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Understanding Screenwriting #100: Ruby Sparks, Premium Rush, Hit & Run

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Understanding Screenwriting #100: Ruby Sparks, Premium Rush, Hit & Run

Coming Up In This Column: Ruby Sparks, Premium Rush, Hit & Run, Paul, 5 Fingers, The Password is Courage, The Closer/Major Crimes, but first…

Fan Mail: Yes indeed, folks, this is the one hundredth Understanding Screenwriting column. Since it is a virtual column, we are celebrating with a virtual party. Step over to the virtual table and have a piece of the virtual cake. Didn’t the decorator do a great job recreating my picture from US#99 of the Cattle Pocket in the Alabama Hills? At the other end of the table is the virtual popcorn. You will need a real hand wipe to clean the butter off your hands. In the virtual ice chest, you will find virtual Diet Cherry Coke and virtual Diet Cherry Dr. Pepper. Enjoy, enjoy.

Keith asked me a while ago if I wanted to stop the column at 100, a nice round number. I told him I was having way too much fun doing it. I intend to keep on doing it until, to use a line of my brother’s, it starts interfering with my naps.

In the Fan Mail category, “Lylebot” picked up on the comments “eyesprocket” had that I responded to about learning how to understand screenwriting from this column. Lylebot notes that he is not a would-be screenwriter (he obviously doesn’t live in LA), but a scientist and just interested in learning in general about screenwriting. I always liked to have non-film majors in my classes at LACC because they brought interesting points of view. I can see why Lylebot doesn’t have a great interest in the technical stuff, or my whacking the screenwriting gurus. He’s interested in the process of writing, and I think he and I can agree that you can learn a lot about writing in general from screenwriting, especially in they area of structure. He notices that in the item on Bourne Legacy I mention screenwriting only in talking about the new character in one paragraph, but then talk about other things. I may have misled him, because in my comments in the Fan Mail section I suggested that in the Legacy item that would be one element you could find. This is why I never told my students in advance “Here are the five important things you should learn from Citizen Kane.” If I did that, those five things were the only things they would find. Most of the other stuff in the Legacy item has to do with how the screenwriting is carried through in the production of the film.

Lylebot brings up a crucial point, one that anybody writing about screenwriting has to deal with: how much description of the plot and the characters do you have to give? I wrestled with this in the book Understanding Screenwriting and I wrestle with it on every item in the column. And sometimes I lose the wrestling match, and there is way more description than I need, but I try to keep cutting stuff to just the essentials the reader needs to understand what I am getting at. I am sure Lylebot sometimes runs into that in scientific writing as well. Lylebot is also right that sometimes I shortchange the analysis, which is especially noticeable if I have over-described. It’s a constant struggle. But one worth having, at least from my perspective.

Tom Block commented on his trip to Lone Pine, pointing out there are a lot of film locations in the area, not just the ones I mentioned. He also had a link to his blog so you can see his pictures of what he did there on his summer vacation.

And David Ehrenstein and I agreed, for the fourth time in recent weeks, on something. The sound you hear is hell freezing over.

Ruby Sparks (2012. Written by Zoe Kazan. 104 minutes)

She’s no Eliza Doolittle: Calvin is a thirtyish writer who had a big success with a novel he wrote in high school. And he has not been able to write another one. Oh, boy, those are danger signs all over place. Watching writers write is boring. Watching them not write is even more boring. And he goes to a shrink, so we are going to have some more boring scenes in which they talk about it. Fortunately Kazan understands the problems and avoids most of them. The exposition we get about Calvin comes very quickly. We also see he is socially inept, because he cannot even score with a young woman at a book reading who is dying to do him. And it is the shrink who suggests that Calvin just sit down and write something, anything, to get the words going. That’s a standard piece of advice to writers who have writer’s block, by the way, since it gives you permission to turn off the critical side of your brain, at least for a while.

So Calvin starts writing (on a typewriter, no less; well, maybe it’s his lucky typewriter, although with ten years since his last novel, I would think not so lucky) and on the page creates Ruby. And she comes to life. We and others in the film assume she is just a figment of Calvin’s imagination, and Kazan has some witty ways to teach us all that Ruby is real. Shortly after the halfway point, Calvin takes Ruby to a family gathering to meet his hippie parents, and the picture begins to go off the rails. Ruby is much more outgoing than Calvin and fits in better with his family than he does. But Kazan doesn’t develop that idea. Nor does she have Ruby turn into an independent woman on her own. She’s not threatening to run off with Freddy Eynsford-Hill. One can be glad that Kazan doesn’t follow the standard pattern in Pygmalion stories, but she does not replace it with much. Calvin gets upset that Ruby only does what he wants, or what he writes. This gives us a dramatic scene where Calvin writes Ruby happy, which she becomes, then sad, which she becomes, etc. Kazan is also an actress and plays Ruby, and I suspect this scene is what made her want to write the story this way. The scene is a real actor’s showcase, but as with many such scenes, it takes us out of the story. Kazan could have developed this better.

Eventually Calvin and “his” Ruby break up, he writes the story in a novel, which is a big bestseller. And then he runs into a woman who looks exactly like Ruby. Well, she’s also played by Kazan. And she seems to be exactly like Ruby, which is a very weak ending. If Calvin learned anything from this experience, it ought to have been that he could deal with a real woman. It would not have taken more than a couple of lines to establish this new woman as completely different from Ruby. It might have made for a better film is this final scene happened a little earlier and we got to watch Calvin deal with the new woman.

Premium Rush (2012. Written by David Koepp & John Kamps. 91 minutes)

Premium Rush

This is how you make a B movie: David Koepp is best known for his scripts for big blockbusters: the first two Jurassic Park movies, the first Mission: Impossible movie, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). He has also written and sometimes directed smaller films. He was the writer of Panic Room (2002), a great “enclosed space” thriller, and he co-wrote with John Kamps and directed Ghost Town (2008), which I wrote about in US#33. Premium Rush is one of his smaller films, and the script is a perfect model of how it should be done.

The plot is simple: Wilee (as in Wile E. Coyote) is a bicycle messenger in New York City. He is assigned to deliver an envelope before 7. A bad guy will do anything to get his hands on the envelope. So right away you have action establishing Wilee zipping in and out of New York traffic, with all the comments from drivers as he goes by. So we know this is going to be a very kinetic film, to put it modestly. As with so much in this script, we don’t get any more than we need to know about Wilee’s character: he loves speed, he has no gears on his bike, and no brakes as well. He has a girlfriend, Vanessa, who is also a messenger, which is useful for later plot developments, and she is being hit on by another messenger. And that’s all we know about them. And all we need to know up front.

Wilee picks up a slim envelope from Nima, a young Asian woman at Columbia. Nima has roomed with Vanessa, and uses the bike messenger service for the university, so her asking for the service makes sense. Before he can get off the Columbia campus, he is stopped by a man who says he is with university security and needs the envelope back. Wilee doesn’t give it to him, partly because security of the packages is guaranteed by his company. I would have thought he would have been suspicious of anyone who claims his name is Forrest J. Ackerman, but neither Wilee nor anybody in the audience I saw it with picked up on that. We know “Ackerman,” actually a cop named Monday, is not a good guy, but look at how long before we find out how bad he really is. Monday is played by the great Michael Shannon, who bears a slight resemblance to David Letterman, so when Monday is in high dudgeon he seems like Letterman at his crankiest. Well, I thought that was funny.

Koepp and Kamps are as careful as Burt Kennedy is in the Ranown films to hold off telling us useful information until we would kill our grandmothers to know it. Look at how long it takes us to find out what’s in the envelope: a movie theater stub with a smiley face. Big help; look at how long it takes for us to find out what that means. And even longer to find out why. Koepp and Kamps understand that you will need some quieter scenes as a change of pace from all the bike scenes and they use those to catch up on the plot points, rather than delve into character. And then we are ready to get on the road again. The writers also borrow a trick from Buster Keaton’s The General (1927). In that film Keaton is chasing his engine in the first half, then being chased by the Union army in the second half. Wilee is chased by Monday in the first half, then Wilee has to chase down the messenger (the one who hits on Vanessa, of course; nothing wasted here) before he delivers the envelope to Monday at the wrong address. And the writers save some of their best invention for the last: Wilee has to escape from a police impound warehouse, which means riding his bike over the cars and trucks there.

