“I liked the man.” – Author Niccolo Capponi discusses An Unlikely Prince: The Life and Times of Niccolo Machiavelli

“…there is always the suspicion that Machiavelli is seldom completely serious when he writes – the Florentine jocular, caustic, irreverent spirit too strong in him.”

WHAT: Acclaimed scholar Niccolo Capponi – a direct descendant of Machiavelli – analyses the famous political theorist in the context of his own times, revealing the many sides of the man behind the political genius and explaining his inability to capitalise on his own theories. In his compelling new biography – the first comprehensive one in English in more than forty years – historian Niccolo Capponi frees Machiavelli (1469-1527) from centuries of misinterpretation.

Exploring the Renaissance city of Florence where Machiavelli lived, Capponi reveals the man behind the legends, and a complex portrait of Machiavelli emerges – he was at once a brilliantly skillful diplomat and woefully inept liar; a sharp thinker and an impractical dreamer; a hard-nosed power broker and a risk-taking gambler; a calculating propagandist and an imprudent jokester. Capponi’s intimate portrait of Machiavelli shows how Machiavelli’s behavior was utterly un-Machiavellian, and how his vision of the world was limited by his very provincial outlook. In the end, frustrated by his own political failures and always writing with Florence in mind and for a Florentine audience, Machiavelli was baffled by the international success of “The Prince”.

WHO: Niccolò Capponi is the author of the highly acclaimed “Victory of the West” and a former fellow of the Medici Project. A direct descendant of Machiavelli, he lives in Florence, Italy.

MORE? Here!


Why Nicolo Machiavelli?

I liked the man, I liked the subject. Obliquely, it was also a way of getting even with Ol’ Nick, after being forced to go through his impenetrable prose.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about the real-life Machiavelli is how poorly he navigated the currents and slipstreams of his own political landscape. Why was Machiavelli so bad a being a politician?

Machiavelli was a theorist, and had never had a chance – unlike some of his contemporaries – to experience a hands-on approach to politics before he entered the Florentine Chancery. Like most theorists, he ended up losing himself up his own posterior orifice – something that his friend Francesco Guicciardini underscored more than once.

You say that Machiavelli’s most significant literary achievements were his plays. What did it mean to be a playwright in Machiavelli’s Florence? Were there permanent theatres, companies, well-known actors and authors? Where did Machiavelli fit into that picture?

Machiavelli wrote his plays for his own benefit or for that of a specific actress if she happened to be his girlfriend at the time. In early 16th century Florence, there was no such thing as a ”playwright” in the modern sense; simply, some literati who enjoyed writing plays. Not being any permanent theatre at the time, plays were set up ad hoc: gardens, private houses, churches… However, theatrical companies did exist and some leading performers justly famous.

Have you ever seen one of Machiavelli’s plays performed live? Are they any good?

Machiavelli’s plays are good, and La Mandragola an absolute masterpiece. I’ve seen it performed various times – the Clizia once – and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

If you could ask Machiavelli one question what would it be, but also when in his career would you ask it?

I would ask him late in his life, how was it that his vaunted militia, that he believed filled with the virtues of the ancients, took to its heels at Prato when pitted against professional soldiers – the mercenaries Niccolò so despised (that would be a good example of Florentine malice, on my part).

If you could own one object associated with Machiavelli what would it be?

I think the now believed-to-be-lost play Le Maschere.

Were the women in Machiavelli’s life anything more than dalliances and distractions? Did they impact his work?

Some were dalliances, some were serious. Certainly, his relationship with La Barbera (Barbara Raffacani Salutati), a renowned actress and singer, did impact his work, since he wrote La Clizia with her in mind.

You argue that the archetypical cold fish, buttoned-lipped reptilian Machiavelli is a modern myth not born out by the exuberant, salacious, occasionally coarse personality that emerges from his private papers. So which actor would you get to play him?

Jeremy Irons; at least as the older Machiavelli

Did Machiavelli really sit there of a night, wearing his robes of state, having imaginary conversations with the great and the good of times past – a kind of crankish thing to do? Or was he pulling our leg with a wry smile?

Knowing Ol’ Nick one can well believe that he sought the company of his intellectual equals – even if deceased. On the other hand, there is always the suspicion that Machiavelli is seldom completely serious when he writes – the Florentine jocular, caustic, irreverent spirit too strong in him.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve got a number of projects, mostly non-fiction. A book on the Battle of Castagnaro, written with Kelly DeVries, is coming out this July. Maybe I tackle Galileo next, just to ruffle a few more feathers.

