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Understanding Screenwriting #106: Zero Dark Thirty, This Is 40, Margin Call, & More

You would think with this title that Kevin Smith is going all political on the tea partiers and the far right in general.

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Understanding Screenwriting #106: Zero Dark Thirty, This Is 40, Margin Call, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Zero Dark Thirty, This Is 40, Margin Call, Red State, New Year’s Eve, Prince Valiant (1997), Vegas, but first…

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.)

This Is 40

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.)

Margin Call

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.)

Red State

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.)

New Year's Eve

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.)

Prince Valiant

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.)

Vegas

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.

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Film

Review: Palm Springs Puts a Fresh Spin on the Time-Loop Rom-Com

The film smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle.

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Palm Springs
Photo: Hulu

The pitch for Palm Springs likely went: “Edge of Tomorrow meets Groundhog Day but with a cool Coachella rom-com vibe.” All of those components are present and accounted for in Max Barbakow’s film, about two people forced to endure the same day of a Palm Springs wedding over and over again after getting stuck in a time loop. But even though the concept might feel secondhand, the execution is confident, funny, and thoughtful.

Palm Springs starts without much of a hook, sidling into its story with the same lassitude as its protagonist, Nyles (Andy Samberg). First seen having desultory sex with his shallow and always peeved girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner), Nyles spends the rest of the film’s opening stretch wandering around the resort where guests are gathered for the wedding of Misty’s friend, Tala (Camila Mendes), lazing around the pool and drinking a seemingly endless number of beers. “Oh yeah, Misty’s boyfriend” is how most refer to him with casual annoyance, and then he gives a winning wedding speech that one doesn’t expect from a plus-one.

The reason for why everything at the wedding seems so familiar to Nyles, and why that speech is so perfectly delivered, becomes clear after he entices the bride’s sister and maid of honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), to follow him out to the desert for a make-out session. In quick succession, Nyles is shot with an arrow by a mysterious figure (J.K. Simmons), Sarah is accidentally sucked into the same glowing vortex that trapped Nyles in his time loop, and she wakes up on the morning of the not-so-great day that she just lived through.

Although Palm Springs eventually digs into the knottier philosophical quandaries of this highly elaborate meet-cute, it takes an appealingly blasé approach to providing answers to the scenario’s curiosities. What initially led Nyles to the mysterious glowing cave in the desert? How has he maintained any semblance of sanity over what appears to be many years of this nightmare existence? How come certain people say “thank you” in Arabic?

This attitude of floating along the sea of life’s mysteries without worry parallels Nyles’s shrugging attitude about the abyss facing them. In response to Sarah’s panicked queries about why they are living the same day on repeat, Nyles throws out a random collection of theories: “one of those infinite time loop situations….purgatory….a glitch in the simulation we’re all in.” His ideas seem half-baked at first. But as time passes, it becomes clear that Nyles has been trapped at the wedding so long that not only has he lost all concept of time or even who he was before it began, his lackadaisical approach to eternity seems more like wisdom.

Darkly cantankerous, Sarah takes a while to come around to that way of thinking. Her version of the Kübler-Ross model starts in anger and shifts to denial (testing the limits of their time-loop trap, she drives home to Texas, only to snap back to morning in Palm Springs when she finally dozes off) before pivoting to acceptance. This segment, where Nyles introduces Sarah to all the people and things he’s found in the nooks and crannies of the world he’s been able to explore in one waking day, plays like a quantum physics rom-com with a video-game-y sense of immortality. After learning the ropes from Nyles (death is no escape, so try to avoid the slow, agonizing deaths), Sarah happily takes part in his Sisyphean games of the drunk and unkillable, ranging from breaking into houses to stealing and crashing a plane.

As places to be trapped for all eternity, this idyll doesn’t seem half bad at first. Barbakow’s fast-paced take on the pleasingly daffy material helps, as does the balancing of Milioti’s angry agita with Samberg’s who-cares recklessness. Eventually the story moves out of endlessly looping stasis into the problem-solution phase, with Sarah deciding she can’t waste away in Palm Springs for eternity. But while the question of whether or not they can escape via Sarah’s device for bridging the multiverse takes over the narrative to some degree, Palm Springs is far more interesting when it ruminates lightly on which puzzle they’re better off solving: pinning their hopes on escape or cracking another beer and figuring out how to be happy in purgatory. Palm Springs isn’t daring by any stretch, but it smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle that’s similar to Groundhog Day but without that film’s reassuring belief that a day can be lived perfectly rather than simply endured.

Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Millioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendez, Tyler Hoechlin, Chris Pang Director: Max Barbakow Screenwriter: Andy Siara Distributor: Neon, Hulu Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Hamilton Comes Home, Still Holding Conflicting Truths at Once

The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage.

3.5

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Hamilton
Photo: Disney+

The actual physical production of Hamilton has never been at the heart of the show’s fandom. Its lyrics have been memorized en masse, Hamilton-inspired history courses have been created across grade levels, and its references have invaded the vernacular, but, for most, Hamilton’s liveness has been inaccessible, whether due to geography or unaffordability. Hamilton the film, recorded over two Broadway performances in 2016 with most of the original Broadway cast, winningly celebrates the still-surprisingly rich density of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score and the show’s much-heralded actors. But this new iteration is most stunning in its devotion to translating Hamilton’s swirling, churning storytelling—the work of director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler—to the screen.

Most films of live theater feel partial and remote. There’s usually a sense that with every move of the camera we’re missing out on something happening elsewhere on stage. The autonomy of attending theater in person—the ability to choose what to focus on—is stripped away. But instead of delimiting what we see of Hamilton, this film opens up our options. Even when the camera (one of many installed around, behind, and above the stage) homes in on a lone singer, the shots tend to frame the soloists in a larger context: We can watch Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), but we can also track the characters behind him or on the walkways above him. Every shot is rife with detail and movement: the rowers escorting Alexander Hamilton’s (Miranda) body to shore, Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones) hovering beneath a stairway as Hamilton confesses his infidelities to Burr, ensemble members dancing in the shadows of David Korins’s imposing set. There’s no space to wonder what might be happening beyond the camera’s gaze.

Off-setting the cast album’s appropriate spotlight on the show’s stars, the film, also directed by Kail, constantly centers the ensemble, even when they’re not singing, as they enact battles and balls or symbolically fly letters back and forth between Hamilton and Burr. Audiences who mainly know the show’s music may be surprised by how often the entire cast is on stage, and even those who’ve seen Hamilton live on stage will be delighted by the highlighted, quirky individuality of each ensemble member’s often-silent storytelling.

