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Understanding Screenwriting #36: An Education, Amelia, Bitter Victory, & More

Nick Hornby does not just balance the two main characters, but all the supporting ones as well.



An Education
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Coming Up In This Column: An Education, Amelia, The Great Locomotive Chase, Bitter Victory, Ride the High Country, Mad Men, A CSI Trilogy, A Couple of New Series, but first…

Fan Mail: Well, here’s an example of why I love doing this column: Matt Zoller Seitz’s taking exception to my views of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Unlike some writers, I love to be challenged, especially by somebody as smart as Matt. He did not mind what I felt was the lack of enough plot. He liked it as an “absurdist spectacle,” which it was certainly trying to be. It fits in with the type of film that the great film scholar Tom Gunning called the “Cinema of Attractions.” He first used the term to describe very early, pre-storyline films, but the term has come to refer to those films that put the emphasis on spectacle, such as any recent sci-fi film. As a pro-writer fellow, I tend to prefer a little more plot, but there are certainly joys to be found as a viewer in a spectacle. Matt also picked up on something else when he said the filmmakers want to “fill up [the movie] with sight gags.” As I have mentioned on other occasions, comedies live or die by the jokes, and if the jokes are funny can get along with less plot. You make us laugh and we will forgive you almost anything. Make us laugh and enjoy it and we will forgive you anything. And just to assure you that I am not a complete stick in the mud, one of my guilty pleasures is one of Matt’s: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. I agree with any criticism anybody has ever made about it, and I still love it.

“James” raised the question as to whether my teaching at a community college made me too close to the subject to find Community funny. He’s right, although part of it is having heard community colleges traditionally dissed in our culture—I am a little tired of it. He mentioned that other shows have inaccuracies, including 30 Rock. I agree, and it bothers me on those shows as well, particularly the current story arc on 30 Rock about hiring a new performer. Surely if they were hiring a guy for a sketch comedy, somebody would have talked to him when he was not in his robot makeup.

A couple of things left over from my article “Talking Back to Documentaries.” Todd Ford was “amazed” that I get students to talk, since he has found students reluctant to speak up. I have always had students who spoke up, especially at LACC, although I did have a bit of a problem the semester I taught at UCLA. I got the impression students there were afraid to speak up because they might be wrong. It took a little while to open them up.“Cranky” had an interesting look and noted that he/she found the younger students’ comments “quite frustrating.” They can be, but that’s part of the game.

And now, some movies:

An Education (2009. Screenplay by Nick Hornby, based on a memoir by Lynn Barber. 95 minutes): Balance.

An Education is a potentially dangerous piece of material. Lynn Barber’s memoir, first in a short form in Granta magazine, later as a book, tells of her affair with a man in his thirties. When she was sixteen. You can count up on your own all the different ways a film version of this could turn to merde, to use the heroine’s favorite language. Hornby, who is better known as a novelist (High Fidelity, About a Boy, and Fever Pitch) whose books have been made into films, had only done one screenplay before, the adaptation of the 1997 English film of Fever Pitch. He read the short version of the memoir and decided he wanted to do it. He understood immediately the problems. As he told Peter Clines in the September/October 2009 issue of Creative Screenwriting, “We were really careful all the time about balance, because nobody wanted to make a Lolita. It had to be comprehensible. You had to stay a little bit on [the older man] David’s side, at least. I knew what I wanted tonally, and it wasn’t something that made an audience shriek in horror.”

So David is charming, but not in a sleazy way. He seems enchanted by Jenny, as we all are. They get together not just because he is seductive, which would be the easy way out, but also because Jenny is tempted by the upscale life he seems to lead. He takes her out of her dull suburban life. They go to nightclubs. They visit Oxford, which she is hoping to attend. Since she had decided to lose her virginity with him, he takes her to Paris for the weekend. And then Hornby is smart enough not to show us them having sex. And their morning-after conversation is fresher than any other conversation of its kind in the movies. Hornby beautifully hits the balance between David’s seduction and her temptation.

Hornby does not just balance the two main characters, but all the supporting ones as well. We can see her father, who can be very cranky, charmed by David as well. The father agrees to David and Jenny’s Oxford trip because he thinks it will help her get into Oxford. David’s friend and partner, Danny, has a beautiful girlfriend who is stupid about intellectual things, but smart about dresses and men. The headmistress of Jenny’s school has been described in most reviews as anti-Semitic, which she certainly is, but there are other sides to her as well, and in her final scene with Jenny, she is right as often as Jenny is. Likewise, Jenny’s favorite teacher, Miss Stubbs, has several layers to her as well.

Yeah, I know you see where I am going with this. All together now: You write good parts and you get good actors. Peter Sarsgaard as David, Alfred Molina as the father, Rosamund Pike as the dumb blonde, Olivia Williams as Miss Stubbs and Emma Thompson as the headmistress are all at the top of their forms. You can decide on your own which ones give the best performances of their careers. The film of course stands or falls on the actor playing Jenny, and as you know if you have read the reviews, Carey Mulligan has charmed everybody. I do have to admit that she kept reminding me of the American actress/singer Jenny Lewis, who was a student of mine when she was about Jenny’s age. The same names did not help. Unless you are big Jenny Lewis fan as I am, this will not be a problem for you.

Amelia (2009. Screenplay by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, based on the books East to the Dawn by Susan Butler and The Sound of Wings by Mary S. Lovell. 111 minutes): Writing for Hilary.

With all that screenwriting talent and all that source material, this one should have been much better. Ron Bass, the first writer on the project, wrote Rain Man (1988) and My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), just to name two. His take on the material here, as he told Peter N. Chumo II in the September/ October 2009 issue of Creative Screenwriting, worked with the then-director, Phillip Noyce, and focused on the love triangle between Amelia Earhart, George Putnam and Gene Vidal. Bass wanted to “bring her incredible daring and recklessness and skills as a pilot together with her very forward, daring view of how women should be equal in society and her view of how independent she wanted to be in her marriage.” Noyce left the project and Mira Nair came on, replacing Bass with Phelan (Mask [1985] and Girl, Interrupted [1999]). She and Bass have been friends for years and discussed the script. They agreed on a shared credit. What Phelan focused on was Earhart’s yearning “to be free” and “to prove to her father that she would fulfill a dream bigger than anyone had imagined for her except for him.” O.K., you can see how Phelan could have bounced that off what Bass had in mind, but we simply do not get those juxtapositions in the final script.

The script seems to wander and the individual scenes do not dig very deeply. Late in the picture Gene Vidal tells Amelia that many people are saying she is spending too much time on her commercial projects. We may have had our own suspicions, but nobody else in the film has even hinted at that, and it is not really brought up again. Gene was the father of Gore Vidal and we get a couple of potentially charming scenes with young Gore, who is about ten. Gore Vidal told Phelan that he adored Earhart. Fine, but what do you get by putting it in the film? Phelan loves the scene where young Gore gets upset that he is sleeping in a room with jungle wallpaper. Amelia comes in and tells him she had the wallpaper installed to help her get over her fear of the jungle. Which tells us something about her, but on a fairly obvious level. But when Gore asks her if she can marry his father, she replies that she is already married to Putnam. Gore then asks why she can’t marry both of them. A logical question from a ten-year-old who is going to grow up to be Gore Vidal. So what do the filmmakers do with it? Nothing. Amelia just smiles and leaves the room. Team, if this movie is about her ideas of freedom and marriage, you should be able to get at the very least an interesting reaction shot from her. And an equally interesting reaction shot of him. And a sense of connection between the two, based on their unusual views of life. A smile and closing the door does not cut it. The rest of the picture has this same problem: No interesting reaction shots of people to Amelia or Amelia to the other people. Boy, could you tell a lot about Amelia, her attitudes and the attitudes of the times by backtracking through the script and writing in reactions.

When I first heard that Hilary Swank was going to play Amelia Earhart, I thought that, like Julia Roberts and Erin Brockovich, this was the part she was born to play. Swank is a dead ringer for Earhart and she has certainly proved she has the acting chops for it. Of course, Swank is an almost impossible actress to write commercial scripts for. She is not cute and adorable in the Julia Roberts/Cameron Diaz kind of way. Efforts to put her in conventional scripts, such as The Affair of the Necklace (2001) and P.S. I Love You (2007), simply don’t work. She is simply too butch, which I love about her, for those kinds of roles. Given the real Earhart’s androgynous look, she fits the part. Her two Oscar-winning parts, Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Million Dollar Baby (2004), give her a lot of detail to work with within that quasi-masculine range. The script for Amelia does not have that kind of detail. Phelan knew she was writing the script for Swank, but she may well have figured that the part and the actor were so well matched she would not have to write the details that would make it possible for Swank to work her magic. For whatever reason, the film is a real missed opportunity.

The Great Locomotive Chase (1956. Written by Lawrence Edward Watkin. 85 minutes): Disney, not Keaton.

