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Understanding Screenwriting #29: Departures, Tetro, The Proposal, Fellini Satyricon, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #29: Departures, Tetro, The Proposal, Fellini Satyricon, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Departures, Tetro, The Proposal, Fellini Satyricon, Fellini’s Roma, Singin’ in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece (book), and the beginning of the cable season, but first…

Fan Mail: Daniel Iffland wrote in about enjoying The Hangover because it is a shaggy dog story, which I agree is part of its charm. As you will see from an item below, Daniel, I am a fan of shaggy dog stories, even if they are not films one usually puts in that category. For example I like and classify as shaggy dog stories The Magician, Touch of Evil, Psycho, and the one discussed below.

Both “JD” and David Marin-Guzman wondered about what happens as a project moves from script to film, again in relation to The Hangover. David was thinking the move from a PG-13 script to an R-rated one may have caused the humor to become lame. It is very possible, since what often happens in the development process is a shift from the tone the original writers wanted. In JD’s case he was bothered by the extremely effeminate performance of the character of Mr. Chow and “wondered if the performance was the same as written on the page or embellished by the actor.” Not having seen any of the drafts of the script, I cannot tell you for sure. But the possibilities are even more complicated than JD suggested. Here is a list of possibilities of what might have happened, along with my guesses as to the probability of those being the case:

1. The character may have been that way in the script from the beginning (possible).

2. The character may have had a hint of that in the Lucas and Moore drafts, then expanded in the “uncredited rewrites” (probable).

3. The actor may have come in with that interpretation, even without it being in the script (unlikely).

4. The director may have seen a bit of that potential in the actor’s performance and pushed him in that direction (probable).

5. The actor and director may have just taken off in that direction, knowing the script always planned to have the photograph at the end with Mr. Chow and the women, figuring that would take the edge off (possible).

6. Same as above, but with the producers, realizing they had gone too far, adding the photograph to take the edge off (probable).

As you can see, making a movie has a lot of moving parts, and unless you were there, you may not know exactly what happened.

Departures (2008. Written by Kundo Koyama. 130 minutes): Yeah, it deserved it.

Several people got very upset when Departures beat out Waltz with Bashir and The Class for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film this year. You may remember from US#15 that I was not fond of Waltz. I do have to admit that I did not see The Class (it sounded too much like what I go through every day teaching; why I would I want to pay money to see that?), but I can see why the Academy voted for Departures. It is a lovely, moving, funny, and hugely satisfying film.

You may know the story from having read about it. Daigo, a young Japanese cellist, loses his job when his orchestra disbands. He and his wife Mika go to his hometown on the coast and live in his late mother’s house. Daigo inadvertently ends up with a job as an encoffiner, somebody who prepares dead bodies to be put in coffins. In America, given our attitudes about death, all of that is done in private. In Japan, it has come to be a ceremony, with family and friends watching.

The obvious place to start the script is with the cellist losing his job, and then once we get to know the characters, getting him involved in his new job. Koyama plays it differently. He starts with Daigo and his older boss, Sasaki, going out to a ceremony. We find out what the job entails as we get caught up in the process. Koyama then gives it a great twist to show this is not going to be all death and sadness. Only then do we get the flashbacks that tell us how he came to that moment.

Koyama spaces the ceremonies through the film like numbers in a musical: Some virtual solos, some ensemble pieces, some quiet, some loud, and all of them revealing the character of Daigo, Sasaki, or others, as well as of Japanese attitudes towards death. The final two ceremonies are rich with details about characters we have met. In the second to last a character we have assumed was just a minor player turns out to have much more to do with the story and its themes than we could have guessed. The final ceremony, away from Daigo’s home town, is a counterpoint to what we have seen Daigo do and a satisfying finish for the film for many reasons.

Daigo’s character is established early in a subtle way as someone who does not tell his wife everything. When she eventually learns of his job, she is turned off, as are many people who knew him when he was growing up. Mika leaves him, then later returns, and in that second-to-last ceremony comes to appreciate the value of what he does to the family of the dead woman, someone Mika came to know when she first came to town. At the last ceremony, Daigo is trying to slow down the funeral directors, who don’t want to bother with a ceremony. When they object, it is Mika who says, “My husband is a professional.” A great, simple line.

The character of Sasaki is played by the wonderful Japanese actor, Tsutomu Yamazaki, whom you may remember as the Japanese equivalent of the lone gunslinger who rides into town and saves the widow’s noodle shop in the great 1985 Itami classic Tampopo. He is older now, but his Gregory Peck-Buster Keaton deadpan is a marvelous counterpoint to Masahiro Motoki’s occasionally frazzled Daigo. Koyama has written them a great pair of characters to play.

Koyama not only handles the story and characters well, but is especially good at the interweaving of themes. We first assume the film is about death, which it is. But then it is also about work. And about marriage. And about friendship. And about nature. Koyama’s touch at shifting from one theme to another is masterful, one of the best examples of its kind I have ever seen. His script is very much in the tradition of the arts of Asia, where elements are seen not only for themselves, but as parts of a much larger whole.

You may be surprised that, in the last paragraph, I did not say the film was about music. It is, of course, but the photograph used in the newspaper ads of Daigo playing his cello out by the mountains in the winter (how does he keep it in tune?) is the only clunky shot in the entire film. That is probably why the marketing people used it. Everything else in the film is so much subtler and so much better.

Tetro (2009. Written by Francis Ford Coppola. 127 minutes): Not easy to write about.

Given that I have been thinking and writing about screenplays for a long time, my comments on most of the scripts, especially for the American films, come fairly easily to me. Experience counts. Sometimes foreign films are also relatively easy to deal with, as was Departures, even as complex as that script was. But there are some scripts that take a lot more effort. Up (US#27) was one, Tetro is another. (Speaking of Up, I went back to see it again, this time in 3-D. I was so caught up again in the story and characters that I was constantly forgetting it was in 3-D. When I did remember I felt the GAPS were usually it effectively, but then they are the GAPS, after all. That’s Geniuses At Pixar, for those of you who missed the reference in US#27.)

I have been watching Coppola’s movies since before many of you were born. No, I did not see his early sixties’ nudies Tonight for Sure or The Bellboy and the Playgirls. As a graduate student at UCLA in the late sixties, though, studying screenwriting with the man who had been his instructor, the late Marvin Borowsky, I was aware of Coppola’s work long before that one he did about the Italian-American family that keeps getting into trouble. I am a huge fan of The Conversation, and since we were able at LACC to score a 35mm print of it at one of Zoetrope’s bankruptcy auctions, I show it almost every semester in my film history course. I do admit to a preference for his narrative films such as The Godfather and The Rainmaker more than his “expand the nature of cinema as we know it” projects, so you can imagine I approached Tetro with a little trepidation. The upside going in was that reviews had indicated he was dealing with character and issues, not just showing off in terms of style.

Bennie, an about-to-be 18-year-old boy, gets off a cruise ship where he works as a waiter, in Buenos Aires. He is tracking down his brother Angelo, who now wants to be called Tetro. Angelo had left the family (they are both sons of a famous classical music conductor), promising to come back to get Bennie, which he did not. The woman who answers the door at the apartment, Miranda, is Tetro’s girl friend. One of Coppola’s weakness as both writer and director is that the women characters are often underdeveloped and/or not well directed. Diane Keaton, who is wonderful in The Godfather II, is awful in the first Godfather. Anjelica Huston gives one of her worst performances in Gardens of Stone. Coppola directed his daughter Sofia, who was good in Inside Monkey Zetterland, like a father rather than a director in Godfather III. Here Miranda is the most likable of the three major characters, and Coppola has beautifully directed the great Spanish actress Mirabel Verdú in the role. Tetro is not the nicest person in the world, and Coppola spends way more time than he needs showing what a pain he can be. On the other hand, Coppola does show us that he is tortured and not just an asshole. One of Coppola’s great skills is his work with actors, and the script provides the opportunity to do that. Why Tetro is so tortured we do not find out until late in the film.

We see Bennie try to redevelop the relationship he once had with his brother, and we see it in the context of music, dance, theater, film and writing. When I wrote about Summer Hours (US#27) I mentioned that it deals with French culture as well as with the family and that American films generally do not do that. Tetro is one that does, and it seems odd but enormously satisfying in an American film.

