Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein thought I was getting too much into the mise-en-scene of The Master, but I read the item again and I don’t think so. There are many other items over the years that you say that about, but most of the material in the Master item is about story, character and themes. In other words, the stuff that writers contribute.
Since David is such a devoted reader of this column and asked that I tell the story of my meeting with Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, here it is. It was the fall of 1967 and I had just started graduate school at UCLA. I would take our 2-½ year old daughter out on Sundays so my wife could clean the house. One Sunday we were on the beach just north of the Santa Monica Pier. I was carrying my daughter on my shoulders, and a beautiful woman came up to gush about how pretty my daughter was. As we were talking I noticed off to her right was a little guy who was drawing a large dragon in the sand. What was so interesting was that he was drawing it with great loops right near the water’s edge. As the waves came in, they would cut the dragon into pieces. When he was satisfied with that, he turned to the beautiful woman. I realized then he was Roman Polanski and she was Sharon Tate. Of course Polanski would draw a dragon that the ocean would dismember, and of course Tate would be interested in kids. She got pregnant a year or so later, but as we all know, that ended badly.
Argo (2012. Screenplay by Chris Terrio, based on the article “How the C.I.A. Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran,” listed in the credits as “Escape from Tehran,” by Joshuah Bearman. The credits in the film also list another source as well, but I did not write it down, the IMDb does not have it, and I have been unable to locate it anywhere else. 120 minutes.)
No superheroes: No one in this film wears their underwear outside their clothes. Nobody wears a cape. Nobody wears an iron suit. Nobody flies, except on an airplane. And Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Paul Dano and Jesse Eisenberg don’t appear anywhere in the picture. This movie is about real adult human beings doing exciting stuff. It is a more or less true story. See the Wikipedia entry here for all the quibbles by different people about its accuracy, but, hey folks, we’re making a movie here. “Hey folks, etc” means the writer is taking the real material and shaping it into a script. That’s what writers do. The film is about the rescue of six American Embassy personnel who escaped from the Tehran embassy during its takeover in November 1979. With all of that, as you might expect, I was very much looking forward to seeing this.
There was another reason I wanted to see it. You may remember from my assorted discussions of various spy movies and television shows that I have a few acquaintances who were, as one of them described it, “source(s) with several years experience working closely with the intelligence community.” One of those acquaintances was an advisor. Not on the movie. On the original operation. He was an American who worked in Iran for several years up to and including the Revolution. He got out of Iran before the November takeover, and in the months of the hostage situation he showed up in Washington once a week to, as he described it to me, “give them advice whether they wanted it or not.” He knew the Embassy people and most of the Iranian leaders as well, so it was not surprising that Tony Mendez, the “exfiltration” specialist, contacted him. My daughter, after seeing the movie, wondered where Mendez got all the information about what was going on in Iran. Now she knows; that’s the kind of scene Terrio felt he did not need. One area my acquaintance discussed with Mendez was the three checkpoints for passengers leaving through the airport. In the actual event, getting through the airport turned out to be a lot easier than it is in the film, possibly because the Americans were well prepared. The sequence in the picture is a lot more suspenseful and filled with twists than the original event was, but hey, we’re making a movie here. My acquaintance loved the movie, by the way.
The film starts with what some critics have called an “Iran for dummies” prologue. The events leading up to the Revolution are told against what appear to us first to be drawings from a comic book, but you may realize later that they could also be storyboards for a film. The prologue begins with the C.I.A. engineering the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and his replacement with the Shah of Iran. This is first implied to be a bad thing, but the narration undercuts it by pointing out that the Shah was bringing western values to Iran, including the education of women. So we are on the Shah’s side, but then on the Revolution’s side after a mention of the Savik, the Shah’s secret police. But then the Revolution turns violently against the Americans, so we are back on the Americans’ side. In other words, the prologue is a little sneakier than the “Iran for dummies” line. I have no idea if the prologue is part of Terrio’s original script or was added late in production. I suspect the former, since it seems a piece with the tone of the rest of the film.
By the end of the prologue we are into the takeover of the Embassy. Terrio is here, as throughout the script, very precise about the reactions people have. He stays with the six rather than showing a lot of other Embassy personnel. People often assume that reaction shots are all from the director (Ben Affleck here, showing his first two directorial jobs, Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010), were no flukes), but there are so many that they had to be in the script. Affleck knows how to get the most out of them. We then go to Washington as they try to deal with the situation. Terrio’s government people talk and act like real government people. And Terrio distinguishes between them. There is a scene in which various State Department and C.I.A. types discuss options. Most of the options are bad, but the script does not make the people pitching them idiots. They are pros trying to work out a solution. It is in this meeting that we meet Tony Mendez (Affleck), and we watch him watch and listen to what’s going on. We know the star has arrived, but his first scene keeps in mind both what has been established and how Mendez is going to be a watcher as well as a man of action.
It is Mendez who comes up with the idea of using a fake movie with the six listed as Canadian production people on a location scout. As Jack O’Donnell, Mendez’s “boss” at the C.I.A. points out to the Secretary of State, “It’s the best bad idea we’ve got, by far.” Terrio gives O’Donnell some great lines throughout the film. Then Mendez has to set up the false production, and he goes to Hollywood. Some critics have complained that there is too much Hollywood satire in the film, but I disagree. Yes, you maybe don’t need all of it, but it’s a terrific counterpoint to the suspense of the main story. It’s also more than that. Terrio has written a great montage midway through the picture that contrasts the humorless Iranian woman revolutionary reading a statement to the press with the table read, in costume, of the sci-fi script. Yes, the table read is silly, but it, like the whole plan, shows the inventiveness of the Americans. I am not sure we should let this montage stand in completely for the differences between Iran and the United States, but it makes the point in an entertaining, off-beat way.
In comparison with movies like the recent Taken 2, Argo is more about suspense than it is about action. Action is easy to do, suspense a lot harder, and Terrio and Affleck do it extremely well. Particularly striking is a location scout by Mendez and the six to the bazaar, which did not happen in reality, but, hey folks, well, you know the drill. The six are only just getting into their production roles, and they are accompanied by a cultural official who wants to tell them what he hopes the movie will be about. Then the “Canadians” are verbally attacked by people, but we are not sure why. Nothing the Iranians say is translated: it may be political, it may have to do with the bazaar, but we and the six have no idea. The lead-up to the flight out is also mostly suspense, although with some action on the runway added in. Check the Wikipedia article above for details.
The film ends with a couple of terrific ironies. The first involves the maid at the Canadian ambassador’s house. We and they don’t know if she is a spy, and we find out the truth but they never do. Finally we see her escaping from Iran, going across the border to…Iraq. Because the operation was classified until 1997, Mendez and the C.I.A. were unable to take public credit for it at the time, and we see the Canadians get and take all the credit. Read the Wikipedia piece and see how some Canadians are reacting to the film.
The Sessions (2012. Written by Ben Lewin, based on the article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” by Mark O’ Brien. 95 minutes.)
A good thing: You may remember from US#98 that I was blown away by the trailer for this film when I saw Beasts of the Southern Wild. Well, the film is almost as good as the trailer, and that may only be that the freshness of the trailer has worn off. It is still a terrific movie, for some of the reasons I suspected when I saw the trailer.
Like Argo, this is a movie by, about and for adults. Adam, Andy, Paul and Jesse don’t show up here either. Also like Argo, this is based on a true story. Mark O’Brien was a poet and writer who lived most of his life in an iron lung. He decided at age 38 to lose his virginity. He had several sessions with Cheryl Cohen Greene, a licensed sex therapist. And he indeed lost his virginity. It will not take you much time to think of at least 50 ways this could have gone south as movie.
Fortunately, it all goes right. Movies are made up of a lot of moving parts, and they are all in place here. Lewin had polio in his youth and still uses crutches, which gives him an advantage in his writing the character of Mark. Mark is sexy and funny, or as much as he can be in an iron lung. We are first introduced to him when he gets a new assistant, Amanda. He falls in love with her and proposes marriage, which she runs away from. We are not really introduced to his second assistant, Vera. She just is there, and while she is great looking as well (she is played by Moon Bloodgood, who has mostly been in action/sci-fi stuff, and this is the best thing she’s done), Mark does not seem that interested in her romantically. As in Argo, Lewin has written in a lot of great reactions for her to the goings-on, especially in her scenes with a hotel clerk.
So we get Mark established as a character we are sympathetic with. He’s not just a horny teenager who wants to lose his virginity before the end of high school; he’s a grownup. He visits his Catholic priest, Father Brendon, who is understanding, and, referring to a statue of Jesus, says, “I think he will give you a pass on this.” Helen Hunt said in a recent interview that Lewin, who also directed, did not realize until he was shooting the scenes between Mark and the priest how funny the material was. Lewin called up Hunt, who had not started her scenes, to tell her that they were making a comedy. We are well into the movie before Cheryl Greene shows up. She is very straighforward, explaining the difference between a prostitute and a sex surrogate. A sex surrogate is a teacher and a coach. A prostitute just satisfies you enough for you to want to hire her again; a sex surrogate wants you to go out on your own after her strict limit of lessons is done. Cheryl’s job is to teach Mark how to understand sex. She tells him not to read the sex manuals he has been perusing (great advice, by the way). The writing of Cheryl and Mark is just as matter of fact as Cheryl is, which helps us get into the treatment. And the treatment is equally matter of fact.
