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



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.)


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.)


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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Review: Charlie’s Angels Has Good Intentions but Lives in La-La Land

All the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal the film’s creative conservatism.




Charlie’s Angels
Photo: Columbia Pictures

As a minor cultural institution, Charlie’s Angels has, in all its TV and film incarnations, operated as a kind of Rorschach test: Fans see it flying the female empowerment flag by bringing women into the traditionally male detective genre, while critics by and large view it as a symptom of feminist backlash, objectifying its stars in the service of campy male fantasy. Now, by diversifying its cast and placing a female writer-director, Elizabeth Banks, at its helm, the new Charlie’s Angels attempts to remove all political doubt: These Angels are woke and answer to no man, not even one issuing orders from a speaker box. The intention is pure, but in the end, the emancipatory aims of this reboot exist only in la-la land, its feminism failing to resonate beyond the cynicism of corporate rebranding.

Mostly remembered as a montage of iconic images, the 1970s Aaron Spelling-produced TV series was actually a bore, its success depending solely on the charisma of its lead actresses; the two early-aughts films, both directed by McG, were 100% cheesecake, hypersexualizing its actresses in what amounted to glorified music videos. The new Charlie’s Angels moves well and at least puts forth a semblance of reality, with a few moments hinting at the tense, moody spy thriller it might have been. Yet the dominant strain of its DNA is the Generic Action Movie, and all the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal its creative conservatism.

The plot centers on the usual stuff of spies and saboteurs. Not yet an official Angel, Elena (Naomi Scott) works for a company that’s run by an Elon Musk type (Sam Claflin) and creates an electronics product that possesses deadly potential. When her superiors bury her report on its risks, Elena enlists the Angels—Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska)—to help blow the whistle. But sinister parties, of course, want the gadget for themselves, and most of the film consists of a series of car chases, break-ins, and stakeouts as the Angels pursue the MacGuffin in the name of global security. Speaking of global: Charlie’s private investigation firm is now an international business, with multiple Bosleys leading their own teams of lady spies. And in a first for the franchise, our Angels’ Bosley is played by a woman (Banks).

Indeed, the film has a female-led, rather than female-focused, bent. Having nothing to do with the story, the opening credits sequence features a celebratory montage of girls from around the world, and the finale and end credits reveal Charlie’s agency to be run by women, a far cry from the TV series’s patriarchal framing: “Once upon a time there were three little girls…now they work for me. My name is Charlie.” Banks’s coup de grace “twist” on the Charlie’s Angels formula is diversity in casting, as the Angels are played by one out actress and two of color.

Stewart is the film’s most potentially interesting presence. In the opening scene, Sabina seduces a bad guy by wearing an ultra-femme disguise that includes a cascade of flowing blond hair, and when removing it to enter fight mode, she reveals a dyed, short-cropped butch ‘do. Yet the rest of the film fails to develop the code-switching possibilities of her character or anyone else’s. There’s a slew of nearly preternatural wardrobe changes (at one point, Sabina dons a jockey’s outfit for some reason), but that’s been par for the course in the world of Charlie’s Angels since the Ford administration, with much of the franchise’s appeal residing in the material fetishism attendant in an endless game of dress-up. Like their predecessors, these Angels look glamorous and gorgeous while fighting crime, and while Stewart’s queerness may qualify her objectification, and actually makes her more of a subject (as when she sneaks a lascivious peek at an attractive woman), it’s only in a relative sense. Overall, her on-screen appearance is lensed as much for exploitative pleasure as vicarious admiration.

One major appeal of the Charlie’s Angels properties is seeing men consistently underestimate the physical and intellectual capability of its female leads. But because she dares nothing visually or dramatically original, Banks prevents the Angels from exhibiting unique or surprising traits. The Angels’ bios are strictly single-line affairs: Sabina is rebellious and sarcastic, Jane is steely and professional, and Elena is goofy and wide-eyed. And all of them quip and banter in similarly sitcom-ish rhythms. Ultimately, Banks believes it’s enough that queer and brown women perform the same suspense-free action set pieces and combat choreography that their white male counterparts have performed since time immemorial.

In contrast to McG’s films, which took place in the realm of a live-action candy-colored cartoon, the world of this Charlie’s Angels vaguely resembles our own, giving Banks the opportunity to show what real—or at least real-er—women can do in seriously intense and perilous situations. But save for a few stressed situations and unique notes (such as Luis Gerardo Méndez’s Q-like Saint, who’s both the Angels’ weapons expert and their health advisor and spiritual guru), this film is so much disposable entertainment. It’s too frenetic, tongue in cheek, and impersonal to extend its vague feminism to true individualism.

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, Sam Claflin, Noah Centineo, Jonathan Tucker, Nat Faxon, Chris Pang, Luis Gerardo Méndez Director: Elizabeth Banks Screenwriter: Elizabeth Banks Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Interview: Lauren Greenfield on The Kingmaker and Threats to Democracy

Greenfield discusses how the film relates to her body of work and the warnings Americans ought to heed from it.



Photo: Showtime Documentary Films

When it comes to documenting stories about the dark underbelly of wealth in contemporary society, Lauren Greenfield is like a moth drawn to a flame. A photographer by trade who has ventured into documentary filmmaking, Greenfield broke out in 2012 with The Queen of Versailles, a “riches-to-rags” tale of how billionaire Florida couple Jackie and Robert Siegel attempted to build an American equivalent to Versailles. Their absurd ambition amounts to their folly as construction kicks off at the height of the Great Recession and strains their precarious finances, leaving the mansion unfinished. Greenfield continued this theme in her 2018 documentary Generation Wealth, a companion film to her monograph of the same name that follows multiple less bombastic tales of how an unfettered pursuit of opulence and glamour results in deep emptiness.

