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Understanding Screenwriting #31: Funny People, In the Loop, Julie & Julia, The Answer Man, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #31: Funny People, In the Loop, Julie & Julia, The Answer Man, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Funny People, In the Loop, Julie & Julia, The Answer Man, Budd Schulberg and John Hughes: an appreciation, Middle Passage Summer Cable Season 2009, but first…

Fan Mail: Great collection of comments on US#30, folks. I always appreciate them.

Daniel Iffland raised a very good question as to why all the discussions about writers on serialized TV dramas in the mainstream media have not led to more writing about screenwriting in film. Part of the reason is historical: the tradition in writing about directors extends back beyond the development of the auteur theory. There is also the disdain of the East Coast Intellectual Establishment for screenwriters, which I discussed in US#1 as one of the reasons I was doing this column. From the beginning of television, especially in the Golden Age of live dramas in the fifties, there was a greater critical awareness of the writer. Another reason is that films are generally seen as a one-off event, whereas a series is a collection of stories with connecting elements. Once the series is set up, the creative function of the producer/showrunner is to feed the maw: a 22-episode season of a one-hour drama requires a LOT of story material. That’s why showrunners are usually writers: they know how to deliver scripts. You can read more about all of this in my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing.

Welcome to new reader “AJ,” who likes the writer’s perspective the column gives. That’s what I’m here for.

Craig liked (500) Days of Summer because he felt it did not force us to see it from Tom’s (the character, not me, as Craig made clear in his second post) perspective. I am not sure I agree, since we certainly see Summer very much from his perspective. We learn her feelings about all this only when she tells him late in the picture. Craig also had a problem with James running all over town in The Hurt Locker trying to get vengeance for a kid he hardly knew. I did too, but I looked on it as the kind of intense focus a person develops in that kind of situation. You need something to hang on to to keep from going completely bonkers.

“Socalsun” made a nice comparison of The Hurt Locker to Generation Kill, but he felt the film “left [us] with no real sense of who James is.” I’d disagree, since I think we learn a lot about James by how he acts and reacts. One of the smartest reviews of Lawrence of Arabia when it came out said that Lawrence was most himself riding a camel across the desert in long shots rather than in closeups. Action is character.

“DS” hopes he will one day write a script that I will end up reviewing in this column. Be careful what you wish for, of course, but keep at it. I used to keep up on one of my workboards a quote from Norman Mailer that every writer should be aware of. It went something like this: “Tell yourself that no matter what, and what other people say, you deserve to write one more day.” How true.

Funny People (2009. Written by Judd Apatow. 146 minutes): Where’s Billy when you need him?

The idea for this film has potential: George Simmons, curmudgeonly comedian and movie star, learns he has a possibly fatal disease. He becomes a better person because of it, but when he learns the medicine he’s been taking has stopped the disease, he reverts to his former bad self. You can imagine what Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges or Ben Hecht (look at his 1937 script for Nothing Sacred, a forerunner of this film) would have done with it. Alas, Apatow is neither as skilled nor as ruthless as Wilder, Sturges, or Hecht.

The central problem is that the script (for reasons I will mention later, I am counting the film as the final draft of the script, as I have done other occasions) is unfocused and very repetitive, both overall and in individual scenes. We get scenes that take forever to get to their point, if they ever do. When we do get a good scene, such as George’s assistant Ira crying in a restaurant, it comes as so much of a surprise it does not seem to fit into the film. Apatow’s first cut was rumored to be three-hours-and-forty-five-minutes long. Part of the problem is that since the film is about comedians, Apatow let them improvise. That occasionally works in comedy (see the comments on In the Loop below), but if the career of Robert Altman has taught us anything, it is that sustained improv in drama will make a mess of your film. Extended improv can take you out of the characters and especially take you out of the story. There is a reason that Wilder and Sturges tightly scripted their films, even their comedies.

