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Understanding Screenwriting #27: Up, Summer Hours, A Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #27: Up, Summer Hours, A Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Up, Summer Hours, A Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, Easy Virtue, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story, but first…

Fan Mail: Brandon suggested I may have missed some details of How I Met Your Mother, and he certainly has been a little more perceptive about the show than I was. He’s right that the significance of the meeting with Stella is the connection to Tony and that it leads Ted to teaching. I will also buy Brandon’s point about the story being told the kids over one day, but I was getting in a dig that has bedeviled series television from the beginning: the set-up that is difficult to sustain. Here are three examples from different decades.

Racket Squad was an early fifties show, first in syndication, then on CBS. As I wrote in my book on the history of television writing, they dropped an interesting approach: “In the first episodes, [Captain] Braddock [of the Racket Squad] narrates the stories, but in the second person, addressing the victim of the con. This supposes that Braddock knows everything about the con before the victim tells him, which makes him rather obnoxious.” They changed the narration to third person.

In 1963-64 there was a ninety-minute series called Arrest and Trial. In the first 45-minutes, the cop (Ben Gazzara) arrested somebody. In the second 45-minutes, the defense attorney (Chuck Connors) proved they were innocent. As Sy Salkowitz, who wrote a couple of episodes, said, “If Ben Gazzara made a good arrest, Chuck Connors couldn’t get him off. If Chuck Connors got him off, it made Ben Gazzara look like a stupid ass.” The show died after a year, and it took another 25-years for Dick Wolf to figure out the simple solution to make it work: the lawyers in the second half of the show are THE PROSECUTORS. Duh.

In the first season of Crossing Jordan in 2001, Jordan solved crimes with the help of her ex-cop father by acting out what they knew about the crimes. It was obvious and clunky, and it was dropped fairly quickly.

Up (2009. Screenplay by Bob Peterson, Peter Docter, story by Peter Docter, Thomas McCarthy, Bob Peterson. Yes, in the onscreen credits, they avoid the “and” and “&” completely; it’s known as collaboration. 96 minutes): Nobody cared.

Up has been driving me nuts. In my book Understanding Screenwriting, I made the point in writing about Finding Nemo that the GAPS (Geniuses at Pixar) make a point of writing films that can only be done as animated films. You could not do a live action film about fish having those adventures. You could not do a live action film about cars with those personalities. You could not do a live action film about Monsters, Inc. In the book, I gave the 2003 animated film Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas as an example of an animated film that could have easily been done live action (except for Eris’s hair, which was beautifully animated). So here’s the story of Up: Carl, a cranky 78-year-old man, decides to fulfill his late wife Ellie’s dream of going off to Paradise Falls in South America. Being a former balloon salesman, he attaches hundreds of balloons to the house and with the Wilderness Explorer Russell as a stowaway, they fly off. In South America they discover Charles Muntz, the aged explorer who originally inspired both Carl and Ellie as kids, but he turns out not to be very likable. Carl and Russell protect a bird Muntz is trying to capture, and then new best friends Carl and Russell return to civilization to eat ice cream. Anything in there that requires animation? No. CGI effects for the house flying maybe, but not animation. The characters are real human beings, not fish, rats, or trash compactors. The locations could be found. It could have easily been a live action film.

But it isn’t. And it’s a brilliant ANIMATED film. How the hell did they do that? O.K., I know it’s the GAPS, but how the hell did the GAPS do that? Let’s take care of the obvious things first. As usual with the GAPS, there is a strong, strong story. Danny Munso’s excellent article in the May/June 2009 Creative Screenwriting will tell you how much work went into the process of developing the story. They spend a LONG time developing the story at Pixar, going off to help out on other films as a way of refreshing their brains. The effort shows in the final product. Near the beginning there is a four-minute montage of the life of Carl and Ellie that has received great praise, and rightly so. An article in the Los Angeles Times mentioned that as they originally laid out the montage, it ran twenty minutes. They cut it back to just what they needed. Pay attention to the details in the montage; EVERYTHING in it comes back throughout the picture, sometimes in surprising ways. Meanwhile, it works because you are so caught up in the story and the characters.

Also as usual with the GAPS, there is great characterization. Carl is not just a cranky old man, although he is that as well. Having seen his life with Ellie, we know what all of the adventures he goes through mean to him. Ellie essentially disappears early in the film, but her presence stays with Carl and us. And, as the writers told Munso, the character of Russell calls to mind the character of Ellie, so we can see why, in these circumstances, Carl puts up with Russell, however grumpily. And Ellie’s character pays off beautifully at the end when Carl once again opens up her “My Adventure Book” and gets a surprise.

