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Understanding Screenwriting #32: Flame & Citron, A Woman in Berlin, Inglourious Basterds, District 9, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #32: Flame & Citron, A Woman in Berlin, Inglourious Basterds, District 9, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Flame & Citron, A Woman in Berlin, Inglourious Basterds, District 9, Sense and Sensibility, Mad Men, The Code, and Hollywood Under Siege (book), but first…

Fan Mail: There were a couple of comments that came in on US#30 after I had sent off #31, so let me respond to those now. “Manu” would like me to review a Hindi film or two. If I see one I want to write about, I certainly will. Keith gives me a lot of freedom to write about what I want to, which is one of the many reasons I love this gig. Olaf Barthel thought the problems with Public Enemies script were from the book. I have not read the book, but I think the script problems were more the doing of the screenwriters. After all, the job of the screenwriters is to make the book work as a screenplay. There is a great example of that later in this column.

On to #31. Craig thought we did not get a precise view of Summer in (500) Days of Summer because we are getting Tom’s view and he is an unreliable narrator. He may have a point, but I think it may just be the way the writers structured the script to give us a “true” insight into her at the end. “-bee” made a very good point that Leslie Mann in Funny People just does not have the “requisite charisma” to bring off the part. Since I whacked Apatow’s kids in the film, I have no trouble whacking his wife as well. “DS” responded to my “Be careful what you wish for” as to my eventually reviewing one of his scripts by noting that if I did review it, it would mean it had been made. And he looked forward to learning from my comments. He added, “I want to keep on learning,” which is exactly the attitude you have to bring to the table. For one of the great “keep on learning” stories, look up the anecdote from Nunnally Johnson at the end of the appendix in the third edition of my FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film.

Flame & Citron (2008. Written by Lars Andersen and Ole Christian Madsen. 130 minutes by IMDb and Los Angeles Times count, 135 minutes by my count): Army of Shadows goes to Denmark.

Ole Christian Madsen, the director as well as a co-writer of this film, said in an interview in the Los Angeles Times that his film about two of the best known Danish resistance movement fighters in World War II was inspired by Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 classic Army of Shadows. Melville was one of the first filmmakers to look at the darker side of the resistance, and for his troubles his film was banned for years in France. What both filmmakers do is avoid the standard heroics of traditional resistance films and look at the queasy moral ground that was part of the fight, even by the good guys in the Good War. I found Army of Shadows both admirable and chilling, and in some ways Flame & Citron is even better. It is not as exciting as Paul Verhoeven’s 2006 film Black Book, but Verhoeven was dealing with people having to make complex moral decisions instantaneously. Flame & Citron takes its time to turn the screws on its characters, and us.

The film begins with newsreels of the Nazi invasion of Denmark in 1940, but with a particularly disquieting voiceover narration. It is not the Voice of God you might expect from a film set in the forties, but rather someone—and we don’t find out who for a while—whispering intimately to someone else. Only later do we learn the voice belongs to Bent, nicknamed Flame because of his red hair, and only at the end do we learn to whom he was, well, I don’t want to spoil it for you. The film proper starts in May 1944, so we get none of the glamor of the early years of the resistance. It has been going on for a while and while killing has become commonplace, it has also begun to exhaust Bent and his partner, Jorgen, nicknamed Citron. Here is the first surprise: they have not been killing Germans, but Danes who collaborated with the Germans. (In traditional resistance films, all the civilians were in the resistance and nobody collaborated. In Army of Shadows and this film that’s not true.) Now they get the word from their boss Winther to kill three Germans. The attempted killings do not go well, to put it politely. Bent, meanwhile, is attracted to a shadowy older woman, Ketty, even though it is not clear whom she works for. As the film progresses, a common question several characters ask other characters is, “Who do you work for?” Sometimes they get answers, sometimes not. Sometimes the answers are true, sometimes not. Sometimes the answers are only partially true, sometimes partially false. While the movie starts out a little slowly, it gets better as it goes along. Yes, there is a traditional shootout involving one of the men, but mostly the writers have given us a collection of great scenes. Late in the picture, Bent has a meeting with his father that gives us in a nutshell the reality of the Nazi occupation and how people dealt with it. Jorgen finds out he is losing his wife, since he has so little time when he can be with her, and the writers give us a great, unsettling scene where he ensures she will be taken care of properly. There is a scene in Stockholm in which the various leaders of Danish Intelligence and the Army try to work out what to do with Flame & Citron; it recalls the final scene between Feisal, Allenby and Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia, and I cannot give it any higher praise.

