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Understanding Screenwriting #104: Lincoln, Skyfall, Flight, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #104: Lincoln, Skyfall, Flight, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Lincoln, Skyfall, Flight, Silver Linings Playbook, Middle of Nowhere, Covert Affairs but first…

Fan Mail: First an addition to US#103. I mentioned in the credits for Argo that there was another source listed in the credits of the film, but I could not find it. Shortly after I sent off the column, the new issue of the British magazine Sight & Sound arrived. It identifies the other source as “based on a selection from The Master of Disguise by Antonio J. Mendez.” I’m guessing that’s the Tony Mendez.

David Ehrenstein liked my Sharon and Roman story so much he has added it to his one-man show, currently at finer bookstores near you.

“Erbear423” understandably took me to task for appearing to dump Paul Dano and Jesse Eisenberg into the same category as Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg. I can see how you can read my comments that way, but what I was trying to get at was more the kinds of roles they often play rather than the actors themselves. I like Dano and Eisenberg very much and they have been terrific in some very good movies, but even then they are often playing the sensitive young man finding his way in the world. My point was that there were no characters like that in Argo, for which I was grateful. As for Adam and Andy, they’re on their own.

Lincoln (2012. Written by Tony Kushner, based in part on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. 150 minutes.)

The public figure: I have always liked Tony Kushner, and not just the concept of Tony Kushner the public writer. The latter would be the playwright and activist who writes about public issues like AIDS, race, violence and politics. What I like about Kushner is that he is a hell of an interesting writer. OK, I will admit that when I first saw the stage play Angels in America in 1995, the writing instructor in me mentally got out my red grading pen. I imagined waving it in the air, saying, “You can cut this;” “You’ve said that three times, twice is probably enough;” “We don’t need all that.” Even though the TV film of Angels (2004) was shorter than the play, I brought out the mental red pen again. And his 2001 play Homebody/Kabul was probably talkier than it needed to be. But his book for the 2002 musical Caroline, or Change was a model of precision. And his screenplay, co-written by Eric Roth, of the 2005 film Munich was one of the smartest scripts of the last decade.

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times by Rebecca Keegan, Steven Spielberg had been fascinated by Abraham Lincoln since he was a kid. In 2001 he optioned Goodwin’s book, even though she had not yet finished writing it. Spielberg tried other screenwriters, but was unhappy with the results. The screenplays were all over the map. Finally he went to Kushner, who worked on the script for five years. In typical Kushner style, the first draft ran 500 pages, about 150 pages of which interested Spielberg: Lincoln trying to get the 13th Amendment past the recalcitrant House of Representatives to outlaw slavery for good. Why would that appeal to Spielberg? The storyline has no spectacle, no chance for elaborate swirling camera moves, and not even much of a chance for a sweeping John Williams score. Spielberg told Keegan, “I was getting into a performance art form of literature and language, without any of my super-strengths that I could turn to make something magically stand out to audiences. It was an experience I’ve always desired to have and never allowed myself to have it until Lincoln came into my life.” Keegan does not report whether he had this idea before hiring Kushner, or whether it developed as Kushner wrote the screenplay. Anthony Lane, in his New Yorker review, thinks there is a conflict between Kushner and Spielberg’s styles in the film, but I think not. What Spielberg’s vision meant was that he was going to have to put his talents at the service of the material, which is exactly what he does. The film becomes as much the writer’s film as the director’s.

Kushner delivers. Kushner as the public writer deals with a multiplicity of subjects, one of the things he does best. Who else would have combined Mormons, AIDS, and Roy Cohn as he did in Angels in America? Like Caroline, or Change, this script is about race, and like Angels and Homebody/Kabul, it is brilliantly about politics. It is true to the politics of the period, and without nudging us in the ribs, makes us aware of the similarities to our times, if only in showing that the Republicans and Democrats of 1865 stood for exactly the opposite principles they stand for now. We watch how the president manipulates and wheedles people for the votes he needs. The political Lincoln here seems more like Lyndon Johnson in his arm-twisting days than the stately figure in the Lincoln memorial that Capra loves so well. The sheer entertainment value of the wheeling and dealing could make a film all by itself.

As a writer of drama, Kushner also delivers. One thing he did during the five years he worked on the script was to read extensively about the period, going over transcripts of Lincoln’s meetings. which gave him a good sense of how people talked. Kushner told Randee Dawn for another article in the Los Angeles Times (at this time of the year, there are a lot of articles in the Times about movies, at least those which might be involved in the orgy of awards season), “Shakespeare was so central to 19th-century American speech, that and the King James Bible were so central to the way they spoke in that day.” They were literate people who were not afraid of a well-turned phrase. The film, as we would expect from Kushner, is dialogue heavy, but it is enthralling dialogue. In addition to the elevated language, there is also the political invective of the time, which puts today’s foul-mouthed politicians to shame. Listen to the name-calling in the House scenes. And you think this year’s campaigns were dirty! Kushner also brilliantly uses Lincoln’s known gifts as a storyteller. His Lincoln is always stopping to tell a backwoods tale, mostly to the amusement of those around him, sometimes to their irritation. When he starts one more tale his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton says in irritation, “Not another story.” So in dialogue terms you have three intertwining styles: elevated, invective, and folksy. Kushner mixes them brilliantly. In the character of Lincoln particularly, we see both the public figure, the politician, but also the drama of the private man.

