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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

Review: Saudi Runaway Is a Raw and Immediate Chronicle of an Escape

Camera, character, and cameraperson are one throughout, and the effect is exquisitely suffocating.

3.5

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Saudi Runaway
Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films

Susanne Regina Meures’s invitation into the filmic world of her exquisite Saudi Runaway is by way of a camera that moves as if attached to a body. It’s a mobility completely devoid of the vulgar familiarity of a GoPro, or the numb slickness of a dolly shot that only simulates the point of view of a character. We don’t yet know where the body is headed but we can feel its fear. Camera, character, and cameraperson are one here, and the effect is suffocating. We see people’s heads bare and covered. Our vision is fuzzy. Soon, though, the wind lifts what turns out to be a piece of a garment—the camera’s sartorial filter. We’re moving inside an abaya. That’s where we remain for most of the film: between the body of a young woman, Muna, plotting her escape from Saudia Arabia and the dark fabric of her garb.

The film’s handheld camera suggests a baby being held. Not just because of how tethered it often is to the cameraperson, but because our mostly hazy gaze suggests eyes just getting used to a terrifying world. By the time Muna tells us that she will try to record “everything” and that “it will be dangerous,” she’s stating the obvious. Though it pulsates with raw intimacy, Saudi Runaway does have its share of obvious elements, from the sound of music when we least need it, to one too many shots of a trapped bird, to Muna telling us, midway through the film, that “the majority of society is conservative.” But its conceptual device is so uncanny, so un-mediated by how Meures structures Muna’s original footage, that we can’t help but excuse the director’s attempts to turn the original fragments into a coherent narrative.

The camera in Saudi Runaway is so prosthetic, and its images all but birthed by Muna, that, at first, it’s difficult to accept that someone other than she is credited with directing the film. Must Westerners save brown women so that they can speak? However, Muna’s occasional prefacing of her murmured voiceover account with “Dear Sue” gives us a hint of a transnational sisterly collaboration. The epistolary layer of Saudi Runaway isn’t fully explained, a technique often used in the essay film genre that helps give a video-diary aesthetic a sense of depth while maintaining its mystery. Is Sue the director or an imaginary friend? Is Sue a rhetorical device like one of Chris Marker addressees in Sans Soleil? Is Sue actually listening?

The fact that this writer sat immediately in front of both Muna and Meures at the film’s Kino International screening at this year’s Berlinale made the experience of watching it all the more eerie. Our real-life escapee was clearly now safe and sound in Germany, reacting in real time—with self-conscious sighs and sad moans—to the presentation of her ordeal.

On screen, we learn that Muna isn’t allowed to leave her family home without being escorted by a male relative. That she will only be allowed to drive if her future husband allows her to. That her father keeps possession of her passport, which she can only renew with his approval. “Be obedient and everything will be fine” is the advice that Muna’s grandmother gives her.

All of the film’s faces, apart from Muna’s, are perpetually pixilated, reminding us that these are images captured without her family members’ consent. That betrayal and guilt might be prerequisites for deliverance. The pixilating effect also means Muna “covers” everyone else’s faces while liberating her own, her flight necessitating an exhilarating mix of precision, and risk, and anxiety. But, also, the anger of those she must dupe in order to leave them behind. “Do you really think you can go to paradise and leave me here in hell?” is Muna’s mother’s reaction to her daughter’s courage. Although with the benefit of hindsight, she eventually anoints Muna’s newfound independence with a WhatsApp voice message praising her. As if freedom were contagious, experienceable by proxy, or the sheer power of imagination.

Director: Susanne Regina Meures Screenwriter: Susanne Regina Meures Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Swallow Is a Provocative Me Too Parable in Body-Horror Guise

Fortunately for the film, Carlo Mirabella-Davis continually springs scenes that either transcend or justify his preaching.

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Swallow
Photo: IFC Films

Writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s Swallow pivots on a queasy premise: the uncontrollable urge of a young trophy wife, Hunter (Haley Bennett), to swallow inedible objects. Hunter first ingests a marble, after touching it as if it’s a talisman, cherishing its assuring tactility. Later, Hunter carefully removes the marble from the toilet after passing it, cleaning it off and placing it on a tray as a trophy. The marble will soon be joined by a stickpin, a lock, and a variety of other increasingly disturbing things. But there’s another wrinkle of perversity to Hunter’s new hobby: She’s pregnant, and the possibility of these objects puncturing her developing child, no matter how irrational, haunts the film.

For a significant portion of Swallow’s running time, Mirabella-Davis maintains an aura of ambiguity, keeping the audience in a state of discomfort as to what Hunter’s ailment precisely means. There are plenty of hints even early on, as Hunter is married to a svelte GQ-ready hunk, Richie (Austin Stowell), who’s more interested in his phone and his job with his prosperous father, Michael (David Rasche), than his wife. Yet Mirabella-Davis initially resists doubling down on the sort of denouncements of the wealthy that come so easy to filmmakers. In his way, Richie seems to care about Hunter, and his mother, Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel), occasionally comforts her. The filmmaker’s initial refusal to totally render these people rich monsters only intensifies the scenario’s mystery and tension.

Mirabella-Davis is also willing to take Hunter to task for her own alienation, as people often tune her out because she has so efficiently rendered herself a dully accommodating and complacent Stepford wife. Her psychological disorder, known as pica, partially appears to be a response to her knowledge of this fact, serving as a contemptuous act of self-punishment, with perhaps an element of sexual gratification. The narrative contains multitudes of subtexts, and Bennett superbly modulates between learned impassivity and outright despair, capturing the pain of a kind of actress who has come to feel trapped in her role. This entrapment is formally complemented by an aesthetic that’s been very fashionable in art-house horror films lately: pristine, symmetrical compositions of stylish, remote residences that express the inhumanity of essentially living in a one-percent fashion catalogue.

