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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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Review: Downtown 81 Celebrates a Bygone New York’s Creative Energy

This time capsule of bohemian New York distorts its representation of the city for reasons more loving than lazy.

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Downtown 81
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Todd Phillips’s Joker takes place in 1981, in a Gotham City meant to evoke the New York City of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s: garbage-strewn, violence-ridden, institutionally broken, on the brink of anarchy. But this vision of New York as a place where people live in perpetual fear is a cliché, a detail-absent caricature derived mostly from other movies, with Taxi Driver its most obvious reference and inspiration. Ironically, though not surprisingly, Joker can only simulate pre-gentrified Manhattan in its quest for “authenticity.”

The real New York of 1981 is the setting and subject for Downtown 81, a low-budget time capsule of bohemian Manhattan that distorts its representation of the city for reasons more loving than lazy. Like the city then, the film’s history is messy and beleaguered. The brainchild of French designer Maripol and her Swiss-born photographer husband, Edo Bertoglio, the film was written by cultural critic Glenn O’Brien and conceived in order to document the vibrant New York avant-garde scenes of the time. With a hip locale and cast, which included a pre-fame Jean-Michel Basquiat and several post-punk bands, it seemed primed for underground success, but post-production funding dried up and the film, originally titled New York Beat, was left incomplete until 1999. Unfortunately, in the intervening years the original dialogue recordings were lost, and since Basquist had died 10 years earlier, Saul Williams was hired to dub his voice, and the film was released to the public in 2000 as Downtown 81.

Downtown 81 frequently mythologizes its time and place. The “Once upon a time” prologue establishes this with a dreamy glide through the clouds and a female narrator intoning, “Any resemblance between the characters and the events depicted here and reality is purely magical.” The action occurs on a Lower East Side of demolished buildings and boarded-up windows that Jean accurately characterizes as looking “like we dropped a bomb on ourselves,” but while Jean is clear-eyed about the perils of the concrete jungle (“You can get anything you want here if you try,” he explains in voiceover, “You can get plenty of what you don’t want, too”), his adventures are often depicted as a series of urban whimsies through which he saunters as insouciant flâneur and DIY artist. He wakes up in a hospital for reasons unknown, gets evicted from his apartment, and encounters muggings, robberies, and hustles, viewing it all with utter nonchalance. The city takes care of its own, the film seems to say, and its moral and architectural degradations merely create occasions for reappropriative creativity, especially when Basquiat applies his absurdist graffiti to already heavily tattooed walls.

Like its occasionally wonky dubbing, this fairy-tale aspect of the film is sometimes endearing, sometimes irritating. Much of Downtown 81’s charm rests on having captured the thrill of art being created by like-minded weirdoes in their natural, incubating habitat, which means viewers get to see a Fab 5 Freddy rap session and a scintillating performance by James White and the Blacks, with White doing his best James Brown-by-way-of-Richard Hell routine. (Also performing in the film are DNA, the Felons, the Plastics, and King Creole and the Coconuts.)

But that charm fades in several frivolous asides, including a silly ending that has Debbie Harry transforming from bag lady to fairy godmother in order to provide Jean with a suitcase of money. This is supposed to resolve the film’s underdeveloped conflict—in which Jean must come up with roughly $500 to pay his rent, all while chasing a European model (played by Anna Schroeder) who might be his romantic and financial salvation—but it also marks the point where Downtown 81’s devil-may-care exuberance slides into a preciousness, and a sidestepping of reality, that’s no less juvenile for being 38 years old.

Other episodes work better, including one in which Walter Steding, of obscure No Wave band the Dragon People, recounts, in satirically mopey fashion, the indignities of life on the fringes of the music industry, vowing to never play again just before getting roped into another show moments later. And of course, there’s Basquiat himself, whose commanding presence as a neo-Beat wanderer and perceptual genius pervades every frame he’s in. As our guide, the easygoing yet street-wise Jean allows us to see the early-‘80s New York that’s been both romanticized and abandoned for its ubiquitous danger as a place where actual people lived, worked, and even thrived, his run-ins and shit-shootings with artist friends proving that New York City is more ragtag community of guarded aspiration than despair-plunging cesspool.

Ultimately, and despite its blind spots, Downtown 81’s gritty optimism in the face of unpleasant surroundings is a welcome reminder that, to quote Kurt Braunohler (which I admittedly learned from an NYCLink kiosk), “a true New Yorker doesn’t get ground down—he gets polished.” This is also a New York of the imagination—but a creative, not destructive, one.

Director: Edo Bertoglio Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 75 min Rating: NR Year: 2000

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Review: The Kill Team Seeks to Dispel the Illusion of a Clean War

This battlefront thriller has a clearer moral sense than other cinematic attempts to cope with the War on Terror.

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The Kill Team
Photo: A24

Based on true events from 2009, writer-director Dan Krauss’s The Kill Team suggests that the war in Afghanistan—America’s longest by an unhealthy margin—long ago reached the state of a self-perpetuating feedback loop. The story concerns a group of soldiers whose frustration and rage at the death of colleagues was channeled into a campaign of terror in the Kandahar countryside. Led and allegedly manipulated by a rogue commanding officer, the unit executed randomly selected villagers, framing them after the fact as insurgents by planting weapons next to their bodies and concocting false battle reports.