In writing about the first Jurassic Park (1993) in the book Understanding Screenwriting, I criticized Spielberg’s direction of the actors, but pointed out that what was crucial to the success of that film were the dinosaurs. You get actors right but not the dinos and the picture falls apart; you get the dinos right, who cares about the acting. In Lincoln Spielberg realized this was all about the actors handling Kushner’s script. Spielberg has always loved actors, but only later in his career, most notably in Schindler’s List (1993) and Munich, has he been as concerned with character. Here he loves the characters as much as the actors. Kushner, writing for performance, has created a wonderful gallery of people and the producers have hired a marvelous collection of great American actors to play them. With the brilliant exception of Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, they are not British actors, whose native language is Shakespeare, but American actors who can speak Kushner’s quintessentially American dialogue. Lincoln’s budget was only about $60 million, lunch money for most Spielberg movies. The physical production is not lavish by Indiana Jones standards, but the money went to actors, and the film gets its money’s worth. I will let all the other reviews tell you how great the specific actors are, but as we have seen before, if you don’t give the actors a good script, it doesn’t matter how great they are. James Agee, in a review collected in the first volume of Agee on Film, writes about a now forgotten 1943 film about Lincoln’s vice president Andrew Johnson titled Tennessee Johnson. He points out that the only actor who looks and sounds authentic 19th Century American is character actor Morris Ankrum playing Jefferson Davis. In Lincoln, they are all Morris Ankrums.

Skyfall (2012. Screenplay by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and John Logan, based on characters created by Ian Fleming. 143 minutes.)

Skyfall

Well, it’s not Quantum of Solace: You may remember from US#12 that I had problems with the lack of characterization in Quantum of Solace (2008). As in, there wasn’t much. More action than character. I apparently was not the only person concerned about that. The script for Quantum, by Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade had been rushed because of a pending writers’ strike, and the producers were not happy with the results. So they were determined to get a better script with better characterization for Skyfall. And they did. And they were helped by MGM’s going into bankruptcy. MGM, having taken over United Artists, the studio that started the Bonds, owned the rights. The delay in getting financing meant that the producers and the writers and director Sam Mendes could spend more time on the script. The cute thing to say is that they went too far in the other direction. That’s not true, but they have created some related flaws.

They have not shortchanged the action. The film gets off to one of the best Bond openings ever. Bond is in Istanbul searching for the film’s MacGuffin, a computerized list of all of MI6’s spies. While he is doing that, he gets a call from Kim Mills, the daughter of his C.I.A. friend Bryan Mills whom Bond knew under his real name as Felix Leiter. Kim tells Bond that Bryan and her mom have been kidnapped. What Kim of course doesn’t know is that Bond was her mother’s lover when she was Xenia Onatopp and he might actually be Kim’s father. So Bond rescues Bryan and the two of them chase the assassin who has stolen the McGuffin. We suspect the assassin may be “Jason Bourne,” because he certainly rides a motorcycle like Bourne over the roofs of Istanbul. Then Bond and Chinese Supercop Inspector Chan fight with “Bourne” on top of a train. Evelyn Salt has Bond in her sights and M tells her to take the shot. She does and Bond falls to his death into a river. Roll opening credits.

OK, how long did it take you in the last paragraph to realize I was funning with you a little bit? The references, if you care, are to Taken 2 (2012), GoldenEye (1995), The Bourne Legacy (2012), Supercop 2 (1993), and Salt (2010). If you haven’t seen Skyfall or any of the other films, you could imagine how all that could work. The Bond films are the granddaddies of those kinds of films. The writers in the inventive opening sequence in Skyfall (chasing that McGuffin, motorcycle chases, the fight on the train, and Bond getting shot) show that although the Bond films have been around for fifty years, they still can do it as well as the next franchise. We know by the end of the sequence that we are in Bond country.

Bond of course is not dead, but hanging out drinking and screwing a local girl on an exotic island (there’s always an island in Bond films). After an attempt on M’s life, he shows up at M’s apartment. She puts him to work, even though he fails all his re-evaluation tests. Well, she has a maternal sweet spot for Bond, and we learn the roots of that later on. He is to track down the guy who has hacked into MI6’s computers and has the MacGuffin list. The baddie is exposing five British spies every week. Then we get into conventional Bond scenes. Bond meets the assassin in Shanghai, kills him, gets a chip from a casino in Macao, trades in the chip at the casino for a briefcase full of money. There are fights, a seductive woman, and sailing to an island (always an island…). These scenes are not that compelling because 1) we don’t get much characterization, and 2) Sam Mendes as director does not have a light touch needed for typical Bond scenes. There are a number of Bond-like lines in the script, but Mendes zips right through them like he did not understand they were jokes. It makes the picture a little unbalanced.

