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Understanding Screenwriting #109: The Call, No, Ginger & Rosa, Joyful Noise, San Antonio, Castle, & More

Ginger & Rosa the story of the intimate relationship (emotional rather than sexual) of two teenage girls in London in October 1962.

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Understanding Screenwriting #109: The Call, No, Ginger & Rosa, Joyful Noise, San Antonio,  Castle, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Call, No, Ginger & Rosa, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: An Appreciation, Joyful Noise, The Law West of Tombstone, Background to Danger, San Antonio, Castle, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein was shocked, shocked I tell you, that I was critical of a director he loves, John Boorman, and especially his work on Point Blank (1967). I’m sure David realizes that part of a brief in a column dealing with screenwriting and screenwriters is to keep a jaundiced eye on directors. Given that, I don’t consider the director “as some species of sous-chef.” While any idiot can direct a film, directing a film well is a whole other matter. The problem I have with directors in general, and Boorman in this case, is that they assume that directing style is all. It’s not, and directors like Boorman who sometimes treat it like it is end up making very uneven films. I tend to prefer directors who make a real effort to understand what the script is about and how best to present it. One of the reasons Henry King had such a long and successful career is that, every time he’d be assigned a screenplay, he’d sit down with the writer and spend at least a couple of weeks going over the script in excruciating detail to get a sense of what the writer intended. You very seldom hear of directors doing that these days, and I think movies are poorer for it.

I agree with David on Alain Resnais’s Providence (1977). There’s one that really needs a DVD release. Your attitude toward it will change every time you see it. And for his suggestion that Smash should deal with a revival of a Stephen Sondheim show, how about Merrily We Roll Along? There are at least a couple of stage directors, including one here in L.A. who have figured out how to make it work.

The Call (2013; screenplay by Richard D’Ovidio; story by Richard and Nicole D’Ovidio and Jon Bokenkamp; 94 minutes.)

Finally! The first three months of 2013 weren’t a good time for American films (and the audience noticed, as attendance is down 12% from the same time last year). The only new American film I came up with before this that I wanted to write about, let alone see, was Side Effects (see US #108), and I avoided Gangster Squad, Identity Thief, and Jack the Giant Slayer because of bad reviews. Though reviews for The Call weren’t that good, my wife was having people in for the day to shampoo the carpets, so I really wanted to get out of Dodge. And boy, I’m glad I did, since it’s a terrific little thriller. The writers have limited credits among them, but they’ve done a good job on this one. We jump right into the action as Jordan, a 911 operator, takes a call from Leah Templeton, a teen alone at home who hears somebody breaking in. Jordan tells her what to do, and Leah ends up under the bed. Leah’s phone disconnects and Jordan hits redial. The phone rings, the intruder hears it, finds Leah and we learn later on kills her. Boy, talk about a bad day at the office for Jordan.

When we next pick up Jordan, she’s a training instructor for potential 911 operators. We have already seen a little of how “the hive” works, so Jordan’s job gives us exposition that we need at that point. Jordan is taking her trainees past an operator who picks up on a call from…another teen, Casey, who’s been kidnapped. The young operator is too rattled to handle it and Jordan, very reluctantly, steps in. And we’re off and running. The writers have really done their research, and the first two thirds of the film is a brilliant use of what 911 operators can and cannot do. Usually in a movie they’re just a voice on the phone; here we get great details of how the system works. Casey has been thrown into the trunk of a car. Her cellphone has been smashed, but she has her friend’s cell, which is one of those nothing-facy throwaways…without a GPS system. So Jordan has Casey knock out the taillight of the car and wave out. Well, that sort of helps and then it doesn’t. Casey ends up sharing the trunk with a dead body, which proves useful.

Yes, a film with a woman in a 911 call center and another in a car trunk is action-packed. The producers were originally going to shoot it in Canada, but at virtually the last minute they got a tax break from the state of California and so filmed in the Los Angeles area. That gives the filmmakers the chance to show lots of action above, on, and below the freeways. But all that non-stop action does get repetitive and the writers were right to shift gears from action to suspense, in spite of some critics complaining about the last third. We get Jordan on her own, and for her personal reasons, figuring out where Casey and her abductor are. And she can’t call for help because she’s out of range for her cellphone. As she’s looking for them, we discover more or less why the abductor has taken Casey, and it’s not what we suspected, but much, much creepier. So the writers shift again, this time from suspense to horror—and a very knowing horror. At one point we’re introduced to a room in the basement and see Casey’s horrified reaction, but we don’t see to what. We assume that the film’s Mrs. Bates is there, but that’s not exactly it. We do get more action when Jordan finds them, and then a twist ending that I love, even if I know it’s at least partly to allow for a sequel. And although the way it’s handled is hugely satisfying on its own, I’m not convinced a sequel is such a good idea. What makes this film fresh is the look at the job, and we will have already had that by the time the sequel rolls around.

Speaking of directors, here it’s Brad Anderson, who has an interesting résumé. He wrote and directed the charming Next Stop Wonderland (1998) and the strange but amusing Happy Accidents (2000). He wrote and directed the wonderful Transsiberian (2008), which I wrote about in US #3, and a lot of what I loved about that film (suspense, action, interesting characters) are at play here. I have no idea how much he worked on this script with the writers, but he was a perfect choice to direct. And Halle Berry was the perfect choice to play Jordan. She’s interesting to look at (as is Queen Latifah; see below for details), and you may have forgotten she’s a terrific actress. This film opened much better than expected. If there was any questions before it opened that Berry was a star, both commercially and artistically, consider them now answered.

No (2012; screenplay by Pedro Peirano; based on a play by Antonio Scármeta; 118 minutes.)

Good idea, not as well developed as it could be. In Chile in 1988, Augusto Pinochet was pressured by the international community to hold a plebiscite on his regime. The voting was simple: If you wanted Pinochet to remain in power, you voted “YES,” if you didn’t, you voted “NO.” Everybody assumed that the election was rigged and the “NO” side would lose. It didn’t, and the film tells you how it happened. It’s not a documentary, but a recreation, although it uses television news coverage and, more importantly, the real campaign materials from both sides.

No begins with René Saaverda, a young advertising man introducing a campaign, telling his audience it fits with the “social context” of the time and yet “looks to the future.” If you know anything about the film, you will assume it’s a political commercial, but it’s a campaign for a soft drink. Later he’s approached by the “NO” people, and Peirano gives us some nice details of their attitudes (and the attitudes of the regime as well). The “NO” folks think it has to be a serious campaign, showing all the horrible things Pinochet has done (torture, killing, etc.). When René suggests a lighter campaign, they are horrified at trivializing politics. Obviously they don’t know about American campaigns. René’s commercials are exactly like his ones for soft drinks, and he first presents them to the “NO” team as part of the “social context” of the time, yet looking to “the future.” Ultimately the campaign works and Pinochet is defeated.