I saw this Disney live-action movie when it first came out and enjoyed it as a mildly entertaining Civil War story. I have not seen it since, but years after I saw it, I began to regularly watch Buster Keaton’s The General (1927), which is based on the same true story. So I was curious to finally catch up with this one again. Relax, I am not going to claim it is anywhere near as good as The General. Among Keaton’s other talents, he had the strongest story sense of all the silent comedians, and the narrative line of The General is flawless. As many times as I have seen the film, I have never been able to find a single shot that was not needed. Each scene establishes the characters and then moves the story forward. Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, an engineer on a southern railroad. A group of Yankees steal his train and head north, intending to tear up track and burn bridges so the Confederate Army cannot bring up replacements and supplies when the big Union attack comes. Johnnie takes out after the engine and his resourcefulness convinces the Yankees there is an army following him. Midway through the film he finds his engine and steals it back. Now he is the one being chased as he tries to warn the South of the Union attack. Oh, and his girlfriend, who is not speaking to him, was on the train that was stolen. She thinks he came only to rescue her. Well, would you tell her the truth?

Watkin’s script focuses on James J. Andrews, the northerner who leads the raid. He’s a blockade runner who also works for the north, so he should be a delightful con man, like David in An Education. There are moments in the script where that might have been the intention, but he is played by Fess Parker, who came to stardom as Davey Crockett in the Disney miniseries a few years before. He is stolid and heroic, which is not what is required. Watkin spends way more time than needed to set up the group who go with Andrews. Once the train is stolen, there really is not much time to develop with them.

The southerner who leads the chase is not the engineer, but the conductor of the train, William Fuller. Keaton goes to great length to show how Johnnie loves his train. Watkin does not do anything like that with Fuller. However, his setting out on foot along the tracks, like Johnnie, suddenly turns him into the most heroic and the most interesting character in the film. Which reduces Andrews and his crew in our sight. Keaton was right to start with Johnnie and make him the main character. In Watkin’s version, as in the real incident, the Yankees are captured and sent to prison. Watkin gives us what could have been an interesting scene in which Andrews asks Fuller to come to see him before he, Andrews, is hung. Fuller reluctantly agrees and they at least shake hands. If the script had been better written all along and focused on the battle of wits between the two men, and if it was not Fess Parker as Andrews, the scene might have had some heft.

Stick with the Keaton version. It is not as historically accurate, but who really cares about that.

Bitter Victory (1957. Screenplay by René Hardy, Nicholas Ray, Gavin Lambert, (with Vladimir Pozner, uncredited, and additional dialogue by Paul Gallico), based on the novel by René Hardy. 103 minutes, although other versions run 82, 97, and 100 minutes): The French they are a funny race.

The British film critic, the late Leslie Halliwell, in the earlier editions of his Halliwell’s Film Guide, accurately describes this as a “Glum desert melodrama, turgidly scripted and boringly made.” Sometimes I disagree with Halliwell, often violently, but he is right on the money on this one. Which may be why the film has been dropped from later editions of the book.

The Brits are going to run a commando raid on Rommel’s headquarters in Benghazi. Not to kill Rommel (see the pre-credit sequence in Nunnally Johnson’s elegant 1951 film The Desert Fox for that story), but to capture some documents. Which documents and why? We have no idea, even after they capture them. There seems to be some urgency in setting up this raid, although we see there is a commando group that has been training for it for a long time. But the high command does not have a leader already selected. So the command selects two. First, Major Brand, who appears to be a desk jockey, but who also appears to have spent enough time in intelligence work to identify and understand the documents in question. That is even though they are in German and he says at one point he does not speak any foreign languages. His second-in-command is Captain Leith, who, unbeknownst to Brand, had an affair several years before with the woman who married Brand. Doesn’t the British high command check into these things? Look at the setups for the commando raids in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Guns of Navarone (1961) to see how these scenes ought to be written.

Guess who has show up in the British compound? Yeah, Brand’s wife, and the night before the raid takes off, Leith runs into her in the bar. They sort of recognize each other. Look at Casablanca for how THAT scene ought to be written. Brand sort of realizes something is going on between them, but never really discusses it with his wife.

So off the commandos go, parachuting into the desert. This being a relatively low-budget film, we don’t see the airplanes or the jump, just the guys on the ground burying their parachutes. Their plan of attack on the German compound is to go in shooting, which causes some casualties, and their method of getting the safe open once they have done that is to…let the resident safecracker in the team crack it. After the gunfire has started and the German soldiers are alert? Who planned this mission, Rommel himself?

So they escape to the desert and even though there was some urgency about getting these documents, they now have to trek through the desert to a meeting place. Couldn’t they have been picked up sooner? The place where they are supposed to get camels to ride has only one camel, and when they see two Arabs on horses, they shoot the Arabs, but then don’t chase down the horses. So they march through the desert, talking, talking, talking, mostly philosophy about war, i.e., the sort of thing the French would love if they read it in subtitles. Brand proves to be a coward, Leith dies along the way and, when they do get the papers to the Brits, the general riffles through them a bit and immediately awards Brand the Distinguished Service Cross. Well, in a script in which Brand repeatedly says, “Fall in the men” rather than “Have the men fall in,” it should perhaps not be surprising that no one apparently knows that awarding the DSC is a long and complicated process. The Brits do not hand them out like candy. (Anthony Bushell, who plays the general, was in the tank corps during the war, but who listens to actors?)

O.K., stupid script. But surely a director can make something out of it. Not this time (and not ever—you knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?). Look at how Lean, Thompson and Curtiz handle the scenes mentioned above, and then look how they are staged and directed here. In the Ur-Casablanca scene, the director seems to be fascinated with a minor actor who recreates a military attack unrelated to the film with just his hands and sound effects he makes with his mouth. The attack on the Germans is one of the shoddiest pieces of action filmmaking you will ever see. The desert is reasonably nice to look at, but the scenes there are not a patch on the desert war scenes in The Desert Rats (1953) or The Young Lions (1958). Do not even mention Lawrence of Arabia. Please.

So why am I bothering about this film at all? Partly to exorcise the 103 minutes of my life I will not get back. But there is more to it. In January 1958, when the film was first shown in Paris, a young French film critic, writing a review of the film in an obscure film magazine, said, in reference to the film’s director, “There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray.” The critic was Jean-Luc Godard, the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma.

It just makes you rethink the whole idea of the auteur theory, doesn’t it?

Ride the High Country (1962. Written by N.B. Stone Jr.(and, uncredited, William Roberts, Sam Peckinpah, and Robert Creighton Williams. 94 minutes): Now this really is cinema.

After writing the above screed against Bitter Victory, I went out for a walk, then settled down with a batch of popcorn to watch this film on Turner Classic Movies. I was not intending to write about it, but watching it in this context made me more aware than I had ever been on previous viewings how good the script for it is. Steve Judd is a retired lawman picking up odd jobs in his old age. He hires on to go up to the mining camp of Course Gold and bring back the gold to the bank. He runs into his old friend and partner Gil Westrum and Westrum’s young friend Heck. When Gil finds out there may be as much as a quarter million dollars in gold, he and Heck agree to go along, intending to take the gold either by persuasion or more violent means. Along the way, they end up escorting Elsa, a young girl escaping a tyrannical father to marry one of the miners at the camp. He and his brothers turn out to be pigs and our guys rescue her and take her down the mountain. The Hammond brothers follow and we get a final shootout in which Steve is killed and Gil, who has shown his hand, agrees to deliver the gold to the bank.

Unlike Bitter Victory, the setup of the mission and the characters is clear, efficient, precise, and colorful. Steve thinks the crowds on the town street are cheering him as he rides in, but they are only there for a race between a camel and horses, run by Heck. Steve has to go into the bathroom to put on his classes to read the contract with the bank. Even before the journey starts, Steve and Gil learn that they can only expect about $20,000 instead of a quarter million. When they get there, it’s only $11,000, mostly from the madame of the local bordello, who tells them, “Honey, it’s gold mine.” The talk on the journey up is not philosophy, but Gil talking about the old days and how Steve is owed for all his public service. Steve figures out what Gil is up to and is not surprised when Gil and Heck try to steal the money. The characterizations are rich and full, even with the minor characters, like the justice of the peace who marries Elsa and Billy Hammond. Listen to his drunken speech about marriage. And the script is written to take advantage of the great locations in the Eastern Sierras near Bishop, California. Even though for budgetary reasons, Course Gold was built (the tents were made out of the sails of the replica of The Bounty that MGM had made for its 1962 remake of Mutiny on the Bounty) in Bronson Canyon in the Hollywood Hills.

