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Understanding Screenwriting #103: Argo, The Sessions, Cloud Atlas, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #103: Argo, The Sessions, Cloud Atlas, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Argo, The Sessions, Cloud Atlas, Seven Psychopaths, The Conspirators, The Racket (1951), but first…

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.)

The Sessions

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.)

Cloud Atlas

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.)

Seven Psychopaths

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.)

The Conspirators

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.)

The Racket

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 [1950]) 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.

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Film

Review: In Angels Are Made of Light, a Nation Rebuilds in the Ruins of War

The film is an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.

2.5

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Angels Are Made of Light
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Early in Angels Are Made of Light, a voice breaks through a sea of chatter in a classroom teeming with young boys: “I only know about the time since I was born. What’s history?” The child goes on to explain that history isn’t taught at the Daqiqi Balkhi high school in Kabul, Afghanistan. The question’s poignance is self-evident, particularly because the building itself appears to have been disturbed by the city’s recent trauma. The opening shot of James Longley’s first film since Iraq in Fragments captures splotches of sunlight entering through holes in the school’s exterior. Later, one of the building’s walls collapses, and the children relocate to a location supported by American funding.

Though it inevitably gestures toward American occupation, Angels Are Made of Light is rare in its nearly undivided attention to civilian life in a region fundamentally altered by the U.S.’s so-called war on terror. Much of the film is composed of footage Longley shot at Daqiqi Balkhi from 2011 to 2014, with a particular focus on three brothers: Rostam, Sohrab, and Yaldash. The trio speak in voiceover throughout, and seem to define themselves by their relative interest in work and studying. Sohrab excels in school and doesn’t see himself as fit for manual labor, while the older Rostam works closely with their father. Yaldash, the youngest, works at a tin shop and is anguished when his job interferes with his educational aspirations.

The documentary’s classroom scenes exude a tone of controlled chaos, shot mostly at eye level with the students as they struggle to hear and be heard over the din of their classmates. (This is particularly true at their school’s first location, where numerous classes are taught outside right next to one another.) The passage of time is marked by changes in seasons and the repetition of certain ceremonies, like a teacher appreciation day featuring musical performances by students. Concurrently, there’s a Malickian quality to the near-constant voiceover of the brothers, whose concerns veer from the quotidian (earning money for the family, achieving in school) to the philosophical. Though their voices are profound, their limited perspective yields lengthy stretches of repetitive, meandering sentiments that are inflated by John Erik Kaada’s sometimes intrusive score.

If the children aren’t taught about their country’s history as a site of hostile takeover by other countries, the Taliban, and groups of mujahideen, they have clearly internalized the trauma their homeland has endured. “Death is coming. Doomsday is coming. Everything is coming,” one says. All seem to agree that learning about computers (none of which are seen in the documentary) is the only sure ticket to an escape or a successful career.

As Angels Are Made of Light proceeds, its chorus of narrative voices expands, adding a number of teachers (including the boys’ mother) and another schoolboy who sells hot food at an open market. The teachers add flashes of historical context, which Longley plays over archival footage of Kabul and its ruling governments over the previous decades. Cuts between the city’s past and its present are stark: The contemporary skyline is pockmarked with absent buildings that have been replaced by makeshift structures, and the city’s center is now cluttered with billboards advertising mobile phones and alcohol produced in NATO countries. Eventually, Longley shows current political action in the streets, as mujahideen gather to flog themselves in public, other groups march for democracy, and all focus their attention on 2014 presidential election where Hamid Karzai democratically transfers power to his successor, Ashraf Ghani, as rumors swirl about the Americans’ sway over the vote.

Longley’s decision to avoid addressing Afghani politics until the latter half of his film is sound, perhaps a signal that his young characters are becoming more attuned to the corruption that pervades daily operations in their city, but Angels Are Made of Light lacks the sort of structural framework that can properly sustain its lack of plot and rather confusing array of editorialists speaking in voiceover. The closest the film comes to a guiding focus is the recurring image of a large, ghostly white blimp that looms over Kabul, a blot of menace as children and other citizens look to the sky in hope or prayer. Presumably an observational surveillance craft, the blimp is an ironic mirror of the documentarian’s predicament—a totem that reminds everyone who sees it of the West’s influence on their lives. Longley is aware that his camera serves a similar function, and it’s admirable that he’s able to achieve an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.

