Fan Mail: A bit of old business first. A few days after I sent #101 off to Keith, “AStrayn” added some comments to US#100, although he described himself as a “lurker not a commenter.” I welcome all kinds, but the more “commenters” the better, since the high class readers of this column tend to have very interesting stuff to say. He, as do I, appreciates David Ehrenstein’s comments and rebuttals. AStrayn also was delighted I am going to continue the column, since he has read every one. I hope he has a life as well.
David was back with comments on #101. He thinks Struges could have made up for Grable’s lack of edge in The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend by giving more edge to the other characters. I am not sure that would have been enough. Zoe’s granddad tried that in his direction of Jeanne Crain in Pinky (1949). He let her blandness stand in for a kind of shock at her situation and the intensity of the other characters. It sort of works there, but I don’t think that would work in Sturges’s film, since in the case of Blonde Grable’s character may just seem more out of it than she already does. But it’s certainly something to think about.
And David informs me that Jacques Rivette and I actually agree on something (Winslet’s performance in Titanic). That’s another sign of hell freezing over. Congratulations also to David on his new book on Roman Polanski. Sometime I will tell you about meeting Polanski and Sharon Tate…
“outsidedog” mentions that he found the transcript of the first of the Kasdan-Spielberg-Lucas discussions on Raiders on the Internet. I haven’t seen it, but he says it is easy to find. Well, maybe for someone who is not a Luddite about computers as I am, but I may give it a try. Meanwhile the rest of you can see what you can find.
The Master (2012. Written by Paul Thomas Anderson. 137 minutes.)
Can we all stop thinking about L. Ron and Tom Cruise and just watch the damned movie?: I always seem to have mixed feelings about Paul Thomas Anderson’s films. I never saw Hard Eight (1996), but I thought Boogie Nights (1997) was an interesting mess. I remember reading in an interview with Anderson at the time that the script for Boogie Nights was originally much longer than the film, which still clocked in at 155 minutes. It struck me in watching the film that there were several scenes that were obviously intended to be part of a longer film and that Anderson had not gotten around to cutting them, either at the script level or in the film editing, to fit the running time of the film. Some of the scenes with Julianne Moore’s character Amber dealing with her legal problems are the most obvious examples.
Magnolia (1999) was also a sprawling script, but it hung together better than Boogie Nights, not so much on a narrative level but on thematic levels, especially with the recurring Anderson theme of fathers and sons. Plus the deluge of frogs, structured to hit at just the right moment in the running time of the film. Punch-Drunk Love (2002) was Anderson’s mostly tightly controlled film and closer to a more conventional film, as if Anderson was saying, “See, I can do that if I want to.” There Will Be Blood (2007) had a sprawling plot, like Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but without the range of characters of the two earlier films. Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday were both very emotionally closed off characters, which reduced audience involvement with the story. In terms of its narrative, There Will Be Blood has a lot going on outside of what we actually see in the film, and our suspicions grow that those elements may have been more interesting to watch than those we actually see.
The Master first introduces us to Freddie Quell, a Navy enlisted man in the South Pacific at the end of World War II. You might assume you are back in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), since the photography is gorgeous, but given the sailors frolicking on the beach, you might expect them to break into “There is Nothing Like a Dame” from South Pacific (1958). But Anderson is of the show, not tell, persuasion, so the sailors make a sand model of a naked woman on the beach, which Freddie proceeds to have simulated sex with. He’s the most interesting, and also most creepy, character among the sailors, and therefore the one we most want to follow. So we do, into post-war therapy. The shots in the group lecture are exactly like the close-ups John Huston uses in his banned documentary Let There Be Light (1945-1948-1980; it was shot in 1945, copyrighted in 1948, and finally released to the public in 1980). Anderson also uses dialogue from Light, slightly varied for this film. And then Freddie is off to a series of jobs he seem unable to keep. If Daniel and Eli are closed off characters, Freddie lets it all hang out; we never know what he is going to do or say. Most of what he does and says is usually the wrong thing for the occasion. As interesting as he is to watch, we sort of want him to get his shit together.
