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Understanding Screenwriting #72: Of Gods and Men, Rango, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #72: Of Gods and Men, Rango, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, & More

Coming Up in This Column: Of Gods and Men, Rango, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, The Crusades, Imitation of Life, Some Late Winter/Early Spring Television 2011.

Of Gods and Men (2010. Scenario by Etienne Comar, adaptation and dialogue by Xavier Beauvois. 122 minutes.)

A great train movie: Religion is a very difficult subject to make a film about. Movies are a very concrete medium. We photograph things and record sounds. Religion is very internal: what we believe and what we feel. How do you show that? With Hollywood it usually involves people looking up into the light with beatific smiles on their faces (see below for a notorious example), which hardly does the job.

Comar and Beauvois (the latter directed) have found a good way to do it. The film is based on a real incident that occurred in Algeria in the mid-‘90s. A group of French monks in a monastery in Algeria are threatened by anti-government rebels. The monks must decide whether to leave or stay. So we are going to watch the pressure on the monks and see what they finally do. The opening scenes alternate between the monks at prayer and the Algerian village they are part of. In the first few scenes with the monks, we do not see their faces, a smart move on Comar and Beauvois’s part, since we will eventually spend a lot of time with their faces and we don’t want them to wear out their welcome. The monastery scenes are quiet, and the village scenes are full of life and color. As we see the monks dealing with the village (giving medical treatment, attending Muslim ceremonies, etc), we learn how intertwined the monks and the villagers are.

The rebels arrive and want to take the medical monk to treat one of their own, but the monks insist they bring the patient there. The rebels are not happy, but you can see they respect the monks’ courage in standing up to them. Then the monks begin to deal with the issue of whether they should leave or stay. Each one has his own reasons, but the way the writers handle it, it is not just a series of checklists. And the monks we thought we knew turn out to have sides we never guessed. We get their faces and their characters. Then the federal government asks the monks to leave. Well, it makes sense. The government is not sure they can protect them. But the villagers want them to stay. What do you do? What is your calling? Is it better served here and possibly dying, or going to continue your work elsewhere? But your work is here, with these people. So for now they stay. The government sends in some troops nominally to protect the monks, but the military is just as dubious about them as the rebels. After all, the monks give medical treatment to everybody, including the rebels. The writers are very subtly revealing the attitudes of all their characters, not just the monks.

The monks decide to take a final vote (there has been at least one before). They all decide to stay, a couple of bottles of the good wine are opened (they are French after all) and Luc, the medical monk, puts on, well, what music would you put on in that situation? Luc picks Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. We watch their beatific faces, looking at each other and not up into the light, and, thank God, Natalie Portman does not dance through. What, you thought I was too classy to make a Black Swan reference? Guess again.

In real life the monks just disappeared, probably killed by the rebels but possibly by the army. Even though this is a fictionalized version, we also do not find out exactly what happened to these versions of the characters. But the fadeout comes after they have been taken away from the monastery by the rebels. If you are going to show that, and at the length they do, then they should show at least the filmmakers’ version of what happened.

When I wrote in US#64 about Unstoppable, I said it was a great train movie, but not necessarily a great movie. Of Gods and Men is a great religious movie, but I am not sure it is a great movie. As much as I love the closeups of the monks, the script doesn’t get into them as deeply as it could. And the ending, as noted above, is rather problematic. Still, the film is better than most in the field.

Rango (2011. Written by John Logan, story by John Logan, Gore Verbinski, and James Ward Byrkit. 107 minutes.)

Rango

Quality time with a nine-year-old: There was no way I was going to see Rango. I had seen the trailer several times and it just looked UGLY. The characters are not only reptiles, but reptilian in every sense of the word. Who wants to watch ugly, warty things for 107 minutes?

Then the reviews came out and they were very good and made a point of how the film paid homage to westerns like High Noon (1952). Well, you know I love westerns, but how many scaly things can you watch? Then my daughter called and offered some quality time with her and her family, including my nine-year-old grandson seeing…Rango. The fates were conspiring against me. But my grandson and I got off to a good start when we started elbowing each other in the ribs at the beginning of the trailer for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. He got in the first nudge from the first shot; it took me until the second shot. Do I have to tell you what summer movie he and I are most anticipating? Although I will leave it to his parents to explain Penélope Cruz’s “pointing things at me” line to him.

