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.
Locarno Film Festival 2019: Technoboss, Echo, & A Voluntary Year
A striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival’s competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register.
Locarno often leans into its reputation as Europe’s most unapologetically highbrow summer festival, but a striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival’s competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register. Such as João Nicolau’s Technoboss, an unwaveringly deadpan musical comedy about an aging divorcé, Luís (Miguel Lobo Antunes), nearing the end of what seems to have been a tedious career selling and maintaining integrated security systems. His existence is far from enviable, as he’s past his prime as a salesman and baffled by modern technology, while his primary companion is his cat. To compound the overriding sense of ennui, Nicolau presents a decidedly drab vision of Portugal, all cramped offices, cluttered shop floors, and soulless hotels.
Luís, though, remains optimistic, as evinced by his tendency to burst into song as he drives between assignments, and by the quietly determined way in which he attempts to regain the affection of an old flame, Lucinda (Luisa Cruz), despite her apparent disdain for him. Antunes, in his first professional acting role, is compelling, with a perpetual twinkle in his eye that hints at a rich inner life. And while his vocal range is limited, to say the least, he brings an earnestness to the musical numbers that elevates them above mere quirky window dressing.
Ultimately, the film is too narratively slight and tonally monotonous to justify its two-hour running time. One running joke in particular, involving a smarmy executive who’s frequently heard off screen but never seen, runs out of steam in the final act. And yet, when viewed in close proximity to the likes of Park Jung-bum’s dreary crime drama Height of the Wave, which bafflingly won this year’s special jury prize, Technoboss is a breath of fresh air.
Runar Runarsson’s Echo isn’t exactly a laugh a minute: An early scene depicts the preparation for a child’s funeral, while subsequent sequences revolve around police brutality, domestic violence, and the lasting impact of childhood bullying. But it’s delightful to behold Runarsson’s sly execution of a formally bold premise. Clocking in at 79 minutes, the film is composed of 56 standalone vignettes connected by a Christmas setting. The constant narrative shifts are initially jarring, but recurring themes begin to emerge: rising social inequality in the aftermath of the financial crisis; the impact of modern technology on traditional ways of life; the drabness of winter and its impact on the country’s collective mental health.
Yet while the film’s underlying tone is melancholic, there are frequent bursts of pure comedy, from the absurd spectacle of abattoir workers bopping along to a jaunty rendition of “Jingle Bells” amid animal carcasses, to a farmer and her partner earnestly squabbling about the state of their relationship as they document the mating habits of their goats. Humor also arises through the juxtaposition of scenes. The haunting image of a boy in a coffin is followed by a clinical shot of a similarly motionless adult body, and it takes a moment to register that we’re looking at not another corpse, but rather a man lying under a tanning lamp. Later, a heartwarming kids’ nativity scene cuts abruptly to a shot of bikini-clad bodybuilders performing in a harshly lit, half-empty auditorium.
However, it’s Echo’s sincerity that really impresses. One sequence, in which an emergency services operator calmly reassures a child reporting a violent altercation between his parents, is remarkable in the way it hooks the viewer emotionally in mere seconds. The film ultimately coheres into a vivid portrait of contemporary Iceland that’s equal parts bleak and beguiling.
A Voluntary Year, co-directed by Berlin School alumni Ulrich Köhler and Henner Winckler, is a similarly bittersweet affair, walking a fine line between raw domestic drama and precision-engineered comedy of errors. Sebastian Rudolph stars as Urs, an off-puttingly pushy small-town doctor intent on packing his teenage daughter Jette (Maj-Britt Klenke) off to Costa Rica to volunteer in a hospital. Jette, though, would rather spend her gap year at home with her boyfriend, Mario (Thomas Schubert), who seems harmless enough but has been written off as a poisonous influence by Urs. A sequence of mishaps in the thrillingly unpredictable opening act gives the young couple a brief chance to take charge of their own futures, but the decision Jette hastily makes pushes her strained relationship with her father towards breaking point.
Köhler and Winckler do a fine job of eliciting sympathy for their deeply flawed characters. Jette is maddeningly indecisive and prone to overly dramatic outbursts, but her brash exterior masks deep-seated vulnerability. Meanwhile, it’s easy to share Urs’s disbelief that Jette should be even remotely infatuated with the woefully uncharismatic Mario, but the boy’s earnestness ultimately proves strangely endearing. Urs is much harder to warm to, as he’s the quintessential big fish in a small pond, clearly used to throwing his weight around and getting his own way. To add insult to injury, his handling of sensitive situations is often jaw-droppingly misjudged. And yet, the viewer is given a strong enough sense of his good intentions to at least partially root for him as he attempts to patch things up with Jette.
While it may not do this modest film any favors to make the comparison, there are shades of Maren Ade’s masterly Toni Erdmann in The Voluntary Year’s nuanced depiction of a fraught father-daughter relationship, and also in the way the filmmakers play the long game when it comes to delivering comic payoffs. An enigmatic narrative thread involving a migrant boy has a laugh-out-loud resolution that also neatly paves the way for a moving final scene.
The Locarno Film Festival ran from August 7—17.
Interview: J. Hoberman Talks Make My Day, Ronald Reagan, and ‘80s Movie Culture
Hoberman discusses how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered Reagan’s presidency.
The poster boy of American conservatism, the bar to which all Republicans would unashamedly evaluate future candidates, and yet now seemingly lower on a weekly basis, Ronald Reagan was an ideal movie star with an idealized view of the past. His perfect America would be equivalent to the opening shots of red roses, green lawns, and white picket fences that kick off Blue Velvet, while America’s reality would be what transpires once Bobby Vinton’s song concludes and the swarming ants are revealed beneath the surface.