Greenfield’s new documentary, The Kingmaker, began with her interest in another powerful symbol for the hollowness of wealth and power. In the Philippines, former First Lady Imelda Marcos evicted the native population of Calauit Island, located in the Calamian Archipelago, and replaced the inhabitants with African animals. Though the regime of her husband, Ferdinand E. Marcos, fell and drove the family into exile and disrepute, the animals remained. Generations later, the creatures’ inbreeding and the general disarray of the island’s ecosystem appears to be a fitting testament to the corruption and incompetence of their rule.

And yet, once Greenfield began to sit with the octogenarian Imelda Marcos, she found a subject spinning an alternate story, as well as a populace willing to believe it. The Kingmaker portrays the unfolding of a terrifying period in the history of the Philippines of how a political dynasty can rewrite the history of human rights abuses and corruption in order to return to power. While events continue to unfold in the country, the necessary forces and people are in place to pave the way for Imelda’s son, Bongbong Marcos, to assume the presidency in 2022.

I spoke with Greenfield prior to The Kingmaker’s premiere at DOC NYC to discuss how the documentary relates to her body of work as a whole as well as the warnings Americans ought to heed from it as a similar political dynamic to the one in the Philippines develops stateside.

You’ve said elsewhere that you liked Imelda on a personal level, but much like The Queen of Versailles, The Kingmaker itself remains a little ambiguous so the audience can come to their own conclusions about the subject. How do you finesse that ambiguity in your filmmaking and in the editing process?

It’s a little bit different with Imelda Marcos because I came in knowing the history. I was more interested in the paradox between the fact that when you’re with her, she’s kind and generous and personable, versus the terrible consequences of the huge human rights abuses she was complicit with. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I think she’s nice, let’s let the audience come to that conclusion.” I felt journalistically, ethically, and historically that I need to give the audience the information so they could see that what she was doing was telling untruths. So they could see that she was an unreliable narrator. That’s why, when I realized that about her, I brought in other voices that the audience would instinctively feel are credible.

It’s a little bit of a different journey because, in the beginning, you’re sucked into her personality, which is lovely and charismatic, and I wanted people to see that. It was the key to her political success. But, even by the end of the first act, when you know she’s depopulated an indigenous population to bring in the animals to her pet project island, I think you can’t abide by that anymore. By the time you hear about martial law and torture, you’re not thinking she’s nice anymore. Jackie Siegel was another journey because you start out thinking she’s horrible, and then you end up kind of rooting for her. For Imelda, I wanted to show her humanity, but it’s a paradox of how can a human do these terrible things and not feel any remorse.

When you started filming Imelda, you thought maybe the film would become a redemption story? At what point did you begin to realize that wasn’t going to play out?

I was still hoping for it, even at the very end—that maybe she’d have some kind of revelation. I thought there’d be a moment where she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t see it that way.” But looking back now, I was being naïve. Of course, this is not her first rodeo. She’s talked to the press a million times. During the election, I realized they were just going to lean into their story. There was a TV interview that Bongbong did, and the reporter said, “Are you going to say you’re sorry? Are you going to say you’re sorry for martial law?” That’s what people really wanted, for him to apologize. And he said, “What do I have to apologize for? Should I apologize for the roads? The infrastructure? The building that happened during that period? If I hurt somebody, I would apologize, but what do I have to apologize for?” When I heard that a few months into the election campaign, I realized they were going to lean into the story, into their rewriting of history that those were the good times, and they weren’t going to apologize. It’s kind of a Trumpian move: never apologize, never say you’re wrong, just say, “It was good, it was great!” And then people will eventually believe you.

Isn’t the film, at least for Imelda, a redemption story? She’s restoring honor to the family name and, in doing so, putting some power behind their wealth, which has become a little toothless in the absence of actual clout.

Well, she is trying to whitewash history. That’s her goal, politically, and it’s why she chose to participate in the film. She wants to put out her version of the Marcos legacy. That’s not what I meant by “redemption story.” I meant her having a moral moment of realizing she’s done something wrong. She does tell herself that she’s doing something good. I do believe she thinks she’s doing good, and that she believes her own story.

Everyone tells themselves a story of their life that makes sense, but the difference between the visions of grandeur of people like Imelda and Jackie Siegel and the average person is that they can manipulate reality to become their fantasy using wealth.

Her story helps her survive. It pushes her to keep going. Deep down, she feels like she’s doing the right thing. If she felt like she was doing terrible things, it would get in her way. It’s a strategic story that helps her live with it and get a young electorate on board for a comeback.

I found it a little difficult to discern toward the end: Does Imelda and the rest of the Marcos family see the contradictions in boosting a candidate like Rodrigo Duterte, who runs against the perceived corruption of a system only to re-legitimize a self-dealing former dynasty? Or is the irony completely lost on them?

I’m not sure that there’s a lot of irony there. Even though he pretends he’s one of the people, working class, talks trash, and swears, he’s actually from a place of privilege. There’s also a lot of corruption going on in this government. When Bongbong was campaigning, he also said he was going to go against corruption. That’s what everybody says. The reality is that Duterte’s father was in Ferdinand Marcos’s cabinet. Duterte looks up to Marcos. He’s threatened martial law. He likes the idea of the strongman. So, I think that they’re pretty aligned.

I was more surprised that Bongbong would align with Duterte because Bongbong was Western-educated and has the veneer of a legitimate politician, so I was surprised that he would go with somebody responsible for so many street killings. But, at the end of the day, it’s political. They made an alliance that’s helped them both. They could give Duterte support for becoming president, and in return they got the hero’s burial that Imelda has wanted for decades. Duterte backed the sister, Imee, for senate, and she won—as did every candidate that Duterte backed. Going into the next election, Duterte’s backing is extremely important.

A thread through your work is that people suffering from the adverse effects of wealth tend to cast themselves as victims in their own stories. From your experience, do you think that narrative holds any water? Or is it just a survival technique?