The Kill Team opens with the death of the team’s commanding officer, Sergeant Bruer (Zackary Momoh), who’s killed by an IED while offering candy to children. Throughout its telling of this and other events, the film sets up Private Andrew Briggman (Nat Wolff) as the audience’s surrogate, an eager and sensitive recruit who observes his fellow soldiers’ actions almost from an outsider’s perspective. He doesn’t smoke hash with his fellow soldiers, and he doesn’t, like them, begrudge the locals their differing traditions and language. He also doesn’t relish the opportunity to fight and kill. After Bruer is killed, his unit is assigned a new commanding officer, Sergeant Deeks (Alexander Skarsgård), an imposing, stone-faced figure who begins cultivating insecure attachments with the men under his command, bestowing and withdrawing favor at a whim in order to make them dependent on his approval.

While Krauss’s film examines the way that the young men’s subsequent embrace of an amoral warrior’s mentality leads to inhuman consequences, its reflection on both the inherent violence of war and the loss of a sense of mission among the occupiers remains incomplete. This battlefront thriller has a clearer moral sense than other cinematic attempts to cope with the conflicts formerly known as the War on Terror, such as Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, but it achieves this clarity largely by finding confining itself to a scenario with a clear moral dichotomy: that between the relatively innocent Briggman and the icy madmen Deeks.

In Deeks, the fictionalized version of the real commanding officer convicted of encouraging the young men to view all Afghans as animals, Krauss captures the sociopathy of a truly committed warrior. To play a killer who entices young men to join him in almost ritualistic slaughters, Skarsgård deploys the coldly attractive moral nonchalance familiar from his role as the vampire Eric Northman on HBO’s True Blood. “We kill people. That’s what we do,” Deeks explains softly and plainly to the uncomfortable Briggman at one point. Briggman averts his eyes, attempting to square the apparent truth of Deeks’s warrior philosophy with the “hearts and minds” mission his unit has often been sent out on.

Deeks turns missions into hunts, compelling the men under his command to find an Afghan man to be shot. In these scenes, which frequently cut away from the actual act—to, say, Briggman coming across the men discussing their cover, or to the body of an Afghan man lying on the ground behind them—we can see one end of a thread tying together American forms of authoritarian violence. The murder scenes captured from Briggman’s perspective on the margins, or just after the fact, strike an overtone that resonates with the police shootings and cover-ups that have triggered unrest at home while our Mideast wars have been raging.

The Kill Team gives us snapshots of a rural Afghan population whose hearts and minds are, as of 2009, very much not won over. Men and women alike shout fruitlessly in Pashto as their loved ones are pulled aside by the American soldiers. The trembling, battered face of a man picked up from the road outside the U.S. base, and whom Deeks attempts to convince Briggman to torture, is a powerful image that could stand as an indictment of the war itself. But the story limits its perspective to the experience of Briggman as he struggles internally, and in messages back home to his father, with what to do about the situation. The film’s focus on the private only becomes more acute as the circle around him tightens, the group of killers growing concerned that he will rat on them. The lives of the villagers killed becomes of secondary concern, as suspense in The Kill Team is increasingly driven by the question of whether Briggman will survive or be betrayed and murdered by his compatriots.

Krauss’s evident outrage at the commission of war crimes is something that’s sorely lacking in what meager public discourse about our continuing wars exists, but it doesn’t follow this outrage to what seems its logical, if radical ends. As the sergeant not entirely inaccurately asserts, the Army is there to kill. Given such a directive, perhaps liberal fantasies of a “clean war” are untenable. Warfare breeds bloodthirst; it produces people like Deeks. But despite glimpses of a larger critique of the American project in Afghanistan, and of the psychological and social sicknesses cultivated by two decades of continuous warfare, The Kill Team lets us escape from the horrors of war before it finishes demolishing the illusion of a clean one.

Cast: Nat Wolff, Alexander Skarsgård, Adam Long, Jonathan Whitesell, Brian Marc, Rob Morrow Director: Dan Krauss Screenwriter: Dan Krauss Distributor: A24 Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Black and Blue Provides a Quick Fix of Action-Movie Catharsis

The film’s command of action defuses concerns about whether it offers a thorough social critique.

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Black and Blue
Photo: Screen Gems

Deon Taylor’s Black and Blue is an intensely political, niche thriller that, if it generates much mainstream discourse, will likely spark angry boycotts from those on one side of the aisle and searing hot takes from those on the other. Step a few feet back from its fast-paced saga of a valiant solitary policewoman hunted through the streets of New Orleans as she attempts to return incriminating body-camera footage to her precinct and you’ll see a narrative that construes a cop as a Black Lives Matter hero simply for using her mandated body camera as she should. This is a major-studio film that may go further than many others, including Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, in implicating police forces as systemic perpetuators of white supremacy, but it’s also one that handles the representation of poverty clumsily at best.