It is in some ways surprising that the script holds together as well as it does, since there were four writers who worked on it. The credited writer was N.B. Stone Jr., who had only one other feature film to his credit, the 1955 Man With a Gun. He spent most of his career writing for television, particularly for westerns. His friend, William Roberts, had a greater career in features, mostly notably the 1960 version of The Magnificent Seven. Roberts talked about his work on the film in an extended interview in the 1978 book Blueprint on Babylon by J.D. Marshall. While Roberts is not listed in the IMDb as one of the writers, Mariette Hartley, who played Elsa, calls the screenplay the “Bill Roberts/N.B. Stone script” in her memoir Breaking the Silence, so at least some of what Roberts said in the interview may be true. Roberts was working on another project at MGM when producer Richard Lyons kept bugging him about possible ideas for movies. One day Lyons mentioned that he knew that Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, two friends who had separately appeared in about a million westerns, wanted to do a picture together. Roberts mentioned this to Stone to see if he had any ideas. Stone mentioned a story he had stolen from Ernest Haycox about an older man and his young delinquent partner who go up to get the gold. Roberts asked if he could make it two older guys instead of just one. Stone allowed as how he could. Roberts suggested their meeting the girl. Pretty soon Roberts was helping Stone write the story. It was Roberts who took the meeting with Lyons, McCrea and Scott, since Stone had a drinking problem. The deal almost fell through when McCrea refused for religious reasons to play Gil. Scott didn’t care and they switched roles. Stone and Roberts did the script, although Roberts was never paid for his work and could not ask for a WGA credit. He was happy to get his friend a job. Unfortunately for Stone, the picture turned out so well he was inundated with offers. His alcoholism kept him from doing any more feature work. Roberts said in the interview, “So the final irony was that here I was thinking I’ll do my old buddy Beau (Stone’s nickname) a favor and it was anything but a favor. It was probably the worst thing I could have done to him.” No good deed goes unpunished.

The director assigned to the picture was Sam Peckinpah, who had made only one feature, but had written and directed westerns for television, most notably The Westerner in 1960. Peckinpah had family that had lived in the California gold country for generations and undoubtedly a lot of the rich texture of the character and locales comes from him. The fourth writer was Robert Creighton Williams, who under the name Bob Williams had written a pile of B westerns for such stars as Rocky Lane, Rex Allen and Monte Hale. I don’t know what his actual contribution to the script was, but I suspect it was to keep it clean and clear, like a good B western.

That’s all you need to make true cinema: talent (I haven’t even mentioned the supporting cast or the great cinematographer Lucien Ballard), collaboration and a sense of what makes it a movie. Even if you had never seen a Joel McCrea western before, the final shot will take your breath away.

Mad Men (2009. “Shut the Door. Have a Seat” episode written by Matthew Weiner & Erin Levy. 60 minutes): More structural variety.

In the last column, I wrote about how the writers of the previous episode had beautifully structured the use of the Kennedy Assassination and how the writers of the episode before that had dared to break the structural rhythm of their episode by having a couple of scenes that ran longer than the scenes in this show normally do.

So what do the writers of this season finale do? Yet another changeup. We get a lot of short scenes, moving the storylines ahead at what seems for Mad Men a lightening pace. Do you suppose that is Matthew Weiner zinging all of us who complained about the slow pace of this season? We get enough plot turns in this episode to fill out any five previous episodes. This works here because we know these characters and their stories, so, for example, when Don says he wants Pete to come to the new company because he is looking ahead, we have seen Pete stumble into the “Negro market,” as Don calls it. When he goes to Peggy’s apartment, it does not surprise us that she turns him down, because we have seen her unhappiness with him.

The speed of this episode, and the changes it suggests for all the characters, also follows nicely in the wake of the Kennedy Assassination. We are now two weeks after the assassination and things are both returning to normal and not returning to normal at all. The assassination is only mentioned a couple of times in the episode, since, yes, people have a lot else on their mind. It does come up in a wonderfully indirect way in Don’s speech to Peggy about how something terrible has happened to people who buy things and how they now think about themselves. He says that Peggy understands that, and we know that she does from everything we know about her.

I will leave it to Todd and Luke to sort out all the meanings of this episode, since that may be a full-time job, but Weiner and Levy have set up next season, whenever it will take place, beautifully.

A CSI trilogy: Sweeps weeks tricks.

You can see the network thinking at CBS. We have three CSI shows, why not have a multiple crossover for the November sweeps?

The story begins on CSI: Miami with “Bone Voyage” written by Barry O’Brien. The CSIs find parts of different people out in the swamps where they usually finds body parts. One of the parts, a foot, turns out to belong to a girl who had gone missing in Las Vegas. So Ray Langston, now of the Mother Ship, goes to Miami and trades stares with Horatio Caine. With the release of several of the longtime supporting actors on CSI: Miami, this is more Caine’s show than ever. Based on what has happened with the show, and the billboards CBS put up around LA, CBS seems to think people watch this show because of David Caruso (Caine) rather than in spite of him. The story is moderately interesting, and provides many opportunities for shots of babes in bikinis (God forbid you should be fat in Miami and die; nobody would care) and shots of the lab with all kinds of color lights on glass panels in the foreground so that we can barely see the actors. Ray does connect with the mother of another missing girl.

The story continues on the CSI:NY episode “Hammer Down” written by Peter M. Lenkov & Pam Veasey. An overturned truck turns out to be one used in the interstate trafficking of young (and thin of course) women for prostitution and body parts. Evidence shows that the missing girl Ray was interested in was in the truck. So Ray comes up to New York and trades stares with Detective Mack Taylor. They meet a woman convict who tells them what she knows about the trafficking operation. And where do they meet her? In prison? Nope. In what I think (and you New Yorkers can correct me) is Battery Park. Why out in the open? Well, this episode was first broadcast on Veteran’s Day and Taylor and Ray have a little heart-to-heart talk about vets and surviving the traumas the CSIs go through. A minor, one-off scene and it makes you aware of how underused the talents of Gary Sinise (Taylor) and Laurence Fishburne (Ray) are in the scene. They are better served by some of the scenes that are more important to the plot. CSI:NY has been the one series of the three that has had the most trouble finding its own style. In this episode at least its two stars, Sinise and Melina Kanakaredes, play second fiddle to some of the supporting players.

At the end of the episode, the missing girl is in a truck on her way to…Vegas of course, since that’s the one city left in the franchise. So Ray is back on his home territory in “The Lost Girls” episode, written by David Weddle & Bradley Thompson, and the storylines run a little bit smoother. There are still the problems I have mentioned before about the writers not really letting Catherine step up and take charge, but they are less of a problem in this episode. The girl is eventually found, alive, but we don’t get a reconciliation scene with her mom, whom we have followed through the three episodes, but only with Ray, whom she has never met. But he is the star of the show.

Being plot-driven shows, the three series do not have enough time to get the most out of Ray visiting the other shows. His character is just as hardworking as the characters on the other shows, and they get along fine, but the styles of the three series are so different he does not fit in that well. As opposed to the world of the Law & Order shows, which are stylistically a whole and have successful crossovers all the time. There was no necessity, from the point of view of writing, to bring Ray to the other CSI shows. But that’s network television in November.

A Couple of New Shows: Yeah, what I just said.

I was going to mention these shows earlier in the season, but am only now just getting around to them.

As I wrote in US#16, I haven’t watched NCIS that much, but last spring I did catch the episode that was the pilot for NCIS: Los Angeles. I have managed to catch a couple of episodes of the new series. The setup is of course similar to the original: a group of Navy Criminal Investigators look into crimes connected with the military. The original works because of the chemistry between the characters, which has helped turn it, late in its run, into one of the most popular shows on television. The characterization is not as sharp in the spinoff. The focus is less on the group as a whole, and more on the buddy-movie pairing of Special Agents G. Callen and Sam Hanna. By the time I caught the “Endgame” episode, written by Gary Glasberg, that had become the major focus of the show. I complained that in NCIS the head of the group and the main lead, Jethro Gibbs, always knows better than anybody else. It gets annoying with him. In the spinoff the head of the unit is Henrietta “Hetty” Lang. No, she’s not a statuesque blonde. She’s Linda Hunt, costumed to remind us that Edna E. Mode in The Incredibles was based at least in part on Hunt. Hetty knows more than just everything, and the way Hunt reads the lines, it’s funny. And strange. And a wonderful change of pace from the series plotting. William Goldman, in his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, recounts writing a scene for Hunt in the feature version of Maverick (1994) that was spectacular. It was also so good and so bizarre they had to cut it from the film, since the rest of the movie could not live up to it. That’s a problem with Hunt: she gets so much out of her lines that you never want the camera to leave her. When Howard Hawks said that there were some people the camera loves, he and we generally thought in terms of good-looking people like Cary Grant. Hunt is not a beauty by any conventional standard, but try not watching her when she is on. So far the writers for the series have used her well in that “change of pace” role. The other good thing about the series is that the main office does not look like an office. It makes me think the unit has bought and refurbished Norma Desmond’s old place on Sunset Boulevard.