As screenwriters, here is why you should do your research. The writers talked to the surviving members of the two men’s families, and looked through various archives. In a Stockholm archive they found a final detail about Ketty that gives us her final scene. The picture would be poorer without that scene.

A Woman in Berlin (2008. Screenplay by Max Färberböck and co-writer Catharina Schuchmann, based on the book Anonyma-Eine Frau in Berlin by Anonyma. 131 minutes): Not exactly the feel-good movie of the summer.

The book Anonyma-Eine Frau in Berlin was published in Germany in 1959 to howls of outrage. The anonymous author wrote of her experiences at the end of World War II when the Russians captured Berlin. She and many of the women she knew were raped, multiple times, by various Russian soldiers. The story she tells is how she decided to be the one to choose who raped her, and how she formed various liaisons with Russian officers, ending up with a major. You can see why readers on both sides of the Iron Curtain would not have been happy. It is not surprising it took another fifty years for the book to make it to the screen. Max Färberböck , who also directed, was the writer and director ten years ago of Aimée & Jaguar, in which a German woman falls in love with a female Jewish resistance fighter in Berlin in 1943/44. So he is familiar with the territory.

The current film, like the earlier one, is based on a true story, which in this case gives it a very episodic structure. The writers use that very effectively at the beginning of the film to help capture the chaos of facing the Berliners as the Russian army arrives while the war is still on. We, like the women and old men, are kept off balance. This means the script depends more on individual scenes than a single through-line. The scenes are compelling, and not just because we have not seen much like it before. Billy Wilder’s 1948 film, A Foreign Affair, comes closest, but without the explicitness we get here. The writers here are more sympathetic to the German women than Wilder was three years after the end of the war.

After a long sequence that both sets up the situation and lets us know we as well as the women cannot escape, we begin to see how accommodations are made by everybody. Late in the first hour, “Anonyma,” as the heroine is listed in the cast, meets an old friend, Elke (played by Juliane Köhler, Aimée from the earlier film). Anonyma asks her simply, “How many times?” and Elke replies equally straightforwardly, “Four times.” The two women join others in Anonyma’s building for a, well, you can’t quite call it a party. A get-together, group therapy, whatever. They talk openly about their experiences with the Russian men, laughing about the men and even the experiences. Wilder never had a scene like this.

About 75-minutes into the film, the war ends, and we get a brilliant set-piece of the celebration of the Russians and the Germans. When you think of set-pieces in films, you tend to think of directors showing off (the crop duster sequence in North by Northwest), but here it is a writers’ set-piece, not unlike the laying out of the narrative elements in the first half hour of The Godfather. We get not only the variation of emotions the characters feel, but how those emotions change as the party and scene progress. Like Black Book and Flame & Citron, the scene and the film pull us into the moral complexities of human behavior in the desperate environment of war.

The major, whom Anonyma develops a kind of love for, is eventually sent away, possibly to Siberia, possibly worse, probably at least in part for his relationship with her. Her husband returns, and the difference in his look between an early flashback of him going off to war and how he looks now summarizes the damage war does even to those who manage somehow to survive. The writers have provided great opportunities for all the film’s actors.

The film is not perfect. There are scenes that go on too long, and it was made on what appears to be a limited budget. We are stuck on the street where Anonyma lives and the Russian army seems to hang out. It looks as though it might have been one of exterior street sets from The Pianist. It adds to the claustrophobia of the women’s situation, but when Anonyma does take a ride on a bicycle, she never seems to leave the street. Those are minor flaws.

Inglourious Basterds (2009. Written by Quentin Tarantino. 153 minutes): No, I am not going where you think I am.

You probably thought that since I love and admire Flame & Citron and A Woman in Berlin, particularly for their complex and subtle look at war and what it does to its participants, that I am about to rake Tarantino over the coals for making a silly, shallow, appeal-to-the-twelve-year-old fanboy movie. Like most people, I have a taste for a wide variety of movies. Tarantino is less interested, not to say not interested at all, in writing a subtle look at the morality of war. Like many American screenwriters, who are after all part of the American storytelling tradition, he wants to tell a tale. And as much or more than any other American screenwriter, he wants to tell off-the-wall, wildly entertaining stories. Americans do this better than screenwriters in most other cultures. It is part of our DNA. And different as Inglourious Basterds obviously is from the two films above, it is maybe not as different as you might think.

