Coming Up In This Column: Quartet, Tabu, 56 Up, The Gatekeepers, Cat Ballou, The Americans, 30 Rock, but first…
Fan mail: The main bone of contention among the folks who wrote in about #US106 was that I had missed the point in Zero Dark Thirty—that, as Bill Weber wrote, it’s “supremely clear in ZDT that information INDIRECTLY leads” to Osama bin Laden. “Carabruva” agrees with Bill. I didn’t miss that point when I watched the film, since I was looking very carefully for any connection. What I didn’t do, unfortunately, was make mention in the item that it was very, very indirect and nowhere close to the “big break” that critics of the film were claiming. I fear both Mark Boal and I were nodding a bit on this point.
Some of the most interesting comments on the Zero Dark Thirty item came off the record from some of my “acquaintances.” I’d emailed them with a link to the column, and one of them replied, “I do not know if torture worked or not, but I am appalled by the fact that any senior officer or congresswomen would agree to it. However, one DCI [Director of Central Intelligence] felt it was important, and another does not. Most intelligence officers I respect felt that the producer wanted it both ways: torture sells and (gasp!) torture is bad. They were more amused by the portrait of the analyst. She is a composite of women in the bin Laden cell, all of whom were strong, bright, and opinionated. But C.I.A. is a paramilitary organization. You simply don’t talk to superiors the way our hero did.” As for my feeling that the “I’m the motherfucker” line was the best line in the film, it was even if it was not “accurate,” but hey, we’re making movies here. By the way, I later heard from another “acquaintance” that the real person Maya is based on is even better-looking than Jessica Chastain. I doubt that’s possible, so that may just be more C.I.A. disinformation.
I spent some time in the item whacking Boal and the film’s team for not responding better, especially to the complaining senators. An article in the Los Angeles Times that appeared the day after my column was posted nicely covered what happened at Sony and why they took the road they did. I understand their point of view, but I think they were wrong. The article was a Link of the Day, and if you missed it, you can read it here. The article included a great comment from Boal, and since I’ve been beating him about the head and shoulders, I feel obligated to quote it, since it nails down what happened. He said, “We made a serious, tough adult movie and we got a serious, tough adult response.”
Quartet (2012. Screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on his play. 98 minutes.)
The Best Exotic Marigold Musicians Retirement Home. The first thing I loved about this movie is that it’s short. One of the downsides of having to slog through all those two-and-a-half-hour-plus end-of-the-year films is that they cost you money to park. In Los Angeles, the tradition is that at indoor malls that have multiplexes, the first three hours of parking are free, and then you have to pay through the nose for anything beyond that. By the time you get from your car to the theater, get your tickets, sit through 20 minutes of trailers and the film, and get back to your car, you’re probably over three hours. Some, all right, a few, films are worth the extra cost. So I went into Quartet happy knowing it was not going to cost me any more than the ticket price.
When Ronald Harwood came to England from his native South Africa in the early ‘50s, he became part of an acting troop run by Sir Donald Woolfit, whom you may remember as General Murray in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). For several years Harwood was Woolfit’s dresser. That led to Harwood writing his play The Dresser, which he adapted into a film in 1983. Harwood has a fascination with performers, having also written a play about the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt. Harwood heard about an Italian home for retired opera singers, transposed the idea to England, and came up with the play Quartet. About six years ago, according to a piece by Charles Gant in the January Sight & Sound, Tom Courtney suggested to Harwood that he adapt it into the film. Harwood worked on it for years as directors came and went. It finally ended up with a first-time director with some acting experience, Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman worked with Harwood, adding texture to the situation. Hoffman suggested visitors to the home, which leads to a scene with Reginald, Courtney’s character (you didn’t think Courtney wasn’t thinking about this sort of thing when he suggested the idea to Harwood, do you?), giving a talk to a group of teens about opera and hip-hop. Hoffman also suggested casting real musicians in smaller parts as the elderly residents, which leads to several musical numbers.
The problem that Harwood faced both in the play and the screenplay is that the four leads, Jean, Reginald, Wilf, and Cissy, need to be performed by actors, in this case Maggie Smith, Courtney, Billy Connolly, and Pauline Collins. Since the plot turns on the foursome singing the quartet from Rigoletto, how do you handle their singing? In the film we get a couple of montages of them rehearsing, but without hearing their singing. The obvious solution for the film would be to have them lip sync to tracks of real singers. Harwood avoids that, but since the film is building toward the quartet singing, how do you write a satisfactory ending? Harwood, with some help from the real musicians Hoffman wanted, manage it. We get to hear the other musicians do their numbers, and then the quartet gets on stage. As they open their mouths, the film cuts to an exterior shot of the home and we get a recording of industrial-strength opera stars, including Dame Joan Sutherland, singing the quartet. Yes, real logic tells us the aging singers we see in the film would not reach those heights we hear, but creative logic says we can imagine this is how they sounded in their prime, which is enough for the film.
Tabu (2012. Written by Miguel Gomes and Mariana Richardo. 118 minutes.)
No, not F.W. Murnau’s Tabu (nor the 1981 Kay Parker porno Taboo). How nice: a film in honest-to-God black and white. As a fan of classic black and white, I love the look of this film. From the script standpoint, not quite as much.
We start in contemporary Lisbon, shot in ways reminiscent of the Antonioni films of the early ‘60s. For the first hour we’re mostly following Pilar, a middle-aged woman who seems vaguely discontent. She works for a human-rights group and goes to protests. She spends most of her time dealing with her cranky neighbor, Aurora, a woman in her 80s who’s convinced everybody is out to get her. Aurora has a caretaker, an African woman named Santa, who, in a nice change from American movies, doesn’t really give much of a shit about her white patient. Near the end of the first hour, Aurora dies, but not before asking Pilar and Santa to contact a man named Ventura. They do, and he tells them the story of his and Aurora’s adulterous romance in Africa 40 years ago. The second half of the film is that story, and we really didn’t need everything we had with Pilar in the first hour to make the second hour pay off.
One of the Los Angeles critics said that the writers’ decision to have no dialogue in the second half keeps us from getting emotionally involved in the love story. The critic may have a point, but having us only hear ambient sound as the older Ventura narrates the story puts it firmly in the past. Ventura isn’t a completely reliable narrator, and I don’t think that’s just sloppy filmmaking. We’re very aware that this is the past, since the Africa we see is from the colonial era. That may be why some critics made reference to Murnau’s film; the African sequences are exotic like Murnau’s, but not as picturesque. (I’m the only one I know to mention the Parker film, as there’s a love scene in the African story that could have fit into the 1981 film.) This is one of those recent films, like Michael Haneke’s Caché, that deals with the influence of the colonial past on the present in very subtle ways.
The romance between the young Aurora and Ventura doesn’t end well, but it’s not done in a tearjerking sort of way, so we have time to think about it. Not necessarily a bad thing.
56 Up (2012. Written by Michael Apted. 144 minutes.)
The Gang’s All Here. If you’ve followed the Up documentary series, you know that it catches up with a cross-section of Britishers every seven years. Michael Apted, a researcher on the first program (these are made for British television, but since about 28 Up they’ve been released theatrically in this country) and the director of all the others, said recently that he thinks of each film as separate, not just a continuation of the previous ones. You can see that in how he’s structured this one.
On the surface, the structure is similar to previous films: We deal with each person separately (although there’s an interesting dual act in this one) with clips from earlier films, shots of them in their contemporary situations, and interviews. But the order is a little different here. In previous films, Apted usually had Tony near the beginning. He wanted to be a jockey, didn’t make it, and ended up driving a cab. He’s happy with that because, as he says at one point, he’s a “people pleaser.” I suspect Apted put Tony at the beginning in the earlier films because he’s so lively a personality he gets you in the right mood to enjoy the rest of the film. Here Tony is the last person we see. Apted puts him there because it gives the film a great finishing twist that plays off a lot of things people have said in various ways about Britain and the British government throughout the film.
One of the first people Apted shows us this time is Sue, one of the three working-class women. She didn’t get to go to college, but has worked as an administrator at a college. This time around she’s head of the entire department, and a success by any standard, having achieved more than she thought possible when she was younger. A lot of the rest of the folks haven’t changed much, particularly since 49 Up, but that happens when you get older. And several of them are getting tired of the whole project, complaining that people only come to know them from the film. As several have pointed out, there’s a lot more to them than appears in the films. And they get tired of seeing the old clips of themselves. I can see why Suzy would probably never want to see her younger self doing all those eye rolls ever again. But I’m sure we’ll get a couple when we get to 73 Up.
