Fan Mail: First, a couple of follow-up items about Argo, which I wrote about in US#103. I had admired the scene near the end where they show what happened to the maid. An article in the Los Angeles Times tells us that that scene was written and shot after the first test screenings of the film, since the audiences wanted to know what happened to her. Sometimes the audience tells you what it needs to have. (Another item in that same article deals with Moon Bloodgood’s marvelous performance in The Sessions, which I admired, also in US#103.)
It has also come out in the publicity for Argo that Chris Terrio’s first drafts of the script told the story more as a comedy romp. When Ben Affleck came on the film as the director, he suggested that if they start with the Iranian Revolution, it would set a serious tone which would provide a little more heft to the film and which the comedy could play off of. I know it goes against everything I preach in this column, but sometimes directors can actually make a serious contribution to a film.
And now on to the Fan Mail for US#105, of which there was a bunch, including one comment that got me in one of my occasional errors. The big dispute in the fan mail was between David Ehrenstein and “tkern.” David gave us some backstory on the actors in Amour, but tkern felt we should not have to know any “gossip” about the actors for the film to work. I am not sure that was exactly what David was proposing, and I agree with tkern that we shouldn’t need to know the actors’ private lives for the film to work. I don’t think you need to in Amour. I did not mention in my item that I thought both Trintignant and especially Riva gave brilliant performances. Even though I have seen them both before over the last 60 years, I think the performances stand on their own. If the script had been better, their performances would have also been better, although I am not sure if Riva’s could be better.
I will share with you a couple of revelations about gossip about stars that changed my life completely, and definitely for the better. Several years ago, I had the minor revelation that there were a lot of British performers whose work I liked but about whose private lives I knew nothing. The major revelation is…I didn’t care. I realized I did not need to know about their private lives to enjoy their work. Since then I have avoided, as much as possible in Los Angeles (and more on that later), reading and watching and learning about the private lives of the stars. I cannot tell you how much time that has saved me. Try it; you’ll see.
David thought I was asking for more backstory about the couple in Amour, but I wasn’t. I just wanted more detail about the way they live now. And I agree with David that Nunnally Johnson is a great screenwriter and that his 1964 film The World of Henry Orient is one of his best scripts. Even if, unlike David, you did not grow up in New York.
“lproyect” was gobsmacked to discover that Dr. Strangelove (1964) was as controversial in its day (actually more so) than Django Unchained. Yes, it is a classic now, and one of Kubrick’s best, but then its comic attitude toward nuclear war and the military upset a lot of people. There had been service comedies before, but nothing as ruthless as Strangelove. Keep in mind it came out in the middle of the Cold War, less than two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Speaking of Strangelove, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art currently has a large exhibition of Kubrick’s stuff, and for me the jewel in the crown were production stills from the food fight in the War Room that was the original ending of the film. But I still think Kubrick missed a beat when he did not have the lyrics of “We’ll Meet Again” printed along the bottom of the screen with a bouncing ball so we could all sing along.
Ah, yes, the error. Arthur Seaton asked about where I got the information that William Boyd was writing the next two James Bond movies. I thought I had got it from the IMDb, but it’s not there, and I cannot find it anywhere else. It may have been one of those things on the Internet that comes and goes quickly. However, in searching for it now I found his website and this article in the Los Angeles Times both of which mention he is writing the next James Bond novel.
And now that we have the housekeeping details cleaned up, it is time for The Main Event…
Zero Dark Thirty (2012. Written by Mark Boal. 157 minutes.)
Hey, folks, we’re making a movie here: When this movie was in production, the American Right thundered that it was being made by Godless liberal communists in Hollywood financed by the Democratic National Committee as a propaganda piece to re-elect that Kenyan who usurped the office of President of the United States. As in many, many areas, the Right was completely wrong.
As the release of the film drew closer, it was attacked in mid-December by the other side of the political spectrum. Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee had just approved a 6,000 page classified report which stated that torture was not useful in tracking down Osama bin Laden. And here comes a film that is reported to show that the “big break” in the case came from torture. While there had been advance screenings for some select audiences (mostly awards giving organizations), there is no indication any of the senators who complained about the film had yet seen it. As George W. Bush and Dick Cheney learned in 2003, going into battle without good intelligence can be problematic. (The factual information in this item comes mostly from the coverage in the Los Angeles Times in a series of articles written by Steven Zeitchik and Ken Dilanian, either separately or together, unless otherwise noted.)
In writing about Argo I rather cavalierly dismissed the claims that it was not completely historically accurate by using the old Hollywood line, “Hey, folks, we’re making a movie here.” The filmmakers are trying to make the most interesting movie they can, which occasionally means they change things from the way they really happened. Those changes are generally rather trivial, mostly good for general grousing on Wikipedia. Zero Dark Thirty raises much more serious concerns, since what is at stake is the basic political and moral issue of whether the torture used by the C.I.A. was effective and provided essential information. Zeitchik and Dilanian in their first article on December 14th stated that the film “shows torture as yielding a big break and setting in motion the chase” that got bin Laden. If they and the others criticizing the film had seen the film and paid attention to it, they would know that is not what the film shows. Boal’s script does begin with an extended torture scene, but it is clear in the film that no information that directly leads to bin Laden comes from it. Not only that, but later in the film, the limitations of torture are discussed (although not as much as they should have been, which may also have caused people to misread the film), as well as government’s decision to stop torturing. In an irony I love, the one shot of “that Kenyan” is a television clip from 2008 in which he says we have to avoid torture. So why did people assume that the film shows torture as working? I suspect partly it is because the torture scenes are the opening scenes in a film that ends with bin Laden’s death. In traditional dramatic structure, that suggests cause and effect. Boal could have helped himself by making it clearer than he does that the torture was not useful. He may be too subtle in dealing with that for his own good.
You may have noticed that since I started this column in 2008 I have made a concentrated effort to avoid all the awards seasons hype. To me the single worst thing about living in Los Angeles is having to spend four months out of the year wading through the waist-deep putrid swamp of the awards season. So I don’t do any Ten Best Lists, Five Scripts That Should be Nominated, Three Scripts That Should Have Been Nominated, etc. The relentless egotism and narcissism of people who make millions and are loved the world over spending their time, creativity and money to get small pieces of hardware to add to their homes is repugnant. Nevertheless, I am going to have to break that rule for this discussion. One of the worst aspects of the season is that people in the industry not only work for awards for their films, they work against other films. That seems to be the case with Zero Dark Thirty. It would not surprise me to learn that the “political chatter,” as Zeitchik and Dilanian call it, may have included Hollywood people rooting for other films. Even if that is not the case, Boal and his director, Kathryn Bigelow, have bungled the public relations disaster they faced. The publicity for the film, as well as a title at the beginning, points out the film is based on first person accounts of the hunt for bin Laden. The p.r. also makes the point that Boal has done the sort of research he did as a former journalist. When the controversy first started in December, the reactions to the criticism by Boal and the others was incredibly wishy-washy, with one statement to the press on December 13th, then nothing but silence until the Los Angeles Times asked Bigelow for a statement, which the paper ran on January 16th. The statement was still rather general. Obviously nobody on the p.r. team for the film got into crisis mode, nor did they hire a crisis manager.
As Boal continued his silence, I began to wonder why. After all, a film writer is a public writer, and he had better be able to deal with the public aspect of the work, particularly when it raises both historical and moral questions. I have no access to his mind, but the following possibility occurred to me (as well as some of the criticizing Senators). Boal talked to a lot of people in the C.I.A., and there are some in the agency who still believe that torture was effective in this case. As one of what I call my “acquaintances with several years experience working closely with the intelligence community” put it, people in the agency know that sometimes they have to do things they find morally reprehensible to get the job done, just as soldiers have to in wartime. Boal probably did talk to those who believe in torture; we certainly get the sense that some of the characters in the film believe in torture. Those who believe in torture may have tried to persuade Boal, either directly or indirectly, that torture works. Boal is I am sure reluctant to reveal any of his sources, which may constrain him from talking about how the script developed. Boal talked about the First Amendment at an event in early February, and Zeitchik’s article about it in the Times indicates that Boal is, legitimately, concerned about a possible Congressional Investigation into his sources.
I still think Boal and the film’s team could have responded more vigorously. As we used to say in the Navy, “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” I take that to mean that those of us with voices, pens, and computers should call out those in power when they get carried away with their own importance. Look at the example of Tony Kushner, who, as I mentioned in writing about Lincoln in US#104, is a public writer. When Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn) attacked Lincoln for its historical inaccuracy about the votes by Connecticut’s Congressional Representatives on the 13 Amendment, Kushner came out swinging with a vigorous defense, which you can read here. Courtney insisted he was not doing any Oscar politicking, but his letter was headlined “Before the Oscars…” According to an article in the L.A. Times, it turned out that Ben Affleck had campaigned for Courtney in 2006, and Courtney said he attributed his narrow win to a rally Affleck held. You see what I mean about the “waist-deep putrid swamp”?