A time of Hollywood blockbusters and silver screen patriots, macho men and teens headed back to the future, the 1980s, while not considered a golden movie age, saw a symbiotic relationship between American film and the nation’s chosen leader. How else to account for Reagan proposing his “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative in March of 1983, a mere two months before the release of the year’s top grossing film, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi?
With his methodically researched new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman takes a sociological approach to discovering how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered the goings-on of our 40th president’s administration. And on the occasion of the book’s release and accompanying Film at Lincoln Center series, which samples feature films from the ‘80s, I spoke with Hoberman about the first Reagan screen performance he ever saw, being a working film critic during the “Age of Reagan,” and the unexpected rise of real estate mogul and Celebrity Apprentice host Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.
One of your most revered books is Vulgar Modernism, a collection of reviews and essays written during the ‘80s without the benefit, or trappings, of historical hindsight. Now 30-some-odd years later, you’ve taken a step back to take a look at the bigger picture of the decade. What was that experience like?
I should say that this book was the culmination of two earlier books, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War. Make My Day is the end of a trilogy. When I began writing the trilogy, I didn’t realize how central Reagan would be to it, but by the time I started Make My Day, he had become, in effect, the protagonist of the entire trilogy. Make My Day was different from the other two books. It’s not just that I lived through this period, but that I was then a working critic. How was I going to deal with that? In the earlier books, I went out of my way to quote critics and others who wrote about movies because I was very interested in how these films were initially received. In the case of Make My Day, however, it seemed absurd to quote other critics when I was there myself. It took me a while to come to that conclusion because my impulse wasn’t to put myself in the book and yet I realized that I would ultimately have to.
I found that my opinion of the various movies discussed hadn’t changed all that much. My opinion of Reagan was modified somewhat, in that I saw him as a more complicated figure than I did during the 1980s, but I also believe my response to him in the ‘80s was true to the moment. That’s why I included a number of longer pieces in the book, while also annotating them, so that one could see that I wasn’t just reusing the material without thinking about it.
You note that each volume can be read in chronological order, the order in which they were published, or as standalone installments. I took it up after finishing your and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies, and it felt like I was emerging from the pre-’80s underground to a Reaganized American society that had become depressingly anything but countercultural. What was it like being on the underground and Hollywood beat as a critic throughout those years?
I didn’t really start reviewing the blockbuster films until around 1984. I was the Village Voice’s second-string critic when Andrew Sarris, the first-string critic, fell ill, and I took his spot for a while. As a result, I was reviewing movies that I might otherwise not have. To make things interesting for myself, I began reviewing these movies from a political and ideological perspective. Even when Andy came back, that stayed with me. So, for example, there were a lot of action films during that period that Andy was very glad not to review, like Top Gun, but I did those while also reviewing foreign films, avant-garde films, documentaries, and so on. I always said that I could never be a first-string critic for a newspaper. I would have lost my mind having a steady diet of big Hollywood movies! I would have had to mix things up.
While midnight movies aren’t the primary focus of Make My Day, the underground did find a way into your reviews of ‘80s blockbusters. I recall a review in the Voice titled “White Boys: Lucas, Spielberg, and the Temple of Dumb” in which you tear down the nostalgic Indiana Jones prequel while praising Jack Smith’s nostalgic Normal Love. Was it maddening for you to review the latest Spielberg while underground artists concurrently made the same points to much smaller audiences?
That was really something that came from the heart. I was outraged by Temple of Doom, by its attitude, and I was really sick of these guys, Spielberg and Lucas. I wanted to bring out that there were other forms of filmmaking and other ways of dealing with this material. I was making a point, yes, but it was something that was fueled by emotion rather than reason.
Were there any Spielberg films, or Spielberg-adjacent films like Gremlins or Poltergeist, that you found less than risible throughout the Reagan years?
There were some that I preferred. I liked Gremlins quite a bit, and I enjoyed Back to the Future, which is Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. At the time, I didn’t much care for Poltergeist, but when I looked at it again for the book, I thought it was interesting in terms of its pathology. I should also say that I liked Jaws and E.T., to a degree, although it was no Blade Runner.
Though primarily concerned with Regan’s political reign, you also dig deep into his filmography, noting how his sole villainous role, in The Killers, has always prompted a vocal reaction from every audience you’ve watched it with. Why do you think that is?
Well, I’m not sure that’s still true. A friend recently saw The Killers at Film Forum and told me he was sort of shocked that people didn’t respond to the scene where Reagan slaps Angie Dickinson. The first time I saw The Killers, which was, I think, in June of 1969, I didn’t expect to see Reagan in it. I don’t think I had seen him in a movie before. I was well aware of who he was, of course, and I hated him because I had been at Berkeley the previous summer, when students were public enemy number one and there were disturbances every night—the whole thing was extremely compelling for me as a 19-year-old. The point I wanted to make was that my whole view of Reagan was predicated on The Killers. To me, he seemed to be playing himself. I had a very naïve response. I couldn’t understand why he would do the role. I mean, what crazy hubris prompted him to show what he dreamed of becoming on screen? I recognize my response as primitive, but it also demonstrates the power of movie images. I didn’t see him as acting, even though he clearly is. I saw it as him projecting his evil, bastardly essence.
Speaking of essence, it’s odd re-watching Donald Trump’s numerous cameos in American film and television. Unlike Reagan’s silver-screen presence, Trump literally always played himself: an obscenely rich braggadocio. Whereas Reagan’s “lovable” persona no doubt helped his later career in politics, Trump’s media appearances helped to fortify his reputation as an arrogant huckster.