Kail shows impressive restraint, withholding aerial views and shots from aboard the spinning turntables at the center of the stage until they can be most potent. The film also convincingly offers Hamilton’s design as a stunning work of visual art, showcasing Howell Binkley’s lighting—the sharp yellows as the Schuyler Sisters take the town and the slowly warming blues as Hamilton seeks his wife’s forgiveness—just as thoughtfully as it does the performances.

And when the cameras do go in for a close-up, they shade lyrics we may know by heart with new meaning. In “Wait for It,” Burr’s paean to practicing patience rather than impulsiveness, Odom (who won a Tony for the role) clenches his eyes shut as he sings, “I am inimitable, I am an original,” tensing as if battling to convince himself that his passivity is a sign of strength and not cowardice. When Eliza Hamilton (Philippa Soo) glances upward and away from her ever-ascendant husband as she asks him, “If I could grant you peace of mind, would that be enough?,” it’s suddenly crystal clear that she’s wondering whether taking care of Alexander would be enough for herself, not for him, her searching eyes foreshadowing her eventual self-reliance. And there’s an icky intimacy unachievable in person when Jonathan Groff’s mad King George literally foams at the mouth in response to the ingratitude of his colonies.

The production’s less understated performances, like Daveed Diggs’s show-stealing turn (also Tony-winning) in the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and Renée Elise Goldsberry’s fiery embodiment (yes, also Tony-winning) of the shrewd, self-sacrificing Angelica Schuyler Church, benefit, too, from the way that the film’s pacing latches onto Miranda’s propulsive writing. In Jefferson’s return home, “What’d I Miss,” the camera angles change swiftly as if to keep up with Diggs’s buoyancy.

Despite Christopher Jackson’s warm and gorgeous-voiced performance, George Washington remains Hamilton’s central sticking point. While Jefferson receives a dressing down from Hamilton for practicing slavery, Washington, who once enslaved over 200 people at one time at Mount Vernon, shows up in Hamilton as a spotless hero who might as well be king if he wasn’t so noble as to step down. There’s a tricky tension at Hamilton’s core: Casting performers of color as white founding “heroes” allows the master narrative to be reclaimed, but it’s still a master narrative. For audiences familiar with the facts, the casting of black actors as slave owners (not just Jefferson) is an unstated, powerful act of artistic resistance against the truths of the nation’s founding. But for those learning their history from Hamilton, especially young audiences, they will still believe in Washington’s moral purity, even if they walk away picturing the first president as Christopher Jackson.

But Hamilton is complex and monumental enough of a work to hold conflicting truths at once. In attempting to recraft our understanding of America’s founding, it may fall short. In forcibly transforming the expectations for who can tell what stories on which stages, Hamilton has been a game-changer. And as a feat of musical theater high-wire acts, Miranda’s dexterity in navigating decades of historical detail while weaving his characters’ personal and political paths tightly together is matched only by his own ingenuity as a composer and lyricist of songs that showcase his characters’ brilliance without distractingly drawing attention to his own.

Dynamized by its narrative-reclaiming, race-conscious casting and hip-hop score, and built around timeline-bending reminders that America may be perpetually in the “battle for our nation’s very soul,” Hamilton, of course, also lends itself particularly easily to 2020 connections. But the greater gift is that Hamilton will swivel from untouchability as Broadway’s most elusive, priciest ticket to mass accessibility at a moment of keen awareness that, to paraphrase George Washington, history has its eyes on us. The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage. That we are sharing Hamilton here and now offers as much hope as Hamilton itself.

Cast: Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Phillipa Soo Director: Thomas Kail Screenwriter: Ron Chernow, Lin-Manuel Miranda Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 160 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: In Family Romance, LLC, Reality and Fantasy Affectingly Collide

Throughout, it’s as though Werner Herzog were more witness than author, simply registering Japan being Japan.

3

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Family Romance, LLC
Photo: MUBI

Werner Herzog’s Family Romance, LLC presents Japan as a place where the technological follies of modernity that many see as embryonic in the West are allowed to blossom unabashedly. The Orientalism inherent to this myth, that of Japan as a high-tech dystopia where human alienation reaches its pathetic zenith, is somewhat masked here by the film’s style, which inhabits that strangely pleasurable cusp between fact and fiction. We are never quite sure of the extent to which situations and dialogues have been scripted and, as such, it’s as though Herzog were more witness than author, more passerby than gawker, simply registering Japan being Japan.

The film is centered around Ishii Yuichi, playing a version of himself, who owns a business that rents out human beings to act like paparazzi, family members, lovers, or bearers of good (albeit fake) news. One of his clients, for example, is a woman who wants to relive the moment when she won the lottery. We follow Ishii as he travels to his business calls, which may consist of going to a funeral home that offers coffin rentals by the hour for people to test out, or to a hotel where the clerks behind the helpdesk and the fish in the aquarium are robots.

The camera, otherwise, follows Ishii’s encounters with his 12-year-old “daughter,” Mahiro (Mahiro). The girl’s mother, Miki (Miki Fujimaki), has enlisted Ishii to play Mahiro’s missing father, who abandoned her when she was two, and make it seem as if he’s suddenly resurfaced. The film’s most interesting moments don’t arise from its largely obvious critiques of simulation, but from the human relationship between Ishii and Mahiro. In the end, the film’s smartest trick is getting the audience to genuinely feel for this young girl on screen, acting for us, all while scoffing at Ishii’s clients for scripting their own emotional experiences.

We know the relationship between Mahiro and Ishii to be false on multiple levels. They may not be professional actors, but they are very much acting, and their interactions nonetheless tap into something quite authentic and emotional. Although their kinship is an act of make-believe, it’s driven by similar malaises that plague “real” father-daughter relationships. Mahiro, who doesn’t meet Ishii until she’s a pre-teen and is presumably unaware that it’s all just an act, struggles to articulate feelings that overwhelm her. Asking for a hug from Ishii is a Herculean task for her. But granting her the hug is also a Herculean task for Ishii, who ultimately confesses to wondering whether his real family, too, has been paid by someone else to raise him. Must a father’s hug be so clinical even when he’s getting paid to do it?

Such moments as that awkward father-daughter hug, a scene where Mahiro gives Ishii an origami animal that she made for him (“It’s delicate, so be careful,” she says), and another where she confesses that she likes a boy all point to the ways in which feeling slips out of even the most perfectly scripted protocols. That’s a relief for the kind of society that Family Romance, LLC aims to critique, one where tidy transactions are meant to neuter the messy unpredictability of human interactions but fail. Emotion slips out despite diligent attempts to master it, forcing even those who stand to gain the most from hyper-controlled environments to eventually face the shakiness of their own ground. Ishii, for instance, is forced to reconsider his business model when Mahiro’s demand for love starts to affect him. Ishii’s fear that he may also have been swindled by actors posing as parents tells us that authors are subjects, too, and that the equation between reality and fantasy is never quite settled.