He wakes up one morning on a yacht captained by Lancaster Dodd, who runs what we can only call a cult, the Cause. Dodd has been compared to L. Ron Hubbard, but Anderson only uses Hubbard as one of many models for Dodd, and the Cause could be any cult. Anderson is creating his own world here, and if you are paying attention to the film, you will quickly stop making comparisons with Hubbard. Anderson could have simply made this a satire of Scientology, but that is only a very minor element in the film. Dodd is a much more open character than most cult leaders, and the kicker is that he is funny. Not funny in the sense of being satirized, but a character with a real sense of humor. Rumor has it that Anderson and the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Dodd, based the character in part on Orson Welles, and I can believe it. Hoffman as Dodd is absolutely charismatic.
So shortly we get a great two-person scene between Freddie and Dodd as Dodd starts what he calls “processing.” See my comments on Hope Springs in US#99 for how most shrink scenes don’t work and why. The scene here works beautifully for several reasons. It is not strictly speaking a therapy sequence. Freddie does not unload his woes with Dodd nodding politely. Dodd is asking Freddie a series of quick questions, repeating a question when he thinks Freddie is not telling the truth, which is most of the time. We are also well past the half-hour mark in the film, so we are very invested in both Freddie and Dodd. And finally, with Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie and Hoffman, you have two actors at the height of their powers.
Freddie fascinates Dodd, who rightly calls him a scoundrel, and Dodd thinks if he can “cure” Freddie, then it will be a great triumph for him. That’s the film’s plot, for those of you who did not think the movie had one. Eventually Freddie goes through the complete processing experience. Now that should be as compelling as their two-man scene, since it shows a process, something that movies are usually very good at. In fact, this is one of the weakest sections of the film, since it is very repetitive. You will probably get as tired as I did of Freddie crossing the room from window to wall again and again.
Meanwhile we get hints of what is going on outside Dodd’s group. Police show up at one point to arrest Dodd for financial shenanigans. The yacht we saw when we first met him belongs to a rich woman who wants him to pay for damages. The group moves from house to house, each house owned by a member of the Cause. We learn there will be a big convention in Arizona, but it’s in a large storefront office rather than a convention hall. Anderson gives us only what we need to know about the Cause and the outside world as it affects the story, unlike the activities outside the main story in There Will Be Blood. Freddie and Dodd are more interesting as individuals than Daniel and Eli, and they hold our interest. Anderson and Hoffman keep Dodd just this side of absurdity, so we at least half believe in what he is doing. And we hope he will be successful with Freddie.
Freddie runs away from the Cause and returns to see Dodd only several years later. Dodd is now in England, which you would think would not be susceptible to the Cause but apparently is. We get another great two-man scene between Freddie and Dodd. Both are disappointed Freddie did not work out, but his demons are still in control of him. Dodd is sympathetic, but with an edge, and then he begins to talk about time travel and we realize how flaky he is. Is Freddie better off out? With all his demons? Could the Cause have eventually worked for him? We’re both happy he’s out and sorry it did not work out in the group. With Freddie and Dodd we have another of Anderson’s surrogate father-and-son, but done in more depth. The film is also a very American story, with Dodd standing in for any number of movements toward self-empowerment. Americans love the idea that we can make ourselves into better persons, and in this sense The Master is a tragedy, since Freddie has not changed by the end of the film. Except that he is having sex with a real woman rather than a sand model. And he is using some of the Cause’s terminology to seduce her. How much more American can you get?
Robot & Frank (2012. Written by Christopher D. Ford. 89 minutes.)
Charm, take one: I used to tell my screenwriting students that if you were going to write a film in a well-known genre, you had better bring something fresh to mix. This is exhibit A for the prosecution. We have had over the last hundred or so years about a million or so movies about robots. We have had them sexy (Metropolis ), stalwart (The Day the Earth Stood Still ), lethal (2001: A Space Odyssey ), and cute (Star Wars ). So the degree of difficulty for Ford to make something fresh was very high. Give the man a 10.
