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Understanding Screenwriting #11: Changeling, I’ve Loved You So Long, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, ER, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #11: Changeling, I’ve Loved You So Long, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, ER, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Changeling, I’ve Loved You So Long, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, ER, 30 Rock, Some Quick Sweeps Updates, and Trailers, but first:

Fan Mail: I can appreciate theoldboy’s disappointment that I did not deal with the opening monologue in Crash. I often have a similar reaction after I send off a column to Keith and suddenly think, hey, why I didn’t I mention that.

I think Max Winter’s take on Sidney in Rachel Getting Married is a very interesting one, and I know there are a lot of people who feel as theoldboy does that the energy of the actors and the music make that film more entertaining than a lot of what is around. So far it has not been all that great a year for films and we have to take our pleasures where we can find them.

Changeling(2008. Written by J. Michael Straczynski. 141 minutes): The flaw in Eastwood’s iris.

One quality that has kept Clint Eastwood a major star, director and producer for over forty years is that he has a great eye for screenplays, not only to star in, but to produce and direct. And even more important for screenwriters is that he tends not to spend a lot of time in “developing” scripts. The original draft of a script is on white pages, and revisions are on different colored pages. Most “final” scripts look like rainbows on LSD. Frances Fisher, who was in Unforgiven, has said that it was the only film she ever worked on where all the script pages were white. You can see what that can get you with Unforgiven and Mystic River, just to name two of his best.

That’s the upside. The downside is that sometimes the scripts should have been developed more. Both Bird and Flags of Our Fathers could have been better focused. The Bridges of Madison County and Million Dollar Baby both go on much longer after their climaxes than they should. The latter problem affects Changeling, as in the long, long scene of the killer being hanged. Do we really need to see this at this late point in the film?

The screenplay’s author, J. Michael Straczynski, told Jason Davis in the September/October issue of Creative Screenwriting that the script first went to Ron Howard and his company. Straczynski and Howard worked on revisions, but when Eastwood came on board to direct, he wanted to see the writer’s first draft. Eastwood looked at the other drafts, but went with the first one, since he felt “the voice was clearest in the first draft.” That is usually true, and it is often the author’s voice that gets “developed” out of the script. The trick is to keep the author’s voice while improving the script. I have seen this happen with my screenwriting students and have to fight against it. It can be very tricky to improve the script without destroying what made it interesting in the first place. It takes executives and producers with restrained egos to do it right. You see the problem.

The story of Christine Collins is a true story, and Straczynski, a former journalist, compiled three file folder boxes of historical accounts, trial transcripts, and other material. Like many authors of novels, nonfiction, and screenplays, Straczynski tended to put as much of his research as he could into the film. In the second half, as Collins tries to find out what happened to her son, the film bogs down in commission hearings and trials, all of which are true, but get exhausting to watch. Those scenes could have been handled quicker.

The script also gets repetitive, especially with Collins. Her son Walter disappears and she bombards the police, repeatedly asking “Where’s my son?” When they bring her a boy they think is her son, she insists he is not, repeatedly stating, “He’s not my son.” OK, we get it, move on. The odd thing about these repetitive scenes with Collins is that instead of wanting to see the scenes with our star (Angelina Jolie plays Collins), we are relieved when she is not on screen asking about her son.

Straczynski has not focused the character of Collins as sharply as he might. We cannot tell exactly when this ordinary woman moves into being an implacable force. For all the power Jolie brings to the part, and it is considerable, it never quite comes together.

I hope you have not decided from all of the above to give the film a miss because there are things it does very well. The reconstruction of Southern California in the late 20s and early 30s is superb, as is the feel for the corruption of the police department at the time.

Straczynski has written some great scenes, not only for Jolie but the others. He said in the Creative Screenwriting interview that the one area he could not find any documentation on was what happened to Collins in the psychiatric ward. He based his scenes on what he was able to find out about treatments of the time. Since he is not tied down to the “facts” (i.e. transcripts, reports), he can use his artistic license, which he does well. Two of the film’s best scenes are in the ward. First is a nice little scene in which Carol Dexter, a prostitute, explains how the system works. This leads to a great scene in which Collins tries to outwit the shrink, using what Dexter has told her. Straczynski, Jolie, and Denis O’Hare as the doctor bring their A game to that scene, and Eastwood is smart enough as a director to just set back and let them go.

There are two great scenes in which young boys talk about what happened at the “ranch” where a serial killer took young boys. The first one is focused on the police officer interviewing the boy and realizing the horror of what the boy is telling him. The other, near the end of the picture, focuses almost completely on the other boy telling of his escape from the ranch. The scene leads to as much of a happy ending as this grueling film can provide.

I’ve Loved You So Long (2008. Written by Philippe Claudel. 115 minutes): Some movies move forward. Some movies move backward. This one does both.

We do not know much about Juliette when we first meet her, waiting at the airport. Her face has an emotionless expression. Her much more cheerful and open younger sister Lea picks her up. There are obviously things they are not talking about. As often happens, what people are reluctant to talk about it with their family gets discussed outside the family. We learn from other scenes that Juliette has been in prison. For fifteen years. For murdering her son. Don’t worry, that last is not a spoiler. We learn it half an hour into the film, and the revelation at the end if why she killed him. We work backwards, as it were, to that revelation.

We are working forward as Juliette begins her new life, and Lea and her husband adjust to having her around. At first Luc, the husband, is reluctant to have Juliette babysit their children and one can understand why. Eventually he suggests she babysit. Stated that way, it sounds obvious, but it is not. The film is a very subtle look at the changing relationships of Juliette, Lea, Luc, and their friends, most of whom do not know where Juliette has been. In one of the most suspenseful scenes in a film this year, a dinner at a country house turns into a guessing game as to where Juliette has been. The payoff is terrific.

Claudel, a French novelist and screenwriter, has written some great roles for the actors to play, and in his first directorial job, he does not fall into the trap Charlie Kaufman did with Synecdoche, New York (see US#10). The scenes, and the film, move. I knew I was in good hands when the opening shot on the great Kristin Scott Thomas as Juliette was not held too long. Thomas said in an interview in the Los Angeles Times there was “tension on the set,” since she kept telling Claudel she could do the role with less dialogue. He was smart enough to listen to her.

The one downside is the ending. I am not sure I agree with David Denby in the November 10th New Yorker when he says it is a “cheat.” It has been prepared for, but Claudel has gotten us so deeply into the characters both intellectually and emotionally that the ending does not take us a far as the film has. It also leaves open a gaping plot hole. I won’t of course tell you what it is, but let’s just say that if Grissom and his gang of CSIs were on the original case, the outcome would have been different.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno(2008. Written by Kevin Smith. 101 minutes): Not really.

The idea had potential: two slackers, male and female, who have been friends since grade school decide to make a porn video in order to earn money and pay their bills. They have been platonic friends, but decide to do a sex scene in the film, during which they discover they are in love. So far, OK, but the details of the making of the porno are not particularly well handled, and the characterization of the participants is limited. Miri is set up to be just as foul-mouthed as Zack and most guys in Kevin Smith’s movies. Fine, but she is something of a step down from the similar Becky character in Smith’s Clerks II. And that film suggested the two guys from the first Clerks were at least showing hints of growing up. The romance between Zack and Miri is supposed to serve the same function here, but if anything it seems more adolescent rather than less. What inventiveness the first part of the film has fades away as it becomes more conventional and even sentimental by the ending.

