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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: Angel Has Fallen Paints an Incoherent Picture of an Action Hero

The film seems to have cobbled its set pieces together from a series of close-ups edited as if by random selection.

1.5

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Angel Has Fallen
Photo: Summit Entertainment

Ric Roman Waugh’s Angel Has Fallen sees U.S. Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler)—having returned to his home turf after a trip across the pond—contending with more threats to international security. Mercifully jettisoning the Islamophobia of Babak Najafi’s London Has Fallen, the film finds Mike framed for an assassination attempt on President Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman). And clearing his name appears to hinge, at least at first, on whether or not he learns to grapple with the physical and psychological toll of his previous exploits, as multiple concussions and spinal injuries have saddled him with insomnia and an addiction to painkillers.

As a fleet of miniature drones slaughters Trumbull’s security detail, it’s impossible not to think of Mike’s early interactions with his old Army Ranger buddy, Wade Jennings (Danny Huston), the head of a private military contractor. Angel Has Fallen introduces Wade openly lamenting that Trumbull’s efforts to stop war profiteering have hurt his business. It’s almost to the film’s credit that Jennings’s guilt is never in doubt, meaning that Mike’s subsequent escape from custody and quest to clear his name are rooted solely in his having to contend with his traitorous friend’s private army, and not some dull mystery centered around who set him up.

Still, the film’s framing of Mike as the most wanted man in America is clumsily executed. Given that his face is plastered on screens all over the country, you’d think that the man would be trying to avoid public exposure at all times. In practice, though, Mike is almost always in plain sight, never making any attempt to disguise himself, almost as if he’s aware that no one ever seems to recognize him. The only exception to this rule is when he’s held up by two armed, backwoods militiamen in Angel Has Fallen’s most baffling scene; after all, when one imagines the sort of people who might be driven to an outraged citizen’s arrest over an attack on a liberal, black president, one doesn’t immediately think of white nationalists.

Given the lack of significant impediment to Mike’s movements, the film allows plenty of space for action thrills, but Waugh seems to have cobbled his set pieces together from a series of close-ups edited as if by random selection. And because of so much coherence-defying shot continuity, it’s impossible to tell what’s happening during any given skirmish. Even the nonviolent scenes are jittery and aggressive; a close-up at one point tracks a character picking up a phone with a whip pan so fast that the shot slips out of focus. Worst of all, though, are the special effects that mark the more grandiose set pieces, with smoke from massive explosions hanging statically in the air as a giant, solid mass and, in the film’s rooftop climax, the obvious use of green screen revealing image artifacts around the actors’ faces.

It doesn’t help that, three films into the Fallen series, Mike has almost paradoxically lost some of his dimensionality as a character. In an age of impossibly conditioned physiques, Butler’s everyman image is a welcome throwback to the action stars of yore. But he doesn’t radiate much wit and personality, delivering Mike’s punchlines with the same leaden severity that he does the film’s exposition. Butler portrays Mike’s dire health condition with nothing more than the occasional flutter of his eyelids and a momentary stumble, and what could have given Mike’s quest to clear his name added urgency is swiftly abandoned as soon he goes on the run, evincing as he does no visible signs of suffering from any malady or trauma.

The only time that Angel Has Fallen exhibits any spark of inspiration is when Mike hides out with his estranged, traumatized veteran father, Clay (Nick Nolte), who’s secluded himself in a cabin in the deep woods of West Virginia. When Jennings inevitably finds his prey there, Mike’s efforts to take charge are overridden by Clay tripping a number of booby traps, setting off so many explosives that the sequence, for the way its initial tediousness blooms into improbable hilarity as each successive explosion dispatches one of Jennings’s men, comes to suggest a brutal iteration of the famous rake gag from The Simpsons. Nolte, with his gravelly voice, bent frame, and matted briar patch of hair, communicates in a few scenes all of the pathos of weariness and trauma that Butler fails to invest in Mike, providing Angel Has Fallen with its only sources of comedy and emotional resonance.

Cast: Gerard Butler, Morgan Freeman, Danny Huston, Michael Landes, Tim Blake Nelson, Nick Nolte, Piper Perabo, Jada Pinkett Smith, Lance Reddick Director: Ric Roman Waugh Screenwriter: Robert Mark Kamen, Matt Cook, Ric Roman Waugh Distributor: Summit Entertainment Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Locarno Film Festival 2019: Technoboss, Echo, & A Voluntary Year

A striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival’s competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register.