White Collar is a new show on USA, and it’s a retread of the old series It Takes a Thief: F.B.I. guy Peter recaptures con man Neal, who he earlier put away, and puts him to work helping him break up scams. The “Pilot” episode, created and written by Jeff Eastin was, as most pilots are, rushed in trying to set up the basic situation. It also established that Neal was going to live in a room in a mansion owned by June, but she was dropped in the subsequent episodes, as was the black, lesbian assistant to Peter. The assistant was replaced by Agent Lauren Cruz, who is Latina and straight. Make up your own comment. The plotting has settled down to focus on the scams and on the “bromance” between Peter and Neal. Both sort of envy the life the other leads and the writers have given them a lot to play off against each other. They have particularly written an interesting character in Peter, who is different from most TV law officers. I would not exactly call him soft, but he is not as hard-edged as most of his clan. Tim DeKay, who plays Peter, has been around as a journeyman actor for 15 years or more, but he is showing some star quality here. In this part, at least, the camera loves him.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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




Photo: Saban Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Photo: Best Friend Forever

The use of apocalyptic settings has become so prevalent in fiction over the past couple of decades, perhaps more than in any time since the Cold War era, that it seems difficult to find new ways to make the concept resonate. This is particularly true as the real world starts to resemble a uniquely mundane version of the most vivid renderings of dystopia. Atlantis, Ukrainian director Valentyn Vasyanovych’s fourth feature-length fiction film, succeeds in part because the situation it depicts is barely even fictional.

Vasyanovych was inspired to make the film by a visit to the Donbass region in the eastern part of his home country, which is the site of regular clashes between government troops and pro-Russian separatists, and which has been left environmentally ravaged due to the war there. Atlantis is set in an imagined 2025, five years after the war has ended, with the Donbass area no longer fit for human habitation—as will likely be the case in reality.

Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk) and Ivan (Vasyl Antoniak) are PTSD-addled ex-soldiers who fought and killed for a place that wasn’t worth saving, and who are under no illusions of finding a better life elsewhere. They now work at a steel mill that’s about to fall victim to the same capitalist whims they were defending as part of the victorious pro-Western forces. A glimmer of hope is eventually offered by a volunteer group that drives around the region picking up the bodies of those who fell in the war, to identify them and provide them with proper burials.

Despite the film’s basis in current geo-political and economic realities and its obvious parallels with the broader climate crisis faced by the world, it rarely engages directly with these themes. Instead, it’s more interested in how people adjust to desperation and scarcity, showing a society where armed conflict and corporate neglect have poisoned the environment and devalued human life to such an extent that people aren’t even able to grieve their losses. Vasyanovych employs long takes with almost no camera movement, combining naturalistic lighting with pictorial framing and a relatively large depth of field. As well as affording the time and space to appreciate the routines of their hardscrabble existence, this striking aesthetic serves to distance the viewer from the characters, showing these stoical figures alienated from themselves as much as they’re dwarfed by desolate industrial landscapes.

The unrelenting bleakness of this situation often becomes almost cartoonish in proportion, and the film’s slow pace occasionally conjures a tone of deadpan humor. An early scene sees Sergiy and Ivan setting up a row of life-sized dummies in the snow for shooting practice, and the depiction of this task in real time, with their truck’s engine running conspicuously in the background throughout, draws out the childish inanity of their adherence to military discipline. Later, a 1984-aping scene of assembled workers being informed of their impending redundancy by a face on a giant projector screen, with an interpreter’s Ukrainian translation disrupting the flow of this British company executive’s ruthless corporate-speak, wouldn’t be out of place in a more straightforward work of political satire.

The film’s use of scale to drive home the absurdity of its characters’ actions sometimes calls to mind Werner Herzog’s tragicomic existentialism, as well as early silent cinema. In a feat of resolve and improvisation that would make Fitzcarraldo proud (not to mention Charlie Chaplin’s shoe-eating tramp from a similarly barren locale a century prior), Sergiy cobbles together a hot tub for himself in the middle of the wasteland, filling a large digger’s bucket with water from a hose and burning petrol-soaked timber underneath it for heat. His soak in this makeshift bath is Atlantis’s most indelible image, a sight gag that also underlines his stubborn but admirable commitment to making a home where few other people dare to stay.

Appropriately for a study of humans physically engulfed by their surroundings, Atlantis is bookended by shots apparently captured with a thermal imaging camera. Initially coming across as gimmicky, representative of a broader style-over-substance artificiality that prevents the film from reaching the heights of its cinematic forebears, its final use is still surprisingly affecting. It highlights two people merging together in the warmth of postcoital intimacy, finding a new sense of belonging in the ruins. They jointly refuse to mourn a lost Atlantis that, given the state of our current reality, likely never existed for them in the first place.

Atlantis premiered last year at the Venice Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Best Friend Forever.

Cast: Andriy Rymaruk, Liudmyla Bileka, Vasyl Antoniak Director: Valentyn Vasyanovych Screenwriter: Valentyn Vasyanovych Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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

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




Red Moon Tide
Photo: Berlinale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Pushpendra Singh’s The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs

The film speaks lyrically to a peoples’ determination to find a meaningful way to live in a rapidly changing modern world.




The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs
Photo: Berlinale

Based on a folktale by Vijaydan Detha and further influenced by the life and poetry of 14th-century Kashmiri mystic Lalleshwari, Pushpendra Singh’s The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs tells the story of a young nomadic shepherdess, Laila (Navjot Randhawa), who finds herself exploited by foolish, lustful men. Using traditional folk songs—each revolving around a central idea, such as marriage, migration, and attraction—Singh loosely divides the film into seven parts. Each of these musical interludes—some diegetic, some not—mark a transitionary phase in Laila’s spiritual growth and path to self-realization as she navigates a world that remains indifferent to her own dreams and desires.

After being taken as a bride by a spineless young herdsman named Tanvir (Sadakkit Bijran), Laila migrates, along with their Bakarwal clan, to a more populated area of Kashmir, where we get clear sense of the territorial conflict currently playing out between India and Pakistan. Border police and local officials badger the nomadic shepherds, asking for permits and identification cards that have never before been required of them. This rapid social change limits the mobility of the clan and threatens their way of life, but once they arrive at their destination, it’s talk of Laila’s great beauty that spreads rapidly throughout the land.

As the young woman is met by unwanted advances by the regional inspector (Ranjit Khajuria) and his goofy but somewhat charming subordinate, Mushtaq (Shahnawaz Bhat), she’s left to fend for herself by her feckless husband who constantly kowtows to their authority. Laila uses both her fearlessness and intelligence to protect herself, first pushing and slapping the inspector and, later, fooling Mushtaq time and again by setting up nighttime meetings with him, only to thwart his plans by showing up with Tanvir by her side.

These various nocturnal rendezvous with Mushtaq play out in a repetitious manner, like the episodes of a fable. While Mushtaq is relentlessly aggressive in his pursuit of Laila, Tanvir’s oblivious, overly deferential responses to the increasingly absurd manners in which the man shows up on his land in need of bananas or a sheep are threaded with deadpan humor. When Tanvir calmly says of Mushtaq, “What a kind man. He cares so much for us,” a look of resignation and frustration settles on Laila’s face as she realizes how vulnerable she is and that she alone must cope with the dangers and challenges of her life.

As Laila is further isolated and confronted with her lack of agency, the film draws parallels between her vibrance, toughness, and persistence in the face of oppression and that of the Bakarwal community, who’ve roamed the Kashmir region and maintained their cultural mores there for centuries. The forest is marked early on as not only a space that requires great fortitude in which to survive, but also a realm of potentially fantastical transformation. When Laila’s friend asks her when she began to fear the forest, she replies that she never has and that Lalleshwari “also discovered herself here” and “abandoned everything to find God.”

This proclamation foreshadows Laila’s own journey of self-discovery and enlightenment just as a gorgeous shot in which Tanvir, sitting on a tree stump below his wife, transforms into a sheep alludes to the brief flashes of magical realism that will creep into The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs from time to time. Such poetic scenes are more frequent as the film proceeds, and enhanced particularly by the cinematography, which features slow, roving camerawork that, as in Terrence Malick and Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, exhibits a reverence for and connection to the landscape and the protagonist’s deep connection to it.

In its final minutes, the film becomes increasingly expressionistic, as Laila symbolically sheds her clothes and wanders from the forest into the rocky landscape of the Himalayas. There’s a remarkable visual play between darkness and light and aural juxtaposition of folkloric music (a song of renunciation) and the crashing sounds of thunder as Laila drapes a snakeskin over her shoulder and contemplates her position in life with a pensive stare into a mirror. It’s a stunningly beautiful and mystical passage laden with sorrow, uncertainty, and the inevitability of change. But it also speaks quite lyrically and evocatively to both Laila’s, and, by extension, her peoples’ enduring determination to find a meaningful way to live in a rapidly changing modern world that’s less and less inclined to ensure their survival.

The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs had its world premiere last month at the Berlin International Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Pascale Ramonda.

