Restless City is one of the sexiest and most visually accomplished directorial debuts in recent memory. Director Andrew Dosunmu has a breathtaking eye for compositions that evoke the simultaneous mystery, splendor, and loneliness of life in a bustling community. A scene of young, predominantly Senegalese immigrants dancing in a crowded New York City club is conveyed in a rapturous, exquisitely succinct collection of shots that revel in the intoxication of fleeting release from the duties and pressures of the daily grind. Figures move to the pulsating music as lights illuminate hats, sunglasses, and female curves. Another image, of a guy’s fist clinched in the foreground as he gazes at a gorgeous prostitute’s long legs, tells us in just a few beats everything we need to know about the man’s warring impulses of lust and judgment. On a formal level, Restless City is an expressive and deeply felt collection of sequences structured around the theme of the isolation of a population of immigrants living in New York.
But Eugene Gussenhoven’s script simply isn’t in the same league as the images that Dosunmu and the gifted cinematographer Bradford Young have fashioned. Below the confident filmmaking is a disappointingly self-pitying and sexist noir fantasy of a struggling and generally morally pure artist who instantly falls for a prostitute and sets about saving her from her profession. As you’d expect, the hooker falls for the man in return, spurring the wrath of a local kingpin who retaliates in the usual way.
At times, Restless City resembles other films, such as Breathless and Mona Lisa, that have used a consciously familiar guy-girl-gun scenario as an entry point into an exploration of larger cultural concerns, but Dosunmu lacks Jean-Luc Godard and Neil Jordan’s sense of freedom and play. Where those films varied in tone to often volatile extremes, Dosunmu maintains a deadening, self-seriously melancholic atmosphere that’s too heavy and humorless for a scenario this well-worn. Godard and Jordan, among many others, managed to satirize and empathize with their heroes in almost equal measures, but Dosunmu doesn’t seem to know that his protagonist, Djbirl (the fatally inexpressive Sy Alassane), from what we see, is a judgmental prig who should count himself lucky to be steering Trini’s (Sky Grey) eyes his way. Dosunmu is already a stylist to watch, but you know he hasn’t quite mastered the niceties of tone and nuance when you find yourself almost—save for one brutal scene—damn near sympathizing with the kingpin. At least the crook appreciates what he wants and knows how to get it.
Cast: Sy Alassane, Sky Grey, Danai Gurira, Tony Okungbowa, Babs Olusanmonkun Director: Andrew Dosunmu Screenwriter: Eugene Gussenhoven Distributor: AFFRM Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2011 Buy: Video
Interview: Rian Johnson on Knives Out and Bringing the Whodunnit to the Present
Johnson discusses his affinity for the whodunnit, his love of Agatha Christie, Star Wars, and more.
Whether paying homage to the golden age of noir in a high school setting (Brick), exploring a world in which time travel has not only been invented, but commodified and outlawed (Looper), or crafting a more intimate narrative within a beloved franchise (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), Rian Johnson’s adoration of his cinematic predecessors is undeniable. Of the multitude of career feats for which the Silver Spring native is known, redefining genres remains, arguably, his most impressive.
And this year, the filmmaker has done it again with Knives Out, a modern, politically conscious take on the whodunnit. Though infused with the staples of this class-conscious genre, from the magnanimous detective, though one of the Southern-fried variety, to the coterie of potentially guilty parties, the film is also shot through with a distinctly modern sense of meta self-awareness and sociopolitical commentary.
Johnson recently sat down with me to discuss the film, and as we exchanged niceties, he pointed out my Girls on Tops shirt, noting he has “the Jamie Lee Curtis one.” Evidently, even directors geek out on their favorite actors. During our chat, we discussed the philosophical differences between film noir and the whodunnit, Johnson’s love for Agatha Christie, some of his other genre inspirations, the brilliance of Ana de Armas among Knives Out’s seasoned cast, Steven Sondheim, Skywalker Ranch, Star Wars, and more.
Brick is a neo-noir, and Knives Out is a whodunit. To you, what are the differences between the genres?
The key difference is almost a philosophical one between fiction film noir, which is [Dashiell] Hammett and [Raymond] Chandler and [James M.] Cain, and the whodunnit genre of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, John Dickson Carr. And the basic difference between the two of them is moral clarity, which is very interesting. The whodunit genre is a very morally unambiguous genre. There’s a crime. There’s moral chaos. The detective comes in, who’s usually the benevolent father, and he, through reason and order, sorts everything out and figures it out at the end and solves the crime and puts the universe back to sorts.
Whereas, obviously, with Chandler or Hammett, it’s the morally murky antihero, and nothing is put back right at the end of it. And everything is just as terrible as it always was. It’s fascinating, the comforting fairy-tale aspect of the whodunnit, but it’s also why I do describe the genre as comfort food for me. It’s something I keep coming back to over the years. And, goddamn, especially recently, the notion that reason and order could restore anything—the idea that goodness can bring anything back to being okay—would be nice [laughs].
No kidding. You spent 10 years developing Knives Out, and it subverts expectations until the very end. How many drafts did it take to make sure that the math and science of the script didn’t show?
That’s a good one. I [write] very structurally. Ten years ago, what I had was this very conceptual idea. It wasn’t like, “Oh, this person did it, and they did it this way with this weapon in the conservatory with the knife.” It was the very conceptual idea of taking a whodunnit, which is typically a genre that’s built on a big buildup to a surprise. Just, “Who done it?” That’s the name of the genre. And so you figure out who done it. “Oh my God, I’d never guess that,” or, “Oh, I guessed that.” And “Who cares?” That’s why Hitchcock hated whodunnits, famously, because drama built on surprise isn’t great drama. So, taking a whodunnit and putting the engine of a Hitchcock thriller in the middle of it and almost using that Hitchcock thriller as misdirection in a way so that we tell the audience very early, “Don’t worry about who done it. Don’t worry about solving this puzzle. That’s not what’s going to be entertaining for the next two hours. Here’s a person you care about. They’re threatened. Let’s all go on this ride together seeing if they can get out of this impossible situation.”
And the idea of doing that and yet still having all the pleasures of a whodunnit, basically, was the big-picture thing 10 years ago. And then I zoom in from there, and I figure out maybe it’s set in a big house with this family, and that means it’s this type of character who has this relation to this character, and this is how the detective functions in it. And I start putting the pieces together bit by bit, basically. And then the writing is where it really hits the road. Like you said, that’s when all the work goes into making the math feel like it isn’t math. I actually just sat down to write it last January. We had wrapped the movie by Christmas. I wrote it in like six months. And I still did a bunch of drafts. I did a lot of revisions to it. But when it was ready to come out, it came out very quickly, which I recently learned Christie wrote her books very quickly also. She was a big proponent of you think it, and you think it, and you think it. But then, especially with something this dense, there’s a value to not getting lost in the weeds. There’s a value to just pooping it out all at once. And I get it. It makes sense, especially if you’re trying to retain that very simple shape while it’s there.
This film is one of, if not, the funniest film that I’ve seen this year. Was it always your intention to have comedy be as much of an aspect as everything else?
I knew I wanted it to be funny. And I love all Agatha Christie adaptations. I’m a junkie. But I feel like a lot of the recent ones tend to go very serious in their tone. They tend to go dark. And that always loses me because the adaptations I grew up loving are Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun, the ones with Peter Ustinov as Poirot. And they all have this sense of self-aware fun, and they have all-star casts. It’s a big show that they’re putting on, but it never tips into parody. It’s not Clue. It’s not Murder by Death. It’s a real whodunnit with actual emotional stakes that rides that line of still being incredibly fun and being aware that it’s putting on a show.
That was the target for me, were those Ustinov-based adaptations. It was always something I wanted to really clearly communicate, both to the studio when we were starting and then the actors when we were casting. Every step of the way, it was, “We’re going to try and have a lot of fun with this. This, hopefully, is going to be very funny, but it’s absolutely essential that we all know that we’re not making a parody about whodunnits, that we’re making a whodunnit about something else.” And what’s on the screen, if that’s successful, it’s the actors. It takes really good actors to be able to walk that line and give performances that are this big and this on the verge of caricature, but then to never lose the grounding so much that they disconnect from planet Earth.
And that “something else” is a staple of the whodunnit genre: class. Many of the characters share unsavory opinions about immigration and take other offensive stances toward minorities while Marta is working for them. Much of their careless spitting out of Fox News soundbites signifies a cold detachment. And while his own family is so dysfunctional, the grandchild searches for another family to call his own, unfortunately finding one in the annals of internet white supremacy.
Annals or the anals, yeah, one of the two [laughs].
