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Understanding Screenwriting #101: Celeste & Jesse Forever, Hello I Must be Going, Raiders of the Lost Ark, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #101: Celeste & Jesse Forever, Hello I Must be Going, Raiders of the Lost Ark, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Celeste & Jesse Forever, Hello I Must be Going, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Helen (stage play), The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend, but first…

Fan Mail: Hell is freezing over, since David E. and I agree yet again, this time on Five Fingers. It was Michael Wilson who came up with the name “Staviski” first rather than Mankiewicz, but he may well have been thinking about the Stavisky scandal.

As for Wilson on Lawrence of Arabia, the first chapter of the book Understanding Screenwriting is on Lawrence, and I certainly give Wilson his due. I am glad they finally added his name to the credits.

Celeste & Jesse Forever (2012. Written by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack. 92 minutes.)

Tricky: As my wife and I were leaving the theater after seeing this one, I said to her, “This one is going to be difficult to write about.” Lots of scripts, especially the obviously good and the obviously bad ones, are fairly easy to discuss. Others, like this one, not so much. On the surface, the script is rather straightforward. Celeste and Jesse have been best friends for years, got married, and are now divorced. They are trying to remain best friends. Sort of When Harry Met Sally… (1989) after the divorce. Problems ensue.

Jones and McCormack get the movie off to a fast start: we get a lovers’ montage that includes, at great speed, everything you have ever seen in any lovers’ montage. We’re glad to get it out of the way as soon as possible. Then we get an actual scene in which Celeste and Jess are having dinner with Beth and Tucker, another married couple. Celeste and Jesse get off on a collective improvisation in German accents. Typical things young marrieds in love do. Until Beth calls them on it. For God’s sake, she says, you guys are divorced, act like it. Nice early twist. Celeste is a trend-spotter who handles branding for companies and celebrities. Jesse is an artist but not working at it very hard, spending most of his day in the studio behind their house watching footage of old Olympic coverage and eating Cheetos. It’s obviously those differences that made them split up.

Celeste is established right away as the adult in the room. She’s smart, she’s hardworking, and she’s written a book called Shitegeist. So how is this smart woman going to handle this very friendly divorce? Not well. After establishing her as an adult, the writers turn her into an adolescent, and not even a smart adolescent. She gets insanely jealous when Jesse starts to date again, even more so when he gets a Belgium woman pregnant and marries her. Celeste starts doing drugs and drinking too much, all the while claiming she is not bothered by Jesse’s actions. Yes, yes, we all know women who are very together at work and a mess in their private lives. And to be fair, the several thirtysomething women sitting behind us laughed a lot in recognition at how Celeste behaves. But I found it difficult to laugh at a woman who had been established as so smart behaving so stupidly. And we get a lot of her behaving that way, so much so it becomes the focus of the whole film. She dates losers, she goes partying, and she even screws up at work, letting a vaguely obscene logo go out for a new client. The logo does end up working for the client in an odd way, but still. Rashida Jones not only is the co-writer, but plays Celeste. I have liked Jones’s work as an actor before, as in her scenes as the lawyer in The Social Network (2010). My guess is that like Zoe Kazan on Ruby Sparks (see US#100), she was determined to write flashy scenes for herself, but she doesn’t yet have a writer’s sense of how those scenes might play.

We spend so much time with Celeste being stupid that we don’t get much of the other characters. We see very little of Jesse’s changing life, and have no sense of what his new wife is like. Celeste and Jesse do have a scene late in the picture in which he tells her about how Veronica lets him do his work, and he says that Celeste always wanted to be in charge and keep Jesse in his stage of arrested development. It is the best scene in the picture because it digs deeper than any other scene. If the rest of the script had been up to this level, the picture would have been terrific. Instead we get more of Celeste being an idiot. At the wedding of Beth and Tucker…wait a minute: from the beginning of the film we have assumed they are married, with no indication that they were not. Suddenly this couple that have been together for ten years decide to have a fancy wedding in Rhode Island? The rest of the film is set in L.A. Obviously the writers felt they needed a big public event in which the drunken Celeste can make a fool of herself yet again, which she does. Eventually Celeste and Jesse have a quiet little scene where they agree to try to be friends again. I don’t hold out much hope. The script has not been nuanced enough to make us believe that scene.

Hello I Must Be Going (2012. Written by Sarah Koskoff. 95 minutes.)

Hello I Must Be Going

The Yasser Arafat of movies: This one was also a disappointment. I have been a huge fan of its star Melanie Lynskey since her 1994 debut as one of two teenage girls who commit murder in Heavenly Creatures. She has been doing great work ever since, as in last year’s Win Win and especially as Charlie’s stalker Rose. (Pop quiz: Rose was also the name of the character Lynskey’s co-star in Heavenly Creatures played in a movie. Who’s the co-star, what’s the movie, and what new secret have we recently learned about that film? Answers at the end of this item.) This film is her first starring role since Heavenly Creatures, and I had high hopes for it.

An acquaintance of mine told me several years ago that he could tell from the first shot of a movie whether the movie was going to work. I don’t have that kind of eye, but I could tell from the first scene that this one is in trouble. We come in on Lynskey as Amy in her bed. She has pictures on the wall, so we assume it’s her apartment, but as she gets up it becomes clear it is a room in a big house. We realize later that Amy, a 34-year-old divorcee has moved back in with her parents. The details of the room should have suggested that but don’t. I am a big believer in not telling the audience things until they need to know them, but this film is constantly late at telling us what we need to know. That may be Koskoff’s script (it’s her first produced feature) or it may be Todd Louiso’s direction. Amy is sulking and her mother, Ruth, comes in and gives her a hard time for just sulking about the house. Ruth, especially in Blythe Danner’s performance, dominates the scene, but it’s Amy’s movie, and the writer and director have not given her enough reactions to Ruth. The balance is just off.

Amy sulks some more. A lot. And it becomes just as tiresome to us as it does to her mother. We hate having to agree with her mom, since her mom is such a pain. What Koskoff needed to do was give Amy a greater variety of reactions and emotions to play. Lynskey tries, but if it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage. Eventually Amy falls into a relationship with 19-year-old Jeremy, the stepson of a client Amy’s dad is trying to land. Amy and Jeremy’s dialogue is mostly flat, so we get very little texture to the relationship. We do get a nice bit when, after Amy and Jeremy have made love a couple of times, Ruth tells Amy that Jeremy’s mom Gwen thinks Jeremy is gay. The writer and director give Lynskey reactions to that to play. We also get a nice explanation later from Jeremy that he lets Gwen believe he’s gay because she is so accepting of it, which makes her feel good.

When Gwen catches Amy and Jeremy swimming naked in the family pool, we only get a mention later of what their explanation was. Koskoff doesn’t bother with what could be a terrific scene of the kids making up the story on the spot. Later when both families discover Amy and Jeremy in the act, we get their immediate reactions, which are shock, but we only get explanations after the fact of their responses to this. Again, another missed opportunity. By this point in the film I was thinking that Koskoff was living up to Abba Eben’s great line about how Yasser Arafat “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” If you look up Koskoff and Louiso on the IMDb, you will discover that they both have a lot of experience as actors, so it was very surprising to me that they couldn’t come up with better scenes for the actors to play. They do have one good scene that shows you what the film should have been. Amy goes into the city to have lunch with her ex, David. It is a nice, edgy scene between Lynskey and Dan Futterman as David.

Ah, yes, the pop quiz. Lynskey’s co-star was Kate Winslet, and she played the young Rose in Titanic (1997). If you have read my Understanding Screenwriting book, you know I don’t think much of the script for that film and I don’t think Winslet’s performance is very good. You may have picked up an earlier Link of the Day here at the House to Winslet’s screen test for Titanic. You can see it here. The person commenting on it said you can see why she got the job. Yes, but what struck me is that she was much, much better in the test than in the film. Having a director who thinks he is the King of the World yelling at while you are in a tank of water in a 1912 dress doesn’t necessarily make for a good performance.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981. Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman. 115 minutes.)

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Indy in IMAX!: Paramount has brought out a boxed Blu-Ray set of all four Indiana Jones movies, and as part of the preparation for that, they have restored Raiders of the Lost Ark. Then, presumably as promotion for the set, they set up a one-week-only run of Raiders at Imax-equipped theatres. And then nobody at Paramount or anywhere else told anybody about it. There have been no ads in the Los Angeles Times for the run. The AMC theatres, which have more theaters on the West Side of Los Angeles than any other chain, several months ago stopped running an AMC display ad in the Times. I assume the big brains at AMC figured nobody reads newspapers any more, so why bother. Except that a month or so after AMC stopped the ads, Variety reported that moviegoers make more of their decisions about what movies to see based on information from newspapers, less than make their decisions based on television, but more than all other devices combined. And the AMC has been so sloppy about its website, it’s often difficult to find out what is playing at which of their theaters and when. So what happened to the run of Raiders? It had the highest per theater gross its one week. If people want to see a movie, you can’t stop them.

