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Understanding Screenwriting #39: Broken Embraces, Nine, It’s Complicated, Panic in the Streets, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #39: Broken Embraces, Nine, It’s Complicated, Panic in the Streets, & More

Coming up in this column: Broken Embraces, Nine, It’s Complicated, Panic in the Streets, Battle Cry, Wild in the Country, but first…

Fan mail: “Andrew” liked my comments on Precious etc, which gives me an opportunity to expand on something I wrote that I had second thoughts about. I wrote, “Since The Blind Side has both white and black characters, we get a view of race relations in America today. With Precious’s virtually all-black cast and limited story, we only get another view of the black underclass, and without the nuances that The Blind Side has.” I felt that reads like I am suggesting Precious should have been about relations between the races, which I did not intend and may have been unfair to the film. It was focused on the black underclass, but even on those terms I felt it could have done better, for all the reasons I wrote about in the column.

“Joel_Gordon” would like me to give Men of a Certain Age another shot, but I have seen three of them and it’s just not working for me. I may pick up another episode sometime, but by now I pretty much know what works for me and what doesn’t.

“Olli Sulopuisto” cleared up where the voice communicators came from in Avatar, as did “Htet.” Obviously they got established the one time I ducked for the 3-D effects. Htet liked the film more than I did, as did many, many millions of people. The audience I saw it with appears to have been an exception. Htet is right on picking up on my problems with Cameron, although I certainly like both the first Terminator and True Lies. I was not as awed by the special effects as he was, and I agree with his comment that “Movies are not screenplays.” Which is another way of stating one of my longtime themes, that movies are written for performance, and as I pointed out in my comments on Avatar, that includes the special effects guys.

And now, on to Penélope Cruz Week here at Understanding Screenwriting…

Broken Embraces (2009. Written by Pedro Almodóvar. 127 minutes): Thumbprints.

Somebody writing about Fellini in the ‘60s said that he stole from everybody but left his thumbprints on it. Absolutely true, and it is true of Almodóvar here (as in many of his other scripts). I whacked Monsters and Aliens (US#4) and Avatar (US#38) for borrowing extensively from other films, but my problem was that the writers of those did not leave their thumbprints on them. In fairness to James Cameron—yes, that’s a line I never thought I’d write—my eight year-old grandson loved Avatar, because as he wisely pointed out when we discussed it, he had not seen all those movies it borrowed from and so it seemed fresh to him.

For example, at one point Lena, the actress, and her financier/producer/lover get into a fight in their home. She is hurt and he puts her into his car and drives her to the hospital. Almodóvar the director shoots it like Douglas Sirk would—low angles and swirling camera movments. I half expected Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone to wander in and say a couple of lines from Written on the Wind (1956). But it is not an unthinking tribute to Sirk; it is Almodóvar using Sirk’s approach to present this scene in this movie. In a similar way, the opening shot could come out of Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963). We are watching through a camera viewfinder on a close-up of an actress. And it’s not the star, Penélope Cruz. I thought when I saw it, it was a reference to the screen test sequence in 8 ½, but the more I think about it, my guess is the other woman is just the stand-in for Cruz’s character. And throughout the film we have characters standing in for others. See what I mean about thumbprints? Almodóvar is very aware that he is borrowing, and to save us from having to make a list of films and filmmakers he is referring to, we get a later scene of Diego going through Harry’s DVD collection, reading off titles and directors.

One thing that struck me in watching the film is that it makes more sense as you watch it than any summary I have seen in the reviews of it. That is Almodóvar’s skill as a screenwriter. Look at how he lets you know Harry/Mateo’s situation, first with the girl who is reading to him, and then when Diego and Judit show up. And listen to how the scene with the girl sets up the later flashbacks and gets the story moving. She is reading the paper to Harry, who is blind, and mentions that Ernesto Martel died. Harry takes note of this, but tells her he does not know who he was. In other words, he does (Martel was the financier). Then look at how long before we get into the detailed flashback of Harry in his days as a director named Mateo. By then we are dying to know the whole story. John Ford always said, “Never tell the audience something until they need to know it.”

Much has been written about Almodóvar and Cruz and their professional relationship. You see the advantages of working with someone you know well. He has written a terrific part for her. Look at the reactions he has given Cruz when Lena thinks Martel may be dead. That’s the writer-director and actor completely in sync. And then Penélope Cruz disappears from the movie for almost the last forty minutes. Wait, wait, she’s the star, top-billed, Almodóvar’s muse, she can’t go missing. Yes, she can, because the movie is not her movie. It is Harry/Mateo’s movie. We start with him, we are telling his story, and we want to see what happens to him, as wonderful as Cruz has been. Almodóvar has a great sense of balance in the script, figuring out he can get away with that. And of course he knows that we will see Cruz again near the end of the film. After Harry and Lena run off, the producer, in a fit of jealousy, edits the film they were working on by putting in only the worst takes. We see an example as cut by Diego and boy, is it bad. Then we eventually get to see the scene with the good takes, recut now by Harry. It is a great demonstration of the skills a director, actors, and an editor can bring to a script. Wait a minute, Harry is blind, how can he recut the picture? Listen to the year’s greatest payoff line, better than the last line of (500) Days of Summer.

Nine (2009. Screenplay by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella, based on the musical book by Arthur Kopit with music and lyrics by Murray Yeston, adapted from the Italian by Mario Fratti. And there is no listing in the film’s credits or on the IMDb that the whole megilla is based on a screenplay by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi, based on a story by Fellini and Flaiano. 118 minutes): Messy thumbprints.

Somebody writing about Fellini in the ‘60s said that he stole from everybody but left his thumbprints on it. Wait, I already told you that. With his masterpiece 8 ½ Fellini discovered the joy of having everybody steal from him and leave their thumbprints on his stuff. Sometimes it works (All That Jazz in 1979); sometimes it does not (Alex in Wonderland in 1970). With Nine, too many people have gone to the fingerprint ink pad too many times. The Broadway musical Nine opened in 1982 for a run of just under two years. Kopit and Yeston reconceived 8 ½ very much as a Broadway musical. In Fellini et al’s screenplay Guido is a director trying to get started on the production of a film, and he is surrounded by a variety—a great variety—of people. Kopit and Yeston reduced that to Guido and the women in his life. Each one was given essentially one number. I saw the show in New York in May 1983, and while it was not awful, my main recollection was that the lyrics were not that impressive. For example, the song “Be Italian” started out with “Be Italian, you rapscallion,” which to this day is the stupidest lyric I have ever heard. Thank God they have changed it for the film to “Be Italian, be Italian.” The characters were designed by Kopit and Yeston to be performed rather than acted.

