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Understanding Screenwriting #109: The Call, No, Ginger & Rosa, Castle, & More

I’d sell my grandmother for a long shot.

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Understanding Screenwriting #109: The Call, No, Ginger & Rosa, Joyful Noise, San Antonio,  Castle, & More
Photo: A2

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.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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Film

Review: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets Is an Elegiac Mosaic of Disillusionment

It’s in certain characters’ trajectories that the Ross brothers locate the tragic soul of the bar.

3.5

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Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Photo: Utopia

In a 1946 essay for London’s Evening Standard, George Orwell wrote: “And if anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it.” In other words, the British author was on the lookout for the ideal watering hole, which he argues requires a combination of these specific offerings as well as more ineffable qualities. But the article’s thrust isn’t so simple, as Orwell spends the first three-quarters of it describing in detail a bar that doesn’t exist, referred to by the fictitious moniker of “The Moon Under Water.” You might think that you’re reading a rare lifestyle report from your favorite anti-totalitarian author, only to suddenly be made aware of your victimhood in a little literary sleight of hand.

Orwell’s playful essay provides the inspiration for Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, a quasi-real-time portrait of what might be seen as an ideal dive bar by today’s standards, though filmmaker brothers Bill and Turner Ross eschew Orwell’s rug-pulling. Here, we’re never let in on the fact that the Roaring 20s, the Las Vegas haunt that serves as the film’s setting, is actually located in the Rosses’ hometown of New Orleans, or that its denizens are actually a motley crew of Louisiana drinkers (one looks like Elliott Gould, another like Seymour Cassel) that the filmmakers recruited and primed for their roles. This edifice of fakery is critical to the film’s meaning. As Orwell opined for a more perfect world where such a social space could exist, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets fabricates its own rosy vision of social unity, drunkenly commiseration, and aesthetic perfection, if only to deliberately undercut this idealism through the staging of its narrative around the bar’s final night and the election of Donald Trump.

The Roaring 20s may not be everyone’s idea of perfection. After an Altmanesque credit sequence establishing the bar’s exterior in zooming telephoto shots, the audience’s first glimpse at the interior finds custodian-cum-freeloader Michael Martin being broken from his early-afternoon slumber by the arriving bartenders and helped promptly to a swig of whiskey, and events from this point forward tap into a similar reservoir of pity and humor. Where the beauty emerges is in the intimacy and familiarity with which the patrons are able to relate to one another as more and more alcohol is consumed. For much of the film, egos, tempers, and prejudices fall away as more and more regulars pile into the bar, increasingly constituting a diverse cross section of what appear to be outer Vegas wanderers and failures.

Limiting views of the surrounding city to brief, bleary interludes shot on an un-color-calibrated Panasonic DVX100b, the Ross brothers center the action squarely around the bar, lending everything a brownish pink patina that suggests the view through a bottle of Fireball and draping every hangable surface with off-season Christmas lights. Taken as part of a dialogue with such gems from the canon of booze-soaked cinema as Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery and Eagle Pennell’s Last Night at the Alamo, this auburn glow distinguishes Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets as more texturally expressive than photographically verisimilar—a film that approximates a night of inebriation rather than merely memorializing it.

Having used two cameras over the course of their 18-hour shoot, the Rosses are able to rely on montage editing to foster a sense of omniscience without losing the feeling of temporal continuity. The result is a film whose attention jumps sporadically to different bits of conversation and activity just as the beer-saturated brain of your average pub-dweller might. Part of this seamless integration of perspectives has to do with the film’s dynamic and precise use of music, which blends non-diegetic Rhodes-piano noodlings from composer Casey Wayne McAllister with popular songs heard within the bar both on the jukebox and in impromptu sing-alongs. Unconcerned with airs of documentary objectivity, the Ross brothers allow themselves to essentially play disc jockeys, and within this framework many of their choices for background needle drops land with a certain poetic gravitas, complementing, contradicting, or in some cases even guiding the emotional temperature of the room.

Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler” is heard twice, first played by a bartender on an acoustic guitar to get the early evening energy going and later on the jukebox when much of that energy has dissipated, while Jhené Aiko’s desolate breakup ballad “Comfort Inn Ending” provides contrapuntal accompaniment to the evening’s one flare-up of macho tempers. Most affecting is when A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems” underscores a shot of an embittered but tender war vet, Bruce Hadnot, glowering at the end of the bar—a lengthily held beat that will be relatable to anyone who’s ever found introspection in the midst of pummeling noise. Each example hints at the melancholy direction that the film ultimately takes, and like any DJ worth their salt, the Rosses manage the transition from euphoria to pathos gradually and imperceptibly.

While all who enter the Roaring 20s achieve some kind of emotional arc before departing thanks to the filmmakers’ democratic distribution of their attentions, there are a few who emerge as main characters, and it’s in their trajectories that Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets locates the tragic soul of the bar. Michael is one of them. Beginning the day as a freewheeling conversationalist, ripping drinks and catching up with whoever rolls through, he spends the dwindling hours of the night in a dazed stupor on a corner sofa, pathetically asserting to a fellow bar patron that “there is nothing more boring than someone who used to do stuff and just sits in a bar.” In a few instances, the Ross brothers cede the floor to the bar’s security cameras, whose detachment and “objectivity” eschew the warmth of the filmmakers’ ground-level cameras, rendering the bar as little more than a physical space. Seen from this cold, inhuman eye, Michael registers as lonely, beaten-down, and insignificant.

Similarly positioned on the margins of the sociable space created by the Roaring 20s, and often identified by its more imposing and strange attractions (such as the Stratosphere and Pyramid casinos), Las Vegas plays a role analogous to the bar’s security cameras. As seen through a motion-blurred, sepia-toned camera, the city represents a reality of false hopes that’s failed the film’s humble pleasure seekers—whether in the form of dead-end jobs that have led them away from their passions or in a military industrial complex that treats its servants as interchangeable. At one point, Bruce brings up Trump on the occasion of his recent election, confidently proffering grave predictions for his presidency. The subject doesn’t get touched again, but it’s a subtext for the whole film—not the Trump presidency per se, but the mere fact of pessimism in the face of leadership. Like Orwell’s “The Moon Under Water,” the Roaring 20s seen in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets doesn’t really exist. Even if it did, no one would save it, which makes the desperation with which its denizens hang on to it all the more touching.

Director: Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross Distributor: Utopia Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Relic Is a Lushly Metaphoric Vision of a Splintered Family

The film heralds the arrival a bold and formidable voice in horror cinema.

2.5

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Relic
Photo: IFC Midnight

Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), don’t say much on the drive to Grandma Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) house. The old woman is missing, and when Sam crawls through the doggy door into the home, she looks around with concern, absorbed until Kay knocks impatiently at the door to be let in. Still no words. The women of Relic aren’t exactly close, as evidenced by the palpable coldness between Kay and Sam as they look through this cluttered abode. Edna’s forgetfulness having grown exhausting, Kay tells a cop that she hasn’t spoken to her eightysomething mother in weeks. And the guilt is written on Kay’s face, even in the distant shot that frames her within the walls of the police station.

Though Relic is her debut feature, Natalie Erika James demonstrates a confident grasp of tone and imagery throughout the film. She and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff strikingly conjure an ominous stillness, particularly in the scenes set inside Edna’s increasingly unfamiliar home, where the characters appear as if they’re being suffocated by the walls, railing, low ceilings, and doorways. Relic fixates on rotting wood, the monolithic scope of the Australian woods, and the colors on Edna’s front door’s stained-glass window that meld, eventually, into a single dark spill, as though the house is infected by the old cabin that haunts Kay’s dreams.

Edna soon reappears, unable to explain where she’s been and complicating an already distant family dynamic. The interactions between the three women are marked by an exhaustion that’s clearly informed by past experience—a feeling that Edna’s disappearance was almost expected. But not even James’s command behind the camera can quite elevate just how hard Relic falls into the shorthand of too many horror movies with old people at their center: the unthinking self-harm, the wandering about in the night, the pissing of oneself.