Apatow wrote a better mix of comedy and drama in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. There he gave us a strong set of characters, including the women. The man-child friends of Andy were kept as secondary characters. The drama became whether Andy was willing to grow up and deal with Trish, an actual adult female, and the scenes focused on that. In Knocked Up, Apatow moved one of those men-children into the leading role. The basic problem with that film was why would who appeared to be a smart, talented, intelligent woman want to have anything to do with a guy like that? OK, she was pregnant by him, but still. I think the dramatic shape of Knocked Up was supposed to be that Ben Stone begins to grow up, just like Andy in the previous film. Unfortunately, Apatow spent so much time on the hi-jinks of Ben and his friends that he never really showed us that development. We were just supposed to take it on faith when he started ordering people around in the delivery room.

After George finds out he is getting better, he and Ira descend on his former girlfriend Laura. Nikki Finke in her “Deadline Hollywood” column in the LA Weekly reported that Universal had asked Apatow to shorten this section of the film, and you can see why. Laura, the ex-girlfriend, is not a patch on Virgin’s Trish. She still has some feelings for George, although God knows why, but she also seems to be happily married to Clarke and the mother of two not-entirely adorable girls. (The kids are played by Apatow’s two daughters. The officials who look into child abuse should check out Apatow’s letting one of his tone-deaf off-spring sing “Memories” not only once, but twice.) It does not take much for Laura to have sex with George, even though she does decide finally to stay with Clarke. She describes Clarke as just like George, which, alas, he is. Is it humanly possible for Apatow to write a male character who does not talk a lot about his penis? Clarke would be a lot more interesting if he were really different from George.

For all its flaws, there are some good things in the script. Apatow has written George as a character with a variety of edges, which lets Adam Sandler give one of his best performances. If you never caught Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, you’ll be surprised. Likewise, Ira stretches what Seth Rogen has done before. Apatow has also written an odd little character in Daisy, Ira’s sort-of girl friend, and an actor whose talent I apparently failed to notice on the Parks and Recreation episodes I saw, Aubrey Plaza, gives her a distinctively off-beat rhythm.

In the Loop (2009. Written by Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, and Tony Roche, additional dialogue by Ian Martin and other uncredited contributors. 106 minutes): Sex and the City Redux.

Back in the Dark Ages, in US#1, I wrote about the difficulties of transferring a half-hour television series into the feature Sex and the City. Many of those problems show up in In the Loop, which evolved out of a 2005-2007 British cult TV hit called The Thick of It. It was a foul-mouthed, Mamet-on-steroids look at the British government in the Tony Blair era. Its main character was the government’s head of communications, Malcolm Tucker, who was constantly reaming out assorted bureaucrats. Tucker returns in the film and the question is, do we really want to spend 106 minutes with this guy? If you like this sort of thing, you might, but at that length he gets rather tiresome. Fortunately the writers have provided some other terrific characters to break up his rants. The storyline is a thinly disguised version of the run-up to the Iraq War, complete with a totally unreliable intelligence source. I have mentioned before that some films and television programs now in release seem dated because they are very “Bush era” and we are now in the “Obama era.” That’s a problem here, but the wit and energy help overcome that.

The filmmakers hired a bunch of first rate British and American actors, and then let them go, shooting the script, but also allowing for improvisations. I have no idea how much of the last scene between Peter Capaldi’s Tucker and James Gandolfini’s American General Miller is written or improvised, but it is a beautiful example of the filmmakers’ methods working. The editors, Anthony Boys and Billy Sneddon, have done a great job in shaping the film (this is another example of taking the film as the final draft of the screenplay), leaving in a lot of great stuff while keeping the story moving. The improvs work here because a) there is a strong storyline, and b) this is a comedy. In a comedy, you can get away with almost anything if it makes the audience laugh. The wit of the script and the improvs may help you not to notice that much of the dialogue is very “on the nose,” with people saying exactly what they think. On the other hand, because you are dealing with government bureaucrats, a lot of the dialogue shows people avoiding saying what they really think. The focus on dialogue re-enforces our awareness of this as a former television show, since the film is not particularly visually striking. A lot of the dialogue goes by so fast you may want to check out the quotes on the film’s IMDb page after you see the film to catch the lines you missed.