Not only is the script good, but Koepp as the director understands something very basic about speed on film. It does not matter how fast an object is going if we cannot feel its speed. You have all seen establishing shots of jet airliners flying through the sky. They are traveling 400 to 500 miles an hour, but you cannot tell because you have nothing to judge them against. A bike going through New York traffic here gives us a sense of the bike’s speed relative to everything else. Koepp’s cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen has shot a lot of second unit stuff for big action movies so he knows how to make it look great. That’s not true of the next film.

Hit & Run (2012. Written by Dax Shepard. 100 minutes)

Hit & Run

This is not how you make a B movie: Well, the opening is sort of charming. Charlie and Annie are in bed talking about the present, how this day is going to be great, how it…where the hell are Burt Kennedy, David Koepp and John Kamps when you need them? The dialogue in this film is anything but laconic, and a lot of it has the air of having been improvised by the actors, but then not shaped either in the rewriting or editing. Shepard not only wrote the script, but plays Charlie, and is the co-director as well. He and Kristin Bell as Annie, make a semi-charming if loquacious couple. Annie learns that she has the opportunity for a great new job running a new department at a university. Which university? Well, it’s UC, as University of California. But there are several UCs throughout the state. Charlie and Annie eventually wind up in Los Angeles, which would make it UCLA, but it’s never called that in the film.

Annie has to go to this UC, whichever one it is, for a job interview. Great, Charlie can drive her (I am not sure they establish why she just can’t drive herself). Ah, there’s a problem. Charlie, full name Charlie Bronson, is in the Witness Protection Program and the people who want to do him harm are in…Los Angeles. Now as a longtime fan of In Plain Sight, I have picked up a thing or two about Witsec. Shepard apparently never watched the show, or just got sloppy. Charlie has managed to keep his car from the old days, which Mary Shannon would have driven off a cliff by the first commercial break. He has told Annie he is in Witsec; Mary would have slapped him upside the head for that. And Annie has told her ex-boyfriend about Charlie in Witsec. OK, as we know from In Plain Sight, the people in the program can behave stupidly, but this seems excessive. On the other hand, the marshal watching out for Charlie is no Mary Shannon. He is Randy, and he cannot seem to do anything right. He’s funny in some scenes, but just over the top in others. The one good laugh in the film comes from how Randy’s sexual orientation is revealed.

So Charlie and Annie go off. Her ex, Gil, sees them driving off in Charlie’s old car, gets the registration, which is in Charlie’s real name, and finds out about Charlie’s case. Did I mention that Shepard is sloppy? Try this: Gil is already Facebook friends with Alex, the head of the gang that’s after Charlie. So car chases ensue. And Shepard and his co-director David Palmer, do not have a clue how to film speeding cars. We get lots of shots of cars driving down the highway, but very little sense of how fast they are going. The chase will stop eventually, and then start up again, stop, start up again. Shepard does not use those non-chase moments for anything interesting, the way Koepp and Kamps do. Shepard’s idea of a changeup is to have Charlie and Anna switch cars.

Koepp and Kamps use Wilee’s occupation in interesting ways. Annie is a specialist in conflict resolution, but never see her use whatever her skills might be. OK, Alex has a gun and just wants the money he thinks Charlie has hidden, but you could have written a couple of very inventive scenes of Annie outhustling him with her skills. Nothing of the sort appears here.

Shepard has gathered so many of his friends for this film that, because the script is so mediocre, the film feels like a home movie. Most of the actors are given free reign; Tom Arnold does a nice job with Randy, and Jason Bateman has a great understated scene as a marshal. Bradley Cooper, trying to break out of leading man parts, is Alex, but the script does not give him anything inventive to do. A wasted opportunity, as is the film.

Paul (2011. Written by Simon Pegg & Nick Frost. 104 minutes)

Paul

This could have gone wrong in so many ways: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have been working together, mostly as actors, for over a decade. Pegg co-wrote and he and Frost starred in both Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), but this is the first time they have collaborated as writers on a feature. I never caught Shaun, but I did see Hot Fuzz. The latter was funny, but awfully sloppy, especially in the writing. So I gave Paul a miss when it was in theaters last year, but caught up with it now via HBO. It is much sharper than Hot Fuzz, and it avoids the pitfalls of the story they set out to tell.

Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) are two British comic book geeks who have finally managed to make a trip to America. Here’s the first hurdle the writers get over: Graeme and Clive are likeable. Give us likeable characters and we will follow you, even to ComicCon. Yes, ComicCon is nowadays a very easy target, but the writers don’t dawdle. And we get a nice scene with the guys and sci-fi author Adam Shadowchild, who is obviously tired of meeting the public. Note his bottle of hand sanitizer. Then Graeme and Clive hit the road, intending to stop at all the standard UFO spots: Area 51, Roswell, etc. And when they get to Area 51, who do they run into in a diner but Pat Stewart, the waitress. That could be not much of a scene, but Pat is played by Jane Lynch, who you want for those three or four minutes. Lynch also shows up at the end and nails a great scene with Kristen Wiig in which you get a whole set of possibilities for their relationship in five or six lines. And next the boys pick up Paul. Paul is an alien, who has just escaped government captivity. He looks like all the images of aliens. He is not, however, a sweetheart like E.T. He is foulmouthed, but that is not all he is. He has learned a lot about American culture in his sixty years of captivity and he has contributed to it as well, as a great little cameo shows. Graeme and Clive, who have seemed similar, have two different reactions to Paul, so we get some character dynamics between them.

They stop at a trailer park and end up picking up Ruth. In a typical Hollywood version of this story, she would be a buxom, dim-witted blonde. She’s not. She is a born-again Christian who does not believe in evolution (check out her T-shirt), at least not until Paul shows her the light. Then she decides she does not have to be a goodie-two-shoes anymore. In the typical Hollywood version we would get a lot of nudity and simulated sex. Not here. We get her trying to learn how to swear. She’s an amateur at it, and listen to the lines Pegg and Frost give her. Yes, I am aware that some of them may have improvised (Kristen Wiig plays Ruth), but the writers obviously laid out the template for the improvisations. As opposed to Hit & Run, the writers here have given their new BFFs a lot of great stuff to say and do.

Needless to say, Paul and the guys are being chased, and the director Greg Mottola is just as good with chases as he is with actors. The senior officer of the case is Agent Zoil, played by Jason Bateman, and he is even better here than in Hit & Run, because he has better material. His underlings are Haggar and O’Reilly. They are klutzes, and most writers would leave them at that, but Pegg and Frost given them their own plot, which complicates everything. Although our guys set out for Roswell, they end up in Wyoming, where Paul first landed. And we meet the little girl who saw him land. She is now an old lady, living alone, because everybody has always made fun of her for claiming to have seen a flying saucer. Blythe Danner is wonderfully sympathetic in the part, and then the guys give her a great pay-off line as they drive away from the farm. So why, other than to see her, are we in Wyoming? Didn’t you see Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)? Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

5 Fingers (1952. Screenplay by Michael Wilson and, uncredited, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on the book Operation Cicero by L.C. Moyzisch. 108 minutes)

5 Fingers

Epistemological thrillers: I watched this one again several months ago and have been meaning to write about it ever since. As I was writing this column in the dog days of summer film releases and before the fall TV season started, it seemed the time to do this one and the one that follows. I had another movie on DVD from Netflix that I was going to watch. I had made lunch, along with a big bowl of popcorn. But the DVD was flawed and would not play. I am not about to waste a good bowl of popcorn, so I went through my collection and pulled out my VHS copy of 5 Fingers. (There is a DVD out, but it is a Korean one and sort of a mess, at least according to those who bought it on Amazon). The film is one of the greatest spy movies of all time.