The film remains restrained almost to a fault, revealing little about its characters and their shared histories. Though some of this vagueness could be attributed to Relic’s central metaphor about dementia, the general lack of specificity only grows more apparent in the face of the film’s oldsploitation standbys, leaving us with precious little character to latch onto.

But such familiar elements belie Relic’s truly inventive climax, an abrupt shift into a visceral nightmare that tears apart notions of body and space and then sews them back together in a new, ghastly form. James resists bringing the film’s subtext to the forefront, in the process imbuing her enigmatic images with a lasting power, turning them into ciphers of broader ideas like abandonment, responsibility, and resentment as they relate to the withering human figure. Never relenting with its atmosphere of suffocating decay, the final stretch of Relic, if nothing else, heralds the arrival a bold and formidable voice in horror cinema.

Cast: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote Director: Natalie Erika James Screenwriter: Natalie Erika James, Christian White Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Love Before the Virus: Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s Newly Restored Passing Strangers

The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love.

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Passing Strangers
Photo: PinkLabel

One of the many pleasures to be had in watching Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s newly restored Passing Strangers derives from its status as a historical document, or a piece of queer ethnography. The 1974 film allows us to see but also feel what life was like for gay men during what some have called the golden age of unbridled sex before the AIDS epidemic. Bressan Jr.’s portrait of this history is simultaneously attuned to its sartorial, mediatic, erotic, and affective dimensions, which may come as a surprise to those unaccustomed to explicit sexual imagery being paired with social commentary. Pornography and poetry aren’t counterparts here. Rather, they’re bedfellows, one the logical continuation of the other. Money shots, for instance, aren’t accompanied by moaning or groaning, but by the sounds of a violin.

The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love. They devote so much of their lives to picking up strangers for sex, briefly and by the dozens, but not without secretly wishing that one of them might eventually stay. In this they may not differ much from their contemporary cruising heirs, though they do in their approach. It turns out that asking for a pen pal’s photo before a meetup in 1974 was considered creepy, and using Walt Whitman’s poetry as part of a sex ad was quite fruitful.

That’s exactly what 28-year-old Tom (Robert Carnagey), a bath-house habitué and telephone company worker living in San Francisco, does in the hopes of attracting something long term. The literal poetics of cruising speaks to 18-year-old Robert (Robert Adams), who responds to Tom’s newspaper ad right way. They meet in person and begin a love affair that could only be described as bucolic, including making love in fields of grass, on top of a picnic blanket, to the sound of waves and piano notes, and riding their bikes around town, much like the sero-discordant love birds of Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo do after partaking in a gangbang. In retrospect, promiscuity gains the tinge of an obsessive auditioning of “the one,” who, in Bressan Jr.’s sensual fairy tale, is bound to come along and save us from ourselves.

Passing Strangers, which originally screened at adult cinemas and gay film festivals, recalls Francis Savel’s 1980 porno Equation to an Unknown in how smut and romance are so intimately bound in the forms of queer intimacy that the film depicts. This may also be due to the dearth of gay cinematic representation at the time—of gay men perhaps needing to dream of prince charming and of bareback anal sex in the same movie session, satisfying the itch for love and for filth in one fell swoop. But while Equation to an Unknown is completely wrapped up in a fantasy glow, there’s something more realistic, or pragmatic, about Passing Strangers.

Tom’s voiceover narration, which takes the shape of disaffected epistolary exchanges with his newfound beloved, orients us through the action. Motivations are explained. At times, however, Bressan Jr. indulges in experimental detours. These are precisely the most beautiful, and atemporal, sequences in the film—scenes where sex is juxtaposed with the sound of a construction site or the buzzing of a pesky mosquito, or one where an audience of orgy participants give a round of applause after somebody ejaculates. And the film’s surrendering to moments of inexplicable poesis reaches its apex in a shot of a boy in clown makeup holding his mouth agape. It’s an exquisitely brief shot, indelible in its strangeness.