What’s more, Black and Blue’s action-movie tropes redirect its characters’ mistrust of authority into a narrative that tacitly approves of the militarization of the police and society at large. These same tropes, though, are part of what defuses such concerns about whether the film offers a thorough social critique. Despite its real-world trappings, Black and Blue comes off as fantasy, a story with the exaggerated features and simple satisfactions of a dream. Crooked cops will get their comeuppance, prejudices will be upended, and those not yet beyond redemption will be redeemed. Beyond the film’s spurious messaging about finding a middle ground between being black and being “blue,” its extended chase through New Orleans’s 9th Ward might offer simple, effective action-movie catharsis to those who’ve been outraged by this decade’s flood of videos of police offers shooting unarmed black people.

Perhaps unintentionally, Black and Blue’s setting and action reminds us that, with the advent of body cameras, the sci-fi dystopias depicted in various films from the 1980s and ‘90s have come true. Resembling the A plot of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, the film’s main action is jump-started by the mafia-style execution of a young black man by police, an explosive event that’s captured on video by a woman wearing a camera. And in Black and Blue, that woman, rookie cop Alicia West (Naomie Harris), is also the one tasked with delivering the footage to the authorities. The shooting, committed by narcotics detective Terry Malone (Frank Grillo) and his circle of drug-dealing police officers, takes place in a scummy, abandoned factory, and when the assembled perpetrators notice the wide-eyed rookie filming them, they repeatedly shoot her. West unexpectedly survives, and so the film also brings to mind Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, another sci-fi classic that hinges on a piece of incriminating video footage.

Mostly shielded by her body armor but grazed by a bullet on her side, West somehow slips away from the murderous cops. Black and Blue tends to solve such narrative impasses via the magic of montage: We see West stumbling away down a passageway but don’t see exactly how she escapes. Now pursued by the extensive cabal of officers, she makes it to a convenience store where a childhood friend, Mouse (Tyrese Gibson), reluctantly helps her patch herself up. Mouse and the tight-knit community of the nearby Kingston Manor apartment complex, the film makes clear, don’t like cops; an earlier scene has Mouse and his sister, Missy (Nafessa Williams), refuse to acknowledge that they know West, who’s recently returned from two tours in Afghanistan after growing up in their neighborhood. As seen from the perspective of West and her partner, Kevin (Reid Scott), this impoverished area is full of shifty-eyed gangsters, and Black and Blue veers into problematic terrain early on when it lays ominous bass notes under close-ups of black men slinking around in and out of the cops’ view.

The filmmakers, though, deploy such hammy racism mostly to undermine it. Deacon Brown (James Moses Black), an officer who saves West from one of the aforementioned black youth, is quickly revealed to be part of Malone’s conspiracy, and therefore complicit in the murder of unarmed men and the attempted murder of West herself. While Black and Blue indulges some of the worst stereotypes about black poverty, the dehumanizing practices of the police are portrayed as the truly pernicious social force. And West must ultimately reintegrate herself with the film’s black community: After skirting from place to place within the 9th Ward, her ultimate recourse is to bring the body camera to Kingston Manor and let the people there, including the hot-headed local kingpin, Darius (Mike Colter), see the footage for themselves.

What follows is a fun, if muddled, climax that upends some of the expectations set by the bulk of the film. While Black and Blue is much more comfortable dispatching the gangsters who are trying to kill West than the cops shown to be their moral equivalents, the intense showdown at Kingston Manor proves that the film’s typical action-movie ethos of violent retribution can also extend to figures of authority. And while it settles in a place that offers a less probing critique of the status quo than its makers might be intending, its over-the-top climax provides a brief, cathartic release from the real-world issues its story raises.

Cast: Naomie Harris, Tyrese Gibson, Mike Colter, Frank Grillo, Reid Scott, Nafessa Williams, James Moses Black Director: Deon Taylor Screenwriter: Peter A. Dowling Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century

These are the films from this millennium that have most shocked us by plumbing our deepest primordial terrors.

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The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century
Photo: Focus World
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on October 10, 2018.

Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”

At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. Budd Wilkins


Them

50. Them (2006)

Hoody-clad sadists attack a couple, alone in their country home. That’s all the setup that co-writers/directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud need to dredge up some uniquely discomfiting chills. You won’t be able to shake Them after seeing it because it’s scary without being grisly or full of cheap jump scares. Instead, it’s a marvel of precise timing and action choreography. The silence that deadens the air between each new assault becomes more and more disquieting as the film goes on. Likewise, the house where Them is primarily set in seems to grow bigger with each new hole the film’s villains tear out of. To get the maximum effect, be sure to watch this one at night; just don’t watch it alone. Simon Abrams


Black Death

49. Black Death (2010)

Grim aesthetics and an even grimmer worldview define Black Death, in which ardent piousness and defiant paganism both prove paths toward violence, hypocrisy, and hell. Christopher Smith’s 14th-century period piece exudes an oppressive sense of physical, spiritual, and atmospheric weight, with grimy doom hanging in the air like the fog enshrouding its dense forests. His story concerns a gang of thugs, torturers, and killers led by Ulric (Sean Bean), a devout soldier commissioned by the church to visit the lone, remote town in the land not afflicted by a fatal pestilence, where it’s suspected a necromancer is raising the dead. Dario Poloni’s austere script charts the crew’s journey into a misty netherworld where the viciousness of man seems constantly matched by divine cruelty, even as the role of God’s hand—in the pestilence, and in the personal affairs of individuals—remains throughout tantalizingly oblique. Nick Schager