L.C. Moyzisch was an attaché at the German embassy in Anakara, Turkey, during World War II. He was approached by a man offering to sell him photos of classified English documents. Moyzisch, with the approval of his superiors, made the deal, giving the spy the code name Cicero. Cicero delivered. And delivered. And finally delivered documents that outlined the plans for Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. And the Germans did not believe any of it. Well, some of them did, and some of them didn’t, and nobody took action on the information. This may well have been because the British Double Cross system, which ran all the German spies in England and some elsewhere, had been feeding the Germans misinformation, letting them know the invasion was going to be at Calais. There is, by the way, a great new book by Ben MacIntyre called Double Cross, about five of the major double agents the Brits used. In any case, the Germans did not believe Cicero’s information. Moyzisch wrote his book about it in the later ‘40s, and 20th Century-Fox picked it up.

The screenplay, a fictionalized documentary version, was written by Michael Wilson before he was blacklisted. His structure and scenes are terrific. His Cicero is named Diello. The name of the real Cicero was Elyesa Bazna, and you can read the Wikipedia entry for him here. Wilson makes Diello a former valet to the Count Stavski, and now friend and lover to his widow, the Countess Stavski. There was no such character in real life, but it gives the film a smart romantic element. As in real life, Diello was the valet to the British ambassador, who made the mistake of bringing classified material up to his private quarters. He kept it in a safe, which Cicero easily broke into to photograph the documents. A new alarm system was finally Cicero’s undoing, but he escaped the British and the Germans, who wanted to kill him as well. In the film he ends up in Rio, but the Countess has earlier skipped town in Turkey and gone to Switzerland. Diello is alone with his money.

Darryl Zanuck was trying to keep Joseph L. Makiewicz on the Fox lot. Mankiewicz had recently won Oscars for both writing and directing for A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950) and was anxious to get out from under Zanuck’s thumb. Mankiewicz loved the story and agreed to direct the film. He also agreed to do an uncredited rewrite. Several things I have always assumed were Mankiewicz contributions turn out to be in Wilson’s script. The Countess, whom Mankiewicz renamed Staviska to make her more feminine, seems like a typical Mankiewicz woman, which may be why he was attracted to the story, but she is a creation of Wilson. Mankiewicz certainly redid the dialogue. Wilson claimed Mankiewicz did not change that much, but Mankiewicz’s biographer Kenneth Geist (his book is Pictures Will Talk and most of the information about the film is from it) compared the screenplays and found more Mankiewicz than Wilson in the dialogue. Geist quotes the Wilson and Mankiewicz versions of one scene and you can see the difference. The dialogue is so good that during a screening several years ago at the Los Angeles International Film Exposition (FILMEX), there was a spontaneous round of applause after one great dialogue scene. You just did not hear that kind of great dialogue in films in the 1980s.

Wilson and Mankiewicz give us a great final scene, which I for many years assumed was probably fictional. The Countess, who has been keeping Diello’s money, escapes with it to Switzerland. Diello makes one last score (the Overlord documents) and goes to Rio. He is living the life of luxury when his banker shows up to tell him the British bank notes with which he opened his account are all forgeries. The forgeries have also turned up, he says, in Switzerland. Diello tosses his money in the air and laughs.

In the early 1980s we were visiting friends in Lancaster, England, and they suggested we watch a rerun of a miniseries they had loved. It was called Private Schulz (1981), in which the main character, a German forger, is ordered to make…British currency. I don’t remember if I literally slapped my forehead, but I knew that was the money they gave to Diello and the Countess. Since the Germans did not believe his material, why should they pay him real money? There was also a 2007 German film on the subject called The Counterfeiters.

Why didn’t the Germans believe him? As I mentioned, the British Double Cross system had them convinced the invasion was going to be at Calais. Secondly, as MacIntrye in his book and Christopher Andrew in his history of MI5, Defend the Realm, make clear, the Germans were incredibly thick-headed and easy to deceive. But beyond that, the Cicero story raises the basic epistemological questions about all intelligence work. And historical research for that matter, especially film history. How do we know what we know? How do we evaluate the information we get? What is the source? How can we know if the source is playing us, either deliberately or not? Most of those questions get raised by the characters in 5 Fingers.

At the end of 5 Fingers, the Countess sends notes to both the British and German ambassadors saying Cicero is working for the other side. He may well have been. John Masterman, one of the men who ran the Double Cross system, later claimed that Cicero was a double agent working for the British. I find this doubtful, since the whole Double Cross system was devoted to giving the Germans the wrong information and Cicero was giving them the real stuff. Masterman may have been covering up a rumor that Mankiewicz discovered during his location shooting in Turkey: that Bazna was the gay lover of the British ambassador. Needless to say, the 1952 film does not even suggest that, although James Mason is a lot better looking that Bazna was.

Bazna never left Turkey since the Brits and the Germans were not out to kill him. He later wrote an autobiography…but why should we believe any of it? Watch the movie instead. Wilson and Mankiewicz are great tellers of tales in their own right.

The Password is Courage (1962. Screenplay by Andrew Stone, based on the book by John Castle. 116 minutes)

The Password is Courage

Speaking of epistemological problems: This is the other one I saw a few months back. It’s the story of Charles Coward, who had a knack for escaping from German prisoner of war camps. The book the film is based on spends more time on his more famous adventures than the film does. Coward claimed to have broken into Auschwitz and rescued hundreds of Jews. Many of those claims have since been called into question, since Coward was very imprecise about the names of those he saved. The film is a more lighthearted look at his time at Stalag Luft III. Hmm, that place sounds familiar. It was the prison camp in The Wooden Horse (1950, which I reviewed in US #75 ), as well as the one in The Great Escape (1963, which I mentioned slightly in US#78). So what we have here is a film going over territory that by now we pretty much know. Since this version is mostly Coward’s version, it appears from the film that he was Big X, and the Scrounger, and…well, nearly everybody. Which we would find mildly amusing, except that the scenes that Stone writes, presumably from the book, are not a patch on the ones the various writers on The Great Escape developed. I wrote in US#78 about how much I liked the tailor scene in Escape, since the tailor behaving like a real tailor gave it texture. Here the equivalent scene is flat and literal. And so it goes in the rest of the script.

The script does give Stone, who also directed, a chance to do some action scenes of the kind he loved. He liked the physicality of the real thing. In his 1960 film The Last Voyage, he actually shot on board a sinking luxury liner. He here he stages a nice, full-sized, no-model-work train wreck. Andrew Sarris, writing about Stone in The American Cinema, says, “If they [his wife was his editor] want to blow up a train, they blow up a real train.” Then Sarris has “One sobering conclusion: If the Stones had made On the Beach [1959, about the end of the world], none of us would have been around to review it.”

The Closer/Major Crimes (2012. Various episodes. 60 minutes)

The Closer

Going and coming: After seven seasons, Brenda Leigh Johnson is leaving Major Crimes and going to work in administration for the District Attorney, thus bringing The Closer to an end. Brenda Leigh was a great character. She was a tough Southern woman put into the macho Los Angeles Police Department. She loved Twinkies, always said “Thank Ye-e-e-w,” and was ruthless in the Box. She was as good as Frank Pembleton in Homicide: Life on the Street at sweating people into confessing. She was often on the outs with her boss and former lover, Chief Pope, but not in the usual rouge-cop-versus-by-the-book-boss way. She was a character with a lot of nuance along with her hard-driving personality. And she had a great supporting cast of characters. I have written before on several occasions about how the writers use the reactions of the members of her squad for both drama and comedy. Her mom and dad showed up, but they were not given as much time as Mary’s family in In Plain Sight, thank goodness. Fritz, Brenda Leigh’s boyfriend/husband, was a little too good to be true, but that was only a minor flaw.

Why was Brenda Leigh leaving? Because Kyra Sedgwick, the actress playing her, wanted to leave the show. Brenda Leigh was a very intense character, and I can see why Sedgwick might want to give her up after seven years. Actors very often get tired doing the same character over and over again, either in television, movies (Sean Connery giving up Bond), or the theater. Actress Irene Tsu, the former student of mine I have written about before, once told me she hated to do theater because she didn’t like doing the same thing over and over again. So Sedgwick left the best role she ever had to do…The Possession (2012). Actors.

