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Understanding Screenwriting #93: The Deep Blue Sea, A Separation, Pauline Kael, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #93: The Deep Blue Sea, A Separation, Pauline Kael, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Deep Blue Sea, A Separation, The Forgiveness of Blood, The Kid With a Bike, Salt of Life, Letters to Young Filmmakers: Creativity & Getting Your Film Made (book), Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (book), but first…

Fan Mail: I will take David Ehrentstein at his word that he was serious about Mandingo (1975) is one of the best films about race in America, but I am not sure anybody else will. On Smash’s Ellis I don’t think I made it clear that I think he is bi as well. And I agree completely with David that the “Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking” number is the best one so far in Smash. That episode had not shown up at the time I wrote US#92. Interesting though that they only showed the rehearsal/audition version and did not cut to the fully produced number as they sometimes do. Well, some people can look forward to seeing all those chorus boys in just their towels.

The Deep Blue Sea (2011. Screenplay by Terence Davies, adapted from the play by Terence Rattigan. 98 minutes.)

Terence, meet Terence: Terence Rattigan (1911-1977) was one of the leading British playwrights of the middle of the twentieth century. The period of his greatest success was from 1946 to 1956. His dramas were literate and restrained, usually about members of the upper class stifling their emotions. His work became almost instantaneously unfashionable with the arrival of the Angry Young Men playwrights like John Osborne. But even before his death, Rattigan’s reputation began to regain some of its luster, as did the reputation of his contemporary Noël Coward, and for some of the same reasons. Both wrote dramas about people with restrained emotions, which gives actors a lot of subtext to play. Both were also extraordinary theatrical craftsmen, especially in the area of dramatic structure.

The stage version of The Deep Blue Sea was produced in both London, where it was a hit, and New York, where it was not, in 1952. Rattigan himself wrote the screenplay for the 1955 film version. (He also wrote original screenplays for such films as Breaking the Sound Barrier [1952], The V.I.P.s [1963], and The Yellow Rolls Royce [1964].) The play takes place over 24 hours in a furnished flat in North-West London. Hester Collyer, the wife of a judge, William Collyer, has left him for a passionate affair with former RAF pilot Freddie Page. That relationship has not worked out, and she has tried to kill herself. There is a lot of exposition before we even meet Hester, and then dramatic scenes with her and William and Freddie. In the 1955 screenplay, there is an attempt to “open up” the play by including a trip to Switzerland. Well, the film was made in the early years of CinemaScope. It didn’t help, although there are those that love Vivien Leigh’s performance as Hester.

The current film version was the inspiration of its producer Sean O’Conner. He had known the director of the original stage production and thought a new film could help celebrate the 100th anniversary of Rattigan’s birth. O’Conner went to the Rattigan estate and they approved the idea. O’Conner then went to writer-director Terence Davies, noted for his deeply nostalgic films about Britain in the postwar period (Distant Voices, Still Lives in 1988, The Long Day Closes in 1992). Davies did a first draft screenplay, and the Rattigan estate’s reaction to it was “Be radical!” So he was. (The background details on the film are from a group of articles about it in the December 2011 issue of Sight & Sound.) The play begins with a lot of exposition about Hester and her situation. Davies has condensed that into nine minutes of visuals giving us quick scenes of what happened to Hester before the suicide attempt. It is a much more cinematic way to cover the same material. And it does not spell everything out for us the way Rattigan the playwright felt compelled to do in the ‘50s.

Davies as the director lays on the nostalgia about the period a little thicker than he needs to. There is a brief sequence in the Aldwych tube station that is a direct steal from one of the final scenes in Brief Encounter (1945), but if you look at Brief Encounter, it does not fetishize the period as Davies does. And Davies makes it worse in the middle of the scene by throwing in a flashback to a group of people using the station as an air raid shelter during the war, singing along on a chorus of “Molly Malone.” It’s a very Terence Davies image (a single long traveling shot), but it is a complete interruption to the film. Oddly enough, Davies is at his best in the scenes that come straight from the play (or at least seem to; more about that in a minute). Davies carries into his script Rattigan’s sympathy with all of the three major characters, so in any given scene any one of them, or all of them, may be right. With Davies’s skillful direction of the actors, Rattigan’s dialogue scenes become the most moving elements in the film.

In the film we get flashbacks, and one of them is a total invention on Davies’s part. But it feels completely at home in a Rattigan film. The scene has Hester and William visiting William’s mother, who is not only unpleasant to Hester, but to William as well. Davies places this scene in the film nicely, so we are surprised and amused later to learn he is a judge. The scene came out of Davies’s experience living with a woman (“I thought the love of a good woman might cure my homosexuality, which of course was not the case!”) and visiting her mother. Davies turned her into William’s mother, and out of a terrible weekend, he got a great scene. As Phoebe Ephron told her daughter Nora, “Take notes. Everything is copy.”

A Separation (2011. Written by Asghar Farhadi. 123 minutes.)

A Separation

Judge Judy in Farsi: Nader and his wife Simin are arguing in front of a judge in Iran, but for most of this opening scene we only see them, facing the camera, making their cases to us as well as the judge. Simin wants to take their teenage daughter Termeh to live in another country, where she feels there is more opportunity. Well, as a feminist and democrat, I think she’s right, of course. But Nader feels he has to stay in Iran and take care of his father, who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s. As someone who has dealt with elderly relatives, I think he’s right too. So Farhadi, who also directed, is setting up the best kind of drama: not good versus evil, but good versus good. You have heard me talk at great length on many, many occasions about the importance of the opening scene of the film and how crucial it is to set up the world of the film. Boy, this scene does that in spades.

But there is a flaw in the opening scene that continues through the film. Nader and Simin are angry. All the time. Not just in this scene, but throughout the movie. Which may be true of them (if I had to live in Iran under the current administration, I’d be pissed too), but we never get much of a counterpoint to their anger. I think their daughter’s quiet (mostly, but she has her loud moments as well) observations of her parents, and the reactions of the young daughter of Razieh, who is hired to look after the father, are supposed to work as that counterpoint. Unfortunately as written and directed they are not quite strong enough to take on that role. You may remember I got into trouble with some readers when I said something similar about Ajami (2009, see US#44) and all the yelling and screaming in that film. Because there are more quiet moments here, it’s less of a problem than in that film.

So the judge decides not to give them a divorce, and Simin goes off to live with her mother. That’s the first of a number of bad decisions the characters make. Nader hires Razieh to look after his father, which goes south as well. Razieh is a very religious woman who has not told her husband Hodjat she has the job. She has also not told Nader she is pregnant. Well, a chador hides a multiplicity of sins. Razieh has to rescue the father when he wanders out of the house and the next day she has to leave him so she ties him to the bed. Bad move; guess who comes home early? Nader, and there is more yelling and she falls/is pushed down the stairs. Now the script gets interesting, setting up a lot of questions about everybody’s behavior. Why did Razieh go out that day? Did she fall or did Nader push her? Did the fall cause the miscarriage? What will Hodjat’s reaction to all this be? Well, he’s not a happy camper, and he’s a yeller and a screamer as well. At this point, in spite of my dislike for the Iranian system of government, I was feeling sorry for the judge having to put up with all this. I have, as you can tell, reservations about the script, but I can see why people love it and the film, and why the script has picked up a pile of awards and nominations. Farhadi has beautifully structured the film so that the answers to those questions raise more questions and put everyone under pressure to do whatever they think might be the right thing. Nader, for example, has a scene late in the picture when he discusses with his daughter what he knew, why he said what he did about what he knew. Which then leads to an interesting action on his part when Simin, against his wishes, has worked out a settlement with Razieh and Hodjat. He asks for a simple favor from Razieh that she cannot do because she can’t swear on the Koran to something that is not true. So Nader and Simin “win” their case, but they may have lost their daughter. Farhadi leaves that up in the air when the judge asks Termeh who she wants to live with after the divorce. She does not want to tell him in front of her parents, and they are sent out of the room. But Farhadi does not tell us what her reply is. Normally I would want that resolved in a script, but he’s right here, because his ending makes you think about everything you have seen so far. I cannot fault a movie that makes you think, as many quibbles as I have with the script.

The Forgiveness of Blood (2010. Written by Joshua Marston & Andamion Murataj. 109 minutes.)