The Invitation

48. The Invitation (2015)

The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan


Midsommar

47. Midsommar (2019)

Anybody who’s seen Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man or similar folk horror films will hardly be surprised by any of the plot turns in Ari Aster’s Midsommar. From early on, there’s no doubt that the pagan rituals at the film’s center will spell doom for the group of friends who visit rural Sweden in a quasi-anthropological attempt to observe a cult’s summer solstice festival. The film masterfully builds itself around the inevitability of a mass terror, aligning our foreknowledge of that with the anxiety felt by the main character, Dani (Florence Pugh), in the wake of a recent family tragedy. The result is a deeply unnerving film about the indissoluble, somehow archaic bond between self and family—one more psychologically robust than Aster’s similarly themed Hereditary. And it’s also very funny. Pat Brown


Mulholland Drive

46. Mulholland Drive (2001)

David Lynch’s meta noir Mulholland Drive literalizes the theory of surrealism as perpetual dream state. Told as it is using a highly symbolic, ravishingly engorged language of dreams, this bloody valentine to Los Angeles naturally leaves one feeling groggy, confused, looking forward and back, hankering to pass again through its serpentine, slithery hall of mirrors until all its secrets have been unpacked. Whether Mulholland Drive anticipated the YouTube Age we live in (and which Inland Empire’s digital punk poetics perfectly embody) is up for debate, but there’s no doubt that this movie-movie will continue to haunt us long after Lynch has moved on to shooting pictures using the tools of whatever new film medium awaits us—tools that he will no doubt have helped to revolutionize. Ed Gonzalez


Sinister

45. Sinister (2012)

Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Calum Marsh


Maniac

44. Maniac (2012)

Made in collaboration with Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, and with the sort of fearless artistic freedom often allowed by European financing, Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac begins with a psychopath’s synth-tastically scored stalking of a party girl back to her apartment, outside which he cuts her frightened scream short by driving a knife up into her head through her jaw. The film deceptively delights in capturing the mood of an exploitation cheapie before latching onto and running with the conceit only halfheartedly employed by William Lustig in the 1980 original, framing the titular maniac’s killing spree—this time set in Los Angeles—almost entirely from his point of view. A gimmick, yes, but more than just a means of superficially keying us into the psyche of the main character, Frank, an antique mannequin salesman played memorably by a minimally seen Elijah Wood. As in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, this approach becomes a provocative means of sympathizing with the devil. Gonzalez


Depraved

43. Depraved (2019)

What does a Frankenstein figure look like in 2019? According to Larry Fessenden’s Depraved, he’s a guy with war-addled, once-noble intentions set adrift by male ego and shady benefactors. He’s a white man grasping for control in a world coming apart, a cog in a machine who hasn’t broken free so much as changed the machine’s function—from that of war to that of the pharmaceutical industry. The film, Fessenden’s first feature as both writer and director since 2006’s The Last Winter, paints multiple psychological portraits that are sad, angry, and strangely beautiful. It shows us the mind of not just PTSD-afflicted field surgeon Henry (David Call), but also that of his prototypical sewn-together “monster,” Adam (Alex Breaux), and his assistant and Big Pharma bankroller, Polidori (Joshua Leonard). Throughout, the film it remains firmly focused on its thesis of Frankenstein as a lens for examining modern society. Fessenden catalogues what personalities and power dynamics have shifted and what hasn’t changed at all. He diagnoses the rot of our era through these solipsistic men that pour their prejudices and their insecurities into Adam, an open book eventually read back to its authors with a violence they cultivated themselves. Steven Scaife


28 Days Later

42. 28 Days Later (2002)

Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is a post-apocalyptic zombie movie indebted to the traditions of John Wyndham and George A. Romero, opening with its young hero wandering abandoned streets calling out “Hello! Hello!” into the void. A marvel of economic storytelling, the film follows a handful of survivors that evaded a deadly “Rage” virus that tore across England, the riots and destruction that ensued, and the legion of infected victims who roam the streets at night for human meat. A bleak journey through an underground tunnel brings to mind one of the finest chapters in Stephen King’s The Stand; similar such references are far from being smug in-jokes, but rather uniquely appreciative of previous horror texts. The Rage virus itself feels particularly topical in our angry modern times. But maybe the more appropriate metaphor is that anyone who’s struggled through a grouchy, apocalyptic mood during 28 days of nicotine/drug/alcohol withdrawal will find their hostile sentiments reflected in this anger-fueled nightmare odyssey. Jeremiah Kipp


Piranha 3D

41. Piranha 3D (2010)

Piranha 3D tips its cap to Jaws with an opening appearance by Richard Dreyfuss, yet the true ancestors of Alexandre Aja’s latest are less Steven Spielberg’s classic (and Joe Dante and Roger Corman’s more politically inclined 1978 original Piranha) than 1980s-era slasher films. Unapologetically giddy about its gratuitous crassness, Aja’s B movie operates by constantly winking at its audience, and while such self-consciousness diffuses any serious sense of terror, it also amplifies the rollicking comedy of its over-the-top insanity. Aja’s gimmicky use of 3D is self-aware, and the obscene gore of the proceedings is, like its softcore jokiness, so extreme and campy—epitomized by a hair-caught-in-propeller scalping—that the trashy, merciless Piranha 3D proves a worthy heir to its brazen exploitation-cinema forefathers. Schager

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Review: Zombieland: Double Tap Shrugs Toward the End of the World

Behind the film’s self-awareness and irony is a hollow emotional core.