LIKE WHAT YOU JUST READ? FOLLOW US ON TWITTER! FIND US ON FACEBOOK! OR SIGN UP TO OUR MAILING LIST!

“His life offers a prism through which we can examine important threads in African history.” – Author Stuart Laing discusses Tippu Tip: Ivory, Slavery and Discovery in the Scramble for Africa

“…he was an intriguing character, combining traits that we admire and some that we don’t. On the negative side he was violent and ruthless, and yet he clearly had a sense of humour and was good company.”

WHAT: Tippu Tip was chiefly an ivory trader, who pioneered for new sources through present-day Tanzania into the Congo basin. Slavery is part of his story, because Arab traders of the time used slaves as porters and sold slaves through the market in Zanzibar to work locally in plantations and beyond in the Gulf and Persia. He was a pioneer of discovery, both in Arab terms and because this was the great period of European exploration in East and Central Africa: he assisted most of the famous explorers, including Livingstone and Stanley, when it served his interests.

He can be seen as an Afro-Arab exponent of empire, as his commercial ambitions could only be realized by means of Arab territorial control and colonization. His colourful life culminated in his engagement as governor of a province in the ‘Congo Free State’ of the Belgian King Leopold, and in his involvement in Stanley’s astonishing expedition to relieve Emin Pasha, governor of the Egyptian southern province of Equatoria. Uniquely among Arabs and Africans of this era, Tippu Tip wrote an autobiography.

Stuart Laing draws on this and other contemporary sources to give a graphic account of the life and times of this energetic, resourceful, ruthless but often humorous operator. We watch him as he accumulates wealth and power, but then has to stand by helplessly as the British and German colonial machine carves up the territory of his friend and protector, the Omani Sultan of Zanzibar, and as the Belgian empire in the Congo drives the Arabs out of the trading areas of influence they had established west of Lake Tanganyika. This book is the first thorough investigation in English of this significant figure. The lucid narrative unfolds against the political and economic backdrop of European and American commercial aims, while allowing the reader to see the period through African and Arab eyes. The fascinating figures who strutted the 19th-century African stage, and their hardly believable exploits, give this book an appeal reaching beyond the African specialist to the general reader.

WHO: Stuart Laing graduated from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge in 1970 having read Classics. In the same year, Stuart joined the diplomatic service beginning a career in which he held the posts of Deputy Ambassador in both the Czech Republic (1989-92) and Saudi Arabia (1992-95), that of High Commissioner to Brunei (1998-2002), as well as of Abassador to both Oman (2002-05) and Kuwait (2005-08).

Between 2008-18 Stuart returned to Corpus as the College’s Master. He continues to research and write on Arab and East African history. His previous writing projects include a book on the history of Britain’s relationship with Oman – co-authored with a fellow former Ambassador to the Sultanate, Robert Alston.

Stuart is a keen amateur musician; he plays keyboard instruments and the oboe. His other recreations are desert travel and hill-walking. He is married to Sibella (herself a graduate in History of Newnham College, Cambridge) and has a son and two daughters.

MORE? Here!


Why Tippu Tip?

Two reasons. One personal, and the other from a historical perspective. The personal one is that he was an intriguing character, combining traits that we admire and some that we don’t. On the negative side he was violent and ruthless, and yet he clearly had a sense of humour and was good company; and he was unusual in having a wide interest in the world outside his own. The historical reason is that his life offers a prism through which we can examine important threads in African history of the period – the ivory and slave trades, the world of the explorers, and of course the Scramble for Africa. And all of these threads have resonance today.

Tippu Tip’s memoirs provide a uniquely African voice. Why did he write them?

Well, it’s an Arab-African voice, even a Swahili voice. And I find it impressive that his memoirs, recalling events decades earlier, are vivid and accurate – accurate in the sense that, when he reports encounters with European travellers or others (eg colonialists), his accounts tally closely with those made by people keeping careful records at the time. Why did he write them? He was persuaded to do so by a far-sighted German consular official, Heinrich Brode, whom he met in Zanzibar.

Tippu Tip made his fortunes trading in people held as slaves. Did he ever express a view as to the morality of slavery?

