Film Review: Mass (dir by Fran Kranz)


As we all know, this year’s Sundance Film Festival started tonight.

To me, Sundance has always signified the official start of a new cinematic year.  Not only is it the first of the major festivals but it’s also when we first learn about the films that we’ll be looking forward to seeing all year.  It seems like every year, there’s at least one successful (or nearly successful) Oscar campaign that gets it start at Sundance.  Last year, for instance, Minari took Sundance by storm and it was able to ride that momentum all the way to a Best Picture nomination.  Before that, nominees like Manchester By The Sea and Brooklyn got their starts at Sundance.

And, even if their films weren’t nominated for best picture, some of the most important filmmakers of the past few decades got their first exposure at Sundance.  The Coen Brothers first won notice with Blood Simple.  Years later, Quentin Tarantino took the festival by storm with Reservoir Dogs.  Though an argument can be made that Sundance is now just as corporate as the Hollywood system to which it’s supposed to providing an alternative, one can’t deny the importance of the Festival.

For the next few days, I’m going to taking a look at a few films that made their initial splash at Sundance.  Some of these films went on to become award winners and some did not.  But they’re all worth your attention, one way or another.

Take for instance, Mass.

The first directorial effort of actor Fran Kranz (you may remember him as the clever and genre-savvy stoner from The Cabin In The Woods), Mass made its debut at least year’s Sundance Film Festival.  It was one of the more critically acclaimed films of the festival and, in a perfect world, it would currently be an Oscar front runner.  And who knows?  There’s always a chance that Mass could pick up a nomination or two.  Ann Dowd is apparently running a very energetic campaign for Best Supporting Actress and she’s said to be well-liked in the industry.  It’s probably a bit too much to expect the film to be nominated for Best Picture, though it certainly deserves some consideration.  It’s perhaps a bit too low-key for a year that’s full of bombast and big emotional moments.  It’s a film that raises interesting questions but refuses to provide easy answers.  In short, it’s the type of film that, ten years from now, people will watch it and say, “How did this not get nominated?”  Even if it’s not a Sundance film that’s destined for the Oscars, it is a Sundance film that will be remembered for heralding the arrival of a vibrant new directorial talent.

Playing out in almost real time, Mass is a film about two couples having a very emotional conversation.  Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd) are the parents of Hayden.  Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) are the parents of Evan.  Hayden and Evan went to the same high school.  Years ago, Evan was killed in a school shooting.  Hayden was the shooter.  After killing ten students, Hayden killed himself.

The two couples are meeting in a room in the back of a church.  It’s a part of therapy.  They meet and they talk about their children and the events that led to the shooting.  Jay and Gail demand answers.  Richard and Linda can’t provide them.  At first, Gail is angry and Jay is the one who tries to keep things civil but, as the conversation continues, it becomes obvious that Jay is in fact angrier than Gail. Even when Richard and Linda express obviously sincere remorse for what Hayden did, Jay cannot accept it because, in a way, he needs them to be evil or ignorant or both.  Linda and Richard struggles to reconcile their love for their son with their hatred over what he did.  Gail and Jay feel that their son was unfairly taken from them and they’re right.  Richard and Linda feel that they’re being blamed for something they couldn’t control and they’re also right.  There are no easy villains or heroes in this film.  Instead, there are just four unique and interesting characters, all trying to understand something that makes no sense.

Almost everything we learn about the characters comes from listening to them speak.  Almost the entire film takes place in that one room.  By the end of the film, not a single character is who you originally believed them to be.  Jay’s search for meaning has led to him becoming a political activist.  He insists that there has to be some sort of identifiable reason to explain why his son is dead, even though he secretly realizes that there isn’t.  Gail, who starts out as the angriest person in the room, reveals herself to be the most empathetic.  At the start of the film, Jay accuses Richard of not having any emotions but, by the end, we see that Richard’s emotions are very real.  Finally, Linda seems meek but quickly reveals herself to be perhaps the strongest and most honest person in the room.

It may sound a bit stagey, this film that takes place in one room and which is basically just four characters having a conversation.  But director Fran Kranz does a wonderful job keeping the story moving and the conversation within the room never seems to drag.  Indeed, the room itself is almost as fascinating as any of the people inside of it.  At the start the film, we watch two church employees and social worker going out of their way to make the room as safe and non-confrontational as possible.  However, their efforts have the opposite effect.  The room is so friendly that it makes it impossible not to compare its pleasantness with the issues being discussed behind the room’s closed doors.  The room itself tries so hard to avoid confrontation that it has the opposite effect.