Writing about WALL-E in US#2, I mentioned that the GAPS are great at writing for the performance of the designers and animators as well as the voice actors, and that is true here. We get the house (and look at how much they get out of the house), the balloons, the scenery, and Muntz’s dirigible.

O.K., all of those things (story, character, visual look) could be done in live action, so we are back to the central question of today’s seminar: why animation for this story? A friend of my wife’s was for many years a medical illustrator at UCLA. Why have a medical illustrator when you can have photographs? Photographs give you so much more detail. Yes, but a good illustrator can draw only what the surgeon, for example, needs to see. How many times have I mentioned that as a writer you only should write what you NEED in a film? The GAPS have used that ability of animation to isolate only what you need to tell THIS story, which in turn focuses our attention on the essentials. They have done this because for twenty some odd years they have been working as a team refining their understanding of their medium (animation) and the stories they bring to it. I doubt if they could have brought off Up when they started, but that they can now is a tribute not only to their talents and collaboration, but to the institution of Pixar. Sometimes individual geniuses are great, but in filmmaking sometimes collaborative genius is essential.

Oh, one other thing. When my wife and I went out to see Up, our intent was to see it in 3-D. The 3-D showing was sold out, so we figured we’d see it in 2-D, since that show was only ten minutes later. Neither we nor the rest of the audience seemed to be bothered by the 2-D version. I am sure the 3-D version has some stunning visuals (mind the GAPS), but our audience was so caught up in the story and characters it gave it a round of applause at the end. In other words, Jeffrey Katzenberg, nobody gave a flying fuck it wasn’t in 3-D.

Summer Hours (2008. Written by Olivier Assayas. 103 minutes): An auteur film, but not really.

As French producers have discovered over the last several decades, you let an auteur director make the film he wants and it is usually a mess: lots of jump cuts, fancy camerawork, people sulking, and not very interesting scripts. So while Assayas is definitely an auteur (he directed as well as wrote this film), he has written a brilliant screenplay for himself, much more coherent than those for some of his other films. Tony Rayns, one of Sight & Sound’s regular critics, described the film in his August 2008 review as “Not exactly plotless but with no clearcut structure.” Which is what you get when you let auteurist critics try to deal with screenwriting.

The plot is very simple on the surface: When Hélène, the 75-year-old mother dies, her three adult children must decide what to do not only with her house out in the provinces, but with the artwork in the house. Frédéric, the oldest and the only one still living in France, would like to keep the house and artwork together and in the family. Adrienne, a designer who lives in New York, and Jérémie, who is living in China and about to move there permanently, would just as soon sell everything and split the money. In an American film you could see this quickly turning into a raging melodrama with lots of yelling and screaming and family secrets spilling out all over the place. It will surprise you to learn that there are only a couple of scenes in which voices are raised in this film. It is obvious the siblings disagree, but equally obvious they love each other.

That plot may justify Rayns’s “not exactly plotless,” but the structure is very rich and complex. This is not just about the family, this is also about France, French culture, and globalization. At the family get-together in the beginning, before Hélène dies, she goes over with Frédéric what is in the house and what she would like done with it. We can’t follow all the names and art pieces, but we get enough. Later, we see the representatives of the Musée D’Orsay and others going through the house and evaluating what is there. This scene works beautifully because we know what these things MEAN to the family. And that scene is matched near the end when Frédéric and his wife are “visiting” several of the objects on display at the Musée. American films tend to look more at individuals rather than the culture, but Summer Hours is as much about culture as character.

Assayas also beautifully structures the characters. In addition to the siblings and their stories, there is Frédéric’s wife Lisa, who is a classic example of someone who has married into the family and as a partial outsider sees it a lot clearer than the insiders. You know someone like that in your family. We first see this during the family gathering, then it pays off in the scene in the Musée.

Frédéric’s and Lisa’s daughter, Sylvie, the oldest of the grandchildren, is first seen in an informal treasure hunt at the family gathering. Then she disappears from the film, only to come back when Frédéric has to pick her up after her arrest for shoplifting. I thought this was an extraneous scene, but it’s not. The three siblings have figured out that the kids are not really interested in the house and therefore are not part of the discussion on what to do with it. Sylvie’s attitude in the police station would seem to confirm that. Then in the final sequence Sylvie and her younger brother and a group of their friends have a last weekend party at the house. You can see what’s going to happen. Only it doesn’t, as Assayas the screenwriter pulls off two or three twists, including a final one that provides the most sublime ending of a film since Julie Delpy’s lack of reaction to Ethan Hawke’s “I know” in Before Sunset.

