Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein took grave exception to my observation that The Help was not just another “white person saves the day for black” viewpoint. My point was that the film goes beyond that. I realize there is a great split on that point, as about the film as well. I always love it when a film stirs up the kind on controversy The Help has. I think in this case it is because the film has gone some places other films have not, even if it has not gone as far as David and many, many others think it should. I’m looking forward to films that do go further than The Help, as much as I love that film.
“Denvercash77” asks what the “official opinion” of Slant is on The Help. My own view of that, and others who write and edit Slant and the House are free to disagree, is that both operations encourage a great variety of opinion about whatever we write about. That’s what leads to the kind of ongoing discussions David and I have had about nearly everything since he discovered “Understanding Screenwriting.” One of the things that writing my book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing re-enforced in me was the enormous variety of responses people can have to a single movie. And how even a single person’s response to a film can change over time, as we have seen in some of the “Summer of ’86” pieces. There is no “official opinion,” especially in a blog like the House. If you want an “official version,” read the New York Times. They specialize in that sort of thing. We don’t.
Amigo (2010. Written by John Sayles. 128 minutes)
Are water buffalos this year’s Ishtar? Ishtar was the Babylonian goddess of fertility, war and sex. You would think with a resume like that, she’d be big in pictures. Unfortunately, no. She is one of the goddesses prayed to in D.W. Griffith’s 1916 Intolerance, which was not a hit. And she lent her name as the title for Elaine May’s 1987 disaster. Well, water buffalos are turning into this year’s Ishtar. First there is a long series of shots at the beginning of Uncle Boonmee (2010), which you may remember from US#72 did not put me in the contemplative mood the film intended. Then a couple of weeks later oxen, the American equivalent, showed up in the opening of Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and that one ended badly, or rather didn’t end at all, but just stopped. So you can imagine my trepidation when one of the opening shots of Amigo has an honest-to-God water buffalo. Unfortunately water buffalo movies are 0-for-3 this season.
I love John Sayles, his scripts, and his films. His 1979 Return of the Secaucus Seven started the indie film movement of the last thirty years by being a fresh, inventive look at the ‘60s generation. Aside from a bad experience with Paramount on Baby, It’s You in 1983, he has avoided dealing with the major studios, except for doing script doctoring on films like Apollo 13 (1995). He writes and directs on his own films, selecting the kind of stories that nobody else is telling. The hallmarks of his films are his ability to write an enormous range of characters and his great ear for dialogue. The flaws in his films is that he is not as accomplished a director as he is as a screenwriter, and he can get overly preachy on the liberal side of the pulpit.
Amigo has none of his virtues and all of his flaws. It’s the story of the involvement of the U.S. Army in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. We are with a small group of soldiers who are asked to pacify a village in the middle of the jungle. The Americans are very standard-issue ugly Americans, or if not ugly, certainly naïve. None of them pop off the screen the way Sayles’s characters usually do. Nor do the Filipino characters. The head man of the village and the leading man of the film is Rafael, played by Filipino star Joel Torre with, alas, a very 2010 movie star haircut. Sayles is ordinarily good at getting into characters from other cultures, but not with Rafael. The rest of the villagers are not particularly distinctive either. Compare them to the ensembles in Sayles’s films such as City of Hope (1991), Lone Star (1996) and Sunshine State (2002). So we spend a lot of time with the characters, both American and Filipino, but they are not very interesting to hang out with. The dialogue is alas Sayles in his preachy mode, and the insights Lt. Compton, the officer heading the unit, comes up with are about what you would expect and very bland.
Sayles’s direction does not make the best of what the script provides. I kept thinking of the hypnotic spell Terrence Malick cast with another group of American soldiers in the jungle in The Thin Red Line (1998). Were there any water buffalos in Thin Red Line?
So, John, sorry I didn’t like this one, but I will be there for your next one. Unless it is entitled The Water Buffalos of Ishtar. There are limits, even for me.
