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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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Review: Official Secrets Is an Ambitious Muckraking Thriller Prone to Melodrama

Gavin Hood wrings suspense out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts.

2.5

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Official Secrets
Photo: IFC Films

Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets is a muckraking thriller that revels in wonderfully lived-in details as well as generic biopic platitudes. The film tells a story that might have caused a sensation in Britain and the U.S. had it not been drowned out by those nations’ war machines. In 2003, Katherine Gun, a British translator for an intelligence agency, leaked an email in which the American National Security Agency urged for surveillance of pivotal members of the U.N. Security Council. This operation was for the purpose of blackmailing the U.N. into voting for the American invasion of Iraq (which President George W. Bush authorized later that year anyway, without the U.N.’s approval). Katherine leaked this email, and faced prosecution from her government under the Official Secrets Act of 1989.

In the film’s first half, the filmmakers offer a fastidious glimpse at how the press responds to Katherine’s (Kiera Knightley) whistleblowing. Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), Martin Bright (Matt Smith), and Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) are anti-war reporters for The Observer, which is in favor of the war and eager to maintain its relationship with Tony Blair’s government. Hood wrings suspense, and docudramatic fascination, out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts. Various jargon in the N.S.A. email is decoded, as insiders weigh its legitimacy. An intensification of surveillance is referred to as a “surge effort,” intelligence sources are “product lines,” and so forth.

This sort of commitment to texture is reminiscent of the novels of John Le Carré, as are the juicy scenes in which Beaumont and Bright reach out to people in the MI6 and the British government. Though Hood isn’t a moody stylist in the key of, say, Alan J. Pakula, his handling of the film’s actors is sharp, as their crisp and musical cadences allow the audience to understand that every spoken word matters, and that, if the reporters misstep at any time, they could potentially lose more than their contacts.

Katherine is eventually defended by an attorney, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), who has vast experience with human rights cases and with working within the labyrinthine British government. Fiennes’s probing, tormented, erudite charisma is always pleasurable, but this section of Official Secrets, meant to provide the legal counterpoint to the journalism thread, is shortchanged, as Hood starts to juggle too many balls at once. Interspersed with Emmerson’s adventurous interpretation of the Official Secrets Act are moments in which Katherine must rush to prevent her Turkish-Kurdish husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), from being deported out of an obvious retaliation against Katherine. These scenes are unimaginatively staged and unmoving—a sop to melodrama that temporarily halts the film’s procedural momentum.

It’s strange that the domestic dimension of the protagonist’s life should feel like clutter, which underscores a larger issue with Official Secrets: Katherine herself isn’t especially compelling as rendered here, as she almost entirely operates in the formula mode of aggrieved, persecuted, self-righteous avenger. A major ellipsis in the narrative is telling, as the British government forces Katherine to wait almost a year in limbo before deciding whether or not to persecute her, which Hood skips to keep the story moving. The emotional toil of such a year could’ve provided a personal counterpoint to the film’s political gamesmanship. As it is, the filmmaker reduces Katherine to a supporting character in her own story.

Cast: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Indira Varma, MyAnna Buring, Rhys Ifans, Tamsin Greig, Jack Farthing, Hattie Morahan, Conleth Hill, Katherine Kelly, Kenneth Cranham, Hanako Footman, Adam Bakri Director: Gavin Hood Screenwriter: Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein, Gavin Hood Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Tigers Are Not Afraid Wrings Preciousness from a Drug War’s Carnage

It never resolves its commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma.

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Tigers Are Not Afraid
Photo: Shudder

Writer-director Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a tapestry of flourishes. All are inseparable from Mexico’s gangland carnage, but its most memorable one is also rooted in magical-realist tradition, namely 100 Years of Solitude. The novel tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, and in one particularly exacting and vivid passage, master fabulist Gabriel García Márquez details how the seemingly eternal Ursula Iguarán learns of her son José Arcadio’s death after a trickle of blood from his body winds its way through war-torn Macondo, around corners, across terraces, down steps, and over curbs, before finally arriving at his mother’s doorstep. “Holy mother of God,” she says.

Ursula comprehends the truth of that thread of blood even before it leads her back to her son’s body. By contrast, the protagonist of Tigers Are Not Afraid, Estrella (Paola Lara), prevaricates so as to put distance between herself and the horrors around her. “We forget who we are, when the things from outside come to get us,” she says in voiceover at the start of the film. She doesn’t see the line of blood that runs from a dead man’s head and follows her all the way home until it’s already tracing a path across her living room floor and up a wall, finally creating the shape of an insect on a dress that hangs from the ceiling. Estrella’s mother is missing, and in this moment, the girl seems to know that she’s being sent a message, which she won’t learn to decipher until she becomes more fluent in the language of fairy tales.