The Gatekeepers (2012. Written by Dror Moreh. 95 minutes.)
Disturbing in all the right ways. You know my fascination with intelligence work, so it won’t surprise you that I went to see this documentary about Shin Bet, the Israeli anti-terrorist organization (it’s sort of the Israeli F.B.I., with the Mossad as the C.I.A.). What will surprise you is that director Dror Moreh got all of the living former heads of the Shin Bet to talk. On camera. This is a classic case of real-life characters in documentaries being more interesting than their fictional counterparts. I doubt if any screenwriter could come up with such a compelling collection of characters, certainly not in a traditional thriller. You simply wouldn’t have time in a conventional spy movie for the kind of intellectual and emotional nuances these men show. All six men have thought deeply about their experiences and about the relationships between Israel and the Palestinians. These men have spent their careers tracking down and often killing Palestinian terrorists, and they also tracked down and arrested Israeli terrorists. One of the most chilling segments deals with an attempt by Israeli right-wing fanatics to blow up the Dome of the Rock, a holy site for Muslims, Jews, and Christians. As one of the men says, if the attempt had succeeded, the war that followed would not have included just Israeli and its Arab neighbors, but the world.
Films can be disturbing in many ways: violence, psychotic characters, bad filmmaking, etc. This film is disturbing in the right ways. It makes you think seriously about the dangers of the world in which we live. One of the men says that when he retired, he became “sort of a leftist,” and that seems to be true in varying degrees of all them. By the end of the film, they all seem to agree that just killing terrorists is no path to peace, and that a political solution is the only answer. Let’s hope all the decision-makers dealing with the Palestinian issue see this film.
Cat Ballou (1965. Screenplay by Walter Newman and Frank Pierson, based on the novel The Ballad of Cat Ballou by Roy Chanslor. 97 minutes.)
Not Sturges, not even the Sturges Project, but funny. In US #95, “Devil Monkey” wondered why I hadn’t written more about films from the ‘60s and ‘70s. I mentioned in my comments in US #97 that I felt I’d both written about them a lot well before I started this column and that I’d dealt with them as part of my classes in film history and screenwriting. After I had sent off my reply, I was talking it over with my wife, and she wisely (as is her want) said, “But Tom, not everybody took your classes.” She, also wisely, didn’t mention that not everybody has read my books. So I got to thinking about it some more, and I realized another reason I haven’t done as much with those decades is that I do most of my old-movie-watching on TCM, which only occasionally gets beyond the ‘50s, and the Fox Movie Channel, which doesn’t do a lot of films from that period either. But some have come up recently on TCM, and there is always Netflix, so I’ve made a decision to try to deal with more films from the ‘60s and ‘70s than I have in the past. This isn’t going to be as condensed as the Preston Sturges project was, but as the films come up and/or I get back to the notes I mentioned in US #97, I will from time to time deal with films. I had assumed I would start out with something high class, like Network (1976) or The Conversation (1974), but my wife and I had a couple of spare hours when TCM was running Cat Ballou, and since neither of us had seen it for a while, we sat down and watched it. It was part of a tribute to Lee Marvin, in connection with a new biography of him, and I DVR’d Point Blank (1967), which I’ll deal with in US #108.
Do I really mean that Cat Ballou isn’t high class? It won an Oscar (for Marvin) and the screenplay got a nomination, but it’s still a mess. But unlike Sturges’s somewhat similar The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949), which I raked over the coals in US #101, it’s funny. The first writer, Walter Newman, was one of Billy Wilder’s co-writers on Ace in the Hole (1951), but he was better known for his dramas, like The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). The second writer, just at the start of his career, was Frank Pierson, whom I wrote about in US #98. It’s the story of a young woman returning home in the west to become a schoolmarm. Catherine “Cat” Ballou is an innocent young girl, played by Jane Fonda, who carries the sloppy first half hour purely by her freshness. Cat discovers the bad guys are trying to get her father’s farm; they’ve hired a nasty gunfighter named Strawn to terrorize Dad. Cat, who’s been reading dime novels about the legendary Kid Shelleen, hires the Kid to be their gunfighter. Shellen is by now a falling-down drunk, and when he shows up the picture shifts into high gear. Marvin, who also plays Strawn as a straight villain, is way, way over the top as Shelleen, often seeming to be acting in his own movie and not this one, but he’s very, very funny. You can get away with almost anything if you make people laugh. You can get away with anything if you make them laugh and enjoy it. And boy, do we enjoy Marvin.
Newman, talking to William Froug for Froug’s 1972 book The Screenwriter Looks at the Screenwriter, mentioned how the subject matter more than the treatment of it determines how well a movie does. He said, “…you take a thing like Cat Ballou, which wasn’t particularly well done. I put some good jokes in it, I enjoyed writing a lot of it, I knew I was doing something special that hadn’t been done. That part filled me with a certain amount of glee. But I wouldn’t say by any shakes it was a fine screenplay. But it didn’t make any difference. I had chosen the right thing.” Newman hit the nail on the head when he describes Cat Ballou as “something special that hadn’t been done.” Beginning in the early ‘60s, there were a number of films like Cat Ballou that took a genre that had been treated seriously for a while and made fun of it. The ‘50s were full of solemn westerns such as The Gunfighter (1950), High Noon (1952), and Shane (1953), and by the ‘60s, younger audiences were delighted to see the genre made fun of. The same was true of spy movies, which had been very serious in the ‘40s and ‘50s, but were replaced by the light touch of the Bond films. The end-of-the-world-by-nuclear-annihilation genre, which included On the Beach (1959), moved aside for films such as Dr. Strangelove (1964). Cat Ballou caught the tone of the times, and led the way to better films like Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) and Blazing Saddles (1974).
The Americans (2013. “Pilot” episode created and written by Joe Weisberg. 97 minutes.)
Where’s James Jesus Angleton when you need him? This new series has a potentially interesting setup. We’re in Washington D.C. in the early years of the Reagan administration. We follow a nice young couple named Elizabeth and Philip, sleeper agents for the Soviet Union who were sent to spy on the Americans in 1965. The Russians are now upping their efforts because the Russians are convinced that Reagan is crazy. So there will be lots of work for Elizabeth and Philip to do. The pilot starts with Elizabeth seducing a Department of Justice official, then using that information to kidnap Timoshev, a high-ranking KGB officer who’s come to D.C. to defect, and put him on a boat back to Russia. They miss the boat, literally, and now have to deal with Timoshev locked up in the trunk of their car. So, the pilot starts off lively with the seduction, kidnapping, and car chase, but we don’t quite know why we’re watching this. Sometimes a film can open by setting up questions, but other times there are just so many questions we don’t know why we should watch. From the standpoint of screenwriting you have to make it the first, but here Joe Weisberg, the creator of the show, makes it the second. This isn’t the last time the pilot won’t give us the details that would make it compelling.
A little later, Philip is listening to a tape of Elizabeth having sex with the DOJ guy. Now what do you think his reaction might be? He could be jealous. Yes, they were an arranged couple, as we learn in flashback, but he could be in love with her and crazy that she’s doing this. Or, he loves her but loves the job more and admires her tradecraft as he listens. Or, he could really be getting turned on by it. Instead he has this blank expression, which isn’t very interesting to look at. Likewise, when the couple learns that Stan Beemon, who has just moved in next door, is an F.B.I. agent, they could have some interesting reactions, but they have none. Later there’s a flashback of them arriving in the States for the first time and staying in a motel. We don’t get any particular reaction from them to their situation.
Weisberg is an ex-C.I.A. man, but he hasn’t done his research about the C.I.A.’s past very well. In the 1960s, James Jesus Angleton of the C.I.A. was convinced the Russians had planted moles in the western intelligence services. His obsession with this nearly destroyed the C.I.A., since he was suspicious of nearly everybody. (For the details, read Tim Weiner’s 2007 history of the C.I.A., Legacy of Ashes.) The fallout of Angleton’s actions destroyed morale in the C.I.A., so by the time The Americans takes place, the spyhunters should be very aware of Angleton’s mistakes. We get no sense in the show that they are. The show would have had a lot more texture if it had that element.