Cast: Ishii Yuichi, Mahiro, Miki Fujimaki, Umetani Hideyasu, Shun Ishigaki Director: Werner Herzog Screenwriter: Werner Herzog Distributor: MUBI Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Force of Nature, Much Like Mel Gibson, Is an Absolute Disaster

The film presents its scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena.

.5

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Force of Nature
Photo: Lionsgate

If cancel culture truly had the power its detractors ascribed to it, then Michael Polish’s Force of Nature would have probably never starred Mel Gibson. The film stars the one-time Hollywood idol as a trigger-happy retired cop who hurls insults like “cocksucker” at men who inconvenience him. By itself, casting Gibson as the kind of manic, violence-prone cop for which he was once known for playing speaks to the film’s defiantly conservative politics, its will to return to a cinematic era when violent white cops were viewed as good cops. But also having Gibson’s Ray toss out homophobic slurs almost turns this insipid action flick into a statement about Gibson himself, as if the actor’s own record of making such remarks should be viewed as the charmingly impolitic outbursts of an old-fashioned geezer.

Because Ray joins a multiethnic crew of good guys to save the day, we’re presumably meant to view his personality flaws as minor, the attributes of a classical cop masculinity that’s entered its dotage but ready to be awakened for one last shoot-out with big-city scum. The big city in this case is San Juan, Puerto Rico, which, as the film begins, is under siege by a hurricane. Set almost entirely in a cramped apartment building, Force of Nature is part Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, part The Raid: Redemption (or one of its many clones), attempting but failing to imitate both the former’s eccentric take on the clash of extreme personalities and extreme weather and the intensity of the latter’s kinetic, close-quarters action.

Despite being the biggest star on the bill, Gibson isn’t quite at the center of the narrative, even if the meaningless flash forward that opens Force of Nature, of Ray shooting at two figures in the rain, initially suggests otherwise. Ray plays second fiddle to Emile Hirsch’s point-of-view character, Cordillo, the San Juan police officer who refuses to learn a word of Spanish and might as well be wearing a MAGA hat. (“Where is el victim-o?” he asks regarding an incident at a supermarket early in the film.) Cordillo and his new partner, Peña (Stephanie Cayo), are assigned to help move San Juan’s residents to shelters, encountering Ray and his daughter, Troy (Kate Bosworth), at the apartment complex where Griffin (Will Catlett), Ray and Troy’s newly arrested neighbor, needs to feed his very hungry pet.

For those who’ve seen Netflix’s Tiger King, it will be clear from the 100 pounds of meat that Griffin intends to feed his pet that the man illegally owns some kind of wild cat. And if this offbeat scenario doesn’t elicit the laughs it may be aiming for, that’s at least in part due to composer Kubilay Uner’s score, which applies Wagnerian bombast to nearly every narrative event, as if it could will the paper-thin plot into some kind of significance. The tonal inconsistencies, however, aren’t confined to this clash between image and soundtrack. On a visual level, it’s difficult to know what to make of the scene in which Griffin’s pet, kept entirely off screen, drags Griffin into its pitch-black den and mauls him in front of a not-quite-horrified Cordillo, while a gang that Ray identifies as high-end burglars begins a raid of the complex. Neither funny nor suspenseful, it’s a bewildering mash of visual codes.

Led by a ruthless figure known as John the Baptist (David Zayas), the burglars first make an appearance in the second of the film’s two prologues, in which John kidnaps an elderly woman to get into her safety deposit box, before executing her as well as his accomplice in plain sight—a scene that somewhat belies Ray’s later in-the-know description of the gang as clever plotters. The nature of their interest in Ray, Troy, and Griffin’s apartment building is left vague until a late reveal, a nonsensically belated introduction of the story’s MacGuffin that contributes to the feeling of arbitrariness that pervades the film.

While Peña and Ray confront John and his crew, Cordillo and Troy go off to find medical supplies, along the way developing a thoroughly underwritten and ill-conceived romance; Troy is abruptly drawn to Cordillo after he shares his history of accidental violence against a former girlfriend (Jasper Polish). Meanwhile, the wounded Griffin is left under the watch of Paul (Jorge Luis Ramos), a German about whom multiple characters ask, in all sincerity, if he’s a Nazi, and based solely on his white hair and nationality—certainly not on any arithmetic, as the seventysomething man appears far too young to have been a Nazi Party member.

It would all be material for a parody of cheap-action-flick sensibilities: the preoccupation with Nazism, the hollow romance, the valorization of white male rage barely masked behind a rudimentary psychologism. Unfortunately, Cory M. Miller’s screenplay presents all these scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena. The truth, of course, is that Force of Nature, much like the consequences of the hurricane that clearly inspired it, is a man-made disaster.

Cast: Emile Hirsch, Mel Gibson, Kate Bosworth, David Zayas, Stephanie Cayo, Will Catlett, Jasper Polish, Jorge Luis Ramos Director: Michael Polish Screenwriter: Cory M. Miller Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 91 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: John Lewis: Good Trouble Places a Hero in Dialogue with the Past

The film is well-outfitted with telling, thematically rich shards of historical information.

3

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John Lewis: Good Trouble
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

John Lewis isn’t easily rattled. As a nonviolent foot soldier for desegregation and voting rights in the 1960s, he was severely beaten on several occasions. As a U.S. representative since 1987, he’s contended with a Republican Party that has tacked steadily rightward. John Lewis: Good Trouble presents another, if much less demanding, test for the congressman: Watching his life unspool around him on three large screens in a darkened D.C. theater.

Dawn Porter’s authoritative documentary mixes contemporary and archival material, and the latter includes many rare images, including some that the 80-year-old civil rights pioneer himself had never seen. Porter and her crew decided to show their findings to the Georgia Democrat while simultaneously filming his reactions, and the emotions prompted by this experience are palpable but carefully modulated on his part. Like most successful politicians, Lewis knows how to stay on message, and it’s clear from the moments captured here that he long ago decided which of his private feelings would be elements of his public persona.