At its most assured, Tigers Are Not Afraid strikingly literalizes the idea of the ties that bind, suggesting how the living and the dead walk hand in hand, almost as a matter of course, in a modern-day Mexico where 160,000 have been killed and 53,000 have disappeared since the beginning of the drug war in 2006. Before Estrella stumbles upon the aforementioned dead man’s body, you get the sense that today isn’t the first time she’s seen boys use police tape as limbo sticks, or dragged her fingers across walls riddled with bullet holes. Which isn’t to say that the girl is desensitized to this violence. She seems to almost exist at a remove from it, and López sensitively syncs the swaying of her camera to the girl’s visible numbness.

That sensitivity, however, proves to be a kind of redundancy. Throughout Tigers Are Not Afraid, López effectively conjures an aura of ordinariness, but she never resolves her commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma. The film concerns Estrella and a group of orphaned boys going head to head with a cartel after young El Shine (Juan Ramón López) swipes a gun and phone from the treacherous El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), and when that narrative isn’t picking up signals from the supernatural realm, you sense its allegiance to so many films indebted to the neorealist tradition, from Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados to Héctor Babenco’s Pixote. Tigers Are Not Afraid is alive to the harsh reality of its main characters’ lives, though at times it feels as if López’s only means of accessing that truth is by conspicuously shaking her camera.

As for the film’s supernatural flourishes, none are as inspired as that thread of blood that trails Estrella at various points. Little flying creatures suggest visitors from Guillermo del Toro’s cabinet of curiosities, while a gathering of ghosts inside an expansive, derelict building brings to mind a Silent Hill freak-out. And in the case of the tiger graffiti on a wall that comes to life at one point, there isn’t even the sense that we’re watching the dead’s handiwork. After a while, death’s intrusions come to feel more cosmetic than substantial.

Early in the film, López fascinatingly suggests that Estrella’s perception of the world, after a teacher grants her three wishes, is both shield and sword. But after the girl uses one of those wishes to commit an act of brutality, the film’s fairy-tale conceit reveals itself as an engine for easy absolution. By the time the girl arrives at an understanding of her world that isn’t too far removed from the logic of her opening voiceover, Tigers Are Not Afraid has so given itself over to feeling the innocence of cocooning that it only effectively haunts us with its preciousness.

Cast: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas, Tenoch Huerta, Nery Arredondo, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero Director: Issa López Screenwriter: Issa López Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 83 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette Serves Up Lifetime-Grade Chestnuts of Wisdom

The film is a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.

1.5

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

The opening passages of Where’d You Go, Bernadette include a handful of scenes in which an agoraphobic architect and mother, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), restlessly expresses her internal thoughts inside the empty rooms of her Seattle mansion. Observed in flowing Steadicam shots, these soliloquies—recorded and translated to text by Manjula, the digital assistant on Bernadette’s smartphone—give space to reflect on how the woman’s eclectic furnishings grow out of her racing mental landscape. And in performing them, Blanchett offers the rare cinematic spectacle of a mother in her alone time, compelled to let her imagination and anxieties loose outside the pressures of maternal duty. In these moments, the film, an unapologetically straightforward adaptation of Maria Semple’s best-selling novel, briefly takes on the tone of something candidly personal.

It’s a shame, then, that Where’d You Go, Bernadette is cloyingly beholden to the demands of its crowd-pleasing narrative arc—that of a creative woman driven to ennui by motherhood and middle age yet rescued from the brink by an inspiring vacation and the love of her family. It’s nice, reassuring stuff, not false by any standard, but told with such didacticism and cuteness that one can’t help but be bewildered by the fact that the film was co-written and directed by Richard Linklater. Where the Texas auteur’s leisurely paced Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!! excel in their attention to the nuanced spectacle of characters changing over time, Where’d You Go, Bernadette plays like all of its air has been sucked out in the interest of plot progression, which it conducts with the workshopped efficiency of a television movie mindful of commercial breaks. In fact, with its coverage-dependent mise-en-scène, off-the-rack musical score, and tacked-on bookending voiceovers, Linklater’s latest feels strangely close to something Lifetime might have churned out in the early aughts.