In the end, the film suggests that there are no neat answers.  Even though the two couples come to an understanding and even a sort of peace, there’s no guarantee that peace will last more than a day.  Indeed, as soon as they leave the room, their initial awkwardness returns, a reminder that we can understand pain but we can’t necessarily vanquish it.  It’s not a film about easy answers but there’s something liberating about the film’s willingness to acknowledge that life can be difficult but that life also goes on.

The film is a masterclass of good acting, with Dowd and Isaacs getting the biggest dramatic moments while Birney and Plimpton offer fantastic support.  In a perfect Oscar world, all four of them would be nominated and so would the film itself.  Unfortunately, one of the lessons of Mass is that there is no such thing as a perfect world.

A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron : B. Mure’s “Methods Of Dyeing”


Some stories don’t “unfold” so much as they’re peeled back, each layer revealing another underneath, until the reader finally arrives at the core. Such is the case with the fourth installment in British cartoonist B. Mure’s “Ismyre” series of graphic novels, Methods Of Dyeing (Avery Hill, 2021), and while one could make a strong case that the title itself is both too clever and too obvious by half, given the narrative centers around an investigation of a murdered botanist/professor whose particular area of expertise is plant-based dyes, it’s just as accurate to say that most everything else on offer here is shrouded in a definite air of mystery.

It’s a mystery of a very — and, for the record, appealingly — singular nature, though : one that takes its time, isn’t afraid to savor its own richness, and gently takes the reader along for the ride. Certainly there’s enough by way of revelations going on for this to have been a fast-paced, suspenseful work, if that was the direction Mure had chosen to go, but the fact that it concerns itself instead with establishing its own tempo and temperament speaks to the confidence this cartoonist has in both their methodology and their fictitious de facto “universe.” It’s a comic that’s entirely comfortable in its own skin, immune to the pressures of trying to be what audiences could, at first glance, be forgiven for assuming it either should or must be.

Speaking of audiences, while it’s fair to say that some working knowledge of the world of Ismyre certainly doesn’t hurt going into this, it’s in no way necessary, and I daresay any newcomers are likely to be impressed enough by what they discover here to find themselves sufficiently motivated to track down previous volumes — but the laconic pacing and efficiently minimalist dialogue may require some getting used to on the part of so-called “newbies.” That’s certainly not a criticism by any means — a comic that demands you meet it on its own level is, after all, usually the best kind of comic there is (hell, some might say comics of that nature are the only type worth reading, and I’m not prepared to refute that opinion) — but it does mean that it’s incumbent upon Mure to roll out the red carpet and welcome folks in, metaphorically speaking. No need to fear on that score, though — this story may not propel itself forward in any traditional sense, but it does exert an inexorable pull, a siren call that one can’t help but feel compelled to follow, wherever it may lead.

It also doesn’t hurt that it’s so damn gorgeous to look at. Mure’s cartooning is soft, wistful, warm, welcoming, offering a compelling contrast to the violence at the center of the proceedings and the dread as our gender-norms-bending anthropomorphic animal investigator — who would seem to be hiding a few secrets of her own — works toward solving the case. The fluid strokes of Mure’s brush line and the lithe application of watercolors are enough to fool you into thinking Ismyre is a peaceful idyll of a village, but underneath those surfaces beats what is, at the very least, a semi-dark heart. This might be a perfectly fine comic to show kids, sure, but tonally and thematically, a “kids’ comic” it is not.

And yet, there’s a tangible sense of wonder that informs everything here that’s well and truly childlike in terms of its sheer infectiousness. Mure is clearly having a blast hooking us on the line and reeling us in, and even appears to take a certain amount of glee in yanking us subtly in the wrong direction on occasion. These are all familiar enough tropes that are being exploited, it’s true — but that’s what makes their nod-and-wink subversion so effective. This isn’t a comic out to re-write any rulebook, but to play against expectation precisely because you know the rules — and Mure knows that you know them. I promise that last sentence makes sense — or at least, it will once you’ve read this book.