Cast: Shahnawaz Bhat, Sadakkit Bijran, Ranjit Khajuria, Navjot Randhawa, Mohammed Yassen Director: Pushpendra Singh Screenwriter: Pushpendra Singh Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Blow the Man Down Is a Sharp and Memorable Nautical Noir

The film never veers into wink-wink self-consciousness that its opening might have suggested.




Blow the Man Down
Photo: Amazon Studios

Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s Blow the Man Down starts on a literally self-aware note. The opening sequence shows the fishermen of a coastal Maine hamlet not just hard at work netting, spiking, and chopping up their catch, but also singing a rousing rendition of the 19th-century sailors’ song that gives the film its title. Full-throated and haunting, the piece is sung right to the camera as though it were a music video for some Americana band. But even though what follows is shot through with a keen understanding of genre necessities and an impatience for wasting more time on them than is necessary, the film never veers into wink-wink self-consciousness that its opening might have suggested.

When we first meet the ghostly pale Priscilla Connolly (Sophie Lowe) and her anxious and messy sister, Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor), they’ve just buried their mother and are trying to extract themselves from the hole she left them in. While Pris takes the need to keep running the family store and the looming loss of the family home somewhat in stride, Mary Beth is furious. Hating their “shithole” town and eager to leave for college, she goes to a bar to blow off steam following their mother’s wake and makes a poorly considered connection with a scuzzily larcenous-looking guy named Gorski (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). Many drinks, some bad driving, a baggie of cocaine, and one well-aimed harpoon later, Mary Beth has a body on her hands and a situation that suggests calling the police would be a poor idea.

Blow the Man Down’s first third or so moves briskly along the well-traveled terrain of the What Do We Do with the Body? genre. Savage Cole and Krudy seed their screenplay with somewhat stock elements, from the sack of cash that causes more problems than it’s worth to the small town rife with hypocrisy to the inexpertly cleaned crime scene with one crucial clue left behind that could send Pris and Mary Beth to prison. But even though some of these narrative beats are highly familiar, the filmmakers handle them with a light touch that keeps things fresh and entertaining until the film throws viewers a neat curveball.

At first, the three tsk-tsking women (June Squibb, Marceline Hugot, and Annette O’Toole) in matching pale Talbots-like outfits who drift through the film appear to be merely a decorative chorus of crones. They’re initially somewhat like the fishermen who come back in from time to time to deliver more bloody-minded sea shanties. But once the women start targeting their disapproval at Enid (Margo Martindale), the apparent proprietor of a cozy old bed and breakfast, the film opens up an entire secret and seamy underbelly to the town that the sisters are about to be pulled right into even if they manage not to be charged with murder.

In between the choral interludes, Blow the Man Down is layered with a discordant and eerie yet also slightly playful soundtrack that enhances both the setting’s chilly isolation and the sisters’ sense of panic and displacement. Overall, the performances are solid, if short of standout, with the great exception of Martindale’s. In her role as the town’s unapologetic scarlet woman, the character actress swings Enid through her scenes, balancing on a cane and fueled by whiskey and a white-hot sense of grievance. “Go back to your casseroles and crochet,” Enid tells the chorus of three old busybodies with a dry and spare tone that pushes the line from petty insult into veiled threat. Without Martindale, Blow the Man Down would be a sharp and tightly constructed nautical noir. With her, it becomes a memorable one.

Cast: Sophie Lowe, Morgan Saylor, Margot Martindale, June Squibb, Marceline Hugot, Annette O’Toole, Gayle Rankin, Will Brittain, Ebon Moss-Bachrach Director: Bridget Savage Cole, Danielle Krudy Screenwriter: Bridget Savage Cole, Danielle Krudy Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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25 Underrated Movie Gems to Stream Right Now on the Criterion Channel

It’s worth taking a dive into the channel’s obscure but vibrant depths.



25 Underrated Movie Gems to Stream Right Now on the Criterion Channel
Photo: Janus Films

It’s encouraging that, about a year after its launch, the Criterion Channel remains with us. Less encouraging—from an end-of-days perspective—is that most of us now have an abundance of time to explore it. If self-isolating to prevent the spread of a deadly pandemic has upsides, though, having time enough to poke around the varied corners and depths of the streaming service counts as one of them.

The selection of films on the Criterion Channel rotate quickly, making the films it highlights as “leaving at the end of the month” more vital than most other sites’ similar sections. In a sense, this makes the Criterion Collection’s streaming platform feel more alive than services that have more stable caches and their own in-house content. The new films that pop up at the beginning of the month—in March, the channel has included Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life and a number of German silents—are akin to special events. The shifting library of films functions like a vast, curated program available in our homes.

The sense that the channel is driven by curation rather than algorithm is no doubt intentional. If, with its esoteric film library and novel programming, the streaming service seems rather offbeat, this is in large part because we’re now used to receiving viewing suggestions from systems that emulate only in outline the mechanism of recommendation. We’ve grown reliant on the facile generic groupings (“drama,” “adventure,” “comedy”) typical of algorithm-driven services. Criterion pointedly ignores genre in favor of auteur, country of origin, or cultural context; a mainstay on the site for several months, amid the controversy over another male-dominated Oscars season, has been its prominent featuring of women filmmakers.

As the Criterion Collection continues to hold on to its niche in an arena dominated by Amazon, Netflix, Disney, among other hopefuls, it’s worth taking a dive into the channel’s obscure but vibrant depths. Many of the films below are rare finds—not only in the world of streaming, but in the era of home video. Pat Brown

Editor’s Note: Click here to sign up for the Criterion Channel.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger, 1926)

Now justly recognized as the first fully animated feature film, Lotte Reiniger’s masterpiece—composed of cut-out animation of silhouettes on monochromatic painted backdrops—transports us to dreamlike realm. Closely related to the contemporaneous experimentations in animation carried out by figures like Oscar Fischinger and Walther Hans Richter, The Adventures of Prince Achmed lends the orientalist fairy tales it recounts a rhythmic grace. As Prince Achmed journeys through various motifs from the “Thousand and One Nights,” the visual pleasure lies in the reverie of watching the cinema imbue mere shapes with life. Brown

The Ascent

The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko, 1977)

A World War II film in which heroism is a myth, Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent focuses on two Soviet partisans (Boris Plotnikov and Vladimir Gostyukhin) who are left for dead in the snow-covered Russian countryside. Shepitko’s camera alternates between passages of realism and lyricism, entrenching her characters within a course of almost certain death. If Sheptiko’s soldiers experience only pain at the hands of their merciless German captors, it’s to better articulate the tragedy of their fundamental innocence within the war machine. Clayton Dillard


Asparagus (Suzan Pitt, 1979)

A Jungian psychosexual mescaline trip in the form of an 18-minute animated short, Asparagus is at once a vibrant blast of psychedelia and an unsettling journey into the depths of the subconscious. Suzan Pitt’s film was famously paired with Eraserhead on the midnight-movie circuit back in the late ‘70s, and it’s as equally resistant to interpretation as David Lynch’s classic. Proceeding with a dream logic that recalls the symbolist experimentalism of Maya Deren, Asparagus’s imagery ranges from the lushly verdant to the uncannily profane—often within the same scene, as in the film’s haunting climax in which a faceless woman robotically fellates an asparagus spear. Watson

Begone Dull care

Begone Dull Care (Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambart, 1951)

If a jazz combo hired Stan Brakhage to direct their music video, the result might look something like Begone Dull Care. Set to the buoyant bebop of the Oscar Peterson Trio, Evelyn Lambart and Norman McLaren’s zippy animated short is one of the purest marriages of music and image in the history of cinema. Using lines, shapes, and abstract textures painted and drawn directly onto celluloid, the film grooves along to the jazz music—at times using particular colors to represent individual instruments, at others delivering a frenetic freeform visual accompaniment to the music, but always delivering a dazzling showcase of the animators’ inventiveness and dynamism. Watson

Body and Soul

Body and Soul (Oscar Micheaux, 1925)

Body and Soul, Oscar Micheaux’s melodrama about sexual violence within a southern black community, was controversial even among black audiences. Noted as the film debut of Paul Robeson, the film bucks expectations by casting the handsome singer as Isaiah T. Jenkins, a criminal masquerading as a preacher. Jenkins beguiles a local worshipper, Martha Jane (Mercedes Gilbert) into leaving him alone with her daughter, Isabelle (Julia Theresa Russell). He rapes Isabelle and steals Martha Jane’s savings. As Jenkins palms the hard-earned cash, Micheaux inserts a woeful montage: Martha Jane’s hands ironing clothing, anonymous black hands picking cotton off the plant. Brown

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Review: Deerskin Eerily and Evocatively Reflects on a Man’s Fragility

In Deerskin, Quentin Dupieux mines the absurdism that is his signature with newfound forcefulness.