The film establishes its narrative conflicts quickly and bluntly, often through dialogue, simple juxtaposition, and, in one particularly dull case, a YouTube mini-documentary about Bernadette that plays in full in order to clarify her backstory. A brilliant and influential architect in the midst of a long hiatus after a demoralizing relocation and a series of miscarriages, she displaces her creative frustration on her city and its inhabitants, including her prosperous, TED Talks-giving husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup); stuffy neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig); and Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), a gossipy associate of Elgie and friend of Audrey. Her only routine source of joy is her wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), who loves her unconditionally and whom she treats perhaps a bit too much like a peer.

Symptomatic of Linklater’s always-generous worldview, the film sees Bernadette’s quirks not as deficiencies, but as inevitable side effects of life’s persistent curveballs. When the character refers to herself as a “creative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares,” it’s clear that the filmmaker endorses that assessment, and perhaps even recognizes it as a description of his own artistic career. For all their suspicion toward Bernadette, Elgie and Audrey aren’t characterized entirely negatively either, for each is given a path to redemption, and Wiig’s portrayal of her character’s transition from belligerence to empathy in particular is one of the highpoints of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

Rather, in true boomer fashion, Linklater reserves his cynicism for technology, kickstarting the film’s third act with the contrived revelation that Manjula is actually a Russian-operated phishing scheme seeking to steal Bernadette’s identity. This development briefly gets a Department of Homeland Security agent, Marcus Strang (James Urbaniak), and a therapist, Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer), caught up in the narrative, but it’s all really just a busy preamble to the Antarctica family vacation that’s hinted at from the very first scene. Bernadette has her reservations about the trip, Bee thinks it will be cathartic for the family, Elgie is too preoccupied with his career to concern himself with the logistics, and the shadowy forces behind Manjula are poised to swoop in and cause chaos during the scheduled dates.

What ends up happening is neither the transporting escape Bee wants nor the complete disaster Manjula intends to enact, but something messily in between that triggers a coordinated stream of life lessons—and a few uninspired drone shots of icebergs. Indeed, in its eagerness to diagnose Bernadette’s existential impasse, the film lays on thick the kind of back-patting chestnuts of wisdom that have become increasingly common in Linklater’s recent films, groaners like “Popularity is overrated” and “You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna do.” Such sentiments have always been window dressing in Linklater’s nonchalantly libertarian body of work, but if in many cases his films have tacitly acknowledged the limits of language to articulate life’s mysteries, here there’s very little sense of a frontier to be explored. If Bernadette is Linklater and Blanchett’s collaborative expression of the right balance between parenting and artistry, it’s a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening—and privileged—idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Emma Nelson, Zoe Chao, James Urbaniak, Judy Greer Director: Richard Linklater Screenwriter: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, Vincent Palmo Jr. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 130 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

The film is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.

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What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
Photo: KimStim

With What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, Roberto Minervini returns to the American South to tell the stories of several African-Americans living in New Orleans, over the summer of 2017. These stories are so self-contained that the documentary comes to suggest an anthology film, which, in this case, has been organized around a pervading theme of how political and personal textures intersect in everyday black life. And in the tradition of the anthology film, Minervini’s material is also variable, suggesting that the filmmaker could’ve been more ruthless in the editing room and less beholden to the pleasures of his self-consciously neat aesthetic.

Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Minervini’s subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew that’s clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titus’s inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocence—an impression that’s affirmed later in the film when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titus’s hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness that’s bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love that’s deeply poignant.

Juxtaposed with this coming-of-age youth narrative are stories of a recovering crack addict, Judy Hill, who’s realized her dream of opening a bar, and of a local chapter of the New Black Panthers, which is investigating and protesting several murders, such as the recent decapitation and burning of a local black man. Intellectually, one can see why Minervini believes these threads belong together, as they both illustrate how African-Americans foster their own infrastructures as a reaction to the corruption and indifference of governments on various levels. But Minervini’s cross-cutting shortchanges both of these story threads. Minervini reveals preciously little about the principle murder that the New Black Panthers are seeking to avenge, using it vaguely as a symbol of Southern atrocity at large, and the practical details of operating Judy’s bar are reduced to sketches. In both cases, the specifics of the subjects’ concerns haven’t been entirely dramatized.

In certain portions of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, particularly those featuring the New Black Panthers, Minervini taps into reservoirs of anger that are nearly at odds with his chilly formalism. The film was shot by D.P. Diego Romero in pristine black and white, with long takes that drink in the details of the landscapes and people’s bodies. One is often encouraged to savor the beauty of the lighting, especially in Judy’s bar, and Minervini eschews typical documentary devices like narration and interviews. In terms of gliding, sumptuous style, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, as both films verge on turning class struggles into moving coffee-table books.