George Lucas had the idea for Indiana Jones back in the seventies. He conceived of him as a 1930s playboy who also happened to be an archeologist. Lucas’s friend at the time, Philip Kaufman, suggested that he could be looking for the Lost Ark of the Covenant. Kaufman gave Lucas enough detail that Lucas, very reluctantly and under pressure from Kaufman, shared the story credit with him. Lucas originally thought the character he created could appear in a series of low-budget adventure films, like those Lucas grew up watching. He was thinking B picture, and for all the money and talent spent on Raiders, it has the limits of a B picture.

In 1977, two years after Lucas worked with Kaufman, Lucas and Steven Spielberg talked about making the first of the films. It was Spielberg who suggested that the character not be a playboy type, but someone a little more down to earth. They settled on the name Indiana Jones. In 1978 Spielberg came across a screenplay called Continental Divide by Lawrence Kasdan, a former advertising copywriter. Spielberg liked the writing and thought about directing it, but passed on it. It was filmed in 1981, but without the charm of the original script. Spielberg suggested Kasdan to Lucas as somebody to write what became Raiders, since Continental Divide had a tough cookie as the female lead, and both men wanted that in Raiders. Kasdan worked with Spielberg and Lucas, and he has described it as working the way Howard Hawks used to work, hiring writers and telling them what he wanted. In some ways it was more like Ernest Lehman writing North by Northwest (1959) for Hitchcock, with Hitch suggesting scenes he wanted to do and Lehman trying to tie them all together. Spielberg came up with the idea of the boulder chasing Indy, and Lucas wanted “a submarine, a monkey giving the Hitler salute, and a girl slugging Indiana Jones in a bar in Nepal,” according to Joseph McBride, Spielberg’s biographer. (The information for this item is from McBride’s Steven Spielberg, Dale Pollock’s Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, and an interview with Lawrence Kasdan in Backstory 4.)

As a film teacher in Los Angeles, I had a lot of friends in low places, and one of them managed to get me what appears to be Kasdan’s 3rd draft of the screenplay, with pages dated June and August 1979. I read it over the night before I saw the new restoration, and what I will be doing in the rest of this item is toggling back and forth between this draft of the script and the final film. We have learned above some of what Lucas and Spielberg wanted in the film, and we can see in the draft how Kasdan was working that into the script. The film itself is episodic, but the draft is even more so, since it evolved out of Lucas’s idea to recreate the adventure films and especially the serials he watched as a kid. Their structures were very simple: action-plot-action-plot-action-plot-big-action-at the end. With the emphasis on the action and not much on plot or character. One reason Kasdan was brought in was to help develop the characters, but in the draft and the film they are not particularly deep. The plot scenes are more about plot than character, since Lucas wanted a relentless pace to the film, which he got. The pace is even more relentless in the draft than the film, since the action scenes are shorter and there are more of them.

The script begins, as does the film, with Indy, Barranca, and Satipo working their way through the jungle. Barranca runs off, but Satipo goes into the temple with Indy. In the writing, which Spielberg’s direction carries through nicely, Satipo is there as the coward to show how courageous Indy is. In the script Satipo just seems frightened, but Spielberg, who loved actors, lets the actor playing Satipo come up with several different reactions not in the script. When Indy throws the idol to him, Kasdan writes, “Satipo stuffs it in the front pocket of his jacket, gives Indy a look, then drops the whip on the floor and runs.” Look what the actor does in the film. The actor, by the way, was appearing in only his second theatrical film, and he went on to play parts as diverse as Diego Rivera in Frida (2002) and Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2 (2004). He is Alfred Molina, of course.

Satipo does not escape, but Indy does. After an interlude at his college (the girl with the “Love you” written on her eyelids is not in this draft; all we get are a couple of girls looking at him adoringly), he is off to Shanghai. What, you don’t remember the sequence where he breaks into a museum and steals a piece of the head of the staff from General Hok? Well, the whole sequence was cut. The script, probably at Lucas’s insistence, was simplified. Lucas is big on making sure the audience understands exactly what is going on, and Indy having to find two pieces instead of one is confusing. Besides it gets us to Nepal and Marion quicker.

In the draft, Marion is established as a tough cookie by throwing a bunch of rowdy patrons out of her bar. In the film that becomes the drinking game she wins, which I think is a much better introduction. Indy shows up and she punches him, then we get a long dialogue scene, which includes the line that Kasdan moved to Indy’s first appearance, when Marion says, “I always knew that someday you’d come through that door.” The line works better in the film as a single line instead of part of a longer speech. We do get in Kasdan’s dialogue as much characterization as we get in the film. Then we are back to action as Belzig (in the draft, Toht in the film) tries to get the piece.

To Cairo next, and in the draft we get more of an introduction to Sallah, Indy’s friend, but that has been condensed in the film. Then we get Marion’s kidnapping. The famous business of Indy shooting the swordsman is not here, but somebody was thinking in terms of comedy relief. The equivalent bit in the draft is Indy making a Bad Arab’s pants fall down with his whip. And then, boom, Marion is killed. We are suspicious because a) she was given such a great introduction and b) she is one of the name actors. But Indy at least thinks she is dead. In the draft he is in a bar, “A dark, smoke-filled den of iniquity,” but in the film he is at an outdoor café. In neither the draft nor the film do we get to mourn Marion for long. Spielberg’s direction of Indy is badly misconceived, since he has the monkey playing all over Indy while the camera dollies into Indy. All that movement takes us away from the mourning we want to do.

Kasdan has written in the monkey giving the Nazi salute at several places, but they were only able to get one shot of it. Then the monkey dies and we are off to Tanis, where Indy finds Marion alive, but tied up. He leaves her tied up to go off and find the Ark, which he does. He also finds it guarded by snakes. We learned in the opening sequence he hates snakes, and he says here, “Why snakes? Why did it have to be snakes? Anything else.” Lucas’s original choice for Indy was Tom Selleck, but CBS would not let him out of Magnum P.I. Selleck would have been a good choice if they had stayed with Lucas’s original idea of Indy as a playboy. But it is difficult to imagine Selleck making the “snakes” line as convincing and entertaining as Harrison Ford does. It is a perfect match of character and actor, as we all know now.

In escaping from the Well of Souls, Indy and Marion go through a chamber of mummies, which has been elaborated in the film to a House of Horrors with skeletons attacking them, especially Marion. She no longer seems as tough as we thought when she was introduced to us. The Flying Wing scene is not as detailed in the draft as the film; it’s the kind of scene Spielberg is perfect at directing.

The truck chase that follows is more detailed in the film than the draft. In the draft it is more a conventional chase, with Indy staying in the truck the entire chase. It is shorter in the draft than the film, but has been elaborated on with the new stunts of Indy being thrown out of the front of the truck, being pulled along underneath and coming back up the other side. Even so, the sequence does not seem as varied as other great action scenes in films. Belzig/Toht is killed in the chase in the script, but survives in the film to melt away at the end.

The sequence on board the ship of Marion kissing Indy’s wounds is not in this draft of script. It is a variation of a scene in Kasdan’s Continental Divide that Lucas decided to use here. The draft does include an explanation, cut in the film, of how Indy survived riding on top of the submarine. This draft does include the scene of Indy threatening to blow up the Ark with a bazooka, but it is in the Tabernacle that has been set up and not in the desert. The process of getting everyone to the opening of the Ark is more complicated here than in the film, again probably Lucas cutting to make it clearer.

The opening of the Ark is not as big a scene in the script as it is in the film, and the assorted Nazis are not all killed, as they are in the film. So when Indy and Marion take the Ark and escape, the Nazis give chase. In a bunch of mine cars in the mine train in the tunnel. Oh, yeah, I remember that scene. Sure, but it’s not in Raiders. It was dropped from here, probably at the script level, and then used in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). My guess is that it was in this draft because they all felt they needed a big action scene at the end. As they began to work on the special effects, they probably realized that would be big enough, and more importantly, different enough, to be the big finish. And they were right.

