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WHERE'S THE DRAMA?

The stuff that dreams are made of

32 INT     DRAMATIC NEWS & REVIEWS    DAY

       
                     

AUSTRALIAN SPRING is the working title of a feature film  currently in development that will be produced by the screen and media students at SIFA (Sydney Institute Film Academy), Randwick TAFE.

The film is the outcome of an on-going script development programme, now into its second year, involving four writers writing four, stand-alone 20-25 minute short films, all of which are set over one, long Australia Day weekend.

The methodology behind the conception and making of AUSTRALIAN SPRING  has its origins in a project developed at Information and Cultural Exchange (ICE) by Billy Marshall Stoneking and Amin Palangi. That project - entitled SEEING THE ELEPHANT -  provided a practical and innovative approach to film studies that offered film students a way of creating a viable feature-length film without sacrificing the experiences derived from writing and producing short-form dramas.  

 READ ALL ABOUT IT HERE

 

 

W T D ?   R E C O M M E N D S

THE RETRIEVAL

 

A tough, tender little movie, “The Retrieval” tells a story of divided souls wandering a divided land. It takes place in 1864, the year before the Civil War ended, and opens in the dead of night. As cannons boom in the distance, a 13-year-old black boy, a seeming runaway, takes refuge in a barn guarded by a white woman with a long gun. Shortly after the boy settles in next to a few black fugitives — one silently hands him food — he slips out to alert his employers, white bounty hunters who quickly torch the barn and capture the fugitives, who fetch as much as $600 a head.

Money changes hands throughout “The Retrieval,” passed from man to man in bloody communion. The boy, Will (Ashton Sanders), carries around a coin given to him by his long-gone father. With no family or home, he clings to it and to a man he calls uncle, Marcus (Keston John), a black mercenary with fast, cruel hands. It’s unclear how they ended up working for the bounty hunters, who are led by the foreboding Burrell (Bill Oberst Jr.). After the gang captures the fugitives, Burrell pays Marcus, who then tosses Will some coins. There’s pathos in how Will scrambles for his meager pay and also in his reluctance to feed the fugitives, whining that it isn’t his turn.

Written, directed and edited by Chris Eska, “The Retrieval” is modest in means and narrative scope. Its heft comes from the moral awakening at its center, which involves the humanization of a black adolescent who, however nominally free, is captive to a system that reduces human relationships to financial transactions. The story follows Will and Marcus as they, under orders from Burrell, go north to bring back a black man, Nate (Tishuan Scott). Will and Marcus find Nate digging graves for the Union and persuade him to return south to visit his brother, whom they say is dying. Initially reluctant or just wary, Nate at last agrees, and together they head off into a wintry landscape wreathed in a spectral blue light and speckled with leafless trees and corpses.

Mr. Eska’s choices are thoughtful if sometimes studied: the movie is well cast with solid performers, and if the handsome digital images look overly sharp, as if outlined in razor, he consistently makes the most of his limited resources. Mr. John, Mr. Oberst and Mr. Scott have faces that you want to spend time searching, and the cinematographer, Yasu Tanida, knows how to shoot African-Americans; here, they don’t ebb into shadow because the scenes were lighted for their white co-stars. This is also a movie made for the big screen: there are plenty of TV-ready medium and head-and-shoulder close-ups, but Mr. Eska uses tight ones sparingly and has a feel for landscape, often showing the characters framed against the trees, pale sky and pooling night, as if to emphasize the world in which they exist.

A few times, as in a scene in which Will walks around with an animal skull in front of his face, obscuring himself with the bony mask, the movie slips into strained poetry. The image is visually arresting, including chromatically, as black shifts against white with a spooky, morbid loveliness that draws you in. It also conveys a sense of playfulness that underscores that Will, despite his protests, is still a child. Yet when the camera continues to trail after Will, it feels as if Mr. Eska were moving away from a concretely, resonantly human moment — and a boy fooling with a weird talisman of death — and into that Terrence Malick realm where light and the mystery of being converge at the back of a character’s head. Mr. Eska is on firmer ground when his movie and people are too.

