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Understanding Screenwriting #35: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Bright Star, Whip It,

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Understanding Screenwriting #35: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Bright Star, Whip It,

Coming Up In This Column: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Bright Star, Whip It, The Phenix City Story, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mad Men (2), The Following Weeks of the 2009-2010 Television Season, but first:

Fan Mail: dfantico suggested the ways he would rewrite Law Abiding Citizen in his comments on US#34. I generally avoid telling people how to rewrite a script, although I sometimes fall into that trap. As a screenwriting instructor I try to not to tell students how to rewrite their scripts. I just point out the problems and let them figure it out. They learn more that way.

Since I did not do any comments on the comments on my piece “Talking Back to Documentaries,” let me just throw in a thanks to the people who wrote in on it. I was glad to give you some ideas of stuff to watch. I was particularly touched by the comments from joan, who seemed from the comments to be Betsy MacLane, the co-author of the textbook I use. Glad to know the class meets with your approval.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009. Screenplay by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, based on the book by Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett. 90 minutes): O.K. banana, but a great credit.

I suspect that the children’s book this is based on is probably a charmer, and I can see why kids would love it. Flint Lockwood invents a device that takes the water in clouds and turns it into food: cheeseburgers, pizza, pancakes with butter and syrup, etc. The food drops on the small town Flint lives in and makes it famous, but then the device gets out of control. Nice little story. The problem is the film is 90 minutes long and there is not enough story for 90 minutes. The filmmakers have, pardon the expression, larded up the story with more and more and more food sight gags. It gets relentless. An additional problem is that the characters are rather bland and one-dimensional and they cannot sustain a 90-minute film either. Once the plane takes off to try to stop the device, it is all action, all the time. And of course it is a huge hit, especially with kids, who love the excessive food jokes. I suppose this means that the writers know their audience, but still…

There are the occasional nice moments with the characters, but not enough of them. Sam, the TV weather intern given her big shot at covering the story, has a habit of saying something very smart and then realizing it was too smart for the room. She then resorts to pretending to be stupid. Flint, finally, after way too many examples, calls her on it and she admits she really is smart. Flint changes her look from cutsie weather girl back to nerd, complete with glasses. We are supposed to applaud, but can’t she be cute and smart at the same time? Flint’s father is a fisherman who talks (with James Caan’s voice, a perfect bit of voice casting) in fish metaphors, which also gets tiresome, but the father has a good gag when he tries to e-mail the kill code for the device to his son.

In writing about The Mouse That Roared, I mentioned that it got off to a great start with the gag of a mouse scaring the Columbia logo lady. This film starts off with a banana falling from the sky and hitting her. Not as funny. But then the film recovers beautifully with a main credit that starts: “A Film by…” and then adds “A lot of people.” For once, truth in the credits. Too bad the rest of the film is not up to that joke.

Bright Star (2009. Written by Jane Campion. 119 minutes): Define bright.

My wife and I were really in the mood for a romantic drama, complete with English poets (Keats in this case) and the lovely countryside (my wife is English and I have a nostalgic view of the good old sceptre’d isle). I do have to tell you that my wife stayed awake through the entire film (she is notorious for sleeping through the first act of plays—where do you think I developed by skill at quickly summarizing a play or movie?), but I had trouble keeping my eyes open.

John Keats, as written and directed by Campion, is a real drag. He hardly ever does anything but cough, and he does not seem to have much of a reaction to anything around him. Surely a guy who writes stuff like his would be paying at least some attention to the world. Campion’s real interest is in Fanny Brawne, a seamstress who falls in love with Keats. Now she is paying attention to everything that is going on, and that’s in the writing as well as the directing and acting. Abbie Cornish gives a star performance as Fanny, blowing Ben Whishaw as Keats off the screen, which is not what you want in a love story. Compounding the problem though is that Abbie is not all that sympathetic a character. She mopes a lot (not as much as Keats, but still) and seems rather silly a lot of time. I know people in love act silly, but as screenwriters you have to protect them a little. Just to make matters worse, Keats’s friend and protector, Charles Brown, is set up to be the minimal bad guy in the piece. He keeps dragging Keats away from Abbie to get him to work on his poems. Which makes him the most sympathetic as well as hard-headed of the characters. Referring to another poet entirely, Faulkner said, “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one… If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ’Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”

The England we see in the film is rather dreary, although Campion has provided us with some nice butterflies, but even Rome is dark and gloomy when we see Keats’s coffin there. I realize it is a tragic story, but a little sun might be nice as a counterpoint. The closest we get is Fanny’s little sister “Toots,” who has more charm than anybody else in the movie.

Whip It (2009. Screenplay by Shauna Cross, based on her novel. 111 minutes): Not just Juno joining the roller derby.

Bliss is a teenaged girl who joints the roller derby, unbeknownst to her mom Brooke, who forces Bliss to compete in teen beauty pageants. In the middle of the picture Brooke and her husband Earl find out. The confrontation scene between Bliss and Brooke is the only mediocre scene in the entire script—very flat and “on the nose.” The rest of the script is terrific.

Cross has a great feel for the locale of her film: white trash Texas (and the production design is very convincing; I was amazed to discover in the end credits that it was filmed in Michigan), and she gets the details of the lives of her characters right. What would you say to get your best friend to vomit up the alcohol she drank when she doesn’t want to? Listen to what Bliss tells her best friend Pash. More importantly, Cross is not condescending to the characters. They all are not only rich and funny, especially the derby girls, but Cross gives them nice counterpoints. It comes as a surprise to learn that Brooke, for all her pretensions, is a mail delivery person. Earl is not as dumb as you may first think. Pash has an interesting relationship with their boss at the diner. Late in the film, in a charming little scene in a car, we learn that “Maggie Mayhem,” one of the Hurl Scouts team, has a very interesting relationship with a much younger guy. Much, much younger.

This is Cross’s second screenplay, but it is the director’s first film as a director. She is Drew Barrymore, and she has been producing commercially successful, if not exactly critically acclaimed, movies for years. Her DNA from one of America’s greatest acting families shows up in her direction of the actors, most of whom haven’t been this good in years. Look at what Barrymore does with the reactions Cross has given to Marcia Gay Harden’s Brooke in the first scene in the film. Ellen Page as Bliss gives a wider-ranger performance than she did in Juno. Barrymore, unlike a lot of directors, LOVES actors, and it shows. Cross has given Barrymore a great set of characters to play with and Barrymore lets the actors go. True, she lets herself overact a bit in a supporting role, but she’ll learn. The outtakes at the end show the great time everybody had making the movie, and unlike some movies with outtakes at the end, the film gets that feeling across to the audience. Barrymore has given the film an energy and drive that Campion does not give to Bright Star. Now if Campion had just put Keats on roller skates…

The Phenix City Story (1955. Screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring and Crane Wilbur. 100 minutes): Doesn’t quite live up to its reputation.

Writing about The Captive City in US#8, I mentioned this film as “an example of how it [a script based on a true crime story] ought to be done.” I wrote there that it never showed up on DVD or on television. Well now it has appeared on Turner Classic Movies and I have to revise my opinion a bit. I saw this film when it first came out and found it stark and compelling. Since I was also about 13 at the time, some of my love for the film came from the early scene when actress-singer Meg Myles, a very buxom young lady in a low-cut dress, sings the “Phenix City Blues,” but I remember the impact the rest of the film had.

Phenix City, Alabama, was the legendary Sin City for most of the first half of the twentieth century. It was right across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Georgia, and therefore near Fort Benning. Soldiers went across the river for gambling, prostitution and whatever other vices they could find. During World War II the bordellos drove “mattress trucks” up to the gates of Fort Benning to cut down on the soldiers’ travel time. In 1954, Albert Patterson, a local lawyer who had just received the Democratic nomination for State Attorney General, was assassinated, which finally provoked a cleanup of Phenix City. The story made the newspapers and magazines around the country, and the film came out the following year.

This is shot on location in Phenix City, but it is a lot more relentless about making sure we know this than, say, On the Waterfront was the year before about its location shooting. When actor Edward Andrews, playing Rhett Tennant, the owner of the worst club, runs into a little old lady on the street and has a nice chat with her, people at the time knew she was the real notorious town madam. Nowadays, who cares? Like The Captive City, the script is so determined to document the story that it comes out rather flat. There is one really good scene near the beginning where Tennant goes to persuade Patterson not to join the crusaders. Andrews and John McIntyre, two first-rate character actors of the period, get a lot out of the scene. Too many of the rest of the scenes are very flat, and others, particularly those with Richard Kiley as Patterson’s son John, are too melodramatic. Another problem with the script is that it is vague about several points. There are suggestions, but only suggestions, that the sin merchants are connect to organized crime. Part of the vagueness may be that several trials were still going on at the time and the filmmakers could not be too specific. It does hurt the film. There are moments that still shock, such as a death of a little girl, but the script is not good enough to have the film impact today as it did then.

Georgia O’Keeffe (2009. Written by Michael Cristofer. 120 minutes): Another back-up-the-truck film.

In US#24 I brought up the idea that some movies and television shows are so good that instead of having all the nominations and award shows, you can just back up the truck and start shoveling out the awards. I raised that while writing about Grey Gardens. Check the list of Emmy winners this year.

Although the title is Georgia O’Keeffe, this made-for-television movie is about the long, difficult relationship between O’Keeffe, the painter, and her mentor, lover, and salesman, Alfred Steiglitz, one of the great American photographers. One of the comments on the message boards at IMDb complained that the film did not go on after his death and show the rest of her life. Well, you got to leave something for the sequel. And there is more than enough material in her life for another film.

Michael Cristofer is an actor and a playwright. He is best known for his 1977 play The Shadow Box, but he has done several screenplays. His screenplay for The Witches of Eastwick (1987) may have been messed up during that troubled production, and his script for The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) certainly was. I always found it interesting that Julie Salamon, who wrote the book The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood appears never to have talked to Cristofer. Salamon started the project intending to show how a great director, Brian De Palma, makes a great film. What happened of course was a disaster, and in a spectacular failure of nerve, Salamon fails to acknowledge in the book what is clear from everything else in the book: the problem with the film was that De Palma directed it very badly. Cristofer’s comments would have been very illuminating.