As I mention in my note in US#98 on the trailer, it is the charming Helen Hunt that shows up as Cheryl, and she nails a very tricky role. A lot has been written about how much she is nude in the film, but it’s natural in the context. What she captures is Cheryl’s open and helpful attitude. I can see why several critics have thought that John Hawkes’s performance as Mark is even better than Hunt’s, and they may be right. Because of Mark’s medical condition, we are always seeing his face horizontally rather than vertically. Which means we can’t “read” his face the way we normally do. Lewin is very daring to write and direct this character this way, and Hawkes is up to the challenge.
There have been several articles, theses, dissertations, etc. on how sex is shown in American films. Sex generally is portrayed rather badly in American movies, like it’s an evil, awful, ugly, dirty thing. Most male American directors (Coppola, Scorsese, Stone, De Palma, just to name a few) hardly ever show sex in a positive way. In this film, sex is a good thing. A very, very good thing. Yes, Mark and Cheryl stumble around some times, but that happens. And they are both open and free about what they are up to, especially Cheryl. Even though the film is rated R, it really ought to be shown in every high school sex education class.
The sessions end, actually at four sessions rather than the usual six, because Mark had learned what he needs to. Both Mark and Cheryl know that it might be emotionally dangerous for them to continue and agree to stop. A little later Mark meets a hospital volunteer named Susan and falls in love. And he assures her he is not a virgin. Nice touch.
Cloud Atlas (2012. Written for the screen by Lana Wachowski & Tom Tykwer & Andy Wachowski, based on the novel by David Mitchell. 172 minutes.)
Well, it’s not Love Actually: This has got to be one of the most ambitious films of the last few years, even more than Inception (2010) of The Tree of Life (2011). Inception just jumped between several different dream states involving the same characters, while The Tree of Life stuck with one set of characters, plus of course the creation of the universe. Cloud Atlas tells six different stories in six different time periods and parts of the world. Some characters do appear in at least a couple of the stories, but connections between all six stories seem to be thematic rather than narrative. The film Cloud Atlas most closely resembles is D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic Intolerance. In case they did not show Intolerance in your film history class, Griffith and his co-writers Frank Woods and Anita Loos tell four stories set in four different time periods. Well, it’s really more like three stories, or two and a half. The section on the life of Christ is a couple of scenes rather than a story. And the French story (the massacre of the Huguenots in 1572) is severely truncated in the final film, probably because it is the least interesting of the remaining stories. Griffith focuses on the spectacle of the fall of Babylon in 538 B.C. and the melodrama of the modern story of a young man wrongly convicted of murder. The overriding theme of the film was intolerance through the ages, but you have to hunt to find it. You have to hunt very, very hard. It’s most obvious in the French story, but only makes cameo appearances in the others. Against the advice of his éminence grise Frank Woods, Griffith insisted on telling the stories not sequentially, but intercutting between them. Cloud Atlas does the same thing.
Mitchell’s novel doesn’t do it that way. He tells one story after another. It apparently was Lana Wachowski who came up with the idea of intercutting. Based on the story material in the movie, my guess is that none, or at least not all, of the stories would hold enough interest on their own. Or it may just be that they all thought it would be flashier and more fun to make if they spent a lot of time figuring out how to cut between the stories. I suspect they may have storyboarded the whole thing to keep in mind how the shots would work together. David Lean used to figure out the first and last shot in each scene in advance so he would know how each cut between scenes would work. And I have to admit that the editing flow of Cloud Atlas is impressive. Griffith in the opening scenes of Intolerance spent a lot of time on each story before moving on the next one, but here the writers, who also directed, know modern audiences can make the jumps faster. After all, we have had years of channel surfing to train our eyes and brains. The filmmakers here start with an editing pace closer to the end of Intolerance.
Cutting between a lot of storylines can be confusing, as it was for the 1916 audiences in Intolerance. Some audiences were baffled by Inception. If you are cutting between narrative elements of the same basic story, your model is the 1962 film The Longest Day. If you are doing it on a thematic basis, the film that I think works best is Richard Curtis’s 2003 Love Actually, which I wrote about in some length in the book Understanding Screenwriting. Curtis is following nine stories, and those were selected out of many more than he thought up (good writers are surprisingly prolific with ideas, while others simply repeat themselves). The theme of /film/love-actually/799 is love, but not just romantic love. There is the love Sarah has for her mentally damaged brother, and rock star Billy Mack’s love for his manager. Curtis has recurring elements (it’s Christmastime in London), but lets you into connections between the characters at different points in the film.
The major theme of Cloud Atlas is the connection of all mankind. So how are you going to show us that? The writers start off with one of the characters in the post-Apocalyptic segment mumbling about connections, so we are clued in. Although the writers, and perhaps Mitchell, have created a pidgin English language for this storyline that is mostly annoying. You’re asking us to follow six stories and an invented language? I am sure there are those linguistics students who will love the challenge, but for the rest of us… Then we get what amount to short scenes from each storyline, which establishes that there are going to be multiple stories and timeframes to follow. As I hinted at above, the stories are not that compelling on their own. Some work better than others. The story of composer Robert Frobisher in the 1930s is almost as tightly drawn as the Wachowski’s 1996 Bound, which I still think is their best film (I also deal with that one in the book). The 1973 section on reporter Luisa Rey feels very much like the 1979 nuclear thriller The China Syndrome. The 2012 segment on an aging book editor sent to a mental hospital by his brother brings something to the table that none of the others do: a sense of humor, which is very welcome.
On the other hand, the futuristic segment set in Neo Seoul owes more and more to the Matrix films as it goes along, and not in a good way; see what I mean about writers repeating themselves? The post-Apocalyptic story is like almost every post-Apocalyptic movie you have ever seen. The sick young man on the ship in 1839 is the least interesting of the lot.
Curtis in Love Actually gave us a great gallery of characters, and the writers here do not. They decided somewhere along the line to cast their actors in several different roles in the various episodes, but then generally did not give them characters to play. The actor who works best is Jim Broadbent, which may be because he is a character actor and used to giving his all in a short space of time. He also looks enough like himself so that we get what I think was the filmmakers’ idea that the casting would re-enforce the idea of us all being connected. Halle Berry gives a good star performance as Luisa Rey, but it’s a star performance, and she doesn’t shape her other characters. And too often the multiple casting is just a gimmick, with the actors covered in a lot of makeup. I liked Hugh Grant, of all people, in his cameo as an aboriginal warrior, but too often the casting comes off as just actors’ exercises rather than characters. Historically, the best use of one actor in multiple parts was Alec Guinness playing eight members of the D’Ascoyne family in the 1949 Kind Hearts and Coronets. Guinness was still a character actor then, and he and the writing made each one distinct, while Guinness’s looks made you believe they were all members of the same family. The writers here have not really thought through how to create interesting characters for their actors to play.
As I mentioned, the connections in this film are not narrative, but thematic. The problem is that we get the idea early on, from the first monologue, that everything is connected. Then it becomes a “guess the connection” sort of game: Oh, yeah, we have seen that birthmark before, or yes, the book manuscript the editor is reading in the 2012 story is written by the kid in the 1973 story. Since we know by the end of the film that everything is connected, the writers can’t come up with the kind of satisfying ending that Griffith did with the intercutting between the fall of Babylon and the race to save the boy. Curtis also does in better in Love Actually, where we delight as the elements fall into place. Here we already know they are in place.
Seven Psychopaths (2012. Written by Michael McDonagh. 110 minutes.)
8 ½ with guns: McDonagh is primarily a playwright, but he wrote and directed the terrific In Bruges (2008). His plays and movies tend to be talkfests (well, he is Irish, after all), often with a lot of blood spilled. Seeing this film within a week of seeing Trouble with the Curve (see US#102), I was particularly dazzled by the dialogue. Yes, a lot of it is foul, violent and grotesquely sexist, but you can’t not listen when McDonagh’s characters get going. Unlike in In Bruges, McDonagh calls himself on his own dialogue.
As we have talked about before (see the discussion of Ruby Sparks in US#100), watching writers write and especially not write is boring. This film is an exception that proves the rule. Or else just shows that McDonagh is one smart writer. The lead character, also named Martin (although with a different last name) is a screenwriter working on a screenplay. Well, trying to work. He’s come up with a great title, Seven Psychopaths, but now he is looking around for some psychopaths to put into the film. He gets suggestions from his friend Billy, who’s a little wacky himself. Billy points out that there is a serial killer on the loose who seems to kill only Mafia people, leaving the Jack of Diamonds playing card at the murders. We see one of “Jack’s” murders in the opening scene before we find out it may be something Martin is writing. So very early on we learn this is going to be a very self-reflexive film. Hmm, a writer with a creative block, maybe writing the film we are seeing, only not really. Or maybe really. It sounds like we are in 8 ½ (1963) to me. There’s also this similarity. Fellini’s Guido is obviously based on Fellini himself, but the film makes us very aware, unlike the 873 imitations of it, that Guido is a deeply flawed character who is often full of shit. McDonagh makes sure we know that his on-screen Martin is very imperfect as well. Martin insists he is not an alcoholic, but Billy is constantly ragging on him about that and other flaws. But why should we trust Billy? Well, we shouldn’t necessarily, but everybody else in the movie also tells him he drinks too much.