In the draft Marion is with Indy and Brody when they talk to Musgrove and Eaton at the Pentagon. In the film she is not. The end of the scene in the first cut of the film has the Intelligence guys assuring Indy, “We have our top men working on it right now,” which then cuts to the warehouse where it is being crated up. It was George Lucas’s then-wife Marcia who pointed out to the boys that the way the film was cut, we have no idea what happened to Marion. Not surprising in a film by the guy who included follow-ups on all the male characters at the end of American Graffiti (1973), but none of the women characters. They went back to a scene that is in this draft of Indy and Marion on the steps, rewrote it a bit, and shot it. And then dropped Marion in the first two sequels, only bringing her back in the fourth film in a few underdeveloped scenes.

So, what we have in Raiders is a rousing, relentless B movie, but with A movie talent making it as entertaining as they can. And it looks great in IMAX. And probably in its 35mm prints. And in Blu-Ray. And probably in regular DVD as well.

Helen (412 B.C. Stage play by Euripides. 2012 A.D. adaptation by Nick Salamone. 90 minutes.)

Helen

Menelaos’s back and Helen’s got him: You may remember that in writing about the 1956 film Helen of Troy in US#75, I discussed the problem of writing the character of Helen of Troy and how famous playwrights like Shakespeare and Marlowe avoided her as a major character. Well, the great 5th Century B.C. Greek playwright Euripides found an interesting way to deal with her. He borrowed a version from the 6th Century B.C. Greek poet Stesichoros. According to legend, Stesichoros wrote a poem that described Helen as essentially a world-class slut. Then he went blind, some say out of Helen’s anger (she was part god after all). So he decided to write another version, the one that parts of survive. In his Palinode Helen never went to Troy at all. Her father Zeus sent Hermes to carry her off in a cloud to an island off Egypt, where she was protected by King Proteus. She was replaced at Sparta and Troy by a phantom, created out of a cloud by Hera. In this new version she stayed on the island for seventeen years until Menelaos was dumped on the island by a shipwreck. They escaped the lusting son of Proteus, Theoclymenus, and returned to Sparta. And Stesichoros’s eyesight was restored.

This version probably appealed to Euripides because he saw another opportunity for a comment on the stupidity of war. After all, three years before this play, he had written, for a Greek audience, The Trojan Women, which was enormously sympathetic to the women of Troy captured and abused by the Greek army. Euripides generally pissed off the pro-war contingent in Greece and was later driven into exile by them. Some things never change.

This new version of Helen was created for the Getty Villa. J. Paul Getty had an imitation Roman villa built just up from the Pacific Coast in Malibu, and the villa now serves as a museum holding the Getty’s collection of antiquities. In the recent remodeling, stadium seating was installed in front of the main façade of the building, and each year a Greek or Roman play is produced there.

Salamone’s adaptation is this year’s play. The original was more a romantic drama than a tragedy (Helen and Meneloas escape the island at the end), and Salamone has turned it into more of a show than a drama. Helen is seen as a slinky ‘30s movie heroine, but a very devoted wife, putting off Theoclymenus as best she can. She is very angry at having been kept out of the loop for seventeen years. The three ladies who make up the Chorus are inspired by famous movie figures. Cherry is obviously Marilyn Monroe in her Bus Stop (1956) role of Cherí, complete to the costume. Cleo is Cleopatra, although not obviously either Claudette Colbert, Vivian Leigh, or Elizabeth Taylor. Lady is Blanche DuBois. Hattie, the household slave, is Hattie McDaniel. There are a lot more movie references than there need to be, but some of them are fun. Theoclymenus is clearly “inspired” by Kim Jong-un, the young North Korean leader. And one of the soldiers shipwrecked with Meneloas is obviously a veteran of the Iraq-Afghanistan wars. There are not as many modern anti-war lines as there are Hollywood gags. Still, Eurpidies’s point gets made, and the recognition scene between Helen and Meneloas is probably as funny and as touching as it was in the original.

We saw the play the night after it opened and I read in the program a notice of a lecture called “Beautiful Evil: The Challenge of Helen of Troy” by a classics professor. By the time I called a few days later to reserve a ticket it was completely sold out. Who says L.A. does not have a hunger for culture?

The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949. Written by Preston Sturges, adapted from a screenplay and story by Earl Felton. 77 minutes.)

The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend

Didn’t you used to be Preston Sturges?: When I finished up my Sturges Project in US#91, I mentioned in passing that I had this film stashed on my DVR. Since I was trying to make room on my DVR for the new TV season, I was watching stuff. I figured it was about time I got around to this one. Alas, it lives down to its reputation.

After Sturges left Paramount at the end of 1943, he did time with Howard Hughes, and then ended up at Fox, where he still owed Zanuck a picture for loaning him Henry Fonda for The Lady Eve (1940). Zanuck had noted how his scripts had done well by Veronica Lake and especially Betty Hutton, and he hoped that Sturges could do the same thing with his top star, Betty Grable. Grable was a big fan favorite with her musicals during World War II, but Zanuck hoped to move her beyond those. So far he had not been very successful, so he had the great idea of teaming Grable and Sturges.

Except it was not that great an idea. Grable was immensely loveable, which is what made her a star in the first place, but she simply did not have the edge that Lake, Hutton, Stanwyck and Colbert had. Like Ella Raines in Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), she leaves a hole in the middle of the picture. It was Zanuck who suggested Sturges write the script from Earl Felton’s story of a saloon girl who accidentally shoots a judge in the rear end, twice no less, then takes over the identity of a schoolmarm coming to a new town. Saloon? Schoolmarm? Yes, the story is a western, which is not the most perfect fit for a writer who grew up in the big city and toured Europe with his mother as a kid. Sturges simply did not have a feel for the west, as did, for example, William Bowers in Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969) and Mel Brooks and his posse of writers in Blazing Saddles (1974). (The background is, as before, from James Curtis’s Between Flops.)

The opening scene shows what might have been. We see a bunch of empty whiskey bottles being shot off a fence. We hear a grandfatherly type voice instructing Frankie on shooting. We eventually pan over and Frankie turns out to be a six-year-old girl, who not only shoots, but reloads as well. Then we jump ahead to Frankie as an adult. She is in jail, explaining to the sheriff, our old friend Al Bridge, how she came to shoot the judge. She was a saloon singer, since both Sturges and Zanuck wanted Grable to sing, and Sturges insisted the film be made in color because he had watched all Grable’s pictures and thought she came across best in color. Frankie waves a gun around going after her boyfriend, but shoots the judge instead. The post-shooting scene is as frantic as some earlier Sturges scenes, but unfocused. Zanuck, not a stupid man in these matters, saw the problem in the dailies but couldn’t do much about it. The scenes Sturges has written simply don’t have the edge of his earlier work, and even with the slapstick, or perhaps because of it, they just don’t hold our interest. The finale is a big shootout that makes very little sense.
Leonard Maltin, in his Movie Guide, notes that the film was a flop but that its reputation has improved a bit. Sorry Leonard, I don’t think so.

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: Parasite Satirically Feeds on the Ills That Divide a Society

Bong Joon-ho’s excoriation of a dehumanizing social culture is mounted with dazzling formal invention.

3

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Parasite
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

The first film Bong Joon-ho has made in 10 years that’s set entirely in his native South Korea, Parasite finds the eccentric, genre-driven auteur scaling back the high-concept ambitions of his prior two films, the post-apocalyptic Snowpiercer and the globe-trotting ecological fable Okja, in favor of examining a close-knit family dynamic that’s reminiscent of the one at the center of The Host, Bong’s 2007 breakout monster flick. Except this time the monster isn’t some amphibious abomination that results from extreme genetic mutation, but the insidious forces of class and capital that divide a society’s people.

In a cramped apartment, a family of four are sent into a panic when the WiFi network they’ve been pirating goes offline. Ki-jung (Park So-dam) and her brother, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), scurry about as their father, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), instructs them to try holding their phones up to the ceiling, and to stand in every nook and cranny of their home until they find a new connection. All the while, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) bemoans her husband’s laziness and prods him to find work. But it’s Ki-woo who pulls his family out of their impoverished life, when he gets an opportunity to tutor Da-hye (Jung Ziso), daughter of the rich Park family.

Parasite essentially puts an absurdist spin on both the concept behind Hirokazu Kore-eda’s sentimental Shoplifters from last year and the bitter class commentary that underpins Nagisa Oshima’s 1969 film Boy. Bong positions Ki-taek and his family as grifters so adept at pulling off cons as a unit that they successfully convince the Parks to bring them all into their employ, in one capacity or another. Ki-jung becomes an “arts therapy” teacher for the Park clan’s precocious young son, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun), and, later, the rich family’s driver and nanny are pushed out of their jobs through elaborate scandals manufactured by the poor family, in order to install Ki-taek and Moon-gwang, respectively, into those roles.