Because Cristofer is an actor as well as a writer, he has written a lot of great scenes for Joan Allen as O’Keeffe and Jeremy Irons as Steiglitz to play. Look at the first scene in the apartment he sets her up in. Look at the argument they have late in the picture and how the emotions turn on a dime. Look at the scene with her in the hospital and him trying to persuade her to let his gallery have a show. That last scene is a beautiful example of making a scene work where only one person talks.

Cristofer also lets us see her development as an artist. When she temporarily leaves Steiglitz in New York and goes to New Mexico, we see what attracts her about the place. One of the commentators on the IMDb boards complained that the cinematography made the East Coast scenes look all blue and green. Yes, and they are supposed to look that way so we feel the contrast when she comes West.

The film was shown on Lifetime and should pop up again. Look for it, especially if you have a big screen TV. Do NOT watch it on your iPhone.

Mad Men (2009. “The Gypsy and the Hobo” episode written by Marti Noxon & Cathryn Humphris and Matthew Weiner. 60 minutes): The Best Commercial Break of the Year.

Rather than look at the entire episode (Todd VanDer Werff and Luke de Smet are doing great jobs on their summaries/commentaries, aren’t they?), I want to look at one, or two, of the best scenes of this year. Not just on Mad Men, but in any movie or television show this year.

In the previous episode Betty had found the key to Don’s secret drawer. She looked in the old shoebox and discovered his “stuff,” including the fact that he had been married and divorced before. She did not do anything then, but we knew the day was coming. In this episode she takes the kids off to Philadelphia to see her brother, but as we discover, also to talk to her family’s lawyer about her situation with Don. The lawyer pretty much tells her to stick with Don, since the other options are not good. Meanwhile, Don is planning a getaway with Miss Farrell. They drive by his house and he leaves her in the car to go in for a minute. But he finds that Betty and the kids have come home early. Betty tells the kids to go upstairs to bed and says to Don, “I need to talk to you.”

So how would you write the scene that follows? Yelling, screaming, throwing things? Not with these writers. What we get is a very quiet but very tense scene in which Betty confronts Don. What the writers are very good at in this scene are the silences, which give the actors a lot to do. We see Betty’s anger, hurt, and bafflement, as well as her determination to find out what the hell is going on with the man she thought she knew. Don is devastated that his secrets have been found out. He says he can explain and Betty tells him he is good at that. So Don is forced to tell the truth for a change, and the one time he strays from it (about when he got the divorce) Betty nails him on it. We know he is telling the truth because we have seen nearly everything he says take place.

Now, what makes this a great scene? First of all, it delivers what we have been waiting for, and as much as I love the show, I keep wishing it would speed up the days of reckoning. I feel that way even more now that I see from this scene how the reckonings will be delivered. Second, the scene rewards the longtime viewers because we know what all this means, even if we don’t know where it will end up. Third, the scene provides, especially in those silences, great opportunities for the actors. Jon Hamm has shown Don skating through a lot, but here he is stunning, particularly in his first closeup when he realizes that Betty knows what is in the drawer. January Jones matches him in suggesting, not telling, all the conflicting feelings Betty is going through. Fourth, the scene provides the opportunity for the director, Jennifer Getzinger, to do it right by not doing much. Getzinger is smart enough to know we just want to watch these characters in this situation. With this quality of writing and acting, all she has to do is let the camera watch. Anything more would be redundant. Fifth, the writers let our knowledge of Miss Farrell out in the car hang over the entire scene (much later we see her get out of the car and walk home). Sixth, the writers and producers are willing to let the scene run longer than any scene I can remember in this series, and longer than almost any other scene in any television series. The entire scene runs nine minutes, which is an eternity in series television. It breaks the rhythm of the show, which is generally shorter scenes, intercutting with other scenes of other characters. This scene stays on these characters as long as it does because the artists know we want to see these characters and how they deal with this situation.

And then we get a commercial break. After which we come back to some of the other characters? Nope. We come back to Don and Betty in their bedroom as Don explains who the people in the photographs are. This scene runs five minutes, also long for a television scene, but again we want to be with these characters and see how it plays out. Don, talking about his brother, begins to cry, and for the first time Betty seems to have at least a little sympathy for him. Would this scene seem too much if there were not a commercial break between it and the previous scene? It might, which is why the writers place the commercial break where they do. I think it is probably easier for us to get back emotionally to Don and Betty if we are completely out of the story than if they had just cut to a scene of the other characters. We are used to commercial breaks by now, and this is one of the best uses of the commercial break I have ever seen.

I said that I would only deal with this one scene, but I cannot resist a comment on the final line of the episode, one of the best fadeout lines of recent years. In the two scenes discussed above, Betty is constantly trying to find out who Don is, not just in terms of names, but of character. In the final scene Don and Betty take their two older kids trick-or-treating. At one house, the guy who comes to the door correctly identifies the kids as a gypsy and a hobo, then looks at Don in his ad man suit and asks, “And who are you supposed to be?” Todd thought in his comments the line was “incredibly on the nose,” but I disagree. “Who are you?” would be on the nose. “Who are you supposed to be?” is a whole lot richer. When you are writing dialogue, one word can make all the difference.

Mad Men (2009. “The Grown Ups” episode written by Brett Johnson and Matthew Weiner. 60 minutes): Structure, structure, structure, and structure.

As I write this on November 7th, I have not yet read Luke’s comments on this episode, nor watched the season finale, but I wanted to get this column finished and into Keith. I am not going to go into this episode as deeply as I am sure Luke is going to (see comments in previous item). However, having dealt with just a couple of scenes in the previous item, I want to say a word about the structure of this episode, which is brilliant. I had assumed Weiner and his team were saving the Kennedy Assassination for the final episode of the season. I think the filmmakers were assuming we were assuming that, and they protected their episode by sending out completely bogus loglines to TV Guide and newspapers: “A candidate makes an impression on Don. Peggy is questioning her taste in men.” Well, that worked. I for one was caught off-guard when Pete goes in to talk to Harry and the television is on. Harry dismisses it as saying he has to watch to check the commercials, but he does turn off the sound. The notice of a news bulletin comes up on the set, and Pete and Harry just continue talking. We are well into the scene before others come in and they turn up the sound. It is twenty some minutes into the episode, which means the writers are giving themselves enough time to show the immediate impact of the assassination on nearly everybody in the cast.

So right away we get the famous Cronkite footage? Guess again. We see Betty and Carla, sitting at opposite ends of the couch, watching the NBC announcement of Kennedy’s death. Using that footage tells us in a subtle way that we are not just going to get the obvious clips or obvious reactions; a shoutout here to the show’s researchers, who found all kinds of interesting footage for this episode. We do get the Cronkite stuff, but only after Duck has unplugged the TV set in his hotel room before Peggy shows up for their tryst. He plugs it back in and they watch Cronkite together.

Don tells his kids at home that everything will be O.K. (how Don of him) and we will just have a new president. Pete matches that with the comment to his wife that nothing will change with Johnson as president. Joe Dougherty, whom I interviewed for my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing, said that one problem they had on thirtysomething was that the networks would never let them have a character be wrong. About anything. Thank goodness television has grown up a little bit since those ancient days in the eighties. Mad Men could not exist under those rules.

We of course have assumed that the wedding of Roger’s daughter would be called off, since it was scheduled for the day after the assassination. No, big public events were canceled or postponed, but the wedding goes on, which gives the writers a lot to work with. Not all those invited show up. Several attendees are in the kitchen watching the news coverage, which give us another great selection of footage. They seem to be watching the Texas lawmen whom we know from the famous clip of Oswald being shot, but the shooting does not occur here. The writers also have time to give us a wide variety of reactions to the assassination. I believe it was Peter’s wife who says, “You don’t shoot the President of the United States,” which was my reaction when, as a 21 year-old Navy officer, I heard the news. (My second thought was, “What about Jackie?” and my third thought was “Well, that ruins Vaughn Meader’s career.” Look him up.)

We then get the clip of the Oswald shooting at the end of the episode, with Betty watching. She goes out for a walk “to clear her head,” but meets Harry. He sort of proposes, and they kiss, but she returns to Don. Don thinks she’s just upset at the assassination, but she tells him he can’t hear her. Don may have a point, but it may be that the writers have in mind a line that someone said at the time. It was that America could recover from the Kennedy Assassination, but probably not from the Oswald killing.

So, what the writers have done here is shaped an episode around the public event and brilliantly interwoven it with the private lives of the characters. Which certainly anticipates the sixties.

The Following Weeks of the 2009-2010 Television Season: Carrying on.

As you may have noticed, the newer movies I have looked at in this column have been in theaters for a while. I did not get out to any new movies during the month of October. Some of that is that there were not that many I wanted to see, but mostly it was that I was busier than usual teaching at Los Angeles City College. At least partially due to the tanking job market in California, our enrollments are higher than ever. Since I require papers and essay tests in my film history classes, that has meant a lot of paper-grading. Add to that a whole bureaucratic hassle involving the state assessment of our classes, and time was short. I did, however, manage to keep up with the television season. Here are some comments on some shows from the last several weeks.

Community just got so stupid that I had to give up watching it. I eagerly await someone doing a really good, sharp, funny comedy about community colleges.