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Technoboss
Photo: Locarno

Locarno often leans into its reputation as Europe’s most unapologetically highbrow summer festival, but a striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival’s competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register. Such as João Nicolau’s Technoboss, an unwaveringly deadpan musical comedy about an aging divorcé, Luís (Miguel Lobo Antunes), nearing the end of what seems to have been a tedious career selling and maintaining integrated security systems. His existence is far from enviable, as he’s past his prime as a salesman and baffled by modern technology, while his primary companion is his cat. To compound the overriding sense of ennui, Nicolau presents a decidedly drab vision of Portugal, all cramped offices, cluttered shop floors, and soulless hotels.

Luís, though, remains optimistic, as evinced by his tendency to burst into song as he drives between assignments, and by the quietly determined way in which he attempts to regain the affection of an old flame, Lucinda (Luisa Cruz), despite her apparent disdain for him. Antunes, in his first professional acting role, is compelling, with a perpetual twinkle in his eye that hints at a rich inner life. And while his vocal range is limited, to say the least, he brings an earnestness to the musical numbers that elevates them above mere quirky window dressing.

Ultimately, the film is too narratively slight and tonally monotonous to justify its two-hour running time. One running joke in particular, involving a smarmy executive who’s frequently heard off screen but never seen, runs out of steam in the final act. And yet, when viewed in close proximity to the likes of Park Jung-bum’s dreary crime drama Height of the Wave, which bafflingly won this year’s special jury prize, Technoboss is a breath of fresh air.

Runar Runarsson’s Echo isn’t exactly a laugh a minute: An early scene depicts the preparation for a child’s funeral, while subsequent sequences revolve around police brutality, domestic violence, and the lasting impact of childhood bullying. But it’s delightful to behold Runarsson’s sly execution of a formally bold premise. Clocking in at 79 minutes, the film is composed of 56 standalone vignettes connected by a Christmas setting. The constant narrative shifts are initially jarring, but recurring themes begin to emerge: rising social inequality in the aftermath of the financial crisis; the impact of modern technology on traditional ways of life; the drabness of winter and its impact on the country’s collective mental health.

Yet while the film’s underlying tone is melancholic, there are frequent bursts of pure comedy, from the absurd spectacle of abattoir workers bopping along to a jaunty rendition of “Jingle Bells” amid animal carcasses, to a farmer and her partner earnestly squabbling about the state of their relationship as they document the mating habits of their goats. Humor also arises through the juxtaposition of scenes. The haunting image of a boy in a coffin is followed by a clinical shot of a similarly motionless adult body, and it takes a moment to register that we’re looking at not another corpse, but rather a man lying under a tanning lamp. Later, a heartwarming kids’ nativity scene cuts abruptly to a shot of bikini-clad bodybuilders performing in a harshly lit, half-empty auditorium.

However, it’s Echo’s sincerity that really impresses. One sequence, in which an emergency services operator calmly reassures a child reporting a violent altercation between his parents, is remarkable in the way it hooks the viewer emotionally in mere seconds. The film ultimately coheres into a vivid portrait of contemporary Iceland that’s equal parts bleak and beguiling.

A Voluntary Year, co-directed by Berlin School alumni Ulrich Köhler and Henner Winckler, is a similarly bittersweet affair, walking a fine line between raw domestic drama and precision-engineered comedy of errors. Sebastian Rudolph stars as Urs, an off-puttingly pushy small-town doctor intent on packing his teenage daughter Jette (Maj-Britt Klenke) off to Costa Rica to volunteer in a hospital. Jette, though, would rather spend her gap year at home with her boyfriend, Mario (Thomas Schubert), who seems harmless enough but has been written off as a poisonous influence by Urs. A sequence of mishaps in the thrillingly unpredictable opening act gives the young couple a brief chance to take charge of their own futures, but the decision Jette hastily makes pushes her strained relationship with her father towards breaking point.

Köhler and Winckler do a fine job of eliciting sympathy for their deeply flawed characters. Jette is maddeningly indecisive and prone to overly dramatic outbursts, but her brash exterior masks deep-seated vulnerability. Meanwhile, it’s easy to share Urs’s disbelief that Jette should be even remotely infatuated with the woefully uncharismatic Mario, but the boy’s earnestness ultimately proves strangely endearing. Urs is much harder to warm to, as he’s the quintessential big fish in a small pond, clearly used to throwing his weight around and getting his own way. To add insult to injury, his handling of sensitive situations is often jaw-droppingly misjudged. And yet, the viewer is given a strong enough sense of his good intentions to at least partially root for him as he attempts to patch things up with Jette.

