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Understanding Screenwriting #107: Quartet, Tabu, 56 Up, The Gatekeepers, Cat Ballou, The Americans, 30 Rock, & More

If you’ve followed the Up documentary series, you know that it catches up with a cross-section of Britishers every seven years.



Understanding Screenwriting #107: Quartet, Tabu, 56 Up, The Gatekeepers, Cat Ballou, The Americans, 30 Rock, & More

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.)

56 Up

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.)

The Gatekeepers

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.)

Cat Ballou

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.)

The Americans

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.)

30 Rock

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.



Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Costume Design

Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us.



The Favourite
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

In less than a week, AMPAS has successfully stoked the anger of just about every creative in Hollywood, and perhaps sensing a widespread boycott of the Oscar telecast in response to the banishment of four awards to commercial breaks, the academy has now “clarified” its latest attempt to reboot the Oscars for the TL;DR generation. Yesterday, in a letter signed by the academy’s board of governors—which includes president, director of photography, and hater of cinematography John Bailey—members were assured that the four winning speeches will in fact be included in the broadcast, but with all the walking and talking that it takes to announce the winners edited out. Also, those four categories may or may not be given the short shrift in 2020, as apparently there’s a “rotation” system in place that will, I guess, leave the door open for us to not see Lady Gaga walk on stage next year to accept the best actress award for her performance accepting the Golden Globe this year for “Shallow.”

Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us. Case in point: When I sat down to write this article, I thought this award was going to be a slam dunk for Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, but as it turns out, the film isn’t even nominated for its costumes. Because sanity prevailed when voters decided they didn’t find any kind of magic in Brian May pulling out his old Queen outfits for the making of Bryan Singer’s film, maybe it will prevail again and AMPAS will take the Oscars off its planned keto diet. And if it doesn’t, we’ll take some solace in three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell—who for the third time in her career has been nominated twice in the same year—collecting this award for her gloriously ostentatious, stitch-perfect garbs for The Favourite.

Will Win: The Favourite

Could Win: Black Panther

Should Win: The Favourite

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Berlinale 2019: Out Stealing Horses, A Tale of Three Sisters, & Öndög

These films suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes.



Out Stealing Horses
Photo: Berlinale

On the way into Berlin from Tegel Airport, one of the first signs of the city you see is a large tract of land divided into rectangular plots, on each a shed in a variable state of repair. In fact, you can find such areas dispersed throughout the city. Visitors can easily mistake these colonies for third world-style shantytowns, but in fact they’re the bougiest things imaginable: privately owned allotments, known as kleingärten, that aren’t used as primary residences. It’s an institution that allows urban dwellers with enough money to simulate life “on the land,” a slice of rural life plopped down within the city.

As goes Berlin, so goes Berlinale. Several films in this year’s competition suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes. There’s a certain nostalgia in these films’ contemplation of the relationship between people and nature—in an age where our actions have precipitated an ongoing ecological cataclysm, the depiction of natural spaces almost immediately invokes the past.

A particularly wistful note is struck by Hans Petter Moland’s Out Stealing Horses, a film about—stop me if you’ve heard this before—sexual awakening set during a rural Scandinavian summer. The film begins in the dark, cold New Year’s Eve of 1999, as an aged and lonesome Trond Sander (Stellan Skarsgård) hides out in Sweden from his troubled recent past. When the 66-year-old Norwegian meets his closest neighbor, Lars (Bjørn Floberg), the film flashes back to the summer of 1948, which Trond spent at his father’s country house in Norway. In voiceover, Skarsgård’s weathered baritone guides us through his character’s reminiscences concerning the tragedy that befell a neighboring family, and how his relationship with his father (Tobias Santelmann) was altered forever when they both became entangled in it.

Although the bulk of its action takes place in the postwar Norwegian woods, Out Stealing Horses regularly brings us back to 1999, contrasting the gray-and-blue perpetual night of a Swedish winter with the variegated colors of summer. Such blatant romantic symbolism doesn’t initially detract from a film that seems at the outset to promise a thoughtful contemplation of mortality. But as the symbols start to multiply—winter for old age and impending death; summer for youth; flowers, birds, and bees for burgeoning sexuality; thunder for emotional turmoil; water for femininity—and the melodrama becomes conventional and bloated, Moland and co-screenwriter Per Petterson’s subordination of natural objects to human meanings becomes increasingly one-dimensional.

Emin Alper’s A Tale of Three Sisters opens with a car driving into a remote, mountainous area of central Anatolia in Turkey. The car, whose hood takes up the foreground of the frame, belongs to Mr. Necati, a well-to-do city dweller on whom Sevkit (Müfit Kayacan) and his three daughters rely for their livelihood. The four live in a small village nestled in the mountains, and since their mother’s death, each of the three girls has tried and failed to serve as Necati’s family’s maid in the city. Nurhan (Ece Yüksel) and Havva (Helin Kandemir) have just returned from their stint, one that ended because the irascible Nurhan was beating the Necati children, and Reyhan (Cemre Ebuzziya) was returned some years ago when she got pregnant, upon which her father swiftly married her off to Veysel (Kayhan Açikgöz).