The film picks up when we get to the island. We meet the villain of the piece, and he is the best Bond villain in a long time. He is Silva and he is not trying to take over the world, nor is he working for some other foreign power. He is an ex-MI6 agent whom M let the Chinese know about in the runup to the turnover of Hong Kong. Silva is out for revenge on M, so you could say he has mother issues, as he assumes, not entirely inaccurately, that Bond has as well. We find out that Bond was an orphan that M brought into the organization after his parents died. Silva also plays seductive homoerotic games with Bond, a first for the series, at least in such an obvious fashion. With the character faceoffs between Bond and Silva, Mendes is on his home court and the picture works.

Bond manages to capture Silva a little too easily and transports him back to London. We are only a little over half-way through the film. I have heard a couple of people complaining that the last half of the movie goes on way too long (“I felt my lifeblood drain away,” as one of them put it), but I don’t think so. Silva escapes and goes after M at a government hearing, which is a terrific action sequence, and then we get more character scenes as Bond and M escape to Scotland in his Aston Martin. Yes, he still has it in a garage, and some of its weaponry still works. The script is very sly about throwing in references not only to older Bond films, but to other films as well (Silva in the sewers of London reminds me, if no one else, of The Third Man [1949]). The final confrontations between Bond, Silva, and M do go on a bit long, but by then we are very invested in their characters.

I suspect that the typical Bond scenes were written by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade, since they wrote the last two Brosnan Bond films and the first two Craig ones. They know the drill. The character scenes are probably written by John Logan, whose credits include Gladiator (2000), The Aviator (2004), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), and Hugo (2011). My suspicions may or may not be accurate, since so far nobody in the writers’ room is talking. In addition to interesting characters, the writers have all come up with a new twist for the Bond films that bring them into the modern era. The villain is using computers more than physical force, although there is the latter, to upset the civilized world, as indicated by the fact the last half of the film is in London and Scotland.

By the end of the film M, as played by the great Judi Dench, has been replaced as the head of MI6. The new M is Gareth Mallory, whom we are first introduced to as just the bureaucrat boss of M. As the film goes along, we discover there is a lot more to him than that. One of my acquaintances with connections to the intelligence world tells me all the spooks he knows think the new M will be terrific. And in another payoff, Eve, the agent who took the shot at Bond in Istanbul, turns up in a new job at MI6, which makes perfect sense once Bond finally learns her last name. Let’s just say she’s going into the family business.

Flight (2012. Written by John Gatins. 138 minutes.)

Flight

You may think you know, Mr. Gittes…: Here’s the setup: an airline pilot manages to land a plane with mechanical problems, and saves the lives of nearly all the people on board. Then his blood tests show that he had alcohol and cocaine in his body. You just know where Gatins got the idea: Captain Chesley Sullenberger lands the plane on the Hudson in 2009, and Gatins thinks, what if he had drugs in his system? That’s the simple and logical explanation for the development of the story. Like a lot of simple and logical explanations, it is wrong.

What started Gatins thinking of the idea was an airline flight he took in 1999. He happened to be sitting next to an off-duty airline pilot on a flight, and the pilot was just an ordinary guy. Gatins was horrified. He wanted the people he entrusted his life to when he flew to be perfect. As he told John Horn in an article in the Los Angeles Times, “I want pilots to be somebody who would take a bullet to get me to JFK. And here was a guy with the potential to reveal that he wasn’t a god.” Gatins, as he has revealed in interviews, is a recovering alcoholic, so he had some experience to bring to the character of Whip Whitaker. He runs into a problem that I noticed over the years with my screenwriting students who were recovering addicts. They don’t really want to write about their recovery process but rather about all the terrible things they did while they under the influence. I assume that is part of the recovery process. The problem with that, and Flight shows it in spades, is that drunken behavior is very dreary and repetitious for us outsiders to watch. Whip gets coked up before he flies and then again when he faces the hearing board, which almost suggests (especially when his dealer gives him a funny crash hangover cure with coke before the hearing) that coke is a good way to deal with your problems. Would Whip have been able to land the plane without it? Nobody ever asks that question, but it hangs in the air. We have a lot of scenes of Whip pouring out booze, then getting some more. Then pouring out more and getting even more. He is struggling with his addiction, but as this story is told, he is constantly falling off the wagon. It would have been a lot more dramatic if he were seriously trying to get off the stuff. Gatins does give us a lot of detail of how Whip deals with what we see, and Denzel Washington gets every nuance. Washington would be even better if the film were not so repetitive.

Some of the other characterizations are good, especially his dealer Harling Mays, played by John Goodman. On the other hand Don Cheadle and Melissa Leo are not given enough to do as his union lawyer and the chairperson of the NTSB hearing. Whip does get involved with a junkie, Nicole, but she is very highly idealized. There is nothing feral about her the way there is about real junkies, and Kelly Reilly, freckles and all, is a little too clean for the part.

Whip finally admits to his drinking at the hearing, but it seems a little too unearned from what we have seen. Then we get Whip confessing to all his faults to what turns out to be a bunch of convicts in his prison. That’s a very sentimental scene, and straight out of an AA meeting. I once worked with a guy who went to meetings, and he told me that one group would have a monthly “bad Friday,” in which nobody would be supportive to the confessing member at all. As in, “If you want to stop, just do it and stop whining,” or “If you want to drink that much, just go ahead and drink, who cares?” That sort of thing would have made a much fresher scene. And the final scene in which Whip’s estranged son comes to the prison to get to know his dad is even more sentimental.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012. Screenplay by David O. Russell, based on the novel by Matthew Quick. 122 minutes.)