Peirano does give us some good reactions, but not enough of them. When René takes his son to his estranged wife’s house, he finds her with another man, who’s wearing one of the rainbow T-shirts of the “NO” campaign. As René walks away from the house, director Pablo Larraín stays on a sad-looking Gael García Bernal’s face. I love watching Bernal, but there are more reactions Peirano can give him. Doesn’t he feel a bit of the irony of the situation? I can understand Larraín holding on Bernal’s face as much as he can, but Peirano really needs to give him specific things to react to. Larraín keeps the pace so slow we’re always way ahead of the film. I happened to catch of bit of Wag the Dog (1997) shortly after I saw No, and it’s not only got character detail this film has, but the wit and the pacing it could have used.

Still, there are nice moments. On election night, the police outside the “NO” headquarters are suddenly pulled away. Does this mean the administration is giving up, or that the police are leaving the headquarters vulnerable to pro-Pinochet rioters? Both the audience and the campaign workers don’t know. When the election is over, we see René presenting a new ad for a soap opera, introducing it as, yes, part of the “social context” and looking to “the future.” Before he makes his presentation, his partner, Guzmán, who had worked for the “YES” side in the campaign, introduces René as the guy who won the “NO” campaign. Let bygones be bygones when there’s money to be made.

Ginger & Rosa (2012; written by Sally Poter; 90 minutes.)

I’d Sell my Grandmother for a Long Shot. This is the story of the intimate relationship (emotional rather than sexual) of two teenage girls in London in October 1962. Their mothers were in the maternity ward together in 1945 and Ginger and Rosa have been best friends ever since. Ginger is concerned about the threat of nuclear warfare (it’s the time of the Cuban missile crisis), while Rosa is dreamily hoping for a great romance. For the first 50 minutes we get a lot of nuanced detail about the girls and their relationship. My wife lived in England in the early ‘60s, and she was struck by the accuracy of the music the girls listen to. But the film doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. According to Potter, the story is vaguely autobiographical. Through it she’s reliving her youth, which is why we get lots of close-ups of the delicate and precise emotions of the girls, especially Elle Fanning as Ginger. I was not much of a fan of Fanning in Somewhere (2010; see US #68), but thought she was terrific in Super 8 (2011; see US #77). She’s wonderful here as Potter gives her lots of reactions, but they’re almost too much of a good thing, and all the close-ups make the film claustrophobic.

Finally, after a lot of throat-clearing by Potter in the script, we get a dandy plot turn. Rosa falls into an affair with Roland, a womanizing scum who happens to be…Ginger’s dad. Tears and yelling ensue, and we get dramatic action. The relationship between Ginger and Rosa is over, at least for now. Whether either one of them has come of age is an open question.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: An Appreciation. In US #81, I discussed Shakespeare Wallah (1965), the second film written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who died on April 4. With the film, she hadn’t quite found her footing, though she certainly did later on. While reading obituaries of the Booker Prize-winning author and Oscar-winning screenwriter and mulling over her career, two things struck me. Firstly, she had a real gift for understanding different cultures. She was a German Jew, born in 1927, who escaped with her family to England in 1939 during the start of WWI. Her education was in the English system, and she read most of the great English novels (as well as other classics) at that time. Some of her best films are adaptations of English writers, particularly E. M. Forster. But she also adapted American writers like Henry James and Evan Connell. After her life in England, she married an Indian architect, Cyrus S.H. Jhabvala, and moved to India. She wrote novels and eventually screenplays about India, and she was just as sharp about Indian culture as she was about English and American culture. She later moved to America.

Secondly, with the exception of writing Madame Sousatzka (1988) with and for director John Schlesinger, all of her work was for director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant. In the studio days of the ‘30s and ‘40s, it was not unusual for a writer to work for one studio for a decade or two, but since the ‘60s, when Jhabvala started writing films, it was unheard of. Merchant told The Times of London shortly before his death in 2005 that the trio’s four-decade collaboration was “a strange marriage…I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American. Someone once described us as a three-headed god. Maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster!” That quote was reprinted in the best obituary I’ve read of Jhabvala, which you can read here. Another good source on Jhabvala is the interview Vincent Lobrutto did with her for Backstory 4. In the interview, Jhabvala goes into detail on how she worked with Ivory and Merchant, and you can see why the collaboration lasted so long. They didn’t just talk about collaboration, they believed in it and acted on it.

Joyful Noise (2012; written by Todd Graff; 118 minutes.)

The perils of plastic surgery for actresses. This is one of those I missed last year, and since my wife sings in a church choir, I thought we might both enjoy it, so I DVR’d it off HBO. My wife doesn’t sing in a gospel choir (Bach and Mozart are more her speed), but she was still able to point out some of the film’s more questionable elements, such as how members typically don’t practice in their choir robes.

Tood Graff’s story has potential. In it, Bernard Sparrow, a choir director, dies of a heart attack. The church committee selects Vi Rose Hill to take over, upsetting Bernard’s widow, G.G., who obviously wants the job. So Vi Rose and G.G. snip and snap at each other. I’m not sure, looking at the film, how big a part G.G. was originally supposed to be. Graff has larded up the story with more plotlines than you can shake a stick at, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he’d intended this as a TV pilot. The lead role is obviously Vi Rose, and Queen Latifah is perfect for it. She’s not only a great singer, but a terrifically expressive actress. G.G. is played by Dolly Parton, who’s had a pile of plastic surgery, so much so that her face is simply expressionless. Latifah dominates every scene they’re in together, and looking at the cutting of the film, I suspect there may have been more scenes with G.G. that got cut. Was G.G. intended as the co-starring part? If so, she really isn’t in the film as it stands. Was she intended as just one of many plotlines, and then sort of built up in the script when Parton signed on? Either way, the result is a mess. But Parton can still sing, and she’s great singing the ballad she wrote for the film, “From Here to the Moon and Back.”

Late in the film, Vi Rose and G.G. have a knockdown, drag-out fight. Vi Rose mentions for the first time the plastic surgeries G.G. has had, which seems tacky, but presumably Parton signed off on it. It just comes as a shock since no one else in the film previously mentions it. And in the same argument, G.G. never even once refers to Vi Rose as black. She just gets angry at Vi Rose in general, but doesn’t let fly any racial invective, which wouldn’t have been surprising coming from a Southern white woman of a certain age who’s being personally attacked. The choir, by the way, is multiracial, as is the romance between G.G. grandson and Vi Rose’s daughter, and nobody makes a point out of this either. Boy, are we ever in a post-Obama world.

The Law West of Tombstone (1938; screenplay by John Twist and Clarence Upson Young, story by Young; 73 minutes.)

