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Understanding Screenwriting #84: Moneyball, Blackthorn, CSI, & More

And you thought baseball was a slo-o-o-ow game.

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Moneyball
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Coming Up In This Column: Moneyball, Blackthorn, Toast, Edna Ferber’s Hollywood (book), Arizona, Texas, CSI, Harry’s Law, Desperate Housewives, Suburgatory, but first…

Fan Mail: I pretty much knew when I was writing it that David Ehrenstein would take exception to my pan of A Single Man, and he did. What was interesting about his comments was that he spent so much time talking about Christopher Isherwood’s book. I am perfectly willing to believe everything David says about it and its importance in Isherwood’s life and career, but Ford and Scearce have not written a good script from it. I suspect the problem is that the novel is very interior (what is going on in George’s head during that day) and the screenwriters have not found a way to make that clear to the audience. As for Ford being a good director, I am not convinced, but I will give him one more film to persuade me.

Steven Maras, who wrote the terrific book Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice that I reviewed in US#38, sent me a couple of interesting items. You may not know that there is a Screenwriting Research Network that puts on a Screenwriting Research Conference every year or so. This year one of their guests was David Bordwell, one of the leading American film studies scholars. Bordwell wrote a blog item about the conference, which Steven sent me a link to. I found it, especially his opening comments, rather interesting coming from him. For years, he resolutely ignored screenwriting and screenwriters. His and his partner Kristin Tompson’s Film History: An Introduction, which is, as the title suggests, supposed to be an introductory text, hardly mentions screenwriters at all. It is only within the last ten years that he has begun to pay attention. He discusses in general terms in the blog why that’s so, without completely admitting he’s writing about himself. Then he gives you a nice view of some of the issues that come up in studying screenwriting. Bordwell and the Network and Conference are making the studying of screenwriting almost academically respectable. You can read the blog here.

Steven’s second item was sadder. He mentioned that Edward Azlant had passed away. That name may not mean much to you, but for those of us in business of studying the history of screenwriting, his unpublished 1980 dissertation, The Theory, History and Practice of Screenwriting 1897-1920 was essential. When I started work on my book FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film, his dissertation was one of the first things I looked at. After Steven wrote, I skimmed over the footnotes in the silent section of FrameWork, and I was surprised that there were so few citations, since it was an enormous help to me, and certainly pointed me to a lot of other sources that do show up in the footnotes. I met Eddie only once, in the summer of 1983. I had finished my sabbatical year in which I did a lot of research, particularly on the silent screenwriting. In the spring I had been at the Library of Congress comparing the Thomas Ince films to the Ince scripts. My wife and I were up in the Bay Area for the wedding of my cousin’s son, and we arranged to stop off in Los Gatos. Eddie was at the time the landlord of an apartment building his uncle had left him. He was delighted to get away from landlord problems for an hour or two and talk screenwriting. We talked about Ince, and the section on page 44 of FrameWork on the use of “O.K.” in the Ince scripts could almost been a verbatim transcript of our discussion. We were cackling like fiends trying to come up with all the possibilities of what the “O.K.’s” meant. We couldn’t stay long, since we had to get down to King’s Canyon National Park by nightfall, so his wife Joan, who was pregnant with their second child, made us some sandwiches to eat on the trip. That was the kind of people they were. Eddie read the silent screenplay section of my book and of course gave useful comments. A few years later I sent him a copy of the complete first draft, but it was sent back to me as undeliverable. I guess they had moved, and I never heard from him again. The obituary Steven sent a link to shows he had a very interesting life beyond film.

Moneyball (2011. Screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, story by Stan Chervin, based on the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game by Michael Lewis. 133 minutes.)

And you thought baseball was a slo-o-o-ow game: You can see why people wanted to make this movie. A lot of people. It’s been in development for years. It’s the true story of Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland A’s, who comes across a statistics whiz kid who shows him different ways to evaluate baseball players. That means that Beane, whose spending on buying players is severely limited by his owner, can get players who can help the team for small amounts of money. Nobody in the game immediately understands it, but eventually Beane puts together a winning season. And still doesn’t get any further in the playoffs than he did the year before.