Tolkin and Minghella focus on the women, but because they go outside of the framework soundstage set, we also get some male characters. But the writing of the characters is not a patch on that of the characters in 8 ½. Look at the scene in the theater in 8 ½ where they are looking at screen tests, then look at the screen test scene in Nine. 8 ½’s scene has more characters and more interesting characters. Also, Tolkin and Minghella, along with director Rob Marshall, have botched the difference between the character as performer and as character. Penélope Cruz’s first number is played as a cartoon, a caricature of a caricature, which is a total mismatch with the subtlety of the part as written and performed in the rest of the film. See, even Cruz needs good writing.

Oddly enough, with all these beautiful actresses at the filmmakers’s disposal, one of the elements of 8 ½ that is missing is its Italian sensuality. That’s not the only thing. The Catholic religion is given a cursory treatment, and the politics of the time are not mentioned at all. Most damaging of all is that Fellini’s wicked sense of humor has gone completely AWOL. Fellini and his collaborators, who had worked with him on many films, knew that Guido was often full of shit, and they all delighted in exposing that element. Tolkin, Minghella and Marshall are taking this all a little too seriously. As is Daniel Day-Lewis as Guido. He is of course a wonderful actor, but he is not a performer, which is what the musical calls for. I saw the singer Sergio Franchi in the New York production, and he was maybe 1/200th of the actor Day-Lewis is, but he could put over the songs and hold the stage.

There are moments in the film. I don’t think it was just that they had dropped “rapscallion” that made me enjoy Fergie as Saraghina in the “Be Italian” number, although I do miss the more fulsome Edra Gale from 8 ½. Marion Cotillard does a great job on “My Husband Makes Movies,” which is enough to make you imagine how good the movie should have been.
I would also be remiss if I did not point out that Tolkin and Minghella did get in a great dig at the whole occupation of directing, when they have Judi Dench’s Lili, Guido’s designer, ask him what is so difficult about directing? You say yes, you say no. What’s so hard? As I always tell people, any idiot can direct and many have. In 8 ½ we think there is at least something of a script for the film Guido is trying to make, although Guido keeps changing it. In Nine, it is clear he has not written it yet, which makes this more about writer’s block than director’s block. In both cases, the film production seems to be further along than would normally be the case, even in Italian films. Although you will notice in an item below that that is not always true.

It’s Complicated (2009. Written by Nancy Meyers. 120 minutes): Yes, Nancy Meyers writes screenplays about well-to-do women of a certain age who have sex. Get over it.

Some reviews of this have been absolutely scathing, and not just from male critics. What is it that pisses people off about Nancy Meyers’s films? First of all, she is writing about middle-aged women, both here and in 2003’s Something’s Gotta Give (see the book of Understanding Screenwriting for an in-depth look at the script of the latter; it’s in the Not-Quite-So Good section). Secondly, she is writing about middle-aged women who have sex, which automatically contains an “eeww” factor for critics young enough to be children of her heroines. Thirdly, she is definitely not writing about the underclass, as Geoffrey Fletcher does in Precious, etc. If Nora Ephron is into food porn, Meyers is into home decoration porn. Look at the main house in Something’s Gotta Give, or Jane’s house here. And to make it worse, Jane is having the house remodeled and enlarged. Most of us would kill for the kitchen she now has, especially as photographed by John Toll, but the remodel will include the kitchen she says she has always wanted. Nora Ephron just had a cow.

Once you either shield your eyes or get over the look of the film, what the script gives us is an amusing comedy of divorce. No, it is not as good as such ‘30s and ‘40s classics in that genre as The Awful Truth (1937) or His Girl Friday (1940), but it is not terrible. In Jane, Meyers has written a great part for Meryl Streep, who does everything she can with it and maybe a little too much. The same is true for Alec Baldwin as Jake, Jane’s divorced husband, with whom Jane has an affair. But would you really want to cut any of Streep and Baldwin’s stuff in here? Yes, the film could be shorter; the two earlier films mentioned above run 92 minutes each. But when those two are on-screen going full-tilt… (Speaking of Baldwin being at the top of his powers, the best news I have read in weeks is that Julianne Moore will be returning to play with him on more episodes of 30 Rock. Happy New Year)

Meanwhile Meyers creates some interesting secondary characters. Jane has a trio of female friends who serve as a Greek chorus until they unfortunately disappear halfway through the film, just when their comments could get really interesting. The scenes with Jane and the trio may be the most subversive element in the film. A writer in the British film magazine Sight & Sound several years ago stated that a photograph of a woman laughing is the most subversive thing in the world. Jane and her friends, especially Trisha, laugh a lot, which violates Hedy Lamarr’s brilliant observation that for a woman to be considered sexy in Hollywood all she has to do is stand still and look stupid. Jane and the trio do not stand still and they do not look stupid.

Jane’s about-to-be son-in-law, Harley, who figures out that Jane and Jake are having an affair, is a nice touch. In fact he is more interesting than either of Jane’s three grown children. Unfortunately, Meyers writes a very one-note character for Jake’s younger, current wife, Agness. She is a bitch from beginning to end, and the writing does a disservice to Lake Bell, the actress playing her. Given this is a film by, about, and for middle-aged women, I can see why Meyers wrote Agness that way, but as the film progressed I felt less hatred toward the character and more sympathy for Bell, who could have done more if given a better written character.

The real problem in the writing is Adam. He is the architect designing the remodel and a nice guy. See Ralph Bellamy in both of the earlier films I mentioned. He played those characters so well the role is now known as the “Ralph Bellamy” part. That’s fine if you have an actor as bland as Bellamy could be, but Meyers the director has cast Steve Martin as Adam. And Meyers the writer did not rethink the part for Martin. No, I do not expect him to show up in a white suit with an arrow through his head, but he can be a lot edgier than Meyers’s script lets him be. There is a funny scene where Adam and Jane get stoned on pot before they got to a party with her kids, and Adam does dance a little funny, but it is not enough. Meyers would have a much stronger film if Adam were a stronger character.