Silver Linings Playbook

Getting it more or less right: Russell avoids at least some of the problems Gatins had with Flight. The main character here is Pat, a mid-30s manic-depressive. Before the film opens he has beat up a man he found in the shower with his wife, Nikki. Pat was sent off to a mental hospital in Baltimore, but as the film starts his mother has arranged for him to be released, against the advice of the staff. The staff does seem as concerned about their liability as his condition. Dolores, his mom, takes him back home to Philadelphia, somewhat to the surprise of his dad, Pat Sr. Dolores hadn’t told him her plans. Pat insists he is improving, but it is hard for us to see that. Just as we get a lot of Whip’s drinking in Flight, we get a lot of Pat’s colorful behavior. More than we really need, especially since Pat is not particularly sympathetic. He is edgy, delusional, and obsessed about winning Nikki back, even though she still has a restraining order against him. A lot of praise has been heaped on Bradley Cooper, who plays Pat, and rightly so, but he and the writing make Pat in the opening scenes a little too uncomfortably nuts for us to want to watch. Yes, there is certain sixties element of the diagnosed crazies are more honest than the rest of us, but it is not lethal to the film. Russell, who also directed, does not help these scenes by shooting a lot of them with a handheld camera. It may play better if you see it on a smaller screen, but we saw it in one of the larger auditoriums of the Landmark Theatre in West L.A., and the camera movement almost gave us motion sickness. I’ve always found it ironic that the Landmark, which plays as many art films as big Hollywood pictures, has so many extra large screens that do not do small films shot with handheld cameras any favors. And don’t get me started on the stadium seating in the multiplex that has an older clientele. Sometimes watching us geezers try to climb the stairs is more fun than the movie.

Meanwhile, back in the movie, Pat has been introduced to Tiffany, the sister of the wife of his good friend. She’s not officially nuts, thank God, but she is a little funny in the head. Her cop husband was killed in an accident, and she reacted badly to it. As in she slept with everybody she worked with and was fired. She is just as unable to shut her mouth as Pat is. She is played in a spectacular change of pace by Jennifer Lawrence, and she and the writing of Tiffany hit a better balance than Pat does. One element that makes a good character is that when they are on screen, you are dying to see what they do. That’s not true with Pat in the opening scenes, but it is true of Tiffany. She wants to enter a dance contest and needs a partner. Pat does not want to, but Tiffany says she can get a letter from him to Nikki. So they rehearse, and we get a little drive to the film. Pat is not attracted to her because she’s a little wacko and he is still convinced he’ll get Nikki back. That’s okay with her because she’s focusing on dancing rather than screwing. Well, you can see where that’s going, but getting there is half the fun.

There is no way they are going to win the dance contest, but they do not have to. Pat Sr. is a part-time bookie trying to make enough to open a restaurant, and he ends up making a two-bet parley. Pat S. has lost money to another guy, who offers him double or nothing if a) the Philadelphia Eagles win a game that will put them in the playoffs, and b) Pat and Tiffany get a least a five out of a top score of ten in the competition. They get just a five, which leads to cheering by their friends, much to the bafflement of the other competitors. Meanwhile, guess who showed up at the competition? Yup, Nikki, who sort of believes the letter Pat has sent about how he is getting his life together. Tiffany has seen her. After the competition Pat goes over to talk to Nikki and Tiffany runs out of the room. We do not hear what Pat says to Nikki, and Russell misses a great opportunity to have Nikki show us a variety of reactions to what he says. Pat goes after Tiffany, they kiss, yada, yada, yada. Yes, it is a conventional happy ending, but it is a hard-earned one. On the other hand, Pat and Tiffany’s life together is probably going to be a mess, although the final scene nicely suggests maybe not.

Middle of Nowhere (2011. Written by Ava DuVernay. 97 minutes.)

Middle of Nowhere

Bogart with a gun: We have talked on a number of occasions about those films that were big hits on the festival circuit but withered when exposed to the real world. This is another one of those. In the opening scene Derrick and Ruby are talking. They are married and he is in prison for eight years, four if he can get off with good behavior. He is encouraging her not to drop out of medical school, which she wants to do to support him emotionally, since she can’t make the 200 mile trip to his prison by bus every week with the demands of medical school. Well, Derrick is right. Guess who the main character in the film is? Yup, Ruby. So right away we have a heroine who is smart enough to get into medical school, but stupid enough to drop out so she can see her convict husband every week. I would have thought she could study on the bus or catch up on her sleep.
It gets worse. Everyone who criticizes Ruby about everything else in her life is usually right. Why should we feel a connection with a woman who is so wrong-headed? In 1998 Kate Winslet appeared in the film Hideous Kinky as the Gold Medal example of a character being so totally unsympathetic she turned off the audience. Winslet plays a young mother who suddenly takes her kids off to Morocco without knowing either the language or anyone there. Every single thing she does is worse, and more dangerous for her children, than the last. When the credits began to roll over the last shot, a good half of the audience got up and ran for the door. They didn’t want to be in the same room with that character any longer than they had to. Well, to be fair, nobody ran up the aisles at the end of Middle of Nowhere, since we at least got the sense that Ruby was trying.