Which, not to put too fine a point on it, should be your next move. Methods Of Dyeing is a quiet little marvel that fully immerses you in a world you won’t won’t to leave — even as it becomes clear that world is fraught with more peril than appearances would initially suggest. Granted, appearances can always be deceiving — but the spell that this comic casts on you is as real as it gets.

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Methods Of Dyeing is available from Avery Hill Publishing at https://averyhillpublishing.bigcartel.com/product/pre-order-methods-of-dyeing-by-b-mure

Also, this review is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the world of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

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Black Hills (1947, directed by Ray Taylor)


Times are hard and rancher John Hadley (Steve Clark) is running the risk of losing his ranch. When Hadley finds gold on his property, he think that all of his problems have been solved. He makes the mistake of revealing the existence of the gold to his friend, Terry Frost (Dan Kirby). Terry’s not much of a friend because he shoots and kills Hadley and then, working with a corrupt county clerk (William Fawcett), he tries to steal Hadley’s property away from the rancher’s children and rightful heirs.

Luckily, singing cowboy Eddie Dean (played by real-life singing cowboy Eddie Dean) rides up and, with the help of his comic relief sidekick (Roscoe Ates), helps to get things sorted out. Even with Terry trying to frame Eddie for a murder he didn’t commit, Eddie still finds time to sing a few songs.

This was Eddie Dean’s final feature film before he moved into television. Black Hills is better than Romance of the West, the Eddie Dean movie that I reviewed yesterday. The plot actually has a few interesting twists and, though it doesn’t appear that he was ever much of an actor, Eddie Dean appears to be more comfortable with his role here than he was in Romance of the West. Black Hills emphasizes that Eddie could throw a punch just as well as he could sing and veteran western actor Dan Kirby is a credible villain. It makes Black Hills into an entertaining if not exactly memorable western diversion.

One final note about Black Hills: Eddie’s horse, White Cloud, gets second billing in the credits.

Film Review: Stillwater (dir by Tom McCarthy)


I finally watched Stillwater a few weeks ago.  Stillwater, as you remember, was originally meant to come out in 2019 but the release date got moved to November of 2020, presumably so it could be an Oscar contender and also so it could come out just in time to provide some cinematic commentary on the presidential election.  However, due to the COVID lockdowns, the release date got moved back to 2021.  It was finally released on July 30th, 2021 and it was briefly the center of some controversy before everyone forgot that the movie existed.

Stillwater tells the story of Bill Baker (Matt Damon) and his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin).  Bill is a plain-spoken construction worker from Oklahoma.  He drives a pickup truck.  He always wears a baseball cap.  He speaks in the deep accent of the American midwest.  He says grace before eating.  He probably listens to country music and Kid Rock.  Though he says at one point that he can’t vote because he has a criminal record, Bill would probably have voted for Trump if he had been allowed to vote (hence, the controversy when the film was finally released).

His daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), left Oklahoma so that she could attend school in France and, presumably, so she could get away from her father.  Allison’s girlfriend, Lina, was murdered in France and Allison was convicted of the crime.  Now, she’s sitting in prison while still protesting her innocence.  Every few weeks, Bill boards a plane and flies to France.  He gives Allison supplies, like an Oklahoma University sweatshirt.  He also tries to convince the authorities to reopen her case.  Allison swears that there is evidence that will exonerate her.  When Bill, who doesn’t even speak French, realizes that he will never be able to convince the authorities to reopen the case, he decides to do some investigating on his own.

Bill moves to France.  He lives with and eventually falls in love with an actress named Virginie (Camille Cottin).  He becomes a surrogate father to Virginie’s young daughter.  Virginie also serves as Bill’s translator as he searches for a witness who can prove that Allison is innocent.  Virginie gets upset when Bill suspects that the murderer might have been a refugee from the Middle East.  When one potential witness uses racial slurs, Virginie refuses to translate anything that he says.  When she explains to Bill why she won’t talk to the man, Bill replies that he deals with people like that all the time …. back in the United States.  When Virginie’s cultured friends meet Bill, they all dismiss him as being an ugly American and demand to know why he doesn’t like immigrants.