Rather than close down the show completely, the powers that be decided to continue it. In 2009 the show brought on Captain Sharon Raydor as kind of a watchdog over Brenda Leigh. Raydor plays her cards very close to her vest, so we never quite knew if she was supporting Brenda Leigh, or about to rat her out to her bosses or opposing attorneys. On The Closer we learned very little about her, and that added tension to the show. The powers that be have now spun off a new show from The Closer called Major Crimes, in which Raydor replaces Brenda Leigh as the head of the Major Crimes unit. Chief Pope has gone on to become Chief of Police, and Sgt. Gabriel has gone off with Brenda Leigh. The rest of the squad remains. So far it has been a bumpy start.

Because Raydor has never been as open about her emotions as Brenda Leigh was, there are not the kind of great scenes you had with her predecessor. We have learned that she was married, is now separated from her husband, and has grownup kids. That does not really help us much in the stories the writers are telling. In her first episodes, she is taking care of a teenage male hustler named Randy, a witness in a murder investigation, but the scenes with him are not very interesting. Raydor does not have a specific talent the way Brenda Leigh did. She and the Deputy District Attorney want to make deals with the criminals to save the money of trials, but discussing a plea bargain is just not as compelling as an interrogation. There is some friction between her and the squad, especially Provenza, who objects to the plea-bargaining, but it’s minor. You have a good supporting cast of characters, but Raydor has not really been re-conceived as a star part. In The Closer, the cast was supporting and not just an ensemble. It remains to be seen whether the writers can get the balance right.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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Film

Love Before the Virus: Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s Newly Restored Passing Strangers

The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love.

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Passing Strangers
Photo: PinkLabel

One of the many pleasures to be had in watching Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s newly restored Passing Strangers derives from its status as a historical document, or a piece of queer ethnography. The 1974 film allows us to see but also feel what life was like for gay men during what some have called the golden age of unbridled sex before the AIDS epidemic. Bressan Jr.’s portrait of this history is simultaneously attuned to its sartorial, mediatic, erotic, and affective dimensions, which may come as a surprise to those unaccustomed to explicit sexual imagery being paired with social commentary. Pornography and poetry aren’t counterparts here. Rather, they’re bedfellows, one the logical continuation of the other. Money shots, for instance, aren’t accompanied by moaning or groaning, but by the sounds of a violin.

The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love. They devote so much of their lives to picking up strangers for sex, briefly and by the dozens, but not without secretly wishing that one of them might eventually stay. In this they may not differ much from their contemporary cruising heirs, though they do in their approach. It turns out that asking for a pen pal’s photo before a meetup in 1974 was considered creepy, and using Walt Whitman’s poetry as part of a sex ad was quite fruitful.

That’s exactly what 28-year-old Tom (Robert Carnagey), a bath-house habitué and telephone company worker living in San Francisco, does in the hopes of attracting something long term. The literal poetics of cruising speaks to 18-year-old Robert (Robert Adams), who responds to Tom’s newspaper ad right way. They meet in person and begin a love affair that could only be described as bucolic, including making love in fields of grass, on top of a picnic blanket, to the sound of waves and piano notes, and riding their bikes around town, much like the sero-discordant love birds of Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo do after partaking in a gangbang. In retrospect, promiscuity gains the tinge of an obsessive auditioning of “the one,” who, in Bressan Jr.’s sensual fairy tale, is bound to come along and save us from ourselves.

Passing Strangers, which originally screened at adult cinemas and gay film festivals, recalls Francis Savel’s 1980 porno Equation to an Unknown in how smut and romance are so intimately bound in the forms of queer intimacy that the film depicts. This may also be due to the dearth of gay cinematic representation at the time—of gay men perhaps needing to dream of prince charming and of bareback anal sex in the same movie session, satisfying the itch for love and for filth in one fell swoop. But while Equation to an Unknown is completely wrapped up in a fantasy glow, there’s something more realistic, or pragmatic, about Passing Strangers.

Tom’s voiceover narration, which takes the shape of disaffected epistolary exchanges with his newfound beloved, orients us through the action. Motivations are explained. At times, however, Bressan Jr. indulges in experimental detours. These are precisely the most beautiful, and atemporal, sequences in the film—scenes where sex is juxtaposed with the sound of a construction site or the buzzing of a pesky mosquito, or one where an audience of orgy participants give a round of applause after somebody ejaculates. And the film’s surrendering to moments of inexplicable poesis reaches its apex in a shot of a boy in clown makeup holding his mouth agape. It’s an exquisitely brief shot, indelible in its strangeness.

Newly restored from the original negative in a 2K scan, Passing Strangers is now available to stream on PinkLabel as part of The Bressan Project.

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Review: Tom Hanks Stubbornly Steers Greyhound into Sentimental Waters

With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play.

1.5

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Greyhound
Photo: Apple TV+

With his almost supernatural likeability, impeccable reputation, and penchant for appearing in films rooted in American history, Tom Hanks has become a national father figure. The actor’s ongoing project, particularly urgent as we seek to redefine our relationship with our history and iconography, is to remind us of when the United States actually rose to the occasion. Unsurprisingly, this project often centers on World War II, one of the least controversial pinnacles of American collaboration on the world stage.

Continuing this tradition, Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound concerns the efforts to provide Britain with troops and supplies via Allied naval convoys on the Atlantic, which German U-boat “wolf packs” stalk and sink, attempting to break a Western blockade. Adapted by Hanks from C.S. Forester’s novel The Good Shephard, the film is a celebration of duty and competency that’s so quaint it’s almost abstract, as it arrives at a time of chaos, selfish and blinkered American governing, and a growing bad faith in our notion of our own legacy.

Set over a few days in 1942, the film dramatizes a fictionalized skirmish in the real-life, years-long Battle of the Atlantic. The American destroyer Greyhound, leader of a convoy that includes Canadian and British vessels, is commanded by Ernest Krause (Hanks), an aging naval officer with no experience in battle. Text at the start of the film explains that there’s a portion of the Atlantic that’s out of the range of air protection, called the Black Pit, in which convoys are especially vulnerable to the wolf packs. For 50 hours, Krause and his crew will be tested and severely endangered as they seek to cross this treacherous stretch of the sea.

This skeletal scenario has potential as a visceral thriller and as a celebration of Allied ingenuity and daring. Unfortunately, Hanks’s script never adds any meat to the skeleton. One can see Hanks’s passion for history in the loving details—in the references to depth charge supply, to windshield wipers freezing up, to the specific spatial relationships that are established (more through text than choreography) via the various vessels in this convoy. What Hanks loses is any sense of human dimension. In The Good Shephard, Krause is frazzled and insecure about leading men who’re all more experienced in battle than himself. By contrast, Krause’s inexperience is only mentioned in Greyhound as a testament to his remarkable, readymade leadership. The film’s version of Krause is stolid, undeterred, unshakably decent ol’ Tom Hanks, national sweetheart. As such, Greyhound suffers from the retrospective sense of inevitability that often mars simplified WWII films.

Greyhound’s version of Krause lacks the tormented grace of Hanks’s remarkable performance in Clint Eastwood’s Sully. This Krause also lacks the palpable bitterness of Hanks’s character in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, as well as the slyness that the actor brought to both Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can and Bridge of Spies. In Greyhound, Hanks falls prey to the sentimentality for which his detractors have often unfairly maligned him, fetishizing Krause’s selflessness in a manner that scans as ironically vain. As a screenwriter, Hanks throws in several writerly “bits” to show how wonderful Krause is, such as his ongoing refusal to eat during the Greyhound’s war with U-boats. (A three-day battle on an empty stomach seems like a bad idea.) Meanwhile, the crew is reduced to anonymous faces who are tasked with spouting jargon, and they are, of course, unquestionably worshipful of their commander, as are the voices that are heard from the other vessels in the convoy.

Schneider lends this pabulum a few eerie visual touches, as in the slinky speed of the German torpedoes as they barely miss the Greyhound, but the film is largely devoid of poetry. The stand-offs between the vessels are competently staged, but after a while you may suspect that if you’ve seen one torpedo or depth charge detonation you’ve seen them all. With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play. In short, Greyhound takes a fascinating bit of WWII history and turns it into a blockbuster version of bathtub war.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Karl Glusman, Stephen Graham, Elisabeth Shue, Tom Brittney, Devin Druid, Rob Morgan, Lee Norris, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Maximilian Osinski, Matthew Zuk, Michael Benz Director: Aaron Schneider Screenwriter: Tom Hanks Distributor: Apple TV+ Running Time: 91 min Rating: 2020 Year: PG-13

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Review: The Beach House’s Moodiness Is Dissipated by Shaky Characterization

The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action.