Yeah, I don’t think we need to shed any tears for Imelda. What I’m trying to do here, and in Generation Wealth, is to focus on the one percent and look at how it affects everybody else. That’s the important thing: looking at the long-term consequences of the Marcos regime and how the abuse of wealth and power affects everybody else. I came in looking at that through the animal island, but that’s really symbolic for how the Philippines was hurt by how the Marcos family, in taking five to 10 billion dollars, hurt development, created persistent poverty, and made the people vulnerable to bringing back another strongman and supporting people like Bongbong Marcos, but especially Duterte. Benigno Aquino, the president when I was filming and son of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, said his father told him you can’t have democracy when you’re hungry. That’s what we see in the Philippines, democracy being threatened because people’s basic needs are not being met.

It almost feels like we’re doomed to live in a plutocracy forever.

That’s the irony. That’s what was so sad. It’s also similar to Trump, as people’s needs were not being met, so they voted for change only to have somebody who’s really on the side of the wealthy. It’s ironic that these people get brought in by the support of the working class. But in the Philippines, you’re not even talking about the working class. You’re talking about deep, deep poverty where people are getting money, food, or clothing in exchange for votes. And especially without proper information, the history not being taught in the schoolbooks or not as many outlets of independent journalism, it’s very hard for a democracy to thrive.

You’ve noted that Imelda is yet another adherent of the “dictator chic” style—the gauche, in-your-face extravagance that attracts aspiring autocrats from Trump to Saddam Hussein. As someone who observes the intersection of wealth and aesthetics, do you have any theories about why this phenomenon cuts across the globe?

In a way, that was a little bit more of what I looked at in Generation Wealth. There’s an aspirational nobility that people with power want, like being a king or a queen. You see that in the portrait of Imelda at the beginning of the film and in some of the commissioned portraiture she did—and, for that matter, some of what the Siegels did. You can see the love for gold that Trump has. I think it’s an association with nobility, especially for the nouveau riche and people who are ambitiously climbing their way up.

As someone who’s studied and documented wealth across the world, what do you make of this moment in America where it seems like a large portion of the country worships an opulent, self-proclaimed wealthy leader and another large portion finds inspiration in politicians who are rallying people against the idea of concentrated wealth?

Well, I definitely think we’re at a really precarious time at the moment, because the amount of inequality we have right now is dangerous for any society or democracy. And dangerous economically. We have this myth of the American dream where anyone can go from rags to riches. I think that’s what’s standing between us and revolution, even though many people are not sharing in the spoils of our economy. It’s because of this “keeping up with the Kardashians” mindset. In Generation Wealth, I looked at how in the space of a generation, people went from “keeping up with the Joneses,” their neighbors, to keeping up with the Kardashians, these ultra-wealthy people they see on TV. It’s so unrealistic, and yet there’s this deep myth in the culture that you can become that one day, through a reality show or whatever it is. Obama called that out more than two decades ago when he was a lawyer. The thing about Donald Trump is that people think they can be him one day, or maybe their child can be him. There’s this illusion that keeps people accepting the status quo.

And then I think there’s a waking up happening, particularly among young people, that that’s not going to happen, and that there’s some real rot. The game is rigged, and what they’re telling us is the goal—being rich—isn’t actually making people happy. Especially on the millennial side, there are signs of people waking up and wanting something different. The problem is that the culture and corporate capitalism are so slanted toward keeping the status quo. Just money in politics, for example, and the disinformation from social media. We saw it in the Philippines, we saw it here, we saw it with Brexit. That’s the thing Andy Bautista [former head of the Philippines’ Presidential Commission on Good Government] keeps telling me about the Philippines: If you have money, you have speech because you can put forward lies on social media and convince people of that. And it’s kind of like that here as well.

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Review: The Hottest August Is a Rich Patchwork of Discontented Voices

Brett Story’s documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division.




The Hottest August
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Throughout The Hottest August, director Brett Story asks her interview subjects—a collection of mostly working-class, outer-borough residents of New York City—for their feelings about the future. More interesting than these people’s answers are the way their faces change as they process the question, invariably morphing into an ironic smirk. From there, the responses are despairing, even at their most hopeful, as nearly every subject answers with a summation of their career goals or their desire to earn more money.

Our collective failure to reckon with the onward march of climate change and vulture capitalism is the often unspoken subject of this structuralist documentary, which was filmed over the course of August 2017. Though Story makes her themes clear in a voiceover narrative (recited by Clare Coulter) that combines the director’s own writings with those of Karl Marx, Zadie Smith, and Annie Dillard, the people in The Hottest August have other things on their minds. A college student who works at a call center for wealthy investors describes herself as an “entrepreneur,” while a man driving a food truck has to move out of his apartment the following day without having found a new home. Periodically, the artist Ayodamola Okunseinde wanders the streets as a character he calls “The Afronaut,” clad in an Afro-futuristic spacesuit designed to encourage others to consider their own futures.

Even without this surreal image, the film’s photography (by Derek Howard) has an alien vibe, emphasizing humans that look rather small amid the buildings, beaches, and blockades they navigate every day. Apart from a ‘20s-themed costume party on Governor’s Island, a few public parks, and, of course, a subway car, most of the landscapes in The Hottest August are weirdly underpopulated. This is appropriate for a film that seems equally inspired by Chris Marker’s sci-fi-inflected essay films and Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer, and also for a work that must invariably address the gentrification of New York’s neighborhoods.

The middle- and upper-class New Yorkers glimpsed in The Hottest August are most often seen peering through windows or standing in desolate corporate courtyards. Gridlike compositions of air-conditioning units are dotted with running flat-screen televisions or films projected onto white walls. The public square is hard to locate, and Story finds them where she can: a Black Lives Matter rally where black speakers address an overwhelmingly white crowd; a Staten Island cop bar where politics are deemed verboten until one ex-police officer goes on a rant against a mythical welfare queen; a recreational softball league that descends into a near brawl; or the beach, where most of the subjects Story talks to are underemployed.

Near the beach in the Rockaways, one small home has been raised multiple stories on stacks of wooden pallets. Those closest to the water ignore post-Hurricane Sandy evacuation notices and dismiss climate change as Al Gore’s ploy to get rich and speaking with certainty that the hurricane’s status as a “100-year storm” means that they’re safe for another century. That’s not the most immediate delusion to be found in The Hottest August, which spends a few scenes with working-class Italian-American couple who gradually express their frustration with a diversifying neighborhood, culminating in an actual “I’m not racist, but” monologue.