The extended pot scenes, by the way, are the reason the film is rated R. This was a source of outrage among pot smokers in Hollywood, but the rating system is set up to let parents know there may be something objectionable in the film for their kids. Lots of parents in America would not want their kids to see the scenes. As for us grownups, toke on the movie all you want.

Panic in the Streets (1950. Screenplay by Richard Murphy, adaptation by Daniel Fuchs of screen story by Edward and Edna Anhalt. 96 minutes): Creation and execution.

This began as a short story Edward Anhalt wrote for Dime Detective magazine, and then he and his wife Edna spent eight hours writing a thirteen page treatment, which sold to 20th Century Fox for a surprisingly high $75,000. As Edward Anhalt told William Froug in Froug’s 1972 The Screenwriting Looks At the Screenwriter, it was “hot.” The story won the Anhalts an Academy Award for best story, and Edward Anhalt went on to a long and distinguished career as a screenwriter. In this case, the story then passed through other hands and ended up as a screenplay by Richard Murphy. You may remember Murphy from US#12, when I wrote about his first collaboration with director Elia Kazan, Boomerang!. I said that Murphy’s screenplay “is a fast, tight, look at an unusual case.” That’s true here too. By the time this script came to Kazan’s attention, he had developed a real appreciation for Murphy.

Steven Maras, in his book Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice (see US#38 for my review), discusses the issue of creation and execution in filmmaking, noting that many people writing about the subject consider the writing the creation of the film and the directing of it the execution. Maras writes about the difficulty of being quite so rigid about it. He suggests that, particularly as we get into technologically complex films (he was writing before Avatar, but that is a good example of what he is talking about), the creation is often done as part of production, both in CGI effects and animation. As Kazan writes in his memoir A Life, he and Murphy were both creating and executing at the same time. The story is about a guy who gets off a ship in New Orleans carrying the pneumonic plague, and the efforts of the cops and the health service to track down people who might have been in contact with him. Kazan insisted on shooting on location in New Orleans, and Murphy was on the set constantly adjusting the script to fit the locations. Kazan writes, “The author [Murphy] was with me every minute, and we reconceived each scene according to my directorial notions. I’d get to a location each morning before anyone and figure out the sequence of shots that would keep the story’s excitement going. Then Dick would show up, and we’d drop the tailgate of a truck, ask the property man to set up our [sic] typewriter, and, together, adjust the script for that day to fit my ideas. We rewrote every scene every day, and I was at the typewriter as much as Dick. But it wasn’t writing; it was filmmaking.” O.K., now discount even a third of that, which you should always do when you hear a director talking about his “rewriting” the script, and you still get a sense of the immediate collaboration that was going on. For an example of it in the film, look at the final chase in and around the coffee warehouse. Murphy and Kazan use every inch, every nook, every cranny, for maximum effect.

For all the rewriting, the script holds together very well. We follow the cops and the health service representative, and simultaneously we follow the crooks who killed the guy from the ship. The crooks assume the cops are asking about the dead man because he brought something valuable into the country. Murphy has done a nice job creating the two crooks. Blackie is the lead badass, and he is cool, pleasant, always dangerous and played by Walter “Jack” Palance, as he is billed, in his film debut. Raymond, his sort-of friend, is messy, nervous and wonderfully played by Zero Mostel, who was blacklisted the following year. Murphy has written such strong scenes that Kazan can shoot several of them in long single-takes.

Battle Cry (1955. Screenplay by Leon Uris, based on his novel. 149 minutes): Santa was not quite as good to me this year as last.

Last year Santa brought me boxed sets of Errol Flynn and Budd Boetticher films, which I dealt with over several columns. This was the most interesting DVD I got his year, so far, although there are another couple on order.

Battle Cry was a huge hit in its day, one of the top-grossing World War II movies of the ‘50s, but now is generally forgotten. Not without reason, since it is not nearly as good as From Here to Eternity or The Young Lions, to mention only a couple of the period’s films this will remind you of. It has its moments. The book was the first novel by Leon Uris, who like the characters in the film had been a Marine radioman in the Pacific during World War II. As a lot of vets did, he wrote a novel about it. His is a big sprawling story with a large cast of characters, and the film is the same. The script follows a group of varied American guys into the Marine Corps in 1942. By the end of the first fifteen minutes they are through boot camp and on to radio school. Uris does a nice job in his opening scenes of setting up the different characters.

What the film borrows from From Here to Eternity is a focus on the love lives of the soldiers. Danny, the typical All-American boy who has left his relentlessly cute sweetheart to go into the Corps, has a torrid affair with an older married woman, Elaine Yarborough. He is played by the teen heartthrob of the day, Tab Hunter, and she, complete with glasses, is Dorothy Malone, somewhat reviving her role in The Big Sleep a year before she let it all hang out in Written on the Wind. She eats him alive. Not literally, since this is the ‘50s, but you get the idea. Marion, the intellectual of the group, meets a sweet girl on his nightly rides on the San Diego-Coronado ferry. She turns out to have a shady present. Anne Francis captures both the sweetness and the raunch. Once the group gets through radio school and off to the Pacific, they set up camp in New Zealand. Andy, the lumberjack, falls hard for Pat Rogers, a Kiwi widow played by Nancy Olson, whose level-headedness matches nicely with Aldo Ray’s rough Andy. I don’t know if Marine Corps recruitment went up after this movie came out, but they should have had recruiting sergeants outside the theaters. To paraphrase the old Navy line, join the Marines, see the world, and get to shack up with Dorothy Malone, Anne Francis, and Nancy Olson.

Yes, the boys do see some fighting and several get killed, but mostly they spend their time coming in after the beachheads are established and mopping up the enemy. These scenes are not as exciting as they should be, and the final battle, when they get to go into Saipan first, messes up what should be the major turning point in the battle, the death of its commanding officer.

Partly because this is not an obvious star vehicle, it is very much in the Warner Brothers tradition of piling on as many stories and characters as Uris could squeeze from his book. It is not very deep, and it does not flow very well, but Uris writes several good scenes for the actors to play. He later wrote the screenplay for The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), one of the more stolid versions of the story, and then he became fascinated by Israel, leading to writing his best-known novel, Exodus. He spent the rest of his life writing novels, letting others adapt them into films and television miniseries.