Yes, you guessed it.  Stillwater isn’t just a murder mystery.  It’s also meant to make a statement about America’s place in the world, with Bill standing in for the country during the age of Trump.  Bill is the type of American that Europeans tend to hate and Bill’s efforts to prove his daughter’s innocence lead to him doing some things that have obvious parallels with the techniques used by CIA interrogators during the War on Terror.  “How far would you go to protect your family?  How far would you go to protect your country?” the film seems to be asking.  It’s not an irrelevant question but the film approaches it in too heavy-handed of a manner to really be effective.  Matt Damon might as well have spent the entire film shouting, “I’m an American!” like Dennis Hopper did in Apocalypse Now.  That would have actually be kind of fun.

For someone who has given so many good performance in the past (and who was excellent in The Last Duel), Matt Damon gives a curiously detached performance as Bill.  One gets the feeling that Damon was not particularly interested in emotionally connecting with the role of someone who has probably never seen a Matt Damon movie and who would certainly never vote for any of the candidates that Matt Damon has ever endorsed.  (One can just imagine the scene if Will Hunting tried to convince Bill Baker to read anything by Howard Zinn.)  Since Damon doesn’t seem to know how to suggest that Bill has any sort of inner life, he instead concentrates on trying to perfect Bill’s accent.  And yet, even there, the film is inconsistent.  It takes more to sound like your from Oklahoma than just lowering your voice and saying, “Yeah” a lot.  Watching the film, I could help but think that Mark Wahlberg or even Ben Affleck would have been a bit better cast as Bill.  Neither one of them sounds like they’re from Oklahoma, of course.  But they do have the sort of blue collar attitude that Damon was lacking.

As for Abigail Breslin, she’s not really given much of a role to play.  Every 15 minutes or so, she steps into a prison meeting room and berates her father for not getting her out of jail.  Until that last few minutes of the film, that’s pretty much the extent of her role.  Breslin is playing a character who is obviously meant to bring to mind Amanda Knox.  The real-life Knox didn’t particularly appreciate this and, having watched the film, I have to say that Knox was more than justified in being offended. Even though the film is fictionalized, enough of the details of Allison’s case correspond to the details of Amanda Knox’s case that it’s impossible to watch the film without thinking of Knox.  Beyond that, though, Allison is an inconsistently written character.  The film’s final twist lacks power precisely because we really don’t know anything about Allison or what her relationship with her father was like before she was arrested.

As a director, Tom McCarthy uses the same flat visual style that made Spotlight one of the least interesting films to ever win best picture.  Tonally, the film is all over the place.  It starts out as a murder mystery before becoming a romance, and then suddenly, it takes a turn into Taken territory.  It ends on an annoyingly ambiguous note, meant to leave the audience to wonder whether or not everything that Bill went though was actually worth it.  If Bill and Allison felt like real characters, the ending may have worked but since they don’t, the ending just leaves you wondering whether it was worth spending over two hours to reach this point.

Anyway, if you want to see a better Damon performance, I suggest checking out Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel.  If you want to see a better film for director Tom McCarthy, I suggest tracking down 2011’s Win Win, a charming film that feels authentic in a way that Stillwater never quite does.

A Blast From The Past: Fictitious Anacin Commercial (dir by David Lynch)


Since today is David Lynch’s birthday, it only seems appropriate to share what may be the most obscure of David Lynch’s early short films.

From 1967, Fictitious Anacin Commercial is a one-minute short film and a commercial for a real product.  Jack Fisk, an early David Lynch collaborator who would later marry Sissy Spacek, plays a man in pain.  God shows up, holding some aspirin.  Suddenly, Jack Fisk is feeling a lot better.  However, the audience is a little bit disturbed because God seems kind of menacing.

That’s my interpretation, anyways!  David Lynch was 21 when he directed this film and it really is basically just a spoof of how commercials always act as if their product is the ultimate and only solution to whatever problem you’re having.  One gets the feeling that, for the most part, Lynch and Fisk were just amusing themselves.  And yet, because it is a Lynch film, there’s still a definitely unsettling vibe to it all.  The man with Anacin almost seems like he could be an inhabitant of the Black Lodge.

Anyway, for your viewing pleasure, here is Fictitious Anacin Commercial!

The Eight Covers of Variety Detective


Variety Detective only lasted for eight issues but the covers, all of which were done by Norman Saunders, have made it a favorite of collectors.  Here are the eight covers of Variety Detective.  I apologize in advance for the poor quality of the second image.  It’s the best that I could get.  I think the other covers make up for it.

All of the covers below are credited to Norman Saunders.