Newly restored from the original negative in a 2K scan, Passing Strangers is now available to stream on PinkLabel as part of The Bressan Project.

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Review: Tom Hanks Stubbornly Steers Greyhound into Sentimental Waters

With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play.

1.5

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Greyhound
Photo: Apple TV+

With his almost supernatural likeability, impeccable reputation, and penchant for appearing in films rooted in American history, Tom Hanks has become a national father figure. The actor’s ongoing project, particularly urgent as we seek to redefine our relationship with our history and iconography, is to remind us of when the United States actually rose to the occasion. Unsurprisingly, this project often centers on World War II, one of the least controversial pinnacles of American collaboration on the world stage.

Continuing this tradition, Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound concerns the efforts to provide Britain with troops and supplies via Allied naval convoys on the Atlantic, which German U-boat “wolf packs” stalk and sink, attempting to break a Western blockade. Adapted by Hanks from C.S. Forester’s novel The Good Shephard, the film is a celebration of duty and competency that’s so quaint it’s almost abstract, as it arrives at a time of chaos, selfish and blinkered American governing, and a growing bad faith in our notion of our own legacy.

Set over a few days in 1942, the film dramatizes a fictionalized skirmish in the real-life, years-long Battle of the Atlantic. The American destroyer Greyhound, leader of a convoy that includes Canadian and British vessels, is commanded by Ernest Krause (Hanks), an aging naval officer with no experience in battle. Text at the start of the film explains that there’s a portion of the Atlantic that’s out of the range of air protection, called the Black Pit, in which convoys are especially vulnerable to the wolf packs. For 50 hours, Krause and his crew will be tested and severely endangered as they seek to cross this treacherous stretch of the sea.

This skeletal scenario has potential as a visceral thriller and as a celebration of Allied ingenuity and daring. Unfortunately, Hanks’s script never adds any meat to the skeleton. One can see Hanks’s passion for history in the loving details—in the references to depth charge supply, to windshield wipers freezing up, to the specific spatial relationships that are established (more through text than choreography) via the various vessels in this convoy. What Hanks loses is any sense of human dimension. In The Good Shephard, Krause is frazzled and insecure about leading men who’re all more experienced in battle than himself. By contrast, Krause’s inexperience is only mentioned in Greyhound as a testament to his remarkable, readymade leadership. The film’s version of Krause is stolid, undeterred, unshakably decent ol’ Tom Hanks, national sweetheart. As such, Greyhound suffers from the retrospective sense of inevitability that often mars simplified WWII films.

Greyhound’s version of Krause lacks the tormented grace of Hanks’s remarkable performance in Clint Eastwood’s Sully. This Krause also lacks the palpable bitterness of Hanks’s character in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, as well as the slyness that the actor brought to both Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can and Bridge of Spies. In Greyhound, Hanks falls prey to the sentimentality for which his detractors have often unfairly maligned him, fetishizing Krause’s selflessness in a manner that scans as ironically vain. As a screenwriter, Hanks throws in several writerly “bits” to show how wonderful Krause is, such as his ongoing refusal to eat during the Greyhound’s war with U-boats. (A three-day battle on an empty stomach seems like a bad idea.) Meanwhile, the crew is reduced to anonymous faces who are tasked with spouting jargon, and they are, of course, unquestionably worshipful of their commander, as are the voices that are heard from the other vessels in the convoy.

Schneider lends this pabulum a few eerie visual touches, as in the slinky speed of the German torpedoes as they barely miss the Greyhound, but the film is largely devoid of poetry. The stand-offs between the vessels are competently staged, but after a while you may suspect that if you’ve seen one torpedo or depth charge detonation you’ve seen them all. With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play. In short, Greyhound takes a fascinating bit of WWII history and turns it into a blockbuster version of bathtub war.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Karl Glusman, Stephen Graham, Elisabeth Shue, Tom Brittney, Devin Druid, Rob Morgan, Lee Norris, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Maximilian Osinski, Matthew Zuk, Michael Benz Director: Aaron Schneider Screenwriter: Tom Hanks Distributor: Apple TV+ Running Time: 91 min Rating: 2020 Year: PG-13

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Review: The Beach House’s Moodiness Is Dissipated by Shaky Characterization

The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action.

