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Review: The Ground Truth

2.5

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The Ground Truth

Rockmond Dunbar’s C-Note gets to the essence of The Ground Truth in a recent episode of Prison Break. On the phone to his wife, who questions whether her husband was ever in the military, the former army man bitterly replies, “I served my country and my country served me up.” Patricia Foulkrod’s documentary is barely a work of art, visually unseemly and struggling for a significant through line, but as a polemic it has the urgency of stray sniper fire. Which is to say the film is dangerous, but to whom? Foulkrod doesn’t settle for the shrill guttersnipping of Michael Moore, going beyond how the military callously seduces poor and minority people with romantic visions of war, countering the twisted neocon pathology of the White House that the costs of war—like the coffins of our dead soldiers—don’t exist if we cannot see them. She accomplishes this through stinging interviews from our maimed soldiers, who reveal how our military camps have essentially become breeding grounds for war criminals. It is there that racism is used to dehumanize the enemy and soldier alike, the nonexistent links between Iraq and 9/11 are used to fuel animosity, and violence against innocent people is encouraged by commanding officers. But the worst of it is that when our soldiers return to this country plagued with post-traumatic syndrome, they are disregarded by the very machine that created them. Foulkrod rarely stays on point but reveals, with arms flailing, that the military’s abuse of our soldiers constitutes a colossal and irresponsible failure of compassion.

Cast: Robert Acosta, Charles Anderson, Aidan Delgado, Kelly Dougherty, Sean Huze, Denver Jones, Demond Mullins, Perry O'Brien, Paul Rieckhoff Director: Patricia Foulkrod Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2006 Buy: Video

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Review: 21 Bridges Is a Cop Thriller with a Confounding Sense of Timing

It’s difficult to imagine a worse time to release Brian Kirk’s 21 Bridges than the present.

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21 Bridges
Photo: STX Entertainment

It’s difficult to imagine a worse time to release 21 Bridges than the present. The film’s premise, about police bringing Manhattan’s transit system to a complete halt in order to facilitate a manhunt for two cop killers, draws immediate parallels to the explosion of NYPD officers in the city’s already crowded subways in order to crack down on turnstile jumpers. The speed with which the NYPD seals off the borough in 21 Bridges is presented not as a chilling glimpse into police-state overreach, but as a hip montage of professional efficiency, a show of inflamed passions at the loss of several colleagues in the line of duty.

Spearheading this initiative is Detective André Davis (Chadwick Boseman), a trigger-happy cop with a history of killing perps. We meet Davis as a child sitting in a cathedral watching the funeral of his father, a cop killed by strung-out crackheads. As the reverend (John Douglas Thompson) gives a shockingly bloodthirsty eulogy, celebrating the dead policeman as a warrior for punishing the two of his three attackers by killing them, we see young André (Christian Isaiah) gradually stifle his tears, embracing the steeliness of the man he would become: a hard-edged cop eager to put any criminal who dares stand up to him in the ground.

Davis finds ample traction for this worldview among the members of a police precinct where eight officers are murdered by two thieves, Michael (Stephan James) and Ray (Taylor Kitsch). As McKenna (J.K. Simmons), the local police captain, tells Davis at one point, the wives and children of the slain cops will be so profoundly consumed with mourning that they shouldn’t have to be dealt the additional “trauma” of seeing the perpetrators going through the legal process of trials and appeals. In so many words, McKenna asks Davis to “spare” the families such a burden, and it’s an assignment that the young detective very much relishes.

21 Bridges never really pauses to consider how Davis let a childhood trauma justify a lifetime of dubious behavior under the legal protection of a badge, and indeed, it presents his dogged pursuit of the killers through the clichés of so many thrillers about loose-cannon cops driven by their take-no-prisoners intensity. Yet even before Davis enters the crime scene, we see how the murdered cops were implicated in the drug trade that Michael and Ray disrupted by robbing a cocaine stash that was clearly protected by the cops who happened upon the heist. And this advance knowledge of the dirty ties that the slain officers had to the underworld creates a potentially intriguing dramatic irony in Davis’s quest to sanctify the fallen officers.

But instead of using the audience’s awareness of the greater truth to critique its hero, the film merely barrels through a series of plot twists that are twists only to Davis. He obliviously seeks vengeance for dirty cops whose equally corrupt colleagues launch their own ruthless efforts to silence Michael and Ray, as well as anyone who could expose their involvement in New York’s drug trade. This makes Davis, in many ways, ancillary to the story, a third wheel that’s ostensibly meant to come off as sympathetic to the audience.