Bong pulls off a neat trick by insinuating that the parasite of his film’s title must be Ki-taek’s family; after all, they certainly live off the “host” to which they’ve attached themselves. But in typical fashion, Bong starts to lace Parasite with all sorts of complications that begin to challenge the audience’s perceptions—left turns and big reveals that not only bring new layers to the film’s social commentary, but also develop the characters and their attendant psychologies, which encompass the psychic toll of shame, lack of empathy, and deception.

The twists in this narrative also activate some of Bong’s more inspired and sociopolitically loaded visual ideas. At one point in the film, the slum village where Ki-taek and his family live is devastated by a massive flood during a night of severe weather. Meanwhile, in the upper-class neighborhood where the Park clan lives, a backyard camping trip is ruined by rain. The particular layout of one unexpected setting, which sees members of the lower class literally occupying a space below the rich, doubles as an ingenious metaphor for class subjugation. Remarkably, Bong even finds room for a commentary on Korean peninsula relations.

The only thing that keeps Parasite just slightly below the tier of Bong’s best work, namely The Host and his underrated and similarly themed 2000 debut film, Barking Dogs Never Bite, is the overstuffed pile-up of incident that occurs toward the end. This is frequently an issue for Bong’s films (both Snowpiercer and Okja climax with busy and disorientating action set pieces that lose sight of their characters in the process), and here it manifests in a boldly gruesome scene of violence that’s undercut by a lengthy and rather contrived denouement.

Ultimately, Bong’s excoriating indictment of South Korea’s dehumanizing social culture isn’t far removed from that of Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, but he mounts it with a dazzling control of genre conventions that he continues to seamlessly bend to his absurd comic rhythms. Parasite also reinstates the emotional core that’s been missing from Bong’s recent work, and even feigns a concise narrative structure. It’s the kind of bold and uncompromising work that confirms why Bong is one of our most exciting auteurs, for how his sociocultural criticisms can be so biting, so pungent, when they’re imbued with such great focus and sense of intent.

Cast: Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-shik, Lee Sun-kyun, Park So-dam, Cho Yeo-jeong, Lee Jung-eun, Chang Hyae-jin, Jung Ziso, Jung Hyeon-jun Director: Bong Joon-ho Screenwriter: Bong Joon-ho, Han Jin-won Running Time: 131 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Perfection Walks Impersonally Though a Labyrinth of Gimmicks

The crazier Richard Shepard’s film gets, the more routine and mechanical it comes to feel.

2.5

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The Perfection
Photo: Netflix

Richard Shepard’s The Perfection is, for better and worse, an ingenious toy. The plot is clever, but the film is all plot. Shepard and co-writers Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder repeatedly paint themselves into corners, only to free themselves with twists that bring about increasingly diminishing returns. The first switchback is legitimately startling, but the fourth is exhausting and belabored even by the standards of self-consciously cheeky exploitation shockers. As The Perfection mutates from gothic-tinged lesbian romance to body-horror thriller to revenge film, its lack of atmosphere becomes apparent, and the characters begin to seem as if they exist only to move through a labyrinth of gimmicks.

The film opens, promisingly, in Black Swan mode, introducing us to women with potentially rickety senses of self who may come to eat one another alive for our delectation. Charlotte (Allison Williams) travels to Shanghai to reconnect with her mentor, Anton (Steven Weber), who nurtured her to become one of the world’s great cello players, before she retired to care for her ailing mother. (We also pointedly learn, via shock cuts, that Charlotte was institutionalized after her mother’s death.) Charlotte meets Anton’s new pet prodigy, Lizzie (Logan Browning), at a swanky party, and Shepard springs the first and subtlest of the narrative’s many surprises. Conditioned by films such as All About Eve, we expect Charlotte and Lizzie to resent one another and fall into a catty rivalry. However, Lizzie worships Charlotte, and Charlotte doesn’t seem to want to return to the industry, and so the women, free of envy, connect after a night of collaboration, drinking, dancing, and sex.

Shepard’s handling of Charlotte and Lizzie’s lovely, companionable night together is telling of his direction of the film at large. He rushes through it with a montage, collapsing Charlotte and Lizzie’s cello duet, their clubbing, and their coupling all together, reducing their union to a math equation: Meet Cute + Flirtation + Sex = Inciting Incident. For, say, Peter Strickland, this sequence might’ve taken up half the film, allowing him to celebrate and fetishize these gorgeous women while stylishly exploring their loneliness and alienation. And for Dario Argento in his prime, this scene might’ve been an opening aria of erotic terror.

For Shepard, though, it’s just business, and his disappointing haste squanders the heat that’s been worked up in one of The Perfection’s best scenes, when Lizzie observes an infidelity at a concert and whispers to Charlotte that it makes her wet. Even more egregiously, Shepard glosses over a significant bit of information, as Charlotte claims to have lost her virginity to Lizzie. What would it feel like to be sexually arrested and then to so suddenly fall into bed with someone as attractive, worldly, and confident as Lizzie? Shepard doesn’t care to know—and this confession is eventually revealed to be fodder for one of the film’s many twists.

Shepard’s mercenary pace at times serves the film well. When Charlotte and Lizzie awaken the morning after, the filmmaker sustains, for about 15 minutes, an expert tone of slow-dawning dread. Both women are hungover, but Lizzie is dramatically ill, and Shepard plunges us into her panic and helplessness, capping the scene with the perverse spectacle of Lizzie vomiting yellow maggots against a bus’s windows, clutching her head in pain. Several tensions merge at this point in The Perfection: the fear of being sick in another country, of having to grapple with a new lover’s biological eccentricities, and a basic tension wrought by the violation of narrative expectation, as we’re meant to wonder how we moved from a film in the vein of Black Swan to something in the key of a zombie-outbreak movie. Shepard merges these tonal disparities with a lurid reveal, at which point his film goes completely bonkers.

Funny thing, though: The crazier The Perfection gets, the more mechanical it becomes. Shepard appears to be so proud of the film’s first twist—which pivots on a spectacular gaslighting—that he can’t leave well enough alone. It’s then that the film’s narrative “rules” start changing every few minutes, with Charlotte, Lizzie, and Anton trading the batons of “hero,” “villain,” “victim,” and “avenger” back and forth between them. A film as impersonal and plot-centric as The Perfection needs at least some kind of warped logic to sustain a sense of there being stakes at play. In this case, if anything goes then nothing matters.

Cast: Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber, Alaina Huffman, Milah Thompson, Molly Grace, Winnie Hung Director: Richard Shepard Screenwriter: Eric C. Charmelo, Richard Shepard, Nicole Snyder Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 90 min Rating: TV-MA Year: 2019

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Review: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood Is an Elegy to an Era’s Sunset

The film is Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus, a sweeping statement on an entire generation of American popular culture.

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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is presented, right down to the ellipses in its title, as a diptych. But instead of just being a way to structure a piece of entertainment for commercial reasons—like the Grindhouse double feature, the two-part Kill Bill, and the “roadshow” version of The Hateful Eight, which was broken up by an intermission—this demarcation separates two distinct periods: the beginning of the end (February 1969) and the end itself (the summer of ‘69). And it’s a juxtaposition that shows old Hollywood in a time of transition, from dog days to death throes.

While Tarantino’s films tend to provide audiences with much evidence of where the auteur’s love of Hollywood’s lurid lore finds root (in blaxploitation, World War II dramas, kung-fu movies, or spaghetti westerns), Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood gets the closest of any to giving us the complete picture. In this sense, the film is nothing less than Tarantino’s magnum opus—a sweeping statement on an entire generation of American popular culture and an almost expressionistic rendering of the counterculture forming at its margins, gradually growing in influence. It’s an uncharacteristically thoughtful and sobering film for Tarantino, while somehow also being his funniest, and most casually entertaining.

In the film’s first section, old Hollywood comes to life through montages of flashing neon signs, majestic old movie theater marquees on the Sunset Strip, and long-haired hippies hanging out on street corners, trying to bum rides from people who pass them by in their hot cars. Tarantino’s late-‘60s Hollywood is an immersive playground of opulence and iconicity, and thanks to the many exhilarating driving sequences that dot the film, the Los Angeles neighborhood conjures the adrenalized sensation of velocity and acceleration.

