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ECHOES OF WAR

Producer:  John Chriss, Kyle Fischer, J.M.R. Luna, Kane Senes and Dave Szamet
Director:  Kane Senes
Writer:  John Chriss and Kane Senes
Stars:  James Badge Dale, William Forsythe, Ethan Embry, Maika Monroe, Rhys Wakefield, Beth Broderick, Owen Teague and Ryan O'Nan
Studio: Arc Entertainment

D+

The adjective “slow-burning” is entirely inadequate to describe “Echoes of War,” a tale of simmering tension in post-Civil War Texas that spends so much time generating mood that it very nearly forgets the importance of plot. Presumably the film intends to point toward the traumatic impact of contemporary warfare on today’s soldiers through a nineteenth-century analogue, but it could certainly have done a better job of it.

James Badge Dale stars as Wade, a Confederate veteran returning to his late sister’s family in Texas. His brother-in-law Seamus Riley (Ethan Embry) is a hardworking farmer and an extremely pious man, using the Bible as his beacon in raising his children Abigail (Maika Monroe) and Samuel (Owen Teague). The taciturn Seamus welcomes Wade back, but it’s young Sam who’s most happy to have his idolized uncle with them again.

But there’s trouble on the drab little farm. The Riley’s animal traps are being poached by the McCluskey clan next door, who live in an opulent mansion but have lost their cattle to army requisition. Patriarch Randolph (William Forsythe) is a gruff, menacing fellow, who encourages his addled older son Dillard (Ryan O’Nan) in his theft of game from the Rileys. And though he takes gentle care of his wife Doris (Beth Broderick), who’s fallen into dementia as a result of another son’s death in the war, he treats his youngest boy Marcus (Rhys Wakefield), a sensitive, pacific lad, with undisguised contempt.

Though Seamus accepts the loss of the family’s food as a burden to be borne stoically—apparently he feels a debt to McCluskey for helping during his wife’s illness—Wade, tormented by the war’s effects and having difficulty controlling his violent urges, is angered by it and, against Seamus’ will decides to confront Randolph. It isn’t hard to foresee that a confrontation is inevitable, and that more death is imminent. The situation is even more volatile because Abigail and Marcus are carrying on a secret romance and Wade finds out about it.

“Echoes of War” finally rouses itself for a finale that has some action, though even then it must invest it with meaning, beginning with the death of the character you expect to die from the first moment he appears and then proceeding to several others. The denouement apparently wants to say something about ending the cycle of violence that war breeds, but it’s a ham-fisted choice.

The acting by Dale, Forsythe and Embry is decent enough, but the remainder of the cast is fairly amateurish, especially Teague, who seems terrified by any dialogue that extends beyond a few words. But even the veterans are defeated by characters that never develop beyond sketchiness and the ponderous direction by Kane Senes, under whose leaden hand they must brood interminably. Those deliberate scenes might have been less irksome if they were filmed with any sort of visual panache, but Hanan Townshend’s cinematography is bland, failing to make use of whatever nice features the locations might offer. The other craft contributions are similarly mediocre.

One can give “Echoes of War” credit for trying to make a meaningful statement about the long-term effects of combat and the strains it puts on the social fabric, rather than simply being a mindless shoot-’em-up. But though serious-minded, it’s a turgid, pretentious attempt at an adult western.

IRIS

Producer:  Laura Coxson, Rebekah Maysles and Jennifer Ash Rudick
Director: Albert Maysles 
Writer: 
Stars:  Iris Apfel and Carl Apfel
Studio:  Magnolia Pictures

B

“Most of the world is not with me, but I don’t care,” Iris Apfel says toward the close of the late Albert Maysles’ documentary about the ninety-year old style maven. Ironically—or if you’re of a more cynical bent, out of clever calculation—it’s an attitude that has made her, in her own words again, a “geriatric starlet” for her idiosyncratic taste in fashion. In the eponymous film, his penultimate one, Maysles celebrates her vitality in sharing the fruits of a lifetime’s collecting.

It’s her attire, of course, that one first notices about Apfel, who’s on screen virtually nonstop here. She dismisses staid, conventional ideas about how one should dress, and aims instead to put together items she’s acquired from all sorts of places, from the highest-end stores to thrift shops, to create outfits that look like no one else’s and inevitably catch the eye. Then she adorns herself with scarves, bracelets, necklaces and her trademark “big eyes” glasses as accessories. It’s her refusal to conform to the expected canons of fashion that have made her a celebrity, a woman whose closets have provided the stuff for numerous museum exhibits, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art (where “Rara avis: Selections from the Iris Apfel Collection,” was a huge hit in 2005, leading to its move to other venues). And no less than the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, will act as repository for a considerable portion of her couture collection; at the end of the film she’s shown selecting the items that will trickle there over time.

But “Iris” isn’t merely concerned with clothes: it’s also a paean to marital longevity. Iris has been married to Carl Apfel for more than 66 years (the celebration of his hundredth birthday is covered in the film), and the couple’s scenes together are warm and funny. We’re also told about the company—Old World Weavers—that they founded in 1950 and ran together until 1992. The firm specialized in offering authentic fabrics from times past, which were often used in restoration projects (including some at the White House) as well as in the homes of the rich and famous.

The business must have been profitable, since the Apfels travelled widely and Iris bought whatever caught her fancy on their trips—and not just clothing. (When asked about children, Iris replies bluntly that they made the decision not to have any, because—as she puts it—a person can’t do everything.) Home movies show their sprees, and we’re treated to visits to their apartments in New York and Palm Beach, which are filled with stuffed animals, toys, statues, even electric trains—in short, knickknacks and oddities of every sort. Storage units accommodate a host of overflow items. The overall impression is of a miniature version of Kane’s Xanadu.

But what’s gained Apfel her fame are the clothes, which have gained her recognition as an icon of individuality. Maysles follows her as she offers courses to students from the University of Texas, goes on shopping expeditions with admirers (sometimes in a wheelchair, sometimes with a cane), gives advice to women about choosing ensembles that defy convention but suit their personalities, and confers with employees and Bergdorf Goodman about a window display featuring items from her collection. It’s obvious that she enjoys the attention and the activity; in an interview her nephew says that he sometimes advises her to slow down, but the words have little effect. Still, age is obviously a concern: when asked what keeps her awake at night, Apfel will merely say “matters of health,” and when she falls and needs hip surgery, she keeps the severity of the injury from Carl to avoid upsetting him.

The documentary leaves little doubt that Maysles was captivated by Iris Apfel, and it’s probable that you will be too, even if you aren’t persuaded to follow her fashion lead. “Iris,” moreover, serves as a tribute not only to her, but to the director as a testimony to both his body of work and to his own virtuosity in old age.