put out a hit on. Beckett couldn’t do that, but it is useful information.
In the “Little Girl Lost” episode (written by Elizabeth Davis) we meet F.B.I. agent Sorenson, with whom Beckett had an affair. The affair ended when he moved to the Boston office, but he is now back in New York and ready to take up with Beckett again. She is not so sure she wants to do that, although she is clearly still attracted. We also find out in that episode from Sorenson that Beckett has been a big fan of Castle’s books since long before he came to work with her. Nothing more is done with that at this point. In “A Death in the Family” Castle goes looking into the murder of Beckett’s mother even after Beckett has told him not to. A forensic scientist looks at the file and tells Castle the mother was probably the victim of a serial killer. Castle is reluctant to tell Beckett, but his mother insists he should. He is about to when the final fadeout comes.
CSI has still not found its bearings since Grissom left. Catherine has taken over command of the unit, but the various writers have not written her as though she has taken over. Marg Helgenberg could certainly play that (look at her as K.C. in China Beach), but the writing is not there. The writers are giving a lot of screen time to Langston, but he is not the one in charge, since he is the newbie. Laurence Fishburne certainly has command presence, but they have not created a character that lets him use it.
How I Met Your Mother IS still playing us and Ted’s kids along as to who the mother is. Are you getting as tired of this as the kids must be? The kids have been on that damned couch for four years listening to dad tell these stories. Hasn’t it occurred to either of them just to get up, go in the kitchen and get the short version from their mom so they can all get on with their lives? Or is Ted more sadistic than we thought? Is that going to be the finale of the show: Child Protective Services breaking down the door and rescuing the kids?
The “Right Place Right Time” episode (written by Stephen Lloyd) ran an elaborate set of actions that showed how Ted, carrying the all-important yellow umbrella, ended up on a street corner where he met, ta-da, Stella. Who left him at the altar earlier in the season. But in the “As Far As She Can” episode (written by Carter Bays & Craig Thomas) the next week, we learn Stella is not their mom. She is still with Tony, who wants to make it up to Ted for Stella dumping him. Not much good comes out of that, although there is a hint that something will in the future. In other words, exactly the thing that keeps clogging up the show. In the season finale “The Leap” (written by Bays and Thomas), Ted gives up architecture and turns to teaching. He tells us in the narration that the mother is in his class. Pull out to reveal a class of several hundred people.
Meanwhile, Bays and Thomas have finally gotten back to Barney and Robin. Barney is about to tell Robin he loves her when she tells him she loves him. And Barney replies that they are just friends. We find out that Robin had heard Barney telling Ted he was in love with her, so she discussed it with Lily, who suggested she tell him first, which would naturally make him have second thoughts. This eventually leads to a scene in which Robin and Barney are alternately admitting and retracting their love. Neil Patrick Harris and Cobie Smulders have a fine time with it.
I do, by the way, have a little sympathy for the show’s writers in the second half of the season. Both Cobie Smulders (Robin) and Alyson Hannigan (Lily) are very, very pregnant. Neither pregnancy was written into the show, so for the last several episodes both actresses have been sitting down a lot, holding LARGE purses in front of them, etc. It limits what the writers can do.
The writers of Two and a Half Men have been writing themselves into a corner. Charlie and Chelsea are engaged and appear to be headed for marriage. This happened several years ago with Charlie and Mia and the writers wrote their way out of that one. In “Good Morning Mrs. Butterworth” (teleplay by Eddie Gorodetsky & Mark Roberts, story by Don Foster & Sid Youngers), the next to the last episode, they lay out an interesting possibility that would have, alas, completely changed the character of the show. In the episode, Alan and Chelsea are becoming good friends. He goes shopping with her at the Farmer’s Market and discusses physical exercises. As Berta points out to Charlie, Alan is Chelsea’s gay best friend. Alan of course is straight and one can imagine what might happen if he took Chelsea away from Charlie. Like I say, it would completely disrupt the show.