The Good Wife is turning out to be as good as I thought it would be (see US#34). The writers are keeping a nice balance between Alicia’s private and public life. In “Conjugal” (written by Angela Amato Velez), Will and Diane, the two heads of the law firm Alicia is working for, discuss what Alicia brings to the firm, which is that she thoroughly buffaloes all those lawyers who used to work for her husband. The series writers have been very good about developing the supporting characters. I mentioned in US#34 that the pilot did not overdo establishing the other characters, but you just knew that if they had hired Josh Charles as Will and Christine Baranski as Diane, it wasn’t to keep them unemployed. This scene shows why, as does the way the “Fixed” episode (written by Todd Ellis Kessler) gives Diane an interesting B story about a potential addition to the firm. Cary (Matt Czuchry), the other new associate, is in competition with Alicia for the full-time job. Czuchry was Logan Huntzberger on Gilmore Girls and caught Logan’s Ivy League arrogance and smarmy charm a little too well. I know it was a good performance, but Logan was wrong for our Rory (that’s the grandfather in me talking), and I was glad to see she dumped him. Czurchy, who I am sure in private is kind to widows and orphans, brings some of those same smarmy qualities to Cary. The “Home” episode (written by Dee Johnson) has him working on a case with Alicia, and Johnson lets us know that he has had virtually no trial experience. This gives him a legitimate vulnerability, as well as providing an opportunity for Alicia to shine in court. I also loved that Johnson had Alicia take her two kids back to the suburbs where they lived. The kids really wanted to go back to living there, but by the end of the episode they had come to see the suburbs’ flaws and were perfectly happy in their new big city digs.

Eastwick is still mostly charming, although it has been slow about developing the women’s powers. I found the “Bonfire and Betrayal” episode (written by showrunner Maggie Friedman and Rina Mimoun) particularly irritating in that the three women kept saying, “I’m sorry” to each other and everybody else. Come on, folks, we watch this show to see the women use their powers, not apologize for them. I was thinking of suggesting an Eastwick drinking game where you take a drink every time one of the women says “I’m sorry,” but everybody would be completely blotto by the thirty minute commercial break.

Castle has gotten a little off its game. The mysteries are getting more complicated, and until the “Famous Last Words” episode (written by Jose Molina), the show was in danger of getting away from what made it special: the relationships between Castle, Beckett, Castle’s daughter Alexis, and Castle’s mom. The “Famous Last Words” episode got that balance back.

Cougar Town settled down a bit in subsequent episodes. Some were about sex, some were not. In “Don’t Come Around Here No More” (written by Sanjay Shah), Jules, out of desperation, has a date with a man old enough to be her father. We don’t see the date, which turns out just to be a setup for a neighborhood barbecue. Too bad, since the show could have gotten some mileage out of a woman wanting to date younger guys stuck with an older guy. The show this seems to be turning into is a more conventional sitcom than it started out to be. That may or may not be a good thing.

Modern Family is growing on me. They have pretty much cut out the idea that this is a documentary, at least in the way the story scenes are shot. The interview material is still there, and some of that writing is very good. The writers are developing the characters beyond the stereotypes the show started with, always a good sign. I particularly like Mitchell and Cameron, the gay married couple. They are both so ordinary and so gay at the same time, something that a lot of other shows have had problems dealing with (were you ever really convinced that Will of Will and Grace was gay? I wasn’t). I loved that Cameron once played college football and is as big a football fan as his father-in-law Jay.

The Barney-Robin relationship is still providing much more entertainment on How I Met Your Mother than Ted’s supposed search for the mother. I was particularly impressed with the writing of the “Bagpipes” episode. The writer was Robia Rashad, who was new to me, although she has written for other shows I have watched, including the wonderful Aliens in America. Her speech for Marshall in which he describes himself as a master of relationships (i.e., watching Sandra Bullock movies without complaining) was nicely crafted, as were a couple of other speeches. She has been hired this season on the show as a story editor. Obviously a talent to watch. And listen to.

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: The Overly Familiar Come Play Prioritizes Theme Over Atmosphere

The film suggests a gene splice of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake.

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Come Play
Photo: Focus Features

While it can be expected that high-concept horror movies will often be sewn together from the premises of recent genre successes, it’s much too easy to see the stitches in writer-director Jacob Chase’s Come Play. Conspicuously echoing Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake, the film tells the story of a child haunted by a monster that only he can see—one awakened by a seemingly indestructible children’s storybook, and who serves as an allegorical embodiment of childhood trauma.

Chase introduces two new wrinkles to this formula: The first is that the monster’s home dimension is the electronic realm of smartphones, tablets, and the electrical system, and the second is that the child, Oliver (Azhy Robertson), has autism and is nonverbal. Come Play approaches Oliver’s disability empathetically, if heavy-handedly, showing how easily his lack of verbal expression ostracizes him from others: A group of boys at school led by Byron (Winslow Fegley) bully the kid; Byron’s mother, Jennifer (Rachel Wilson), is quick to presume that Oliver’s occasional fits are dangerous; and even Oliver’s own mother, Sarah (Gillian Jacob), struggles to understand his lack of communication as something other than coldness.

Oliver communicates with others using a smartphone app that offers him words and phrases, rather than letters, to choose from. The monster, unassumingly named Larry, makes contact with Oliver through his phone, interrupting episodes of the boy’s beloved SpongeBob SquarePants. A children’s e-book called Misunderstood Monsters keeps appearing on the screen of Oliver’s digital devices, claiming that the monster just wants a friend, and that he’ll be loosed upon the physical world once the story has been read all the way through. However, from the very beginning, Larry seems present but invisible without the aid of a phone camera, and is able to manipulate objects in the real world and endanger people’s lives. It’s a salient enough contradiction that, in its latter half, the film has characters hurriedly sum up the rules of the mythology based on some quite impressive logical leaps—lest we start thinking that the scares were conceived apart from internal narrative consistency.

A disproportionately tall, spindly, and perpetually moist gray something or other, Larry is a gene splice of the Babadook and the monsters from A Quiet Place. Although these influences are as apparent any other element in Come Play (Oliver communicates Larry’s presence to adults through creepily scrawled crayon drawings), the look of the monster is the film’s most effective visual idea. By the time he’s revealed in all his skeletal abjectness, though, Larry’s credibility as a menacing presence has already been undercut by the escapes-by-expeditious-cut that end virtually every scene of suspense. When the big confrontation comes, Come Play has already proven, despite its monster’s prodigious chompers, to be rather toothless.

In the end, theme takes too much priority over threatening atmosphere in Come Play. It’s hard not to be concerned about a particularly vulnerable child’s welfare, and Robertson’s performance as Oliver impresses, conveying the boy’s sensitive and perceptive nature without his ever uttering a word. But the film can only get so far on Robertson’s performance and its spectator’s protective instincts. What Come Play has to say about isolation in the digital age is certainly unmissable—one could also compare certain “haunted smart technology” effects to recent horror flicks like Stephen Susco’s Unfriended: Dark Web and Rob Savage’s Host—but on its own, having a message does not an effective horror movie make.

Cast: Gillian Jacobs, Azhy Robertson, John Gallagher Jr., Winslow Fegley, Rachel Wilson Director: Jacob Chase Screenwriter: Jacob Chase Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 105 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: Madre Moodily Reflects on How the Memory of Loss Distorts Reality

Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s feature-length Madre contemplates how memories of loss linger and distort the present.

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Madre
Photo: Strand Releasing

Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s 2017 short Madre didn’t just make the most of its constraints, it embraced them. What Sorogoyen couldn’t show directly due to budgetary constraints he evoked in dialogue and mise-en-scène, while turning the inherent time limit into a narrative device: the last bar of a cellphone battery. Everything that made the film so of its type should have rendered it unfit for expansion. Counterintuitively, Sorogoyen has plunked the short, unchanged, at the start of his feature-length adaptation, which then diverges from it radically in pacing and tone without sacrificing the coherence of the feature as a whole, like an explosion followed by silence. If the short embodied panic at the prospect of loss, the feature is a more contemplative affair, about how memories of loss linger and distort the present.

The film’s first act is a torrent of dialogue. Elena (Marta Nieto) gets a call from her ex-husband’s number. It turns out to be her six-year-old son, Ivan (Álvaro Balas), abandoned on a beach somewhere in Spain or France. In a desperate bid to pinpoint his location, Elena begs her son to describe his surroundings, but what is any beach but “sand” and “water”? A stranger is approaching him, he says. Elena shouts for her son to run. He’s hiding under a tree trunk, he says, but the stranger finds him as the line goes dead. The intensity of Nieto’s performance compels us to imagine what Elena believes to be happening to her son, and like a good horror film, Madre knows that a wildly extrapolating imagination can terrorize easier than any image, no matter how ghastly. The sole detail about the stranger that Ivan relays, that he’s urinating, is more than enough to cast him as a potential threat.

The remainder of the film trades rapid-fire dialogue for quiet, painterly compositions, making it something of a spiritual successor to Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad. Its uneasy tone is established with the very next scene, which opens “10 years later” on a beach—footprints scattered across an expanse of sand muted under a leaden sky. In a long shot, the silhouettes of distant people, alone or in clusters, resemble flies crawling on a fogged-up windowpane, an unsettling hum filling the soundtrack.

Sorogoyen’s camera begins a methodical pan along the coastline, at last centering one of the tiny figures, who turns out to be Elena walking head down in a sand-colored dress. A swarm of figures in black approaches at a run from the opposite direction, seeming to envelope her as a wave crashes over the soundtrack, and it’s the straggler among this group, Jean (Jules Porier), wearing surfing gear as if coughed up by the ocean, who compels her to look up. Elena recognizes something of Ivan in this 16-year-old boy, sparking an epilogue that stretches out until it overwhelms what the viewer thought was the story proper.

This film’s landscape shots impose a filter of ambiguity that we can only puncture with speculation. Just as mist smears the borders between land, sea, and sky, it’s never clear to Elena whether Jean is really her long-lost son, though a certain affinity between them cannot be denied. Sorogoyen leaves it up to the viewer to decide if the urgency of their entanglement comes down to filial intimacy or sexual tension. Either way, its inappropriateness erodes her tepid relationship with a controlling farmer (Alex Brendemühl), as well as Jean’s bond with his (adoptive?) family. In a dream near the end of Madre, Elena finally “sees” the tree trunk Ivan hid under 10 years before and hears a snarling animal devouring the child, prompting her upon waking to rescue Jean, or abduct him from his family, depending on how you view it.

The feature-length Madre presents the aftermath of traumatic loss in all of its ambiguity—how what we lose revisits us in disguise, how from the outside this haunting can appear, as more than one character refers to Elena, “psycho.” By projecting her despair into the landscape, Sorogoyen shows us her grief inside out, where it cannot be judged, only witnessed.