Like many other fictional American travelers, the aptly named Will is on a journey of discovery even if his road necessarily winds more inwardly than past the horizon. Despite some talk of the West, he and his fellow travelers are restricted by their existential realities as mid-19th-century black Americans. These constraints may be finally more a function of the production’s limited budget than of history, but they dovetail with the story’s human scale. At one point, Will, Marcus and Nate are swept up in a battle between Union and Confederate soldiers. It’s a ragged skirmish, thinly manned and awkwardly staged. Yet by then the movie, unlike some other Civil War tales, has made the point that while Will and the others may not be conscripts, this is very much their fight.

“The Retrieval” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). War violence.

 

             W A R C R A F T - A Review

 

The World of Warcraft online game apparently had 12 million players at its peak, and every single one of them is going to need to turn up to see this – with their extended families – if it’s ever going to get past its first instalment. It’s an expensive, high-fantasy epic reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. And there’s much to admire in its ambition, its design, even its politics. But there’s also a whiff of the John Carter about it. Like the 2012 Martian flop, it’s a complex, jargon-heavy, deadly earnest battle epic, short on star power and with more than a touch of 1970s fantasy art about it. Its greatest battle could be against widespread indifference.

Newcomers have a lot to get up to speed with here. Our home world is Azeroth, a Middle-earth-like realm along the lines of medieval Europe. The population is mostly human, mostly white, but there are also dwarves, elves and various other mythical creatures in the fringes. Azeroth’s stability is rocked by a sudden influx of orcs, who pour in from another world through a magic portal. These orcs aren’t the anonymous monsters of Tolkien lore; they’re more like intelligent ogres, with tiny heads, tusk-like lower canines, and giant hands with fingers the size of human arms. When it comes to orc style, the art directors have really gone to town – or at least to the abattoir. Accessories include dreadlocks, piercings, hides, pelts and not just bones but entire animal skeletons. One badass has rhino skulls as shoulder pads, another has piercings through his tusks.

READ MORE 

  AMERICAN SNIPER - AN ASSESSMENT

     

 

Only in America can the story of a hate-filled racist psychopathic mass murderer be twisted into jingoistic, crowd-pleasing Oscar bait. Wait, scratch that; only in America and fictional Nazi Germany, because, as Seth Rogen pointed out - and it’s rare you’ll ever find me quoting him - American Sniper is essentially "Nation’s Pride" from Inglorious Bastards but aimed at the hearts and minds of the good ol’ US of A.

 

Adapted from the autobiography of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL with more than 160 confirmed kills as a marksman in Iraq, Sniper takes the now-well-established route for biopics, veering away from a more traditional narrative structure to more of a “series of events” take on the life of Kyle, who has since been confirmed as, to put it politely, an unsavoury character. Sod’s law that that shitty of a person gets Bradley Cooper playing them in the film of their life. Cooper himself is a fairly limited but still highly likeable screen presence, but the fact that he was nominated for an Oscar for this performance, especially over David Oyelowo in Selma (or if the Academy was insistent on only picking white dudes, Ralph Fiennes in Grand Budapest Hotel, Brendan Gleeson in Calvary, Ben Affleck in Gone Girl… hell even Chris Pratt in Guardians) is outrageous. That’s not to say Cooper doesn’t try to bring some complexity to the role, but he’s hamstrung by a rather shallow character based on a terrible person. The only real conflict Kyle is given is that he wants to go back to war when his wife doesn’t; that he loves his country just too gosh-darn much. The film wants to be a character study, but there’s just not enough there with this version of Kyle to analyse in any depth.

 

Were it not based on real life, Sniper would probably end up being a hilarious satire of the suffocating machismo and masculinity which seems to thrive in society, specifically America (a similar theme appeared, with far more tragedy and elucidation, in Foxcatcher). The lunkheaded way Kyle reacts to a cheating girlfriend, the Full Metal Jacket-lite military training sequence, his possibly abusive father; whereas Foxcatcher played a similar overtly masculine world as a dangerous thing, Sniper seems to elevate it to something to be proud of, the proper American way. In flashback, we see Kyle’s first kill on a hunting trip with his father, and are taught that “hesitation is a weakness” and that “there are only three types of people: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs” and that Kyle “will be a fine hunter someday”; the former two sounding eerily like a 25 year old George Carlin routine, and the latter equating Kyle’s future victims to animals. Swiftly returning to the battlefield, we come to witness the voyeuristic borderline eroticism with which Eastwood employs Kyle’s actions in the Middle-East; the shooting of his rifle is essentially one big allegory for sexual pleasure (note the heavy-breathing and increased heartbeat), with the slow-motion bullet shot late on being a near-pornographic climax.