Wild in the Country (1961. Screenplay by Clifford Odets, based on the novel The Lost Country by J. R. Salamanca. 114 minutes): Strange collaborators.

It was 1960 and Twentieth Century-Fox was falling apart. Darryl F. Zanuck had left as head of production and his replacements were incompetent. There were a few of the old guard around, including Jerry Wald, an enormously prolific producer. Since he had made Peyton Place for Fox in 1957, he was pretty much given free reign. Well, not so much given as taken by him. One day he called in Philip Dunne. Dunne was one of the great writers at Fox (How Green Was My Valley [1941]) who had turned to directing in the fifties (Ten North Frederick [1958]). Wald’s proposal was this: Clifford Odets, the New York playwright, was going to adapt Salamanca’s novel, and it would star Simone Signoret, who was just coming off her Oscar win in Room at the Top (1959), and…wait for it…Elvis Presley. Would Dunne like to direct it? Dunne replied, “Well, this is not what I expected, but let’s talk about it.” (I did an oral history interview with Dunne in 1970, and the material on the film is from that and his wonderful 1980 memoir, Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics.)

Odets started writing, but as Dunne said, “It was impossible for him to write badly. He could write unshootably, but he couldn’t write badly.” Odets’s problem was that he went on and on. Scenes ran 30 pages, and the draft he turned in was 500 pages. Figure a minute a page running time on the screen and you see the problem. Odets worked with Dunne for a while, but then Fox refused to pay any more money for Odets to do revisions. The studio figured that Dunne was a screenwriter, so he could make them. Except that they wanted to start production right away. So Dunne was shooting during the day and wrestling with Odets’s script at night.

Meanwhile, Fox would not pay Signoret’s price, which undoubtedly went up after the Oscar, so they had to recast in a hurry. The novel was about a sensitive country boy who falls in love with his much older teacher and gets her pregnant. (Dunne thinks that may be why he was offered the job: He was just coming off a 1959 film about a pregnant teen called Blue Denim, and he thought, “I seem to be the pregnancy expert” at the studio.) It was Odets’s idea to turn the boy into a wild kid, and it was Wald’s idea to change the title. So the teacher became a psychiatric social worker, but they could not get any actress of the right age to play it. Dunne ended up going with Hope Lange. She was a good 10 to 15 years too young for the way the part was originally conceived, but Dunne thought that gave enough of a sense of class difference, as opposed to age difference, to make it work.

Presley did not want to sing. Wald did not want him to sing. Dunne did not want him to sing. Presley wanted to get more into acting than singing, and he had already given an excellent performance in the 1960 film Flaming Star. But the studio wanted him to sing. So in addition to hacking away at the 500-page script, Dunne had to find some places for Presley to sing. He did, mostly with Presley sitting down in a truck. When the film was previewed, the reaction of the audience was, “Cut the songs.” The audience felt the songs disrupted the story. The songs stayed, and Fox advertised the film as “ELVIS PRESLEY sings of love to HOPE LANGE—TUESDAY WELD—MILLIE PERKINS.” Both it and Flaming Star were not commercial successes, and Presley pretty much gave up the idea of becoming a serious actor.

The picture is not as much of a mess as you might imagine, and it is often fascinating. Presley is very good at handling Odets’s dialogue, as is Tuesday Weld as the town bad-girl. Presley’s acting is first-rate, especially in the scene where he talks about his mother. And one of the songs in the truck, which he sings to Millie Perkins, lets her react with more charm and lightness than you could ever imagine from watching her in The Diary of Anne Frank two years before. Dunne as both writer and director brought out the best in his actresses. Look at Suzy Parker in Ten North Frederick if you don’t believe me.

And just to add in another strange collaborator: When Dunne was preparing Lange and Presley for one of the love scenes (probably the one in the motel room), what music did he play to get them in the mood? J.S. Bach. Presley loved Bach.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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The 20 Best Zombie Movies of All Time

If zombies seem infinitely spongy as functional allegories, it’s their non-hierarchic function that retains the kernel of their monstrousness.

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The 20 Best Zombie Movies of All Time
Photo: Well Go USA

Zombie movies not only endure, but persist at the height of their popularity, neck and neck with vampire stories in a cultural race to the bottom, their respective “twists” on generic boilerplate masking a dead-eyed derivativeness. For the zombie film (or comic book, or cable TV drama), that boilerplate was struck by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and its subsequent sequels established a loose conception of the undead threat: lumbering, beholden to no centralized authority, sensitive to headshots and decapitations.

If, according to Franco Moretti’s “The Dialectic of Fear,” the vampiric threat (at least as embodied in Count Dracula) operates chiefly as a metaphor for monopoly capital, binding those English bourgeois interlopers to his spell and extracting the blood of their industry, then the zombie poses a more anarchic, horizontalized threat. In post-Romero, hyper-allegorized zombie cinema, the hulking undead mass can be generally understood as the anti-Draculean annihilation of capital. Flesh and blood are acquired but not retained; civilization is destroyed but not remodeled. If zombies seem infinitely spongy as functional allegories for this or that, it’s their non-hierarchic function that retains the kernel of their monstrousness.

At their apex of their allegorical authority, zombies may fundamentally destroy, as attested by our favorite zombie films of all time. But that doesn’t mean their inexhaustible popularity as monster du jour can’t be harnessed to the whims of real-deal market maneuvering, their principally anarchic menace yoked to the proverbial voodoo master of capital. John Semley

Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on October 21, 2019.