Swallow is initially marked by a driving tension, as we’re led to wonder just how awful and crazy Hunter’s habit will become. The film is never as gross as one might fear, as Mirabella-Davis is less interested in shock-jock flourishes than in sincerely rendering Hunter’s physical pain and mental anguish; like Mike Flanagan, Mirabella-Davis is the rare humanist horror filmmaker. As such, Hunter’s choking—the most disturbing detail in the film—becomes a piercing affirmation of her struggle to feel something and be seen.

There’s a strange irony to the film’s second half. As Mirabella-Davis sets about explaining the meaning of Hunter’s predicament, Swallow grows simultaneously more poignant and pat. Dished out in pieces throughout the film, Hunter’s backstory has been self-consciously overstuffed with topical elements of women’s struggles against patriarchal atrocity, from casual objectification and condescension to rape to the struggle to be pro-choice in the United States. (Hunter’s mother is even said to be a right-wing religious fundamentalist.) This psychology eventually waters the evocative premise down with literal-mindedness, so that Swallow becomes less a body horror film than a Me Too parable.

Fortunately, Mirabella-Davis continually springs scenes that either transcend or justify his preaching. Later in the film, a nurse, Luay (Laith Nakli), is hired to keep watch over Hunter. As a refugee of the Syrian civil war, Luay is partially offered up as a device to score points on Hunter’s privilege (he memorably remarks that one doesn’t have time for mind problems when dodging bullets), though he also shows her profound compassion, most acutely when he climbs under the bed with Hunter in a moment of crisis, patting her back with an affection that we’ve never seen extended to her by anyone else.

Near the end of the film, Hunter holes up in a cheap motel, shoveling dirt into her mouth while watching soap operas that peddle the dream of marrying rich and hot—a sequence of profound and wrenching loneliness. And the film’s climax, in which Hunter tracks down a man from her past, Erwin (Denis O’Hare), is equally heartbreaking, exposing Hunter’s swallowing for what it truly is: an attempt at annihilation as atonement, as well as a self-defiling as paradoxical affirmation of control. Hunter resists her status as an accessory by swallowing others.

Cast: Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Denis O’Hare, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, Luna Lauren Velez, Laith Nakli, Babak Tafti Director: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Screenwriter: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 94 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Interview: Corneliu Porumboiu on The Whistlers and Playing with Genre

Porumboiu discusses the links between his latest and Police, Adjective, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.

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Corneliu Porumboiu
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Anyone inured to the downward-facing schadenfreude of Corneliu Porumboiu’s prior features might be taken aback by The Whistlers, the Romanian auteur’s first foray into slick, international genre filmmaking. The title refers to a crime ring in the Canary Islands that uses a bird-whistling language to evade surveillance. A crooked cop named Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) successfully infiltrates the group, but his undercover status is increasingly compromised by his fixation on Gilda (Catrinel Menghia), the sultry girlfriend of the ringleader, as well as by the tight leash his commanding officer back in Bucharest has him on.

Lest anyone think Porumboiu is making a play for more commercial appeal, The Whistlers is choc-a-block with teasing allusions, including repurposed music like Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” and Jacques Offenbach’s “Baccharole” from The Tales of Hoffman, as well as cinephilic references: One expository dump happens during a screening of The Searchers, while a climactic set piece takes place at an abandoned movie set. I had the pleasure of picking Porumboiu’s brain after the film’s U.S. premiere last fall at the New York Film Festival about his toying with genre, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.

All your films are playful in my opinion, but with this one, you’re playing with genre.

If you had asked me four years ago if one of my films would have flashbacks, I would have said, “No, no way.” [laughs] With The Whistlers, the way it’s structured, I was interested in the process of learning the language. That determined the core of the film. After that, I knew I needed flashbacks so I can have different types of plot movements happening—so that the main character, Cristi, can look differently at things as they happen, because of language. Double-movement. A parallel structure. After that came the other characters in the film, who play specific roles for—in front of—the camera. Catrinel Menghia plays Gilda, which is an assumed name. We don’t know much about this character.

The femme fatale.

Right. She’s assuming that position. At the end of the day, this is a world of people chasing money. They’re using dialogue to have a fight, you know? So, I knew it was time to look back at the classical noirs. I watched some films and began pulling from them.

The film’s plotlines get increasingly convoluted as Cristi learns more about the world he’s stepped into, the threat of a double-cross always looming over him.

Well, at the end I think you get it all back. My focus was to arrive in the middle, to arrive at a type of cinema linked exclusively to his character, his personality. So, I was thinking in classical noir but not dominated by it.

This is your second time working with Vlad Ivanov, the first since Police, Adjective, nearly a decade ago. Was this role written for him?

Yes. Because in a way I was revisiting the character from Police, Adjective, starting from that. To me he’s an almost theological character. So, at the end of the day, I asked myself if this guy, who’s almost like a military officer, who has a very strict background, can his philosophy last? To find this guy 10 years after, what does he still believe in? Who is he now?

Tell me more the difference between then and now.

Well, in the last film he was someone who trusted a certain system, was a part of it. He had his own philosophy, he knew very well where his power was. A decade later he’s completely lost. He doesn’t know what he believes in anymore. I wanted the difference to be subtle but indisputable. He’s become obsessed with money, his motivations are more harsh.

Is there something about Romania’s economic situation that you’re linking this to?