Cast: Marta Nieto, Jules Porier, Alex Brendemühl, Álvaro Balas Director: Rodrigo Sorogoyen Screenwriter: Isabel Peña, Rodrigo Sorogoyen Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 128 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Wolfwalkers Vibrantly Confronts and Plays on the Fear of the Unknown

The storyline’s edges are frayed just enough to give it the gentle distance of a tale recalled though the gauze of myth and memory.

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Wolfwalkers
Photo: GKIDS

Though the world of Wolfwalkers abounds with the Celtic magic of shapeshifters and healing spells, it’s the film’s art itself that sometimes seems the most enchanted. Showcasing the same hand-drawn animation that has distinguished Cartoon Saloon’s earlier Irish mythology-inspired works (The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea), Wolfwalkers pans across still, verdant landscapes that occasionally burst with life, with creatures crawling out of trees in the otherwise frozen background. Inspired by early modern woodblock prints, filmmakers Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart play with depth and texture, their vivid characters materializing in the foreground like figures in a watercolor puppet theater.

As Wolfwalkers begins, the 17th-century Irish city of Kilkenny has a wolf problem. Outside the city’s walls, the forest is inundated with them, and the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) needs to put his farmers safely to work. Enter Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean), an English huntsman who’s tasked with eliminating the wolves. But as Bill scours the forest for his prey, his restless daughter, Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), sneaks off to explore the area and is promptly attacked and bitten by a wolf who’s actually a girl, Mebh (Eva Whittaker), and whose spirit takes on lupine form while her human body sleeps. Pretty quickly, Robyn is feeling the effects of that wolf bite—she’s now also a wolfwalker—and she’s eager to help Mebh find her missing mother and save their pack from Bill and the ever-angrier mob of wolf-hating citizens.

In human form, Robyn makes for a boisterously snarky hero, but she’s even more fun to follow as a wolf. The film’s most distinctive sequences depict the world from a wolf’s-eye view—or, rather, a wolf’s nose, as shimmering, colorful streaks of scent trails show how the transformed Robyn navigates the forest on all fours. While Song of the Sea dug deeply into a grief-stricken family’s healing against a background of modern Celtic myth, Wolfwalkers focuses on a different kind of reunification: the Goodfellowes becoming one with the natural world, both the fragile environment and the animals that fight for survival within it. Ecological messaging drives Will Collins’s screenplay to an inevitable, climate-centric climax, even if the film’s mystic swirls overwhelm any practical, contemporary takeaways about caring for the Earth.

Wolfwalkers growls scornfully, if imprecisely, at the herd mentality that overtakes a violent citizenry and the way that organized religion feeds this fearful frenzy. Local bullies torment Robyn, the English outsider, as they act out their fantasies of wolf slaughter, but there’s not quite enough backstory here for us to be sure whether these kids inherited their wolf anxiety unfairly or whether it’s justified by the wolves’ occasional viciousness. Moreover, the seemingly genuine piety of the anti-wolf and anti-pagan Lord Protector muddies an otherwise villainous portrait with an arc that projects neither hypocrisy nor redemption clearly.

The loveliness of Moore and Stewarts film, however, lies precisely in its reluctance to pack a punch. Just as some frames turn impressionistic, with borders of leaf patterns replacing more faithful forest scenery, the storyline’s edges are frayed just enough to give it the gentle distance of a tale recalled though the gauze of myth and memory.

Cast: Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean, Simon McBurney, Tommy Tiernan, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Jon Kenny, John Morton, Nora Twomey, Oliver McGrath, Paul Young, Niamh Moyles Director: Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart Screenwriter: Will Collins Distributor: GKIDS Running Time: 103 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Review: His House Is a Creepy Allegory About Learning to Live with Trauma

Throughout, Remi Weekes forcefully, resonantly ties the film’s terror to the inner turmoil of his characters.

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His House
Photo: Netflix

British writer-director Remi Weekes’s His House opens with a striking montage of refugees crossing a war-torn Sudan and dangerously cramming onto a boat that will traverse choppy waters on an unimaginably long, treacherous journey toward England. When a loud crash is heard from the back of the boat, the film cuts to a shot of the ocean, where we witness numerous people drowning, including a young girl calling out for her mother. Before this horrific event is even resolved, Weekes again cuts away to reveal that this is neither a prologue nor a flashback, but rather the vivid nightmare of a Sudanese man, Bol (Sope Dirisu), reliving the terror of a night he experienced a year earlier alongside his wife, Rial (Wunmi Mosaku), and daughter, Nyagak (Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba).

The unresolved trauma that strips away at this family’s defenses is horrifyingly manifested when they finally move into their designated low-income housing, and struggle to navigate a foreign culture that insists on assimilation. Bol is desperate to fit in, ensuring the immigration bureau that he and his family are good people and telling his wife that, in their new surroundings, they’re “born again.” But Rial doesn’t share his eagerness, as her experiences in England have been almost entirely unpleasant, from the indifference and condescension of their smarmy, burnt-out case worker, Mark (Matt Smith), to the outright xenophobic, such as when three black neighborhood kids mock her and tell her to go back to Africa.

Weekes paints a rich portrait of the migrant experience, accounting for the inextricable nostalgia for home and the impulse to conform and cut ties with the past. These disparate approaches collide in a moving scene where Bol, after being confronted by spirits dwelling in his house, yet still in denial about their presence, burns his and Rial’s old belongings. It marks a rupture in their relationship, and where Rial is left feeling like she has nothing, Bol leaves to go shopping for Western-style clothes, at one point gazing helplessly at a cheerful white family in an in-store display before gathering the outfits they’re wearing in a futile attempt to replicate their appearance. It’s a blunt but potent illustration of how migrants’ feelings of displacement can emerge in different ways, often violently and self-destructively.

As Bol and Rial contend with their adversities, their home becomes an increasingly dangerous battleground in which they’re forced to wrestle with their inner demons and find ways to adapt without fundamentally changing who they are. This house, with its porous walls and ragged, peeling wallpaper, is eerily symbolic of its new inhabitants’ damaged psyches, their grief and guilt manifesting as ghosts—most chillingly in the form of zombified migrants who died during the perilous crossing to England that opens the film.

Throughout His House, Weekes’s seamlessly blends horror with elements of kitchen-sink drama and African folklore, morphing the domestic space into an uncanny, liminal zone where the distinctions between past and present, as well as Africa and Europe, are blurred beyond recognition. It’s an unusual combination, but one that’s rendered even more forceful and emotionally resonant by the director’s ability to tie the film’s terror so precisely to the inner turmoil of his characters and the myriad psychological and social challenges they face.

Cast: Sope Dirisu, Wunmi Mosaku, Matt Smith, Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba, Javier Botet, Yvonne Campbell, Vivienne Soan, Lola May, Kevin Layne Director: Remi Weekes Screenwriter: Remi Weekes Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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The 100 Best Horror Movies of All Time

The good horror film insists on the humanity that’s inextinguishable even by severe atrocity.

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The 100 Greatest Horror Movies of All Time
Photo: Orion Pictures

One of the most common claims made about horror films is that they allow audiences to vicariously play with their fear of death. Inarguable, really, but that’s also too easy, as one doesn’t have to look too far into a genre often preoccupied with offering simulations of death to conclude that the genre in question is about death. That’s akin to saying that all an apple ever really symbolizes is an apple, and that symbols and subtexts essentially don’t exist. A more interesting question: Why do we flock to films that revel in what is, in all likelihood, our greatest fear? And why is death our greatest fear?

A startling commonality emerges if you look over the following films in short succession that’s revelatory of the entire horror genre: These works aren’t about the fear of dying, but the fear of dying alone, a subtlety that cuts to the bone of our fear of death anyway—of a life unlived. There’s an explicit current of self-loathing running through this amazing collection of films. What are Norman Bates and Jack Torrance besides eerily all-too-human monsters? Failures. Success also ultimately eludes Leatherface, as well as the socially stunted lost souls of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse. What is the imposing creature at the dark heart of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu? He makes for quite the presence, but his hungers ultimately lead him to oblivion.

So many films, particularly American ones, tell us that we can be whatever we want to be, and that people who don’t achieve their desired self-actualization are freaks. The horror film says: Wait Jack, it ain’t that easy. This genre resents platitude (certainly, you can count the happy endings among these films on one hand), but the good horror film usually isn’t cynical, as it insists on the humanity that’s inextinguishable even by severe atrocity. Which is to say there’s hope, and catharsis, offered by the horror film. It tells us bruised romantics that we’re all in this together, thus offering evidence that we may not be as alone as we may think. Chuck Bowen

Editor’s Note: Click here for a list of the titles that made the original 2013 incarnation of our list.