Photo: Greenwich Entertainment

Underneath the absurdism and narrative mindfuckery of Quentin Dupieux’s films resides a sadness that the French writer-director mines with newfound forcefulness in Deerskin. The film has an eerie, evocative premise. Drifting through a mountainous town in France, Georges (Jean Dujardin) tracks down a vintage deerskin jacket. Smitten with the garment, Georges spends his entire savings on it, before then holing up in a nearly abandoned hotel and passing himself off as a filmmaker to the locals, especially to a young and attractive bartender, Denise (Adèle Haenel), who claims to be an aspiring film editor. We also learn that Georges is navigating a divorce, and that his wife has frozen his savings, which obviously leads one to believe that he’s in the midst of some sort of midlife crisis, electing to buy a jacket instead of, say, a Porsche, which he couldn’t afford anyway.

A little heftier than he was in The Artist, with an elegant graying beard, Dujardin bears a resemblance to Terrence Malick, and Georges, in his ludicrous way, even goes about pretending to make films in Malick’s register, shooting footage that Denise will shape into something free-flowing and subjective. Georges, like many a failure, is obsessed with the image of success above all, as a gratification of himself, and seems to have few passions or interests that might lead to its actual realization. An early scene suggests that Georges may have been a bored office drone, as he stops in a store and makes a ritual out of attempting to flush his old blazer down the toilet; he requires a more obvious totem of manliness, and he frequently references the deerskin jacket’s “killer style,” even talking to it on occasion.

These masculine symbols are somehow explicit and mysterious at once. If Dupieux had added any expositional dialogue, having Georges openly riff on his frustrations for instance, Deerskin’s spell would probably be dispelled. The film’s melancholic, comic charge springs from Georges’s commitment to his new reality, which comes to mirror the commitment of a real artist. The town is also visually resonant, suggesting a secluded village in a western; its landscapes imbue the film with a beauty that’s ironic—suggesting our addictions to the illusions of westerns and other masculine pop art—as well as wistful.

This beauty is also counterpointed with the crushing loneliness of the town’s citizens. Denise goes along with Georges’s schemes because she’s looking for direction, and there’s a brutally effective joke in which Georges is informed that a hotel clerk has killed himself—information that’s related with the sort of casualness that one might reserve for ordering breakfast. Georges walks into a room to steal something from the corpse, which is revealed to be a mannequin with a hole in its face. This is one of the great surreal flourishes of Dupiex’s career, the mannequin suggesting the desolation of people who choose to annihilate themselves.

Deerskin eventually takes a gruesome turn, as Georges decides that he must be the only person in the world with any jacket. As he begins a killing spree, the film, in its rhyming of the vocations of art-making and serial murder, recalls a lean and more playful version of The House that Jack Built, minus Lars von Trier’s laborious self-justifications. Dupiex, then, finds another macho totem to parody: the self-consciously intellectual art-house auteur who lards their fantasies with delusions of grandeur. But Dupiex also has a kindship with Georges, recognizing him to be the epitome of the toxic male as well as a lost soul in the tradition of men who are conditioned to play it safe with boring jobs, only to be self-shamed for that very dependency on safety. By killing others, Georges is announcing that he wants to die.

Cast: Jean Dujardin, Adèle Haenel, Albert Delpy, Coralie Russier, Marie Bunel, Panayotis Pascot Director: Quentin Dupieux Screenwriter: Quentin Dupieux Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment Running Time: 77 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Interview: Eliza Hittman on the Poetic Odyssey of Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Never Rarely Sometimes Always breaks new ground for Hittman as a filmmaker.



Eliza Hittman
Photo: Angal Field/Focus Features

The level of vivid detail with which writer-director Eliza Hittman renders the procedural elements of procuring an abortion in Never Rarely Sometimes Always might stand out as the film’s most obvious point of discussion. A teenager’s journey to assert her bodily autonomy spans from a “crisis pregnancy center” in rural Pennsylvania meant to trick women out of terminating a pregnancy to the halls of a Planned Parenthood in Manhattan, illuminating structural biases and barriers along the way. But a focus primarily on what happens in Never Rarely Sometimes Always overlooks aspects of Hittman’s filmmaking that prevent the film from seeming like a sermon, or agenda-driven.

Don’t call Never Rarely Sometimes Always a neorealistic film, Hittman told me during a recent conversation, in spite of what the title of the special prize she received at this year’s Sundance Film Festival might suggest. As in her prior two features, It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats, Hittman both effectively dramatizes and stylizes the interior struggles of teenage characters forced to define their sense of self and sexuality in an unforgiving society.

But even as Autumn (Sidney Flanagan) takes on a relentless series of bureaucratic challenges, struggling to receive the medical care she seeks without parental permission, she can at least rely on the steadying presence of her cousin and confidant, Skylar (Talia Ryder). Their empathetic relationship operates on such a deep level of understanding that Skylar requires no protestation or persuasion to accompany Autumn on the journey. In the film, Hittman proves as adept at translating these ethereal and non-verbal moments of sororal support into grace notes as she does chunks of dialogue full of legal and medical jargon.

I interviewed Hittman the week of the film’s opening in New York. Our conversation covered how Never Rarely Sometimes Always expands and explores some of her previously evinced fascinations while also breaking new ground for her as a filmmaker.

Your films all have such distinct opening scenes, usually revolving around some measure of kind of performance for an audience or for the camera. How are you developing these first touch points that the audience has with the characters?

They’re all very different, I think. With Never Rarely Sometimes Always, I really wanted to playfully disorient the audience about the period of the movie.

That was successful. I was like, wait, what’s going on here?

And as a kid, I used to do all these really cheesy ‘50s talent shows. And it’s this moment in time that we romanticize, and the music is all saccharine about the myth of romantic love. Things that I’m interested in challenging. I thought it would be an interesting way to bring in the audience into the themes and the worlds. Set it in high school, because none of it really takes place in a high school. Introduce the character instantly as somebody who is in opposition to the feelings of the moment.

Aren’t the lyrics of the song Autumn sings “he makes me” or something like that?

“He makes me do things I don’t want to do.” It’s an Exciters song from the ‘60s.

Your films put on display this dichotomy between how teenagers conduct themselves in public versus how they do so in private. You’ve discussed watching them and developing your observations from an anthropological lens. How have you sharpened your instincts to tell whenever they’re performing and when they’re being authentic?

I think my goal, primarily, is to bring audiences into these private and painful moments. I’m giving this perspective about what they’re thinking and feeling lonely and isolated. I don’t know if Autumn is performing so well in public. We can feel her discomfort in the world and the weight of what she’s going through. It’s more than Harris’s character [Frankie, the closeted male protagonist of Beach Rats] performing masculinity. I don’t think that Sydney’s character is performing femininity as much in the world. She’s hiding herself. She’s wearing these clothes that hide her body. In a way, she’s pushing against showing her body and herself.

Your films capture the solitude of being young. It’s so crucial to that period of your life, but it’s very tough to render on screen. How are you taking this space for your characters to deal with their feelings from the concept or the script to the screen?

I think that there’s a lot of threads that the film juggles. You know, one is the sort of painful moment alone, you know, where she’s trying to terminate her own pregnancy. But it’s also about the friendship and the procedural aspect of what she’s going through.

Sidney Flanagan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Sidney Flanagan in a scene from Never Rarely Sometimes Always. @ Angal Field/Focus Features

And how do you go about bringing all that to life?

Originally, when I wrote the treatment for the film in 2013, it was actually just trauma. And I felt like that didn’t work. So, I knew that the narrative wouldn’t be successful if it was just her alone. It’s about her alone in the most vulnerable places in the story, like the procedure, navigating these adult situations and clinics by herself. Her cousin never has perspective on these things. So, I was just interested in [the fact that] even though she has somebody on that journey with her, she’s still very much alone with the burden of the pregnancy.

The way that you shoot a lot of those scenes with those really tight close-ups puts us right there with her.

They’re all subjective. The visual strategy is all subjective. And it’s about proximity and aligning the audience with what she’s thinking and feeling. It’s not just optically. So, the camera lingers close to her and then is wider on other people because it represents her distance and her keeping people from a distance. That’s all shaped on the page that way to conceptualize in the shot list that way.

Like the scene from which Never Rarely Sometimes Always derives its title, you also shot a scene from It Felt Like Love where the protagonist talks with her doctor about emergency contraception in a single unbroken close-up. As a man, I don’t pretend to understand what that moment feels like, so would you mind elaborating on why you’ve chosen to portray this moment in such a way?

The other one is definitely part of a building block to know what happens. The one in It Felt Like Love is different because she’s never had sex. So, she’s going through the discomfort of this kind of sexual history questionnaire. But she’s very innocent, and that’s the tension of the scene. But yeah, there’s a long take in it, so it has a similar shooting strategy. I think that scene was, in a way, the basis for the scene in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. I think it’s important that men watching it are never in those rooms. And they’re never asked those questions. And I think when men watch the scene, they always talk about it as being really invasive, and women watch it and talk about it as being really empathetic. Men are always, like [switches into a macho voice], “the scene is so invasive.”

Invasive in a good way, or invasive in a bad way?