In 12:08 East of Bucharest, my characters defined themselves in relation to the revolution of 1989, and they believed in communication. In Police, Adjective, you have a boss imposing his own ideology from the top down. In Metabolism, it’s like a game: The director can’t assume his position at the top. Here, my characters don’t believe in anything, they just think in terms of fighting and winning. This is how we perceive the world now, I think.

The transition from value systems to anarchy, or at least a certain realpolitik—even working cooperatively, everyone is looking out for themselves.

I think after the economic crisis, the world changed drastically. I don’t know, the classical noir has a certain vision about the world that’s quite dark, yet was proper for that time. Maybe we can find some similarities today.

Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between this film and Infinite Football?

Infinite Football is about utopia—one man’s political, ideological utopia. He wants to change the game, and what his new game implies is a reflection of the history of Romania. His personal history. But I was doing it in a different way, so I did it like a work in progress.

And you figure into the film as well. You have personal history with these people. They talk to you, talk to the camera, pull you into the frame.

Well, it’s a personal project. Laurentiu, the subject, my friend, he may not have faith in the system, but he has faith in the game, or that his rules will prove themselves. This is the Don Quixote thing of it all.

Spanish and Romanian are not that far from one another, and in order to whistle, the main character has to break his messages down into units of Spanish syllables.

I saw a documentary on TV about La Gomera, the island in Spain. From that I learned about the language of whistling and became very curious. That was 10 years ago. I started to read about the language, and I went to the island where they were teaching it. It was then that I knew I wanted to do a film about the character from Police, Adjective. Being a film about language and codes, I thought I could play with genres; cinema at the end of the day is coding reality, after all. When I write, it’s like going back to the first act, and trying to be there, be present with the characters. Eventually it is them who move me into the story. I have a very particular way of writing. Police, Adjective had eight or nine drafts. I wanted the dialogue to be functional, transactional. And not to go too deep. Each of the characters has a double nature that can’t be opened too much. At the end of the day I’m making these movies for myself. You have to believe in what you’re doing, at least at the beginning of the shoot. [laughs]

I think the first 15 minutes of this film have more edits than all of Police, Adjective. Surely this switch-up is getting you questions from people.

The story called for this approach though. It pushed me to do that.

Critics love packaging things. The “Romanian New Wave,” epitomized by the slowness and realism of your earlier films, is a perfect example. Do you find these categories or tropes at all oppressive?

Well, the truth is it wasn’t a “movement” in the sense of something written down or programmatic. Young filmmakers started working in 2000 and, of course, critics outside Romania don’t know much about Romanian cinema before “us,” so it’s expected that they will put a stamp on new films coming out. For me, each of the directors has their own voice, their own way, developed on its own terms, and for me the movies are especially different now. I’m not offended, but it means I have to speak about my own cinema—none of these generalizations. These critics probably have not seen The Reenactment, or Reconstruction, by Lucian Pintillie, my mentor—the so-called “Old Wave.” This was a hugely important, inspiring film for all of us in my generation. He died before I finished shooting The Whistlers. Regarding Police, Adjective, he told me: “If you cut five or 10 minutes from this film, you’ll have a really good audience.” And I told him, “No.” [laughs]

The generalizations tend to break down, or that’s just the nature of an artist discussing their own work. And the idea of a “movement” implies a finitude or a strategy.

The Treasure was a fable, no? You could find the structure less threatening if you had seen my previous films. Maybe other films from Romania around the same time. But I began to try a nonlinear structure in my documentaries, then applied it to The Whistlers.

Do you prefer the original title, La Gomera, to The Whistlers?

I do think The Whistlers is better. But translated into Romanian, it doesn’t have the same power as La Gomera! Also, I wanted to avoid confusion with Gomorrah.

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Review: Autumn de Wilde’s Emma Takes a Classic for a Stylish, Ironic Spin

This lively adaptation plays up the novel’s more farcical elements, granting it a snappy, rhythmic pace.

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Emma
Photo: Focus Features

Jane Austen’s Emma concerns the mishaps of a self-assured young country aristocrat who prides herself on her savoir faire but who remains, in the terms a certain modern adaptation, totally clueless. A light comedy neither broad enough to be farce nor pointed enough to be satire, the novel lends itself to interpretation as both, given the narrative’s manifold romantic misunderstandings and host of kooky, idle gentry. Without departing far from the text, director Autumn de Wilde’s lively new film adaptation emphasizes the more farcical elements of Austen’s second-longest novel, granting it a snappy, rhythmic pace.

The eponymous gentlewoman, the story’s only three-dimensional character, is played with impressive depth by Anya Taylor-Joy here. On screen, Emma can seem frivolous right up until the climactic moment that forces her into a self-confrontation, but Taylor-Joy’s open, expressive face, so often in close-up, captures Emma’s creeping uncertainty regarding her powers of judgment, as well as her own feelings, even as she continues to act the social butterfly. She’s aided by a screenplay by Eleanor Catton that doesn’t quite resolve the story’s main fault—its concluding romance counts as perhaps the least convincing of any of Austen’s works—but which preserves much of the complexity of its “handsome, clever, and rich” heroine, who must learn to abide by her judgment rather than her vanity.

Emma begins the film at the height of self-regard, the reigning socialite of the small countryside community of Highbury. The 20-year-old has recently made a match for her governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), arranging her marriage—well above her station—to the neighboring widower gentleman Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves). She elects Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a recently arrived schoolgirl of uncertain origins and inelegant manners, to be her next project. She teaches the naïve girl, enraptured by Emma’s ostentatious wealth and delicate bearing, to present herself as worthy of a genteel suitor, manipulating her into rejecting the proposal of hardy local farmer Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells), and encouraging her to pursue the affections of the young vicar-about-town Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) instead.