Well, I think this assessment need modifying. He made his fortune from trading in ivory; but undoubtedly he used slave labour, as well as free men, to carry his goods. So we must assume that he bought and sold slaves, but this was not his primary business. Yes, he does talk about the morality of slavery, for example in a long interview recorded by the Belgian explorer and colonial official Jerome Becker. He says, “A domestic is free and leaves his master when he feels like it. My slaves wouldn’t think of leaving me – they’re too content with what they have”, and more in the same vein. We have to remember too that Arab Muslims of the time were convinced that slavery was permitted by the Qur’an, and that all their religion required them to do was to treat their slaves well. Not all of them did, however.

The Europeans missionaries and explorers learned much from their contact with Tippu Tip. What did he learn from them?

Interesting question. With the missionaries and explorers Tippu Tip enjoyed discourse about the world outside Africa, some of which (I mean news of the growing interest in European expansion and acquisition inside Africa) he would have found alarming. With Europeans more generally, of course, he benefitted materially from his contact with European traders, for example in buying barter goods and firearms, and in selling ivory. I don’t think that he or his East African contemporaries had much to learn from them in commercial or banking practices – these were quite well developed (notably by the Indian immigrant communities) in Zanzibar, Mombasa and elsewhere, at that time.

The period you narrate is one in which the dice are yet to fully reveal a predominantly Arab, African, or European outcome. What ultimately tipped the balance?

If by that you mean the shift towards Africa for the Africans, I suppose we can say that the preamble to the Scramble resulted in the Arab presence in East Africa diminishing markedly, and the era of European imperial control lasting 70-80 years from roughly came to an end with the “Wind of Change” and independence for British and others’ possessions in the 1960s. But we mustn’t forget that, under a Protectorate arrangement, an Arab Sultan sat on the throne in Zanzibar until 1964.

If you could have accompanied Tippu Tip on one of his journies (from start to finish) which would it have been?

Difficult choice! I guess his second, since this was in new territory, south of Lake Tanganyika, and it would also have given me the opportunity to meet David Livingstone, who joined up with Tippu Tip for a few weeks in 1867. Closely after that would have been chance to meet and travel with Stanley, but that would have been Tippu Tip’s third journey, which was 12 years, and too long for me!

You yourself have travelled extensively in the region. What’s the best advice you can give to a potential follower in Tippu Tip’s footsteps?

Learn a bit of Swahili. Be flexible about plans changing. Remember “hakuna matata” – “Don’t worry, be happy!”

What’s your favourite recipe for cloves?

Regrettably, I’d have to say mulled wine! But also don’t forget your cloves when cooking ham. And of course delicious with apple pie or strudel. In the past, they used cloves for the relief of toothache, but I believe that’s not recommended nowadays.

A historical marker locates Tippu Tip’s house in Zanzibar. Are his life and times still well known in his region?

Yes, quite well, but I hope my book will widen the knowledge. I’m delighted that Medina Publishing have done a deal with a publisher in Dar as-Salaam, and a cheaper edition of my book, in paper-back, is available on the local market there. And a team of German film-makers are currently working a documentary about Tippu Tip.

What will be your next big writing project?

I’m starting to write about the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in East Africa and the Indian Ocean. Lots has been written about the transatlantic trade, but “the other” slave trade is less well known, though in fact just as important. It’s of course a sad, often tragic, story, but one that must be heard.

LIKE WHAT YOU JUST READ? FOLLOW US ON TWITTER! FIND US ON FACEBOOK! OR SIGN UP TO OUR MAILING LIST!

EIFF: “Driven”

“Charming style and notable ambition.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Here is a film with charming style and notable ambition, if a few roughshod elements, which fits together well and features some seriously impressive acting. Set in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Driven takes its time building up to the central intrigue, and it it time well spent. Director Nick Hamm makes good use of his excellent cast, including the endlessly charismatic Jason Sudeikis, an amusingly dour Corey Stoll, a very game-faced Judy Greer, and the standout Lee Pace, who turns in a masterful performance as the legendary figure John DeLorean.