We are in the near future. Frank is a retired jewel thief who has serious memory problems and does not seem to take very good care of himself. Hunter, his son, gets him a help robot that will make food, clean the house, etc. Frank, like most curmudgeons in their seventies, hates the idea. OK, Frank and the robot are obviously going to bond and become buddies. Nope. Ford is great at establishing Frank’s humanity, giving Frank Langella a lot to do in the role. On the other hand, Ford is also great at not establishing the robot’s humanity. Most robot movies make us think there is some humanity in the robot. Here there is not. None. Not a jot, not a tiddle. The robot is a machine, but he is very smart in the kind of mechanical intelligence that robots can have. Ford doesn’t turn the robot cute, but gives him lines that can come legitimately out of the kind of intelligence that robots have.
So when Frank figures out he can use the robot’s mathematical skills to pick locks and its mechanical skills to do things he can no longer do, the robot does not develop a moral conscience. He is more into the mechanics of what they are doing. And he is very good at them. Ford makes his robot very consistent. When he is introduced to “Mr. Darcy” (a great name), the robot who will be taking over the local library as it goes all digital, the two robots have no small talk because they are robots, for Christ’s sake.
The living actors (Langella, Susan Sarandon as the local librarian, and James Marsden and Liv Tyler as Frank’s children) are given enough to do. The robot is “acted” by two people. The human inside the suit is actress Rachel Ma, who is thoroughly convincing, and the voice is perfectly done by Peter Sarsgaard. Sarsgaard makes Ford’s dialogue smart in exactly the right ways. Sarsgaard gets my vote for voiceover of the Year.
Liberal Arts (2012. Written by Josh Radnor. 97 minutes.)
Charm, take two: Radnor’s trying to rely a little too much on charm here. Radnor, who also directed and plays the lead, has written a starring role for himself. Here is he Jesse, a New York college admissions interviewer in his mid-thirties. We get a nice scene at the start when we see him responding to a variety of unseen applicants about college. You can tell that a lot of them don’t belong in college, and that he is rather tired of dealing with them. So when a former professor of his, Peter, asks Jesse to come out to Ohio (the picture was filmed on the campus of Radnor’s alma mater, Kenyon) for Peter’s retirement dinner, he goes. And meets Zibby, the 19 year old daughter of friends of Peter. Radnor as a writer does not give himself much to do, but as a director he holds on himself more than he needs to. As a writer, he does not give Zibby that much to do, and he doesn’t get very deeply into how she feels about the developing relationship with Jesse. As in the similar Hello I Must be Going (see US#101), there is not enough texture in the characters. Zibby, on the other hand, is played by the luminous Elizabeth Olsen. As happened in Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, see US#86), the script does not give her enough to do, but Olsen has more star quality than Radnor and she wipes him off the screen. She has the charm to carry their scenes, and he doesn’t. He is also upstaged by Richard Jenkins as Peter, Zac Efron as a campus flake, and Allison Janney as a former professor of his. He has written good parts for them, and they get the most out of them. Maybe Radnor should not star in his own scripts.
Radnor is also sloppy in the script about not giving us the interesting details. Jesse is a reader, and on the campus he meets Dean, an emotionally wounded student. Dean is reading a big thick book and Jesse tells him it is his favorite book too. But we have no idea what the book is. Later Jesse and Zibby get into a disagreement over her love for a trilogy of vampire novels. They are obviously supposed to be the Twilight novels, but we can see the cover of one of the books, and it is not a Twilight book. For a film that promotes reading, and that’s good thing, not being precise about what is being read is rather tacky.
Taken 2 (2012. Written by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen. 91 minutes.)
Just a typical take-your-daughter-to-work day: You may remember from US#20 that I liked Taken (2009) for what it was: a good, fast, who-cares-about-the-plot implausabilities B-movie. The sequel is in that same tradition. I was amused by one review that went on and on about how this is just the same as the first one, but when the review come to describing the plot it picked up on one major plot element that’s different. And that’s not the only thing.