The writers’ solution to the problem, or the possible solution, showed up in the last episode, “Baseball Was Better with Steroids” (teleplay by Chuck Lorre and Lee Aronsohn, story by Mark Roberts & Susan Beavers). Alan, who tried ventriloquism as a hobby in the previous episode, is now in a coffee shop trying to write a screenplay. Who shows up but Mia. She is divorced and back in town. When Alan tells Charlie, Charlie realizes he still has feelings for Mia, which is essentially where the season ends (after Judith has given birth to what we all know is Alan’s baby). Not a big cliffhanger, but enough to give them something to work with next year.
Desperate Housewives got rid of Edie (US#24) and in the two-part season finale (“Everybody Says Don’t” written by John Pardee & Joey Murphy, “It’s Only in Your Head” written by Jeffrey Richmond) they also finish off the Dave storyline. Dave has tried and failed to kill Mike, Susan, and finally their son, M.J. Dave has been shipped off to the hospital for the criminally insane, so presumably we won’t be seeing him any time soon. In “The Born Identity” episode (written by Steven Ross) of Ugly Betty they sent Betty’s one true friend at Mode, Christina, back to Scotland. They had earlier gotten rid of Betty’s two boyfriends, Henry and Gio, and sent Helena off to a new job. In the two-part season finale (“Curveball” written by Terry Proust & Jon Kinally, “The Fall Issue” written by Silvia Horta) they kill off Daniel’s bride Molly, and it looks as though they may be getting rid of Marc, although that is left very much up in the air. I hope they keep him, since he provides a nice wacky presence, and both the writers and actor Michael Urie have done some nice work deepening a character you would not have thought was very deep. Henry was brought back in this two-parter, but only temporarily, so he is now gone for a second time.
The attrition rate on network shows is an effect of the recession on network television. The big sponsors, like the car companies, will have less and less to spend on advertising, and the networks will have to get along with less money for programming. So next season will see more “reality” shows as well as NBC having nothing but Jay Leno at 10 p.m. five nights a week, eliminating the time slots where they used to have ER, Homicide: Life on the Streets, L.A. Law, Hill Street Blues, and a few others. What we are seeing at the end of this season is the beginning of the cuts that will be more obvious over the next seasons.
What does all this mean for both television writing and writers? First, the budgets for shows will be more limited, so writers will have to have less action and fewer characters. Instead of car crashes, there will be more and probably longer dialogue scenes, not necessarily a bad thing. Special effects will be cut back, which may hurt the science fiction shows and even a show like CSI. I for one could do with a lot less CGI and prosthetic gore on CSI, so that might also not be a bad thing. There will ultimately be fewer shows with large ensemble casts. In other words, network shows will look more like cable shows, with their limited casts and budgets. Given the quality of writing on cable shows, all of this may not be a bad thing.
The new situation may not be so good for writers, which the networks and studios won’t shed any tears over, since they still hold a grudge from last year’s writers’ strike. There will be a lot fewer jobs for writers, and some of those will have moved to Canada and other countries where production costs are cheaper. Writing staffs, including all those executive producers who are essentially writers with bigger titles, will be smaller. So the writers will be writing more, and the writing will probably be more rushed. Writers may not have time to revise a script from the Not-Quite-So Good category to the Good category. This has always been a problem with network television with its orders for 22 episodes per season. One reason writing on cable often seems better is that cable needs fewer episodes, and the writers have a chance to polish the scripts before they are shot. It is not unusual for the scripts for a mini-season to be completed before any of them are shot, which ultimately also helps keeping production costs down. That probably would not be possible with a 22-episode order, and we have already begun to see shorter orders from the networks, as with Castle in the last part of the season.
So we may be at the end, at least temporarily, of the era of the big network shows. And by big, I do not mean just in terms of production values. Will any network be able to afford an ER, with its large cast and long narrative lines? I like the under-populated Monk and In Plain Sight, but there was, and still is, some satisfaction to be found on a different level of magnitude in a great network show.