The film gets going after Derrick has been in the slammer for four years and is hoping to get out soon. Mostly we watch Ruby mope. DuVernay’s characters are nearly one-note, if that. DuVernay does not give them much to do, and very little in terms of reactions to what is going on. Humphrey Bogart once said that if a man is pointing a gun at you in the scene, you do not have to act scared. You can play other emotions; good advice for writers and directors as well as actors. DeVernay also directs, but at such a slow pace we get great gaps between line readings. DuVernay won the directing award this year at Sundance for this film, which makes me wonder, among other things, how bad the direction of the other films was. If the dialogue were great, we could appreciate it in those pauses, but it is very flat, with no texture. I happened to see this film the afternoon before I saw Silver Linings Playbook, and Russell’s dialogue sparkles in comparison.

In the middle of her waiting around, Ruby is hit on by the driver of her usual bus. She’s sort of non-committal about it. You would think that an attractive woman like this would have had enough experience with guys hitting on her in the four years that she would have developed an all-purpose response. When Derrick has his parole hearing, Ruby and we learn that he has some sort of sexual encounter (the whole script is rather vague on a lot of crucial details) with a female guard. OK, I believe this could be enough to push Ruby into the arms of the bus driver, but the film is not convincing. We do not see Ruby struggle with this, nor do we get much of a reaction after she goes to bed with Brian, the driver. Like Russell and the scene with Nikki, DuVernay is missing a lot of opportunities here. Ruby ends up dropping both Derrick and Brian and getting on with her life.

Oh, did I forget to mention that with the exception of Derrick’s lawyer, all the other characters are black? Well, they are, but just as we do not get much texture in the characters and dialogue, we don’t get much texture of the black community. Ruby finds Brian at a club he suggested in Leimert Park, a hub of black cultural life in Los Angeles. On film it’s an ordinary club, which gives you no idea how vibrant a place Leimert Park is in real life. I’d love to see a movie set in the real Leimert Park. This one is not it.

Covert Affairs (2011. Multiple episodes. 60 minutes.)

Covert Affairs

It was a very good year: This third season of the show has been their best yet. It started off with a bang in “Hang on to Yourself,” written by Matt Corman and Chris Ord. The bang was a car blowing up Jai Wilcox, the agent who was the son of Henry Wilcox, who used to run this division of the C.I.A.. Annie, Auggie and the others try to track down what Jai was working on, finding in his apartment indications of 50 active operations, but no paperwork on any of them. Annie, meanwhile, was reassigned to Lena Smith, a senior operative who has had several highly successful big missions. Annie eventually gets involved with Simon Fisher, the son of a former KGB agent. Simon is now a venture capitalist. Annie has a fling with him, and before you complain about Annie have flings with a lot of people, let me just say five words to you: David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell. Even Covert Affairs hasn’t gone that far…at least this season. Annie eventually tells Arthur she thinks she can turn Simon, but Simon says no when she tries. Then he proposes. So Annie is caught between a rock and a hard place. Lena tells Annie that it was Simon who had her followed, and takes her off his case. But they get together again. He invites her to go to Cuba with him, which she does. Annie and Simon are hanging out with Simon’s Russian handler, Hector, who is supposed to kill Simon, but Simon kills him instead and takes off for Russia, while Annie returns to D.C. Simon shows up in D.C. and sees Annie at her house. Lena comes in and shoots Simon…and then shoots Annie. Lena has been setting up Annie all along to take the suspicion off her. Annie survives (she is the star after all), and against C.I.A. orders, Joan sends Annie to Russia, where she kills Lena. And that’s just the first half of the season.