Martin is collecting stories about psychopaths, many of which we see acted out, and some of which may be true, but many of them are given several variations over the course the film. While he is doing that, Billy and his partner Hans have a nice little racket going kidnapping dogs. When they see a lost dog sign, they take the dog to the owner. They refuse payment until the grateful owner insists they take it. What could possibly go wrong with that? Well, they kidnap a Shih Tsu, who happens to belong to a psychopathic gangster. I told you there were guns in this. So folks are shot, killed, beat up and not generally treated very nicely.
Just when you think the film is going to be nothing but shootouts, Martin, Billy and Hans drive out to the desert at Joshua Tree. And talk about how they are going to talk about how the script is going, and how it should go. It’s Martin and McDonagh analyzing what they are doing and what we are seeing, and because it’s McDonagh’s dialogue as well as a relief from the previous violence, we watch and listen. Don’t worry, there are still some plot twists and a funny shootout to come.
Seven Psychopaths has opened better than In Bruges did, but it may be too convoluted to catch on. The sort of people who wallowed in the violence and not the dialogue in In Bruges may not want to sit through all the dialogue here. For the rest of us…
The Conspirators (1944. Screenplay by Vladimir Pozner and Leo Rosten, based on the novel by Frederic Prokosch. 101 minutes.)
More moving parts: Let’s see. We are in World War II. Paul Henreid is active in the anti-Nazi Resistance in Europe. He escapes his native country to an exotic neutral city where he has a romance with a beautiful woman, and has to deal with Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. And the cinematographer is Arthur Edeson. What could Warner Brothers possibly have been thinking about in making this movie? Were they trying for another, hmm, perhaps, Casablanca (1942). Ya think?
I mentioned above that movies are a collection of moving parts, and what is amazing about one that works is that all the moving parts fit into place. Casablanca is the classic example of that. Julius J. Epstein, one of the writers of Casablanca, was amazed to his dying day that the film was so highly thought of. He thought it was just another Warner Brothers melodrama they were cranking out. Not unlike The Conspirators, which is an example of all the moving parts not fitting together. It’s not a terrible movie, just not a very good one.
This time Henreid is Vincent Van Der Lyn of the Dutch underground. He has escaped to Lisbon to try to get to London, but the writers, unlike those on Casablanca, don’t get much suspense out of whether he is going to get out. No fictional letters of transit here. Vincent gets involved with an underground cell as he is supposed to prepare one of their members to go back to Holland. But that guy is killed, early in the film, so we know long before the film recognizes it that Vincent is going to go back. Here the love interest is Irene Von Mohr, married to a German diplomat. The affair is not central to the Resistance story, so those scenes take away from the drama rather than add to it. The secondary characters have none of the richness of those in Casablanca. Peter Lorre has much more screen time here, but nothing like his great scene with Bogart near the beginning of the earlier film.
The director here is Jean Negulesco, who does not have Michael Curtiz’s ability to “visualize,” as Curtiz called it. Anton Grot’s art direction here is probably as good as Carly Jules Wyel’s and Edeson does what he can, but Negulesco doesn’t have the feel for it as Curtiz did. Finally, the producer here is not Hal Wallis, who knew how to hold “The Whole Equation” of a film together, but Jack Chertok, who is best known for later producing The Lone Ranger for television. You really need a good producer to hold all the moving parts together.
The Racket (1951. Screenplay by William Wister Haines and W.R. Burnett, based on the play by Bartlett Cormack. 88 minutes.)
Tom, didn’t you just write about this in the last column?: No, what I wrote about in US#102 was the 1928 film version of the play. A month or so after it showed up on TCM, they ran this remake of the film. Well, I can’t not compare them, can I?
The first version of The Racket was the second film produced by Howard Hughes when he got into films. Hughes owned the rights to the material and when he took over RKO in 1948, he announced a new version of the film. The first writer was Samuel Fuller and he brought the story up to date to post-World War II from its original Prohibition setting. Unfortunately he came up with a completely original script that had nothing to do with the play. Hughes fired him and hired William Wister Haines to do the script. Haines had been writing screenplays since the mid-‘30s, but he is best known for his 1947 hit play Command Decision, which was made into a star-studded MGM film the following year. Haines did not work on the script for the film. Haines, working with director John Cromwell (who had starred in the original Broadway production), stayed closer to the play, but updated the setting. Hughes, as I talked about in the discussion of The Las Vegas Story in US#45, was also a producer who had trouble keeping “The Whole Equation” in is his head. In the middle of production of The Racket, Hughes hired W.R. Burnett (The Asphalt Jungle ) to revise the script, which lead to $500,000 of retakes. (The background on the making of the film is from the entry on the film in Film Noir: An Encyclopedia Reference to the American Style, edited by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward. Or as I refer to it, The Big Book of Film Noir, since even the paperback edition is not small. The essay on the film is by Dennis L. White, who had done an oral history with Burnett for the American Film Institute.)
In the play and 1928 film Nick, the gangster, is the top dog of gangsters. Since Hughes thought that one way to bring the story up to date was to refer to the Senate Crime Commission hearings that were being held in 1950 and 1951, Nick is no longer the boss, but has to answer to the Old Man, whom we never see. It is clear from the Old Man’s underlings, especially the smooth Connolly, that the Old Man thinks Nick’s strong-arm methods are out of date. In the play and first film, the conflict was strictly between Nick and the cop McQuigg. The addition of an upper level of hoods adds a little more tension to the script.
McQuigg, in the 1928 film, is very much on his own, but in the 1951 version, the writers have included from the play Patrolman Johnson, who is incorrupt, like McQuigg. There is more in the later film about the cops working together, which may be from Haines, since that was what Command Decision was all about, although in a military setting. The two reporters from the play and earlier film are nowhere to be seen, since the heyday of newspaper comedies was over by the early ‘50s. We still get a younger reporter who is infatuated with the girlfriend of Nick’s brother, but she is now a lot softer and more vulnerable than the character in the earlier versions. Neither of the two lines of dialogue I mentioned in my item on the 1928 film show up in this version, but there is some good dialogue between the young reporter and the girl. It could easily have come from either Cormack or Burnett, since there is plenty of great dialogue in each man’s other work. Although the mentions of the Crime Commission get dropped after the opening scenes (an example of Hughes’s hodgepodge approach to making movies), the cynicism of Cormack’s original about political corruption adds a layer to the film that still holds up, but it’s a darker cynicism of the postwar Film Noir era than the cheerful cynicism of the late ‘20s and ‘30s.
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.
Review: Charlie’s Angels Has Good Intentions but Lives in La-La Land
All the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal the film’s creative conservatism.1.5
As a minor cultural institution, Charlie’s Angels has, in all its TV and film incarnations, operated as a kind of Rorschach test: Fans see it flying the female empowerment flag by bringing women into the traditionally male detective genre, while critics by and large view it as a symptom of feminist backlash, objectifying its stars in the service of campy male fantasy. Now, by diversifying its cast and placing a female writer-director, Elizabeth Banks, at its helm, the new Charlie’s Angels attempts to remove all political doubt: These Angels are woke and answer to no man, not even one issuing orders from a speaker box. The intention is pure, but in the end, the emancipatory aims of this reboot exist only in la-la land, its feminism failing to resonate beyond the cynicism of corporate rebranding.
Mostly remembered as a montage of iconic images, the 1970s Aaron Spelling-produced TV series was actually a bore, its success depending solely on the charisma of its lead actresses; the two early-aughts films, both directed by McG, were 100% cheesecake, hypersexualizing its actresses in what amounted to glorified music videos. The new Charlie’s Angels moves well and at least puts forth a semblance of reality, with a few moments hinting at the tense, moody spy thriller it might have been. Yet the dominant strain of its DNA is the Generic Action Movie, and all the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal its creative conservatism.
The plot centers on the usual stuff of spies and saboteurs. Not yet an official Angel, Elena (Naomi Scott) works for a company that’s run by an Elon Musk type (Sam Claflin) and creates an electronics product that possesses deadly potential. When her superiors bury her report on its risks, Elena enlists the Angels—Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska)—to help blow the whistle. But sinister parties, of course, want the gadget for themselves, and most of the film consists of a series of car chases, break-ins, and stakeouts as the Angels pursue the MacGuffin in the name of global security. Speaking of global: Charlie’s private investigation firm is now an international business, with multiple Bosleys leading their own teams of lady spies. And in a first for the franchise, our Angels’ Bosley is played by a woman (Banks).