One example of this is Lewis’s story about his early desire to become a preacher. As a boy, he says, he would address the chickens on his sharecropper family’s Alabama farm but could never get them to say “amen.” Porter places this anecdote early in Good Trouble, amid comments from family members, so it plays like a revelatory glimpse at Lewis’s formative years. But the congressman, of course, began constructing his biography long before this particular documentary crew arrived. And Porter acknowledges this fact with a scene, toward the film’s end, where Lewis tells the story again during a get-together of former congressional staffers and it becomes clear that everybody in the room already knows it.

Good Trouble, which takes its title from Lewis’s advice to young activists to get into “what I call good trouble,” is partly a testimonial. It includes snippets of praise from Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as congressional new wavers Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who says she wouldn’t be where she is today without Lewis’s example. Yet the film also recalls moments when Lewis wasn’t in perfect sync with his allies, notably the bitter primary for the seat he now holds in Georgia’s 5th District. Lewis defeated Julian Bond by winning support of the district’s white voters, and by hinting that Bond had a drug problem. Earlier, Lewis had recoiled from the militancy of “Black Power” and lost his position in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Lewis doesn’t say much about these chapters in his life, just as he doesn’t reveal a lot when he gives tours of his homes in Atlanta and D.C. A widower, he seems to live alone, though a cat is glimpsed inside the Georgia house at one point. One of the documentary’s most personal stories, about his tearful reaction to the news that his great-great-grandfather registered to vote in 1867, is told not by the congressman but by cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., who unveiled the voter card on the show he hosts, Finding Your Roots. Good Trouble is well-outfitted with such telling shards of historical information, and Porter skillfully fits them together, assembling her subject’s biography thematically rather than chronologically.

Thus, a section on the young Lewis’s battle for African-American suffrage naturally begins in the 1960s before leading to 2014, when a Supreme Court ruling undermined the Voting Rights Act, and ultimately to the 2016 and 2018 elections swayed by voter suppression. The effect is illuminating, if not especially visceral. When the filmmakers arranged this kind of “This Is Your Life” for Lewis, they may not have elicited as much emotion as they’d hoped from the congressman. But they did fashion a microcosm of what the entire Good Trouble shows: the present in dialogue with the past, and a hero in the context of a larger movement.

Director: Dawn Porter

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Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020: Mon Amour, Film About a Father Who, & The Kiosk

There’s colossal might to a cinematic image achieved through the scrappiest of means.

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Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020
Photo: Arte France Cinéma

In the opening narration to his documentary Mon Amour, David Teboul recalls a message that his former lover, Frédéric, sent him in the middle of the night before taking his life: “It’s crazy how many things we must invent to keep us from just eating, shitting, and sleeping.” The great organizer of these “many things” we invent to convince ourselves to be something more than mere organisms is the belief in love. That, anyway, is the idea that organizes Mon Amour as Teboul travels from his native France to Siberia in order to interview locals about their experiences with love, as a way to mourn the end of his own love story.

What Teboul finds in Siberia is quite disheartening: that love, when it materializes in the figure of the lover, burns fast, and what seemed like a panacea to make our miserable world a livable place turns into the poison we call domesticity. Lovers become enemies we can’t get rid of. But the little bit of love that’s saved in the ashes of the deflated mirage that once promised to save us is once in a while rekindled through Teboul’s prodding as he interviews elderly couples who seem to articulate their feelings for the first time in ages.

The very dispositions of these individuals mimic the abyss between what was once a prospect of a pleasurable life and the crude reality of vodka and violence that replaced it. In the rare moments when someone sings the praises of togetherness, they do so by looking down or away, as if addressing their own partners when speaking about love would mean losing the little bit of honor they have left after putting up with so much betrayal.

Although Teboul interviews young people, too, the strongest portraits are those of the elderly, who, on some level, take advantage of their cinematic moment to air their grievances and, once in a while, admit gratitude. A very old-looking woman in her mid-60s who lost her sight from reading too much Pushkin late at night tells us that any other man would surely have left her long ago, but not her husband, who senses when she’s awake in the middle of the night, makes her tea, and tells her that if she dies he will follow her to the grave. Teboul’s questions can be refreshingly unexpected. As when he asks the woman what her husband’s favorite body part is. When she whispers the answer into his cute little mushroom ears, you sense that it’s the closest thing to an “I love you” that he will ever hear. We don’t know if his eyes water as she praises his ears, for he looks down and away, before then heart-breakingly saying, “The main thing is not to suffer, and not to make others suffer.”

Teboul juxtaposes these portraits with digressions about his simultaneously wonderful and dismal times with Frédéric. These reflections borrow from Hiroshima Mon Amour, which Teboul watched as a child and has haunted him ever since. Frédéric, like Emmanuelle Riva’s character in that film, was also from Nevers. In these poetic detours, we see barely lit naked bodies meant to represent Teboul and his ghostly lover, recalling the opening of Alain Resnais’s film. It often feels like these autobiographical avowals, plagued by unnecessary classical music, belong to a different film. But they’re symbolically important, if not indispensable, as if Teboul was offering a self-implicating gift in exchange for awakening the long dormant intimacies of strangers.

Film About a Father Who

An image from Lynne Sachs’s Film About a Father Who. © Lynne Sachs

The absence of love, and our insistence on spending our entire lives looking for it anyway, is also at the core of Lynne Sachs’s Film About a Father Who. Sheffield Doc/Fest is screening several of Sachs’s documentaries on its streaming platform. For Film About a Father Who, Sachs spent over three decades amassing footage (from Super 8 to digital) of her father, an eccentric salesman from Utah who lived a Hugh Hefner kind of life, neglecting his children and hosting a different girlfriend almost every night at his official family home. Lots and lots of them got pregnant, which resulted in Sachs having what feels like hundreds of siblings, whose testimonials she collects here. Some didn’t know who their father was until they were adults. Others, in order to protect themselves from so much hurt, still think of him as a kind of godfather.

The title of the film is an obvious play on Film About a Woman Who…, Yvonne Rainer’s experimental masterpiece about heteronormativity and monogamy. Rainer’s approach is acerbic, perhaps even folkloric, in the sense that her film portrays one specific woman wallowing in the sinking boat of heterosexual coupledom at the same time that it tells the archetypal tale of heterosexual domesticity writ large. Sachs’s approach feels a lot less multi-layered. Film About a Father Who is so fast-paced and Sachs’s narration so detached, or literal, that it can seem more like an underdeveloped absurdist comedy as random siblings keep turning up out of nowhere to give a brief account of their contradicting feelings toward their father. One of Sachs’s many sisters recounts how their father was arrested for possession of weed when they were kids and how she didn’t know whether to weep or jump with joy at the time. But the family constellation in Sachs’s film is so vast we never spend enough time with any one single relative to see them as something other than an element.