The Russians throw Annie in jail for killing Lena and Annie seems destined to rot there. Auggie tries to come up with a plan to rescue Annie, but Arthur and Joan point out all the impossibilities. So whom does Auggie get? Eyal, the Mossad agent Annie has worked with. He shows up in her prison cell, saying “Sorry to drop in unannounced. Hope you didn’t have plans for today.” That’s the kind of James Bond line Sam Mendes would have trouble with. We believe it, since we know that Eyal is resourceful. He’s also, in the person of Oded Fehr, a hunk and a half, so they make a beautiful couple. But how trustworthy is he? If he is getting you out of a Russian prison, do you really care at that point? The Mossad want the C.I.A.’s help in tracking down an asset that has gone missing. The asset collects information on Kalhid Asanri, a Saudi oilman who has friends high up in the U.S. Government. So Annie, Arthur and Joan are on tricky ground here. Do they help the Mossad, our ally, or do they stall them to protect someone of influence? Annie eventually convinces Arthur that the information Eyal is providing is good. And the Americans hit Kalhid’s compound in a drone strike, but Kalhid escapes. And it turns out not only was Eyal’s information doctored, but he is no longer with Mossad. In the first half of the season, Annie’s loyalties were fairly firmly with the C.I.A., but with a soft spot for Simon, whom she admitted she loved when she was debriefed after returning from Russia. Now it is trickier. Eyal saved her from prison, they have worked together before, but he used her to trick the Americans into a drone strike. This second half of the season is more suspenseful than the show has been and has sustained that suspense over a longer run of episodes. Annie is not only in physical danger (constantly, since this is series television), but in professional danger as well. In the final episode of the season, “Lady Stardust,” written by Corman and Ord, Annie gets a call from Kahlid saying he has taken Eyal hostage. Kahlid wants the list of the C.I.A. assets working for him. Annie is torn, and we think she may give them up, but she works out another plan, which rescues Eyal in the middle of Amsterdam. Somehow Covert Affairs gets to as many exotic locations as the Bond movies do, but on a much more limited budget. The production values on Covert Affairs are not a patch on the Bonds, which actually keeps the series a little more grounded. Arthur wants Annie to kill Kahlid, but Eyal keeps him alive, tells him it was his father that ordered the hit on his girl friend and sends him back to deal with his father. Eyal tells Annie he is going to live on a boat in Greece, but I suspect we have not seen the last of him. Meanwhile Arthur has found out that Jai’s dad, Henry, even though he is prison, set up the drone strike on Kahlid’s compound and probably let Kahlid know he should leave before it happens. Henry was just tying up loose ends; the terrorist they did get in the strike was somebody Henry had claimed to kill years before.

Meanwhile, we have learned that Joan is going to meetings. Yes, those kinds of meetings, but the showrunners do not show any of her alcoholic excesses, nor do we spend time in the meetings. Smart move; keep the show focused. In the first half of the season, Auggie and his girlfriend Parker broke up, which he did not deal with well. For most of the last few episodes, he is telling Annie they have to talk. Once the shooting stops they set a date for the talk, but he shows up at her place two days early. And kisses her. Aww. Well, we also suspected these two could be more than friends. Simon’s dead, and Eyal may or may not be on a boat somewhere, so why not?

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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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actress

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress.

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Glenn Close
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress for having given a performance that, while not your, um, favourite nominated one, is still deserving of an Oscar victory lap. Now, if only others felt the same. Very early on in the awards season, there was already a sense that this award could become a career-achievement coronation for the six-time losing Glenn Close—and that people were going to have a problem squaring that with the fact that her Oscar would be tied to a film perceived to be a piffle. That’s not an inaccurate perception, but it’s difficult to remember a time when critics have used that as an excuse to not do their homework.

In short, have you seen The Wife? Indeed, until the awards-media system’s attention shifted full time into covering AMPAS’s A Series of Unfortunate Oscar Decisions, it seemed as if every day brought us a new article by some pundit about the Oscar race in which it strangely sounded as if the The Wife was still a blind spot for the writer. Which is shame, because Close gives good face throughout the film. Certainly, few Oscar-nominated films this year are as absurd as The Wife, but I’ll do battle with anyone who thinks Close is getting by on her legend alone. Close’s triumph is recognizing The Wife’s inherent ludicrousness and elevating it, and without condescension, with a kabuki-like verve that seeks to speak to the experiences of all women who’ve been oppressed by their men. It’s a turn worthy of Norma Desmond.

Today, the most reliable Oscar narrative is the overdue performer. And if you take stock in that narrative, then you’ll understand why I texted Eric, my fellow Oscar guru, the following on the morning of November 29: “I think Close is going to Still Alice at the Oscars.” After that morning, when the New York Film Critics Circle officially kick-started the Oscar season (and gave their award for best actress to Regina Hall in Support the Girls), no actress ran the table with the critics and guilds, but most of the cards that matter did fall into place for Close, and much as they did for Julianne Moore ahead of her winning the Oscar for Still Alice.

This was a done deal when Close won the Golden Globe, received a standing ovation, and gave the night’s most impassioned speech, immediately after which Eric conceded that my instincts had been right. Of course, that was no doubt easy for him to admit given that, by that point, the oxygen had already seeped out of A Star Is Born’s awards campaign, leaving only Olivia Colman in Close’s way. Colman has worked the campaign trail in spectacular ways, giving speeches that have been every bit as droll as this, but in the end, she doesn’t have the SAG, and as bold and subversive as her performance certainly is, it isn’t sufficiently big enough to convince enough AMPAS members that Close should continue waiting for Oscar.

Will Win: Glenn Close, The Wife

Could Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

Should Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

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Berlinale 2019: A Dog Called Money, Lemebel, & Searching Eva

Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices, nine of the Panorma sidebar’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

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A Dog Called Money
Photo: Berlinale

The ostensible goal of the Berlinale’s Panorama sidebar is to offer a 360-degree snapshot of the current state of world cinema, but this year its curators seem inordinately concerned with the pursuit of artistry. Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices—Honor Swinton Byrne as a fledgling filmmaker in Joanna Hogg’s sublime The Souvenir, and Mei Kayama as a cartoonist with cerebral palsy in Hikari’s sweet-natured 37 Seconds—nine of the section’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

Among these, A Dog Called Money is perhaps the most fascinating, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Directed by photographer Seamus Murphy, it charts the making of PJ Harvey’s 2016 album The Hope Six Demolition Project, which was directly inspired by trips the pair took to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and deprived neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. The famously publicity-shy Harvey then took the unlikely step of turning the recording process into an art installation, setting up a pop-up studio in London’s opulent Somerset House, and inviting members of the public to observe her at work through a one-way mirror.