Raw

100. Raw (2016)

As in Ginger Snaps, which Raw thematically recalls, the protagonist’s supernatural awakening is linked predominantly to sex. At the start of the film, Justine (Garance Marillier) is a virgin who’s poked and prodded relentlessly by her classmates until she evolves only to be rebuffed for being too interested in sex—a no-win hypocrisy faced by many women. High-pressure taunts casually and constantly hang in the air, such as Alexia’s (Ella Rumpf) insistence that “beauty is pain” and a song that urges a woman to be “a whore with decorum.” In this film, a bikini wax can almost get one killed, and a drunken quest to get laid can, for a female, lead to all-too-typical humiliation and ostracizing. Throughout Raw, director Julia Ducournau exhibits a clinical pitilessness that’s reminiscent of the body-horror films of David Cronenberg, often framing scenes in symmetrical tableaus that inform the various cruelties and couplings with an impersonality that’s ironically relieved by the grotesque intimacy of the violence. We’re witnessing conditioning at work, in which Justine is inoculated into conventional adulthood, learning the self-shame that comes with it as a matter of insidiously self-censorious control. By the film’s end, Ducournau has hauntingly outlined only a few possibilities for Justine: that she’ll get with the program and regulate her hunger properly, or be killed or institutionalized. Bowen


A Bay of Blood

99. A Bay of Blood (1971)

Compared to the other giallo films that comprise most of Mario Bava’s canon, A Bay of Blood (also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve) represents a more stripped-down and economic filmmaking from the Italian master. Notably absent are the supernatural undertones and fetishistic sexuality, and Bava even suppresses the vigorous impulses and desires that drive his characters to exteriorize their feelings in vicious bursts of violence by offering no valid (or convincing) psychological explanation. Despite being one of Bava’s simpler works, or perhaps because of that very reason, A Bay of Blood has proven to be the foremost progenitor of the slasher film, the one in which the Jason Voorheeses and Ghostfaces owe their blade of choice to. But it’s only the basic tenor of a psychopath slaying victims one by one that’s remained intact within the subgenre in the 40-plus years of this film’s existence. It’s in this film’s elementary plotting that Bava, by withholding information and leaning more on animalistic themes dictating bizarre character motivation, unveils a deceptive depth that the film’s acolytes can’t discern among the copious amounts of blood spilled within its frames. Wes Greene


Alice, Sweet Alice

98. Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)

Throughout Alice, Sweet Alice, Alfred Sole paints a rich and febrile portrait of how society enables dysfunction on multiple fronts, from the domestic to the religious to the psychiatric. (The police are shown to be restorers of order, though they serve that function almost inadvertently.) The filmmaker also invests his narrative with references to classic horror films, most notably Psycho, though his own direction lacks Alfred Hitchcock’s polish, which in this case is a blessing. In the film’s best sequences, particularly the moments following Karen’s (Brooke Shields) murder, Sole allows for tonal inconsistencies that reflect the true shock of violence. In such instances, Alice, Sweet Alice turns momentarily shrill, with actors screeching their lines almost directly to the camera—a device that expresses pain and refutes the fashions with which many horror directors rush through the grief process haphazardly in order to move the narrative along. In other moments, though, Sole’s directorial control is magisterial. Annie’s (Jane Lowry) near murder, when she’s stabbed on the stairway, is framed in a prismatic image, with a mirror reflecting the assault back on itself and suggesting, once again, the intense insularity of this world. Bowen


Bram Stoker’s Dracula

97. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

“See me. See me now,” Gary Oldman’s undead vampire intones, so as to magically compel virginal Mina Murray (Winona Ryder) to turn his way on a crowded London street. The two wind up at a cinematograph, “the greatest attraction of the century.” The intersection of vampire and victim in front of a labyrinth of movie screens is telling, as Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the classic Bram Stoker material winds up collapsing history and cinema together. Coppola shunned budding CGI technology in favor of in-camera techniques such as rear projection (as when we see Dracula’s eyes fade in over the countryside, overlooking a callow Keanu Reeves) and forced perspective (such as trick shots using miniatures of castles, which seem to loom over the full-sized actors and coaches in the foreground). However flagrantly artificial and constructed, the whole film feels uniquely alive. Dracula has “crossed oceans of time” to find Mina, and Coppola shows how the cinematically preternatural similarly finds and seduces audiences—how movies offer their own sparkle of immortality. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is noteworthy for how un-scary it is, and yet Coppola’s fanciful movie tool-box conceits, in perfect sync with Oldman’s deliciously over-the-top performance, exert an overpowering sense of the uncanny. Like the vampire, the film infects us and offers an illusory respite from death. Niles Schwartz


Blood for Dracula

96. Blood for Dracula (1974)

The horror of Blood for Dracula derives in part from director Paul Morrissey’s unique ability to meld social critique, gonzo humor, and gore into a genre piece that’s ambivalent about the passing of eras. Udo Kier’s Count Dracula, unable to find virgin blood amid the sexually active women of a 19th-century Italian family, finds himself quite literally poisoned by change. As Dracula vomits up non-virgin blood like water from a fire hydrant, Morrissey films Kier’s convulsing body not for campy laughs, but to highlight its anguish and deterioration. The opening shot, set to Claudio Gizzi’s tragic score, holds on Dracula in close-up as he delicately applies make-up. The film, far too strange to be flatly interpreted as a conservative lament for lost sexual decorum, convincingly focuses on the body as the root source of all humankind’s tribulations, whether in pursuit of pleasure or gripped in pain. Clayton Dillard


Martyrs

95. Martyrs (2008)

Writer-director Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs leaves you with the scopophilic equivalent of shell shock. The gauntlet that his film’s heroine, a “final girl” who’s abducted and tortured by a religious cult straight out of a Clive Barker novel, is forced to endure is considerable. Which is like saying that King Kong is big, Vincent Price’s performances are campy, and blood is red. Laugier’s film is grueling because there’s no real way to easily get off on images of simulated violence. The film’s soul-crushing finale makes it impossible to feel good about anything Laugier has depicted. In it, Laugier suggests that there’s no way to escape from the pain of the exclusively physical reality of his film. You don’t watch Laugier’s harrowing feel-bad masterpiece—rather, you’re held in its thrall. Abandon hope all ye who watch here. Simon Abrams


Night of the Demon

94. Night of the Demon (1957)

With Night of the Demon, Jacques Tourneur pits logic against the boundless mysteries of the supernatural, focusing not on the fear of the unknown and unseen, but the fear of accepting and confronting the inexplicable. After asking Dana Andrews’s comically hardheaded Dr. Holden how can one differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind, Niall MacGinnis’s wily satanic cult leader conjures up a storm of epic proportions to prove to the pragmatic doctor that the power of the dark arts is no joke. But the warning doesn’t take. Later, when a man is shredded to pieces by a demon, onlookers debate whether the death was a result of a passing train or something more nefarious, to which Holden retorts, “Maybe it’s better not to know.” Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, sometimes the easiest way to deal with the devil is to pretend he doesn’t exist. Derek Smith


The Devil’s Backbone

93. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

Guillermo del Toro’s films are rabid commentaries on the suspension of time, often told through the point of view of children. A bomb is dropped from the skies above an isolated Spanish orphanage, which leaves a boy bleeding to death in its mysterious, inexplosive wake. His corpse is then tied and shoved into the orphanage’s basement pool, and when a young boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), arrives at the ghostly facility some time later, he seemingly signals the arrival of Franco himself. A rich political allegory disguised as an art-house spooker, The Devil’s Backbone hauntingly ruminates on the decay of country whose living are so stuck in past as to seem like ghosts. But there’s hope in brotherhood, and in negotiating the ghostly Santi’s past and bandying together against the cruel Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), the film’s children ensure their survival and that of their homeland. Ed Gonzalez


Let the Right One In

92. Let the Right One In (2008)

Not unlike Matt Reeves’s American remake, Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In is, in its color scheme and emotional tenor, something almost unbearably blue. When Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a 12-year-old outcast perpetually bullied at school, meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), the mysterious new girl at his apartment complex, one child’s painful coming of age is conflated with another’s insatiable bloodlust. The film treats adolescence, even a vampire’s arrested own, as a prolonged horror—life’s most vicious and unforgiving set piece. This study of human loneliness and the prickly crawlspace between adolescence and adulthood is also an unexpectedly poignant queering of the horror genre. Don’t avert your eyes from Alfredson’s gorgeously, meaningfully aestheticized vision, though you may want to cover your neck. Gonzalez


Black Cat

91. Black Cat (1934)

Based loosely on one of Edgar Allen Poe’s most disquieting tales, 1934’s The Black Cat is one of the neglected jewels in Universal Studios’s horror crown. Edgar Ulmer’s melancholy film is a confrontation between two disturbed World War I veterans, one warped by an evil faith and the other a shattered ghost of a man driven by revenge, and the young couple that becomes entangled in their twisted game. It’s a fable of modernity darkened with war, obsession, and madness. Much like the other tone poem of the Universal horror series, Karl Freund’s gorgeously mannered The Mummy, Ulmer’s deeply elegiac film is a grief-stricken work, a spiraling ode to overwhelming loss, both personal and universal. Josh Vasquez


Brain Damage

90. Brain Damage (1988)

Throughout Brain Damage, Frank Henenlotter’s images have a compact and gnarly vitality. He frequently cordons people off by themselves in individual frames, serving the low budget with pared-down shot selections while intensifying the lonely resonance of a man set adrift with his cravings. Bria’sn (Rick Herbst) degradation suggests the crack epidemic of the 1980s, and the threat and alienation of AIDS lingers over the outré, sexualized set pieces, especially when Brian cruises a night club called Hell and picks up a woman, who’s murdered by Aylmer (voiced by John Zacherle) just as she’s about to go down on Brian. The most hideous of this film’s images is a shot of the back of Brian’s neck after Aylmer—an eight-inch-or-so-long creature that resembles a cross between a tapeworm, a dildo, and an ambulant piece of a shit along the lines of South Park’s Mr. Hanky—has first injected him, with its cartography of blood lines that are so tactile we can nearly feel Brian’s pain as he touches it. Such moments hammer home the unnerving simplicity of the premise, likening drug addiction to volunteer parasitism, rendering self-violation relatable via its inherently paradoxical alien-ness. Bowen


Gremlins

89. Gremlins (1984)

Outlining his customary commentary on American society via an artistry informed by influences ranging from B horror films to Looney Tunes, Joe Dante satirizes our neglect of rationality under rampant commercialism through the nasty titular creatures. All raging id, the Gremlins want nothing more than to indulge in every vice that our increasingly corporatized culture has to offer. The resulting anarchy unleashed by the Gremlins during the yuletide season is appropriate, considering they were created when Zach Galligan’s Billy, like an official advocating free-market deregulation, ignored foreboding warnings that terror would occur if he had just stuck to the three simple rules of caring for Gizmo, the cutest of all Gremlins. Wes Greene