Lewis’s book went into a lot more statistical analysis than the movie does, or could, so it was necessary to find the story, which I presume is what Chervin did. Zaillian did the early drafts with Sorkin coming in after a change in directors. I assume a lot of the great dialogue is from Sorkin, although since they are sitting down and not walking, it’s hard to tell. The script gets off to a good start. The A’s lose in the 2001 playoffs and their three top players leave for other teams. Beane goes in to talk to the owner, and they start talking in cliches, but we know they are cliches, and they know they are talking in cliches, which gives the scene a nice texture. Then the owner gets down to business and lets Beane know he is not going to have a lot of money to refurbish the roster. So Beane goes off to the Cleveland Indians management to talk some more cliches before getting down to trading players. He notices that the baseball guys and the management seem to be subtly deferring to Peter Brand, who even though Jonah Hill has slimmed down a lot, is obviously not an athlete or even an ex-athlete. Beane hires him as his assistant. They put Brand’s ideas into practice, and the scouts, the manager, and everybody else objects. For a long time. For a very long time. My wife dozed off for about 40 minutes during this section and did not really feel she missed anything. I am sure all those people did object, but we don’t have to watch it at this length.

The film picks up when Beane finally explains to everybody what he is doing and why. This film should be used in business schools as a starter discussion on management skills. Beane, in the film, could have sped up the process a lot by just letting people know what he was doing and why. Communication is an essential management tool. The management skill the film does show in a positive way is how to fire people. We get scenes of Beane doing it and a scene where Beane has Brand do it. I suppose business schools these days do have to teach their students how to fire people, as sad as that may be.

So soon everybody gets with the program and the team starts winning. They even have a twenty-game winning streak. But they lose in the playoffs again, and Beane has a nice scene where he explains that you do not really win unless you win the last game of the season, preferably in the World Series. Beane is played by Brad Pitt, who stayed with the project through several drafts of the script and at least a couple of directors. It’s easy to see why. It’s a great part for him, and both Pitt the movie star and Pitt the character actor show up. The problem I had with his performance is that, as with Kate Winslet’s in Mildred Pierce (US#74), there is too much of it. We get a lot more closeups of Pitt than we really need, which also slows down the film, and we also get more shots than we need of his Beane walking out through the tunnel into the open baseball field.

After the playoffs, Beane goes to Boston to talk to John Henry, the owner of the Red Sox. One of the trickiest things to do in screenwriting is to let the audience knows what something means. How do you show that? In this scene, Beane is still disappointed, but Henry points out to him that his system has changed baseball, because any team that ignores it will not be operating as intelligently as they can. An end title points out that the Red Sox won the World Series a couple of years later using Beane’s method. Right, but the A’s haven’t won since, and with almost every team using some variation on the system, everybody is as equal as you get in baseball. Which is not much.

Blackthorn (2010. Written by Miguel Barros. 98 minutes.)

Blackthorn

Whose Butch?: The opening titles give us the backstory. Butch Cassidy, along with the Sundance Kid, were famous outlaws in the old west. In 1901 they went to Bolivia where they were killed in a shootout in 1908, but there is some evidence, gone into at length in the titles, that they may have survived the shootout. And so this movie is going to be about Butch 19 years later and his efforts to get back to the United States. Finally the movie starts. William Goldman’s screenplay for the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid says in its opening title, “Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true.” Granted, the studio made them cut the “Not that it matters,” but it is still a more creative opening. Particularly since in 1969, nobody remembered who Butch and Sundance were. By 2010, we all know who they were. Paul Newman and Robert Redford don’t look a thing like the real characters, but if I say Butch Cassidy, you think Newman. Goldman’s version is part of our culture. Which means two things. One, you don’t need to tell us now who Butch and Sundance were. Two, if you are following in Goldman’s footsteps, you have an awfully big mountain to climb.