As a fictional piece, this film might face some criticism that its plot is busy and potentially too odd for its own good. But as writer Colin Bateman’s script is based on a series of very real, yet hard-to-believe events, Driven ends up earning an air of true-crime intrigue that holds the audience’s interest well. We follow James Hoffman (Sudeikis), a pilot and family man who may or may not have engaged in drug smuggling in Bolivia as the film begins; he is nabbed by a stone-faced special agent, played by Stoll, who sets up a deal with Hoffman to bring down some big-name drug lords in exchange for a cushy life in California. By chance, the house to which the Hoffmans are relocated is across the street from the man, the myth, the legend John DeLorean, so smoothly masculine that he easily charms all he meets. Hoffman quickly grows close to DeLorean, a relationship which the car designer appreciates more and more as his ambitious dream of crafting “the perfect car” becomes less and less straightforward. There are many winking references to how well-known his DeLorean design would eventually become, but the film regularly reminds us that DeLorean himself endured some serious difficulty in getting it completed. Indeed, though functional as a charming throwback to 70s-style crime thriller stories of intrigue and duplicity, Driven also serves as an intriguing biography of a man who faced remarkably disparate reputations, as both a gifted businessman and possibly a criminal. If story of DeLorean’s mired reputation is news to you, as it was to me, then check this film out if only for the fascinating story behind this stranger-than-fiction series of events. 

This story is well-told, with the various strands of details and developments never confusing and often entertaining. Sudeikis does well portraying Hoffman’s increasingly scattershot decisions, as the pressure mounts from the FBI and his friendship with DeLorean grows more complicated. Greer is good as Hoffman’s wife Ellen, and Stoll turns in some very enjoyable mugging and long-arm-of-the-law self-importance into his special agent role. But it is Pace, who, ahem, outpaces everyone else by far, and imbues his DeLorean with a deeply engaging mixture of performance, ambition, self-doubt, and force of will. Perhaps it is the result of that well-documented tendency for actors performing as real people to seem especially gifted, but Pace nevertheless earns his accolades in this part. It is truly an outstanding performance.

Certain elements of the direction could use more liveliness in a number of scenes, and a few punchlines could certainly use more work. Bateman’s script is very funny in places, but noticeably off the mark comedy-wise in others. However, the story has enough straight dramatic elements that are compelling and engaging that the comedic burnouts do not stick in the mind very long. 

What does come to mind often, especially towards the end, is the striking similarity between the structure of this story and of David O. Russell’s American Hustle. That film, the superior mainly for its richer story, more daring direction, and truly outstanding cast, strikes similar notes in plot, setting, and tone. The 70s glamor, intrigue and distrust between friends and confidantes, manipulative authority figures and comedic undertones all match, but thankfully Driven has enough of its own charms that it feels more like an homage and a partner project than a derivative spin-off. 

Much of this charm, of course, comes from the real-life gravity of it all, and the genuinely fascinating performance by Pace. This is an oddly grounded film at times, which both shows its maturity and keeps it from feeling truly outstanding. But the story is very interesting, the style rather entertainingly retro, and the performances collectively very good. A well-done film, and a good selection by the EIFF. 

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

EIFF: “The Art of Self-Defense”

“A delightfully sharp comedy.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Here is the funniest film of the festival so far, by a significant margin. In an absurdly deadpan style, with dashes of Jody Hill and Wes Anderson, twisted up with a delightfully uncomfortable cruelty reminiscent of Armando Iannucci, Jeremy Saulnier, and Yorgos Lanthimos, Riley Stearns’ The Art of Self-Defense is a comedic gem, which is sure to develop a cult following if found and appreciated by the right crowd. 

This is a comedy that fires on all cylinders, but with a refreshingly subtle style. As a film, everything works; its camerawork is impressive and enjoyable, its script is clever and tight, and its performances are perfectly attuned to the material and tone. As a slice of comedy, it truly shines, with laugh-out-loud turns of phrase and amusingly absurd details coming at you constantly. 

We follow Casey, played by a clearly comfortable Jesse Eisenberg, as he reaches the lamentable conclusion that he is just too weak and pathetic at everything. He is disrespected at work and in day-to-day life, finding solace only in the silent support of his minuscule, adorable dachshund (the EIFF has yet to establish an award like Cannes’ Palme Dog, but if it did, this little fella would be a serious frontrunner). It takes a brutal mugging, where a gang of masked assailants on motorbikes attack Casey for no good reason in the street, to spur him into action. Initially, in a hilarious scene that promises extensive rewatch value, Casey attempts to buy a gun — Stearns does not seem to have much political intention with most of this film, but he does not hold back from offering a few sharp and playful jabs at how unbelievably inadvisable gun ownership can often be. Finding little of use there, Casey instead seeks out his local karate dojo, meets the inscrutable Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), and signs up to learn some self-defense. Things only get better from there. 