 

What’s strange about the film is that there’s no dissenting voice, no alternate take to balance things out, especially since it took Eastwood two separate films - Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima - to portray both sides of the American-Japanese conflict of World War 2. There’s no such equality here; we’re only allowed to observe the action through American eyes. Before bailing in 2012, Steven Spielberg was originally attached to direct and planned to include an Iraqi sniper, allowing an opposing viewpoint on the battle (and giving us a updated quasi-remake of the underrated Enemy At The Gates), but for reasons known only to himself, Eastwood did away with the concept, leaving us with a horribly blinkered film. The Iraqis, be they civilian or otherwise, are contemptuously afforded little depth or character, becoming mere fodder for the valiant American troops to pick off in one shot; troops who are afforded the whole Bubba Buford Blue treatment upon getting shot themselves, whilst Kyle’s death at the hands of another PTSD-afflicted vet is apparently deemed far too sacred to be shown on screen. Within seconds of the film beginning, we’re told a woman in a chador and her child are “enemies” to be eliminated immediately. You need only look at the reaction to the film on social media to see how brown people are viewed by America, and this film won’t do much to improve that.

 

Sniper is an ugly film; ugly cinematography (once you’ve seen one dilapidated Middle Eastern city, either thanks to The Hurt Locker, video games or the news, you’ve seen ‘em all), ugly screenwriting (all your favourite war genre cliches are here), ugly morality, and at two hours long, sluggish and dull, only perking up for some genuinely well done action scenes. Even if you’re able to stand back and ignore the political side of things, it’s still basically a highly unremarkable instalment of Call Of Duty. With that context added back on, it becomes a deeply worrying piece of propaganda.

- Courtesy Hitsville UK 

  

 In Joseph Cedar’s Footnote, an under-stated rivalry between father and son plays out under the most intellectual of circumstances. Eliezer Scholnik, an Israeli Talmudic scholar whose life has consisted of monastic study and an unparalleled love of truth, is passed over time and again for the public recognition which his son Uriel, also a Talmudic scholar, gets heaped upon him. Uriel’s popular approach to a naturally isolating subject is the very thing that allows him to succeed–and the cause for his father’s disdain. New tensions in their relationship arise over the announcement of the recipient of the prestigious Israel Prize, for which both father and son have, unwittingly, been entered as competitors. In the running for an Oscar, it lost to the weaker and more contrived Iranian feature, THE SEPARATION.   READ MORE

 

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ONCE MY MOTHER

SYDNEY MORNING HERALD REVIEW HERE

 

Sophia Turkiewicz’s film Once My Mother is an emotionally mature story about heroism, resentment and forgiveness, but behind it is the story of a long struggle to get a film made. In making this film Turkiewicz has exposed how few high-quality, one-off documentaries make it onto our big and small screens, writes Julie Rigg.

Eventually we have to forgive our parents. It can be hard. While some may slide sunnily into maturity ungripped by grievance, for others, parents can command their psyches. Mothers and daughters, in particular, have to untangle psychic boundaries.

When Sophia Turkiewicz was seven, her mother, Polish emigrant Helena, put her in an Adelaide orphanage. An only child, born in a Polish refugee camp in Lusaka, North Rhodesia (now Zambia), Sophia was intensely close to Helena. The child Sophia was torn between love for her mother and furious anger at being abandoned.
Two years later, her mother came to collect her and take her home. She had found a husband, a stepfather for Sophia. But Sophia never forgot that abandonment, and resented the man who had claimed her mother’s attention. At 16, Sophia ran away from home. Her mother found her but she escaped once more.

She made her way to University. Embarrassed by her mother’s broken English, her lack of education, she blocked her ears to Helena’s stories. In 1977, Sophia, in her second year at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS), decided she should record them. She flew to Adelaide with fellow students Gillian Leahy and Gilly Coote, and with embarrassingly little technique, and 800 feet of film, they began to interview Helena.