Indeed, the film has a female-led, rather than female-focused, bent. Having nothing to do with the story, the opening credits sequence features a celebratory montage of girls from around the world, and the finale and end credits reveal Charlie’s agency to be run by women, a far cry from the TV series’s patriarchal framing: “Once upon a time there were three little girls…now they work for me. My name is Charlie.” Banks’s coup de grace “twist” on the Charlie’s Angels formula is diversity in casting, as the Angels are played by one out actress and two of color.
Stewart is the film’s most potentially interesting presence. In the opening scene, Sabina seduces a bad guy by wearing an ultra-femme disguise that includes a cascade of flowing blond hair, and when removing it to enter fight mode, she reveals a dyed, short-cropped butch ‘do. Yet the rest of the film fails to develop the code-switching possibilities of her character or anyone else’s. There’s a slew of nearly preternatural wardrobe changes (at one point, Sabina dons a jockey’s outfit for some reason), but that’s been par for the course in the world of Charlie’s Angels since the Ford administration, with much of the franchise’s appeal residing in the material fetishism attendant in an endless game of dress-up. Like their predecessors, these Angels look glamorous and gorgeous while fighting crime, and while Stewart’s queerness may qualify her objectification, and actually makes her more of a subject (as when she sneaks a lascivious peek at an attractive woman), it’s only in a relative sense. Overall, her on-screen appearance is lensed as much for exploitative pleasure as vicarious admiration.
One major appeal of the Charlie’s Angels properties is seeing men consistently underestimate the physical and intellectual capability of its female leads. But because she dares nothing visually or dramatically original, Banks prevents the Angels from exhibiting unique or surprising traits. The Angels’ bios are strictly single-line affairs: Sabina is rebellious and sarcastic, Jane is steely and professional, and Elena is goofy and wide-eyed. And all of them quip and banter in similarly sitcom-ish rhythms. Ultimately, Banks believes it’s enough that queer and brown women perform the same suspense-free action set pieces and combat choreography that their white male counterparts have performed since time immemorial.
In contrast to McG’s films, which took place in the realm of a live-action candy-colored cartoon, the world of this Charlie’s Angels vaguely resembles our own, giving Banks the opportunity to show what real—or at least real-er—women can do in seriously intense and perilous situations. But save for a few stressed situations and unique notes (such as Luis Gerardo Méndez’s Q-like Saint, who’s both the Angels’ weapons expert and their health advisor and spiritual guru), this film is so much disposable entertainment. It’s too frenetic, tongue in cheek, and impersonal to extend its vague feminism to true individualism.
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, Sam Claflin, Noah Centineo, Jonathan Tucker, Nat Faxon, Chris Pang, Luis Gerardo Méndez Director: Elizabeth Banks Screenwriter: Elizabeth Banks Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Interview: Lauren Greenfield on The Kingmaker and Threats to Democracy
Greenfield discusses how the film relates to her body of work and the warnings Americans ought to heed from it.
When it comes to documenting stories about the dark underbelly of wealth in contemporary society, Lauren Greenfield is like a moth drawn to a flame. A photographer by trade who has ventured into documentary filmmaking, Greenfield broke out in 2012 with The Queen of Versailles, a “riches-to-rags” tale of how billionaire Florida couple Jackie and Robert Siegel attempted to build an American equivalent to Versailles. Their absurd ambition amounts to their folly as construction kicks off at the height of the Great Recession and strains their precarious finances, leaving the mansion unfinished. Greenfield continued this theme in her 2018 documentary Generation Wealth, a companion film to her monograph of the same name that follows multiple less bombastic tales of how an unfettered pursuit of opulence and glamour results in deep emptiness.
Greenfield’s new documentary, The Kingmaker, began with her interest in another powerful symbol for the hollowness of wealth and power. In the Philippines, former First Lady Imelda Marcos evicted the native population of Calauit Island, located in the Calamian Archipelago, and replaced the inhabitants with African animals. Though the regime of her husband, Ferdinand E. Marcos, fell and drove the family into exile and disrepute, the animals remained. Generations later, the creatures’ inbreeding and the general disarray of the island’s ecosystem appears to be a fitting testament to the corruption and incompetence of their rule.
And yet, once Greenfield began to sit with the octogenarian Imelda Marcos, she found a subject spinning an alternate story, as well as a populace willing to believe it. The Kingmaker portrays the unfolding of a terrifying period in the history of the Philippines of how a political dynasty can rewrite the history of human rights abuses and corruption in order to return to power. While events continue to unfold in the country, the necessary forces and people are in place to pave the way for Imelda’s son, Bongbong Marcos, to assume the presidency in 2022.
I spoke with Greenfield prior to The Kingmaker’s premiere at DOC NYC to discuss how the documentary relates to her body of work as a whole as well as the warnings Americans ought to heed from it as a similar political dynamic to the one in the Philippines develops stateside.
You’ve said elsewhere that you liked Imelda on a personal level, but much like The Queen of Versailles, The Kingmaker itself remains a little ambiguous so the audience can come to their own conclusions about the subject. How do you finesse that ambiguity in your filmmaking and in the editing process?
It’s a little bit different with Imelda Marcos because I came in knowing the history. I was more interested in the paradox between the fact that when you’re with her, she’s kind and generous and personable, versus the terrible consequences of the huge human rights abuses she was complicit with. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I think she’s nice, let’s let the audience come to that conclusion.” I felt journalistically, ethically, and historically that I need to give the audience the information so they could see that what she was doing was telling untruths. So they could see that she was an unreliable narrator. That’s why, when I realized that about her, I brought in other voices that the audience would instinctively feel are credible.
It’s a little bit of a different journey because, in the beginning, you’re sucked into her personality, which is lovely and charismatic, and I wanted people to see that. It was the key to her political success. But, even by the end of the first act, when you know she’s depopulated an indigenous population to bring in the animals to her pet project island, I think you can’t abide by that anymore. By the time you hear about martial law and torture, you’re not thinking she’s nice anymore. Jackie Siegel was another journey because you start out thinking she’s horrible, and then you end up kind of rooting for her. For Imelda, I wanted to show her humanity, but it’s a paradox of how can a human do these terrible things and not feel any remorse.
When you started filming Imelda, you thought maybe the film would become a redemption story? At what point did you begin to realize that wasn’t going to play out?
I was still hoping for it, even at the very end—that maybe she’d have some kind of revelation. I thought there’d be a moment where she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t see it that way.” But looking back now, I was being naïve. Of course, this is not her first rodeo. She’s talked to the press a million times. During the election, I realized they were just going to lean into their story. There was a TV interview that Bongbong did, and the reporter said, “Are you going to say you’re sorry? Are you going to say you’re sorry for martial law?” That’s what people really wanted, for him to apologize. And he said, “What do I have to apologize for? Should I apologize for the roads? The infrastructure? The building that happened during that period? If I hurt somebody, I would apologize, but what do I have to apologize for?” When I heard that a few months into the election campaign, I realized they were going to lean into the story, into their rewriting of history that those were the good times, and they weren’t going to apologize. It’s kind of a Trumpian move: never apologize, never say you’re wrong, just say, “It was good, it was great!” And then people will eventually believe you.
Isn’t the film, at least for Imelda, a redemption story? She’s restoring honor to the family name and, in doing so, putting some power behind their wealth, which has become a little toothless in the absence of actual clout.
Well, she is trying to whitewash history. That’s her goal, politically, and it’s why she chose to participate in the film. She wants to put out her version of the Marcos legacy. That’s not what I meant by “redemption story.” I meant her having a moral moment of realizing she’s done something wrong. She does tell herself that she’s doing something good. I do believe she thinks she’s doing good, and that she believes her own story.
Everyone tells themselves a story of their life that makes sense, but the difference between the visions of grandeur of people like Imelda and Jackie Siegel and the average person is that they can manipulate reality to become their fantasy using wealth.
Her story helps her survive. It pushes her to keep going. Deep down, she feels like she’s doing the right thing. If she felt like she was doing terrible things, it would get in her way. It’s a strategic story that helps her live with it and get a young electorate on board for a comeback.
I found it a little difficult to discern toward the end: Does Imelda and the rest of the Marcos family see the contradictions in boosting a candidate like Rodrigo Duterte, who runs against the perceived corruption of a system only to re-legitimize a self-dealing former dynasty? Or is the irony completely lost on them?
I’m not sure that there’s a lot of irony there. Even though he pretends he’s one of the people, working class, talks trash, and swears, he’s actually from a place of privilege. There’s also a lot of corruption going on in this government. When Bongbong was campaigning, he also said he was going to go against corruption. That’s what everybody says. The reality is that Duterte’s father was in Ferdinand Marcos’s cabinet. Duterte looks up to Marcos. He’s threatened martial law. He likes the idea of the strongman. So, I think that they’re pretty aligned.