Veysel, a reluctant and lazy shepherd by trade, is a hapless fool, the kind of guy who will accidentally piss on a grave, then worriedly pose to his village superiors the question: “Is pissing on graves a sin?” Sevkit and the other men regularly laugh at his expense, and Reyhan and her sisters have little patience for her husband-of-necessity. The village’s mistreatment of the earnest but perpetually outmatched Veysel will have tragic consequences.

Tale of Three Sisters isn’t interested in tidy narrative resolutions. Much of the film consists of evocative scenes set amid the glowing brown-red hues of the area’s mountains and the hearth of Sivket’s family home—one of the most memorable of which is a comic, sexually suggestive sequence involving a huge jug of ayran, a foamy yogurt-based drink popular in Turkey. The film works its way toward a kind of moral resolution, though at times the journey there is a bit of a slog. Sevkit is a domineering father, his words taking over both his home and the film, which occasionally feels as tedious as his daughters find it.

Öndög, by Chinese director Wang Quan’an, is a film that takes an elemental approach to the human condition. A good portion of its running time is made up of long exterior shots of the Mongolian plains held for minutes at a time, the frame cleanly divided between the elements of earth and sky. The action, such that it is, often takes place at dusk, which flattens the silhouettes of the diminutive human figures against the blue-orange twilight sky; at times they look like shadow puppets inching their way across an ersatz, cardboard stage. The film’s aesthetics are grandiose in the same measure that they are playful.

Naturally, Öndög is concerned with life and death, and in a manner that evokes cyclical time. It opens with a pair of deaths—a woman’s body is discovered in a field, and a sheep is slaughtered on camera—and it closes with a pair of births (no spoilers here, but, then again, it’s doubtful spoilers can exist in cyclical time). Landing upon the same symbol of eternal recurrence as Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, Wang evokes dinosaur life: One character shares with another that the ancient reptiles were first discovered in Mongolia, making Mongolians their descendants, destined in millions of years to be discovered again, by dinosaur scientists.

Though the film opens with police discovering the aforementioned woman’s body and a young officer (Norovsambuu) left alone in the field to guard it until it can be retrieved, it leaves this plot thread unresolved, subsuming itself in the anti-drama of the herdswoman (Dulamjav Enkhtaivan) who’s asked to keep the officer company. Roaming around the plains on her distinctive camel and tending to her livestock with only the occasional help of a neighboring, motorcycle-riding herdsman (Aorigeletu), the herdswoman is a model of autonomy and self-determination. She’s faster and better with a gun than the police, and flat-out ignores the herdsman’s constant suggestions that she needs to find a man.

Quan’an addresses eternal, cosmic themes through a portrait of rural characters living in a desolate setting, but even if his interest is in the primeval, he doesn’t make his characters “primitive.” They live closer to death and to birth, but they still play Elvis songs on their cellphones, call the police when they’re in trouble, and have medical abortions. And Öndög’s portrait of the human condition also isn’t portentous or overly self-serious; for one, this is a film that will give you a new appreciation for the inherent humor of camel sounds. Slow but never tedious, set under sky and stars but not in the least bit sentimental, Öndög is the festival’s most profound story of human life on the land.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actor

Throwing questions of artistic merit out the window, opponents of a Rami Malek win have dutifully cast doubt on his ideological purity.



Bohemian Rhapsody
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Given how this accursed Oscar season has thrown one obscenity after another at everyone who has any investment whatsoever in the institution of the Academy Awards, it’s as though AMPAS is inviting the world to burn the Dolby Theater down on Oscar Sunday, as Mélanie Laurent’s Shosanna does to the Cinema Le Gamaar at the climax of Inglourious Basterds. And at this point, considering that one of the four awards being banished to commercial breaks is cinematography, and that AMPAS president John Bailey is himself a cinematographer, the presumption of self-sabotage seems credible.

Such are the affronts to progress toward anything other than ABC-Disney’s maniacal bottom line to reverse the show’s declining ratings, and the deadening effect every bad idea has had on our souls, that Rami Malek winning the best actor Oscar for leading with his teeth throughout Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody slots toward the bottom of our shit list. Malek, who cemented his frontrunner status with a BAFTA win last weekend, may be taking a page, if not the whole ream, from Eddie Redmayne’s shamelessly charming campaign playbook. But in the category’s absence of Ethan Hawke, who ran the table with critics for his performance in First Reformed, is anyone’s reserve of outrage bottomless enough to howl about the inevitable results here, beyond wounded fans of A Star Is Born? (Though, don’t get us wrong. We’re happy to give Bradley Cooper the award if it keeps him from going behind the camera again.)

Throwing questions of artistic merit out the window, opponents of a Malek win have dutifully cast doubt on his ideological purity. You don’t have to flash back to Casey Affleck to regard this tack as a grisly mistake, even if you don’t happen to believe Malek got Bryan Singer kicked off of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody for preying on underage boys. This is an Academy that nominated Green Book for five awards. Good intentions are still more than enough, and what you say is still as important, if not more so, than what you do. And if portraying Freddie Mercury as a misguided homosexual who just needed to find Britain’s one good gay somebody to love leaves a pretty foul taste in our mouths, at least Malek has managed to avoid letting the N-word slip from his mouth on the promotional circuit.

Will Win: Rami Malek, Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: Christian Bale, Vice

Should Win: Any actor willing to publicly stand up in support of airing all 24 categories.

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