If you do see it, however, you should stay through the credits, because there is a great payoff in the middle of the credits as to what the porno led to. Smith would have had a better movie if he had told the story the payoff suggests rather than the one he did.

A word on language. Part of why we go to a Kevin Smith movie is that the characters are all foul-mouthed, and you never know what they are going to say. I suppose making Becky and Miri just as foul-mouthed is a triumph for feminism, but this is the first Kevin Smith film where I really felt the language was excessive, or at least unneeded. That may sound odd, given that the characters are making a porno, but the language seems more generic gross language than the language that would come out during the making of a porno.

ER (1994. Episode “Pilot” written by Michael Crichton. 120 minutes): Michael Crichton died on November 4th. While he will be remembered for his novels and screenplays, one of his more lasting legacies is the television series ER.

Crichton went to medical school before he became a writer, and in 1974 he wrote a screenplay titled EW (for Emergency Ward). Nobody wanted to buy it. As Crichton later told Janine Pourroy for her book Behind the Scenes at ER, “I wanted to write something that was based in reality. Something that would have a fast pace and treat medicine in a realistic way. The screenplay was very unusual. It was very focused on the doctors, not the patients—the patients came and went. People yelled paragraphs of drug dosages at each other. It was very technical, almost a quasi-documentary.” He is right. His script resembles Frederick Wiseman’s 1970 Direct Cinema documentary Hospital, not only in content, but in structure. While there were a number of fiction films of the period that borrowed the Direct Cinema filmmaking style (M*A*S*H, The Candidate), very few borrowed the structure.

Crichton put the script in a drawer, where it stayed for fifteen years. In the late 80s, it came to Steven Spielberg, who expressed an interest in doing a medical drama. As Crichton and Spielberg talked, the director asked Crichton what else he was working on. Crichton said his newest novel was going to be about the cloning of dinosaurs from … well, that was the end of Spielberg’s interest in EW. A few years later Tony Thomopolous of Spielberg’s Amblin’ company found the script and suggested it might make a better television series than a film. Thomopolous put Crichton together with the former showrunner of China Beach, John Wells. By now several series, starting with Hill Street Blues in the 80s, had brought that multi-story, multi-character Direct Cinema structure to television. (For a more detailed look at how that happened, see my 1992 book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing.) There were still concerns about what was now titled ER.

The two-hour pilot of ER establishes the tone and rhythm of the series. In the first act, we start with Dr. Mark Greene asleep. He is awakened by Lydia, an ER nurse, since the incoming patient is Dr. Doug Ross, the playboy pediatrician, coming in to sober up. The quiet of the morning gives way to action as victims of a building collapse are brought in. We see that Ross is a top-flight doctor, even when a patient vomits on him. At the end of the first act, Greene and Ross are asking Carol Hathaway, the head nurse, if there are any more patients. Hathaway, who has wandered through several scenes, tells them no and quietly walks off.

In the second act, we learn that Greene’s wife wants him to interview at a plusher hospital. This is one of few recurring storylines in the pilot. He goes for the interview later and near the end of the pilot decides to stay in the ER. I suspect that in Crichton’s film version we get him telling his wife, but here it is left up in the air. In the ER, John Carter shows up. He is a third year medical student starting a rotation. In a “normal” script, we would have started with him, so he could have “introduced” us to the ER. Here he comes in after we have a sense of the action of the ER. The doctor he is assigned to, Peter Benton, gives him a quick tour, which makes more sense to us since we have already seen some of the places. Later Carter has to try his stitches on Frank, a cop who shot himself in the leg while trying to hit his wife. There was no way anyone, on the show or just viewing it, would know that Frank would return several years later to work the main desk at Admitting.

Shortly before an hour into the show, we have what is so far the longest scene as Dr. Lewis talks to a man who suspects, rightly, that he has cancer. He asks Lewis to level with him, which she does. His reaction is to think of all the things he wants to do with his wife. Since character has never been Crichton’s strong suit (see my book Understanding Screenwriting for a discussion of Crichton’s writing on the three Jurassic Park movies), I suspect this may have been written, or at least rewritten by John Wells. Crichton gets the sole credit on the screenplay, but the scene feels less like him and more like Wells.

Shortly after the hour mark, at the end of Act Four, a new patient is brought into the ER. The doctors and nurses are in shock. The patient is Carol Hathaway, who tried to commit suicide. Ross seems the most stunned. We learned earlier that Hathaway and Ross flirt, although she is now engaged and as she says to Ross, “You had your chance.” Crichton has upped the ante because this is a patient we know, at least slightly, and her suicide attempt has shaken the major characters we have been following. In the original screenplay for the film, Hathaway died, but that was rewritten so at the end of the pilot we do not know whether she lives or dies. She went on in the series to rekindle her affair with Ross and go off with him to live happily ever after.

In Act Five they are treating Hathway and trying to figure out why she did it, and we get additional patients. One element in the pilot episode that does not appear to be continued into the series is that the doctors and nurses are constantly pulling sheets over patients to show they have died. In the series, patients die, but usually with really impressive death scenes.

In Act Six, Benton has a patient he thinks needs surgery. Since all the surgeons are away at a conference (possible, but unlikely) he decides to operate, at least until Dr. Morgenstern, the head of the ER, can get there. This, in spite of the fact that in Act One, a surgeon has told Benton he is not ready for surgery. The operation, which turns out well, was obviously intended to be the climax of the film.

What Crichton laid out, and what Wells and the other writers on the series carried through, was a complex structure that allowed for a variety of characters and stories to be told, either in single episodes or over several seasons. Since it was an ensemble show, cast changes, including the death of Mark Greene, were relatively easily worked into the show.

ER (2008. Episode “Heal Thyself” written by David Zabel. 60 minutes): Speaking of Mark Greene…

As I noticed in writing about Dr. Banfield’s arrival in “Another Thursday at County” (US#8), she seemed to have a passing familiarity with County General, especially one of the examination rooms. This week we learn what that was all about.

Banfield and her husband discuss something he brought up at a party last night, and she is not happy about it. We don’t know what. Out running, Banfield comes across the site of an accident, where a little girl has fallen into the lake. We begin to get flashbacks of Banfield, her husband, and their son (so it appears my guess in US#8 that the father was one of the show’s doctors was wrong; but is the son in the photograph the same one in the show?). How do we know they are flashbacks? Yes, Angela Bassett has on a long-haired wig, but she also looks younger and more at ease. How do actors do that? It’s a mystery.

As Banfield in the present accompanies the child and her father in the ambulance, we get more flashbacks of a seizure Banfield’s son had and her reluctance to take him to the hospital. She finally agrees, and at the end of Act Two they arrive at County General. The door of the ambulance is opened by Mark Greene.

Both in the past and the present we are in Trauma One, the room Banfield reacted to. In the past, Banfield gives Greene a hard time, and she eventually realizes her son has leukemia. The son dies, but in the present the girl lives. The past and present are seen in the same scene; at one point Banfield in the present looks at Banfield in the past. The cutting between the past and present has gotten quicker, as have the medical discussions. Crichton’s idea that there would be a lot of technical stuff the audiences would not necessarily understand is still alive and well on ER.

In the last of the flashbacks, Greene sees Banfield out by the river and reassures her that there was nothing she could have done that would have saved her son. Having Greene deliver the message should probably work better than it does. If you are going to bring Greene back from the dead, it had better be to have an impact on Banfield now. We do not really see that in this episode. It is nice to see Anthony Edwards (Greene) again, but he is not doing anything we did not seem him do for eight years before on the show. The same is true with the brief cameos of Dr. Weaver and Dr. Romano.