O’Connor plays Mr. Elton with palpable smarm, wearing a perpetual shit-eating grin above the ridiculous splayed-out collar of an early-19th-century Anglican vicar. Here, as elsewhere, de Wilde communicates much of what remains implicit in the novel (like Mr. Elton’s odiousness) via a tidy mise-en-scène redolent of Wes Anderson. The sterile pastels of the elegant clothing and the precise movements of both the aristocracy and their servants (who hover about in the background like strange automatons) give the film’s sudden eruptions of human neuroses a droll, punchy tone—as when Mr. Elton casually mentions that it may snow, and a dinner party suddenly erupts into chaos, the nervous guests rushing to the carriages to get back home.

It’s in one of those carriages that, in a scene played perhaps a bit too broadly, a slightly drunk Mr. Elton confronts Emma with the revelation that he’s been aiming to court her. Naturally, the news of Mr. Elton’s true affections devastates Harriet, whom Emma very belatedly realizes may have been well suited to Mr. Martin, though at this point Harriet has learned to think of the farmer as beneath her. Outraged at Emma’s tutoring of Harriet in the ways of class presumption is Martin’s landlord, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), a wealthy Highbury bachelor who, as brother to her brother-in-law, counts as family to Emma and her worry-wart father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy). In the lavishly decorated living rooms and salons of their immense estates, Emma and Mr. Knightley bicker in the way that unwitting lovers in Austen tend to, arguing verbosely about the propriety of introducing Harriet to high society.

Emma and Knightley later have occasion to debate the relative virtues of Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) and Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), who arrive separately in town under much whispered ballyhoo. The young and handsome Frank seems destined to ask for Emma’s hand; Jane, the orphaned niece of local gossip Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), is rumored to be heartbroken after forming an inappropriate attachment to her adopted sister’s husband. Emma is as flattered by Frank’s attentions as she is jealous of Jane’s level of gentlewomanly accomplishment. Catton and de Wilde extrapolate from the novel’s succession of social scenarios to make Emma’s doubt about the shifting social field more comically apparent: One of the funniest scenes has the ostensibly modest Jane follow up Emma’s dilettantish performance on the pianoforte with a beautiful, complex sonata, in front of the whole town.

Emma’s discomfort in her new situation will come to a head when she, with Frank’s encouragement, grossly abuses her privilege as a gentlewoman with a practiced wit, embarrassing herself and wounding an old friend. Emma is interested in such textures of early-19th-century society, if not in the latter’s pace. The film fits so much of Austen’s narrative in by judiciously condensing scenes to suit its more ironic tone, occasionally using transitional smash cuts to get right to the point. The result is a stylish, eminently watchable farce that, despite its old-England trappings, is every bit an update as it is an adaptation.

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Amber Anderson Director: Autumn de Wilde Screenwriter: Eleanor Catton Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack, Book

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Review: The Trouble with Being Born Is a Chilly Rumination on Memory

In the end, the film suffers from the same issue as its moody androids: enervation borne out of repetition.

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The Trouble with Being Born
Photo: Berlinale

The near future looks a lot like the present in Sandra Wollner’s The Trouble with Being Born, only bleaker and lonelier. That sense of isolation is conveyed right from the start. In the fantastically dreamy introduction, we float through a forest on a summery drift of whispering voiceover and buzzing insects before coming upon a father and young daughter next to a backyard pool. What looks like a relaxing day quickly reads as forced, even icy. While the girl (Lena Watson), Elli, stays by the pool, the father (Dominik Warta) goes inside, only to dash back out again when he sees Elli floating lifeless in the water. “Fuck,” he says. “Not again.” In the next scene, he’s using his phone to reboot the not-quite-drowned Elli.

An android whose deep black eyes and waxily smooth skin—evoking the eerie expressionlessness of Christiane’s face mask in Eyes Without a Face—are the very definition of the Uncanny Valley, Elli was built to replicate the father’s daughter, who disappeared 10 years before. Her reactions are slow and mannered, as though she were puzzling over a bug in her programming instead of playing like a human 10-year-old. Even though her actions are mostly set on a loop built out from scraps of what the father remembers of his daughter, Elli seems to take a mix-and-match approach to those implanted memories, obsessing like an amnesiac trying to make sense of a muddled past. At times, it’s unclear whether the lines in the voiceover (“Mum…doesn’t need to know everything”) are repeated from the human Elli or invented by the android Elli as a way of mimicking her biological predecessor.

The first half of The Trouble with Being Born is narratively thin but heavy with the promise of something more. Inklings of something disturbing in this isolated idyll, that too-close stare of the father and his dressing her just so, are eventually made explicit and disturbing. In one of the more effectively queasy body-horror moments ever put on film, the father removes Elli’s tongue and vagina for cleaning, leaving her naked on the counter. It’s a strikingly disgusting moment, pointing not just to the abuse he subjected his human daughter to, but the casual disdain with which he regards her replacement. But despite the power of this scene and a few others—particularly the wordless shot of Elli watching her father from a distance with the same restless curiosity of the cat flopped next to her, visualizing the unbridgeable gulf between “father” and “daughter”—Wollner continues to fill her film with too little story.

That problem becomes more acute once Elli runs away and the story shifts to another android-human relationship. After Elli is picked up by a passing motorist (Simon Hatzl) who then gifts her like a new toy to his elderly mother (Ingrid Burkhard), still mourning the little brother she lost 60 years before. The ease with which Elli is made into a boy—in the world of the film, reprogramming androids is about as complicated as restarting a smartphone—stands in stark contrast to the violent trauma of abuse that still lingers like a ghost in her flickeringly sentient CPU. But while the setting and the primary human character changes in the second half of the film, Wollner’s narrow view of her story means just more of the same glassy expressions and long maundering silences, like Tarkovsky without the existential pain. At some point, the mirroring begins to feel more like straight repetition without any significant revelation.