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: Trolls: World Tour Is a Weird, Busy Exegesis on the State of Pop
At its best, the film doesn’t just privilege altered states of consciousness, it is an altered state of consciousness.2
The Trolls movies, like many children’s entertainments, function by way of double coding, providing exuberant absurdity for kids and hidden risqué jokes to keep their parents from wasting away from boredom. However, it’s perhaps the only such property that overcomes the threat of adults’ indifference to the romance of a fantastical land inhabited by sentient plastic dolls by appealing directly to stoner sensibilities. Tune out the dialogue—or don’t, it might not matter—in Walt Dohrn and David P. Smith’s Trolls: World Tour and you’ll observe neon-soaked environments built of wildly incongruous details, backgrounds that slowly shift and shimmer while characters in the foreground mumble incoherent phonemes, grinning faces whose features undulate like they’re being glimpsed through a glass jar, and manic irruptions of noise and color that abide by no rules of story pace or rhythm.
At its best, Trolls: World Tour doesn’t just privilege altered states of consciousness, it is an altered state of consciousness. Witness the soprano sax-playing Troll, who emerges from the fabric sea of the Trolls’ handcrafted world spewing valentines’ hearts from the end of his instrument, which, when inhaled by the film’s main characters, Branch (Justin Timberlake) and Queen Poppy (Anna Kendrick), send them, and us, on a hallucinogenic trip that includes visions of leaping narwhals, a glowworm with bodybuilder’s arms who emerges from the sand extending a plastic teal phone, and a two-dimensional tiger leaping over a Lisa Frank sunset directly toward the camera. And it all culminates with the almost Buñuelian image of Branch and Poppy’s heads materializing on the ends of some nigiri sitting on the beach.
Alongside sharing certain visual schemas with surrealist classics and laser light shows, Trolls: World Tour might be described as a jukebox musical, though it slices or mashes every song—from Daft Punk’s “One More Time” to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” to Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” to LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” to Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces”—into highlights or medleys, never completing a single one before zinging onto the next. It’s like listening to an obnoxiously impatient, sonically incurious person’s Spotify playlist.
But the film also manages to outline the contours of a plot, somewhere between the scene in which a hot-air balloon (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) with Gumby-like lips sloppily shouts non sequiturs that no ostensibly conscious character acknowledges and the one in which a country-singing centaur Troll’s (Sam Rockwell) ass tears itself off to reveal that he’s actually two German-accented yodeling Trolls. The first Trolls, we learn, was set entirely in the Pop Kingdom, where bouncy pop music rules. But in the world of this film, there are other realms representing the other genres of music: techno, country, classical, funk, and hard rock. You know, the six kinds of music. (The existence of hip-hop as an offshoot of funk somehow surprises Poppy, even though she personally knows a tiny, diamond-encrusted rapping Troll named Tiny Diamond, voiced by Kenan Thompson.)
Dissatisfied with the Trolls’ musico-national alienation, the evil Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom) of the Hard Rock Trolls has embarked on an imperialist mission to unite all of Trolldom under the banner of rock n’ roll. To do so, she travels across the land in her deep-sea anglerfish-shaped flying vessel, stealing the magical lute strings that give each realm its music and using them to string her guitar, in the process laying waste to each kingdom in some vague way. Learning the history of the strings from the Pop Kingdom’s royal scrapbook, Poppy and Branch set out in their animate hot-air balloon to stop Barb. Along the way, their perception of the historical innocence of pop music, as well as that of the kingdom they call home, comes to be challenged. As Prince D (Anderson .Paak) of the funk royal family puts it, “scrap books are cut out, glued, and glittered by the winners.” No doubt.
If the by-now obligatory social conscience of the bewilderingly trippy Trolls World Tour falls a bit flat, it’s because the film inevitably effaces the differences in musical-cum-ethnic identities it supposedly values, in a grand musical finale that synthesizes all said styles into the blandest imaginable pop medley. At the risk of taking Trolls too seriously—though one could argue that the film’s moral about tolerance invites such serious consideration—it would seem that Queen Barb’s totalitarian quest is realized, rather than refuted, by the pseudo-diversity of a world synchronized to a single beat and available for purchase in standardized plastic molds.