August 1938

November 1938

February 1939

April 1939

June 1939

August 1939

October 1939

December 1939

20 Shots From David Lynch


4 Or More Shots From 4 Or More Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

Today, the Shattered Lens wishes a happy 76th birthday to David Lynch!  And that means that it’s time to pay tribute to one of our favorite filmmakers.

Needless to say, when it comes to David Lynch, there’s an embarrassment of riches.

Here are….

20 Shots From David Lynch

Eraserhead (1977, dir by David Lynch, DP: Frederick Elmes, Herbert Cardwell)

The Elephant Man (1980, dir by David Lynch, DP: Freddie Francis)

Dune (1984, dir by David Lynch, DP: Freddie Francis)

Blue Velvet (1986, dir by David Lynch, DP: Frederick Elmes)

Twin Peaks: The Pilot (1989, dir by David Lynch, DP: Ron Garcia)

Twin Peaks 1.3 “Zen or the Skill To Catch a Killer” (1990, dir by David Lynch, DP: Frank Byers)

Wild At Heart (1990, dir by David Lynch, DP: Frederick Elmes)

Twin Peaks 2.7 “Lonely Souls” (1990, dir by David Lynch, DP: Frank Byers)

Twin Peaks 2.22 (1991, dir by David Lynch, DP: Frank Byers)

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992, dir by David Lynch, DP: Ron Garcia)

On The Air 1.1 “The Lester Guy Show” (dir by David Lynch, DP: Ron Garcia)

Lost Highway (1997, dir by David Lynch, DP: Peter Deming)

The Straight Story (1999, dir by David Lynch, DP: Freddie Francis)

Mulholland Drive (2001, dir by David Lynch, DP: Peter Deming)

Rabbits (2002, dir by David Lynch, DP: David Lynch)

Inland Empire (2006, dir by David Lynch, DP: David Lynch)

Twin Peaks: The Return Part 3 (dir by David Lynch, DP: Peter Deming)

Twin Peaks: The Return Part 8 (2017, dir by David Lynch, DP: Peter Dening)

Twin Peaks: The Return Part 18 (2017, dir by David Lynch)

What Did Jack Do? (2017, dir by David Lynch, DP: Scott Ressler)

Scenes that I Love: The Final Scene of Twin Peaks: The Return


Happy birthday, David Lynch!

One of the things that makes David Lynch so special is that he’s willing to take risks and somehow, he always manages to get away with the type of things that would drive you crazy if any other director tried them. For instance, what other director could end an 18-hour film on a note of ominous and disturbing ambiguity and have viewers say, “That was perfect!”

That’s the talent of David Lynch.

Today’s scene that I love comes from Twin Peaks: The Return. Agent Cooper returns someone who might be Laura Palmer to her home in Twin Peaks. However, it appears that the Palmers have either left the house or perhaps they haven’t even moved in yet.

“What year is this?” Cooper asks.

In the night, someone says, “Laura?”

Laura screams.

I know there are some who says that we need a new season of Twin Peaks to explain all of this. I’m not sure that I agree, though I’d love to see everyone again. But, to be honest, I feel this is the perfect ending to Lynch’s American dream.

Music Video of the Day: Falling by Julee Cruise (1990, dir by ????)


Seeing as how today is David Lynch’s birthday, it just seems appropriate that today’s music video of the day should come from Twin Peaks.  Julee Cruise played the singer at the Roadhouse during the first season of Lynch’s legendary show and her voice perfectly captured and, in many ways, helped to create the show’s mysterious and dream-like atmosphere.  (The Roadhouse, of course, became a much more menacing location when the series was revived for Showtime.  I mean, even “The Nine Inch Nails” ended up playing there.)

This video features a compilation of clips from the show.  Some of the clips were directed by David Lynch while some weren’t, so it’s a bit difficult to determine who should be credited as director for this video.  Regardless, this video still captures the unique power of Lynch’s vision.

Enjoy!

Don’t let yourself be hurt this time
Don’t let yourself be hurt this time

Then I saw your face
Then I saw your smile

The sky is still blue
The clouds come and go
Yet something is different
Are we falling in love?

Don’t let yourself be hurt this time
Don’t let yourself be hurt this time

Then your kiss so soft
Then your touch so warm

The stars still shine bright
The mountains still high
Yet something is different
Are we falling in love?

Falling
Falling
Are we falling in love?

Falling
Falling
Are we falling in love?