How many legends of the West can Harry Carey play in one 73 minute movie? Speaking of movies with plot stuffed to the gills, here’s another one. Harry Carey, the great silent-screen star, plays Bill Barker, a notorious teller of western tales, not unlike Buffalo Bill Cody. He’s in New York trying to hornswoggle a big businessman into investing in his bogus goldmine. The law runs him out of town and he lands in Martinez, Arizona. He appoints himself mayor and judge, holding court in a saloon and dispensing very rough justice. In other words, the character is inspired by Judge Roy Bean, who was played in later movies by Walter Brennan and Paul Newman, among others. But he takes an avuncular interest in a young outlaw, the Tonto Kid. So he’s sort of like Pat Garrett looking out for Billy the Kid. But there’s also a good-for-nothing family called the McQuinns, who are not unlike the Clantons. So Barker turns into Wyatt Earp, along with his friend “Doc” Howard (i.e., Doc Holliday), and they have a shootout with the McQuinns, not at the O.K. Corral, but at the train station. Yes, the same train station where Barker has brought the local Native Americans to ship them off somewhere. And the Native Americans seem happy to go.

I have no idea what Young and Twist were up to with this. There’s so much plotting and so many lose ends that they may have intended this as a major feature and had to cut it down. Or maybe they just had too much sarsaparilla at the local saloon and tried to see how much they could get into 73 minutes. It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s still enjoyable. Carey is wonderful and charming as always, and the Tonto Kid is played by a young actor named Tim Holt. He went on to be Georgie Minafer four years later in The Magnificent Ambersons, but his heart was never far from the west.

Background to Danger (1943; screenplay by W.R. Burnett, based on the novel by Eric Ambler; 80 minutes.)

W. R. Burnett, take one. I have written often about W. R. Burnett in this column, since his name pops up in credits for a lot of interesting movies. He wrote the novel and screenplay for High Sierra (1941) and its remake, I Died a Thousand Times (1955), which I wrote about in US #76. Whenever I want to dig up some information on Burnett, I usually go to the first of Pat Mcgilligan’s Backstory books, which has a nice interview with him. I recently came across a reference to an Oral History interview with Burnett done for the American Film Institute by Dennis L. White. So I figured I’d go over there and browse through it one afternoon. Well, it’s over a thousand pages long, and I have to take it in easy stages, since I don’t get over to the AFI’s Mayer Library that often. But it’s worth the trip.

I saw Background to Danger a few months ago and I was sure I had written about it, but when I tried to find it in the index I keep for the column, it wasn’t there. I suspect I just dismissed it as yet another attempt by Warner Bros. to repeat Casablanca (1942): American in a foreign land during World War II, dealing assorted baddies played by Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. You can see why Warner Bros. bought Ambler’s novel, which deals with an American businessman in Turkey getting involved with the Russians and Germans. It was given to Jerry Wald to produce, who had several scripts developed on the project. One was a partial script by John Huston, who left it when he went into the army. Wald talked to Burnett and they threw out the other scripts and started telling each other ideas. The idea that the Nazis are trying to get Turkey into the war on their side by showing them a map of a proposed Russian invasion isn’t in the novel.

George Raft was assigned the leading role, but he insisted that instead of the salesman in the novel, he had to play an F.B.I. agent. On the one hand, Raft was right, since he isn’t convincing in the early scenes as a salesman, but on the other hand, it completely changed the nature of the story. Burnett and Wald were scrambling, and when White mentioned to Burnett he couldn’t tell who was who in the film, Burnett replied, “We couldn’t either.” But Burnett felt that this helped the film, as both the writers and the audience didn’t know who was going to turn out to be a spy and for which side. Burnett was right, given the context of the film.

San Antonio (1945; screenplay by Alan LeMay and W.R. Burnett; 109 minutes.)

W.R. Burnett, take two. Warner Bros. had hired Frederick Faust to write a film for Errol Flynn. Under his pen name, Max Brand Faust, he’d written many stories and novels, particularly westerns. So he came up with an ingenious idea for a story: a western with no action. Warner Bros. wasn’t pleased. They had a shooting date, a commitment from Technicolor to make the film in color, and they had Flynn scheduled. So they called in Burnett and, by his account (in the interview with Ken Mater and Pat McGilligan in the first Backstory book), he came in and wrote the screenplay in three weeks. Burnett doesn’t mention LeMay, the author of the novel of The Searchers.

Warner Bros.’s intent was obviously to do another big Flynn western in the spirit of Dodge City (1939; see US #17), and this is okay, if not quite up to the original. Burnett’s brilliant idea was to pair Flynn, playing a cattleman getting the evidence to take down a slick cattle-rustling operation, with Marlene Dietrich as the dance-hall singer; after all, she had a similar part in Destry Rides Again (1939, based, coincidentally, on a novel by Max Brand). Everybody liked the idea, even Jack Warner at first. But when Wald and Burnett went up to his office, he opened his desk and said, “Look at all these contracts in here. All these no good sons-of-bitches sitting around on their asses, earning $1,500 a week, $2,000 a week. Why should I go out and get Dietrich?” So they ended up casting Alexis Smith. I actually generally like Smith better as an actress, but they didn’t have time to rewrite the part for her, so there’s a bit of a disconnect between the actress and the role; the role as written is more restrained, in the Dietrich manner, but Smith is a more open performer. The script is also sloppy in other ways. Roy Stuart, the villain, is very bland as written. There are two shootouts, one in a very large one inside a saloon, an homage to the brawl in Dodge City, no doubt. The second is in the Alamo, and that’s just plain weird. Undoubtedly they were trying something like Hitchcock did by setting the big finish of Saboteur (1942) on the Statue of Liberty, but here the choice is anticlimactic, as well as creepy. Instead of Hitchcock’s razzle-dazzle, we have a dark interior set that gives the scene the feel of a film noir.

The writers do get in a tribute to the great Michael Curtiz, who didn’t direct this, but in shooting The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) had asked the wranglers for a riderless horse with the immortal Curtiz line, “Bring me an empty horse.” Here the line goes to Sasha Bozic, played by the great character actor S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, who like Curtiz was Hungarian-born. As an indication how sloppy the script is, they have him say the line in two different scenes.

Castle (2013; “The Lives of Others” written by Terri Miller and Andrew W. Marlow; 59 minutes.)

Learning from the Master. John Michael Hayes’s screenplay for Rear Window (1954) has been stolen from a lot over the years, and this episode does an even better job of it than the 2007 film Disturbia. While Disturbia turned the major characters into teenagers, Miller and Marlowe have kept them as adults. In this case Jeff has become Castle, and Lisa has become Beckett. Castle has broken his leg skiing. As in Hayes’s script, we don’t see the accident, and the writers don’t give us the photograph and broken camera that Hayes does. We get it in dialogue, and it’s also quickly established that Beckett is going to continue working on cases while Castle recuperates, Castle’s mother goes off on vacation, and his daughter is busy with college. So he’s alone in his apartment. Now, you would think that since Castle is a writer of mystery novels, he’d welcome the opportunity to stop running around solving cases with Beckett and get some serious writing done, but then there wouldn’t be an episode.