This is the point I tried to make at the end of the book. I was surely thinking about Trump a lot while writing the book, but he only became president when I was close to finishing it. Trump may have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but it doesn’t come as a result of the movies. He’s a celebrity and a celebrity is someone who’s able to project a cartoon version of themselves, or a larger-than-life version of themselves, into the media world: TV, the tabloid press, and so on. Trump is being true to this persona. I didn’t really see Trump’s presidency coming. For me, he was a New York City character, a local celebrity who was regularly exposed in the Village Voice’s narrative of New York City corruption. I had no sense of how he existed to the rest of America, in Celebrity Apprentice. Clearly that’s what put him over, or at least helped to put him over. That and his appearances on Fox News as a kind of pundit and even his involvement with professional wrestling.
As you mention in your book, the uncomfortably awkward 1979 CBS Ted Kennedy sit-down interview with Roger Mudd ultimately derailed Kennedy’s attempt at a presidential run. It’s hard to imagine, given the feckless attempts by our current political leaders to appear like an everyman, that current presidential candidates’ chances could be derailed by the televised struggle to answer a basic question. If anything, we might view the guffaw as endearing and humanizing. Trump says dumb stuff on a daily basis, and we all just accept it. Have we become desensitized to politicians being put on the spot and not being able to come up with succinct answers?
I think it’s different for different candidates. Being the younger brother of J.F.K., who was the first real political star, created a lot of expectations. People credit Kennedy’s success in the 1960 election with his appearance in the first debate, for looking so much better than Nixon. That may be simplistic, but it’s not simplistic for people to think that TV had something to do with Kennedy becoming president. I think this is a case of “live by the sword, die by the sword,” that his brother just stumbled so badly in that interview, in what was essentially his television debut. He did go on all the way to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, but the myth of the Kennedy charm and invincibility was destroyed by that interview.
Looking at subsequent presidents, Reagan certainly had an elastic sense of reality. But in his distortions and lies and misstatements, he was by and large upbeat and, when he wasn’t, he was at least coherent. Trump lies so continuously that you feel that that must be part of his appeal for his base, that he’s just going to make this stuff up. They think it’s funny or entertaining or maybe that it represents a “greater degree of authenticity.”
There had been a very interesting point made by Theodor W. Adorno about Hitler’s appeal. I’m not saying that Trump is Hitler, but he’s a demagogue and Hitler was too. Adorno, who lived through Hitler’s lies, made the point that intellectuals and serious people didn’t get Hitler’s appeal. Before he came to power, he just seemed like a clown. There was something ridiculous about Hitler’s assertions and his tantrums. What they didn’t realize was that’s precisely what his fans liked about him. I think that’s also the case with Trump and his supporters.
If Nashville, as you point out in the book, foresaw the real-life presidential assassination attempts that were soon to come, could you see the same cinematic influences happening today? Are there films today that you think are foreshadowing things that could come into fruition within our own political future?
Nashville was a movie made at a time when movies were much more central to American culture than they are now. It was made by a filmmaker, Robert Altman, who was directly addressing, as an artist, what was going on. I bracketed Nashville with Jaws because in some respects, Jaws is a similar movie, although I’m not sure if Spielberg was consciously making an allegory. Some things in the film are political, for example the behavior of the Mayor of Amity, but beyond that the movie itself was utterly central to American culture. There was nothing more important during the summer of 1975 than Jaws. There’s no movie that has that kind of centrality anymore, nor do movies as a whole.
A number of television shows seemed to be predicting Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election. There were shows like Madam Secretary and Veep and Homeland, strong, female, political heroes, or, in the case of Veep, comic. But what were they compared to Celebrity Apprentice? Those aforementioned shows were very feeble in terms of reaching an audience and I think it was more a projection of the people who made it. When I look at movies now, and I have to say that I don’t see as many movies as I used to, I see some that seem to manifest things that are in the air. Jordan Peele’s Get Out would be the best example of this. That movie was made and conceived while Obama was president, but it certainly projected the post-Trump mood. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is interesting because, on the one hand, it’s a movie about 1969, and yet it’s also a movie about 2019. It can’t help but manifest some of our current fantasies and tensions. But even if it had a bigger audience than Nashville, people just aren’t taking it the same way.
And Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood presents a cinematic take that has a romanticized, almost fetishistic view of a 1969 that never truly existed, at least not the way Tarantino wishes it did…
Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it. I would put it somewhat differently, but we can let people discover for themselves if they haven’t seen it!
The book also talks a great deal about the revisionism and idealization of specific time periods that were said to represent wholesome Americana. The ‘50s is a big one, but as you point out, the movies’ view of the ‘50s were drastically different from the one the world actually experienced. I remember growing up in the ‘90s convinced Happy Days was a TV show not just about the ‘50s, but from the ‘50s itself.
That makes perfect sense, and I think other people share that same experience. The genius of that show is that it portrayed the ‘50s “as it should have been.” Jean Baudrillard has a memorable description of walking in to see Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 black-and-white film The Last Picture Show and, for a moment, thinking it was actually a movie from the period it depicted: the early ‘50s. It was a hyper-real version of it. That’s what Happy Days was. I think Reagan’s genius was to be able to do that on a larger scale, to conjure up an idealized ‘60s almost out of whole cloth, vague memories, old television, and old movies in his own conviction, even if that was ultimately a fantasy. It was an idealization of the period.
On the occasion of your book’s release, you’ve programmed a selection of double features for an upcoming series at Film at Lincoln Center. Outside of a closeness in release dates, like The Last Temptation of Christ and They Live, what went into the pairing up of certain titles?