Of course, the only way that Davis can seem like a good guy is for 21 Bridges to never call the morality of his manhunt into question. And when the film shows any disgust at all, it’s in the way that the other cops’ unseemly connections make them unfit for the job that someone like Davis upholds so fiercely: Our protagonist quickly picks up on the suspiciousness of his colleagues’ behavior, yet the film treats the ruthlessness of crooked officers covering their asses as somehow different than his own hyper-violent sense of justice.

When, late in the film, Davis summarizes his feelings on the police getting involved with the drug trade by saying “that blood cannot be on the badge,” he sounds ridiculous, so certain of his own moral righteousness even as he, too, leaves bodies in his wake. In the end, 21 Bridges suggests that the only true problem with the increasing power of a police state is that some cops might be unworthy of the authority otherwise duly invested in them.

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Sienna Miller, Stephan James, Keith David, Alexander Siddig, Taylor Kitsch, J.K. Simmons, Louis Cancelmi, Victoria Cartagena Director: Brian Kirk Screenwriter: Adam Mervis, Matthew Michael Carnahan Distributor: STX Entertainment Running Time: 99 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Interview: Marielle Heller on Mr. Rogers and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Our conversation led us into discussion about how far Mr. Rogers’s philosophy can extend into today’s world.

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Marielle Heller
Photo: TriStar Pictures

Fred Rogers had no shortage of simple yet beautiful sayings pertaining to countless people and professions, including, it appears, journalists. In a nugget from the recent New York Times profile of Tom Hanks, archival documents revealed that Mr. Rogers had laid out the principles that he hoped his Esquire profiler, Tom Junod, would adhere to when writing about him. Among them were “journalists are human beings not stenographers, human beings not automatons” and “be aware of celebrating the wonders of creation.” Junod’s piece did, ultimately, become a tribute to the life-altering power of Mr. Rogers’s empathic power and serves as the inspiration for the new film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

“Wasn’t that so beautiful?” remarked the film’s director, Marielle Heller, when I broached the subject of Rogers’s journalistic pillars with her. I admitted that I could not feign the impartiality of an automaton in our conversation given how deeply the film moved me. After delivering two films where tenderness broke through the facades of more hardened characters, 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl and 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Heller’s third feature fully embraces sincerity and rejects cynicism without ever feeling cloying or corny.

Unlike Lloyd Vogel (played by Matthew Rhys), the film’s fictionalized avatar of Junod, I couldn’t pretend to be unmoved or skeptical of a creation that made me feel such profound emotion. Heller’s chronicle of how Mr. Rogers (embodied here by Tom Hanks) changed one person picks up and continues the television icon’s work by allowing his message of love and forgiveness to reach, and thus transform, more lives.

I spoke with Heller over the phone ahead of her sending A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood out into the world, a process she claimed would be the hardest part of the film’s journey to screen. Our conversation began with how Mr. Rogers’s legacy loomed large over the shoot and led us into discussion about how far his philosophy can extend into today’s world.

I’ve read that you attached quotes from Mr. Rogers on the daily call sheet. Was there a sense that this set and production needed to be infused with his personality and grace?

Oh my gosh, totally. I think we all felt like we were so privileged getting to work on his own story, and we were filming it in his hometown of Pittsburgh on the stage where he originally filmed the program. We were walking among the ghost of Fred Rogers the whole time, and we were trying to invoke him whenever we could.

The way Tom Hanks portrays Mr. Rogers is less of an impression and more of an inhabitation, particularly when it comes to portraying his patience and stillness. Those moments must be like walking a tightrope, so how did you find the right balance, be it in directing Tom’s performance on set or finding the rhythm in the editing room?

Truthfully, we tried to get the rhythm right on set. Part of that was because Jody [Lee Lipes, the cinematographer] and I had devised a way of filming this that wasn’t really meant to be edited super quick with lots of cutting. It was meant to sit in shots for longer and let things play in two-shots or single shots that moved. We got to rehearse, which is something I always hope to do with movies, and part of the rehearsal is about trying to find the rhythms in the script and have the actors find their pacing. I tend to approach things like theater in that way where you sit around, do table work, work through the bigger emotional beats of a scene, ask questions, comment on it and really play with it. By the time we’re shooting it, we know what we need to be hitting in a bigger emotional way and can be focusing on other things as well.

But every day, I was constantly pushing Tom to go slower and stiller than he could possibly imagine because Fred really was incredibly still and listened so intently. And Tom would say, “Really? I thought I was so still and so slow! Really, still slower? Okay!” I would say, “I want you to sit and listen and wait as long as you possibly can before you respond to this question. Sit, take him in and wait so much longer than you expect to.” We were really trying to build that pace into the actual filming. Luckily, Tom loves to be directed. He’s an actor who loves the relationship with the director. He never minded that I was nitpicking him.