As he spends more and more time at the dojo, Casey grows closer to Sensei and learns the intricacies of karate and its disciples. There are the eleven rules each member must invariably follow; there are rituals and secret classes that Sensei rules over with an iron fist; and there’s the mystifying and stoic Anna, played incredibly well by Imogen Poots (in one of two performances beside Eisenberg this year, the other being Kenneth Lonergan’s Vivarium, which I saw at Cannes and liked; these two have excellent chemistry in both). The film really excels as Sensei takes Casey under his wing, and offers sidesplittingly bone-headed advice for making everything in Casey’s life “as masculine as possible.” He dismisses Casey’s interest in France, sensitive music, and small dogs, leading Casey to grow unnaturally tough in a series of terribly funny scenes in which Eisenberg puts his all into embodying unearned confidence and unbridled machismo — all the while letting Stearns hilariously depict the most absurd understandings of manliness you’ll see this side of the Republican National Convention. 

Some of these moments do have some lightly questionable implications as we see eventful shifts in Casey’s attitude at home, at work, and in the dojo, but Stearns deftly stops short of making anything too serious to be an issue. The result of all the silliness also means some developments later on feel rather odd, and don’t always make sense, but the rest of it is so genuinely funny that these cannot be too harshly judged. And Stearns does, to his credit, build up to a genuinely exciting climax that I enjoyed more than anything else at the festival so far. Eisenberg and Poots having already turned in wonderful comedic performances in their time, it is Nivola whose comedic talent surprises as he delivers a genuinely great performance as Sensei. This trio is excellently matched.

If you want a delightfully sharp comedy, with enough laughs to be enjoyable and enough brutality to be engaging and surprising, then seek this out. I wager this will be a very successful streaming title; it’s the perfect type of give-it-a-try movie that will likely make many a curious viewer laugh all the way through their late night streaming session. I know I will watch it again as soon as I am able. 

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

EIFF: “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”

“Bright moments.”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

“STATURE, JOHN! STATURE!”

Pardon me. While this We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a slight, rather limp feature that leaves little impact, the way Crispin Glover delivers this line during one of this film’s emotional outbursts may be the most quotable moment of the festival for me. So that is definitely a plus.

Directed by Stacie Passon, from a script by Mark Kruger based off Shirley Jackson’s 1962 novel, this film earnestly attempts to capture the eerie Gothic aesthetics of big-empty-house-filled-with-tragic-memories stories, but comes up with not much exciting or original to do with it. Sisters Constance and Merricat Blackwood (Alexandra Daddario and Taissa Farmiga), and their uncle Julian (Glover) live in the ominous Blackwood manor, near a small town filled with citizens who hate their guts. The film never really clarifies why the animosity has arisen, except general resentment of their wealth and oddness. To be fair, as Daddario, Farmiga and Glover play them, the Blackwoods are certainly wealthy and undoubtedly odd.

Constance is rarely found without an unnaturally wide smile and a disingenuously kind word for everything, though past tragedy seems to have instilled in her a crippling fear of leaving the manor (a fear which is conspicuously unexplored beyond a passing reference). Daddario plays Constance with a certain recognizable glint of 1950s maddened-housewife mania, which suggests some truly sinister effects of their upbringing, but is also cloyingly one-note. Farmiga is much more irritating as Merricat, who glowers and stomps around leaving bizarre mystical offerings and trinkets around, believing herself a kind of sorceress able to protect the house and her sister with hexes and magic. Julian, his mind gone after the same tragedy that took the sisters’ parents’ lives, is mostly portrayed as an annoyance, though Glover does well to conjure a level of pathos to his sad situation. 

The result of these characterizations is mainly a simple dispassion for whatever happens next. Each character is thinly developed, quirky often to the point of being aggravating, and generally just an uninteresting figure. The most interesting character, then, becomes Sebastian Stan’s intrusive Cousin Charles, who appears suddenly and suspiciously in their lives to “help,” and presumably collect a share of their fortune. Passon’s direction almost immediately clarifies that he is bad! and not to be trusted!, which is initially fun, but continues with so little nuance that one can essentially predict every development between the family members from then on. Charles manipulates the soft Constance, antagonizes the more suspicious Merricat, and disrespects the puzzled Julian, particularly when Julian mistakes Charles for his brother, the girls’ father, and yells at him about “STATURE!” This moment really makes the film.