I was more surprised that Bongbong would align with Duterte because Bongbong was Western-educated and has the veneer of a legitimate politician, so I was surprised that he would go with somebody responsible for so many street killings. But, at the end of the day, it’s political. They made an alliance that’s helped them both. They could give Duterte support for becoming president, and in return they got the hero’s burial that Imelda has wanted for decades. Duterte backed the sister, Imee, for senate, and she won—as did every candidate that Duterte backed. Going into the next election, Duterte’s backing is extremely important.
A thread through your work is that people suffering from the adverse effects of wealth tend to cast themselves as victims in their own stories. From your experience, do you think that narrative holds any water? Or is it just a survival technique?
Yeah, I don’t think we need to shed any tears for Imelda. What I’m trying to do here, and in Generation Wealth, is to focus on the one percent and look at how it affects everybody else. That’s the important thing: looking at the long-term consequences of the Marcos regime and how the abuse of wealth and power affects everybody else. I came in looking at that through the animal island, but that’s really symbolic for how the Philippines was hurt by how the Marcos family, in taking five to 10 billion dollars, hurt development, created persistent poverty, and made the people vulnerable to bringing back another strongman and supporting people like Bongbong Marcos, but especially Duterte. Benigno Aquino, the president when I was filming and son of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, said his father told him you can’t have democracy when you’re hungry. That’s what we see in the Philippines, democracy being threatened because people’s basic needs are not being met.
It almost feels like we’re doomed to live in a plutocracy forever.
That’s the irony. That’s what was so sad. It’s also similar to Trump, as people’s needs were not being met, so they voted for change only to have somebody who’s really on the side of the wealthy. It’s ironic that these people get brought in by the support of the working class. But in the Philippines, you’re not even talking about the working class. You’re talking about deep, deep poverty where people are getting money, food, or clothing in exchange for votes. And especially without proper information, the history not being taught in the schoolbooks or not as many outlets of independent journalism, it’s very hard for a democracy to thrive.
You’ve noted that Imelda is yet another adherent of the “dictator chic” style—the gauche, in-your-face extravagance that attracts aspiring autocrats from Trump to Saddam Hussein. As someone who observes the intersection of wealth and aesthetics, do you have any theories about why this phenomenon cuts across the globe?
In a way, that was a little bit more of what I looked at in Generation Wealth. There’s an aspirational nobility that people with power want, like being a king or a queen. You see that in the portrait of Imelda at the beginning of the film and in some of the commissioned portraiture she did—and, for that matter, some of what the Siegels did. You can see the love for gold that Trump has. I think it’s an association with nobility, especially for the nouveau riche and people who are ambitiously climbing their way up.
As someone who’s studied and documented wealth across the world, what do you make of this moment in America where it seems like a large portion of the country worships an opulent, self-proclaimed wealthy leader and another large portion finds inspiration in politicians who are rallying people against the idea of concentrated wealth?
Well, I definitely think we’re at a really precarious time at the moment, because the amount of inequality we have right now is dangerous for any society or democracy. And dangerous economically. We have this myth of the American dream where anyone can go from rags to riches. I think that’s what’s standing between us and revolution, even though many people are not sharing in the spoils of our economy. It’s because of this “keeping up with the Kardashians” mindset. In Generation Wealth, I looked at how in the space of a generation, people went from “keeping up with the Joneses,” their neighbors, to keeping up with the Kardashians, these ultra-wealthy people they see on TV. It’s so unrealistic, and yet there’s this deep myth in the culture that you can become that one day, through a reality show or whatever it is. Obama called that out more than two decades ago when he was a lawyer. The thing about Donald Trump is that people think they can be him one day, or maybe their child can be him. There’s this illusion that keeps people accepting the status quo.
And then I think there’s a waking up happening, particularly among young people, that that’s not going to happen, and that there’s some real rot. The game is rigged, and what they’re telling us is the goal—being rich—isn’t actually making people happy. Especially on the millennial side, there are signs of people waking up and wanting something different. The problem is that the culture and corporate capitalism are so slanted toward keeping the status quo. Just money in politics, for example, and the disinformation from social media. We saw it in the Philippines, we saw it here, we saw it with Brexit. That’s the thing Andy Bautista [former head of the Philippines’ Presidential Commission on Good Government] keeps telling me about the Philippines: If you have money, you have speech because you can put forward lies on social media and convince people of that. And it’s kind of like that here as well.
Review: The Hottest August Is a Rich Patchwork of Discontented Voices
Brett Story’s documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division.3
Throughout The Hottest August, director Brett Story asks her interview subjects—a collection of mostly working-class, outer-borough residents of New York City—for their feelings about the future. More interesting than these people’s answers are the way their faces change as they process the question, invariably morphing into an ironic smirk. From there, the responses are despairing, even at their most hopeful, as nearly every subject answers with a summation of their career goals or their desire to earn more money.
Our collective failure to reckon with the onward march of climate change and vulture capitalism is the often unspoken subject of this structuralist documentary, which was filmed over the course of August 2017. Though Story makes her themes clear in a voiceover narrative (recited by Clare Coulter) that combines the director’s own writings with those of Karl Marx, Zadie Smith, and Annie Dillard, the people in The Hottest August have other things on their minds. A college student who works at a call center for wealthy investors describes herself as an “entrepreneur,” while a man driving a food truck has to move out of his apartment the following day without having found a new home. Periodically, the artist Ayodamola Okunseinde wanders the streets as a character he calls “The Afronaut,” clad in an Afro-futuristic spacesuit designed to encourage others to consider their own futures.
Even without this surreal image, the film’s photography (by Derek Howard) has an alien vibe, emphasizing humans that look rather small amid the buildings, beaches, and blockades they navigate every day. Apart from a ‘20s-themed costume party on Governor’s Island, a few public parks, and, of course, a subway car, most of the landscapes in The Hottest August are weirdly underpopulated. This is appropriate for a film that seems equally inspired by Chris Marker’s sci-fi-inflected essay films and Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer, and also for a work that must invariably address the gentrification of New York’s neighborhoods.
The middle- and upper-class New Yorkers glimpsed in The Hottest August are most often seen peering through windows or standing in desolate corporate courtyards. Gridlike compositions of air-conditioning units are dotted with running flat-screen televisions or films projected onto white walls. The public square is hard to locate, and Story finds them where she can: a Black Lives Matter rally where black speakers address an overwhelmingly white crowd; a Staten Island cop bar where politics are deemed verboten until one ex-police officer goes on a rant against a mythical welfare queen; a recreational softball league that descends into a near brawl; or the beach, where most of the subjects Story talks to are underemployed.
Near the beach in the Rockaways, one small home has been raised multiple stories on stacks of wooden pallets. Those closest to the water ignore post-Hurricane Sandy evacuation notices and dismiss climate change as Al Gore’s ploy to get rich and speaking with certainty that the hurricane’s status as a “100-year storm” means that they’re safe for another century. That’s not the most immediate delusion to be found in The Hottest August, which spends a few scenes with working-class Italian-American couple who gradually express their frustration with a diversifying neighborhood, culminating in an actual “I’m not racist, but” monologue.
Where Story’s previous film, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, meticulously depicted how the tentacles of mass incarceration creep into civic life, The Hottest August is a more loosely guided snapshot of generalized resentment. People are mad at the rich, who they also want to be. And then there are those clever enough to seek to profit from the ambient rage of the era: an entrepreneur who runs an industrial space where clients can destroy everything in sight, or a hipster from a VR company who barely believes his own bullshit about the automation revelation yielding a universal basic income where all will be free to do as they please.
With The Hottest Summer, Story puts on display a New York City that’s very different from the one depicted in Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, where every corner and office is teeming with representations of active, often progressive political and social discourse. While there are moments of grace and whimsy in here (a woman on a bench texting next to a duck, a smart young skateboarder who rides Story for interviewing some loudmouthed teens in the same park), the documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division, where millions of selves who have by and large given up on one another.
Director: Brett Story Distributor: Grasshopper Film
Review: I Lost My Body Finds Poetry in Tracing Life’s Uncertainties
It focuses equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable.3
Naofel (Hakim Faris) has a small birthmark between the knuckles of his right hand’s pointer and middle fingers. This would be the appendage’s most distinctive characteristic if not for the fact that, after being severed from Naofel’s body, it develops a will of its own. Throughout I Lost My Body, the hand skitters around of its own accord, using its fingers to crawl out of the hospital lab where it was kept following Naofel’s grim accident. Jérémy Clapin’s animated film chronicles the journey of that hand through, among other places, the rooftops and gutters of Paris, into a river and across a highway, in an attempt to reunite with its owner, dodging animals and cars along the way.
Do hands have memories? Naofel’s right hand certainly seems to. As the wayward appendage propels itself through the air with an open umbrella or flicks a lighter to fend off a bunch of subway rats, flashbacks recall the young man’s troubled, lonely life. He feels adrift, barely present in a world that seems only to have harsh words and unhappiness for him. He’s at odds with the relatives who took him in after the death of his parents in a car accident, and his half of a shared room is unfurnished save for the mattress placed directly on the floor. He works as a pizza delivery boy, but he isn’t a particularly good one, as he’s often late and, in one scene, scatters his pizza boxes into the street after crashing his bike into a car.