Night of the Comet

20. Night of the Comet (1984)

Night of the Comet’s scenario reads like the bastard child of countless drive-in movies, in which most of humanity is instantly reduced to colored piles of dust when the Earth passes through the tail of a comet that last came around—you guessed it—right about the time the dinosaurs went belly-up. Then again, just so you know he’s not adhering too closely to generic procedures, writer-director Thom Eberhardt irreverently elects a couple of pretty vacant valley girls—tomboyish arcade addict Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and her blond cheerleader sister, Sam (Kelli Maroney)—and a Mexican truck driver, Hector (Robert Beltran), to stand in for the last remnants of humanity. With regard to its bubbly protagonists, the film vacillates between poking not-so-gentle fun at their vapid mindset, as in the Dawn of the Dead-indebted shopping spree (obligingly scored to Cindi Lauper’s anthemic “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”), and taking them seriously as agents of their own destiny. Lucky for them, as it happens, that their hard-ass old man taught them how to shoot the shit out of an Uzi—and look adorable doing it. It also doesn’t hurt that Eberhardt filigrees his absurd premise with grace notes like the cheeky cinephilia informing early scenes set in an all-night movie theater. Budd Wilkins


The Living Dead Girl

19. The Living Dead Girl (1982)

In The Living Dead Girl, the gothic ambience that elsewhere suffuses Jean Rollin’s work smashes headlong against the inexorable advance of modernity. The film opens with the vision of bucolic scenery blighted by the scourge of industrialization: rolling hills sliced up by concertina-capped fences, billowing smokestacks visible in the hazy distance. When some dicey movers deposit barrels of chemical waste in the family vault beneath the dilapidated Valmont chateau, a sudden tremor causes the barrels to spring a leak, reanimating the corpse of Catherine Valmont (Françoise Blanchard) in the process. Despite the gruesome carnage she inflicts on hapless and not-so-hapless victims alike, it’s clear that Rollin sees the angelic Catherine, with her flowing blond tresses and clinging white burial weeds, as an undead innocent abroad in a world she can no longer comprehend. The flm builds to a climax of Grand Guignol gruesomeness as Hélène (Marina Pierro), Catherine’s girlhood friend, makes the ultimate sacrifice for her blood sister. It’s an altogether remarkable scene, tinged with melancholy and possessed of a ferocious integrity that’s especially apparent in Blanchard’s unhinged performance. The film’s blood-spattered descent into positively Jacobean tragedy helps to make it one of Rollin’s strongest, most disturbing efforts. Wilkins


They Came Back

18. They Came Back (2004)

They Came Back is a triumph of internal horror, and unlike M. Night Shyamalan’s similarly moody freak-out The Sixth Sense, Robin Campillo’s vision of the dead sharing the same space as the living isn’t predicated on a gimmicky reduction of human faith. Campillo is more upfront than Shyamalan—it’s more or less understood that the presence of the living dead in his film is likely metaphoric—and he actually seems willing to plumb the moral oblivion created by the collision of its two worlds. Though the fear that the film’s walking dead can turn violent at any second is completely unjustified, the writer-director allows this paranoia to reflect the feelings of loss, disassociation, and hopelessness that cripple the living. It’s rather amazing how far the film is able to coast on its uniquely fascinating premise, even if it isn’t much of a stretch for its director: Campillo co-authored Laurent Cantet’s incredible Time Out, a different kind of zombie film about the deadening effects of too much work on the human psyche, and They Came Back is almost as impressive in its concern with the existential relationship between the physical and non-physical world. Ed Gonzalez


Zombi Child

17. Zombi Child (2019)

Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child is a quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments in in the film where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper than race relations. Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. The film’s off-kilter mix of horror, historiography, and youth movie affords Bonello plenty of opportunity to indulge his pet themes and motifs. He spends much time lingering throughout scenes set at the academy on the sociality of the young women and their engagement with pop culture. In fact, Bonello’s fascination with the dynamics of these relationships seems to drive his interest in the horror genre more so even than the film’s most obvious antecedent, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie—as is indicated by a pretty explicit homage to Brian De Palma’s Carrie. Sam C. Mac


Train to Busan

16. Train to Busan (2016)

When divorced of message-mongering, the film’s scare tactics are among the most distinctive that the zombie canon has ever seen. The zombies here are rabid, fast-moving ghoulies that, as Train to Busan’s protagonists discover, are attracted to loud sounds and only attack what they can actually see. This realization becomes the foundation for a series of taut set pieces during which the story’s motley crew of survivors manipulate their way past zombies with the aid of cellphones and bats and the numerous tunnels through which the train must travel. The genre crosspollination for which so many South Korean thrillers have come to be known for is most evident in these scenes (as in the survivors crawling across one train car’s overhead luggage area), which blend together the tropes of survivor-horror and disaster films, as well as suggest the mechanics of puzzle-platformer games. Gonzalez

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Review: Nafi’s Father Is a Raw and Immediate Look at a Collison of Faith

The film vibrantly articulates all that’s lost when people are held under the draconian decree of warlords.

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Nafi's Father
Photo: Locarno

Writer-director Mamadou Dia’s feature-length debut, Nafi’s Father, hinges on the contentious relationship between two brothers, each one devoted to an opposing version of Islam, and how their bid for primacy leads to rising tensions in the small Senegalese town they call home. For Tierno (Alassane Sy), who’s well on his way to becoming an imam, the religion is a justification for peace and self-reflection. And while his practices are largely traditional, he’s lenient about some of the more repressive rules that many other imams would blindly enforce. But for his greedy, duplicitous brother, Ousmane (Saïkou Lo), Islam is merely a stepping stone to achieving control over their town. As Tierno struggles to keep his followers on the path of righteousness, Ousmane repeatedly arrives on the scene with stacks of cash from a fundamentalist sheikh looking to draw supporters to his cause.

Dia delicately balances this depiction of the gradual arrival of more restrictive, fundamentalist forces within the town’s borders with a small-scale family drama that plays out after Ousmane’s son, Tokara (Alassane Ndoye), asks Tierno’s daughter, Nafi (Aïcha Talla), for her hand in marriage. Tierno’s fears for his daughter were she to become Ousmane’s daughter-in-law are legitimate, but his refusal to consent to the union is driven more by his lingering jealousy of his brother, who was favored by their parents, and a desire to keep Nafi from venturing out to the nearby city, where she wants to study neurosciences.

While Tierno sees through his brother’s nefarious methods and justly fears the terrifying sheikh, his own restrictive treatment of Nafi, who genuinely loves and wants to marry Tokara, lends the film’s central sibling rivalry a potent irony; no one here is free from blame in the tragic events that will follow. Just as Ousmane courts the sheikh for his own benefit, so does Tierno impede his daughter’s desires only to serve his own ego. Dia nimbly reveals how this battle of headstrong wills reverberates through both the entire local community and within Tierno’s own family. As the sheikh’s presence is felt more forcefully, we also see how even those with the appearance of authority and respect in such an oppressed society, such as Tierno and Ousmane, are ultimately rendered as helpless as those in their own flock when someone with money and guns arrives on the scene, licking their chops like a wolf at the door.