According to IMDb, this is Barros’s first feature screenplay and it’s not awful. I began to suspect as the film got going that he may have intended it to run without those opening titles. There is this older gringo in Bolivia who has been training horses. He writes a letter to his “nephew” (we eventually learn he is Etta Place’s son) saying he, Butch, is going to come back to the States. The letter is signed “Butch” but that may not have been enough on its own to let us know. The gringo sells his horses and on the way home is shot at by Eduardo, a Spanish guy who came to work in the tin mines. The gringo’s horse runs away with all his money, and Eduardo, who is likeable, persuades the gringo to go with him to an abandoned tin mine to retrieve a bunch of money he has stolen. Now wait a minute. In Goldman’s version, based on history, it was Butch who was the likeable one, and Sundance the restrained one. Here it’s reversed. Based on the script and Sam Shepard’s wonderfully laconic performance as the gringo, we would be more likely to believe he is Sundance than Butch. Why? Because the 1969 film has established, in the way movies do, what we think we know about those characters. And Barros is not yet a good enough screenwriter to overpower 42 years of Goldman’s script.

Eduardo and Blackthorn, as the gringo calls himself, go to the mine, get the money, and escape to Blackthorn’s shack. Two Bolivian peasant women ride up to the shack and tell Blackthorn they have found his horse and his money. And then they start shooting, killing Blackthorn’s girlfriend/cleaning woman, Yana. Given a big twist near the end, Barros really needed to make the point that these were peasant women, not Pinkerton agents or Federales or marshals, but it slips by in the action, since we are feeling for Yana’s death. Then Blackthorn and Eduardo are chased. A lot. They go across salt flats that look more like the Nefud in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) than Utah and Colorado in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Goldman keeps his chase in the second half-hour much more interesting than Barros does. The scenery here, as elsewhere in the movie, is gorgeous. If you miss this in a theater, at least watch it on a hi-def television. Do not watch it on your iPhone.

Barros actually one-ups Goldman in the last half-hour of the film. You may remember that the Superposse was just “those guys,” as in “Who are those guys?” We learn a name or two, but never meet them. Barros has created the wonderful character of McKinley, a Pinkerton agent who came to Bolivia when he was chasing Butch and Sundance years ago. He was not convinced they were killed in the shootout and he has stayed in Bolivia, becoming a sort-of part-time American consul and full-time drunk. After Blackthorn is wounded and brought into a local doctor, the doctor asks McKinley if this is the gringo he keeps referring to. Talk about Ahab coming face to face with the white whale, with the whale unconscious. As Butch begins to wake up, we get a great scene between him and McKinley, beautifully played by Stephen Rea. I am not sure I agree with Barros’s resolution of the scene and McKinley’s story, but it’s still a terrific scene, even though here, as elsewhere, his dialogue is not a patch on Goldman’s. Well, whose is?

Barros also includes some flashbacks of Butch, Sundance and Etta in their younger days. Not only is he going up against the skill of Goldman, but against the combined star power of Newman, Redford, and Katharine Ross. That was really a fool’s errand, since the flashbacks are not needed. We know whose Butch, Sundance and Etta are our Butch, Sundance and Etta.

Toast (2010. Screenplay by Lee Hall, based on a memoir by Nigel Slater. 92 minutes.)

Toast

And more…: I’m not much of a foodie. Being from the Midwest, I am a slabs-and-mounds guy, slabs of meat, mounds of potatoes. (And hamburgers—I am delighted to see House and this column picked up Wendy’s as a sponsor, at least for a week or two; I ate at a Wendy’s near LACC for forty years.) So I am not that much into foodie pictures, as my comments in US#31 on Julie & Julia made clear. This one, based on a memoir of Nigel Slater, a famous British chef I have never heard of, is a little charmer. It was shown on British television, then played film festivals and now has a mini-theatrical release.

We start with young Nigel, aged 9, in 1967. His Mum is not much of a cook at all. She boils the tins of veggies by putting the cans in boiling water. Her default food is toast, which she barely manages. But Nigel loves her. Then she dies. His Dad is a bit of a grump, but he eventually hires Mrs. Potter as a housecleaner. Nigel hates Mrs. Potter. She is always waving her rear end around, obviously trying to entice Dad into a little hanky panky. But she is a fabulous cook. And Nigel still hates her. I began to get worried at his point in the film, since Hall has established that Nigel might be gay. Nigel looks a little longingly at the young stud gardener as he strips down to nothing to change into his work clothes. Is Mrs. Potter one of those dreadful caricatures of women that gay writers create (see my comments on A Single Man in US#83)? No, Hall avoids that. Young Nigel seems to object to her because she is lower class. So he is a snob, but in Oscar Kennedy’s great performance, we love him anyway.