Cast: Justin Timberlake, Anna Kendrick, James Corden, Rachel Bloom, Anderson .Paak, Ron Funches, Kelly Clarkson, Sam Rockwell, George Clinton, Mary J. Blige, Kenan Thompson, Kunal Nayyar, Da’Vine Joy Randolph Director: Walt Dohrn, David P. Smith Screenwriter: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky, Elizabeth Tippet Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 90 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Review: We Summon the Darkness Coasts Lazily on an Empty Twist
The film’s cat-and-mouse antics play out with no sense of escalation or invention.1
Genre movies these days are rife with self-conscious subversion, and at the cost of cohesiveness. Into this climate strides director Marc Meyers’s 1980s-set Satanic-panic thriller We Summon the Darkness, which drops its twist inside the first 30 minutes and then aimlessly limps toward a rote conclusion for close to another hour.
Alexis (Alexandra Daddario) and her friends (Maddie Hasson and Amy Forsyth) attend a heavy metal concert, where they meet a group of boys (Keean Johnson, Logan Miller, and Austin Swift) and head to a remote location for an after-party. A satanic ritual ensues, except here’s the twist: It’s fake. There are no Satanists. There’s only Alexis and her friends, who are all Christian church girls killing headbangers and staging the scenes to look like murder-suicides, hoping to draw people to their congregation by scapegoating heavy metal.
Viewers are meant to write off some of the early red flags about the girls’ true intentions only to remember them in hindsight, as in how Alexis needs to be reminded of a prominent guitarist’s death. But if the film’s big twist seems to express the “fake fan” fears of dweeb gatekeepers the world over, even those anxieties remain underexplored. We Summon the Darkness struggles to conjure any discernible themes beyond a lot of too-easy jabs at religious hypocrisy, as in a scene about church donations being misappropriated.
The boys spend much of the film’s back half locked in a closet, which is still more engaging than the boilerplate scuffles in the dark that make up the final third. The cat-and-mouse antics play out with no sense of escalation or invention. Like many a film before it, We Summon the Darkness spends such a long time trying to subvert a concept that it neglects everything that might have been appealing even in a straightforward take on its premise.
Cast: Alexandra Daddario, Keean Johnson, Maddie Hasson, Amy Forsyth, Logan Miller, Austin Swift, Johnny Knoxville Director: Marc Meyers Screenwriter: Alan Trezza Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Sea Fever, Though Eerie, Delivers Body Horror in Half Measures
Writer-director Neasa Hardiman’s film is undone by earnestness.2
With occasional exceptions, humanism doesn’t benefit the horror film, which generally thrives under the inspiration of artists who exploit social vulnerabilities through various formal means. Case in point, Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever is undone by its earnestness. Hardiman is very fond of her protagonist, Siobhán (Hermione Corfield), and the writer-director is striving to make an impassioned point about the value of intelligence and rationality in the midst of a quarantine, an especially resonant theme in the age of COVID-19. In the film, a remarkable amount of time is devoted to the strategy of containing and combating a parasitic creature that invades an Irish fishing trawler, yet Hardiman has virtually no interest in goosing the audience, offering up a monster flick with no pulse.
At its heart, Sea Fever is another single-setting horror film in which an exotic animal systematically infects a blue-collar crew. Conscious of this tradition, Hardiman offers variations on a couple of the genre’s greatest hits: the misleadingly tranquil dinner scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien and the “testing for infection” sequence in John Carpenter’s The Thing. Filmmakers have gotten quite a bit of mileage out of ripping off The Thing over the years, but Hardiman stages this latter scene simply as a scientific inquiry, deriving no suspense from it, and delivering the punchline as an afterthought. Much of the trawler’s crew is the usual collection of burly, hairy studs who look so much alike that you expect a joke to be made of it, except that Hardiman evinces no sense of humor. Even the tension between the men and Siobhán—a student studying unusual sea creatures and therefore an intellectual who must maintain calm in a crisis, rising to the fore to become the next Ripley—often falls flat.