Taken père mostly takes place in either a nighttime Los Angeles or a nighttime Paris, with Bryan Mills killing a lot of anonymous baddies in dark rooms and even darker hallways. Taken fils starts with some great aerial shots of a truck going through the mountains of what turns out to be Albania. In the back of the truck are several boxes that look to be caskets. Which they are. They carry the bodies of some of those anonymous baddies, who were not anonymous to their family and friends. Especially not to the father of one them. He is Murad Krasniqi, and he is determined to get the man who killed his son.
So then we get Bryan and Kim, his daughter who was kidnapped the last time. They both seem to have adjusted to what happened, and Bryan comes to pick her up for her driving lesson. She has failed her driving test several times, and Bryan is determined to help her. That sounds like filler, doesn’t it? Stay tuned.
Bryan has to go off to a mission in Istanbul and suggests Kim and his ex-wife Lenore join him. This is another example of Besson and Kamen going so quickly you don’t question it. So they all end up in Istanbul and Kim is kidnapped again. Nope. Here’s where it gets interesting. The baddies want to get all three of them, but they end up getting only Bryan and Lenore. Kim avoids capture. And so for the next half hour or so Kim is trying to rescue Bryan and her mom. Bryan manages to communicate with her—don’t ask—and tells her to go to his equipment bag in his hotel room closet and bring two grenades and one gun. Not three grenades and two guns. Bryan is like Q in the Bond movies: only bring to a fight what you will need. It works and soon Bryan and Kim are free, escaping the bad guys in a car. Kim insists Dad drive. He says, “Can you shoot?”
“Then you drive.” Those lines are the epitome of what the Taken movies are all about. And see what I mean about the driving test scenes earlier? Eventually it comes down to Bryan having to rescue Lenore, or as he says when Kim asks him what he is going to do, “What I do best.” Well, since that is the franchise, of course we want to see him in action, but it’s the least interesting section of the film. Since Lenore is played by Famke Janssen, who was memorable as Xenia Onatopp in the 1995 Bond film GoldenEye, you’d think she would get a chance to kick a little bad guy butt, but not here.
Besson and Kamen use the fast pace they set for a nice payoff at the end. The threesome is back in Los Angeles and is having lunch at a seaside restaurant. Eventually Kim’s boyfriend of the moment shows up and joins them. The scene goes on just a little longer than it should, and we just know something is going to happen…to set up #3 if for no other reason. But it doesn’t. Given how much money Taken 2 is making, I am sure there will be a 3, and I hope they let Xenia Onatopp in on some of the action.
Trouble with the Curve (2012. Written by Randy Brown. 111 minutes.)
Where are the great lines?: A lot of people think of Clint Eastwood as the strong, silent type who seldom says anything in his pictures. As we have talked about before here, that’s not true. In US#18 I wrote about how the dialogue in Gran Torino (2008) brilliantly caught American male attitudes about race. In US#44 I started the discussion of The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) with a list of several great lines from the film. And then there is “Do you feel lucky, punk?” and “Go ahead, make my day.” The major weakness with Brown’s script here is that the dialogue is completely flat and literal. Everybody says exactly what they think and how they feel, and they don’t say it in any interesting ways. This is a script set in the world of baseball, so Brown is going up against Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham (1988) and Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s Moneyball (2011). No contest.
Trouble almost feels like a response to Moneyball, which showed how modern managers learned how to use statistical analyses to figure out which players to buy. The older scouts were seen as out-of-touch dinosaurs in that film. Here the main character, Gus, is one of those dinosaurs, but he and his fellow scouts are shown to have much more of a feel for the game and the players than the computer nerds. Gus, with the help of his daughter Mickey, warn his team not to hire a hot-shot hitter, but they do anyway and he flops. Gus is a curmudgeonly type, like Walt in Gran Torino, but Brown does not give Eastwood anything more to do than squint, which of course Eastwood is great at. Amy Adams is fun as Mickey, but she is inconsistently written. Sometimes she says she was happiest as a kid when she was watching games with Gus, but then gets on his case for palming her off on relatives most of her youth. You could bring those two elements together with a couple of lines, but Brown doesn’t.