Navigating through this fast-paced Hollywood is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading star of TV westerns trying to break into the movies, and his best friend and longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Both characters are complete fabrications, as are most of the titles they’re associated with, like Kill Me Now Ringo, Said the Gringo and Three in an Attic. And as Tarantino detours his narrative through depictions of these fictional projects, subjecting us to many scenes of Dalton playing different characters, this at first just seems like an excuse to make spoofy versions of disposable Hollywood product, like the fake trailers that appear between Planet Terror and Death Proof in Grindhouse. But these scenes actually serve to sketch the shifting dynamics on film sets of the late-‘60s, like the emergence of Method acting, and they also position Dalton as a kind of Tarantino surrogate.

In one of the film’s most clever sequences, Dalton regales his eight-year-old co-star (Julia Butters), in between takes on the set of some low-budget western, with the story of the novel that he’s been reading. The character in the story is an aging cowboy who used to be the best but now is a shadow of his former self. As Dalton tells the story of the man’s misfortune, and all his aches and pains, he starts to well up, obviously recognizing how much this all applies to him. But the way the sequence plays out, with the young girl with the forceful feminist outlook putting Dalton in his place when he tries to call her by a cute nickname, effectively puts Tarantino in the hot seat, and for that matter DiCaprio, another artist whose aging career comes with the danger of obsolescence and of falling out of step with the times.

Progressing on a parallel track to Dalton and Booth’s narratives is another storyline, and the one that Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood has already become infamous for. The real-life Sharon Tate (Margo Robbie) comes to feel like the flipside of Dalton and Booth, her next-door neighbors in the film. The “It” girl flits through parties with her celebrated Polish filmmaker husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), and good friend, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch). If the changing times threaten to discard and ignore Dalton and Booth, they’re bringing Tate too much attention: At various points in Tarantino’s film, she’s watched and coveted from afar, as in a scene in which Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) gossips while ogling her at a party.

In the film’s finest scene, Tate even watches herself: at a matinee screening of Phil Karlson’s 1968 Dean Martin vehicle The Wrecking Crew. The sequence is resonant in no small part for its layers, with Robbie, as Tate, watching the real Tate (Tarantino uses actual footage from The Wrecking Crew for the scene). The whole thing suggests a kind of eerie feedback loop of celebrity and its cycles of consumption, but it’s also a profoundly moving scene: Effortlessly nailing the moment, and without any dialogue, Robbie responds, in character, to the film on a diegetic level, watching her own performance, but at the same time, there’s also the added metatextual layer of Robbie watching the very actress whom she’s playing.

It’s the film’s commitment to fortifying its themes with such layers of self-reflexivity, while still anchoring its concepts to fully realized, emotionally invested characters, that makes it one of Tarantino’s great films—a dense but focused effort that validates the divisive artist’s status as one of American cinema’s preeminent pop-cultural figures. It’s also that self-reflexive lens through which to read Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood that makes its finale harder to write off as the misstep that it would otherwise seem to be. Tarantino does, perhaps unsurprisingly, revert to some of his more vexing shock-jock tendencies, and even squanders some of his film’s emotional gravitas. But it’s difficult to deny how effectively he sets up what’s to come, when, in the midst of a tense debate between members of the Manson Family, one young woman (Mikey Madison) delivers an incendiary edict: “If you grew up watching TV, you grew up watching murder—my idea is to kill the people who taught us to kill!”

This chilling sentiment becomes the nexus of the film’s significantly darker second half, which jumps six months ahead to take the temperature of Hollywood on the eve of the Charles Manson murders. As the landscape and the sociocultural identity of Hollywood continue to change, inching toward a post-Flower Generation comedown, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood takes on an elegiac quality. The shift facilitates one of Tarantino’s more brilliant needle drops to date: of the Rolling Stones’s wistful, wounded, and ominous “Out of Time” playing over a montage of Dalton and Booth returning to L.A. from a sojourn to Europe and a pregnant Tate preparing her home for the arrival of her baby boy.

The flash and fun of the film’s first half gives way to a haunting decline into the valley of alcoholism, and to increasing signs that a new generation is about to push the old one out. And, then, inevitably, those tensions come to a head one August night on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills. It’s this sequence, and the Tarantino-branded ultraviolence that it ushers in, that puts the greatest strain on a film that had been setting itself up for tragedy but ends far afield from that. Still, this subversion points a path to our understanding of the broader intent of Tarantino’s commentary in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, which is less about addressing the violence that people commit against each other than it is about lamenting the existential violence that sustains some and leaves others out of time.

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Mike Moh, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Al Pacino, Nicholas Hammond, Samantha Robinson, Lorenza Izzo, Costa Ronin, Perla Haney-Jardine, Damon Herriman, Lena Dunham, Kurt Russell, Scoot McNairy, Michael Madsen, Rumer Willis, Rafal Zawierucha Director: Quentin Tarantino Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 159 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Jeonju IFF 2019: Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, & Introduzione all’oscuro

These are three enigmatic, challenging, and weird works of art by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

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Coincoin and the Extra-Humans

Shortly after arriving in Jeonju, the mid-sized Korean city about 200 kilometers south of Seoul that serves as the site of the Jeonju International Film Festival, I pulled my bedraggled, jet-lagged body over to the guest center to pick up my press credentials. As I made my way through the carnivalesque open-air city block known as Jeonju Cinema Town, I found myself, to my surprise, in the midst of a rather peculiar, almost surreal scenario as a bunch of white- and black-suited stormtroopers marched in lockstep toward me, weapons at the ready, flanking none other than the Grand Imperial Poobah himself, Darth Vader.

The group maneuvered around me without incident, eager to pose for selfies with the crowd of locals assembled in the area, but after over 20 hours of travel, the encounter took on a vaguely sinister air, as if the forces of Hollywood monoculture had been dispatched to this relatively remote cinephile retreat to ensure that no one here got the wrong idea: Have fun with your cute little art films, but remember who really wields the power in the world of cinema.

I suppose these are the sorts of strange inclinations that strike you when your body’s circadian rhythms have been shaken up like a snow globe, but, despite the presence of the Walt Disney Company as one of the festival’s premier sponsors, the films I saw—personal, challenging, at times exhilarating work from all across the world—couldn’t have seemed further away from the market-tested franchises that clog American cineplexes. Having said that, it’s with some irony that one of the first films I took in at Jeonju IFF was in fact a sequel—albeit one whose eccentric sense of humor and repetitive, unresolved narrative mean it’s never going to be mistaken for the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The sequel in question is Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to Li’l Quinquin. One of the great left turns in the history of auteurism, Dumont’s 2014 miniseries signaled his transition from austere Bressonian miserablism to a singular brand of deadpan grotesquerie that gleefully explodes the thin line between the clever and the stupid. Dumont doesn’t vary his style too much for the sequel, as it’s another bizarre sunlit mystery set in the windswept countryside of Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And Dumont has reassembled the same cast of non-professional local oddballs led by Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a twitchy, hapless police detective investigating matters way beyond his depths.

Dumont, though, still finds ways to mess with his audience’s expectations, starting with the baffling and completely inexplicable change of the title character’s name. If the earlier film felt like Dumont’s riff on popular international crime dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing, Coincoin turns out to be his spin on The X-Files, a sci-fi pod-people procedural featuring a mysterious black goo from outer space that inhabits its victims and forces them to give birth to their own uncanny clones. Like many stories about body-snatching, the series is a satire—here on provincial racism, the poor treatment of African migrants, and the rise of the French far right—but Dumont isn’t simply interested in topical point-scoring against Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant politician who represents Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

Rather, with its ambling, directionless narrative and lackadaisical long shots that perversely undercut the screenplay’s gags, Coincoin evokes a deep-rooted spirit of reactionary malaise, of people whose lives are hopelessly circumscribed by their own fears and prejudices. Dumont rigorously resists developing his plot or deepening his characters: They’re all trapped in an absurd loop, doomed to endlessly say the same things and reenact the same jokes.

Van der Weyden sums up that mentality in a single line: “Progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s a group of black men who periodically appear throughout the film only to be consistently and summarily dismissed in a fit of racist panic. Each time, we expect the film to create some meaningful interaction between the white townsfolk and these migrants, and each time we’re rebuffed—that is, until a final musical explosion of kumbaya-like camaraderie that’s somehow goofy, moving, tedious, and invigorating all at the same time.