Bennie discovers the writing that Tetro has been doing, but not publishing, and he begins to copy it out in a legible way. The writing appears to be in prose, but Bennie turns it into a stage play, without Tetro’s knowing it. This is where I think the script begins to go wrong. We have not had any indication Bennie had any thoughts about becoming a writer, so it seems an odd, unmotivated move for him. Tetro is understandably upset, but the scene where Miranda talks to him about it seems to only skim the surface of the issue. There is a lot more both of them could have said. Tetro does not stop the play, and he goes along with the troupe to an arts festival in Patagonia to present it. (The black-and-white cinematography, both of Buenos Aires and Patagonia, is worth seeing the film in a theater for, especially if, like me, you love black-and-white.) The festival seems more like a film festival than a theater festival, and it is there that Tetro finally explains the family secret to Bennie. In, alas, one of the least dramatic revelation scenes I have ever seen. At this point it becomes apparent that as a writer Coppola has not really prepared us for this moment, either in Bennie’s reactions to Tetro or Tetro’s reactions to Bennie in the preceding scenes. Then we get the scene of their father’s funeral, which just turns weird, especially in Tetro’s disruption, which does not seem to bother the other people very much. And Bennie starting to wear a leather jacket like Tetro’s is not an encouraging sign, either.

So. Here you have a screenplay by a master screenwriter that gives us a lot. There are interesting characters (I like the theater folk the brothers deal with, but “Alone,” the mysterious critic is more a concept than a character, which gives that other great Spanish actress Carmen Maura not enough to do), interesting locations, an interesting setup, but an unsatisfying payoff. I like so much of it that I wish it were better, and I am not sorry I saw it.

The Proposal (2009. Written by Peter Chiarelli. 108 minutes): Sanity prevailed.

No, not in the movie, which I will get to in a minute. But when I looking up the credits on the IMDb in late June, I was horrified to find that IMDb had stopped listing the writers at the top of the first page, which they have done as long as I have been using it. It always seemed to me that giving the writers billing right next to directors was a step in the right direction. I thought for a bit that if you wanted to find the writers now you would have to click on “full cast and crew.” But they had moved them down the first page to the “Additional details” under the cast. A quick check on some older titles showed they did it for every title, not just the new ones. I suspect that too many actors may have complained about writers being billed above them. The good news is that a day later when I checked, they had restored writers to the top of the page. My thanks to any of you who had noticed and complained to IMDb. I had not gotten around to it yet before they changed.

Now then, where were we? Ah, yes, The Proposal. This is a perfect example of how screenwriters and movie audiences are smarter than the marketing people (those idiots again!). In the trailer for this film, we get Sandra Bullock’s Margaret as the Boss From Hell, with her being snippy and everybody afraid of her. Then we see her uncomfortable as she goes off to pretend she is getting married to Andrew, her assistant, and avoid being deported to Canada. The trailer makes Margaret seem just as bad as Jean, the bitch Bullock portrayed in Crash. Don’t the marketers remember that we adore Bullock when she is lovable? They seemed to, since later trailers included at least one shot of her laughing warmly.

Well, in spite of the marketing miscue, audiences turned out in droves for the opening week, and business seems to be holding up. What Chiarelli does at the beginning of the film is not only show Margaret as the Boss From Hell, but as an efficient schmoozer who talks a reclusive author into an appearance on Oprah. She is also a focused worker who does not like incompetents and someone with at least a little sense of humor about herself. So we can see that there is possibility for change with her, which is essential for the film to work. Audiences can look forward to seeing our Sandy.

Chiarelli also sets up her assistant Andrew as more than just the put-upon schlub the trailer makes him out to be. He’s smart and he realizes her demand that she marry him gives him some leverage, which he is determined to use. He has a bit of a ruthless side as well. What we have here is a couple with some balance, again in spite of what the trailer shows you. That makes watching them fun. Andrew is played by Ryan Reynolds, whom I suggested in US#19 was not quite up to the demands of the starring role in Definitely, Maybe. Well, he is here. Probably because his character is better defined than it was in the earlier film. And he has somebody great to play off. Reynolds and Bullock, who have been friends for a while, have great chemistry together and it makes the picture.

Margaret and Andrew fly up to his hometown of Sitka, Alaska for the 90th birthday of his grandmother, the always-welcome Betty White. What keeps this from being just a retread of Meet the Parents is that both Margaret and Andrew have a lot to hide from his family, which gives each scene some dynamics. Needless to say, everything seems to work out, but stick through the end credits. We see bits of Margaret and Andrew’s post-weekend interview with an immigration officer, who also seems to be interviewing some of the characters from Sitka as well. The material is not quite strong enough for a final scene, but with enough good bits and pieces to work under the credits. Never throw anything away.

Fellini Satyricon (1969. Story and screenplay by Federico Fellini and Bernadino Zapponi, additional screenplay material by Brunello Rondi, freely adapted from “Satyricon” by Petronius. 128 minutes): A match not necessarily made in heaven.

In the late sixties, after the enormous successes of La Dolce Vita and 8 ½, Fellini found himself drawn toward the idea of making a film from Satyricon. What we have of the literary Satyricon is about a fourth of the first century book supposedly written by Petronius, an official in Nero’s court. (For a rather nice portrayal of Petronius, look at Leo Genn’s performance in MGM’s otherwise blunderbuss 1951 production of Quo Vadis?.) Satyricon is sort of a novel, but with various diversions, stories, et al. Fellini was interested in it as a demonstration of the “voids, the dark places” we don’t see in the official versions of history, according to Hollis Alpert’s stolid but informative biography, Fellini, A Life. You’d think that the Fellini who made a film about modern Roman decadence (La Dolce Vita) would do something wonderful with ancient Roman decadence.

Well, the decadence is there, but it overpowers everything else. The two main characters, taken from Petronius, are Encolpius and Ascyltus, two young men Fellini saw as hippies of their day. Those characters, and the others, are all surface, with no interior life. They have none of the richness one sees in the characters in Nights of Cabiria or 8 ½. Encolpius and Ascyltus fight over a beautiful 16-year-old boy, Giton, whom Encolpius loves. Giton is even blanker than the other two. We have no idea what if anything is going on inside that pretty little head of his, and when he disappears halfway through the film, we don’t miss him. Encolpius’s attempts to get Giton back take him to a show put on by the actor Vernaccio—the ancient Roman equivalent of the music halls that show up in other Fellini films, but here it has the feeling of being researched rather than felt. Encolpius and Giton pass by a brothel, but it is just faces in windows (see below for the brothels in Fellini’s Roma). One of the centerpieces of the book is Trimalchio’s banquet, in which Petronius satirized the nouveau riche of his day, but in Fellini and Zapponi’s hands, it is just excess, with very little point. We have a sequence with our guys as galley slaves, and quite frankly it is less interesting than the equivalent scene in the 1959 American version of Ben-Hur because we do not care about the characters, and the semi-historical details are not particularly compelling. The writers give us a long scene, not as far as I can tell in the original, of a Roman nobleman sending his children away before killing himself and his wife, but we have no idea who they are or how they relate to anything else in the film. They may have been meant as a shout-out to the actual Petronius, who killed himself in a particularly elegant way, according to Tacitus, but there is nothing in the film that tells us that. Encolpius and Ascyltus arrive at the nobleman’s house later, see the bodies and then have a frolic with the lone surviving maid, who does not seem to mind. Encolpius finds himself in an arena with a man dressed as a minotaur, but the scene is not as compelling as any number of gladiator scenes in American-made Roman epics. The lack of characters and continuity means these scenes must stand on their own, which they do not.

Bernadino Zapponi, Fellini’s co-writer on this, had written a book of stories Fellini liked and had co-written the “Toby Dammit” episode Fellini directed for the 1968 filmed called Spirits of the Dead. Fellini had moved away from the other writers he had worked with before, although one of them, Brunello Rondi, is credited with additional screenplay material in the film’s credits. Whatever he did, it was not enough.

Fellini’s Roma (1972. Story and Screenplay by Federico Fellini and Bernardino Zapponi. 119 minutes [American version]; 128 minutes [original version]): A match a little closer to being made in heaven.

This film should not work for all the reasons Fellini Satyricon does not work: The characters are not very deep, and like a lot of directors Fellini became enamored of scenes more than stories. This film is a collection of scenes in and about Rome. “Fellini” (and I am not sure it is really him, at least in the American version Turner Classic Movies ran in June) tells us in the opening narration that the film does not have conventional characters or story. That may be in response to the fact that Satyricon did not do that well at the American box office, since we like movies that tell stories.

So it’s a documentary, right? Don’t bet the farm on that. They begin with a number of scenes that recreate moments in Fellini’s childhood in Rimini in which he learns about Rome. These scenes could easily fit into Fellini’s next film Amarcord. They are amusing because, unlike the scenes in Satyricon, we can see the connection with real life. They have a warmth missing in the earlier film. Then in a long sequence Fellini recounts his arrival in Rome in the late thirties. He has an actor playing his young self, and the actor is not a lot more expressive than the leads in Satyricon, but he has details to react to. Fellini jumps ahead thirty years and gives us a real documentary sequence of what it is like to arrive in Rome on one of the major motorways. A real documentary? Some of it is, but some of it was done on a set for the motorway Fellini had built. A scene that starts out as documentary turns Fellini-esque. The last time I saw this in a theater, the audience was a bit baffled by this, as younger audiences often are at Fellini, because they do not realize he is a teller of shaggy dog stories. They didn’t realize that Fellini is funny.