The opening is very smart. We see Rango, a chameleon (although he is never identified as such in the film, but only referred to as a lizard), pretending to be many different characters. He is playing off the other elements in his dry tank, as we come to realize. And we find out he wants to be an actor. So before we have time to get all icky about his ugliness, we are being brought into his character in the kind of detail that the trailer cannot provide. And the fact he wants to be an actor sets this up as a very self-reflexive film, but in a much more subtle way than is often the case movies today.

Rango flies out of his tank, which is in the car his owners are driving. He is in the desert. So yes, we get him coming through a mirage like Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Obvious joke. But then everybody keeps asking him “Who are you?” just as people did in Lawrence of Arabia. So the references are not only visual, but carried through in the script. Yes, the music is very Ennio Morricone-Sergio Leone, but there are four balladeers out of Cat Ballou (1965), with recurring lyrics about the upcoming death of the hero, something one might find in a Sam Peckinpah musical. The lyrics about death get a great payoff at the end. When Rango gets to the small western town, we get a whole flock of “redneck peckerwoods,” to use Peckinpah’s favorite term for them. And the town has no water, but Beans, a crusty girl who could be Mattie Ross’s BFF, finds water flowing out of a pipe. In the desert. So it does not surprise you that the town boss sounds an awful lot like Noah Cross. And there are not only references to Leone, but several shots that almost duplicate ones in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). So when Rango is thrown out of town and finds, with the help of an armadillo that looks like Don Quixote (yes, it’s that kind of a movie), the Spirit of the West, the Spirit is standing by a movie studio golf cart with several awards in it. And talking in Clint Eastwood’s voice. According to the credits, the voice is Timothy Olyphant, but it is dead-on Eastwood. Everything connects.

But the film is not just a western lover’s dream. Because those elements are used to tell the story, the film works even if you don’t get the references. My grandson and I were often laughing at different things throughout the movie, but we both enjoyed it enormously. The director and one of the writers is Gore Verbinski, and he uses animation to do gags, get angles and camera movements he could not do with all the live action talent on the Pirates movies. Maybe he was born for animation.

As for my grandson and me, we can’t wait for Tides. No, Verbinski is not directing it, but the script is by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, who did the first three, so the youngster and I know we will be in good hands.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010. Written by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. 114 minutes.)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

A Thai Plan 9 From Outer Space?: Unlike with Rango, I was really looking forward to this one. It first came up on my radar when it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year. The title is amusing, and the story sounded like it had potential: a dying man is visited by his late wife and son, the latter currently in monkey form. Uncle Boonmee recalls his past lives a water buffalo and a catfish, among others. His wife has come to guide him through the dying process. As the film worked its way around the world, the reviews were always positive. It finally showed up here in LA in early March, heralded by a great review from Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times. So I went to see it. A few weeks later a letter showed up in the Times from a woman saying she and her friend had gone to see it based on the Turan review and it was a measure of the depth of their friendship that the friend was still speaking to her. She added, “For years I thought Plan 9 From Outer Space correctly deserved the sobriquet of worst film ever, but compared with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Plan 9 looks downright Oscar-worthy.”