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009. Screenplay by Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon, based on characters created by Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon. 105 minutes): Bigger, better, but not necessarily funnier.

One thing before we start: Not only does Charlie Dickens need to get a new agent (see US#26), but so does Milan Trenc. And who’s he when he’s at home? He wrote the book that the 2006 Night at the Museum was based on. He was credited on that film, but not on the sequel, while the two screenwriters get credits not only for screenplay but for the characters. O.K., O.K., they did elaborate on what was essentially a children’s book, but since I am required by blood oath to defend writers, I’m just saying…

I was mildly amused by the first film, but it struck me as somewhat underdeveloped. While generally I am not in favor of sequels becoming bigger, this is something of an exception. The original focused on Larry Dailey, who ends up working as a night guard at the American Museum of Natural History. The exhibitions come to life at night and hi-jinks ensue. Some of them were funny, but I felt more could be done with the idea.

When Garant and Lennon were asked to do the sequel, they decided to take some of those characters they created for the first Museum to the Smithsonian in Washington. The setup for the sequel is that the old exhibits are being shipped off to storage in the Federal Archives, which for purposes of this film are under the Smithsonian. Larry, who has kept up his friendship with the exhibits, learns that the tablet that enables them to come to life has been shipped with them and could cause harm if it falls into evil hands, which of course it does. Since the Smithsonian is several different museums spread out over the Mall, this gives the writers a lot more to play with. The brother of the boy Pharoah in the first film plans to use the tablet to bring to life the most evil characters in history, including Napoleon, Ivan the Terrible, and Al Capone, to help in his plan to take over the world. He tries, Larry tries to stop him, hi-jinks ensue. Sounds like a plot to me.

What is it with reviewers and scripts? Both the reviewer of the film and columnist Peter Bart in Weekly Variety (May 25-31), complained, with Bart commenting, “Most important, this is a film that displays a truly surreal sensibility in that it has no tenable plot.” What they were both thrown by is the fact that structure in gag comedy is not as crucial as it is in other genres. Look at the reviews of the “early, funny” Woody Allen movies and they all complain about the lack of plot. Look up the original reviews of the Marx Brothers movies and you will find the same thing. The plot in the new movie is a very simple framework upon which to hang the gags. A picture like this depends on the gags, and they are as surreal and off-the-wall (literally in the sequences when paintings and photographs come to life) as anything in Duck Soup. The ratio of hits to misses is very high in this movie.

Yet I was not laughing, and usually I am an easy laugh. But I was not laughing because I was so charmed by surrealism of what they came up with that I did not mind not laughing. I have that response sometimes to Buster Keaton’s stuff as well. The way they use the famous photo of the sailor kissing the girl in Times Square at the end of World War II is just plain ingenious. Watching one of Jeff Koons’ balloon pieces come to life is charming. The quick meeting of Amelia Earhart and the Tuskegee Airman comes with a throwaway line that contains more social comment that most films manage in two hours. A comedy can work if it makes you laugh a lot. It can also work, as this one does, by making you enjoy what you are, if not laughing at, smiling at.

The writers, who are performers as well as writers, have also written great parts for the actors, which help hold the film together. I think this may be Ben Stiller’s best work, surprisingly subtle in his reactions to the craziness going on around him. The evil Pharoah is Kahmunrah and is played by the great Hank Azaria. Azaria is imitating the voice of Boris Karloff, who starred in the original The Mummy. Bill Hader is as good a General Custer as Errol Flynn was in They Died With Their Boots On, but in a very different key. (Hader was equally good a few months ago in a more realistic role in Adventureland. I am not sure he is going to be a star, but he’s already a better character actor than his work on Saturday Night Live would lead you to believe.)

I love Carla Gugino, but she was not particularly memorable in the first Museum film. The equivalent part here is Amelia Earhart, played by Amy Adams as a combination of Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell, and Claudette Colbert. Garant and Lennon have given her some great thirties dialogue and she runs with it. She more than holds her own against the great CGI effects. Shawn Levy, the director, was quoted in the June 1 New Yorker on what he discovered about male members of the audience, “I spent two years working on this highly complex movie, loaded with FX and C.G.I. [sic. Somebody tell David Remnick that Industry Standard is no periods] stuff, the most memorable visual turns out to be Amy’s, uh, rear in her jodhpurs.” Would you consider that writing for performance?