The Forgiveness of Blood

Sophomore Slump: Joshua Marston wrote and directed the great 2004 film Maria Full of Grace. In it he follows Maria, a pregnant Colombian teenager, who becomes a drug mule taking cocaine (you don’t want to know how) to New York City on a regular airline flight. In the first act, we learn the reasons (all of them, not just the obvious ones of poverty) she does it. The second act is the trip, one of the more suspenseful sequences in recent movies, and then the third act payoff is what happens to her in New York. Marston wrote the first draft in 48 hours, then spent three years rewriting it. There is not a wasted word in the script, and Maria is a character we come to know and root for, especially as played by Catalina Sandino Moreno in her sensational film debut.

In the years since Maria Marston has been directing for American television, including episodes of The Good Wife, In Treatment, Law & Order, and Six Feet Under. This is his second feature, set in Albania. We mostly follow Nik, a teenager in a small town. His father and uncle kill a man who now owns the property the father crosses with his bread wagon to get to the main road. The uncle is caught by the police, but the father goes into hiding. So now, according to the mechanics of blood feuds of the area, Nik can no longer go outside, since the victim’s family can kill him if they find him out in the village. He’s a horny teenage boy, so he’s not happy with being locked up all day. His sister, Rudina, takes over the bread route, since women are exempt from the blood feud.

So we wait around to see what happens. If Nik goes out and gets killed, the movie is over. He can sneak out at night, but not often, to see his sort-of girlfriend. Mostly we are just waiting, which makes the film a lot less dynamic than Maria. And Tristan Halilaj, who plays Nik, is simply not as compelling a presence as Sandino Moreno is. The other characters are not as well developed as they could be. Rudina is interesting, but their mother has no characterization at all. The family elders, who are trying to figure out how to get out of this predicament, are rather grumpy old men. Marston and Murataj are not as clear as they might be on the mechanics of the feud, but we can mostly keep up. Apparently feuds can be mediated, and one of the best scenes in the film is the family talking to a “professional” mediator.

Near the end Nik goes to talk directly to the victim’s family. They are impressed he takes the chance, so they do not kill him on the spot. But they tell him to get out of town in 24 hours or they will kill him. So Nik packs up and leaves. The end. That ending ought to have more of a kick than it does, but the writers have not developed the characters enough, especially Nik and his attitudes town his town and his family, to make it pay off. I kept hoping that the writers, and Marston as a director, would give us a little twist at the end of Nik smiling as he leaves town to go out into the big world.

I admire the ambition of the script, and Marston’s interest in dealing with other cultures, but it does not quite pay off here. On the other hand, the film received screenplay awards at both the Berlin and Chicago film festivals. My guess is that those may have been for the attempt rather than the execution. Or it may have been a lousy year for scripts at those festivals.

The Kid with a Bike (2011. Written by Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne. 87 minutes.)

The Kid with a Bike

On a human scale, take one: After months, nay years, of big noisy action movies, it’s nice to come across a film done on a very human scale. There are no big car chases and crashes in this film. We have a kid on a bike, not an SUV with a machine gun, and it’s thrilling in a quieter way.

We are in the Belgian town of Seraing. The Dardennes, who also directed, have made several films in Seraing, but they usually made it look dreary, shooting in the winter. This one was shot in the summer. Seraing is an industrial town, but here we mostly seem to be in the suburbs. One review from a Los Angeles critic thought the scenery was beautiful, and it is, but not in a Monument Valley-David Lean sort of way. It looks like a real world that real people live in, and when we see the kid riding his bike, it’s like your own childhood. The town looks just like the kind of town I grew up in in the American Middle West.

The main character is Cyril, a boy of about ten or eleven. His father has left him in the care of a state home, and we meet Cyril when he is trying to contact his dad. He is fiercely trying their old apartment phone number and keeps getting the “disconnected” message. But Cyril keeps trying. And he wants his bike back almost as much as he wants his dad. It’s clear to us that the dad has no intention of coming back and that he’s sold the bike, along with his motorcycle. Cyril connects with a thirtyish hairdresser who agrees to let him come to stay with her on the weekends. She even manages to locate the guy who bought Cyril’s bike and buys it back from him. We have no idea why Samantha is doing all this and when Cyril asks her later in the film, she says she doesn’t know. The Dardennes do not give us a lot of psychological explanations for everything. We don’t know why, other than money, the father left. We don’t really know why he doesn’t want Cyril around in his new life, although there is a hint that the women he lives with may have a say in the matter. The script does not give us the full psychological stories on the characters, but we get enough to be involved. And thank God the Dardennes never bring in a shrink to “rub a little therapy on it,” in Rita Mae Brown’s phrase, and make it all better.

While staying with Samantha, Cyril gets involved with a petty crook (who is kind to his grandmother and has cool video games for Cyril to play) named Wes. Wes sets up Cyril to rob a news agent and his son, whom it turns out Cyril knows. The son has been stealing Cyril’s bike off and on throughout the film, but the script does not push that. Samantha has to step in and settle the case, agreeing to pay out damages to the news agent. We don’t really know why she does that, but we believe her. Cyril has one more run-in with the son, which seems to end badly, but doesn’t. The ending very much has a feeling of life going on. As does the film as a whole.

Salt of Life (2011. Written by Gianni Di Gregorio & Valerio Attanasio. 90 minutes.)

Salt of Life

On a human scale, take two: This one’s a semi-charming Italian film starring and written and directed by Di Gregorio, and it works on the same scale as The Kid with a Bike, but not as well. Di Gregorio is mostly a screenwriter (he wrote the 2008 gangster film Gomorrah) but recently turned to directing as well. In 2008 he made Mid-August Lunch, in which he plays a character named after himself who has to take care of his 90-something mother and her friends. This is a followup to that one, but not a sequel. Di Gregorio is a Gianni again, and again he is dealing with his 90-something mother, played, as in Mid-August Lunch, by Valeria De Franciscis. Gianni’s mother is spending all of her money, and Gianni, married with a daughter in college, is living on his pension. He was involuntarily retired at age 50 and he is close to 60 now. The heart of the film is Gianni hoping to find love, or at least a quickie, with another woman. Particularly after he learns that a guy even older than he is getting it on with a young clerk in a store. We watch his fumbling attempts that go bad. The attempts are small and sweet rather than slapstick. In one sequence, he gets invited to the home of the daughter of one of his mother’s friends. Except when he gets there she is singing opera arias with her male accompanist and hardly seems to remember she asked Gianni to come by. The humor is in Gianni’s reactions to this situation, which Di Gregorio does almost exclusively with his eyes. The film begins to drag toward the end, since he still does not score. At the end his daughter’s on-again, off-again boyfriend asks Gianni what’s going on in his head, it would seem to be a clue for a great montage sequence. Given the small scale the film is working on, it does not mean we need a version of the harem scene from 8 ½ (1963), but all we get are a collection of shots of the women we have seen in the film. A LOT more could be done with that.

Letters to Young Filmmakers: Creativity & Getting Your Films Made (2011. Book by Howard Suber. 190 pages)

Letters to Young Filmmakers: Creativity & Getting Your Films MadeA contrarian: Full disclosure up front. Howard Suber was my mentor when I was a graduate student at UCLA in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and he has remained a trusted advisor ever since. I think I have talked with him about every book I’ve written while I was working on them. From 1967 to 1970 I was getting a Master of Fine Arts degree in screenwriting, but in the process I got involved in Howard’s Oral History of the Motion Picture Project. That led me to doing the long oral history interview with Nunnally Johnson. After I was at the American Film Institute for a year, Howard encouraged me to be a guinea pig for him. He had finally persuaded the UCLA Film and Theatre Department to introduce a Ph.D. program specifically for film. Previously if you got a Ph.D., it was officially in Theatre. Howard wanted me to be the first student in the program, probably because he figured that as a Viet Nam vet I was tough enough to put up with all the bullshit that was going to be involved, particularly from the theatre people who hated the idea. Howard was right about that, and I got one of the first two Ph.Ds. in film in 1975. Typical Howard: not many academics at the time would have encouraged me to do a biography of a screenwriter as a dissertation. Not a smart career movie then, and only a little more so now. If Howard’s name is familiar to you, by the way, you probably recognize it from Brian Kellow’s biography of Pauline Kael (see below). Howard was the scholar who did the research that Kael stole for her “Raising Kane.” More on that later.