I appreciate that question. I really love the concept of double bills. Whenever it’s possible, I like to teach using double bills, because then the movies can talk to each other—and I don’t have to talk as much. Ideally the movies should comment on each other. The reason for including The Last Temptation of Christ was a bit tricky. I thought that the response that it got certainly looked forward to the culture wars of the ‘90s. There was such hostility directed toward that movie and, by extension, the movie industry as a whole. As Trump would say, it was as “an enemy of the people.” And to me, They Live seems to be the bluntest, most direct critique of Reaganism ever delivered, and it was delivered at the very, very end of his presidency. In a sense, it was already over, as the film came out just before the 1988 presidential election. I see both They Live and The Last Temptation as political movies, one overtly political and one that was taken in a political manner.
Review: Vita & Virginia Leaves the Nuances of a Love Affair to the Imagination
The film frequently falls back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.2
When capricious socialite and writer Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) first glimpses Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) at a bohemian party in Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia, the latter is the midst of a dance, her head leaning back and arms freely swaying in the air. It’s an uncharacteristic moment of outgoingness for the author, who by this time in the early 1920s has had only modest success, and the throbbing ambient techno music that underscores the scene lends her and Vita’s desires a strange and striking modernity. But the film doesn’t fully commit to such anachronistic flourishes in its portrait of the two women’s tumultuous love affair, instead frequently falling back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.
Vita’s deviousness and unpredictability does, for a time, make for some compelling proto-feminist drama, thanks in large part to Arterton’s bold performance. Vita is amusingly blasé in the face of both her heiress mother, Lady Sackville (Isabella Rossellini), who protests to her dressing as a man and openly having affairs with women, and her diplomat husband, Harold (Rupert Penry-Jones), completely dismissing his concerns about maintaining their marriage of convenience. Elsewhere, Debicki is left with the difficult task of dramatizing Virginia’s escalating strife, and with little help from a script that basically skirts over the serious mental health issues that plagued Woolf throughout her life. In fact, Virginia’s joys and struggles as they arise from Vita’s hot-and-cold treatment of her are rarely given any concrete form aside from the occasional ham-fisted touch of CGI-enhanced magical realism, as when vines grow out of the woodwork when Virginia returns home after first sleeping with Vita.
Outside of these moments, Virginia’s interiority is given similarly blunt expression through her relationships with her passive yet understanding husband, Leonard (Peter Ferdinando), her lively artist sister, Vanessa (Emerald Fennell), and Vanessa’s roommate, the flamboyant painter Duncan Grant (Adam Gillen). Each of these archetypes always seems to be conveniently on hand to explicitly outline the details of Virginia’s emotional state. The only time her thoughts and emotions, as well as Vita’s, are articulated with any nuance is through a series of epistolary interludes that see Arterton and Debicki reading the love letters that Sackville-West and Woolf wrote to one another. And yet, these moments are so awkwardly and unimaginatively incorporated into the film, with the actresses speaking their words directly into the camera, that the letters’ flowery language is effectively drained of its poeticism.
Vita & Virginia eventually lands on Woolf writing her breakthrough novel, Orlando, which was inspired by her relationship with Sackville-West. But as Button gives us only a vague sense of what drew these two vastly different women together, she leaves to the imagination how Sackville-West had such a lasting and profound effect on one of the great authors of the 20th century. In Orlando, Woolf writes, “Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth.” There’s more ambiguity, complexity, or passion in that one line regarding the elusive and illusory qualities of Vita’s love for Virginia than there is in all of Button’s film.
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isabella Rossellini, Rupert Penry-Jones, Peter Ferdinando, Emerald Fennell, Gethin Anthony, Rory Fleck Byrne, Karla Crome Director: Chanya Button Screenwriter: Chanya Button Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Ready or Not Ribs the One Percent with More Laughs than Horror
Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot.2.5
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s horror film Ready or Not is centered around a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek, and if that sounds unconscionably silly, at least the filmmakers are aware of that. Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy’s screenplay embraces the inherent absurdity of this premise, concocting an elaborate narrative justification as to why a bunch of grown-ups would be engaged in a murderous version of the classic kids’ game. It all boils down to a family ritual: Anyone marrying into the obscenely wealthy Le Domas clan must play a game at midnight on their wedding night, and this game, which is selected at random by a puzzle box, could be anything from old maid to checkers.
Bright-eyed good girl Grace (Samara Weaving), who’s just wedded the family’s favorite son, Alex (Mark O’Brien), gets picked to play hide-and-seek, and that’s where the trouble begins. Because while the other games proceed in perfectly ordinary fashion, the Le Domases have made a violent mythology surrounding this one game: The family must capture its newest member and slaughter them in a ritual sacrifice before sunrise, or else each family member will be cursed to die. And so, the Le Domases give Grace time to hide anywhere she likes in their sprawling country manor before they set out with rifles and crossbows to find her.
Gradually, the convoluted family mythology comes to overtake the goofy simplicity of the film’s premise, and to the point that one is apt to forget that a game of hide-and-seek is even going on. But Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett keep things lively with a lavish visual style that nods toward Kubrick’s The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, and even Barry Lyndon, while still maintaining an identity of its own. Lit mostly with candles, the sprawling villa in which the film mostly takes place assumes a creepy aura reminiscent of the opulently spooky house in Robert Wise’s The Haunting. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett’s mildly showy use of long takes and lithe camera movements exhibit an ironic grandiosity that suits the film’s light-hearted sadism.
Funny but not quite a comedy, Ready or Not, to its credit, leans in to the arbitrariness of its own myths and rules. Some of the members of the Le Domas clan aren’t even sure they believe in their family curse, and they bicker over whether they should be allowed to utilize modern technology, such as their mansion’s security cameras, to track Grace down. But the film’s constant reiteration and reevaluation of the Le Domases’ goofy traditions can sometimes make things feel repetitive and slightly exhausting, impressions which are enhanced by the lackadaisical handling of the film’s kills. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett primarily employ violence for laughs, but they frequently flub the punchline with a confusingly quick edit or an awkwardly shaky handheld shot. Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot. But this gonzo capper has the effect of retroactively diminishing the tame, uninventive bloodshed that preceded it.
Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O'Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Nicky Guadagni, Elyse Levesque, John Ralston Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett Screenwriter: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Jawline Takes a Measured Look at Social Media Stardom
The film is refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.3
The perma-glossy avatar of our profit-minded social media era is the cheery influencer, that species of professional bon vivant who seems perpetually more put together than anyone could be. Liza Mandelup’s debut documentary feature, Jawline, traces the dynamics that drive such influencers, their intensely adoring fans, and the malicious managers who try to turn a profit on them, and it’s refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.
The film begins on Austyn Tester, a sweet, poor Tennessee teen with a few thousand followers across Instagram, Twitter, Musical.ly, and YouNow who’s itching to escape his hometown and become an online celebrity. Mandelup mostly focuses on his daily efforts toward achieving that fame, including his semi-disciplined uploading regimen and the many retakes required to snag the perfect post. He spends much of his times posting, singing, and assuaging his young fans’ personal frustration on live chat. Only a slight variant on his actual personality, Austyn’s online brand, a “follow your dreams, no matter what” sort of positivity, would be unremarkable if it weren’t for its apparent impact on his teen girl fans.
Several of these fans are interviewed throughout the film. Each one is grappling with unique problems, from abusive families to bullying, though all of them justify their interest in Austyn and his peers for their willingness to listen, emphasizing the therapeutic effect of his livestreams. Jawline displays a certain evenhandedness here. The girls’ intense reliance on a stranger for comfort is uncomfortable to watch, but the film doesn’t trivialize this dependence. In an act of fan service, Austyn meets with a small group of girls at a local mall where their intense affections make themselves plain. Mandelup records them pushing an uncomfortable Austyn to ride around motorized stuffed animals so they can post it on Instagram, all the while demanding affirmations from him. Later, one girl forces him to share his phone number with her. Here, Jawline suggests a limit to his affection for them, if it ever existed, as well as the emotionally transactional nature of the relationship between fan and influencer.
The libidinal peak of this surreal relationship, though, occurs when Austyn and other influencers go on tour, performing shows for adoring fans with the hopes of upping their follower count in the process. On stage, the teens pose with fans, sing, and dance, all without any clear knack for it, in what amount to in-person livestreams. In this moment, there isn’t much that can be said about these largely cookie-cutter performers except that they’re toned, twinky, and peppy, and their fans love them for it. Mandelup’s footage of their displays is transfixing, not because the performances are spectacular—the shows are expensive to attend but often happen in dingy unadorned venues—but because the nearly contentless shows are only about the fans’ adulation. From an outsiders’ perspective, there’s a dizzying mismatch between the palpable intensity of their fervor and what they’re actually responding to.
How to relate to teen girls, how to monetize what’s relatable, and how to make the content more relatable and more profitable? These are the sorts of questions pondered by social media talent manager Michael Weist. He’s great to watch in the way reality TV villains are, as his success is propelled by a well-known combo of business sense, greed, and probable chicanery (appropriately, he finds himself in legal trouble by the film’s end). Around 21 years old, Weist has somehow marketed himself into a role as an authority figure on social media stardom, roping in young wannabe celebs and growing their followings. He’s turned a house in L.A. into a content factory, living there with his clients while haranguing them into posting, recording, and being on call 24/7 for their needs. Ever-candid, Weist reveals his long game at one point without being prompted: to run influencers through the content mill before they’re old enough to drink, at which point he can move on to the next hot prospect seeking fame.
At the heart of Weist’s efforts is the exploitation of Austyn’s more successful colleagues to commodify young girls’ emotions. Jawline is most fascinating when it tracks this process in action. Mandelup doesn’t draw as much attention to it as she could, meandering through IRL details that don’t quite elucidate or explain as much as they pretend to and don’t measure up to the retina-display realities of virtual stardom. A similar problem shows up in the documentary’s way of depicting tween girls. One notable scene involves slow-motion portraits of the fans accompanied by their disembodied voiceovers explaining why they spend so much time online. The scene is conceived in the spirit of chromatic maximalism, with the girls brightly lit against floral-print and pastel backgrounds, in a manner that humanizes their experience but flattens their differences, as if one were the precondition of the other. The style presents their range of justifications for standom as more or less equivalent to each other, reducing these girls to the same faceless morass of drives that Weist cashes in on.
More importantly, while Jawline’s depictions of predatory managers, overblown hopes, and obsessive followers spell out reasons to be despondent about the way this economy works, the film doesn’t look past its narrow horizon. There’s little indication of how this phenomenon is so profitable or how wide reaching this it is. Instead, Jawline offers a deflationary, measured suggestion that the current crop of influencers differs only in quantity from celebrity cults in Hollywood or the music industry. The latest iteration of celebrity is just monetizing a new type of media. All that’s really changed is that the stars burn dimmer and fade younger.
Director: Liza Mandelup Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 99 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Brittany Runs a Marathon Is a Moralizing Buzzkill of a Comedy
The film is inspirational only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.1.5
Watching writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Brittany Runs a Marathon is a bit like listening to a runner describe a motivational poster—the type with a single-word slogan below a stock photograph—that inspired them to persevere as they trained themselves to be a serious runner. Sensing that such overt preachiness would be irksome, the film cloaks its proselytizing in self-aware jokes about how much more pleasurable sitting around is than running and a token acknowledgment that there’s nothing wrong with being out of shape. But the screenplay’s cute, if somewhat insipid, humor doesn’t prevent the film from feeling self-righteous. Indeed, for a comedy about a woman who makes a personal decision to get in shape, Brittany Runs a Marathon sure engages in a lot of moralizing.