Exactly. Would you say that this film is just as much about upper-class American decay as it is about a murder mystery?
For me, what’s always fun about using genre is how one thing can engage the other. And it’s every movie. I can’t start making a movie until I know what it’s really about for me, and that thing it’s about is never the genre itself. It’s always got to be something else, obviously, that I care about or I’m angry about or thinking about. And it’s not trying to insert a message into a genre or trying to hide a message under a genre. For me, the “message” can’t be a message at all. It’s got to be something that every single scene in the movie engages with in some way. It’s got to be tied into the very shape and mechanics of the genre itself. And class is something that, like you mentioned, this genre is particularly good at.
Gosford Park is a brilliant example of using it to talk about class. What’s interesting to me is it’s usually done in the context of Britain, and just because of Christie. And we have this thing in America where we like to pretend that class doesn’t exist. We like to pretend we’re a classless society, so the idea of applying the genre to America in 2019 seemed like fertile soil. But if I’m doing my job right, it’s a fun whodunnit. And everything that’s fun and whodunnit-y about it is also serving the thing that this has on its mind.
Not to throw anyone under the bus—
With such an incredible cast of actors, who were you most excited about working with?
I’m not dodging it when I say every single one of them. I know I kind of am. But I’ll say this. For me, the person I’m most excited for audiences to see and discover in it is Ana [de Armas]. She’s great. Of a cast full of huge, amazing actors and movie stars, [she] is maybe the least known, and she plays the central part in the movie. And it’s a really tricky part because she has to bring so much to it for it to actually work. And for her to confidently step into the middle of a cast like this and carry the movie to the extent that she does, she’s absolutely extraordinary.
Yeah. She was amazing in it.
Isn’t she great? And she’s been working forever. She did Spanish TV. She was in Blade Runner 2049 and a couple other American films, but I have a feeling you’re going to see a lot more of her over the next couple of years. My casting director, Mary Vernieu, brought her to my attention. I’d seen her in Blade Runner 2049, but I wasn’t really familiar with her work. She’s really something special. And she’s playing Marilyn Monroe in Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, which is crazy because she was camera testing for that while we were shooting. She would show me these video tests of her done up as Marilyn in the middle of shooting this with her as Marta. Like, de-glamorized Marta. And then she shows me, and I’m like, “Wow! Who are you?”
I’m looking forward to that one. The Assassination of Jesse James was—
A fucking masterpiece. Incredible. He’s an amazing director. So, so good.
It was interesting that you had the cast spend time in the film’s gothic mansion for three weeks ahead of shooting in order to allow for “family bonding.” Do you have a fun story to share from the set?
There was one day where Frank Oz did a cameo, so he was on set. And it was really fun because everyone would just hang out in this little basement rec room down in the basement of this house. It felt like summer camp for movie stars. It was crazy. But the day Frank was on set, it was amazing seeing all these movie stars just gathered at his feet. Everybody was just in awe of him, and rightly so, trying to get stories about him doing Miss Piggy and Yoda. But Frank is a fantastic director: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob?, The Little Shop of Horrors, which is one the all-time great movie musicals. He’s an extraordinary, multi-talented guy. So that was an amazing day, just seeing all these actors bow down to the mighty Frank.
Are you planning any Agatha Christie-esque Knives Out sequels?
I would be thrilled, man. Yeah. We’ll see how this one does. You never know with an original thing. But god, I hope it does well because it would be so much fun to get together with Daniel [Craig] every few years and make a new one. You can tell how much fun he’s having doing this [laughs]. And it’s such a malleable genre. You can do so many different things with it, so that would be really, really fun.
Speaking of fun, the Sondheim song that Craig sings in the car was such a great scene [laughs]. You both must have had a blast shooting that.
Yes! Oh my god! “Losing My Mind.” That scene was so good.
Does Craig play F on the piano throughout the film? Because “Losing My Mind” is in the key of E.
Oh! Is that the song that’s going in his head while he’s doing it? I forget what note it is. Next time I’m watching, I’m going to look, and I’m sure we can see which one he’s hitting. Shit, where were you on set? I can claim it. I will retroactively claim it. I could have actually had it be a slightly different note he’s chiming, playing the tune of “Losing My Mind.” Shit! I have to go back and redo it [laughs].
Shall we do some last-minute reshoots?
Yeah. Let’s get back in, man. We’re going up to Skywalker this afternoon. We can do a remix. We’ll get [Daniel] up there.
Speaking of Skywalker, you’re still planning on writing and directing a Star Wars trilogy, correct?
I’m still talking to Lucasfilm about it. They haven’t announced anything. They’re still figuring out what they’re doing.
You confronted Rey’s parental lineage in The Last Jedi, seemingly putting an end to the many fan theories, while subverting expectations for a portion of toxic fans. Has any further information on Rey’s family been shared with you since The Rise of Skywalker began production, and are you concerned what J.J. Abrams might do with Rey’s lineage?
I’m not concerned at all. I’m 0% concerned. I’m thrilled. I cannot wait to see Episode IX. I’ll preface this by saying I’m going to be going in clean. I’ve tried to stay out of the process as much as possible. I can just be a Star Wars fan and sit down and watch. And I want to be thrilled. I want to be surprised. I cannot wait to see what happens next. I’ve never really understood the attitude that some people come at the movies with of, “I have my very specific list of things I want to see, and if those don’t happen, I’m going to be upset.” That I don’t get. And just in terms of movies, in general, I don’t know why you would sit down to watch a movie and feel like that and want that. So, to me, it’s all storytelling, man, and so push the story forward, have it make emotional sense, and take me someplace I’ve never been. And I know J.J.’s going to do that. I can’t wait.
Review: The Hard-Earned Richness of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Marielle Heller takes a script that many filmmakers would turn into cringe-inducing treacle and interrogates the sentimental trappings.3.5
All of it is so eerily familiar: the gently comforting music, the hand-built miniature buildings. Even the televisual texture of the image is exactly as anyone who watched the beloved children’s series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood might recollect. Then Fred Rogers himself walks into frame—or, rather, Tom Hanks, the actor playing him. He sings the famous theme song. He changes from his outdoor to his indoor clothes. And he breaks the fourth wall with that tranquil gaze that lets each person watching know that they’re gloriously unique. You’ll likely never doubt the reality of what you’re seeing at any point, though there’s something unsettling about the precision of both Hanks’s performance and the frame housing it—uncanny valley effects that have been achieved through fully analog means.
The tension that emanates out of this opening scene, and many more besides it, isn’t a fault, but a virtue of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. This is a knotty film masquerading as a simple one. Director Marielle Heller proves that the equally steely and empathetic eye that she brought to last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? was no fluke. She takes a screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster that many filmmakers would turn into cringe-inducing treacle and consistently interrogates the sentimental trappings.
Rogers isn’t even the primary focus here. Rather, it’s Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), an Esquire writer based loosely on columnist Tom Junod, who profiled Rogers back in 1998 (also the year the film is set). Lloyd is both a new father and a damaged son. He’s been estranged from his own dad, Jerry (Chris Cooper), for years, and he’s developed a reputation for work that takes his subjects down several pegs. Lloyd loves his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), and their infant child, but cynicism and anger are his go-to modes. Right after he gets into fisticuffs with Jerry at a family wedding, Lloyd’s editor (Christine Lahti) assigns him to profile Mister Rogers for an Esquire issue about heroes. An unwitting disciple is about to meet his guru.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a spiritual film of sorts, though it doesn’t make the mistake of presuming Mister Rogers or his perspective to be above doubt or suspicion. “How does it feel to be married to a living saint?” Lloyd asks Rogers’s wife, Joanne (Maryann Plunkett), in one scene. She proceeds to bring that lofty sentiment down to earth, noting her husband’s temper and hinting at other day-to-day challenges that his public will never see. The image Mister Rogers projects is sincere, but it takes work to maintain. And it only helps other people insofar as they’re able to access the truth underlying the benevolent illusion.
This gets to the heart of Heller’s approach. Time and again she and her keen-eyed DP, Jody Lee Lipes, draw our attention to the falsity of Rogers’s world, most notably in the sections in which Lloyd visits the WQED studios in Pittsburgh where Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is filmed. In one scene, the camera pulls back from within one of the show’s many miniature models to reveal Lloyd hovering over it like a colossus. In another, a musical interlude between Lady Aberlin (Maddie Corman) and the Rogers-performed puppet Daniel Striped Tiger is shown from the perspective of Lloyd and the on-set crew so that we see the machinery, such as it is, undergirding a childlike song about controlling your anger. Heller isn’t exposing or devaluing the beliefs that are being extolled, but is showing us the place from which they spring. It’s left to the audience, as it is to Lloyd, to assess how applicable Rogers’s lessons are to life itself.