Howard has had a rather odd academic career. He was so busy setting up the film Ph.D. program, the UCLA Film Archive, and the Producers Program that he did not publish much when he was teaching full-time. His first book, The Power of Film, only came out in 2006. It evolved out of his observations of how films work, and is wonderfully contrarian. I particularly like his chapter entitled “Endings, Happy.” It lists 53 classic films, then tells us that none of them have a conventional “happy” ending. In another chapter he mentions that nearly all heroes in American movies are reluctant heroes, like Rick in Casablanca (1942) and Terry in On the Waterfront (1954). After I read the book I asked him, “What about Patton?” He allowed as how that might be the exception that proves the rule. The Power of Film is probably of more help on the screenwriting level than this new one.

Letters comes out of his work with students in the Producers Program, and is aimed at not only writers, but directors and producers as well. But Howard is still, as ever, the contrarian. He forms the book from the letters he has got from current and former students and his replies to them. One chapter is “If the screenplay is so Important, how come screenwriters are so often treated like shit?” Howard’s answer is three-pronged: “(1) everybody thinks he is a writer, (2) the writer leaves the job site early, and (3) sometimes the writer deserves it.” The first two comments are about what you would expect, but the third is surprising and very, very true. Some writers just behave like assholes and give producers and directors a lot of reasons to kick them off the film. Writers tend to work in solitary confinement and often the collaborative nature of film is difficult for them to handle. At LACC we had an Industry Advisory Committee and one thing they insisted on us drumming into our students’ heads was that they had to learn how to play well with others. True. The only reason I don’t like this book quite as much as The Power of Film is that the kind of advice he gives here is the same kind of advice I was giving to students myself. I am sure I picked up some of it from Howard, some of it may just have come from two great minds thinking alike, and he may actually have picked up a couple of things from me.

Howard, who has testified in several copyright cases, is very good on the issue of copyright. He also has a great chapter called “Being Screwed,” in which he asks whether it is worth your time and emotional energy to sue somebody who has screwed you over, and his opinion is that it is probably not. In the cases he has testified in, there is usually a settlement with nobody admitting wrongdoing, which is hardly the revenge you may be looking for. And that may have come out of his experiences with Pauline Kael, which brings us to….

Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (2011. Book by Brian Kellow. 417 pages)

Pauline Kael: A Life in the DarkLove/Hate: I loved reading Pauline Kael’s stuff. I first got hooked in 1966 when I picked up the paperback edition of her collection of reviews and essays, I Lost It At the Movies. She was a lively and earthy writer, and I found either I agreed with her completely on a film (it was like she had been in my mind as I watched it) or disagreed completely (what movie did she see?). But when we disagreed, she was more interesting to read than any other critic writing something I agreed with. Her classic essay on Bonnie and Clyde was published in October 1967, shortly after I had started working on my Masters in screenwriting at UCLA, so I was excited that here was a critic actually paying attention to screenwriters. Well, it did not come as too much of a surprise, because Lost It included her legendary attack on the auteur theory. As I continued studying and moving into studying the history of screenwriting, I appreciated her even more. That is even though one of her Lost It essays attacked my man Nunnally Johnson’s 1954 film Night People as right-wing propaganda. It wasn’t, and she misread the film. Kellow has obviously not seen the film and accepts her reading. It is also interesting that he does not mention that the other part of that review attacked a dreadful left-wing propaganda film Salt of the Earth (1953).

Then came her “Raising Kane” essay. I knew the backstory of this, since I was part of it. Howard Suber had been collecting material on the script of Kane to be part of a book on the film, with essays by other writers. On the first night of my interviewing Nunnally Johnson, he told me the story of Herman Mankiewicz being offered money to take his name off the script and the advice Mank got from Ben Hecht: “Take the ten thousand dollars and double cross the son of a bitch,” i.e., sue to get his credit back. I passed this on to Howard the next day, and it shows up in “Raising Kane.” The other writers on the proposed book did not come through (Kellow does not get this detail), and Kael persuaded Howard to let her use his essay in the proposed book on the script of Kane. She kept promising that there would be a contract drawn up, but there never was. Howard was surprised when he got his copy of the issue of The New Yorker with her essay and found his name mentioned nowhere. Nor did Kael ever mention him in the book that followed.

Kael was attacked, not only for using Howard’s work without acknowledgement, but for suggesting that Orson Welles did not do everything all by himself on Kane. Kael’s essay did what it was supposed to do: remind people of Mankiewicz’s contribution to the film, but the Wellesians never forgave her. Kellow is good at dealing with the controversy that followed.

It did not occur to me until several years later that after “Raising Kane,” Kael never wrote seriously or extensively about screenwriters and screenwriting again. As Kellow points out, she became almost more auteurist than Sarris, particularly with the younger directors that she was a mother hen to, including Sam Peckinpah, James Toback, and Brian De Palma. Why did Kael quit writing about screenwriting? Kellow does not tell us. My guess is that she was a coward. As Kellow points out, she was often thought of as a bully, and my experience has been that most bullies are cowards. Kael could certainly dish it out (Kellow is clear she had very little empathy for other people), but I don’t think she could take it. I may also have contributed to her not writing about writers.

In 1972 I had started working on my dissertation, the biography of Nunnally Johnson, based on the Oral History interviews I’d done with him. I had done some sample chapters, which one New York editor was enthusiastic about but could not get his editorial board to come up with a contract. I showed Nunnally his letter and Nunnally said that I should get an agent. He did not want me to use his agent (he knew his agent would kick me off the project and get a “real writer”), so he arranged a meeting with a big agency at the time. One of their agents was Marcia Nasatir, formerly an editor at Bantam Books, and later a producer and studio head. Marcia was also Pauline Kael’s agent, a fact Kellow does not mention. He says that Kael did not have an agent at this time, but Nasatir certainly was her agent. Nasatir set me up with a couple of meetings with editors, but when I insisted the heart of the book was Nunnally’s artistic contribution as a screenwriter, I got looks from the editors that said, “What planet are you from? I read Andrew Sarris and I know directors make up their movies as they go along.” Nasatir then proposed that I sell Kael my research. Remember what happened with Howard? I sure did. So the agent and I parted ways. I learned later that the “word” was spread around the publishing world that Kael was doing a biography of Johnson. It was an obvious attempt to pressure me, but Howard was right: I am a tough cookie. What I did instead was get a contract from the University of California Press. I did the first draft and sent it to my editor, Ernest Callenbach, telling him it was just a first draft and I only wanted notes on it and it should not be sent out for review. At university presses the procedure is that a manuscript is sent to two readers. If they agreed it should be published, the editorial board normally goes along with their suggestions. Several months went by and I had not gotten any notes from Callenbach. I finally contacted him and he told me the first reader loved it. What? It wasn’t supposed to go out. But Callenbach was sure the second reader would like it. Well, the second reader not only did not like it, but did not like it in such virulent terms that Callenbach felt that even if a third reader liked it, he could not get it past the editorial board. Since Callenbach and Kael knew each other and she wrote occasionally for his Film Quarterly, I have always had the sneaking suspicion that Kael was the second reader, but that information is lost in the mists of time. Anyway, after being turned down by over thirty publishers, many of them twice, my book Screenwriter: The Life and Times of Nunnally Johnson was finally published in 1980, to good reviews and modest sales.

Now here is a question: would the historiography of screenwriting been different if I had let Kael use my research? On the one hand, a book by her would have drawn more attention than mine. And it might have encouraged her to continue writing about screenwriting. But a full biography may have been beyond Kael’s capabilities. She never wrote anything much longer than “Raising Kane,” and she may not have been equipped either stylistically or emotionally to do a biography. Her attempt may have become one of her projects that never worked out. And I would have lost my research. But that didn’t happen, so for better or worse, you’ll just have to make do with my book.

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

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The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century

These are the films from this millennium that have most shocked us by plumbing our deepest primordial terrors.

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The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century
Photo: Focus World
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on October 10, 2018.

Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”

At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. Budd Wilkins


Them

50. Them (2006)

Hoody-clad sadists attack a couple, alone in their country home. That’s all the setup that co-writers/directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud need to dredge up some uniquely discomfiting chills. You won’t be able to shake Them after seeing it because it’s scary without being grisly or full of cheap jump scares. Instead, it’s a marvel of precise timing and action choreography. The silence that deadens the air between each new assault becomes more and more disquieting as the film goes on. Likewise, the house where Them is primarily set in seems to grow bigger with each new hole the film’s villains tear out of. To get the maximum effect, be sure to watch this one at night; just don’t watch it alone. Simon Abrams


Black Death

49. Black Death (2010)

Grim aesthetics and an even grimmer worldview define Black Death, in which ardent piousness and defiant paganism both prove paths toward violence, hypocrisy, and hell. Christopher Smith’s 14th-century period piece exudes an oppressive sense of physical, spiritual, and atmospheric weight, with grimy doom hanging in the air like the fog enshrouding its dense forests. His story concerns a gang of thugs, torturers, and killers led by Ulric (Sean Bean), a devout soldier commissioned by the church to visit the lone, remote town in the land not afflicted by a fatal pestilence, where it’s suspected a necromancer is raising the dead. Dario Poloni’s austere script charts the crew’s journey into a misty netherworld where the viciousness of man seems constantly matched by divine cruelty, even as the role of God’s hand—in the pestilence, and in the personal affairs of individuals—remains throughout tantalizingly oblique. Nick Schager


The Invitation

48. The Invitation (2015)

The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan


Midsommar

47. Midsommar (2019)

Anybody who’s seen Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man or similar folk horror films will hardly be surprised by any of the plot turns in Ari Aster’s Midsommar. From early on, there’s no doubt that the pagan rituals at the film’s center will spell doom for the group of friends who visit rural Sweden in a quasi-anthropological attempt to observe a cult’s summer solstice festival. The film masterfully builds itself around the inevitability of a mass terror, aligning our foreknowledge of that with the anxiety felt by the main character, Dani (Florence Pugh), in the wake of a recent family tragedy. The result is a deeply unnerving film about the indissoluble, somehow archaic bond between self and family—one more psychologically robust than Aster’s similarly themed Hereditary. And it’s also very funny. Pat Brown


Mulholland Drive

46. Mulholland Drive (2001)

David Lynch’s meta noir Mulholland Drive literalizes the theory of surrealism as perpetual dream state. Told as it is using a highly symbolic, ravishingly engorged language of dreams, this bloody valentine to Los Angeles naturally leaves one feeling groggy, confused, looking forward and back, hankering to pass again through its serpentine, slithery hall of mirrors until all its secrets have been unpacked. Whether Mulholland Drive anticipated the YouTube Age we live in (and which Inland Empire’s digital punk poetics perfectly embody) is up for debate, but there’s no doubt that this movie-movie will continue to haunt us long after Lynch has moved on to shooting pictures using the tools of whatever new film medium awaits us—tools that he will no doubt have helped to revolutionize. Ed Gonzalez


Sinister

45. Sinister (2012)

Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Calum Marsh


Maniac

44. Maniac (2012)

Made in collaboration with Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, and with the sort of fearless artistic freedom often allowed by European financing, Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac begins with a psychopath’s synth-tastically scored stalking of a party girl back to her apartment, outside which he cuts her frightened scream short by driving a knife up into her head through her jaw. The film deceptively delights in capturing the mood of an exploitation cheapie before latching onto and running with the conceit only halfheartedly employed by William Lustig in the 1980 original, framing the titular maniac’s killing spree—this time set in Los Angeles—almost entirely from his point of view. A gimmick, yes, but more than just a means of superficially keying us into the psyche of the main character, Frank, an antique mannequin salesman played memorably by a minimally seen Elijah Wood. As in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, this approach becomes a provocative means of sympathizing with the devil. Gonzalez


Depraved

43. Depraved (2019)

What does a Frankenstein figure look like in 2019? According to Larry Fessenden’s Depraved, he’s a guy with war-addled, once-noble intentions set adrift by male ego and shady benefactors. He’s a white man grasping for control in a world coming apart, a cog in a machine who hasn’t broken free so much as changed the machine’s function—from that of war to that of the pharmaceutical industry. The film, Fessenden’s first feature as both writer and director since 2006’s The Last Winter, paints multiple psychological portraits that are sad, angry, and strangely beautiful. It shows us the mind of not just PTSD-afflicted field surgeon Henry (David Call), but also that of his prototypical sewn-together “monster,” Adam (Alex Breaux), and his assistant and Big Pharma bankroller, Polidori (Joshua Leonard). Throughout, the film it remains firmly focused on its thesis of Frankenstein as a lens for examining modern society. Fessenden catalogues what personalities and power dynamics have shifted and what hasn’t changed at all. He diagnoses the rot of our era through these solipsistic men that pour their prejudices and their insecurities into Adam, an open book eventually read back to its authors with a violence they cultivated themselves. Steven Scaife


28 Days Later

42. 28 Days Later (2002)

Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is a post-apocalyptic zombie movie indebted to the traditions of John Wyndham and George A. Romero, opening with its young hero wandering abandoned streets calling out “Hello! Hello!” into the void. A marvel of economic storytelling, the film follows a handful of survivors that evaded a deadly “Rage” virus that tore across England, the riots and destruction that ensued, and the legion of infected victims who roam the streets at night for human meat. A bleak journey through an underground tunnel brings to mind one of the finest chapters in Stephen King’s The Stand; similar such references are far from being smug in-jokes, but rather uniquely appreciative of previous horror texts. The Rage virus itself feels particularly topical in our angry modern times. But maybe the more appropriate metaphor is that anyone who’s struggled through a grouchy, apocalyptic mood during 28 days of nicotine/drug/alcohol withdrawal will find their hostile sentiments reflected in this anger-fueled nightmare odyssey. Jeremiah Kipp


Piranha 3D

41. Piranha 3D (2010)

Piranha 3D tips its cap to Jaws with an opening appearance by Richard Dreyfuss, yet the true ancestors of Alexandre Aja’s latest are less Steven Spielberg’s classic (and Joe Dante and Roger Corman’s more politically inclined 1978 original Piranha) than 1980s-era slasher films. Unapologetically giddy about its gratuitous crassness, Aja’s B movie operates by constantly winking at its audience, and while such self-consciousness diffuses any serious sense of terror, it also amplifies the rollicking comedy of its over-the-top insanity. Aja’s gimmicky use of 3D is self-aware, and the obscene gore of the proceedings is, like its softcore jokiness, so extreme and campy—epitomized by a hair-caught-in-propeller scalping—that the trashy, merciless Piranha 3D proves a worthy heir to its brazen exploitation-cinema forefathers. Schager

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Review: Zombieland: Double Tap Shrugs Toward the End of the World

Behind the film’s self-awareness and irony is a hollow emotional core.

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Zombieland: Double Tap
Photo: Columbia Pictures

“Double tap,” the belated Zombieland sequel’s namesake, refers to the rule of shooting a zombie more than once in order to ensure that it’s dead. Like the rest of the rules devised by the series’s dweebish protagonist, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), it’s spelled out in large on-screen text, an amusingly self-aware touch in the original 2009 film that has, a decade later into our irony-poisoned present, lost its luster.

Part of that is because the sequel highlights these rules more frequently and prominently, injecting them with flashy text effects that are more distracting than funny. But it’s also because self-awareness doesn’t feel nearly as refreshing as it did in 2009, with seemingly every big studio movie nowadays winking and nodding at audiences, trying to swaddle us in layers of protective irony (that writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick went on to script the vacuous Deadpool films is no accident). Zombieland: Double Tap effortlessly operates in the same groove as the original, but that’s less a compliment than a measure of a failure to evolve.

Revising the world of Zombieland feels like returning to a television program you gave up on watching; though the cast has aged, the character dynamics remain largely the same, if slightly more exaggerated and perhaps overly familiar. Boisterous gunslinger Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) is a little more cartoonish now, while Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) is all grown up. She’s more than old enough to drive, and thus old enough to run away with a pacifist hippie, Berkeley (Avan Jogia), prompting Columbus, Tallahassee, and conwoman Wichita (Emma Stone) to track her down. They’re a makeshift family now, despite still referring to one another by the city aliases that were meant to prevent getting too attached.