30 R(2008. “The One With the Cast of Night Court” written by Jack Burditt. 30 minutes): November 13th seemed to be a “bringing back the dead, or at least canceled, night” on NBC.

In addition to Greene returning to ER, 30 Rock pulled a twofer. Liz and Jenna’s friend from Chicago, Claire, showed up and was played by former-Friend Jennifer Aniston, hence the episode title in the “The One…” form used by Friends. The show was smart enough not to make Claire a Rachel clone, but rather a total whack-job, determined to seduce Jack in as many different situations as possible. Great choice of character and Aniston, who looked like she was having the time of her life, knocked it out of the park. Brad who? See, I told you they should have been promoting the writing rather than the guest stars.

The other canceled show that was referenced was Night Court. Kenneth, the page, was upset that the show had been canceled before the wedding between Harry and Christine got married, so Tracy arranged for some of the cast to come and enact the scene. Not quite as high flying as the Claire scenes, but meta-enough.

Ah yes, one other small point. Let me extend my personal thanks to all the American voters who made it possible that Tina Fey will not have to be moonlighting as Sarah Palin and can devote her full time and talent to this show.

Some Quick Sweeps Updates: On Two and a Half Men, Alan had a brief affair with his ex-wife, but sanity prevailed and they broke up again. She got back with Herb, her second husband, and she is now pregnant. Doing the math, it is clear to everybody but Herb that the child is probably Alan’s.

On CSI we finally got an episode in which we see Grissom suffering from Sara’s leaving, “Leave Out All the Rest.” It came while the CSI’s were investigating a murder involving torture, S&M, and other good things. So Grissom naturally went to talk to Lady Heather, his friendly neighborhood dominatrix. She recognized the murder was just a pretext. At least the issue was being actively dealt with by the show, rather than just lingering on close-ups of Grissom looking depressed. On the down side, the new CSI, Riley, was introduced in her first episode as having a sense of humor, which subsequently went missing in the following episodes. A little levity might not be out of the questions, team.

On Boston Legal David E. Kelley and Amanda Jones came up with a new take on an abortion episode, Roe, in spite of Denny’s insistence that audiences would be turning it off. The episode, broadcast on November 10th, does not seem to have caused any outrage.

And CBS, not having the courage of Kevin Smith’s convictions, has canceled The Ex-List.

Trailers: I have written about movie trailers a couple of times in relation to specific films, but this is more general.

On one of the Mad Men episodes, they ran several trailers for the upcoming remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, presumably because Jon Hamm has a supporting role in the film. I am sure many Mad Men fans loved the quiet subtlety of the original, but the trailers make the new one look like a remake of Independence Day. I doubt if the Mad Men audience is the desired demographic for that.

On the other hand, on another episode of Mad Men, there was a trailer for Revolutionary Road, which may have been too close to Mad Men in setting and tone. But it may well appeal to that demographic.

With most trailers, my general reaction is “no way.” Only occasionally do I see one that immediately makes me want to see the film. One such, in theaters now, is for Last Chance Harvey. It sets up the situation quickly: Harvey has gone to London for his daughter’s wedding, but she wants her stepfather to give her away. Harvey gets a call that he’s been fired. He meets a woman to share his troubles with. I assume from the one review I have seen so far that it is not the whole story. The trailer also suggests the script is providing a couple of great roles for its two stars, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, who appear to have great chemistry. I turned to my wife at the end of the trailer and said, “Shall I go out now and get tickets?”

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

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Jeonju IFF 2019: Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, & Introduzione all’oscuro

These are three enigmatic, challenging, and weird works of art by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

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Coincoin and the Extra-Humans

Shortly after arriving in Jeonju, the mid-sized Korean city about 200 kilometers south of Seoul that serves as the site of the Jeonju International Film Festival, I pulled my bedraggled, jet-lagged body over to the guest center to pick up my press credentials. As I made my way through the carnivalesque open-air city block known as Jeonju Cinema Town, I found myself, to my surprise, in the midst of a rather peculiar, almost surreal scenario as a bunch of white- and black-suited stormtroopers marched in lockstep toward me, weapons at the ready, flanking none other than the Grand Imperial Poobah himself, Darth Vader.

The group maneuvered around me without incident, eager to pose for selfies with the crowd of locals assembled in the area, but after over 20 hours of travel, the encounter took on a vaguely sinister air, as if the forces of Hollywood monoculture had been dispatched to this relatively remote cinephile retreat to ensure that no one here got the wrong idea: Have fun with your cute little art films, but remember who really wields the power in the world of cinema.

I suppose these are the sorts of strange inclinations that strike you when your body’s circadian rhythms have been shaken up like a snow globe, but, despite the presence of the Walt Disney Company as one of the festival’s premier sponsors, the films I saw—personal, challenging, at times exhilarating work from all across the world—couldn’t have seemed further away from the market-tested franchises that clog American cineplexes. Having said that, it’s with some irony that one of the first films I took in at Jeonju IFF was in fact a sequel—albeit one whose eccentric sense of humor and repetitive, unresolved narrative mean it’s never going to be mistaken for the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The sequel in question is Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to Li’l Quinquin. One of the great left turns in the history of auteurism, Dumont’s 2014 miniseries signaled his transition from austere Bressonian miserablism to a singular brand of deadpan grotesquerie that gleefully explodes the thin line between the clever and the stupid. Dumont doesn’t vary his style too much for the sequel, as it’s another bizarre sunlit mystery set in the windswept countryside of Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And Dumont has reassembled the same cast of non-professional local oddballs led by Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a twitchy, hapless police detective investigating matters way beyond his depths.

Dumont, though, still finds ways to mess with his audience’s expectations, starting with the baffling and completely inexplicable change of the title character’s name. If the earlier film felt like Dumont’s riff on popular international crime dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing, Coincoin turns out to be his spin on The X-Files, a sci-fi pod-people procedural featuring a mysterious black goo from outer space that inhabits its victims and forces them to give birth to their own uncanny clones. Like many stories about body-snatching, the series is a satire—here on provincial racism, the poor treatment of African migrants, and the rise of the French far right—but Dumont isn’t simply interested in topical point-scoring against Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant politician who represents Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

Rather, with its ambling, directionless narrative and lackadaisical long shots that perversely undercut the screenplay’s gags, Coincoin evokes a deep-rooted spirit of reactionary malaise, of people whose lives are hopelessly circumscribed by their own fears and prejudices. Dumont rigorously resists developing his plot or deepening his characters: They’re all trapped in an absurd loop, doomed to endlessly say the same things and reenact the same jokes.

Van der Weyden sums up that mentality in a single line: “Progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s a group of black men who periodically appear throughout the film only to be consistently and summarily dismissed in a fit of racist panic. Each time, we expect the film to create some meaningful interaction between the white townsfolk and these migrants, and each time we’re rebuffed—that is, until a final musical explosion of kumbaya-like camaraderie that’s somehow goofy, moving, tedious, and invigorating all at the same time.

Dumont is one of the few artists in cinema willing to risk exhausting his audience to induce a particular effect, but he’s not the only one, as demonstrated by James Benning’s L. Cohen, a 45-minute static shot of a seemingly unremarkable field with a mountain visible in the distance. It’s an elegantly composed frame, reminiscent of an American Regionalist painting and whose centrally located peak perhaps coyly refers to the Paramount logo.