The Racket (1928. Scenario by Del Andrews, adaptation by Bartlett Cormack, based on the play by Bartlett Cormack. Titles by Tom Miranda. 84 minutes.)
Getting into the movies: I first brought Bartlett Cormack to your attention in the item about Fury (1936) in US#79. This is the film that got Cormack into the movies. The stage play opened on Broadway in 1927 and had a reasonable run of 119 performances, closing in early 1928. It’s set in a suburban police station where Police Captain McQuigg has been sent by his corrupt bosses, who are under the thumb of racketeer Nick Scarsi. McQuigg is determined to nail Scarsi, and when Scarsi’s younger brother kills a woman in a hit-and-run accident, McQuigg uses that to get Scarsi out to the station. Violence ensues. Since Cormack was a reporter, he has two reporters, Pratt and Miller, hanging around the station, and neophyte reporter Ames, who looks as though he may get involved with Scarsi’s brother’s gold-digging girlfriend. I sort of assumed on reading about the play that it was a rip-off of the more famous play dealing with cops and newspaper people, the Hecht-MacArthur The Front Page. But a check of the Broadway Data Base shows that Cormack’s play opened and closed before The Front Page opened in later 1928.
While the play is all on one set, the film does not get to the station until 35 minutes into the film. We see a lot of what was probably exposition in the play acted out in a variety of locations. Then the tension tightens as we focus on the events in the station. While the titles are credited to Tom Miranda, I can’t help but think many of them must have come from the play. The girlfriend says to the young reporter, “Didn’t your mother tell you not to speak to strange ladies?” When somebody asks McQuigg why he’s ready for a fight with Scarsi, he says, referring to the suburban location, “It’s the country air.” The director of The Racket is Lewis Milestone and it is not surprising that three years later, when he came to make the first film version of The Front Page, he had Cormack working on the script. Milestone obviously recognized good writers.
The General Died at Dawn (1936. Screenplay by Clifford Odets, story by Charles G. Booth. 98 minutes.)
On the other hand…: Milestone directed this film as well, and it’s a mess. Based on Odets’s 1935 New York playwriting successes Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing, he was brought to Hollywood and assigned to this film. Why anybody at Paramount thought the poet of the American proletariat would have been a good choice for an exotic melodrama set in China is anyone’s guess. It is not a match made in heaven. The dialogue is clunky and overwritten, and there is a slightly-more-than modest amount of left-wing speechifying. The Hollywood actors, most of them first rate, are at a loss with how to deal with Odets’s language, and Milestone gives them no help at all. Normally excellent actors like Madeleine Carroll and Porter Hall give bad performances, while Gary Cooper is smart enough to protect himself by underplaying the dialogue.
Not only is the dialogue bad, the plotting is awful. Cooper plays O’Hara, an arms dealer trying to get a supply of weapons to some rebels. In the early scenes he is told by several different people to fly to his destination and under no circumstances to take the train. Cut to O’Hara on the train, hanging out with Carroll’s Judy Perrie, whom he seems to already know. Comments on the IMDb raise the question of whether a reel is missing, but the current running time is the same as its original. There is probably a scene or two missing that got cut, without any additional reshoots of either the cut scenes or the remaining scenes. Paramount seems to have been satisfied with what they had; Thalberg at MGM would have cleared up the mess. If what we see is what Odets wrote, he did a worse job than I thought.
Not only is Milestone’s direction of the actors bad, he does not capture the exotic look the film is going for. One critic said the film looked as though it was shot on the sets left over from Shanghai Express (1932), which pretty much tells you what Paramount had in mind for the film. But to bring something like that off you need Jules Furthman and Josef Von Sternberg, not Clifford Odets and Lewis Milestone.
The Fall Television Season, 2012.