The opening scene could have come out of either of the two European films. SS Colonel Landa comes to a farm in occupied France and questions the owner about a Jewish family he has not been able to track down. The scene is slower and less obviously violent than the openings of the other two films. It is much more a suspense scene than an action scene, as are several of the scenes in Basterds. Tarantino has been saying in interviews that his film is more about dialogue than action. The dialogue is not the wild and crazy stuff that we expect from Tarantino, but it does tell us about the characters and the situation. Landa, a wonderful character beautifully played by Christoph Waltz, is a descendant of all those suave Nazis that showed up in films made during the war, and he takes his time talking to the farmer before guns get fired.

American Lt. Aldo Raine, whom we meet in the next “chapter,” talks completely differently. He is a redneck, part Native American from Tennessee, and he sounds like it. In US#16 I made the distinction between Brad Pitt the movie star and Brad Pitt the character actor. Boy, am I glad Pitt was smart enough to bring the character actor along, since Tarantino has given him a great character to play. Pitt delivers a marvelous performance, which has been a bit overshadowed by Waltz’s Landa. They are both terrific, and Tarantino has, more than in any of his previous scripts, made sure they do not talk alike.

I mentioned that there are great suspense scenes in this script. One is when Shosanna, the sole survivor of the farm scene and who now runs a movie theatre in Paris, is brought to a lunch with German army hero Frederick Zoller and Joseph Goebbels. Landa shows up in the middle of the scene. I think Tarantino took the cheap way out by letting us know before this that Shosanna was the survivor, since it probably would have been more dramatic just to throw in the quick flashback we do get in the middle of the scene. I always get my screenwriting students to write in reactions, and Tarantino has given Mélanie Laurent, who plays Shosanna, a great reaction at the end of the scene. I would also like to see the rest of the shot, since Tarantino and his editor Sally Menke seem to cut it short.

I am not spoiling anything at this point by letting you know the ending is VERY revisionist: Hitler and the German high command are killed in an explosion and fire at the movie theatre. Maybe it was that I knew that going into to see the film, but I found that Tarantino had set up and told his tall tale in such an entertaining way that I not only did not care that he had changed the course of history, I felt it did not have the impact for me that it might have had if I had not known. That’s a problem for writer when you come up with such a twist. Especially these days with tweets and such it is unlikely to remain a secret.

So if this is such a tall tale, how is it like those two European films? One of the problems I had with Tarantino’s earlier films is that he seemed unaware that violence hurt people. He took this, I suspect, from the kung fu movies he loved as a video store clerk where nobody seems to be hurt from all the damage done to them. As much as I loved Pulp Fiction, after the shootout in the street I kept thinking, “These guys have lost so much blood they should at least be in shock, if not dead.” I often said jokingly in the nineties that Tarantino should get shot in the foot so he would know the cost of the violence. In Basterds, for all the exuberant action, there are moments when we are aware of the emotional damage, such as Zoller’s reactions to the film of his real-life adventures. No, the film is not as good as others in dealing with this, but the fact that it is there gives at least a little substance to what is otherwise a rousing, American adventure film. Tarantino is maturing, but thank God not too much.

District 9 (2009. Written by Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell. 112 minutes): Killing three birds with one stone.

Not being a big fan of science fiction movies, CGI spectacles, or movies in which slimy things jump out and go boo, I usually end up seeing only one in each genre over the course of the year. District 9 combines all three in one film and throws in social comment and satire as well. And I loved it.

You may know the backstory of this one. Blomkamp was supposed to direct a big-budget version of Halo, but when the project fell apart, producer Peter Jackson asked if he wanted to do something else. Blomkamp suggested a feature based on a six-minute short he had made in 2005 called Alive in Joburg. Jackson agreed and Blomkamp and Tatchell came up with the current script. According to a joint interview with the writers in the August 14th issue of Creative Screenwriting Weekly, Blomkamp was interested in doing a science fiction movie in South Africa, while Tatchell focused on the characters.