1.5

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Zombieland: Double Tap
Photo: Columbia Pictures

“Double tap,” the belated Zombieland sequel’s namesake, refers to the rule of shooting a zombie more than once in order to ensure that it’s dead. Like the rest of the rules devised by the series’s dweebish protagonist, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), it’s spelled out in large on-screen text, an amusingly self-aware touch in the original 2009 film that has, a decade later into our irony-poisoned present, lost its luster.

Part of that is because the sequel highlights these rules more frequently and prominently, injecting them with flashy text effects that are more distracting than funny. But it’s also because self-awareness doesn’t feel nearly as refreshing as it did in 2009, with seemingly every big studio movie nowadays winking and nodding at audiences, trying to swaddle us in layers of protective irony (that writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick went on to script the vacuous Deadpool films is no accident). Zombieland: Double Tap effortlessly operates in the same groove as the original, but that’s less a compliment than a measure of a failure to evolve.

Revising the world of Zombieland feels like returning to a television program you gave up on watching; though the cast has aged, the character dynamics remain largely the same, if slightly more exaggerated and perhaps overly familiar. Boisterous gunslinger Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) is a little more cartoonish now, while Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) is all grown up. She’s more than old enough to drive, and thus old enough to run away with a pacifist hippie, Berkeley (Avan Jogia), prompting Columbus, Tallahassee, and conwoman Wichita (Emma Stone) to track her down. They’re a makeshift family now, despite still referring to one another by the city aliases that were meant to prevent getting too attached.

A newcomer to their group still goes by her real name, Madison (Zoey Deutch), and as a caricatured dumb blonde, she typifies much of the film’s easy, uninspired comedy. The supremely overqualified cast powers through tiresome, pop culture-laden exchanges via sheer charisma; Stone, though unfortunately reduced to playing a “jealous girlfriend” type, is particularly expressive. But returning director Ruben Fleischer, despite pairing with the usually excellent cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, too often shoots the actors in close-up, robbing much of the film of the chemistry that the actors display in wider shots.

Double Tap also plays unthinkingly into the zombie fantasy as survivalist gun porn, even going so far as to add a Gen Z commune of idiot pacifists who melt down guns into peace symbols. This sequel, however, is too mediocre for such an idea to register with more than a shrug. The film isn’t using the concept to make a point, after all; behind the self-awareness and the irony is merely a hollow emotional core, a lack of anything to say because saying something would require ambition rather than complacent winks and nods.

Cast: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, Emma Stone, Rosario Dawson, Zoey Deutch, Avan Jogia, Luke Wilson, Thomas Middleditch Director: Ruben Fleischer Screenwriter: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, Dave Callaham Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil Transforms Thorny Folklore into Fluff

In transforming folk metaphors into utilitarian attributes of an action hero, Disney exposes the emptiness of their product.

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Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

“Once upon a time…or perhaps twice upon a time, for you may remember this story,” begins the voiceover narration of Disney’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. To its credit, the film opens by addressing the elephant in the castle: that we, as modern filmgoers, surely know this story well, through all its incarnations as old-fashioned fairy-tale romance and as insipid CG action-fantasy. But this sequel’s attempt to deflect attention from its own tiresomeness only highlights the cynicism of a corporation that insists on franchising the reboots of its adaptations—on repeating the process of filtering the imaginative irrationality of folk tales through layers upon layers of calculation.

Angelina Jolie returns as Maleficent, once one of the most deliciously evil villainesses in the Disney canon, who now—like Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West—has been reduced to a mildly grumpy environmentalist. Disney has erected a mythos around the character to explain her malevolent deeds—or rather, to expose them as truly good. Channeling themes of historical revisionism and post-colonial white guilt, the Malefi-verse positions its title character as defender of the marshlands known as The Moors and its multifarious magical inhabitants, the Dark Fey, against the incursions and crimes of the late-Renaissance Europeans who live nearby. In the film, whose subtitle has virtually nothing to do with its plot, she’s supplied with an army of fellow Feys primed to resist the destruction of their native lands by greedy humans. The deviousness suggested by Maleficent’s occasional wry, sharp-toothed smiles and curling horns is hardly on display in her actions, which have thoroughly virtuous motivations.