After 20 minutes, even the most hardened cinephiles are bound to be squirming in their seat, at which point Benning reveals his remarkable trump card: As the sky quickly darkens and blackness falls over the Earth, we realize that we’ve been watching the leadup to a total solar eclipse. It’s a moment of quiet astonishment and confusion for anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming, bringing us close to the feeling a caveman might’ve had when the same event occurred. With typical mathematical precision, Benning has placed the eclipse at the exact center of the film, allowing us to explore the subtle shadows that precede and follow it.

The film, however, isn’t just some academic structuralist exercise, as it’s also a meditation on death, a fact highlighted by the next startling moment: the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Itself” on the soundtrack, a stark divergence from the ominous drone (identified by Benning during his festival Q&A as the hum of airplanes flying overhead) that fills the rest of the film. This song and the dedication of the film to the recently deceased Cohen add a deeper layer of meaning to Benning’s precisely calibrated study of light and time.

L. Cohen is in essence a meditation on temporality. All things are fleeting, even grand interplanetary ballets. Considering the brief alignment of these celestial bodies puts one in a cosmic mood and calls to mind a cryptic, haunting line from a different Cohen song, “Stories of the Street”: “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.”

One could also find the specter of death looming over Introduzione all’oscuro, an expressionistic tribute to director Gastón Solnicki’s good friend, Hans Hurch, the recently departed director of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. Described by the director not as a film about Hurch, but a film for him, Introduzione all’oscuro dispenses with biography entirely, instead evoking its subject’s buoyant, ragtag spirit in an almost subliminal fashion: through music, film, and the city of Vienna. Hurch “appears” in the film primarily through his letters and through his voice, recorded by Solnicki when he provided notes on one of the director’s previous films. Solnicki does appear on screen: a comically lonely figure visiting some of Hurch’s favorite Viennese haunts—such as the Café Engländer, from which he would periodically steal cups—on a journey that drolly recalls Holly Martins’s investigation into the apparent death of his pal Harry Lime in The Third Man.

Like Solnicki’s Kékszakállú before it, Introduzione all’oscuro is what might be called “slideshow cinema”—a procession of taut, piquant compositions whose relationship to one another isn’t precisely clear but which, when taken together, create an indelible impression of a highly specific milieu. Structured more like a piece of avant-garde music than a narrative work or traditional documentary, the film has a hypnotic yet often dissonant allure. It pulls us into a strange liminal zone where Hurch seems to be simultaneously present and absent, haunting the film like a benevolent spirit. Solnicki simply has one of the best eyes in cinema today, and it’s the pungency of his images which makes the film such an endlessly compelling experience, even when the reasons behind Solnicki’s individual choices remain obscure.

Abstruseness, though, is no crime. In fact, the greatest pleasures of Jeonju IFF were to be found in grappling with “difficult” films such as Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, and Introduzione all’oscuro: enigmatic, challenging, and even downright weird works of art made by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

The Jeonju International Film Festival ran from May 2—11.

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Review: As Teen Comedy, Booksmart Is Sweet and Nasty in Fine Balance

It’s an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness.

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Booksmart
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

An uncharitable way of describing Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut, Booksmart, is as a gender-flipped version of Superbad. Like Greg Mottola’s 2007 film, it concerns a pair of best friends who’ve spent their high school years as outsiders but, at the end of their senior year, decide to attend the biggest, coolest graduation party imaginable. As in Superbad, getting to the party devolves into an almost picaresque gauntlet through suburban nightlife, consisting of comical encounters with outlandish characters (both films even feature a “creepy car guy”). Booksmart and Superbad also share a ribald, R-rated sense of humor and a sex scene interrupted by vomit—even the same casting director (the venerable Allison Jones).

For all that, Wilde’s film is less a derivative of Mottola’s teen comedy than a corrective to it. Its exaggerated universe is less mean-spirited than the one depicted in Superbad, where so much of the humor depended on Jonah Hill loudly proclaiming his character’s misogyny. Booksmart isn’t above getting laughs from sex jokes that land somewhere between honest and outrageous—there’s a recurring bit about Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) masturbating with her stuffed panda doll—but it does show that teenage conversations about sex can be funny without being demeaning. And its belief in its main characters as more than just stand-ins for the most distorted beliefs that virginal high schoolers have about sex gives the film a fuller, more satisfying arc.

Amy and her best friend, Molly (Beanie Feldstein), are their elite Valley High School’s A-type-personality do-gooders, well-meaning in their ambition and their wokeness, but with streaks of haughtiness and self-righteousness. Beanie is class president, the kind of kid who pushes the school principal (Jason Sudeikis) to arrange a budget meeting with the juniors on the last day of class. In contrast to the brashly assertive Molly, Amy is meek, barely able to eke out syllables when talking to her crush, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), but she’s also intensely woke, adorning her denim jacket with feminist-slogan patches and her car with “Elizabeth Warren 2020” bumper stickers. The pair are so close that they’re often mistaken for being a couple (Amy has been out since the 10th grade), and they definitely don’t party.

As school is letting out, Molly discovers that her and Amy’s monk-like approach to high school life has been for naught. Although the two pride themselves on respectively getting into Yale and Columbia, it seems that virtually all of their classmates have a similarly propitious future lined up. Even the horny goofball Theo (Eduardo Franco), who repeated seventh grade three times, was recruited for a six-figure job with Google. Molly adopts partying as her new project, dragging the reluctant Amy, all the more anxious because Ryan will be at the party, along with her. The problem is that, not being a part of their school’s social scene, they have no idea where the party actually is, and limited means of figuring it out.

The obliviously indefatigable Molly is a star-making role for Feldstein, who keeps let her highly dynamic character—Molly can be both very rigid and very foolhardy—from feeling inconsistent, or leading to broad caricature. As the quieter Amy, Devers’s role is mostly reactive, but, in the tumultuous climax, she supplies the film’s most poignant and relatable moments. As the omnipresent Gigi, a troubled party girl who inexplicably appears at each of the girls’ wayward stops on their journey to the party, Billie Lourd channels a chaotic energy, becoming the film’s strung-out jester. Lourd is just part of an altogether impressive ensemble that also includes Jessica Williams as the teacher who loves Amy and Molly perhaps a bit too much, and Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s super-Christian, super-supportive parents.

For the most part sharply written, and tighter and more consistently funny than the fragmented improv-style Superbad, Booksmart nevertheless has a couple of stretches that don’t quite land. There’s a claymated ayahuasca-tripping sequence that neither suits the rest of the film nor is followed up on in any way by the narrative. And the film’s conclusion is more than a little formally messy, with Wilde relying on a too-rapid succession of non-diegetic pop songs as emotional accents and to fast-forward the plot—at one crucial moment even drowning out the dialogue. But despite these small missteps, Booksmart feels like an innovation, an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness, and that you can be gross without being too mean.

Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Billie Lourd, Diana Silvers, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin, Eduardo Franco, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Mike O’Brien Director: Olivia Wilde Screenwriter: Olivia Wilde Katie Silberman, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Terminator: Dark Fate Official Trailer: Going Back to the Well with Sarah Connor

Linda Hamilton at least makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.

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Terminator: Dark Fate
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Today, Paramount dropped the trailer for the sixth entry in the Terminator series, Terminator: Dark Fate, which promises to deliver…more of the same? With this film, Deadpool director Tim Miller aims to give the series a reboot: by pretending that none of the films that came after Terminator 2: Judgement Day ever existed (sorry, Rise of the Machines fans), maybe even Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. “Welcome to the day after judgment day,” reads the poster, promising the badass return of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. And on that front, the film looks to deliver, as Hamilton certainly makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.