Perhaps Sophia wasn’t ready. She put that film aside, and went on to make others: the short film Letters From Poland (1978), the award-winning feature film Silver City (1984). Fiction which drew on aspects of her mother’s stories but never came close to the love and anger between them. Truth can hurt.

Ten years ago, Sophia put her mother into an aged care home. Helena (now Helen) protested, furious at leaving the Adelaide home which was her triumph. Then, realising that her mother’s memory was fading with the onset of dementia, Sophia returned to researching her mother’s story, picking up the film again. It became Once My Mother.

- Julie Rigg    

READ MORE

 

52 TUESDAYS

Most Australian films are boring. There, I said it. Somebody had to say it, I mean it’s certainly not all Australian films, but by and large, most Australian films of recent history are made by Baby Boomers, for Baby Boomers, they star the same 14 actors, that deals with the same issues, and I can’t even finish this sentence, I’m so bored.
 
- Marc Fennell, reviewing 52 Tuesdays  

 

NEBRASKA   &   TRIBAL STORYTELLING

 

 + Q & A with director, Alexander Payne +

 

HARLAN ELLISON REVIEWS SAVING MR. BANKS

In 1964 the Mary Poppins film premiered in Hollywood to world acclaim. But one person loathed it. She was P.L. Travers, the author of the books. To coincide with the release of Saving Mr Banks, this Culture Show special (SEE BELOW) presented by Victoria Coren Mitchell explores the dark and complex life of the writer. Her twenty year battle with Walt Disney, the strange adoption of her child (he was one of twins) and how the film version overshadowed her writings but made her rich. With contributions from Emma Thompson, Cameron Mackintosh and PL Travers's granddaughter.

 

  

       WALTER MURCH'S 'TAKE' ON 3-D

Walter Murch is widely acknowledged as the person who coined the term Sound Designer, and along with colleagues developed the current standard film sound format, the 5.1 channel array, helping to elevate the art and impact of film sound to a new level. “Apocalypse Now” was the first multi-channel film to be mixed using a computerized mixing board.” He won two more Oscars for the editing and sound mixing of The English Patient.”    


“He is perhaps the only film editor in history,” the Wikipedia entry observes, “to have received Academy nominations for films edited on four different systems:

Julia (1977) using upright Moviola
Apocalypse Now (1979), Ghost (1990), and The Godfather, Part III (1990) using KEM flatbed
The English Patient (1996) using Avid.

Cold Mountain  (2003)  using Final Cut Pro on an off-the shelf PowerMac G4.

Now read what Walter Murch wrote to Roger Ebert concerning 3D storytelling:

 

Hello Roger,

I read your review of “Green Hornet” and though I haven’t seen the film, I agree with your comments about 3D.

The 3D image is dark, as you mentioned (about a camera stop darker) and small. Somehow the glasses “gather in” the image — even on a huge Imax screen — and make it seem half the scope of the same image when looked at without the glasses.

I edited one 3D film back in the 1980’s — “Captain Eo” — and also noticed that horizontal movement will strobe much sooner in 3D than it does in 2D. This was true then, and it is still true now. It has something to do with the amount of brain power dedicated to studying the edges of things. The more conscious we are of edges, the earlier strobing kicks in.


The biggest problem with 3D, though, is the “convergence/focus” issue. A couple of the other issues — darkness and “smallness” — are at least theoretically solvable. But the deeper problem is that the audience must focus their eyes at the plane of the screen — say it is 80 feet away. This is constant no matter what.

But their eyes must converge at perhaps 10 feet away, then 60 feet, then 120 feet, and so on, depending on what the illusion is. So 3D films require us to focus at one distance and converge at another. And 600 million years of evolution has never presented this problem before. All living things with eyes have always focussed and converged at the same point.

If we look at the salt shaker on the table, close to us, we focus at six feet and our eyeballs converge (tilt in) at six feet. Imagine the base of a triangle between your eyes and the apex of the triangle resting on the thing you are looking at. But then look out the window and you focus at sixty feet and converge also at sixty feet. That imaginary triangle has now “opened up” so that your lines of sight are almost — almost — parallel to each other.

We can do this. 3D films would not work if we couldn’t. But it is like tapping your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time, difficult. So the “CPU” of our perceptual brain has to work extra hard, which is why after 20 minutes or so many people get headaches. They are doing something that 600 million years of evolution never prepared them for. This is a deep problem, which no amount of technical tweaking can fix. Nothing will fix it short of producing true “holographic” images.