There are a number of references early on to Rear Window, and one of them covers the detail that Beckett has given Castle a pair of binoculars as a joke. After crashing a model helicopter he flies around the house, he picks up the binoculars and looks across the way. He sees a woman and a man whom Castle takes to be her lover, who manages to sneak out of the house when her husband arrives. The husband finds the lover’s hat, and later takes a large knife in the bedroom, where the blinds are down. Well, what would you think was happening, especially since we don’t see the wife after that? Miller and Marlowe fortunately follow Hayes’s pattern and not that of Cornell Woolrich in his original story. Woolrich’s main character mentally collects details that make him think there’s a murder. What Hayes and the writers here do is have each idea that their hero comes up with shot down by the cops. In both cases it makes the material a lot more dramatic. Castle is mostly in a wheelchair, but does get around on crutches, so at one point when the others don’t believe him, he gets into the neighbor’s apartment and finds blood splatter on a wall. He gets the contents of a shredder which has a receipt for a storage unit, after which he and Beckett go to it and break in. The rug Castle thinks has the body in it is there, but no body. And so on. Finally Castle convinces Beckett to enter the apartment, and as with Lisa in Thorwald’s apartment, the husband comes back. And there’s an electrical blackout and a commercial break during which Castle goes over to the apartment. He enters in the dark, the lights go on, and it’s a surprise birthday party Beckett has set up for Castle, with Martha having provided the actors from her acting class. That’s a satisfying ending because, given what we know about Rear Window, it’s a surprise.

Oh, yes, one other thing. I do recognize the title of the episode is from the great 2006 German thriller written by Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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Review: The White Crow Sees Art As Being Above and Beyond Politics

Ralph Fiennes’s film too conspicuously avoids an overt political perspective.

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White Crow
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Director Ralph Fiennes’s The White Crow, which tells the true story of ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s 1961 defection to France, opens in a small office in Leningrad, where ballet instructor Aleksander Ivanovich Pushkin (Fiennes, speaking lightly accented Russian) is assuring a security-apparatus bureaucrat that Nureyev’s defection isn’t political. “It’s about dance,” the soft-spoken Pushkin says. “He knows nothing about politics.”

We might consider that a manifesto for The White Crow itself, because throughout the film, the West, as embodied by thriving, early-‘60s Paris, is identified “apolitically” with individual freedom and artistic expression. Pushkin’s interview with the nameless bureaucrat serves as a framing device, within which the film cuts between three different timelines in Nureyev’s (Oleg Ivenko) life, culminating in his decision, under duress from the KGB, to defect to France.

The first of these timelines concerns Nureyev’s bleak childhood in Siberia. Famously, the dancer was born on a train, a scene that the film articulates in shorthand, with color-drained, blue-gray footage it will use for all its scenes set in war-torn Russia. Fiennes and screenwriter David Hare construct a correlation between Nureyev’s natal mobility and his adult need to go places, cutting from the train to the Mariinsky Ballet Company’s flight to Paris in 1961. In Paris, the arrogant Nureyev carelessly pushes the boundaries set by the company’s KGB chaperones, leaving the hotel before dawn to spend the morning in the Louvre, and staying out all night at gay clubs and cabarets with Westerners.

On the Paris social scene, he befriends Clara Saint (Adéle Exarchopoulos), a beautiful socialite whose main attraction for Nureyev appears to be that she’s recently bereaved (her fiancé recently died in a car accident). It’s here the film articulates one of its major themes, and one of Nureyev’s fascinations: the creation of beauty from ugliness. In the Louvre every morning, Nureyev contemplates Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, a Romantic depiction of death and suffering. So too, does Nureyev’s expressive dancing—traditionally feminine in its naked passion, according to him—turn the ugliness of his childhood into something beautiful.

Ultimately, the film suggests, the fiercely individualist Nureyev will defect because the West makes this transmutation of pain into beauty—that is, the expressive freedom of the individual artist—possible. It’s an historical argument that has basis in fact but which is troublesome here in its thoroughgoing de-politicization of art in the West. Unlike Paweł Pawlikowski’s masterful Cold War, which problematizes cultural authenticity in both communist Poland and ‘50s Paris, The White Crow presents Paris as the gateway to a realm of pure, unmediated self-expression. In reproducing the romantic cliché of the artist as tortured genius, this biopic is certainly not alone nor even the worst sinner, but its representation of art as a realm above and beyond politics is too idealized. It functions to make the West seem an aesthete’s utopia, even as the film appears to avoid an overt political perspective.

The film’s third timeline begins six years prior to the trip to Paris, with Nureyev’s arrival at the Mariinsky school in Leningrad. There, Nureyev insists on taking classes from Pushkin rather than from his assigned teacher, and he and Pushkin develop a personal friendship. The friendship is complicated by Nureyev’s barely concealed affair with Pushkin’s wife, Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova), and made all the more awkward by the young man’s clear sexual preference for men (it’s also implied that Pushkin himself is a closeted gay man).

Fiennes’s Pushkin ends up feeling one-note, always wearing the same tender expression, with affected gestures one suspects are meant to denote the grace of a former ballet dancer but seem all the time like the strategic choices of an actor acting. Ivenko, by contrast, disappears into his role, lending a depth to his ambitious and irascible character that makes the man sympathetic even as he thoughtlessly insults Clara and betrays Pushkin.

Despite Ivenko’s convincing performance, The White Crow is weighed down by its multifold flashback structure, particularly the monochromatic vignettes from the dancer’s childhood. While these flashbacks provide a psychological rationale for Nureyev’s incorrigible individualism and barely suppressed inner conflict, the digital color draining of these scenes increasingly feels like a cheap way of connoting the dire conditions of postwar Russia. Rather than merely oppressive, these flashbacks start to feel redundant, a quality one might attribute to the film’s overly elaborate narrative structure as a whole.

Cast: Oleg Ivenko, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Ralph Fiennes, Raphaël Personnaz, Chulpan Khamatova, Sergei Polunin, Calypso Valois, Louis Hoffman, Olivier Rabourdin Director: Ralph Fiennes Screenwriter: David Hare Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 127 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: J.T. LeRoy Is a Scarcely Subjective Telling of Great Literary Hoax

It’s disappointing that so much of the film feels like mere tilling of the soil.

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J.T. Leroy
Photo: Universal Studios Home Entertainment Content Group

J.T. LeRoy was known as the author of three books across the late 1990s and early aughts. A reclusive, HIV-positive trans man, LeRoy was hailed as a wunderkind upon the publication of Sarah, which the San Francisco Chronicle boldly called “comically Dickensian.” In actuality, LeRoy never existed, as he was a persona, or avatar, willed to vivid life by writer Laura Albert as a means of saying what she felt she couldn’t say as herself.