Director: James Longley Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 117 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Mike Wallace Is Here Honors a Legend by Arguing with Him

Much like its subject, Avi Belkin’s documentary knows how to start an argument.

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Mike Wallace Is Here
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Much like its subject, Mike Wallace Is Here knows how to start an argument. Avi Belkin’s archival documentary begins with the legendary broadcaster (who died in 2012) interviewing Bill O’Reilly at the peak of the latter’s influence as a Fox News blowhard. “That is not an interview, that’s a lecture,” Wallace moans before O’Reilly calls him a “dinosaur” and then really twists the knife: “You’re the driving force behind my career,” he tells Wallace. The exchange is riveting and, in some ways, inscrutable, as both of these TV personalities are so skilled at performance it can seem impossible to know if their dialogue is in earnest or some knowing fight among titans happy to march into battle.

Though it’s almost certainly fair to say that Wallace set the stage for an era of ostentatious and increasingly dangerous “personality journalism,” the breadth and quality of Wallace’s work is rich enough to lend some tension to Belkin’s exploration of the reporter as celebrity. Assembled with a propulsive momentum from dozens of televised interviews of and by Wallace, Mike Wallace Is Here portrays its subject as a self-made man, or, as his colleague Morley Safer calls him, “an invention.” Born Myron Wallace, he adopted his broadcast name while working as a performer on radio and then television, a decision made with no shortage of anxiety due to Wallace’s self-consciousness about his acne scars from childhood.

Ironically, Wallace’s breakthrough as a broadcaster (after a series of acting and promotional gigs) came with a show that revolutionized the television interview through its intense lighting and use of invasive closeups. Clips from his show Night-Beat—the first of two Wallace-led interview programs sponsored by cigarette companies and cloaked in smoke—reveal that the media personality was already aware of the showmanship innate in his brand of journalism. He introduces the show by saying “My role is that of a reporter,” and hones his skill for unsettling his guests with obnoxious editorial comments before asking questions. (“Many people hated your husband, and you,” he once said to Eleanor Roosevelt.)

Belkin weaves Wallace’s personal story into the documentary’s parade of interviews in a manner that’s unsurprisingly superficial, glossing over his many marriages, the death of his 19-year-old son, Peter, in a mountain-climbing accident in Greece in 1962 (Wallace cites the tragedy as a pivotal moment in the creation of 60 Minutes and the revival of his career), and a suicide attempt circa 1986. In interviews where Wallace is the subject—with the likes of Barbara Walters and other 60 Minutes colleagues—he’s alternately open and evasive about these flashpoints in his life, often demonstrating the very behavior he has no patience for as an interviewer. Belkin shrewdly reveals Wallace’s hypocrisy through editing, cutting to, for instance, a clip of Wallace grilling Larry King about his string of failed marriages.

Mike Wallace Is Here only suffers in its treatment of the broadcaster’s time at 60 Minutes, dispensing with cleverly edited commentary in favor of a swift survey of the major news of the second half of the 20th century. These include necessary digressions, such as General William C. Westmoreland’s libel suit against a CBS Reports special that Wallace anchored accusing the Army general of falsifying the American military’s analysis of the strength of the Vietnamese army in order to keep the war in Vietnam going, and the tumultuous process of televising Wallace’s interview with the tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (the subject of Michael Mann’s The Insider). But this extensive highlight reel seems to forget that the documentary is scrutinizing Wallace as it’s celebrating him.

At its nerviest, Mike Wallace Is Here uses the words of other celebrities to psychoanalyze Wallace. The film argues (and at times Wallace acknowledges) that his success is a product of his sense of shame, first about the way that he looked and then about the way that he behaved, loved, and parented. When Wallace is coy, Belkin effectively imagines a more honest response by cutting to someone else saying what he believes is true. After showing Wallace dancing around his lack of pride for a while, he cuts to Barbara Streisand talking about how “fear is the energy toward doing your best work.” In the very same interview, she calls Wallace “a son of a bitch,” and Mike Wallace Is Here is at its best when it seems to be in direct debate with this journalistic legend. The film honors Wallace best when it seems to be arguing with him.