Julie & Julia (2009. Screenplay by Nora Ephron, based on the book Julie & Julia by Julie Powell and the book My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme. 124 minutes): Food Porn.

Nora Ephron loves food almost as much as Judd Apatow loves penises. All the 6,238 articles, interviews, and recipes about or by Ephron that have appeared in The New York Times in the last months have told us that, if you did not already know from her novel Heartburn. So here we have a movie about master chef Julia Child and Julie Powell, a blogger determined to cook all the recipes in Child’s cookbook in one year, all mixed together. The question is, is there anything in this film that would satisfy those of us who are happy picking up a couple of burgers at a drive-thru?

The answer is yes. Julia Child turns out to be a terrific character for a film: big, talented, focused, and without a whining bone in her body. Because Child and her personality are so well know, Ephron, the queen of the whiners, could not turn her into one of her typically Ephronesque neurotics. You have seen them in nearly all her films. We are supposed to love them because they are neurotic instead of in spite of it. But really, if Sleepless in Seattle’s Annie Reed were a guy, wouldn’t she have been sent up the river for stalking? Child won’t let Ephron get away with that here, and the script and Meryl Streep’s performance turns her into an heroic figure.

Several reviews of the film have suggested that the film should only have been about Julia and that the Julie story does not hold up its end. That’s partially true (the film only tells Julia’s story up to the publication of the book, and it could have gone on to show her becoming a celebrity TV cook) and partially a tribute to Streep’s performance. But Streep’s Child is such an outsized character, we might have grown tired of just her for two hours. The central problem with the Julie story is that Ephron has reverted to form with her. She whines, and as charming as Amy Adams can be, the concept of the character hurts those scenes. Adams gives us a lot more than charm and she’s taken some unfair hits from critics for Ephron’s writing of the character.

Ephron has also provided several other lively characters, especially in the Julia story. Peter, her husband, is supportive in a variety of specific ways. The great Jane Lynch shows up for a couple of scenes as Julia’s sister, and she steals the one in the restaurant from Streep. That’s not petty larceny, that’s grand theft acting. When the film comes to DVD you should look at that scene several times over to see how she does it. The characters in the Julie story are not as interesting. Her husband Eric is supportive but in a more general way than Paul. Eric is such a bland character we have no idea why he leaves her midway through the film. Don’t worry. He comes back. Ephron assumes good cooking will cover a multitude of sins. In the New York scenes, would it have killed Ephron to have at least one character who just didn’t give a shit about cooking?

The Answer Man (2009. Written by John Hindman. 95 minutes): Minor, but not without interest.

One review of this film made a big deal about how it is nothing but a ripoff of James L. Brooks’s As Good As It Gets: Cranky anti-social guy is warmed up by a nice woman. Excuse me, it’s a genre that goes back a lot further than 1997. How about Hunchback of Notre Dame, Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and the Beast and the assorted films made of them? It’s a romantic genre that men love, since it says that while us guys are pigs or worse, women will understand there is something sweet there and love us. Yeah, good luck on that.

The grouch here is Arlen Faber, who wrote a hugely popular self-help book twenty years ago and almost immediately turned into J.D. Salinger. The woman who brings him out of his shell is Elizabeth, and fortunately Hindman has become the first feature screenwriter to write a part for Lauren Graham that does justice to her ability to take you through a whole run of emotions in a matter of seconds. Compare that to the way she was underused in Evan Almighty and Because I Said So. Hindman has also written nice little roles for Kat Dennings (Norah in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) and Olivia Thirlby (Juno’s friend in Juno). Female stars looking for someone to write a rom-com with a really good role in it for them should check out Hindman and this film.

On the other hand, he does not write the part of Elizabeth’s young son very well. Depending on how you feel about kid characters and kid actors, that will be either a plus or minus for you.