Shooting in a small town in northeast Senegal, near where he grew up, Dia counters the film’s central tragedy with an emphasis on the region’s sparse beauty and its cultural mores and artifacts, from its marriage rituals to the vibrantly colorful, intricately designed costumes. The richness and cultural specificity that Dia brings to Nafi’s Father lends it an authenticity that helps articulate all that’s lost when such towns are held under the draconian decree of warlords. The film’s pacing is quite deliberate, and while it could perhaps use some tighter editing in the middle stretches, it’s the acute attention paid to how seemingly trivial acts of greed and selfishness can, over time, lay the tracks for an outright takeover by violent fundamentalists that gives a familiar subject such a gripping, raw immediacy.

Nafi’s Father had its world premiere last year at Locarno and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact JoyeDidi.

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Review: Days of Cannibalism Bears Witness to a Culture War, Western Style

The film ultimately depicts a world in which people are left with no other option but to devour their own.

3.5

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Days of Cannibalism
Photo: Berlinale

A frontier story about the tension between settlers and natives, director Teboho Edkins’s Days of Cannibalism may technically be a documentary, but at heart it’s a western. Filmed in and around a small cattle-herding community in Lesotho, where Chinese immigrants have recently begun to settle and open up various types of stores, the film is packed with mythopoeic vistas of men on horseback roaming through fearsome yet spectacular mountain landscapes—shots that feel like they could’ve been cribbed straight from an Anthony Mann oater. There are scenes of cattle rustling, banditry, and frontier justice, as well as a Leone-esque vision of a town riven by suspicion, resentment, and racial hostility.

Edkins’s artistic project here isn’t simply to make a documentary that feels like a genre film, but rather to use the trappings of the western to explore the power dynamics at play on the extreme margins of global capitalism. Edkins’s former film professor at the dffb Film Academy in Berlin, Valeska Grisebach, has described the western as “a film about a space in which the rules are still in flux, and the balance of power is in negotiation.” And that struggle for authority and dominance is precisely what Days of Cannibalism explores.

Edkins casts the local Basotho people as “indians” and the Chinese migrants as the “pioneers,” but he then spends much of the film problematizing these distinctions. The Basotho are neither the bloodthirsty savages of early westerns nor the forlorn, eternally wronged victims of the genre’s revisionist period. Rather, they’re basically just ordinary people struggling to find a sense of equilibrium in a fast-changing world that seems to be leaving them behind.

The spiritual significance that the Basotho impute to cattle—cows are even referred to as the “wet-nosed god”—may at first seem like superstitious animism. But the belief turns out to also have a ruthlessly economic basis, as we see when some local men, who’ve turned to cattle rustling after being unable to find work, are hit with a lengthy prison sentence for the crime of stealing a couple of cows. Their crime isn’t a spiritual one so much as a social one: As the judge informs them, to steal a cow is to steal a community member’s livelihood.

Days of Cannibalism reveals the Chinese immigrants’ unwillingness to understand the Basotho people’s cow-herding practices as one of the major sources of resentment between the two groups. The immigrants make money by setting up small shops, as well as Walmart-like “wholesale stores.” “The Chinese have no idea how to take care of cattle,” one Lesotho herder angrily laments. Another more rueful local—the host of a radio show that interweaves pop music with thoughtful discussions of issues impacting the community—wonders why the Chinese immigrants can’t teach the locals how to set up shops in exchange for the Lesotho training them in the ways of cattle-herding. Instead, the two groups remain hopelessly alienated from each other, rarely interacting outside of business transactions.

But this isn’t a clear-cut tale of settler colonialism. The Chinese people who come to this underdeveloped corner of the globe don’t do so with any grand scheme of displacement and exploitation, as they’ve also been shunted aside by the savage machinery of globalization. In Lesotho, which is surrounded by South Africa, they simply seek to carve out some kind of life for themselves. With its microcosmic focus on this one particular community, the film exposes the brutal dynamics that undergird a globalist system that pits not only nation against nation, but people against each other. The violence of the system simmers beneath the surface of Days of Cannibalism until it finally boils over in a scene, captured in security camera footage, of an armed robbery at a wholesale store. As its title suggests, the film ultimately depicts a world in which people are left with no other option but to devour their own.

Days of Cannibalism had its world premiere last month at the Berlin International Film Festival and was slated to screen at the now-delayed New Directors/New Films. For sales information, please contact Indie Sales.

Director: Teboho Edkins Screenwriter: Teboho Edkins Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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The 100 Best Westerns of All Time

The western has proved itself a durable and influential way of talking about the human condition.

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The 100 Best Westerns of All Time
Photo: United Artists

The classic western was conceived from an undeniably Euro-centric, colonial perspective, with white characters upholding their supposed birthright of freedom and property. In the western, the immense country beyond the Mississippi River figures at once as the sublime object that exceeds the human grasp and as a quantifiable possession. And the prototypical cowboy straddles these paradoxical poles: at home on the dusty, timeless landscape, but also facilitating its incorporation into a society marching toward the Pacific. In 1925’s Tumbleweeds, the herder hero played by William S. Hart reluctantly makes way for the newly arrived homesteaders; in 1953’s Shane, Alan Ladd’s eponymous character rides off after making the West safe for the American family; and in Sergio Leone’s 1968 opus Once Upon a Time in the West, Jason Robards’s Cheyenne sacrifices his life not to end the expansion of the American empire, but to facilitate a more just one.

But this standard narrative mold, to paraphrase John Ford’s 1962 classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, only represents the printed legend. The historical American West was more diverse and less male-dominated than the one Hollywood imagined for many years. Life in the Western territories demanded just as many determined women as it did men, and suffragettes had their first major victories in the West: Wyoming was the first state to grant women the vote, and the first to have a woman governor. A third of all cowboys herding cattle on the Great Plains were black—a fact that’s only surprising until you consider which groups were most in need of self-reliant vocation and freedom from the long arm of the law in the wake of the Civil War. Every once in a while, these historical realities break through the filtered screen of the Hollywood western: Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich play no-nonsense saloon owners in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar and Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, respectively, and Sidney Poitier’s often overlooked Buck and the Preacher from 1972 is one of the too-few films that are centered around black frontiersmen.