Consequently, the editing of 3D films cannot be as rapid as for 2D films, because of this shifting of convergence: it takes a number of milliseconds for the brain/eye to “get” what the space of each shot is and adjust.

And lastly, the question of immersion. 3D films remind the audience that they are in a certain “perspective” relationship to the image. It is almost a Brechtian trick. Whereas if the film story has really gripped an audience they are “in” the picture in a kind of dreamlike “spaceless” space. So a good story will give you more dimensionality than you can ever cope with.

So: dark, small, stroby, headache inducing, alienating. And expensive. The question is: how long will it take people to realize and get fed up?

All best wishes,

Walter Murch

 

AUSTRALIAN CINEMA IS DEAD !

 

Why do we doggedly adhere to distribution and exhibition models and windows that no longer, in any way, adequately service our domestic feature production industry? Why do we think "feature" means "cinema", when clearly it is only the production sector that thinks so?  

PETER CASTALDI writes : "we have lost the battle for theatrical screen real estate, essentially rolled over and handed it over to international interests, and allowed this to happen through indolence, fear and ignorance. However, if we move quickly and effectively, without fear, we have an opportunity to truly and effectively occupy the on-line digital real estate, which is opening up. READ MORE

       JEEPERS CREEPERS - An Analysis

It's annoying when a movie shows just enough flashes of brilliance to make you like it, while still displaying just enough unoriginality, cliche and predictability to make you angry. Such is the case in Victor Salva's Jeepers Creepers. If ever there were a horror movie that starts out strongly and slowly loses steam before limping to a pointlessly abrupt finale, this is it. 

Jeepers Creepers has a very promising opening (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7uiQdfppCA&list=LPYb_GIboBivM&index=5&feature=plcp ). Two sassy siblings - played by Gina Philips and Justin Long - are driving home from college. They take the scenic route through the vast emptiness of middle America, and along the way witness some suspicious things. But then, around page 15 the wheels start falling off the story and the whole thing comes to a grinding,,, well, no, "grinding" is far too dramatic a word to be used in the same breath with one of the most disappointing scripts ever to be made into a movie. 

So what went wrong?

Philips and Long are presented early on as pretty reasonable, intelligent, and keenly aware of horror movie cliches. However, once they are in the thick of the horror, they seem to forget everything, and their characters stand around waiting to get killed. This aggravates me to no end. Why make a point of having your characters talk about what not to do in horror situations and then let them do it anyway? Instead of being done like satire, it just feels lame.

What about the Creeper? What is he? What does he want? What's his story? Don't expect a single answer. Not even good speculation. Fooey! He dresses like a gunslinger, drives a freaky truck with a freakier horn, eats tongues and other assorted body parts, and has wings. Did writer Victor Salva throw a bunch of horror elements in a hat and play "construct a creature"? The only thing missing was lame one-liners right after each kill (thank God).

It's all right to have a mysterious bad-guy/monster, but throw the audience a bone or two. If you aren't going to attempt an explanation, at least provide a character that might know something. The best Jeepers Creepers can do is a frumpy psychic woman that no one (not even Salva) takes seriously. 

One more thing... Why exactly does the local police department here in "Middle-o-Nowhere, USA" have more cops than the one in Terminator? If it had anything to do with the Creeper or the plot, no mention of it was made.

So what to do?

  • It's best to start with the creature. Figure out what he is and why...even if you don't share that information with the audience. Maybe Salva did this, but there's certainly no evidence of it. Drop a few clues. Sure, this is supposed to be a franchise, but why save the explanations for parts 2, 3, 4, and 5? All he did here was provide a set-up where the Creeper only strikes out in search of things to eat every 23 years. What??? That's worse than The Beast Within (boy turns into cicada after 17 years of percolating).
  • Let the characters stay smart. Intelligent characters in a horror film are so refreshing. People watching these movies hate to see characters do things that make no sense. When the situation calls for running, the characters should run. Who is gonna stand around waiting to see what the mysterious creature will do next? 
  • A creature as indestructible as the Creeper, that's apparently been around for decades, would not find himself in a thriving community of oblivious people. Yes, the area was remote, but there were plenty of residents at the diner, and of course, a whole squad of cops at the station. This many people would know about the Creeper. In fact, if they hadn't already flown the coop, they probably would worship it. This provides you with characters that might know a little about the Creeper, and what he's after.
  • The psychic was wasted. She should have been a more powerful and intriguing character. She could have been the one person that does know all about the Creeper, but maybe she's afraid to say too much. Or, she's the only person that doesn't worship the thing, and wants to save the main characters.