But based on everything else that’s on display throughout the trailer, we’re worried that there’s not anything new that a film in this series stands to bring to the table besides running and gunning, with the occasional wink thrown in for good measure. Cast in point: Mackenzie Davis stars as Grace, an “enhanced human” who looks to fill the hanger-on role to Connor that Edward Furlong’s John Connor did to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, now apparently living in woodsy retirement, and at the ready to give sage advice. In short, we’re not impressed, and that also holds true of that cover of Björk’s “Hunter” by some zombie man singer.

Watch the official trailer below:

Paramount Pictures will release Terminator Dark Fate on November 1.

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Review: Woodstock Offers a New Look at the Three Days that Defined a Generation

Throughout, the era-defining yet problem-plagued music festival astounds in large part for all the disasters that didn’t occur.

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Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation
Photo: PBS Distribution

According to Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, the 1969 Woodstock festival seemed fated to fail. But a rare convergence of good luck, good intentions, and good vibes somehow snapped into place and crystallized over a few days in August the aspirations of a counterculture about to hit its peak. The festival’s planners, mostly promoters and music-industry pros, talk off-camera throughout this gloriously gleeful documentary about their somewhat spur-of-the-moment concept in a purposefully overlapping mosaic that makes it difficult to determine who’s saying what. Their original idea was simply a big concert that would celebrate the opening of a recording studio in the bucolic artist community of Woodstock, NY and take advantage of the musicians living nearby.

That conceit ballooned into a sprawling three-day cultural amoeba of feel-good psychedelia billed as “An Aquarian Exposition” to be held in a bucolic setting. It would ideally seem, according to one organizer, “like visiting another world.” Creating that gateway to paradise, however, hit one snag after another. Conservative fears about an invasion of hippies led to much anger among locals and triggered permitting issues. Original desired stars like Bob Dylan, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones all passed on the vent. Months’ worth of construction at the original site in Wallkill, NY had to be scrapped at the last minute.

But Woodstock shows also how both lucky circumstances and in-depth planning saved the day. The lineup swelled with a killer roster of acts whom David Crosby defines simply as “everybody we thought was cool”: Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Creedence Clearwater, Janis Joplin, and so on. According to writer Bob Spitz, interest grew as the organizers put the word out through the underground press, and though their top estimates of attendance topped out at 150,000, the eventual total was closer to a potentially unmanageable 400,000. Seemingly foolhardy ideas like hiring Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm commune to handle what they termed “security” and what Wavy defined as trying to “spread grooviness,” helped the increasingly massive enterprise maintain an appealingly mellow tone. Then, a Republican dairy farmer named Max Yasgur, who just happened to have a visually gorgeous sweep of land shaped like a natural amphitheater, agreed to host the festival.

Just about everyone interviewed in Barak Goodman and Jamilia Ephron’s documentary still marvels a half-century on at the scope and tranquility of what happened, though the potential for disaster provides some dramatic grit to the narrative. Much of the festival’s harmoniousnes was a result of on-the-spot empathetic resourcefulness, from Hog Farm’s thrown-together Sunday-morning “breakfast in bed” and “freak-out” tents for people on bad acid trips to the previously resentful locals who spontaneously emptied their pantries to feed the long-haired kids who had been tromping through their front yards. The crowds were soothed by the reassuring voice of the festival announcer, whose “we”-focused addresses over the PA system strengthened the communal spirit, which is then echoed in the film’s starry-eyed reminiscences of interviewees who all sound as though they wish they could go back.

Woodstock cannot hope to supplant Michael Wadleigh’s more symphonic and experiential 1970 documentary. But conversely, its tighter, narrower focus on narrative and context ultimately tells a bigger story at roughly half the length. Co-director Goodman has shown in some of his darker work for PBS’s American Experience, like his episode about the Oklahoma City bombing, a knack for building suspense. He deploys that skill here marvelously when showing the sea of humanity converging on Yasgur’s farm, balancing a fear of impending disaster (short supplies, last-minute glitches, a crowd many times larger than the highest estimates) with the dawning realization that things might just work out.

That tightrope-walking drama is maintained through the actual concert portion of the movie. The musical highs, Hendrix’s squalling “Star-Spangled Banner” and Richie Haven’s raucous two-hour jam (filling the gap while helicopters ferried musicians in over the blocked roads), play out while the vast crowd contends with food shortages and an unexpected rainstorm. But even though the attendees rushed past the mostly unbuilt fencing and by default created what organizer John Roberts here terms “the world’s greatest three-day freebie,” he and his partners appear now happier about the instant community that metamorphosed in the mud than the fact that as a business venture the concert was “in deep shit.”

Woodstock hits many of the expected notes about the concert’s place in the nation’s cultural history. But it’s refreshingly less self-satisfied than awestruck at the simple beauty of what happened at the Woodstock festival and the utopian example it provided to the world. Though unmentioned here, the disastrous music festival that occurred four months later at Altamont Speedway, in the hills of Northern California’s East Bay, where the organizers’ callous indifference to advance planning led to chaos and multiple deaths, shows just how rare the event that occurred in Bethel across three days back in August ‘69 remains to this day.

Director: Barak Goodman, Jamila Ephron Distributor: PBS Distribution Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Is a Knotty Trip Down Memory Lane

Its stylistic fluctuations are a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today.

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The Souvenir
Photo: A24

True to the mission of its protagonist, a well-meaning student filmmaker working on a thesis feature about a community foreign to her, writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is engaged in a running dialogue with itself around the notion of how—and how not—to make a personal narrative. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a London-based, upper-middle-class young woman coming of age in Margaret Thatcher’s England who feels a moral imperative to transpose her own experiences onto a fictional story set in working-class Sunderland, and she’s given ongoing opportunities in her film workshops to try to articulate why that is. Hogg, who based the character on her own early experiences as an artist, views Julie’s trajectory tenderly but through the lens of a greater maturity, dotting the young woman’s path with interlocutors who challenge and redirect her inclinations. Gradually, Julie’s certitude seems to fall out from under her, transforming Hogg’s film in the process.

Pivotal among these forces is Anthony (Tom Burke), a spectacularly smug older man with ambiguous professional and personal affiliations who becomes inexorably drawn to Julie, and she to him. When he first appears on screen across a table from Julie at a café, Hogg frames the scene in the kind of spacious, sophisticated master shot that defined her 2013 film Exhibition, snapping The Souvenir out of the close-up-heavy, fly-on-the-wall aesthetic with which it opens. The shift in style registers the exhilarating impact Anthony has on Julie, who is up to that point seen as a wallflower at college parties, taking photos and rolling a Bolex in the corner while bouncing in and out of conversations. Sizing up Julie’s film project with suave dismissiveness, Anthony suggests that she might heed the influence of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were able to express personal emotions free of the constraints of realism, and later proposes that “it’s not enough to be sincere or authentic.”