At the start of the film, twentysomething Brittany (Jillian Bell) is overweight and working part time as an usher for a small off-Broadway theater, which somehow provides enough income for her to regularly drink champagne at high-end clubs with her roommate, Gretchen (Alice Lee). Walking back to their Queens apartment after nights of hard drinking and eating greasy food, they often catch their uptight, bougie neighbor, Catherine (Erica Hernandez), going out for an early morning run, seemingly judging them for their indulgence. It’s only a matter of time, then, before Brittany is informed by a Yelp-recommended doctor (Patch Darragh) that her lifestyle has led to elevated blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass index—and an ominous close-up on the doctor’s chart shows us that she’s crossed over into obese terrain.
And so Brittany begins running, ill-advisedly, in her beat-up Chuck Taylors, which she soon upgrades to spotless, turquoise New Balances. Catherine, for some reason forgiving of Brittany’s persistent churlishness, introduces the young woman to a local running club. What follows is surely intended to inspire laughs of recognition in audience members who picked up running in adulthood, as the neophyte Brittany hangs out at the back of the group with a fellow reformed slacker, Seth (Micah Stock). The new trio sets themselves an ambitious goal: to complete the New York Marathon the following November.
The film makes jokes about how hard running can be, but there’s an earnestness behind such humor that leaves certain sacred cows untouched. Most of these have to do with the self—namely, self-discipline, self-love, and self-actualization. As the film sees it, all those things can be realized through running. Seth may joke about how ready he is to stop, or how much he’d rather be doing something else, but he keeps going, and if Brittany cheats on her diet and eats some cheese fries, it’s portrayed as a dramatic, shameful misstep. We’re told over and over that Brittany is valued by her friends, old and new, because she’s funny, but we see scant evidence of this, particularly as her devotion to running takes on a quite pious dimension.
Arriving for comic relief and romantic interest is Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who works the night shifts at the same house-sitting service where Brittany has begun picking up hours during the day to fund her marathon training. Casually trashing the house they’re meant to be looking after, Jern supplies Brittany Runs a Marathon with the levity that began to evaporate from the film as soon as Brittany started exercising. But as her flirtatiously contentious relationship with Jern deepens, the other parts of her life become a plodding series of confrontations. Her improving self-image emboldens Brittany to kick Gretchen to the curb, accusing her friend of having always viewed her as a “fat sidekick.”
It’s a fair enough grievance for the character to have, but at a certain point in Brittany’s active defense of herself, the film takes on a self-righteous tone, associating its protagonist’s newfound healthy living with virtuousness and seeing Gretchen as despicable for her profligate lifestyle. Brittany Runs a Marathon’s positioning of exercise as a moral triumph is nothing more than a marketing technique, as Colaizzo’s film is “inspirational” only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.
Cast: Jillian Bell, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Michaela Watkins, Lil Rel Howrey, Micah Stock, Mikey Day, Alice Lee, Dan Bittner, Peter Vack, Patch Darragh Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo Screenwriter: Paul Downs Colaizzo Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Official Secrets Is an Ambitious Muckraking Thriller Prone to Melodrama
Gavin Hood wrings suspense out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts.2.5
Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets is a muckraking thriller that revels in wonderfully lived-in details as well as generic biopic platitudes. The film tells a story that might have caused a sensation in Britain and the U.S. had it not been drowned out by those nations’ war machines. In 2003, Katherine Gun, a British translator for an intelligence agency, leaked an email in which the American National Security Agency urged for surveillance of pivotal members of the U.N. Security Council. This operation was for the purpose of blackmailing the U.N. into voting for the American invasion of Iraq (which President George W. Bush authorized later that year anyway, without the U.N.’s approval). Katherine leaked this email, and faced prosecution from her government under the Official Secrets Act of 1989.
In the film’s first half, the filmmakers offer a fastidious glimpse at how the press responds to Katherine’s (Kiera Knightley) whistleblowing. Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), Martin Bright (Matt Smith), and Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) are anti-war reporters for The Observer, which is in favor of the war and eager to maintain its relationship with Tony Blair’s government. Hood wrings suspense, and docudramatic fascination, out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts. Various jargon in the N.S.A. email is decoded, as insiders weigh its legitimacy. An intensification of surveillance is referred to as a “surge effort,” intelligence sources are “product lines,” and so forth.
This sort of commitment to texture is reminiscent of the novels of John Le Carré, as are the juicy scenes in which Beaumont and Bright reach out to people in the MI6 and the British government. Though Hood isn’t a moody stylist in the key of, say, Alan J. Pakula, his handling of the film’s actors is sharp, as their crisp and musical cadences allow the audience to understand that every spoken word matters, and that, if the reporters misstep at any time, they could potentially lose more than their contacts.
Katherine is eventually defended by an attorney, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), who has vast experience with human rights cases and with working within the labyrinthine British government. Fiennes’s probing, tormented, erudite charisma is always pleasurable, but this section of Official Secrets, meant to provide the legal counterpoint to the journalism thread, is shortchanged, as Hood starts to juggle too many balls at once. Interspersed with Emmerson’s adventurous interpretation of the Official Secrets Act are moments in which Katherine must rush to prevent her Turkish-Kurdish husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), from being deported out of an obvious retaliation against Katherine. These scenes are unimaginatively staged and unmoving—a sop to melodrama that temporarily halts the film’s procedural momentum.
It’s strange that the domestic dimension of the protagonist’s life should feel like clutter, which underscores a larger issue with Official Secrets: Katherine herself isn’t especially compelling as rendered here, as she almost entirely operates in the formula mode of aggrieved, persecuted, self-righteous avenger. A major ellipsis in the narrative is telling, as the British government forces Katherine to wait almost a year in limbo before deciding whether or not to persecute her, which Hood skips to keep the story moving. The emotional toil of such a year could’ve provided a personal counterpoint to the film’s political gamesmanship. As it is, the filmmaker reduces Katherine to a supporting character in her own story.