In the end, The Trouble with Being Born suffers from the same issue as its moody androids: enervation borne out of repetition. There are some attempts here and there to comment on the replacement of human connection with silicone facsimiles. We almost never see people together. The only time the mother, who spends much of her time walking her dog and wistfully pondering the past, is with another person is when her son drops off Elli. Shopping malls, car-choked roads, and distant skyscrapers dominate the landscape. But rather than truly exploring the ramifications of its futuristic conceit, whether from a broader societal or individualistic and relational perspective, the film just keeps looping back to the same luminously filmed but ultimately blank silences.

Cast: Lena Watson, Dominik Warta, Ingrid Burkhard, Jana McKinnon, Simon Hatzl Director: Sandra Wollner Screenwriter: Sandra Wollner, Roderick Warich Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog Wages a War Between Language and Cinema

It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic.

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Malmkrog
Photo: Berlinale

Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog is based on 19th-century Russian philosopher and mystic Vladimir Solovyov’s prophetic Three Conversations, which, through a series of dialectical maneuvers, addresses such topics as economic materialism, nationalism, and abstract moralism. The film takes place on a snow-covered hillside, where a large pastel-pink mansion sits and Puiu turns the philosophical into drama. Sheltered in the mansion’s walls are a small group of aristocrats that includes a politician, a general and his wife, and a young countess. It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic. A Christmas gathering stretches on in what seems to be real time, as the party’s high-minded philosophical and political chatter takes on an increasingly strained air.

That tension is heightened by the obstacles that Puiu uses to discombobulate his audience. Malmkrog is the Transylvanian village where the film takes place, yet the characters, who speak primarily in French, talk of being in Russia. And as they discuss imminent war and the potential outcomes of violence, it’s as if the film appears to exist outside of time and place. Doorways and mirrors obfuscate who’s involved in a conversation, and the characters move through the mansion as though compelled by spirits of the past, with cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru often lighting all those drawing rooms using only natural light sources. Malmkrog exudes a painterly expressiveness that’s a far cry from the cold, handheld aesthetic that typically defines the look of Puiu’s work and the Romanian New Wave as a whole.

The film’s first scene lasts nearly an hour and is a magnificent example of staging. The camera glides left and right, with each movement matched by a change in composition that the actors match as though dancing to the music behind their endless words. This balletic circularity, slow but constantly surprising, recalls Max Ophüls’s fixation on the oneiric, circular properties of time. In a surprising moment of violence, a number of characters die on a staircase, only for them to come back to life a scene later, and without comment from anyone. When Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard), the mansion’s wealthy owner and Malmkrog’s central figure, looks up the staircase, it’s as if he recalls what previously occurred there. The moment echoes one from Letter from an Unknown Woman where Joan Fontaine’s Lisa stares up the very staircase up which Louis Jourdan’s Stefan and another woman ascended years earlier.

Whenever Nikolai, who makes the domineering Stefan from Ophüls’s 1948 masterpiece seem meek by comparison, utters lines like “prayer is a soap for the soul,” he carries himself like the Sherlock Holmes of moral arbitration. But he’s closer to a 19th-century Ben Shapiro: a pompous rat obsessed with facts and logic, who won’t let a woman finish a point for fear that he won’t be able to counteract it with a cogent counter-argument. It’s not always clear to what extent Puiu is satirizing this type of behavior, given the spectacle of the man’s endless pontificating, and that the other characters only rarely undercut his words with references to his verbosity. Puiu clearly believes in Nikolai enough to make him the mouthpiece for Solovyov’s philosophizing, which makes it harder to buy to what extent these people are being sent up, and how much Puiu wants the viewer to eat up his words wholesale.

With our perspective held hostage in one place, memory and imagination blur into one. When Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité) reads from a book, the account of a vicious battle between Cossacks and bashi-bazouks, the effect is rapturous. In this claustrophobic endurance test, Puiu transports the viewer through language to a scene with the epic scope of the film’s runtime. He focuses on listening faces, themselves teleported to a different space.

Like his characters, Puiu wages his own war of discourses, in his case between language and cinema. Whenever Malmkrog seems to have settled into a formal rhythm, the filmmaker flips it, using a different device to interrogate how people talk, and to what extent they listen. One heightened dialogue exchange culminates with the main characters staring out of the window in complete stillness. Then Nikolai starts to move, unstuck from this tableau, and seemingly from time. The boundaries of reality keep getting pushed at, to the point that one almost expects the mansion’s walls to fall and reveal a film set. Later, he glides away from a tea reception to observe the servants, who silently rearrange the house and conceal their own power structure through glances and outbursts of violence that are hidden from the wealthy class. They are like spirits, pulling out chairs for aristocrats who don’t acknowledge them, clearing out items like empty champagne glasses that hint at the echo of a past time.

The creeping dread of history repeatedly overwhelms character and viewer, particularly during General Edouard’s (Ugo Broussot) screed on the world’s necessary “Europeanness,” which becomes a Buñuelian account of fascist tendencies and culminates in the film’s most shocking moment. His wife, the imperious, frizzy-haired Madeline (Agathe Bosch), obsesses over the authority behind language: who may speak, and how. This is the sneaky vessel for a larger discussion on power and control. Living in a religious nation, Nikolai posits, one must first understand what Christianity is, and define national identity from that. The characters situate this in the context of war, and a globe that’s shrinking in the face of technological progress.