Though the project appears to have been a noble attempt on Harvey’s part to broaden her political and cultural horizons, A Dog Called Money demystifies her creative process in a manner that proves extremely unflattering. Murphy presents the overseas excursions solely as material-gathering missions: We see Harvey exposed to human suffering in various guises, and hear her recite song lyrics that matter-of-factly recount her observations, but are offered no insight into her overarching aims for The Hope Six Demolition Project, and no sense of how these experiences may have affected her worldview.

There’s something strangely distasteful about the way Murphy juxtaposes haunting footage of Middle Eastern warzones and American ghettos with scenes of Harvey, safely cocooned in her sleek studio, joking around with her overwhelmingly white band as they endeavor to distill the world’s misery into a whimsical art project. And frustratingly, the film fails to address the controversy surrounding album opener “Community of Hope,” which describes Washington D.C.’s predominantly black Ward 7 as a “drug town” full of “zombies,” and which led to a local official ridiculously saying that Harvey is “to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news.”

Joanna Reposi Garibaldi’s Lemebel, which just won the Teddy Award for best queer-themed documentary, does a far better job of representing the aspirations and achievements of a politically motivated artist. The film explores the career of late Chilean writer and activist Pedro Lemebel, who spearheaded a public LGBT rights movement amid the hostile environment of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Weaving together evocative archive footage, intimate talking-head interviews, and grainy home movies, Garibaldi charts the formation of Lemebel’s provocative queer collective dubbed the Mares of the Apocalypse, his flair for attention-grabbing performance art, and his masterly manipulation of Chile’s mainstream media.

An erudite raconteur, Lemebel is fascinating when discussing the intersection of LGBT and working-class communities, and appears remarkably ahead of his time when explaining his rejection of the word “gay” and his reclamation of derogatory terms like “maricón.” Occasionally it seems that Garibaldi, who befriended Lemebel years before attempting to make the film, is a little too close to her subject to offer an objective portrait. She fails, for example, to interrogate Lemebel’s conspiratorial views about the origins of AIDS. But given the fearless, trailblazing nature of his work, a somewhat hagiographic approach can be forgiven.

Many would surely balk at the description of Eva Collè, an obscure twentysomething blogger and Instagrammer, as an “artist.” But her scattershot, disarmingly frank musings on Tumblr have inspired a formally ambitious documentary feature, Pia Hellenthal’s Searching Eva. The film delivers an impressionistic account of this nomadic young woman’s compellingly chaotic existence, encompassing her move from conservative small-town Italy to hedonistic Berlin, her professional experiences as a sex worker and fashion model, her embrace of sexual fluidity, and her struggles with drug use and mental illness.

To underscore the fact that Collè elects to live out her daily dramas before an enthralled online audience, the film is narrated by anonymous comments lifted directly from her blogs. But while said comments tend to be either blindly sycophantic or scathingly judgmental, Hellenthal delivers a refreshingly even-handed assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of online culture. Eva seems to derive much of her self-worth from the knowledge that she inspires others to be their authentic selves. And there’s a sense that the barrage of criticism she faces only strengthens her resolve to carve her own path through life.

Hellenthal’s perspective becomes much harder to fathom when she’s exploring Collè’s life philosophy, which seems to boil down to a flat rejection of any label you might try and attach to her. At one point, Eva states her intention never to work a conventional job, on the grounds that the working class must refuse to be defined primarily as a workforce in order to make its mark. But it’s unclear whether Hellenthal regards this as a bold political statement or the pseudointellectual ramblings of a self-involved millennial attempting to justify her decadent existence. Those who suspect the latter will likely have a hard time fully embracing Searching Eva, but its assured approach to nonlinear storytelling makes the journey worthwhile.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Berlinale 2019: I Was at Home, But, So Long, My Son, and Ghost Town Anthology

These films depict in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting the dead’s presence in our lives.

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I Was Home, But
Photo: Berlinale

The dead haunt Berlin. The Martin-Gropius-Bau, the museum building in which the Berlinale’s European Film Market is hosted, is still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin—as are many other buildings in the center of the city. A 10-minute walk north of Potsdamer Platz, the center of the film festival, is the powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and a 10-minute walk in the opposite direction down Stresemannstraße and you’ll see the bombed-out façade of Anhalter Bahnhof, once one of Europe’s most resplendent train stations. And all over Berlin, you trip over Stolpersteine (or “stumble-stones”), small, square, brass plaques laid into the sidewalk bearing the names of former residents of that street, dispossessed and killed by the Nazis.

Like any city, Berlin is many things, and it’s certainly most known today for much more than its tragic past. But the history of the 20th century is in particular written across its face, and while it can be easy to turn your gaze away from the dead, they remain a part of life in Germany’s capital. Several of the best films up for the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale contemplate the persistence of the dead in the lives of the living, depicting in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting this presence in our lives.