Unfortunately we jump ahead to Nigel’s teenage years, and the role is taken over by Freddie Highmore, who based on his early work as a child actor, should have been perfect for the part. He’s not. He’s turned into a sullen twerp, and he shows none of the charm Kennedy does. So our sympathy shifts a bit to Mrs. Potter. She is still married, but she has run off to the country with Mr. Potter. Rather than trying to learn her cooking secrets, teenaged Nigel gets into cooking contests with her for Dad’s favor. OK, granted she does not suggest they work together, so there may be some fault on her side, but she’s still a character we would rather watch by that point in the film than Nigel. When he leaves her after Dad dies, I was thinking good riddance (at least until the sound went off. The theater I was seeing it at had all kinds of problems, but it was very near the end of the film. If anybody who has seen it wants to write in and tell me what happens after Nigel walks out of the house with her following with a cake, please do).

Part of the reason we love Mrs. Potter is that she is spectacularly played by Helena Bonham Carter. I remember thinking, when Bonham Carter was appearing in all those E.M. Forster adaptations in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, that her career would be over when they ran out of Forster novels to film. Oh me of little faith. She has of course become a great character actress, and her full skill set is on display here.

Edna Ferber’s Hollywood: American Fictions of Gender, Race, and History (2010. Book written by J.E. Smyth. 337 pages)

She had me at Cimarron: J.E. Smyth is one of my favorite younger (compared to me) film historians. The first book she did was 2006’s Reconstructing American Historical Cinema From Cimarron to Citizen Kane. In it, Smyth looks at the historical films about America that Hollywood made from 1931 to 1941. What caught my attention right away is that Smyth figured out that if you are going to talk about the subjects of films, such as history, you are going to have to spend as much and probably more attention to the screenwriters than to the directors. And unlike older and/or more opportunistic academics, she seemed to have no hesitation about writing so much about screenwriters. Well, yes, it’s the writers who provide the content. In her first lengthy chapter on Cimarron in Reconstructing she spends pages writing about Howard Estabrook’s work on the screenplay, and not so much on the film’s director, Wesley Ruggles.

I suspect it was Smyth’s digging into Cimarron that got her involved in the work of Edna Ferber, who wrote the book the film was based on. Ferber was one of the most successful and popular American novelists of the twentieth century and she had more of her books made into more films, many of them more than once, than any other novelist of the period. There were three versions of Show Boat (1929, 1936, and 1951) alone. She did very little screenwriting herself, but kept a very close eye on the productions whenever possible. She worked out very impressive deals with the studios so the film nearly always had her name above the title, both on the film and in the ads.

As the subtitle of the new book notes, Ferber wrote about gender, race, and history, and Smyth is great at laying out what was in the novels and how that got changed by Hollywood, sometimes drastically, sometimes not so drastically. Jane Murfin did what Ferber thought was an adequate adaptation of Come and Get It (1936), but when Howard Hawks came in to direct, he brought in Jules Furthman to do a rewrite, which changed that characters and story around so their version became a typical bunch-of-guys-and-a-tough-dame script. The producer, Samuel Goldwyn, was upset by the changes, fired Hawks and Furthman, and brought in Murfin to do what she could and William Wyler to finish directing the film. On the other hand, a lot of what Ferber had in the novel of Giant (1956) survived in the film, and it was one of her more pleasant experiences, even if she had her usual quibbles. When I showed Giant to an American film history class I taught at UCLA in 1986, the class was astonished that a big budget American film dealt in such strong terms with both race and gender.

Great scholar that she is, Smyth has researched a variety of sources and collections, including not just Ferber’s papers, but studio files on the films. She also writes clearly, with virtually no academic gobbledy-gook. If she has a flaw, it is a minor one: she tends to take studio press releases at their word. She quotes the press book from the 1931 version of Cimarron as saying the studio spent $4,000 on books as the lead actor could prepare for his role. Don’t believe everything the press people tell you.

Ah, yes, one other thing for regular readers of this column. J.E. Smyth is the same Jennifer Smyth I mentioned in US#53 who got me to write an article for a book of essays she was editing. She couldn’t get my piece past the publisher’s readers, but I ended up getting it into the online journal Senses of Cinema. No hard feelings, Jennifer.