How did you approach the big moment of silence in the film? Was it actually a minute long like Mr. Rogers says?

It’s a little more than a minute! [laughs] Just over a full minute. I actually held myself back from timing it when we were editing it, just because I was trying to feel it. Tom and I were just talking about that scene in a Q&A. He was saying that while we filmed it, he thought, “Are you really going to do this? Are you serious right now?” And I was like, “Yeah, that was the scene I was clearest about when I signed onto the movie.” It’s the moment that the audience becomes an active participant in the film, and that’s what Mr. Rogers does with his program. He asks the kids who’re watching the show to be active participants. He asks them, “Can you see the color green here? What do you see when you look at this picture?” And then he waits for them to respond. That’s the moment where we’re waiting for our audience to respond.

The film unfolds, to use your words, like “a big episode of Mr. Rogers for adults.” Was all of that baked in at the script level, or were there elements you added in when you boarded the project?

It was part of the script when I came on board. That was the bigger, larger conceit of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and then figuring out how to actually make that integrate and work cinematically was our job. How do you make an episode of Mr. Rogers that can feel both bigger than an episode of Mr. Rogers, because it’s a film after all, but how do you take these elements that are very small and handmade and make them integrate with a real-life world that can feel grounded in reality and emotionally resonant? How do you take this world of Mr. Rogers and Lloyd’s world of New York and find a way to travel between them that both points out the dissonance between the two of them and the ways in which they’re connected—and become more and more alike as we go through the movie. Or get more and more confused with each other, is maybe a better way to say it. That was part of the joy of it, figuring out how this bigger conceit, which is great on paper, can actually work.

How do you thread that thin needle of returning an adult audience to a state of childlike innocence without infantilizing them?

I think it’s a fine line, and we just tried to make it with every choice and tried to be as truthful as we could. Trying to portray taking you back in time to watch episodes of the original program, we tried to recreate them in such an authentic way that they didn’t feel like we were making fun of them in any way. Trying to find truth within it. Lloyd is a very helpful conduit for bringing us into that story because his cynicism steps in for all of our cynicism. Having somebody there going, “Come on, who is this guy? He can’t be real!” is sort of helpful for those of us who come into a story with a certain amount of neurotic cynicism. And I thought that was something so smart about the script, we have this guy who can speak for the part of us that’s outgrown Mr. Rogers. And as his cynicism gets chipped away, so does ours. I was also very aware that Mr. Rogers couldn’t be the protagonist of a movie because he’s just too evolved. But he makes a really good antagonist.

You wrote the script for your first film, but then have used other people’s for your next two. How do you make these screenplays your own when bringing them to the screen when the words don’t originate from your own mind?

Even when I’m directing a movie I haven’t written, because I’m a writer, I always work on the script. For Can You Ever Forgive Me?, I worked on the script for a long time. For this film, I worked together with Noah [Harpster] and Micah [Fitzerman-Blue], who are just incredible writers, to bring in the parts of it that felt personally connected for me. It’s about finding a script that you can find your way into from an emotional point of view and know inside and out. Then it’s many, many months of going through every single scene and feeling if there’s any line, word, or phrase that isn’t quite feeling like how I would have written it, and then us working through it! We went through the script pretty meticulously, and the script evolved and changed when I came on board. It was a beautiful script to begin with, and it made me cry many times when I read it the first time, which is why I signed on.

The script kicked around for many years but really began to take off in 2015 or so. Do you think that’s because the film serves as such a tonic for our troubled times?

I think it was a year or two after that, but I can’t quite remember. Whatever you believe, I think projects happen when they’re meant to happen. It’s really hard sometimes when you’re working on a project that takes ten years to come to be and believe that because you start to think it will never happen. But, ultimately, I have a similar philosophy about casting: You’ll lose an actor, and whoever is meant to play that part, it will work out. I feel that way with when projects came to be. I think this project, yeah, it could have been made ten years ago. But it was meant to be now. This is when we need it, for whatever reason.

What challenged you the most about A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and where did you see yourself growing as a director?

I don’t know what challenged me the most about it. The truth of the matter is that it’s been a pretty joyful experience making this movie. It’s been a gift, and I just feel really lucky that I got to make it. I feel like it gave me so much, and as you said, the reverberations of Fred’s lessons have been with me now for years. I’ve gotten to live with his voice in my head, and it changes my life. It’s been a total gift, and I feel unworthy. And the challenge is now, truthfully, putting this out into the world and deal with people [laughs]. Living up to their expectations, it’s not how they would make a movie about Fred Rogers, but up until now, it’s been a privilege and something I feel incredibly proud of. Now I just have to let it go, like a child out into the world.