Julie takes such counseling in stride even when it comes from her casually condescending professors (also men), giving her a headstrong resilience that Swinton-Byrne beautifully underplays. But Julie’s toughness doesn’t equate to stubborn pride, and soon The Souvenir turns away from its portrait of early filmmaking ambition and toward the knotty dynamics of Anthony and Julie’s strengthening relationship—itself modeled off a fling in Hogg’s past. The director orchestrates this formal shapeshift with sly subtlety, first introducing the couple’s scenes together as elliptical diversions from the central storyline, then gradually lengthening them until the sequences set in and around Julie’s film school take a backseat entirely. Now sharing an apartment, Anthony and Julie go through the growing pains of coexistence—the former posits a “Wall of Jericho” made of pillows in a reference to It Happened One Night to solve his discomfort in bed—but nonetheless find a strange harmony in their dissonant personalities, with his brutal honesty charming her and her placidity disarming him.

In Anthony’s case, however, this apparent personality yardstick proves misleading, as it turns out that he’s frank about everything but his own life. Talk of a vague government job creates an impression of a posh background belied by Anthony and Julie’s trip to visit his parents, and later, an offhand remark made by one of Anthony’s friends when he’s in the bathroom yields the startling revelation—cued by spatially disorienting mirror shots and the gentle use of Dutch angles—that Julie’s boyfriend is a heroin addict. Hogg omits the scene where Julie confronts Anthony about this revelation, but the mark it leaves on their relationship is implicitly, delicately apparent in every part of The Souvenir moving forward. The neatly organized, white-walled apartment where much of the action takes place becomes charged with tension, not only from the threat of dissident bombing that percolates outside its windows (a reality contemporaneous to the film’s early-‘80s setting), but also from Anthony’s frequent, unexplained comings and goings, which starkly contrast Julie’s more fixed physicality as she spends her time hunched over a typewriter.

The Souvenir flirts with a few conventional movie premises—the doomed romance, the spiral into the hell of drug addiction, the pursuit of self-actualization—without ever fully engaging one, which doesn’t indicate an uncertainty on Hogg’s part so much as a supreme confidence in the intricacies of her own material. Likely to some viewers’ dismay, Julie’s story isn’t one that ever comes to hinge on an a-ha moment, a sudden realization that she’s strayed from her artistic passion in her entanglement with a toxic partner. Rather, Hogg evokes both the seductive appeal of an irrational romance and the less sexy but nonetheless potent comfort of falling into the role of nurturer, a discipline shown in a few touching scenes to be inherited by Julie from her mother (Tilda Swinton). What’s more, it can’t be said that Anthony’s influence is purely deleterious, as his bouts of real vulnerability, carried off with a persuasive display of wounded pride by Burke, repeatedly push Julie toward greater sensitivity and awareness.

Perhaps ambivalent herself to Anthony’s recommendation that Julie seek inspiration from Powell and Pressburger’s work, Hogg shoots in a grainy, underlit 16mm palette that has less to do with period fetishism than with draining the sparkle from Julie’s privileged upbringing. The Souvenir is shot from a measured distance, often with the camera in rooms adjacent to the actors so that walls and other objects populate the foreground, and the resulting sense is of being simultaneously immersed in the spaces of Hogg’s early adulthood and at an intellectual remove from them, a fusion seemingly reflective of the director’s own mixed emotions in revisiting this story. In this case, however, that quality of fluctuation isn’t a deficiency but a virtue, a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today, and the mark of a film that’s beholden to no recipe but its own.

Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Jack McMullen, Frankie Wilson, Richard Ayoade, Jaygann Ayeh Director: Joanna Hogg Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg Distributor: A24 Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Aladdin Is a Magic Corporate Ride to Nowhere Special

Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake is content to trace the original’s narrative beats with perfunctory indifference.

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Aladdin
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Compared to a few other recent live-action remakes of Disney’s animated films, which at least attempted to bring striking story wrinkles or an auteurist perspective to bear on their interpretations, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is a remake in the most literal sense. Much of the film’s first act traces the narrative beats of the 1992 animated feature, and in shot-for-shot fashion: Thieving street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets and charms the princess of his native Agrabah, Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and ultimately runs afoul of scheming grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), before obtaining a magic lamp containing a genie (Will Smith) who has the power to transform the young pauper into a prince worthy of Jasmine’s station.

The steadfastness with which every aspect of the original is replicated by this new Aladdin makes Ritchie’s film a grueling example of the streaming-era notion of art as content. Because there’s no chemistry between Massoud and Scott, the legitimacy of Aladdin and Jasmine’s flirtations is largely sold on the basis of the viewer’s preexisting knowledge that these two will become a couple. Elsewhere, the relationship between Jafar and the Sultan (Navid Negahban) is an even paler imitation. In the original, Jafar’s viciousness was at least partially driven by his hatred of the Sultan, who issued inane commands to his grand vizier in all sorts of parodically infantile and buffoonish of ways. Here, though, the Sultan is a negligible figure, neither callous nor especially influential, thus robbing his subordinate of a compelling motive. The Jafar of this film is evil simply because he’s been designated as the story’s big bad.

If the dogged faithfulness of Ritchie’s film to the original proves consistently stultifying, it’s the most noticeable deviations that ultimately damn the remake. In an attempt to give Jasmine something to do other than be the object of men’s affections, Ritchie and co-writer John August blend the character’s traditional frustrations at being trapped behind palace walls with a newfound resentment over how her capacity to rule as sultan is thwarted by traditional gender roles. Nonetheless, her desires to lead are bluntly articulated and reflective of a broader tendency among the film’s characters to express their awareness of their own repression by tilting their heads back and staring off into the distance as they speak extemporaneously about their dreams. Poor Scott is also burdened with the film’s big new song, “Speechless,” an instantly dated empowerment anthem that suggests the sonic equivalent of that old woman’s botched restoration of the Ecce Homo fresco in Borja, Spain.

The film does come somewhat to life during its musical numbers. Though these sequences are marked by simplistic and unengaging choreography, they don’t quell the verve of Howard Ashman and Tim Rice’s original songs. Less successful is Smith, who, unable to match the intensity of Robin Williams’s performance as the Genie in the original film, leans into his signature drawling sarcasm to bring his spin on the character to life, effectively draining the Genie of everything that made him so memorably larger than life in the first place. Even when portraying some of the Genie’s more antic behavior, Smith mostly takes the path of least resistance, injecting just enough energy into his performance to hint at Williams’s memorable take on the character but without seeming as if he’s actually working up a sweat.

Elsewhere, Massoud mostly goes through the motions in establishing Aladdin as a rakish pauper, but the actor comes alive in a comic scene that sees his street urchin, newly styled as a prince by the Genie, presenting himself to the Sultan’s court. Having never been trained on any points of social graces, Aladdin can only stammer out pleasantries, using strange honorifics to refer to the Sultan as he curtsies instead of bows. Later, the Genie helps Aladdin perform an elaborate dance by controlling the young man’s body in order to wow the Sultan’s court. Impressively, Massoud manages to perform complicated steps while looking as if every movement is done against his will, giving Aladdin’s flailing motions a slapstick quality.

Such flashes of personality, though, are few and far between in this remake. Certainly there was a lot of room to bring a contemporary perspective to this material—to counter the original’s problematic representation of its Middle-Eastern milieu and deepen its characters. Instead, the film settles for telling you a joke you’ve already heard and botching the delivery.

Cast: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Alan Tudyk, Frank Welker, Billy Magnussen Director: Guy Ritchie Screenwriter: John August, Guy Ritchie Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 128 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Brightburn Is a Soulless Mishmash of Disparate Genre Elements

The way the film shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped of its most crucial narrative parts.