As co-writer and director Justin Kelly’s film J.T. LeRoy begins, demand for LeRoy is at a fever pitch, perhaps even at a breaking point, as Albert (Laura Dern) is seen desperately recruiting her younger sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart), to play the part of this persona in public, with Albert assuming the role of LeRoy’s overbearing handler, “Speedie.” It’s a spectacular ruse that the pair managed to sustain for six years.

It’s hard to not look at such a weird set of circumstances and see its resultant mold-breaking controversy as foreshadowing, perhaps even enabling our present-day social-media moment and obsession with identity politics. As an examination of the power of celebrity and the easily muddled nature of truth, the film seems to implicitly understand that the creation and eventual exposure of the LeRoy hoax speaks to something deep in the heart of a culture in the midst of an identity crisis, but based on what’s on screen, it’s hard to say exactly what that is.

Highly aware of its own meta-textual richness, the film, adapted by Kelly and Knoop herself from her memoir Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy, is at its most interesting when it feels like its inhabiting rather than telling LeRoy’s story. When Speedy and LeRoy engage with fans and press in a haphazard fashion, there’s suspense in the spectacle of every question and answer that’s exchanged—that a grand ruse will be exposed at any moment.

Dern and Stewart convince us that such a stunt could be pulled off not so much in spite of but thanks to its utter absurdity, and among many standout details in the film is a moment when Speedy and LeRoy greet a collaborator (Courtney Love, one of many real-life celebrities who were enmeshed in the real-life saga) with a gift bag consisting of mini-onions, baked beans, and a neck pillow. Such details feel too strange to not be true, and they lend a sublime authenticity to the climactic images of Stewart, as LeRoy by way of Knoop, at the Cannes Film Festival—a cinematic black hole of sorts, with the spectators at the event horizon.

It’s disappointing, then, that so much of J.T. LeRoy feels like mere tilling of the soil. Cursive on-screen text and a ponderous, recurring voiceover lend the film the quality of a notebook doodle. Worse, though, are Kelly’s flat compositions and the script’s impersonal adherence to the beats of biopic storytelling. Aesthetically and narratively, the film lacks the fire—the slippery subjectivity—that we associate with the explosiveness of the J.T. LeRoy saga.

Though successful in presenting how something so outlandish could happen with such apparent ease, J.T. LeRoy fails to sufficiently probe the deeply personal needs of both authors and consumers that drive creation. Dern and Stewart do such a fine job of telling us how it feels to be someone else that you wish for the filmmaking to meet them at their level.

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jim Sturgess, Courtney Love, Diane Kruger Director: Justin Kelly Screenwriter: Justin Kelly, Savannah Knoop Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment Content Group Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Ang Lee’s Gemini Man, Starring Will Smith, Gets Official Trailer

Ang Lee’s three-year marriage to the 120fps format appears to be in strong shape.

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Gemini Man
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Ang Lee’s last film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, was praised on these pages for astoundingly animating the mind of its young soldier. The film, shot in 3D at a resolution of 4K, was supposed to be some kind of game-changer. But its 120fps format, which is almost three times the 48fps that Peter Jackson used for The Hobbit, annoyed just about everyone for resembling a soap opera or football game.

Nonetheless, Lee’s has remained committed to the format. His latest film, Gemini Man, tells the story of an aging assassin (played by Will Smith) who’s being chased by a younger clone of himself. Admittedly, the hyper-real textures of the film look more convincing than those of either Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk or The Hobbit. But you can make your own assessment from the two-minute trailer that Paramount Pictures released today:

Paramount Pictures will release Gemini Man on October 11.

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Review: Avengers: Endgame Is, Above All Else, a Triumph of Corporate Synergy

Every serious narrative beat in the film is ultimately undercut by pro-forma storytelling, or by faux-improvised humor.

1.5

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Avengers: Endgame
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

“Let’s get that son of a bitch,” says Captain America (Chris Evans) near the beginning of Anthony and Joe Russo’s Avengers: Endgame, the supposed big-screen finale to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we now know it. Cap, that sacred symbol of American might, is of course profaning Thanos (Josh Brolin), the purple colossus whose hand of fate, bedecked with the six Infinity Stones, erased half the world’s population during the cliffhanger climax of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War. The victims included many among the superheroic, several of whom have movies on the docket. So there’s no way the remaining commodities—I mean, Avengers—are going to go down without a fight.

It’ll take a while to get to the final showdown, of course. About two hours and 45 minutes of the three-hour running time, to be exact, all of it filled to bursting with goofy one-liners, aching stares into the middle distance, and lots and lots of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey digressions. Almost all of the Avengers’s founding team members are on hand, with a considerably more grizzled and cynical Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner) providing most of the pathos. Also in attendance are Scott “Ant-Man” Lang (Paul Rudd) and Carol “Captain Marvel” Danvers (Brie Larson), the latter of whose won’t-take-no-guff brashness is especially endearing to a certain gruff, hammer-wielding Asgardian.

I’d tell you more about the film, but then I’d have to kill myself at the spoiler-averse Marvel Studios’s behest. Even noting certain elements out of context—like, say, “Nerd Hulk” or “Lebowski Thor”—might be considered too revealing by the powers that be. So, let’s dance around the narrative architecture and instead ruminate on whether this 22nd entry in the MCU serves as a satisfying culmination of all that’s preceded it.

That’s a firm no, though the Russo brothers and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely certainly lean hard into the dewy-eyed, apocalyptic sturm und drang. You’d think they were putting the finishing touches on the Bible. There are allusions to The Leftovers, J.G. Ballard’s The Terminal Beach, and Picasso’s Guernica, though there’s never a sense, as in those works, that society is truly in irrevocable decay. It’s all good, even when it isn’t: Death is a mostly reversible ploy, and sacrifice is a self-centered concept, a burnish to the ego above all else. It’s telling that, in one scene, Captain America stops to admire his own ass.

There’s some fleeting fun to be had when Endgame turns into a sort of heist film, occasioning what effectively amounts to an in-motion recap of prior entries in the MCU. Yet every serious narrative beat is ultimately undercut by pro-forma storytelling (the emotional beats never linger, as the characters are always race-race-racing to the next big plot point), or by faux-improvised humor, with ringmaster Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr., so clearly ready to be done with this universe) leading the sardonic-tongued charge. Elsewhere, bona fide celebs like Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Natalie Portman are reduced to glorified extras. Even the glow of movie stardom is dimmed by the supernova that is the Marvel machine’s at best competently produced weightlessness.

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Danai Gurira, Benedict Wong, Jon Favreau, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Brolin, Evangeline Lilly, Tessa Thompson, Frank Grillo, Winston Duke Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo Screenwriter: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 181 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Cannes Directors’ Fortnight Lineup Includes The Lighthouse, Zombi Child, and More

In addition to Directors’ Fortnight, the festival announced the films that would screen as part of the ACID lineup.