Where Story’s previous film, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, meticulously depicted how the tentacles of mass incarceration creep into civic life, The Hottest August is a more loosely guided snapshot of generalized resentment. People are mad at the rich, who they also want to be. And then there are those clever enough to seek to profit from the ambient rage of the era: an entrepreneur who runs an industrial space where clients can destroy everything in sight, or a hipster from a VR company who barely believes his own bullshit about the automation revelation yielding a universal basic income where all will be free to do as they please.

With The Hottest Summer, Story puts on display a New York City that’s very different from the one depicted in Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, where every corner and office is teeming with representations of active, often progressive political and social discourse. While there are moments of grace and whimsy in here (a woman on a bench texting next to a duck, a smart young skateboarder who rides Story for interviewing some loudmouthed teens in the same park), the documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division, where millions of selves who have by and large given up on one another.

Director: Brett Story Distributor: Grasshopper Film

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Review: I Lost My Body Finds Poetry in Tracing Life’s Uncertainties

It focuses equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable.




I Lost My Body
Photo: Netflix

Naofel (Hakim Faris) has a small birthmark between the knuckles of his right hand’s pointer and middle fingers. This would be the appendage’s most distinctive characteristic if not for the fact that, after being severed from Naofel’s body, it develops a will of its own. Throughout I Lost My Body, the hand skitters around of its own accord, using its fingers to crawl out of the hospital lab where it was kept following Naofel’s grim accident. Jérémy Clapin’s animated film chronicles the journey of that hand through, among other places, the rooftops and gutters of Paris, into a river and across a highway, in an attempt to reunite with its owner, dodging animals and cars along the way.

Do hands have memories? Naofel’s right hand certainly seems to. As the wayward appendage propels itself through the air with an open umbrella or flicks a lighter to fend off a bunch of subway rats, flashbacks recall the young man’s troubled, lonely life. He feels adrift, barely present in a world that seems only to have harsh words and unhappiness for him. He’s at odds with the relatives who took him in after the death of his parents in a car accident, and his half of a shared room is unfurnished save for the mattress placed directly on the floor. He works as a pizza delivery boy, but he isn’t a particularly good one, as he’s often late and, in one scene, scatters his pizza boxes into the street after crashing his bike into a car.

Many of I Lost My Body’s flashbacks foreground Naofel’s hand as though presenting its perspective. People and objects loom above it, its digits taking up wide swaths of the frame as they cling with insect-like precision to boxes or hold a microphone in their grip. Tight close-ups capture the fingers tapping random objects or emerging from the sand, and there are even POV shots of the hand peeking out from a dumpster or prodding the plastic bag it’s wrapped in. These sequences are a great showcase for the film’s subdued, naturalistic, and, above all, detail-rich hand-drawn animation: We see fidgeting fingers grabbing onto a locker door, a pigeon laboriously nudging the hand out of a gutter, and Naofel penciling lines onto blocks of wood that he’ll later trace over with a saw in his woodworking apprenticeship.

The metaphor at the heart of the film seems deceptively obvious: disconnection from the world and other people, literalized through a hand severed from its rightful body. But Clapin complicates that metaphor every step of the way, as in a flashback where Naofel’s father explains to him that, in order to catch a fly, the boy must aim where the fly will be rather than where it is. But knowing how to catch the fly doesn’t necessarily make the task any easier to accomplish, and the film’s depiction of fate follows a similarly unpredictable trajectory.

Through images of loneliness, as in a wooden igloo cobbled together on a rooftop, I Lost My Body builds an atmosphere of isolation and, above all, uncertainty. Because while Naofel takes his father’s advice to heart, his own attempts to live unpredictably, ahead of fate, do not always work out for him. His infatuation with Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois), initially so stirring as they close their eyes to listen to the rain and the wind from separate ends of an apartment intercom, goes in a few stalkerish directions. She rejects him for being a creep, and Naofel ironically comes to find fulfillment not in a relationship, as he had hoped, but in the woodworking he initially took up only to impress Gabrielle. I Lost My Body finds poetry in tracing life’s uncertainties, focusing equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable, as one part of a delicate whole.

Cast: Hakim Faris, Victoire Du Bois, Patrick d'Assumçao Director: Jérémy Clapin Screenwriter: Jérémy Clapin, Guillaume Laurant Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Report Is Noncommittal on the Moral Morass of the Dubya Era

In the end, it can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s flawed human fabric.




The Report
Photo: Amazon Studios

The moral morass of the George W. Bush era is surveyed and scrutinized in writer-director Scott Z. Burns’s The Report, a true-life docudrama that bears all the visually monochromatic, thematically jaundiced hallmarks of Burns’s collaborations, as screenwriter, with Steven Soderbergh. Burns even manages to slightly best his mentor with his second solo feature. Compared to Burns and Soderbergh’s most recent joint effort—the feeble, scattershot Netflix-produced satire The LaundromatThe Report zeroes in on its incendiary sociopolitical subject with laser focus. That still doesn’t mean it adequately challenges preconceived notions about an especially dark period in American history.

The film’s title refers to the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, a 6,700-page document that took a long, hard, and unflattering look at the C.I.A.’s post-9/11 use of detention and torture—or, in politico parlance, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Daniel Jones, the committee’s lead investigator, is the protagonist, and he’s played by Adam Driver with a reserved sternness and solemnity that’s occasionally leavened by full-throated flashes of righteous indignation. Jones is all work, no play, and it’s evident that Burns intends this forbearing crusader as an audience surrogate. Yet Daniel mostly remains a cipher, a human enigma attempting, with Sisyphean effort, to expose and unravel the most sadistic and inhumane institutional practices.