While it may not do this modest film any favors to make the comparison, there are shades of Maren Ade’s masterly Toni Erdmann in The Voluntary Year’s nuanced depiction of a fraught father-daughter relationship, and also in the way the filmmakers play the long game when it comes to delivering comic payoffs. An enigmatic narrative thread involving a migrant boy has a laugh-out-loud resolution that also neatly paves the way for a moving final scene.

The Locarno Film Festival ran from August 7—17.

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Interview: J. Hoberman Talks Make My Day, Ronald Reagan, and ‘80s Movie Culture

Hoberman discusses how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered Reagan’s presidency.

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They Live
Photo: Film at Lincoln Center

The poster boy of American conservatism, the bar to which all Republicans would unashamedly evaluate future candidates, and yet now seemingly lower on a weekly basis, Ronald Reagan was an ideal movie star with an idealized view of the past. His perfect America would be equivalent to the opening shots of red roses, green lawns, and white picket fences that kick off Blue Velvet, while America’s reality would be what transpires once Bobby Vinton’s song concludes and the swarming ants are revealed beneath the surface.

A time of Hollywood blockbusters and silver screen patriots, macho men and teens headed back to the future, the 1980s, while not considered a golden movie age, saw a symbiotic relationship between American film and the nation’s chosen leader. How else to account for Reagan proposing his “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative in March of 1983, a mere two months before the release of the year’s top grossing film, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi?

With his methodically researched new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman takes a sociological approach to discovering how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered the goings-on of our 40th president’s administration. And on the occasion of the book’s release and accompanying Film at Lincoln Center series, which samples feature films from the ‘80s, I spoke with Hoberman about the first Reagan screen performance he ever saw, being a working film critic during the “Age of Reagan,” and the unexpected rise of real estate mogul and Celebrity Apprentice host Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.

One of your most revered books is Vulgar Modernism, a collection of reviews and essays written during the ‘80s without the benefit, or trappings, of historical hindsight. Now 30-some-odd years later, you’ve taken a step back to take a look at the bigger picture of the decade. What was that experience like?

I should say that this book was the culmination of two earlier books, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War. Make My Day is the end of a trilogy. When I began writing the trilogy, I didn’t realize how central Reagan would be to it, but by the time I started Make My Day, he had become, in effect, the protagonist of the entire trilogy. Make My Day was different from the other two books. It’s not just that I lived through this period, but that I was then a working critic. How was I going to deal with that? In the earlier books, I went out of my way to quote critics and others who wrote about movies because I was very interested in how these films were initially received. In the case of Make My Day, however, it seemed absurd to quote other critics when I was there myself. It took me a while to come to that conclusion because my impulse wasn’t to put myself in the book and yet I realized that I would ultimately have to.

I found that my opinion of the various movies discussed hadn’t changed all that much. My opinion of Reagan was modified somewhat, in that I saw him as a more complicated figure than I did during the 1980s, but I also believe my response to him in the ‘80s was true to the moment. That’s why I included a number of longer pieces in the book, while also annotating them, so that one could see that I wasn’t just reusing the material without thinking about it.

You note that each volume can be read in chronological order, the order in which they were published, or as standalone installments. I took it up after finishing your and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies, and it felt like I was emerging from the pre-’80s underground to a Reaganized American society that had become depressingly anything but countercultural. What was it like being on the underground and Hollywood beat as a critic throughout those years?

I didn’t really start reviewing the blockbuster films until around 1984. I was the Village Voice’s second-string critic when Andrew Sarris, the first-string critic, fell ill, and I took his spot for a while. As a result, I was reviewing movies that I might otherwise not have. To make things interesting for myself, I began reviewing these movies from a political and ideological perspective. Even when Andy came back, that stayed with me. So, for example, there were a lot of action films during that period that Andy was very glad not to review, like Top Gun, but I did those while also reviewing foreign films, avant-garde films, documentaries, and so on. I always said that I could never be a first-string critic for a newspaper. I would have lost my mind having a steady diet of big Hollywood movies! I would have had to mix things up.

While midnight movies aren’t the primary focus of Make My Day, the underground did find a way into your reviews of ‘80s blockbusters. I recall a review in the Voice titled “White Boys: Lucas, Spielberg, and the Temple of Dumb” in which you tear down the nostalgic Indiana Jones prequel while praising Jack Smith’s nostalgic Normal Love. Was it maddening for you to review the latest Spielberg while underground artists concurrently made the same points to much smaller audiences?

That was really something that came from the heart. I was outraged by Temple of Doom, by its attitude, and I was really sick of these guys, Spielberg and Lucas. I wanted to bring out that there were other forms of filmmaking and other ways of dealing with this material. I was making a point, yes, but it was something that was fueled by emotion rather than reason.