2

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The Beach House
Photo: Shudder

Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, in which a satellite crashes to Earth with an alien virus on board, is an expression of Space Age anxieties, about how the zeal to reach the stars could have unintended and dangerous consequences. In Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House, something lethal instead rises from the depths of the ocean, a kind of “alien” invasion coming up from below rather than down from the cosmos, better reflecting the environmental anxieties of our present day. It still feels like comeuppance for human hubris, but this time in the form of intraterrestrial, not extraterrestrial, revenge.

The potentially extinction-level event is played on a chamber scale as domestic drama. Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) are college sweethearts who go to his family’s beach house during the off-season, in a seemingly abandoned town, to work on their personal problems. They’re unexpectedly joined there by Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), old friends of Randall’s father, and the four agree to have dinner together. It’s then that Emily, an aspiring astrobiologist, conveniently provides some context for what’s about to happen, as she makes reverential conversation at the table about the mysterious depths of the sea and the sometimes extreme conditions in which new life can be created and thrive.

That night, while tripping balls on edibles, the couples look out and marvel at the sparkling, purple-tinged landscape outside their beach house. (The smell is less gloriously described as being like that of sewage and rotten eggs.) It’s not a hallucination, though, because whatever ocean-formed particulate is turning the night sky into a psychedelic dreamscape and the air cloudy is also making the characters sick. There’s some interesting and serendipitous overlap between the film’s central horror and our present Covid-19 crisis, as the malady seems to be airborne, affecting the lungs and making the characters cough. It also affects older people more quickly than the young, with the milder symptoms including exhaustion.

Brown emphasizes the oddness of nature with an eye for detail focused in close-up on, say, the eerie gooeyness of oysters, and by vivifying the film’s settings with bold colors: On the second night, the air glows mustard and red, recalling recent California wildfires. The ubiquitous haze also evokes John Carpenter’s The Fog and Frank Darabont’s The Mist, but other genre influences are also on display, from Cronenbergian body horror, as in the gory removal of a skin-burrowing worm, to zombie flicks, given the slowness of the hideously infected victims.

There’s not a lot of exposition about the illness, as Brown’s screenplay is primarily focused on Randall and Emily’s fight to survive the mysterious onslaught. But you probably won’t care if they do. The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action. The Beach House had convincingly argued that these two people shouldn’t be together, that their relationship has long passed its prime. He mocks her plans for advanced study and calls her life goals bullshit, even though he has none himself; he suggests that they move into the beach house, to live in a state of permanent vacation, while he tries to figure out what life means. When she’s high and getting sick and asking him for help, he dismisses her, lest it harsh his mellow. But instead of engineering his downfall, Midsommar-style, Emily does everything she can in the last third to help save him. It feels sudden, unearned, and unconvincing—enough to make you root for the monsters from the ocean floor.

Cast: Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Maryann Nagel, Jake Weber Director: Jeffrey A. Brown Screenwriter: Jeffrey A. Brown Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Old Guard Is a Would-Be Franchise Starter with No New Moves

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action, the film is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts.

2

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The Old Guard
Photo: Netfflix

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard is a modestly successful attempt to build a new fountain of franchise content out of a comic series with nearly limitless potential for spin-offs. The story kicks into motion with a team of four mercenaries with unique powers and an ancient bond setting off to rescue some kidnapped girls in South Sudan. Charlize Theron brings her customarily steely intensity to the role of the group’s cynical, burnt-out leader, Andy, who isn’t crazy about the idea since she doesn’t trust Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the ex-C.I.A. agent who hired them. Given how long it turns out that Andy has been doing this sort of thing, you would imagine that her comrades would listen.