We’re supposed to feel as if we’ve slipped effortlessly into the lives of Minervini’s subjects, which might have been possible if more time had been devoted to pivotal moments. If Minervini wasn’t able to capture the moment when Judy learns that she must close the bar, then perhaps he could’ve wrestled with his inability to capture it. Judy demands a meta-textual approach anyway, as she is a highly charismatic and self-absorbed person who is often clearly performing for the camera, most gratingly when she responds to her mother’s fear of homelessness with a monologue about her own generosity. A filmmaker like Robert Greene might’ve challenged Judy and utilized her for a riff on the power of self-mythology, but Minervini prizes his faux-objectivity; he’s more interested in mood than process or character. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.

Director: Roberto Minervini Screenwriter: Roberto Minervini Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Good Boys’s Raunchy Take on Tweendom Is the Same Old Shtick

Gene Stupnitsky’s film is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action.

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Good Boys
Photo: Universal Pictures

Gene Stupnitsky’s Good Boys is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action, though it lacks the Netflix show’s frankness and authenticity. While hearing sixth graders curse and exhibit their burgeoning sexual awareness constitutes the film’s entire gimmick, its coarse language and surprising displays of sexual material mask an inner timidity. In the post-“puberty monster” world ushered in by Big Mouth, a show that cares to acknowledge that girls also experience puberty, both the film’s jokes and easy coming-of-age morality tale seem tame, beautified for an audience it assumes will not want to confront the abjectness of tweens’ emotional and sexual imaginations.

That said, there are laughs to be had in Good Boys, many of them deriving from the main characters’ mistaken understanding of the adult world. Max (Jacob Tremblay), for example, believes that his college-age neighbor, Hannah (Molly Gordon), is a “nymphomaniac” because she has sex both on land and at sea. Thor (Brady Noon), who pretends to possess advanced knowledge and experience in all areas, misinterprets his parents’ sex toys as weapons. And Lucas (Keith L. Williams) comes to believe that Hannah and her friend, Lily (Midori Francis), are irredeemable drug addicts because they want to do the “sex drug” molly.

Max doesn’t know how to kiss girls, and his middle-school mind tells him that the best way to learn is by using his father’s (Will Forte) drone to spy on Hannah kissing her boyfriend, Benji (Josh Caras). That leads to Hannah and Lily taking the drone, and as recompense, Thor steals Hannah’s purse, which contains a vitamin bottle full of molly that the boys promptly lose. Part of the film’s at least outwardly risqué treatment of tween boyhood is that the boys’ possession of and efforts to procure a party drug drives much of the story. And that story is a chain of cause and effect that abides by the protagonists’ middle-school priorities: If Max doesn’t find more molly, he will lose his father’s drone, which means that he never gets to kiss a girl.

The cascading series of absurd situations that are driven by Max’s desire to kiss his crush, Brixlee (Millie Davis), includes the boys trashing a frat house, selling a sex doll to a weirdo (Stephen Merchant), and handing over the bottle full of molly to an oblivious cop (Sam Richardson). (This last bit is as tenuous as a dangling thread for conspicuously missing a punchline, almost as if the filmmakers never got around to shooting it.) In the end, the trio, the so-called “bean bag boys,” must learn that middle school will mean growing apart to some extent: Max is into girls and the sixth-grade social scene, Thor loves theater, and Lucas is a kindly nerd who enjoys card games. That these interests aren’t in the least mutually exclusive, particularly for Generation Z, proves beyond the film’s capacity to acknowledge.

Good Boys’s humor is by and large the same as that of any other male-centric R-rated comedy; if it differentiates itself from other iterations of the genre, it’s through a group of pre-teens making verbosely obscene comments and engaging in gross-out physical comedy. There’s a sense that Good Boys draws open a curtain and peeks into a rarely seen and dimly remembered space of tweendom. But it’s satisfied with just this peek—and as convincingly as the filmmakers can compel their child stars to enunciate obscene exclamations, the film never captures much of the feeling, of the world of childhood experience, in which they might be based. As a result, Good Boys never transcends its Superbad-but-with-11-year-olds shtick.

Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis, Izaac Wang, Millie Davis, Josh Caras, Will Forte, Retta, Lil Rel Howery, Sam Richardson, Stephen Merchant Director: Gene Stupnitsky Screenwriter: Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cold Case Hammarskjöld Is a Gonzo Look at an Unsolved Mystery

The film is about a mystery that isn’t solved, and how that inconclusiveness spotlights the insidious functions of society.