Dumont is one of the few artists in cinema willing to risk exhausting his audience to induce a particular effect, but he’s not the only one, as demonstrated by James Benning’s L. Cohen, a 45-minute static shot of a seemingly unremarkable field with a mountain visible in the distance. It’s an elegantly composed frame, reminiscent of an American Regionalist painting and whose centrally located peak perhaps coyly refers to the Paramount logo.

After 20 minutes, even the most hardened cinephiles are bound to be squirming in their seat, at which point Benning reveals his remarkable trump card: As the sky quickly darkens and blackness falls over the Earth, we realize that we’ve been watching the leadup to a total solar eclipse. It’s a moment of quiet astonishment and confusion for anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming, bringing us close to the feeling a caveman might’ve had when the same event occurred. With typical mathematical precision, Benning has placed the eclipse at the exact center of the film, allowing us to explore the subtle shadows that precede and follow it.

The film, however, isn’t just some academic structuralist exercise, as it’s also a meditation on death, a fact highlighted by the next startling moment: the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Itself” on the soundtrack, a stark divergence from the ominous drone (identified by Benning during his festival Q&A as the hum of airplanes flying overhead) that fills the rest of the film. This song and the dedication of the film to the recently deceased Cohen add a deeper layer of meaning to Benning’s precisely calibrated study of light and time.

L. Cohen is in essence a meditation on temporality. All things are fleeting, even grand interplanetary ballets. Considering the brief alignment of these celestial bodies puts one in a cosmic mood and calls to mind a cryptic, haunting line from a different Cohen song, “Stories of the Street”: “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.”

One could also find the specter of death looming over Introduzione all’oscuro, an expressionistic tribute to director Gastón Solnicki’s good friend, Hans Hurch, the recently departed director of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. Described by the director not as a film about Hurch, but a film for him, Introduzione all’oscuro dispenses with biography entirely, instead evoking its subject’s buoyant, ragtag spirit in an almost subliminal fashion: through music, film, and the city of Vienna. Hurch “appears” in the film primarily through his letters and through his voice, recorded by Solnicki when he provided notes on one of the director’s previous films. Solnicki does appear on screen: a comically lonely figure visiting some of Hurch’s favorite Viennese haunts—such as the Café Engländer, from which he would periodically steal cups—on a journey that drolly recalls Holly Martins’s investigation into the apparent death of his pal Harry Lime in The Third Man.

Like Solnicki’s Kékszakállú before it, Introduzione all’oscuro is what might be called “slideshow cinema”—a procession of taut, piquant compositions whose relationship to one another isn’t precisely clear but which, when taken together, create an indelible impression of a highly specific milieu. Structured more like a piece of avant-garde music than a narrative work or traditional documentary, the film has a hypnotic yet often dissonant allure. It pulls us into a strange liminal zone where Hurch seems to be simultaneously present and absent, haunting the film like a benevolent spirit. Solnicki simply has one of the best eyes in cinema today, and it’s the pungency of his images which makes the film such an endlessly compelling experience, even when the reasons behind Solnicki’s individual choices remain obscure.

Abstruseness, though, is no crime. In fact, the greatest pleasures of Jeonju IFF were to be found in grappling with “difficult” films such as Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, and Introduzione all’oscuro: enigmatic, challenging, and even downright weird works of art made by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

The Jeonju International Film Festival ran from May 2—11.

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Review: As Teen Comedy, Booksmart Is Sweet and Nasty in Fine Balance

It’s an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness.

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Booksmart
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

An uncharitable way of describing Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut, Booksmart, is as a gender-flipped version of Superbad. Like Greg Mottola’s 2007 film, it concerns a pair of best friends who’ve spent their high school years as outsiders but, at the end of their senior year, decide to attend the biggest, coolest graduation party imaginable. As in Superbad, getting to the party devolves into an almost picaresque gauntlet through suburban nightlife, consisting of comical encounters with outlandish characters (both films even feature a “creepy car guy”). Booksmart and Superbad also share a ribald, R-rated sense of humor and a sex scene interrupted by vomit—even the same casting director (the venerable Allison Jones).

For all that, Wilde’s film is less a derivative of Mottola’s teen comedy than a corrective to it. Its exaggerated universe is less mean-spirited than the one depicted in Superbad, where so much of the humor depended on Jonah Hill loudly proclaiming his character’s misogyny. Booksmart isn’t above getting laughs from sex jokes that land somewhere between honest and outrageous—there’s a recurring bit about Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) masturbating with her stuffed panda doll—but it does show that teenage conversations about sex can be funny without being demeaning. And its belief in its main characters as more than just stand-ins for the most distorted beliefs that virginal high schoolers have about sex gives the film a fuller, more satisfying arc.

Amy and her best friend, Molly (Beanie Feldstein), are their elite Valley High School’s A-type-personality do-gooders, well-meaning in their ambition and their wokeness, but with streaks of haughtiness and self-righteousness. Beanie is class president, the kind of kid who pushes the school principal (Jason Sudeikis) to arrange a budget meeting with the juniors on the last day of class. In contrast to the brashly assertive Molly, Amy is meek, barely able to eke out syllables when talking to her crush, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), but she’s also intensely woke, adorning her denim jacket with feminist-slogan patches and her car with “Elizabeth Warren 2020” bumper stickers. The pair are so close that they’re often mistaken for being a couple (Amy has been out since the 10th grade), and they definitely don’t party.

As school is letting out, Molly discovers that her and Amy’s monk-like approach to high school life has been for naught. Although the two pride themselves on respectively getting into Yale and Columbia, it seems that virtually all of their classmates have a similarly propitious future lined up. Even the horny goofball Theo (Eduardo Franco), who repeated seventh grade three times, was recruited for a six-figure job with Google. Molly adopts partying as her new project, dragging the reluctant Amy, all the more anxious because Ryan will be at the party, along with her. The problem is that, not being a part of their school’s social scene, they have no idea where the party actually is, and limited means of figuring it out.

The obliviously indefatigable Molly is a star-making role for Feldstein, who keeps let her highly dynamic character—Molly can be both very rigid and very foolhardy—from feeling inconsistent, or leading to broad caricature. As the quieter Amy, Devers’s role is mostly reactive, but, in the tumultuous climax, she supplies the film’s most poignant and relatable moments. As the omnipresent Gigi, a troubled party girl who inexplicably appears at each of the girls’ wayward stops on their journey to the party, Billie Lourd channels a chaotic energy, becoming the film’s strung-out jester. Lourd is just part of an altogether impressive ensemble that also includes Jessica Williams as the teacher who loves Amy and Molly perhaps a bit too much, and Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s super-Christian, super-supportive parents.

For the most part sharply written, and tighter and more consistently funny than the fragmented improv-style Superbad, Booksmart nevertheless has a couple of stretches that don’t quite land. There’s a claymated ayahuasca-tripping sequence that neither suits the rest of the film nor is followed up on in any way by the narrative. And the film’s conclusion is more than a little formally messy, with Wilde relying on a too-rapid succession of non-diegetic pop songs as emotional accents and to fast-forward the plot—at one crucial moment even drowning out the dialogue. But despite these small missteps, Booksmart feels like an innovation, an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness, and that you can be gross without being too mean.

Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Billie Lourd, Diana Silvers, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin, Eduardo Franco, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Mike O’Brien Director: Olivia Wilde Screenwriter: Olivia Wilde Katie Silberman, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Terminator: Dark Fate Official Trailer: Going Back to the Well with Sarah Connor

Linda Hamilton at least makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.

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Terminator: Dark Fate
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Today, Paramount dropped the trailer for the sixth entry in the Terminator series, Terminator: Dark Fate, which promises to deliver…more of the same? With this film, Deadpool director Tim Miller aims to give the series a reboot: by pretending that none of the films that came after Terminator 2: Judgement Day ever existed (sorry, Rise of the Machines fans), maybe even Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. “Welcome to the day after judgment day,” reads the poster, promising the badass return of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. And on that front, the film looks to deliver, as Hamilton certainly makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.

But based on everything else that’s on display throughout the trailer, we’re worried that there’s not anything new that a film in this series stands to bring to the table besides running and gunning, with the occasional wink thrown in for good measure. Cast in point: Mackenzie Davis stars as Grace, an “enhanced human” who looks to fill the hanger-on role to Connor that Edward Furlong’s John Connor did to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, now apparently living in woodsy retirement, and at the ready to give sage advice. In short, we’re not impressed, and that also holds true of that cover of Björk’s “Hunter” by some zombie man singer.

Watch the official trailer below:

Paramount Pictures will release Terminator Dark Fate on November 1.