30 Rock (2006-13. Various writers. 30 minutes.)
Sorry to see it go…but not that sorry. 30 Rock recently ended its seven-year run, which was celebrated by many television critics writing fond and wistful farewells. The show was always more of a critical favorite than a popular one, and it’s no wonder the critics waxed nostalgic about its departure. I loved the show, but I’m not as nostalgic about its ending as some. It was incredibly uneven, as a check of the items I had about it in this column over the last five years will show. There were good episodes, like “Reunion,” wherein writer Matt Hubbard turned the tables on the usual high-school-reunion episode. Liz assumed she had been bullied in high school, but found out that everyone thought she had been the bully. There were disasters, like “Live Show” (written by Robert Carlock and Tina Fey), where an attempt to do an episode live destroyed the rhythm of the comedy and came out totally unfunny.
But then there were the spectacular episodes, such as the 2009 “Secret Santa” (written by Fey), in which Liz and Jack try to outdo each other in the gift-giving department. That not being enough, Liz brings in Nancy, a former flame of Jack’s. She’s played by Julianne Moore and she and Alec Baldwin had spectacular chemistry. Nancy/Moore showed up in several other episodes as well. Another great one was “The Moms” (written by Kay Cannon and Carlock) in 2010, which brought together Elaine Stritch, Patti Lu Pone, and Jan Hooks as the mothers of Jack, Frank, and Jenna, respectively. Anita Gillette showed up as Liz’s mom, which sent Liz off to see astronaut Buzz Aldrin, whom she thinks might be her father. The Liz/Buzz scene “goes around corners you didn’t know were there,” as I said in my item on the show. That was typical of 30 Rock at its best. Most sitcoms will settle for gags, most of them as semi-legitimate functions of the characters. 30 Rock went well beyond that. Writing in 2011 about another episode, I said, “More than one critic has mention how 30 Rock is very much in the tradition of His Girl Friday (1940) in the speed of its dialogue. I recently watched Friday in my History of Motion Pictures class at LACC, so it was on my mind while watching this episode of 30 Rock. What struck me is that in some ways 30 Rock goes beyond what Friday does. Friday is just plain fast, but Rock doesn’t just have fast delivery of the dialogue. Unlike Friday, the dialogue is filled with non-sequiturs. Friday is linear, but you never quite know where Rock is going. Rock is just as quick to throw in surreal visual as well as verbal elements. Think of 30 Rock as the grandchild of His Girl Friday, moving at computer speed, complete with oddball links, rather than typewriter speed.”
At its best, 30 Rock also did delicious satire, not only of television, but of corporate America, politics, and the world in general. Imagine any other sitcom having one of its characters kidnapped by the North Koreans. The show beautifully handled the takeover of Universal/NBC by Comcast, called Kabletown in the show. They weren’t just nibbling on the hand that feeds, but making a full-course meal out of it. I suspect that one reason critics loved the show is that it was such fun to write about. After all, what can you say about NCIS at this point?
The problem with doing a high-wire act like 30 Rock is that occasionally you fall off and go splat. There has been a lot of splattering in the last several episodes, along with some nice touches. I particularly liked the lead-up the last few episodes to Liz and Criss’s adopting two children. It was established before that Liz was ready to deal with children since she had been handling Tracy and Jenna. Then Tracy and Jenna came up with the idea for a skit in which they played twins, with someone assuring us that you can have a black and a white person be twins. So who gets off the plane delivering the adoptees? A pair of twins who are spitting images of Tracey and Jenna! But there were still too many storylines that wandered and never fully paid off. The final two episodes, “Hogcock!” (written by Jack Burditt and Carlock) and “Last Lunch” (written by Fey and Tracy Wigfield) were broadcast as a two-parter on January 31st. Both episodes were trying too hard to get as much in as they could. We get Moore’s Nancy back, supposedly as part of a threesome with Jack and Salma Hayek’s Elissa, who was once a nurse for Jack’s mom. That scene is a quick throwaway gag and doesn’t really give us closure on either of the other two characters. The tag after the last commercial break is stuffed with payoffs, but with little time to savor them.
Given that the show deteriorated in its last season, I’m not too miserable that it’s been cancelled. Bu at least we have, if not Paris, the memories of the good times.
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.
Review: Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters Spreads the News, Without Embellishment
Haynes’s film intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate.2.5
Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters is the sort of film that may win awards and plaudits, even as it’s poised to be overlooked for its craftsmanship. Haynes and screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan communicate their story—a true one about the ways corporate greed can lead to irreparable health crises and environmental damage—without an ounce of pretense, which also means that they risk making it seem indistinguishable from other recent topical films like Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight. Yet while it doesn’t rewrite the book on the legal thriller genre, Dark Waters also intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate. Faint praise, perhaps, but this film aims to spread the news rather than bask in its own glory.
In 1998, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia, attempts to enlist Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) to file suit against DuPont. The chemical company, it seems, has been dumping toxic chemicals in a landfill near Tennant’s farm, polluting its creek and killing its livestock. As an attorney for a firm that defends corporations, Bilott initially refuses the case but eventually goes to bat for Tennant: Bilott grew up in West Virginia and becomes emotionally invested in protecting the land he loved as a child.
In the course of his investigation, Bilott discovers links between cancers and birth defects in the Parkersburg community and Dupont’s unregulated manufacture and disposal of PFOA (or C8), an indestructible chemical prevalent in many everyday household products. Yet what should be an open-and-shut case of corporate malfeasance and corruption drags on for years due to Dupont’s legal maneuvering, which costs Bilott his health and many of Bill’s clients their patience and social inclusion in Parkersburg, a Dupont company town to its core.
Dark Water’s strong suit is its central performances. As Bilott, Ruffalo provides a bristling tension in exploring the grey area between moral conviction and obsession as the lawyer’s selflessness borders on single-mindedness. And a scene-stealing Camp uses his bulk, not to mention a convincing rural drawl, to impart various shades of frustration, outrage, sadness, and disillusionment in the face of Tennant’s near-helpless situation. Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, can only do so much in the role of Bilott’s wife, Sarah, who seems to exist only to criticize others, be it her husband for his tunnel vision or his senior partner, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), for taking Bilott’s self-sacrifice for granted. Given Sarah’s intriguing backstory (she gave up a career in law to become a housewife), as well as Haynes’s predilection for exploring complex women, her characterization feels especially thin.
More important, perhaps, than any of these characters is West Virginia itself. The state isn’t featured often on film, which is a shame since it possesses an abundance of natural beauty. Of course, you won’t see that in Dark Waters, as Edward Lachman’s cinematography evokes the spoilage of that beauty by employing sickly, desaturated blues and greens, especially in outdoor winter scenes where you can practically feel the despair emanating from the screen. In this sense, the film harkens back to Haynes’s Safe, where toxicity appeared to suffuse the protagonist’s ordinary surroundings. The environmental details of Dark Waters reinforce the depth and expansiveness of Dupont’s crime, so that by the time John Denver’s signature “Take Me Home, Country Roads” ironically, if inevitably, plays during one of Bilott’s deflating drives through Parkersburg, Haynes has made the audience feel that this isn’t some remote, godforsaken hamlet, but rather the entire polluted planet.
Still, the best parts of Dark Waters may make you wish that there was more of Haynes in it. The filmmaker hasn’t written one of his own projects since the outstanding Mildred Pierce miniseries, but whereas Carol and Wonderstruck at least continued the director’s thematic and aesthetic preoccupations in their investigation of outcasts searching for romantic and familial connections, Dark Waters feels relatively faceless. Aside from its color scheme, there isn’t much in the film that’s particularly or uniquely cinematic; this is a dramatic rather than a visual showcase, and one often confined to legal conversations in generic offices, meeting rooms, and courts of law. But perhaps it’s to Haynes’s credit that he lets the drama speak for itself, instead of feeling the need to embellish it. After all, the point of this film is to depict how an enormous human and environmental tragedy initially affects a small community, with Tennant, Bilott, and Parkersburg suffering the full-force C-8 blast first and hardest.
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Bill Camp, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, Louisa Krause Director: Todd Haynes Screenwriter: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 126 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Charlie’s Angels Has Good Intentions but Lives in La-La Land
All the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal the film’s creative conservatism.1.5
As a minor cultural institution, Charlie’s Angels has, in all its TV and film incarnations, operated as a kind of Rorschach test: Fans see it flying the female empowerment flag by bringing women into the traditionally male detective genre, while critics by and large view it as a symptom of feminist backlash, objectifying its stars in the service of campy male fantasy. Now, by diversifying its cast and placing a female writer-director, Elizabeth Banks, at its helm, the new Charlie’s Angels attempts to remove all political doubt: These Angels are woke and answer to no man, not even one issuing orders from a speaker box. The intention is pure, but in the end, the emancipatory aims of this reboot exist only in la-la land, its feminism failing to resonate beyond the cynicism of corporate rebranding.