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The Lighthouse
Photo: A24

Five days after Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux revealed the films that would be competing for the Palm d’Or this year on the Croisette, the Cannes Film Festival has announced the films that will screen as part of the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight. Among those are Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, a dark fantasy horror film starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson shot on 35mm black-and-white film stock, and Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, which recounts the destiny of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who was famously said to have been turned him into a zombie.

See below for the full lineup, followed by the ACID slate.

Directors’ Fortnight Lineup:

Opening Film

Deerskin (Quentin Dupieux)

Official Selection

Alice and the Mayor (Nicolas Pariser)
And Then We Danced (Levan Akin)
The Halt (Lav Diaz)
Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää)
Song Without a Name (Melina León)
Ghost Tropic (Bas Devos)
Give Me Liberty (Kirill Mikhanvovsky)
First Love (Takashi Miike)
The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
Lillian (Andreas Horwath)
Oleg (Juris Kursietis)
Blow It to Bits (Lech Kowalski)
The Orphanage (Shahrbanoo Sadat)
Les Particules (Blaise Harrison)
Perdrix (Erwan Le Duc)
For the Money (Alejo Moguillansky)
Sick Sick Sick (Alice Furtado)
Tlamess (Ala Eddine Slim)
To Live to Sing (Johnny Ma)
An Easy Girl (Rebecca Zlotowski)
Wounds (Babak Anvari)
Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)

Closing Film

Yves (Benoît Forgeard)

Special Screenings

Red 11 (Roberto Rodriguez)
The Staggering Girl (Luca Guadagnino)

Shorts

Two Sisters Who Are Not Sisters (Beatrice Gibson)
The Marvelous Misadventures of the Stone Lady (Gabriel Abrantes)
Grand Bouquet (Nao Yoshigai)
Je Te Tiens (Sergio Caballero)
Movements (Dahee Jeong)
Olla (Ariane Labed)
Piece of Meat (Jerrold Chong and Huang Junxiang)
Ghost Pleasure (Morgan Simon)
Stay Awake, Be Ready (An Pham Thien)

ACID Lineup:

Features

Blind Spot (Pierre Trividic, Patrick-Mario Bernard)
Des Hommes (Jean-Robert Viallet, Alice Odiot)
Indianara (Aude Chevalier-Beaumel, Marcello Barbosa)
Kongo (Hadrien La Vapeur, Corto Vaclav)
Mickey and the Bear (Annabelle Attanasio)
Solo (Artemio Benki)
As Happy as Possible (Alain Raoust)
Take Me Somewhere Nice (Ena Sendijarevic)
Vif-Argent (Stéphane Batut)

Third Annual ACID Trip

Las Vegas (Juan Villegas)
Brief Story from the Green Planet (Santiago Loza)
Sangre Blanca (Barbara Sarasola-Day)

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Review: Carmine Street Guitars Is a Beautiful Portrait of an Everyday Paradise

The film celebrates the thingness of things, as well as the assuring clarity and lucidity that can arise from devotion to knowledge.

3.5

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Carmine Street Guitars
Photo: Sphinx Productions

The concept of Carmine Street Guitars is simplicity itself. Director Ron Mann documents the legendary Greenwich Village guitar store of the film’s title over a period of five days, watching as mostly famous customers stroll in to peruse and play instruments and shoot the breeze with guitar maker Rick Kelly. There’s no voiceover, no overt narrative, and little orienting text—and none of the encounters in this film are structured or presented as info-bite-style interviews. Mann artfully sustains the illusion of someone who’s just hanging out, capturing whatever draws his attention. Consequentially, the documentary communicates the magic of this place even to someone who’s never been to New York City.

Mann has a knack for telling you more than he appears to be. Fashioning intimate compositions, he surveys Kelly and his apprentice, Cindy Hulej, as they build guitars together in companionable silence. Kelly and Hulej are a poignant study in contrasts: Kelly is a graying sixtysomething man with a bit of a belly, while Cindy is a lean twentysomething woman who, with her bright blond hair and multiple tattoos, suggests a rock star. Occasionally, Hulej will solicit Kelly’s approval for one of her designs or for the artwork or poetry she’s burning into the back of a guitar, which he grants with a humble hesitation that subtly says, “You don’t need my approval.” Meanwhile, up front in the store, Kelly’s mother answers the phone. At one point, she says she’s happy to be here, though, at her age, she’s happy to be anywhere.

Shots of Kelly and Hulej working also allow one to savor the tactility of Carmine Street Guitars itself. Hulej works to the left of the back of the store, while Kelly stays to the right of it. Above Kelly is a storage of wooden planks taken from various landmarks of New York, such as Chumley’s and McSorley’s. Kelly poetically says that he likes to build guitars from the “bones of New York.” The resin dries out in older wood, allowing for more openings in the material which in turn yields greater resonation. Such fascinating details arise naturally in the film’s images and conversations. Over the course of Carmine Street Guitars, Kelly fashions a McSorley’s plank into an incredibly evocative guitar, as the gnarled wood gives it the appearance of possessing scar tissue. Near the end of the documentary, musician Charlie Sexton walks in and plays this guitar, and the idea of scar tissue takes on a different meaning. Sexton, Kelly, and the store itself are textured survivors of another era.

This is never explicitly stated in Carmine Street Guitars, but the film offers an analogue daydream in a 21st century that’s been nearly gentrified to death by corporations. The building next to Carmine Street Guitars was once used by Jackson Pollack and is now being sold by a yuppie real estate agent for six million dollars. The yuppie walks into the guitar shop, drooling over the potential sales opportunity, and his entrance feels like an obscenity—a return to the reality that we frequent stores like Carmine Street Guitars, and films like Carmine Street Guitars, in order to evade. It’s only at this point that Kelly’s democratic bonhomie hardens into defensive contempt, as he virtually refuses to speak to the agent. This episode haunts the film, suggesting a fate that can only be bidden off for so much longer.

Carmine Street Guitars celebrates the thingness of things, as well as the assuring clarity and lucidity that can arise from devotion to knowledge. Kelly’s guitar shop is a cocoon, a place of contemplation, and so it feels inevitable when Jim Jarmusch walks into the store. After all, Jarmusch’s recent films, like Only Lovers Left Alive and Paterson, also celebrate creation and erudition while ruing the arrival of a new culture that’s hostile to such desires. Kelly and Jarmusch talk about the filmmaker’s new guitar, which is partially made from Catalpa wood, leading to a riff on the trees that have been formative in each man’s life. In another moving interlude, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline searches for a guitar for frontman Jeff Tweedy, settling on an instrument that reflects Kelly’s own characteristic design: a telecaster with a dropped horn. Such moments reveal artisanship to be a form of communion, as a personal object for Kelly has been refashioned into a symbol of another artistic partnership.