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Review: Woodstock Offers a New Look at the Three Days that Defined a Generation

Throughout, the era-defining yet problem-plagued music festival astounds in large part for all the disasters that didn’t occur.

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Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation
Photo: PBS Distribution

According to Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, the 1969 Woodstock festival seemed fated to fail. But a rare convergence of good luck, good intentions, and good vibes somehow snapped into place and crystallized over a few days in August the aspirations of a counterculture about to hit its peak. The festival’s planners, mostly promoters and music-industry pros, talk off-camera throughout this gloriously gleeful documentary about their somewhat spur-of-the-moment concept in a purposefully overlapping mosaic that makes it difficult to determine who’s saying what. Their original idea was simply a big concert that would celebrate the opening of a recording studio in the bucolic artist community of Woodstock, NY and take advantage of the musicians living nearby.

That conceit ballooned into a sprawling three-day cultural amoeba of feel-good psychedelia billed as “An Aquarian Exposition” to be held in a bucolic setting. It would ideally seem, according to one organizer, “like visiting another world.” Creating that gateway to paradise, however, hit one snag after another. Conservative fears about an invasion of hippies led to much anger among locals and triggered permitting issues. Original desired stars like Bob Dylan, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones all passed on the vent. Months’ worth of construction at the original site in Wallkill, NY had to be scrapped at the last minute.

But Woodstock shows also how both lucky circumstances and in-depth planning saved the day. The lineup swelled with a killer roster of acts whom David Crosby defines simply as “everybody we thought was cool”: Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Creedence Clearwater, Janis Joplin, and so on. According to writer Bob Spitz, interest grew as the organizers put the word out through the underground press, and though their top estimates of attendance topped out at 150,000, the eventual total was closer to a potentially unmanageable 400,000. Seemingly foolhardy ideas like hiring Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm commune to handle what they termed “security” and what Wavy defined as trying to “spread grooviness,” helped the increasingly massive enterprise maintain an appealingly mellow tone. Then, a Republican dairy farmer named Max Yasgur, who just happened to have a visually gorgeous sweep of land shaped like a natural amphitheater, agreed to host the festival.

Just about everyone interviewed in Barak Goodman and Jamilia Ephron’s documentary still marvels a half-century on at the scope and tranquility of what happened, though the potential for disaster provides some dramatic grit to the narrative. Much of the festival’s harmoniousnes was a result of on-the-spot empathetic resourcefulness, from Hog Farm’s thrown-together Sunday-morning “breakfast in bed” and “freak-out” tents for people on bad acid trips to the previously resentful locals who spontaneously emptied their pantries to feed the long-haired kids who had been tromping through their front yards. The crowds were soothed by the reassuring voice of the festival announcer, whose “we”-focused addresses over the PA system strengthened the communal spirit, which is then echoed in the film’s starry-eyed reminiscences of interviewees who all sound as though they wish they could go back.

Woodstock cannot hope to supplant Michael Wadleigh’s more symphonic and experiential 1970 documentary. But conversely, its tighter, narrower focus on narrative and context ultimately tells a bigger story at roughly half the length. Co-director Goodman has shown in some of his darker work for PBS’s American Experience, like his episode about the Oklahoma City bombing, a knack for building suspense. He deploys that skill here marvelously when showing the sea of humanity converging on Yasgur’s farm, balancing a fear of impending disaster (short supplies, last-minute glitches, a crowd many times larger than the highest estimates) with the dawning realization that things might just work out.

That tightrope-walking drama is maintained through the actual concert portion of the movie. The musical highs, Hendrix’s squalling “Star-Spangled Banner” and Richie Haven’s raucous two-hour jam (filling the gap while helicopters ferried musicians in over the blocked roads), play out while the vast crowd contends with food shortages and an unexpected rainstorm. But even though the attendees rushed past the mostly unbuilt fencing and by default created what organizer John Roberts here terms “the world’s greatest three-day freebie,” he and his partners appear now happier about the instant community that metamorphosed in the mud than the fact that as a business venture the concert was “in deep shit.”

Woodstock hits many of the expected notes about the concert’s place in the nation’s cultural history. But it’s refreshingly less self-satisfied than awestruck at the simple beauty of what happened at the Woodstock festival and the utopian example it provided to the world. Though unmentioned here, the disastrous music festival that occurred four months later at Altamont Speedway, in the hills of Northern California’s East Bay, where the organizers’ callous indifference to advance planning led to chaos and multiple deaths, shows just how rare the event that occurred in Bethel across three days back in August ‘69 remains to this day.

Director: Barak Goodman, Jamila Ephron Distributor: PBS Distribution Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Is a Knotty Trip Down Memory Lane

Its stylistic fluctuations are a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today.

3.5

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The Souvenir
Photo: A24

True to the mission of its protagonist, a well-meaning student filmmaker working on a thesis feature about a community foreign to her, writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is engaged in a running dialogue with itself around the notion of how—and how not—to make a personal narrative. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a London-based, upper-middle-class young woman coming of age in Margaret Thatcher’s England who feels a moral imperative to transpose her own experiences onto a fictional story set in working-class Sunderland, and she’s given ongoing opportunities in her film workshops to try to articulate why that is. Hogg, who based the character on her own early experiences as an artist, views Julie’s trajectory tenderly but through the lens of a greater maturity, dotting the young woman’s path with interlocutors who challenge and redirect her inclinations. Gradually, Julie’s certitude seems to fall out from under her, transforming Hogg’s film in the process.

Pivotal among these forces is Anthony (Tom Burke), a spectacularly smug older man with ambiguous professional and personal affiliations who becomes inexorably drawn to Julie, and she to him. When he first appears on screen across a table from Julie at a café, Hogg frames the scene in the kind of spacious, sophisticated master shot that defined her 2013 film Exhibition, snapping The Souvenir out of the close-up-heavy, fly-on-the-wall aesthetic with which it opens. The shift in style registers the exhilarating impact Anthony has on Julie, who is up to that point seen as a wallflower at college parties, taking photos and rolling a Bolex in the corner while bouncing in and out of conversations. Sizing up Julie’s film project with suave dismissiveness, Anthony suggests that she might heed the influence of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were able to express personal emotions free of the constraints of realism, and later proposes that “it’s not enough to be sincere or authentic.”

Julie takes such counseling in stride even when it comes from her casually condescending professors (also men), giving her a headstrong resilience that Swinton-Byrne beautifully underplays. But Julie’s toughness doesn’t equate to stubborn pride, and soon The Souvenir turns away from its portrait of early filmmaking ambition and toward the knotty dynamics of Anthony and Julie’s strengthening relationship—itself modeled off a fling in Hogg’s past. The director orchestrates this formal shapeshift with sly subtlety, first introducing the couple’s scenes together as elliptical diversions from the central storyline, then gradually lengthening them until the sequences set in and around Julie’s film school take a backseat entirely. Now sharing an apartment, Anthony and Julie go through the growing pains of coexistence—the former posits a “Wall of Jericho” made of pillows in a reference to It Happened One Night to solve his discomfort in bed—but nonetheless find a strange harmony in their dissonant personalities, with his brutal honesty charming her and her placidity disarming him.

In Anthony’s case, however, this apparent personality yardstick proves misleading, as it turns out that he’s frank about everything but his own life. Talk of a vague government job creates an impression of a posh background belied by Anthony and Julie’s trip to visit his parents, and later, an offhand remark made by one of Anthony’s friends when he’s in the bathroom yields the startling revelation—cued by spatially disorienting mirror shots and the gentle use of Dutch angles—that Julie’s boyfriend is a heroin addict. Hogg omits the scene where Julie confronts Anthony about this revelation, but the mark it leaves on their relationship is implicitly, delicately apparent in every part of The Souvenir moving forward. The neatly organized, white-walled apartment where much of the action takes place becomes charged with tension, not only from the threat of dissident bombing that percolates outside its windows (a reality contemporaneous to the film’s early-‘80s setting), but also from Anthony’s frequent, unexplained comings and goings, which starkly contrast Julie’s more fixed physicality as she spends her time hunched over a typewriter.

The Souvenir flirts with a few conventional movie premises—the doomed romance, the spiral into the hell of drug addiction, the pursuit of self-actualization—without ever fully engaging one, which doesn’t indicate an uncertainty on Hogg’s part so much as a supreme confidence in the intricacies of her own material. Likely to some viewers’ dismay, Julie’s story isn’t one that ever comes to hinge on an a-ha moment, a sudden realization that she’s strayed from her artistic passion in her entanglement with a toxic partner. Rather, Hogg evokes both the seductive appeal of an irrational romance and the less sexy but nonetheless potent comfort of falling into the role of nurturer, a discipline shown in a few touching scenes to be inherited by Julie from her mother (Tilda Swinton). What’s more, it can’t be said that Anthony’s influence is purely deleterious, as his bouts of real vulnerability, carried off with a persuasive display of wounded pride by Burke, repeatedly push Julie toward greater sensitivity and awareness.