Were there any Spielberg films, or Spielberg-adjacent films like Gremlins or Poltergeist, that you found less than risible throughout the Reagan years?

There were some that I preferred. I liked Gremlins quite a bit, and I enjoyed Back to the Future, which is Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. At the time, I didn’t much care for Poltergeist, but when I looked at it again for the book, I thought it was interesting in terms of its pathology. I should also say that I liked Jaws and E.T., to a degree, although it was no Blade Runner.

Though primarily concerned with Regan’s political reign, you also dig deep into his filmography, noting how his sole villainous role, in The Killers, has always prompted a vocal reaction from every audience you’ve watched it with. Why do you think that is?

Well, I’m not sure that’s still true. A friend recently saw The Killers at Film Forum and told me he was sort of shocked that people didn’t respond to the scene where Reagan slaps Angie Dickinson. The first time I saw The Killers, which was, I think, in June of 1969, I didn’t expect to see Reagan in it. I don’t think I had seen him in a movie before. I was well aware of who he was, of course, and I hated him because I had been at Berkeley the previous summer, when students were public enemy number one and there were disturbances every night—the whole thing was extremely compelling for me as a 19-year-old. The point I wanted to make was that my whole view of Reagan was predicated on The Killers. To me, he seemed to be playing himself. I had a very naïve response. I couldn’t understand why he would do the role. I mean, what crazy hubris prompted him to show what he dreamed of becoming on screen? I recognize my response as primitive, but it also demonstrates the power of movie images. I didn’t see him as acting, even though he clearly is. I saw it as him projecting his evil, bastardly essence.

Speaking of essence, it’s odd re-watching Donald Trump’s numerous cameos in American film and television. Unlike Reagan’s silver-screen presence, Trump literally always played himself: an obscenely rich braggadocio. Whereas Reagan’s “lovable” persona no doubt helped his later career in politics, Trump’s media appearances helped to fortify his reputation as an arrogant huckster.

This is the point I tried to make at the end of the book. I was surely thinking about Trump a lot while writing the book, but he only became president when I was close to finishing it. Trump may have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but it doesn’t come as a result of the movies. He’s a celebrity and a celebrity is someone who’s able to project a cartoon version of themselves, or a larger-than-life version of themselves, into the media world: TV, the tabloid press, and so on. Trump is being true to this persona. I didn’t really see Trump’s presidency coming. For me, he was a New York City character, a local celebrity who was regularly exposed in the Village Voice’s narrative of New York City corruption. I had no sense of how he existed to the rest of America, in Celebrity Apprentice. Clearly that’s what put him over, or at least helped to put him over. That and his appearances on Fox News as a kind of pundit and even his involvement with professional wrestling.

As you mention in your book, the uncomfortably awkward 1979 CBS Ted Kennedy sit-down interview with Roger Mudd ultimately derailed Kennedy’s attempt at a presidential run. It’s hard to imagine, given the feckless attempts by our current political leaders to appear like an everyman, that current presidential candidates’ chances could be derailed by the televised struggle to answer a basic question. If anything, we might view the guffaw as endearing and humanizing. Trump says dumb stuff on a daily basis, and we all just accept it. Have we become desensitized to politicians being put on the spot and not being able to come up with succinct answers?

I think it’s different for different candidates. Being the younger brother of J.F.K., who was the first real political star, created a lot of expectations. People credit Kennedy’s success in the 1960 election with his appearance in the first debate, for looking so much better than Nixon. That may be simplistic, but it’s not simplistic for people to think that TV had something to do with Kennedy becoming president. I think this is a case of “live by the sword, die by the sword,” that his brother just stumbled so badly in that interview, in what was essentially his television debut. He did go on all the way to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, but the myth of the Kennedy charm and invincibility was destroyed by that interview.

Looking at subsequent presidents, Reagan certainly had an elastic sense of reality. But in his distortions and lies and misstatements, he was by and large upbeat and, when he wasn’t, he was at least coherent. Trump lies so continuously that you feel that that must be part of his appeal for his base, that he’s just going to make this stuff up. They think it’s funny or entertaining or maybe that it represents a “greater degree of authenticity.”

There had been a very interesting point made by Theodor W. Adorno about Hitler’s appeal. I’m not saying that Trump is Hitler, but he’s a demagogue and Hitler was too. Adorno, who lived through Hitler’s lies, made the point that intellectuals and serious people didn’t get Hitler’s appeal. Before he came to power, he just seemed like a clown. There was something ridiculous about Hitler’s assertions and his tantrums. What they didn’t realize was that’s precisely what his fans liked about him. I think that’s also the case with Trump and his supporters.