Mistress of Evil posits a “true story” behind the official one recorded in the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, as rather than persecuting the princess subsequently known as Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent has adopted her and raised her. Aurora (Elle Fanning), though she’s grown up among the Fey, has fallen in love with Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). Throughout, we’re given little evidence of their mutual attraction beyond the fact that they’re both young humans, though Joachim Rønning’s film does attempt to elicit our sympathies for their union with an early scene that stages a YouTube-ready surprise proposal. Though she harbors doubts about this union, Maleficent initially tries to play the good mother, reluctantly accepting the match. But then, at the engagement dinner, Phillip’s mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), frames Maleficent for the sleeping curse that befalls King John (Robert Lindsay). Wounded in the subsequent confrontation, Maleficent flees and finds herself in an enclave of other vulture-winged, goat-horned Feys, led by Borra (Ed Skrein) and Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

As played by Jolie, Maleficent is less a character than a pose. Rather than suggesting potency and confidence, the character’s impassiveness conveys indifference, a disinterested neutrality that emanates from behind Jolie’s green contacts and prosthetic cheekbones. Neither Maleficent’s anger at the humans who framed her nor her muted concern for the oppressed Fey succeeds in selling the clichéd plotline concerning indigenous rebellion. As debate rages in the ranks of the outcast Fey regarding a prospective uprising against the murderous humans—the screenplay, of course, makes Conall’s plea for a moderate response to creeping genocide more appealing than Borra’s call for a revolution—Jolie’s perpetually cool persona fails to anchor our feelings in the fate of the forest’s denizens.

The rebellious Fey recruit Maleficent for the same reason that the humans fear her: the magical powers she possesses. Yet Maleficent’s powers are ill-defined, the magical green tendrils that extend from her hands little more than a reference to visual effects devised for Disney’s classic animated Sleeping Beauty from 1959. But aspects of the magic in Mistress of Evil still draw inspiration from its diluted source material: the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale classic that the animated film was based on. In that story, the wise woman’s curse not only puts the princess to sleep, but also freezes all life in the castle in place and envelops the structure in an impenetrable thorn bush. Many princes attempt and fail to forcibly enter the castle, hacking away at the bushes, but after a century, the brambles open up on their own, at last allowing a prince to enter the princess’s chamber, so to speak.

In Mistress of Evil, we see the character that Disney has dubbed Maleficent deploy similar magical effects to much less metaphorical ends: She freezes a cat in the air mid-pounce to protect her were-raven familiar, Diaval (Sam Riley), and she conjures up spindly thorn branches to shield herself and Chonall from a volley of crossbow bolts. The filmmakers, no doubt, see such references to the original tale as forms of felicitous homage, but in transforming folk metaphors into utilitarian attributes of an action hero, Disney exposes the emptiness of their product. The film arranges a marriage between fairy-tale motifs and a CG-algorithm-driven plot that’s as bland and arbitrary as the one it stages between its nondescript human couple, processing thorny folklore into smooth, consumable pop culture.

Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Ed Skrein, Harris Dickinson, Robert Lindsay, Warwick Davis Director: Joachim Rønning Screenwriter: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, Linda Woolverton Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: Tell Me Who I Am Feels as One-Sided as the Curated Lie at Its Center

By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothers’ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the scope of their abuse.

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Tell Me Who I Am
Photo: Netflix

When Alex Lewis was 18 years old, he was involved in a motorcycle crash that left him with a severe case of amnesia. When he awoke in a hospital following the accident, he couldn’t recall where he lived or who his friends were. He didn’t even know his name. As for the woman babbling and pacing around the foot of his bed, he was taken aback to learn that she was his mother. The only thing Alex did remember was that the young man standing before him, Marcus, was his identical twin, and that they had a special connection.

Upon returning to their family estate, Marcus began the lengthy process of reacquainting Alex with the particulars of his life, as well as re-teaching him the basics, like how to tie his shoes. And through it all, Marcus did his best to present a rosy picture of their parents, assuring Alex that their mother, Jill, was “cool” and that they took nice vacations to France when they were kids. It wasn’t until after their parents’ death that Alex began to suspect that their upbringing may not have been as pleasant as Marcus suggested. And after Alex discovered a cabinet full of sex toys in Jill’s room and a photograph of him and his brother naked with their heads torn off, the horrible truth began to dawn on Alex: that he and his brother were sexually abused by their mother. Marcus would go on to confirm the abuse but refused to provide additional details, leaving his brother with questions that would haunt him for years.

Based on a book co-written by Alex and Marcus, Ed Perkins’s Tell Me Who I Am tells the brothers’ story with an Errol Morris-lite mix of expressionistic reenactments and interviews in which the subjects speak directly into the camera. Like the similarly themed Three Identical Strangers, the film parcels out disarming hints and shocking revelations at a steady clip, with a view toward maximizing the emotional impact of the material. It’s undeniably effective and affecting, escalating toward a harrowing confrontation-cum-reconciliation between the two brothers in which Marcus finally reveals the full horror of what they endured as kids: that, in addition to being abused by their mother, they were subjected to sexual assaults at the hands of multiple abusers, in what essentially amounted to an elite pedophilia ring.

In its richer, more rewarding moments, Tell Me Who I Am hints at the complex relationship between memory and identity. Alex relies on photographs to fill in the blanks in his memory, and yet, these seemingly objective recordings of the past, curated for him by his brother, are as conspicuous for what they reveal as for what they don’t. (As Alex muses at one point, “We take photos of weddings. You never take photos at funerals.”) But for a film about the power of getting a full and accurate accounting of the truth, it’s frustrating how little Tell Me Who I Am reckons with its own revelations. By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothers’ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the sheer scope of the boys’ abuse.