Easy Virtue (2008. Screenplay by Stephan Elliott & Sheridan Jobbins, based on the play by Noël Coward. 97 minutes): It’s Coward, but not as funny.

While Noël Coward’s great plays such as Private Lives, Design for Living, and Blithe Spirit (currently on Broadway; Congratulations to Angela Lansbury for her Tony for it; Geezer Power Rules!) are often revived, the 1926 play this film is based on is not, and with good reason. As Stephan Elliott told Peter Clines in an interview in the May 22 Creative Screenwriting Weekly, what we think of as the great Noël Coward wit simply is not there in this early drama. Coward himself did not think much of the play and those who have seen Eliot Stannard’s 1927 film adaptation are not that crazy about it, either. (Yes, yes, I know, the 1927 film was directed by the fat little kid Stannard was teaching everything he needed to know to make movies; see Charles Barr’s elegant English Hitchcock for details of Stannard’s importance to the kid’s career.)

When Stephan Elliott, who also directed, and his writing partner took on the project, they decided to bring some Coward-like wit to the story. There is some, some of it probably from the play, which Elliott found rather vicious, but the melodrama aspects of it keep crowding it out. In the play Larita is an older woman who marries a young British man, John, and goes with him to his parents’ country house, which she finds absolutely stifling. The play is set entirely in the house, but Elliott and Jobbins have opened it up, although that is not entirely the word for it, since they have made sure that even in the exterior scenes Larita is hemmed in by others. Though they have made Larita closer in age to John, there are still a number of lines that suggest a greater age difference than we can see. The writers have brought the period forward to 1929, to judge from a reference to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and Larita has now become a race car driver cheated out of winning the Grand Prix at Monte Carlo because she is a woman. She is first cousin to Night’s Amelia Earhart, but the writers here have not given her great dialogue Garant and Lennon have given Earhart. The costumers here have also not given Jessica Biel the formfitting jodhpurs the other costumers gave Amy Adams.

I have not read the original play, but it is obvious from its production history that Larita is the star part. The film is written that way as well, with the writers picking up and expanding on Larita’s wish to be rid of the stuffy upper-class English society. Jessica Biel has given some good performances (The Illusionist), and she gives a good performance here. Unfortunately, it is not the required movie-star performance. She does not come in and command the screen the way she needs to do. She is not helped by the platinum blonde hair, the makeup and the cinematography. Biel is not as physically luscious here as she usually is, which is too bad, because that could have given her performance an interesting texture. Kristin Scott Thomas does take command as John’s mother, who is determined to keep up appearances. Thomas knows her way around a bitchy line, and while Biel holds her own in that department, we have to score it advantage Thomas.

The drama sort of works, and there is a nice moment when John’s father, played by many women’s definitive Mr. Darcy, Colin Firth, does the tango with Larita when John won’t. Which nicely sets up the very satisfying ending.

The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story (2009. No writing credit. 101 minutes): Collaboration.

Robert (lyrics) and Richard (music) Sherman came to work for Walt Disney as the only songwriters on staff at the studio. They not only wrote the songs for Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book, but “It’s a Small World” for the exhibit of the same name at the 1964 World’s Fair and the later rides at the Disney theme parks. The pre-credits sequence establishes most of that and then gives us the kicker: the two brothers couldn’t stand to be around each other when they weren’t working together. The film is made by Gregory V. Sherman and Jeff Sherman, two cousins, each one the son of one of the brothers. They had not spoken to each other for nearly forty years when they met up and decided to do this film. They were not able to reconcile their fathers, but they have come up with a terrific film that shows you how the brothers managed to create such terrific songs while not otherwise speaking to each other.

As we have talked about on many occasions, documentaries can give us wonderful characters, and the brothers, who are still alive, are definitely characters, in every sense of the term. They are surrounded by other interesting characters as well, many of whom we see interviewed for the film. We get not only interviews with actors like Julie Andrews and Haley Mills, but musicians like John Williams (there is some wonderful footage of a much younger Williams hanging out with the brothers; who knew the composer of Star Wars used to be a hippie?), Randy Newman (no slouch at doing songs for animated films himself), and Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin).

What is at the heart of the film is the collaboration of the brothers, and especially their collaboration with Walt Disney himself. I am not the only person to point out that John Lasseter, the head of Pixar, who is also interviewed, is the closest thing we have to Disney in his sense of story and his belief in the collaborative process. See the comments on Up above for details. Seeing this film the day after Up gave me a real sense of connection between the past and the present in animation. And quite frankly, it also made me appreciate how much better the animation is in some Pixar films than it is in some of the Disney classics.