A little later we get what again starts out as a documentary episode, of a film crew going into an excavation for the new subway. Except they break through into rooms that have ancient mosaics on the wall. OK, but then the air coming in makes the paintings vanish. Does that really happen? I told you he was a teller of shaggy dog stories, and this one is haunting and poetic.

We get a sequence in a forties music hall, and it is much more detailed and realistic than the similar sequence in Satyricon, as are a couple of lively brothel scenes, one a poor brothel, one a rich one. The women there are not just faces in windows, but march around the men, demanding them to make a choice. Like the music hall sequence, it has a lived, rather that researched feeling.

What starts out to be an interview with an aging aristocrat turns into a fashion show. Of ecclesiastical clothing. If the audience is not laughing by this scene, there is no hope for them with Fellini. Zapponi claims that he came up with the idea for this scene based on the fact that there are a number of stores in Rome that handle such clothing. Whoever came up with it, and I am willing to take Zapponi’s word, it is a simple, but very imaginative jump from that to a fashion show.

The writers have an outdoor festival, which connects with the first night young Fellini came to Rome. Then a group of motorcyclists roar through Rome, and we see the monuments of Rome zip past from the point of view of the cyclists, which connects with the way the past is disappearing in the mosaic scene.

No, there are not conventional characters nor a conventional story, but unlike Satyricon, the individual sequences are so rich and vivid by themselves, and connect up in subtle ways, that the film, in spite of sequences that don’t work, is a satisfying whole. It is not up to the best of Fellini, but how many movies, including those of Fellini, are?

Singin’ in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece (2009. Book by Earl J. Hess and Pratibha A. Dabholkar. 321 pages): More collaboration.

In 1973 Donald Knox did a terrific book called The Magic Factory: How MGM Made An American in Paris. As much as I liked that book, I always thought he should have done it about Singin’ in the Rain, which, American’s Best Picture Oscar aside, is a much better film. Thirty-six years later Hess and Dabholkar have finally gotten around to doing that book. And it’s even better than I hoped.

When Knox was collecting material for his book, the studio files at all studios were generally closed to scholars, so following in the path of people like Kevin Brownlow, he conducted detailed oral history interviews with the collaborators on American. There was a great push at that time, inspired by Brownlow’s monumental book of oral history interviews with survivors of the silent film era, The Parade’s Gone By, to get people on tape before they passed away. Many of the people who worked on Singin’ have since passed away, but many were interviewed by various oral history projects, and the authors have access to all of those. We who were involved in collecting oral histories were told what we were doing was the “first draft of history,” and I find it satisfying Hess and Dabholkar are using them now, and in an interesting way. When you interview people, you usually develop some kind of fondness for them. So you tend to believe what they tell you. Because Hess and Dabholkar are working from transcripts, interviews, and autobiographies, they are very good are telling you that these Hollywood storytellers have often told very different versions over the years of what happened making the film.

The authors use not only those oral histories involving famous people like Gene Kelly. For example there is Rudy Behlmer’s interview with Lela Simone. And who was she? She was a music coordinator and assistant to Arthur Freed, the producer of Singin’. She supervised a lot of the post-production work, including sound effects on the title number. We get not only her recollections, but her notes, since the studios have donated/dumped a lot of their paper archives into university libraries and the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy. As I mentioned above, there are a lot moving parts in the making of any movie. Pauline Kael, writing about Doctor Zhivago, said, “It’s not art, it’s heavy labor.” Making any movie involves heavy labor, and Hess and Dabholkar’s book lets you know how much heavy labor went into the making of one the lightest and most charming American films.

The most detailed account of the script development of the film we have had so far comes from an essay the two screenwriters, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, wrote for the 1972 publication of the script. Hess and Dabholkar follow that, but they also have looked at the surviving script materials. That shows, even more than Comden and Green’s essay, how much collaboration was constantly going on with them and Gene Kelly and the others. The basics of the film were there in the first drafts, but there were constant changes and improvements. And also some possible disasters they avoided. Comden and Green had to go back to New York to work on a show, and at one point they suggested playwright Joseph Fields come in and work with Kelly. Hess and Dabholkar tell what some of Fields’ suggestions were. How could a guy that talented be that wrongheaded? Fortunately sanity prevailed there as well.

I have actually come across a few of my students over the years who do not like Singin’ in the Rain. They are not cretins, nor are they morally deficient. For all the rest of us, this book will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about how the film was made. You may find yourself so exhausted after reading it from the descriptions of all the heavy lifting that went on that you will want to rest a while before looking at the film again.

The Beginning of the Cable Season: Returns and newbies.

In US#26, I wrote about the end of the network television season. It has been followed of course, by the arrival of the summer season on cable, which means the returns of some favorites and some new shows.

Season Three of Burn Notice picks up where season two left off: Michael had jumped out of a helicopter that “Management” had taken him up in to tell him that they were no longer going to protect him. As I suggested in US#21, this opens up a whole new set of people who wish Michael ill. Michael knows he is suddenly showing up on computer lists and in police files. In the first episode, “Friends and Family” (written by Matt Nix), he is approached by an old colleague, Harlan, who says he needs his help. By now Michael should realize people like that are up to no good. In the second episode, “End Run” (written by Craig O’Neill), local detective Paxson picks up Michael’s brother Nate in an effort to get Michael to talk about assorted semi-legal things he has been involved in in the first two seasons. Michael outwits her, and in episode four, “Fearless Leader” (written by Michael Horowitz), Michael manages to find out what cases Paxson is working on and arrange for her to capture one of the biggest fish she is after. She agrees not to go after Michael, but I doubt if we have seen the last of her. Throughout these episodes Madeline (Michael’s mother), Sam, and especially Fiona have been pushing Michael to stop trying to get back into intelligence work and just agree to work with them on cases. Michael is determined to get back in, so we are going to have that as the running theme for the season.

The Closer started up its season differently. In the last episode of the previous season, Brenda and Fritz, the F.B.I. agent, got married. So do we see their period of adjustment? Not so much. In the first episode, “Products of Discovery” (written by Michael Alaimo), it is several months after the wedding, and we are well into the episode before we even get a scene with Fritz. And then it is about their sick cat. I know the kitten is supposed to be a human interest story, but it just came across as weird. Especially when they kept returning to the cat in subsequent episodes. And even after they had to have the cat euthanized, the following week, in “Walking Back the Cat” (written by Leo Geter), Brenda is carrying around a container with kitty’s ashes, which leads to all the obvious sight gags and one-liners. In this episode, we do get to see a little more of Brenda and Fritz working together, since he asks her to see if she can track down a missing person the F.B.I. has an interest in. It is of course a lot more complicated than that, and there is a disagreement between the two of them on procedure, since as a cop she is allowed to lie to a suspect, while he is not. Not as much is made of that as you could. The writers of all the episodes so far are not getting into what a marriage between these two means.

Saving Grace, having killed off Leon at the end of last season, is now dancing around “coma girl,” as Grace refers to the black girl she thinks knows Earl. Three episodes in the girl has still not awakened, although in “Watch Siggybaby Burn” (written by Denitria Harris-Lawrence & Jessica Mecklenberg) we learn that Earl has been taking coma girl on trips and apparently getting her drunk, since alcohol is showing up in her blood stream. We get no indication what the doctors think about that. Meanwhile, Grace, having been behaving herself in the last season, has returned to her wild ways, and in “Watch Siggybaby Burn” she and her pal Rhetta spend a lot of time behaving like teenagers on a bender.

Since my Time-Warner system does not deign to give us Showtime, I have had to pass on Nurse Jackie, but I did pick up a couple of episodes of the other new nurse show, HawthoRNe on TNT. The “Pilot” was written by John Masius, an old St. Elsewhere vet, but you could not tell it. In it we are introduced to Christina Hawthorne, the head nurse at a hospital in Richmond, Virginia, although no one talks in a southern accent. She is of course SuperNurse, saying and doing all the right things, challenging the doctors, and fighting for the patients. When someone asks her, “Who’s side are you on?” Christina of course replies, “Right now, the patient’s.” Yeah, and that makes her different from every other nurse how? I loved Jada Pinkett Smith in Collateral, but mostly she has played supporting roles. She is not yet giving a star performance here that will carry the show. She and everybody else in this episode and the following one, “Healing Time,” are just a little too good-natured and easygoing. The staffs in both St. Elsewhere and ER had a lot of edges to them. The one semi-non-cliched character is nurse Bobbie Jackson, Christina’s best friend, who has an artificial leg. We know because she gets stabbed in it and it doesn’t hurt. Then a guy who wants to date her brings along spackle to their first date. I am not sure how much more you can do with that, and it is not a reason all by itself to watch the show.