One person we do know Boal talked to is Michael Vickers, the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. Judicial Watch, an organization that keeps an eye on government goings on, has recently gained access via the Freedom of Information Act to several unclassified (I love my readers, but I am not going to jail for you) documents about the raid on bin Laden, and for our purposes, the most interesting one is a transcript of the meeting Boal and Bigelow had with Vickers. You can read it here. You can see Boal the journalist at work, getting Vickers to talk not only about the details of the planning of the raid, but also the thinking he and others did about it. You should also notice that Boal does all the heavy lifting, with Bigelow just throwing in an occasional line about how useful something will be.
You may remember from US#30 that I was a big fan of Boal’s script for The Hurt Locker (2008). This one is not quite as good, even once you get past the torture scene. In The Hurt Locker, we learn about Staff Sgt. James by what he does, a classic case of “action is character.” That does not work here. We are introduced to Maya, a C.I.A. intelligence analyst, as she watches the torture of a prisoner. This establishes her character: she is a little queasy, but not as much as we might expect. I think that is what Bigelow means when she says the torture scenes are “part of the story,” a point she could have been more precise about. We then watch Maya reading stuff on computers, listening to wiretaps, watching potential targets, and then something blows up. She reads more stuff on computers, listens to more wiretaps, and more things blow up. There is not a lot that action can tell us about her. She is so single-minded, a good thing given her job, that she is briefly upstaged by another analyst, Jessica, who is so lively that my wife thought for a minute she was the star of the film. Jessica is played by Jennifer Ehle, who does the same kind of great work here that she did in Contagion (2011, see US#82 for the paragraph I wrote on her in that film). Jessica Chastain plays Maya, but she is a rather one-note character, although Boal does give her at least one great line. She is sitting against the wall while the men are around the conference table talking to the head of the C.I.A.. He asks her who she is, and she replies, “I’m the motherfucker that found this place, sir.” The “sir” is a great touch, and I wish there were more lines like that.
Just as the search by Maya for bin Laden gets repetitive, so does the raid on his house. Maya does not go on the raid, so we are with the Navy Seals, whom we do not really know. Boal and Bigelow let the sequence run on in close to real time, and while it is suspenseful, it gets wearying. Killing bin Laden turns out to be anti-climactic, which is appropriate, since that is what it is for Maya. As it was to some degree for us. But we’re still glad the son of a bitch is dead, aren’t we?
This Is 40 (2012. Written by Judd Apatow, based on characters created by Judd Apatow. 134 minutes.)
Scenes from a Marriage, but not alas Bergman’s: I have a lot of the same problems with this Apatow script as I did with his 2009 Funny People (see US#31) The scenes wander all over the place as he lets the actors improvise. There is a single outtake at the end that shows you the problem. Pete and Debbie, the married couple from Apatow’s 2007 Knocked Up, are back, this time as the leads. In one of the sequences they have run afoul of another mother, Catherine, and they are all called into the principal’s office at school to discuss the matter. Catherine goes ballistic, as does the ubiquitous Melissa McCarthy (she was in at least three of the trailers we saw with this movie), who plays her. In the outtake, we see McCarthy going on and on and on, as Paul Rudd (Pete) and Leslie Mann (Debbie) crack up. Yes, there is a little less of it in the film, but there is still too much of it, and nothing happens with it in the film. What Apatow has written are a bunch of scenes of the marriage of Pete and Debbie, but with very little to connect them. Early on in the film Debbie says they all (they have two daughters, played by Apatow and Mann’s two kids, much better used here than they are in Funny People) have to improve themselves and their lives. Some scenes have something to do with that, such as a nice scene in which Pete and Debbie suggest the kids give up their electronic toys and play outside and even build a fort. The oldest daughter Sarah’s rant is nicely done. Other scenes have nothing to do with making themselves better, so much so that when Pete and Debbie decide at the end of the film not to try to be better, I was surprised to learn that was where the film was going.
Part of the problem with This Is 40 is that Pete and Debbie are not very likeable characters. They were mildly amusing as a counterpoint to the leads in Knocked Up, but you don’t really want to spend that much time with them. They are shallow and narcissistic, and between them they don’t appear to have the brains God gave a goose. He runs a small record company, but he has put all his eggs into one basket: a singer who has not had a hit in years. We are supposed to admire him for that, but we tend to go along with his friends and co-workers when they suggest it’s a mistake. This is the same problem I pointed out with Middle of Nowhere (see US#104). Debbie runs one of those little Brentwood boutiques that rich men’s wives own to amuse themselves between trips to the spa. She discovers early in the film that $12,000 is missing from the store. If I owned a store with that much missing, I would be there 27 hours a day, 8 days a week until I found it. Debbie seems to wander in from time to time, which is doubly odd because the family is having financial problems. Why should we care about these two village idiots?
Pete and Debbie’s relationship is sort of a mess, although it at least has a little more detail than Haneke gives us in Amour, which is probably the only time you will find those two films mentioned in the same sentence. What I think Apatow is up to with this and Funny People is that he is trying to make the change that Woody Allen made in the mid-‘70s from the early, funny ones, to the more serious films. Allen managed it, but so far (never give up on people with talent) Apatow has not managed it. I mentioned in the item on Funny People that Apatow as the writer on that was not as tough as Wilder, Sturges or Ben Hecht would have been, adding that they all wrote their scripts, and in Wilder and Sturges’s case did not allow for a lot of improve. The same thing is true of Allen. He writes and rewrites and rewrites, but you will never see an outtake from one of Allen’s films like the Melissa McCarthy one here. As the classic line goes, dying is easy, comedy is hard. And even harder still if you are combining comedy and drama.
Margin Call (2011. Written by J.C. Chandor. 107 minutes.)
Just like the railroad tycoons of the late 19th Century: I have recently been reading a fascinating book by Richard White called Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. We all know the great American epic of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s: John Ford’s drunken Irishmen fighting off the Indians and all that. Well, White’s look at the period after it was built comes to the conclusion that the Transcontinental Railroad was built at the wrong time, in the wrong ways, in the wrong places, and with corrupt methods of financing that lead to the monopolistic practices of The Golden Age and by extension modern American financial behaviors. I am not sure I agree with everything he says, but he makes a convincing case, and you can see a lot of modern banking and financial methods beginning to take shape. I was in the middle of the book recently when I happened to catch up with Margin Call, one of the better small films of last year that I happened to miss in theatres.
It’s bad day on the Risk Management floor of a financial trader. The strangers with boxes coming into the offices are not the Feds but people assigned, like George Clooney in Up in the Air (2009), to fire people. One of those let go, Eric Dale, slips a flashdrive to Peter, a younger worker, and tells him there’s stuff on there, but it may be dangerous. Peter looks at it, throws in some figures of his own, and realizes that the company has more money out in questionable deals than the company is worth. At least I think it’s something like that. One of the great running gags of the film is the higher up in the company the discussion goes, the more the senior officers ask Peter and the others to “explain it in plain English.” As we saw in the aftermath of 2008, very often the financial “wizards” who got us into those messes did not even partially understand what they were doing, just as White points out the “Octopuses,” Frank Norris’s term for the big shots running the railroads, had not a clue how to run a railroad. The movie follows Peter’s discovery as we go up the chain of command, and Chandor, like John Huston on a good day, just sits back and lets us watch these guys (and a gal) stew in their own juices.
Chandor, whose father worked on Wall Street, knows this world intimately, and his script is wonderfully nuanced in its approach to character. And he has written some great characters. And guess what, folks? Yeah, you know the drill. He’s got a lot of great actors to appear in his low-budget ($4 million by IMDb’s count) film. How can you top a cast consisting of: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Zachary Quinto, Mary McDonnell and Stanley Tucci, just to name a few? Spacey is playing a sympathetic character so brilliantly that my wife did not recognize him. But everybody else is also on the top of their game, and Chandor has given them lots to do.
And true to the real live events of the last five years, goodness does not prevail, and as with the Octopuses, the sleazeballs still walk off with all the money.
Red State (2011. Written by Kevin Smith. 88 minutes.)
A misleading title: You would think with this title that Kevin Smith is going all political on the tea partiers and the far right in general. But there is surprisingly little about recent politics in the film. So if audiences had had a chance to see it in 2011 they might have been disappointed, but Smith came up with a misconceived marketing plan in which he took the film around to theaters one theater at a time. It never really had a chance, which is too bad, since it may be his best film. Well, now with Netflix, which is how I caught it, and assorted other platforms, it has a chance.