3

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Cold Case Hammarskjöld
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Like Oliver Stone’s JFK and David Fincher’s Zodiac, Mads Brügger’s documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld is about a mystery that isn’t solved, and how that inconclusiveness spotlights the insidious functions of society. Brügger also has in common with Stone and Fincher a visceral fascination with the minutiae of a particularly flabbergasting conspiracy theory. At one point near the end of the film, Brügger even comes clean, admitting that his investigation of the suspicious 1961 plane crash that killed United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld is mostly a pretense for allowing him to partake of a larger reportorial adventure that includes, among other things, Belgium assassins. By that point, though, Brügger needn’t bother with the confession, as his true obsessions are already quite clear.

Brügger is also the de facto host of Cold Case Hammarskjöld, and he has a penchant for hamming it up that brings to mind Werner Herzog. At the start of the film, as if seemingly ready for a safari, the Danish filmmaker is seen wearing an all-white uniform, which he claims is the wardrobe worn by the ultimate villain of his narrative. Brügger is holed up in a hotel with two African secretaries, Saphir Mabanza and Clarinah Mfengu, dictating to them the events we’re about to see. Both the wardrobe and the presence of these secretaries are gimmicks, and while the former is harmless, the latter is of questionable taste.

Much of the film pivots on various colonialist atrocities wrought in Africa by the British and other imperialist powers. And so it seems that Brügger wants the shock of these implications to register on the faces of Saphir and Clarinah, people who have a potentially intimate connection to his alternate history. In other words, he seems to have hired these women in order to achieve a sensational effect. To their credit, they don’t oblige him, and their sober intensity suggests that they don’t need a white man to tell them of the evils of the world.

Of course, Brügger isn’t trying to be likable, as he’s pointedly allergic to the pathos affected by Herzog and, more gallingly, Michael Moore. There’s something of an irony to many first-person documentaries: They prove that bad news often makes for good drama, with their makers all the while feeling the need to make a show of being enraged or saddened. Brügger, who resembles a slimmer Louis C.K., never once bothers with this pose, and his honesty gives Cold Case Hammarskjöld an aura of self-absorption that’s weirdly bracing and resonant in an age that’s dominated seemingly by nothing but conspiracy theories, “alternate facts” that suggest that reality is dictated by those with the most power. Brügger, a scrappy journalist, seeks truth as a means of accessing that very power, looking to cement his own name.

Brügger’s narrative is an intimidating thicket of dead ends, coincidences, and a seemingly endless procession of interviews with creepy elderly white men who almost certainly know more than they care to admit. Hammarskjöld was a drab-looking, pipe-smoking Swedish diplomat whom many assumed would be the very embodiment of minding the status quo of global politics, though he turned out to be an idealist who was especially concerned with the exploitation of the Congo. Several powers were vying for control of the Congo’s mineral resources, including Belgium, the Soviet Union, and Britain, and Hammarskjöld supported nothing less than revolution, leading to a costly U.N.-backed military mission in Katanga. On September 18, 1961, a U.N. plane carrying Hammarskjöld went down in a field in Northern Rhodesia—an area that’s now part of Zambia—eight miles from the Ndola airport, which Brügger memorably describes as a perfect “kill room” for being tucked away from prying eyes.

Following a labyrinthine trail, Brügger makes an intoxicatingly convincing case for the U.N. DC-6 crash, which killed Hammarskjöld and 15 others, as a murder conspiracy. Interviewing people who lived near the Ndola airport at the time, Brügger reveals that investigators didn’t pay any attention to these witnesses, who spoke of bursting, gunshot-like sounds and of fire coming from the plane—negligence that’s probably due as much to racism and a disinterest in the truth. Brügger also speaks with Charles Southall, a former official of the National Security Agency, who heard a recording of the crash that references a second plane and gunshots. Along the way, various potential smoking guns pop up, including a panel of metal riddled with what appears to be bullet holes, and, most ghastly, an ace of spades card that was placed on Hammarskjöld’s corpse, which was remarkably and inexplicably intact following the crash.

The documentary’s structure is somewhat loose, reflecting how detection often involves running in circles, discarding trails only to see them heat up again, and so forth. At times, Brügger’s transitions can be murky, as he’ll be talking to a new person before we can entirely digest how he arrived at this point. But the somewhat arbitrary quality of Cold Case Hammarskjöld becomes a significant source of its power, suggesting less a singular answer than a reality composed of a hundred half-truths. Eventually, Brügger homes in on a secret operation known as the South African Group for Maritime Research, or SAIMR, which becomes the object of the filmmaker’s obsession, to the point that Hammarskjöld is nearly forgotten.