Stan is impressive, and the standout performer, though that may be unfair given how thinly the other characters are written. Charles does not ever quite have a clear goal or intention, but the predatory way he installs himself in the family and imitates the archetypal patriarch are fun to watch, and he is certainly made fun to hate. If only Passon had made more in this film as fun to watch, it might feel less hollow. But as it stands, We Have Always Lived in the Castle cannot maintain its occasionally bright moments of weirdness and character conflict, instead listing into drab, predictable tales of male aggression, female weakness, and societal disquietude. There are richer, scarier, more engaging tales of a similar aesthetic to be found elsewhere. 

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

EIFF: “Them That Follow”

“A remarkably powerful film.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Perhaps it’s the bone-chilling speeches I’ve seen Christian scientists deliver to a classroom; perhaps it’s the infuriating conflicts arising lately from the morally bankrupt practice of parents not vaccinating their children; perhaps it’s the intensity of the filmmaking. Likely all three. Whatever the reason, Them That Follow struck me as a remarkably powerful film which, whilst leaving little to the imagination, shines a profoundly necessary light on a real, complicated problem – enough so that its less intelligent elements can be overlooked. What writer/directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage have made may not be perfect, but it is certainly a standout at this festival. 

Them That Follow delves deep into an Appalachian Pentecostal community that populate an eerie mountain and practice an illegal and profoundly dangerous ritual of serpents. That is, they routinely trap and keep deadly cottonmouth snakes, which they believe can channel the will of the Divine, and drape them over their congregants’ necks. If the snake remains calm, the person must be properly serving the will of the Lord; if it bites and poisons them, they must be somehow astray from His path. The absurdity of this logic is well-addressed in some outstandingly intense, spine-tingling sequences in which various parishioners are put through the ritual throughout the film. 

The local pastor, the de facto leader of the area, is played with electrifying fire-and-brimstone passion by Walton Goggins, while the townsfolk who follow him are played with commendable depth and lived-in realism by the likes of Olivia Colman, Jim Gaffigan, Kaitlyn Dever, and Lewis Pullman. Sparking the narrative are Alice Englert, as Mara, the pastor’s daughter, and Thomas Mann as Augie, a young man who has come to reject the church, but remains in love with Mara. Through some unsettling developments, their relationship becomes a warped rural iteration of Romeo and Juliet’s terrible journey, though somehow even bleaker at points than that story of teenage tragedy. Suffice it to say, the community is capable of some serious self-denial, resentment, betrayal, and ungodliness. 

It would be easy to dismiss Them That Follow as heavy-handed, unrealistic, too twisted for the good of the story and character development. But the directors explore the absurdity of their practices with considerable depth; to anyone moored in reality, this community is harrowingly rife with irresponsibility and endangerment, but to these individuals, it is their only connection to community, salvation, and acceptance. The fiery expressions of desperation, passion, and anguish that brim just below the surface of many a congregate are well-established and engaging to watch unfold. 

World-building aside, however, unfortunately, elements of the filmmaking leave something to be desired, including some unresolved threads and a lamentably abrupt ending that could have benefitted greatly from only a few more minutes, even seconds, of development. In addition, Poulton and Savage’s reliance on extreme close-ups and moody, austere cinematography occasionally smacks of fresh-out-of-film-school ingenuity, yet it rarely detracts seriously from the strength of the setting and performances. 

And the cast turns in some truly special performances. From top to bottom, the acting is sharp, uncompromising, and above all, convincing. More so than most in this festival, the performers disappear into their roles entirely. Goggins gets a refreshingly powerful role, for although he has turned in delightful work as clumsy and cocksure jerks in Tarantino’s last two features, he has always clearly been ready for a meatier material, and he does not disappoint. I certainly had to blink a few times to remind myself I was watching gifted comedians like Colman and Gaffigan, (and even Dever, gaining traction recently for her turn in Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, and Pullman, who commendably held his own in Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at El Royale last year against a positively stacked cast) who so effortlessly can make viewers guffaw and giggle, but here bury that mirth under an impressive amount of characterization. I should not patronize, of course — many a brilliant dramatic performance can be found when a comedian decides to turn their knack for timing and delivery on serious subject matter. Credit to the directors for coaxing so many impressive performances to the screen. 