  • There are already plenty of horror franchises that have bad guys that keep coming back for more. Jeepers Creepers could have been something very fresh and new, but couldn't make up its mind what it was. You can't conjure an entire horror movie from one old song. Didn't they ever see Sleepwalkers?

    BTW, those of you that might be interested in the inspiration for this film, check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-pmaY2j8w0

    A tough, tender little movie, “The Retrieval” tells a story of divided souls wandering a divided land. It takes place in 1864, the year before the Civil War ended, and opens in the dead of night. As cannons boom in the distance, a 13-year-old black boy, a seeming runaway, takes refuge in a barn guarded by a white woman with a long gun. Shortly after the boy settles in next to a few black fugitives — one silently hands him food — he slips out to alert his employers, white bounty hunters who quickly torch the barn and capture the fugitives, who fetch as much as $600 a head.

    Money changes hands throughout “The Retrieval,” passed from man to man in bloody communion. The boy, Will (Ashton Sanders), carries around a coin given to him by his long-gone father. With no family or home, he clings to it and to a man he calls uncle, Marcus (Keston John), a black mercenary with fast, cruel hands. It’s unclear how they ended up working for the bounty hunters, who are led by the foreboding Burrell (Bill Oberst Jr.). After the gang captures the fugitives, Burrell pays Marcus, who then tosses Will some coins. There’s pathos in how Will scrambles for his meager pay and also in his reluctance to feed the fugitives, whining that it isn’t his turn.

    Written, directed and edited by Chris Eska, “The Retrieval” is modest in means and narrative scope. Its heft comes from the moral awakening at its center, which involves the humanization of a black adolescent who, however nominally free, is captive to a system that reduces human relationships to financial transactions. The story follows Will and Marcus as they, under orders from Burrell, go north to bring back a black man, Nate (Tishuan Scott). Will and Marcus find Nate digging graves for the Union and persuade him to return south to visit his brother, whom they say is dying. Initially reluctant or just wary, Nate at last agrees, and together they head off into a wintry landscape wreathed in a spectral blue light and speckled with leafless trees and corpses.

    Mr. Eska’s choices are thoughtful if sometimes studied: the movie is well cast with solid performers, and if the handsome digital images look overly sharp, as if outlined in razor, he consistently makes the most of his limited resources. Mr. John, Mr. Oberst and Mr. Scott have faces that you want to spend time searching, and the cinematographer, Yasu Tanida, knows how to shoot African-Americans; here, they don’t ebb into shadow because the scenes were lighted for their white co-stars. This is also a movie made for the big screen: there are plenty of TV-ready medium and head-and-shoulder close-ups, but Mr. Eska uses tight ones sparingly and has a feel for landscape, often showing the characters framed against the trees, pale sky and pooling night, as if to emphasize the world in which they exist.

    A few times, as in a scene in which Will walks around with an animal skull in front of his face, obscuring himself with the bony mask, the movie slips into strained poetry. The image is visually arresting, including chromatically, as black shifts against white with a spooky, morbid loveliness that draws you in. It also conveys a sense of playfulness that underscores that Will, despite his protests, is still a child. Yet when the camera continues to trail after Will, it feels as if Mr. Eska were moving away from a concretely, resonantly human moment — and a boy fooling with a weird talisman of death — and into that Terrence Malick realm where light and the mystery of being converge at the back of a character’s head. Mr. Eska is on firmer ground when his movie and people are too.