It can be fascinating, of course, to watch a film that’s purely about process, revealing of the ways that those tied to an operation come off as cogs in a Moloch-like machine. And it helps, at least initially, that Driver is so good at conveying a total single-mindedness. When Jones looks around the cloistered, colorless basement office that will serve as headquarters for his investigation, he’s like an artist glancing at a blank canvas. For Jones, the swamp isn’t something to be drained, but to dip his brush in. And he’s painting a picture for an audience that, for the most part, is likely to undercut and minimize his efforts.

Burns is clearly reappropriating and remixing cinematic lessons learned from Alan J. Pakula’s starry Watergate exposé All the President’s Men. Jones’s boss, senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, letting her wig do most of the acting), assumes the role of Ben Bradlee-esque overseer. Archival footage of many of the big names in the torture debate (such as Dubya and Dick Cheney) is peppered throughout. And there’s even a paranoia-tinged encounter between Jones and a Deep Throat-like figure played with nauseated edge by Tim Blake Nelson.

The margins of The Report are filled to the brim with character actors doing creditably yeoman work, among them Corey Stoll as Cyrus Clifford, Jones’s pragmatic lawyer, Jon Hamm as chiding National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, Ted Levine as officious C.I.A. Director John Brennan, and Matthew Rhys as a New York Times reporter desperate for a scoop. Elsewhere, Maura Tierney and Michael C. Hall, as a pair of ideologically adaptable bureaucrats, headline the sections of the decade-plus narrative that detail the nitty gritty of the enhanced interrogation program, waterboarding most definitely included.

Cinematographer Eigil Bryld shoots these latter sequences with a sickly green-orange tinge that one supposes is meant to convey ethical queasiness. Whereas the scenes featuring Jones and his team poring over papers and presenting their findings to functionaries in various stages of outrage (or not) tend toward the icy blues or the ultra-high-def neutrality of a David Fincher production. Ever-shifting color temperatures aside, The Report is rarely stimulating. Its conscious detachment from the events it portrays proves not so much analytical as noncommittal. The closest it comes to picking a side is a tossed-off moment in which Jones throws some scowling shade at a TV commercial for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which was rather unconvincingly sold during its release as a work of objective nonpartisanship.

It’s strange, then, that Burns tosses a flagrantly uncritical bone in The Report’s final scenes, as John McCain, often held up as a model of principled dissent, is shown passionately decrying the United States’s torture program on the Senate floor. As in many a Hollywood production about American transgression, Burns ultimately can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s monumentally flawed human fabric.

Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Ted Levine, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, Corey Stoll, Maura Tierney, Jon Hamm Director: Scott Z. Burns Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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The Best Stephen King Movies, Ranked

We’ve compiled the best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the mostly mediocre TV adaptations.



The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Stephen King is one of the most influential of all contemporary writers, an artist who followed Richard Matheson’s example in wedding irrational horror with the surreal minutiae of everyday American life. The most distinctive elements of King’s remarkably vast bibliography—his exacting and uncanny empathy for working-class people and his loose, pop-culture-strewn prose—are rarely accounted for in the dozens of films that have been made from his novels and stories, which often predictably emphasize his propulsive plotting. Consequently, these adaptations often resemble routine genre films with a smattering of King’s dialogue, which sounds better on the page than when performed by often self-conscious actors who look as if they’d rather be anywhere than trapesing around a simulation of King’s beloved Maine. But a number of excellent films have been made from the author’s writing, either by doubling down on the neurotic naïveté of the author’s Americana or by striking new ground, recognizing that a good film needs to be a movie, rather than a literal-minded act of CliffsNotes-style embalming. To commemorate the recent release of Cell, we’ve compiled the 10 best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the countless, mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 8, 2015.

Stand by Me

10. Stand by Me (1986)

Those who accuse Stand by Me of indulging shameless boomer nostalgia are missing the point, as that’s precisely what the film is about. Director Rob Reiner dials down the violent hopelessness of King’s source material (the novella The Body), but still emphasizes the cruelty and loneliness that mark four boys’ coming-of-age odyssey to see the corpse of a young man nearly their age. The film is framed as one of the grown boy’s remembrances, as he attempts to spin his unreconciled feelings into the more tangible stuff of…coming-of-age fiction. At times it’s hokey, and, yes, the soundtrack does some major emotional heavy lifting, but the feast of excellent acting compensates greatly, particularly by Wil Wheaton, Kiefer Sutherland, and River Phoenix. Stand by Me remains one of the best adaptations of King’s more sentimental non-horror writing, and it’s far superior to preachy, insidiously insulting staples like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.


9. Creepshow (1982)

Still one of the great comic-book movies in that it approximates the actual tactile act of reading and flipping through a magazine, ideally on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a can of soda by your side. George Romero directed from King’s original script, which pays homage to EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and the filmmaker displays a visual confidence and tonal flexibility that’s reminiscent of his Dawn of the Dead. The bright, deep, and garish cinematography is both beautiful and disturbing, enriching King’s gleefully vicious writing while providing a framework for the lively performances of a game, celebrity-rich cast. The film straddles an ideal line between straight-faced seriousness and parody, particularly in the unnerving climax of a story in which we can hear the pained gurgling of aquatic zombies.

Silver Bullet

8. Silver Bullet (1985)

A creepy drive-in horror movie that throws a werewolf into a boy’s sentimental coming-of-age tale. Based on King’s slim Cycle of the Werewolf, which was released with gorgeous illustrations by artist Bernie Wrightson, Silver Bullet weds evocative imagery with spare plotting that allows each scene to breathe, giving the film an nightmarish free-associative energy. There are several boffo sequences, particularly when the werewolf seizes a man’s baseball bat, his paw shown to be beating the man to death from below thick fog, or when the wolf is outsmarted by the protagonist, one of his eyes blown to pieces by a bottle rocket. Speaking of the monster, the movie has one of the great wolf designs, which suggests a huge, bitter, upstanding bear with a terrifying snout. The human identity of the creature is a great, characteristically blasphemous King twist.