But with each scene, Puiu strips away the layers of his ornate style, so that by hour three, all that’s left is the close-up. With Nikolai’s straight face berating Olga, evangelizing on resurrection, the sophistication of the dialogue rarely matches that of Puiu’s aesthetic form. As Malmkrog becomes less ostentatious in style, the redundancy of its philosophizing becomes almost impossible to ignore, having made its conclusions about the inability of the intellectual class in combating fascism through language by the 100-minute mark. Puiu’s assaultive mass of a film speaks to modern times in its depiction of aristocrats indulging in comfortable platitudes as the world edges toward the precipice of chaos, but the Romanian auteur doesn’t entirely make the case for sticking around to listen.

Cast: Agathe Bosch, Frédéric Schulz-Richard, Diana Sakalauskaité, Ugo Broussot, Marina Palii, István Téglás Director: Cristi Puiu Screenwriter: Cristi Puiu Running Time: 200 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: For Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, the Cruelty Is the Point

The thrill of the film’s craftsmanship is inseparable from its main character’s abuse.

1.5

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The Invisible Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

Elisabeth Moss brings unexpected shades to the flimsiest of roles, and she makes it look so easy. Even if you go into writer-director Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man blind, you will know what Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) did to his wife, Cecilia Kass (Moss), simply from the way she moves one of his hands from her belly. Across a taut and nerve-wracking opening sequence, Cecilia orchestrates what becomes increasingly clear is an elaborate escape. If it’s easy to overlook the hoariness with which the camera lingers at various points on some object that portends things to come, that’s because Moss never stops conveying the agony of the years-long abuse that Cecilia has endured, through the surreptitiousness of her gait and the way paralyzing bolts of fear shoot through her body.

That kind of talent only helps a film like The Invisible Man that doesn’t really care about abuse beyond its function as a plot device. After escaping Adrian’s clutches, Cecilia goes to live with a childhood friend (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter (Storm Reid). Or, rather, struggles to live, as leaving the house is too hard for Cecilia to bear. Cecilia never really stops talking about the control that Adrian exercised over her, even after she learns that he committed suicide, thus freeing her to finally put her life back together. But there’s a frustrating friction to such scenes, between an actress sincerely committed to expressing her character’s pain and a filmmaker interested in trauma only as far it whets our appetite for how a psychopathic tech magnate who specialized in optics could possibly torment his wife from beyond the grave.

With his directorial debut, Insidious 3, Whannell effectively goosed an otherwise insipid haunted-house attraction with clever twists on a franchise’s trite dependence on the jump scare. But it was Upgrade, which saw him freed of franchise responsibilities, as well as longtime collaborator James Wan, that felt closer to a coming-out party for the filmmaker. And it practically announced him as a master, if not of horror, then of evasion, for the way his acute sense of movement is so thrilling in the moment that it can make one overlook his rickety storytelling. Upgrade is a film that’s less suspicious of the not-so-brave new world of tomorrow that anti-authoritarian tech bros are rapidly ushering in than it is in awe of what their toys can do. Its meditation on vengeance is closer to justification: that it’s okay that a bro turned half-machine is going on a violent rampage because of what was done to his wife.

The Invisible Man, another distinctly male fantasy set in a more recognizable present-day San Francisco, has even less to say than that, though it seeks to also entertain us with all that a techie can do with one of his toys. And that it does, as in an impressive early scene inside James’s house where Cecilia walks out of the kitchen while making breakfast and a long shot unobtrusively captures a knife falling off the counter and the flame on one of the gas burners being turned to high. The frisson of unease to this and several other scenes, of a man hiding in not-so-plain sight as he mounts a spectacular show of gaslighting, is close to unbearable. And when the titular menace is finally glimpsed, if only intermittently, the straight shot of action-infused momentum that marks the sequence as he lays waste to a small army of police officers inside the hallway of a mental institution feels like a release, for Cecilia and the audience.

But to what end does Whannell really fashion all this style? In one scene, and only one scene, the film tells us that Cecilia is an architect, not to illuminate all that she’s capable of as a creative, but to allow for the moment where she shows up to an interview at an architecture firm and discovers that the samples of her work were removed from her portfolio. That scene, some 30 minutes into The Invisible Man, is the moment where the film starts to provoke a certain queasiness, where it becomes clear that Cecilia only exists, for Adrian and for Whannell, to be terrorized, to be held up in the air, to be flung across a room, to be punched, to not be believed, to be thought of as insane. And to be raped. That this violation happens off screen proves that Whannell has foresight, that he’s aware of the controversy that surrounded Hollow Man upon its release in 2000. But that we must be told that it also took place at an indeterminate time, almost as a matter of course, feels like an icky attempt at not having to actually grapple with the implications of the crime by casting doubt on it.

Out of sight, out of mind. That feels like Whannell’s mantra. Indeed, by the time it gets around to the business of Cecilia being believed, the film starts to collapse under the weight of an increasingly absurd series of plot reveals for the way she turns the tables on the invisible man to feel like anything but an afterthought. Even then, when her tormentor is right there out in the open, it’s still clear that Whannell only thinks of violence in terms of how it can be paid back. Which is to say, he’s consistent. Through to the end, you can’t get off on the thrill of this film’s craftsmanship without also getting off on the spectacle of more than just Cecilia brought to the brink of destruction. Like its style, The Invisible Man’s cruelty is the point.

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, Benedict Hardie Director: Leigh Whannell Screenwriter: Leigh Whannell Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 125 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Guns Akimbo Squanders a Nifty Setup with Excruciating Humor

Writer-director Jason Lei Howden’s humor might have been tolerable if his film was at least reasonably imaginative.