New and returning: As I write this, it has not been a great season for new shows, but there are a few with potential. Let’s start with the lesser ones. Go On brings back Matthew Perry as a talk radio host getting over the death of his wife by going to group therapy. I am not sure what the franchise is here. Is it the radio scenes or the group scenes? I think the group scenes, but the other people are rather standard issue.
The New Normal is about two gay guys (Brian’s the flamboyant one, David’s the “straight one”—isn’t it time for a new set of cliches?) who hire Goldie to be the surrogate mother for the child they want. Maybe, but Goldie’s Nana shows up, spouting the anti-gay cliches the industry assumes people in fly-over parts of the country all believe. They don’t, and we might, maybe, forgive her if the comments were funny, but they are not. I also have to wonder about Goldie’s eight-year-old daughter Shania, who after watching Grey Gardens once is suddenly swanning around the house as Little Edie. Ben & Kate are brother and sister. She is the mature one, and he is staying with her and her young daughter. He is the classic man-child and the writers are relentlessly obnoxious about it.
The Mindy Project is about an ob-gyn whose personal life is messy. How’s about we have an ob-gyn whose personal life is not messy? Just for a change. Emily Owens, M.D. is about a surgical intern whose person life is… yeah, you guessed it. The pilot, written by Jennie Synder Urman, spends way more time than it needs to comparing the hospital to high school. Maybe on Grey’s Anatomy, but not most hospitals I know. Still the show does have the luminous Mamie Gummer as Emily.
Neighbors is about a family that moves into a gated community where all the other residents are aliens from another planet. The wittiest thing about the show is that the aliens have renamed themselves after sports figures. Other than that, there is nothing you have not seen on 3rd Rock from the Sun, or longer ago, My Favorite Martian.
666 Park Avenue is a haunted apartment house show, as opposed to just a haunted house show. A young couple moves in, with the wife taking over as the manager. The owners, Gavin and Olivia Doran, are probably up to no good. Well, we know Gavin is because we see him at it. He may in fact be the Devil. But Vanessa Williams, who plays Olivia, should be collecting unemployment insurance for all she is given to do. The show may amount to something, but it seems pretty much standard issue for now.
Partners is a sitcom about two guys, one of whom is the flamboyant gay guy and the other is the straight guy. No, really, he’s straight. And he just got engaged to Ali. The show is based on the real-life relationship of its two creators, David Kohan and Matt Mutchnick, but so far all the episodes have focused on Louis, the gay one, interfering with the straight one Joe’s love life. A little of that goes a long way, although I am a big fan of Michael Urie, late of Ugly Betty, as the straight one. No, not really. He’s the gay one, and he brings a lot of energy to the show.
Nashville is created by Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise, Something to Talk About), and I knew it was in trouble when two minutes into it my wife said, “It’s another All About Eve.” Right you are, dear, as Khouri makes so obvious so immediately. One thing I love about Mankiewicz’s script is that he doesn’t let us know for sure that Eve is a bitch until very far into the movie. We suspect, but we don’t know. In the pilot for Nashville, Khouri established that the older country music star, Rayna, is nice to her husband, her kids, and anybody who crosses her path. She does her own makeup, for God’s sake, whereas the younger Juliette has lots of people doing her makeup and hair, and she treats them like shit. The show is putting the two singers together on a tour, but I doubt if there will be many surprises. On the other hand, the show does capture the flavor of Nashville and the country music scene better than Smash did Broadway. Snails and oysters, as Crassus would say; I happen to prefer Broadway to Nashville.
Elementary is another redo of Sherlock Holmes, this time in modern New York and with a woman as Dr. Watson. She is a former doctor who has been hired by Holmes’s father to be a “sober companion” for Holmes. She is also smart about medical stuff, and in the first few episodes is given a little more to do than Dr. Watson usually does. And she is played by Lucy Liu, who brings a lot of colors to the role.