Cast: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Indira Varma, MyAnna Buring, Rhys Ifans, Tamsin Greig, Jack Farthing, Hattie Morahan, Conleth Hill, Katherine Kelly, Kenneth Cranham, Hanako Footman, Adam Bakri Director: Gavin Hood Screenwriter: Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein, Gavin Hood Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Tigers Are Not Afraid Wrings Preciousness from a Drug War’s Carnage
It never resolves its commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma.2
Writer-director Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a tapestry of flourishes. All are inseparable from Mexico’s gangland carnage, but its most memorable one is also rooted in magical-realist tradition, namely 100 Years of Solitude. The novel tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, and in one particularly exacting and vivid passage, master fabulist Gabriel García Márquez details how the seemingly eternal Ursula Iguarán learns of her son José Arcadio’s death after a trickle of blood from his body winds its way through war-torn Macondo, around corners, across terraces, down steps, and over curbs, before finally arriving at his mother’s doorstep. “Holy mother of God,” she says.
Ursula comprehends the truth of that thread of blood even before it leads her back to her son’s body. By contrast, the protagonist of Tigers Are Not Afraid, Estrella (Paola Lara), prevaricates so as to put distance between herself and the horrors around her. “We forget who we are, when the things from outside come to get us,” she says in voiceover at the start of the film. She doesn’t see the line of blood that runs from a dead man’s head and follows her all the way home until it’s already tracing a path across her living room floor and up a wall, finally creating the shape of an insect on a dress that hangs from the ceiling. Estrella’s mother is missing, and in this moment, the girl seems to know that she’s being sent a message, which she won’t learn to decipher until she becomes more fluent in the language of fairy tales.
At its most assured, Tigers Are Not Afraid strikingly literalizes the idea of the ties that bind, suggesting how the living and the dead walk hand in hand, almost as a matter of course, in a modern-day Mexico where 160,000 have been killed and 53,000 have disappeared since the beginning of the drug war in 2006. Before Estrella stumbles upon the aforementioned dead man’s body, you get the sense that today isn’t the first time she’s seen boys use police tape as limbo sticks, or dragged her fingers across walls riddled with bullet holes. Which isn’t to say that the girl is desensitized to this violence. She seems to almost exist at a remove from it, and López sensitively syncs the swaying of her camera to the girl’s visible numbness.
That sensitivity, however, proves to be a kind of redundancy. Throughout Tigers Are Not Afraid, López effectively conjures an aura of ordinariness, but she never resolves her commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma. The film concerns Estrella and a group of orphaned boys going head to head with a cartel after young El Shine (Juan Ramón López) swipes a gun and phone from the treacherous El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), and when that narrative isn’t picking up signals from the supernatural realm, you sense its allegiance to so many films indebted to the neorealist tradition, from Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados to Héctor Babenco’s Pixote. Tigers Are Not Afraid is alive to the harsh reality of its main characters’ lives, though at times it feels as if López’s only means of accessing that truth is by conspicuously shaking her camera.
As for the film’s supernatural flourishes, none are as inspired as that thread of blood that trails Estrella at various points. Little flying creatures suggest visitors from Guillermo del Toro’s cabinet of curiosities, while a gathering of ghosts inside an expansive, derelict building brings to mind a Silent Hill freak-out. And in the case of the tiger graffiti on a wall that comes to life at one point, there isn’t even the sense that we’re watching the dead’s handiwork. After a while, death’s intrusions come to feel more cosmetic than substantial.
Early in the film, López fascinatingly suggests that Estrella’s perception of the world, after a teacher grants her three wishes, is both shield and sword. But after the girl uses one of those wishes to commit an act of brutality, the film’s fairy-tale conceit reveals itself as an engine for easy absolution. By the time the girl arrives at an understanding of her world that isn’t too far removed from the logic of her opening voiceover, Tigers Are Not Afraid has so given itself over to feeling the innocence of cocooning that it only effectively haunts us with its preciousness.
Cast: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas, Tenoch Huerta, Nery Arredondo, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero Director: Issa López Screenwriter: Issa López Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 83 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette Serves Up Lifetime-Grade Chestnuts of Wisdom
The film is a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.1.5
The opening passages of Where’d You Go, Bernadette include a handful of scenes in which an agoraphobic architect and mother, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), restlessly expresses her internal thoughts inside the empty rooms of her Seattle mansion. Observed in flowing Steadicam shots, these soliloquies—recorded and translated to text by Manjula, the digital assistant on Bernadette’s smartphone—give space to reflect on how the woman’s eclectic furnishings grow out of her racing mental landscape. And in performing them, Blanchett offers the rare cinematic spectacle of a mother in her alone time, compelled to let her imagination and anxieties loose outside the pressures of maternal duty. In these moments, the film, an unapologetically straightforward adaptation of Maria Semple’s best-selling novel, briefly takes on the tone of something candidly personal.
It’s a shame, then, that Where’d You Go, Bernadette is cloyingly beholden to the demands of its crowd-pleasing narrative arc—that of a creative woman driven to ennui by motherhood and middle age yet rescued from the brink by an inspiring vacation and the love of her family. It’s nice, reassuring stuff, not false by any standard, but told with such didacticism and cuteness that one can’t help but be bewildered by the fact that the film was co-written and directed by Richard Linklater. Where the Texas auteur’s leisurely paced Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!! excel in their attention to the nuanced spectacle of characters changing over time, Where’d You Go, Bernadette plays like all of its air has been sucked out in the interest of plot progression, which it conducts with the workshopped efficiency of a television movie mindful of commercial breaks. In fact, with its coverage-dependent mise-en-scène, off-the-rack musical score, and tacked-on bookending voiceovers, Linklater’s latest feels strangely close to something Lifetime might have churned out in the early aughts.