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Brightburn
Photo: Screen Gems

Like a lot of kids squirming through puberty, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) is an asshole. Unlike most, however, he’s from outer space and possessed of formidable superpowers. Soon after learning of his abilities, he stalks a classmate, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), who consoled him in class after he was teased for his incredible smarts. Brandon makes a show of controlling Caitlyn’s laptop before appearing outside her bedroom window, eerily floating in the air. By this point in director David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, one is still optimistic that Brandon’s creeper tendencies will be the most insidious of his problems. But when Caitlyn calls him a pervert, after letting him fall to the ground during a “trust fall” exercise in gym class, Brandon crushes the bones in her hand after she’s forced to help him up. By the end of the film, Caitlyn will prove to be one of the lucky ones.

That Yarovesky and screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn don’t exactly push the link between Brandon’s pubescence and his growing self-awareness isn’t the first sign that something is amiss here. Right out of the gate, Brightburn reveals itself unwilling to animate its characters’ emotional dramas, using visual shorthand to simply hint at them. In the opening scene, set more than 10 years in the past, the camera pans across a bookshelf full of fertility books, informing the audience that Brandon’s parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman), really want to have a baby. Later, while helping his dad with chores, Brandon accidentally throws a lawnmower halfway across the family farm. This is when he recognizes that he has superpowers, but rather than prolong the kid’s doubt across more than one scene, the film zips straight to the moment where he’s about to shove his hand into the lawn mower’s spinning blades to confirm his suspicions that he’s nothing short of invincible.

More genre films—more films, period—could stand to have a lot less fat on their bones, but the way Brightburn shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped even of its most crucial narrative parts. Outside of one pulpy hallucination sequence, the film stubbornly refuses to give a concrete sense of the desperation that drove Tori and Kyle to adopt Brandon, just as it can’t be bothered to give shape to the mythology of his creation—or rather, his arrival. For a spell, though, this suggests a purposeful show of evasion. Much is made of the red light that peeks out from the floorboards in the family barn and to which Brandon is drawn throughout the film. If you’re a fan of Larry Cohen’s canon, you may wonder if the kid will be revealed as a kindred spirit of the ever-glowing human-alien antagonist from God Told Me To, here to make sport of our biological urge to procreate in our increasingly decaying world.

No such luck, as Brightburn is a meaningless mishmash of disparate genre elements. The truth of what lurks beneath the floorboards turns out to be of no particular consequence—not exactly a red herring, just a bit of hogwash that confirms Brandon to be a gene splice of Damien and Superman. Maybe a sense of majesty, of mythic grandeur, might have made him feel as if he was less arbitrarily willed into being, though Yarovesky certainly conveys the weight of the kid’s killing spree. Not its existential weight, only its repugnant force. At one point, one of his victims struggles to hold up the lower part of his grotesquely shattered jaw, as Brandon pulls off the mask that he wears because, presumably, he understands that that’s what someone with superhuman powers should do. Brightburn never shows us how Brandon came to such a realization, but it does let us glimpse the stone-cold delight he takes in erasing human life—a spectacle of violence that exists for its own soulless sake.

Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Jennifer Holland, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Gregory Alan Williams, Steve Agee, Emmie Hunter Director: David Yarovesky Screenwriter: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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The Nightingale Trailer: Aisling Franciosi and Sam Claflin Star in Jennifer Kent’s Follow-Up to The Babadook

Today, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825.

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The Nightingale
Photo: Matt Nettheim

Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, the Aussie filmmaker’s much-anticipated follow-up to The Babadook, premiered way back in September at the Venice Film Festival, and to mostly positive notices. Today, ahead of its U.S. theatrical release in August, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825 and follows a young Irish convict settler, Clare (played by Aisling Franciosi), who, after finishing her seven-year sentence, struggles to be free of her abusive master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). According to the studio’s official description of the film:

Clare’s husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) retaliates and she becomes the victim of a harrowing crime at the hands of the lieutenant and his cronies. When British authorities fail to deliver justice, Clare decides to pursue Hawkins, who leaves his post suddenly to secure a captaincy up north. Unable to find compatriots for her journey, she is forced to enlist the help of a young Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) who grudgingly takes her through the rugged wilderness to track down Hawkins. The terrain and the prevailing hostilities are frightening, as fighting between the original inhabitants of the land and its colonizers plays out in what is now known as “The Black War.” Clare and Billy are hostile towards each other from the outset, both suffering their own traumas and mutual distrust, but as their journey leads them deeper into the wilderness, they must learn to find empathy for one another, while weighing the true cost of revenge.

Watch the official trailer below:

IFC Films will release The Nightingale in NY and LA on August 2.

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Cannes Review: The Lighthouse Is a Hilarious and Grotesque Genre Pastiche

Robert Eggers loosens the noose of veracity just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.

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The Lighthouse
Photo: A24

Willem Dafoe farts and Robert Pattinson masturbates vigorously in Robert Eggers’s creepy and unexpectedly, if grotesquely, hilarious follow-up to The Witch. Set in 1890s New England, The Lighthouse finds Eggers again mining the past for an air of mythic portent but loosening the noose of veracity that choked his meticulously researched yet painfully self-serious debut just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.

From the moment that lighthouse keepers Thomas Wake (Dafoe), an experienced old “wickie” with a shuffling gait and a hair-trigger temper, and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), his handlebar mustache-sporting assistant, set foot on the tiny island where they’re to spend the next four weeks, they start to get on each other’s nerves. Wake is a slave driver who’s said to have made his last assistant go crazy, and who ignores any and all regulations, while Winslow, who’s on his first assignment as a lighthouse keeper, refuses to drink and be merry with Wake, which causes its own problems. Before long, the two men kick into motion a game of one-upmanship, a raising of the stakes to see who will be the first to drive the other to madness—with flatulence and horniness among the many, many factors fueling that pursuit.

Eggers’s willingness to get goofy, and to not worry about humor defusing his narrative’s macabre horror—as in, say, the cartoonish pummeling that a devious seagull receives—makes The Lighthouse something of a breakthrough for the filmmaker. Diverging from the formula of coiled tension followed by sudden and jolting release that’s favored by so many contemporary arthouse horror films, Eggers parcels out the action in the film, steadily and methodically building toward the psychological breaking point of his characters.

Dafoe and Pattinson are crucial to selling that trajectory, ensuring that every moment here bristles with performative bluster. Dafoe’s surly former sea captain is a blowhard who’s given to sentimental reverie whenever he gets hammered, while his foil is played by Pattinson with slyly vacillating docile subservience and scheming spitefulness. The veteran character actor and dressed-down movie star play off each other exceptionally well, especially when, as is often the case in a two-hander, they have to pull-off a tricky role reversal.

Taking advantage of a bigger budget than The Witch, Eggers shot The Lighthouse on 35mm film. He’s also utilized the 1.19:1 Movietone aspect ratio, which was briefly standardized in the 1920s and is tighter than the already boxy 1.37:1 academy ratio, as a means of emphasizing his vertical compositions and the at times literally stratified relationship between his main characters. At one point, Dafoe’s old codger refuses to share lantern duty, while Winslow toils down below, swabbing decks and maintaining the dilapidated station.

Eggers successfully approximates F.W. Murnau’s stark and dynamic use of light and shadow in images that ensconce his characters in darkness and place them in geometrically unbalanced positions within the frame. But the quirkiest influence on this film is Night Tide, Curtis Harrington’s 1961 supernatural farce of a noir, which Eggers cribs from blatantly in a surreal sequence where Pattinson’s character has an erotic fantasy about a mermaid, and in a delirious body-horror montage—realized through largely practical effects—that co-opts Harrington’s hybridization of Roger Corman and Kenneth Ager’s stylings.