Set in Berlin, Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But opens with an anomalous prologue that foreshadows the film’s equal-parts mix of despair and world weariness, of tragedy and banality. A dog excitedly chases a rabbit; the camera catches the rabbit initially running, and then seeming to give up, panting on a rock. In the next shot, the dog is greedily pulling apart the rabbit carcass in its den, a dilapidated building it appears to share with a donkey. It’s a potentially fruitful odd-couple scenario: You can almost read subdued exasperation in the donkey’s face as it ignores its roommate’s greedy consumption of a fellow herbivore.

What does this prologue have to do with the remainder of the film, which concerns a woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), and her children’s flailing attempts to process the grief of losing their husband and father? This quietly masterful film never even comes close to connecting these threads for its audience, requiring us to make connections on our own. We’ll see a foot being bandaged, but not the event that caused the injury, and characters dancing to entertain someone in a hospital bed, but not the person in the bed. Elsewhere, a needlessly obstinate Astrid demands money back for a perfectly reparable bicycle she bought on the cheap, and middle-school kids perform Hamlet in the most neutral of ways.

These still, vignette-like scenes elliptically narrate Phillip’s (Jakob Lassalle) week-long disappearance and return. Infused with the profound pain of grief and with the consciousness that such pain is both inescapable and futile, a universal tragedy that has played out innumerable times, each scene in I Was at Home, But could stand on its own. Assembled together, they comprise a story told between the lines. When Astrid theatrically collapses in front of a headstone, lying silent and immobile like a stage corpse, we don’t need the camera to show us the name on the grave to let us know which tragedy she’s currently performing.

Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is a pointed critique of China’s one-child policy, which was relaxed in 2013. Cutting between at least four different periods in the life of a couple, Liyun and Yaojun (Mei Yong and Wang Jingchun), whose family is shattered over and over again—first with a forced abortion, then with the drowning death of their biological son, and finally when their adopted son absconds from their home—the film is a stark condemnation of an inhuman measure undertaken for the sake of the ultimately abandoned dream of a workers’ utopia. Surprising for a film produced in a country with heavy censorship, the story is explicit in its political and ethical concerns, demonstrating how China’s strict rules in the 1980s imposed unjust sacrifices on the country’s people only so, as one shot set in today’s Beijing suggests, shopping malls could be erected behind statues of Mao Zedong.

Mixing around the story’s timeline, Wang opens with the death of Liyun and Yaojun’s son, and flashes forward to their adopted son, also named Xingxing, fleeing home, so that Liyun’s coerced abortion feels like a third loss, even though it actually comes first. This captures something of the temporality of regret: The abortion, which Liyun was pressured into having by Haiyan (Haiyan Li), a close friend and local communist party functionary, is the decisive tragedy of their lives. Having been denied the choice of having a second child, Yaojun and Liyun’s repressed grief and self-imposed exile away from the pain of their old relations has excluded them from sharing in the winnings wrought by China’s rise.

The unhappy accidents, betrayals, and suppressed resentment that make up the story could easily lend themselves to overwrought, melodramatic treatment, but Wang’s dedication to the details of Chinese working-class life grounds the film in a reality unmarked by melodrama’s hazy-eyed stylizations. Fine leading performances by Wang and Yong capture the simmering sadness of a life whose fulfillment was precluded by an overbearing ideology. So Long, My Son runs a bit long, piling a few too many poetic parallelisms into a protracted conclusion, but it’s a precisely constructed, deeply felt, and humane drama.

The wackiest of the competition’s films that contemplate loss is Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology, which sees the Quebecois director returning to his favored rural Canadian terrain with an ensemble cast. Shot on grainy 16mm, and somewhat resembling a ‘70s-era drive-in cheapie, the film remixes the iconography of ghost stories and post-apocalyptic thrillers to narrate its characters’ collective confrontation with death.

A town of 215 residents somewhere in Francophone Canada is rocked by what their imperious mayor calls “our first death in a long time,” the presumed suicide-by-car-crash of the 21-year-old Simon Dubé. That Simon’s death is the first in a long time raises a couple of questions about the dreary and desolate village: Where are the old people and, for that matter, where are the children? Côté shows us some children, but they’re strange, impish creatures who wear clay masks and heavy ponchos, and they appear to live in the surrounding woods. When Simon’s car crashes, they play amid the wreckage; later, they chase the frightful, innocent Adele (Larissa Corriveau) into an abandoned garage, backed this time by a group of adults who stand silently behind them in the snow, simply staring forward.

It turns out that the dead are returning but not exactly back to life; this isn’t George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the ghostly figures who begin sprouting from the snowy landscape don’t do much of anything but stand and blankly stare. The villagers, accustomed to a life close to outsiders—Côté makes his point clear when a hijab-draped official sent by the government to consult with the mayor elicits cool, suspicious stares from the denizens—are forced by the dead’s mere presence to confront what lies beyond their provincial life. “They’re like us, in a way,” one character muses toward the end of Ghost Town Anthology, a belated realization that the radical difference of death is also a commonality.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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