The narrative, of course, proceeds along exactly the redemptive and reconciliatory paths you might expect. There are ways in which Heller can’t avoid the “movie we need right now” aura of the script. But even in scenes where the scales tip toward mawkishness, as when a group of subway riders serenades Mister Rogers with his own theme song, Heller makes sure to emphasize a look or a line reading that complicates our sense of the sentimentality.
It helps that Rhys is the king of a certain world-weary expression that he’s been honing since FX’s The Americans, and that Heller has directed Hanks so that his innate and often irritating mildness comes off much more enigmatic than usual. When Lloyd tries to press Mister Rogers’s buttons during one of their lengthy interviews, his eyes briefly cloud over with anger. The moment is particularly striking because you can see that he chooses not to act on the destructive emotion and instead take a more peaceable route.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is similarly perched on the razor’s edge of compassion and cruelty. It’s not surprising that tenderness ultimately triumphs, but the film acknowledges, with shrewd subtlety, that it could easily go the other way. The warmth and humanity at the heart of this deceptively modest parable aren’t easy virtues, but hard-earned ones.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper, Enrico Colantoni, Maryann Plunkett, Tammy Blanchard, Wendy Makkena, Sakina Jaffrey, Carmen Cusack Director: Marielle Heller Screenwriter: Noah Harpster, Micah Fitzerman-Blue Distributor: TriStar Pictures Running Time: 107 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
Review: Frozen II and Its Recycled Stakes Quickly Get Lost in the Snow
Woke Disney, trying to navigate a tricky representational path, steps all over itself throughout.2
Any successor to Frozen practically mandates a designated successor to “Let It Go.” And the standard-bearing song for Disney’s Frozen II is “Into the Unknown,” another bombastic earworm that’s belted out by Idina Menzel’s Queen Elsa about 20 minutes into the film, as she embraces a literal call to adventure. But the unknown is hardly a place that co-directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee care to take this sequel. If the first Frozen succeeded in rebranding the Disney Princess line of products for a more woke era, Frozen II doesn’t want to risk undoing the first film’s magic. The sequel plays things safe, hitting many of the same beats as its predecessor—and sometimes with a wink—all while making sure to introduce adorable, marketable new creatures and outfits along the way.
Such is the nature of Hollywood sequels, perhaps, but aside from a prologue that expands the fantastical, ostensibly peaceful Nordic kingdom in which the series is set with an intriguingly bellicose backstory, Frozen II doesn’t craft a strong enough story to mask its capitalist machinations. The film joins Elsa, her sister Anna (Kristen Bell), the latter’s beau Christoph (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven, and the animate snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) at harvest time in Arendelle, which has about the size and cultural depth of the Swedish village at Epcot Center. Just after the four humanoid principal characters are done singing a status-quo-minded ditty, “Some Things Never Change,” Elsa, the magically attuned “snow queen,” begins hearing a wordless voice singing to her from beyond the fjord. In responding to the voice, Elsa awakens the wrath of nature’s four elements—air, earth, fire, and water—which wreak havoc on Arendelle, because, it turns out, nature’s got an axe to grind with Anna and Elsa’s family.
Frozen’s narrative trappings are all accounted for here: a malevolent magic of obscure origin, a forgotten slight that must be righted, a quest to reveal the truth. But whereas the first film had very human stakes—that of the reconciliation between Anna and Elsa—the stakes of Frozen II get lost in the snow. The imperative to redeem Arendelle in the eyes of nature remains rather abstract. Lee, also the film’s screenwriter, attempts to ground the quest in the mysterious fate of the rival clan of the Northuldra, a people who, with their darker features and leather-and-fur parkas, are coded as an indigenous Arctic culture. Something happened to these people, who haven’t been seen since a battle waged when Anna and Elsa’s father was a boy.
Frozen II suggests that the Northuldrans are the wronged party but, oddly, doesn’t posit them as the aggrieved one: It’s clear from early on that Anna and Elsa’s forbears committed some unspoken crime against their neighbors, but it’s nature, rather than the “indigenous” clan themselves, that demands redress. When Anna, Elsa, and their sidekicks find the Northuldrans in the enchanted woods, they’re perfectly friendly and ready for coexistence (the ideal natives for a film being released around the Thanksgiving holiday), and they’re happy to let Anna and Elsa do the heavy lifting when it comes to restoring balance to the world.
Woke Disney, in trying to navigate a tricky representational path with this film, steps all over itself: Seeking to address colonial shame, but also to avoid portraying natives as angry and threatening, Frozen II makes them into docile figures under the protection of a mystically empowered nature. Moreover, this maneuvering tangles the thread of the story, as these friendly forest dwellers are at once the object of Elsa and Anna’s quest and relatively inconsequential. As the quintet from the first film encounters the avatars for each of the four elements—a gust of wind named Gale that Olaf befriends, a pack of rock giants that Anna sneaks past at one point, a flaming gecko that Elsa takes as a pet, and a powerful steed composed of congealed water that she tames—these embodiments of natural phenomena prove to have more character and import to the plot than any of the Northuldrans.
This carefully orchestrated vagueness gives Frozen II a fragmentary quality, each scene standing alone as a mini-adventure. Olaf and Christoph’s solo numbers in particular feel very much like the music videos they are, fun and vibrant on their own but not particularly well integrated into the story’s trajectory. The looseness of Lee’s script also serves to foreground the more devious functions of the film as a Disney product intended to promote further consumption. It’s hard to ignore the convenience of the avatar of fire resembling in size, color, and design a collectible, cuddly doll; the way one of the heroines is magically granted a new, flowing hairdo and a bejeweled, strapless dress when she sings the song “Show Yourself”; or the calculations that must underlie the visually pleasing arrangement of the glittering geometric patterns that fill the frame during musical sequences. If, as a story, Frozen II is a tad too messy, as an advertisement it’s much too polished.
That said, Frozen II’s attempt at an enlightened fairy tale is in many aspects preferable to Disney’s recent “live action” resurrections of dated animated features. The relatively complex relationship between Anna and Elsa, as well as a subplot about Olaf the snowman’s existential musings now that his lifetime has been extended beyond winter, suggest hints of life beneath the film’s cold, corporate exterior. The series’s foregrounding of the ups and downs of a caring, if sometimes tense, connection between two women represents incremental progress at a studio whose other film franchises still favor male agency and Oedipal conflict. But given its confused ethics, narrative weaknesses, and naked function as a brand-refresher, Frozen II hardly constitutes a case for why we need more stories about fairy-tale princesses.
Cast: Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Evan Rachel Wood, Alfred Molina, Jason Ritter, Martha Plimpton, Jeremy Sisto Director: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee Screenwriter: Jennifer Lee Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 103 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Interview: Todd Haynes on Dark Waters and Being in the Crosshairs of Everything
Haynes discusses how the film quietly continues some of his aesthetic trademarks and thematic concerns.
For more than 40 years, Todd Haynes has made fiercely challenging, experimental, and idiosyncratic films that have left an indelible mark on both independent and mainstream cinema. But there’s no single Todd Haynes style. Sometimes his films are complexly structured and narratively polygamous, as with his trifurcated, genre-subverting feature-length debut from 1990, Poison, and I’m Not There, his 2007 anti-biopic about Bob Dylan in which six different actors play the iconic musician. At other times, Haynes works within the conventions of genres that allow him to question social and cultural values: Far from Heaven, his HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, and Carol use the period melodrama template to examine racism, women’s independence, and queer desire, respectively, and all to stunning emotional effect.
But never before has Haynes more directly and unostentatiously confronted centers of power than with his latest project, the legal thriller Dark Waters. The film germinated with actor Mark Ruffalo’s interest in Rob Bilott, a corporate defense attorney who made partner in 1998 at the storied Cincinnati law firm of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister, commonly known as Taft. Taking on the case of Wilbur Tennant (played by Bill Camp in the film), a West Virginian farmer whose land is contaminated from toxic run-off dumped near his premises by DuPont Company, Bilott (Ruffalo) quickly encounters the gargantuan machine of corporate disinformation, negligence, cover-up, and strong-arm tactics that allow the company to shuck responsibility for causing devastating environmental destruction and an unprecedented human health crisis.
In directing Dark Waters, Haynes employs subtle, unobtrusive camerawork to complement a linear and character-centered narrative, showing with controlled objectivity Bilott’s discovery that speaking the truth and taking on corporate power comes with a major price in modern America. I spoke with Haynes last week about how the film marks a departure from his past work while quietly continuing some of his aesthetic trademarks and thematic concerns.