Dolores Claiborne

7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)

Five years after her career-making performance in Misery, Kathy Bates returned to Stephen King territory with Dolores Claiborne, which, like the book, disappointed nearly everyone for not being a typical horror story, instead combining the traditions of martyred-woman melodrama with gothic mystery. Critics, who only seem capable of praising melodrama when it’s directed by one of their pre-approved canon placeholders (like Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk), also turned their noses up at Dolores Claiborne, and it’s a real shame. Both the novel and the film get at the heart of King’s preoccupations with sexism and classicism, spinning a fractured narrative of a mother, her daughter, the man who nearly ruined their lives, and the all-encompassing pitilessness of aging. Yes, the film is behaviorally broad, but this broadness is utilized by the reliably underrated director, Taylor Hackford, as a form of catharsis. And Bates’s performance as the titular character is positively poetic. Her delivery of a monologue about Dolores’s work routine particularly locate the weird, qualified dignity of thanklessness, reveling in the pride and transcendence that can be wrestled from menial-ness. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Dolores Claiborne has the feel of King’s voice.


6. Misery (1990)

No one performs King’s dialogue like Kathy Bates. She embraces and owns the moving cuckoo logic of his best orations, understanding that they’re almost always rooted in class anxiety. The most disturbing quality of Misery, both the novel and the film, is the fact that we relate to Annie Wilkes, psychotic “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (superbly played in the film by James Caan), more than we do her victims. Bates is so intimately in tune with Annie that we feel for her when she fails to impress Paul, somehow temporarily forgetting that she’s holding him hostage and torturing him. Annie is yet another of King’s unleashed nerds, a repressed soul seeking actualization, but she isn’t sentimentalized, instead embodying the ferocious self-absorption that fuels obsession, leading to estrangement. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman regrettably trim King’s most ambitiously subjective material, but they compensate by focusing pronouncedly on the cracked love story at the narrative’s center.

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Review: Last Christmas Wears Its Sloppy Heart on Its Kitschy Sleeve

There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.




Last Christmas
Photo: Universal Pictures

Multiple times in Last Christmas, Kate and her immigrant parents (Emma Thompson and Boris Isakovic) say that they hail from the “former Yugoslavia,” a rather outdated and strangely non-specific way of referring to their origins. When Kate comforts an Eastern European couple on the bus after they’re accosted by a Brexiter, they excitedly but vaguely ask her, “You’re from our country?” At this point, Last Christmas has begun to sound downright evasive, and you may wonder if the filmmakers even know where Kate’s family is supposed to come from. To screenwriters Bryony Kimmings and Emma Thompson, such details would appear to be extraneous to this anti-Brexit Christmas Carol. Merely tacking an affirmation of immigrant rights onto a familiar Christmas narrative about selflessness requires little more than an evocation of a general Slavic-ness about the characters.

Another element that Paul Feig’s film keeps pointedly indistinct is the nature of a recent illness that the twentysomething Kate (Emilia Clarke) has endured. Clearly depressed in the wake of a major health event, the aspiring singer is ostentatiously selfish, exploiting what remains of her friends’ and her boss’s good will. Currently homeless, she travels with a roller suitcase from crash pad to crash pad, drinking heavily, bringing home one-night stands, and openly flirting with customers at work. Kate is employed full time at a Christmas shop in London whose wisecracking owner (Michelle Yeoh) goes by the name Santa. At one point, Santa expresses distress at Kate’s haggard, disheveled state because she doesn’t want the young woman to drop dead. “I don’t have enough tinsel to cover your body,” she worries.

The grounds for Santa’s concern that a woman in her mid-20s may be killed by the lifestyle lived by many Londoners in their mid-20s is left open because its ultimate reveal three-quarters of the way through the film points toward one of the silliest twist endings in recent memory. We only learn what happened to Kate when she reveals the scar from an operation to Tom (Henry Golding), the beautiful, saintly man she begins seeing after finding him bird-watching outside the Christmas shop. Suffice it to say, Last Christmas is “inspired by” the Wham! song of the same name, specifically one line—and one line only—from its chorus.

Kate loves George Michael—one imagines she feels a bond with the late singer, the son of a Balkan immigrant himself, though the filmmakers leave this unexplored—and thus Last Christmas attempts to remake some of his most well-known songs into seasonally appropriate tunes. Obligatory montages to “Faith” and “Freedom” speed us through parts of Kate’s Tom-facilitated rehabilitation from cynical wastrel to Christmas-spirited patron of the homeless, though these segments are brief, cutting off the songs before we realize they have absolutely nothing to do with the jolly Christmas vibes that the film attempts to give off. Even “Last Christmas” is only heard in snippets, lest we realize that the song’s lyrics have little to do with seasonal giving and charity, and everything to do with regret, hurt, and resentment.

Last Christmas counts on our absorbing the sugary sound of Michael’s music but none of its substance. This is perhaps the film’s fatal flaw, and it’s not unrelated to its evasiveness regarding Kate’s origins and its simplistic affirmation of liberal outrage at Brexit. There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters—true from the beginning, but particularly after its last-act reveal—that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.

Besides the general sound of Michael’s music, Last Christmas clearly draws influence from classic Christmas-themed films like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Shop Around the Corner. Such films, though, earned their Christmas miracles and holiday moralizing by grounding their stories in a sense of the community created by bonds between fully realized characters. Clarke works hard to make the messy, perpetually flustered Kate relatable, but the film surrounds the character with a community as kitschy and false as the trinkets she sells in Santa’s shop.

Cast: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Emma Thompson, Michelle Yeoh, Boris Isakovic, Lydia Leonard Director: Paul Feig Screenwriter: Bryony Kimmings, Emma Thompson Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Midway Delights in the Thrill of Battle Without Actual Peril

In the film, the Battle of Midway suggests something out of a photorealistic animated film.