1.5

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Guns Akimbo
Photo: Saban Films

For much of Jason Lei Howden’s Guns Akimbo, Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) is in his jammies, because getting dressed is difficult when your hands are nailed to pistols. Eating and using the bathroom are no easy feat either. With this, the film hits on an amusing setup for physical comedy, as Miles can do little but stumble about as he strives to drive a car or use his phone with his nose. He also must avoid being shot by Nix (Samara Weaving), his designated opponent in a kill-or-be-killed online competition called Skizm. But the film ultimately fails to capitalize on its concept and gets smothered by its smug, abrasive tone.

Miles is a coder for a video game titled Nuts Bust 2, one of too-many examples of the film’s groan-inducing comedy. He’s also a bizarrely self-aware depiction of an internet troll, as Miles admits via narration that, in order to feel worthwhile, he seeks out arguments in comment sections and reports “offensive content.” When he goes to Skizm’s chatroom to tell the viewers off, he runs afoul of the organization’s facial-tattooed leader, Riktor (Ned Dennehy), who at one point says, “I’m going to do a poo-poo in my pantaloons,” because why not? Those guns for hands and his forced participation in Skizm are Miles’s punishment.

Most of Guns Akimbo’s dialogue squanders an intriguing concept through truly excruciating attempts at humor, oscillating between snide comments, gay panic jokes, and capital-A attitude-laden one-liners. In one scene, Miles remarks that the world looks “so HD” because, with gun-hands, he can’t go outside with his face in his phone.

The humor might have been tolerable if the film was at least reasonably imaginative. Radcliffe really digs into Miles’s sniveling bafflement and the expressive Weaving clearly has a lot of hammy fun as the unhinged Nix. But too much of Guns Akimbo consists of unremarkable car chases and gun fights that hardly feel transformed at all by Miles’s unique predicament. We watch a lot of people fire a lot of guns against a lot of concrete backdrops, except Howden deploys a hyperactive camera style that’s always zooming around the characters in slow motion or fast forward. He appears to be going for the Neveldine/Taylor style of films like Crank and Gamer, except he’s not nearly as inventive and most of his flourishes outright distract from the action choreography, sometimes obscuring it altogether.

Worse, Guns Akimbo strains to be self-aware, with Miles assuring audiences via narration that this isn’t one of those stories where he wins back his ex-girlfriend, Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), in the end. And it’s weirdly self-congratulatory for a film that visibly revels in torturing Weaving’s character and eventually has Nova kidnapped for the big climax anyway. The film has even less to say about the sort of obsessive spectatorship that makes up the story’s backdrop, as though simply depicting reality-TV audiences and internet users as assholes is some profound statement. Luckily, unlike Miles, viewers have a say in the matter. They aren’t bolted to the couch and the remote isn’t nailed into their hands; they’re free to quit watching at any time, or simply opt not to watch this obnoxious film at all.

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Samara Weaving, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Ned Dennehy, Rhys Darby, Grant Bowler, Edwin Wright Director: Jason Lei Howden Screenwriter: Jason Lei Howden Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Assistant Is a Chilling Portrait of Workplace Harassment

The film is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as its main character.

3

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The Assistant
Photo: Bleecker Street Media

With The Assistant, writer-director Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in the Tribeca offices of a film mogul, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing much of its resonance. Offices encourage professional functionality as a way of divorcing people from themselves, leading them to make actions without a sense of complicity. What starts small—throwing co-workers under the bus, neglecting friends due to punishing work hours—can blossom over time into people enabling atrocity under the guise of “doing what they’re told.”

With this psychology in mind, Green fashions The Assistant as a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae. The film opens with a young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), being picked up from her apartment for work so punishingly early that it’s almost impossible to tell if it’s morning or night. By 8 a.m., she’s been making copies, printing documents, reading emails, and tending to office errands for hours. Other employees gradually drift in, talking obligatorily of their weekends off—a privilege that Jane isn’t accorded.

In these early scenes, Green conjures a peculiar, very palpable dread, her precise, anal-retentive compositions suggesting what might happen if David Fincher were to adapt Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” This dread springs from two places, as the visual palette is silvery and moody, evoking a potential corporate thriller, though the film refuses to move beyond the expository stage and gratify this expectation, and so we fear that we may be trapped with Jane in her tedium. We are, and this is by Green’s moral schematic.

The Assistant is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as Jane. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the film mogul is only evoked via male pronouns (he’s never seen but often referenced and occasionally heard over the phone, usually in a torrent of rage against Jane for her inability to talk down his wife, who knows of his infidelity). Jane brings another assistant the wrong sandwich, and he treats her cruelly; it never occurs to him, or anyone else, to thank Jane for the tasks she performs for everyone in the office. At best, Jane’s co-workers regard her with a kind of pitying befuddlement, as if she’s not quite real. When Jane eats, it’s quickly and without pleasure, and she’s always alert to being watched. No one speaks of their personal lives. Green springs one perceptive, poignant detail after another, especially when the mogul compliments Jane via email just as she thinks he’s reached his limit with her. This is, of course, a major tool of the master manipulator: praise when least expected, and only enough to keep the person in your sphere of influence and at your mercy.

Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere. Jane finds an earring in the mogul’s office, which is repeatedly seen from a distance through its open door and becomes a chilling symbol for the mogul himself, suggesting his unshakable presence even in absence. There are jokes made about his couch, which Jane cleans. Young, beautiful women are brought into the office at late hours, and are referenced by both male and female employees with contempt. Growing fearful for one of the women, Jane tries to complain to an unsympathetic H.R. officer who sets about gaslighting her. It becomes evident that we’re watching—from the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit person—a parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Green’s grasp of Jane’s indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable.