Well. I don’t think it is that bad, but it was certainly a disappointment for me. Some of that may have come from having read almost a full year of rave reviews which any film would have trouble living up to. Mostly I think it is that while Weerasethakul had a great idea, he has not developed it very well. The film starts off with a series of shots of a water buffalo. They go on and on. I think the shots are supposed to put us in a contemplative mood, but after a while you need a little more help. Is the water buffalo one of his past lives? How did he feel about being a water buffalo? Was it fun? Then we get the setup for the story. Boonmee’s sister-in-law Jen (the sister of his dead wife) and nephew show up at his farm to help out. We get a lot of practical detail about the injections he needs, etc. And then they all sit down to dinner. And the ghost of the ex-wife sits down alongside them. I like the way they all accept that this is the sort of thing that happens in this world. But then nothing happens with the wife. She comes to him after being dead for several years and has nothing much to say to him? I am not asking for the Thai equivalent of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, but Weerasethakul is missing a lot of opportunities here. Even more so when the son shows up briefly in his monkey reincarnation. Weerasethakul misses opportunities there as well. There are a couple of lines about a worker on the farm being from Laos, but not much is done with that, either. One of the most widely discussed scenes is where a catfish performs oral sex on a princess. Now you know the picture is not working on all cylinders when I am beginning to doze off in a scene where a catfish is going down on a princess. Presumably the catfish is Boonmee, but we get no indication of that. If he is, how did he feel about that? Maybe he was the princess? Or the gorgeous waterfall. Maybe it is just the screenwriting instructor in me, but I kept wanting Weerasethakul to go beyond just putting the idea up on the screen.

The ghost of the wife leads Boonmee to a cave that is obviously—too obviously—death. We get a bit of Boonmee’s funeral, and then the sister-in-law and nephew sitting around watching television. About the time I was about to doze off again, the spirits of those two leave their bodies and go out to a fast-food place. The end.

Joe Daugherty, a thirtysomething writer I interviewed for my book on television writing, said that among the people on the writing staff of that show, he was in charge of Plot and Plot-like Substances. OK, I can get along without a conventional plot. See my comments on Fellini and Resnais in the item I did on Inception in US#52 if you don’t believe me. But a few Plot-like Substances can be a help sometimes.

The Crusades (1935. Written by Harold Lamb, Waldemar Young, and Dudley Nichols. The IMDb lists three other writers who contributed to the treatment but are uncredited; Robert Birchard in his definite book Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood does not mention any of them. 125 minutes.)

The Crusades

Speaking of religion: We have talked about DeMille and his house style of screenwriting before, in US#30 about Union Pacific (1939) and US#62 about The Plainsman (1936). Here the pontificating dialogue C.B. seems to have insisted upon takes over the movie, and DeMille makes it worse by having everybody play it very florid, in the 19th-century stage tradition. Which is too bad, because there are some interesting elements in the script. But first of all, kick any notions of there being any historical accuracy in this film out of your pretty little head.

The film sort of deals with the Third Crusade, led by Richard the Lionheart of England. Yes, he did marry Barengaria of Navarre, but for political reasons, not to get supplies for his army, as in the film. Yes, he did conquer Acre, and yes, he did not get to see Jerusalem after he made a treaty with Saladin. And that’s about it. What is interesting about the script, and not entirely inaccurate, is that Richard was much more a warrior than a king. In the film he goes on the Crusade to avoid marrying Alice, the sister of the King of France, which has a tiny basis in fact, but he goes more for the adventure than for any religious reasons. Richard here is a very buff fellow, and if he were better played, he could be a compelling character. Unfortunately DeMille cast Henry Wilcoxon, a very stolid actor. He had been Marc Anthony in DeMille’s Cleopatra (1934), which had been a success. The Crusades ended up losing money, and Wilcoxon never played a starring role in a major film during the rest of his long career.

Richard’s marriage to Barengaria in real life was purely political, but the writers here have made her a devout Christian whom Richard grows to love and who leads him to a conversion. That’s a potentially interesting story, but it gets lost in the verbal bombast. Loretta Young is Barengaria, and she spends a lot of time looking up into the light. For all the script problems, DeMille, as usual, fills the screen with, well, everything. Every shot is full of all kinds of detail. Sometimes it is action, sometimes it is a tableau out of late 19th-century sentimental religious art, and sometimes it is just Travis Banton’s costumes for Young and DeMille’s daughter Katherine, who plays Alice, badly.