Circumstance (2011. Written by Maryam Keshavarz. 107 minutes)
Just your typical below-average Persian Lesbian romance: Although there are no water buffalos in this film, it still gets off to a bad start. We are in Tehran and hanging out with two teenage girls, Atafeh and Shireen. They are best friends forever, they dream of going away somewhere else where they will have more freedom (cue fantasy scenes), they flirt with boys, they flirt with each other. But their flirting with each other is written and more crucially directed by Keshavarz so that it seems more serious than it might be. So we get that there will be a lesbian romance. This is Keshavarz’s first feature as a writer and director, and she doesn’t get the tone right in this scene, which gives away way too soon what the movie is about. So the film then spends way more time than it needs to with the girls larking about while we are a good twenty to thirty minutes ahead of the movie. The first hour has a lot of stuff we don’t have to know. This is a typical first-timer’s mistake, assuming we need a lot more exposition than we do. How quickly do you think it takes Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson to do the following in the opening of Lawrence of Arabia (1962): Lawrence dies; there is service more him; we meet Brighton, Allenby, Bentley, the Medical Officer, and Murray; we learn they all have different views of Lawrence; and we get to Cairo? Five minutes and forty seconds, and that includes the credits.
We do get some amusing scenes with the two girls hanging out with sort-of boyfriends. The guys take them to a hidden video store where they watch Milk (2008), which leads them to a dubbing session (how? Not clear) in which they are dubbing the sex scenes of Sex and the City (2008) into Farsi. These are amusing scenes, but what movie are they from? They don’t seem to be from this one, at least as written and played. And they are not so good that you can’t not include them, although presumably Keshavarz thought so. You’ve got to kill all your darlings, kid. Several scenes give us a look at Iranian culture, but not with any depth or freshness. At the end of the film, some of the credits mention this was developed in the Sundance Institute. We know the development process in Hollywood can flatten out scripts for studio films, but the same thing can happen in indie development as well. The dubbing scenes probably played well in a workshop and the assumption was they would work in the film. Likewise, the assumption on the development level was that the story of two girls in Tehran who become lovers was going to be enough to carry the picture. It’s not, and a whole lot more sharpening of the script in terms of character and plotting needed to be done.
Having said that, the film begins to pick up in the last half hour. Atafeh’s brother, Mehran, has come out of either jail or rehab, and is now a member of the Morality Police. He rats out the girls (not for their lesbianism, but because they drive around in cars with boys) to the Morality Police. That’s even though he has the hots for Shireen (whom he has sexual dreams about—one nice shot in the film is his reaction to waking up from one of those dreams). Merhan manipulates the situation so that her family is glad to marry her off to Mehran to keep her out of trouble. Atafeh and Shireen are miserable about this, since it never occurs to them they can use their situation as sisters-in-law to continue their romance. Mehran has set up surveillance cameras in his house and he catches Atafeh being emotionally if not sexually intimate with Shireen. Atafeh finds the cameras and what he has recorded, but doesn’t do much with the information. She goes to Shireen and asks her to leave Tehran and go to their dream county, Dubai. (These are not worldly girls.) Their final scene ought to be a killer, but there is nothing there. Atafeh asks, Shireen doesn’t do or say anything, and we see Atafeh leaving in a car. I suspect part of the problem is that while Nikohl Boosheri, who plays Atafeh, has a lively presence on camera, Sarah Kazemy, who plays Shireen, is beautiful but completely unexpressive. She is not up to what should have been the demands of the scene.
The Debt (2010. Screenplay by Mathew Vaughn & Jane Goldman and Peter Straughn, based on the screenplay for the film Ha-Hov by Assaf Bernstein & Ido Rosenblum. 114 minutes)
Finally, I picked a good one to go see: I have no complaints about the first ten minutes or so of this one. We are introduced to the young versions of Rachel, Stephan and David, three Mossad agents in 1966, who have come back to Israel after killing the notorious Dieter Vogel, the notorious “Surgeon of Birkenau.” Then we get introduced to the same characters in 1997, who are celebrating the publication of a book by Rachel and Stephan’s daughter about the mission. At the celebration Rachel reads aloud the passage where Vogel is killed and we see it acted out in flashback. And we see the older David throw himself in front of a truck rather than go to the celebration. No nonsense about us being twenty minutes ahead of the film, it’s way ahead of us, and we are running to catch up.