The new show that I like the best is Vegas, co-created by Nicholas Pileggi, the author of the book and screenplay for Casino (1995), and in Vegas he gets a chance to correct the mistake that Scorsese made with the film. As I wrote in my 2001 book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, “I also think that Scorsese was so into the tragic, melodramatic view of gangsters that he did not understand that for everybody living west of the Hudson River, the story was basically a comedy: Goodfellas Go to Vegas and Get Their Clocks Cleaned by a Bunch of Cowboys.” Pileggi gets that the story is a comedy, and we are encouraged to laugh as Sheriff Ralph Lamb gets the better of gangster Vincent Savino. The interplay between the two as Savino tries to figure out how to deal with Lamb makes for some interesting scenes, as does the kind of documentary material about the casino business that Pileggi brought to Casino. That material is more interesting so far than the typical crime stories the show deals with.
On the returning front, NCIS, NCIS:LA, and CSI all had a lot of cleaning up to do their first episodes from the kind of cliffhanging stuff they left us with in the spring. If you had not been watching in the spring, you would have had no idea what was going on in these episodes. The Good Wife showed how to handle the transition. Yes, Lockhart Gardner is undergoing financial problems, so we have a trustee appointed to study the financial situation. He is Clarke Hayden (played by the most restrained Nathan Lane you have ever see in your entire life—and he’s wonderful), and in the first episodes, we don’t quite know where he stands. The first episode, “I Fought the Law” (written by Robert King & Michelle King), brings on Hayden, but he is secondary to the situation where Alicia’s son Zach gets into a tangle with a cop in another county. Alicia, with some technical help on the Internet from Zach, finds out that the area the cop stopped Zack was a bit of the highway where a lot of drug stops are made. That would be enough for some shows, but not The Good Wife. The drug cars on this part of the road that are stopped are going northbound. Which means they are not the cars bringing drugs into the county, but taking the drug money back to Canada. Needless to say, the cops confiscate the money. And the police union threatens not to support Peter for governor if Alicia carries through the case, which would close down this lucrative practice. Our guys win, at least for now. And in following episodes we get return engagements by some of the great guest stars the show has built up over the years.
On Castle last spring Castle and Beckett finally fell into each other’s arms. Now they are trying not to let anyone know about. Yeah, fat chance. Castle’s mom and daughter pick up on it almost immediately. In “Murder, He Wrote” (written by David Grae), the two other cops, Ryan and Esposito, are determined to find out who Beckett’s secret boyfriend is. She and Castle have gone out of his county estate in the Hamptons for a romantic weekend. Yeah, fat chance. A guy falls into Castle’s swimming pool and dies, and Castle and Beckett reluctantly help the local sheriff, who has never handled a murder case before. Castle gets Ryan to look into some New York connections, and Ryan figures out from one of the people he interrogates that Beckett is with Castle. Now, does he tell, or not? If not, how do you show he is not telling? Well, in this case, Esposito is pushing him to say what he learned in the interrogation, and Ryan is deliberately not telling him about Castle and Beckett. This episode also lets Stana Katic, who plays Beckett, be looser, funnier, and sexier than she normally gets to be. I’ll vote for that.
On Modern Family Gloria is now pregnant, and in the first episode (“Bringing up Baby,” written by Paul Corrigan & Brad Walsh), Jay has to find out. It’s his birthday and Phil and his friends take him fishing. Gloria tells her son Manny, who thinks that Jay will be upset, as do we. Jay hears from his friends all day long about how miserable being old will be, so he turns out to be delighted that Gloria is pregnant, which will give him a second chance at fatherhood. Everybody is surprised at his reaction. On Two and a Half Men, we are still getting more of Walden and less of the others, which is too bad since he is the least interesting character on the show. In “Four Balls, Two Bats, One Mitt” (story by Chuck Lorre & Eddie Gorodetsky, teleplay by Don Reo & Jim Patterson), Alan suggests to Lindsey they have a threesome. Lyndsey thinks it’s a great idea, but it should be two men and her: Alan and Walden. Alan’s not happy, but we get a great scene of them all trying it (as much as you can on network television), and then when Alan and Lyndsey pick up a girl for their threesome, the girl falls for Walden. It’s risque and funny, and it tells us a lot more about Alan and Lyndsey than it does about Walden. On How I Met Your Mother, we still haven’t met the mother. And on Two Broke Girls, Max and Caroline are still trying to make it with their cupcake business, but at least they have stopped saying “vagina” in every other sentence.