And like Night Tide, a send-up of beach-party movies and cheap ‘50s sci-fi, The Lighthouse aims for self-aware pastiche and pulls it off without smugness. Unlike Harrington’s film, though, it doesn’t register much affection for the forms it’s working with, and can come off like a calculated exercise. Still, Eggers’s ability to take the piss out of his inflated genre movie pastiche, without lapsing into parody, is an impressive and an entertaining feat.

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman Director: Robert Eggers Screenwriter: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers Distributor: A24 Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Maryland Film Festival 2019: The Hottest August, Donbass, & American Factory

This year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.

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The Hottest August
Photo: Maryland Film Festival

Judging from the enthusiasm of the surprisingly high number of New York filmmakers and critics this writer met in Baltimore this past weekend, the Maryland Film Festival isn’t seen as a pale shadow of Big Apple filmgoing. Rather, it’s a vital supplement to it—a program that compresses many of the festival season’s essential offerings into a manageable four-day run in an easily walkable city with comparatively chill crowds.

Those who made the commute to Baltimore for the festival this year had the chance to encounter one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory in Brett Story’s The Hottest August, an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker. Shot in August of 2017 around a principle of “organized spontaneity,” per producer Danielle Varga, the film spans New York City’s five boroughs while adhering to a nebulous, difficult-to-define but nonetheless valuable objective: to take the temperature of the times we live in and tease out the collective mood of the country’s most densely populated area.

Willfully biting off more than it can chew, The Hottest August features rich people, poor people, scientists, skateboarders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, barflies, artists, and more waxing extemporaneous on topics including climate change, economic inequality, automation, racism, and the future. The mood is off the cuff, conversational. A pair of women in lawn chairs joke about how their street’s rat population has swelled as a result of gentrifying construction in adjacent neighborhoods. Two former cops reframe the term “racism” as “resentment” in a sports bar just moments after demanding that no politics enter the hallowed space of the drinking hole. A loft-dwelling futurist pontificates on what the tax system might look like if the country embraced robotics instead of fearing it as a job killer. Occasionally we hear the filmmaker off screen, tersely prompting her subjects with open-ended questions, but mostly this is an ensemble of eager talkers, their openness running contrary to the old chestnut about closed-off New Yorkers.

Finding form in this seemingly disconnected mass is editor Nels Bangerter, who managed a similar feat with Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film drifts subtly from subject to subject, pointedly using B roll not just to evocatively provide a sense of place, but to extend someone’s thought or offer counterpoint. Three streams of information exist at once: whatever opinion is being put forth by the person on screen; whatever in-the-moment perspective Story takes on her subject’s response through the questions she asks or the camera angles she chooses; and the question of how that segment ultimately interacts with the film in its final form, where images have been invested with meaning through context.

The Hottest August is a film that’s constantly “thinking,” and that thought isn’t fixed or authoritative, but rather in flux and negotiable. Story isn’t setting out to answer any pressing political issues so much as capture the tactile sense of how those issues permeate everyday settings. Hers is a form of ambient reportage that feels very welcome in our contemporary moment, when the daily barrage of information can sometimes make it difficult to recall how one felt about something two days earlier, let alone in that turbulent August of 2017.

Similarly macro in its approach is Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, which adopts a sprawling, vignette-driven structure as it catalogues the miseries and grotesqueries of the eponymous eastern Ukrainian territory. A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces (specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics) ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that Loznitsa doesn’t so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity.

In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, they’re portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and the film’s bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated.

Cameras, we’re repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scène, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. Donbass’s most harrowing elucidation of this theme comes in a scene on a public street, where a Ukrainian loyalist, tied to a telephone pole by a pair of armed separatists, endures a humiliating beating at the hands of a growing mob of passersby, one of whom decides to record the grisly spectacle with his smartphone. As Loznitsa’s camera circles the action, the heckler’s phone presses right up into the face of the prisoner, relishing in the man’s suffering, and we get the sense that the escalation of violence may have never come to pass in quite this way were it not for the spontaneous idea to turn it into a video meme. Later, the recording gets shown to a hooting crowd of Novorossiya sympathizers at an absurdly overemphatic wedding celebration, assimilating smoothly into the atmosphere of nationalist fervor.

Donbass is fueled by such collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsa’s preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. In one scene, Loznitsa even seamlessly integrates an extended use of documentary language into a longer fictional setup when his camera descends into a cramped and overcrowded bomb shelter, where a local host, lit by a camera-mounted source, walks us through the destitution of those living inside. As with the later street scene, the dreariness is eventually spiked by a dash of absurdism, but the counterpunch isn’t intended to lighten the mood so much as further disorient, ultimately giving Donbass an unnerving precarity that must come somewhat near the feeling on the ground.

If these two films, content as they are to revel in ambivalence, seek to grasp the experience of the now in all its bewilderment, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory takes a more committed stance on an issue that’s equally topical. Fuyao Glass America, an outgrowth of a global glass manufacturer owned by a Chinese billionaire, opened in Moraine, Ohio in the shell of a shuddered General Motors plant toward the beginning of the decade, persisted financially for years while pursuing its awkward goal of unifying Chinese and American work cultures, and then inevitably ran up against controversy in 2017 when safety concerns and low wages encouraged the local employees to vote to unionize.

American Factory charts this entire compelling history with surprising comprehensiveness: When a late scene plays out as an illicit audio recording from an employee over a black screen, it stands out for being one of the only instances when the filmmakers don’t appear to have unencumbered access. But this sprawl has its downsides. Though briskly edited and tonally varied, Reichert and Bognar’s documentary skims over the surface of some of its most fascinating threads while in pursuit of a rousing decade-long tale.

The American workers depicted in the film, disgruntled by their diminished earnings and recalling a recent past with less bureaucratic oversight, too often blend into one undistinguished mass of Midwestern homeliness, and the few individuals who do get singled out for attention—a woman living in her relative’s basement and a rancher who befriends one particular Chinese co-worker—often get neglected for long stretches of time. The Chinese are perhaps even less differentiated, their insistence on dogged work ethic and company allegiance repeatedly emphasized almost to the point of xenophobia. That Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, who weaves through the film as an amusingly oblivious villain for its majority, eventually gets a moment to fondly reminisce on China’s pre-industrial past and contemplate his own complicity in the country’s shift to globalized capitalism comes across as penance for the film’s occasional treatment of foreigners as misguided corporate drones.

What American Factory ultimately amounts to, however, isn’t an exploration of culture clash or a penetrating depiction of rust belt dejection, but rather a rallying cry for worker solidarity (in America, if not across the globe), a message it pulls off resoundingly in the final hour. Reichert and Bognar smartly detail all the insidious ways in which corporate messengers mischaracterize unionizing as a threat to individual liberty, and the populist filmmaking vernacular they employ as the union vote nears—fluid crosscutting between different intersecting narratives, plenty of emotional close-ups, a score of almost Spielbergian grandiosity—gives the documentary a genuine shot at trafficking radical politics to a relatively wide audience. If it’s any indication of future success, American Factory was one of the most well-attended screenings I went to during my time in Baltimore, but it’s a testament to the Maryland Film Festival’s outreach that healthy crowds congregated throughout the weekend. Though modest and inviting, this year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.

The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8—12.

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