A newcomer to their group still goes by her real name, Madison (Zoey Deutch), and as a caricatured dumb blonde, she typifies much of the film’s easy, uninspired comedy. The supremely overqualified cast powers through tiresome, pop culture-laden exchanges via sheer charisma; Stone, though unfortunately reduced to playing a “jealous girlfriend” type, is particularly expressive. But returning director Ruben Fleischer, despite pairing with the usually excellent cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, too often shoots the actors in close-up, robbing much of the film of the chemistry that the actors display in wider shots.

Double Tap also plays unthinkingly into the zombie fantasy as survivalist gun porn, even going so far as to add a Gen Z commune of idiot pacifists who melt down guns into peace symbols. This sequel, however, is too mediocre for such an idea to register with more than a shrug. The film isn’t using the concept to make a point, after all; behind the self-awareness and the irony is merely a hollow emotional core, a lack of anything to say because saying something would require ambition rather than complacent winks and nods.

Cast: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, Emma Stone, Rosario Dawson, Zoey Deutch, Avan Jogia, Luke Wilson, Thomas Middleditch Director: Ruben Fleischer Screenwriter: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, Dave Callaham Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil Transforms Thorny Folklore into Fluff

In transforming folk metaphors into utilitarian attributes of an action hero, Disney exposes the emptiness of their product.

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Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

“Once upon a time…or perhaps twice upon a time, for you may remember this story,” begins the voiceover narration of Disney’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. To its credit, the film opens by addressing the elephant in the castle: that we, as modern filmgoers, surely know this story well, through all its incarnations as old-fashioned fairy-tale romance and as insipid CG action-fantasy. But this sequel’s attempt to deflect attention from its own tiresomeness only highlights the cynicism of a corporation that insists on franchising the reboots of its adaptations—on repeating the process of filtering the imaginative irrationality of folk tales through layers upon layers of calculation.

Angelina Jolie returns as Maleficent, once one of the most deliciously evil villainesses in the Disney canon, who now—like Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West—has been reduced to a mildly grumpy environmentalist. Disney has erected a mythos around the character to explain her malevolent deeds—or rather, to expose them as truly good. Channeling themes of historical revisionism and post-colonial white guilt, the Malefi-verse positions its title character as defender of the marshlands known as The Moors and its multifarious magical inhabitants, the Dark Fey, against the incursions and crimes of the late-Renaissance Europeans who live nearby. In the film, whose subtitle has virtually nothing to do with its plot, she’s supplied with an army of fellow Feys primed to resist the destruction of their native lands by greedy humans. The deviousness suggested by Maleficent’s occasional wry, sharp-toothed smiles and curling horns is hardly on display in her actions, which have thoroughly virtuous motivations.

Mistress of Evil posits a “true story” behind the official one recorded in the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, as rather than persecuting the princess subsequently known as Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent has adopted her and raised her. Aurora (Elle Fanning), though she’s grown up among the Fey, has fallen in love with Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). Throughout, we’re given little evidence of their mutual attraction beyond the fact that they’re both young humans, though Joachim Rønning’s film does attempt to elicit our sympathies for their union with an early scene that stages a YouTube-ready surprise proposal. Though she harbors doubts about this union, Maleficent initially tries to play the good mother, reluctantly accepting the match. But then, at the engagement dinner, Phillip’s mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), frames Maleficent for the sleeping curse that befalls King John (Robert Lindsay). Wounded in the subsequent confrontation, Maleficent flees and finds herself in an enclave of other vulture-winged, goat-horned Feys, led by Borra (Ed Skrein) and Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

As played by Jolie, Maleficent is less a character than a pose. Rather than suggesting potency and confidence, the character’s impassiveness conveys indifference, a disinterested neutrality that emanates from behind Jolie’s green contacts and prosthetic cheekbones. Neither Maleficent’s anger at the humans who framed her nor her muted concern for the oppressed Fey succeeds in selling the clichéd plotline concerning indigenous rebellion. As debate rages in the ranks of the outcast Fey regarding a prospective uprising against the murderous humans—the screenplay, of course, makes Conall’s plea for a moderate response to creeping genocide more appealing than Borra’s call for a revolution—Jolie’s perpetually cool persona fails to anchor our feelings in the fate of the forest’s denizens.

The rebellious Fey recruit Maleficent for the same reason that the humans fear her: the magical powers she possesses. Yet Maleficent’s powers are ill-defined, the magical green tendrils that extend from her hands little more than a reference to visual effects devised for Disney’s classic animated Sleeping Beauty from 1959. But aspects of the magic in Mistress of Evil still draw inspiration from its diluted source material: the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale classic that the animated film was based on. In that story, the wise woman’s curse not only puts the princess to sleep, but also freezes all life in the castle in place and envelops the structure in an impenetrable thorn bush. Many princes attempt and fail to forcibly enter the castle, hacking away at the bushes, but after a century, the brambles open up on their own, at last allowing a prince to enter the princess’s chamber, so to speak.

In Mistress of Evil, we see the character that Disney has dubbed Maleficent deploy similar magical effects to much less metaphorical ends: She freezes a cat in the air mid-pounce to protect her were-raven familiar, Diaval (Sam Riley), and she conjures up spindly thorn branches to shield herself and Chonall from a volley of crossbow bolts. The filmmakers, no doubt, see such references to the original tale as forms of felicitous homage, but in transforming folk metaphors into utilitarian attributes of an action hero, Disney exposes the emptiness of their product. The film arranges a marriage between fairy-tale motifs and a CG-algorithm-driven plot that’s as bland and arbitrary as the one it stages between its nondescript human couple, processing thorny folklore into smooth, consumable pop culture.

Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Ed Skrein, Harris Dickinson, Robert Lindsay, Warwick Davis Director: Joachim Rønning Screenwriter: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, Linda Woolverton Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: Tell Me Who I Am Feels as One-Sided as the Curated Lie at Its Center

By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothers’ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the scope of their abuse.

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Tell Me Who I Am
Photo: Netflix

When Alex Lewis was 18 years old, he was involved in a motorcycle crash that left him with a severe case of amnesia. When he awoke in a hospital following the accident, he couldn’t recall where he lived or who his friends were. He didn’t even know his name. As for the woman babbling and pacing around the foot of his bed, he was taken aback to learn that she was his mother. The only thing Alex did remember was that the young man standing before him, Marcus, was his identical twin, and that they had a special connection.

Upon returning to their family estate, Marcus began the lengthy process of reacquainting Alex with the particulars of his life, as well as re-teaching him the basics, like how to tie his shoes. And through it all, Marcus did his best to present a rosy picture of their parents, assuring Alex that their mother, Jill, was “cool” and that they took nice vacations to France when they were kids. It wasn’t until after their parents’ death that Alex began to suspect that their upbringing may not have been as pleasant as Marcus suggested. And after Alex discovered a cabinet full of sex toys in Jill’s room and a photograph of him and his brother naked with their heads torn off, the horrible truth began to dawn on Alex: that he and his brother were sexually abused by their mother. Marcus would go on to confirm the abuse but refused to provide additional details, leaving his brother with questions that would haunt him for years.

Based on a book co-written by Alex and Marcus, Ed Perkins’s Tell Me Who I Am tells the brothers’ story with an Errol Morris-lite mix of expressionistic reenactments and interviews in which the subjects speak directly into the camera. Like the similarly themed Three Identical Strangers, the film parcels out disarming hints and shocking revelations at a steady clip, with a view toward maximizing the emotional impact of the material. It’s undeniably effective and affecting, escalating toward a harrowing confrontation-cum-reconciliation between the two brothers in which Marcus finally reveals the full horror of what they endured as kids: that, in addition to being abused by their mother, they were subjected to sexual assaults at the hands of multiple abusers, in what essentially amounted to an elite pedophilia ring.

In its richer, more rewarding moments, Tell Me Who I Am hints at the complex relationship between memory and identity. Alex relies on photographs to fill in the blanks in his memory, and yet, these seemingly objective recordings of the past, curated for him by his brother, are as conspicuous for what they reveal as for what they don’t. (As Alex muses at one point, “We take photos of weddings. You never take photos at funerals.”) But for a film about the power of getting a full and accurate accounting of the truth, it’s frustrating how little Tell Me Who I Am reckons with its own revelations. By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothers’ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the sheer scope of the boys’ abuse.