What is surprising to us watching the film today is that Saladin, Richard’s Muslim enemy, is a cultured, intelligent man, and Ian Keith, who plays him, manages to avoid the excesses of the other actors. DeMille was proud of the fact that Saladin was shown in a positive light. That view of Saladin shows up in other films about the Crusades, most recently in the 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven. DeMille said his film was successful in the Middle East, but Birchard’s look at the accounts shows it was banned in several counties in the area and did not make much money in the countries it did play in. I saw the film at a screening as the UCLA Archive Festival of Preservation. One of the staff members introducing the film said that DeMille’s granddaughter Cecilia DeMille Presley, who was unable to attend, had told him that DeMille had told her this story. When DeMille was trying to get permission to shoot some of his 1956 version of The Ten Commandments in Egypt, he came across a bureaucrat who had seen The Crusades and had been impressed with the characterization of Saladin as a Muslim. The bureaucrat gave DeMille permission to shoot in his country.

Imitation of Life (1959. Screenplay by Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott, and, uncredited, Sy Gomberg, based on the novel by Fannie Hurst. 125 minutes.)

Imitation of Life

Anything for a friend: Sam Staggs is a friend of mine and a first-rate film historian. He specializes on books about the making of individual films, such as All About ’All About Eve’, Closeup on ’Sunset Boulevard’ and When Blanche Met Brando. His research is remarkable. Only Sam would track down the woman who was the model for Eve in the short story that became the film. His 2009 book Born To Be Hurt is about the 1959 version of Imitation of Life. I saw the film when it first came out and I must admit it did not overwhelm me. Sam’s book is good, although he gets more into meeting with the surviving cast members and the events they attend than I am sure he needs to. Having read the book, I figured I would give the film a chance the next time I had the opportunity. It popped up on TCM a few weeks ago. I struggled through it.

The 1934 version of the film is a more realistic version of the Fannie Hurst novel, with the white woman working with the black woman’s recipe to become a success in the food business while their two daughters grow up to be trouble of varying kinds. The 1959 version was produced by Ross Hunter, who never met a bit of excess he did not like. So the story was changed. Now the white woman, Lora, is a struggling actress, and the black woman, Annie, is her maid. So we get a lot of details about the Broadway theater scene, nearly all of them wrong. When Lora tries out for a playwright, David, he tells her she didn’t find the comedy in the scene. She suggests he cut the scene. That’s gall, not cheek. And he cuts it. And gives her a bigger part than the one she was trying out for. But wait a minute. He writes comedy, and she couldn’t…find the comedy in the previous scene. So he goes on writing plays, comedies no less, for her, one a year (who writes that fast?) and in spite of her being comically challenged, they are all hits. Yeah, right.

Meanwhile, Annie’s daughter, Sarah Jane, keeps insisting she is white. Well, she is played by a white actress, so she may have a point. But Annie seems totally clueless about her daughter’s feelings, although we are supposed to take her as a saint for her devotion to, well, everybody. Just once she ought to slap her daughter, and some of the others, upside the head. Lora’s daughter, Susie, is a spoiled twit (although Sandra Dee’s chirping hides it) who falls in love with Steve, her mother’s boyfriend and surrogate father to her. Fortunately, that does not end as badly as it might. The final scene between Annie (Juanita Moore) and Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) is a real tearjerker, as is the movie as a whole, if you get into it, I suppose. As for me, the wretched excesses of the script, matched by the wretched excesses of the Ross Hunter production (try to keep your jaw from dropping during Annie’s funeral) were simply too much.

Yes, I know that we are supposed to see director Douglas Sirk’s take on the material as satire on American commercialism, but I have never quite bought that view of Sirk. Imitation of Life is funny because it is emotionally excessive, not because it’s satire.

Sorry Sam.

30 Rock

Some Late Winter/Early Spring Television 2011: I’ve been rather slow the last several columns at dealing with a lot of television shows I normally write about, so here is a potpourri from the last couple of months, with some comments in general on certain shows and some on specific episodes.