When Europeans, influenced by decades of dime novels and Hollywood flicks, got around to making westerns, the resulting films would be part of this swing toward revisionism. By this time, European filmmakers were coping with the aftermath of the most devastating conflict in human history, and Italian westerns like Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence and Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly are infused with the lived-in existentialism of postwar Europe. In them, the American West becomes an otherworldly wasteland of pure brutality and diminished—rather than heightened—agency. Europeans’ estrangement of western film tropes would help spur a revisionist take on the standards of the genre that infuses films produced to this day.

However, for all the observations that such “postmodern” westerns are about the end of the West—in Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales and elsewhere, represented by the arrival of new technologies like the Gatling gun—the western has always been about endings. It’s no coincidence that the genre’s proverbial image is that of a figure “riding off into the sunset.” The American frontier was declared closed after the 1890 census, a decade before the first western on our list (Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery) was produced. Right-wing New Hollywood directors like Sam Peckinpah, Don Siegel, and Eastwood have tended to identify this perpetual fading of the West with the decline of a virile and violent, but honorable masculinity.

The bloodbaths that end films like Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch arguably represent what Freud would have called “screen memories,” a compromise between repressed memory and images we’ve invented to defend ourselves against terrible truths. The true bloodbaths in the West were the military campaigns against Native Americans, genocidal conflicts that many big-budget westerns keep on the margins, with natives appearing as stereotypical noble savages or town drunks. Ford’s films, as often as they rely on racist characterizations, were often the prestige westerns to look most directly at these wars: The Searchers and Fort Apache explore, in their own flawed fashion, the morally degrading racism in their main characters’ hearts. Some decades later, Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves became the paradigm of a post-‘70s cultural sea change: When it comes to “cowboys versus Indians,” the cowboys are no longer the automatic locus of our sympathy.

Today, infusing familiar iconography with new meaning, such revisionist representations of the American West have helped to explode the boundaries of the genre, allowing filmmakers as well as critics to explore cinematic tropes about life on the frontier in non-conventional western narratives. In contemporary films like Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Chloé Zhao’s The Rider—and looking back to ones like Victor Sjöström’s The Wind and John Huston’s The Misfits—we can recognize something like a western mode, a broader and more expansive cinematic language that has been suffused by the symbols of the American West. The western has proved itself a durable and influential way of talking about the human condition—one that needs not be confined within the frontiers drawn by the Euro-American colonial imagination. Pat Brown


Drums Along the Mohawk

100. Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford, 1939)

If John Ford was, per Jonathan Lethem, “a poet in black and white,” he became a sharp impressionist in color. The finely calibrated stillness of his shots, occasionally ravished by the greens, reds, and blues of the colonial wardrobe, gives Drums Along the Mohawk a painterly quality, as if Ford had animated a William Ranney portrait. Each frame radiates rugged beauty, but this doesn’t soften the filmmaker’s no-bull directness when depicting the eruptive landscape of the Revolutionary War. Frontier man Gil (Henry Fonda) and his new wife, Lana Martin (Claudette Colbert), are without a home of their own for most of the film, their first cabin being burned to the ground during an attack, and when Gil and the troops return from the bloody Battle of Oriskany, the director details their immense casualties and injuries with unsparing detail. Chris Cabin


Tombstone

99. Tombstone (George P. Cosmatos, 1993)

Tombstone succeeds by re-appropriating the stylistic quirks of many a great western before it, from “the long walk” of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch to the candlelit saloons of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller, spitting them out in a spectacle of pure pop pastiche. It tells much the same story as John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, but it reinterprets that film’s mythical, elegiac sense of wonder through bombastic action and performances. There probably isn’t a western as quotable as this one, which also succeeds through its rogues’ gallery of memorable character actors and firecracker script. A drunken Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), when accused of seeing double, says, “I have two guns, one for each of you.” Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), as he pistol-whips Johnny Tyler (Billy Bob Thornton), belts out, “You gonna do something? Or are you just gonna stand there and bleed?” The lines between good and evil blur as the law switches sides to fit the plot. Cliché layers over cliché, exposing what the genre is all about: the foundations of American myth, told again and again to suit each generation. The ‘90s was the remix era and Tombstone fits it perfectly. Ben Flanagan


True Grit

98. True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969)

The Duke casts a large shadow in any instance, but especially here. Rooster Cogburn is one of John Wayne’s most identifiable roles, not just because he won an Oscar for it, or because his True Grit is popular, or because he played the character twice (the second time in 1975’s Rooster Cogburn), but mostly because Rooster’s personality is so intertwined with Wayne’s iconic persona. Wayne’s detractors often note that Wayne lacked range, and that, given his consistent trademark drawl, about the only way to distinguish one Wayne character from another is by observing his costume. But while that’s roughly accurate, it doesn’t mean that every character Wayne ever played had a similar effect. His Rooster is one of those special roles that seemed indelibly Wayne’s—because he wore that eye patch so well, because his inherent presence and stature made him a natural to play the “meanest” marshal around, because his inner softness allowed the bond between Rooster and Mattie (Kim Darby) to feel convincing and because Wayne was born to be the cowboy who puts the reins in his teeth and rides toward four armed men with a gun in each hand. Jason Bellamy


Death Rides a Horse

97. Death Rides a Horse (Giulio Petroni, 1967)

In 1967’s boldly cinematic Death Rides a Horse, Giulio Petroni fixates on the inextricable link between a man’s memory and his thirst for vengeance. In the 15 years since watching his entire family get murdered by bloodthirsty bandits, Bill (John Phillip Law) has carried with him a single physical relic of this trauma: a lone spur. His memories, meanwhile, are filled with haunting and vivid reminders of that moment when his life changed forever, but also with specific visual cues related to each of the bandits: a silver earring, a chest tattoo of playing cards, a skull necklace. Bill’s overwhelmingly obsessive quest for revenge takes on an extra layer of perverseness once he’s paired up with the mysterious Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), an older man who playfully competes with Bill to hunt down and kill these same men first. Through an array of carefully crafted visual and aural motifs, and clever, judiciously employed narrative twists, Petroni weaves together these two crusades, building to an explosive finale that delivers equally cathartic doses of redemption and rage. Derek Smith