Tell Me Who I Am hints at the brothers having been caught up in a seemingly extensive sexual abuse ring, one involving aristocrats and at least one well-known artist, all of whom remain unnamed. It’s a scandal reminiscent of recently exposed conspiracies of silence that surround wrongdoing, such as those involving Jeffrey Epstein, Jimmy Savile, and the Catholic Church. And while Perkins’s film wants us to believe that the brothers’ saga reaches a definitive conclusion when they tearfully embrace after Alex learns about what happened to him, it leaves the viewer with a host of unanswered questions. Who exactly was part of Jill’s social circle? How extensive was Alex and Marcus’s abuse? Were there other victims?

Even a cursory glance at news articles about the men and reviews of their book suggests how much Perkins has massaged the details of the Lewis brothers’ lives to craft his sleek, emotionally punchy narrative. From watching Tell Me Who I Am, one wouldn’t know that there was at least one other confirmed victim: Alex and Marcus’s younger brother, whose existence the film doesn’t even acknowledge. By forcing Alex and Marcus’s story into such a rigidly linear narrative of redemption, the film ends up losing sight of its subjects altogether, reducing them to mere representations of its core theme: the brother who wants to learn about his past versus the brother who’d rather keep it buried.

That’s why Tell Me Who I Am’s attempt to end on a note of closure—“It’s over finally,” Alex says, as the camera tracks away from the house where he was abused—comes off as phony. Perhaps Alex feels that he finally understands who he really is, but the film leaves us with so many unanswered questions, it’s hard not feel that the picture we’ve been given of these men is nearly as misleading and incomplete as the one Marcus provided to Alex all those years ago.

Director: Ed Perkins Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Gloss of Stuffed Is at Odds with Taxidermy’s Inherent Boldness

Erin Derham’s unadventurous aesthetic inoculates her from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.

1.5

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Stuffed
Photo: Music Box Films

Erin Derham’s Stuffed opens with a montage of the various taxidermists she profiles throughout her documentary. This opening lays bare the film’s argument in unmistakable terms: that taxidermy is an art form, closer to the work of Tim Burton than that of Norman Bates. But it also exposes the film’s most unbearable flaw, as Derham supports her hagiographic argument by sewing together her case studies with a relentless, and relentlessly generic, score that speaks to her devotion to formula.

It’s an unadventurous formula at odds with the documentary’s attempts to establish taxidermy as a highly complex, anti-paradigmatic endeavor involving great amounts of scientific precision, as well as creative audacity and whimsical experimentation. Derham insists so much on taxidermists’ labor being more than the mere production of replicas that her refusal to adopt a more playful aesthetic approach as she portrays the quirky imagination of taxidermists feels like equivocation. It’s as if she approached the documentary’s making with thick rubber gloves, thus inoculating herself from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.

This may be the result of a certain courting, conscious or not, of digital streaming platforms through the mimicry of impersonally glossy production values. In any case, it leaves the viewer in a position akin to that of the fussy eater trying to pick unwelcomed ingredients out of their food. We want to savor the taxidermists’ artistry, except the clichéd polish that envelops the film keeps getting in the way. It’s an artistry that’s bold by design, as the taxidermist utilizes dead matter not with the utilitarian goal of resurrecting it, but as raw material to sculpt something altogether new. If the Paris Museum of Hunting and Nature invited artists Sophie Calle and Serena Carone in 2018 to intervene in its collection of retired guns and taxidermic realism precisely because of the unusual juxtaposition of conceptual art and refurbished dead matter, moose in red gowns and all, Stuffed defines taxidermy itself as already marrying fanciful concepts with the illusion of beastly or avian resurrection.

Taxidermist Madison Rubin tells us she loves “seeing the insides and the anatomy of things” as she skins 11 ermines with the meticulousness of a sculptor, or a dollmaker. Others evoke the resurgence of taxidermy, which used to be particularly popular in the Victorian era, in these times of digital de-materialization. And some attest to the specificity of the medium—how no other art form can convey texture the way taxidermy does. Yet Derham seems more invested in glossing over the numerous chapters she’s divided the film’s narrative into than in exploring the depths of her story. Taxidermy and sustainability, taxidermy and climate change, the ethics of taxidermy, taxidermy and museums, taxidermy as a business, taxidermy in fashion—all of these get addressed too rapidly, sometimes in just a couple of minutes.

The rush feels particularly unfortunate when Derham turns her attention to rogue taxidermy, a Lynchean subgenre located at the intersection of dioramas, cabinets of curiosities, and surrealist art. Here, Calle and Carone’s red ballgown-wearing stuffed roadkill would feel right at home—that is, delightfully out of place in the world. Instead, Stuffed quickly continues in its quest of a happy, peppy denouement to match the pristine porelessness of its sheen.

Director: Erin Derham Distributor: Music Box Films Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Film

Review: Trick Will Treat You to Meatheaded, Commentary-Free Ultraviolence

Patrick Lussier’s film is an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy.