Brügger never entirely proves SAIMR’s existence, as he’s led to the organization via documents uncovered from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that are suspiciously on the nose, suggesting the stuff of bad spy fiction. SAIMR is said to be a private mercenary group, probably serving the U.N. in secret, and responsible for Hammarskjöld’s murder as well as a plot to kill the black population of Africa with cheap medical centers that are actually giving patients shots of the H.I.V. virus. This revelation is so operatically evil, so beyond the pale of a liberal’s worst fantasies, that it serves to transform Cold Case Hammarskjöld into a kind of political horror film. And Brügger, in his meticulous sense of sensationalism, does prove one point via his lack of answers: that he and his dogged collaborators are asking questions which should’ve been posed at much higher levels of multiple chains of government. In Brügger’s hands, the general indifference of the major world powers to the possible murder of a key political figure suggests nothing less than maintenance of a diseased hierarchy.

Director: Mads Brügger Screenwriter: Mads Brügger Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 122 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Blinded by the Light Is a Wet, Sloppy, Public Kiss to Bruce Springsteen

The film bottles a palpable emotion of unabashed joy, even when the rest of it seems to barely hold together.

2.5

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Blinded by the Light
Photo: New Line Cinema

As rebel icons go, Bruce Springsteen is as unlikely as they come. One does not, after all, tend to look to a man nicknamed “The Boss” for advice on raging against the machine. But in 1987 England under Margaret Thatcher, amid economic turmoil and fascist demonstrations, a British-Pakistani teenager, Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), hungers for a dissenting voice in his life. Javed is constantly at the whim of his domineering, recently laid-off father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), and his only real outlet for his troubles is writing poetry. But once his friend, Roops (Aaron Phagura), foists Born in the U.S.A. and Darkness on the Edge of Town cassettes upon him, Javed gets swept up in Springsteen’s music, hearing no small part of himself in the white American singer-singer’s working-class howl.

What follows in Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light is a wet, sloppy, public kiss to Springsteen that’s at once hackneyed and infectious. Inspired by co-screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor’s 2007 memoir Greetings from Bury Park, the film has a love for Springsteen’s music that feels raw and real. For one, it sees no shame in Javed and his pals dorkily dancing in the streets to “Born to Run,” as the filmmakers understand that teenage obsession really is that all-encompassing, so open-hearted that it naturally teeters into absolute corn.

Blinded by the Light is also endearing for not feeling like its edges have been sanded off. Indeed, you may find yourself worrying about Javed plastering the walls of his room exclusively in Springsteen posters, or about the way he gives a teasing, zombie-like moan to the stick-in-the-mud kid running the school radio station: “Bruuuuce.” There is, the film understands, a dizzying thrill to finding yourself in something that’s not even explicitly designed for you, like you’re in on a secret. Springsteen certainly wasn’t thinking of a British-Pakistani kid when writing his lyrics, but they speak to Javed anyway.

Chadha’s film bottles a palpable emotion of unabashed joy, even when the rest of the story seems to barely hold together. Its comedy is always mugging and its melodrama is especially heightened, and to the point that scenes are apt to trigger secondhand embarrassment, as when Javed and Roops chant Bruce lyrics at boys harassing them. Much of the drama feels like the narrative of a music video, which needs to be big and obvious enough so that viewers can recognize what’s happening based on the imagery and the music alone. But with the songs stripped away in Blinded by the Light’s latter half, the supporting characters and themes are left as stumbling, half-sketched husks. It becomes clear that the music cues fill in so many gaps, standing in for whatever nuance might have otherwise supported scenes like a parade confrontation that relies on the blaring “Jungleland” sax solo.

Cast: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Hayley Atwell, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Dean-Charles Chapman, Rob Brydon, Meera Ganatra Director: Gurdinder Chadha Screenwriter: Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurdinder Chadha, Sarfraz Manzoor Distributor: New Line Cinema Running Time: 117 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: 47 Meters Down: Uncaged Soars When It Disregards Characterization

The film wrings white-knuckle tension less through jump scares than from the darkness of a seemingly infinite void.

2.5

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47 Meters Down: Uncaged
Photo: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures

While Johannes Roberts’s 47 Meters Down was marred by strained dialogue and flat characterizations, it certainly knew how to instill a sense of dread in the audience. That film’s premise, about two sisters with conflicting personalities who take an adventurous excursion that goes horribly awry, carries over to 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, though this standalone film is less concerned with exploring its main characters’ familial relationship. And that’s mostly for the better, as it gives Roberts more than enough room to foreground the grueling terror of coming into contact with sharks in the ocean deep.