The Violent Men

96. The Violent Men (Rudolph Maté, 1955)

Polish-born filmmaker Rudolph Maté worked for a little over a decade as a cinematographer in Hollywood before starting to crank out potboilers as a director in the late ‘40s, many of them marked by a distinct pictorial flair. He was a mainstay by the mid-‘50s, and The Violent Men counts among his most ravishingly shot films, and indeed one of the unheralded Technicolor westerns of the golden era. The central California frontier, where the majestic flatland meets the imposing Sierras, has rarely been more reverently photographed, and a single montage of Glenn Ford’s John Parrish galloping from one range to another as Max Steiner’s strings howl on the soundtrack is stirring enough to validate the invention of CinemaScope. Fittingly, the land itself provides the conflict here, with Ford’s Union veteran-cum-landowner trotting out his old fighting spirit when the vicious owners of a neighboring estate—Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson in wonderfully belligerent performances—try to exploit his ranch for pennies. A cathartic war against greed ensues, and the result is finely wrought big-screen entertainment. Carson Lund


Westward the Women

95. Westward the Women (William A. Wellman, 1951)

Based on a story by Frank Capra, William Wellman’s Westward the Women shares the collective triumphalism of Capra’s greatest films but salts it with the grueling hardship and random cruelty that are hallmarks of Wellman’s storytelling. The premise is ludicrous on paper: A large farm in a California valley is suffering a shortage of the fairer sex, so it sends a wagon train headed by Robert Taylor to Chicago to haul back 150 brides for the workers—no short order in the middle of the 19th century. Several treacherous landscapes, bleakly depicted deaths, and a mid-film memorial service later, the plan is fulfilled in grandly hokey fashion, though not without a striking reordering of business-as-usual sexual politics. As the women prove as resilient, if not more so, than the men, ideals of male heroism fall by the cliffside (literally) and members of the ensemble who would normally be relegated to extras emerge as fully shaded and complex heroines. As a result, the film amounts to a portrait of hard-won joy that’s nearly spiritual in its belief in the power of cooperation. Lund


The Gold Rush

94. The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925)

What’s surprising when one takes a fresh look at The Gold Rush is how serious it is about depicting the hard life of prospectors. The comic soul of the film is, in fact, quite black, even if Charlie Chaplin exploits every opportunity (beautifully) to transform the environment into a vaudeville stage. Lonely as the wastes are, the town in the film is sinister and lurid, full of sex and violence, despite the fact that Chaplin always seems to find a way to invest in it the personality and tone of his early one-reelers. He makes the town funny but retains its barbarism. Chaplin pursues deliverance not in the miracle of hitting pay dirt, but in the promise of a woman, and it’s this promise that Chaplin would keep after, well into his sync-sound period. Around the film’s midpoint comes a sequence that cuts between the townsfolk singing “Auld Lange Syne,” and the Tramp, alone in his cabin, listening, longingly. It’s as perfect a moment as any other in the great silent period. Some accuse the director of succumbing to sentimentality, but he’s never less sublime than when he reaches for ridiculous, grandiose highs in romance, coincidence, and naked emotion. Jaime N. Christley


Destry Rides Again

93. Destry Rides Again (George Marshall, 1939)

Destry Rides Again’s Bottleneck is essentially the same town as the one in “Drip-Along Daffy.” The opening crane shots of Bottleneck show the standard storefronts that western audiences are accustomed to seeing: feed and general stores, the jail, the Saloon. As the camera moves along the street, we see just about every possible vice happening all at once with bullets whizzing about the crowded streets—and all the while, Frank Skinner’s intense score adds to the feeling of utter lawlessness. Every stereotype of the wild western town is represented in George Marshall’s film: crooked gambling above the saloon, land-hungry town bosses, a hot dancing girl named Frenchy who can douse the fires of her rowdy fans with a shot of whisky, and killin’. Lots of killin’. Back when the western was really coming into its own in 1939, the genre had already been around long enough to warrant this satire. Bottleneck is a parody of the western town. Jeffrey Hill


The Wind

92. The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1927)

So many late silent films are infused with a delirious energy, a sheer delight in the transportive powers of the cinema, and Sweden’s original film genius, Victor Sjöström, was renowned as a master of subjective, otherworldly moving images. With the hallucinatory The Wind, he delivered his most captivating visual play of subjective and objective realities, casting Lillian Gish as an East Coast virgin who’s tormented on an ineffable psychical (and ambiguously erotic) level by the overbearing winds of the Great Plains. After circumstances force her into an unwanted marriage, she’s left alone in the small cottage she shares with her unloved husband as the personified wind blows open doors, whips up dust, and…takes the shape of giant stark-white colts who buck across the open sky. In a career-defining role, Gish grounds the film, giving a performance that humanizes the sensational and sensual inner conflict of a woman left alone in a vast, empty wilderness. Brown


Run of the Arrow

91. Run of the Arrow (Samuel Fuller, 1957)

Writer-director Samuel Fuller’s Run of the Arrow stars Rod Steiger as Private O’Meara, a disaffected Confederate soldier who lights out for the western territories, only to wind up living among (and ultimately adopting the ways of) a Native American tribe. Fuller’s typically two-fisted tale essentially prefigures Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, absent all the bombast and self-aggrandizement. Granted, the film succumbs to the longstanding Hollywood tradition of utilizing a motley crew of decidedly non-native actors in pigment-darkening makeup to portray its Sioux tribe, including a young Charles Bronson and Spanish actress Sara Montiel, but it also endows these characters with a degree of respect and agency practically unprecedented in a 1950s American western. As the film comes full circle with the return of the man O’Meara shot and then saved in the opening scene, Fuller’s story reveals itself as a morality play concerning the destructive nature of hatred and bigotry, as well as a touchingly earnest plea for tolerance. Budd Wilkins

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Review: Vivarium Looks Aloofly at the Nightmare of Conformity

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

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Vivarium
Photo: Saban Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Resistance
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Atlantis
Photo: Best Friend Forever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Red Moon Tide
Photo: Berlinale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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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