Finally we settle into a lengthy flashback sequence of the mission in 1965-66. The Israeli version this one is based on has less of the flashbacks and focuses more on the older characters. (I have not seen the Israeli film, but Michele Gendelman, a screenwriter and colleague of mine at LACC—she has taken over my screenwriting course—has, and points of comparison come from her.) The three younger agents are in East Berlin (West Berlin in the Israeli version; the writers of the new version are making it more difficult for the agents), and Rachel, on her first field mission, is required to identify Vogel, who is now a kindly gynecologist. The examination sequences, also in the Israeli version, are even more squirm-inducing that the dentist scenes with Szell in Marathon Man (1976). The plan is to kidnap Vogel, put him on a trolley stop in East Berlin that is nominally closed because it is part of the West Berlin rail system. See the advantage of East Berlin? In a great hair-raising sequence not in the earlier version, the transfer goes wrong and the trio is stuck with Vogel in a small apartment. The pressure on all the characters, including Vogel, builds up until he escapes, as we saw in the earlier flashback. Except this time Rachel does not shoot him. He gets away, and the trio decides to tell their bosses that they killed him and got rid of the body. They come home as heroes, which they remain to this day, telling their story to future generations. Yes indeed, this is a classic “When the legend becomes the truth, print the legend” situation.
Making a movie in which the same character is played at two different ages is enormously difficult. You have to write both versions of the characters so we believe them not only in their own scenes, but that the young ones will become the older ones. Movie after movie geeks that. In the 1994 version of Little Women, I just never believed that Kristen Dunst’s young Amy would grow up to be Samantha Mathis’s older Amy. The best example of it working is Kate Winslet as the young Iris and Judi Dench as the older Iris in Iris (2001). The Debt comes close to that standard, and does it with three sets of characters. The younger Rachel is on her first assignment, still a little green, but up to the job. The older Rachel is a tough cookie. We see the beginnings of that in the young Rachel, and the writers give us a one-off, a nice single scene set in 1970 in which we see the young Rachel, now married to Stephan, turning brittle. It helps of course that you have the fabulous Jessica Chastain (is there nothing this actress can’t do?) as the young Rachel, giving an even better performance than she does in The Help. It’s also useful to have Helen Mirren as the older Rachel, so that when we come out of the long flashback Mirren is there to grab us into the modern story.
The quality of the writing and casting extends to the two men. When I first saw Martin Csokas and Sam Worthington as the young Stephan and David, respectively, I thought they should have been playing the other parts. Worthington physically looks more like Tom Wilkinson, who plays the older Stephan, and Csokas looks more like Ciarán Hinds, who plays the older David. But the emotional temperature of the actors are perfectly matched. The casting works, as it does with Chastain and Mirren. The characters at both ages are so beautifully written (the film is as much a character study as a thriller) that we believe everybody at every age.
So then what happens? Why did David kill himself? Because he learned that there is an old man in a hospital in Ukraine claiming to be…Vogel. This happens a lot earlier in the Israeli version. Stephan, now high up in the Mossad, can’t go tie up loose ends because he is in a wheelchair. David is dead, and that leaves…Rachel. After all, she’s the one who had the gynecological exam from Vogel. So she goes off, breaks into several offices (I thought she was retired from the service, but once a sneaky one, always a sneaky one), and the hospital room and discovers the man…is not Vogel. Whew! Don’t get up to leave just yet…
The Guard (2011. Written by John Michael McDonagh. 96 minutes)
And another entertaining one: You know a picture has you when you start laughing before anybody says anything. A carload of probably drunken young Irish kids are zipping down the highway, rock and roll blaring. Their car zips past a cop car. The camera stays on the cop in the car, Sergeant Gerry Boyle. He makes no move to give chase. We hear a crash off-screen. Boyle has no reaction. The audience laughs. He turns his car’s engine on and goes to investigate. There are bodies all over the road. He checks A) to see if they are dead, and B) their pockets to see which of their drugs he wants to keep for himself. What we have here is a small town Irish Andy Sipowitz, and he is going to be even more fun to watch.