The film establishes its narrative conflicts quickly and bluntly, often through dialogue, simple juxtaposition, and, in one particularly dull case, a YouTube mini-documentary about Bernadette that plays in full in order to clarify her backstory. A brilliant and influential architect in the midst of a long hiatus after a demoralizing relocation and a series of miscarriages, she displaces her creative frustration on her city and its inhabitants, including her prosperous, TED Talks-giving husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup); stuffy neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig); and Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), a gossipy associate of Elgie and friend of Audrey. Her only routine source of joy is her wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), who loves her unconditionally and whom she treats perhaps a bit too much like a peer.
Symptomatic of Linklater’s always-generous worldview, the film sees Bernadette’s quirks not as deficiencies, but as inevitable side effects of life’s persistent curveballs. When the character refers to herself as a “creative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares,” it’s clear that the filmmaker endorses that assessment, and perhaps even recognizes it as a description of his own artistic career. For all their suspicion toward Bernadette, Elgie and Audrey aren’t characterized entirely negatively either, for each is given a path to redemption, and Wiig’s portrayal of her character’s transition from belligerence to empathy in particular is one of the highpoints of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
Rather, in true boomer fashion, Linklater reserves his cynicism for technology, kickstarting the film’s third act with the contrived revelation that Manjula is actually a Russian-operated phishing scheme seeking to steal Bernadette’s identity. This development briefly gets a Department of Homeland Security agent, Marcus Strang (James Urbaniak), and a therapist, Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer), caught up in the narrative, but it’s all really just a busy preamble to the Antarctica family vacation that’s hinted at from the very first scene. Bernadette has her reservations about the trip, Bee thinks it will be cathartic for the family, Elgie is too preoccupied with his career to concern himself with the logistics, and the shadowy forces behind Manjula are poised to swoop in and cause chaos during the scheduled dates.
What ends up happening is neither the transporting escape Bee wants nor the complete disaster Manjula intends to enact, but something messily in between that triggers a coordinated stream of life lessons—and a few uninspired drone shots of icebergs. Indeed, in its eagerness to diagnose Bernadette’s existential impasse, the film lays on thick the kind of back-patting chestnuts of wisdom that have become increasingly common in Linklater’s recent films, groaners like “Popularity is overrated” and “You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna do.” Such sentiments have always been window dressing in Linklater’s nonchalantly libertarian body of work, but if in many cases his films have tacitly acknowledged the limits of language to articulate life’s mysteries, here there’s very little sense of a frontier to be explored. If Bernadette is Linklater and Blanchett’s collaborative expression of the right balance between parenting and artistry, it’s a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening—and privileged—idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Emma Nelson, Zoe Chao, James Urbaniak, Judy Greer Director: Richard Linklater Screenwriter: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, Vincent Palmo Jr. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 130 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
The film is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.2
With What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, Roberto Minervini returns to the American South to tell the stories of several African-Americans living in New Orleans, over the summer of 2017. These stories are so self-contained that the documentary comes to suggest an anthology film, which, in this case, has been organized around a pervading theme of how political and personal textures intersect in everyday black life. And in the tradition of the anthology film, Minervini’s material is also variable, suggesting that the filmmaker could’ve been more ruthless in the editing room and less beholden to the pleasures of his self-consciously neat aesthetic.
Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Minervini’s subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew that’s clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titus’s inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocence—an impression that’s affirmed later in the film when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titus’s hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness that’s bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love that’s deeply poignant.
Juxtaposed with this coming-of-age youth narrative are stories of a recovering crack addict, Judy Hill, who’s realized her dream of opening a bar, and of a local chapter of the New Black Panthers, which is investigating and protesting several murders, such as the recent decapitation and burning of a local black man. Intellectually, one can see why Minervini believes these threads belong together, as they both illustrate how African-Americans foster their own infrastructures as a reaction to the corruption and indifference of governments on various levels. But Minervini’s cross-cutting shortchanges both of these story threads. Minervini reveals preciously little about the principle murder that the New Black Panthers are seeking to avenge, using it vaguely as a symbol of Southern atrocity at large, and the practical details of operating Judy’s bar are reduced to sketches. In both cases, the specifics of the subjects’ concerns haven’t been entirely dramatized.
In certain portions of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, particularly those featuring the New Black Panthers, Minervini taps into reservoirs of anger that are nearly at odds with his chilly formalism. The film was shot by D.P. Diego Romero in pristine black and white, with long takes that drink in the details of the landscapes and people’s bodies. One is often encouraged to savor the beauty of the lighting, especially in Judy’s bar, and Minervini eschews typical documentary devices like narration and interviews. In terms of gliding, sumptuous style, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, as both films verge on turning class struggles into moving coffee-table books.
We’re supposed to feel as if we’ve slipped effortlessly into the lives of Minervini’s subjects, which might have been possible if more time had been devoted to pivotal moments. If Minervini wasn’t able to capture the moment when Judy learns that she must close the bar, then perhaps he could’ve wrestled with his inability to capture it. Judy demands a meta-textual approach anyway, as she is a highly charismatic and self-absorbed person who is often clearly performing for the camera, most gratingly when she responds to her mother’s fear of homelessness with a monologue about her own generosity. A filmmaker like Robert Greene might’ve challenged Judy and utilized her for a riff on the power of self-mythology, but Minervini prizes his faux-objectivity; he’s more interested in mood than process or character. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.
Director: Roberto Minervini Screenwriter: Roberto Minervini Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
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