A traditional problem with science fiction films is exposition, specifically setting up the world of the film. If a man on a horse with a gun rides over the hill, we know we are in a western until you tell us otherwise. But science fiction films have to establish the world we will be living in and the rules of that world. Star Wars does it by plunging us right into the action and letting us figure out what the rules are. The David Lynch film of Dune spent so much time setting up the world that a friend of mine kept mumbling “They’re only up to page 20,” “They’re only up to page 40.” What the writers do here is throw an enormous amount of exposition at us, but in a great variety of forms. Some of it seems to be television news coverage. Some of it seems to be talking heads from a documentary made after the events. All of this is broken up into very short bits, with snippets not only of information, but also of humor and character. When we first see Wikus, we think he must be a minor bit of comedy relief, which is a wonderful bit of writerly slight-of-hand. Look at the information and opinion we get from MANY people about him. All of that information comes together when we find out why he was selected to head the unit that will resettle the aliens.

Matt Maul and several of the folks who commented on his August 17th review of the film at HND felt the film lost their interest after the first half an hour or 40 minutes. I felt that by that point in the film we had gotten to know Wikus and I for one was rooting for him. Blomkamp and Tatchell have created a variety of problems Wikus has to deal with and then used them in inventive ways. He spritzes some fluid on his hand, and it begins to turn into an alien hand. Which on the one hand makes more people chase him for various reasons, but it also gives him a weapon or two or three. Matt and several people commenting on his review thought the film gives up the faux-documentary style and becomes more conventional. It does not give it up all together, but there are scenes done in a more conventional style, particularly those with the aliens, which I think makes them more sympathetic.

Part of the reason for the sense that the film loses something after the opening is that the opening uses the special effects brilliantly to suggest a much larger scale film than District 9 really is. One thing I LOVE about this film is that the SFX are ENTIRELY at the service of the content of the film: the story, the characters (especially of the aliens) and the ideas. One of the reasons I avoid movies like Transforming the Terminator into G.I. Joe is that the SFX spend a lot of time calling attention to themselves. Because Blomkamp as director is working on what for Hollywood would be a small budget (around $30 million), he does not have time and money to waste on what is not needed.

You can see why Peter Jackson, the director of the 1987 Bad Taste, would be willing to produce this. There is a lot of gore, but as with the SFX, it is only what is needed. The writers and the director do not wallow in it. And it is done humorously. Never underestimate the uses of humor, and by that I do not just mean wisecracks. Here the character humor and the political satire are a nice counterbalance to the action and gore. And the political satire is not heavy-handed. We can see that the aliens have been put into the same kind of slums that black people in South Africa have been put in. We don’t need to be hit over the head with it.

Sense and Sensibility (1995. Screenplay by Emma Thompson, based on the novel by Jane Austen. 135 minutes): I think I was wrong about both Jane and Emma.

In writing about Clueless, the 1995 modern dress version of Austen’s Emma in the book Understanding Screenwriting, I admitted I had problems with Austen as a writer. I had loved the films made in the mid-nineties from her novels, but when I finally got around to reading Emma, “It cured me of being a Janeite forever. The woman is one of the wordiest writers in the English language, never using five words when she can use five hundred or a thousand. You have to wade through so much verbiage to get to the wit and the characters it is hardly worth the effort.” This summer I got around to reading Sense and Sensibility. It is a great airplane read, by the way. You have to concentrate on the language just hard enough to distract you from everything else on the plane. I liked it a lot better than Emma. It is wordy, and you still have to wade through a lot, but I began to appreciate what Janeites see in Austen. Reading the novel also made me appreciate even more than I already did Emma Thompson’s screenplay.

Austen’s novel is dramatic (she loved theatre), but she does not write in scenes. Thompson had to create a number of scenes out of Austen’s general descriptions. In Austen, Edward Ferrars is given no entrance; he just shows up at Norland. Look at his introductory scene in the film. Likewise, Austen’s wordiness extends to her dialogue scenes, which go on forever. I could only find one scene (Elinor telling Edward of Brandon’s offer of a parish) that uses much of Austen’s dialogue. And Edward’s great lines to Elinor at the end, “I have come with no expectation. Only to profess, now that I am at liberty to do so, that my heart is and always will be yours,” is nowhere to be found in Austen. Sometimes Jane needs a real screenwriter to help her out.