Tell Me Who I Am hints at the brothers having been caught up in a seemingly extensive sexual abuse ring, one involving aristocrats and at least one well-known artist, all of whom remain unnamed. It’s a scandal reminiscent of recently exposed conspiracies of silence that surround wrongdoing, such as those involving Jeffrey Epstein, Jimmy Savile, and the Catholic Church. And while Perkins’s film wants us to believe that the brothers’ saga reaches a definitive conclusion when they tearfully embrace after Alex learns about what happened to him, it leaves the viewer with a host of unanswered questions. Who exactly was part of Jill’s social circle? How extensive was Alex and Marcus’s abuse? Were there other victims?

Even a cursory glance at news articles about the men and reviews of their book suggests how much Perkins has massaged the details of the Lewis brothers’ lives to craft his sleek, emotionally punchy narrative. From watching Tell Me Who I Am, one wouldn’t know that there was at least one other confirmed victim: Alex and Marcus’s younger brother, whose existence the film doesn’t even acknowledge. By forcing Alex and Marcus’s story into such a rigidly linear narrative of redemption, the film ends up losing sight of its subjects altogether, reducing them to mere representations of its core theme: the brother who wants to learn about his past versus the brother who’d rather keep it buried.

That’s why Tell Me Who I Am’s attempt to end on a note of closure—“It’s over finally,” Alex says, as the camera tracks away from the house where he was abused—comes off as phony. Perhaps Alex feels that he finally understands who he really is, but the film leaves us with so many unanswered questions, it’s hard not feel that the picture we’ve been given of these men is nearly as misleading and incomplete as the one Marcus provided to Alex all those years ago.

Director: Ed Perkins Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Gloss of Stuffed Is at Odds with Taxidermy’s Inherent Boldness

Erin Derham’s unadventurous aesthetic inoculates her from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.

1.5

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Stuffed
Photo: Music Box Films

Erin Derham’s Stuffed opens with a montage of the various taxidermists she profiles throughout her documentary. This opening lays bare the film’s argument in unmistakable terms: that taxidermy is an art form, closer to the work of Tim Burton than that of Norman Bates. But it also exposes the film’s most unbearable flaw, as Derham supports her hagiographic argument by sewing together her case studies with a relentless, and relentlessly generic, score that speaks to her devotion to formula.

It’s an unadventurous formula at odds with the documentary’s attempts to establish taxidermy as a highly complex, anti-paradigmatic endeavor involving great amounts of scientific precision, as well as creative audacity and whimsical experimentation. Derham insists so much on taxidermists’ labor being more than the mere production of replicas that her refusal to adopt a more playful aesthetic approach as she portrays the quirky imagination of taxidermists feels like equivocation. It’s as if she approached the documentary’s making with thick rubber gloves, thus inoculating herself from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.

This may be the result of a certain courting, conscious or not, of digital streaming platforms through the mimicry of impersonally glossy production values. In any case, it leaves the viewer in a position akin to that of the fussy eater trying to pick unwelcomed ingredients out of their food. We want to savor the taxidermists’ artistry, except the clichéd polish that envelops the film keeps getting in the way. It’s an artistry that’s bold by design, as the taxidermist utilizes dead matter not with the utilitarian goal of resurrecting it, but as raw material to sculpt something altogether new. If the Paris Museum of Hunting and Nature invited artists Sophie Calle and Serena Carone in 2018 to intervene in its collection of retired guns and taxidermic realism precisely because of the unusual juxtaposition of conceptual art and refurbished dead matter, moose in red gowns and all, Stuffed defines taxidermy itself as already marrying fanciful concepts with the illusion of beastly or avian resurrection.

Taxidermist Madison Rubin tells us she loves “seeing the insides and the anatomy of things” as she skins 11 ermines with the meticulousness of a sculptor, or a dollmaker. Others evoke the resurgence of taxidermy, which used to be particularly popular in the Victorian era, in these times of digital de-materialization. And some attest to the specificity of the medium—how no other art form can convey texture the way taxidermy does. Yet Derham seems more invested in glossing over the numerous chapters she’s divided the film’s narrative into than in exploring the depths of her story. Taxidermy and sustainability, taxidermy and climate change, the ethics of taxidermy, taxidermy and museums, taxidermy as a business, taxidermy in fashion—all of these get addressed too rapidly, sometimes in just a couple of minutes.

The rush feels particularly unfortunate when Derham turns her attention to rogue taxidermy, a Lynchean subgenre located at the intersection of dioramas, cabinets of curiosities, and surrealist art. Here, Calle and Carone’s red ballgown-wearing stuffed roadkill would feel right at home—that is, delightfully out of place in the world. Instead, Stuffed quickly continues in its quest of a happy, peppy denouement to match the pristine porelessness of its sheen.

Director: Erin Derham Distributor: Music Box Films Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Trick Will Treat You to Meatheaded, Commentary-Free Ultraviolence

Patrick Lussier’s film is an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy.

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Trick
Photo: RLJE Films

In the 2000s, a film company called the Asylum flooded Blockbuster shelves with “mockbusters”: cheaply produced, straight-to-DVD knockoffs of box-office dominators with titles such as Transmorphers, Ghosthunters, and Snakes on a Train. Patrick Lussier’s horror mystery Trick feels like an Asylum spin on Todd Phillips’s Joker, as both are about marginalized white guys who paint their faces, start killing people, and become kings of the incels. But where the licensed DC spinoff is an irresponsible and irredeemable pity party for a creep, this cheap lookalike is just an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy, assembled crudely from horror and cop-movie clichés.

Trick opens with a handy list of the dictionary definitions of its title, hinting at the filmmakers’ estimation of their target audience’s intelligence. Trick is also the name of the film’s villain, short for Patrick (Thom Niemann), an 18-year-old who, on Halloween night in 2015, attends a party with his classmates in their Hudson Valley town. During a game of spin the bottle—played with a knife—Trick is pressured to kiss another dude but instead starts stabbing and slashing everyone. (The subtext of repressed homosexuality is never alluded to again in the film.) Incapacitated and brought to urgent care, Patrick breaks free from his restraints and drops more bodies until police shoot him repeatedly in a hallway, knocking him out of a second-story window, neatly alluding simultaneously to both John Carpenter’s original Halloween (the defenestration) and Rick Rosenthal’s 1981 sequel (the hospital setting). Trick staggers to the river and vanishes, presumed dead.

But more killings follow, on or around Halloween, in towns downriver from the first. Detective Mike Denver, the only cop who believes Patrick survived, is played by Omar Epps, who credibly delivers preposterous dialogue like a pro. In the film’s most ludicrous killing, Trick uses a crane to swing the tombstone of an F.B.I. agent (Vanessa Aspillaga) he murdered the year before through the windshield of a car in order to smash a wounded police officer (Dani Shay) sitting inside, a scene Denver sums up to a colleague: “He murdered your deputy with the gravestone of a fed I got killed. Who does that?” Then, after a beat, “What does that?”

Good question. To be scary, a horror villain needs either to be a credible menace or tap into a more primal social fear. But Trick is just implausible. He’s resilient like Rasputin, more violent than a rabid animal. At a time when cellphones and social media are ubiquitous, no one ever got a photo of him, and his classmates can barely even describe his features, just that he was smart as fuck—like, smarter than the teachers. The film shows off his far-fetched cleverness when he kills a different F.B.I. agent (Robert G. McKay) with a Rube Goldbergian guillotine involving a sharp wire, a utility pole, and a bundle of cinderblocks. Its employment makes for Purge-level spectacle without the social commentary to back it up. The beheading is just meatheaded ultraviolence—as inane as any other aspect of Trick.

Cast: Omar Epps, Ellen Adair, Kristina Reyes, Tom Atkins, Max Miller, Thom Neimann, Jamie Kennedy Director: Patrick Lussier Screenwriter: Todd Farmer, Patrick Lussier Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Robert Forster: Winning in the Late Innings

The Oscar-nominated actor brought a sense of honor and dignity to every role he played.

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Robert Forster
Photo: Miramax

David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive opens with a nighttime ride into oblivion. A limo drifts through the lightless void of the Hollywood Hills, red taillights burning in the blackness. An enigmatic woman, ebony hair and curvaceous red lips lending her the air of a tragic beauty, sits in the back by herself. The limo pulls over, and after the woman says, “We don’t stop here,” the driver aims a gun at her, but a gaggle of joyriding kids comes speeding around the curve and crashes into the vehicle. The woman climbs out of the wreckage stupefied and traipses into the hills, leaving behind the mangled metal and bodies.