When last we left White Collar, I was aghast that they appeared to have killed off Mozzie, but I was only half-aghast since I figured they were just fooling with us. I was right, and Mozzie lives! The best episode of the recent season was “Forging Bonds,” written by Jeff Eastin & Alexandra McNally. It is the kind of flashback episode you can really only do well in the second or third season, since a lot of the fun comes from watching the characters we know fall into place. Eight years ago Neal meets Mozzie when they are both street hustlers, and Mozzie realizes Neal’s talent for forgery. With bonds that Neal forges, they try to run a con on Vincent Adler, whom we have come to know in the present. Neal meets Kate, one of the loves of his life, who works for Adler. In one of their scams, Kate and Neal pretend to be cops arresting Mozzie, and as they take him away, Kate tells him she hates the wig he has been wearing. She says she thinks he looks better without it. Well, if a beautiful woman like Kate tells you that…so now we understand why Mozzie has been bald as long as we have known him. The plotting introduces the music box that Neal has been chasing since the series began. As Adler escapes, Peter arrests Neal, their first meeting. Very satisfying.

When Harry’s Law premiered, Matt Zoller Seitz at Salon was less enthused about it than I was, and I think he may have been right. It is preachy, with those long David E. Kelley political speeches. Kelley seems to have fallen in love with the rich lawyer Tommy Jefferson, and we get more of him than we really need. But we already had Denny Crane, and we don’t need another one. In my comments in US#69, I said that Jenna, the receptionist, was not well-defined as a character, and that has only gotten worse. In some episodes she seems reasonably bright, in others dumb as a box of rocks. And I am not sure they are giving their star Kathy Bates enough to do. She seems to be working on about four cylinders instead of eight. Still, four cylinders of Bates is worth looking in on.

Fairly Legal, on the other hand, is moving along well, and Kate has not put her finger in her mouth once in the rest of the episodes. The “David Smith” storyline (he was in her father’s will and nobody knew who he was) has not been as interesting as Kate’s mediation cases. That’s really not a bad sign, since it suggests the franchise (her cases) have a lot of potential.

Justified is having a great second season, and not just because Timothy Olyphant seems more at ease in the role of Raylan than he did in the first season. The writers are also willing to do something very few series do: let a good scene go on more than a minute or two. In the season opener “The Moonshine War,” written by Graham Yost, there is a scene near the beginning between the 14-year-old Loretta and Jimmy Earl Dean. He’s got a thing for her, and a record as a child molester, but she’s three times as smart as he is and talks him into leaving. The length of the scene makes it more suspenseful than a shorter version would, and it also introduces us to Loretta, who will pop up in the rest of the season. This episode also introduces us to the wonderful Bennett clan, lead by Mags Bennett. The sons are halfwits who always screw up, but Mags, the matriarch, knows how to keep them in line. In a great scene in this episode, she comes to Loretta’s father Walter to apologize for her sons beating up Walter for growing pot on her land. Isn’t that nice of her? Meanwhile she has poisoned the cup of moonshine she’s given him and casually watches him die. In the next episode “The Life Inside,” written by Benjamin Cavell, she takes in Loretta, telling her she sent Loretta’s father on a trip and apologizing for not protecting her from the pervert, “Like I promised.” As the scene progresses, it is clear to us, but not to the smart Loretta, that Mags is trying to find out how much Loretta knows about, well, everything.

Another aspect of this second season I like is that they have got Raylan back with his ex-wife Winona, even though she is still married to Gary. Winona is a much better match for Raylan than Ava, the Crowder woman who has now taken up with Boyd. The writers get a lot out of how well Raylan and Winona know each other. Winona is also smart…oops, maybe not. In “Blaze of Glory,” written by Cavell, Winona is putting some files away in the evidence room. She is at an unused group of lockers and finds a pile of money in one of them. A whole pile of money. But it’s old money and she doesn’t know where it comes from. So without telling anybody, she takes one of the hundred dollar bills with her to the bank to find out if it is forged. OK, that’s maybe not so stupid, but she ends up in the middle of a bank robbery and the bill is taken by the robbers. Who are quickly caught by the F.B.I.. She tells Raylan, and he checks the money taken into evidence. He finds three bills that might be hers. End of episode. In the next one, “Save My Love,” written by Yost, Winona tells Raylan that none of the three bills are the right one. The F.B.I. has already scanned it. And, what did I tell you about Winona? She actually took all the money from the locker. Now they have to try to get it back there. Yost creates some terrific suspense as everything that could go wrong with that plan happens. Meanwhile the F.B.I. is checking the evidence and finds the money is not there. Yikes. Except they assume it just got lost, as happens with evidence. And Raylan eventually gets Winona to put the money back in another older locker, in case anybody else comes looking. Winona’s a little more high maintenance for Raylan than I thought, but like Mags Bennett, when she is onscreen, stuff happens. You can’t ask more from characters than that. Well, no, you can, but still.