As I mentioned in US#2 about The Order of Myths, one question that nearly always comes up with documentaries is what was left on the cutting room floor. One person who is never mentioned in the film, and who appears only briefly and unidentified in one clip, is Michael Eisner. Eisner took over Disney in the early eighties and revived the studio, bringing back animated musicals. He was the Emperor and Pope of the studio, appearing on television to introduce Disney shows. Why isn’t he here?

One possible answer to that comes from Alan Menken, who talks in the film about coming to the studio to do The Little Mermaid. He was told the Sherman Brothers had an office down the hall, but the person telling him said it in a rather dismissive way. That may have come from Eisner, since the Pope and Emperor sets the tone, in this case a deep lack of respect for tradition.

I was thinking about this after I saw the film and I was reminded of a visit I made to the Abbey at St. Florian, outside of Linz, Austria, in 1998. We were shown around the apartments that had been grandly decorated for potential visits from Popes and Emperors (you didn’t think I was just being snarky about Eisner, did you?). Nobody was particularly impressed, especially when we learned the Popes and Emperors almost never visited. But down at the end of the same hallway, there were two little non-descript rooms. One had a small bed, the other had a table, chair and piano. We were enthralled. These were the rooms when Anton Bruckner lived and composed.

Power fades, talent abides.


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: 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.

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Trolls World Tour
Photo: Universal Pictures

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

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Review: We Summon the Darkness Coasts Lazily on an Empty Twist

The film’s cat-and-mouse antics play out with no sense of escalation or invention.

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We Summon the Darkness
Photo: Saban Films
Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers.

Genre movies these days are rife with self-conscious subversion, and at the cost of cohesiveness. Into this climate strides director Marc Meyers’s 1980s-set Satanic-panic thriller We Summon the Darkness, which drops its twist inside the first 30 minutes and then aimlessly limps toward a rote conclusion for close to another hour.

Alexis (Alexandra Daddario) and her friends (Maddie Hasson and Amy Forsyth) attend a heavy metal concert, where they meet a group of boys (Keean Johnson, Logan Miller, and Austin Swift) and head to a remote location for an after-party. A satanic ritual ensues, except here’s the twist: It’s fake. There are no Satanists. There’s only Alexis and her friends, who are all Christian church girls killing headbangers and staging the scenes to look like murder-suicides, hoping to draw people to their congregation by scapegoating heavy metal.

Viewers are meant to write off some of the early red flags about the girls’ true intentions only to remember them in hindsight, as in how Alexis needs to be reminded of a prominent guitarist’s death. But if the film’s big twist seems to express the “fake fan” fears of dweeb gatekeepers the world over, even those anxieties remain underexplored. We Summon the Darkness struggles to conjure any discernible themes beyond a lot of too-easy jabs at religious hypocrisy, as in a scene about church donations being misappropriated.

The boys spend much of the film’s back half locked in a closet, which is still more engaging than the boilerplate scuffles in the dark that make up the final third. The cat-and-mouse antics play out with no sense of escalation or invention. Like many a film before it, We Summon the Darkness spends such a long time trying to subvert a concept that it neglects everything that might have been appealing even in a straightforward take on its premise.

Cast: Alexandra Daddario, Keean Johnson, Maddie Hasson, Amy Forsyth, Logan Miller, Austin Swift, Johnny Knoxville Director: Marc Meyers Screenwriter: Alan Trezza Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Sea Fever, Though Eerie, Delivers Body Horror in Half Measures

Writer-director Neasa Hardiman’s film is undone by earnestness.

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Sea Fever
Photo: Gunpowder & Sky

With occasional exceptions, humanism doesn’t benefit the horror film, which generally thrives under the inspiration of artists who exploit social vulnerabilities through various formal means. Case in point, Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever is undone by its earnestness. Hardiman is very fond of her protagonist, Siobhán (Hermione Corfield), and the writer-director is striving to make an impassioned point about the value of intelligence and rationality in the midst of a quarantine, an especially resonant theme in the age of COVID-19. In the film, a remarkable amount of time is devoted to the strategy of containing and combating a parasitic creature that invades an Irish fishing trawler, yet Hardiman has virtually no interest in goosing the audience, offering up a monster flick with no pulse.