How did you get involved with Dark Waters?
The first draft of Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script came to me from Mark [Ruffalo] in 2017. This is all incredibly fast for the world of developing movies because Nathaniel Rich’s piece [about Bilott] had appeared [in the New York Times Magazine] just the year before. Already it had been optioned by Mark at Participant [Dark Waters’s production company], and he had decided to join forces with Matthew Michael. Then, for some reason—and I genuinely say this with modesty—Mark thought of me for it, because I’m not exactly the person one would think of for this movie right off the bat, however much he likes my other films. And I’m such an admirer of Mark on the screen, as well as his activism—and I’ve always wanted to work with him. What he didn’t know is how much of a secret fan of this genre I am. The story is gripping and enraging and shocking to me, but it also has this human component because it’s told through the narrative of Rob Bilott, an unlikely person to take on DuPont. The circumstances presented themselves to him and forced him to rethink what he does and what kind of practices he was protecting as a defense attorney.
At first, I had a busy schedule and didn’t think I was going to able to do it. But then some room cleared up about a year later and I thought I could do the film. But the first writer was busy at that time, so I thought, “Okay, let’s bring someone else in and start working on the script some more, get in deeper.”
Did you know the screenwriters, Mario Correa and Carnahan?
No, but I got to know Mario from samples of his work. I really like what I read and brought him in. There was a real urgency to get this moving on the part of Participant and Mark. And I saw why, but I wanted to see where things would go; I can’t start shooting a movie that’s not ready to be shot. So I searched for a writer and found Mario. We all got freed up by the end of May 2018 and went to Cincinnati for the first time with Mark then. And I met the entire world of the film in Cincinnati, the whole cast of characters, through the Taft law firm. Then we went off to Parkersburg [in West Virginia] and met those people—visited Wilbur’s farm and met Jim Tennant and his brother. All this is to say that Mario and I had to start fresh in talking about the script and experiencing the research together and talking with people [who were involved in the real events] together. And so we embarked on a very different version of the script together.
How did you collaborate with Mario? Did you base your work together on the scenes and moments from the article you wanted to include in the script? And how did you figure out how to make complicated legal issues and jargon and processes dramatically compelling?
Those were precisely the challenges and questions we had. The focus initially was to find the darker and more conflicted parts of the story than what we’d been introduced to in the New York Times Magazine piece and the first draft of the script. There’s a tremendous amount of pain and terror involved in challenging systems of power. And the more you learn about a story like this—and this is true in films like this that I dig, like All the President’s Men, The Parallax View, Silkwood, The Insider—the bigger the story gets, the more haunted you are by the repercussions. You’re kind of like, “Holy shit, look what I’m on to.” You feel this in All the President’s Men, when [the reporters] can’t believe how the story’s growing, and the more the story grows the more your life seems to shrink. You become more alienated, your safety is more fraught, there’s less ease to your movements. It affects all the people involved: your family, your friends, your community. People begin to turn against you; they alienate you and besmirch your reputation. All that stuff, that’s all true to these experiences. And it’s all incredibly dramatic and it’s how you relate emotionally to these stories.
Truth-telling in movies is a slippery prospect because movies have a hard time telling the truth. And it’s important to question deliberate truth being told to you from any source, particularly one that’s based on entertainment and moneymaking. I’ve been really interested and uncomfortable making movies my whole life. But that’s why I wanted to make them, because they intersect with culture and commerce and identity and desire. So, you’re really in the crosshairs of a lot of contradictory forces. And that’s an exciting place to be when you’re not just interested in replicating a sense of well-being or escapism or affirmation of the system. And I guess that’s where this kind of genre is so great, because even if we’re following a lot of its conventions in ways that I don’t always follow for the conventions of the other films I’ve made, I believe this genre is fundamentally unsettling. There’s a stigma attached to the truth-teller that you also don’t necessarily expect. You think that, well, righteous truth is on your side, what do you have to fear? Well, everything.
I was just thinking of your past films, especially Safe and the suffocating environment of that film. How did you collaborate with Edward Lachman in achieving a similar atmosphere in Dark Waters? All of the themes and ideas you just described, how did you want to express them through the film’s cinematography?
I felt that a kind of restrained, observant camera and a kind of emotional coolness—both literally and figuratively—to the subject matter was apropos, especially in regard to Rob Bilott. There’s a kind of festering subjectivity in a movie like The Insider that I love, that works really well for that film and is pure Michael Mann. It’s laid on very thick, that aggressive subjectivity and myopic camera with a focal length that keeps shifting so you can’t really tell what’s going on—it links the 60 Minutes journalist and Jeff Wigand. In this movie, I was more drawn to cooler frames and a more restrained camera and proximity, like Gordon Willis’s cinematography in those ‘70s films. Because this felt more like Rob, it felt more cautious and pulled back. And it also allowed more movement from his world to the people he has to connect with, so you can move from one place to the next in the movie with more dexterity and not be competing with an intense subjective experience. Rob’s subjectivity is something that he learns in the course of stumbling onto this story. He learns how to see and then how to speak about what he sees in ways that he had never known before. So, I didn’t want to anticipate that point of view. I wanted that point of view to be something we watch ourselves. That’s something that for today’s culture and audience, I know that that was somewhat risky.
Well, because it’s asking an audience to be patient, and it’s asking an audience to find what’s important in the frame and not hit them over the head with it. That’s why those films from the ‘70s feel like they’re regarding the audience with a great deal of intellectual respect, to kind of figure out what the attitude is here. Whether it’s the case of the paranoia films of Alan Pakula or the first two Godfather movies, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a strong point of view because of the way they’re shot and lit. But there’s space to interpret what’s going on. That’s the choice that I made for this film. And Ed and I just liked the corporate spaces where much of the action takes place, these hollow spaces. I loved what the real Taft offices looked like.
It was shot in the real Taft offices?
Yeah, and where we built sets, the conference room and Rob’s office, we built them 10 floors up in the same building looking out over the exact skyline and with the exact same parameter of the architecture of this 1980s building. We used all the design elements from Taft: those striped frosted glass walls, the floating walls over the windows and under the ceiling, the 45-degree corridors that he sculpts through, the fact that there was no uniform size or shape to the windows across the entire parameter of the floors, and that they looked out onto these beautiful landscapes of skylines of downtown Cincinnati with flanks of interrupted space in architecture in the foreground and little surprising peaks all the way through the Ohio River if you just cocked your head a couple of inches one way or another. So, the whole sense of [Bilott’s] discovery of obfuscation was mirrored in the architecture and design of this space. You also have these surprising pockets of incredibly dark shadows and then sudden appearances of light from the windows. That was so visually informative and specific and I found it so beautiful. Some of my favorite shots of the film are these big, wide window shots with the snow falling, and a wide shot of Tom Terp [a senior partner at Taft] and Rob Bilott talking to each other from a distance. The weather contributed heavily to the look and feel of the movie; it was a bitter cold winter that we shot through. We tried to apply the same visual language to shooting at Wilbur’s farm and in Parkersburg, so you could feel these worlds were linked, that they weren’t separate.
Were you going for an Antonionian thing like in Safe, where the environment is both an influence on and reflection of the characters’ experience?
Yeah, a manifestation of their experience. And a place where you can get lost in the corridors and then places where you’re isolated in big, open spaces. It’s a place that felt both big and small intermittently, and that would sometimes alternate according to what’s going on emotionally or in the content.
That’s similar to how I felt in the scenes that take place in Parkersburg, where it’s this small, rural town and yet, from the way you capture it, it feels like it represents the entire world and its destruction from pollution. What decisions did you make in the cinematography of the film when you shot there?
Ed and I tend to favor this sort of dirty palette in almost any of my movies if you look back at them. But it shifts in tonality based on what the story is and what the time period of the story is and what the temperament of the movie is. For Dark Waters, we favored way more of a cool spectrum in the color timing, which gave the warmer interiors always this cool shadow. That meant that beige walls, you couldn’t tell if they were a warm or a cool color. Hannah Beachler designed the film, and we were all sort of in sync with picking design elements for the interiors that could move between warm and cool temperatures easily, depending on whether it’s light from outside coming in or Tungsten light from inside. You just never feel a relief of tensions and of a little bite of rigidity that invades these spaces. We certainly didn’t want to make Wilbur’s farm a place of rural pleasure or—
Yeah, and it gives you the sense that even truth is corruptible. So, Wilbur, who’s attached more to a notion of truth, he’s living in this contaminated space. Truth almost becomes a kind of toxin because it undermines the status quo and business as usual.