The Good Wife is also having a good mid-season. My favorite episode so far is “Net Worth,” written by Robert King and Michelle King. Alicia gets involved in a case representing Patrick Edelstein, who is suing a movie studio for making a film about him and the social network website he created. Yes, he is just as arrogant as young Mr. Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010) and the deposition scenes are familiar to anyone who has seen the movie. A more interesting scene is when they depose the screenwriter. Now you would think the screenwriter would be portrayed in a sympathetic way, as screenwriters usually are in other screenwriters’ scripts. Guess again. This guy claims he made it all up, which is obviously not the case, and makes a case for his First Amendment rights, but is an asshole doing it. That’s what I like about The Good Wife: its honesty and realism.

And guess who showed up his ownself on 30 Rock? The real Aaron Sorkin, in an episode written by John Siegel & Dylan Morgan called “Plan B.” Because Tracy has gone off to Africa (although we find out at the end of the episode he’s been hiding in New York) the network is putting TGS on “forced hiatus,” which everybody on the show knows means it has been canceled. So everybody start looking for new jobs. For Liz that involves writing work. One job opening is on a reality show, and in the waiting room she meets Sorkin, who is also applying for the job. So naturally they get up and walk and talk, going around the hallway and ending up where they started. Well, haven’t you always assumed that’s how Sorkin talks?

More than one critic has mention how 30 Rock is very much in the tradition of His Girl Friday (1940) in the speed of its dialogue. I recently watched Friday in my History of Motion Pictures class at LACC, so it was on my mind while watching this episode of 30 Rock. What struck me is that in some ways 30 Rock goes beyond what Friday does. Friday is just plain fast, but Rock doesn’t just have fast delivery of the dialogue. Unlike Friday, the dialogue is filled with non-sequiturs. Friday is linear, but you never quite know where Rock is going. Rock is just as quick to throw in surreal visual as well as verbal elements. Think of 30 Rock as the grandchild of His Girl Friday, moving at computer speed, complete with oddball links, rather than typewriter speed.

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

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Review: We Summon the Darkness Coasts Lazily on an Empty Twist

The film’s cat-and-mouse antics play out with no sense of escalation or invention.

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We Summon the Darkness
Photo: Saban Films
Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers.

Genre movies these days are rife with self-conscious subversion, and at the cost of cohesiveness. Into this climate strides director Marc Meyers’s 1980s-set Satanic-panic thriller We Summon the Darkness, which drops its twist inside the first 30 minutes and then aimlessly limps toward a rote conclusion for close to another hour.

Alexis (Alexandra Daddario) and her friends (Maddie Hasson and Amy Forsyth) attend a heavy metal concert, where they meet a group of boys (Keean Johnson, Logan Miller, and Austin Swift) and head to a remote location for an after-party. A satanic ritual ensues, except here’s the twist: It’s fake. There are no Satanists. There’s only Alexis and her friends, who are all Christian church girls killing headbangers and staging the scenes to look like murder-suicides, hoping to draw people to their congregation by scapegoating heavy metal.

Viewers are meant to write off some of the early red flags about the girls’ true intentions only to remember them in hindsight, as in how Alexis needs to be reminded of a prominent guitarist’s death. But if the film’s big twist seems to express the “fake fan” fears of dweeb gatekeepers the world over, even those anxieties remain underexplored. We Summon the Darkness struggles to conjure any discernible themes beyond a lot of too-easy jabs at religious hypocrisy, as in a scene about church donations being misappropriated.