In a really uncomfortable way. Whereas women are more accustomed to that sort of medical, clinical interrogation.

You mentioned starting Never Rarely Sometimes Always with the head fake that it might be a high school movie. The film also somewhat belongs to another genre, the New York movie. We see stories all the time about young people who come to the city to get what they want, and it’s usually some kind of magical or transformative experience for them. And in some ways, this kind of is that, because she comes here and gets what she wants, but it doesn’t feel particularly inspiring.

No, it’s not a sentimental or romantic look at New York. Her experience here is almost liminal, and she’s in liminal spaces. Wherever she’s in Port Authority, on the train, on the subway, she never has a moment to get comfortable or really take anything in.

Were you aware of and engaging with those tropes?

I was aware of them. I think New York is a really hard place to visit. And I don’t think people from out of town necessarily love it. I don’t think there’s anything intuitive about the way that it’s organized. And I don’t think it appeals to everybody.

The scene where Autumn emerges from Port Authority and kind of comes to the edges of Time Square was so striking because that’s a space that’s usually shot in such a fun way. But this is the actual experience going to Times Square. It’s terrifying.

Yeah, with that scene in particular, I wanted to show how disorienting it can be.

Your films put faces to a lot of things that we often engage with primarily on a conceptual level: toxic masculinity, homophobia, and the pro-birth extremism as shown by the crisis pregnancy centers. How do you go about personifying these things without turning them into caricature?

I mean, I think some men are a bit grumpy about the representation of men in the movie. But I think, for me, I was really trying to explore the tension that exists as a young woman, between you and an environment full of men. You learn to navigate their advances and how you can deflect…and ultimately become desensitized to it. I tried to find the balance between all of those male characters in their moments and glimpses; that part of the story is maybe a little bit conceptual. With the women in the crisis center in Pennsylvania, I went and met those women and took that test. Because I was concerned there about Christian caricatures. I’m just trying to do the best job that I can do and not make them things that I’ve seen before.

I don’t need to tell you we’re in a scary time with the Supreme Court even just last week, hearing this Louisiana case that could potentially imperil Roe v. Wade. What is the impact that you hope to have with this movie right now?

I think that the film is effective in putting a face to somebody who might otherwise be faceless and just a statistic and giving a voice to voiceless in a way. And I hope that the film helps people see the deep impact that these barriers have on lives. It’s a real impact. I think with documentary, and even in the research of this film, it’s harder to find because of confidentiality. You know, it’s hard to find people who really speak up about these issues.

With the freedoms of fictional filmmaking, too, and not having to be quite so married to the actuality or the reality, you can probe more deeply.

I didn’t want to be didactic. I really wanted to explore it from the point of view of a character study, and a poetic odyssey, a movie about friendship, and it’s not just about the issue. I hope that the story for people is layered and dimensional, not overly political or message-driven.

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Interview: Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles on Bacurau’s Politics

In our wide-ranging conversation, we covered the hazy distinctions between past, present, and future in both Brazil and the United States.



Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
Photo: Victor Jucá

It takes a rich cinematic text to inspire not one but two separate repertory programs in New York, and Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau fits the bill. When I caught up with the Brazilian filmmaking team, they were in town for an extended stay to help kick off Film at Lincoln Center’s “Mapping Bacurau,” a series of their genre influences ranging from horror to action to westerns. (This series, unfortunately, will no longer proceed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.) While they had a direct hand in choosing the films in that lineup, they had no involvement in the second program, BAM’s “Rise Up!: Portraits of Resistance,” which placed Bacurau in conversation with such protest films as Glauber Rocha’s Antonio das Mortes, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, and Mati Diop’s Atlantics.

It’s the latter thematic thread that I spent most of my time discussing with Mendonça Filho and Dornelles, his longtime friend and collaborator. While an appreciation of their cinematic antecedents and inspirations for Bacurau enhances the viewing experience, it isn’t as vital as a knowledge of Brazilian history and politics. Mendonça Filho’s third film, his first sharing a directing credit with Dornelles, feels like both a continuation and escalation of his previous features, Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius. Both films located simmering tensions in Brazilian society surrounding corruption and inequality that explode in the near future of Bacurau. Residents of the titular village, facing an invasion by mercenaries willing to quite literally wipe them off the map, must take up arms in solidarity to protect their lives and land.

Don’t mistake the film for a statement on Jair Bolsonaro, however, as it was conceived years ago and shot months prior to his election. As Mendonça Filho and Dornelles pointed out, Bacurau speaks to the present only by coincidence. Yet in their recognition of history’s cyclical nature, their dystopian romp about society’s unaddressed faults can remain relevant through just about any president or administration. In our wide-ranging conversation, we covered the hazy distinctions between past, present, and future in both Brazil and the United States.

Your three features feel like they’re circling similar questions about land, heritage, and resistance, and community against a backdrop of capitalist crisis and inequality. In Bacurau, there’s this all-out warfare against imperialist intruders. Is that a reflection of the country and the world around you, or something completely separate?

Kleber Mendonça Filho: It’s interesting how we never really discussed any of that while making the films. But once we begin to talk about them, we learn a lot from critics and observers. It’s then that we realize that each one of the films has a very specific tone and speed, and it seems to match the times in which they were made. So, Brazil was actually very stable in the later years of the last decade when I wrote and shot Neighboring Sounds, but, of course, stable doesn’t mean that everything is fine. It means that there’s some disturbance, some diffused tension in society like all societies have. And I think that’s what the idea of “neighboring sounds” is. It’s kind of ethereal, and you can’t quite put your finger on what exactly is wrong and what [has the potential to] happen. Then there’s Aquarius, which was done in 2015. By 2013, things were beginning to go very wrong in Brazil, and I think the film rose out of that. We have been talking for years about Bacurau, and, of course, with everything that happened in 2016 in Brazil, when millions of Brazilians saw a soft coup d’etat—

Juliano Dornelles: I don’t see it as soft.

KMF: It’s soft because you expect tanks. That’s when Brazil began to deviate from what we see as democracy. And then, incredibly, we got to Bacurau, and it’s almost like we’re entering what should be dystopian fiction, literature or film, but it’s actually reality. I have to say, Mr. Trump’s election in the U.S. was part of what we were feeling, a change in the rotation of the political temperature. And then, we just wrote the film, feeling very connected [to the moment]. Then people, even in Cannes, tried to insinuate that the film was, or even interpreted the film as, a vision of Bolsonaro’s Brazil. This, of course, doesn’t make any sense because we shot the film seven months before he was elected. When we were shooting the film, I don’t know if you [to Darnelles] ever thought…he wasn’t even a candidate.

JD: It wasn’t even a possibility in the same year that he got elected. The beginning of the year, it was just a joke. It all happened pretty fast.

KMF: But it’s fascinating how you can be truthful to tone and atmosphere, which doesn’t really go through fact. I think truth is stronger in the atmosphere of things in society, than if you start discussing actual fact. I think we were truthful to what was happening.

Each of the films, by chance of what happened in between the time that they were shot or conceived and when they were released, looks prophetic in a way. You’re picking up on the tremors that lead to these earthquakes that we see and observe.

JD: Yeah. It’s interesting because we’re about to show 20 Years Later, Cabra Marcado [the directing duo had programmed this film in Film at Lincoln Center’s “Mapping Bacurau” series]. It’s a documentary about, how can you say?

KMF: A community leader and a peasant…

JD: …a community leader in the moment of the dictatorship, the ‘60s and ‘70s. He got assassinated in ‘64, the same year of the beginning of the coup. The other coup.

KMF: A hard coup, with attacks and guns.

JD: In this film, it’s crazy because it started like your definition [of how the film picked up on political undercurrents]. And then began to be an idea.


A scene from Bacurau © Kino Lorber

KMF: Maybe we’re moving on to the second [a hard coup in Brazil].

JD: Probably, I don’t know. So, in this film, they show some images of newspapers. The film is filled with fake news, calling people communists. They aren’t communists, but they’re called that. So it’s crazy because it’s the same thing. It’s crazy because this film is prophetic, and now Bacurau can be called prophetic. But it’s interesting because it’s just a look into the past. You can find the same situations all of our history.

KMF: I can almost see some place in the world using guillotines to punish people, kill people through the power of the state. And then, of course, we go back to almost 300 years to the French Revolution. I don’t think that’s too far off. It’s very scary to think about that.

Nowadays, I think you could get away with that but for the optics. If you could somehow do it in a more palatable way—

KMF: There’s a very frightening moment that I don’t know why we didn’t subtitle. Maybe because we thought it would become a political event inside the film, and it was designed just to be on the corner of the screen, which is a very white screen. When Terry [one of the mercenaries] is inside one of the houses in Bacurau, there’s a television which is on. And it says that public executions are restarting at 2 p.m. And it’s like a live feed. So, there are executions. There are executions all over the world. They’re in Brazil, in America, in Mexico.

JD: Black and poor people are being executed. Right now [points to watch]. Another one. Another one.