The mission turns out to be a set-up, and the would-be rescuers are wiped out in a barrage of bullets. Except not, because Andy and her team are pretty much unkillable. So as their enemies are slapping each other on the back and conveniently looking the other way, the mercenaries haul themselves to their feet, bodies healing almost instantaneously, bullets popping out of closing wounds. Payback is swift but interesting, because for reasons likely having to do with their being many centuries old—the youngest, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), fought for Napoleon—the four quasi-immortals like to use swords in addition to automatic weaponry.

Written with glints of pulpy panache by Greg Rucka, the comic’s originator, The Old Guard sets up a high-potential premise and proceeds to do not very much with it. Rucka’s conceit is that this tiny group are among the very few people on Earth to have been born essentially immortal. This can be a good thing, but it can also prove problematic, as it means that they watch everybody they know age and die—a trope that was already somewhat worn by the time Anne Rice used it throughout her novels about ever-suffering vampires.

The plot of the film does relatively little after the showdown in South Sudan besides introduce a new member of the mercenary team, Nile (KiKi Layne), establish that Andy is tiring of the wandering warrior life, and show the group plotting revenge on Copley only to have that turn into a rescue mission that conveniently brings them all back together again. As part of the run-up to that mission, new recruit Nile, a Marine who goes AWOL from Afghanistan with Andy after her fellow soldiers see her seemingly fatal knife wound magically heal and treat her as some kind of witch, is introduced to life as a nearly invincible eternal warrior.

That rescue plot is simple to the point of being rote. Billionaire Big Pharma bro Merrick (Harry Melling), seemingly made up of equal parts Lex Luthor and Martin Shkreli, kidnaps two of Andy’s team in the hope of harvesting their DNA for blockbuster anti-aging drugs. Unfortunately for the film, that takes two of its most personable characters temporarily out of action. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) had their meet-cute while fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades and have been wildly in love ever since. After the two are captured and mocked by Merrick’s homophobic gunsels, Joe delivers a pocket soliloquy on his poetic yearning: “His kiss still thrills me after a millennium.” The moment’s romantic burn is more poignant by being clipped to its bare-minimal length and presented with the casual confidence one would expect from a man old enough to remember Pope Urban II.

In other ways, however, The Old Guard fails to explore the effects of living such lengthy lives. Asked by Nile whether they are “good guys or bad guys,” Booker answers that “it depends on the century.” While Rucka’s hard-boiled lines like that can help energize the narrative, it can also suggest a certain flippancy. When the film does deal with crushing weight of historical memory, it focuses primarily on Andy, who’s been around so long that her name is shortened from Andromache the Scythian (suggesting she was once the Amazon warrior queen who fought in the battle of Troy). Except for a brief flashback illustrating the centuries-long escapades of Andy and Quynh (Veronica Ngo) fighting for vaguely defined positive principles (one involved rescuing women accused of witchcraft), we don’t see much of their past. Similarly, except for Andy’s increasing cynicism about the positive impact of their roaming the Earth like do-gooder ronin, they seem to exist largely in the present.

That present is largely taken up with combat, particularly as Booker, Andy, and Nile gear up to rescue Nicky and Joe. Prince-Bythewood handles these scenes with a degree of John Wick-esque flair: Why just shoot a Big Pharma hired gun once when you can shoot him, flip him over, and then stab and shoot him again for good measure? However tight, though, the action scenes’ staging is unremarkable, with the exception of one climactic moment that’s so well-choreographed from an emotional standpoint that the impossibility of a multiplex crowd hooting and clapping in response makes the film feel stifled by being limited to streaming.

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts. That will likely not stop further iterations from finding ways to plug these characters and their like into any historical moment that has room in it for high-minded mercenaries with marketable skills and a few centuries to kill.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling, Veronica Ngo Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood Screenwriter: Greg Rucka Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: We Are Little Zombies Is a Fun, Wildly Stylized Portrait of Grief

The film is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries.