I almost did not watch the opener of HBO’s Hung. The premise is ridiculous: A high school basketball coach decides to supplement his meager income by hiring out as a male prostitute, since he has a large penis. Then all of the hype about the show was that it was more than its premise. Then several critics agreed that it was more than its premise. I know, the joke here should be that it is not, but the hype and the critics were right, at least about the “Pilot” episode (written by Dimitry Lipkin & Colette Burson). The episode starts off slowly, setting up the context: We are in Detroit and financially times are bad for everybody. Ray Drecker’s wife has left him for a dermatologist who had been a nerd when they were all in school together. He has had to move into his late parents’ house, which is nearly destroyed in a fire. He gets re-involved with a poet, Tanya, he had a one-night stand with, and they inadvertently come up with the idea of him becoming a male prostitute. It is all done in a very low-key, even realistic, way, and some of the dialogue is rather sharp, as are the reactions of the characters. Look at Tanya’s reaction when Ray asks her if she intends to be his pimp: She just looks at him and quietly says, “Yes.” The tone is very interesting. But tone alone cannot carry a show. I am not entirely sure where they can go with the basic idea. Ray is sort of a blank, and can you do this with a Special Guest Star customer every week? It is worth checking out to see what they can do with it.

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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The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century

These are the films from this millennium that have most shocked us by plumbing our deepest primordial terrors.

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The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century
Photo: Focus World
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on October 10, 2018.

Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”

At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. Budd Wilkins


Them

50. Them (2006)

Hoody-clad sadists attack a couple, alone in their country home. That’s all the setup that co-writers/directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud need to dredge up some uniquely discomfiting chills. You won’t be able to shake Them after seeing it because it’s scary without being grisly or full of cheap jump scares. Instead, it’s a marvel of precise timing and action choreography. The silence that deadens the air between each new assault becomes more and more disquieting as the film goes on. Likewise, the house where Them is primarily set in seems to grow bigger with each new hole the film’s villains tear out of. To get the maximum effect, be sure to watch this one at night; just don’t watch it alone. Simon Abrams


Black Death

49. Black Death (2010)

Grim aesthetics and an even grimmer worldview define Black Death, in which ardent piousness and defiant paganism both prove paths toward violence, hypocrisy, and hell. Christopher Smith’s 14th-century period piece exudes an oppressive sense of physical, spiritual, and atmospheric weight, with grimy doom hanging in the air like the fog enshrouding its dense forests. His story concerns a gang of thugs, torturers, and killers led by Ulric (Sean Bean), a devout soldier commissioned by the church to visit the lone, remote town in the land not afflicted by a fatal pestilence, where it’s suspected a necromancer is raising the dead. Dario Poloni’s austere script charts the crew’s journey into a misty netherworld where the viciousness of man seems constantly matched by divine cruelty, even as the role of God’s hand—in the pestilence, and in the personal affairs of individuals—remains throughout tantalizingly oblique. Nick Schager


The Invitation

48. The Invitation (2015)

The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan


Midsommar

47. Midsommar (2019)

Anybody who’s seen Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man or similar folk horror films will hardly be surprised by any of the plot turns in Ari Aster’s Midsommar. From early on, there’s no doubt that the pagan rituals at the film’s center will spell doom for the group of friends who visit rural Sweden in a quasi-anthropological attempt to observe a cult’s summer solstice festival. The film masterfully builds itself around the inevitability of a mass terror, aligning our foreknowledge of that with the anxiety felt by the main character, Dani (Florence Pugh), in the wake of a recent family tragedy. The result is a deeply unnerving film about the indissoluble, somehow archaic bond between self and family—one more psychologically robust than Aster’s similarly themed Hereditary. And it’s also very funny. Pat Brown


Mulholland Drive

46. Mulholland Drive (2001)

David Lynch’s meta noir Mulholland Drive literalizes the theory of surrealism as perpetual dream state. Told as it is using a highly symbolic, ravishingly engorged language of dreams, this bloody valentine to Los Angeles naturally leaves one feeling groggy, confused, looking forward and back, hankering to pass again through its serpentine, slithery hall of mirrors until all its secrets have been unpacked. Whether Mulholland Drive anticipated the YouTube Age we live in (and which Inland Empire’s digital punk poetics perfectly embody) is up for debate, but there’s no doubt that this movie-movie will continue to haunt us long after Lynch has moved on to shooting pictures using the tools of whatever new film medium awaits us—tools that he will no doubt have helped to revolutionize. Ed Gonzalez


Sinister

45. Sinister (2012)

Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Calum Marsh


Maniac

44. Maniac (2012)

Made in collaboration with Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, and with the sort of fearless artistic freedom often allowed by European financing, Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac begins with a psychopath’s synth-tastically scored stalking of a party girl back to her apartment, outside which he cuts her frightened scream short by driving a knife up into her head through her jaw. The film deceptively delights in capturing the mood of an exploitation cheapie before latching onto and running with the conceit only halfheartedly employed by William Lustig in the 1980 original, framing the titular maniac’s killing spree—this time set in Los Angeles—almost entirely from his point of view. A gimmick, yes, but more than just a means of superficially keying us into the psyche of the main character, Frank, an antique mannequin salesman played memorably by a minimally seen Elijah Wood. As in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, this approach becomes a provocative means of sympathizing with the devil. Gonzalez


Depraved

43. Depraved (2019)

What does a Frankenstein figure look like in 2019? According to Larry Fessenden’s Depraved, he’s a guy with war-addled, once-noble intentions set adrift by male ego and shady benefactors. He’s a white man grasping for control in a world coming apart, a cog in a machine who hasn’t broken free so much as changed the machine’s function—from that of war to that of the pharmaceutical industry. The film, Fessenden’s first feature as both writer and director since 2006’s The Last Winter, paints multiple psychological portraits that are sad, angry, and strangely beautiful. It shows us the mind of not just PTSD-afflicted field surgeon Henry (David Call), but also that of his prototypical sewn-together “monster,” Adam (Alex Breaux), and his assistant and Big Pharma bankroller, Polidori (Joshua Leonard). Throughout, the film it remains firmly focused on its thesis of Frankenstein as a lens for examining modern society. Fessenden catalogues what personalities and power dynamics have shifted and what hasn’t changed at all. He diagnoses the rot of our era through these solipsistic men that pour their prejudices and their insecurities into Adam, an open book eventually read back to its authors with a violence they cultivated themselves. Steven Scaife


28 Days Later

42. 28 Days Later (2002)

Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is a post-apocalyptic zombie movie indebted to the traditions of John Wyndham and George A. Romero, opening with its young hero wandering abandoned streets calling out “Hello! Hello!” into the void. A marvel of economic storytelling, the film follows a handful of survivors that evaded a deadly “Rage” virus that tore across England, the riots and destruction that ensued, and the legion of infected victims who roam the streets at night for human meat. A bleak journey through an underground tunnel brings to mind one of the finest chapters in Stephen King’s The Stand; similar such references are far from being smug in-jokes, but rather uniquely appreciative of previous horror texts. The Rage virus itself feels particularly topical in our angry modern times. But maybe the more appropriate metaphor is that anyone who’s struggled through a grouchy, apocalyptic mood during 28 days of nicotine/drug/alcohol withdrawal will find their hostile sentiments reflected in this anger-fueled nightmare odyssey. Jeremiah Kipp


Piranha 3D

41. Piranha 3D (2010)

Piranha 3D tips its cap to Jaws with an opening appearance by Richard Dreyfuss, yet the true ancestors of Alexandre Aja’s latest are less Steven Spielberg’s classic (and Joe Dante and Roger Corman’s more politically inclined 1978 original Piranha) than 1980s-era slasher films. Unapologetically giddy about its gratuitous crassness, Aja’s B movie operates by constantly winking at its audience, and while such self-consciousness diffuses any serious sense of terror, it also amplifies the rollicking comedy of its over-the-top insanity. Aja’s gimmicky use of 3D is self-aware, and the obscene gore of the proceedings is, like its softcore jokiness, so extreme and campy—epitomized by a hair-caught-in-propeller scalping—that the trashy, merciless Piranha 3D proves a worthy heir to its brazen exploitation-cinema forefathers. Schager

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Review: Zombieland: Double Tap Shrugs Toward the End of the World

Behind the film’s self-awareness and irony is a hollow emotional core.