How did you work with some of the real-life players in the story, especially in gauging the accuracy of the film in relation to the real events?
We relied on them as much as we could. They were really eager partners in contributing to the film, and they all had to agree to that. Nobody on the DuPont side, of course, agreed to have their real names in the movie. Everyone else did and were advisors on the movie. And it was really lovely to have them come and join us on set and be pictured within scenes.
In I’m Not There, you had Heath Ledger’s version of Bob Dylan proclaim, “There’s no politics,” but only “sign language.” Throughout your career, you’ve often examined the signs and symbols through which people communicate individual, political, and cultural meaning. Was that also your concern in Dark Waters, even though the politics and social significance of the story are very much up front and center in the film and not imparted through metaphor?
I haven’t thought about that line and applying it to this movie, but I did feel with this story that the massiveness of this contamination, the fact that [C-8, a toxic chemical manufactured by DuPont] is in 98% of creatures on the planet…what can you say that about except for things as invasive and all-present as, I don’t know, capitalism or patriarchy—things that never asked for our permission for them to invade us. And so, in a way it makes us linked by these pernicious systems. We participate in them, we enable them, but what do you do? Do you pretend they don’t exist? Do you wish they could all disappear with one legal action? No. You get as knowledgeable as you can, you try to identify what they are, and you push back in certain ways. You develop a critical relationship to life and to social power, and how the individual is always the product or target of it.
The material through which systems work.
The material or outgrowth of it. I like that this movie reveals this, but there’s also no solution except how we interpret, how we stand up to small issues, bigger issues, how we engage with our system politically and culturally, and in how we live imperfectly between knowledge, ignorance, and despair. It’s a complicated and imperfect series of choices that we have to make. But what do you do instead? Do you put your head back in the sand? Do you go back and cook on Teflon [for which C-8 was manufactured]? Do you pretend that patriarchal systems don’t still function and distinguish between men and women and white people and black people? No, we need to be aware, and that’s what this film helps us do.
What are your upcoming projects?
My real passion project is a piece on Freud. That’s going to take a while to figure out because it needs to be a multi-part, episodic experience. That’s where my heart and soul are anchored, but I’ve just been busy elsewhere, as you can imagine. And there’s a Velvet Underground project; I just said yes when they came to me from the Universal Music Group that controls their music and half of all the other music that’s been recorded. I’m so into it, I’m so excited. We did 20 interviews. My decision was to only interview people who were there, band members, anybody of the surviving people who were around at the time, who really saw it up close, directly. So that meant getting Jonas Mekas on film right before he passed away, and getting John Cale, of course, and Maureen Tucker. We’ve just put together this insane archive of material, historical stuff, clips of the band, and pieces of Warhol films of the band that people have never seen before. It’s a real well, and I want to summon that time again. I want to immerse in it as much as possible. That’s our goal.
They deserve a major movie. They’re one of the greatest and most important bands ever, period.
Yeah. It’s going to be crazy good.
Review: Shooting the Mafia Is a Sketchy Tribute to an Iconic Photographer
At the center of the documentary is the struggle to reconcile the personal and political elements of art-making.2.5
At the center of director Kim Longinotto’s Shooting the Mafia is the struggle to reconcile the personal and political elements of art-making. The documentary tells the story of photographer Letizia Battaglia, who captured the brutality of the Cosa Nostra’s stranglehold over Sicily from the 1970s through the 2000s. Battaglia braved mafia funerals, taking pictures of connected associates who would have no issue with killing her. In one of the film’s juiciest moments, Battaglia, now an 80-something legend, tells of how she’d pretend to sneeze to muffle the sound of a camera. She also took photos of murder scenes, which are chilling tableaux of casual carnage. Children’s brains are seen splattered against street curbs, old women’s faces frozen in shock, cars upturned, and buildings caved in from explosions. Showing us these pictures, Longinotto illustrates Battaglia’s talent for aestheticizing tragedy, but without sentimentalizing the callousness of violence. The photographer’s compositions are beautiful wails of despair as well as acts of resistance.
Throughout Shooting the Mafia, Longinotto doesn’t entirely realize her one masterful formal conceit. The filmmaker contrasts Battaglia’s pictures with archival news footage of the crime scenes, in effect contrasting a closer approximation of “reality” with still art. In movement and in color, the crime scenes are hideous and offer true testament to the monstrousness of the Cosa Nostra, but as black-and-white stills, they’re imbued with Battaglia’s empathy and need to find grace notes in atrocity. This juxtaposition offers a thrilling illustration of the difference between art and documentation, and of the value of each. This is a kernel for a brilliant nonfiction film, but Longinotto clutters her project with less original gimmickry.
Longinotto is very much determined for her audience to see Battaglia as a feminist role model, as a beautiful young housewife who went rogue against the Italian patriarchy to actualize herself. This idea, in this context, underscores the danger of modern woke culture, which is so eager to define people with representational encouragement that it condescends to them in a different fashion. Battaglia’s photographs, and the risk she took going against the Cosa Nostra, are innately impressive. The sexism that she faced, especially as, reportedly, the first female Italian photographer, is obviously of paramount importance to her story, though Longinotto spends nearly a third of Shooting the Mafia’s 94-minute running time on Battaglia’s life as a girl and eventual coming of age after she rebelled against her husband. And this emphasis threatens to put Battaglia in a box, reductively psychoanalyzing her.
In Shooting the Mafia, we learn that Battaglia married as a teenager and had a family because that’s what you did in the 1940s and ‘50s. From the ‘60s onward, Battaglia lived a sexually and artistically open life, primarily in Palermo, becoming a journalist and a photographer, fraternizing with her younger collaborators. A beautiful and confident woman who was pushing 40 before finding her calling, Battaglia has been making up for lost time ever since, and Longinotto celebrates her awakening as an artist and lover while cheapening it with the cheesy placement of clips from Italian films, which often liken Battaglia to a gorgeous damsel in distress. The contemporary footage of Battaglia chain-smoking and holding court with her various exes is far more commanding and startlingly intimate, but Longinotto cuts these passages down to tidbits. In fact, Longinotto is so eager to celebrate her hero that she also glides past thornier portions of Battaglia’s life, such as the effect that her liberation might’ve had on the children she seems to have left behind. (Her husband is a non-entity.)
The film comes to life whenever it returns to Battaglia’s dealing with the Cosa Nostra. Longinotto skillfully sketches in a cast of pompous and frightening mafiosos, who suggest the ultimate manifestation of patriarchal madness. Especially memorable is Luciano Leggio, whom Battaglia once photographed as he was looking straight into her camera, shooting her a death stare. Those wide, smug eyes come to haunt the film, especially in an interview clip where Leggio flippantly speaks of crushing “mollusks” and “homosexuals” who come after him, he says, to prove their manhood. The most memorable image in Shooting the Mafia that isn’t shot by Battaglia is news footage of mob men in cages in court while they await hearing. They look unmistakably like wild animals, and they affirm Battaglia’s daring with graphic conviction.
Director: Kim Longinotto Distributor: Cohen Media Group Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Duet for Cannibals Is an Intriguing Mix of Pastiche and Parody
Susan Sontag’s debut film serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of her more well-known written work.3
Writing on Persona for Sight & Sound in 1967, Susan Sontag rhapsodized about Ingmar Bergman’s unorthodox handling of narrative, praising his decision to utilize the story structure as a “thematic resource” rather than a means of dispensing a coherent plot. “Images and dialogue are given which the viewer cannot help but find puzzling,” she wrote, “not being able to decipher whether certain scenes take place in the past, present or future; and whether certain images and episodes belong to ‘reality’ or ‘fantasy’.”
Two years later, after securing funding from the renowned film production company Sandrews, Sontag made Duet for Cannibals, her own attempt at capturing a slipstream-like roundelay of events, and in Swedish no less. Like Persona, her directorial debut hazards a similar bid for the arrangement of narrative as “variations on a theme,” and while the results aren’t quite on the same level as Bergman, they represent a respectable, effort on Sontag’s part to both break down narrative convention and advance her own personal ideas.
The story deals with a baroque series of escalating mind games between Bauer (Lars Ekborg), a famed German leftist living in exile in Stockholm, and Tomas (Gösta Ekman), his young assistant. Taking on the position from a mixture of politically sympathetic curiosity and financial desperation, Tomas and his relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Ingrid (Agneta Ekmanner), is put under heavy strain. This worsens as Bauer demands more and more of his time, forcing him to take up residence in his apartment, to better serve at his beck and call. Things only get more confusing when Ingrid herself enters the fray, paired against Bauer’s unstable Italian wife, Francesca (Adriana Asti), in a rectangle of dysfunctional connection.