Photo: Summit Entertainment

“With the advent of CGI,” critic J. Hoberman writes in his 2012 book Film After Film: Or, What Became Of 21st Century Cinema?, “the history of motion pictures was now, in effect, the history of animation.” Rarely has this point been more vividly illustrated than in Roland Emmerich’s slick historical combat epic Midway, in which the eponymous WWII naval battle is depicted with such an abundance of shimmery digital effects that it suggests something out of a photorealistic animated film.

Emmerich, a latter-day heir to the cinema-as-spectacle tradition of Cecil B. DeMille, employs special effects in Midway not to induce a sense of you-are-there verisimilitude, nor to exhilarate audiences with a series of death-defying stunts. Rather, the film’s scenes of combat are more like elaborate paintings, similar in spirit and function to the cycloramas that were such popular attractions at the turn of the 20th century: vast panoramas that compact all the major highlights of a particular event into a single canvas.

Unlike Saving Private Ryan, there’s no attempt here to key the viewer to the chaos and horror of battle. In fact, there’s scarcely any blood to be found in Midway. In addition to the Battle of Midway, the film depicts the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, and other skirmishes in the Pacific during WWII, and these sequences, so bathed in honeyed sunlight, exude a sense of wide-eyed gee-whiz glee: all the fun of battle with none of the icky gore.

Midway is a paean to those brave American soldiers of the greatest generation, one that positions the brave sailors of the U.S. Navy as scrappy underdogs who, after the humiliating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, make it their mission to avenge themselves on the Japanese. The film studiously avoids acknowledging anything about the era it depicts that might make its target audience (read: white History Channel-watching patriarchs) uncomfortable. Nowhere is this more evident than in its treatment—or, rather, complete non-treatment—of race. Emmerich not only completely sidesteps the issue of racial segregation in the military, black soldiers are completely unseen in the film, despite the fact that many African-Americans served on U.S. ships that fought at Midway, albeit primarily in support roles.

Though most of the film’s characters, a bland succession of largely interchangeable good ol’ boys, are based on real-life historical personages, Wes Tooke’s leaden screenplay renders them all as little more than stock war-movie types. Devil-may-care flyboy Dick Best (Ed Skrein), a ‘40s-era twist on Top Gun’s Maverick who gains some maturity when he’s promoted to command his own unit of pilots, is the closest thing that Midway has to a protagonist. Less flashy but similarly righteous is a naval intelligence officer, Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), who fights the good fight against the bureaucracy in order to convince the higher-ups that the Japanese plan to attack the Midway atoll. Woody Harrelson also shows up looking tired and slightly lost as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, while Dennis Quaid is saddled with the role of Vice Admiral Bull Halsey, who’s mostly on hand to attest that shingles are absolutely terrible.

The Americans are all salty, gruff, and jokey, while the Japanese are somber and aphoristic, though both sides share a fondness for speaking in banal clichés. The script never invests us in any of these characters, failing to establish real narrative stakes for any of them. The plot is really little more than perfunctory filler between the battle sequences, which are peppered throughout the film with the regularity of dance numbers in a Rogers and Astaire musical.

Midway is reportedly a longtime passion project for Emmerich, for which he scraped together funds from a number of sources, making it one of the most expensive independent films of all time. (These funders included some Chinese equity firms, which may account for the presence of a completely tangential subplot involving Army Air Forces officer Jimmy Doolittle, played by Aaron Eckhart, bonding with oppressed peasants in Japanese-occupied China). But while Emmerich’s childlike excitement at the whiz-bang action of naval combat is palpable, the film’s battle sequences lack any real suspense or sense of danger. In these moments, Midway suggests old newsreel footage come to life. The film’s veneer may be unmistakably modern, but it’s no less devoted to promoting and flattering a certain idea of heroism, even as it keeps the men inside all those ships and planes at a distance from audiences.

Cast: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Mandy Moore, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid, Darren Criss, Jake Weber, Brennan Brown, Alexander Ludwig, Tadanobu Asano, Keean Johnson, Luke Kleintank, Jun Kunimura, Etsushi Toyokawa, Brandon Sklenar, James Carpinello, Jake Manley Director: Roland Emmerich Screenwriter: Wes Tooke Distributor: Summit Entertainment Running Time: 138 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Klaus Gorgeously Grapples with the Reinvention of Tradition

Sergio Pablos’s film is essentially a metaphor for its own unique and refreshing mode of expression.




Photo: Netflix

From Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, mainstream animation has taken a long-overdue look in the mirror as of late. Increasingly, animated films are opting for more experimental approaches, and often by taking inspiration from past techniques. Sergio Pablos’s Klaus is one such project, a throwback to classical animation that appropriately bakes its concern with tradition right into its plot. As a sort of Santa Claus origin story, the film examines the ways that tradition is built and torn down, all through an aesthetic that’s striking, beautiful, and as innovative as it is mindful of its own history.

The film follows the disgraced Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), a failing student at a postal academy, as he’s exiled to the frozen northern town of Smeerensburg. His father (Sam McMurray), the very rich head of the international postal service, has given him an ultimatum: establish a functioning post office in Smeerensburg, where so many others have failed before, or be cut off from his luxurious lifestyle. As a tipsy ferryman, Mogens (Norm MacDonald), notes at one point, the townsfolk have one thing to say to each other and no need for letters to say it: In some long-standing Hatfield-McCoy-esque familial feud, they swing axes and fire muskets at one another, making the ramshackle town a perpetual warzone.

No one in Smeerensburg sends their children to school because that would mean mingling with the enemy, and out-of-work teacher Alva (Rashida Jones) has adapted by using the schoolhouse for her side gig as a fishmonger, filleting catches right on her desk in front of the chalkboard. As he visits the unaccommodating locals, Jesper discovers a gruff, reclusive woodsman named Klaus (J.K. Simmons). Though Jesper initially suspects the hulking, white-bearded man of being an axe murderer who traffics in severed heads, Klaus only wants to help the town’s beleaguered children by gifting them handmade toys. All they have to do is ask for one by sending a letter with, of course, postage paid to Jesper.

