Paul Schrader is a somewhat unexpected figure as a Grand Old Man of auteurist American cinema. Certainly Taxi Driver and his subsequent collaborations with Martin Scorsese lent him major stature as a screenwriter. But his directorial efforts have been idiosyncratic and erratic—seldom popular (the major exception being American Gigolo), sometimes scarred by studio strife (Forever Mine, Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, Dying of the Light), sometimes compellingly perverse (Mishima, Patty Hearst, The Comfort of Strangers, The Canyons.)
Then there are the many that flirt with crime drama but are essentially downbeat character studies, from Blue Collar and Hardcore in the late ’70s though Light Sleeper, Affliction, Auto Focus, and so forth. These are movies whose performances, mood, and key moments stay with you. But they are too bleak for anyone but aficionados, with a chastising air of penance rather than entertainment.
So it was a surprise—particularly coming on the heels of a personal nadir, the labored black comedy Dog Eat Dog—when 2017’s First Reformed suddenly made him seem like an invaluable sage, an American Bresson or Dreyer. The Card Counter in 2021 was equally strong, ascetic study of a conflicted loner, Oscar Isaac’s poker sharpie not so different from Ethan Hawke’s pastor in Reformed—another man of painful life experience in spiritual crisis. These films weren’r flawless, but Schrader’s seriousness of purpose, his confidence in matching style and content, now seemed distilled to something approaching perfection.
Very much in the same vein, thematically at least, is his new Master Gardener, which opens this Fri/19 at the Alamo Drafthouse and Rafael Film Center. Joel Edgerton is the title figure, Narvel Roth, whose job is overseeing the prize-winning grounds of an extensive Louisiana estate (no doubt a former plantation) now owned by its heiress, the imperious Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). She calls him “Sweetpea,” but that false endearment seems mostly designed to keep him in his place—there is nothing soft about him, or her, or their relationship. Which, we find out after a while, extends from flower beds to the bedroom … but retains a strict employer/employee dynamic even there.
Having no children of her own, and hinting at a medical condition that may shorten her future, Norma is interested in keeping historic Gracewood Gardens in the family. To that end, she presses upon Narvel an apprentice who’s her grand-niece from a disgraced and estranged branch of the Haverhills. Thus summoned, Maya (Quintessa Swindell) has no idea why exactly she’s here—nor does her relative bother greeting her—but she’s willing enough to accept any opportunity given. What’s more, it turns out she’s an apt pupil, with the proverbial green thumb. Norvel is pleased with her progress, though troubled (for a moment or two) by the growing attachment between them. There is hell to be paid, however, when the lady of the big house discovers that attachment, becoming an old-school Woman Scorned.
Master Gardener has the slow, sure pacing we now expect from Schrader, and the interesting attention paid to vocation as craft, calling, and philosophy. But horticulture ends up playing a more gimmicky role here—it is ultimately irrelevant to the past Norvel has renounced (involving Proud Boys-type militia extremism), but which inevitably returns to haunt him. The shotgun marriage between those two narrative elements never quite takes, and the additional suspense strand of Maya’s ties to local drug-dealing lowlifes also feels forced. The film’s controlled style sometimes gives way to iffy gambits, like a very stilted sex scene followed by an odd, flowery dream sequence.
Romance has never been this writer-director’s strong suit. It’s almost always his scripts’ weakest element, as here, where it is centrally placed. There is no chemistry between leads Edgerton and Swindell. Worse is that we’re meant to take Norvel’s coming together with someone half his age as a natural progression, while his relationship with Norma is seen as ickily transactional—and Weaver can only do so much with a role that really does not transcend “rich bitch.” The characters’ ages aren’t specified, but going by the actors’ own, Norvel stands in the 50-year middle of women a quarter-century his junior and senior. There’s no prize for guessing which one is painted as more suitable, let alone sympathetic.
Still, even if it falls short as an organic narrative conceit, Master Gardener has grown-up ideas, pacing, and performances. It disappoints mostly by following two films from the same maker that were career highlights, a tough standard for comparison. While his latest can seem ponderous and strained, it shows Schrader making an esteemed elder’s kind of meditative movie while at the same time engaging with up-to-the-moment issues (like neo-Nazis). It’s a worthy effort, however mixed the results.
Two foreign dramas offer characters in simpler if no-less-troublesome domestic straits, both of which include (without centering on) transgender figures. In Emanuele Crialese’s L’immensita, which opens Fri/19 at the Metreon, Penelope Cruz plays … well, the usual Penelope Cruz character: A woman full of life given plenty of reasons to cry, making this another vehicle in which her career resembles that of 1940s stars whose glamorous suffering hardly varied from film to film. Clara is an upper-middle-class housewife in late 1970s Rome, the eldest of whose children (Luana Giuliani’s Adri) is at age 12 or so already preferring to dress and be addressed as a boy. Her husband (Vincenzo Amato) doesn’t appreciate that, or his wife, and it is no surprise when we discover he is unfaithful.
There are the interludes that seem designed simply to show off La Cruz being exuberant (singing along to pop diva Rafaella Carra’s bombastic “Rumore,” a B&W musical fantasy, etc.), just as others allow her to run the gamut of sadder emotions. That’s compared to, say, 2015’s bathetic Ma Ma, this provides the able Spanish star with a tasteful tearjerker. But it nonetheless feels contrived for effect rather than genuinely effecting. When our heroine suddenly goes off the mental deep end, it comes out of nowhere—no psychological grounds have been laid to prepare us. A narrative endpoint reached not long after feels arbitrary, assuming a posture of resolution no viewer is likely to feel. This is a slick film that clearly comes from somewhere heartfelt, yet plays as if prematurely shot halfway through the development process.