Mostly remembered as a montage of iconic images, the 1970s Aaron Spelling-produced TV series was actually a bore, its success depending solely on the charisma of its lead actresses; the two early-aughts films, both directed by McG, were 100% cheesecake, hypersexualizing its actresses in what amounted to glorified music videos. The new Charlie’s Angels moves well and at least puts forth a semblance of reality, with a few moments hinting at the tense, moody spy thriller it might have been. Yet the dominant strain of its DNA is the Generic Action Movie, and all the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal its creative conservatism.
The plot centers on the usual stuff of spies and saboteurs. Not yet an official Angel, Elena (Naomi Scott) works for a company that’s run by an Elon Musk type (Sam Claflin) and creates an electronics product that possesses deadly potential. When her superiors bury her report on its risks, Elena enlists the Angels—Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska)—to help blow the whistle. But sinister parties, of course, want the gadget for themselves, and most of the film consists of a series of car chases, break-ins, and stakeouts as the Angels pursue the MacGuffin in the name of global security. Speaking of global: Charlie’s private investigation firm is now an international business, with multiple Bosleys leading their own teams of lady spies. And in a first for the franchise, our Angels’ Bosley is played by a woman (Banks).
Indeed, the film has a female-led, rather than female-focused, bent. Having nothing to do with the story, the opening credits sequence features a celebratory montage of girls from around the world, and the finale and end credits reveal Charlie’s agency to be run by women, a far cry from the TV series’s patriarchal framing: “Once upon a time there were three little girls…now they work for me. My name is Charlie.” Banks’s coup de grace “twist” on the Charlie’s Angels formula is diversity in casting, as the Angels are played by one out actress and two of color.
Stewart is the film’s most potentially interesting presence. In the opening scene, Sabina seduces a bad guy by wearing an ultra-femme disguise that includes a cascade of flowing blond hair, and when removing it to enter fight mode, she reveals a dyed, short-cropped butch ‘do. Yet the rest of the film fails to develop the code-switching possibilities of her character or anyone else’s. There’s a slew of nearly preternatural wardrobe changes (at one point, Sabina dons a jockey’s outfit for some reason), but that’s been par for the course in the world of Charlie’s Angels since the Ford administration, with much of the franchise’s appeal residing in the material fetishism attendant in an endless game of dress-up. Like their predecessors, these Angels look glamorous and gorgeous while fighting crime, and while Stewart’s queerness may qualify her objectification, and actually makes her more of a subject (as when she sneaks a lascivious peek at an attractive woman), it’s only in a relative sense. Overall, her on-screen appearance is lensed as much for exploitative pleasure as vicarious admiration.
One major appeal of the Charlie’s Angels properties is seeing men consistently underestimate the physical and intellectual capability of its female leads. But because she dares nothing visually or dramatically original, Banks prevents the Angels from exhibiting unique or surprising traits. The Angels’ bios are strictly single-line affairs: Sabina is rebellious and sarcastic, Jane is steely and professional, and Elena is goofy and wide-eyed. And all of them quip and banter in similarly sitcom-ish rhythms. Ultimately, Banks believes it’s enough that queer and brown women perform the same suspense-free action set pieces and combat choreography that their white male counterparts have performed since time immemorial.
In contrast to McG’s films, which took place in the realm of a live-action candy-colored cartoon, the world of this Charlie’s Angels vaguely resembles our own, giving Banks the opportunity to show what real—or at least real-er—women can do in seriously intense and perilous situations. But save for a few stressed situations and unique notes (such as Luis Gerardo Méndez’s Q-like Saint, who’s both the Angels’ weapons expert and their health advisor and spiritual guru), this film is so much disposable entertainment. It’s too frenetic, tongue in cheek, and impersonal to extend its vague feminism to true individualism.
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, Sam Claflin, Noah Centineo, Jonathan Tucker, Nat Faxon, Chris Pang, Luis Gerardo Méndez Director: Elizabeth Banks Screenwriter: Elizabeth Banks Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Interview: Lauren Greenfield on The Kingmaker and Threats to Democracy
Greenfield discusses how the film relates to her body of work and the warnings Americans ought to heed from it.
When it comes to documenting stories about the dark underbelly of wealth in contemporary society, Lauren Greenfield is like a moth drawn to a flame. A photographer by trade who has ventured into documentary filmmaking, Greenfield broke out in 2012 with The Queen of Versailles, a “riches-to-rags” tale of how billionaire Florida couple Jackie and Robert Siegel attempted to build an American equivalent to Versailles. Their absurd ambition amounts to their folly as construction kicks off at the height of the Great Recession and strains their precarious finances, leaving the mansion unfinished. Greenfield continued this theme in her 2018 documentary Generation Wealth, a companion film to her monograph of the same name that follows multiple less bombastic tales of how an unfettered pursuit of opulence and glamour results in deep emptiness.
Greenfield’s new documentary, The Kingmaker, began with her interest in another powerful symbol for the hollowness of wealth and power. In the Philippines, former First Lady Imelda Marcos evicted the native population of Calauit Island, located in the Calamian Archipelago, and replaced the inhabitants with African animals. Though the regime of her husband, Ferdinand E. Marcos, fell and drove the family into exile and disrepute, the animals remained. Generations later, the creatures’ inbreeding and the general disarray of the island’s ecosystem appears to be a fitting testament to the corruption and incompetence of their rule.
And yet, once Greenfield began to sit with the octogenarian Imelda Marcos, she found a subject spinning an alternate story, as well as a populace willing to believe it. The Kingmaker portrays the unfolding of a terrifying period in the history of the Philippines of how a political dynasty can rewrite the history of human rights abuses and corruption in order to return to power. While events continue to unfold in the country, the necessary forces and people are in place to pave the way for Imelda’s son, Bongbong Marcos, to assume the presidency in 2022.
I spoke with Greenfield prior to The Kingmaker’s premiere at DOC NYC to discuss how the documentary relates to her body of work as a whole as well as the warnings Americans ought to heed from it as a similar political dynamic to the one in the Philippines develops stateside.
You’ve said elsewhere that you liked Imelda on a personal level, but much like The Queen of Versailles, The Kingmaker itself remains a little ambiguous so the audience can come to their own conclusions about the subject. How do you finesse that ambiguity in your filmmaking and in the editing process?
It’s a little bit different with Imelda Marcos because I came in knowing the history. I was more interested in the paradox between the fact that when you’re with her, she’s kind and generous and personable, versus the terrible consequences of the huge human rights abuses she was complicit with. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I think she’s nice, let’s let the audience come to that conclusion.” I felt journalistically, ethically, and historically that I need to give the audience the information so they could see that what she was doing was telling untruths. So they could see that she was an unreliable narrator. That’s why, when I realized that about her, I brought in other voices that the audience would instinctively feel are credible.
It’s a little bit of a different journey because, in the beginning, you’re sucked into her personality, which is lovely and charismatic, and I wanted people to see that. It was the key to her political success. But, even by the end of the first act, when you know she’s depopulated an indigenous population to bring in the animals to her pet project island, I think you can’t abide by that anymore. By the time you hear about martial law and torture, you’re not thinking she’s nice anymore. Jackie Siegel was another journey because you start out thinking she’s horrible, and then you end up kind of rooting for her. For Imelda, I wanted to show her humanity, but it’s a paradox of how can a human do these terrible things and not feel any remorse.
When you started filming Imelda, you thought maybe the film would become a redemption story? At what point did you begin to realize that wasn’t going to play out?
I was still hoping for it, even at the very end—that maybe she’d have some kind of revelation. I thought there’d be a moment where she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t see it that way.” But looking back now, I was being naïve. Of course, this is not her first rodeo. She’s talked to the press a million times. During the election, I realized they were just going to lean into their story. There was a TV interview that Bongbong did, and the reporter said, “Are you going to say you’re sorry? Are you going to say you’re sorry for martial law?” That’s what people really wanted, for him to apologize. And he said, “What do I have to apologize for? Should I apologize for the roads? The infrastructure? The building that happened during that period? If I hurt somebody, I would apologize, but what do I have to apologize for?” When I heard that a few months into the election campaign, I realized they were going to lean into the story, into their rewriting of history that those were the good times, and they weren’t going to apologize. It’s kind of a Trumpian move: never apologize, never say you’re wrong, just say, “It was good, it was great!” And then people will eventually believe you.
Isn’t the film, at least for Imelda, a redemption story? She’s restoring honor to the family name and, in doing so, putting some power behind their wealth, which has become a little toothless in the absence of actual clout.