1.5

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Zombieland: Double Tap
Photo: Columbia Pictures

“Double tap,” the belated Zombieland sequel’s namesake, refers to the rule of shooting a zombie more than once in order to ensure that it’s dead. Like the rest of the rules devised by the series’s dweebish protagonist, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), it’s spelled out in large on-screen text, an amusingly self-aware touch in the original 2009 film that has, a decade later into our irony-poisoned present, lost its luster.

Part of that is because the sequel highlights these rules more frequently and prominently, injecting them with flashy text effects that are more distracting than funny. But it’s also because self-awareness doesn’t feel nearly as refreshing as it did in 2009, with seemingly every big studio movie nowadays winking and nodding at audiences, trying to swaddle us in layers of protective irony (that writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick went on to script the vacuous Deadpool films is no accident). Zombieland: Double Tap effortlessly operates in the same groove as the original, but that’s less a compliment than a measure of a failure to evolve.

Revising the world of Zombieland feels like returning to a television program you gave up on watching; though the cast has aged, the character dynamics remain largely the same, if slightly more exaggerated and perhaps overly familiar. Boisterous gunslinger Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) is a little more cartoonish now, while Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) is all grown up. She’s more than old enough to drive, and thus old enough to run away with a pacifist hippie, Berkeley (Avan Jogia), prompting Columbus, Tallahassee, and conwoman Wichita (Emma Stone) to track her down. They’re a makeshift family now, despite still referring to one another by the city aliases that were meant to prevent getting too attached.

A newcomer to their group still goes by her real name, Madison (Zoey Deutch), and as a caricatured dumb blonde, she typifies much of the film’s easy, uninspired comedy. The supremely overqualified cast powers through tiresome, pop culture-laden exchanges via sheer charisma; Stone, though unfortunately reduced to playing a “jealous girlfriend” type, is particularly expressive. But returning director Ruben Fleischer, despite pairing with the usually excellent cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, too often shoots the actors in close-up, robbing much of the film of the chemistry that the actors display in wider shots.

Double Tap also plays unthinkingly into the zombie fantasy as survivalist gun porn, even going so far as to add a Gen Z commune of idiot pacifists who melt down guns into peace symbols. This sequel, however, is too mediocre for such an idea to register with more than a shrug. The film isn’t using the concept to make a point, after all; behind the self-awareness and the irony is merely a hollow emotional core, a lack of anything to say because saying something would require ambition rather than complacent winks and nods.

Cast: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, Emma Stone, Rosario Dawson, Zoey Deutch, Avan Jogia, Luke Wilson, Thomas Middleditch Director: Ruben Fleischer Screenwriter: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, Dave Callaham Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil Transforms Thorny Folklore into Fluff

In transforming folk metaphors into utilitarian attributes of an action hero, Disney exposes the emptiness of their product.

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Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

“Once upon a time…or perhaps twice upon a time, for you may remember this story,” begins the voiceover narration of Disney’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. To its credit, the film opens by addressing the elephant in the castle: that we, as modern filmgoers, surely know this story well, through all its incarnations as old-fashioned fairy-tale romance and as insipid CG action-fantasy. But this sequel’s attempt to deflect attention from its own tiresomeness only highlights the cynicism of a corporation that insists on franchising the reboots of its adaptations—on repeating the process of filtering the imaginative irrationality of folk tales through layers upon layers of calculation.

Angelina Jolie returns as Maleficent, once one of the most deliciously evil villainesses in the Disney canon, who now—like Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West—has been reduced to a mildly grumpy environmentalist. Disney has erected a mythos around the character to explain her malevolent deeds—or rather, to expose them as truly good. Channeling themes of historical revisionism and post-colonial white guilt, the Malefi-verse positions its title character as defender of the marshlands known as The Moors and its multifarious magical inhabitants, the Dark Fey, against the incursions and crimes of the late-Renaissance Europeans who live nearby. In the film, whose subtitle has virtually nothing to do with its plot, she’s supplied with an army of fellow Feys primed to resist the destruction of their native lands by greedy humans. The deviousness suggested by Maleficent’s occasional wry, sharp-toothed smiles and curling horns is hardly on display in her actions, which have thoroughly virtuous motivations.

Mistress of Evil posits a “true story” behind the official one recorded in the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, as rather than persecuting the princess subsequently known as Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent has adopted her and raised her. Aurora (Elle Fanning), though she’s grown up among the Fey, has fallen in love with Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). Throughout, we’re given little evidence of their mutual attraction beyond the fact that they’re both young humans, though Joachim Rønning’s film does attempt to elicit our sympathies for their union with an early scene that stages a YouTube-ready surprise proposal. Though she harbors doubts about this union, Maleficent initially tries to play the good mother, reluctantly accepting the match. But then, at the engagement dinner, Phillip’s mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), frames Maleficent for the sleeping curse that befalls King John (Robert Lindsay). Wounded in the subsequent confrontation, Maleficent flees and finds herself in an enclave of other vulture-winged, goat-horned Feys, led by Borra (Ed Skrein) and Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

As played by Jolie, Maleficent is less a character than a pose. Rather than suggesting potency and confidence, the character’s impassiveness conveys indifference, a disinterested neutrality that emanates from behind Jolie’s green contacts and prosthetic cheekbones. Neither Maleficent’s anger at the humans who framed her nor her muted concern for the oppressed Fey succeeds in selling the clichéd plotline concerning indigenous rebellion. As debate rages in the ranks of the outcast Fey regarding a prospective uprising against the murderous humans—the screenplay, of course, makes Conall’s plea for a moderate response to creeping genocide more appealing than Borra’s call for a revolution—Jolie’s perpetually cool persona fails to anchor our feelings in the fate of the forest’s denizens.

The rebellious Fey recruit Maleficent for the same reason that the humans fear her: the magical powers she possesses. Yet Maleficent’s powers are ill-defined, the magical green tendrils that extend from her hands little more than a reference to visual effects devised for Disney’s classic animated Sleeping Beauty from 1959. But aspects of the magic in Mistress of Evil still draw inspiration from its diluted source material: the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale classic that the animated film was based on. In that story, the wise woman’s curse not only puts the princess to sleep, but also freezes all life in the castle in place and envelops the structure in an impenetrable thorn bush. Many princes attempt and fail to forcibly enter the castle, hacking away at the bushes, but after a century, the brambles open up on their own, at last allowing a prince to enter the princess’s chamber, so to speak.

In Mistress of Evil, we see the character that Disney has dubbed Maleficent deploy similar magical effects to much less metaphorical ends: She freezes a cat in the air mid-pounce to protect her were-raven familiar, Diaval (Sam Riley), and she conjures up spindly thorn branches to shield herself and Chonall from a volley of crossbow bolts. The filmmakers, no doubt, see such references to the original tale as forms of felicitous homage, but in transforming folk metaphors into utilitarian attributes of an action hero, Disney exposes the emptiness of their product. The film arranges a marriage between fairy-tale motifs and a CG-algorithm-driven plot that’s as bland and arbitrary as the one it stages between its nondescript human couple, processing thorny folklore into smooth, consumable pop culture.

Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Ed Skrein, Harris Dickinson, Robert Lindsay, Warwick Davis Director: Joachim Rønning Screenwriter: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, Linda Woolverton Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: Tell Me Who I Am Feels as One-Sided as the Curated Lie at Its Center

By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothers’ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the scope of their abuse.

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Tell Me Who I Am
Photo: Netflix

When Alex Lewis was 18 years old, he was involved in a motorcycle crash that left him with a severe case of amnesia. When he awoke in a hospital following the accident, he couldn’t recall where he lived or who his friends were. He didn’t even know his name. As for the woman babbling and pacing around the foot of his bed, he was taken aback to learn that she was his mother. The only thing Alex did remember was that the young man standing before him, Marcus, was his identical twin, and that they had a special connection.

Upon returning to their family estate, Marcus began the lengthy process of reacquainting Alex with the particulars of his life, as well as re-teaching him the basics, like how to tie his shoes. And through it all, Marcus did his best to present a rosy picture of their parents, assuring Alex that their mother, Jill, was “cool” and that they took nice vacations to France when they were kids. It wasn’t until after their parents’ death that Alex began to suspect that their upbringing may not have been as pleasant as Marcus suggested. And after Alex discovered a cabinet full of sex toys in Jill’s room and a photograph of him and his brother naked with their heads torn off, the horrible truth began to dawn on Alex: that he and his brother were sexually abused by their mother. Marcus would go on to confirm the abuse but refused to provide additional details, leaving his brother with questions that would haunt him for years.