If Nashville, as you point out in the book, foresaw the real-life presidential assassination attempts that were soon to come, could you see the same cinematic influences happening today? Are there films today that you think are foreshadowing things that could come into fruition within our own political future?

Nashville was a movie made at a time when movies were much more central to American culture than they are now. It was made by a filmmaker, Robert Altman, who was directly addressing, as an artist, what was going on. I bracketed Nashville with Jaws because in some respects, Jaws is a similar movie, although I’m not sure if Spielberg was consciously making an allegory. Some things in the film are political, for example the behavior of the Mayor of Amity, but beyond that the movie itself was utterly central to American culture. There was nothing more important during the summer of 1975 than Jaws. There’s no movie that has that kind of centrality anymore, nor do movies as a whole.

A number of television shows seemed to be predicting Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election. There were shows like Madam Secretary and Veep and Homeland, strong, female, political heroes, or, in the case of Veep, comic. But what were they compared to Celebrity Apprentice? Those aforementioned shows were very feeble in terms of reaching an audience and I think it was more a projection of the people who made it. When I look at movies now, and I have to say that I don’t see as many movies as I used to, I see some that seem to manifest things that are in the air. Jordan Peele’s Get Out would be the best example of this. That movie was made and conceived while Obama was president, but it certainly projected the post-Trump mood. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is interesting because, on the one hand, it’s a movie about 1969, and yet it’s also a movie about 2019. It can’t help but manifest some of our current fantasies and tensions. But even if it had a bigger audience than Nashville, people just aren’t taking it the same way.

And Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood presents a cinematic take that has a romanticized, almost fetishistic view of a 1969 that never truly existed, at least not the way Tarantino wishes it did…

Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it. I would put it somewhat differently, but we can let people discover for themselves if they haven’t seen it!

The book also talks a great deal about the revisionism and idealization of specific time periods that were said to represent wholesome Americana. The ‘50s is a big one, but as you point out, the movies’ view of the ‘50s were drastically different from the one the world actually experienced. I remember growing up in the ‘90s convinced Happy Days was a TV show not just about the ‘50s, but from the ‘50s itself.

That makes perfect sense, and I think other people share that same experience. The genius of that show is that it portrayed the ‘50s “as it should have been.” Jean Baudrillard has a memorable description of walking in to see Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 black-and-white film The Last Picture Show and, for a moment, thinking it was actually a movie from the period it depicted: the early ‘50s. It was a hyper-real version of it. That’s what Happy Days was. I think Reagan’s genius was to be able to do that on a larger scale, to conjure up an idealized ‘60s almost out of whole cloth, vague memories, old television, and old movies in his own conviction, even if that was ultimately a fantasy. It was an idealization of the period.

On the occasion of your book’s release, you’ve programmed a selection of double features for an upcoming series at Film at Lincoln Center. Outside of a closeness in release dates, like The Last Temptation of Christ and They Live, what went into the pairing up of certain titles?

I appreciate that question. I really love the concept of double bills. Whenever it’s possible, I like to teach using double bills, because then the movies can talk to each other—and I don’t have to talk as much. Ideally the movies should comment on each other. The reason for including The Last Temptation of Christ was a bit tricky. I thought that the response that it got certainly looked forward to the culture wars of the ‘90s. There was such hostility directed toward that movie and, by extension, the movie industry as a whole. As Trump would say, it was as “an enemy of the people.” And to me, They Live seems to be the bluntest, most direct critique of Reaganism ever delivered, and it was delivered at the very, very end of his presidency. In a sense, it was already over, as the film came out just before the 1988 presidential election. I see both They Live and The Last Temptation as political movies, one overtly political and one that was taken in a political manner.

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Review: Vita & Virginia Leaves the Nuances of a Love Affair to the Imagination

The film frequently falls back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.

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Vita & Virginia
Photo: IFC Films

When capricious socialite and writer Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) first glimpses Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) at a bohemian party in Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia, the latter is the midst of a dance, her head leaning back and arms freely swaying in the air. It’s an uncharacteristic moment of outgoingness for the author, who by this time in the early 1920s has had only modest success, and the throbbing ambient techno music that underscores the scene lends her and Vita’s desires a strange and striking modernity. But the film doesn’t fully commit to such anachronistic flourishes in its portrait of the two women’s tumultuous love affair, instead frequently falling back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.