Most of Smith’s films are dialogue heavy, which is not necessarily a bad thing. He does have an ear for foulmouthed dialogue. There is some of that in here, but only in the first part of the film, and then the dialogue gets richer, as do the characterizations. And for the first time, a Kevin Smith film has a real, if peculiar, narrative drive. And his direction, both in the staging and in the performances, has improved drastically.
We start out with three teenage boys who talk exactly like teenage boys in a Kevin Smith movie do. But we get something else. One boy, Travis, is being driven to school by his mom, and they go past the funeral of a local boy. There are protesters at the funeral who claim the boy deserved to die since he was gay. The boy’s death and the protesters are discussed in class, and the teacher makes the point, which may be a bit of a copout on Smith’s part, that even the tea partiers and neo-Nazi groups think the protesters are too far out. The three boys, meanwhile, have discovered a woman nearby online who says she is willing to have sex with all three of them. So they go out to her trailer…and are drugged and taken to the church of the protesters where Abin Cooper is preaching to a very small congregation. As in his extended family. Cooper’s sermon goes on at some length, but it is necessary to give you an in-depth sense of what he believes. The focus on religion is reminiscent of Smith’s 1999 Dogma, but less playful and more contained by the story. Cooper’s dialogue is very different than that of the boys, and Smith has Michael Parks, in one of his best performances, get as much out of it as an actor can. You can see why the congregation is spellbound, and you feel yourself caught up in it. Even if there is a man completely wrapped in plastic about to be killed in the church.
The narrative shifts again, and we get into a Waco-like shootout that evolves in the chaotic way real shootouts do, not in the highly stylized way they do in movies. And Smith is perfectly willing to kill off people we assumed were going to be major characters, and not in the order you might expect in another film. At this point we meet the ATF officer in charge, Keenan, who seems to be the only sane adult in the movie. And his dialogue is very different from everybody else’s, which comes in handy in the final sequence, where he has to do almost as much explaining as Simon Oakland does at the end of Psycho (1960), but in a much better written speech. Keenan’s sanity provides us with at least some release from the horrors that have come before, but those horrors make it a close run thing.
New Year’s Eve (2011. Written by Katherin Fugate. 118 minutes.)
Companion pieces to US#42, take one: In US#42, I wrote about the 2010 release Valentine’s Day, which I sort-of liked, especially the Los Angeles based jokes. Its characterization was limited, and the cinematography did its leading ladies no favors. In New Year’s Eve, the companion piece written by the same writer, they have at least made the women look great. However, it is based in New York, and I am not sure the New York jokes are as good as the Los Angeles ones in Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day as an event is more cohesive a subject for a film than New Year’s Eve. Fugate tries to suggest the variety of themes that might show up on New Year’s Eve, which means this film is not as focused as it might be. As before the characterization is not as sharp as it could be, and we can mainly tell the characters apart because they are played by different stars, always a useful ploy in a multi-story film.
Some of the stories seem to fit nicely into the format. The one with the teenage girl fits about right, but the one about Ingrid, who just quit her job and has a list of things she wants to do and is helped by Paul, a messenger, could easily be a feature film. Fugate throws in some connections we were not expecting, as when we learn that Paul is the brother of Kim, but nothing other than a minor plot turn is done with that. And there are no really breakout characters or performances as there were in Valentine’s Day with Anne Hathway’s Liz.
I caught the film on New Year’s Eve on HBO, and that didn’t help as much as it should have.
Prince Valiant (1997. Screenplay by Michael Frost Beckner and Anthony Hickox & Carsten Lorenz, story by Michael Frost Beckner, based on the comic strip by Harold R. Foster. 91 minutes.)
Companion pieces to US#42, take two: In US#42, I wrote about the 1954 film Prince Valiant, which was a moderately entertaining affair. This version is mess. I am usually pretty good at sorting out the narrative line of films, but this one had me completely baffled. I would say that I was distracted by a repairman coming and going while I watched it, but I DVR’d it off HBO, so I could stop to talk to him and to try to mentally figure out the story, but it was hopeless. It begins with some Vikings sneaking into Camelot and stealing King Arthur’s sword Excaliber. OK, nice inciting incident, as some screenwriting gurus would call it, but then they don’t go back to Scandinavia. They hang around the British Isles until they get their just deserts. Arthur assumes the Scots have taken the sword and sends his knights and army north. Who knew that Arthur was the role model for George W. Bush and his search for WMDs in Iraq? Anyway, that leaves only Valiant, a squire, to escort Princess Ilene back to her home castle. But she gets kidnapped along the way. Several times in fact, and I cannot tell you who all the different ugly looking guys with beards who kidnap her are. Valiant keeps getting her back, and learns at the end of the adventures he is really a prince in one of the tribes in the British Isles. The tribe sent him as a child to Camelot as kind of a British boarding school.
Not only does all of this make no narrative sense, but the tone keeps shifting in the middle of scenes. Sometimes it seems like comedy, especially when there are actors with very Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) accents. Other times it is played straight. The production was financed by a variety of European sources, and it appears nobody was on the same page on this one. According to a story that may be too good to be true on the IMDb, the German producers cut out four scenes and material that set up the comedy while the director was on Christmas vacation and would not pay his way back to Germany to restore his cut.
There is some nice cinematography of Wales, but a young Stephen Moyer does not have the swashbuckling presence for Valiant; he is much better as Bill Compton on True Blood. Princess Ilene is a 19 year-old Katherine Heigl when she was soft and round and charming and funny and not the hard-edge actress she has become. Ah, ye olden dayes.
Vegas (2012. “Estinto,” written by Vanessa Reisen & Nick Santora. 60 minutes.)
Developing: When I wrote about the new television season in US#102, I said this was the show I liked best. It is developing very well, and unlike a lot of television series, it is doing it rather slowly. We are getting to know a large bunch of people, and characters who we thought were minor, if we even thought of them at all, are given more to do. Yvonne Sanchez has been the receptionist at the Sheriff’s office from the beginning, but in the later shows she has more to do, including suggesting in this episode which jewelry store in Vegas a guy would use to buy an item for his mistress. How does she know that? She also has a flirtation with the sheriff’s son, Dixon, and she is way smarter than he is.
Jack, the sheriff’s brother, is attracted to Mia Rizzo. She is the daughter of Johnny Rizzo, the hard-nosed gangster who is pushing Vince Savino to use more hardball tactics to take over Vegas. Mia didn’t show up until the second episode, and she is not just a bimbo. Savino hired her to run the count room at the Savoy Casino, and she is a tough cookie. Jack and Mia seem unable to keep their hands off each other, which will undoubtedly lead to trouble. How would you like to be a sheriff’s deputy and have a gangster for a potential father-in-law? (Since this episode, Rizzo has been killed. Whew. By Jack. Uh-oh.)
One thing I worried about after the first couple of episodes was that the crime-of-the-week stories were not as interesting as the casino stories. The writers have been good about keeping a balance. In this episode, the murdered man runs a construction company who builds casinos, including the one Savino wants to run, the Tumbleweed. When the victim is found in a cement mixer, it screams mob hit, but Savino points out that having the head of the company building his new hotel dying screws up his plans. Dixon, who is a deputy, goes undercover at the Savoy to drive to find who is stealing. He does very quickly and Savino is impressed. Dixon tells him that the thief was glad the deputy got him and not the mob, figuring he would be safer in jail. Savino offers Dixon a free room, but his dad, the sheriff, won’t let him take it. Meanwhile, Rizzo has insisted Savino hire Rizzo’s girlfriend, Diane, as a singer. That’s a bit awkward, since Savino and Diane had a fling years before. Savino finds out she is a snitch for the F.B.I. and he tells Rizzo. They find Diane, an ex-junkie, dead of an overdose. Savino and we pretty much know she was murdered by Rizzo. On Christmas Eve we see Savino with his family and it is obvious he is still thinking about Diane’s death.
And I haven’t even mentioned that Katherine, the assistant district attorney, is becoming friends with Savino’s wife…
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.
Interview: J. Hoberman Talks Make My Day, Ronald Reagan, and ‘80s Movie Culture
Hoberman discusses how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered Reagan’s presidency.
The poster boy of American conservatism, the bar to which all Republicans would unashamedly evaluate future candidates, and yet now seemingly lower on a weekly basis, Ronald Reagan was an ideal movie star with an idealized view of the past. His perfect America would be equivalent to the opening shots of red roses, green lawns, and white picket fences that kick off Blue Velvet, while America’s reality would be what transpires once Bobby Vinton’s song concludes and the swarming ants are revealed beneath the surface.