Tom Hanks

Photo: TriStar Pictures

I’m a sucker for a good Mr. Rogers quote, but I did come across a provocative perspective from The Atlantic suggesting a “fetishization” of some of his aphorisms. It got me wondering if there’s a point where relying on advice designed for children prevents us from fulfilling more adult responsibilities. I think we’re both true believers here, but as someone who’s been much more steeped in his philosophy and teachings, I’m curious if you have a perspective on the potential limitations of Mr. Rogers’s advice.

I don’t think there are limitations to his advice. I think he knew that you had to give children bite-sized versions of the truth. You had to give them the amount of the truth they could handle. But I think he had that wisdom for adults, and there was a period of time when he did a series for adults. The thing about him is that he didn’t shy away from the harder stuff. He did an episode on assassination after RFK was shot. He did a whole episode on divorce when people weren’t really talking about it on television. The darkest things, fear of death…

Fear of going down the drain!

Or going down the drain, which is apparently a very real fear! My kid was afraid of that.

Really?

Yes, it’s a very common fear! But I know what you mean. I think it’s taken out of context if someone is letting people off the hook with one of his quotes. The truth is, Fred was doing the tough work of being a person part of our global community. He was connecting with humanity in a deep way. He was present with people and helping people truly. It wasn’t just phrases.

I do truly feel like the film has encouraged me to be more empathetic, understanding, and present—and the effects have lasted far longer than I anticipated. Yet I do still struggle with the idea that I’m barely making a dent in the world’s problems given the magnitude of what we’re facing.

I think we all do, and I think Fred struggled with that too. There’s something that was touched on in the documentary [2018’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor?], where he was asked to come back and do a special after 9/11, and he thought, “Could it possibly be enough? How could I possibly do enough to help in this moment? Why would anyone need to hear from me right now?” I don’t think that feeling like you can’t do enough is a bad thing to be connected with.

I was talking about this in our Q&A today where I was in prep for this movie and went to hear a talk at Brooklyn Buddhist Zen Center. I think I was thinking of Fred as a Buddha-like figure. I had something in my head that the Buddha must be at peace at all times, that somehow if you reach that level of enlightenment or come to a point that far along in your emotional journey, you would feel happiness all the time. This woman who was giving this talk said, “No, you’d feel all the pain of the world. You’d actually feel it more. You’d feel everyone’s suffering. And the goal is not to not feel the suffering. The goal is to feel it even more deeply.” And it made me think about Fred because I think that’s what he did. I don’t think he was walking around with a smile on his face all the time. I think he was feeling the pain of the world.

It’s my understanding that you weren’t filming in Pittsburgh at the time of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Squirrel Hill, where Mr. Rogers lived, but did come back and do some pick-ups in town as they were still grieving and processing.

We had just left. We had left three days earlier to do our last days of filming in New York. We were in Pittsburgh for five months and left three days before the shooting happened. Actually, we wrapped principal photography in New York at four in the morning at Port Authority and then the shooting happened in the morning. It was so right on the heels, and then we returned to Pittsburgh two weeks later to do our miniatures shoot, which was always planned.

Did that weigh on the film at all?

Oh my gosh, are you kidding? It was so present for all of us. We felt so embraced and loved by the Pittsburgh community. Being in Pittsburgh making a movie about Mr. Rogers, we were like the most famous people in town. Everyone knew who we were and where were filming and come by to say hi to us and making sure we did Fred proud. My kid was going to school at a JCC in Squirrel Hill while we were there. That was our community. Bill Isler [former president and CEO of the Fred Rogers Company] lives there. It felt so, so close to home. When we returned to do our miniatures shoot, Tom Hanks came back too, and we all went to the city’s unity celebration. We spent a lot of time mourning together.

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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.

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Rian Johnson
Photo: Lionsgate

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—

Throw them.

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?”

Rian Johnson

Photo: Claire Folger

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.

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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

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Photo: TriStar Pictures

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

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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

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Frozen II
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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

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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.

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Todd Haynes
Photo: Focus Features

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.

Why?

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—

—rustic beauty—

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.

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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

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Shooting the Mafia
Photo: Cohen Media Group

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

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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

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Duet for Cannibals
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

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

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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

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The Good Liar
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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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

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Dark Waters
Photo: Focus Features

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

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