Vita’s deviousness and unpredictability does, for a time, make for some compelling proto-feminist drama, thanks in large part to Arterton’s bold performance. Vita is amusingly blasé in the face of both her heiress mother, Lady Sackville (Isabella Rossellini), who protests to her dressing as a man and openly having affairs with women, and her diplomat husband, Harold (Rupert Penry-Jones), completely dismissing his concerns about maintaining their marriage of convenience. Elsewhere, Debicki is left with the difficult task of dramatizing Virginia’s escalating strife, and with little help from a script that basically skirts over the serious mental health issues that plagued Woolf throughout her life. In fact, Virginia’s joys and struggles as they arise from Vita’s hot-and-cold treatment of her are rarely given any concrete form aside from the occasional ham-fisted touch of CGI-enhanced magical realism, as when vines grow out of the woodwork when Virginia returns home after first sleeping with Vita.

Outside of these moments, Virginia’s interiority is given similarly blunt expression through her relationships with her passive yet understanding husband, Leonard (Peter Ferdinando), her lively artist sister, Vanessa (Emerald Fennell), and Vanessa’s roommate, the flamboyant painter Duncan Grant (Adam Gillen). Each of these archetypes always seems to be conveniently on hand to explicitly outline the details of Virginia’s emotional state. The only time her thoughts and emotions, as well as Vita’s, are articulated with any nuance is through a series of epistolary interludes that see Arterton and Debicki reading the love letters that Sackville-West and Woolf wrote to one another. And yet, these moments are so awkwardly and unimaginatively incorporated into the film, with the actresses speaking their words directly into the camera, that the letters’ flowery language is effectively drained of its poeticism.

Vita & Virginia eventually lands on Woolf writing her breakthrough novel, Orlando, which was inspired by her relationship with Sackville-West. But as Button gives us only a vague sense of what drew these two vastly different women together, she leaves to the imagination how Sackville-West had such a lasting and profound effect on one of the great authors of the 20th century. In Orlando, Woolf writes, “Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth.” There’s more ambiguity, complexity, or passion in that one line regarding the elusive and illusory qualities of Vita’s love for Virginia than there is in all of Button’s film.

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isabella Rossellini, Rupert Penry-Jones, Peter Ferdinando, Emerald Fennell, Gethin Anthony, Rory Fleck Byrne, Karla Crome Director: Chanya Button Screenwriter: Chanya Button Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ready or Not Ribs the One Percent with More Laughs than Horror

Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot.

2.5

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Ready or Not
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s horror film Ready or Not is centered around a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek, and if that sounds unconscionably silly, at least the filmmakers are aware of that. Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy’s screenplay embraces the inherent absurdity of this premise, concocting an elaborate narrative justification as to why a bunch of grown-ups would be engaged in a murderous version of the classic kids’ game. It all boils down to a family ritual: Anyone marrying into the obscenely wealthy Le Domas clan must play a game at midnight on their wedding night, and this game, which is selected at random by a puzzle box, could be anything from old maid to checkers.

Bright-eyed good girl Grace (Samara Weaving), who’s just wedded the family’s favorite son, Alex (Mark O’Brien), gets picked to play hide-and-seek, and that’s where the trouble begins. Because while the other games proceed in perfectly ordinary fashion, the Le Domases have made a violent mythology surrounding this one game: The family must capture its newest member and slaughter them in a ritual sacrifice before sunrise, or else each family member will be cursed to die. And so, the Le Domases give Grace time to hide anywhere she likes in their sprawling country manor before they set out with rifles and crossbows to find her.

Gradually, the convoluted family mythology comes to overtake the goofy simplicity of the film’s premise, and to the point that one is apt to forget that a game of hide-and-seek is even going on. But Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett keep things lively with a lavish visual style that nods toward Kubrick’s The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, and even Barry Lyndon, while still maintaining an identity of its own. Lit mostly with candles, the sprawling villa in which the film mostly takes place assumes a creepy aura reminiscent of the opulently spooky house in Robert Wise’s The Haunting. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett’s mildly showy use of long takes and lithe camera movements exhibit an ironic grandiosity that suits the film’s light-hearted sadism.

Funny but not quite a comedy, Ready or Not, to its credit, leans in to the arbitrariness of its own myths and rules. Some of the members of the Le Domas clan aren’t even sure they believe in their family curse, and they bicker over whether they should be allowed to utilize modern technology, such as their mansion’s security cameras, to track Grace down. But the film’s constant reiteration and reevaluation of the Le Domases’ goofy traditions can sometimes make things feel repetitive and slightly exhausting, impressions which are enhanced by the lackadaisical handling of the film’s kills. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett primarily employ violence for laughs, but they frequently flub the punchline with a confusingly quick edit or an awkwardly shaky handheld shot. Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot. But this gonzo capper has the effect of retroactively diminishing the tame, uninventive bloodshed that preceded it.

Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O'Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Nicky Guadagni, Elyse Levesque, John Ralston Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett Screenwriter: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Jawline Takes a Measured Look at Social Media Stardom

The film is refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.

3

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Jawline
Photo: Hulu

The perma-glossy avatar of our profit-minded social media era is the cheery influencer, that species of professional bon vivant who seems perpetually more put together than anyone could be. Liza Mandelup’s debut documentary feature, Jawline, traces the dynamics that drive such influencers, their intensely adoring fans, and the malicious managers who try to turn a profit on them, and it’s refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.

The film begins on Austyn Tester, a sweet, poor Tennessee teen with a few thousand followers across Instagram, Twitter, Musical.ly, and YouNow who’s itching to escape his hometown and become an online celebrity. Mandelup mostly focuses on his daily efforts toward achieving that fame, including his semi-disciplined uploading regimen and the many retakes required to snag the perfect post. He spends much of his times posting, singing, and assuaging his young fans’ personal frustration on live chat. Only a slight variant on his actual personality, Austyn’s online brand, a “follow your dreams, no matter what” sort of positivity, would be unremarkable if it weren’t for its apparent impact on his teen girl fans.

Several of these fans are interviewed throughout the film. Each one is grappling with unique problems, from abusive families to bullying, though all of them justify their interest in Austyn and his peers for their willingness to listen, emphasizing the therapeutic effect of his livestreams. Jawline displays a certain evenhandedness here. The girls’ intense reliance on a stranger for comfort is uncomfortable to watch, but the film doesn’t trivialize this dependence. In an act of fan service, Austyn meets with a small group of girls at a local mall where their intense affections make themselves plain. Mandelup records them pushing an uncomfortable Austyn to ride around motorized stuffed animals so they can post it on Instagram, all the while demanding affirmations from him. Later, one girl forces him to share his phone number with her. Here, Jawline suggests a limit to his affection for them, if it ever existed, as well as the emotionally transactional nature of the relationship between fan and influencer.

The libidinal peak of this surreal relationship, though, occurs when Austyn and other influencers go on tour, performing shows for adoring fans with the hopes of upping their follower count in the process. On stage, the teens pose with fans, sing, and dance, all without any clear knack for it, in what amount to in-person livestreams. In this moment, there isn’t much that can be said about these largely cookie-cutter performers except that they’re toned, twinky, and peppy, and their fans love them for it. Mandelup’s footage of their displays is transfixing, not because the performances are spectacular—the shows are expensive to attend but often happen in dingy unadorned venues—but because the nearly contentless shows are only about the fans’ adulation. From an outsiders’ perspective, there’s a dizzying mismatch between the palpable intensity of their fervor and what they’re actually responding to.

How to relate to teen girls, how to monetize what’s relatable, and how to make the content more relatable and more profitable? These are the sorts of questions pondered by social media talent manager Michael Weist. He’s great to watch in the way reality TV villains are, as his success is propelled by a well-known combo of business sense, greed, and probable chicanery (appropriately, he finds himself in legal trouble by the film’s end). Around 21 years old, Weist has somehow marketed himself into a role as an authority figure on social media stardom, roping in young wannabe celebs and growing their followings. He’s turned a house in L.A. into a content factory, living there with his clients while haranguing them into posting, recording, and being on call 24/7 for their needs. Ever-candid, Weist reveals his long game at one point without being prompted: to run influencers through the content mill before they’re old enough to drink, at which point he can move on to the next hot prospect seeking fame.

At the heart of Weist’s efforts is the exploitation of Austyn’s more successful colleagues to commodify young girls’ emotions. Jawline is most fascinating when it tracks this process in action. Mandelup doesn’t draw as much attention to it as she could, meandering through IRL details that don’t quite elucidate or explain as much as they pretend to and don’t measure up to the retina-display realities of virtual stardom. A similar problem shows up in the documentary’s way of depicting tween girls. One notable scene involves slow-motion portraits of the fans accompanied by their disembodied voiceovers explaining why they spend so much time online. The scene is conceived in the spirit of chromatic maximalism, with the girls brightly lit against floral-print and pastel backgrounds, in a manner that humanizes their experience but flattens their differences, as if one were the precondition of the other. The style presents their range of justifications for standom as more or less equivalent to each other, reducing these girls to the same faceless morass of drives that Weist cashes in on.