In its opening stretch, Uncaged aggressively runs the gamut of teen-movie clichés. Indeed, as soon as it’s done establishing the contentious relationship between two stepsisters, shy and awkward Mia (Sophie Nélisse) and outgoing and popular Sasha (Corinne Foxx), the film is flashing the girls’ frustration with their archeologist father, Grant (John Corbett), for spending too much time working. And then there’s Catherine (Brec Bassinger), the prototypical mean girl who fake-apologizes for foisting Mia into the pool outside the international all-girls high school they all attend in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. That Uncaged doesn’t end with Mia, accidentally or otherwise, throwing Catherine into a shark’s maw is the final proof that all of the film’s initially corny character work is in service of absolutely nothing.

Mercifully, though, the film quickly shifts into thriller mode once Sasha drags Mia off to a remote region of the Yucatán, where their father recently discovered a submerged Mayan city. Soon after Mia, Sasha, and the latter’s adventurous friends, Nicole (Sistine Rose Stallone) and Alexa (Brianne Tju), arrive at the site and enjoy a swim above the main entrance to the city, they decide to strap on scuba gear and plunge into the water in order to gawk at the ancient relics that lurk below the surface. One crashed city column later and the girls come face to face with a deadly species of sharks that has evolved to survive in the darkness of the labyrinthine system of caves and tunnels where marine life isn’t supposed to exist.

Roberts wastes no time ratcheting up the tension, and a stifling sense of claustrophobia, once the girls find themselves trapped underwater and are forced to navigate a series of increasingly tight passageways, all while trying to harness the dwindling supply of oxygen from their scuba tanks. The filmmakers sustain this vise-grip suspense as the girls continue to face an array of unexpected, increasingly challenging obstacles, which, in fairly realistic fashion, extends their time stuck below the surface alongside the blind yet vicious sharks. At one point, they discover a pocket of air that proves to be as much of a bane as it is a boon.

Throughout, Roberts makes ample use of negative space as Mia and company make their way through the Mayan city with flashlights in hand. All the while, the bubbles from their scuba gear and the clouds of dust caused by falling rocks intensify their feelings of disorientation and panic, while also helpfully obscuring the low-rent nature of the film’s CGI effects. If, toward the end of Uncaged, the impact of these visual tactics is dulled by a few too many “gotcha” moments, the film more or less keeps things efficiently moving, wringing white-knuckle tension less through jump scares than from the darkness of a seemingly infinite void.

Cast: Sistin Stallon, Corinne Foxx, Brianne Tju, Sophie Nelisse, Brec Bassinger, Khylin Rhambo, Davi Santos, John Corbett, Nia Long Director: Johannes Roberts Screenwriter: Ernest Riera, Johannes Roberts Distributor: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Amazing Johnathan Documentary Is Gratingly Self-Knowing

Over and over, the film reminds us that banking on a gimmick isn’t an adequate substitute for an incisive character portrait.

1.5

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Photo: Hulu

Despite its title, Ben Berman’s The Amazing Johnathan Documentary isn’t exactly about comedian-cum-magician John Edward Szeles. The film initially seems like it will remain within the boundaries of conventional portraiture. We’re presented with clips of Szeles’s performances, talking-head interviews with his family and other comedians, and the news that he only has a year left to live due to a heart condition called cardiomyopathy. Then, a title card indicates that we’re a few years into the future and that Szeles has outlived his prognosis. He decides to start performing again—against his doctor’s wishes—and the looming prospect of death gives Berman enough material to supply this film.

Unfortunately, Berman’s plans for a straightforward documentary are thwarted by events beyond his control. Most notably, it comes to light that another documentary about Szeles’s life is being produced, apparently by the people behind Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. The news makes Berman visibly nervous, and The Amazing Johnathan Documentary soon devolves into an awkward account of its own completion, with Berman talking with the other documentary’s crew, worrying about his own film being overshadowed, and stressing out about the extent to which Szeles might favor the other project.

Szeles’s interviews with online publications, radio shows, and Berman himself readily—and redundantly—corroborate the filmmaker’s impression that his subject is more excited about the other documentary being made about him. Berman doesn’t ask questions that carve out the fullness of anyone on camera, as he seems more interested in making sure that we grasp the severity of his dilemma. By the time he interviews John’s parents in order to draw empathy from them, claiming that he “for once […] was making a documentary out of love and art,” The Amazing Jonathan Documentary comes to feel like an echo chamber of affirmation.