There’s a sort of North American pragmatic froideur in the film, also present in self-ethnographic films like Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, that Rainer queers through stylistic experimentation, and that Teboul completely avoids by surrendering to melancholia with gusto. There isn’t much of a point in self-ethnographies where filmmakers protect their vulnerability through intellectualization, or prod their family wounds with a 10-foot pole. At one point in her narration, Sachs tells her audience that Film About a Father Who isn’t a portrait but, rather, her attempt to understand “the asymmetry of my conundrum.” The film is also shot in such a matter-of-fact manner that you may forget that the father is actually the filmmaker’s. It doesn’t help that the father himself pleads the fifth on every question and Sachs often directs her camera elsewhere, toward her siblings, instead of letting it linger on the silent and sad remnants of an aging womanizer.

Alexandra Pianelli also captures aging bodies in The Kiosk, but in a very different fashion. Her film was entirely shot on her phone, which was mostly stuck to her head, and without her ever leaving the tiny area behind the cash register of her family’s press kiosk in a posh area of Paris. We never see the world outside of Pianelli’s field of vision from her counter, and yet it feels like she shows us the entire mechanics of the contemporary world.

The Kiosk

An image from Alexandra Pianelli’s The Kiosk. © Les Films de l’oeil sauvage

The film’s subjects are mostly the elderly regulars who seem to show up at the kiosk everyday, for magazines and for Pianelli’s company. Pianelli crafts a tale of hopeful pessimism about humans’ relationship to otherness by explaining the ecosystem of her trade—namely, the slow decline of the printing industry in France and how the physical circulation of ideas can be the only connection to the world for an aging population that doesn’t master digital technology and for whom kiosks play the role of cafés, pubs, or even the analyst’s couch.

When filmmaker Pedro Costa said, at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, that all one needs to make a great film is “three flowers and a glass of water,” not “money, cars, and chicks,” this is what he means: the colossal might of the cinematic image achieved through the scrappiest of means. The Kiosk is a master class in filmmaking resourcefulness. Pianelli paints a portrait of our times through simple drawings that she makes of her clients, makeshift props and miniature sets made out of cardboard, and the anachronic gadgets around her workstation: a cassette tape player, an early-19th-century clock, coin holders that bear her great-grandparents’ fingerprints, and the very publications that she sells. Pianelli’s no-nonsense voiceover glues these elements together with the stunning honesty of the unflappable young Parisian for whom difference is an existential aphrodisiac. There’s no affectedness here. It’s as if a refined cinematic object accidently emerged on the road to her making an artisanal project for the sheer pleasure of making something out of dead time.

Pianelli humanizes the figure of the press kiosk clerk who, in turn, humanizes the strangers she comes across, from seniors who spend more time with her than with their own children to the Bangladeshi asylum seeker who goes to her for legal help. In one sequence, Pianelli witnesses a homeless man insistently offering his metro-ticket money to a bourgeois lady upset that the machine won’t take her credit card. We also learn that the demographics of the clientele per day of the week is contingent on what kinds of publications come out on which day, as well as which niche newspapers are the most anti-Semitic, anti-Arab, or pro-monarchy.

Pianelli lets the serious emerge but doesn’t dwell on it. Seriousness often comes wrapped up in quirkiness and play, as when she plays a guessing game with the audience, telling us what a random customer will buy before they open their months, solely based on what they wear, and always she gets it right. Men in suits and ties go for either the newspaper Le Figaro or Les Echos, while the well-coiffed ladies who don fur coats gravitate toward Voici, unless Kate Moss’s ass is on the cover of a nearby fashion magazine.

At one point, Pianelli says that she considers herself a seller of dreams. By this she means that each magazine at the kiosk stokes a different fantasy, from a supermodel body to a nation without Arabs. But The Kiosk makes Pianelli a saleswoman of a very different sort. Instead of working as the intermediary between vulnerable denizens and the idealized images that tease and haunt them, she cobbles a much more original fantasy through the bodies they actually have. The kiosk becomes the prototype for the most utopian vision of the public library, or any old space inhabited by a curious mind—an ebullient infinity of poetry and care.

Sheffield Doc/Fest’s online platform will be available to all public audiences from June 10—July 10.

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Review: My Spy Is a Clumsy Mix of Comedy, Action, and Romance

Peter Segal’s film is pulled in so many different directions that it comes to feel slack.

1.5

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My Spy
Photo: Amazon Studios

From Arnold Schwarzenneger in Kindergarten Cop to Dwayne Johnson in The Game Plan, pairing an oversized, hyper-masculine actor with a cute and precocious youngster has long been a staple of Hollywood family-friendly entertainment, as well as something of a rite of passage for action stars since the 1990s. And now, with My Spy, it’s Dave Bautista’s turn to ward off an array of villains with the help of a spunky, three-foot tall sidekick.

To its credit, Peter Segal’s film at least has the decency to cop to its derivativeness throughout, with several shots that cheekily poke fun at characters slow-walking away from explosions and one character calling out how a scene feels eerily similar to the famous fight scene near a propeller plane in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But these occasional self-referential nods prove to be only fleeting distractions from how antiquated and unimaginative My Spy is much of the time, and how clumsily it tends to its mixture of comedy, action, and romance.

The film’s mismatched duo consists of nine-year-old Sophie (Chloe Colman) and JJ (Bautista), a C.I.A. operative who’s spying on the girl and her mother, Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley), with the help of his tech officer, Bobbi (Kristen Schaal). It’s all for a good reason, as Sophie’s Uncle Marquez (Greg Bryk) not only recently murdered her father, but is now caught up in some shady Russian dealings that have put Sophie and her mother in danger. But these more nefarious threats fade to the background as soon as the film starts to fixate on Sophie’s concerns about being the new girl at school, as well as her blackmailing of JJ, which results in the beefcake being uncomfortably forced into the role of surrogate father.

Given that JJ is still reeling from his prior overseas combat experience and Kate is coping with the fresh challenges of single motherhood and a time-consuming job, My Spy too readily foreshadows their later romantic entanglement. And while Bautista and Fitz-Henley share a charming, easy repartee, and Coleman has impressive comic timing for a child actor, the film is pulled in so many different directions that it comes to feel slack. JJ’s efforts alone are split three ways, as he’s not only dealing with becoming a long-term father figure to Sophie and partner to Kate, both of whom force him to confront his trauma, but he’s also stuck with Bobbi, who hero-worships him and wants to learn all his tricks of the trade.

And that is to say nothing of the half-baked subplot involving the Russian crooks (Vieslav Krystyan and Jean-Michel Nadeau), or the gay couple (Devere Rogers and Noah Dalton Danby) that appears to have stumbled in from the set of a ‘90s sitcom. Schaal’s unrestrained zaniness ensures that a few jokes land here and there, but My Spy is ultimately sunk by a reliance on clichéd character types—the emotionally distant vet, the overworked single mom, the isolated new kid at school—that leaves it feeling like several mildly amusing after-school specials were stitched together with a handful of action scenes tossed in for good measure.

Where to Watch My Spy:

Cast: Dave Bautista, Chloe Coleman, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Kristen Schaal, Greg Bryk, Ken Jeong, Nicola Correia-Damude, Devere Rogers, Noah Dalton Danby Director: Peter Segal Screenwriter: Erich Hoeber, Jon Hoeber Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 101 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: The Audition Grapples with the Consequences of Oppressive Discipline

With great clarity, the film conveys how discipline can be directed both inward and outward.

3

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The Audition
Photo: Strand Releasing

A film about the oppressive discipline of classical musicianship, Ina Weisse’s The Audition recalls The Piano Teacher, only with the erotic grotesqueries dialed all the way down. Nina Hoss, like Isabelle Huppert in Michael Haneke’s film, plays a middle-aged music teacher whose fragile sense of self becomes entwined with a new student. Here, though, the student isn’t a peer but a young high school violinist, Alexander (Ilja Monti), and her projections onto him, mercifully, are more about her own perceived failures than any shameful sexual hang-ups. Even if it takes us to some rather dark places, Weisse’s spin on the tortured psyche of a professional female musician is more humanistic than Haneke’s.

Weisse, a violinist herself, clearly knows the pressures of high-caliber musicianship. The film aptly opens with an audition in which we see the impassive administrators of a Berlin youth conservatory, including Anna (Hoss), evaluating young teens taking turns playing orchestral instruments on stage. Although each of them has prepared multiple pieces to play, the judges consistently cut them off moments through their first piece—an unforgiving intimidation tactic that introduces us to the film’s portrait of music education as a regime of oppression.

Anna’s cold exterior is momentarily broken by Alexander’s audition, which, however much his performance of a difficult piece by Édouard Lalo moves her, fails to fully impress her colleagues. Gradually we learn that Alexander’s visible nervousness is part of what draws her to him, as Anna suffers from a nervous condition that led her to retire from an orchestra and become an instructor, and continues to manifest itself in a daily inability to make decisions, as in an early scene in which she repeatedly changes orders and then tables when out to dinner with her husband, Philippe (Simon Abkarian). “Whenever I play, I’m thinking of how I’ll fail,” she later confesses to Christian (Jens Albinus), a colleague with whom she’s having an affair.

Anna takes Alexander on as her student, to prepare him for their school’s intermediate exam—also referred to in the dialogue as an audition. The film’s German title, Das Vorspiel, has two meanings—“audition” and “prologue”—and most of Weisse and Daphne Carizani’s screenplay, in fact, could be seen as a kind of prologue, centered around the series of rehearsals preceding Alexander’s big performance for the conservatory, tracking their gradual devolution into punishing routines. Anna begins directing her own self-punishing thoughts onto the vulnerable young boy, at one point forcibly clipping his fingernails.

The filmmakers let us into Anna’s life through compact scenes that often open in media res, or end abruptly in the midst of a character’s movement. It’s a subtle way of communicating the anxiety encroaching on the order of Anna’s world. Glimpses of Philippe, a luthier who runs a shop below their apartment, handling her with kids’ gloves, and of her son Jonas’s (Serafin Mishiev) neutral responses to her presence, come to be emplaced within the atmosphere of alienation that Anna’s unraveling sense of discipline has produced. Anna, of course, knows that her insecurities themselves actually lie at the root of the problems in her life—a neurotic feedback loop of inner despair that Hoss captures wordlessly in her performance as a woman who puts on an increasingly fractured stone face for the outside world.

Discipline can be directed both inward and outward, as personal rigor or as interpersonal punitiveness. Anna has been raised in a culture of self-discipline, as a line from her father (Thomas Thieme) intimates. “Your mother always saw her illness as a lack of discipline,” he reminds Anna, a recollection that neatly sums up the cultural and possible genetic roots of her issues. The Audition is about the relation between those inward and outward senses of discipline, as the strict self-control that Anna has internalized cracks, turns outward in imperious, borderline violent behavior, and eventually shatters.

It all builds toward a tragic conclusion that may have better served the narrative by letting the consequences of Anna’s unglamorous breakdown remain as understated as Hoss’s captivating performance. Nevertheless, The Audition captures with clarity an irony at the base of accomplished musical expression: the conflict between interiority and imposed technique, which can be fraught with repressed frustration and resentment.

Cast: Nina Hoss, Simon Abkarian, Jens Albinus, Ilja Monti, Serafin Mischiev, Thomas Thieme Director: Ina Weisse Screenwriter: Ina Weisse, Daphne Carizani Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: As Political Satire, Irresistible Too Often Pulls Its Punches

Jon Stewart’s amiable satire tries to show that you can make light political comedy in the Trump era.

2.5

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Irresistible
Photo: Focus Features

Is it possible to make a light political satire in the Trump era? Jon Stewart’s amiable and occasionally quite funny Irresistible makes a credible, if not fully successful, effort to do just that. While not all of the film’s punches land, its low-key confidence in its characters, snappy dialogue, and disinterest in pandering to heartland stereotypes (positive or negative) makes for a decently thoughtful, but not exactly groundbreaking, comedy.

After a scene-setting and soul-depressing 2016 election audio montage, the film proper begins in the economically depressed small town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin. Jack (Chris Cooper), a local farmer, makes an impromptu speech at a council meeting in which he rails against Republican Mayor Braun’s (Brent Sexton) move to demand IDs for town services. Called “Hero Marine Stands Up for Immigrants” on YouTube, the speech is shown to Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell), a star Democratic consultant who’s looking for a way to get himself and his party out of their post-election depression. Calling Jack a guy who makes “Joe the Plumber look like Dukakis in mom jeans,” Gary seizes on him as a vessel for winning back the heartland.

Acclimating to life in flyover country is a rough transition for this creature of the Beltway. But while Stewart’s screenplay tries to mine some yuks out of a very familiar fish-out-of-water scenario—in one scene, Gary turns the radio from the country station to “Fresh Air” and sighs in relief—it focuses more on Gary’s desperate need to turn Jack into a polished and gleaming West Wing hero capable of rallying a demoralized political infrastructure. The stakes get ramped up quickly, particularly once the Republicans realize what Gary is up to and turn this rinky-dink mayoral race into a multi-million-dollar referendum on the nation.

Carell’s knack for playing small-minded, explosively anger-prone, and relentlessly clueless men supplies most of Irresistible’s laughs early on. Fortunately, just when the appeal of the cringe comedy threatens to wear off, Gary’s nemesis appears in the form of a soulless GOP operative, Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne, playing the role as a gleeful mercenary). The mixture of her cynical appetite for battle (“Twenty bucks says I do better with fear than you do with shame”), Gary’s frustrated desire for a win, and a strong dose of sexual tension gives their scenes a nearly Preston Sturges-like vibe at times.

Too often, though, the film seems to be pulling its punches. The satire is so heavily focused on the D.C. consultants crashing around the sleepy town of Deerlaken that it seems to forget the actual political differences that brought them there in the first place. Even though the reason for that is ultimately explained in a not entirely satisfactory third-act twist, it leaves a good part of this ostensibly political story feeling somewhat light on substance.

Irresistible will likely be criticized for not taking a harsher tone in the face of incipient fascism, and there’s some merit to that critique. The film’s both-sidesism is particularly noticeable in one scene where Faith rolls out her Koch brothers-esque billionaire backers, only to have Gary present his own billionaire liberal backer, Elton Chambers (Bill Irwin clowning as an animated-corpse-like octogenarian held upright by a mechanical exoskeleton). But this feels less like Stewart ducking the issue than taking the longer view.

The film doesn’t focus its ire on Trump, conservatives, and the like, but rather on the cable news and consultant infrastructure that was accelerating America’s collapsing democratic polity long before anybody in a red baseball cap screamed “Lock her up!” and will continue to do so after Trump leaves the White House. This makes sense from Stewart, who went after Glenn Beck back in 2010 not through white-hot invective, but by holding a rally dedicated to polite, level-headed disagreement. These are desperate times, but if Stewart wants to tack toward a more Frank Capra vein, that’s just fine. We already have one Adam McKay.

Cast: Steve Carell, Rose Byrne, Chris Cooper, Mackenzie Davis, Topher Grace, Natasha Lyonne, Will Sasso, C.J. Wilson, Brent Sexton, Debra Messing, Bill Irwin Director: Jon Stewart Screenwriter: Jon Stewart Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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The Best Films of 2020 (So Far)

It’s hard to tell whether we’re in the midst of a film apocalypse, a film revolution, or both.

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The Best Films of 2020 So Far
Photo: Grasshopper Film

It’s hard to tell whether we’re in the midst of a film apocalypse, a film revolution, or—most likely—both. The long-predicted collapse of the movie theater as an institution may be underway, though drive-ins seem to be having a moment. Brett and Drew T. Pierce’s low-rent spooker The Wretched led the domestic box office for seven weeks starting in early May, Trolls World Tour became the first studio success story of the year, and June’s biggest release wasn’t a mega-budget superhero movie, but a Spike Lee joint on Netflix.

Nobody could have seen 2020 coming, but reflecting on the best movies of the first half of the year, it’s clear that unrest was already in the air. Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You tracks the devastating, cascading effects of a gig economy on its workers—whose fates became immediately uncertain when a health crisis locked down the economy. In The Cordillera of Dreams, behind the mountain range that ensconces Chile, documentarian Patricio Guzmán finds the suppressed record of popular uprisings against Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship—images of militarized police forces attacking unarmed protestors that look unnervingly familiar. Dramas about women’s experience in Trump’s America, like Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Kitty Green’s The Assistant, may end up being cinematic landmarks of fourth-wave feminism.

Of course, given our acute sense of living in an historical moment, perhaps we’ve been particularly drawn to films that reflect history and history-making, and apt to filter our interpretations through our consciousness of the tumult outside our windows. Even Andrew Patterson’s enigmatic 1950s-set The Vast of Night, whose Twilight Zone-esque story—which is advanced largely through conversations on various telecommunications networks—about an unseen menace threatening a small town, feels tied to 2020 in ways that the filmmakers likely did not intend. In the final analysis, cinema can’t help but reflect our world, because—even in the absence of theaters—it remains an inextricable part of it. Pat Brown


The Assistant

The Assistant (Kitty Green)

With The Assistant, Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in a film mogul’s Tribeca offices, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing its resonance. This is a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae, and it’s designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as the young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), at its center. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the mogul is only evoked via male pronouns. Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere, and after a while it becomes evident that we’re watching—from the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit person—a parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Green’s grasp of Jane’s indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable. Chuck Bowen


Bacurau

Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles)

Kleber Mendoça Filho and Juliano Donnelles’s Bacurau assembles a vibrant and eclectic collage of reference points. It’s a wild neo-western that pulls into its orbit UFO-shaped drones, elaborate folklore, limb-flaying and head-exploding gore, and Udo Kier as a villain who shouts in a mockingly high-pitched voice, “Hell no!” The Bacurau of the film’s title is a fictional town in Brazil’s northeastern interior, depicted here at some point in the not-too-distant future. The citizens live in a relatively undisturbed harmony—until Bacuaru is literally wiped off the map (GPS no longer can locate the backwater), local cell service is jammed, and the people find themselves hunted, A Dangerous Game-style, by gringo infiltrators. Mendoça Filho is one of contemporary Brazilian cinema’s most sharply political filmmakers, and Bacurau solidifies his commitment to rebuking Brazil’s current administration and its willful erasure of the country’s culture and heritage. Sam C. Mac



Beanpole

Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov)

Kantemir Balagov has set Beanpole largely in tones of dark amber, bright green and red, and filthy yellow redolent of old incandescent lighting—and it’s the red of upholstery, Soviet imagery, and blood that cuts most forcefully through the brightest of those greens. Cinematographer Kseniya Sereda’s color palette recalls that of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique for the way it gives settings an artificiality that nonetheless brings Beanpole’s grounded sociopolitical commentary into greater focus. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a nurse working at a Leningrad hospital after the end of World War II, feels trapped in trauma, suffering from recurring fits of full-body catatonia. Her psychological state is magnified by the more visible scars of the soldiers recuperating all around her, adding to the sense that Balagov’s hermetically sealed vision of Leningrad only compounds and reflects Iya’s PTSD back onto her. The filmmaker may depict the pain of his characters in blunt terms, but he traces the aftershocks of collapse with delicate subtlety. Jake Cole



The Cordillera of Dreams

The Cordillera of Dreams (Patricio Guzmán)

Patricio Guzmán understands the totemic power of the long strip of Andean mountains that runs between Chile and Argentina, effectively severing the former from the rest of the world. But the ruefulness in his voice also gets at something else: that this wall of rock and earth is also a mausoleum. Throughout interviews with writers and sculptors, among others, Guzmán accords to the Cordillera a level of importance that’s nothing short of reverential. And just at the point where it feels you can take no more of his metaphorical heavy lifting, the documentary gives way to an extended survey of the ravages and legacies of Augusto Pinochet’s regime, including the doctrine of neoliberalism that’s brought Chile to its knees in the present day. If The Cordillera of Dreams leaves us on a razor’s edge between hope and futility, that’s by design. Guzmán knows that the day when those looking for the disappeared are themselves lost to time is an inevitability, and it will be as tragic as the day when there are no more images left to depict the story of that search. But the documentary advances the belief that, until then, we will be stronger for exhorting ourselves to reflection and atonement. Ed Gonzalez



Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)

Da 5 Bloods is a mix of genre film and political essay, and it exudes, especially early on, a lurid, confrontational electricity that’s often been so exhilarating in prior Spike Lee joints. Regarding a Ho Chi Minh City that, with its active nightlife and proliferation of fast food establishments, might be mistaken for a contemporary American city, Eddie (Norm Lewis) says that “they didn’t need us, they should’ve just sent Mickey D’s, Pizza Hut, and the Colonel and we would’ve defeated the VC in one week.” The sly implication is that, one way or another, America got its hands on Vietnam. Minutes later, the Rambo and Missing in Action movies are familiarly criticized for offering a white-man savior fantasy of “winning” the war, while Otis (Clarke Peters) reminds us of a true hero, African-American soldier Milton Olive III, who jumped on a grenade for his platoon, a picture of whom Lee briefly and movingly cuts to. These pop-cultural references make us privy to how war is committed and then sold back to us as an often-exclusionary fantasy—a double dip of atrocity. Bowen



First Cow

First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)

If it’s true, as Balzac had it, that behind every great fortune lies a great crime, then perhaps behind every minor prosperity lies a misdemeanor. In Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, that petty offense is the theft of some cow’s milk, which gentle-hearted chef Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and his friendly yet opportunistic companion, King Lu (Orion Lee), use to build a successful enterprise selling delicious fried honey biscuits in a small, not-quite-established town in 1820s Oregon. Like most of Reichardt’s work, the film is a deceptively diminutive affair, an intimate, almost fabulistic story told with the warmth and delicacy of a children’s picture book. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s images honor the verdant lushness of the Pacific Northwest, making us feel as if we’re seeing its Edenic beauty through the soulful brown eyes of Eve, the titular bovine who’s been brought to this new land by her owner (Toby Jones) as an ostentatious display of his own wealth. But the film’s boxy 4:3 aspect ratio serves as a constant reminder that Cookie and King’s lives (not to mention Eve’s) are ultimately constrained by forces greater than themselves. Even here, at the far distant edges of civilization, the film pensively suggests, the machinery of industrial capitalism is tragically inescapable. Keith Watson



Fourteen

Fourteen (Dan Sallitt)

The dominant theme of Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen is the relentless march of time and its indifference to personal hardship. Balancing a fine-grained attention to character with placid detachment, the film traces a decade in the friendship of Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling), former grade-school friends who’ve sustained their bond into young adulthood, where they’ve both managed tenuous livelihoods in the Big Apple. Through his unannounced and often startling leaps in chronology, Sallitt cultivates a feeling of implicit tension, a growing fissure in Mara and Jo’s chemistry that bears itself out in pauses in conversation and in their interactions with a rotating gallery of supporting characters. One of the last times we see Jo, she’s walking away from camera into a busy Brooklyn intersection—perhaps a call back to the earlier long take of the train station, a reminder of a larger network of people whose trajectories we ultimately have no control over. In Fourteen, Mara must come to accept the limits of her ability to influence these peripheral lives, and in doing so prompts an evolution of spirit that’s at once painful and transformative. Carson Lund



The Grand Bizarre

The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack)

A film that’s constantly on the move, Jodie Mack’s The Grand Bizarre is a brilliant bonanza of color, texture, and globe-trotting good vibrations. With extensive use of time-lapse photography, stop-motion animation, and quick-cut montages, Mack creates a sense of boundless energy and constant movement, of people and things (but mostly things) in an endless flow around the globe. Mack takes fabric—vibrant, beautifully crafted swatches and scarves from a range of different cultures—as her central image, seeing them on trains and planes, popping out of suitcases, on the beach, in rear-view mirrors, and in dozens of other configurations that present them not as objets d’art to be admired in some folk art museum, but as products moving in the international stream of capitalism. The Grand Bizarre is a rumination on human creativity, and it’s so idiosyncratic and highly personal that it ends with the director’s sneeze. It’s also one of the most purely enjoyable works of avant-garde cinema made this century. Watson



Heimat Is a Space in Time

Heimat Is a Space in Time (Thomas Heise)

Documentary cinema’s most popular formal device is the so-called Ken Burns effect, that famous slow-motion slide across an archival photo until the camera settles on the main subject of the image. Heimat Is a Space in Time abundantly indulges this device but never quite in the way you might expect. Instead, filmmaker Thomas Heise’s photographic material creeps across the screen as if it were a tectonic plate, indifferent to the camera documenting it, which often only catches human faces for a brief moment before dwelling in negative space. All this time spent contemplating blown-up grain and blur might seem counterproductive in a film that, at least on paper, is a survey of 20th-century German history through the lens of Heise’s own genealogy. But the emphasis on the micro over the macro extends to every facet of this sprawling four-hour work, which seeks to excavate real human thought and feeling beneath the haze of larger political structures. Lund



Liberté

Liberté (Albert Serra)

As they move inexorably forward in time, Albert Serra’s films don’t crescendo so much as peter out. In Story of My Death, the harbinger on the horizon is the return of irrational, Romantic thinking in the late 18th century, which would effectively smother the enlightened libertinism that the story otherwise wallows in. And in The Death of Louis XIV, it’s the fate promised by the title, to which the film marched with solemn certitude. Serra’s new film, the audaciously perverse and amorphous Liberté, doesn’t give up its game so readily. Nearly without narrative conflict, it homes in on a long night of sexual experimentation among a group of libertines hiding out from the French courts on the Prussian border in the late 17th century, and for much of Liberté’s duration, the only things generating forward momentum are the subtly escalating intensity of the acts themselves and the faint expectation, however ruthlessly exploited, that the sun will eventually rise again. Lund

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