John Michael McDonagh is the brother of playwright (Beauty Queen of Leenane, Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Pillowman) Martin McDonagh. As a filmgoer you know Martin McDonagh best from his writing and directing In Bruges (2008). If that film’s combination of language foul and otherwise, comedy, and violence appealed to you as it did to me, you are going to feel right at home with The Guard. It helps that this McDonagh uses his brother’s favorite actor, Brendon Gleeson, to play Boyle. It appears that the McDonagh brothers and Gleeson are going to be one of those writer-actor combinations like Loos and Harlow (see US #79). Not only has this McDonagh written another great part for Gleeson, he has made it a little deeper than the ones his brother has given him.
Although it may seem like it at the beginning of the film, there is more to the film than just Boyle being a character and offending everybody with his language and behavior. We are afraid in the opening scenes this is going to be an old cop/young cop movie, but the young cop leaves the picture abruptly. Boyle is soon partnered up with a prissy—compared to him—African-American F.B.I. agent Wendell Everett. That produces scenes that are more interesting than the ones with the young cop. Everett is in Ireland investigating the possible landing of a drug smuggling boat with $500 million worth of drugs (and listen to the fun McDonagh has with that number in the dialogue). It turns out that for all Boyle’s vices, he is one of the few honest cops in the neighborhood, maybe in Ireland, which leads to a wonderful line about the impossibility of bribing Americans. At least compared to the Irish.
As the plot gets more complicated, we continue to laugh, especially at Don Cheadle’s reactions of Everett to Boyle’s excesses. McDonagh, who also directed, understands as did Buster Keaton that the reaction to something is just as funny or funnier than the thing itself. In addition, McDonagh is sneaking up on us. We begin to see that Boyle is facing some serious moral and ethical decisions, and since we like him as a character so much, we emotionally involved in his choices. He and Everett get into a shootout with the bad guys, and it appears that Boyle has either died in the fire on the boat, or else drowned. Except that a twerpy little kid reminds Everett of some stuff we thought was just one-offs and typical Boyle bullshit. Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn’t, and McDonagh leaves it very, very open at the end. Sometimes, and this time is one of them, not knowing is the most satisfying ending of them all.
Tough as Nails: The Life and Times of Richard Brooks (2011. Book written by Douglass K. Daniel. 249 pages)
A disappointment: In US#73 I mentioned this book when I talked about two Richard Brooks films that showed up in a retrospective of Brooks films at the UCLA Film Archives. I finally got around to reading it and I have to say it is second rate. But that’s not third, fourth, or fifth rate as so many film books are.
As the subtitle says, it is about Brooks’s life and films. The films pretty much were his life, since he was a workaholic from the get-go. He was a journalist, both in print and radio before World War II, then wrote a novel called The Brick Foxhole while still in the service. It was eventually made into Crossfire (1947), but with the murder victim changed from a homosexual in the novel to a Jew in the film. Brooks’s first big credit, as I mentioned in US#78, was Key Largo (1948), and he soon landed at MGM and began directing in the early ‘50s. His filmography includes Blackboard Jungle (1955), Elmer Gantry (1960), The Professionals (1966) and In Cold Blood (1967).
Daniel does give us a lot of details about the films, mostly about Brooks directing, since that produces lively quotes about him being a holy terror on the set. But there is also good material about the writing. Sinclair Lewis, the author of the novel of Elmer Gantry, told Brooks to read the reviews of the book, which Lewis thought had pointed out many legitimate flaws in the book. Brooks did and it helped him focus the material for the film. Daniel is good on the way Brooks dealt with the censorship of the time in adapting two Tennessee Williams play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), whatever you may think of the results.