2

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The Beach House
Photo: Shudder

Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, in which a satellite crashes to Earth with an alien virus on board, is an expression of Space Age anxieties, about how the zeal to reach the stars could have unintended and dangerous consequences. In Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House, something lethal instead rises from the depths of the ocean, a kind of “alien” invasion coming up from below rather than down from the cosmos, better reflecting the environmental anxieties of our present day. It still feels like comeuppance for human hubris, but this time in the form of intraterrestrial, not extraterrestrial, revenge.

The potentially extinction-level event is played on a chamber scale as domestic drama. Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) are college sweethearts who go to his family’s beach house during the off-season, in a seemingly abandoned town, to work on their personal problems. They’re unexpectedly joined there by Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), old friends of Randall’s father, and the four agree to have dinner together. It’s then that Emily, an aspiring astrobiologist, conveniently provides some context for what’s about to happen, as she makes reverential conversation at the table about the mysterious depths of the sea and the sometimes extreme conditions in which new life can be created and thrive.

That night, while tripping balls on edibles, the couples look out and marvel at the sparkling, purple-tinged landscape outside their beach house. (The smell is less gloriously described as being like that of sewage and rotten eggs.) It’s not a hallucination, though, because whatever ocean-formed particulate is turning the night sky into a psychedelic dreamscape and the air cloudy is also making the characters sick. There’s some interesting and serendipitous overlap between the film’s central horror and our present Covid-19 crisis, as the malady seems to be airborne, affecting the lungs and making the characters cough. It also affects older people more quickly than the young, with the milder symptoms including exhaustion.

Brown emphasizes the oddness of nature with an eye for detail focused in close-up on, say, the eerie gooeyness of oysters, and by vivifying the film’s settings with bold colors: On the second night, the air glows mustard and red, recalling recent California wildfires. The ubiquitous haze also evokes John Carpenter’s The Fog and Frank Darabont’s The Mist, but other genre influences are also on display, from Cronenbergian body horror, as in the gory removal of a skin-burrowing worm, to zombie flicks, given the slowness of the hideously infected victims.

There’s not a lot of exposition about the illness, as Brown’s screenplay is primarily focused on Randall and Emily’s fight to survive the mysterious onslaught. But you probably won’t care if they do. The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action. The Beach House had convincingly argued that these two people shouldn’t be together, that their relationship has long passed its prime. He mocks her plans for advanced study and calls her life goals bullshit, even though he has none himself; he suggests that they move into the beach house, to live in a state of permanent vacation, while he tries to figure out what life means. When she’s high and getting sick and asking him for help, he dismisses her, lest it harsh his mellow. But instead of engineering his downfall, Midsommar-style, Emily does everything she can in the last third to help save him. It feels sudden, unearned, and unconvincing—enough to make you root for the monsters from the ocean floor.

Cast: Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Maryann Nagel, Jake Weber Director: Jeffrey A. Brown Screenwriter: Jeffrey A. Brown Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Old Guard Is a Would-Be Franchise Starter with No New Moves

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action, the film is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts.

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The Old Guard
Photo: Netfflix

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard is a modestly successful attempt to build a new fountain of franchise content out of a comic series with nearly limitless potential for spin-offs. The story kicks into motion with a team of four mercenaries with unique powers and an ancient bond setting off to rescue some kidnapped girls in South Sudan. Charlize Theron brings her customarily steely intensity to the role of the group’s cynical, burnt-out leader, Andy, who isn’t crazy about the idea since she doesn’t trust Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the ex-C.I.A. agent who hired them. Given how long it turns out that Andy has been doing this sort of thing, you would imagine that her comrades would listen.

The mission turns out to be a set-up, and the would-be rescuers are wiped out in a barrage of bullets. Except not, because Andy and her team are pretty much unkillable. So as their enemies are slapping each other on the back and conveniently looking the other way, the mercenaries haul themselves to their feet, bodies healing almost instantaneously, bullets popping out of closing wounds. Payback is swift but interesting, because for reasons likely having to do with their being many centuries old—the youngest, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), fought for Napoleon—the four quasi-immortals like to use swords in addition to automatic weaponry.

Written with glints of pulpy panache by Greg Rucka, the comic’s originator, The Old Guard sets up a high-potential premise and proceeds to do not very much with it. Rucka’s conceit is that this tiny group are among the very few people on Earth to have been born essentially immortal. This can be a good thing, but it can also prove problematic, as it means that they watch everybody they know age and die—a trope that was already somewhat worn by the time Anne Rice used it throughout her novels about ever-suffering vampires.

The plot of the film does relatively little after the showdown in South Sudan besides introduce a new member of the mercenary team, Nile (KiKi Layne), establish that Andy is tiring of the wandering warrior life, and show the group plotting revenge on Copley only to have that turn into a rescue mission that conveniently brings them all back together again. As part of the run-up to that mission, new recruit Nile, a Marine who goes AWOL from Afghanistan with Andy after her fellow soldiers see her seemingly fatal knife wound magically heal and treat her as some kind of witch, is introduced to life as a nearly invincible eternal warrior.

That rescue plot is simple to the point of being rote. Billionaire Big Pharma bro Merrick (Harry Melling), seemingly made up of equal parts Lex Luthor and Martin Shkreli, kidnaps two of Andy’s team in the hope of harvesting their DNA for blockbuster anti-aging drugs. Unfortunately for the film, that takes two of its most personable characters temporarily out of action. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) had their meet-cute while fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades and have been wildly in love ever since. After the two are captured and mocked by Merrick’s homophobic gunsels, Joe delivers a pocket soliloquy on his poetic yearning: “His kiss still thrills me after a millennium.” The moment’s romantic burn is more poignant by being clipped to its bare-minimal length and presented with the casual confidence one would expect from a man old enough to remember Pope Urban II.

In other ways, however, The Old Guard fails to explore the effects of living such lengthy lives. Asked by Nile whether they are “good guys or bad guys,” Booker answers that “it depends on the century.” While Rucka’s hard-boiled lines like that can help energize the narrative, it can also suggest a certain flippancy. When the film does deal with crushing weight of historical memory, it focuses primarily on Andy, who’s been around so long that her name is shortened from Andromache the Scythian (suggesting she was once the Amazon warrior queen who fought in the battle of Troy). Except for a brief flashback illustrating the centuries-long escapades of Andy and Quynh (Veronica Ngo) fighting for vaguely defined positive principles (one involved rescuing women accused of witchcraft), we don’t see much of their past. Similarly, except for Andy’s increasing cynicism about the positive impact of their roaming the Earth like do-gooder ronin, they seem to exist largely in the present.

That present is largely taken up with combat, particularly as Booker, Andy, and Nile gear up to rescue Nicky and Joe. Prince-Bythewood handles these scenes with a degree of John Wick-esque flair: Why just shoot a Big Pharma hired gun once when you can shoot him, flip him over, and then stab and shoot him again for good measure? However tight, though, the action scenes’ staging is unremarkable, with the exception of one climactic moment that’s so well-choreographed from an emotional standpoint that the impossibility of a multiplex crowd hooting and clapping in response makes the film feel stifled by being limited to streaming.

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts. That will likely not stop further iterations from finding ways to plug these characters and their like into any historical moment that has room in it for high-minded mercenaries with marketable skills and a few centuries to kill.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling, Veronica Ngo Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood Screenwriter: Greg Rucka Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: We Are Little Zombies Is a Fun, Wildly Stylized Portrait of Grief

The film is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries.

3

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We Are Little Zombies
Photo: Oscilloscope

Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies follows the exploits of a group of tweens who meet at the funeral home where their deceased parents are being cremated. But, surprisingly, Hitari (Keita Ninomiya), Takemura (Mondo Okumura), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), and Ikiko (Satoshi Mizuno) are united less by sorrow and more by cool indifference, as they see their parents’ deaths as yet another tragedy in what they collectively agree is pretty much a “shit life.” As the socially awkward Hitari claims matter-of-factly in voiceover, “Babies cry to signal they need help. Since no one can help me, there’s no point in crying.”