Director: Avi Belkin Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 94 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.

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Demolition Girl
Photo: Japan Cuts

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.

Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.

At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.

And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.

A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.

More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.

The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.

Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.

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Review: David Crosby: Remember My Name Sees a Legend Carrying On

The film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

2.5

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David Crosby: Remember My Name
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

One gets the sense when hearing David Cosby perform that, like many naturally gifted vocalists, he was born to express himself through song, and given his tumultuous personal and professional life, the act of singing may be the only means through which Crosby can briefly maintain an equilibrium amid so much chaos. Womanizing, drug abuse, and band breakups are certainly par for the course for countless musicians, especially those who came up in the late 1960s, but Crosby is an extreme case even by those standards. It’s difficult to think of another living musician more strongly and uniformly despised by his former bandmates and collaborators and, aside from Keith Richards, another whose continued survival is more shocking in light of what he’s put his body through.

Aided by Cameron Crowe, who, as a Rolling Stone writer, interviewed Crosby various times and is on hand here to again pick the musician’s brain, A.J. Eaton’s David Crosby: Remember My Name opens with a fairly standard music-doc overview that traces Crosby’s productive early years with the Byrds and his ascent to fame with both iterations of Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s no effort made to hide Crosby’s thorny personality or the chaos he brought to each of these early projects, but Eaton and Crowe seem initially content to butter Crosby up, joining him in waxing rhapsodic about his widespread influence and lasting importance as a musician.

The hagiographic tone slowly fades as the film moves past the perfunctory career retrospective and begins delving into the nitty-gritty details of Crosby’s bumpy road to stardom and his rapid descent into disgrace, spurred on by his decades-long battle with drug addiction. While Crosby often proves a tough nut to crack, rarely willing to linger too long on the painful moments of a life eventful enough to fill several documentaries, Crowe and Eaton eventually disarm him enough to tap into the frustrated, damaged, and regretful man hiding all those years beneath his patented walrus mustache and wispy, long hair. As Crosby discusses the petulance and rage he often unfairly directed at fellow bandmates and his mistreatment of many of his girlfriends, several of whom he got hooked on cocaine and heroin, one can sense not only the depth of his remorse and anguish, but also the resigned helplessness that little can be done in his twilight years to repair the many bridges he’s permanently scorched.

Throughout Remember My Name, archival interviews with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young make it abundantly clear that Crosby has alienated each of his former bandmates to such a degree that none of them will talk to him again. Only former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn appears in a newly recorded interview for the film, and he does so presumably only to describe how “insufferable” Crosby was as a fellow bandmate.

At nearly 80 years old, Crosby is happily married and in the midst of a creative resurgence with a string of acclaimed solo albums, but even these small joys are mitigated by his admission that he’s only touring, and thus often away from his wife, because he needs the money. During a leisurely drive with Crowe, Crosby visits his old stomping grounds in Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip and recounts those halcyon days when he lived with Joni Mitchell and sang his first song with Nash and Stills. But the magic of these locales has long since faded, leaving Crosby in an uncharacteristically introspective state and all too aware of how close he is to the end of his life. As he wistfully tells Crowe that he already has eight stents in his heart and will likely die in the next couple of years, the film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

Director: A.J. Eaton Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy

Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.

Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.

Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.

Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.

Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.

Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change

Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.

Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.

Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?

Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.

Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?

Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.

There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.

Yeah.

Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.

Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.

You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.

The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.

Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?

Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.

That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.

I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.

Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.

You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.

Right.

Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.

I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.

Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.

Yeah.

People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.

To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?

Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.

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American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell

Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.

A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.

Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.

If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.

Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.

Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.

As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.

Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.

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Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians

Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.

3.5

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I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Photo: Big World Pictures

Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.

For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.

A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.

Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.

Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.

Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.

Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust

The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.

I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?

Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.

Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.

To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.

Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.

Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?

Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.

Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.

It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.

How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?

Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.

How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”

Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.

Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?

No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.

You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?

I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.

My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”

And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.

I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.

It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]

On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.

That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!

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Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre

Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.

2

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.

Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.

Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.

But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.

Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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