Mad Men (2009. “Out of Town” episode written by Matthew Weiner. “Love Among the Ruins” episode written by Cathryn Humphris and Matthew Weiner. Epiosode “My Old Kentucky Home” written by Dhavi Waller and Matthew Weiner. Each episode 60 minutes): Oh joy. Oh rapture. It’s back.

I found it rather interesting to read the episode recap of “Out of Town” on the official AMC website for the show. It gets all the facts down and even makes the opening seem to me clearer than it did when I watched it, but it misses what makes Mad Men unique: the overtones, the nuances. By the way, the official website will also give you a cocktail guide, tell you how to have Mad Men parties, show you videos of the premier, and give you quizzes to take. It will not, however, give you either the writing or acting credits for the show. If I were the agent for the actress who played Shelly, the stewardess, I would be on to both AMC and IMDb about getting her on the cast lists (in fairness to IMDb, within a week, they did have Sunny Mabrey, who plays Shelly, up on the cast list).

Nuances. That’s why we love the show. Sterling Cooper has been taken over by a British firm and look at how that is dealt with in “Out of Town.” Look at the different ways Ken and Peter come into the office of Lane Pryce, the leading Brit. One sits, the other doesn’t; who knows what is the proper etiquette for the Brits? There are constantly little linguistic misunderstandings between the Brits and our guys. Hooker, the “secretary” to Pryce, keeps explaining that he is more than what the Americans mean by secretary, which leads to Joan’s withering “We know.” Which later leads Hooker, who is nicknamed by the female staff “Moneypenny,” to look baffled and to say about Sterling Cooper, “This place is a gynocracy.” You have to love a show in which even the idiots get off perceptive lines. Great writing is profligate with ideas, scenes, dialogue, characters, everything.

After both Pete and Ken have been separately told they are going to be head of accounts, they ride in an elevator and exchange small talk, but we know what each one is thinking. The same with Don seeing Sal in the hotel room, semi-dressed with the bellhop. And listen to the scene with Don and Sal on the plane back to New York. Yes, Don is talking about an idea for the ad campaign for London Fog (and do you think for a second the choice of that brand is coincidental?), but we and Sal know what he is really talking about when he says, “Limit your exposure.” And listen to Sal’s reaction to the mock-up of the ad. Yes, we are watching the sets, costumes, drinking habits, but Mad Men is also a great show to listen to.

In “Love Among the Ruins” I was particularly struck with how the writers are beginning to show the changes in society that the first two seasons have been setting up. Some of the SC guys are dealing with the plans to tear down the old Penn Station and put up the new Madison Square Garden. Roger’s daughter is getting married, and Roger notes the wedding is set for November 23rd. I was suspicious as soon as I heard that, and my suspicions were confirmed at the end of the scene where we see a copy of the invitation. Yep, November 23rd, 1963. Check your history books if you do know what that’s all about. When the younger guys screw up the Penn Station deal, Don steps in and convinces the head of the project that they just need to change the conversation about it in the public eye. And then the London office has Pryce tell Don that they want to drop the project all together. When Don then asks Pryce why the British company bought SC, he simply answers, ” I don’t know.”

The greatest change we are seeing is in Peggy, who is not only speaking up in meetings, but going out to a bar and picking up somebody to have sex with, just like the guys do. The AMC synopsis has her parting line as “This was fun,” but I got it in my notes as “That was fun,” which suggests her distance from the act. What did I say about it being a great show to listen to?

In “My Old Kentucky Home” Don is at a party (or is it Roger and Jane’s wedding?—the AMC synopsis says party, but there are hints that it is a wedding) at a country club. He is put off by Roger’s singing “My Old Kentucky Home” to Jane. In blackface. As the AMC synopsis says, “Don wanders off to an untended bar where he meets an older male wedding guest. Don prepares Old-Fashioneds while the two swap stories about their modest beginnings.” Yes, but that does not anywhere near capture the richness of the scene. The man, Connie, is a rock-ribbed Republican from New Mexico who still feels out of place. He talks about going by a mansion like the club as a kid in his small boat and hearing the parties. He now thinks it is less interesting on the inside. Don of course is used to being a fish out of water, but as we are constantly seeing, he may be the most adult person on the show. He and Connie may be the most together people at the party, able to see what is going on more clearly than the others. Perhaps in Don’s case, this comes from trying to create himself all these years. In 1991 I happened to meet Christ Cosner Sizemore. That name may not mean anything to you until I tell you that she was the real-life “Eve” of The Three Faces of Eve. She was by then a little dumpling of a grandmother, but she was also one of the most together people I have ever met. Well, I thought, she has had forty years of working on pulling herself together. What the Connie-Don scene does is showing us two men who have pulled themselves together. Self-made men.