Soon, a stoic detective arrives on the scene. He looks like a lawman, serious, a little sad, his face etched with the wrinkles of time. He examines the cars, offers a few terse observations, gazes out at the nocturnal city sprawling before him. It’s Robert Forster’s only scene in the film, and it’s an indelible one, imbued with mystery and menace, an attempt to explain the unexplainable. Saying fewer than 20 words and appearing in only a handful of shots, he exudes an air of wisdom and weariness—that of an indolent man who’s seen some shit and knows the horrors lurking ahead. In a film of dreamy logic and ineffaceable images, Forster’s taciturn detective acts as the final glimpse of reality before we slip into a world of Hollywood hopes and fantasy.

Forster, who died of brain cancer at the age of 78 this past Friday, was a prolific actor who experienced a remarkable second act in his mid-50s after giving a deeply empathetic and vulnerable performance as a love-struck bail bondsman in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a film populated by wounded characters leading unamazing lives, and who aspire to transcend mediocrity. “My career by then was dead,” Forster told the AV Club’s Will Harris in a 2011 interview. “No agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing…I could not believe that he [Tarantino] was talking about the Max Cherry role.”

Like so many of Tarantino’s films, Jackie Brown is replete with colorful, loquacious characters whose banter is clever, trenchant, and self-referential, but Forster’s Max Cherry is reserved and crestfallen, a man who’s settled into complacency and finds in Pam Grier’s flight attendant an unexpected inspiration. It’s one of American cinema’s great unconsummated love stories. Forster is a subtle actor, playing Max as an Everyman who chases people for a living but never seems to find what he’s looking for, and who willingly embroils himself in a dangerous situation because of love. He’s smart, self-sufficient, a decent guy, and yet for Jackie Brown he’s willing to risk his life, or whatever mundane existence he calls a life.

Forster was one of those great actors who appeared in far too few great films. His filmography is rife with bad films, though he was invariably a dependable presence in everything he did. He began his career promisingly, with a supporting role in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, and earned renown for his turn as an ambitious and ill-fated news cameraman in Haskell Wexler’s incandescent Medium Cool. He played a private eye in 1930s Hollywood in the show Banyon (his role in Mulholland Drive almost feels like a brief homage to the short-lived series) and appeared in a slew of genre movies for the rest of the 1970s and 1980s. Of note is Lewis Teague’s Alligator, in which a gargantuan reptile terrorizes a city, William Lustig’s nihilistic grindhouse flick Vigilante, and a rare villainous turn in Delta Force, opposite the indefatigable Chuck Norris.

It wasn’t until Jackie Brown and his subsequent Oscar nomination that Forster reentered the public consciousness. The way Tarantino exhumes old, often “trash” films when crafting his paeans to moving pictures, he also has a preternatural skill for resurrecting the careers of forgotten or faded actors. Tarantino fought for Forster to get the part. When news of Forster’s death went public, the director said in a statement:

“Today the world is left with one less gentlemen. One less square shooter. One less good man. One less wonderful father. One less marvelous actor. I remember all the breakfasts we had at silver spoons. All the stories. All the kind words. All the support. Casting Robert Forster in Jackie Brown was one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my life. I will miss you dearly my old friend.”

Forster appeared in a panoply of listless films and television programs throughout the 2000s (his appearance in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants in 2011 being an exception) but became a household face again in 2018, when he took on the role of Sheriff Frank Truman, Harry S. Truman’s brother, on the third season of Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Whereas Michael Ontkean exuded a mercurial youthfulness on the original series, that of a warm-hearted, just man capable of fiery spontaneity, Forster plays the elder Sheriff Truman rather pensively, sagacious and serene. Which is to say, he acts with the wisdom accrued by experience.

Forster also appeared in a season five episode of Breaking Bad, as a vacuum store owner and “disappearer” named Ed who helps Bryan Cranston’s Walt change identities. A stable presence amid the histrionic theatrics that defined the show’s approach to acting, Forster gives an understated performance and a sense of the real-world left behind by Vince Gilligan’s increasingly combustible melodrama. Forster reprised the part this year in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, the actor’s final screen credit. In a film-stealing scene, Forster stands steadfast and stoical against Aaron Paul’s desperate, bedraggled Jesse Pinkman, refusing to perform his disappearing service over a $1,800 discrepancy. The viewer is, of course, rooting for Jesse, yet one can’t help but respect the conviction of Forster’s unruffled professional. The actor brings a sense of honor and dignity to the role, as he did with every role. Forster was a safe, reliable presence, someone you trusted, unflustered, earnest, whether he was fighting monstrous alligators or swooning after air stewardesses.

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Review: Cyrano, My Love Thinks Art Is Only Born of Romantic Passion

The film is imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls Shakespeare in Love.

1.5

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Photo: Roadside Attractions

Alexis Michalik’s Cyrano, My Love wears its fondness for Shakespeare in Love very much on its sleeve. Though it serves up nuggets of truth, its take on Edmond Rostand (Thomas Solivérès) and the turbulent circumstances surrounding his creation of Cyrano de Bergerac is an outlandish one, imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls John Madden’s Oscar winner. And while Michalik positions Rostand as the story’s triumphant artist, the French dramatist is often reduced to a skittish ninny—as opposed to the pompous ass that Joseph Fiennes’s Shakespeare was positioned as—whose great art emanates not from the mind, but the cockles of the heart.

For a film so hellbent on the notion that Cyrano de Bergerac was inspired not only by actual events, but real emotions, there’s surprisingly little effort made to articulate with any specificity the conflicted feelings behind Rostand’s penning of what would become the most famous French play of all time. The initial catalyst for his play’s central conceit occurs when he steps in to help an actor friend, Léonidas (Tom Leeb), struggling to find the words to woo a costume designer, Jeanne (Lucie Boujenah), on whom he has a crush. Rostand, in one of the film’s many blatant nods to Cyrano de Bergerac, begins to feed his friend a barrage of romantic lines and relish the secrecy with which he can play out a love affair without disturbing his marriage with his endlessly patient and supportive wife, Rosemonde (Alice de Lencquesaing).

Yet, rather than teasing out the ample psychosexual baggage that should arise from the cognitive dissonance of Rostand writing daily love letters to Jeanne, his unknowing muse, while still professing, with complete honesty, that his only true love is his wife, Michalik pivots his focus to the swirling chaos of Cyrano de Bergerac’s production. With Rostand’s emotional conflict left fairly nebulous, Cyrano, My Love never quite gets to the root of the author’s inspiration, leaving its familiar theatrical farce about the troubles of mounting a stage play grounded in neither genuine emotion nor any palpable stakes.

As the hurdles that Rostand and company face in staging Cyrano de Bergerac grow bigger and Rostand writes pages to be rehearsed before the ink dries, the film introduces a parade of quirky, ostentatious characters. From the historical, such as Sarah Bernhardt (Clémentine Célarié) and Anton Chekhov (Misha Leskot), to the imagined, such as a prostitute (Mathilde Seigner) who’s foisted into the lead role of Roxane, each one is more thinly conceived than the next, with eccentricities dialed up to 11. The most egregious of these larger-than-life characterizations, however, is Monsieur Honoré (Jean-Michel Martial), the black café owner whose sole purpose is to repeatedly tap into his struggles as a minority as a means to galvanize the all-white cast and crew, who he then cheers on from the sidelines.

Cyrano, My Love’s lone performative bright spot comes in the form of a surprisingly nimble turn by Olivier Gourmet, known primarily for his dour turns in many of the Dardenne brothers’ films. Gourmet lends both humor and pathos to the play’s famous but desperate lead actor, Constant Coquelin. But while Coquelin steals the spotlight in a number of scenes, Rostand remains little more than a perpetually anxiety-ridden artist who virtually stumbles into writing a masterpiece during a helter-skelter production. And with little care given to rendering the intense emotional tumult that spurred his artistic process, all the pandemonium of Cyrano, My Love proves to be much ado about nothing.