Through a series of extended flashbacks, Nagahisa relates the kids’ troubled lives, never stooping to pitying or sentimentalizing them or their utter dismay with the adult world. The new friends’ deeply internalized grief and hopelessness are filtered wildly through a hyperreal aesthetic lens that’s indebted to all things pop, from psychedelia to role-playing games. It’s Nagashisa’s vibrant means of expressing the disconnect between the kids’ troubled lives and their emotionless reactions to the various tragedies that have befallen them.

With its chiptunes-laden soundtrack and chapter-like form, which mimics the levels of a video game, We Are Little Zombies will draw understandable comparisons to Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But it’s Nagisa Oshima’s Three Resurrected Drunkards that offers a more precise analogue to this film’s provocative rhyming of stylistic zaniness and extreme youthful alienation. Oshima’s anarchically playful farce stars the real-life members of the Folk Crusaders as a disaffected group of rebellious musicians, and when the kids of We Are Little Zombies decide to form a band to express themselves, they even perform a bossa nova version of the Folk Crusaders’s theme song for the 1968 film. This and the many other cultural touchstones in We Are Little Zombies are seamlessly weaved by Nagahisa into a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries, be they social media or a dizzying glut of pop-cultural creations.

Nagahisa’s aesthetic mirrors his main characters’ disconnect from reality, incorporating everything from stop-motion animation to pixelated scenes and overhead shots that replicate the stylings of 8-bit RPGs. At one point in We Are Little Zombies, an unsettling talk show appearance brings to mind what it would be like to have a bad acid trip on the set of an old MTV news program. Nagahisa accepts that the kids’ over-engagement with screen-based technology is inextricably embedded in their experience of reality and ultimately celebrates the sense of camaraderie and belonging that the foursome finds in pop artifacts and detritus. This is particularly evident once their band, the Little Zombies of the film’s title, starts to explore their antipathy toward and frustrations with a seemingly indifferent world.

The Little Zombies wield the same charming punk spirit as the film, and once instant fame reveals its viciously sharp teeth, Nagahisa doesn’t hold back from peering into the nihilistic abyss that stands before the kids. As in Three Resurrected Drunkards, We Are Little Zombies’s most despairing notes are couched in the distinctive language of pop culture. Hitari’s attempts to grab essential items before running away from the home of a relative (Eriko Hatsune) are staged as a video game mission. The band’s hit song—titled, of course, “We Are Little Zombies”—is an infectious, delightfully melodic banger all about their dispassionate existence. There’s even a fake death scene of the kids that, as in Three Resurrected Drunkards, effectively restarts the film’s narrative, allowing the characters to once again test their fate.

For all of this film’s reliance on the stylistic ticks of video games, its narrative arc isn’t limited to the typically linear journey embarked upon by many a gaming protagonist, and the foursome’s path leads neither to enlightenment nor even happiness per se. What they’ve discovered in the months since their parents’ deaths is a solidarity with one another, and rather than have them conquer their fears and anxieties, Nagahisa wisely acknowledges that their social disconnection will remain an ongoing struggle. He understands that by tapping into the unifying, rather than alienating, powers of pop culture, they’re better equipped to deal with whatever additional hard knocks that the modern world will inevitably throw their way.

Cast: Keita Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, Sena Nakajima, Kuranosukie Sasaki, Youki Kudoh, Sosuke Ikematsu, Eriko Hatsune, Jun Murakami, Naomi Nishida Director: Makoto Nagahisa Screenwriter: Makoto Nagahisa Distributor: Oscilloscope Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Palm Springs Puts a Fresh Spin on the Time-Loop Rom-Com

The film smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle.

3

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Palm Springs
Photo: Hulu

The pitch for Palm Springs likely went: “Edge of Tomorrow meets Groundhog Day but with a cool Coachella rom-com vibe.” All of those components are present and accounted for in Max Barbakow’s film, about two people forced to endure the same day of a Palm Springs wedding over and over again after getting stuck in a time loop. But even though the concept might feel secondhand, the execution is confident, funny, and thoughtful.

Palm Springs starts without much of a hook, sidling into its story with the same lassitude as its protagonist, Nyles (Andy Samberg). First seen having desultory sex with his shallow and always peeved girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner), Nyles spends the rest of the film’s opening stretch wandering around the resort where guests are gathered for the wedding of Misty’s friend, Tala (Camila Mendes), lazing around the pool and drinking a seemingly endless number of beers. “Oh yeah, Misty’s boyfriend” is how most refer to him with casual annoyance, and then he gives a winning wedding speech that one doesn’t expect from a plus-one.

The reason for why everything at the wedding seems so familiar to Nyles, and why that speech is so perfectly delivered, becomes clear after he entices the bride’s sister and maid of honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), to follow him out to the desert for a make-out session. In quick succession, Nyles is shot with an arrow by a mysterious figure (J.K. Simmons), Sarah is accidentally sucked into the same glowing vortex that trapped Nyles in his time loop, and she wakes up on the morning of the not-so-great day that she just lived through.

Although Palm Springs eventually digs into the knottier philosophical quandaries of this highly elaborate meet-cute, it takes an appealingly blasé approach to providing answers to the scenario’s curiosities. What initially led Nyles to the mysterious glowing cave in the desert? How has he maintained any semblance of sanity over what appears to be many years of this nightmare existence? How come certain people say “thank you” in Arabic?

This attitude of floating along the sea of life’s mysteries without worry parallels Nyles’s shrugging attitude about the abyss facing them. In response to Sarah’s panicked queries about why they are living the same day on repeat, Nyles throws out a random collection of theories: “one of those infinite time loop situations….purgatory….a glitch in the simulation we’re all in.” His ideas seem half-baked at first. But as time passes, it becomes clear that Nyles has been trapped at the wedding so long that not only has he lost all concept of time or even who he was before it began, his lackadaisical approach to eternity seems more like wisdom.

Darkly cantankerous, Sarah takes a while to come around to that way of thinking. Her version of the Kübler-Ross model starts in anger and shifts to denial (testing the limits of their time-loop trap, she drives home to Texas, only to snap back to morning in Palm Springs when she finally dozes off) before pivoting to acceptance. This segment, where Nyles introduces Sarah to all the people and things he’s found in the nooks and crannies of the world he’s been able to explore in one waking day, plays like a quantum physics rom-com with a video-game-y sense of immortality. After learning the ropes from Nyles (death is no escape, so try to avoid the slow, agonizing deaths), Sarah happily takes part in his Sisyphean games of the drunk and unkillable, ranging from breaking into houses to stealing and crashing a plane.

As places to be trapped for all eternity, this idyll doesn’t seem half bad at first. Barbakow’s fast-paced take on the pleasingly daffy material helps, as does the balancing of Milioti’s angry agita with Samberg’s who-cares recklessness. Eventually the story moves out of endlessly looping stasis into the problem-solution phase, with Sarah deciding she can’t waste away in Palm Springs for eternity. But while the question of whether or not they can escape via Sarah’s device for bridging the multiverse takes over the narrative to some degree, Palm Springs is far more interesting when it ruminates lightly on which puzzle they’re better off solving: pinning their hopes on escape or cracking another beer and figuring out how to be happy in purgatory. Palm Springs isn’t daring by any stretch, but it smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle that’s similar to Groundhog Day but without that film’s reassuring belief that a day can be lived perfectly rather than simply endured.

Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Millioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendez, Tyler Hoechlin, Chris Pang Director: Max Barbakow Screenwriter: Andy Siara Distributor: Neon, Hulu Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Hamilton Comes Home, Still Holding Conflicting Truths at Once

The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage.

3.5

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Hamilton
Photo: Disney+

The actual physical production of Hamilton has never been at the heart of the show’s fandom. Its lyrics have been memorized en masse, Hamilton-inspired history courses have been created across grade levels, and its references have invaded the vernacular, but, for most, Hamilton’s liveness has been inaccessible, whether due to geography or unaffordability. Hamilton the film, recorded over two Broadway performances in 2016 with most of the original Broadway cast, winningly celebrates the still-surprisingly rich density of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score and the show’s much-heralded actors. But this new iteration is most stunning in its devotion to translating Hamilton’s swirling, churning storytelling—the work of director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler—to the screen.