Well, she is trying to whitewash history. That’s her goal, politically, and it’s why she chose to participate in the film. She wants to put out her version of the Marcos legacy. That’s not what I meant by “redemption story.” I meant her having a moral moment of realizing she’s done something wrong. She does tell herself that she’s doing something good. I do believe she thinks she’s doing good, and that she believes her own story.
Everyone tells themselves a story of their life that makes sense, but the difference between the visions of grandeur of people like Imelda and Jackie Siegel and the average person is that they can manipulate reality to become their fantasy using wealth.
Her story helps her survive. It pushes her to keep going. Deep down, she feels like she’s doing the right thing. If she felt like she was doing terrible things, it would get in her way. It’s a strategic story that helps her live with it and get a young electorate on board for a comeback.
I found it a little difficult to discern toward the end: Does Imelda and the rest of the Marcos family see the contradictions in boosting a candidate like Rodrigo Duterte, who runs against the perceived corruption of a system only to re-legitimize a self-dealing former dynasty? Or is the irony completely lost on them?
I’m not sure that there’s a lot of irony there. Even though he pretends he’s one of the people, working class, talks trash, and swears, he’s actually from a place of privilege. There’s also a lot of corruption going on in this government. When Bongbong was campaigning, he also said he was going to go against corruption. That’s what everybody says. The reality is that Duterte’s father was in Ferdinand Marcos’s cabinet. Duterte looks up to Marcos. He’s threatened martial law. He likes the idea of the strongman. So, I think that they’re pretty aligned.
I was more surprised that Bongbong would align with Duterte because Bongbong was Western-educated and has the veneer of a legitimate politician, so I was surprised that he would go with somebody responsible for so many street killings. But, at the end of the day, it’s political. They made an alliance that’s helped them both. They could give Duterte support for becoming president, and in return they got the hero’s burial that Imelda has wanted for decades. Duterte backed the sister, Imee, for senate, and she won—as did every candidate that Duterte backed. Going into the next election, Duterte’s backing is extremely important.
A thread through your work is that people suffering from the adverse effects of wealth tend to cast themselves as victims in their own stories. From your experience, do you think that narrative holds any water? Or is it just a survival technique?
Yeah, I don’t think we need to shed any tears for Imelda. What I’m trying to do here, and in Generation Wealth, is to focus on the one percent and look at how it affects everybody else. That’s the important thing: looking at the long-term consequences of the Marcos regime and how the abuse of wealth and power affects everybody else. I came in looking at that through the animal island, but that’s really symbolic for how the Philippines was hurt by how the Marcos family, in taking five to 10 billion dollars, hurt development, created persistent poverty, and made the people vulnerable to bringing back another strongman and supporting people like Bongbong Marcos, but especially Duterte. Benigno Aquino, the president when I was filming and son of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, said his father told him you can’t have democracy when you’re hungry. That’s what we see in the Philippines, democracy being threatened because people’s basic needs are not being met.
It almost feels like we’re doomed to live in a plutocracy forever.
That’s the irony. That’s what was so sad. It’s also similar to Trump, as people’s needs were not being met, so they voted for change only to have somebody who’s really on the side of the wealthy. It’s ironic that these people get brought in by the support of the working class. But in the Philippines, you’re not even talking about the working class. You’re talking about deep, deep poverty where people are getting money, food, or clothing in exchange for votes. And especially without proper information, the history not being taught in the schoolbooks or not as many outlets of independent journalism, it’s very hard for a democracy to thrive.
You’ve noted that Imelda is yet another adherent of the “dictator chic” style—the gauche, in-your-face extravagance that attracts aspiring autocrats from Trump to Saddam Hussein. As someone who observes the intersection of wealth and aesthetics, do you have any theories about why this phenomenon cuts across the globe?
In a way, that was a little bit more of what I looked at in Generation Wealth. There’s an aspirational nobility that people with power want, like being a king or a queen. You see that in the portrait of Imelda at the beginning of the film and in some of the commissioned portraiture she did—and, for that matter, some of what the Siegels did. You can see the love for gold that Trump has. I think it’s an association with nobility, especially for the nouveau riche and people who are ambitiously climbing their way up.
As someone who’s studied and documented wealth across the world, what do you make of this moment in America where it seems like a large portion of the country worships an opulent, self-proclaimed wealthy leader and another large portion finds inspiration in politicians who are rallying people against the idea of concentrated wealth?
Well, I definitely think we’re at a really precarious time at the moment, because the amount of inequality we have right now is dangerous for any society or democracy. And dangerous economically. We have this myth of the American dream where anyone can go from rags to riches. I think that’s what’s standing between us and revolution, even though many people are not sharing in the spoils of our economy. It’s because of this “keeping up with the Kardashians” mindset. In Generation Wealth, I looked at how in the space of a generation, people went from “keeping up with the Joneses,” their neighbors, to keeping up with the Kardashians, these ultra-wealthy people they see on TV. It’s so unrealistic, and yet there’s this deep myth in the culture that you can become that one day, through a reality show or whatever it is. Obama called that out more than two decades ago when he was a lawyer. The thing about Donald Trump is that people think they can be him one day, or maybe their child can be him. There’s this illusion that keeps people accepting the status quo.
And then I think there’s a waking up happening, particularly among young people, that that’s not going to happen, and that there’s some real rot. The game is rigged, and what they’re telling us is the goal—being rich—isn’t actually making people happy. Especially on the millennial side, there are signs of people waking up and wanting something different. The problem is that the culture and corporate capitalism are so slanted toward keeping the status quo. Just money in politics, for example, and the disinformation from social media. We saw it in the Philippines, we saw it here, we saw it with Brexit. That’s the thing Andy Bautista [former head of the Philippines’ Presidential Commission on Good Government] keeps telling me about the Philippines: If you have money, you have speech because you can put forward lies on social media and convince people of that. And it’s kind of like that here as well.
Review: The Hottest August Is a Rich Patchwork of Discontented Voices
Brett Story’s documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division.3
Throughout The Hottest August, director Brett Story asks her interview subjects—a collection of mostly working-class, outer-borough residents of New York City—for their feelings about the future. More interesting than these people’s answers are the way their faces change as they process the question, invariably morphing into an ironic smirk. From there, the responses are despairing, even at their most hopeful, as nearly every subject answers with a summation of their career goals or their desire to earn more money.
Our collective failure to reckon with the onward march of climate change and vulture capitalism is the often unspoken subject of this structuralist documentary, which was filmed over the course of August 2017. Though Story makes her themes clear in a voiceover narrative (recited by Clare Coulter) that combines the director’s own writings with those of Karl Marx, Zadie Smith, and Annie Dillard, the people in The Hottest August have other things on their minds. A college student who works at a call center for wealthy investors describes herself as an “entrepreneur,” while a man driving a food truck has to move out of his apartment the following day without having found a new home. Periodically, the artist Ayodamola Okunseinde wanders the streets as a character he calls “The Afronaut,” clad in an Afro-futuristic spacesuit designed to encourage others to consider their own futures.
Even without this surreal image, the film’s photography (by Derek Howard) has an alien vibe, emphasizing humans that look rather small amid the buildings, beaches, and blockades they navigate every day. Apart from a ‘20s-themed costume party on Governor’s Island, a few public parks, and, of course, a subway car, most of the landscapes in The Hottest August are weirdly underpopulated. This is appropriate for a film that seems equally inspired by Chris Marker’s sci-fi-inflected essay films and Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer, and also for a work that must invariably address the gentrification of New York’s neighborhoods.
The middle- and upper-class New Yorkers glimpsed in The Hottest August are most often seen peering through windows or standing in desolate corporate courtyards. Gridlike compositions of air-conditioning units are dotted with running flat-screen televisions or films projected onto white walls. The public square is hard to locate, and Story finds them where she can: a Black Lives Matter rally where black speakers address an overwhelmingly white crowd; a Staten Island cop bar where politics are deemed verboten until one ex-police officer goes on a rant against a mythical welfare queen; a recreational softball league that descends into a near brawl; or the beach, where most of the subjects Story talks to are underemployed.
Near the beach in the Rockaways, one small home has been raised multiple stories on stacks of wooden pallets. Those closest to the water ignore post-Hurricane Sandy evacuation notices and dismiss climate change as Al Gore’s ploy to get rich and speaking with certainty that the hurricane’s status as a “100-year storm” means that they’re safe for another century. That’s not the most immediate delusion to be found in The Hottest August, which spends a few scenes with working-class Italian-American couple who gradually express their frustration with a diversifying neighborhood, culminating in an actual “I’m not racist, but” monologue.