Alien and The Thing are sadistic films whose power derives, in part, from how expertly they surpass our worst suspicions of what’s going to happen. In each case, the monsters are more awful than we expect them to be, continually growing stronger, more disgusting, and more primordial—more, well, alien. By contrast, Hardiman offers a giant, multi-tentacled jellyfish that’s barely in the film, suggesting a wan and naturalistic riff on the thing from Deep Rising, as well as sea maggots that yield one instance of respectable body horror. These are mild returns on over half a running-time’s worth of exposition and foreshadowing.
Yet Sea Fever does have an eerie setting, as the creaky, claustrophobic trawler and the misty water inform the narrative with the aura of an Irish myth or ghost story, which is revealed to be very pertinent. And Corfield gives a poignant and vivid performance, especially during the film’s unexpectedly moving ending, which finds Siobhán weirdly rewarded, as her desire for knowledge and personal expansion is gratified at the expense of disaster. The final scenes clarify Hardiman’s intentions, which somewhat cancel themselves out: an attempt to fuse a monster movie and a poetic myth with a coming-of-age character study.
Cast: Hermione Corfield, Connie Nielsen, Dougray Scott, Olwen Fouéré, Jack Hickey, Ardalan Esmaili, Elie Bouakaze Director: Neasa Hardiman Screenwriter: Neasa Hardiman Distributor: Gunpowder & Sky Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
The 20 Best Zombie Movies of All Time
If zombies seem infinitely spongy as functional allegories, it’s their non-hierarchic function that retains the kernel of their monstrousness.
Zombie movies not only endure, but persist at the height of their popularity, neck and neck with vampire stories in a cultural race to the bottom, their respective “twists” on generic boilerplate masking a dead-eyed derivativeness. For the zombie film (or comic book, or cable TV drama), that boilerplate was struck by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and its subsequent sequels established a loose conception of the undead threat: lumbering, beholden to no centralized authority, sensitive to headshots and decapitations.
If, according to Franco Moretti’s “The Dialectic of Fear,” the vampiric threat (at least as embodied in Count Dracula) operates chiefly as a metaphor for monopoly capital, binding those English bourgeois interlopers to his spell and extracting the blood of their industry, then the zombie poses a more anarchic, horizontalized threat. In post-Romero, hyper-allegorized zombie cinema, the hulking undead mass can be generally understood as the anti-Draculean annihilation of capital. Flesh and blood are acquired but not retained; civilization is destroyed but not remodeled. If zombies seem infinitely spongy as functional allegories for this or that, it’s their non-hierarchic function that retains the kernel of their monstrousness.
At their apex of their allegorical authority, zombies may fundamentally destroy, as attested by our favorite zombie films of all time. But that doesn’t mean their inexhaustible popularity as monster du jour can’t be harnessed to the whims of real-deal market maneuvering, their principally anarchic menace yoked to the proverbial voodoo master of capital. John Semley
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on October 21, 2019.
20. Night of the Comet (1984)
Night of the Comet’s scenario reads like the bastard child of countless drive-in movies, in which most of humanity is instantly reduced to colored piles of dust when the Earth passes through the tail of a comet that last came around—you guessed it—right about the time the dinosaurs went belly-up. Then again, just so you know he’s not adhering too closely to generic procedures, writer-director Thom Eberhardt irreverently elects a couple of pretty vacant valley girls—tomboyish arcade addict Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and her blond cheerleader sister, Sam (Kelli Maroney)—and a Mexican truck driver, Hector (Robert Beltran), to stand in for the last remnants of humanity. With regard to its bubbly protagonists, the film vacillates between poking not-so-gentle fun at their vapid mindset, as in the Dawn of the Dead-indebted shopping spree (obligingly scored to Cindi Lauper’s anthemic “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”), and taking them seriously as agents of their own destiny. Lucky for them, as it happens, that their hard-ass old man taught them how to shoot the shit out of an Uzi—and look adorable doing it. It also doesn’t hurt that Eberhardt filigrees his absurd premise with grace notes like the cheeky cinephilia informing early scenes set in an all-night movie theater. Budd Wilkins
19. The Living Dead Girl (1982)