A time of Hollywood blockbusters and silver screen patriots, macho men and teens headed back to the future, the 1980s, while not considered a golden movie age, saw a symbiotic relationship between American film and the nation’s chosen leader. How else to account for Reagan proposing his “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative in March of 1983, a mere two months before the release of the year’s top grossing film, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi?
With his methodically researched new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman takes a sociological approach to discovering how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered the goings-on of our 40th president’s administration. And on the occasion of the book’s release and accompanying Film at Lincoln Center series, which samples feature films from the ‘80s, I spoke with Hoberman about the first Reagan screen performance he ever saw, being a working film critic during the “Age of Reagan,” and the unexpected rise of real estate mogul and Celebrity Apprentice host Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.
One of your most revered books is Vulgar Modernism, a collection of reviews and essays written during the ‘80s without the benefit, or trappings, of historical hindsight. Now 30-some-odd years later, you’ve taken a step back to take a look at the bigger picture of the decade. What was that experience like?
I should say that this book was the culmination of two earlier books, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War. Make My Day is the end of a trilogy. When I began writing the trilogy, I didn’t realize how central Reagan would be to it, but by the time I started Make My Day, he had become, in effect, the protagonist of the entire trilogy. Make My Day was different from the other two books. It’s not just that I lived through this period, but that I was then a working critic. How was I going to deal with that? In the earlier books, I went out of my way to quote critics and others who wrote about movies because I was very interested in how these films were initially received. In the case of Make My Day, however, it seemed absurd to quote other critics when I was there myself. It took me a while to come to that conclusion because my impulse wasn’t to put myself in the book and yet I realized that I would ultimately have to.
I found that my opinion of the various movies discussed hadn’t changed all that much. My opinion of Reagan was modified somewhat, in that I saw him as a more complicated figure than I did during the 1980s, but I also believe my response to him in the ‘80s was true to the moment. That’s why I included a number of longer pieces in the book, while also annotating them, so that one could see that I wasn’t just reusing the material without thinking about it.
You note that each volume can be read in chronological order, the order in which they were published, or as standalone installments. I took it up after finishing your and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies, and it felt like I was emerging from the pre-’80s underground to a Reaganized American society that had become depressingly anything but countercultural. What was it like being on the underground and Hollywood beat as a critic throughout those years?
I didn’t really start reviewing the blockbuster films until around 1984. I was the Village Voice’s second-string critic when Andrew Sarris, the first-string critic, fell ill, and I took his spot for a while. As a result, I was reviewing movies that I might otherwise not have. To make things interesting for myself, I began reviewing these movies from a political and ideological perspective. Even when Andy came back, that stayed with me. So, for example, there were a lot of action films during that period that Andy was very glad not to review, like Top Gun, but I did those while also reviewing foreign films, avant-garde films, documentaries, and so on. I always said that I could never be a first-string critic for a newspaper. I would have lost my mind having a steady diet of big Hollywood movies! I would have had to mix things up.
While midnight movies aren’t the primary focus of Make My Day, the underground did find a way into your reviews of ‘80s blockbusters. I recall a review in the Voice titled “White Boys: Lucas, Spielberg, and the Temple of Dumb” in which you tear down the nostalgic Indiana Jones prequel while praising Jack Smith’s nostalgic Normal Love. Was it maddening for you to review the latest Spielberg while underground artists concurrently made the same points to much smaller audiences?
That was really something that came from the heart. I was outraged by Temple of Doom, by its attitude, and I was really sick of these guys, Spielberg and Lucas. I wanted to bring out that there were other forms of filmmaking and other ways of dealing with this material. I was making a point, yes, but it was something that was fueled by emotion rather than reason.
Were there any Spielberg films, or Spielberg-adjacent films like Gremlins or Poltergeist, that you found less than risible throughout the Reagan years?
There were some that I preferred. I liked Gremlins quite a bit, and I enjoyed Back to the Future, which is Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. At the time, I didn’t much care for Poltergeist, but when I looked at it again for the book, I thought it was interesting in terms of its pathology. I should also say that I liked Jaws and E.T., to a degree, although it was no Blade Runner.
Though primarily concerned with Regan’s political reign, you also dig deep into his filmography, noting how his sole villainous role, in The Killers, has always prompted a vocal reaction from every audience you’ve watched it with. Why do you think that is?
Well, I’m not sure that’s still true. A friend recently saw The Killers at Film Forum and told me he was sort of shocked that people didn’t respond to the scene where Reagan slaps Angie Dickinson. The first time I saw The Killers, which was, I think, in June of 1969, I didn’t expect to see Reagan in it. I don’t think I had seen him in a movie before. I was well aware of who he was, of course, and I hated him because I had been at Berkeley the previous summer, when students were public enemy number one and there were disturbances every night—the whole thing was extremely compelling for me as a 19-year-old. The point I wanted to make was that my whole view of Reagan was predicated on The Killers. To me, he seemed to be playing himself. I had a very naïve response. I couldn’t understand why he would do the role. I mean, what crazy hubris prompted him to show what he dreamed of becoming on screen? I recognize my response as primitive, but it also demonstrates the power of movie images. I didn’t see him as acting, even though he clearly is. I saw it as him projecting his evil, bastardly essence.
Speaking of essence, it’s odd re-watching Donald Trump’s numerous cameos in American film and television. Unlike Reagan’s silver-screen presence, Trump literally always played himself: an obscenely rich braggadocio. Whereas Reagan’s “lovable” persona no doubt helped his later career in politics, Trump’s media appearances helped to fortify his reputation as an arrogant huckster.
This is the point I tried to make at the end of the book. I was surely thinking about Trump a lot while writing the book, but he only became president when I was close to finishing it. Trump may have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but it doesn’t come as a result of the movies. He’s a celebrity and a celebrity is someone who’s able to project a cartoon version of themselves, or a larger-than-life version of themselves, into the media world: TV, the tabloid press, and so on. Trump is being true to this persona. I didn’t really see Trump’s presidency coming. For me, he was a New York City character, a local celebrity who was regularly exposed in the Village Voice’s narrative of New York City corruption. I had no sense of how he existed to the rest of America, in Celebrity Apprentice. Clearly that’s what put him over, or at least helped to put him over. That and his appearances on Fox News as a kind of pundit and even his involvement with professional wrestling.
As you mention in your book, the uncomfortably awkward 1979 CBS Ted Kennedy sit-down interview with Roger Mudd ultimately derailed Kennedy’s attempt at a presidential run. It’s hard to imagine, given the feckless attempts by our current political leaders to appear like an everyman, that current presidential candidates’ chances could be derailed by the televised struggle to answer a basic question. If anything, we might view the guffaw as endearing and humanizing. Trump says dumb stuff on a daily basis, and we all just accept it. Have we become desensitized to politicians being put on the spot and not being able to come up with succinct answers?
I think it’s different for different candidates. Being the younger brother of J.F.K., who was the first real political star, created a lot of expectations. People credit Kennedy’s success in the 1960 election with his appearance in the first debate, for looking so much better than Nixon. That may be simplistic, but it’s not simplistic for people to think that TV had something to do with Kennedy becoming president. I think this is a case of “live by the sword, die by the sword,” that his brother just stumbled so badly in that interview, in what was essentially his television debut. He did go on all the way to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, but the myth of the Kennedy charm and invincibility was destroyed by that interview.
Looking at subsequent presidents, Reagan certainly had an elastic sense of reality. But in his distortions and lies and misstatements, he was by and large upbeat and, when he wasn’t, he was at least coherent. Trump lies so continuously that you feel that that must be part of his appeal for his base, that he’s just going to make this stuff up. They think it’s funny or entertaining or maybe that it represents a “greater degree of authenticity.”
There had been a very interesting point made by Theodor W. Adorno about Hitler’s appeal. I’m not saying that Trump is Hitler, but he’s a demagogue and Hitler was too. Adorno, who lived through Hitler’s lies, made the point that intellectuals and serious people didn’t get Hitler’s appeal. Before he came to power, he just seemed like a clown. There was something ridiculous about Hitler’s assertions and his tantrums. What they didn’t realize was that’s precisely what his fans liked about him. I think that’s also the case with Trump and his supporters.
If Nashville, as you point out in the book, foresaw the real-life presidential assassination attempts that were soon to come, could you see the same cinematic influences happening today? Are there films today that you think are foreshadowing things that could come into fruition within our own political future?