Based on a book co-written by Alex and Marcus, Ed Perkins’s Tell Me Who I Am tells the brothers’ story with an Errol Morris-lite mix of expressionistic reenactments and interviews in which the subjects speak directly into the camera. Like the similarly themed Three Identical Strangers, the film parcels out disarming hints and shocking revelations at a steady clip, with a view toward maximizing the emotional impact of the material. It’s undeniably effective and affecting, escalating toward a harrowing confrontation-cum-reconciliation between the two brothers in which Marcus finally reveals the full horror of what they endured as kids: that, in addition to being abused by their mother, they were subjected to sexual assaults at the hands of multiple abusers, in what essentially amounted to an elite pedophilia ring.

In its richer, more rewarding moments, Tell Me Who I Am hints at the complex relationship between memory and identity. Alex relies on photographs to fill in the blanks in his memory, and yet, these seemingly objective recordings of the past, curated for him by his brother, are as conspicuous for what they reveal as for what they don’t. (As Alex muses at one point, “We take photos of weddings. You never take photos at funerals.”) But for a film about the power of getting a full and accurate accounting of the truth, it’s frustrating how little Tell Me Who I Am reckons with its own revelations. By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothers’ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the sheer scope of the boys’ abuse.

Tell Me Who I Am hints at the brothers having been caught up in a seemingly extensive sexual abuse ring, one involving aristocrats and at least one well-known artist, all of whom remain unnamed. It’s a scandal reminiscent of recently exposed conspiracies of silence that surround wrongdoing, such as those involving Jeffrey Epstein, Jimmy Savile, and the Catholic Church. And while Perkins’s film wants us to believe that the brothers’ saga reaches a definitive conclusion when they tearfully embrace after Alex learns about what happened to him, it leaves the viewer with a host of unanswered questions. Who exactly was part of Jill’s social circle? How extensive was Alex and Marcus’s abuse? Were there other victims?

Even a cursory glance at news articles about the men and reviews of their book suggests how much Perkins has massaged the details of the Lewis brothers’ lives to craft his sleek, emotionally punchy narrative. From watching Tell Me Who I Am, one wouldn’t know that there was at least one other confirmed victim: Alex and Marcus’s younger brother, whose existence the film doesn’t even acknowledge. By forcing Alex and Marcus’s story into such a rigidly linear narrative of redemption, the film ends up losing sight of its subjects altogether, reducing them to mere representations of its core theme: the brother who wants to learn about his past versus the brother who’d rather keep it buried.

That’s why Tell Me Who I Am’s attempt to end on a note of closure—“It’s over finally,” Alex says, as the camera tracks away from the house where he was abused—comes off as phony. Perhaps Alex feels that he finally understands who he really is, but the film leaves us with so many unanswered questions, it’s hard not feel that the picture we’ve been given of these men is nearly as misleading and incomplete as the one Marcus provided to Alex all those years ago.

Director: Ed Perkins Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Gloss of Stuffed Is at Odds with Taxidermy’s Inherent Boldness

Erin Derham’s unadventurous aesthetic inoculates her from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.

1.5

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Stuffed
Photo: Music Box Films

Erin Derham’s Stuffed opens with a montage of the various taxidermists she profiles throughout her documentary. This opening lays bare the film’s argument in unmistakable terms: that taxidermy is an art form, closer to the work of Tim Burton than that of Norman Bates. But it also exposes the film’s most unbearable flaw, as Derham supports her hagiographic argument by sewing together her case studies with a relentless, and relentlessly generic, score that speaks to her devotion to formula.

It’s an unadventurous formula at odds with the documentary’s attempts to establish taxidermy as a highly complex, anti-paradigmatic endeavor involving great amounts of scientific precision, as well as creative audacity and whimsical experimentation. Derham insists so much on taxidermists’ labor being more than the mere production of replicas that her refusal to adopt a more playful aesthetic approach as she portrays the quirky imagination of taxidermists feels like equivocation. It’s as if she approached the documentary’s making with thick rubber gloves, thus inoculating herself from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.

This may be the result of a certain courting, conscious or not, of digital streaming platforms through the mimicry of impersonally glossy production values. In any case, it leaves the viewer in a position akin to that of the fussy eater trying to pick unwelcomed ingredients out of their food. We want to savor the taxidermists’ artistry, except the clichéd polish that envelops the film keeps getting in the way. It’s an artistry that’s bold by design, as the taxidermist utilizes dead matter not with the utilitarian goal of resurrecting it, but as raw material to sculpt something altogether new. If the Paris Museum of Hunting and Nature invited artists Sophie Calle and Serena Carone in 2018 to intervene in its collection of retired guns and taxidermic realism precisely because of the unusual juxtaposition of conceptual art and refurbished dead matter, moose in red gowns and all, Stuffed defines taxidermy itself as already marrying fanciful concepts with the illusion of beastly or avian resurrection.

Taxidermist Madison Rubin tells us she loves “seeing the insides and the anatomy of things” as she skins 11 ermines with the meticulousness of a sculptor, or a dollmaker. Others evoke the resurgence of taxidermy, which used to be particularly popular in the Victorian era, in these times of digital de-materialization. And some attest to the specificity of the medium—how no other art form can convey texture the way taxidermy does. Yet Derham seems more invested in glossing over the numerous chapters she’s divided the film’s narrative into than in exploring the depths of her story. Taxidermy and sustainability, taxidermy and climate change, the ethics of taxidermy, taxidermy and museums, taxidermy as a business, taxidermy in fashion—all of these get addressed too rapidly, sometimes in just a couple of minutes.

The rush feels particularly unfortunate when Derham turns her attention to rogue taxidermy, a Lynchean subgenre located at the intersection of dioramas, cabinets of curiosities, and surrealist art. Here, Calle and Carone’s red ballgown-wearing stuffed roadkill would feel right at home—that is, delightfully out of place in the world. Instead, Stuffed quickly continues in its quest of a happy, peppy denouement to match the pristine porelessness of its sheen.

Director: Erin Derham Distributor: Music Box Films Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Trick Will Treat You to Meatheaded, Commentary-Free Ultraviolence

Patrick Lussier’s film is an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy.

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Trick
Photo: RLJE Films

In the 2000s, a film company called the Asylum flooded Blockbuster shelves with “mockbusters”: cheaply produced, straight-to-DVD knockoffs of box-office dominators with titles such as Transmorphers, Ghosthunters, and Snakes on a Train. Patrick Lussier’s horror mystery Trick feels like an Asylum spin on Todd Phillips’s Joker, as both are about marginalized white guys who paint their faces, start killing people, and become kings of the incels. But where the licensed DC spinoff is an irresponsible and irredeemable pity party for a creep, this cheap lookalike is just an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy, assembled crudely from horror and cop-movie clichés.

Trick opens with a handy list of the dictionary definitions of its title, hinting at the filmmakers’ estimation of their target audience’s intelligence. Trick is also the name of the film’s villain, short for Patrick (Thom Niemann), an 18-year-old who, on Halloween night in 2015, attends a party with his classmates in their Hudson Valley town. During a game of spin the bottle—played with a knife—Trick is pressured to kiss another dude but instead starts stabbing and slashing everyone. (The subtext of repressed homosexuality is never alluded to again in the film.) Incapacitated and brought to urgent care, Patrick breaks free from his restraints and drops more bodies until police shoot him repeatedly in a hallway, knocking him out of a second-story window, neatly alluding simultaneously to both John Carpenter’s original Halloween (the defenestration) and Rick Rosenthal’s 1981 sequel (the hospital setting). Trick staggers to the river and vanishes, presumed dead.

But more killings follow, on or around Halloween, in towns downriver from the first. Detective Mike Denver, the only cop who believes Patrick survived, is played by Omar Epps, who credibly delivers preposterous dialogue like a pro. In the film’s most ludicrous killing, Trick uses a crane to swing the tombstone of an F.B.I. agent (Vanessa Aspillaga) he murdered the year before through the windshield of a car in order to smash a wounded police officer (Dani Shay) sitting inside, a scene Denver sums up to a colleague: “He murdered your deputy with the gravestone of a fed I got killed. Who does that?” Then, after a beat, “What does that?”

Good question. To be scary, a horror villain needs either to be a credible menace or tap into a more primal social fear. But Trick is just implausible. He’s resilient like Rasputin, more violent than a rabid animal. At a time when cellphones and social media are ubiquitous, no one ever got a photo of him, and his classmates can barely even describe his features, just that he was smart as fuck—like, smarter than the teachers. The film shows off his far-fetched cleverness when he kills a different F.B.I. agent (Robert G. McKay) with a Rube Goldbergian guillotine involving a sharp wire, a utility pole, and a bundle of cinderblocks. Its employment makes for Purge-level spectacle without the social commentary to back it up. The beheading is just meatheaded ultraviolence—as inane as any other aspect of Trick.