In The Living Dead Girl, the gothic ambience that elsewhere suffuses Jean Rollin’s work smashes headlong against the inexorable advance of modernity. The film opens with the vision of bucolic scenery blighted by the scourge of industrialization: rolling hills sliced up by concertina-capped fences, billowing smokestacks visible in the hazy distance. When some dicey movers deposit barrels of chemical waste in the family vault beneath the dilapidated Valmont chateau, a sudden tremor causes the barrels to spring a leak, reanimating the corpse of Catherine Valmont (Françoise Blanchard) in the process. Despite the gruesome carnage she inflicts on hapless and not-so-hapless victims alike, it’s clear that Rollin sees the angelic Catherine, with her flowing blond tresses and clinging white burial weeds, as an undead innocent abroad in a world she can no longer comprehend. The flm builds to a climax of Grand Guignol gruesomeness as Hélène (Marina Pierro), Catherine’s girlhood friend, makes the ultimate sacrifice for her blood sister. It’s an altogether remarkable scene, tinged with melancholy and possessed of a ferocious integrity that’s especially apparent in Blanchard’s unhinged performance. The film’s blood-spattered descent into positively Jacobean tragedy helps to make it one of Rollin’s strongest, most disturbing efforts. Wilkins
18. They Came Back (2004)
They Came Back is a triumph of internal horror, and unlike M. Night Shyamalan’s similarly moody freak-out The Sixth Sense, Robin Campillo’s vision of the dead sharing the same space as the living isn’t predicated on a gimmicky reduction of human faith. Campillo is more upfront than Shyamalan—it’s more or less understood that the presence of the living dead in his film is likely metaphoric—and he actually seems willing to plumb the moral oblivion created by the collision of its two worlds. Though the fear that the film’s walking dead can turn violent at any second is completely unjustified, the writer-director allows this paranoia to reflect the feelings of loss, disassociation, and hopelessness that cripple the living. It’s rather amazing how far the film is able to coast on its uniquely fascinating premise, even if it isn’t much of a stretch for its director: Campillo co-authored Laurent Cantet’s incredible Time Out, a different kind of zombie film about the deadening effects of too much work on the human psyche, and They Came Back is almost as impressive in its concern with the existential relationship between the physical and non-physical world. Ed Gonzalez
17. Zombi Child (2019)
Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child is a quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments in in the film where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper than race relations. Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. The film’s off-kilter mix of horror, historiography, and youth movie affords Bonello plenty of opportunity to indulge his pet themes and motifs. He spends much time lingering throughout scenes set at the academy on the sociality of the young women and their engagement with pop culture. In fact, Bonello’s fascination with the dynamics of these relationships seems to drive his interest in the horror genre more so even than the film’s most obvious antecedent, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie—as is indicated by a pretty explicit homage to Brian De Palma’s Carrie. Sam C. Mac
16. Train to Busan (2016)
When divorced of message-mongering, the film’s scare tactics are among the most distinctive that the zombie canon has ever seen. The zombies here are rabid, fast-moving ghoulies that, as Train to Busan’s protagonists discover, are attracted to loud sounds and only attack what they can actually see. This realization becomes the foundation for a series of taut set pieces during which the story’s motley crew of survivors manipulate their way past zombies with the aid of cellphones and bats and the numerous tunnels through which the train must travel. The genre crosspollination for which so many South Korean thrillers have come to be known for is most evident in these scenes (as in the survivors crawling across one train car’s overhead luggage area), which blend together the tropes of survivor-horror and disaster films, as well as suggest the mechanics of puzzle-platformer games. Gonzalez
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 Lillian Gish as an East Coast virgin who’s tormented on an ineffable psychical (and ambiguously erotic) level by the overbearing winds of the Great Plains. After circumstances force her into an unwanted marriage, she’s left alone in the small cottage she shares with her unloved husband as the personified wind blows open doors, whips up dust, and…takes the shape of giant stark-white colts who buck across the open sky. In a career-defining role, Gish grounds the film, giving a performance that humanizes the sensational and sensual inner conflict of a woman left alone in a vast, empty wilderness. Brown
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
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