Many of I Lost My Body’s flashbacks foreground Naofel’s hand as though presenting its perspective. People and objects loom above it, its digits taking up wide swaths of the frame as they cling with insect-like precision to boxes or hold a microphone in their grip. Tight close-ups capture the fingers tapping random objects or emerging from the sand, and there are even POV shots of the hand peeking out from a dumpster or prodding the plastic bag it’s wrapped in. These sequences are a great showcase for the film’s subdued, naturalistic, and, above all, detail-rich hand-drawn animation: We see fidgeting fingers grabbing onto a locker door, a pigeon laboriously nudging the hand out of a gutter, and Naofel penciling lines onto blocks of wood that he’ll later trace over with a saw in his woodworking apprenticeship.
The metaphor at the heart of the film seems deceptively obvious: disconnection from the world and other people, literalized through a hand severed from its rightful body. But Clapin complicates that metaphor every step of the way, as in a flashback where Naofel’s father explains to him that, in order to catch a fly, the boy must aim where the fly will be rather than where it is. But knowing how to catch the fly doesn’t necessarily make the task any easier to accomplish, and the film’s depiction of fate follows a similarly unpredictable trajectory.
Through images of loneliness, as in a wooden igloo cobbled together on a rooftop, I Lost My Body builds an atmosphere of isolation and, above all, uncertainty. Because while Naofel takes his father’s advice to heart, his own attempts to live unpredictably, ahead of fate, do not always work out for him. His infatuation with Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois), initially so stirring as they close their eyes to listen to the rain and the wind from separate ends of an apartment intercom, goes in a few stalkerish directions. She rejects him for being a creep, and Naofel ironically comes to find fulfillment not in a relationship, as he had hoped, but in the woodworking he initially took up only to impress Gabrielle. I Lost My Body finds poetry in tracing life’s uncertainties, focusing equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable, as one part of a delicate whole.
Cast: Hakim Faris, Victoire Du Bois, Patrick d'Assumçao Director: Jérémy Clapin Screenwriter: Jérémy Clapin, Guillaume Laurant Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Report Is Noncommittal on the Moral Morass of the Dubya Era
In the end, it can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s flawed human fabric.2
The moral morass of the George W. Bush era is surveyed and scrutinized in writer-director Scott Z. Burns’s The Report, a true-life docudrama that bears all the visually monochromatic, thematically jaundiced hallmarks of Burns’s collaborations, as screenwriter, with Steven Soderbergh. Burns even manages to slightly best his mentor with his second solo feature. Compared to Burns and Soderbergh’s most recent joint effort—the feeble, scattershot Netflix-produced satire The Laundromat—The Report zeroes in on its incendiary sociopolitical subject with laser focus. That still doesn’t mean it adequately challenges preconceived notions about an especially dark period in American history.
The film’s title refers to the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, a 6,700-page document that took a long, hard, and unflattering look at the C.I.A.’s post-9/11 use of detention and torture—or, in politico parlance, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Daniel Jones, the committee’s lead investigator, is the protagonist, and he’s played by Adam Driver with a reserved sternness and solemnity that’s occasionally leavened by full-throated flashes of righteous indignation. Jones is all work, no play, and it’s evident that Burns intends this forbearing crusader as an audience surrogate. Yet Daniel mostly remains a cipher, a human enigma attempting, with Sisyphean effort, to expose and unravel the most sadistic and inhumane institutional practices.
It can be fascinating, of course, to watch a film that’s purely about process, revealing of the ways that those tied to an operation come off as cogs in a Moloch-like machine. And it helps, at least initially, that Driver is so good at conveying a total single-mindedness. When Jones looks around the cloistered, colorless basement office that will serve as headquarters for his investigation, he’s like an artist glancing at a blank canvas. For Jones, the swamp isn’t something to be drained, but to dip his brush in. And he’s painting a picture for an audience that, for the most part, is likely to undercut and minimize his efforts.
Burns is clearly reappropriating and remixing cinematic lessons learned from Alan J. Pakula’s starry Watergate exposé All the President’s Men. Jones’s boss, senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, letting her wig do most of the acting), assumes the role of Ben Bradlee-esque overseer. Archival footage of many of the big names in the torture debate (such as Dubya and Dick Cheney) is peppered throughout. And there’s even a paranoia-tinged encounter between Jones and a Deep Throat-like figure played with nauseated edge by Tim Blake Nelson.
The margins of The Report are filled to the brim with character actors doing creditably yeoman work, among them Corey Stoll as Cyrus Clifford, Jones’s pragmatic lawyer, Jon Hamm as chiding National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, Ted Levine as officious C.I.A. Director John Brennan, and Matthew Rhys as a New York Times reporter desperate for a scoop. Elsewhere, Maura Tierney and Michael C. Hall, as a pair of ideologically adaptable bureaucrats, headline the sections of the decade-plus narrative that detail the nitty gritty of the enhanced interrogation program, waterboarding most definitely included.
Cinematographer Eigil Bryld shoots these latter sequences with a sickly green-orange tinge that one supposes is meant to convey ethical queasiness. Whereas the scenes featuring Jones and his team poring over papers and presenting their findings to functionaries in various stages of outrage (or not) tend toward the icy blues or the ultra-high-def neutrality of a David Fincher production. Ever-shifting color temperatures aside, The Report is rarely stimulating. Its conscious detachment from the events it portrays proves not so much analytical as noncommittal. The closest it comes to picking a side is a tossed-off moment in which Jones throws some scowling shade at a TV commercial for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which was rather unconvincingly sold during its release as a work of objective nonpartisanship.
It’s strange, then, that Burns tosses a flagrantly uncritical bone in The Report’s final scenes, as John McCain, often held up as a model of principled dissent, is shown passionately decrying the United States’s torture program on the Senate floor. As in many a Hollywood production about American transgression, Burns ultimately can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s monumentally flawed human fabric.
Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Ted Levine, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, Corey Stoll, Maura Tierney, Jon Hamm Director: Scott Z. Burns Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019
The Best Stephen King Movies, Ranked
We’ve compiled the best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the mostly mediocre TV adaptations.
Stephen King is one of the most influential of all contemporary writers, an artist who followed Richard Matheson’s example in wedding irrational horror with the surreal minutiae of everyday American life. The most distinctive elements of King’s remarkably vast bibliography—his exacting and uncanny empathy for working-class people and his loose, pop-culture-strewn prose—are rarely accounted for in the dozens of films that have been made from his novels and stories, which often predictably emphasize his propulsive plotting. Consequently, these adaptations often resemble routine genre films with a smattering of King’s dialogue, which sounds better on the page than when performed by often self-conscious actors who look as if they’d rather be anywhere than trapesing around a simulation of King’s beloved Maine. But a number of excellent films have been made from the author’s writing, either by doubling down on the neurotic naïveté of the author’s Americana or by striking new ground, recognizing that a good film needs to be a movie, rather than a literal-minded act of CliffsNotes-style embalming. To commemorate the recent release of Cell, we’ve compiled the 10 best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the countless, mostly mediocre TV adaptations.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 8, 2015.
10. Stand by Me (1986)
Those who accuse Stand by Me of indulging shameless boomer nostalgia are missing the point, as that’s precisely what the film is about. Director Rob Reiner dials down the violent hopelessness of King’s source material (the novella The Body), but still emphasizes the cruelty and loneliness that mark four boys’ coming-of-age odyssey to see the corpse of a young man nearly their age. The film is framed as one of the grown boy’s remembrances, as he attempts to spin his unreconciled feelings into the more tangible stuff of…coming-of-age fiction. At times it’s hokey, and, yes, the soundtrack does some major emotional heavy lifting, but the feast of excellent acting compensates greatly, particularly by Wil Wheaton, Kiefer Sutherland, and River Phoenix. Stand by Me remains one of the best adaptations of King’s more sentimental non-horror writing, and it’s far superior to preachy, insidiously insulting staples like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.
9. Creepshow (1982)
Still one of the great comic-book movies in that it approximates the actual tactile act of reading and flipping through a magazine, ideally on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a can of soda by your side. George Romero directed from King’s original script, which pays homage to EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and the filmmaker displays a visual confidence and tonal flexibility that’s reminiscent of his Dawn of the Dead. The bright, deep, and garish cinematography is both beautiful and disturbing, enriching King’s gleefully vicious writing while providing a framework for the lively performances of a game, celebrity-rich cast. The film straddles an ideal line between straight-faced seriousness and parody, particularly in the unnerving climax of a story in which we can hear the pained gurgling of aquatic zombies.
8. Silver Bullet (1985)
A creepy drive-in horror movie that throws a werewolf into a boy’s sentimental coming-of-age tale. Based on King’s slim Cycle of the Werewolf, which was released with gorgeous illustrations by artist Bernie Wrightson, Silver Bullet weds evocative imagery with spare plotting that allows each scene to breathe, giving the film an nightmarish free-associative energy. There are several boffo sequences, particularly when the werewolf seizes a man’s baseball bat, his paw shown to be beating the man to death from below thick fog, or when the wolf is outsmarted by the protagonist, one of his eyes blown to pieces by a bottle rocket. Speaking of the monster, the movie has one of the great wolf designs, which suggests a huge, bitter, upstanding bear with a terrifying snout. The human identity of the creature is a great, characteristically blasphemous King twist.