At its heart, Sea Fever is another single-setting horror film in which an exotic animal systematically infects a blue-collar crew. Conscious of this tradition, Hardiman offers variations on a couple of the genre’s greatest hits: the misleadingly tranquil dinner scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien and the “testing for infection” sequence in John Carpenter’s The Thing. Filmmakers have gotten quite a bit of mileage out of ripping off The Thing over the years, but Hardiman stages this latter scene simply as a scientific inquiry, deriving no suspense from it, and delivering the punchline as an afterthought. Much of the trawler’s crew is the usual collection of burly, hairy studs who look so much alike that you expect a joke to be made of it, except that Hardiman evinces no sense of humor. Even the tension between the men and Siobhán—a student studying unusual sea creatures and therefore an intellectual who must maintain calm in a crisis, rising to the fore to become the next Ripley—often falls flat.

Alien and The Thing are sadistic films whose power derives, in part, from how expertly they surpass our worst suspicions of what’s going to happen. In each case, the monsters are more awful than we expect them to be, continually growing stronger, more disgusting, and more primordial—more, well, alien. By contrast, Hardiman offers a giant, multi-tentacled jellyfish that’s barely in the film, suggesting a wan and naturalistic riff on the thing from Deep Rising, as well as sea maggots that yield one instance of respectable body horror. These are mild returns on over half a running-time’s worth of exposition and foreshadowing.

Yet Sea Fever does have an eerie setting, as the creaky, claustrophobic trawler and the misty water inform the narrative with the aura of an Irish myth or ghost story, which is revealed to be very pertinent. And Corfield gives a poignant and vivid performance, especially during the film’s unexpectedly moving ending, which finds Siobhán weirdly rewarded, as her desire for knowledge and personal expansion is gratified at the expense of disaster. The final scenes clarify Hardiman’s intentions, which somewhat cancel themselves out: an attempt to fuse a monster movie and a poetic myth with a coming-of-age character study.

Cast: Hermione Corfield, Connie Nielsen, Dougray Scott, Olwen Fouéré, Jack Hickey, Ardalan Esmaili, Elie Bouakaze Director: Neasa Hardiman Screenwriter: Neasa Hardiman Distributor: Gunpowder & Sky Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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The 20 Best Zombie Movies of All Time

If zombies seem infinitely spongy as functional allegories, it’s their non-hierarchic function that retains the kernel of their monstrousness.

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The 20 Best Zombie Movies of All Time
Photo: Well Go USA

Zombie movies not only endure, but persist at the height of their popularity, neck and neck with vampire stories in a cultural race to the bottom, their respective “twists” on generic boilerplate masking a dead-eyed derivativeness. For the zombie film (or comic book, or cable TV drama), that boilerplate was struck by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and its subsequent sequels established a loose conception of the undead threat: lumbering, beholden to no centralized authority, sensitive to headshots and decapitations.

If, according to Franco Moretti’s “The Dialectic of Fear,” the vampiric threat (at least as embodied in Count Dracula) operates chiefly as a metaphor for monopoly capital, binding those English bourgeois interlopers to his spell and extracting the blood of their industry, then the zombie poses a more anarchic, horizontalized threat. In post-Romero, hyper-allegorized zombie cinema, the hulking undead mass can be generally understood as the anti-Draculean annihilation of capital. Flesh and blood are acquired but not retained; civilization is destroyed but not remodeled. If zombies seem infinitely spongy as functional allegories for this or that, it’s their non-hierarchic function that retains the kernel of their monstrousness.

At their apex of their allegorical authority, zombies may fundamentally destroy, as attested by our favorite zombie films of all time. But that doesn’t mean their inexhaustible popularity as monster du jour can’t be harnessed to the whims of real-deal market maneuvering, their principally anarchic menace yoked to the proverbial voodoo master of capital. John Semley

Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on October 21, 2019.


Night of the Comet

20. Night of the Comet (1984)

Night of the Comet’s scenario reads like the bastard child of countless drive-in movies, in which most of humanity is instantly reduced to colored piles of dust when the Earth passes through the tail of a comet that last came around—you guessed it—right about the time the dinosaurs went belly-up. Then again, just so you know he’s not adhering too closely to generic procedures, writer-director Thom Eberhardt irreverently elects a couple of pretty vacant valley girls—tomboyish arcade addict Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and her blond cheerleader sister, Sam (Kelli Maroney)—and a Mexican truck driver, Hector (Robert Beltran), to stand in for the last remnants of humanity. With regard to its bubbly protagonists, the film vacillates between poking not-so-gentle fun at their vapid mindset, as in the Dawn of the Dead-indebted shopping spree (obligingly scored to Cindi Lauper’s anthemic “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”), and taking them seriously as agents of their own destiny. Lucky for them, as it happens, that their hard-ass old man taught them how to shoot the shit out of an Uzi—and look adorable doing it. It also doesn’t hurt that Eberhardt filigrees his absurd premise with grace notes like the cheeky cinephilia informing early scenes set in an all-night movie theater. Budd Wilkins