Yet The Assistant also feels too narrow, too comfortable with its thesis. The rendering of the mogul as an unseen specter is effective but also dime-store lurid in the tradition of mediocre horror movies, and this device also conveniently absolves Green of having to wrestle with how a Weinstein type might live with himself. George Huang’s similarly themed 1994 film Swimming with Sharks, which is mostly inferior to The Assistant, benefited from such a friction, as its own Weinstein surrogate (played by Kevin Spacey) had a magnetism that complicated and enriched the script’s anger. There’s also something insidious about Green’s evasion, as the mogul’s absence elevates him, mythologizes him, which reflects how people low on the power ladder see powerful exploiters. But Green physicalizes this idea without standing outside of it, challenging it, or contextualizing it; she traps us in a monotonous hell and leaves us there. Her fury with Weinstein and his ilk contains an element of awe.

Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, Stéphanye Dussud, Juliana Canfield, Alexander Chaplin, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bregje Heinen Director: Kitty Green Screenwriter: Kitty Green Distributor: Bleecker Street Media Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy Is a Half-Hearted Spin on Peter Pan

Wendy veers awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never accruing any lasting emotional impact.

2

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Wendy
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Like Beasts of the Southern Wild before it, Wendy unfolds through the eyes of a child. Benh Zeitlin’s sophomore feature puts a new spin on Peter Pan, and not only because it takes on the perspective of a 10-year-old Wendy Darling (Devin France). The film’s modern-rustic settings and costumes and relative lack of fantastical elements—notwithstanding the presence of a majestic, glowing sea creature, referred to as “mother,” who may hold the secret to reversing time—also play a large part in re-envisioning J.M. Barrie’s classic. But Zeitlin’s brand of magical realism strains in its conflicting desires to both demystify Neverland (never mentioned by name in the film), chiefly by grounding it in a rather prosaic reality, and imbue the story with all the enchanting qualities we’ve come to expect from fantasies of everlasting childhood. Like its version of Peter (Yashua Mack), Wendy wants to fly, yet, because of its self-imposed restrictions, it never quite gets off the ground.

Across this tale of a child lurching toward adulthood, there’s a sense of wonder and awe to the sea creature’s brief appearances, and to Wendy’s initial encounters with the free-spirited Peter, who playfully eggs her on from atop the train that regularly roars across the barren, rural locale that houses her family’s rundown diner. But Wendy’s whimsical flourishes, from Dan Romer’s incessantly rousing score to Wendy’s breathy and all-too-mannered voiceover, brush awkwardly against the film’s dour conception of a Neverland drained of all its magic and grandeur. Despite this, Zeitlin strives to capture an unbridled sense of childlike exuberance as kids cavort around the rugged cliffside vistas of the remote volcanic island that Peter calls home. But lacking any of the mystical features typically associated with them, Peter and his cohorts’ behaviors appear overly precocious to the point of ludicrousness; it’s almost as if they’re performing a twee, optimistic rendition of Lord of the Flies.

Unlike Quvenzhané Wallis, whose magnetic presence imbued Beasts of the Southern Wild with a pervasive warmth and soulfulness, Mack is an unfortunately listless presence as Peter. Several years younger than Wendy and her twin brothers, Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin), Peter appears, more often than not, like a six-year-old playing dress-up. His utter lack of charisma and gusto renders him an ill-fitting avatar for boisterous youthfulness, while his occasionally domineering, yet still unimposing, demeanor hardly makes him out to be the inspirational figure that the film ultimately wants him to be. Not only does he allow one boy to drown at one point, he chops off the hand of another to prevent him from aging.

Such events position Wendy as a twisted take on Peter Pan, but these moments are never given room to breathe. Rather, they’re uniformly undermined by the film cutting back to the idyllic adventures of children, in lockstep with Zeitlin’s relentless pursuit of galvanizing his audience through a gleefully idealized vision of the world. This jarring intrusion of darker elements into the story makes for bizarre clashes in tone, leaving Wendy to veer awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never to accrue any lasting emotional impact. When Peter buoyantly declares that “to grow up is a great adventure,” one is left to wonder not only why the boy who never grows up would, out of nowhere, embrace this worldview, but why Wendy, or any of the other children, would want to follow such a troubling figure on that journey.

As Wendy stumbles into its final act, where adult pirates attempt to use Wendy as bait to catch the giant sea creature, it becomes even more convoluted, contradictory, and murky in what it’s trying to say about growing up. Wendy eventually begins to stand up to and question Peter, both for his mistreatment of her brother and his harshness toward the adults Peter has excommunicated to an impoverished community on the outskirts of the island. But no sooner does she chide Peter than she’s back on his side, cheering him on as he fights off an admittedly cleverly devised Captain Hook. It’s as if she, much like the film, can’t seem to settle on whether Peter’s a hero or a borderline psychopath, or if childhood is a magical time to live in permanently or a necessary step on the way to adulthood. Rather than meaningfully subverting audience expectations, Wendy instead plays like a half-hearted twist on the familiar tale that ultimately doesn’t change the moral at the core of countless other Peter Pan adaptations: childhood is magical, and growing up is scary but inevitable.

Cast: Tommie Lynn Milazzo, Shay Walker, Devin France, Stephanie Lynn Wilson, Ahmad Cage, Gage Naquin, Krzysztof Meyn, Gavin Naquin, Romyri Ross Director: Benh Zeitlin Screenwriter: Benh Zeitlin, Eliza Zeitlin Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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