    Like many other fictional American travelers, the aptly named Will is on a journey of discovery even if his road necessarily winds more inwardly than past the horizon. Despite some talk of the West, he and his fellow travelers are restricted by their existential realities as mid-19th-century black Americans. These constraints may be finally more a function of the production’s limited budget than of history, but they dovetail with the story’s human scale. At one point, Will, Marcus and Nate are swept up in a battle between Union and Confederate soldiers. It’s a ragged skirmish, thinly manned and awkwardly staged. Yet by then the movie, unlike some other Civil War tales, has made the point that while Will and the others may not be conscripts, this is very much their fight.
    A tough, tender little movie, “The Retrieval” tells a story of divided souls wandering a divided land. It takes place in 1864, the year before the Civil War ended, and opens in the dead of night. As cannons boom in the distance, a 13-year-old black boy, a seeming runaway, takes refuge in a barn guarded by a white woman with a long gun. Shortly after the boy settles in next to a few black fugitives — one silently hands him food — he slips out to alert his employers, white bounty hunters who quickly torch the barn and capture the fugitives, who fetch as much as $600 a head.

    Money changes hands throughout “The Retrieval,” passed from man to man in bloody communion. The boy, Will (Ashton Sanders), carries around a coin given to him by his long-gone father. With no family or home, he clings to it and to a man he calls uncle, Marcus (Keston John), a black mercenary with fast, cruel hands. It’s unclear how they ended up working for the bounty hunters, who are led by the foreboding Burrell (Bill Oberst Jr.). After the gang captures the fugitives, Burrell pays Marcus, who then tosses Will some coins. There’s pathos in how Will scrambles for his meager pay and also in his reluctance to feed the fugitives, whining that it isn’t his turn.

    Written, directed and edited by Chris Eska, “The Retrieval” is modest in means and narrative scope. Its heft comes from the moral awakening at its center, which involves the humanization of a black adolescent who, however nominally free, is captive to a system that reduces human relationships to financial transactions. The story follows Will and Marcus as they, under orders from Burrell, go north to bring back a black man, Nate (Tishuan Scott). Will and Marcus find Nate digging graves for the Union and persuade him to return south to visit his brother, whom they say is dying. Initially reluctant or just wary, Nate at last agrees, and together they head off into a wintry landscape wreathed in a spectral blue light and speckled with leafless trees and corpses.

    Mr. Eska’s choices are thoughtful if sometimes studied: the movie is well cast with solid performers, and if the handsome digital images look overly sharp, as if outlined in razor, he consistently makes the most of his limited resources. Mr. John, Mr. Oberst and Mr. Scott have faces that you want to spend time searching, and the cinematographer, Yasu Tanida, knows how to shoot African-Americans; here, they don’t ebb into shadow because the scenes were lighted for their white co-stars. This is also a movie made for the big screen: there are plenty of TV-ready medium and head-and-shoulder close-ups, but Mr. Eska uses tight ones sparingly and has a feel for landscape, often showing the characters framed against the trees, pale sky and pooling night, as if to emphasize the world in which they exist.

    A few times, as in a scene in which Will walks around with an animal skull in front of his face, obscuring himself with the bony mask, the movie slips into strained poetry. The image is visually arresting, including chromatically, as black shifts against white with a spooky, morbid loveliness that draws you in. It also conveys a sense of playfulness that underscores that Will, despite his protests, is still a child. Yet when the camera continues to trail after Will, it feels as if Mr. Eska were moving away from a concretely, resonantly human moment — and a boy fooling with a weird talisman of death — and into that Terrence Malick realm where light and the mystery of being converge at the back of a character’s head. Mr. Eska is on firmer ground when his movie and people are too.

    Like many other fictional American travelers, the aptly named Will is on a journey of discovery even if his road necessarily winds more inwardly than past the horizon. Despite some talk of the West, he and his fellow travelers are restricted by their existential realities as mid-19th-century black Americans. These constraints may be finally more a function of the production’s limited budget than of history, but they dovetail with the story’s human scale. At one point, Will, Marcus and Nate are swept up in a battle between Union and Confederate soldiers. It’s a ragged skirmish, thinly manned and awkwardly staged. Yet by then the movie, unlike some other Civil War tales, has made the point that while Will and the others may not be conscripts, this is very much their fight.

           NEWS from BEYOND THE SQUARE

     Beyond The Square is Riverside Theatre's dedicated performing arts program for people with disability. The program is interested in developing people as artists and providing rigorous skills based training alongside professional artists to further develop their skills in music, film making, performance and theatre making.

    For information about this, visit www.BeyondTheSquare.org

     

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