Angst

88. Angst (1983)

Gerald Kargl’s Angst is a 75-minute cinematic panic attack. Body-mounted cameras, high-angle tracking shots, amplified sound design, and a bone-chilling krautrock score swirl together to create a manic, propulsive energy that’s as disorienting to the viewer as the implacable urge to kill is for Erwin Leder’s unnamed psychopath. Angst elides all psychological trappings, instead tapping directly into this all-consuming desire for destruction on a purely physiological and experiential level. Kargl’s camera prowls around Leder’s madman like an ever-present ghost—a haunting, torturous presence that captures every bead of cold sweat, each anxiety-ridden movement, and the agony of all his facial expressions as he tracks his prey. Angst is as singular and exhausting an account of psychopathy as any put to celluloid, thrusting the viewer helplessly into discomfiting closeness with a killer without attempting to explain or forgive his heinous acts. Smith


The Devils

87. The Devils (1971)

Ken Russell brings his unique sensibility, at once resolutely iconoclastic and excessively enamored of excess, to this adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s nonfiction novel The Devils of Loudun, which concerns accusations of witchcraft and demonic possession that run rampant in an Ursuline convent in 17th-century France. Like Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General, and set in roughly the same time period, Russell’s film serves as an angry denunciation of social conformity and the arbitrary whims of the political elite that effectively disguises itself as a horror movie. By brazenly conflating religious and sexual hysteria, and depicting both with his characteristic lack of restraint, Russell pushes his already edgy material into places that are so intense and discomforting that the film was subsequently banned in several countries and is to this day still unavailable on home video in a complete and uncut version. Budd Wilkins


The Blair Witch Project

86. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Before the flourishing digital age paved the way for social-media naval-gazing, YouTube, and selfies galore, The Blair Witch Project foreshadowed the narcissism of a generation, its success unsurprisingly paving the way for an army of imitators that failed to grasp the essence of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s terrifyingly singular and effortlessly self-reflexive genre exercise. The heartbreaking fall from sanity experienced by the trio of naïve filmmakers preys with ecstatic precision on our most instinctive fears, building to a rousing crescendo of primordial terror that’s arguably unrivaled by anything the genre has seen before or since. Rob Humanick


Who Can Kill a Child?

85. Who Can Kill a Child? (1972)

Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? takes its time building a mood of palpable dread, eking menace out of every social encounter faced by a British couple, Tom (Lewis Fiander) and Evelyn (Prunella Ransome), vacationing on the coast of Spain. When they charter a small boat and travel out to a remote island village, the streets are curiously empty and the only residents seem to be sullen, introspective children. Ibáñez Serrador methodically draws out the waiting game, and as the kids gather their sinister forces and close in on our unsuspecting couple, a moral conflict arises. The adults are forced to contemplate the unthinkable, doing battle with the little monsters and struggling with the notion that they may have to kill or be killed. Tom manages to get his hand on a machine gun, and he carries it around with him protectively as the audience wonders to themselves how he’ll answer the question posed in the title. Whether or not the answer surprises us during these cynical times, the aftermath is as disarming as it is disturbing. The closing 10 minutes come from a different era in filmmaking, when horror movies could spit in the eye of the status quo and say that good doesn’t always prevail, no matter how much we’d like it to. Jeremiah Kipp


The Haunting

84. The Haunting (1963)

Cacophonous knocking, inexplicable coldness, and doors that have a habit of opening and closing when no one’s looking—the horrors of Hill House are almost entirely unseen in Robert Wise’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s famous novel The Haunting of Hill House. But they’re nonetheless chillingly tangible, brought to life by The Haunting’s supercharged production values: Elliot Scott’s dazzlingly florid interiors; Davis Boulton’s swooping, darting wide-angle cinematography; and, most of all, a quiet-loud-quiet sound design that suggests the presence of the spirit world more forcefully than some corny translucent ghost ever could. The film’s oh-so-1960s psychosexual subtext may be slightly under-baked, but that only serves to heighten the verisimilitude of its supernatural happenings. After all, there are some things in this world even Freud can’t explain. Keith Watson


Häxan

83. Häxan (1922)

Near the conclusion of Häxan, an intertitle asks: “The witch no longer flies away on her broom over the rooftops, but isn’t superstition still rampant among us?” Such a rhetorical question is in keeping with the implications of Benjamin Christensen’s eccentric historical crawl through representations of evil. Though the film begins as something of a lecture on the topic of women’s bodies as a threat, it morphs into an array of sketches, images, and dramatizations of mankind’s fundamental inability to conceive itself outside of power and difference. Contemporary footage of insane asylums and women being treated for hysteria confirms a truth that’s still with us, nearly a century later: that the horrors of the past are never so far away. Dillard


In the Mouth of Madness

82. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

John Carpenter’s 1995 sleeper is a lot of things: a noir, a Stephen King satire, a meta-meta-horror workout, a parody of its own mechanics. Carpenter can’t quite stick the landing(s), but watching his film twist and turn and disappear inside of itself as it twists its detective thriller beats into a full-on descent into the stygian abyss proves consistently compelling. Perhaps the best tack is that of Sam Neill’s driven-mad investigator, pictured in the film’s final frames hooting at images of himself projected in an abandoned movie theater. Perhaps the best way to enjoy In the Mouth of Madness is to relinquish your sanity, losing yourself inside of its loopy, Lovecraftian logic. John Semley


Near Dark

81. Near Dark (1987)

The zenith of a career phase defined by sneakily subversive genre films, Kathryn Bigelow’s melancholic Near Dark remains a singular milestone in the evolution of the vampire myth. It’s a delirious fever dream grounded periodically by masterfully constructed scenes of carnage and the rooting of its mythology in the period’s twin boogeymen of addiction and infection. An excellent cast of pulp icons—Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen are particularly unhinged—bring restless energy to the story of itinerant vampires cruising the neon-soaked highways of a beautifully desolate Southwest. It’s Gus Van Sant through a Southern-gothic haze, thrumming with an urgency bestowed by Tangerine Dream’s score and thematic heft alike. Abhimanyu Das

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Review: Robert Zemeckis’s Take on The Witches Casts a Weak Spell

This is a sleeker-looking vehicle that’s eager to be scary but not comfortable being ugly.

1.5

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The Witches
Photo: HBO Max

For anybody arguing that the grand potential for boundary-breaking entertainment in 2020’s wide-open world of content-hungry streaming services has produced more mediocrity than anything else, Robert Zemeckis’s take on Roald Dahl’s dementedly fun short novel The Witches could serve as a key piece of evidence. While there are some elements to admire in this adaptation, particularly its being cast with mostly black performers, much of it falls into the category of Competent But Unnecessary Remake. In other words, another piece of family-friendly-ish content to fill the yawning hours of pandemic confinement.

While the setting is shifted from late-1980s Europe to 1968 Alabama, the bones of the story—scripted by Zemeckis along with Guillermo del Toro and Black-ish creator Kenya Barris—match those of Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 adaptation. An orphaned and unnamed young boy (Jahzir Bruno) is sent to live in with his kindly but starchy Grandma (Octavia Spencer). After a frightening run-in with a snake-carrying woman who eyes him like he was a tasty piece of candy, the boy is informed by Grandma that what he saw was no woman, but a witch. Knowing from personal experience that witches love to kidnap children and turn them into animals, Grandma decides it’s time for a vacation. Unfortunately, their destination also happens to be the site of an international witches’ convention (meeting under the tongue-in-cheek name of the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children).

Much of Zemeckis’s film follows the boy coming to terms with loss and trying to rediscover some sense of fun even while navigating the danger posed by the witches and the delectable chocolate bars they use as bait. Things come to a head in a showy dramatic scene roughly halfway through the film set inside a swanky hotel ballroom. That’s where the witches—who otherwise look like heavily made-up society ladies from a well-intentioned, awards-courting period film about the South—meet to remove their human camouflage and scheme about best practices for annihilating children from the planet. Trapped under the dais, the boy is treated to the spectacle of the witches removing their wigs, gloves, and shoes to reveal a sea of bald heads, claws, and monstrous, Joker-wide jaws normally hidden by pancake makeup.

While advances in the quality of special effects since 1990 should theoretically have made the ballroom scene a blockbuster showcase, the CGI deployed here is for the most part unimpressive. The rippling of the witches’ bodies as they transform is rendered almost seamlessly. But that smoothness of effect ends up achieving little of the impact delivered by the grotesque Dark Crystal-esque physical effects that Jim Henson Studios used for Roeg’s more disquieting version. This is a sleeker-looking vehicle that’s eager to be scary but not comfortable being ugly. When Anjelica Huston’s Grand High Witch in Roeg’s film removed her human guise, she was revealed as a long-beaked monster rippling with pustules and stray hairs. The Grand High Witch of this version, played by Anne Hathaway, has the same sashaying arrogance, but it’s more suited for a fashion show’s runway than a child’s nightmares.

More positively, this adaptation of The Witches benefits from the increased willingness of studio producers to greenlight projects with largely black casts for a “mainstream” audience. Also, Zemeckis fortunately didn’t feel a need to repeat the previous film’s coda, which tried in slapdash fashion to cast some light on a chilling Grimmsian fairy tale about murdered children. However, that coda is replaced by a non-Dahl framing device voiced by Chris Rock that brings a new wrinkle to the conclusion which would be more enjoyable if it weren’t doing double duty as the launch pad for potential sequels or spin-offs.

Cast: Octavia Spencer, Jahzir Bruno, Anne Hathaway, Stanley Tucci, Kristin Chenoweth, Chris Rock, Codie-Lei Eastick Director: Robert Zemeckis Screenwriter: Robert Zemeckis, Kenya Barris, Guillermo del Toro Distributor: HBO Max Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Review: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’s Satire Could Use Sharper Teeth

Too often, the film teases big, wild comedic set pieces that end up deflating almost instantly.

2.5

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Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Photo: Amazon Studios

Following the massive global success of Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen’s most indelible comic creation became a victim of his own success. The mustachioed Kazakh journalist—whose racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and downright backwardness are leavened by his blithe optimism—became so recognizable—in part, through the ubiquity of bad impersonations and cheap Halloween costumes—that he had to be effectively retired. That’s a shame, because while Borat was always, at heart, a cartoonish stereotype, he was also a potent and surprisingly elastic embodiment of America’s deep ignorance about the rest of the world.

Though ostensibly a reflection of small-town Kazakh life, Cohen’s vision of Kazakhstan is really an elaborate amalgamation of various Warsaw Pact countries, including Russia and Poland, and though Borat himself would be loath to admit it, his incomprehensible language draws inspiration from Romani and Hebrew. In 2006, at the height of George W. Bush’s so-called war on terror, Borat was often mistaken for an Arab. In one of the original film’s most notorious scenes, rodeo producer Bobby Rowe advises Borat to shave his “dadgum mustache,” which makes him look suspiciously Muslim, so that he might even pass for an Italian. (All this before eagerly agreeing with Borat on the subject of executing gay people.)

In Borat’s much-belated follow-up feature—officially titled Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, with lengthy, ever-changing subtitles such as Gift of Pornographic Monkey to Vice Premier Mikhael Pence to Make Benefit Recently Diminished Nation of Kazakhstan appearing on screen throughout—Borat is coded less as an Arab and more as an avatar of Eastern Europe, that part of the world where poverty and post-Soviet collapse have fostered a climate conducive to sex trafficking. This region is where Jeffrey Epstein allegedly outright purchased a young woman, Nadia Marcinko, and where Donald Trump’s third wife (whom Epstein claimed to have introduced to the Donald) hails from as well. It’s no surprise, then, that cracks about Epstein and jokes about Melania being Trump’s golden-caged slave are frequent in the film. An important revelation is even inspired by a TV broadcast of the infamous footage of Trump and Epstein partying together. While Cohen’s satirical targets are too diverse and the film’s structure too freeform to lock the film down to a single thematic underpinning, the use and abuse of young women by powerful men is its most persistent satirical target.

After being sentenced to a gulag for disgracing his country with his prior film, Borat is offered by former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev (Dani Popescu) a chance to redeem himself by traveling to America and gifting Vice President Mike Pence with the locally famous simian porn star Johnny the Monkey. Unfortunately for Borat, Johnny is eaten on the journey over by his 15-year-old daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova), who stowed away in the same shipping container as the primate. What’s Borat to do? The solution is obvious: to present Pence with his underage daughter instead—which he does, albeit from a distance, dressed as Donald Trump while Pence delivers a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. When that fails, he chooses a much more willing recipient, one whose all-too-eager response to Tutar’s advances have already made headlines: Trump’s personal consigliere, Rudy Giuliani.

The climactic confrontation with Giuliani inside the Mark Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, during which Tutar poses as a conservative journalist in order to make her move on “America’s Mayor,” is perhaps Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’s most shocking and uncomfortably hilarious scene—not simply for the already-infamous hand-in-his-pants moment. The giddiness that Giuliani exhibits in response to Tutar’s sexual advances illustrates so starkly the lecherous sense of entitlement that drives such inappropriate and predacious behavior.

If only the entire film were up to the standard of that scene, Cohen might have achieved the impossible and lived up to the groundbreaking impact of Borat. And there are other individual sequences whose discomfiting rawness would not have been out of place in the first film, such as a trip to a Christian-run crisis pregnancy center after Tutar accidentally swallows a baby decoration on top of a cupcake. The staff member, thinking she’s pregnant and asking for an abortion, firmly assures her that the baby is in fact a blessing, even when he’s under the impression that it was the result of incestuous rape. An interview with an Instagram influencer who preaches the gospel of feminine weakness and subservience to men is on point as topical satire though not as cringe-inducingly funny as the best Cohen material.

More often, though, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm teases big, wild comedic set pieces that end up deflating almost instantly. A trip to the Texas State Fair—with Borat disguised, as he is for much of the film, as a grizzled hayseed with a Prince Valiant hairdo—would seem to offer endless opportunities for up-close-and-personal pranks, but instead it’s largely just the backdrop for a few sight gags. Similarly, Borat’s elaborate transformation into Donald Trump in order to infiltrate CPAC presents a golden opportunity for some bread-and-butter Cohen antics, providing unsuspecting reactionaries with the perfect opportunity to tell the president they love (and, unwittingly, the audience) what they really think. Instead, the whole affair is wasted on a stunt that gets Cohen immediately kicked out of the event.

Where Borat mined the humor of reaction—how do unsuspecting, and mostly well-meaning, people react when confronted with a ludicrous foreigner who says wildly un-PC things?—the sequel too often feels like it’s desperately struggling to shock its unwitting participants and coming up short, as evidenced by an outlandish fertility dance performed at a debutante ball. This absurd spectacle, which climaxes in Tutar flashing her menstruation-soaked panties, barely produces a whimper from the spectators. And while the film is, for the most part, no less crude than its predecessors—gleefully indulging in stereotypes about backwards foreigners—there are signs that Cohen may have lost some edge in the intervening decade and a half.

Cohen evidently wants us to feel for his subjects, to find even a bit of empathy for some Qanon conspiracy theorists and Trump cultists. That may be a noble goal in itself, but it’s not always the stuff of sharp satire. Nor is the film’s closing entreaty to the audience to get out and vote. Borat, like practically all satirically minded comedy in the Trump era, has been swallowed up into the all-consuming maw of electoral politics. If the idea of the original Borat ending with a plea to go to the polls would have seemed almost absurdly out of place, in 2020, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm doing the same feels almost inevitable.

Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova Director: Jason Woliner Screenwriter: Peter Baynham, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jena Friedman, Anthony Hines, Lee Kern, Dan Mazer, Erica Rivinoja, Dan Swimer Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Adam Nayman’s Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks Honors PTA’s Ambiguities

Nayman’s discussion of Anderson’s ellipses implicitly cuts to the heart of why some critics and audiences resist Anderson’s work.

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Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks

The title of Adam Nayman’s Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks is misleading, evoking what the author refers to in the book’s introduction as “…cheerleading—the stroking, in prose, of already tumescent reputations.” While Nayman clearly reveres one of the most acclaimed and mythologized of contemporary American filmmakers, he’s willing to take the piss out of his subject, sveltely moving between Anderson’s strengths, limitations, and the obsessions that bind them, fashioning an ornate and suggestive system of checks and balances. Like Glenn Kenny’s Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas, Masterworks pushes back against the simplistic, bro-ish language of adulation, and attending backlash, that often obscures a major artist’s achievements. In the process, Nayman achieves one of a critic’s loftiest goals: grappling with a body of work while honoring its mystery.

Masterworks is uncomfortable with the modern iteration of auteurism, which has been corrupted from its French New Wave origins by being utilized as often macho shorthand that denies the contributions of other craftspeople involved in a film’s production. (At the end of the book are several essential interviews with key Anderson collaborators, such as producer JoAnne Sellar, cinematographer Robert Elswit, production designer Jack Fisk, and composter Johnny Greenwood.) Seeking to refute the Horatio Alger element of a particular auteur worship, in which a body of work is discussed chronologically, with a filmmaker’s maturation noted with easy retrospection as a kind of manifest destiny, Nayman assembles Anderson’s films in chronological order according to the time periods in which they’re set. The book opens with 2007’s There Will Be Blood (the director’s fifth film) and penultimately concludes with 2002’s contemporary-set Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson’s final (to date) curdled valentine to San Fernando Valley, as well as his first psychodrama with a loner at its center. Nayman only deviates from this concept once, as 2017’s Phantom Thread, Anderson’s eighth and most recent film, is saved for last and presented as a culmination of a blossoming sensibility.

This structure creates a fascinating temporal zig-zag that mirrors the chaotic, uncertain highs and lows of creative work. Masterworks moves us forward in the timeline of Anderson’s America while the filmmaker himself leaps all over the place in terms of artistic control. The wrenching ambiguity of 2014’s Inherent Vice, in which Anderson fluidly dramatizes the psychosexual ecstasy, despair, and hilarity of corrosive commercialist annihilation, gives way in the book to Anderson’s 1997 breakthrough, Boogie Nights, which Nayman astutely sees as a virtuoso primitive work, an epic that (too) neatly bifurcates pleasure and pain into two distinct acts while disguising its sentimentality with astonishing camera movements and a tonal instability that’s probably equal parts intended and inadvertent.

Control is the theme of Masterworks. Nayman charts, again in a nearly reverse order, how Anderson reigned in his juvenilia—the self-consciousness, the overt debts to various filmmakers, the wild mood swings—to fashion a tonal fabric that still makes room for all of those qualities, only they’re buried and satirized, existing on the periphery. The essential valorizing of Jack Horner, the paternal porn director of Boogie Nights, eventually gives way to the richer, more fraught examinations of obsessive pseudo-father figures like Daniel Plainview, Lancaster Dodd, and Reynolds Woodcock, of There Will Be Blood, 2012’s The Master, and Phantom Thread, respectively. Anderson’s films toggle between valorizing and criticizing men of industry who’ve, with a few exceptions, made America in their own neurotic image.

As these characters grow in complexity, their ingenues also evolve in nuance, becoming less fantasy projections of Anderson’s own desire to prove himself than startlingly unique expressions of rootlessness and ambition. Boogie Nights, which Nayman calls a two-and-a-half-hour dick joke, even sets the stage for the ironic phallic references of the other films, with their plunging oil derricks, broken glass toilet plungers, and, well, Woodcocks.

No critic has written so perceptively about Anderson’s mutating aesthetic as Nayman does in Masterworks. Most immediately, it’s a pure, visceral pleasure simply to read Nayman’s descriptions of imagery. On There Will Be Blood, he notably writes the following: “Emerging and descending at his own methodical pace, he’s an infernal figure moving in a Sisyphean rhythm, and the trajectory of his movements—grueling ascents and sudden, punishing drops along a vertical axis, punctuating an otherwise steady horizontal forward progress—establishes the visual and narrative patterning of the film to come.”