Arizona (1940. Screenplay by Claude Binyon, story by Clarence Buddington Kelland. 125 minutes.)

Arizona

Not Ferber: As I was reading Smyth’s book, this one showed up on TCM, along with the next one. Since this film was very obviously inspired by Cimarron, I thought I would give it a shot. In Cimarron, we follow the adventures of Sabra Cravat, a pioneer in the Oklahoma Territory in the 1890s through World War I. Her husband, Yancy, keeps wandering off to have adventures, and she runs the newspaper and gets involved in politics. In Arizona, we follow tough pioneer woman Phoebe Titus, who sets up a freight hauling business in the 1860s in Tuscon, while the man in her life, Peter Muncie, wanders off to have adventures. Ferber and Howard Estabrook took their history seriously, as well as their dealing with issues of race and gender. Clarence Budington Kelland was mostly a writer of light humor, best know at the time for his stories about Scattergood Baines, several of which were made into films. He is best known now as the author of the short story “Opera Hat,” which Robert Riskin turned into a great script for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Likewise, Claude Binyon was best known for his comedies. See anything in there that would make you think they could handle an epic western? Well, they can’t. There are some nice characters, including the occasionally drunk Judge Bogardus, played by Edgar Buchanan much like he plays a similar character 22 years later in Ride the High Country. But the characters are much lighter weight than those Ferber and Estabrook provide. The director of the film is Wesley Ruggles, whom you might remember directed Cimarron. His direction of Cimarron was not all that great, and his direction here is not either. He is in his serious Cimarron mode and doesn’t get as much out of the light touches Kelland and Binyon do provide as he could.

The picture was produced by Columbia, which was better known for its B westerns. This was an attempt to do an A western, hence following the Cimarron pattern. The studio built a replica of old Tuscon outside the real one just for this picture. The studio turned it over to the city after filming was completed, and it has been used in a million western movies and television shows. The original adobe buildings have been added to a lot, but if you watch westerns, it will look familiar to you.

Texas (1941. Screenplay by Horace McCoy & Lewis Meltzer & Michael Blankfort, story by Michael Blankfort & Lewis Meltzer. 93 minutes.)

TexasNow that’s more like it: You will notice that this one is 32 minutes shorter than Arizona. Shorter is better. Arizona must have been enough of a hit that Columbia figured they could take on another state. But the story and script for this one do not even pretend this is an epic, even though Texas is a much bigger state than Arizona. Instead we have a slightly lighter story of two friends, Dan and Tod, who start out in Kansas, work their way south, robbing a stagecoach robber and taking his money. They split up and when they meet sometime later Tod is helping a group of cattleman trying to avoid outlaws, one of whom is Dan. Shootouts occur.

The script moves a lot faster than Arizona’s, which wanders all over the state. The director here is George Marshall, who had done Destry Rides Again two years before, and since he knows this is not an epic, he brings that same light touch. And the script gives us a nice twist. We assume Edgar Buchanan, playing an occasionally drunk dentist, is just the comic relief, but it turns out he is one of the higher ups among the criminals.

Yes, the Horace McCoy who worked on this script and many other B westerns also wrote the novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They. Which is not a western. Lewis Meltzer has a couple of good credits on his resume, including The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) and The Brothers Rico (1957). And Michael Blankfort’s best credit is for a movie he didn’t write. He was the front for blacklisted Albert Maltz on the 1950 Broken Arrow. Aren’t you glad I am around to lead you through the thickets of writers’ credits?

CSI (2011. Multiple episodes. 60 minutes.)

CSI

Lighten up: CSI has always been a dark show. Well, searching through evidence of crimes, usually murders, will lead to that. The original leader of the CSI unit, Gil Grissom, cracked a slim smirk from time to time, but never an actual smile. His subordinates were pretty much the same. Well, Grissom left a couple of seasons ago, and the showrunners never seemed to be comfortable with promoting his second in command, Catherine Willows, to the top spot. They did last season, but kept undercutting her. Laurence Fishburne came in as Dr. Raymond Langston, but he was not the boss, and Fishburne’s command presence was not very effectively used. Fishburne left the show this year and now, at the start of the show’s 12th season, Catherine has been demoted and a new head is being brought. So the writing problem on the floor is: at this point in the series, who do you bring in and what qualities does he or she bring?