The boys spend much of the film’s back half locked in a closet, which is still more engaging than the boilerplate scuffles in the dark that make up the final third. The cat-and-mouse antics play out with no sense of escalation or invention. Like many a film before it, We Summon the Darkness spends such a long time trying to subvert a concept that it neglects everything that might have been appealing even in a straightforward take on its premise.

Cast: Alexandra Daddario, Keean Johnson, Maddie Hasson, Amy Forsyth, Logan Miller, Austin Swift, Johnny Knoxville Director: Marc Meyers Screenwriter: Alan Trezza Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Sea Fever, Though Eerie, Delivers Body Horror in Half Measures

Writer-director Neasa Hardiman’s film is undone by earnestness.

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Sea Fever
Photo: Gunpowder & Sky

With occasional exceptions, humanism doesn’t benefit the horror film, which generally thrives under the inspiration of artists who exploit social vulnerabilities through various formal means. Case in point, Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever is undone by its earnestness. Hardiman is very fond of her protagonist, Siobhán (Hermione Corfield), and the writer-director is striving to make an impassioned point about the value of intelligence and rationality in the midst of a quarantine, an especially resonant theme in the age of COVID-19. In the film, a remarkable amount of time is devoted to the strategy of containing and combating a parasitic creature that invades an Irish fishing trawler, yet Hardiman has virtually no interest in goosing the audience, offering up a monster flick with no pulse.

At its heart, Sea Fever is another single-setting horror film in which an exotic animal systematically infects a blue-collar crew. Conscious of this tradition, Hardiman offers variations on a couple of the genre’s greatest hits: the misleadingly tranquil dinner scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien and the “testing for infection” sequence in John Carpenter’s The Thing. Filmmakers have gotten quite a bit of mileage out of ripping off The Thing over the years, but Hardiman stages this latter scene simply as a scientific inquiry, deriving no suspense from it, and delivering the punchline as an afterthought. Much of the trawler’s crew is the usual collection of burly, hairy studs who look so much alike that you expect a joke to be made of it, except that Hardiman evinces no sense of humor. Even the tension between the men and Siobhán—a student studying unusual sea creatures and therefore an intellectual who must maintain calm in a crisis, rising to the fore to become the next Ripley—often falls flat.

Alien and The Thing are sadistic films whose power derives, in part, from how expertly they surpass our worst suspicions of what’s going to happen. In each case, the monsters are more awful than we expect them to be, continually growing stronger, more disgusting, and more primordial—more, well, alien. By contrast, Hardiman offers a giant, multi-tentacled jellyfish that’s barely in the film, suggesting a wan and naturalistic riff on the thing from Deep Rising, as well as sea maggots that yield one instance of respectable body horror. These are mild returns on over half a running-time’s worth of exposition and foreshadowing.

Yet Sea Fever does have an eerie setting, as the creaky, claustrophobic trawler and the misty water inform the narrative with the aura of an Irish myth or ghost story, which is revealed to be very pertinent. And Corfield gives a poignant and vivid performance, especially during the film’s unexpectedly moving ending, which finds Siobhán weirdly rewarded, as her desire for knowledge and personal expansion is gratified at the expense of disaster. The final scenes clarify Hardiman’s intentions, which somewhat cancel themselves out: an attempt to fuse a monster movie and a poetic myth with a coming-of-age character study.

Cast: Hermione Corfield, Connie Nielsen, Dougray Scott, Olwen Fouéré, Jack Hickey, Ardalan Esmaili, Elie Bouakaze Director: Neasa Hardiman Screenwriter: Neasa Hardiman Distributor: Gunpowder & Sky Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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The 20 Best Zombie Movies of All Time

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

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

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

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

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

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


Night of the Comet

20. Night of the Comet (1984)

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


The Living Dead Girl

19. The Living Dead Girl (1982)

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


They Came Back

18. They Came Back (2004)

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


Zombi Child

17. Zombi Child (2019)

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


Train to Busan

16. Train to Busan (2016)

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

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

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

3

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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.

3

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Atlantis
Photo: Best Friend Forever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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