The Code (2008. Written by Ted Humprey. 104 minutes): Leaving money on the table.

This was originally intended as a theatrical film, and it opened overseas in the first half of this year. Its title then was the infinitely better Thick as Thieves; The Code sounds like one of those bland titles the folks in marketing come up with. You just have to keep knocking those away as a batter hits foul balls until you get something you like. I will grant you that the title The Code does refer to one of the more interesting scenes in the middle of the jewelry store heist when the thieves are guessing at the safe’s code (you know the writer is doing it right when he has you on the edge of your seat while the actors are just reading numbers), but you have to have already seen the film. Like Raiders of the Lost Ark.

So it is a heist picture, and we have not had a good one since Inside Man in 2006. Humphrey’s script is not up to that, but it does give us the pleasures of the genre. There are a lot of twists, including one in the middle of the robbery that I was totally not expecting. The head of the two-man operation, Keith Ripley (a tip of the ski mask to Patricia Highsmith, perhaps), is a wonderful opportunity for Morgan Freeman to throw off that nobility he has been dragging around and show us his badasssss side. He’s not as nasty as he was in Street Smart (1987), but is still not someone you would want to double cross. His partner, Gabby, is Antonio Banderas, and try to avoid thinking early in the film that he may be too long in the tooth for a character who seems to be the junior partner. Robert Forster also shows up to deliver what is probably the only Jules Dassin joke in the history of movies.

The reason I picked this one up on DVD is that the director, Mimi Leder, is a former student of mine. She made her bones directing episodes of LA Law, China Beach, and ER, the latter one winning her an Emmy. She moved into features with The Peacemaker (1997) and Deep Impact (1998), but after the failure of Pay It Forward in 2000, she went back to television. She has always handled both action and character well and she does so here.

The picture probably could have done O.K. if it had been released theatrically in this country, but it ended up going straight to DVD. We are probably going to be seeing more of this, since in the recession companies will not have as much money to open a film theatrically as they had in the past. As for The Code, when it was released in June, it became the first direct-to-DVD release ever to go to number one in the rentals for its week. Somebody left some money on the table, but it may have cost them too much to pick it up.

Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars (2008. Book by Thomas R. Lindlof. 394 pages): A tin ear.

Lindlof’s book is a fascinating look at the making of The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and the protests stirred up against it by the religious right. It does tell us enough near the beginning about the writing of the film to help explain why it was so awful. The first writer on the film was Paul Schrader and we get a few lines of dialogue from his script. The idea was to avoid the fancy literary style of most bibilical films, but the dialogue quoted is so everyday it becomes flat. Jay Cocks’s revisions did not help. The dialogue simply was not very believable in the bibilical context. Scorsese did not help matters by letting them sound like New York working class guys. He and Tom Pollock, the new head of the studio, had a long phone conversation about it. Pollock told Lindlof, “I was one of those who did not want Harvey Keitel as Judas. I thought the accents would be totally jarring and take you out of the movie. Marty had an idea that somehow this would show that the people who followed Jesus were the proletariat of the time, the common workingman. I said, ’All right, Marty, I get it, but why do they have to talk like they’re the common workingmen from the Lower East Side? What’s wrong with just sort of straight-on American?’” Pollock, alas, decided not to push the issue. Too bad, because he was right. I have never seen the picture in full, but I caught about five minutes one night on cable and was so put off by Keitel’s accent I could not stand to watch any more of it. Scorsese does seem to have a tin ear about accents. How else do you explain him letting Michelle Pfeiffer, who can do very good accents, sound like a California surfer-girl in The Age of Innocence (1993)?

The heart of the book is about the controversy and protests when the film was released, and Lindlof has done a great job of researching both sides. So much so that he comes up with this interesting fact. While Universal made only about a $700,000 profit on the film, the man who made the most money off of the situation was Donald Wildmon, the head of the American Family Association. The AFA got $3.2 million in donations in 1988, the year of film, 30% more than the year before. Wildmon’s use of the film as a wedge issue to boost donations was quickly picked up by both the religious and political right. Thanks Marty.

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.

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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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