30 Rock came back from hiatus with “Episode 701” (written by Jack Burditt), which was just silly, as Jack is trying to run NBC into the ground by putting on bad shows. He thinks he can then buy it cheaply. “Episode 702” (written by Robert Carlock) is a little better. It showed on October 6th, the night of the vice-presidential debate, and started with the news that Paul Ryan had been thrown off the ticket because it was discovered he was born in Kenya. He was replaced by Bob Dunston, a Herman Cain-type buffoon, who is a dead ringer for Tracy Jordan. Jack does not want them to do political satire, since it always raises the ratings. He makes Liz promise she will not write a single word about Dunston. Jack is upset when he sees the sketch, but Liz points out she did not write anything, just selected quotes from the actual Dunston. The whole Dunston plot surely comes out of Tina Fey’s experience doing Sarah Palin four years ago. But in this episode it is not as well developed as it could have been, and the episode was cluttered with a lot of other subplots. Carlock should have re-read the section in Fey’s book on the Sarah Palin business.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.2
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Review: Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
The film is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.2
With What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, Roberto Minervini returns to the American South to tell the stories of several African-Americans living in New Orleans, over the summer of 2017. These stories are so self-contained that the documentary comes to suggest an anthology film, which, in this case, has been organized around a pervading theme of how political and personal textures intersect in everyday black life. And in the tradition of the anthology film, Minervini’s material is also variable, suggesting that the filmmaker could’ve been more ruthless in the editing room and less beholden to the pleasures of his self-consciously neat aesthetic.
Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Minervini’s subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew that’s clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titus’s inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocence—an impression that’s affirmed later in the film when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titus’s hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness that’s bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love that’s deeply poignant.
Juxtaposed with this coming-of-age youth narrative are stories of a recovering crack addict, Judy Hill, who’s realized her dream of opening a bar, and of a local chapter of the New Black Panthers, which is investigating and protesting several murders, such as the recent decapitation and burning of a local black man. Intellectually, one can see why Minervini believes these threads belong together, as they both illustrate how African-Americans foster their own infrastructures as a reaction to the corruption and indifference of governments on various levels. But Minervini’s cross-cutting shortchanges both of these story threads. Minervini reveals preciously little about the principle murder that the New Black Panthers are seeking to avenge, using it vaguely as a symbol of Southern atrocity at large, and the practical details of operating Judy’s bar are reduced to sketches. In both cases, the specifics of the subjects’ concerns haven’t been entirely dramatized.
In certain portions of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, particularly those featuring the New Black Panthers, Minervini taps into reservoirs of anger that are nearly at odds with his chilly formalism. The film was shot by D.P. Diego Romero in pristine black and white, with long takes that drink in the details of the landscapes and people’s bodies. One is often encouraged to savor the beauty of the lighting, especially in Judy’s bar, and Minervini eschews typical documentary devices like narration and interviews. In terms of gliding, sumptuous style, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, as both films verge on turning class struggles into moving coffee-table books.
We’re supposed to feel as if we’ve slipped effortlessly into the lives of Minervini’s subjects, which might have been possible if more time had been devoted to pivotal moments. If Minervini wasn’t able to capture the moment when Judy learns that she must close the bar, then perhaps he could’ve wrestled with his inability to capture it. Judy demands a meta-textual approach anyway, as she is a highly charismatic and self-absorbed person who is often clearly performing for the camera, most gratingly when she responds to her mother’s fear of homelessness with a monologue about her own generosity. A filmmaker like Robert Greene might’ve challenged Judy and utilized her for a riff on the power of self-mythology, but Minervini prizes his faux-objectivity; he’s more interested in mood than process or character. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.
Director: Roberto Minervini Screenwriter: Roberto Minervini Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
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