Such “patterning” is an obsession of Nayman’s, as it should be given the films under consideration, and he shows how Anderson buried the overt psychosocial daddy and women issues of Boogie Nights and 1999’s Magnolia into an intricate formalism that’s complemented by a new kind of instability: unconventional, unexpected ellipses in the narratives that underscore a sense that we’re missing something in the psychology of the protagonists, in the America that contains the characters, and perhaps even in Anderson’s understanding of his own work. The obsessive nature of Anderson’s bold often “lateral” imagery is also enriched by the endless twins and doppelgangers that populate his films, suggesting that he’s chewing, with increasing sophistication, a set of preoccupations over and over, gradually triumphing over his fear of women as he sees his men with escalating clarity. Nayman uncovers many twins and cross-associations that have never personally occurred to this PTA obsessive, such as the resemblance that Vicky Krieps’s Alma of Phantom Thread bears to the many dream women haunting Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell in The Master, or how the mining of oil in There Will Be Blood is later echoed by the exploitive plumbing of minds in The Master.

Nayman’s discussion of Anderson’s ellipses—especially the bold leap 15 years in time near the end of There Will Be Blood as well as the two-year jump near the beginning of the filmmaker’s 1996 feature directorial debut, Hard Eight—implicitly cuts to the heart of why some critics and audiences resist Anderson’s work. Some people believe that Anderson uses such devices to write himself out of corners, excusing himself from the task of building relationships or establishing in more detail the contours of the history informing the films, while, for his admirers, such flourishes are suggestive and freeing—excusing not only the author, but the audience from thankless exposition so as to skip to the “good parts,” the moments that cut to the heart of the protagonists’ and Anderson’s demons. Nayman understands Anderson to be fashioning a cumulative hall-of-mirror filmography that highlights an America in elusive, surreal, even daringly comic fragments. Or, per Nayman: “His later films are masterworks that don’t quite fill their own canvases, drawing power from the negative space.”

Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks is now available from Abrams.

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Features

NewFest 2020: Dry Wind and Alice Júnior Take Aim at the Patriarchy in Brazil

It’s a provocative juxtaposition for Dry Wind to stage its queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.

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NewFest 2020: Daniel Nolasco’s Dry Wind and Gil Baroni Alice Júnior Take Aim at the Patriarchy in Brazil
Photo: The Open Reel

Daniel Nolasco’s Dry Wind and Gil Baroni’s Alice Júnior, both screening in the international section at this year’s NewFest, are refreshing in no small part because they find two Brazilian filmmakers telling stories set in regions of their country that are cinematically underrepresented and largely unknown to international audiences. Dry Wind, for one, takes place in the rustic countryside of the state of Goiás, known for its cowboy iconography, livestock music festivals, and extremely conservative politics. It is, then, a provocative juxtaposition for Nolasco to stage his queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.

Dry Wind follows the routines of a community of factory workers in the rural city of Catalão, where sex between soccer-loving men who wouldn’t hesitate to call themselves “discreet” always seems to be happening or about to happen. These torrid trysts mostly take place in the woods, on bare soil or parked motorcycles, and involve piss, ass-eating, and face-spitting. Throughout, Nolasco’s frames are also filled with much hair—hairy faces, butts, and backs, suggesting a queer sexuality cobbled together with the coarseness of the men’s local environment, despite the clearly foreign influence of Nolasco’s hyper-stylized aesthetics. The film’s drama lies in the decidedly Brazilian-ness of the arid landscape, the provincial accents, and the scruffy faces framed by a mishmash of international visual references whenever horny bodies escape to act out queer desire: from Tom of Finland to Tom de Pékin, from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle.

Nolasco alternates between explicitly sexual, neon-colored sequences that veer toward complete dreamscapes and the kind of European-film-festival-courting realism that Brazilian cinema is known for. The contrast can be quite bewildering, so much so that viewers may wish that Dry Wind would remain in the realm of reveries. Instead, Nolasco often tries to reassert Dry Wind as a film with an actual plot. In this case, it’s one that has to do with jealousy, or the impossibility of intimacy in such queer configurations where sex is public only if it’s clandestine but affection must be refused for the sake of social survival. Apart from a needless plotline involving a homophobic assault, it all makes perfect sense. But the film’s most interesting moments emerge precisely when it surrenders to the presumably illogical strangeness of erotic fantasy.

For instance, when Sandro (Leandro Faria Lelo)—who regularly has sex in the woods with a co-worker, Ricardo (Allan Jacinto Santana), after their shift at the factory—happens upon what looks like a leather bar, the place turns out to be an empty construction site where queer archetypes—the harnessed master, the puppy slave, the drag-queen hostess—are there to perform for Sandro and Sandro alone, in a mix of silent performance art and interactive pornography. In another moment of poetic-pornographic license, an evident nod to Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, a generically bearded hunk (Marcelo D’Avilla) with chained nipple clamps comes out of a man-made lake, ready to take Sandro into the water for an ecstatic drowning.

Significantly more comedic, Alice Júnior focuses on a trans wannabe influencer, Alice (Anne Celestino), and her perfumer of a father, Jean Genet (Emmanuel Rosset), who move from Recife to a small town in the south of Brazil. Subtlety isn’t Baroni’s aim, which is clear in the film’s social media-like sense of pace and aesthetic bells and whistles, as well as in the obvious trans metaphor built into the narrative premise. Alice and her dad have to move down south because he wants to develop a new fragrance using pine cones local to the region, whose fruit only comes out if the person blowing through the cone has discovered the pine cone’s real essence.

Alice Júnior

A scene from Gil Baroni’s Alice Júnior. © Beija Flor Filmes

One becomes accustomed to the film’s initially annoying incorporation of social media language into its aesthetic, such as the emojis that pop up on the screen whenever Alice does something or other, because it mirrors the interface through which contemporary teenagers animate everyday life. But Alice Júnior visibly struggles to differentiate itself from a soap opera. The over-the-top acting (the villains speak like Cruella de Vil) is technically in line with Baroni’s animated Insta-grammar, but it becomes a problem when the film tries to tap into something other than its cute flamboyance. The film reaches for pathos only to find tinsel instead.

As fun as Alice Júnior can be, it’s at its core a typical Brazilian kids’ movie, in the vein of on-the-nose fare about enjoying life but not doing drugs that Brazilian megastar Xuxa put out in the 1980s and ‘90s, except queered by its trans protagonist and the visual language of the times. It wears its pedagogical message on its sleeve but is betrayed by a lack of substance. Alice is at once a naïve little girl yearning for her first kiss from a boy and a queer activist with an arsenal of didactic one-liners at the ready. This means some of the plot doesn’t feel credible, as Alice masters LGBTQ resistance discourse perfectly in her interactions both on and offline, but prefers pissing her pants during a class exam, which naturally becomes a viral video, than demanding her right to use the women’s restroom. At times she’s a woke warrior, and at times she’s a helpless little girl.

Alice Júnior only manages to transcend its sparkling surface in a few sequences where it pitches itself at grownups. In one, Jean Genet gets drunk with Marisa (Katia Horn), the kooky mother of one of Alice’s gay classmates, and they start being a little too honest about what they think of their own children. The social media histrionics have nothing to offer in these incredibly entertaining scenes, which finally bring the film closer to Starrbooty than Clueless. These moments are fabulous precisely because they’re unfiltered—queer in attitude, not in wardrobe. Jean Genet and Marisa don’t toast to their kids because they’re decent human beings fighting heterosexual patriarchy, but for being the “devilish bitch” and “dirty-mouthed trans” that they are.

NewFest runs from October 16—27.

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Review: Synchronic Undermines Its Delightful Strangeness with Handholding

About a drug that sends its users back in time for seven minutes, the film holds your hand and walks you through its chronology mazes.

2

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Synchronic
Photo: Well Go USA

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead built alluringly mysterious worlds in films like Resolution and The Endless. These works of horror-tinged science fiction draw the viewer in through their ambiguous relationships to traditional space and time; they’re complicated puzzles, and a good part of their fun is trying to fit the pieces together. But in their latest, Synchronic, the filmmakers do the fitting for you. About a drug that sends its users back in time for seven minutes, the film holds your hand and walks you through its chronology mazes, making what might otherwise be delightfully strange into something too pat and easy.

Steve (Anthony Mackie) is a hard-living EMT in New Orleans. It’s not unusual for him and his partner, Dennis (Jamie Dornan), to respond to drug calls, and the film opens with heroin overdoses at a flop house, shot in a long take as the camera drifts from one room or character to another, building up a sense of dizzying dread. But the calls soon start to get weirder: someone who seems to have spontaneously combusted, someone bitten at a hotel by a nonnative species of snake, and someone in pieces at the bottom of an elevator shaft.

They’re all victims of Synchronic, a designer drug that literally sends young people, with their soft pineal glands, into the past—and just how far depends randomly on where they are in the present. Soon, Dennis’s 18-year-old daughter, Brianna (Ally Ioannides), pops the drug at a party and disappears, trapped in history, a damsel in distress held captive by time itself. Conveniently, Steve has brain cancer, which has made his pineal gland unusually soft for his age; nearing death, dragging his knuckles across rock bottom, he decides to unstick himself in time and rescue his friend’s daughter. But first, though, he conducts a series of experiments to see how Synchronic actually works, explaining away the surreal with narrated video excerpts and white boards, suggesting a classroom lesson via Zoom.

Synchronic echoes Richard McGuire’s 2014 graphic novel Here and David Lowery’s 2017 film A Ghost Story, exploring a physical location by journeying across time but not space. And the Quibi-sized trips to the past are the high points of Benson and Moorhead’s latest, evocative glimpses of a long and diffuse history, from the wooly mammoths and prehistoric men of the Ice Age, to the conquistadors and bayou alligators of colonization, to the racist rednecks of the early 20th century. But the filmmakers often play these seven-minute scenes as much for laughs as wonder. “The past fucking sucks!” Steve cries upon returning home from one trip. And he’s not wrong—especially for a black man in Louisiana.

Benson and Moorhead, as they did in The Endless, eventually cast off the science that sets their story in motion for the melodrama at its core. There are some gaps in logic, and some cruel manipulations (including Steve losing his dog to the vagaries of pill-induced time travel), all concessions to an underlying drama about family reunion and self-sacrifice. The film isn’t nostalgic, as it argues that the past is awful, and that the present a delicious miracle.

Cast: Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Ally Ioannides, Katie Aselton Director: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead Screenwriter: Justin Benson Distributor: Well Go USA Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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