Perhaps ambivalent herself to Anthony’s recommendation that Julie seek inspiration from Powell and Pressburger’s work, Hogg shoots in a grainy, underlit 16mm palette that has less to do with period fetishism than with draining the sparkle from Julie’s privileged upbringing. The Souvenir is shot from a measured distance, often with the camera in rooms adjacent to the actors so that walls and other objects populate the foreground, and the resulting sense is of being simultaneously immersed in the spaces of Hogg’s early adulthood and at an intellectual remove from them, a fusion seemingly reflective of the director’s own mixed emotions in revisiting this story. In this case, however, that quality of fluctuation isn’t a deficiency but a virtue, a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today, and the mark of a film that’s beholden to no recipe but its own.

Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Jack McMullen, Frankie Wilson, Richard Ayoade, Jaygann Ayeh Director: Joanna Hogg Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg Distributor: A24 Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Aladdin Is a Magic Corporate Ride to Nowhere Special

Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake is content to trace the original’s narrative beats with perfunctory indifference.

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Aladdin
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Compared to a few other recent live-action remakes of Disney’s animated films, which at least attempted to bring striking story wrinkles or an auteurist perspective to bear on their interpretations, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is a remake in the most literal sense. Much of the film’s first act traces the narrative beats of the 1992 animated feature, and in shot-for-shot fashion: Thieving street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets and charms the princess of his native Agrabah, Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and ultimately runs afoul of scheming grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), before obtaining a magic lamp containing a genie (Will Smith) who has the power to transform the young pauper into a prince worthy of Jasmine’s station.

The steadfastness with which every aspect of the original is replicated by this new Aladdin makes Ritchie’s film a grueling example of the streaming-era notion of art as content. Because there’s no chemistry between Massoud and Scott, the legitimacy of Aladdin and Jasmine’s flirtations is largely sold on the basis of the viewer’s preexisting knowledge that these two will become a couple. Elsewhere, the relationship between Jafar and the Sultan (Navid Negahban) is an even paler imitation. In the original, Jafar’s viciousness was at least partially driven by his hatred of the Sultan, who issued inane commands to his grand vizier in all sorts of parodically infantile and buffoonish of ways. Here, though, the Sultan is a negligible figure, neither callous nor especially influential, thus robbing his subordinate of a compelling motive. The Jafar of this film is evil simply because he’s been designated as the story’s big bad.

If the dogged faithfulness of Ritchie’s film to the original proves consistently stultifying, it’s the most noticeable deviations that ultimately damn the remake. In an attempt to give Jasmine something to do other than be the object of men’s affections, Ritchie and co-writer John August blend the character’s traditional frustrations at being trapped behind palace walls with a newfound resentment over how her capacity to rule as sultan is thwarted by traditional gender roles. Nonetheless, her desires to lead are bluntly articulated and reflective of a broader tendency among the film’s characters to express their awareness of their own repression by tilting their heads back and staring off into the distance as they speak extemporaneously about their dreams. Poor Scott is also burdened with the film’s big new song, “Speechless,” an instantly dated empowerment anthem that suggests the sonic equivalent of that old woman’s botched restoration of the Ecce Homo fresco in Borja, Spain.

The film does come somewhat to life during its musical numbers. Though these sequences are marked by simplistic and unengaging choreography, they don’t quell the verve of Howard Ashman and Tim Rice’s original songs. Less successful is Smith, who, unable to match the intensity of Robin Williams’s performance as the Genie in the original film, leans into his signature drawling sarcasm to bring his spin on the character to life, effectively draining the Genie of everything that made him so memorably larger than life in the first place. Even when portraying some of the Genie’s more antic behavior, Smith mostly takes the path of least resistance, injecting just enough energy into his performance to hint at Williams’s memorable take on the character but without seeming as if he’s actually working up a sweat.

Elsewhere, Massoud mostly goes through the motions in establishing Aladdin as a rakish pauper, but the actor comes alive in a comic scene that sees his street urchin, newly styled as a prince by the Genie, presenting himself to the Sultan’s court. Having never been trained on any points of social graces, Aladdin can only stammer out pleasantries, using strange honorifics to refer to the Sultan as he curtsies instead of bows. Later, the Genie helps Aladdin perform an elaborate dance by controlling the young man’s body in order to wow the Sultan’s court. Impressively, Massoud manages to perform complicated steps while looking as if every movement is done against his will, giving Aladdin’s flailing motions a slapstick quality.

Such flashes of personality, though, are few and far between in this remake. Certainly there was a lot of room to bring a contemporary perspective to this material—to counter the original’s problematic representation of its Middle-Eastern milieu and deepen its characters. Instead, the film settles for telling you a joke you’ve already heard and botching the delivery.

Cast: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Alan Tudyk, Frank Welker, Billy Magnussen Director: Guy Ritchie Screenwriter: John August, Guy Ritchie Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 128 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Brightburn Is a Soulless Mishmash of Disparate Genre Elements

The way the film shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped of its most crucial narrative parts.

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Brightburn
Photo: Screen Gems

Like a lot of kids squirming through puberty, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) is an asshole. Unlike most, however, he’s from outer space and possessed of formidable superpowers. Soon after learning of his abilities, he stalks a classmate, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), who consoled him in class after he was teased for his incredible smarts. Brandon makes a show of controlling Caitlyn’s laptop before appearing outside her bedroom window, eerily floating in the air. By this point in director David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, one is still optimistic that Brandon’s creeper tendencies will be the most insidious of his problems. But when Caitlyn calls him a pervert, after letting him fall to the ground during a “trust fall” exercise in gym class, Brandon crushes the bones in her hand after she’s forced to help him up. By the end of the film, Caitlyn will prove to be one of the lucky ones.

That Yarovesky and screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn don’t exactly push the link between Brandon’s pubescence and his growing self-awareness isn’t the first sign that something is amiss here. Right out of the gate, Brightburn reveals itself unwilling to animate its characters’ emotional dramas, using visual shorthand to simply hint at them. In the opening scene, set more than 10 years in the past, the camera pans across a bookshelf full of fertility books, informing the audience that Brandon’s parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman), really want to have a baby. Later, while helping his dad with chores, Brandon accidentally throws a lawnmower halfway across the family farm. This is when he recognizes that he has superpowers, but rather than prolong the kid’s doubt across more than one scene, the film zips straight to the moment where he’s about to shove his hand into the lawn mower’s spinning blades to confirm his suspicions that he’s nothing short of invincible.

More genre films—more films, period—could stand to have a lot less fat on their bones, but the way Brightburn shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped even of its most crucial narrative parts. Outside of one pulpy hallucination sequence, the film stubbornly refuses to give a concrete sense of the desperation that drove Tori and Kyle to adopt Brandon, just as it can’t be bothered to give shape to the mythology of his creation—or rather, his arrival. For a spell, though, this suggests a purposeful show of evasion. Much is made of the red light that peeks out from the floorboards in the family barn and to which Brandon is drawn throughout the film. If you’re a fan of Larry Cohen’s canon, you may wonder if the kid will be revealed as a kindred spirit of the ever-glowing human-alien antagonist from God Told Me To, here to make sport of our biological urge to procreate in our increasingly decaying world.

No such luck, as Brightburn is a meaningless mishmash of disparate genre elements. The truth of what lurks beneath the floorboards turns out to be of no particular consequence—not exactly a red herring, just a bit of hogwash that confirms Brandon to be a gene splice of Damien and Superman. Maybe a sense of majesty, of mythic grandeur, might have made him feel as if he was less arbitrarily willed into being, though Yarovesky certainly conveys the weight of the kid’s killing spree. Not its existential weight, only its repugnant force. At one point, one of his victims struggles to hold up the lower part of his grotesquely shattered jaw, as Brandon pulls off the mask that he wears because, presumably, he understands that that’s what someone with superhuman powers should do. Brightburn never shows us how Brandon came to such a realization, but it does let us glimpse the stone-cold delight he takes in erasing human life—a spectacle of violence that exists for its own soulless sake.

Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Jennifer Holland, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Gregory Alan Williams, Steve Agee, Emmie Hunter Director: David Yarovesky Screenwriter: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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