7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)
Five years after her career-making performance in Misery, Kathy Bates returned to Stephen King territory with Dolores Claiborne, which, like the book, disappointed nearly everyone for not being a typical horror story, instead combining the traditions of martyred-woman melodrama with gothic mystery. Critics, who only seem capable of praising melodrama when it’s directed by one of their pre-approved canon placeholders (like Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk), also turned their noses up at Dolores Claiborne, and it’s a real shame. Both the novel and the film get at the heart of King’s preoccupations with sexism and classicism, spinning a fractured narrative of a mother, her daughter, the man who nearly ruined their lives, and the all-encompassing pitilessness of aging. Yes, the film is behaviorally broad, but this broadness is utilized by the reliably underrated director, Taylor Hackford, as a form of catharsis. And Bates’s performance as the titular character is positively poetic. Her delivery of a monologue about Dolores’s work routine particularly locate the weird, qualified dignity of thanklessness, reveling in the pride and transcendence that can be wrestled from menial-ness. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Dolores Claiborne has the feel of King’s voice.
6. Misery (1990)
No one performs King’s dialogue like Kathy Bates. She embraces and owns the moving cuckoo logic of his best orations, understanding that they’re almost always rooted in class anxiety. The most disturbing quality of Misery, both the novel and the film, is the fact that we relate to Annie Wilkes, psychotic “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (superbly played in the film by James Caan), more than we do her victims. Bates is so intimately in tune with Annie that we feel for her when she fails to impress Paul, somehow temporarily forgetting that she’s holding him hostage and torturing him. Annie is yet another of King’s unleashed nerds, a repressed soul seeking actualization, but she isn’t sentimentalized, instead embodying the ferocious self-absorption that fuels obsession, leading to estrangement. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman regrettably trim King’s most ambitiously subjective material, but they compensate by focusing pronouncedly on the cracked love story at the narrative’s center.
Review: Last Christmas Wears Its Sloppy Heart on Its Kitschy Sleeve
There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.1.5
Multiple times in Last Christmas, Kate and her immigrant parents (Emma Thompson and Boris Isakovic) say that they hail from the “former Yugoslavia,” a rather outdated and strangely non-specific way of referring to their origins. When Kate comforts an Eastern European couple on the bus after they’re accosted by a Brexiter, they excitedly but vaguely ask her, “You’re from our country?” At this point, Last Christmas has begun to sound downright evasive, and you may wonder if the filmmakers even know where Kate’s family is supposed to come from. To screenwriters Bryony Kimmings and Emma Thompson, such details would appear to be extraneous to this anti-Brexit Christmas Carol. Merely tacking an affirmation of immigrant rights onto a familiar Christmas narrative about selflessness requires little more than an evocation of a general Slavic-ness about the characters.
Another element that Paul Feig’s film keeps pointedly indistinct is the nature of a recent illness that the twentysomething Kate (Emilia Clarke) has endured. Clearly depressed in the wake of a major health event, the aspiring singer is ostentatiously selfish, exploiting what remains of her friends’ and her boss’s good will. Currently homeless, she travels with a roller suitcase from crash pad to crash pad, drinking heavily, bringing home one-night stands, and openly flirting with customers at work. Kate is employed full time at a Christmas shop in London whose wisecracking owner (Michelle Yeoh) goes by the name Santa. At one point, Santa expresses distress at Kate’s haggard, disheveled state because she doesn’t want the young woman to drop dead. “I don’t have enough tinsel to cover your body,” she worries.
The grounds for Santa’s concern that a woman in her mid-20s may be killed by the lifestyle lived by many Londoners in their mid-20s is left open because its ultimate reveal three-quarters of the way through the film points toward one of the silliest twist endings in recent memory. We only learn what happened to Kate when she reveals the scar from an operation to Tom (Henry Golding), the beautiful, saintly man she begins seeing after finding him bird-watching outside the Christmas shop. Suffice it to say, Last Christmas is “inspired by” the Wham! song of the same name, specifically one line—and one line only—from its chorus.
Kate loves George Michael—one imagines she feels a bond with the late singer, the son of a Balkan immigrant himself, though the filmmakers leave this unexplored—and thus Last Christmas attempts to remake some of his most well-known songs into seasonally appropriate tunes. Obligatory montages to “Faith” and “Freedom” speed us through parts of Kate’s Tom-facilitated rehabilitation from cynical wastrel to Christmas-spirited patron of the homeless, though these segments are brief, cutting off the songs before we realize they have absolutely nothing to do with the jolly Christmas vibes that the film attempts to give off. Even “Last Christmas” is only heard in snippets, lest we realize that the song’s lyrics have little to do with seasonal giving and charity, and everything to do with regret, hurt, and resentment.
Last Christmas counts on our absorbing the sugary sound of Michael’s music but none of its substance. This is perhaps the film’s fatal flaw, and it’s not unrelated to its evasiveness regarding Kate’s origins and its simplistic affirmation of liberal outrage at Brexit. There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters—true from the beginning, but particularly after its last-act reveal—that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.
Besides the general sound of Michael’s music, Last Christmas clearly draws influence from classic Christmas-themed films like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Shop Around the Corner. Such films, though, earned their Christmas miracles and holiday moralizing by grounding their stories in a sense of the community created by bonds between fully realized characters. Clarke works hard to make the messy, perpetually flustered Kate relatable, but the film surrounds the character with a community as kitschy and false as the trinkets she sells in Santa’s shop.
Cast: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Emma Thompson, Michelle Yeoh, Boris Isakovic, Lydia Leonard Director: Paul Feig Screenwriter: Bryony Kimmings, Emma Thompson Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Midway Delights in the Thrill of Battle Without Actual Peril
In the film, the Battle of Midway suggests something out of a photorealistic animated film.2
“With the advent of CGI,” critic J. Hoberman writes in his 2012 book Film After Film: Or, What Became Of 21st Century Cinema?, “the history of motion pictures was now, in effect, the history of animation.” Rarely has this point been more vividly illustrated than in Roland Emmerich’s slick historical combat epic Midway, in which the eponymous WWII naval battle is depicted with such an abundance of shimmery digital effects that it suggests something out of a photorealistic animated film.
Emmerich, a latter-day heir to the cinema-as-spectacle tradition of Cecil B. DeMille, employs special effects in Midway not to induce a sense of you-are-there verisimilitude, nor to exhilarate audiences with a series of death-defying stunts. Rather, the film’s scenes of combat are more like elaborate paintings, similar in spirit and function to the cycloramas that were such popular attractions at the turn of the 20th century: vast panoramas that compact all the major highlights of a particular event into a single canvas.
Unlike Saving Private Ryan, there’s no attempt here to key the viewer to the chaos and horror of battle. In fact, there’s scarcely any blood to be found in Midway. In addition to the Battle of Midway, the film depicts the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, and other skirmishes in the Pacific during WWII, and these sequences, so bathed in honeyed sunlight, exude a sense of wide-eyed gee-whiz glee: all the fun of battle with none of the icky gore.
Midway is a paean to those brave American soldiers of the greatest generation, one that positions the brave sailors of the U.S. Navy as scrappy underdogs who, after the humiliating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, make it their mission to avenge themselves on the Japanese. The film studiously avoids acknowledging anything about the era it depicts that might make its target audience (read: white History Channel-watching patriarchs) uncomfortable. Nowhere is this more evident than in its treatment—or, rather, complete non-treatment—of race. Emmerich not only completely sidesteps the issue of racial segregation in the military, black soldiers are completely unseen in the film, despite the fact that many African-Americans served on U.S. ships that fought at Midway, albeit primarily in support roles.
Though most of the film’s characters, a bland succession of largely interchangeable good ol’ boys, are based on real-life historical personages, Wes Tooke’s leaden screenplay renders them all as little more than stock war-movie types. Devil-may-care flyboy Dick Best (Ed Skrein), a ‘40s-era twist on Top Gun’s Maverick who gains some maturity when he’s promoted to command his own unit of pilots, is the closest thing that Midway has to a protagonist. Less flashy but similarly righteous is a naval intelligence officer, Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), who fights the good fight against the bureaucracy in order to convince the higher-ups that the Japanese plan to attack the Midway atoll. Woody Harrelson also shows up looking tired and slightly lost as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, while Dennis Quaid is saddled with the role of Vice Admiral Bull Halsey, who’s mostly on hand to attest that shingles are absolutely terrible.
The Americans are all salty, gruff, and jokey, while the Japanese are somber and aphoristic, though both sides share a fondness for speaking in banal clichés. The script never invests us in any of these characters, failing to establish real narrative stakes for any of them. The plot is really little more than perfunctory filler between the battle sequences, which are peppered throughout the film with the regularity of dance numbers in a Rogers and Astaire musical.