More importantly, while Jawline’s depictions of predatory managers, overblown hopes, and obsessive followers spell out reasons to be despondent about the way this economy works, the film doesn’t look past its narrow horizon. There’s little indication of how this phenomenon is so profitable or how wide reaching this it is. Instead, Jawline offers a deflationary, measured suggestion that the current crop of influencers differs only in quantity from celebrity cults in Hollywood or the music industry. The latest iteration of celebrity is just monetizing a new type of media. All that’s really changed is that the stars burn dimmer and fade younger.

Director: Liza Mandelup Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 99 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Brittany Runs a Marathon Is a Moralizing Buzzkill of a Comedy

The film is inspirational only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.

1.5

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Brittany Runs a Marathon
Photo: Amazon Studios

Watching writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Brittany Runs a Marathon is a bit like listening to a runner describe a motivational poster—the type with a single-word slogan below a stock photograph—that inspired them to persevere as they trained themselves to be a serious runner. Sensing that such overt preachiness would be irksome, the film cloaks its proselytizing in self-aware jokes about how much more pleasurable sitting around is than running and a token acknowledgment that there’s nothing wrong with being out of shape. But the screenplay’s cute, if somewhat insipid, humor doesn’t prevent the film from feeling self-righteous. Indeed, for a comedy about a woman who makes a personal decision to get in shape, Brittany Runs a Marathon sure engages in a lot of moralizing.

At the start of the film, twentysomething Brittany (Jillian Bell) is overweight and working part time as an usher for a small off-Broadway theater, which somehow provides enough income for her to regularly drink champagne at high-end clubs with her roommate, Gretchen (Alice Lee). Walking back to their Queens apartment after nights of hard drinking and eating greasy food, they often catch their uptight, bougie neighbor, Catherine (Erica Hernandez), going out for an early morning run, seemingly judging them for their indulgence. It’s only a matter of time, then, before Brittany is informed by a Yelp-recommended doctor (Patch Darragh) that her lifestyle has led to elevated blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass index—and an ominous close-up on the doctor’s chart shows us that she’s crossed over into obese terrain.

And so Brittany begins running, ill-advisedly, in her beat-up Chuck Taylors, which she soon upgrades to spotless, turquoise New Balances. Catherine, for some reason forgiving of Brittany’s persistent churlishness, introduces the young woman to a local running club. What follows is surely intended to inspire laughs of recognition in audience members who picked up running in adulthood, as the neophyte Brittany hangs out at the back of the group with a fellow reformed slacker, Seth (Micah Stock). The new trio sets themselves an ambitious goal: to complete the New York Marathon the following November.

The film makes jokes about how hard running can be, but there’s an earnestness behind such humor that leaves certain sacred cows untouched. Most of these have to do with the self—namely, self-discipline, self-love, and self-actualization. As the film sees it, all those things can be realized through running. Seth may joke about how ready he is to stop, or how much he’d rather be doing something else, but he keeps going, and if Brittany cheats on her diet and eats some cheese fries, it’s portrayed as a dramatic, shameful misstep. We’re told over and over that Brittany is valued by her friends, old and new, because she’s funny, but we see scant evidence of this, particularly as her devotion to running takes on a quite pious dimension.

Arriving for comic relief and romantic interest is Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who works the night shifts at the same house-sitting service where Brittany has begun picking up hours during the day to fund her marathon training. Casually trashing the house they’re meant to be looking after, Jern supplies Brittany Runs a Marathon with the levity that began to evaporate from the film as soon as Brittany started exercising. But as her flirtatiously contentious relationship with Jern deepens, the other parts of her life become a plodding series of confrontations. Her improving self-image emboldens Brittany to kick Gretchen to the curb, accusing her friend of having always viewed her as a “fat sidekick.”

It’s a fair enough grievance for the character to have, but at a certain point in Brittany’s active defense of herself, the film takes on a self-righteous tone, associating its protagonist’s newfound healthy living with virtuousness and seeing Gretchen as despicable for her profligate lifestyle. Brittany Runs a Marathon’s positioning of exercise as a moral triumph is nothing more than a marketing technique, as Colaizzo’s film is “inspirational” only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.

Cast: Jillian Bell, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Michaela Watkins, Lil Rel Howrey, Micah Stock, Mikey Day, Alice Lee, Dan Bittner, Peter Vack, Patch Darragh Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo Screenwriter: Paul Downs Colaizzo Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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

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

2.5

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Official Secrets
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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Tigers Are Not Afraid
Photo: Shudder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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