Most films of live theater feel partial and remote. There’s usually a sense that with every move of the camera we’re missing out on something happening elsewhere on stage. The autonomy of attending theater in person—the ability to choose what to focus on—is stripped away. But instead of delimiting what we see of Hamilton, this film opens up our options. Even when the camera (one of many installed around, behind, and above the stage) homes in on a lone singer, the shots tend to frame the soloists in a larger context: We can watch Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), but we can also track the characters behind him or on the walkways above him. Every shot is rife with detail and movement: the rowers escorting Alexander Hamilton’s (Miranda) body to shore, Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones) hovering beneath a stairway as Hamilton confesses his infidelities to Burr, ensemble members dancing in the shadows of David Korins’s imposing set. There’s no space to wonder what might be happening beyond the camera’s gaze.

Off-setting the cast album’s appropriate spotlight on the show’s stars, the film, also directed by Kail, constantly centers the ensemble, even when they’re not singing, as they enact battles and balls or symbolically fly letters back and forth between Hamilton and Burr. Audiences who mainly know the show’s music may be surprised by how often the entire cast is on stage, and even those who’ve seen Hamilton live on stage will be delighted by the highlighted, quirky individuality of each ensemble member’s often-silent storytelling.

Kail shows impressive restraint, withholding aerial views and shots from aboard the spinning turntables at the center of the stage until they can be most potent. The film also convincingly offers Hamilton’s design as a stunning work of visual art, showcasing Howell Binkley’s lighting—the sharp yellows as the Schuyler Sisters take the town and the slowly warming blues as Hamilton seeks his wife’s forgiveness—just as thoughtfully as it does the performances.

And when the cameras do go in for a close-up, they shade lyrics we may know by heart with new meaning. In “Wait for It,” Burr’s paean to practicing patience rather than impulsiveness, Odom (who won a Tony for the role) clenches his eyes shut as he sings, “I am inimitable, I am an original,” tensing as if battling to convince himself that his passivity is a sign of strength and not cowardice. When Eliza Hamilton (Philippa Soo) glances upward and away from her ever-ascendant husband as she asks him, “If I could grant you peace of mind, would that be enough?,” it’s suddenly crystal clear that she’s wondering whether taking care of Alexander would be enough for herself, not for him, her searching eyes foreshadowing her eventual self-reliance. And there’s an icky intimacy unachievable in person when Jonathan Groff’s mad King George literally foams at the mouth in response to the ingratitude of his colonies.

The production’s less understated performances, like Daveed Diggs’s show-stealing turn (also Tony-winning) in the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and Renée Elise Goldsberry’s fiery embodiment (yes, also Tony-winning) of the shrewd, self-sacrificing Angelica Schuyler Church, benefit, too, from the way that the film’s pacing latches onto Miranda’s propulsive writing. In Jefferson’s return home, “What’d I Miss,” the camera angles change swiftly as if to keep up with Diggs’s buoyancy.

Despite Christopher Jackson’s warm and gorgeous-voiced performance, George Washington remains Hamilton’s central sticking point. While Jefferson receives a dressing down from Hamilton for practicing slavery, Washington, who once enslaved over 200 people at one time at Mount Vernon, shows up in Hamilton as a spotless hero who might as well be king if he wasn’t so noble as to step down. There’s a tricky tension at Hamilton’s core: Casting performers of color as white founding “heroes” allows the master narrative to be reclaimed, but it’s still a master narrative. For audiences familiar with the facts, the casting of black actors as slave owners (not just Jefferson) is an unstated, powerful act of artistic resistance against the truths of the nation’s founding. But for those learning their history from Hamilton, especially young audiences, they will still believe in Washington’s moral purity, even if they walk away picturing the first president as Christopher Jackson.

But Hamilton is complex and monumental enough of a work to hold conflicting truths at once. In attempting to recraft our understanding of America’s founding, it may fall short. In forcibly transforming the expectations for who can tell what stories on which stages, Hamilton has been a game-changer. And as a feat of musical theater high-wire acts, Miranda’s dexterity in navigating decades of historical detail while weaving his characters’ personal and political paths tightly together is matched only by his own ingenuity as a composer and lyricist of songs that showcase his characters’ brilliance without distractingly drawing attention to his own.

Dynamized by its narrative-reclaiming, race-conscious casting and hip-hop score, and built around timeline-bending reminders that America may be perpetually in the “battle for our nation’s very soul,” Hamilton, of course, also lends itself particularly easily to 2020 connections. But the greater gift is that Hamilton will swivel from untouchability as Broadway’s most elusive, priciest ticket to mass accessibility at a moment of keen awareness that, to paraphrase George Washington, history has its eyes on us. The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage. That we are sharing Hamilton here and now offers as much hope as Hamilton itself.

Cast: Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Phillipa Soo Director: Thomas Kail Screenwriter: Ron Chernow, Lin-Manuel Miranda Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 160 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: In Family Romance, LLC, Reality and Fantasy Affectingly Collide

Throughout, it’s as though Werner Herzog were more witness than author, simply registering Japan being Japan.

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Family Romance, LLC
Photo: MUBI

Werner Herzog’s Family Romance, LLC presents Japan as a place where the technological follies of modernity that many see as embryonic in the West are allowed to blossom unabashedly. The Orientalism inherent to this myth, that of Japan as a high-tech dystopia where human alienation reaches its pathetic zenith, is somewhat masked here by the film’s style, which inhabits that strangely pleasurable cusp between fact and fiction. We are never quite sure of the extent to which situations and dialogues have been scripted and, as such, it’s as though Herzog were more witness than author, more passerby than gawker, simply registering Japan being Japan.

The film is centered around Ishii Yuichi, playing a version of himself, who owns a business that rents out human beings to act like paparazzi, family members, lovers, or bearers of good (albeit fake) news. One of his clients, for example, is a woman who wants to relive the moment when she won the lottery. We follow Ishii as he travels to his business calls, which may consist of going to a funeral home that offers coffin rentals by the hour for people to test out, or to a hotel where the clerks behind the helpdesk and the fish in the aquarium are robots.

The camera, otherwise, follows Ishii’s encounters with his 12-year-old “daughter,” Mahiro (Mahiro). The girl’s mother, Miki (Miki Fujimaki), has enlisted Ishii to play Mahiro’s missing father, who abandoned her when she was two, and make it seem as if he’s suddenly resurfaced. The film’s most interesting moments don’t arise from its largely obvious critiques of simulation, but from the human relationship between Ishii and Mahiro. In the end, the film’s smartest trick is getting the audience to genuinely feel for this young girl on screen, acting for us, all while scoffing at Ishii’s clients for scripting their own emotional experiences.

We know the relationship between Mahiro and Ishii to be false on multiple levels. They may not be professional actors, but they are very much acting, and their interactions nonetheless tap into something quite authentic and emotional. Although their kinship is an act of make-believe, it’s driven by similar malaises that plague “real” father-daughter relationships. Mahiro, who doesn’t meet Ishii until she’s a pre-teen and is presumably unaware that it’s all just an act, struggles to articulate feelings that overwhelm her. Asking for a hug from Ishii is a Herculean task for her. But granting her the hug is also a Herculean task for Ishii, who ultimately confesses to wondering whether his real family, too, has been paid by someone else to raise him. Must a father’s hug be so clinical even when he’s getting paid to do it?

Such moments as that awkward father-daughter hug, a scene where Mahiro gives Ishii an origami animal that she made for him (“It’s delicate, so be careful,” she says), and another where she confesses that she likes a boy all point to the ways in which feeling slips out of even the most perfectly scripted protocols. That’s a relief for the kind of society that Family Romance, LLC aims to critique, one where tidy transactions are meant to neuter the messy unpredictability of human interactions but fail. Emotion slips out despite diligent attempts to master it, forcing even those who stand to gain the most from hyper-controlled environments to eventually face the shakiness of their own ground. Ishii, for instance, is forced to reconsider his business model when Mahiro’s demand for love starts to affect him. Ishii’s fear that he may also have been swindled by actors posing as parents tells us that authors are subjects, too, and that the equation between reality and fantasy is never quite settled.