The season opener, “73 Seconds” (written by Gavin Harris), starts with the CSIs finding what look to be three bodies on the floor of a house. But one of the bodies gets up. He is D.B. Russell, the new head of the unit. He likes to lie where the bodies are to get a feel for what happened. Well, Grissom was into bugs, so this makes Russell just as weird as he was. Then in the middle of the investigation Russell’s wife calls and asks him to find out where there are any Farmer’s Markets in Las Vegas. And Russell does. This is the team’s first dealing with Russell, and a much more interesting introduction than if they all just had a meeting. Harris not only establishes Russell as a lighter character than Grissom, or Langston for that matter, but gives the other characters something to react to. At the end of the episode, Russell overhears Catherine talking to Nick Stokes that he has to be more by the book, since she has been demoted for being too easy on the crew. Russell overhears this and invites them all to breakfast with him. We don’t see the breakfast, which is a smart move on Harris’s part. There would be too much exposition that is going to be better if it is doled out in small doses over several episodes.

By “Maid Man” (written by Dustin Lee Abraham), the fourth episode of the season, Russell and the CSIs are pretty much in synch, and the humor that Russell, as played by Ted Danson, brings adds a new color to the series. In the A story, Oscar Goodman, the ex-mayor of Las Vegas playing himself, is shot, but survives because he is wearing a bullet-proof vest. Well, he was a lawyer who represented mob members. At the end of the episode he tells Russell and Brody, Russell’s boss, that he is going to represent the woman who shot him. Brody says that if he ever needs a lawyer, he wants Goodman. Russell replies, “I want his suit.” This episode also does something that I pinged on the season opening of Law & Order: S.V.U. (see US#83) for not doing. The B story starts out with what seems to be the Dominique Strauss-Kahn story: a Prince who visits Vegas often always asks for Maria, the same maid. She is found dead in his hotel room. But it turns out she was arranging to steal his jewelry with a friend of hers. Nice twist.

Harry’s Law (2011. Four episodes, all written by David E. Kelley. 60 minutes.)

Harry's Law

More reservations: In US#69 and 72 I wrote about this show in its first half season, and I expressed some reservations. I have even more now in the way Kelley has restructured the show. In the three-part season opener (“Hosana Roseanna,” “There Will Be Blood,” and “Sins of the Father”) Harry defends a rich man on charges of killing his wife. OK, but it’s like every other Kelley law show. And Harry is no longer in the former shoe store on the ground level. She and Adam, her young partner, have moved upstairs to what looks like a regular law office. Well, we’ve had regular law offices before (Kelley’s The Practice) and now (The Good Wife), so why another one? Yes, the shoe jokes got old, but if you are in a law office on the first floor, all kinds of interesting people will come charging through the front door. Jenna, whom Kelley never found a character for, now occasionally comes upstairs to announce something, but by episode four (“Queen of Snark”) she announced she was leaving, and we got a very unearned tearful goodbye scene. Meanwhile Adam has been sidelined, and Harry has brought in two more conventional attorneys, Cassie Reynolds and Ollie Richard, the later being played by Mark Valley exactly as he played Brad Chase in Boston Legal. And Tommy Jefferson, who in the first season had a big office of his own, has moved into the office space Harry is in, although they are still two different firms. Tommy is an OK character as the odd wild card from time to time, but he really does not fit into an ensemble show.

I think Kelley may be aware of the problems his changes have caused. In “Queen of Snark,” he has a long scene with Adam complaining to Harry that the office has changed too much. The speech may well have come from the actor playing Adam, Nathan Corddry complaining to Kelley. Kelley may do something about it, but for now he seems content to have turned a potentially interesting show into a copy of his previous shows.

Desperate Housewives (2011. Multiple episodes. 60 minutes.)