Nashville was a movie made at a time when movies were much more central to American culture than they are now. It was made by a filmmaker, Robert Altman, who was directly addressing, as an artist, what was going on. I bracketed Nashville with Jaws because in some respects, Jaws is a similar movie, although I’m not sure if Spielberg was consciously making an allegory. Some things in the film are political, for example the behavior of the Mayor of Amity, but beyond that the movie itself was utterly central to American culture. There was nothing more important during the summer of 1975 than Jaws. There’s no movie that has that kind of centrality anymore, nor do movies as a whole.
A number of television shows seemed to be predicting Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election. There were shows like Madam Secretary and Veep and Homeland, strong, female, political heroes, or, in the case of Veep, comic. But what were they compared to Celebrity Apprentice? Those aforementioned shows were very feeble in terms of reaching an audience and I think it was more a projection of the people who made it. When I look at movies now, and I have to say that I don’t see as many movies as I used to, I see some that seem to manifest things that are in the air. Jordan Peele’s Get Out would be the best example of this. That movie was made and conceived while Obama was president, but it certainly projected the post-Trump mood. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is interesting because, on the one hand, it’s a movie about 1969, and yet it’s also a movie about 2019. It can’t help but manifest some of our current fantasies and tensions. But even if it had a bigger audience than Nashville, people just aren’t taking it the same way.
And Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood presents a cinematic take that has a romanticized, almost fetishistic view of a 1969 that never truly existed, at least not the way Tarantino wishes it did…
Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it. I would put it somewhat differently, but we can let people discover for themselves if they haven’t seen it!
The book also talks a great deal about the revisionism and idealization of specific time periods that were said to represent wholesome Americana. The ‘50s is a big one, but as you point out, the movies’ view of the ‘50s were drastically different from the one the world actually experienced. I remember growing up in the ‘90s convinced Happy Days was a TV show not just about the ‘50s, but from the ‘50s itself.
That makes perfect sense, and I think other people share that same experience. The genius of that show is that it portrayed the ‘50s “as it should have been.” Jean Baudrillard has a memorable description of walking in to see Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 black-and-white film The Last Picture Show and, for a moment, thinking it was actually a movie from the period it depicted: the early ‘50s. It was a hyper-real version of it. That’s what Happy Days was. I think Reagan’s genius was to be able to do that on a larger scale, to conjure up an idealized ‘60s almost out of whole cloth, vague memories, old television, and old movies in his own conviction, even if that was ultimately a fantasy. It was an idealization of the period.
On the occasion of your book’s release, you’ve programmed a selection of double features for an upcoming series at Film at Lincoln Center. Outside of a closeness in release dates, like The Last Temptation of Christ and They Live, what went into the pairing up of certain titles?
I appreciate that question. I really love the concept of double bills. Whenever it’s possible, I like to teach using double bills, because then the movies can talk to each other—and I don’t have to talk as much. Ideally the movies should comment on each other. The reason for including The Last Temptation of Christ was a bit tricky. I thought that the response that it got certainly looked forward to the culture wars of the ‘90s. There was such hostility directed toward that movie and, by extension, the movie industry as a whole. As Trump would say, it was as “an enemy of the people.” And to me, They Live seems to be the bluntest, most direct critique of Reaganism ever delivered, and it was delivered at the very, very end of his presidency. In a sense, it was already over, as the film came out just before the 1988 presidential election. I see both They Live and The Last Temptation as political movies, one overtly political and one that was taken in a political manner.
Review: Vita & Virginia Leaves the Nuances of a Love Affair to the Imagination
The film frequently falls back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.2
When capricious socialite and writer Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) first glimpses Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) at a bohemian party in Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia, the latter is the midst of a dance, her head leaning back and arms freely swaying in the air. It’s an uncharacteristic moment of outgoingness for the author, who by this time in the early 1920s has had only modest success, and the throbbing ambient techno music that underscores the scene lends her and Vita’s desires a strange and striking modernity. But the film doesn’t fully commit to such anachronistic flourishes in its portrait of the two women’s tumultuous love affair, instead frequently falling back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.
Vita’s deviousness and unpredictability does, for a time, make for some compelling proto-feminist drama, thanks in large part to Arterton’s bold performance. Vita is amusingly blasé in the face of both her heiress mother, Lady Sackville (Isabella Rossellini), who protests to her dressing as a man and openly having affairs with women, and her diplomat husband, Harold (Rupert Penry-Jones), completely dismissing his concerns about maintaining their marriage of convenience. Elsewhere, Debicki is left with the difficult task of dramatizing Virginia’s escalating strife, and with little help from a script that basically skirts over the serious mental health issues that plagued Woolf throughout her life. In fact, Virginia’s joys and struggles as they arise from Vita’s hot-and-cold treatment of her are rarely given any concrete form aside from the occasional ham-fisted touch of CGI-enhanced magical realism, as when vines grow out of the woodwork when Virginia returns home after first sleeping with Vita.
Outside of these moments, Virginia’s interiority is given similarly blunt expression through her relationships with her passive yet understanding husband, Leonard (Peter Ferdinando), her lively artist sister, Vanessa (Emerald Fennell), and Vanessa’s roommate, the flamboyant painter Duncan Grant (Adam Gillen). Each of these archetypes always seems to be conveniently on hand to explicitly outline the details of Virginia’s emotional state. The only time her thoughts and emotions, as well as Vita’s, are articulated with any nuance is through a series of epistolary interludes that see Arterton and Debicki reading the love letters that Sackville-West and Woolf wrote to one another. And yet, these moments are so awkwardly and unimaginatively incorporated into the film, with the actresses speaking their words directly into the camera, that the letters’ flowery language is effectively drained of its poeticism.
Vita & Virginia eventually lands on Woolf writing her breakthrough novel, Orlando, which was inspired by her relationship with Sackville-West. But as Button gives us only a vague sense of what drew these two vastly different women together, she leaves to the imagination how Sackville-West had such a lasting and profound effect on one of the great authors of the 20th century. In Orlando, Woolf writes, “Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth.” There’s more ambiguity, complexity, or passion in that one line regarding the elusive and illusory qualities of Vita’s love for Virginia than there is in all of Button’s film.
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isabella Rossellini, Rupert Penry-Jones, Peter Ferdinando, Emerald Fennell, Gethin Anthony, Rory Fleck Byrne, Karla Crome Director: Chanya Button Screenwriter: Chanya Button Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Ready or Not Ribs the One Percent with More Laughs than Horror
Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot.2.5
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s horror film Ready or Not is centered around a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek, and if that sounds unconscionably silly, at least the filmmakers are aware of that. Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy’s screenplay embraces the inherent absurdity of this premise, concocting an elaborate narrative justification as to why a bunch of grown-ups would be engaged in a murderous version of the classic kids’ game. It all boils down to a family ritual: Anyone marrying into the obscenely wealthy Le Domas clan must play a game at midnight on their wedding night, and this game, which is selected at random by a puzzle box, could be anything from old maid to checkers.
Bright-eyed good girl Grace (Samara Weaving), who’s just wedded the family’s favorite son, Alex (Mark O’Brien), gets picked to play hide-and-seek, and that’s where the trouble begins. Because while the other games proceed in perfectly ordinary fashion, the Le Domases have made a violent mythology surrounding this one game: The family must capture its newest member and slaughter them in a ritual sacrifice before sunrise, or else each family member will be cursed to die. And so, the Le Domases give Grace time to hide anywhere she likes in their sprawling country manor before they set out with rifles and crossbows to find her.
Gradually, the convoluted family mythology comes to overtake the goofy simplicity of the film’s premise, and to the point that one is apt to forget that a game of hide-and-seek is even going on. But Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett keep things lively with a lavish visual style that nods toward Kubrick’s The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, and even Barry Lyndon, while still maintaining an identity of its own. Lit mostly with candles, the sprawling villa in which the film mostly takes place assumes a creepy aura reminiscent of the opulently spooky house in Robert Wise’s The Haunting. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett’s mildly showy use of long takes and lithe camera movements exhibit an ironic grandiosity that suits the film’s light-hearted sadism.
Funny but not quite a comedy, Ready or Not, to its credit, leans in to the arbitrariness of its own myths and rules. Some of the members of the Le Domas clan aren’t even sure they believe in their family curse, and they bicker over whether they should be allowed to utilize modern technology, such as their mansion’s security cameras, to track Grace down. But the film’s constant reiteration and reevaluation of the Le Domases’ goofy traditions can sometimes make things feel repetitive and slightly exhausting, impressions which are enhanced by the lackadaisical handling of the film’s kills. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett primarily employ violence for laughs, but they frequently flub the punchline with a confusingly quick edit or an awkwardly shaky handheld shot. Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot. But this gonzo capper has the effect of retroactively diminishing the tame, uninventive bloodshed that preceded it.
Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O'Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Nicky Guadagni, Elyse Levesque, John Ralston Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett Screenwriter: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Jawline Takes a Measured Look at Social Media Stardom
The film is refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.3
The perma-glossy avatar of our profit-minded social media era is the cheery influencer, that species of professional bon vivant who seems perpetually more put together than anyone could be. Liza Mandelup’s debut documentary feature, Jawline, traces the dynamics that drive such influencers, their intensely adoring fans, and the malicious managers who try to turn a profit on them, and it’s refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.
The film begins on Austyn Tester, a sweet, poor Tennessee teen with a few thousand followers across Instagram, Twitter, Musical.ly, and YouNow who’s itching to escape his hometown and become an online celebrity. Mandelup mostly focuses on his daily efforts toward achieving that fame, including his semi-disciplined uploading regimen and the many retakes required to snag the perfect post. He spends much of his times posting, singing, and assuaging his young fans’ personal frustration on live chat. Only a slight variant on his actual personality, Austyn’s online brand, a “follow your dreams, no matter what” sort of positivity, would be unremarkable if it weren’t for its apparent impact on his teen girl fans.
Several of these fans are interviewed throughout the film. Each one is grappling with unique problems, from abusive families to bullying, though all of them justify their interest in Austyn and his peers for their willingness to listen, emphasizing the therapeutic effect of his livestreams. Jawline displays a certain evenhandedness here. The girls’ intense reliance on a stranger for comfort is uncomfortable to watch, but the film doesn’t trivialize this dependence. In an act of fan service, Austyn meets with a small group of girls at a local mall where their intense affections make themselves plain. Mandelup records them pushing an uncomfortable Austyn to ride around motorized stuffed animals so they can post it on Instagram, all the while demanding affirmations from him. Later, one girl forces him to share his phone number with her. Here, Jawline suggests a limit to his affection for them, if it ever existed, as well as the emotionally transactional nature of the relationship between fan and influencer.
The libidinal peak of this surreal relationship, though, occurs when Austyn and other influencers go on tour, performing shows for adoring fans with the hopes of upping their follower count in the process. On stage, the teens pose with fans, sing, and dance, all without any clear knack for it, in what amount to in-person livestreams. In this moment, there isn’t much that can be said about these largely cookie-cutter performers except that they’re toned, twinky, and peppy, and their fans love them for it. Mandelup’s footage of their displays is transfixing, not because the performances are spectacular—the shows are expensive to attend but often happen in dingy unadorned venues—but because the nearly contentless shows are only about the fans’ adulation. From an outsiders’ perspective, there’s a dizzying mismatch between the palpable intensity of their fervor and what they’re actually responding to.
How to relate to teen girls, how to monetize what’s relatable, and how to make the content more relatable and more profitable? These are the sorts of questions pondered by social media talent manager Michael Weist. He’s great to watch in the way reality TV villains are, as his success is propelled by a well-known combo of business sense, greed, and probable chicanery (appropriately, he finds himself in legal trouble by the film’s end). Around 21 years old, Weist has somehow marketed himself into a role as an authority figure on social media stardom, roping in young wannabe celebs and growing their followings. He’s turned a house in L.A. into a content factory, living there with his clients while haranguing them into posting, recording, and being on call 24/7 for their needs. Ever-candid, Weist reveals his long game at one point without being prompted: to run influencers through the content mill before they’re old enough to drink, at which point he can move on to the next hot prospect seeking fame.
At the heart of Weist’s efforts is the exploitation of Austyn’s more successful colleagues to commodify young girls’ emotions. Jawline is most fascinating when it tracks this process in action. Mandelup doesn’t draw as much attention to it as she could, meandering through IRL details that don’t quite elucidate or explain as much as they pretend to and don’t measure up to the retina-display realities of virtual stardom. A similar problem shows up in the documentary’s way of depicting tween girls. One notable scene involves slow-motion portraits of the fans accompanied by their disembodied voiceovers explaining why they spend so much time online. The scene is conceived in the spirit of chromatic maximalism, with the girls brightly lit against floral-print and pastel backgrounds, in a manner that humanizes their experience but flattens their differences, as if one were the precondition of the other. The style presents their range of justifications for standom as more or less equivalent to each other, reducing these girls to the same faceless morass of drives that Weist cashes in on.
More importantly, while Jawline’s depictions of predatory managers, overblown hopes, and obsessive followers spell out reasons to be despondent about the way this economy works, the film doesn’t look past its narrow horizon. There’s little indication of how this phenomenon is so profitable or how wide reaching this it is. Instead, Jawline offers a deflationary, measured suggestion that the current crop of influencers differs only in quantity from celebrity cults in Hollywood or the music industry. The latest iteration of celebrity is just monetizing a new type of media. All that’s really changed is that the stars burn dimmer and fade younger.
Director: Liza Mandelup Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 99 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Brittany Runs a Marathon Is a Moralizing Buzzkill of a Comedy
The film is inspirational only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.1.5
Watching writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Brittany Runs a Marathon is a bit like listening to a runner describe a motivational poster—the type with a single-word slogan below a stock photograph—that inspired them to persevere as they trained themselves to be a serious runner. Sensing that such overt preachiness would be irksome, the film cloaks its proselytizing in self-aware jokes about how much more pleasurable sitting around is than running and a token acknowledgment that there’s nothing wrong with being out of shape. But the screenplay’s cute, if somewhat insipid, humor doesn’t prevent the film from feeling self-righteous. Indeed, for a comedy about a woman who makes a personal decision to get in shape, Brittany Runs a Marathon sure engages in a lot of moralizing.
At the start of the film, twentysomething Brittany (Jillian Bell) is overweight and working part time as an usher for a small off-Broadway theater, which somehow provides enough income for her to regularly drink champagne at high-end clubs with her roommate, Gretchen (Alice Lee). Walking back to their Queens apartment after nights of hard drinking and eating greasy food, they often catch their uptight, bougie neighbor, Catherine (Erica Hernandez), going out for an early morning run, seemingly judging them for their indulgence. It’s only a matter of time, then, before Brittany is informed by a Yelp-recommended doctor (Patch Darragh) that her lifestyle has led to elevated blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass index—and an ominous close-up on the doctor’s chart shows us that she’s crossed over into obese terrain.
And so Brittany begins running, ill-advisedly, in her beat-up Chuck Taylors, which she soon upgrades to spotless, turquoise New Balances. Catherine, for some reason forgiving of Brittany’s persistent churlishness, introduces the young woman to a local running club. What follows is surely intended to inspire laughs of recognition in audience members who picked up running in adulthood, as the neophyte Brittany hangs out at the back of the group with a fellow reformed slacker, Seth (Micah Stock). The new trio sets themselves an ambitious goal: to complete the New York Marathon the following November.
The film makes jokes about how hard running can be, but there’s an earnestness behind such humor that leaves certain sacred cows untouched. Most of these have to do with the self—namely, self-discipline, self-love, and self-actualization. As the film sees it, all those things can be realized through running. Seth may joke about how ready he is to stop, or how much he’d rather be doing something else, but he keeps going, and if Brittany cheats on her diet and eats some cheese fries, it’s portrayed as a dramatic, shameful misstep. We’re told over and over that Brittany is valued by her friends, old and new, because she’s funny, but we see scant evidence of this, particularly as her devotion to running takes on a quite pious dimension.
Arriving for comic relief and romantic interest is Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who works the night shifts at the same house-sitting service where Brittany has begun picking up hours during the day to fund her marathon training. Casually trashing the house they’re meant to be looking after, Jern supplies Brittany Runs a Marathon with the levity that began to evaporate from the film as soon as Brittany started exercising. But as her flirtatiously contentious relationship with Jern deepens, the other parts of her life become a plodding series of confrontations. Her improving self-image emboldens Brittany to kick Gretchen to the curb, accusing her friend of having always viewed her as a “fat sidekick.”
It’s a fair enough grievance for the character to have, but at a certain point in Brittany’s active defense of herself, the film takes on a self-righteous tone, associating its protagonist’s newfound healthy living with virtuousness and seeing Gretchen as despicable for her profligate lifestyle. Brittany Runs a Marathon’s positioning of exercise as a moral triumph is nothing more than a marketing technique, as Colaizzo’s film is “inspirational” only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.
Cast: Jillian Bell, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Michaela Watkins, Lil Rel Howrey, Micah Stock, Mikey Day, Alice Lee, Dan Bittner, Peter Vack, Patch Darragh Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo Screenwriter: Paul Downs Colaizzo Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Official Secrets Is an Ambitious Muckraking Thriller Prone to Melodrama
Gavin Hood wrings suspense out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts.2.5
Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets is a muckraking thriller that revels in wonderfully lived-in details as well as generic biopic platitudes. The film tells a story that might have caused a sensation in Britain and the U.S. had it not been drowned out by those nations’ war machines. In 2003, Katherine Gun, a British translator for an intelligence agency, leaked an email in which the American National Security Agency urged for surveillance of pivotal members of the U.N. Security Council. This operation was for the purpose of blackmailing the U.N. into voting for the American invasion of Iraq (which President George W. Bush authorized later that year anyway, without the U.N.’s approval). Katherine leaked this email, and faced prosecution from her government under the Official Secrets Act of 1989.
In the film’s first half, the filmmakers offer a fastidious glimpse at how the press responds to Katherine’s (Kiera Knightley) whistleblowing. Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), Martin Bright (Matt Smith), and Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) are anti-war reporters for The Observer, which is in favor of the war and eager to maintain its relationship with Tony Blair’s government. Hood wrings suspense, and docudramatic fascination, out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts. Various jargon in the N.S.A. email is decoded, as insiders weigh its legitimacy. An intensification of surveillance is referred to as a “surge effort,” intelligence sources are “product lines,” and so forth.
This sort of commitment to texture is reminiscent of the novels of John Le Carré, as are the juicy scenes in which Beaumont and Bright reach out to people in the MI6 and the British government. Though Hood isn’t a moody stylist in the key of, say, Alan J. Pakula, his handling of the film’s actors is sharp, as their crisp and musical cadences allow the audience to understand that every spoken word matters, and that, if the reporters misstep at any time, they could potentially lose more than their contacts.
Katherine is eventually defended by an attorney, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), who has vast experience with human rights cases and with working within the labyrinthine British government. Fiennes’s probing, tormented, erudite charisma is always pleasurable, but this section of Official Secrets, meant to provide the legal counterpoint to the journalism thread, is shortchanged, as Hood starts to juggle too many balls at once. Interspersed with Emmerson’s adventurous interpretation of the Official Secrets Act are moments in which Katherine must rush to prevent her Turkish-Kurdish husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), from being deported out of an obvious retaliation against Katherine. These scenes are unimaginatively staged and unmoving—a sop to melodrama that temporarily halts the film’s procedural momentum.
It’s strange that the domestic dimension of the protagonist’s life should feel like clutter, which underscores a larger issue with Official Secrets: Katherine herself isn’t especially compelling as rendered here, as she almost entirely operates in the formula mode of aggrieved, persecuted, self-righteous avenger. A major ellipsis in the narrative is telling, as the British government forces Katherine to wait almost a year in limbo before deciding whether or not to persecute her, which Hood skips to keep the story moving. The emotional toil of such a year could’ve provided a personal counterpoint to the film’s political gamesmanship. As it is, the filmmaker reduces Katherine to a supporting character in her own story.
Cast: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Indira Varma, MyAnna Buring, Rhys Ifans, Tamsin Greig, Jack Farthing, Hattie Morahan, Conleth Hill, Katherine Kelly, Kenneth Cranham, Hanako Footman, Adam Bakri Director: Gavin Hood Screenwriter: Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein, Gavin Hood Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Tigers Are Not Afraid Wrings Preciousness from a Drug War’s Carnage
It never resolves its commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma.2
Writer-director Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a tapestry of flourishes. All are inseparable from Mexico’s gangland carnage, but its most memorable one is also rooted in magical-realist tradition, namely 100 Years of Solitude. The novel tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, and in one particularly exacting and vivid passage, master fabulist Gabriel García Márquez details how the seemingly eternal Ursula Iguarán learns of her son José Arcadio’s death after a trickle of blood from his body winds its way through war-torn Macondo, around corners, across terraces, down steps, and over curbs, before finally arriving at his mother’s doorstep. “Holy mother of God,” she says.
Ursula comprehends the truth of that thread of blood even before it leads her back to her son’s body. By contrast, the protagonist of Tigers Are Not Afraid, Estrella (Paola Lara), prevaricates so as to put distance between herself and the horrors around her. “We forget who we are, when the things from outside come to get us,” she says in voiceover at the start of the film. She doesn’t see the line of blood that runs from a dead man’s head and follows her all the way home until it’s already tracing a path across her living room floor and up a wall, finally creating the shape of an insect on a dress that hangs from the ceiling. Estrella’s mother is missing, and in this moment, the girl seems to know that she’s being sent a message, which she won’t learn to decipher until she becomes more fluent in the language of fairy tales.
At its most assured, Tigers Are Not Afraid strikingly literalizes the idea of the ties that bind, suggesting how the living and the dead walk hand in hand, almost as a matter of course, in a modern-day Mexico where 160,000 have been killed and 53,000 have disappeared since the beginning of the drug war in 2006. Before Estrella stumbles upon the aforementioned dead man’s body, you get the sense that today isn’t the first time she’s seen boys use police tape as limbo sticks, or dragged her fingers across walls riddled with bullet holes. Which isn’t to say that the girl is desensitized to this violence. She seems to almost exist at a remove from it, and López sensitively syncs the swaying of her camera to the girl’s visible numbness.
That sensitivity, however, proves to be a kind of redundancy. Throughout Tigers Are Not Afraid, López effectively conjures an aura of ordinariness, but she never resolves her commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma. The film concerns Estrella and a group of orphaned boys going head to head with a cartel after young El Shine (Juan Ramón López) swipes a gun and phone from the treacherous El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), and when that narrative isn’t picking up signals from the supernatural realm, you sense its allegiance to so many films indebted to the neorealist tradition, from Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados to Héctor Babenco’s Pixote. Tigers Are Not Afraid is alive to the harsh reality of its main characters’ lives, though at times it feels as if López’s only means of accessing that truth is by conspicuously shaking her camera.
As for the film’s supernatural flourishes, none are as inspired as that thread of blood that trails Estrella at various points. Little flying creatures suggest visitors from Guillermo del Toro’s cabinet of curiosities, while a gathering of ghosts inside an expansive, derelict building brings to mind a Silent Hill freak-out. And in the case of the tiger graffiti on a wall that comes to life at one point, there isn’t even the sense that we’re watching the dead’s handiwork. After a while, death’s intrusions come to feel more cosmetic than substantial.
Early in the film, López fascinatingly suggests that Estrella’s perception of the world, after a teacher grants her three wishes, is both shield and sword. But after the girl uses one of those wishes to commit an act of brutality, the film’s fairy-tale conceit reveals itself as an engine for easy absolution. By the time the girl arrives at an understanding of her world that isn’t too far removed from the logic of her opening voiceover, Tigers Are Not Afraid has so given itself over to feeling the innocence of cocooning that it only effectively haunts us with its preciousness.
Cast: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas, Tenoch Huerta, Nery Arredondo, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero Director: Issa López Screenwriter: Issa López Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 83 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette Serves Up Lifetime-Grade Chestnuts of Wisdom
The film is a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.1.5
The opening passages of Where’d You Go, Bernadette include a handful of scenes in which an agoraphobic architect and mother, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), restlessly expresses her internal thoughts inside the empty rooms of her Seattle mansion. Observed in flowing Steadicam shots, these soliloquies—recorded and translated to text by Manjula, the digital assistant on Bernadette’s smartphone—give space to reflect on how the woman’s eclectic furnishings grow out of her racing mental landscape. And in performing them, Blanchett offers the rare cinematic spectacle of a mother in her alone time, compelled to let her imagination and anxieties loose outside the pressures of maternal duty. In these moments, the film, an unapologetically straightforward adaptation of Maria Semple’s best-selling novel, briefly takes on the tone of something candidly personal.
It’s a shame, then, that Where’d You Go, Bernadette is cloyingly beholden to the demands of its crowd-pleasing narrative arc—that of a creative woman driven to ennui by motherhood and middle age yet rescued from the brink by an inspiring vacation and the love of her family. It’s nice, reassuring stuff, not false by any standard, but told with such didacticism and cuteness that one can’t help but be bewildered by the fact that the film was co-written and directed by Richard Linklater. Where the Texas auteur’s leisurely paced Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!! excel in their attention to the nuanced spectacle of characters changing over time, Where’d You Go, Bernadette plays like all of its air has been sucked out in the interest of plot progression, which it conducts with the workshopped efficiency of a television movie mindful of commercial breaks. In fact, with its coverage-dependent mise-en-scène, off-the-rack musical score, and tacked-on bookending voiceovers, Linklater’s latest feels strangely close to something Lifetime might have churned out in the early aughts.
The film establishes its narrative conflicts quickly and bluntly, often through dialogue, simple juxtaposition, and, in one particularly dull case, a YouTube mini-documentary about Bernadette that plays in full in order to clarify her backstory. A brilliant and influential architect in the midst of a long hiatus after a demoralizing relocation and a series of miscarriages, she displaces her creative frustration on her city and its inhabitants, including her prosperous, TED Talks-giving husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup); stuffy neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig); and Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), a gossipy associate of Elgie and friend of Audrey. Her only routine source of joy is her wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), who loves her unconditionally and whom she treats perhaps a bit too much like a peer.
Symptomatic of Linklater’s always-generous worldview, the film sees Bernadette’s quirks not as deficiencies, but as inevitable side effects of life’s persistent curveballs. When the character refers to herself as a “creative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares,” it’s clear that the filmmaker endorses that assessment, and perhaps even recognizes it as a description of his own artistic career. For all their suspicion toward Bernadette, Elgie and Audrey aren’t characterized entirely negatively either, for each is given a path to redemption, and Wiig’s portrayal of her character’s transition from belligerence to empathy in particular is one of the highpoints of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
Rather, in true boomer fashion, Linklater reserves his cynicism for technology, kickstarting the film’s third act with the contrived revelation that Manjula is actually a Russian-operated phishing scheme seeking to steal Bernadette’s identity. This development briefly gets a Department of Homeland Security agent, Marcus Strang (James Urbaniak), and a therapist, Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer), caught up in the narrative, but it’s all really just a busy preamble to the Antarctica family vacation that’s hinted at from the very first scene. Bernadette has her reservations about the trip, Bee thinks it will be cathartic for the family, Elgie is too preoccupied with his career to concern himself with the logistics, and the shadowy forces behind Manjula are poised to swoop in and cause chaos during the scheduled dates.
What ends up happening is neither the transporting escape Bee wants nor the complete disaster Manjula intends to enact, but something messily in between that triggers a coordinated stream of life lessons—and a few uninspired drone shots of icebergs. Indeed, in its eagerness to diagnose Bernadette’s existential impasse, the film lays on thick the kind of back-patting chestnuts of wisdom that have become increasingly common in Linklater’s recent films, groaners like “Popularity is overrated” and “You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna do.” Such sentiments have always been window dressing in Linklater’s nonchalantly libertarian body of work, but if in many cases his films have tacitly acknowledged the limits of language to articulate life’s mysteries, here there’s very little sense of a frontier to be explored. If Bernadette is Linklater and Blanchett’s collaborative expression of the right balance between parenting and artistry, it’s a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening—and privileged—idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Emma Nelson, Zoe Chao, James Urbaniak, Judy Greer Director: Richard Linklater Screenwriter: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, Vincent Palmo Jr. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 130 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
The film is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.2
With What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, Roberto Minervini returns to the American South to tell the stories of several African-Americans living in New Orleans, over the summer of 2017. These stories are so self-contained that the documentary comes to suggest an anthology film, which, in this case, has been organized around a pervading theme of how political and personal textures intersect in everyday black life. And in the tradition of the anthology film, Minervini’s material is also variable, suggesting that the filmmaker could’ve been more ruthless in the editing room and less beholden to the pleasures of his self-consciously neat aesthetic.
Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Minervini’s subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew that’s clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titus’s inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocence—an impression that’s affirmed later in the film when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titus’s hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness that’s bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love that’s deeply poignant.
Juxtaposed with this coming-of-age youth narrative are stories of a recovering crack addict, Judy Hill, who’s realized her dream of opening a bar, and of a local chapter of the New Black Panthers, which is investigating and protesting several murders, such as the recent decapitation and burning of a local black man. Intellectually, one can see why Minervini believes these threads belong together, as they both illustrate how African-Americans foster their own infrastructures as a reaction to the corruption and indifference of governments on various levels. But Minervini’s cross-cutting shortchanges both of these story threads. Minervini reveals preciously little about the principle murder that the New Black Panthers are seeking to avenge, using it vaguely as a symbol of Southern atrocity at large, and the practical details of operating Judy’s bar are reduced to sketches. In both cases, the specifics of the subjects’ concerns haven’t been entirely dramatized.
In certain portions of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, particularly those featuring the New Black Panthers, Minervini taps into reservoirs of anger that are nearly at odds with his chilly formalism. The film was shot by D.P. Diego Romero in pristine black and white, with long takes that drink in the details of the landscapes and people’s bodies. One is often encouraged to savor the beauty of the lighting, especially in Judy’s bar, and Minervini eschews typical documentary devices like narration and interviews. In terms of gliding, sumptuous style, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, as both films verge on turning class struggles into moving coffee-table books.
We’re supposed to feel as if we’ve slipped effortlessly into the lives of Minervini’s subjects, which might have been possible if more time had been devoted to pivotal moments. If Minervini wasn’t able to capture the moment when Judy learns that she must close the bar, then perhaps he could’ve wrestled with his inability to capture it. Judy demands a meta-textual approach anyway, as she is a highly charismatic and self-absorbed person who is often clearly performing for the camera, most gratingly when she responds to her mother’s fear of homelessness with a monologue about her own generosity. A filmmaker like Robert Greene might’ve challenged Judy and utilized her for a riff on the power of self-mythology, but Minervini prizes his faux-objectivity; he’s more interested in mood than process or character. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.
Director: Roberto Minervini Screenwriter: Roberto Minervini Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Good Boys’s Raunchy Take on Tweendom Is the Same Old Shtick
Gene Stupnitsky’s film is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action.2
Gene Stupnitsky’s Good Boys is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action, though it lacks the Netflix show’s frankness and authenticity. While hearing sixth graders curse and exhibit their burgeoning sexual awareness constitutes the film’s entire gimmick, its coarse language and surprising displays of sexual material mask an inner timidity. In the post-“puberty monster” world ushered in by Big Mouth, a show that cares to acknowledge that girls also experience puberty, both the film’s jokes and easy coming-of-age morality tale seem tame, beautified for an audience it assumes will not want to confront the abjectness of tweens’ emotional and sexual imaginations.
That said, there are laughs to be had in Good Boys, many of them deriving from the main characters’ mistaken understanding of the adult world. Max (Jacob Tremblay), for example, believes that his college-age neighbor, Hannah (Molly Gordon), is a “nymphomaniac” because she has sex both on land and at sea. Thor (Brady Noon), who pretends to possess advanced knowledge and experience in all areas, misinterprets his parents’ sex toys as weapons. And Lucas (Keith L. Williams) comes to believe that Hannah and her friend, Lily (Midori Francis), are irredeemable drug addicts because they want to do the “sex drug” molly.
Max doesn’t know how to kiss girls, and his middle-school mind tells him that the best way to learn is by using his father’s (Will Forte) drone to spy on Hannah kissing her boyfriend, Benji (Josh Caras). That leads to Hannah and Lily taking the drone, and as recompense, Thor steals Hannah’s purse, which contains a vitamin bottle full of molly that the boys promptly lose. Part of the film’s at least outwardly risqué treatment of tween boyhood is that the boys’ possession of and efforts to procure a party drug drives much of the story. And that story is a chain of cause and effect that abides by the protagonists’ middle-school priorities: If Max doesn’t find more molly, he will lose his father’s drone, which means that he never gets to kiss a girl.
The cascading series of absurd situations that are driven by Max’s desire to kiss his crush, Brixlee (Millie Davis), includes the boys trashing a frat house, selling a sex doll to a weirdo (Stephen Merchant), and handing over the bottle full of molly to an oblivious cop (Sam Richardson). (This last bit is as tenuous as a dangling thread for conspicuously missing a punchline, almost as if the filmmakers never got around to shooting it.) In the end, the trio, the so-called “bean bag boys,” must learn that middle school will mean growing apart to some extent: Max is into girls and the sixth-grade social scene, Thor loves theater, and Lucas is a kindly nerd who enjoys card games. That these interests aren’t in the least mutually exclusive, particularly for Generation Z, proves beyond the film’s capacity to acknowledge.
Good Boys’s humor is by and large the same as that of any other male-centric R-rated comedy; if it differentiates itself from other iterations of the genre, it’s through a group of pre-teens making verbosely obscene comments and engaging in gross-out physical comedy. There’s a sense that Good Boys draws open a curtain and peeks into a rarely seen and dimly remembered space of tweendom. But it’s satisfied with just this peek—and as convincingly as the filmmakers can compel their child stars to enunciate obscene exclamations, the film never captures much of the feeling, of the world of childhood experience, in which they might be based. As a result, Good Boys never transcends its Superbad-but-with-11-year-olds shtick.
Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis, Izaac Wang, Millie Davis, Josh Caras, Will Forte, Retta, Lil Rel Howery, Sam Richardson, Stephen Merchant Director: Gene Stupnitsky Screenwriter: Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019
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