KMF: We don’t quite have a public execution on television at 2 p.m. That’s one thing we don’t have, but we have all kinds of different executions. It’s a fascinating idea when just the use of words takes things one notch up, and it becomes tougher.

The setting of Bacurau is “a few years from now.” Was it always this indefinite looming specter of the future as supposed to a fixed date? If you enumerate it, you start thinking, “Okay, how long did it take to get to this point, and that point?”

KMF: I love those questions the viewers find themselves with when they see the film. We always talk that it’s the best and cheapest special effect in film. Just five words.

JD: A few years from now.

KMF: It puts you in a heightened state of alert. So, you begin to scan the screen and look for evidence of the future. There’s very little evidence of anything related to the future because the future is actually now.

Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius open with montages of black-and-white vintage photographs of the past. It’s not how Bacurau opens, but we see the same types of photos inside the museum and inside the houses. It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that the climactic battle takes place inside the museum, the past and the future overlapping.

KMF: My mother was a historian so maybe that’s one explanation. I love documents, photographs, archives. Aquarius is actually about that, but it doesn’t tell you that. You can tell by watching the film that this is gone. This [film] is completely obsessed with objects, archives. Neighboring Sounds doesn’t really feel that way. But it’s very much about the weight of history and how people carry history on their back. And of course, in Bacurau, people keep inviting other people to come visit the museum.

JD: One thing that I like to think also is that we come from the big city, not from that particular region. We’re from the northeast region, which is a huge region. So, the culture is very different there. We were always concerned about not making a film of people that we don’t really know. So, I think this contact, this wish to use archive images and history, it kind of gives us more safety to walk into this terrain. And, yeah, it brought a beautiful confirmation when we started to look for this particular location, that village, we discovered that many other little villages like that had their own museums. But these museums, we didn’t know about them, and we just wrote them. It was great.

KMF: But I think we were familiar with the kind of cultural profile that these communities have. We loved them very much. And they’re so full of culture and understanding of history. It doesn’t mean that everybody is into all of that. We have the special people in each community.

JD: And this kind of thing about people from the sertão [the “outback” region in which the film is set] is starting to change more and more because, of course, everything that happened in the bigger cities is starting to happen there. The growing of the evangelical Pentecostal churches, for example. And everybody is very connected to the internet. So, they have access to the same stuff that we do so. They’re starting to change.

KMF: Have you seen Central Station by Walter Salles?

I have not.

KMF: It was shot in ‘97. The sertão that Walter shot doesn’t exist anymore. That was 20 years ago. But the sertão he shot still resembles very much the sertão from the ‘80s, ‘70s, and ‘60s, which means that, economically speaking, it’s a region that was pretty much left to its own devices. Just by having a complete lack of access to goods from the industry, it protected itself. Not because it wanted to, but just because it had to, in terms of not really changing much architecture and clothing and colors and things like that. But then, in the last 20 years, two things happened: the internet and Lula’s presidency, which brought quite a lot of change to the sertão. So, the sertão we shot in Bacurau is actually, I think, a modified version of the classic images of the sertão. It’s not the only film project [to depict the region]. There are a number of other interesting films: Love for Sale by Karim Aïnouz, and I Travel Because I Have to, I Come Back Because I Love You is a wonderful documentary.

JD: They have already observed those kinds of changes.

KMF: And then when we do the futuristic thing, we basically use the system we have now with some touches [of the future], which come from costumes, art direction, and production design.

That’s a very interesting way to kind of approach the past because a lot of filmmakers, whenever they look backwards, employ a nostalgic glance. And you’re recognizing that it’s not just that. The past is a prologue. We’re living with the past all the time in the present, and when we try to go forward, we can’t seem to escape our history. We’re locked into repeating the cycle.

JD: We actually say this a lot in the Q&As!

KMF: You’re saying that we look towards the future by thinking about the past. Yeah, that’s what I said about the guillotines. We made a film about the future, which is basically about all the mistakes and keep being repeated in Brazilian society and, well, maybe other societies also. It’s a classic situation. For instance, we have a classic problem with water in the northeastern region, and it’s been going on for over 100 years. And, of course, we have the technology, and Brazil is a rich country. Brazil can fix that, but apparently, a number of people aren’t interested in fixing that. I don’t know why.


A scene from Bacurau © Kino Lorber

JD: Uh, we can guess why! [laughs]

We’re sitting here eye-rolling about how the past is going to keep repeating itself, and I’m curious, do you feel any hope that maybe we can break the cycle? Is it going to take all-out violent rebellion to arrive there, or even move the needle at all?

JD: My way of thinking is that we have this kind of cycle that always tries to go backwards, and we have other cycles where we try to make some advances. We start to do it, and we build something. I’m trying to believe that what we build in people’s spirits and minds, maybe it’s hard to destroy. Because talking about the Brazilian government, they can instantaneously destroy a lot of stuff. But it’s kind of hard now to convince a lot of poor people that were used to being helped with money, actual money from the government, to improve their lives. It’s very difficult now to take this [back] again. So, he [Bolsonaro] tried, and he couldn’t do this, he needed to restart. Everybody will understand that 10 years ago, 15 years ago, life was much better. So, I think this is some something that it’s not easy to just destroy. And, on the matter of the education also, I think we didn’t advance everything that we could. But we were seeing many people from lower classes, black people are just getting their college degrees now.

KMF: Because of the investment that was done 15 years ago.

JD: This can be something that will make some difference in the future.

KMF: The investments done 15 years ago are beginning to bear fruit. Now we’re beginning to get doctors, engineers, and judges coming from the lower classes and from people coming from the racial divide. Now, we have a government that actually believes that the poor part of the population really has to basically only do manual labor. Not necessarily go to university because universities are for those who “deserve” to. You actually hear people from the government saying that. We are now stuck in a moment of history, which will inevitably lead to good things, but there’s a lot of terrible events, which are still taking place.

JD: We are in the middle of the bad cycle, but I believe that it will change.

KMF: Juliano made an interesting point about how people remember. The problem is, I’m not sure they remember. We all go and have an amazing time at a friend’s house some Saturday evening, and we all remember that evening with great affection. It was a wonderful gathering of people. And then, over the following months, we begin to read about that gathering as the worst, most horrible, nastiest experience that human beings have ever experienced. And then, slowly, we begin to change our own memory of what happened that day. And now, we believe what was written about that evening, and we never say, “But wait, guys, we were there. It was. It was amazing. It was just wonderful people. We had great conversations. It was fantastic.” But, no, people are actually believing the official story. And the way this has been rewritten is quite scary. Because they use technology and the internet for bombardment of this other version. And now, in Brazil, it’s crazy because people just do not remember what was happening in the last decade. They’re now using the official version, which came in the shape of press, the internet, and what we now understand as fake news.

JD: I want to believe that there are two ways. One, all that suffering from before the Lula years…[there] was huge suffering, hunger, and poverty. The highest rates of poverty that are still the same now. If this kind of thing returns, maybe they will remember, that’s my point. Because now we’re on the verge of currency devaluation. So, people will start to not be able to buy anything more. And when it starts to hurt their pockets, they will [remember].

KMF: The Financial Times ran a great piece on us in London on Saturday. However, in one paragraph, he writes about when [the cast and crew of] Aquarius did the protests on the red carpets against the ousting of Dilma Rousseff, who at the time was facing corruption charges, which means we support a corrupt president. The word that was missing in the piece was who was facing trumped-up corruption charges. That’s the way it should have been written. And I wish I could have a cup of coffee with that journalist and say, “Listen, do you know what you’re doing? Are you aware of what you’re doing?” Because it’s not accurate information.

It’s buying into the alternate history that you’re talking about and erasing what actually happened.

KMF: Exactly. It’s very subtle, but I keep thinking about, I don’t know, some student in Berlin reading this over breakfast, or some guy reading this in South Africa, and then you spread this version of things, which I find quite incredibly naïve.

It’s an interesting choice that, at the end of the film, the villagers choose to bury Udo Kier’s mercenary character alive rather than just finishing him off. That feels like it’s setting the stage for this to happen again, as we all know what happens to bodies that get buried in genre films.

KMF: We actually wrote a war-style execution engine, like with hands tied in the Second World War. Pacote [a villager] would come and just shoot him in the head, and he would fall into the hole. But I just told Juliano, I don’t want to shoot this.

JD: It’s boring.

If you’d done that, too, I think you might have opened up the film to “both sides” criticism around violence.

KMF: We have this image of fascism coming back. It’s a little plant, which it is, over the last 10 years.

JD: It starts little, and then it’s a big tree.

KMF: I remember 20 years ago, when I was a child, the whole idea of fascism was just impossible. It never worked. It’s horrible. It killed millions of people. And now, it’s like, time has passed. It’s like [people think], oh, maybe fascism is interesting.

JD: It’s started to flourish again.

KMF: So, Udo is like a seed. A plant.

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