Midway is reportedly a longtime passion project for Emmerich, for which he scraped together funds from a number of sources, making it one of the most expensive independent films of all time. (These funders included some Chinese equity firms, which may account for the presence of a completely tangential subplot involving Army Air Forces officer Jimmy Doolittle, played by Aaron Eckhart, bonding with oppressed peasants in Japanese-occupied China). But while Emmerich’s childlike excitement at the whiz-bang action of naval combat is palpable, the film’s battle sequences lack any real suspense or sense of danger. In these moments, Midway suggests old newsreel footage come to life. The film’s veneer may be unmistakably modern, but it’s no less devoted to promoting and flattering a certain idea of heroism, even as it keeps the men inside all those ships and planes at a distance from audiences.
Cast: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Mandy Moore, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid, Darren Criss, Jake Weber, Brennan Brown, Alexander Ludwig, Tadanobu Asano, Keean Johnson, Luke Kleintank, Jun Kunimura, Etsushi Toyokawa, Brandon Sklenar, James Carpinello, Jake Manley Director: Roland Emmerich Screenwriter: Wes Tooke Distributor: Summit Entertainment Running Time: 138 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Review: Klaus Gorgeously Grapples with the Reinvention of Tradition
Sergio Pablos’s film is essentially a metaphor for its own unique and refreshing mode of expression.3
From Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, mainstream animation has taken a long-overdue look in the mirror as of late. Increasingly, animated films are opting for more experimental approaches, and often by taking inspiration from past techniques. Sergio Pablos’s Klaus is one such project, a throwback to classical animation that appropriately bakes its concern with tradition right into its plot. As a sort of Santa Claus origin story, the film examines the ways that tradition is built and torn down, all through an aesthetic that’s striking, beautiful, and as innovative as it is mindful of its own history.
The film follows the disgraced Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), a failing student at a postal academy, as he’s exiled to the frozen northern town of Smeerensburg. His father (Sam McMurray), the very rich head of the international postal service, has given him an ultimatum: establish a functioning post office in Smeerensburg, where so many others have failed before, or be cut off from his luxurious lifestyle. As a tipsy ferryman, Mogens (Norm MacDonald), notes at one point, the townsfolk have one thing to say to each other and no need for letters to say it: In some long-standing Hatfield-McCoy-esque familial feud, they swing axes and fire muskets at one another, making the ramshackle town a perpetual warzone.
No one in Smeerensburg sends their children to school because that would mean mingling with the enemy, and out-of-work teacher Alva (Rashida Jones) has adapted by using the schoolhouse for her side gig as a fishmonger, filleting catches right on her desk in front of the chalkboard. As he visits the unaccommodating locals, Jesper discovers a gruff, reclusive woodsman named Klaus (J.K. Simmons). Though Jesper initially suspects the hulking, white-bearded man of being an axe murderer who traffics in severed heads, Klaus only wants to help the town’s beleaguered children by gifting them handmade toys. All they have to do is ask for one by sending a letter with, of course, postage paid to Jesper.
The gears of the kids’ animated holiday movie are immediately apparent here, not just in the presence of a treacly tie-in song, but also in how Jesper’s own motivations will inevitably come back to bite him, with a requisite “I’m sorry” scene following a requisite “I quit” scene. These moments somewhat drag down the back half of Klaus, but the sheer extent of the film’s visual invention ensures that even such lulls are fabulous to look at. The exaggerated character designs are at once spindly and pleasantly rounded, and, most impressively, the textured, naturalistic lighting gives the film’s throwback techniques a distinctive and thoroughly modern edge. Pablos worked on Disney’s Treasure Planet and Tarzan, and that lineage is readily apparent in the bouncy, vibrant life that runs through all the character movements.
Beyond its characters’ wondrously cartoonish, emphatic gesticulations, much of the film’s humor results from unlikely circumstances of violence and hardship. When delivering presents in one scene, Jesper stuffs toys in socks hung to dry above a fireplace because he doesn’t dare enter the rest of the house, as we see him boxed into the center of the frame by a pack of sleeping, toothy dogs. And he drops into homes via chimney because the unwelcoming townsfolk of Smeerensburg, whose lawns and porches are littered with spikes and bear traps, naturally keep their doors locked. In the world of the film, Christmas traditions emerge through children’s rumors: Klaus’s wagon becomes a flying sleigh by pure circumstance, sent sailing through the air once the wheels come off, and when one child sees it just before it crashes to the ground, the story of the “sleigh” spreads like a haphazard game of telephone.
There’s an anarchic edge to both the film’s humor, as in a glimpse at a group of creepy kids building a snowman with so many carrots stuck into it that it suggests a stabbing victim, and the way it builds its uncanny origin story, all the while remaining skeptical of entrenched customs. Characters note that the long-running Smeerensburg feud (one scene shows it in the form of a cave painting) is what the town was built on, but the film’s dominant thematic current is that it’s time to move on, that remaining shackled to tradition or stuck in a rut only impedes progress. And with gorgeous animation that makes what was once old feel new again, Klaus essentially becomes a metaphor for its unique and refreshing mode of expression.
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, J.K. Simmons, Rashida Jones, Will Sasso, Neda M. Ladda, Sergio Pablos, Norm Macdonald, Joan Cusack, Sam McMurray Director: Sergio Pablos Screenwriter: Sergio Pablos, Jim Mahoney, Zack Lewis Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
Review: The King Is a Moody, and Confused, Song of Mud and Chainmail
If only the film made more of the curious tension between Timothée Chalamet’s Henry and Robert Pattinson’s dauphin.2
A moody song of mud and chainmail, David Michôd’s The King twists Shakespeare’s four histories, known collectively as the Henriad, into a rather modern political fable. It’s the story of a young leader intent on rescuing his country from intractable warfare who nonetheless finds himself expanding the nation’s military footprint without doing great damage to his idealistic reputation. The film, co-written by Michôd and Joel Edgerton, doesn’t dwell on the parallels between King Henry V and Barack Obama. Intead, it shrewdly casts the former Prince Hal (Timothée Chalamet) into an avatar of millennial discontent toward power and the grisly means in which it’s exercised. He’s nonetheless seduced by its thrall.
The King doesn’t limn much conflict from Henry V’s failure to live up to his ideals. In fact, Michôd and Edgerton seem strangely oblivious to its most compelling aspects, chiefly the styling of Hal as a mid-1990s goth icon, a la Brandon Lee in The Crow, before his elevation to the throne. Chalamet’s narrow frame and innate talent for expressing sullen diffidence provide a jolt of modernity to the early scenes where England is riven by civil war and King Henry IV (a cotton-mouthed Ben Mendelsohn) sinks into paranoia and dementia. Estranged from his family, Hal cavorts with Falstaff (Edgerton), spending his nights at taverns and waking alone because Falstaff has ushered the women whom the prince beds out of their inn at sunrise.
After the deaths of his father and brother, and despite his emo rebellions, Hal assumes the role of Henry V with a mandate to pursue peace and a haircut that transforms this brooding figure into a wary warrior. His attention is soon consumed by the French, who send spies to infiltrate his circle of confidantes, and whose heir apparent, the Dauphin of France (Robert Pattinson) seems intent in taunting him into battle. By and large, the film portrays the king’s capitulation to a new battle as an act of attrition, in redundant scenes of Henry seeking the counsel of a war-hungry Archbishop (Andrew Cavill) and his Chief Justice William (Sean Harris).
The King somehow becomes more self-serious after Henry integrates Falstaff into his advisory council, reinventing the massive gallivant into a gentle friend and self-proclaimed man of few words. “What if Hagrid but a taciturn war hero?” appears to be the pitch for Edgerton’s Falstaff, a character who’s emblematic of the film’s confused identity. Is Henry a master tactician or a peacenik who’s in far over his head? This question is cast aside abruptly when the king declares war on France after an attack on Henry’s pride at the hands of the dauphin. This hasty decision is the only moment where The King questions Henry’s ego, and the scene undermines the film’s outsized attention to tedious backroom negotiations.
Though the film fails to explore Henry’s psychology, Chalamet effectively conveys the king’s efforts to perform leadership and charisma: The King’s version of the St. Crispin’s Day speech takes place on a muddy battlefield where Henry appears diminutive but persuasively motivates his troops into a potentially hopeless battle. If only the film made more of the curious tension between Henry and the dauphin, who Pattinson portrays as a gleeful imp who looks like he’s been airlifted out of Neil Jordan’s Interview with a Vampire. Instead, the two are sent into a scrum of armored bodies drowning one another in puddles and stabbing heedlessly. The battle is, like too much of The King, a slog of desaturated colors and endless slow motion that means to treat war as a brutal, meaningless affair, all the while capturing the action with a reverent grandeur that suggests there’s no other realm where heroes can be made.
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Ben Mendelsohn, Robert Pattinson, Andrew Cavill, Lily-Rose Depp Director: David Michôd Screenwriter: David Michôd, Joel Edgerton Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 133 min Rating: R Year: 2019
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