Budd Schulberg (1914 – 2009) and John Hughes (1950 – 2009): An appreciation.

Two screenwriters, Budd Schulberg and John Hughes, died one day apart, Schulberg on August 5, Hughes on August 6th. You cannot imagine two more different writers, masters of writing films in their own times.

Schulberg was the son of occasional studio head B.P. Schulberg, and he grew up playing on the backlot of Paramount. Schulberg developed a sharp eye about Hollywood, which showed up in his first novel, What Makes Sammy Run? It tells the story of Sammy Glick, a Hollywood hustler, based in part on writer-producer Jerry Wald, who rises to the top. Sammy is an iconic figure, and the godfather of The Player’s Griffin Mill and Entourage’s Ari Gold. The book was published when Schulberg was twenty-seven and is still considered one of the two or three best Hollywood novels. When it came out in 1941, it was roundly condemned by the studio bosses. Louis B. Mayer told B.P. that Budd should be deported. B.P. laughed and replied, “Deported? Where? He was one of the few kids who came out of this place. Where are we going to deport him to? Catalina?”

The book also upset the Communist Party. Schulberg had been a member of the Party for a few years in the late thirties, but he refused the Party’s insistence that they be allowed to “help” him write the novel. A reviewer in the Communist paper The Daily Worker wrote a favorable review and then was forced to recant the review a few weeks later. The Party insisted they thought the novel was anti-Semitic, but the book exposed the anti-Semitism in the Party. And the Party felt the novel did not give the Party enough credit in the fight to establish the Screen Writers Guild. You can begin to understand why Schulberg was a friendly witness before HUAC in 1951, although like a number of friendly witnesses, he only named names the committee already had.

Schulberg had started as a junior writer in the thirties (he did some uncredited work on Ben Hecht’s Nothing Sacred), but is best known for his scripts in the fifties, especially On the Waterfront (1954). The film’s director, Elia Kazan, had worked with playwright Arthur Miller on an earlier screenplay called “The Hook” about corrupt labor unions on the New York waterfront. Miller broke off with Kazan when the latter also became a friendly witness for HUAC. Kazan picked up the project with Schulberg as the writer. In the Schulberg obituary in the Los Angeles Times Schulberg is quoted at great length as denying the script and the film were any sort of apologia for his testimony. He said, “I was interested in social conditions on the waterfront and drawing a truthful story, not in justifying my position.” It is true that the focus in narrative terms, as in Miller’s script, is on the labor union. For Miller, however, the main dramatic question is whether Marty, the longshoreman, will make a fight against the leadership of the union. In Schulberg’s script, the question is whether Terry will testify against the leadership. Schulberg’s script does not end with Terry’s testimony, but goes on for another ten to fifteen minutes showing us how he is treated by his community after his testimony. I think the film gets its power from Kazan and Schulberg’s understanding of the emotional and social price paid by Terry for his testimony.

Schulberg and Kazan followed up Waterfront three years later with A Face in the Crowd, a film that was neither a critical nor a commercial hit in its days, but which has gained in reputation over the years. Based on a short story by Schulberg, it tells the story of “Lonesome” Rhodes, a redneck ex-con who becomes a huge star, first on radio, then on the new medium of television. A lot of critics at time insisted that the film’s satire of television was too unbelievable, but virtually everything in the film has come true in one way or another. Paddy Chayefsky’s acclaimed 1976 script for Network owes a lot more to A Face in the Crowd than it admits, as does 1994’s Natural Born Killers.

One reason Face in the Crowd was not a commercial success in 1957 was that it was one of those dark fifties movies like Wilder’s Ace in the Hole that told us a lot about ourselves that we did not want to hear. Kazan also made a serious misjudgment in his direction. He pushed Andy Griffith, in his first film, years before Mayberry, to such emotional levels at the start of the film that Griffith had nowhere to go later, and his performance as Lonesome gets exhausting to watch. On the other hand, when I showed the film in class in 2000, six years after Natural Born Killers, the class admired its restraint. Schulberg’s film was 43 years ahead of its time.