Cast: Omar Epps, Ellen Adair, Kristina Reyes, Tom Atkins, Max Miller, Thom Neimann, Jamie Kennedy Director: Patrick Lussier Screenwriter: Todd Farmer, Patrick Lussier Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Robert Forster: Winning in the Late Innings

The Oscar-nominated actor brought a sense of honor and dignity to every role he played.

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Robert Forster
Photo: Miramax

David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive opens with a nighttime ride into oblivion. A limo drifts through the lightless void of the Hollywood Hills, red taillights burning in the blackness. An enigmatic woman, ebony hair and curvaceous red lips lending her the air of a tragic beauty, sits in the back by herself. The limo pulls over, and after the woman says, “We don’t stop here,” the driver aims a gun at her, but a gaggle of joyriding kids comes speeding around the curve and crashes into the vehicle. The woman climbs out of the wreckage stupefied and traipses into the hills, leaving behind the mangled metal and bodies.

Soon, a stoic detective arrives on the scene. He looks like a lawman, serious, a little sad, his face etched with the wrinkles of time. He examines the cars, offers a few terse observations, gazes out at the nocturnal city sprawling before him. It’s Robert Forster’s only scene in the film, and it’s an indelible one, imbued with mystery and menace, an attempt to explain the unexplainable. Saying fewer than 20 words and appearing in only a handful of shots, he exudes an air of wisdom and weariness—that of an indolent man who’s seen some shit and knows the horrors lurking ahead. In a film of dreamy logic and ineffaceable images, Forster’s taciturn detective acts as the final glimpse of reality before we slip into a world of Hollywood hopes and fantasy.

Forster, who died of brain cancer at the age of 78 this past Friday, was a prolific actor who experienced a remarkable second act in his mid-50s after giving a deeply empathetic and vulnerable performance as a love-struck bail bondsman in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a film populated by wounded characters leading unamazing lives, and who aspire to transcend mediocrity. “My career by then was dead,” Forster told the AV Club’s Will Harris in a 2011 interview. “No agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing…I could not believe that he [Tarantino] was talking about the Max Cherry role.”

Like so many of Tarantino’s films, Jackie Brown is replete with colorful, loquacious characters whose banter is clever, trenchant, and self-referential, but Forster’s Max Cherry is reserved and crestfallen, a man who’s settled into complacency and finds in Pam Grier’s flight attendant an unexpected inspiration. It’s one of American cinema’s great unconsummated love stories. Forster is a subtle actor, playing Max as an Everyman who chases people for a living but never seems to find what he’s looking for, and who willingly embroils himself in a dangerous situation because of love. He’s smart, self-sufficient, a decent guy, and yet for Jackie Brown he’s willing to risk his life, or whatever mundane existence he calls a life.

Forster was one of those great actors who appeared in far too few great films. His filmography is rife with bad films, though he was invariably a dependable presence in everything he did. He began his career promisingly, with a supporting role in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, and earned renown for his turn as an ambitious and ill-fated news cameraman in Haskell Wexler’s incandescent Medium Cool. He played a private eye in 1930s Hollywood in the show Banyon (his role in Mulholland Drive almost feels like a brief homage to the short-lived series) and appeared in a slew of genre movies for the rest of the 1970s and 1980s. Of note is Lewis Teague’s Alligator, in which a gargantuan reptile terrorizes a city, William Lustig’s nihilistic grindhouse flick Vigilante, and a rare villainous turn in Delta Force, opposite the indefatigable Chuck Norris.

It wasn’t until Jackie Brown and his subsequent Oscar nomination that Forster reentered the public consciousness. The way Tarantino exhumes old, often “trash” films when crafting his paeans to moving pictures, he also has a preternatural skill for resurrecting the careers of forgotten or faded actors. Tarantino fought for Forster to get the part. When news of Forster’s death went public, the director said in a statement:

“Today the world is left with one less gentlemen. One less square shooter. One less good man. One less wonderful father. One less marvelous actor. I remember all the breakfasts we had at silver spoons. All the stories. All the kind words. All the support. Casting Robert Forster in Jackie Brown was one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my life. I will miss you dearly my old friend.”

Forster appeared in a panoply of listless films and television programs throughout the 2000s (his appearance in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants in 2011 being an exception) but became a household face again in 2018, when he took on the role of Sheriff Frank Truman, Harry S. Truman’s brother, on the third season of Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Whereas Michael Ontkean exuded a mercurial youthfulness on the original series, that of a warm-hearted, just man capable of fiery spontaneity, Forster plays the elder Sheriff Truman rather pensively, sagacious and serene. Which is to say, he acts with the wisdom accrued by experience.

Forster also appeared in a season five episode of Breaking Bad, as a vacuum store owner and “disappearer” named Ed who helps Bryan Cranston’s Walt change identities. A stable presence amid the histrionic theatrics that defined the show’s approach to acting, Forster gives an understated performance and a sense of the real-world left behind by Vince Gilligan’s increasingly combustible melodrama. Forster reprised the part this year in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, the actor’s final screen credit. In a film-stealing scene, Forster stands steadfast and stoical against Aaron Paul’s desperate, bedraggled Jesse Pinkman, refusing to perform his disappearing service over a $1,800 discrepancy. The viewer is, of course, rooting for Jesse, yet one can’t help but respect the conviction of Forster’s unruffled professional. The actor brings a sense of honor and dignity to the role, as he did with every role. Forster was a safe, reliable presence, someone you trusted, unflustered, earnest, whether he was fighting monstrous alligators or swooning after air stewardesses.

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Review: Cyrano, My Love Thinks Art Is Only Born of Romantic Passion

The film is imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls Shakespeare in Love.

1.5

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Photo: Roadside Attractions

Alexis Michalik’s Cyrano, My Love wears its fondness for Shakespeare in Love very much on its sleeve. Though it serves up nuggets of truth, its take on Edmond Rostand (Thomas Solivérès) and the turbulent circumstances surrounding his creation of Cyrano de Bergerac is an outlandish one, imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls John Madden’s Oscar winner. And while Michalik positions Rostand as the story’s triumphant artist, the French dramatist is often reduced to a skittish ninny—as opposed to the pompous ass that Joseph Fiennes’s Shakespeare was positioned as—whose great art emanates not from the mind, but the cockles of the heart.

For a film so hellbent on the notion that Cyrano de Bergerac was inspired not only by actual events, but real emotions, there’s surprisingly little effort made to articulate with any specificity the conflicted feelings behind Rostand’s penning of what would become the most famous French play of all time. The initial catalyst for his play’s central conceit occurs when he steps in to help an actor friend, Léonidas (Tom Leeb), struggling to find the words to woo a costume designer, Jeanne (Lucie Boujenah), on whom he has a crush. Rostand, in one of the film’s many blatant nods to Cyrano de Bergerac, begins to feed his friend a barrage of romantic lines and relish the secrecy with which he can play out a love affair without disturbing his marriage with his endlessly patient and supportive wife, Rosemonde (Alice de Lencquesaing).

Yet, rather than teasing out the ample psychosexual baggage that should arise from the cognitive dissonance of Rostand writing daily love letters to Jeanne, his unknowing muse, while still professing, with complete honesty, that his only true love is his wife, Michalik pivots his focus to the swirling chaos of Cyrano de Bergerac’s production. With Rostand’s emotional conflict left fairly nebulous, Cyrano, My Love never quite gets to the root of the author’s inspiration, leaving its familiar theatrical farce about the troubles of mounting a stage play grounded in neither genuine emotion nor any palpable stakes.

As the hurdles that Rostand and company face in staging Cyrano de Bergerac grow bigger and Rostand writes pages to be rehearsed before the ink dries, the film introduces a parade of quirky, ostentatious characters. From the historical, such as Sarah Bernhardt (Clémentine Célarié) and Anton Chekhov (Misha Leskot), to the imagined, such as a prostitute (Mathilde Seigner) who’s foisted into the lead role of Roxane, each one is more thinly conceived than the next, with eccentricities dialed up to 11. The most egregious of these larger-than-life characterizations, however, is Monsieur Honoré (Jean-Michel Martial), the black café owner whose sole purpose is to repeatedly tap into his struggles as a minority as a means to galvanize the all-white cast and crew, who he then cheers on from the sidelines.