Embarking on its own Bergmanesque fantasia, the film slips freely, often confusingly, between realist and surrealist crosscurrents. In one memorable moment, Tomas and Ingrid go on a boating date that ends abruptly when he spots his employer on shore; he leaps out of the boat to join him, leaving Ingrid behind on the water. The occurrence of such disjunctions itself becomes a form of comedy, as scene after scene quavers between straight-faced severity and utter absurdism. At one point, Tomas’s frustrating encounter with one of Bauer’s dictaphone recordings segues into a head-to-head dispute, the characters’ interpersonal borders proving as porous as those of the film itself. Instances like this prove Bauer’s complete mastery over his domain, promoting the possibility that this entire enterprise is some kind of twisted attempt to cuckold himself, ensnaring his novice employee by using his vivacious wife as bait.
His actual intent remains mysterious, establishing him as the cryptic on-screen analogue to Sontag’s destabilizing formal approach. Whether we’re witnessing the tectonic plates of text and subtext colliding roughly with one another, or just an elaborate gag at the expense of viewers primed to expect impenetrable, pretentious weirdness from their Euro art cinema, is never entirely clear. The film’s ultimate liability, in fact, is that it can’t seem to decide if it’s doing pastiche or parody. It’s clearest thematic throughline remains the metaphorical transfer of horrid, self-serving behavior—disguised as rigorous intellectual purity—forced down from one generation to another. Qualities of the older couple become imprinted upon the younger, in an unnerving mode that mixes the scholarly and the familial, with a marked sexual undertone that seems requisite to this kind of boundary-pushing experimentation.
Yet the sort of theorizing that Duet for Cannibals demands is bound to inevitably draw inquisitive viewers toward the type of analytical over-examination that Sontag railed against in “Against Interpretation,” one of her most famous essays and the basis of much of her work from this time period. The most plausible, and rewarding, explanation may then be that her directorial debut represents a cross-medium introduction of this theory of sensual liberation into the cinematic bloodstream, antagonizing viewers as a further nudge to lay off the heavy textual lifting. It’s a lesson that may hold even greater relevance today, when the internet allows every inch of any given film to be picked over with a fine-toothed comb.
It also doesn’t hurt that Duet for Cannibals is frequently hilarious: An acidulous, dry humor runs beneath its formal provocations, from Bauer slowly spreading shaving cream over his car windshield to obscure the view inside, to a toned, briefs-clad man holding a handstand through the entirety of a pivotal dramatic scene. In this regard, the film feels ahead of its time, while totally leftfield in others. An interesting, if tonally inconsistent, experiment, it serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of its maker’s more well-known written work.
Cast: Gösta Ekman Jr., Lars Ekborg, Adriana Asti, Agneta Ekmanner, Stig Engström Director: Susan Sontag Screenwriter: Susan Sontag Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1969
Review: The Good Liar Is Ambivalent to Both Genre and History
An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow.2.5
An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow. For the most part, the film successfully marries the levity of con-artist hijinks, the suspenseful ambiguity of a Hitchcockian romance, and the heightened realism of a postwar spy adventure. But like so many pulpish mysteries, its resolution fails to neatly tie up these elements, and though it’s never especially difficult to anticipate at least the general direction in which the plot’s twists are taking us, it’s an enjoyable couple of hours, held together by strong performances and an unpretentious presentation.
For reasons dictated by the protagonists’ ages and historically specific backstories, The Good Liar is set in 2009. British retirees Roy (Ian McKellan) and Betty (Helen Mirren) first meet on an online dating service, initially going by the respective pseudonyms of Brian and Estelle. Once these initial, foreshadowing lies have been dispelled, the two begin an adorably tepid romance, all handshakes and polite compliments. Betty hesitantly invites Roy over to her place when the restaurant where they planned to meet turns out to be closed. They watch Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and the two have a cordial debate about whether the film’s ahistorical representation poisons the minds of the young.
Of course, the Roy that Betty knows is a lie: Hardly a retiree, the octogenarian is an active, high-level financial scammer. We’re acquainted to Roy’s alter ego as he abandons his cane and strides ably into a strip club—a shot presented in low angle so as to capture some gratuitous nudity on the dancers’ raised platform. Roy proceeds to a private booth, where he and his partner in crime, Vincent (Jim Carter), are meeting with a pair of investors (Mark Lewis Jones and Stefan Kalipha) they’ve planning to scam out of their money. This subplot will eventually spill over into the main romantic plot, though through a more circuitous route than expected.
If, with its “exposed breasts connote shady dealings” rhetoric, this introduction to the seedy Roy lands a bit too hard, McKellan’s performance is more successful in threading together the multiple sides of the man. Even before Roy’s criminal associates start alluding to his dark past, McKellan suggests the weight of a troubled history in his character’s actions. He communicates a sadness and resentment that isn’t manifest in the dialogue, even as Roy takes evident pleasure in the money scams he runs on investors and, eventually, on Betty.
The Good Liar is the type of neatly fabricated mystery in which every emphasized detail will prove to be significant, so when Betty’s grandson, Steven (Russell Tovey), explains that his dissertation topic is the Nazi architect Albert Speer, one can guess that WWII will play some role in the resolution of Roy and Betty’s romantic arc. When Betty suggests a continental vacation—first stop, Berlin—it’s fairly obvious that a confrontation with Roy’s shrouded war history is in the mix. Still, the final third of the film proves to be more deeply rooted in ‘40s Germany than even the pointed discussion of Speer suggests, but don’t look to the film for any particular insight into wartime Germany or the experiences of the “greatest generation.” Here, the war serves mostly as a dramatic facilitator of final twist rather than a lived experience.
Eventually, Betty, who, as the duped party throughout, comes off as far less intelligent than the former Oxford professor she’s meant to be, gets some narrative agency. But it comes so late, and in the form of a twist whose general outlines we can sense from very early on, that it hardly avoids feeling tokenistic. Playing the part of sweet Betty, fooled into all manner of duplicitous arrangements with Roy, Mirren has comparatively little to do. At times, you may expect the film to become a kind of geriatric Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but the expected turn comes too late for Betty to really get in on any action. Unlike Inglourious Basterds, with which it self-consciously contrasts itself, The Good Liar isn’t interested in a challenging remix of either genre or history—content instead with mild, safely conventional entertainment.
Cast: Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter, Mark Lewis Jones, Céline Buckens, Nell Williams, Phil Dunster, Laurie Davidson, Jóhannes Kaukur Jóhannesson Director: Bill Condon Screenwriter: Jeffrey Hatcher, Nicholas Searle Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 109 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters Spreads the News, Without Embellishment
Haynes’s film intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate.2.5
Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters is the sort of film that may win awards and plaudits, even as it’s poised to be overlooked for its craftsmanship. Haynes and screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan communicate their story—a true one about the ways corporate greed can lead to irreparable health crises and environmental damage—without an ounce of pretense, which also means that they risk making it seem indistinguishable from other recent topical films like Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight. Yet while it doesn’t rewrite the book on the legal thriller genre, Dark Waters also intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate. Faint praise, perhaps, but this film aims to spread the news rather than bask in its own glory.
In 1998, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia, attempts to enlist Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) to file suit against DuPont. The chemical company, it seems, has been dumping toxic chemicals in a landfill near Tennant’s farm, polluting its creek and killing its livestock. As an attorney for a firm that defends corporations, Bilott initially refuses the case but eventually goes to bat for Tennant: Bilott grew up in West Virginia and becomes emotionally invested in protecting the land he loved as a child.
In the course of his investigation, Bilott discovers links between cancers and birth defects in the Parkersburg community and Dupont’s unregulated manufacture and disposal of PFOA (or C8), an indestructible chemical prevalent in many everyday household products. Yet what should be an open-and-shut case of corporate malfeasance and corruption drags on for years due to Dupont’s legal maneuvering, which costs Bilott his health and many of Bill’s clients their patience and social inclusion in Parkersburg, a Dupont company town to its core.
Dark Water’s strong suit is its central performances. As Bilott, Ruffalo provides a bristling tension in exploring the grey area between moral conviction and obsession as the lawyer’s selflessness borders on single-mindedness. And a scene-stealing Camp uses his bulk, not to mention a convincing rural drawl, to impart various shades of frustration, outrage, sadness, and disillusionment in the face of Tennant’s near-helpless situation. Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, can only do so much in the role of Bilott’s wife, Sarah, who seems to exist only to criticize others, be it her husband for his tunnel vision or his senior partner, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), for taking Bilott’s self-sacrifice for granted. Given Sarah’s intriguing backstory (she gave up a career in law to become a housewife), as well as Haynes’s predilection for exploring complex women, her characterization feels especially thin.