Schulberg and Kazan often talked of remaking A Face in the Crowd, but never got around to it. And in later years, Schulberg was appalled to learn that young people in Hollywood were reading What Makes Sammy Run? not as the cautionary tale he intended but as a how-to-succeed-in-the-industry manual.

John Hughes grew up in the Midwest and spent his teen years in Chicago, which became not only the location for many of his scripts, but where he retreated after he got tired of dealing with the Sammy Glicks of Hollywood. He worked in advertising for a while, then at the National Lampoon. While his name or his pseudonym Edmond Dantes appears in some writing capacity on 39 films, he is best remembered for the eight films he directed as well as wrote. Hughes did not have the wide range of Schulberg, but like many movie stars who don’t have much of an acting range, he could be superb within a narrow range.

I was in my early forties when the classic Hughes films like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off were released, so they did not have the emotional impact for me that they did for people who were in their teens then. I thought Bob Clark’s scripts for the first two Porky’s films with their emphasis on male hormonal excess were more accurate representations of adolescence, but what Hughes got better than anybody else was the emotional temperature of teens. His teens were not as intense as those fifties kids in Rebel Without a Cause or as raunchy as the late nineties kids in the American Pie movies. Teens saw in Hughes’s films both an idealized view of themselves, but also an accurate view of the emotional fluctuations in their lives in suburban America.

Both men were screenwriters for their time. Schulberg looked at the real, wide adult world, which American films did, even in the restricted fifties. By Hughes’s heyday in the eighties, American films were focused more on the teen market, with all the restrictions that implies for filmmakers.

Middle Passage Summer Cable Season 2009: Comings and goings.

The Closer has continued to avoid showing us much of how Brenda and Fritz are adjusting to marriage. He shows up in cases from time to time, but that’s about it. In “Identify Theft” (teleplay by James Duff & Steven Kane, story by Ken Martin) Brenda’s mother shows up with Brenda’s niece Charlie, a teenage girl who is having discipline problems. Brenda puts her to work making friends with a teenager who may be a murderer. Charlie sort of comes to appreciate what Brenda does, which may or may not do Charlie any good. Not surprisingly, since she is played by Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon’s daughter, Sosie Bacon, she was back in “Smells Like Murder” (written by Duppy Demetrius). Since she was staying with Brenda and Fritz longer than she thought, she had a friend of hers mail a box of marijuana-laced brownies. Brenda, well-known for her sweet tooth, had several. Hi-jinks ensued. Demetrius also wrote in a nice set of reactions of members of Brenda’s team as they deal with a box delivered to the office that contains a dead body.

In US#29 I noted that on Saving Grace Grace and Rhetta were behaving more and more like teenagers and less like grownup employees of the police department. They have only gotten worse. And Grace has not learned a lot more about “coma girl,” at least until the “Looks Like a Lesbian Attack to Me” episode. “Coma girl,” or Neely, shows up there as a stripper working a pole and calling herself either Angel or Angela (I am not sure because most of the actors in the show are following Holly Hunter’s lead and trying to talk without moving their lips; mediocre sound mixing does not help). Earl takes her away in a “vortex of light,” as Grace describes it. But then Grace later meets her in a bar and discovers she knows as much about college football as Grace and her colleagues do. I am not sure if the show jumped the shark or just a dolphin or two with its “Popcorn” episode, written by Sibyl Gardner & Annie Bruner. The whole murder plot set up in the first half of the show turned out to be an elaborate practical joke that the cops were playing on Butch and his television reporter girlfriend. And when I say elaborate, I mean elaborate, with phony bodies, phony informants, the works. Now wouldn’t some supervisor logically object to spending so much of the department’s time and effort on a practical joke? Especially when there are real crimes to be solved. The nadir of the episode, the season, and the show came in one of the final scenes where Grace and Ham come to Rhetta’s lab and crawl around on the floor while talking to Rhetta. Is it something in the water?