The Living Dead Girl

19. The Living Dead Girl (1982)

In The Living Dead Girl, the gothic ambience that elsewhere suffuses Jean Rollin’s work smashes headlong against the inexorable advance of modernity. The film opens with the vision of bucolic scenery blighted by the scourge of industrialization: rolling hills sliced up by concertina-capped fences, billowing smokestacks visible in the hazy distance. When some dicey movers deposit barrels of chemical waste in the family vault beneath the dilapidated Valmont chateau, a sudden tremor causes the barrels to spring a leak, reanimating the corpse of Catherine Valmont (Françoise Blanchard) in the process. Despite the gruesome carnage she inflicts on hapless and not-so-hapless victims alike, it’s clear that Rollin sees the angelic Catherine, with her flowing blond tresses and clinging white burial weeds, as an undead innocent abroad in a world she can no longer comprehend. The flm builds to a climax of Grand Guignol gruesomeness as Hélène (Marina Pierro), Catherine’s girlhood friend, makes the ultimate sacrifice for her blood sister. It’s an altogether remarkable scene, tinged with melancholy and possessed of a ferocious integrity that’s especially apparent in Blanchard’s unhinged performance. The film’s blood-spattered descent into positively Jacobean tragedy helps to make it one of Rollin’s strongest, most disturbing efforts. Wilkins


They Came Back

18. They Came Back (2004)

They Came Back is a triumph of internal horror, and unlike M. Night Shyamalan’s similarly moody freak-out The Sixth Sense, Robin Campillo’s vision of the dead sharing the same space as the living isn’t predicated on a gimmicky reduction of human faith. Campillo is more upfront than Shyamalan—it’s more or less understood that the presence of the living dead in his film is likely metaphoric—and he actually seems willing to plumb the moral oblivion created by the collision of its two worlds. Though the fear that the film’s walking dead can turn violent at any second is completely unjustified, the writer-director allows this paranoia to reflect the feelings of loss, disassociation, and hopelessness that cripple the living. It’s rather amazing how far the film is able to coast on its uniquely fascinating premise, even if it isn’t much of a stretch for its director: Campillo co-authored Laurent Cantet’s incredible Time Out, a different kind of zombie film about the deadening effects of too much work on the human psyche, and They Came Back is almost as impressive in its concern with the existential relationship between the physical and non-physical world. Ed Gonzalez


Zombi Child

17. Zombi Child (2019)

Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child is a quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments in in the film where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper than race relations. Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. The film’s off-kilter mix of horror, historiography, and youth movie affords Bonello plenty of opportunity to indulge his pet themes and motifs. He spends much time lingering throughout scenes set at the academy on the sociality of the young women and their engagement with pop culture. In fact, Bonello’s fascination with the dynamics of these relationships seems to drive his interest in the horror genre more so even than the film’s most obvious antecedent, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie—as is indicated by a pretty explicit homage to Brian De Palma’s Carrie. Sam C. Mac


Train to Busan

16. Train to Busan (2016)

When divorced of message-mongering, the film’s scare tactics are among the most distinctive that the zombie canon has ever seen. The zombies here are rabid, fast-moving ghoulies that, as Train to Busan’s protagonists discover, are attracted to loud sounds and only attack what they can actually see. This realization becomes the foundation for a series of taut set pieces during which the story’s motley crew of survivors manipulate their way past zombies with the aid of cellphones and bats and the numerous tunnels through which the train must travel. The genre crosspollination for which so many South Korean thrillers have come to be known for is most evident in these scenes (as in the survivors crawling across one train car’s overhead luggage area), which blend together the tropes of survivor-horror and disaster films, as well as suggest the mechanics of puzzle-platformer games. Gonzalez

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Review: Nafi’s Father Is a Raw and Immediate Look at a Collison of Faith

The film vibrantly articulates all that’s lost when people are held under the draconian decree of warlords.