These themes and associations bob under Carmine Street Guitars’s surface, as musicians noodle around with Kelly. This pregnant sense of implication is Mann’s supreme achievement, and as such the film risks being taken for granted as a charming little diversion, when it should be celebrated as a beautiful portrait of an everyday paradise. When Hulej weeps in gratitude, on her fifth anniversary of working for Carmine Street Guitars, you want to weep with her.

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Review: Hyènas Brilliantly Chips Away at a City’s Colonialist Architecture

Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1992 film resonates primarily for its lacerating comedic writing and pacing.

4

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Hyènas
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Djibril Diop Mambéty spared no one when mercilessly depicting populations who were simultaneously eating themselves from within and being exploited by the economic interests of outside forces. Mambéty’s great Touki Bouki from 1973 viewed this dual process through the prism of the postcolonial relationship between Senegal and France. And in Mambéty’s second feature, 1992’s Hyènas, Senegal is pitted against larger global institutions, such as the World Bank, that prey on small nations whose financial instability makes them more likely to embrace warped logic and false promises at their own expense.

Mambéty confines the proceedings to Colobane, a small commune in Dakar, where its population and governmental order are turned upside down by the return of former resident Linguere Ramatou (Ami Diakhate), whose newfound wealth has become a subject of much dispute and angst within the community. The woman, who’s said by locals to be “richer than the World Bank,” becomes Mambéty’s stand-in for how an institutional form of thinking, with its financial rather than human emphasis, corrupts local interests by vacuously promising short-term riches to citizens that, in turn, produce long-term financial crises.

One of Mambéty’s primary strengths is how his sense of detail instantly brings the locations of his films to life. Hyènas opens within the market owned by Dramaan (Mansour Diouf), a beloved local merchant whose generosity with patrons is almost immediately apparent, as he allows several customers to purchase expensive goods on credit rather than having them pay up front. Mambéty establishes each nook and cranny of the market’s space through a series of static shots that gradually reveal the amount of people—none of which offer payment for their acquisitions—toiling around the premises. When Dramaan’s wife (Faly Gueye) appears, and Dramaan says, out of her earshot, that she disapproves of his business practices, it’s the first suggestion in Mambéty’s carefully plotted script that mutual trust is the first casualty in the exchange of money between people linked to differing motivations. As the Colobane community takes even greater advantage of Dramaan later in the film, Hyènas further turns the man’s plight into an absurdist tale of capitalism’s follies.

Linguere’s return to Colobane provides the film with its driving plot device, as she announces to the population that she will pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the community in exchange for Dramaan’s murder. Linguere was abandoned by Dramaan years prior after giving birth to their daughter and has come back with the sole intention of wreaking havoc on the man’s life. At least, it initially seems that way; in a later scene, Linguere explains, “The world has made me a whore,” and so she plans to “turn the world into a whorehouse.”

Mambéty imagines how Linguere’s wealth co-signs her agenda of revenge; her dangling of expensive goods over the heads of locals hungry for their piece of the pie is akin to the lie of global monetary cooperation promised by organizations like the International Monetary Fund. Senegal, once again, becomes dependent on global rather than local sources of income and exchange. Mambéty, though, follows the thematic example set by Ousmane Sembène’s Xala, in which a Senegalese politician’s sexual impotence is a symbol of his corruption, by refusing to exonerate local officials within Senegal for their complicity in embracing Westernization. When Dramaan meets with Colobane’s mayor (Mamadou Mahourédia Gueye) to discuss the bounty that’s been placed on his head, the latter says, “[Leopold] Senghor himself went for a walk with the Queen of England…if we were savages, they would not come here.” By implicating the mayor’s deference to Western forms of knowledge and self-definition, Mambéty deftly wrestles with the complexity of corruption’s reach.

Despite its rather serious and finally tragic appraisal of Senegal’s quagmire within the world system, Hyènas resonates primarily for its lacerating comedic writing and pacing. As Dramaan comes to mistakenly believe that he will be elected Colobane’s next mayor, only to learn that, in fact, he’s more likely to be killed before an election takes place, Mambéty ratchets up the film’s ludicrousness to simultaneously critique the Senegalese government and widespread consumerism, and with equal ferocity. This is best encapsulated by the moment where Dramaan realizes that everyone who isn’t paying him seems to own the same, new pair of yellow boots made in Burkina Faso. Dramaan’s market, filled with foreign goods ranging from European tobacco to Coca-Cola, is itself exploiting its owner; the man has paid a high price for quality only for the local marketplace to abuse his ambitions.

These ideas also propelled Touki Bouki, in which a pair of college-aged youths from Dakar, a city adored with so many Pepsi logos and Mobil oil towers, (dream of migrating to France. In a memorable scene from that film, a pair of French professors dismiss Senegal’s local culture by articulating the distinctly colonialist logic of France’s superiority. While Hyènas forgoes such an explicit drag of French supremacy, the film’s lucid indignation and satirical take on Senegal’s raw deal proves just as convincing.

Cast: Ami Diakhate, Mansour Diouf, Calgou Fall, Faly Gueye, Mamadou Mahourédia Gueye, Issa Ramagelissa Samb, Dijbril Diop Mambéty Director: Djibril Diop Mambéty Screenwriter: Djibril Diop Mambéty Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 1992

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Review: Chasing Portraits Is Welcome Personal Testimony, but Its Scope Is Narrow

Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

2.5

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Chasing Portraits
Photo: First Run Features

Before World War II, Poland’s Jewish population was the largest in Europe, numbering over three million. Afterward, only 10% of that populace remained. Although the current right-wing Polish government prefers to suppress this fact, the 300,000 surviving Jews faced continued persecution at the hands of gentile Poles—themselves the victims (though to a much lesser degree) of Nazi persecution. Today, when the number of Jews in Poland is well under 10,000, one can visit the old Jewish quarters in cities like Warsaw and Krakow, where street kiosks sell small plastic caricatures of Hasidic Jews. On the streets, though, you’re unlikely to encounter any actual Hasids.

In her trip to Warsaw in search of her great-grandfather’s lost paintings, Chasing Portraits director Elizabeth Rynecki stumbles across these figurines. As she observes in voiceover, there’s nothing overtly demeaning about the miniature, jovial, cartoonish Jews, but the image they project doesn’t feel right, given local history. And one must agree that there’s an undeniable aspect of minstrelsy to them: Unlike her great-grandfather Moshe’s textured scenes of Jewish life in Warsaw, they’re almost certainly not self-representations. Given the Jewish culture that was destroyed in Poland—and whose richness is embodied by Moshe’s few surviving paintings—the grinning trinkets seem all the more like frivolous kitsch.