Cast: Thomas Solivérès, Olivier Gourmet, Mathilde Seigner, Tom Leeb, Lucie Boujenah, Alice de Lencquesaing, Clémentine Célarié, Igor Gotesman, Dominique Pinon, Simon Abkarian, Marc Andréoni, Jean-Michel Martial, Olivier Lejeune, Antoine Dulery, Alexis Michalik Director: Alexis Michalik Screenwriter: Alexis Michalik Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: In Greener Grass, White Picket Fences Cast Shadows Like Tendrils

In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance, as the suburbs have already won.

3

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Greener Grass
Photo: IFC Films

The opening credits of Greener Grass linger on a twitching, toothy smile covered in braces. Everyone in the film wears braces. Everyone drives a golf cart, too, and dresses in gentle pinks and blues. The lighting is soft and sun-drenched, an effect that’s most pronounced during the film’s soccer matches. In the opening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the camera creeps through a suburb’s pleasant veneer to reveal the rot that festers beneath. But for Greener Grass co-directors, co-writers, and co-stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, the very surface is the thing that’s so unsettling, a place populated by slithering, rictus-grinning meat puppets penned in by white picket fences and their own crippling need to conform.

The trouble, if you could call it that, begins when Jill (DeBoer) abruptly gifts Lisa (Luebbe) with her newborn baby as they watch their other children play soccer. This isn’t, in the film’s bizarre conception of suburbia, a particularly outrageous act. At worst, it’s overly generous, like giving someone a gift more expensive than they’re comfortable accepting; another neighbor, Kim Ann (Mary Holland), later laments that she wasn’t given the child instead. The children in Greener Grass are essentially property, status symbols to reflect upon their owners in their pristine homes and yards, all of which feeds into an undercurrent of pervasive competition that nonetheless reinforces conformity and simply not rocking the boat.

Everything is seemingly interchangeable in Greener Grass. At a cookout, it takes a full conversation for Jill and Lisa to notice that they’re smooching and hanging on the arms of the wrong husbands, Dennis (Neil Casey and Nick (Beck Bennett), respectively. And when Jill’s young son, Julian (Julian Hilliard), inexplicably transforms into a dog, she’s horrified, but Nick, the boy’s father, seems pleased: Julian may no longer be able to take the advanced math class, but he’s now a prodigy when it comes to playing catch in the backyard.

There isn’t much of a traditional plot to the film, which plays more as a recurring series of sketches that subtly further Jill’s downward spiral. DeBoer and Luebbe let their scenes linger long past the point of discomfort, both in the length of mannered dialogue exchanges and the amount of time they hold a shot without cutting; the camera gingerly pulls out or pushes in while characters perform odd actions in the background, like perpetually folding tighty-whities or fishing out a seemingly infinite supply of pocket change. It feels voyeuristic, and sometimes it is: In one scene, a hand appears to reveal that we’re watching a POV shot, and in another, an off-screen voice begins breathing heavily and starts mock-repeating dialogue.

A schoolteacher, Miss Human (D’Arcy Carden), fixates on the deaths of American pioneers making their way to the West. In pursuit of “a better life,” they lost things along the way, as the people of Greener Grass have lost themselves in their migration to the suburbs. The film is more unsettling for its lack of an ordinary plot structure where, say, Jill might break out of her suburban funk or get everything to explode with violence in a revolt against conformity. In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance. Here, the burbs have already won, having already sent out the white picket fences like tendrils as far as the eye can see. There is no escape.

Cast: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe, Beck Bennett, Neil Casey, Mary Holland, D’Arcy Carden, Janicza Bravo, Dot-Marie Jones, Lauren Adams, Julian Hillard, Asher Miles Fallica Director: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Screenwriter: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Cave Pays Wrenching Tribute to the Doctors Saving Lives in Syria

Its depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after The Cave’s doctors have left Ghouta.

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The Cave
Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films

Feras Fayyad’s documentary The Cave concludes with what almost seems like a non sequitur: After the staff at a Syrian underground hospital are finally forced to evacuate their war-torn city, the film fades to a low-angle shot of a submerged World War II bomber plane. Kjetil C. Astrup’s camera tracks slowly past the moss-covered plane and an unexploded shell that lies nearby. Yes, it’s a 1940s bomber, and The Cave is about Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, that’s subjected to constant bombardment from contemporary warplanes, but what does this image have to do with the ongoing Syrian Civil War?

Given how instantly recognizable this bomber is, despite its present state of disrepair, speaks to how familiar we are with the massive political and moral sins of the 20th century. Fayyad’s point would appear to be that these sins are being recapitulated today in the Middle East. It’s not only the relentless bombing and devastating chemical weapon attacks captured in the film that evoke images of Europe during the West’s greatest conflict, but also the treatment of people attempting to escape the horrors of the Syrian Civil War.

Over the image of the bomber plane, Fayyad places statistics about the tens of thousands of refugees who’ve drowned fleeing the conflict. As in the omnipresent WWII stories we repeatedly tell ourselves are warnings against ever letting such things happen again, thousands of people in the Middle East are trapped, starving, and suffocating, their homes and livelihoods destroyed by a global war being carried out over their heads.

By the time the submerged bomber appears on screen, those schooled in the history of occupied Europe (or who are simply avid tourists) may have already drawn another parallel, as The Cave, the name given to the underground hospital in Ghouta, evokes the Hospital in the Rock, the Budapest hospital built within a bunker under a hill in the leadup to WWII. From inside The Cave, where the camera keeps us for almost the entirety of the documentary, the sound of bombs is muffled, but their consequences are unavoidable. After every raid, the hospital’s dimly lit underground hallway fills up with desperate families carting the wounded, weeping mothers shoving others out of the way to check on their dying sons, and orchestral music streaming on Dr. Salim’s smartphone. The Mozart helps him focus and, he explains, replaces anesthetic, to which the hospital doesn’t have access.

Heading the small staff that operates The Cave during the years-long siege of eastern Ghouta is pediatrician Dr. Amani, a physician so superhumanly dedicated that she’d come off as an idealized abstraction in a fiction film. Fayyad doesn’t delve into her backstory, but Amani appears to come from a relatively privileged background: Her family, whom she speaks to regularly on the phone, seems to be in a safe place, and she’s well-educated and a feminist, an inclination she expresses strategically to the camera and, when necessary, to defend her occupation against overtly misogynist patients. Despite her presumed access to avenues of flight, she’s stayed behind to treat juvenile victims of bombing campaigns and malnourishment, even paying dangerous house visits to diagnose the children of women who can’t leave their homes. Though brave and generous, she’s no saintly paragon of modesty; on occasion, she rages against the regime and their allies, and the 30-year-old outwardly longs for a regular day-to-day life in which she might be permitted to wear mascara.

Fayyad saves its most graphic depiction of the consequences of the siege for the latter part of the documentary, as a chemical weapon attack perpetrated by the regime and its Russian allies sends dozens of choking people—many children—rushing to The Cave for help. Fayyad ratchets up the suspense with a booming score that crescendos as the staff gradually realizes they’re handling patients who are choking rather than bleeding, and recognizes the smell of chlorine beginning to permeate the halls. Despite the real human suffering on screen, the whiff of rhetorical construction supplied by the score and the accelerating pace of the editing makes the scene feel a bit too much like a Hollywood trope, crafting suspense out of pain.

Perhaps, on the other hand, that moment of tension could be said to effectively convey some aspect of the events as the doctors felt it. Other excessively stylistic elements in The Cave, though, work against the urgency of its messaging. The handheld, intimate format of the bulk of the film is preceded by a still and distant opening shot of the Ghouta skyline, in which missiles are shown gliding into the mass of buildings and erupting into slowly moving dust and smoke. Ironically, this shot almost poeticizes the ongoing destruction of the city, its cool perspective conflicting sharply with the later close-ups of suffering bombing victims.

As the film goes on, the bombings draw closer to The Cave, part of which is actually destroyed by one raid. Samaher, the doctor put in charge of preparing the hospital’s meager rations, cooks in fits and starts, running away from the stove whenever the sound of a plane rattles the nearby wall. Many of the male members of the team chide her for her skittish, sometimes nervously playful behavior, but candid shots pick up even the even-keeled Salim crying after a rare and brief Skype call with his family. The film’s depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after Amani, Salim, and Samaher have left Ghouta.

Director: Feras Fayyad Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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