3

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Nafi's Father
Photo: Locarno

Writer-director Mamadou Dia’s feature-length debut, Nafi’s Father, hinges on the contentious relationship between two brothers, each one devoted to an opposing version of Islam, and how their bid for primacy leads to rising tensions in the small Senegalese town they call home. For Tierno (Alassane Sy), who’s well on his way to becoming an imam, the religion is a justification for peace and self-reflection. And while his practices are largely traditional, he’s lenient about some of the more repressive rules that many other imams would blindly enforce. But for his greedy, duplicitous brother, Ousmane (Saïkou Lo), Islam is merely a stepping stone to achieving control over their town. As Tierno struggles to keep his followers on the path of righteousness, Ousmane repeatedly arrives on the scene with stacks of cash from a fundamentalist sheikh looking to draw supporters to his cause.

Dia delicately balances this depiction of the gradual arrival of more restrictive, fundamentalist forces within the town’s borders with a small-scale family drama that plays out after Ousmane’s son, Tokara (Alassane Ndoye), asks Tierno’s daughter, Nafi (Aïcha Talla), for her hand in marriage. Tierno’s fears for his daughter were she to become Ousmane’s daughter-in-law are legitimate, but his refusal to consent to the union is driven more by his lingering jealousy of his brother, who was favored by their parents, and a desire to keep Nafi from venturing out to the nearby city, where she wants to study neurosciences.

While Tierno sees through his brother’s nefarious methods and justly fears the terrifying sheikh, his own restrictive treatment of Nafi, who genuinely loves and wants to marry Tokara, lends the film’s central sibling rivalry a potent irony; no one here is free from blame in the tragic events that will follow. Just as Ousmane courts the sheikh for his own benefit, so does Tierno impede his daughter’s desires only to serve his own ego. Dia nimbly reveals how this battle of headstrong wills reverberates through both the entire local community and within Tierno’s own family. As the sheikh’s presence is felt more forcefully, we also see how even those with the appearance of authority and respect in such an oppressed society, such as Tierno and Ousmane, are ultimately rendered as helpless as those in their own flock when someone with money and guns arrives on the scene, licking their chops like a wolf at the door.

Shooting in a small town in northeast Senegal, near where he grew up, Dia counters the film’s central tragedy with an emphasis on the region’s sparse beauty and its cultural mores and artifacts, from its marriage rituals to the vibrantly colorful, intricately designed costumes. The richness and cultural specificity that Dia brings to Nafi’s Father lends it an authenticity that helps articulate all that’s lost when such towns are held under the draconian decree of warlords. The film’s pacing is quite deliberate, and while it could perhaps use some tighter editing in the middle stretches, it’s the acute attention paid to how seemingly trivial acts of greed and selfishness can, over time, lay the tracks for an outright takeover by violent fundamentalists that gives a familiar subject such a gripping, raw immediacy.

Nafi’s Father had its world premiere last year at Locarno and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact JoyeDidi.

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

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

3.5

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Days of Cannibalism
Photo: Berlinale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 100 Best Westerns of All Time

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

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The 100 Best Westerns of All Time
Photo: United Artists

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

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

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

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

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

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


Drums Along the Mohawk

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

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


Tombstone

99. Tombstone (George P. Cosmatos, 1993)

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


True Grit

98. True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969)

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


Death Rides a Horse

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

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


The Violent Men

96. The Violent Men (Rudolph Maté, 1955)

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


Westward the Women

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

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


The Gold Rush

94. The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925)

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


Destry Rides Again

93. Destry Rides Again (George Marshall, 1939)

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


The Wind

92. The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1927)

So many late silent films are infused with a delirious energy, a sheer delight in the transportive powers of the cinema, and Sweden’s original film genius, Victor Sjöström, was renowned as a master of subjective, otherworldly moving images. With the hallucinatory The Wind, he delivered his most captivating visual play of subjective and objective realities, casting Lillian Gish as an East Coast virgin who’s tormented on an ineffable psychical (and ambiguously erotic) level by the overbearing winds of the Great Plains. After circumstances force her into an unwanted marriage, she’s left alone in the small cottage she shares with her unloved husband as the personified wind blows open doors, whips up dust, and…takes the shape of giant stark-white colts who buck across the open sky. In a career-defining role, Gish grounds the film, giving a performance that humanizes the sensational and sensual inner conflict of a woman left alone in a vast, empty wilderness. Brown


Run of the Arrow

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

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

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Review: Vivarium Looks Aloofly at the Nightmare of Conformity

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

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Vivarium
Photo: Saban Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Resistance
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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