Although Daniel had a researcher working on digging up stuff, Daniel, whose two previous books are about television, doesn’t seem that well versed in film history. He mentions that a minor Brooks script, To the Victor (1948) was filmed on location in Paris, “an extravagance for the time,” but that was a period when Hollywood was beginning to shoot on locations, particularly overseas ones, a lot. Daniel writes that “By the summer of 1947 the House Committee on Un-American activities…was preparing for hearings…” HUAC had been looking into Communism in Hollywood for several years, and in fact had some hearings in Los Angeles in the spring of 1947. And nobody seems to have caught the irony of Robert Black having a line in In Cold Blood about a bunch of trash being the treasure of the Sierra Madre. Blake appeared in the Huston film as a child actor.
Daniel is also a very sloppy writer. Blackboard Jungle was released in 1955. Daniel writes, “The biggest controversy erupted that fall when the Venice Film Festival selected Blackboard Jungle for exhibition. (It had been awarded a diploma of merit at the Edinburgh Film Festival the previous November.)” OK, what year did it go to Venice and what year did it go to Edinburgh? It’s not clear in the book.
This book is part of the Wisconsin Film Studies series from the University of Wisconsin Press, which produced the excellent Glenn Lovell biography of John Sturges I have mentioned. The series editor is Pat McGilligan, whom I think almost as highly of as I do John Sayles, but it looks like McGilligan and Sayles, like Homer, are nodding this time around. Make up your own water buffalo joke here.
The Spy in Black (1939. Screenplay by Emeric Pressburger, scenario by Roland Pertwee, based on the novel by Storer Clouston. 82 minutes)
The beginning of a beautiful relationship: Pressburger was a Hungarian screenwriter who worked in Germany before escaping to France in 1934 and then to Britain in 1936. He is best known for his long-time collaboration with director Michael Powell on such elaborate and exotic films as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). But even they started small. This film is their first collaboration.
In the summer of 1938 Pressburger had already written one script for Alexander Korda, the Hungarian producer working in England. Korda called him into the office one day. Korda said he did not have any more work for him, unless (Pressburger later said, “I was soon to learn that with Korda there was always an ’unless’”) he might like to try to save a project called The Spy in Black. Korda and London Films had the great German actor Conrad Veidt under contract. Veidt’s place in film history was already secure with his classic performance as Cesare, the somnabulist, in the 1919 German film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Veidt had also left Germany in the ‘30s and ended up in London, but nobody could find a project for him. Korda and his American executive producer on loan from Columbia Pictures had tried to get a script, but nothing worked, probably because there was no obvious part in the novel for Veidt. Pressburger was given the latest script, by Roland Pertwee, and came into a meeting a few days later with Asher (the American), Pertwee, Korda and Michael Powell, who had already made a name for himself with the 1936 film The Edge of the World.
Pressburger proceeded to outline a totally new story that had almost no relationship to the novel. It not only was a better story, but it had a great part for Veidt. Asher and Pertwee were furious, but Korda assigned Pressburger and Powell to work on the script with Veidt. Pertwee’s name stayed on the credits, although very little of his work remained in the script. (This backstory is from Pressburger’s grandson Kevin Macdonald 1994 biography, Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter. Macdonald’s comment on Pertwee’s credit is that “Throughout the Thirties the writing credits on British films are often better fiction than the films themselves.” True in America as well, as we have discussed.)
The story they came up with has Veidt as Captain Hardt, a German submarine captain in World War I. (There is no submarine captain in the novel; the spy is a minister.) He is assigned a mission to go to the Orkney Islands, off the upper tip of Scotland, and make contact with a woman who is a German spy (a variation on the minister in the book). She knows a drunken traitorous British Naval officer who will give her the sailing orders for the British fleet. She will pass this on to Hardt, who will then be able to torpedo the British ships. But the Brits have discovered the plot and replaced the German spy with a British one. And she and Hardt develop an attraction.