Where Story’s previous film, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, meticulously depicted how the tentacles of mass incarceration creep into civic life, The Hottest August is a more loosely guided snapshot of generalized resentment. People are mad at the rich, who they also want to be. And then there are those clever enough to seek to profit from the ambient rage of the era: an entrepreneur who runs an industrial space where clients can destroy everything in sight, or a hipster from a VR company who barely believes his own bullshit about the automation revelation yielding a universal basic income where all will be free to do as they please.
With The Hottest Summer, Story puts on display a New York City that’s very different from the one depicted in Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, where every corner and office is teeming with representations of active, often progressive political and social discourse. While there are moments of grace and whimsy in here (a woman on a bench texting next to a duck, a smart young skateboarder who rides Story for interviewing some loudmouthed teens in the same park), the documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division, where millions of selves who have by and large given up on one another.
Director: Brett Story Distributor: Grasshopper Film
Review: I Lost My Body Finds Poetry in Tracing Life’s Uncertainties
It focuses equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable.3
Naofel (Hakim Faris) has a small birthmark between the knuckles of his right hand’s pointer and middle fingers. This would be the appendage’s most distinctive characteristic if not for the fact that, after being severed from Naofel’s body, it develops a will of its own. Throughout I Lost My Body, the hand skitters around of its own accord, using its fingers to crawl out of the hospital lab where it was kept following Naofel’s grim accident. Jérémy Clapin’s animated film chronicles the journey of that hand through, among other places, the rooftops and gutters of Paris, into a river and across a highway, in an attempt to reunite with its owner, dodging animals and cars along the way.
Do hands have memories? Naofel’s right hand certainly seems to. As the wayward appendage propels itself through the air with an open umbrella or flicks a lighter to fend off a bunch of subway rats, flashbacks recall the young man’s troubled, lonely life. He feels adrift, barely present in a world that seems only to have harsh words and unhappiness for him. He’s at odds with the relatives who took him in after the death of his parents in a car accident, and his half of a shared room is unfurnished save for the mattress placed directly on the floor. He works as a pizza delivery boy, but he isn’t a particularly good one, as he’s often late and, in one scene, scatters his pizza boxes into the street after crashing his bike into a car.
Many of I Lost My Body’s flashbacks foreground Naofel’s hand as though presenting its perspective. People and objects loom above it, its digits taking up wide swaths of the frame as they cling with insect-like precision to boxes or hold a microphone in their grip. Tight close-ups capture the fingers tapping random objects or emerging from the sand, and there are even POV shots of the hand peeking out from a dumpster or prodding the plastic bag it’s wrapped in. These sequences are a great showcase for the film’s subdued, naturalistic, and, above all, detail-rich hand-drawn animation: We see fidgeting fingers grabbing onto a locker door, a pigeon laboriously nudging the hand out of a gutter, and Naofel penciling lines onto blocks of wood that he’ll later trace over with a saw in his woodworking apprenticeship.
The metaphor at the heart of the film seems deceptively obvious: disconnection from the world and other people, literalized through a hand severed from its rightful body. But Clapin complicates that metaphor every step of the way, as in a flashback where Naofel’s father explains to him that, in order to catch a fly, the boy must aim where the fly will be rather than where it is. But knowing how to catch the fly doesn’t necessarily make the task any easier to accomplish, and the film’s depiction of fate follows a similarly unpredictable trajectory.
Through images of loneliness, as in a wooden igloo cobbled together on a rooftop, I Lost My Body builds an atmosphere of isolation and, above all, uncertainty. Because while Naofel takes his father’s advice to heart, his own attempts to live unpredictably, ahead of fate, do not always work out for him. His infatuation with Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois), initially so stirring as they close their eyes to listen to the rain and the wind from separate ends of an apartment intercom, goes in a few stalkerish directions. She rejects him for being a creep, and Naofel ironically comes to find fulfillment not in a relationship, as he had hoped, but in the woodworking he initially took up only to impress Gabrielle. I Lost My Body finds poetry in tracing life’s uncertainties, focusing equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable, as one part of a delicate whole.
Cast: Hakim Faris, Victoire Du Bois, Patrick d'Assumçao Director: Jérémy Clapin Screenwriter: Jérémy Clapin, Guillaume Laurant Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Report Is Noncommittal on the Moral Morass of the Dubya Era
In the end, it can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s flawed human fabric.2
The moral morass of the George W. Bush era is surveyed and scrutinized in writer-director Scott Z. Burns’s The Report, a true-life docudrama that bears all the visually monochromatic, thematically jaundiced hallmarks of Burns’s collaborations, as screenwriter, with Steven Soderbergh. Burns even manages to slightly best his mentor with his second solo feature. Compared to Burns and Soderbergh’s most recent joint effort—the feeble, scattershot Netflix-produced satire The Laundromat—The Report zeroes in on its incendiary sociopolitical subject with laser focus. That still doesn’t mean it adequately challenges preconceived notions about an especially dark period in American history.
The film’s title refers to the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, a 6,700-page document that took a long, hard, and unflattering look at the C.I.A.’s post-9/11 use of detention and torture—or, in politico parlance, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Daniel Jones, the committee’s lead investigator, is the protagonist, and he’s played by Adam Driver with a reserved sternness and solemnity that’s occasionally leavened by full-throated flashes of righteous indignation. Jones is all work, no play, and it’s evident that Burns intends this forbearing crusader as an audience surrogate. Yet Daniel mostly remains a cipher, a human enigma attempting, with Sisyphean effort, to expose and unravel the most sadistic and inhumane institutional practices.
It can be fascinating, of course, to watch a film that’s purely about process, revealing of the ways that those tied to an operation come off as cogs in a Moloch-like machine. And it helps, at least initially, that Driver is so good at conveying a total single-mindedness. When Jones looks around the cloistered, colorless basement office that will serve as headquarters for his investigation, he’s like an artist glancing at a blank canvas. For Jones, the swamp isn’t something to be drained, but to dip his brush in. And he’s painting a picture for an audience that, for the most part, is likely to undercut and minimize his efforts.
Burns is clearly reappropriating and remixing cinematic lessons learned from Alan J. Pakula’s starry Watergate exposé All the President’s Men. Jones’s boss, senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, letting her wig do most of the acting), assumes the role of Ben Bradlee-esque overseer. Archival footage of many of the big names in the torture debate (such as Dubya and Dick Cheney) is peppered throughout. And there’s even a paranoia-tinged encounter between Jones and a Deep Throat-like figure played with nauseated edge by Tim Blake Nelson.
The margins of The Report are filled to the brim with character actors doing creditably yeoman work, among them Corey Stoll as Cyrus Clifford, Jones’s pragmatic lawyer, Jon Hamm as chiding National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, Ted Levine as officious C.I.A. Director John Brennan, and Matthew Rhys as a New York Times reporter desperate for a scoop. Elsewhere, Maura Tierney and Michael C. Hall, as a pair of ideologically adaptable bureaucrats, headline the sections of the decade-plus narrative that detail the nitty gritty of the enhanced interrogation program, waterboarding most definitely included.
Cinematographer Eigil Bryld shoots these latter sequences with a sickly green-orange tinge that one supposes is meant to convey ethical queasiness. Whereas the scenes featuring Jones and his team poring over papers and presenting their findings to functionaries in various stages of outrage (or not) tend toward the icy blues or the ultra-high-def neutrality of a David Fincher production. Ever-shifting color temperatures aside, The Report is rarely stimulating. Its conscious detachment from the events it portrays proves not so much analytical as noncommittal. The closest it comes to picking a side is a tossed-off moment in which Jones throws some scowling shade at a TV commercial for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which was rather unconvincingly sold during its release as a work of objective nonpartisanship.
It’s strange, then, that Burns tosses a flagrantly uncritical bone in The Report’s final scenes, as John McCain, often held up as a model of principled dissent, is shown passionately decrying the United States’s torture program on the Senate floor. As in many a Hollywood production about American transgression, Burns ultimately can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s monumentally flawed human fabric.
Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Ted Levine, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, Corey Stoll, Maura Tierney, Jon Hamm Director: Scott Z. Burns Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019
The Best Stephen King Movies, Ranked
We’ve compiled the best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the mostly mediocre TV adaptations.