Credit as well to those responsible for the unforgettable visuals and editing surrounding the truly terrifying snakes. If an award exists for Best Ensemble Reptile Performance, Them That Follow is a sure bet. Ophidiophobes, steer clear. Even as a fan of our slithery friends, I was squirming in my seat. Poulton and Savage have not made a horror movie in a traditional sense, rather an unsettling religious ensemble drama, but they make a real meal of the scarier elements; if you are looking to be disturbed by eerie reptilian menace, and vile human behavior,  — or even if you want to argue about the perils of true religious freedom — look no further.

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

EIFF: “She’s Missing”

“A captivating tale.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

The American southwest clearly possesses an almost mystical charm that has again and again proven magnificently well-suited to the film medium. From Wim Wenders to David Lynch to Tarantino and beyond, filmmakers have been venturing down south and to the left to capture the inimitable feeling of the region for many years, to fabulous results. Now, with She’s Missing, Alexandra McGuinness adds another entry into the southwest canon, with a film that pays dutiful tribute to this tradition while spinning a rather captivating tale in the process. 

One might expect, from the bluntness of the title, a fairly run-of-the-mill mystery that rests more on its leading performances rather than its writing. The missing-woman narrative has not only been done countless times before, but is indeed a theme in a number of the films in this very festival, and promises few exciting possibilities without something particularly inventive thrown in. Thankfully, McGuinness does have a wild card to play, in her selection of leads; Lucy Fry, as the shy wallflower Heidi, and Eisa González (instantly memorable from her standout turn in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver) as the much bolder, more ambitious, and more striking Jane. 

It becomes rather clear early on that while the narrative of She’s Missing begins trawling in unfortunately low-energy subject matter, the leading actresses are simply too good to let the film slip into mediocrity. González does very well in only a few initial scenes to establish her character’s magnetism, unpredictability, and indisputable dominance over the more accommodating Heidi, while Fry imbues Heidi with a curious devotion to Jane that oscillates between gentle, amicable affection and outright servitude. McGuinness, who wrote and directed the film, intelligently sets up their dynamics with a series of impressive show-don’t-tell choices, principally within scenes in which Heidi defers to Jane obediently, while Jane sees herself as generously guiding Heidi through a dangerous world. The opening shot, in particular, really tells us all we need to know, as Jane regally rides through the New Mexico desert astride a tall horse, and Heidi walks on foot beside them, leading the horse and doing most of the work, both seeming content with Heidi filling the more submissive role. In a prepared statement issued before the film, McGuinness suggested that to her, the film explores the complexities and toxicities of female relationships, and on that front, She’s Missing certainly accomplishes just that. 

Well, it does until the plot kicks in. As the title so unsubtly suggests, one of these ladies goes missing. It is not hard to spot early on which one it will be, and which will devotedly take it upon herself to drop everything and find her friend. When the investigation gets underway, however, the film becomes unfortunately stagnant and unfocused, with various intriguing but irrelevant subplots popping up and disappearing without much justification. One in particular, in which a somewhat suspicious cowboy type (Christian Camargo) romances Heidi with a mixture of pushiness and genuine charm, is certainly layered and results in some solid observations, yet fades away without having much to contribute to the established storyline beyond pithy insights into the complexities of the American southwest and southern male masculinity.

In this regard, notably, McGuinness deserves credit for portraying this American tale without lazy finger-pointing and condemnations; various Americana is portrayed with a refreshing nuance, as McGuinness’ camera explores local rodeos, gun stores, attitudes towards the Mexican border, southern music, and the ever-present mysticism of the desert with aplomb. To be clear, the cowboy adds a commendable layer of detail to the portrayal of the region, but nevertheless seems added in to let McGuinness make a legitimate but somewhat superfluous series of points given the film’s prevailing narrative. 

The major issue, again, comes when the aesthetics cannot make up for a rather limp plotline. Nothing really comes of the central story after the midway point, except some unearned leaps in narrative that introduce some quirky characters (including an entertaining turn from Josh Hartnett) but nothing particularly memorable or inventive. She’s Missing becomes rather easily divisible into three parts; the first, rich in aesthetic and narrative craft, the second, still striking a well-crafted mood but becoming less compelling, and the third, slipping away into the unshakeable feeling that McGuinness didn’t know how to end her ultimately unremarkable storyline. 

Perhaps the film’s original title, Highway, would set us up for a more realistic expectation of what the film offers: a sense of a region and set of characters in transit and transition, with interesting oddities flashing by but never lingering on any to great effect. Thankfully, Fry and González are with us for most of the film, so the ride is enjoyable essentially from start to finish, even if the attractions become conspicuously less inspired down the road. 

 

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller