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Understanding Screenwriting #79: The Help, The Whistleblower, Fury, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #79: The Help, The Whistleblower, Fury, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Help, The Whistleblower, Red-Headed Woman, Hold Your Man, Fury, They Won’t Forget, but first…

Fan Mail: Rob Humanick is thanking me for making sure I got the period at the end of the title of Crazy, Stupid, Love. I would love to accept kudos, but I only put in the commas. It was Keith Uhlich, our eagle-eyed editor, who picked up on the period business. This is not the first time, nor the last, that Keith has saved me from looking like a total idiot in print. Or rather in pixels.

I am afraid I am way too straight to see what David E. calls the “gay envy” in straight films. In the case of Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid, Love. (see, I got the period right this time) Gosling’s character seems to me to be a living embodiment of a guy obsessed with Hugh Hefner’s 1950s Playboy ideal. As Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a straight guy is just a straight guy.

The Help (2011. Screenplay by Tate Taylor, based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett. 146 minutes)

Yipee, it’s August, take one: That means there is finally a film in the multiplexes without stuff we have been inundated with all summer:

There are no comic book heroes.

There are no comic book characters from other Marvel comics that are only in this film to help promote future comic book movies.

There are no explosions, other than dramatic ones.

It is not, in any theater, in 3-D.

Nor is it in any Imax theaters.

There are no aliens.

It is not a tent pole for a future film series.

It is not the next, nor the last, tent pole from a previously established series.

There is not a single teenager in the film.

No actors change bodies in the course of this film.

There are no couples that are trying to have sex without emotional complications.

Except in reference to a certain pie, there is no use of bad language.

There are no fart, dick, or homophobic jokes.

There are no pirates, talking animals or talking cars in this film.

The African-American characters are not just in the film to be killed off so the white hero can get revenge.

However, just to let you know this is indeed a film from the summer of 2011, Emma Stone does appear in the film, but in a serious role.

By now you have probably read the backstory of the film. Taylor and Stockett are friends from childhood, and she gave him the film rights for her novel before it ever became a best seller. He in turn, with the help of some friends, convinced the industry that he should direct the film as well as write it, since he and Stockett felt that he understood the South better than a non-southern director would. They were right, and it makes up for Taylor not being a slicker director. He brings his considerable talents as both writer and director to the service of the material, like most great directors do, whether they want to admit it or not.

You may have read some reviews that say this is yet another film in which a white person saves the day for black folks. It’s not. Let’s start with the film’s narration. Stockett’s book has first-person narration by three people. One is Skeeter, a young white woman who just graduated from Ole Miss’. She decides to write a book in which black maids in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963-64 talk about their lives. So naturally, if you are making a film to play in the multiplexes (i.e., for white audiences), Skeeter is your heroine and you let her do the narrating. Guess again. The narration Taylor uses is from Aibileen, the most serious of the maids. So while us white folks may think this is Skeeter’s movie, it is as much Aibileen’s. At the end of the film Skeeter is going off to New York, but we don’t see her leave. The film goes on to show us what happens to Aibileen (although I gather the book goes even further), making it Aibileen’s film, and making clear both Skeeter’s influence and lack of it. The third narrator of the book is Minny, the maid who can’t keep her mouth shut even when she should, for her own safety. Minny is as much a major character in the film as Skeeter and Aibileen. Once Aibileen and Minny and the other maids start talking, Skeeter becomes a secondary character.

Taylor is also smart to keep Aibilieen and Minny as equal characters, since it means we are not getting just one black person standing in for all black people. Aibileen and Minny are about as different as you can get, and Taylor as both writer and director serves both of them well, as do the actresses playing them. I caught Viola Davis (Aibileen) and Octavia Spencer (Minny) on a talk show and seeing them in “real life” made me appreciate both their performances even more. Both Davis and Spencer are so detailed, vivid and “in the moment” that they overcome any sense of stereotyping of their roles or any “white girl saves the black women” cliches.

Because so many of the white women who hire the maids are so obviously racist, I thought as I was watching the movie that Taylor was underserving the white characters. Thinking it over later, I think he does give us a variety of white characters. Skeeter is of course a good person, but she is also ambitious (which gives Stone a lot more to work with than in some of her recent films). Her mother is a ditz who plays her ill-health card to the max. The unofficial leader of the white wives is Hilly, and while she is a bitch, she is a nuanced bitch. Somebody was quoted recently as saying, presumably on the basis of Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance as Hilly, that pretty soon Ron Howard will be known not as Opie, Richie, or a director, but as “Bryce Dallas Howard’s father.” I had reservations about Ms. Howard’s Southern Belle in The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond (2008) and I wrote in US#41 that “Bryce Dallas Howard should take lessons from the original Kitten with a Whip,” Ann Margaret, who was in that film. She obviously took my advice (yeah, right), and she is sensationally good here. The white-trash outcast among the white wives is Celia and Taylor has written a much better role for Jessica Chastain that Malick did in The Tree of Life. Chastain gets to do stuff here, unlike Tree.

The male characters are definitely secondary. The white husbands are interchangeable, as they probably were in real life, but Skeeter’s editor, Mr. Blackly, gives Leslie Jordan a couple of nice scenes. Unlike The Color Purple (1985), we do not see any of the black men, but they are talked about. And for all the maids’ perfectly justified bitching about white folks, Taylor gives us a nice white guy whom we never see. One of the maids tells about a doctor she worked for. When a farmer objected to her walking to the doctor’s house across part of his farm, the doctor bought two acres from the farmer so she could use her shortcut. See what I mean about the advantage of having somebody who knows the South writing and directing the film?

So we do get a range of white characters, but the focus is on Aibileen and Minny and the other maids. That’s the right thing to do with this material because the script shows us something we have not seen before in movies: what are all those black maids in movies, and life for that matter, have been thinking and feeling. Like the late August Wilson’s plays, this film is not just about African-American history, but about American history.

The Whistleblower (2010. Written by Ellis Kirwan and Larysa Kondracki. 122 minutes)

The Whistleblower

Semi-yipee, it’s August, take two: OK, there is a car crash in this one, but it’s a dramatic one, not a spectacular one.

This one is based on the true story of Kathryn Bolkovac, a Nebraska policewoman who went to work for a private military company as part of a peacekeeping force in Bosnia in 1999. On the ground in Bosnia she begins to discover sex trafficking going on that not only involves the company she works for, but the U.N. peacekeeping mission as well. Needless to say, all this does not go down well with the company, the traffickers, and the U.N. She sends an email to the head of the U.N. Mission, but all that does is get her fired. She manages to sneak a pile of her files out and reports it all to the BBC.

Now that sounds like it could be a dramatic and compelling film, and it certainly has its moments, such as a raid on a bar/brothel out in the woods. Like The Help, it takes us into a world we generally have not seen, except perhaps in snippets on Law & Order: SVU. The Whistleblower takes us into a part of the world where it all starts, and makes us aware of the details of the situation. But the film suffers from a problem we have seen before with movies based on true stories. The writers (Kondracki also directed) have assumed that because it is true it will be interesting. It is, to a degree, but a lot of it is very on the nose. They also sort of pull their punches by using a fictitious name for DynCorp, the actual company. Well, it is a low budget film and they don’t want to get sued, but it takes until the middle of the film for anybody to mention that Bulkovac is working for a private company and not the U.N. They also don’t mention that in real life the prostitutes were 12 to 15 years old. There are of course practical reasons for that: if you have actresses those ages, you simply cannot do the kind of torture and sex scenes the movie has.

I also have a problem with the characterization of Bulkovac. She is a Nebraska policewoman, divorced, with three kids. But there is virtually nothing in the writing that gives us any sense of that background. The real Bulkovac, who is showing up on television and the Internet these days promoting her book on the subject as well as the film, is a big strapping corn-fed Middle Westerner. The film Bulkovac is played by Rachel Weisz. I love Weisz as an actress, but she is not big, nor strapping, nor corn-fed. She gives a good performance, particularly in closeups where we read her sympathy for the suffering women, but it is rather one-note. They probably should have, in addition to rewriting the character, got Mary McCormack from In Plain Sight.

The film also gets rather repetitious, with shot after shot of suffering women and Bulkovac being sympathetic. The officials she deals with are also one-note, either for good (Vanessa Redgrave as Bulkovac’s supportive boss) or bad (mostly the guys). David Strathairn at least is given a little bit of both to play.

Red-Headed Woman (1932. Screenplay by Anita Loos, based on the novel by Katharine Brush. 79 minutes)

Red-Headed WomanWriters and stars, take one: In early August the UCLA Film & Television Archives ran a series of Pre-Code films starring Jean Harlow. This was in connection with a new book by Darrell Rooney and Mark A. Vieira, Harlow in Hollywood: The Blonde Bombshell in the Glamour Capital, 1928-1937. On August 6th, the Archives ran a double bill of two Harlow films written by Anita Loos. This is the first one, and the one that made Harlow a star.

We often think of great star-director combinations: John Wayne-John Ford, Marcello Mastroianni-Federico Fellini, and Grace Kelly-Alfred Hitchcock, just to name a few. What you may not realize is that there are also great star-writer collaborations as well. In the early silent days, it took C. Gardner Sullivan’s scripts to turn William S. Hart from a stage Shakespearean actor into the first big western star. The pattern continues to this day. Sharon Stone was in movies for ten years before Joe Eszterhas wrote the part in Basic Instinct (1992) that made her a star. In Harlow’s case, she had been in small parts until she had a hit in Hell’s Angels in 1930. But she was a rather bland glamor girl in that and the movies that followed. Her career began to slide until she came to MGM. The novel of Red-Headed Woman was pretty much all melodrama, all the time, as it follows Lil Andrews sleeping her way to the top, breaking up a marriage in the process.

Irving Thalberg, the “boy wonder” head of MGM had originally put F. Scott Fitzgerald on the script, but Fitzgerald had no feeling for the character, or for Thalberg’s idea that if you make Lil funny, the audience can laugh with her rather than at her. According to Gary Carey in his 1988 biography Anita Loos, it was Paul Bern, Harlow’s mentor, who suggested Loos be put on the script. Not surprising, since a decade before it was Loos’s witty scripts that made Constance Talmadge into one of the great silent comic stars. Fitzgerald was off the project, Loos was on, and within a month she had finished the script. The director assigned was Jack Conway, whom you may remember from US#41 that I don’t think much of. He also did not find the material funny. He complained to Loos, “You can’t make jokes about a girl who deliberately sets out to break up a family.” Loos replied, “What not? Look at the family! It deserves to be broken up!”

Conway, ever the obedient studio hack, shot the film. It was not well-received at the first sneak preview. Here is a reason Thalberg was known as the “boy wonder.” He told Loos, “People don’t know whether they’re supposed to laugh or not. We need an opening scene to set the mood.” So Loos wrote a prologue. Lil is looking at herself in the mirror, especially her red hair (Harlow was already known as a blonde) spies the audience in the mirror, and says, “Gentlemen prefer blondes? Sure,” a reference to Loos’s famous book. Then Lil is seen in a dress in a shop and asks the off-camera sales girl, “Can you see through this?” The girl replies, “Yes,” to which Lil says, “I’ll wear it.” (Carey may have seen a different print. He has Lil’s line as “Is this dress too tight?” to which the clerk replies, “It certainly is.” Lil’s response is “Good.” Kate Lanier and Norman Vance Jr., the writers of the 2005 Beauty Shop, may have read Carey’s book. In their opening scene Gina [Queen Latifah] is struggling to get into a pair of jeans. She asks her young daughter, “Vanessa, do these pants make my butt look big?” Vanessa replies, “Yes, they do,” to which Gina slaps her own ass, smiles, and says, “Good!” You could have heard a pin drop in the nearly all-female audience I saw the film with. I still think that “Good!” was the most subversive line of dialogue in that entire decade.)

Loos’s prologue does set us up to laugh, but Conway’s direction does not get as much of the humor out of the material as could be gotten. And there are scenes that are pure melodrama. In spite of that, the picture made a Harlow a star, even though the mixture of comedy and drama was uneven. Then later in the same year, John Lee Mahin’s screenplay for Red Dust showed that Harlow could not only be funny, but say funny things.

Hold Your Man (1933. Screenplay by Anita Loos and Howard Emmett Rogers, story by Anita Loos. 87 minutes)

Hold Your Man

Writers and stars, take two: After Red-Headed Woman and Red Dust, Harlow’s star persona was set: a smart-mouthed, sexy, working class, funny woman. How could Anita Loos resist writing for her? Well, she couldn’t. And MGM appreciated Loos. Sam Marx, the story editor at MGM, told Carey that “shady lady” stories were always a potential censorship problem, even in the Pre-Code days, but that “Anita, however, could be counted on to supply the delicate double entendre, the telling innuendo. Whenever we had a Jean Harlow picture on the agenda, we always thought of Anita first.”

The picture starts like a house afire. Eddie Hall (Clark Gable, Harlow’s co-star in Red Dust) is a street con man who, while running from the police, hides in Ruby Adams’s apartment. First-rate wise-ass banter ensues. Ruby is sort of engaged to the sweetest guy in the world, but who can resist a character based on Loos’s old friend Wilson Mizner? (Loos went to the Mizner well often, especially for the roles she wrote for Gable; look at his Blackie Norton in her 1936 San Francisco.) Ruby gets involved in his cons, then gets arrested when Eddie accidentally kills a guy. So far, so good. I don’t know what was originally in the second half of the script, but it got dumped. There were enough complaints about Harlow and especially Mae West that pressure was building up to the institution of the 1934 revision of the Production Code. So Loos and probably Rogers turned the second half of the script into a drama of poor Ruby going off to a Reformatory, which Carey describes as “sort of a strictly disciplined Seven Sisters sorority.” All that was light and fun and sexy in the first half gets dropped, and everything becomes serious. And Harlow is not that good at serious, or at least not as good as she is at comedy. And Gable has a scene where he is, I think, sincere about convincing a minister to marry him and Ruby. But Gable’s fake sincerity in the con man scenes is so much more convincing that I was not persuaded his Eddie was being sincere. Everybody gets reformed by the end.

There are occasional Loos-type lines in the second half, as when during a church service one of the inmates is not singing. A matron asks her, “You don’t like the hymn?” to which the woman replies, “It was a him that got me in here.” As I mentioned in my comments on Rogers in US#41, he was one of Hollywood’s arch-conservatives, so I have to assume that the smart funny black girl in the reformatory is Loos’s, as is her minister father. I can’t find any reference to these African-American characters in any of the standard books on African-Americans in film, but the very casualness of their appearance probably was more subversive than scenes in more serious films. The first half of the film is great Loos-Harlow-Gable, the second half is bad traditional Hollywood.

Rooney and Vieira introduced the films at the screening and made particular mention of Loos, at least partly because her grand-nephew was in the audience. The audience remembered. As I was going up the aisle at the end, one guy in front of me said, “Anita Loos wrote great stuff.” Score one for writers.

Fury (1936. Screenplay by Bartlett Cormack and Fritz Lang, based on a story by Norman Krasna. 92 minutes)

FuryThe Great American Sport of Lynching, take one: In late July Turner Classic Movies had as one of its theme nights films about failed justice. This film and the next one in the column were two of the ones TCM ran.

Joe is an average guy, in love with Katherine, who as the film opens to going off to another town where she has landed a better job. Joe promises to come to her after he earns enough money. Several months later he is on the way when he is arrested as a suspect in the kidnapping of a young woman. A montage shows the town gossip building up to the point where the townspeople burn the jail down, with Joe in it. Several of the townspeople are put on trial for murder. Joe has survived the fire and works through his two brothers to help convict the defendants. Joe finally reveals to the court he is still alive. Sounds like a typical torn-from-the-headlines mid-‘30s Warner Brothers film, doesn’t it?

It was made for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Here’s how it happened. One day Norman Krasna was talking to Joseph L. Mankiewicz about a bunch of things. Krasna had already developed a reputation as a playwright and screenwriter of light comedies, which make up most of his screen credits. Mankiewicz, already an established screenwriter, had just been promoted to producer at MGM. He wanted to direct, but Louis B. Mayer told him he had to “learn to crawl before you walk,” which Mankiewicz later said was the best description of a producer he had ever heard. Mankiewicz and Krasna talked about a famous case of a year or two before in which an innocent man was accused in a kidnapping case and subsequently killed. Krasna wondered what would happen if he had survived. The two men went their separate ways, but the story stuck in Mankiewicz’s mind. He called up Krasna and asked if he had written it down. He not only hadn’t, he could hardly remember it. He never wrote it, but dictated what he could remember to Mankiewicz. Krasna was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Story for the film.

Producer David O. Selznick had brought the German director Fritz Lang to MGM, but nobody could find any material for him. Lang expressed interest in this story, and the studio put him together with a story editor and writer named Leonard Praskins. The script they came up with was virtually useless, due at least in part to Lang’s lack of English. Mankiewicz in later years was still baffled as to why Lang’s name turned up on the credits, but that was when studios assigned credits however they wanted. Mankiewicz turned the script over to Bartlett Cormack. Cormack is virtually forgotten now, at least partially because he died in 1942 at the early age of 44, but he has several interesting credits. He came to Hollywood’s attention with his 1927 Broadway play The Racket, and he worked on the 1928 silent film version. It was remade in 1951. A former reporter, his first full credit was for the 1929 talkie Gentleman of the Press, which is exactly what it sounds like, and the 1931 version of The Front Page. The story twists in Fury, whether from Krasna, Lang or Cormack, are dramatic, and I would guess that the individual characterizations of the townspeople are Cormack’s, probably coming from his days as a reporter. I am sure that the few scenes with the state governor and his political hatchet man, which are brilliantly written, come from Cormack.

All this background comes from several sources. The information on Krasna comes from a biographical article on him in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 26. Mankiewicz’s involvement is from Kenneth Geist’s 1978 biography People Will Talk. The most detailed account of the writing of the script is from Patrick McGilligan’s 1998 biography Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast. While we all know and love Pat from his Backstory collections of interviews with screenwriters, his day job is writing doorstop biographies of directors. But being a pro-writer guy, Pat is careful to find out as much about the writing of the scripts as he can. The section on Fury is done in a wonderfully McGilliganesque way: he gives you all the quotes from Lang on how it happened and then tells you how it really happened. From a director’s point of view, the worst aspect of contemporary film historiography is that studios have opened their files (well, shipped them off the lots to universities and other research facilities), which means that historians can find facts that contradict the legends directors like Lang built up about themselves. Yippee.

So Mankiewicz et al got a good solid script about a lynching. And they got it by Louis B. Mayer even though Mayer hated it. It did not look and feel like what he thought an MGM film should be. But according to Mayer’s biographer Scott Eyman (Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer), Mayer liked Mankiewicz and decided this would teach him a lesson. He promised Mankiewicz he would publicize the film as much as a big production, proving to him that it was something the public did not want to see. He kept his word. Oops, sorry L.B., but the picture made a profit of $248,000 on a cost of $604,000. And it made Lang’s critical reputation in Hollywood.

It also almost got Lang killed. He offended everybody on the production and at the studio. Most of the cast and crew would have cheerfully bumped him off, since he was obnoxious and dictatorial. He also directed the film well. Look at the way he emphasizes the individual reactions of the townspeople that Cormack has written for him. Look at his staging of the attack on the jail (you may recognize the jail, which was built on MGM’s Lot 2 for this film, from many other small town films, including the Andy Hardy series). Lang also insisted on one scene that did not survive in the final film. Towards the end Joe is walking through the streets trying to decide whether to reveal that he is still alive. He stops in front of a store with a bedroom set on display, just like the one he and Katherine saw the in the opening scene. He sees the faces of the 22 defendants reflected in the window of a flower shop. Then, in Lang’s version he is chased down the street by ghosts. Everybody else was dubious about this scene. At the first sneak preview of the film, the audience laughed and never got back into the film. Lang refused to cut the scene, so the studio cut it for him and fired him. He never forgave the studio or Mankiewicz, and spoke disparagingly of the whole experience the rest of his life.
There are those who are more Fritz Lang fans than I am who think Fury is his best American film. They will get no argument from me, and that’s not just because it shows the advantage of collaborating, however grudgingly, with good writers.

They Won’t Forget (1937. Screenplay by Robert Rossen and Aben Kandel, based on the novel Death in the Deep South by Ward Greene. 95 minutes)

They Won't ForgetThe Great American Sport of Lynching, take two: I have no idea if it actually happened this way, but it would not surprise me to learn that Warner Brothers, looking at Fury, got pissed that MGM was poaching on Warners turf, and decided to show them how to do a lynching film. You would have thought Warners could do it better, but not this time.

If you caught the critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful 1998 musical Parade, you may be familiar with the story of Leo Frank. He was a New York Jew who managed a company in the South in the 1910s. He was accused of raping and killing Mary Phagan, a teenaged girl who worked for him. He was convicted on extremely circumstantial evidence. The governor thought he got a raw deal and commuted the death sentence to life. A mob broke him out of jail and lynched him.
Ward Greene’s novel and the film made from it change the story more than a little. Hale, as he is called here, is a teacher at the Buxton Business College. There is no indication he is Jewish, and the film does not even hint at anti-Semitism.

Mainstream Hollywood would not deal with that for another ten years. He is, however, from New York, which may have been sort of a code for Jewish in those days. The prejudice the film focuses on is the attitudes the North and South have against each other. The film begins with two quotes, one from Abraham Lincoln and the other from Robert E. Lee. Lee’s quote is about how all the South wants to do is live in peace and unity with the rest of the country. Needless to say, the quote is not dated.
When Hale is accused of killing one of his students, the very ambitious district attorney, who has been looking for a big case, decides that Hale must be guilty. The cops first interview the African-American janitor, but the D.A. dismisses him, telling his assistant that “anybody can convict a Negro.” The North takes a great interest in the case, presumably because of its prejudice against the South. Hale does get a hotshot New York lawyer, but he is convicted anyway. The governor commutes his sentence, but Hale is taken off a train going to prison and lynched, off-screen. In the final scene, Griffin, the D.A., and the reporter who covers the case wonder if maybe Hale was innocent.

The script is not as good as that for Fury. The character detail of the townspeople is not as sharp. Hale is a bland character played by an even blander actor, Edward Norris. Joe is played by Spencer Tracy. You have heard of Tracy, you probably haven’t heard of Norris, and with good reason. Unlike Taylor’s writing and direction of The Help, there is no real Southern atmosphere here, in spite of a Memorial Day parade with veterans of the Civil War. In the bar, all the Southern layabouts are wearing suits, for God’s sake. There are a couple of strong scenes, probably written by Rossen, who went on to write All the King’s Men (1949) and The Hustler (1961). In one, the town’s leading citizens come to Griffin and ask him not to incite the public. He replies by reminding what each one of them has done to rile up the town. In another, a local lawyer comes to talk to the janitor to persuade him to tell the facts the way Griffin wants them told. The film’s director, Mervyn LeRoy, was proud of what he saw was the positive portrayal of an African-American, but he seems very stereotyped to us, at least after seeing The Help a week or so before, and Hold Your Man a few weeks before that. As written and played, the character is nothing but fearful. And LeRoy lets Claude Rains, dreadfully miscast as Griffin, chew more scenery than Warner Brothers could afford.

Not only is the script not a patch on Fury, but LeRoy’s direction is not a patch on Lang’s. I can’t agree with Ephraim Katz’s description of LeRoy’s career in The Film Encyclopedia as “on the whole distinguished.” He made a lot of successful movies, but very few of them are particularly well-directed. Little Caesar (1931) is very stolid except for Edward G. Robinson’s performance. I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) has a certain power, but it comes more from the script and Paul Muni’s performance than LeRoy’s direction. LeRoy made a lot of films and he was very likable personally. He was also very down to earth. Peter Ustinov played Nero in LeRoy’s 1951 Quo Vadis? and tried to get LeRoy’s take on the character. LeRoy’s comment on Nero was “He’s a guy who plays with himself nights.” Ustinov wrote in his memoir Dear Me, “At the time I thought it a preposterous assessment, but a little later I was not so sure. It was a profundity at its most workaday level, and it led me to the eventual conviction that no nation can make Roman pictures as well as the Americans.”

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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