Stephen King is one of the most influential of all contemporary writers, an artist who followed Richard Matheson’s example in wedding irrational horror with the surreal minutiae of everyday American life. The most distinctive elements of King’s remarkably vast bibliography—his exacting and uncanny empathy for working-class people and his loose, pop-culture-strewn prose—are rarely accounted for in the dozens of films that have been made from his novels and stories, which often predictably emphasize his propulsive plotting. Consequently, these adaptations often resemble routine genre films with a smattering of King’s dialogue, which sounds better on the page than when performed by often self-conscious actors who look as if they’d rather be anywhere than trapesing around a simulation of King’s beloved Maine. But a number of excellent films have been made from the author’s writing, either by doubling down on the neurotic naïveté of the author’s Americana or by striking new ground, recognizing that a good film needs to be a movie, rather than a literal-minded act of CliffsNotes-style embalming. To commemorate the recent release of Cell, we’ve compiled the 10 best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the countless, mostly mediocre TV adaptations.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 8, 2015.
10. Stand by Me (1986)
Those who accuse Stand by Me of indulging shameless boomer nostalgia are missing the point, as that’s precisely what the film is about. Director Rob Reiner dials down the violent hopelessness of King’s source material (the novella The Body), but still emphasizes the cruelty and loneliness that mark four boys’ coming-of-age odyssey to see the corpse of a young man nearly their age. The film is framed as one of the grown boy’s remembrances, as he attempts to spin his unreconciled feelings into the more tangible stuff of…coming-of-age fiction. At times it’s hokey, and, yes, the soundtrack does some major emotional heavy lifting, but the feast of excellent acting compensates greatly, particularly by Wil Wheaton, Kiefer Sutherland, and River Phoenix. Stand by Me remains one of the best adaptations of King’s more sentimental non-horror writing, and it’s far superior to preachy, insidiously insulting staples like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.
9. Creepshow (1982)
Still one of the great comic-book movies in that it approximates the actual tactile act of reading and flipping through a magazine, ideally on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a can of soda by your side. George Romero directed from King’s original script, which pays homage to EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and the filmmaker displays a visual confidence and tonal flexibility that’s reminiscent of his Dawn of the Dead. The bright, deep, and garish cinematography is both beautiful and disturbing, enriching King’s gleefully vicious writing while providing a framework for the lively performances of a game, celebrity-rich cast. The film straddles an ideal line between straight-faced seriousness and parody, particularly in the unnerving climax of a story in which we can hear the pained gurgling of aquatic zombies.
8. Silver Bullet (1985)
A creepy drive-in horror movie that throws a werewolf into a boy’s sentimental coming-of-age tale. Based on King’s slim Cycle of the Werewolf, which was released with gorgeous illustrations by artist Bernie Wrightson, Silver Bullet weds evocative imagery with spare plotting that allows each scene to breathe, giving the film an nightmarish free-associative energy. There are several boffo sequences, particularly when the werewolf seizes a man’s baseball bat, his paw shown to be beating the man to death from below thick fog, or when the wolf is outsmarted by the protagonist, one of his eyes blown to pieces by a bottle rocket. Speaking of the monster, the movie has one of the great wolf designs, which suggests a huge, bitter, upstanding bear with a terrifying snout. The human identity of the creature is a great, characteristically blasphemous King twist.
7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)
Five years after her career-making performance in Misery, Kathy Bates returned to Stephen King territory with Dolores Claiborne, which, like the book, disappointed nearly everyone for not being a typical horror story, instead combining the traditions of martyred-woman melodrama with gothic mystery. Critics, who only seem capable of praising melodrama when it’s directed by one of their pre-approved canon placeholders (like Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk), also turned their noses up at Dolores Claiborne, and it’s a real shame. Both the novel and the film get at the heart of King’s preoccupations with sexism and classicism, spinning a fractured narrative of a mother, her daughter, the man who nearly ruined their lives, and the all-encompassing pitilessness of aging. Yes, the film is behaviorally broad, but this broadness is utilized by the reliably underrated director, Taylor Hackford, as a form of catharsis. And Bates’s performance as the titular character is positively poetic. Her delivery of a monologue about Dolores’s work routine particularly locate the weird, qualified dignity of thanklessness, reveling in the pride and transcendence that can be wrestled from menial-ness. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Dolores Claiborne has the feel of King’s voice.
6. Misery (1990)
No one performs King’s dialogue like Kathy Bates. She embraces and owns the moving cuckoo logic of his best orations, understanding that they’re almost always rooted in class anxiety. The most disturbing quality of Misery, both the novel and the film, is the fact that we relate to Annie Wilkes, psychotic “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (superbly played in the film by James Caan), more than we do her victims. Bates is so intimately in tune with Annie that we feel for her when she fails to impress Paul, somehow temporarily forgetting that she’s holding him hostage and torturing him. Annie is yet another of King’s unleashed nerds, a repressed soul seeking actualization, but she isn’t sentimentalized, instead embodying the ferocious self-absorption that fuels obsession, leading to estrangement. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman regrettably trim King’s most ambitiously subjective material, but they compensate by focusing pronouncedly on the cracked love story at the narrative’s center.
Review: Last Christmas Wears Its Sloppy Heart on Its Kitschy Sleeve
There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.1.5
Multiple times in Last Christmas, Kate and her immigrant parents (Emma Thompson and Boris Isakovic) say that they hail from the “former Yugoslavia,” a rather outdated and strangely non-specific way of referring to their origins. When Kate comforts an Eastern European couple on the bus after they’re accosted by a Brexiter, they excitedly but vaguely ask her, “You’re from our country?” At this point, Last Christmas has begun to sound downright evasive, and you may wonder if the filmmakers even know where Kate’s family is supposed to come from. To screenwriters Bryony Kimmings and Emma Thompson, such details would appear to be extraneous to this anti-Brexit Christmas Carol. Merely tacking an affirmation of immigrant rights onto a familiar Christmas narrative about selflessness requires little more than an evocation of a general Slavic-ness about the characters.
Another element that Paul Feig’s film keeps pointedly indistinct is the nature of a recent illness that the twentysomething Kate (Emilia Clarke) has endured. Clearly depressed in the wake of a major health event, the aspiring singer is ostentatiously selfish, exploiting what remains of her friends’ and her boss’s good will. Currently homeless, she travels with a roller suitcase from crash pad to crash pad, drinking heavily, bringing home one-night stands, and openly flirting with customers at work. Kate is employed full time at a Christmas shop in London whose wisecracking owner (Michelle Yeoh) goes by the name Santa. At one point, Santa expresses distress at Kate’s haggard, disheveled state because she doesn’t want the young woman to drop dead. “I don’t have enough tinsel to cover your body,” she worries.
The grounds for Santa’s concern that a woman in her mid-20s may be killed by the lifestyle lived by many Londoners in their mid-20s is left open because its ultimate reveal three-quarters of the way through the film points toward one of the silliest twist endings in recent memory. We only learn what happened to Kate when she reveals the scar from an operation to Tom (Henry Golding), the beautiful, saintly man she begins seeing after finding him bird-watching outside the Christmas shop. Suffice it to say, Last Christmas is “inspired by” the Wham! song of the same name, specifically one line—and one line only—from its chorus.
Kate loves George Michael—one imagines she feels a bond with the late singer, the son of a Balkan immigrant himself, though the filmmakers leave this unexplored—and thus Last Christmas attempts to remake some of his most well-known songs into seasonally appropriate tunes. Obligatory montages to “Faith” and “Freedom” speed us through parts of Kate’s Tom-facilitated rehabilitation from cynical wastrel to Christmas-spirited patron of the homeless, though these segments are brief, cutting off the songs before we realize they have absolutely nothing to do with the jolly Christmas vibes that the film attempts to give off. Even “Last Christmas” is only heard in snippets, lest we realize that the song’s lyrics have little to do with seasonal giving and charity, and everything to do with regret, hurt, and resentment.
Last Christmas counts on our absorbing the sugary sound of Michael’s music but none of its substance. This is perhaps the film’s fatal flaw, and it’s not unrelated to its evasiveness regarding Kate’s origins and its simplistic affirmation of liberal outrage at Brexit. There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters—true from the beginning, but particularly after its last-act reveal—that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.
Besides the general sound of Michael’s music, Last Christmas clearly draws influence from classic Christmas-themed films like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Shop Around the Corner. Such films, though, earned their Christmas miracles and holiday moralizing by grounding their stories in a sense of the community created by bonds between fully realized characters. Clarke works hard to make the messy, perpetually flustered Kate relatable, but the film surrounds the character with a community as kitschy and false as the trinkets she sells in Santa’s shop.