More important, perhaps, than any of these characters is West Virginia itself. The state isn’t featured often on film, which is a shame since it possesses an abundance of natural beauty. Of course, you won’t see that in Dark Waters, as Edward Lachman’s cinematography evokes the spoilage of that beauty by employing sickly, desaturated blues and greens, especially in outdoor winter scenes where you can practically feel the despair emanating from the screen. In this sense, the film harkens back to Haynes’s Safe, where toxicity appeared to suffuse the protagonist’s ordinary surroundings. The environmental details of Dark Waters reinforce the depth and expansiveness of Dupont’s crime, so that by the time John Denver’s signature “Take Me Home, Country Roads” ironically, if inevitably, plays during one of Bilott’s deflating drives through Parkersburg, Haynes has made the audience feel that this isn’t some remote, godforsaken hamlet, but rather the entire polluted planet.
Still, the best parts of Dark Waters may make you wish that there was more of Haynes in it. The filmmaker hasn’t written one of his own projects since the outstanding Mildred Pierce miniseries, but whereas Carol and Wonderstruck at least continued the director’s thematic and aesthetic preoccupations in their investigation of outcasts searching for romantic and familial connections, Dark Waters feels relatively faceless. Aside from its color scheme, there isn’t much in the film that’s particularly or uniquely cinematic; this is a dramatic rather than a visual showcase, and one often confined to legal conversations in generic offices, meeting rooms, and courts of law. But perhaps it’s to Haynes’s credit that he lets the drama speak for itself, instead of feeling the need to embellish it. After all, the point of this film is to depict how an enormous human and environmental tragedy initially affects a small community, with Tennant, Bilott, and Parkersburg suffering the full-force C-8 blast first and hardest.
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Bill Camp, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, Louisa Krause Director: Todd Haynes Screenwriter: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 126 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Charlie’s Angels Has Good Intentions but Lives in La-La Land
All the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal the film’s creative conservatism.1.5
As a minor cultural institution, Charlie’s Angels has, in all its TV and film incarnations, operated as a kind of Rorschach test: Fans see it flying the female empowerment flag by bringing women into the traditionally male detective genre, while critics by and large view it as a symptom of feminist backlash, objectifying its stars in the service of campy male fantasy. Now, by diversifying its cast and placing a female writer-director, Elizabeth Banks, at its helm, the new Charlie’s Angels attempts to remove all political doubt: These Angels are woke and answer to no man, not even one issuing orders from a speaker box. The intention is pure, but in the end, the emancipatory aims of this reboot exist only in la-la land, its feminism failing to resonate beyond the cynicism of corporate rebranding.
Mostly remembered as a montage of iconic images, the 1970s Aaron Spelling-produced TV series was actually a bore, its success depending solely on the charisma of its lead actresses; the two early-aughts films, both directed by McG, were 100% cheesecake, hypersexualizing its actresses in what amounted to glorified music videos. The new Charlie’s Angels moves well and at least puts forth a semblance of reality, with a few moments hinting at the tense, moody spy thriller it might have been. Yet the dominant strain of its DNA is the Generic Action Movie, and all the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal its creative conservatism.
The plot centers on the usual stuff of spies and saboteurs. Not yet an official Angel, Elena (Naomi Scott) works for a company that’s run by an Elon Musk type (Sam Claflin) and creates an electronics product that possesses deadly potential. When her superiors bury her report on its risks, Elena enlists the Angels—Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska)—to help blow the whistle. But sinister parties, of course, want the gadget for themselves, and most of the film consists of a series of car chases, break-ins, and stakeouts as the Angels pursue the MacGuffin in the name of global security. Speaking of global: Charlie’s private investigation firm is now an international business, with multiple Bosleys leading their own teams of lady spies. And in a first for the franchise, our Angels’ Bosley is played by a woman (Banks).
Indeed, the film has a female-led, rather than female-focused, bent. Having nothing to do with the story, the opening credits sequence features a celebratory montage of girls from around the world, and the finale and end credits reveal Charlie’s agency to be run by women, a far cry from the TV series’s patriarchal framing: “Once upon a time there were three little girls…now they work for me. My name is Charlie.” Banks’s coup de grace “twist” on the Charlie’s Angels formula is diversity in casting, as the Angels are played by one out actress and two of color.
Stewart is the film’s most potentially interesting presence. In the opening scene, Sabina seduces a bad guy by wearing an ultra-femme disguise that includes a cascade of flowing blond hair, and when removing it to enter fight mode, she reveals a dyed, short-cropped butch ‘do. Yet the rest of the film fails to develop the code-switching possibilities of her character or anyone else’s. There’s a slew of nearly preternatural wardrobe changes (at one point, Sabina dons a jockey’s outfit for some reason), but that’s been par for the course in the world of Charlie’s Angels since the Ford administration, with much of the franchise’s appeal residing in the material fetishism attendant in an endless game of dress-up. Like their predecessors, these Angels look glamorous and gorgeous while fighting crime, and while Stewart’s queerness may qualify her objectification, and actually makes her more of a subject (as when she sneaks a lascivious peek at an attractive woman), it’s only in a relative sense. Overall, her on-screen appearance is lensed as much for exploitative pleasure as vicarious admiration.
One major appeal of the Charlie’s Angels properties is seeing men consistently underestimate the physical and intellectual capability of its female leads. But because she dares nothing visually or dramatically original, Banks prevents the Angels from exhibiting unique or surprising traits. The Angels’ bios are strictly single-line affairs: Sabina is rebellious and sarcastic, Jane is steely and professional, and Elena is goofy and wide-eyed. And all of them quip and banter in similarly sitcom-ish rhythms. Ultimately, Banks believes it’s enough that queer and brown women perform the same suspense-free action set pieces and combat choreography that their white male counterparts have performed since time immemorial.
In contrast to McG’s films, which took place in the realm of a live-action candy-colored cartoon, the world of this Charlie’s Angels vaguely resembles our own, giving Banks the opportunity to show what real—or at least real-er—women can do in seriously intense and perilous situations. But save for a few stressed situations and unique notes (such as Luis Gerardo Méndez’s Q-like Saint, who’s both the Angels’ weapons expert and their health advisor and spiritual guru), this film is so much disposable entertainment. It’s too frenetic, tongue in cheek, and impersonal to extend its vague feminism to true individualism.
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, Sam Claflin, Noah Centineo, Jonathan Tucker, Nat Faxon, Chris Pang, Luis Gerardo Méndez Director: Elizabeth Banks Screenwriter: Elizabeth Banks Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Interview: Lauren Greenfield on The Kingmaker and Threats to Democracy
Greenfield discusses how the film relates to her body of work and the warnings Americans ought to heed from it.
When it comes to documenting stories about the dark underbelly of wealth in contemporary society, Lauren Greenfield is like a moth drawn to a flame. A photographer by trade who has ventured into documentary filmmaking, Greenfield broke out in 2012 with The Queen of Versailles, a “riches-to-rags” tale of how billionaire Florida couple Jackie and Robert Siegel attempted to build an American equivalent to Versailles. Their absurd ambition amounts to their folly as construction kicks off at the height of the Great Recession and strains their precarious finances, leaving the mansion unfinished. Greenfield continued this theme in her 2018 documentary Generation Wealth, a companion film to her monograph of the same name that follows multiple less bombastic tales of how an unfettered pursuit of opulence and glamour results in deep emptiness.
Greenfield’s new documentary, The Kingmaker, began with her interest in another powerful symbol for the hollowness of wealth and power. In the Philippines, former First Lady Imelda Marcos evicted the native population of Calauit Island, located in the Calamian Archipelago, and replaced the inhabitants with African animals. Though the regime of her husband, Ferdinand E. Marcos, fell and drove the family into exile and disrepute, the animals remained. Generations later, the creatures’ inbreeding and the general disarray of the island’s ecosystem appears to be a fitting testament to the corruption and incompetence of their rule.
And yet, once Greenfield began to sit with the octogenarian Imelda Marcos, she found a subject spinning an alternate story, as well as a populace willing to believe it. The Kingmaker portrays the unfolding of a terrifying period in the history of the Philippines of how a political dynasty can rewrite the history of human rights abuses and corruption in order to return to power. While events continue to unfold in the country, the necessary forces and people are in place to pave the way for Imelda’s son, Bongbong Marcos, to assume the presidency in 2022.