Desperate Housewives

No, really, they are desperate this season: At the end of last season, the cliffhanger the show left us with was that Carlos had killed Gaby’s stepfather, who threatened her. Needless to say, none of them went to the police, but buried the body in the woods, where characters on this show have been burying bodies for years. So this season they are beginning to work out the guilt they all feel, both for the killing and the hiding of the body. So we get some real desperation. Susan seemed to feel it the most, getting almost hysterical when she had to bury a dead hamster at the school where she works in “Secrets That I Never Wanted” (written by Bob Daily), the season opener. In “Making the Connection” (written by Matt Berry) Susan gets arrested for shoplifting and finds it an exciting way to deal with her guilt. She tries to get arrested again, but fails several times before succeeding. She can’t call Mike to pick her up, so she calls Carlos. They have a nice scene where it becomes clear that the two of them felt more guilt than the others. Susan and Carlos have never been friends, but this looked as though it might be in the cards. Unfortunately in the next episode, “Watch While I Revise the World” (written by John Paul Bullock III), Mike gets suspicious and Susan and Carlos explain what’s going on to him. Jeeze, guys, if it is your last season, go for broke.

Suburgatory (2011. Multiple episodes. 30 minutes.)

Suburgatory

Juno’s sister: As longtime readers of this column know, I am a Diablo Cody fan, and I particularly liked Juno (2007), so I got a little skittish when I watched the “Pilot” episode, written by the show’s creator, Emily Kapnek. We get the wise-assed voiceover from the snarky teen girl, Tessa in this case. Her father George, after finding a box of condoms in her drawer, decides to move the two them (her mom “pulled a Kramer vs. Kramer” on them) from the city out to the suburbs. As Tessa puts it, “A box of rubbers landed me in a town full of plastic.” So we are going to get Tessa’s take on the suburbs, and in the pilot the take seems even more exaggerated than it needs to be. One of their neighbor moms, Dallas Royce, is way over the top. But the writing and the acting begin to settle down in the following episodes. Like Juno, the show gives us a sympathetic parent in George, and even in the pilot, we get a lot of reaction shots of George and Tessa to each other. We get the feeling that they know they are in this together. So the show is not just fast, snarky voiceover and dialogue. In the second episode “The Barbeque,” written by Bob Kushell, Tessa finds herself attracted to a Big Man on Campus type, Ryan. Ryan happens to live across the street, and is the brother of Lisa, a nerdy type Tessa had an awkward run-in with in the pilot. Tessa and Lisa are now getting to be friends, but Tessa finds herself appalled that she is attracted to Ryan. Kushell writes some nice back-and-forth for Tessa as she tries to talk herself out of her crush. In “Don’t Call Me Shirley,” written by Patricia Breen, Ryan and Lisa’s mom’s collection of Shirley Temple dolls is stolen, leading to a fear of a crime spree in the ’burbs. This causes Dallas and her bitch daughter, Dalia, to descend on George and Tessa to spend the night. Breen has some nice stuff as Dallas tries to run George’s life her way. Again, not just dialogue, but characters and reactions. Worth a visit. Unless like some people you hated, HATED, HATED Juno.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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Film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sea Fever
Photo: Gunpowder & Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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The 20 Best Zombie Movies of All Time

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

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

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

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

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

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


Night of the Comet

20. Night of the Comet (1984)

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


The Living Dead Girl

19. The Living Dead Girl (1982)

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


They Came Back

18. They Came Back (2004)

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


Zombi Child

17. Zombi Child (2019)

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


Train to Busan

16. Train to Busan (2016)

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

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

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

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Nafi's Father
Photo: Locarno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Days of Cannibalism
Photo: Berlinale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 100 Best Westerns of All Time

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

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The 100 Best Westerns of All Time
Photo: United Artists

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

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

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

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

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

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


Drums Along the Mohawk

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

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


Tombstone

99. Tombstone (George P. Cosmatos, 1993)

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


True Grit

98. True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969)

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


Death Rides a Horse

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

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


The Violent Men

96. The Violent Men (Rudolph Maté, 1955)

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


Westward the Women

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

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


The Gold Rush

94. The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925)

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


Destry Rides Again

93. Destry Rides Again (George Marshall, 1939)

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


The Wind

92. The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1927)

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


Run of the Arrow

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

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

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Review: Vivarium Looks Aloofly at the Nightmare of Conformity

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

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Vivarium
Photo: Saban Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Resistance
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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Atlantis
Photo: Best Friend Forever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Red Moon Tide
Photo: Berlinale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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