Cast: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Emma Thompson, Michelle Yeoh, Boris Isakovic, Lydia Leonard Director: Paul Feig Screenwriter: Bryony Kimmings, Emma Thompson Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Midway Delights in the Thrill of Battle Without Actual Peril
In the film, the Battle of Midway suggests something out of a photorealistic animated film.2
“With the advent of CGI,” critic J. Hoberman writes in his 2012 book Film After Film: Or, What Became Of 21st Century Cinema?, “the history of motion pictures was now, in effect, the history of animation.” Rarely has this point been more vividly illustrated than in Roland Emmerich’s slick historical combat epic Midway, in which the eponymous WWII naval battle is depicted with such an abundance of shimmery digital effects that it suggests something out of a photorealistic animated film.
Emmerich, a latter-day heir to the cinema-as-spectacle tradition of Cecil B. DeMille, employs special effects in Midway not to induce a sense of you-are-there verisimilitude, nor to exhilarate audiences with a series of death-defying stunts. Rather, the film’s scenes of combat are more like elaborate paintings, similar in spirit and function to the cycloramas that were such popular attractions at the turn of the 20th century: vast panoramas that compact all the major highlights of a particular event into a single canvas.
Unlike Saving Private Ryan, there’s no attempt here to key the viewer to the chaos and horror of battle. In fact, there’s scarcely any blood to be found in Midway. In addition to the Battle of Midway, the film depicts the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, and other skirmishes in the Pacific during WWII, and these sequences, so bathed in honeyed sunlight, exude a sense of wide-eyed gee-whiz glee: all the fun of battle with none of the icky gore.
Midway is a paean to those brave American soldiers of the greatest generation, one that positions the brave sailors of the U.S. Navy as scrappy underdogs who, after the humiliating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, make it their mission to avenge themselves on the Japanese. The film studiously avoids acknowledging anything about the era it depicts that might make its target audience (read: white History Channel-watching patriarchs) uncomfortable. Nowhere is this more evident than in its treatment—or, rather, complete non-treatment—of race. Emmerich not only completely sidesteps the issue of racial segregation in the military, black soldiers are completely unseen in the film, despite the fact that many African-Americans served on U.S. ships that fought at Midway, albeit primarily in support roles.
Though most of the film’s characters, a bland succession of largely interchangeable good ol’ boys, are based on real-life historical personages, Wes Tooke’s leaden screenplay renders them all as little more than stock war-movie types. Devil-may-care flyboy Dick Best (Ed Skrein), a ‘40s-era twist on Top Gun’s Maverick who gains some maturity when he’s promoted to command his own unit of pilots, is the closest thing that Midway has to a protagonist. Less flashy but similarly righteous is a naval intelligence officer, Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), who fights the good fight against the bureaucracy in order to convince the higher-ups that the Japanese plan to attack the Midway atoll. Woody Harrelson also shows up looking tired and slightly lost as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, while Dennis Quaid is saddled with the role of Vice Admiral Bull Halsey, who’s mostly on hand to attest that shingles are absolutely terrible.
The Americans are all salty, gruff, and jokey, while the Japanese are somber and aphoristic, though both sides share a fondness for speaking in banal clichés. The script never invests us in any of these characters, failing to establish real narrative stakes for any of them. The plot is really little more than perfunctory filler between the battle sequences, which are peppered throughout the film with the regularity of dance numbers in a Rogers and Astaire musical.
Midway is reportedly a longtime passion project for Emmerich, for which he scraped together funds from a number of sources, making it one of the most expensive independent films of all time. (These funders included some Chinese equity firms, which may account for the presence of a completely tangential subplot involving Army Air Forces officer Jimmy Doolittle, played by Aaron Eckhart, bonding with oppressed peasants in Japanese-occupied China). But while Emmerich’s childlike excitement at the whiz-bang action of naval combat is palpable, the film’s battle sequences lack any real suspense or sense of danger. In these moments, Midway suggests old newsreel footage come to life. The film’s veneer may be unmistakably modern, but it’s no less devoted to promoting and flattering a certain idea of heroism, even as it keeps the men inside all those ships and planes at a distance from audiences.
Cast: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Mandy Moore, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid, Darren Criss, Jake Weber, Brennan Brown, Alexander Ludwig, Tadanobu Asano, Keean Johnson, Luke Kleintank, Jun Kunimura, Etsushi Toyokawa, Brandon Sklenar, James Carpinello, Jake Manley Director: Roland Emmerich Screenwriter: Wes Tooke Distributor: Summit Entertainment Running Time: 138 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Review: Klaus Gorgeously Grapples with the Reinvention of Tradition
Sergio Pablos’s film is essentially a metaphor for its own unique and refreshing mode of expression.3
From Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, mainstream animation has taken a long-overdue look in the mirror as of late. Increasingly, animated films are opting for more experimental approaches, and often by taking inspiration from past techniques. Sergio Pablos’s Klaus is one such project, a throwback to classical animation that appropriately bakes its concern with tradition right into its plot. As a sort of Santa Claus origin story, the film examines the ways that tradition is built and torn down, all through an aesthetic that’s striking, beautiful, and as innovative as it is mindful of its own history.
The film follows the disgraced Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), a failing student at a postal academy, as he’s exiled to the frozen northern town of Smeerensburg. His father (Sam McMurray), the very rich head of the international postal service, has given him an ultimatum: establish a functioning post office in Smeerensburg, where so many others have failed before, or be cut off from his luxurious lifestyle. As a tipsy ferryman, Mogens (Norm MacDonald), notes at one point, the townsfolk have one thing to say to each other and no need for letters to say it: In some long-standing Hatfield-McCoy-esque familial feud, they swing axes and fire muskets at one another, making the ramshackle town a perpetual warzone.
No one in Smeerensburg sends their children to school because that would mean mingling with the enemy, and out-of-work teacher Alva (Rashida Jones) has adapted by using the schoolhouse for her side gig as a fishmonger, filleting catches right on her desk in front of the chalkboard. As he visits the unaccommodating locals, Jesper discovers a gruff, reclusive woodsman named Klaus (J.K. Simmons). Though Jesper initially suspects the hulking, white-bearded man of being an axe murderer who traffics in severed heads, Klaus only wants to help the town’s beleaguered children by gifting them handmade toys. All they have to do is ask for one by sending a letter with, of course, postage paid to Jesper.
The gears of the kids’ animated holiday movie are immediately apparent here, not just in the presence of a treacly tie-in song, but also in how Jesper’s own motivations will inevitably come back to bite him, with a requisite “I’m sorry” scene following a requisite “I quit” scene. These moments somewhat drag down the back half of Klaus, but the sheer extent of the film’s visual invention ensures that even such lulls are fabulous to look at. The exaggerated character designs are at once spindly and pleasantly rounded, and, most impressively, the textured, naturalistic lighting gives the film’s throwback techniques a distinctive and thoroughly modern edge. Pablos worked on Disney’s Treasure Planet and Tarzan, and that lineage is readily apparent in the bouncy, vibrant life that runs through all the character movements.
Beyond its characters’ wondrously cartoonish, emphatic gesticulations, much of the film’s humor results from unlikely circumstances of violence and hardship. When delivering presents in one scene, Jesper stuffs toys in socks hung to dry above a fireplace because he doesn’t dare enter the rest of the house, as we see him boxed into the center of the frame by a pack of sleeping, toothy dogs. And he drops into homes via chimney because the unwelcoming townsfolk of Smeerensburg, whose lawns and porches are littered with spikes and bear traps, naturally keep their doors locked. In the world of the film, Christmas traditions emerge through children’s rumors: Klaus’s wagon becomes a flying sleigh by pure circumstance, sent sailing through the air once the wheels come off, and when one child sees it just before it crashes to the ground, the story of the “sleigh” spreads like a haphazard game of telephone.
There’s an anarchic edge to both the film’s humor, as in a glimpse at a group of creepy kids building a snowman with so many carrots stuck into it that it suggests a stabbing victim, and the way it builds its uncanny origin story, all the while remaining skeptical of entrenched customs. Characters note that the long-running Smeerensburg feud (one scene shows it in the form of a cave painting) is what the town was built on, but the film’s dominant thematic current is that it’s time to move on, that remaining shackled to tradition or stuck in a rut only impedes progress. And with gorgeous animation that makes what was once old feel new again, Klaus essentially becomes a metaphor for its unique and refreshing mode of expression.
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, J.K. Simmons, Rashida Jones, Will Sasso, Neda M. Ladda, Sergio Pablos, Norm Macdonald, Joan Cusack, Sam McMurray Director: Sergio Pablos Screenwriter: Sergio Pablos, Jim Mahoney, Zack Lewis Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
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