What Pressburger brings to the script is a wonderful light touch. The film is very much in the tradition of the British Hitchcock movies of the late ‘30s, but there is more warmth and feeling than Hitch managed. We first meet Hardt when he is coming off a long mission, and he and his First Mate go into a fancy restaurant in Germany hoping for a great meal. But the restaurant is out of everything they want. We get that Hardt is cool and sophisticated as well as in charge. We are then introduced to Anne Burnett, the teacher going to the Orkney Islands that Hardt is to meet. Unfortunately, either the writing, or the cinematography, or just the print TCM showed leaves us very confused as to what happens to her. She’s kidnapped, but by the Germans or the British? And when she shows up on the islands, is it the same woman? The actresses look a lot alike, but they are different. The explanation of what happened comes much later in the film, and makes even less sense than the kidnapping scenes in the dark, as well as not being particularly believable. But then Hardt and the teacher, now played by a young and glowing Valerie Hobson, meet, and the movie takes off. Powell, whose Edge of the World was acclaimed for its location filming, wanted to shoot on the islands, but Asher, watching the American money that made up some of the budget, refused. Powell was eventually allowed three days of shooting on the islands, but with none of the cast.
When it turns out the teacher is in fact an English counterspy, Hardt becomes a tough, but not mean, military leader, trying to escape, commandeering a ferry, and trying to rescue some trapped German sailors. He fails of course, and the teacher looks noble as she realizes she has done the right thing for King and Country.
The Spy in Black was shot in late 1938 and released August 12, 1939. Within a month World War II had started and what had been a light thriller was now one of the first wartime propaganda films. And sometimes you get even luckier: In October the British battleship Royal Oak was sunk, probably by a German submarine, off the Orkneys. OK, not lucky for the men on the ship, but for the box office. Let’s keep our priorities straight here, folks.
Contraband (1940. Screenplay and Original Story by Emeric Pressburger, scenario by Michael Powell and Brock Williams. 92 minutes)
We’ll always have the Three Vikings: Needless to say, after the success of The Spy in Black, Korda and everybody else thought the team should make another one. So Pressburger came up with the script for this. (I have no idea what the “scenario” credit is in this case. On Spy it was to give a credit to an earlier writer; here it may be something more like a shooting script that Powell worked out with Williams, a journeyman writer with no distinguished credits. See Macdonald’s comment above on screenwriting credits; he makes no mention of Williams in his book.) He could not make Veidt a sympathetic German after the war started, so he is now Captain Andersen, a Danish sea captain, whose cargo ship is stopped by the British Contraband Control. The first twenty minutes or so of the film is almost a documentary on the Contraband Control offices and how they work, part of the propaganda aspect of the film. Powell was now able to get outdoors, and the ship sequences are great to look at it. It helps of course that he has F.A. Young as his cinematographer. If you don’t know who he is and what he did later, look him up.
While the ship is at anchor, Mrs. Sorensen, a Danish woman who has been living in America, gets off the ship, along with Mr. Pidgeon, a talent scout who is always reading Variety. Mrs. Sorensen has snitched the leave papers the Brits gave to Captain Andersen. So Andersen goes ashore and tracks her down. We get a lot of scenes of Veidt and the still young and glowing Valerie Hobson doing all the charming stuff that Pressburger writes for them. By now the three knew each other well, and Pressburger put in stuff based on what he knew of them. The couple ends up at a restaurant called The Three Vikings; typical in-joke: Pressburger making fun of Veidt’s problem with English pronunciation, as he did in Spy, in this case with the word “viking.” The restaurant was a virtual duplicate of one Veidt and Hobson ate at in real life. The restaurant is run by the twin brother of Andersen’s first officer, although he and the staff seem more like natives of Pressburger’s Hungary than Danes.
About halfway into the picture, the spy stuff starts. Mrs. Sorensen and Mr. Pidgeon as well turn out to be spies, tracking down a German spy ring in London. Action ensues, including a fight in a warehouse filled with busts of Neville Chamberlain. Andersen uses one to knock out a bad guy, then says, “I always thought he was tough.” In both Spy and even more so here, Pressburger has written scenes that let Powell and his crew develop a German Expressionistic visual style. Well, if you have the star of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it makes sense to surround him with a look that he will feel at home in. Here the film uses the fact that the blackouts have started at the beginning of the war to add to the visual subtlety. The film grossed more than Spy. Pressburger and Powell would move from these two into more expressionistic films. Hobson later went on to star in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and marry politician John Profumo, the swine. And what of Veidt?