Rynecki’s discovery of these unsettling souvenirs is potentially one of the most interesting parts of Chasing Portraits, given that she happens across them while on the trail of lost Jewish art. As a curator at a Warsaw museum observes to the filmmaker, Moshe’s work depicts traditional moments of Jewish culture in a distinctly modern sensibility, attesting to the robustness of the Jewish culture on the eve of its destruction. In this way, his paintings are the opposite of the post-facto plastic caricatures, and Rynecki’s confrontation with the mass-produced simulacra of absent Jews is a moment when her highly personal documentary almost extends toward a wider perspective. But she doesn’t linger for too long on what the Holocaust and Judaism mean in Poland today, as she’s on her way to ask a private collector named Wertheim about how his family managed to acquire some of Moshe’s works.

Rynecki’s insular approach works well early on in the film, when she, in conversations with her father, outlines who her great-grandfather was and what his surviving paintings mean to the family. Of around 800 works that Moshe painted before he was murdered at the Majdanek death camp, just over 100 survive in the possession of the family, with an unknown number in the hands of private collections and Polish museums. That much is a miracle, but Rynecki—more so, it seems, than her father, a Holocaust survivor himself—wants to discover more. In the film, we see her consult with historians, compose emails to private collectors, and read excerpts of her grandfather George’s memoirs, in preparation for her trip to Poland.

Chasing Portraits is about Rynecki’s investigative process rather than Moshe’s paintings themselves; in voiceover, she narrates each step of her process as she takes on the role of amateur historian. And in maintaining an intense focus on her investigation—how she reads out the emails she writes to institutions, and shows us footage from each flight she takes from one corner of the world to another—the film raises probing questions that it dutifully bypasses. Her encounters with the Wertheim family are a case in point: The first Wertheim brother claims the family own paintings by Moshe because they bought it from a farmer, but the second tells the more plausible story that they have the paintings because their parents, resistance fighters hiding in the Polish woods, raided them from a bombed-out train.

In Rynecki’s narrative, these conflicting stories become a personal conundrum: If the paintings were looted rather than bought, she may be able to make a claim on them. In the end, it’s Rynecki’s growth, her decision about whether or not to become a claimant, that structures the film. But this approach means skirting over other thematic threads that might have emerged from this project, such as the ethics of museum versus private ownership of recovered art like Moshe’s, the meaning of art in desperate times, the politics of remembrance in Poland. Chasing Portraits is thus valuable as part of an expansive mosaic of personal testimonies to the legacy of the Holocaust, but it’s a documentary of sometimes disappointingly narrow scope. Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

Director: Elizabeth Rynecki Screenwriter: Elizabeth Rynecki Distributor: First Run Features Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: If the Dancer Dances Diminishes Its Subject by Succumbing to Hagiography

The documentary is incessant about reminding us of the late Merce Cunningham’s achievements.

2

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If the Dancer Dances
Photo: Monument Releasing

More than once in Maia Wechsler’s If the Dancer Dances, a dance is described by one of numerous talking heads as existing only in the moment; once any movement or routine is complete, it essentially can never be replicated to an exacting degree. But the film inadvertently appears as if it’s trying to prove that poetic and insightful observation wrong, which becomes increasingly clear as we follow choreographer Stephen Petronio as he and his dance company work on a production of Merce Cunningham’s RainForest.

Wechsler’s depiction of the company seems unwilling to step out of Cunningham’s shadow, given the extent to which the members of the current production and Cunningham’s former pupils happily provide hagiographic accounts of the groundbreaking avant-garde choreographer and his work. In an about-face from the repeated description of dance’s unreplicable nature, the new RainForest’s choreographers and dancers set out to duplicate rather than interpret the work. The fawning over Cunningham, and the implication from the company that they’ll never be able to live up to his vision, only exposes an overbearing inferiority complex running throughout the documentary.

If the Dancer Dances really only comes to life when showcasing the company’s rehearsals, throughout camera movements that match the gracefulness of the dancers and compositions that incorporate multiple points of action. Wechsler’s observational methods in these sequences capture mini-dramas in themselves, such as when choreographers quietly confer, attempting to adjust the dance routine that’s playing out in front of them.

Still, rather than letting the audience simply observe the company at work and letting the process speak for itself, Wechsler incessantly reminds us of Cunningham’s monolithic presence via scores of interviews that laud his work process. The film’s constant lionizing of the man amid so much rehearsal footage has the unintended effect of sapping the dancers of agency. Throughout, it’s as if Wechsler is judging the company’s artistic decisions based on whether or not Cunningham himself would consider them right or wrong.

At one point in the film, a former colleague of Cunningham’s explains that the late choreographer, in an effort to ensure that his works felt fresh, tried to never be influenced by other productions. This anecdote rings of irony, given how the film includes numerous sequences of Petronio’s choreographers discussing how to ape Cunningham’s aesthetic in precise detail—and often in incomprehensibly abstract directions that even some of the dancers appear not to grasp. The film operates under the impression that for any present or future company to change any one aspect of Cunningham’s original vision would be blasphemous and offensive, which turns If the Dancer Dances less into the insightful backstage documentary it wants to be, and more into a gushing, sycophantic love letter.

Director: Maia Wechsler Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Watch the Trailer for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix Series When They See Us

Netflix will release the series on May 31.

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When They See Us
Photo: Netflix

In 1989, the rape and near-murder of Trisha Meili in Central Park rocked the nation. A little over a year later, a jury convicted five juvenile males—four African-American and one Hispanic—to prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. In the end, the defendants spent between six and 13 years behind bars. Flashforward to 2002, after four of the five defendants had left prison, and Matias Reyes, a convicted murder and serial rapist serving a lifetime prison term, came forward and confessed to raping Meili. DNA evidence confirmed his guilt, and proved what many already knew about the so-called “Central Park jogger case”: that the police investigation of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, conducted at the beginning of the Giuliani era in New York City, was motivated less by a thirst for justice than it was by racial animus.

Last year, Oscar-nominated Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay announced that she would be making a series based on the infamous case, and since then hasn’t been shy, on Twitter and elsewhere, about saying that she will be putting Donald J. Trump in her crosshairs. Trump, way back in 1989, ran an ad in the Daily News advocating the return of the death penalty, and as recently as 2016, claimed that McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise are guilty of the crime for which they were eventually exonerated—behavior consistent with a presidential campaign that, like the case against the Central Park Five, was a full-time racist dog whistle.

Today, Netflix dropped the trailer for When They See Us, which stars Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood, Christopher Jackson, Joshua Jackson, Omar J. Dorsey, Adepero Oduye, Famke Janssen, Aurora Perrineau, William Sadler, Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Storm Reid, Dascha Polanco, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Justin Cunningham, Ethan Herisse, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, and Asante Blackk.

According to the official description of the series:

Based on a true story that gripped the country, When They See Us will chronicle the notorious case of five teenagers of color, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four part limited series will focus on the five teenagers from Harlem—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. Beginning in the spring of 1989, when the teenagers were first questioned about the incident, the series will span 25 years, highlighting their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.

See the trailer below:

Netflix will release When They See Us on May 31.

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