The gears of the kids’ animated holiday movie are immediately apparent here, not just in the presence of a treacly tie-in song, but also in how Jesper’s own motivations will inevitably come back to bite him, with a requisite “I’m sorry” scene following a requisite “I quit” scene. These moments somewhat drag down the back half of Klaus, but the sheer extent of the film’s visual invention ensures that even such lulls are fabulous to look at. The exaggerated character designs are at once spindly and pleasantly rounded, and, most impressively, the textured, naturalistic lighting gives the film’s throwback techniques a distinctive and thoroughly modern edge. Pablos worked on Disney’s Treasure Planet and Tarzan, and that lineage is readily apparent in the bouncy, vibrant life that runs through all the character movements.

Beyond its characters’ wondrously cartoonish, emphatic gesticulations, much of the film’s humor results from unlikely circumstances of violence and hardship. When delivering presents in one scene, Jesper stuffs toys in socks hung to dry above a fireplace because he doesn’t dare enter the rest of the house, as we see him boxed into the center of the frame by a pack of sleeping, toothy dogs. And he drops into homes via chimney because the unwelcoming townsfolk of Smeerensburg, whose lawns and porches are littered with spikes and bear traps, naturally keep their doors locked. In the world of the film, Christmas traditions emerge through children’s rumors: Klaus’s wagon becomes a flying sleigh by pure circumstance, sent sailing through the air once the wheels come off, and when one child sees it just before it crashes to the ground, the story of the “sleigh” spreads like a haphazard game of telephone.

There’s an anarchic edge to both the film’s humor, as in a glimpse at a group of creepy kids building a snowman with so many carrots stuck into it that it suggests a stabbing victim, and the way it builds its uncanny origin story, all the while remaining skeptical of entrenched customs. Characters note that the long-running Smeerensburg feud (one scene shows it in the form of a cave painting) is what the town was built on, but the film’s dominant thematic current is that it’s time to move on, that remaining shackled to tradition or stuck in a rut only impedes progress. And with gorgeous animation that makes what was once old feel new again, Klaus essentially becomes a metaphor for its unique and refreshing mode of expression.

Cast: Jason Schwartzman, J.K. Simmons, Rashida Jones, Will Sasso, Neda M. Ladda, Sergio Pablos, Norm Macdonald, Joan Cusack, Sam McMurray Director: Sergio Pablos Screenwriter: Sergio Pablos, Jim Mahoney, Zack Lewis Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: The King Is a Moody, and Confused, Song of Mud and Chainmail

If only the film made more of the curious tension between Timothée Chalamet’s Henry and Robert Pattinson’s dauphin.




The King
Photo: Netflix

A moody song of mud and chainmail, David Michôd’s The King twists Shakespeare’s four histories, known collectively as the Henriad, into a rather modern political fable. It’s the story of a young leader intent on rescuing his country from intractable warfare who nonetheless finds himself expanding the nation’s military footprint without doing great damage to his idealistic reputation. The film, co-written by Michôd and Joel Edgerton, doesn’t dwell on the parallels between King Henry V and Barack Obama. Intead, it shrewdly casts the former Prince Hal (Timothée Chalamet) into an avatar of millennial discontent toward power and the grisly means in which it’s exercised. He’s nonetheless seduced by its thrall.

The King doesn’t limn much conflict from Henry V’s failure to live up to his ideals. In fact, Michôd and Edgerton seem strangely oblivious to its most compelling aspects, chiefly the styling of Hal as a mid-1990s goth icon, a la Brandon Lee in The Crow, before his elevation to the throne. Chalamet’s narrow frame and innate talent for expressing sullen diffidence provide a jolt of modernity to the early scenes where England is riven by civil war and King Henry IV (a cotton-mouthed Ben Mendelsohn) sinks into paranoia and dementia. Estranged from his family, Hal cavorts with Falstaff (Edgerton), spending his nights at taverns and waking alone because Falstaff has ushered the women whom the prince beds out of their inn at sunrise.

After the deaths of his father and brother, and despite his emo rebellions, Hal assumes the role of Henry V with a mandate to pursue peace and a haircut that transforms this brooding figure into a wary warrior. His attention is soon consumed by the French, who send spies to infiltrate his circle of confidantes, and whose heir apparent, the Dauphin of France (Robert Pattinson) seems intent in taunting him into battle. By and large, the film portrays the king’s capitulation to a new battle as an act of attrition, in redundant scenes of Henry seeking the counsel of a war-hungry Archbishop (Andrew Cavill) and his Chief Justice William (Sean Harris).

The King somehow becomes more self-serious after Henry integrates Falstaff into his advisory council, reinventing the massive gallivant into a gentle friend and self-proclaimed man of few words. “What if Hagrid but a taciturn war hero?” appears to be the pitch for Edgerton’s Falstaff, a character who’s emblematic of the film’s confused identity. Is Henry a master tactician or a peacenik who’s in far over his head? This question is cast aside abruptly when the king declares war on France after an attack on Henry’s pride at the hands of the dauphin. This hasty decision is the only moment where The King questions Henry’s ego, and the scene undermines the film’s outsized attention to tedious backroom negotiations.

Though the film fails to explore Henry’s psychology, Chalamet effectively conveys the king’s efforts to perform leadership and charisma: The King’s version of the St. Crispin’s Day speech takes place on a muddy battlefield where Henry appears diminutive but persuasively motivates his troops into a potentially hopeless battle. If only the film made more of the curious tension between Henry and the dauphin, who Pattinson portrays as a gleeful imp who looks like he’s been airlifted out of Neil Jordan’s Interview with a Vampire. Instead, the two are sent into a scrum of armored bodies drowning one another in puddles and stabbing heedlessly. The battle is, like too much of The King, a slog of desaturated colors and endless slow motion that means to treat war as a brutal, meaningless affair, all the while capturing the action with a reverent grandeur that suggests there’s no other realm where heroes can be made.

Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Ben Mendelsohn, Robert Pattinson, Andrew Cavill, Lily-Rose Depp Director: David Michôd Screenwriter: David Michôd, Joel Edgerton Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 133 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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