Escape (1940. Screenplay by Arch Oboler and Marguerite Roberts, based on the novel by Ethel Vance. 104 minutes)
Round up the usual suspect: Veidt came to America. Contraband was released in England on May 11, 1940, but not in America until the end of November. In he meanwhile Veidt had made Escape, which was released in early November 1940. The film was based on a best-selling novel about an American who goes to Germany (although the country is never mentioned by name in the film; the Swastikas do give it away though) to try to track down his mother. She was German born, as was Mark, the American. She returned to Germany, but he has lost track of her. She is in fact not only in a concentration camp but soon to be executed. Mark makes friends with the Countess, an American woman who is the mistress of General von Kolb. Guess which part Veidt plays?
Arch Oboler was best known for the radio show Lights Out, which started in the ‘30s and continued through the mid-‘40s. Which may explain why the first hour or so of Escape, his first screenplay, is so bloody talky. The director is Mervyn LeRoy (see US # 79), who by this time had moved over to MGM from Warners. His directorial style had become more typically MGM: slow and stately, with lots of Jack Conway-type two-shots of actors talking nose to nose. LeRoy says in his autobiography Take One that Veidt was his original choice for the role, but was unavailable. LeRoy started shooting with Paul Lukas, but had to let him go, since the part was not right for him. Boy, that’s the truth. Von Kolb is a general, but not a Nazi, and is rather disdainful of the Nazis. In his earliest scenes, he shows the charm that Veidt showed in the two Pressburger films. Veidt was a hell of a lot more charming on screen than Lukas, who had other skills. The combination of charm and threat was necessary for the part, since the Countess was being played by Mrs. Thalberg herself, Norma Shearer. We have to see that von Kolb has some appeal, and Veidt gives him that. In terms of the balance of the film, he gives him too much. Mark is played by Robert Taylor, who never seemed more like a block of wood than he does here. Everybody else is livelier than he is, but Veidt especially. Pauline Kael, as she often did, pretty much got it right when she wrote that “the villain is so much more attractive than the hero that the whole thing turns into a feeble and overproduced joke.”
The film is a little better than that in the second half, which I suspect was written by Roberts, our old friend from Ambush (1950, see US#45) and True Grit (1969, see US#67). Mark, with help of assorted people, arranges to get his mother out of the camp. The camp doctor gives her a drug that makes her appear dead, then signs the death certificate. An old friend of Mark’s, who has been established as the person who carts the coffins out of the camp, arranges to take this coffin. Circumstances force them to go to the Countess’s house. Guess who shows up there? The scenes in the house should be a lot more suspenseful on screen than they are. Think of the final twenty minutes of Notorious (1946) and you can see what they could have been. I ping on Charles Bennett’s Fat English Friend, but the son of a bitch could direct.
Veidt does get a nice death scene, with Shearer, livelier than usual, talking him into a fatal heart attack. MGM really was too genteel a studio for Veidt. He soon moved to Warner Brothers, where he went head to head with Humphrey Bogart, a more fitting adversary than, eew, Robert Taylor. And in his second to last film before his death at the age of 50, Cesare of Dr. Caligari got something not many actors get: a second role that secured his place in film history. He was Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942).
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
Review: Nafi’s Father Is a Raw and Immediate Look at a Collison of Faith
The film vibrantly articulates all that’s lost when people are held under the draconian decree of warlords.3
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.
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
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
The 100 Best Westerns of All Time
The western has proved itself a durable and influential way of talking about the human condition.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Review: Vivarium Looks Aloofly at the Nightmare of Conformity
This a parable about adulthood boasts deeply cynical takes on home, community, and childrearing.2
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
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
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
Review: Atlantis’s Future Vision Grapples with a Past That Never Was
The film’s use of scale to drive home the absurdity of its characters’ actions recalls Werner Herzog’s tragicomic existentialism.3
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
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.3
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
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.3
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
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.3
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