Cyrano, My Love’s lone performative bright spot comes in the form of a surprisingly nimble turn by Olivier Gourmet, known primarily for his dour turns in many of the Dardenne brothers’ films. Gourmet lends both humor and pathos to the play’s famous but desperate lead actor, Constant Coquelin. But while Coquelin steals the spotlight in a number of scenes, Rostand remains little more than a perpetually anxiety-ridden artist who virtually stumbles into writing a masterpiece during a helter-skelter production. And with little care given to rendering the intense emotional tumult that spurred his artistic process, all the pandemonium of Cyrano, My Love proves to be much ado about nothing.

Cast: Thomas Solivérès, Olivier Gourmet, Mathilde Seigner, Tom Leeb, Lucie Boujenah, Alice de Lencquesaing, Clémentine Célarié, Igor Gotesman, Dominique Pinon, Simon Abkarian, Marc Andréoni, Jean-Michel Martial, Olivier Lejeune, Antoine Dulery, Alexis Michalik Director: Alexis Michalik Screenwriter: Alexis Michalik Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: In Greener Grass, White Picket Fences Cast Shadows Like Tendrils

In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance, as the suburbs have already won.

3

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Greener Grass
Photo: IFC Films

The opening credits of Greener Grass linger on a twitching, toothy smile covered in braces. Everyone in the film wears braces. Everyone drives a golf cart, too, and dresses in gentle pinks and blues. The lighting is soft and sun-drenched, an effect that’s most pronounced during the film’s soccer matches. In the opening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the camera creeps through a suburb’s pleasant veneer to reveal the rot that festers beneath. But for Greener Grass co-directors, co-writers, and co-stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, the very surface is the thing that’s so unsettling, a place populated by slithering, rictus-grinning meat puppets penned in by white picket fences and their own crippling need to conform.

The trouble, if you could call it that, begins when Jill (DeBoer) abruptly gifts Lisa (Luebbe) with her newborn baby as they watch their other children play soccer. This isn’t, in the film’s bizarre conception of suburbia, a particularly outrageous act. At worst, it’s overly generous, like giving someone a gift more expensive than they’re comfortable accepting; another neighbor, Kim Ann (Mary Holland), later laments that she wasn’t given the child instead. The children in Greener Grass are essentially property, status symbols to reflect upon their owners in their pristine homes and yards, all of which feeds into an undercurrent of pervasive competition that nonetheless reinforces conformity and simply not rocking the boat.

Everything is seemingly interchangeable in Greener Grass. At a cookout, it takes a full conversation for Jill and Lisa to notice that they’re smooching and hanging on the arms of the wrong husbands, Dennis (Neil Casey and Nick (Beck Bennett), respectively. And when Jill’s young son, Julian (Julian Hilliard), inexplicably transforms into a dog, she’s horrified, but Nick, the boy’s father, seems pleased: Julian may no longer be able to take the advanced math class, but he’s now a prodigy when it comes to playing catch in the backyard.

There isn’t much of a traditional plot to the film, which plays more as a recurring series of sketches that subtly further Jill’s downward spiral. DeBoer and Luebbe let their scenes linger long past the point of discomfort, both in the length of mannered dialogue exchanges and the amount of time they hold a shot without cutting; the camera gingerly pulls out or pushes in while characters perform odd actions in the background, like perpetually folding tighty-whities or fishing out a seemingly infinite supply of pocket change. It feels voyeuristic, and sometimes it is: In one scene, a hand appears to reveal that we’re watching a POV shot, and in another, an off-screen voice begins breathing heavily and starts mock-repeating dialogue.

A schoolteacher, Miss Human (D’Arcy Carden), fixates on the deaths of American pioneers making their way to the West. In pursuit of “a better life,” they lost things along the way, as the people of Greener Grass have lost themselves in their migration to the suburbs. The film is more unsettling for its lack of an ordinary plot structure where, say, Jill might break out of her suburban funk or get everything to explode with violence in a revolt against conformity. In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance. Here, the burbs have already won, having already sent out the white picket fences like tendrils as far as the eye can see. There is no escape.

Cast: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe, Beck Bennett, Neil Casey, Mary Holland, D’Arcy Carden, Janicza Bravo, Dot-Marie Jones, Lauren Adams, Julian Hillard, Asher Miles Fallica Director: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Screenwriter: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Cave Pays Wrenching Tribute to the Doctors Saving Lives in Syria

Its depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after The Cave’s doctors have left Ghouta.

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The Cave
Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films

Feras Fayyad’s documentary The Cave concludes with what almost seems like a non sequitur: After the staff at a Syrian underground hospital are finally forced to evacuate their war-torn city, the film fades to a low-angle shot of a submerged World War II bomber plane. Kjetil C. Astrup’s camera tracks slowly past the moss-covered plane and an unexploded shell that lies nearby. Yes, it’s a 1940s bomber, and The Cave is about Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, that’s subjected to constant bombardment from contemporary warplanes, but what does this image have to do with the ongoing Syrian Civil War?

Given how instantly recognizable this bomber is, despite its present state of disrepair, speaks to how familiar we are with the massive political and moral sins of the 20th century. Fayyad’s point would appear to be that these sins are being recapitulated today in the Middle East. It’s not only the relentless bombing and devastating chemical weapon attacks captured in the film that evoke images of Europe during the West’s greatest conflict, but also the treatment of people attempting to escape the horrors of the Syrian Civil War.

Over the image of the bomber plane, Fayyad places statistics about the tens of thousands of refugees who’ve drowned fleeing the conflict. As in the omnipresent WWII stories we repeatedly tell ourselves are warnings against ever letting such things happen again, thousands of people in the Middle East are trapped, starving, and suffocating, their homes and livelihoods destroyed by a global war being carried out over their heads.

By the time the submerged bomber appears on screen, those schooled in the history of occupied Europe (or who are simply avid tourists) may have already drawn another parallel, as The Cave, the name given to the underground hospital in Ghouta, evokes the Hospital in the Rock, the Budapest hospital built within a bunker under a hill in the leadup to WWII. From inside The Cave, where the camera keeps us for almost the entirety of the documentary, the sound of bombs is muffled, but their consequences are unavoidable. After every raid, the hospital’s dimly lit underground hallway fills up with desperate families carting the wounded, weeping mothers shoving others out of the way to check on their dying sons, and orchestral music streaming on Dr. Salim’s smartphone. The Mozart helps him focus and, he explains, replaces anesthetic, to which the hospital doesn’t have access.

Heading the small staff that operates The Cave during the years-long siege of eastern Ghouta is pediatrician Dr. Amani, a physician so superhumanly dedicated that she’d come off as an idealized abstraction in a fiction film. Fayyad doesn’t delve into her backstory, but Amani appears to come from a relatively privileged background: Her family, whom she speaks to regularly on the phone, seems to be in a safe place, and she’s well-educated and a feminist, an inclination she expresses strategically to the camera and, when necessary, to defend her occupation against overtly misogynist patients. Despite her presumed access to avenues of flight, she’s stayed behind to treat juvenile victims of bombing campaigns and malnourishment, even paying dangerous house visits to diagnose the children of women who can’t leave their homes. Though brave and generous, she’s no saintly paragon of modesty; on occasion, she rages against the regime and their allies, and the 30-year-old outwardly longs for a regular day-to-day life in which she might be permitted to wear mascara.

Fayyad saves its most graphic depiction of the consequences of the siege for the latter part of the documentary, as a chemical weapon attack perpetrated by the regime and its Russian allies sends dozens of choking people—many children—rushing to The Cave for help. Fayyad ratchets up the suspense with a booming score that crescendos as the staff gradually realizes they’re handling patients who are choking rather than bleeding, and recognizes the smell of chlorine beginning to permeate the halls. Despite the real human suffering on screen, the whiff of rhetorical construction supplied by the score and the accelerating pace of the editing makes the scene feel a bit too much like a Hollywood trope, crafting suspense out of pain.

Perhaps, on the other hand, that moment of tension could be said to effectively convey some aspect of the events as the doctors felt it. Other excessively stylistic elements in The Cave, though, work against the urgency of its messaging. The handheld, intimate format of the bulk of the film is preceded by a still and distant opening shot of the Ghouta skyline, in which missiles are shown gliding into the mass of buildings and erupting into slowly moving dust and smoke. Ironically, this shot almost poeticizes the ongoing destruction of the city, its cool perspective conflicting sharply with the later close-ups of suffering bombing victims.

As the film goes on, the bombings draw closer to The Cave, part of which is actually destroyed by one raid. Samaher, the doctor put in charge of preparing the hospital’s meager rations, cooks in fits and starts, running away from the stove whenever the sound of a plane rattles the nearby wall. Many of the male members of the team chide her for her skittish, sometimes nervously playful behavior, but candid shots pick up even the even-keeled Salim crying after a rare and brief Skype call with his family. The film’s depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after Amani, Salim, and Samaher have left Ghouta.

Director: Feras Fayyad Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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