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We Are Little Zombies
Photo: Oscilloscope

Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies follows the exploits of a group of tweens who meet at the funeral home where their deceased parents are being cremated. But, surprisingly, Hitari (Keita Ninomiya), Takemura (Mondo Okumura), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), and Ikiko (Satoshi Mizuno) are united less by sorrow and more by cool indifference, as they see their parents’ deaths as yet another tragedy in what they collectively agree is pretty much a “shit life.” As the socially awkward Hitari claims matter-of-factly in voiceover, “Babies cry to signal they need help. Since no one can help me, there’s no point in crying.”

Through a series of extended flashbacks, Nagahisa relates the kids’ troubled lives, never stooping to pitying or sentimentalizing them or their utter dismay with the adult world. The new friends’ deeply internalized grief and hopelessness are filtered wildly through a hyperreal aesthetic lens that’s indebted to all things pop, from psychedelia to role-playing games. It’s Nagashisa’s vibrant means of expressing the disconnect between the kids’ troubled lives and their emotionless reactions to the various tragedies that have befallen them.

With its chiptunes-laden soundtrack and chapter-like form, which mimics the levels of a video game, We Are Little Zombies will draw understandable comparisons to Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But it’s Nagisa Oshima’s Three Resurrected Drunkards that offers a more precise analogue to this film’s provocative rhyming of stylistic zaniness and extreme youthful alienation. Oshima’s anarchically playful farce stars the real-life members of the Folk Crusaders as a disaffected group of rebellious musicians, and when the kids of We Are Little Zombies decide to form a band to express themselves, they even perform a bossa nova version of the Folk Crusaders’s theme song for the 1968 film. This and the many other cultural touchstones in We Are Little Zombies are seamlessly weaved by Nagahisa into a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries, be they social media or a dizzying glut of pop-cultural creations.

Nagahisa’s aesthetic mirrors his main characters’ disconnect from reality, incorporating everything from stop-motion animation to pixelated scenes and overhead shots that replicate the stylings of 8-bit RPGs. At one point in We Are Little Zombies, an unsettling talk show appearance brings to mind what it would be like to have a bad acid trip on the set of an old MTV news program. Nagahisa accepts that the kids’ over-engagement with screen-based technology is inextricably embedded in their experience of reality and ultimately celebrates the sense of camaraderie and belonging that the foursome finds in pop artifacts and detritus. This is particularly evident once their band, the Little Zombies of the film’s title, starts to explore their antipathy toward and frustrations with a seemingly indifferent world.

The Little Zombies wield the same charming punk spirit as the film, and once instant fame reveals its viciously sharp teeth, Nagahisa doesn’t hold back from peering into the nihilistic abyss that stands before the kids. As in Three Resurrected Drunkards, We Are Little Zombies’s most despairing notes are couched in the distinctive language of pop culture. Hitari’s attempts to grab essential items before running away from the home of a relative (Eriko Hatsune) are staged as a video game mission. The band’s hit song—titled, of course, “We Are Little Zombies”—is an infectious, delightfully melodic banger all about their dispassionate existence. There’s even a fake death scene of the kids that, as in Three Resurrected Drunkards, effectively restarts the film’s narrative, allowing the characters to once again test their fate.

For all of this film’s reliance on the stylistic ticks of video games, its narrative arc isn’t limited to the typically linear journey embarked upon by many a gaming protagonist, and the foursome’s path leads neither to enlightenment nor even happiness per se. What they’ve discovered in the months since their parents’ deaths is a solidarity with one another, and rather than have them conquer their fears and anxieties, Nagahisa wisely acknowledges that their social disconnection will remain an ongoing struggle. He understands that by tapping into the unifying, rather than alienating, powers of pop culture, they’re better equipped to deal with whatever additional hard knocks that the modern world will inevitably throw their way.

Cast: Keita Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, Sena Nakajima, Kuranosukie Sasaki, Youki Kudoh, Sosuke Ikematsu, Eriko Hatsune, Jun Murakami, Naomi Nishida Director: Makoto Nagahisa Screenwriter: Makoto Nagahisa Distributor: Oscilloscope Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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

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

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Palm Springs
Photo: Hulu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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Hamilton
Photo: Disney+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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Family Romance, LLC
Photo: MUBI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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