Cast: Ishii Yuichi, Mahiro, Miki Fujimaki, Umetani Hideyasu, Shun Ishigaki Director: Werner Herzog Screenwriter: Werner Herzog Distributor: MUBI Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Force of Nature, Much Like Mel Gibson, Is an Absolute Disaster

The film presents its scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena.

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Force of Nature
Photo: Lionsgate

If cancel culture truly had the power its detractors ascribed to it, then Michael Polish’s Force of Nature would have probably never starred Mel Gibson. The film stars the one-time Hollywood idol as a trigger-happy retired cop who hurls insults like “cocksucker” at men who inconvenience him. By itself, casting Gibson as the kind of manic, violence-prone cop for which he was once known for playing speaks to the film’s defiantly conservative politics, its will to return to a cinematic era when violent white cops were viewed as good cops. But also having Gibson’s Ray toss out homophobic slurs almost turns this insipid action flick into a statement about Gibson himself, as if the actor’s own record of making such remarks should be viewed as the charmingly impolitic outbursts of an old-fashioned geezer.

Because Ray joins a multiethnic crew of good guys to save the day, we’re presumably meant to view his personality flaws as minor, the attributes of a classical cop masculinity that’s entered its dotage but ready to be awakened for one last shoot-out with big-city scum. The big city in this case is San Juan, Puerto Rico, which, as the film begins, is under siege by a hurricane. Set almost entirely in a cramped apartment building, Force of Nature is part Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, part The Raid: Redemption (or one of its many clones), attempting but failing to imitate both the former’s eccentric take on the clash of extreme personalities and extreme weather and the intensity of the latter’s kinetic, close-quarters action.

Despite being the biggest star on the bill, Gibson isn’t quite at the center of the narrative, even if the meaningless flash forward that opens Force of Nature, of Ray shooting at two figures in the rain, initially suggests otherwise. Ray plays second fiddle to Emile Hirsch’s point-of-view character, Cordillo, the San Juan police officer who refuses to learn a word of Spanish and might as well be wearing a MAGA hat. (“Where is el victim-o?” he asks regarding an incident at a supermarket early in the film.) Cordillo and his new partner, Peña (Stephanie Cayo), are assigned to help move San Juan’s residents to shelters, encountering Ray and his daughter, Troy (Kate Bosworth), at the apartment complex where Griffin (Will Catlett), Ray and Troy’s newly arrested neighbor, needs to feed his very hungry pet.

For those who’ve seen Netflix’s Tiger King, it will be clear from the 100 pounds of meat that Griffin intends to feed his pet that the man illegally owns some kind of wild cat. And if this offbeat scenario doesn’t elicit the laughs it may be aiming for, that’s at least in part due to composer Kubilay Uner’s score, which applies Wagnerian bombast to nearly every narrative event, as if it could will the paper-thin plot into some kind of significance. The tonal inconsistencies, however, aren’t confined to this clash between image and soundtrack. On a visual level, it’s difficult to know what to make of the scene in which Griffin’s pet, kept entirely off screen, drags Griffin into its pitch-black den and mauls him in front of a not-quite-horrified Cordillo, while a gang that Ray identifies as high-end burglars begins a raid of the complex. Neither funny nor suspenseful, it’s a bewildering mash of visual codes.

Led by a ruthless figure known as John the Baptist (David Zayas), the burglars first make an appearance in the second of the film’s two prologues, in which John kidnaps an elderly woman to get into her safety deposit box, before executing her as well as his accomplice in plain sight—a scene that somewhat belies Ray’s later in-the-know description of the gang as clever plotters. The nature of their interest in Ray, Troy, and Griffin’s apartment building is left vague until a late reveal, a nonsensically belated introduction of the story’s MacGuffin that contributes to the feeling of arbitrariness that pervades the film.

While Peña and Ray confront John and his crew, Cordillo and Troy go off to find medical supplies, along the way developing a thoroughly underwritten and ill-conceived romance; Troy is abruptly drawn to Cordillo after he shares his history of accidental violence against a former girlfriend (Jasper Polish). Meanwhile, the wounded Griffin is left under the watch of Paul (Jorge Luis Ramos), a German about whom multiple characters ask, in all sincerity, if he’s a Nazi, and based solely on his white hair and nationality—certainly not on any arithmetic, as the seventysomething man appears far too young to have been a Nazi Party member.

It would all be material for a parody of cheap-action-flick sensibilities: the preoccupation with Nazism, the hollow romance, the valorization of white male rage barely masked behind a rudimentary psychologism. Unfortunately, Cory M. Miller’s screenplay presents all these scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena. The truth, of course, is that Force of Nature, much like the consequences of the hurricane that clearly inspired it, is a man-made disaster.

Cast: Emile Hirsch, Mel Gibson, Kate Bosworth, David Zayas, Stephanie Cayo, Will Catlett, Jasper Polish, Jorge Luis Ramos Director: Michael Polish Screenwriter: Cory M. Miller Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 91 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: John Lewis: Good Trouble Places a Hero in Dialogue with the Past

The film is well-outfitted with telling, thematically rich shards of historical information.

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John Lewis: Good Trouble
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

John Lewis isn’t easily rattled. As a nonviolent foot soldier for desegregation and voting rights in the 1960s, he was severely beaten on several occasions. As a U.S. representative since 1987, he’s contended with a Republican Party that has tacked steadily rightward. John Lewis: Good Trouble presents another, if much less demanding, test for the congressman: Watching his life unspool around him on three large screens in a darkened D.C. theater.

Dawn Porter’s authoritative documentary mixes contemporary and archival material, and the latter includes many rare images, including some that the 80-year-old civil rights pioneer himself had never seen. Porter and her crew decided to show their findings to the Georgia Democrat while simultaneously filming his reactions, and the emotions prompted by this experience are palpable but carefully modulated on his part. Like most successful politicians, Lewis knows how to stay on message, and it’s clear from the moments captured here that he long ago decided which of his private feelings would be elements of his public persona.

One example of this is Lewis’s story about his early desire to become a preacher. As a boy, he says, he would address the chickens on his sharecropper family’s Alabama farm but could never get them to say “amen.” Porter places this anecdote early in Good Trouble, amid comments from family members, so it plays like a revelatory glimpse at Lewis’s formative years. But the congressman, of course, began constructing his biography long before this particular documentary crew arrived. And Porter acknowledges this fact with a scene, toward the film’s end, where Lewis tells the story again during a get-together of former congressional staffers and it becomes clear that everybody in the room already knows it.

Good Trouble, which takes its title from Lewis’s advice to young activists to get into “what I call good trouble,” is partly a testimonial. It includes snippets of praise from Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as congressional new wavers Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who says she wouldn’t be where she is today without Lewis’s example. Yet the film also recalls moments when Lewis wasn’t in perfect sync with his allies, notably the bitter primary for the seat he now holds in Georgia’s 5th District. Lewis defeated Julian Bond by winning support of the district’s white voters, and by hinting that Bond had a drug problem. Earlier, Lewis had recoiled from the militancy of “Black Power” and lost his position in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Lewis doesn’t say much about these chapters in his life, just as he doesn’t reveal a lot when he gives tours of his homes in Atlanta and D.C. A widower, he seems to live alone, though a cat is glimpsed inside the Georgia house at one point. One of the documentary’s most personal stories, about his tearful reaction to the news that his great-great-grandfather registered to vote in 1867, is told not by the congressman but by cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., who unveiled the voter card on the show he hosts, Finding Your Roots. Good Trouble is well-outfitted with such telling shards of historical information, and Porter skillfully fits them together, assembling her subject’s biography thematically rather than chronologically.

Thus, a section on the young Lewis’s battle for African-American suffrage naturally begins in the 1960s before leading to 2014, when a Supreme Court ruling undermined the Voting Rights Act, and ultimately to the 2016 and 2018 elections swayed by voter suppression. The effect is illuminating, if not especially visceral. When the filmmakers arranged this kind of “This Is Your Life” for Lewis, they may not have elicited as much emotion as they’d hoped from the congressman. But they did fashion a microcosm of what the entire Good Trouble shows: the present in dialogue with the past, and a hero in the context of a larger movement.

Director: Dawn Porter Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 97 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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