Hung is not living up to its potential. In various episodes we are getting a lot of material about Ray, his ex-wife, his kids, and their problems, and less and less about his job as a “happiness consultant.” And the details about that job seem skipped over. I am not asking that it turn into hard-core porn (that’s what the Internet is for), but if the show is going to be about a guy who provides sex to women, then the episodes and scenes ought to be about that.

Drop Dead Diva continues to be uneven. In “The Chinese Wall” episode (written by Thania St. John), Jane represents Deb’s mother in her divorce while Grayson represents her father. There are some great reactions for Brooke Elliott as she deals with her/Deb’s mom, especially as she finds out that the marriage had not been a happy one but that they had stayed together for Deb. On the downside, the B story was about dog cloning, which Boston Legal would have done better. I have been glad to see they have had no more balcony scenes that I complained about in US#30. The other mediocre element in “Chinese Wall” was that Fred, Jane/Deb’s guardian angel, is trying to learn how to romance Stacy by…watching romantic movies. Haven’t we been there a lot before?

Burn Notice finished up its half season. In the last four episodes the show introduced Tom Strickler, who is sort of an agent for spies and other ne’er-do-wells. He pitched Michael the idea that if Michael would work for him, he would use his connections to get Michael back into legitimate intelligence work. Strickler is the kind of wonderfully sleazy character this show handles very well. He was as good as his word, which was something of a surprise. In the final episode, “Long Way Back” (written by Craig O’Neill), Irish thugs come to get Fiona. Michael, Sam, Fi, and Fi’s brother set up the lead thug O’Neill with a bomb with O’Neill’s signature. They also seem to have made up a second bomb, which they leave with Strickler’s body, whom Michael kills when he realizes Strickler has betrayed him by telling O’Neill where they are. Sorry to see Strickler get it, but at least he got the agency interested in Michael. Diego, the agency’s man dealing with Michael, calls him up to tell him his file is being renewed. Sure. And then Diego is killed by friends of Strickler. So we now have a different bunch of baddies to chase Michael when the show resumes in the winter. As I suspected, the question of Fi’s not wanting Michael to go back into the agency has been a recurring issue, but it generally has only been alluded to. At the beginning of “Long Way Back” Fi is leaving Miami to go back to Ireland, and that is left up in the air at the end of the episode.

In Plain Sight has, fortunately, been spending less and less time with Mary’s obnoxious family and more on her cases. A favorite episode of mine in this season was “Let’s Get It Ahn” (written by the series creator David Maples). Most episodes are relatively simple in terms of narrative, but this one was so complicated I had to stop taking notes. Helen, an artist, was counterfeiting money, maybe for the North Koreans, or the C.I.A., or who knows who. Everybody official is denying any connection with her. But Mary is protecting her, although she keeps slipping away. Who is trying to find her? And why is somebody planting clues to lead them to her? And that’s just the first half. You have to like a show that keeps you running to catch up. On the family front, Mary has almost inadvertently gotten herself engaged to her boyfriend, ex-minor leaguer Raphael, but most of the complications of that do not distract us too much from the main stories. In the season finale, “Don’t Cry for Me, Albuquerque” (written by Jessica Butler), Mary is assigned to protect Latin American political organizer Francesca Garcia, who is just as outside the box as Mary is. The State Department has abducted her from her unnamed country and spread the word she is in prison in that country, hoping this will start the revolution. So baddies from that country will come to take her out? Nope. Francesca decides she does not want to live in the very luxurious house the State Department is providing, and moves into what Mary calls a “dangerous area,” with druggies and drug salesmen as her neighbors. She thinks they are just like the guys she grew up with. When Mary gets shot, Francesca thinks it was Mary’s fault for challenging those nice drug dealers. We are left at the end with Mary in critical condition and the extent of her injuries not completely known. Are you betting like I am that she will recover and the show will not turn into a rehab drama?

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: 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.

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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.

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

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

3

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Red Moon Tide
Photo: Berlinale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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