Much like Szeles’s own act—composed of prop gags built around simplistic puns, gross-out illusions, and jokes that riff on his ostensible inabilities as a magician—Berman’s film is convinced of its own cleverness. While The Amazing Johnathan Documentary hints at being a meta film about the hardships of documentary filmmaking, or a mirror to Berman’s own foibles as a person, it’s constantly cut short by a lack of foresight. At one point, Berman decides to smoke meth with Szeles—who’s revealed to have been addicted to the drug in the past—as an act of “gonzo journalism” and to make the documentary more “interesting,” though the moment is ultimately cut from the film for legal reasons. Later, when Szeles accompanies Criss Angel to the presentation of the latter’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Berman is forced to use press footage because he didn’t make the event. This resulted from a lack of communication between Berman and Szeles, illuminating their current rift, but Berman’s acknowledgement of this tension is emblematic of the film’s biggest failure: The lack of cooperation from Berman and Szeles isn’t outrageous enough to be amusing on its own, nor does it come across as anything more than run-of-the-mill discord among colleagues.

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary seems born out of necessity rather than intent—a side effect of Berman needing to find a sensible ending for the film. We eventually find out that Always Amazing, the other documentary being made about Szeles, actually has no connection to Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. And in a desperate, last-ditch stab at coherence, Berman ends up getting Simon Chinn—the Oscar-winning producer behind those films—to sign on as his executive producer. The moment feels like a consolation prize for those who had to sit through so much ego-massaging on Berman’s part. It’s a final stroke of luck for the filmmaker, but it also suggests a bandage being placed on a gunshot wound, reminding us again that banking on a gimmick isn’t an adequate substitute for an incisive character portrait.

Director: Ben Berman Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Aquarela Viscerally Attests to Mother Nature’s Fight for Survival

At heart, Aquarela is a war film: a cacophonous survey of the global battle between man and water.

3

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Aquarela
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

On the surface, Victor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela suggests a conventional nature doc, filled as it is with breathtaking images that attest to Mother Nature’s might and majesty. But at heart, it’s a war film: a cacophonous survey of the global battle between man and water. The film’s wide array of visual evidence showing people in brutal disharmony with their surroundings presents a compelling case that as humanity continues to assault the planet through climate change, our Earth is fighting back twice as hard.

The film opens with a series of scenes in which a group of Russian officials traipse around a large expanse of ice, periodically stabbing at it with long poles. It takes a while before we understand that they’ve been tasked with recovering automobiles that have fallen through the frozen body of water, which has started to thaw earlier in the season than normal. In one nail-biting sequence, a car speeds along the ice before, without warning, abruptly falling through and disappearing beneath the surface. A rescue crew saves the driver and passenger in a chaotic sequence in which no one’s safety seems guaranteed, not even those behind the camera, whom we never see but whose terror is palpable in the nervous camerawork.

From a sequence of a sailboat operated by a single woman battling a fierce storm to shots in which giant chunks of ice that have fallen off a glacier bob up and down in the water like gigantic breaching whales, Aquarela doesn’t lack for simultaneously awesome and terrifying images. There’s a ferociousness and churning volatility to the film’s view of nature—a point heavily underlined by Eicca Toppinen’s heavy metal-inflected score. Though not quite as abrasive as Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan, which utilized an arsenal of GoPro cameras to create a turbulent, viscerally unsettling document of a commercial fishing trawler’s voyage at sea, Aquarela evinces a similar desire to overwhelm and discombobulate its audience. Kossakovsky employs a deeply immersive sound design that emphasizes the rough swoosh of waves and the shattering cracks of thawing glaciers.

Through a variety of cinematographic gestures—picturesque long shots, underwater footage, and tracking shots of waves—Kossakovsky gives us a wide view of the diversity of forms that water takes on Earth. Massive fields of drift ice are juxtaposed against ocean water that seems viscous and almost as black as oil. But Aquarela isn’t merely interested in showcasing water’s different states of matter, as it also constructs a subtle but distinct narrative in which water itself is the protagonist in a war for its own survival. After one particularly violent sequence of glaciers cracking apart, we see a disquieting shot of jagged, broken ice that suggests a battlefield strewn with the bodies of fallen soldiers. But later in the film, it’s as if the water is avenging itself on humankind with a series of hurricanes and torrential downpours.

Aquarela ultimately closes with the image of a rainbow appearing across Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall. If that sounds like a serene coda, it feels more like the mournful calm after a particularly harrowing catastrophe. Someday, this battle between nature and humanity will end, but Kossakovsky suggests that there will be no victors on either side, only victims.

Director: Victor Kossakovsky Screenwriter: Victor Kossakovsky, Aimara Reques Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 89 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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