I spoke with Greenfield prior to The Kingmaker’s premiere at DOC NYC to discuss how the documentary relates to her body of work as a whole as well as the warnings Americans ought to heed from it as a similar political dynamic to the one in the Philippines develops stateside.
You’ve said elsewhere that you liked Imelda on a personal level, but much like The Queen of Versailles, The Kingmaker itself remains a little ambiguous so the audience can come to their own conclusions about the subject. How do you finesse that ambiguity in your filmmaking and in the editing process?
It’s a little bit different with Imelda Marcos because I came in knowing the history. I was more interested in the paradox between the fact that when you’re with her, she’s kind and generous and personable, versus the terrible consequences of the huge human rights abuses she was complicit with. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I think she’s nice, let’s let the audience come to that conclusion.” I felt journalistically, ethically, and historically that I need to give the audience the information so they could see that what she was doing was telling untruths. So they could see that she was an unreliable narrator. That’s why, when I realized that about her, I brought in other voices that the audience would instinctively feel are credible.
It’s a little bit of a different journey because, in the beginning, you’re sucked into her personality, which is lovely and charismatic, and I wanted people to see that. It was the key to her political success. But, even by the end of the first act, when you know she’s depopulated an indigenous population to bring in the animals to her pet project island, I think you can’t abide by that anymore. By the time you hear about martial law and torture, you’re not thinking she’s nice anymore. Jackie Siegel was another journey because you start out thinking she’s horrible, and then you end up kind of rooting for her. For Imelda, I wanted to show her humanity, but it’s a paradox of how can a human do these terrible things and not feel any remorse.
When you started filming Imelda, you thought maybe the film would become a redemption story? At what point did you begin to realize that wasn’t going to play out?
I was still hoping for it, even at the very end—that maybe she’d have some kind of revelation. I thought there’d be a moment where she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t see it that way.” But looking back now, I was being naïve. Of course, this is not her first rodeo. She’s talked to the press a million times. During the election, I realized they were just going to lean into their story. There was a TV interview that Bongbong did, and the reporter said, “Are you going to say you’re sorry? Are you going to say you’re sorry for martial law?” That’s what people really wanted, for him to apologize. And he said, “What do I have to apologize for? Should I apologize for the roads? The infrastructure? The building that happened during that period? If I hurt somebody, I would apologize, but what do I have to apologize for?” When I heard that a few months into the election campaign, I realized they were going to lean into the story, into their rewriting of history that those were the good times, and they weren’t going to apologize. It’s kind of a Trumpian move: never apologize, never say you’re wrong, just say, “It was good, it was great!” And then people will eventually believe you.
Isn’t the film, at least for Imelda, a redemption story? She’s restoring honor to the family name and, in doing so, putting some power behind their wealth, which has become a little toothless in the absence of actual clout.
Well, she is trying to whitewash history. That’s her goal, politically, and it’s why she chose to participate in the film. She wants to put out her version of the Marcos legacy. That’s not what I meant by “redemption story.” I meant her having a moral moment of realizing she’s done something wrong. She does tell herself that she’s doing something good. I do believe she thinks she’s doing good, and that she believes her own story.
Everyone tells themselves a story of their life that makes sense, but the difference between the visions of grandeur of people like Imelda and Jackie Siegel and the average person is that they can manipulate reality to become their fantasy using wealth.
Her story helps her survive. It pushes her to keep going. Deep down, she feels like she’s doing the right thing. If she felt like she was doing terrible things, it would get in her way. It’s a strategic story that helps her live with it and get a young electorate on board for a comeback.
I found it a little difficult to discern toward the end: Does Imelda and the rest of the Marcos family see the contradictions in boosting a candidate like Rodrigo Duterte, who runs against the perceived corruption of a system only to re-legitimize a self-dealing former dynasty? Or is the irony completely lost on them?
I’m not sure that there’s a lot of irony there. Even though he pretends he’s one of the people, working class, talks trash, and swears, he’s actually from a place of privilege. There’s also a lot of corruption going on in this government. When Bongbong was campaigning, he also said he was going to go against corruption. That’s what everybody says. The reality is that Duterte’s father was in Ferdinand Marcos’s cabinet. Duterte looks up to Marcos. He’s threatened martial law. He likes the idea of the strongman. So, I think that they’re pretty aligned.
I was more surprised that Bongbong would align with Duterte because Bongbong was Western-educated and has the veneer of a legitimate politician, so I was surprised that he would go with somebody responsible for so many street killings. But, at the end of the day, it’s political. They made an alliance that’s helped them both. They could give Duterte support for becoming president, and in return they got the hero’s burial that Imelda has wanted for decades. Duterte backed the sister, Imee, for senate, and she won—as did every candidate that Duterte backed. Going into the next election, Duterte’s backing is extremely important.
A thread through your work is that people suffering from the adverse effects of wealth tend to cast themselves as victims in their own stories. From your experience, do you think that narrative holds any water? Or is it just a survival technique?
Yeah, I don’t think we need to shed any tears for Imelda. What I’m trying to do here, and in Generation Wealth, is to focus on the one percent and look at how it affects everybody else. That’s the important thing: looking at the long-term consequences of the Marcos regime and how the abuse of wealth and power affects everybody else. I came in looking at that through the animal island, but that’s really symbolic for how the Philippines was hurt by how the Marcos family, in taking five to 10 billion dollars, hurt development, created persistent poverty, and made the people vulnerable to bringing back another strongman and supporting people like Bongbong Marcos, but especially Duterte. Benigno Aquino, the president when I was filming and son of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, said his father told him you can’t have democracy when you’re hungry. That’s what we see in the Philippines, democracy being threatened because people’s basic needs are not being met.
It almost feels like we’re doomed to live in a plutocracy forever.
That’s the irony. That’s what was so sad. It’s also similar to Trump, as people’s needs were not being met, so they voted for change only to have somebody who’s really on the side of the wealthy. It’s ironic that these people get brought in by the support of the working class. But in the Philippines, you’re not even talking about the working class. You’re talking about deep, deep poverty where people are getting money, food, or clothing in exchange for votes. And especially without proper information, the history not being taught in the schoolbooks or not as many outlets of independent journalism, it’s very hard for a democracy to thrive.
You’ve noted that Imelda is yet another adherent of the “dictator chic” style—the gauche, in-your-face extravagance that attracts aspiring autocrats from Trump to Saddam Hussein. As someone who observes the intersection of wealth and aesthetics, do you have any theories about why this phenomenon cuts across the globe?
In a way, that was a little bit more of what I looked at in Generation Wealth. There’s an aspirational nobility that people with power want, like being a king or a queen. You see that in the portrait of Imelda at the beginning of the film and in some of the commissioned portraiture she did—and, for that matter, some of what the Siegels did. You can see the love for gold that Trump has. I think it’s an association with nobility, especially for the nouveau riche and people who are ambitiously climbing their way up.
As someone who’s studied and documented wealth across the world, what do you make of this moment in America where it seems like a large portion of the country worships an opulent, self-proclaimed wealthy leader and another large portion finds inspiration in politicians who are rallying people against the idea of concentrated wealth?
Well, I definitely think we’re at a really precarious time at the moment, because the amount of inequality we have right now is dangerous for any society or democracy. And dangerous economically. We have this myth of the American dream where anyone can go from rags to riches. I think that’s what’s standing between us and revolution, even though many people are not sharing in the spoils of our economy. It’s because of this “keeping up with the Kardashians” mindset. In Generation Wealth, I looked at how in the space of a generation, people went from “keeping up with the Joneses,” their neighbors, to keeping up with the Kardashians, these ultra-wealthy people they see on TV. It’s so unrealistic, and yet there’s this deep myth in the culture that you can become that one day, through a reality show or whatever it is. Obama called that out more than two decades ago when he was a lawyer. The thing about Donald Trump is that people think they can be him one day, or maybe their child can be him. There’s this illusion that keeps people accepting the status quo.
And then I think there’s a waking up happening, particularly among young people, that that’s not going to happen, and that there’s some real rot. The game is rigged, and what they’re telling us is the goal—being rich—isn’t actually making people happy. Especially on the millennial side, there are signs of people waking up and wanting something different. The problem is that the culture and corporate capitalism are so slanted toward keeping the status quo. Just money in politics, for example, and the disinformation from social media. We saw it in the Philippines, we saw it here, we saw it with Brexit. That’s the thing Andy Bautista [former head of the Philippines’ Presidential Commission on Good Government] keeps telling me about the Philippines: If you have money, you have speech because you can put forward lies on social media and convince people of that. And it’s kind of like that here as well.