Likewise all-nurturing but underappreciated is Haider (Ali Junejo), the protagonist in Saim Sadiq’s Pakistani Joyland. While wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) finds satisfaction working at a Lahore salon, Haider is unemployed. As a result, he’s stuck as a nanny, housekeeper, and general gofer at home, where he’s pushed around by his father, older brother, and sister-in-law. A friend tips him to a potential job, which turns out somewhat humiliatingly to be that of a backup dancer at the local “erotic dance theater.”
Haider has two left feet, but he’s hired nonetheless, finding himself at once fascinated and intimidated by transgender performer Biba (Alina Khan). She has endured a lot of slights (including having her act relegated to intermission, when no one is paying attention), but she can dish ‘em out, too. Haider experiences unfamiliar feelings stirring as their alliance grows closer. He doesn’t really know what he wants, however, and ambitious Biba has little patience for someone else’s struggle.
Joyland has been controversial in Pakistan (it was briefly banned before being approved for release), where LGBT rights are not advanced, though punitive laws are no longer frequently enforced. The film’s very existence thus constitutes an act of artistic bravery, even if its low-key melodramatics may feel less resonant (let alone daring) viewed here. It opens Fri/19 at the Roxie Theatre in SF.
Someday all the above-named new features will be in need of preservation, the subject of Ines Toharia Teran’s Film: The Living Record of Our Memory, which gets its local premiere this Sat/20 under Other Cinema auspices at Artists Television Access. This documentary is two full hours, yet there’s never a wasted moment in covering what turns out to be a very complicated topic. It begins with the problems of film history itself: About 80 percent of the silent era is lost because that product was considered so disposable, and film stock frequently melted down to retrieve silver. Lacking any secondary market to keep titles valuable after their initial run—at least until television came along—studios seldom bothered archiving their own movies. Even when they did, the fragility of nitrate film had to be contended with.
Eventually national archives started popping up around the globe, not only preserving a country’s celluloid heritage but also frequently becoming places where the last remaining copy of a foreign film might be found—dispersed by war, commerce, or pure chance. But attitudes and resources are very unevenly dispersed: Economics and politics both play a part in Africa and Latin America’s relative paucity of such institutions. And as one observer here puts it, restoration (as opposed to conservation) of old movies is “a First World concept,” because it is so expensive. A major reason the traditional canon of motion-picture classics remains largely limited to Hollywood and Europe is due to the fact that a wider international array remains largely inaccessible.
Amidst a wealth of recovered archival footage, both commercial and otherwise, Teran includes interviews from archivists based everywhere from Thailand to Norway to Manhattan, plus veteran filmmakers (Jonas Mekas, Ken Loach) and more. There’s also attention paid to particular recovery projects, whether George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead, the Cuban Memories of Underdevelopment, or works by SF’s own pioneering lesbian experimentalist Barbara Hammer. We also get a peek at the ever-evolving technology that can now salvage reels considered damaged beyond hope just a few years ago. One of the doc’s talking heads, Internet Archive’s Rick Prelinger, will be present at this Spanish-Canadian feature’s Northern California premiere.
It is to be doubted that anyone involved in making 1982’s Dunyayi Kurtaran Adam aka The Man Who Saved the World aka Turkish Star Wars imagined it would some day become an object of preservation and restoration. Yet this schlockfest from Turkey’s exploitation cinema heyday—when nonexistent copyright protection laws enabled shameless home-grown ripoffs of James Bond, E.T., Death Wish, The Wizard of Oz, Rocky, Rambo, The Exorcist, Star Trek, and various western comic-book superheroes—eventually accrued an overseas cult following.
That surely came as a surprise to director Cetin Inanc, as it was an ill-received flop at home upon release, with no English-subtitled version created or even desired for years after. But Turkish Star Wars (as it eventually came to be popularly known) is a Frankenstein film of undeniable charm, its incoherence much too lively to risk the boredom of most such projects. Using FX footage lifted (albeit in the wrong aspect ratio) from George Lucas’ 1977 blockbuster itself, plus lots of borrowed soundtrack music (much from Raiders of the Lost Ark) and other “found” elements, it is nuts.
Two wisecracking B-movie hunks (Cuneyt Arkin, Aytekin Akkaya) kickbox leprous-looking zombies and people in furry costumes on a desert planet where a villain wearing a spiked headdress covets their grey matter because (a narrator tells us) “However strong, the enemies of the Earth did not have brains.” Women wearing aerobics-class sweatbands occasionally require rescue. There’s a comedy-relief robot or two, and a wacky multi-species bar sequence also à la Star Wars. Somehow all this interplanetary mayhem manages to reinforce the moral supremacy of Islam and Turkish civilization, because the same narrator tells us so.
This discount epic, whose costumes would make perfect sense at a children’s Halloween party, has for years only been available in VHS-derived dupes. A few years ago a sole surviving 35mm print was evidently found, allowing for actual restoration. We have no idea just what Oakland’s New Parkway will be showing this Fri/19 at 10:30pm. But whether it’s a crisp recent print or in vintage murk-o-vision, a good time will definitely be had by all.