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Trick
Photo: RLJE Films

In the 2000s, a film company called the Asylum flooded Blockbuster shelves with “mockbusters”: cheaply produced, straight-to-DVD knockoffs of box-office dominators with titles such as Transmorphers, Ghosthunters, and Snakes on a Train. Patrick Lussier’s horror mystery Trick feels like an Asylum spin on Todd Phillips’s Joker, as both are about marginalized white guys who paint their faces, start killing people, and become kings of the incels. But where the licensed DC spinoff is an irresponsible and irredeemable pity party for a creep, this cheap lookalike is just an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy, assembled crudely from horror and cop-movie clichés.

Trick opens with a handy list of the dictionary definitions of its title, hinting at the filmmakers’ estimation of their target audience’s intelligence. Trick is also the name of the film’s villain, short for Patrick (Thom Niemann), an 18-year-old who, on Halloween night in 2015, attends a party with his classmates in their Hudson Valley town. During a game of spin the bottle—played with a knife—Trick is pressured to kiss another dude but instead starts stabbing and slashing everyone. (The subtext of repressed homosexuality is never alluded to again in the film.) Incapacitated and brought to urgent care, Patrick breaks free from his restraints and drops more bodies until police shoot him repeatedly in a hallway, knocking him out of a second-story window, neatly alluding simultaneously to both John Carpenter’s original Halloween (the defenestration) and Rick Rosenthal’s 1981 sequel (the hospital setting). Trick staggers to the river and vanishes, presumed dead.

But more killings follow, on or around Halloween, in towns downriver from the first. Detective Mike Denver, the only cop who believes Patrick survived, is played by Omar Epps, who credibly delivers preposterous dialogue like a pro. In the film’s most ludicrous killing, Trick uses a crane to swing the tombstone of an F.B.I. agent (Vanessa Aspillaga) he murdered the year before through the windshield of a car in order to smash a wounded police officer (Dani Shay) sitting inside, a scene Denver sums up to a colleague: “He murdered your deputy with the gravestone of a fed I got killed. Who does that?” Then, after a beat, “What does that?”

Good question. To be scary, a horror villain needs either to be a credible menace or tap into a more primal social fear. But Trick is just implausible. He’s resilient like Rasputin, more violent than a rabid animal. At a time when cellphones and social media are ubiquitous, no one ever got a photo of him, and his classmates can barely even describe his features, just that he was smart as fuck—like, smarter than the teachers. The film shows off his far-fetched cleverness when he kills a different F.B.I. agent (Robert G. McKay) with a Rube Goldbergian guillotine involving a sharp wire, a utility pole, and a bundle of cinderblocks. Its employment makes for Purge-level spectacle without the social commentary to back it up. The beheading is just meatheaded ultraviolence—as inane as any other aspect of Trick.

Cast: Omar Epps, Ellen Adair, Kristina Reyes, Tom Atkins, Max Miller, Thom Neimann, Jamie Kennedy Director: Patrick Lussier Screenwriter: Todd Farmer, Patrick Lussier Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Features

Robert Forster: Winning in the Late Innings

The Oscar-nominated actor brought a sense of honor and dignity to every role he played.

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Robert Forster
Photo: Miramax

David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive opens with a nighttime ride into oblivion. A limo drifts through the lightless void of the Hollywood Hills, red taillights burning in the blackness. An enigmatic woman, ebony hair and curvaceous red lips lending her the air of a tragic beauty, sits in the back by herself. The limo pulls over, and after the woman says, “We don’t stop here,” the driver aims a gun at her, but a gaggle of joyriding kids comes speeding around the curve and crashes into the vehicle. The woman climbs out of the wreckage stupefied and traipses into the hills, leaving behind the mangled metal and bodies.

Soon, a stoic detective arrives on the scene. He looks like a lawman, serious, a little sad, his face etched with the wrinkles of time. He examines the cars, offers a few terse observations, gazes out at the nocturnal city sprawling before him. It’s Robert Forster’s only scene in the film, and it’s an indelible one, imbued with mystery and menace, an attempt to explain the unexplainable. Saying fewer than 20 words and appearing in only a handful of shots, he exudes an air of wisdom and weariness—that of an indolent man who’s seen some shit and knows the horrors lurking ahead. In a film of dreamy logic and ineffaceable images, Forster’s taciturn detective acts as the final glimpse of reality before we slip into a world of Hollywood hopes and fantasy.

Forster, who died of brain cancer at the age of 78 this past Friday, was a prolific actor who experienced a remarkable second act in his mid-50s after giving a deeply empathetic and vulnerable performance as a love-struck bail bondsman in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a film populated by wounded characters leading unamazing lives, and who aspire to transcend mediocrity. “My career by then was dead,” Forster told the AV Club’s Will Harris in a 2011 interview. “No agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing…I could not believe that he [Tarantino] was talking about the Max Cherry role.”

Like so many of Tarantino’s films, Jackie Brown is replete with colorful, loquacious characters whose banter is clever, trenchant, and self-referential, but Forster’s Max Cherry is reserved and crestfallen, a man who’s settled into complacency and finds in Pam Grier’s flight attendant an unexpected inspiration. It’s one of American cinema’s great unconsummated love stories. Forster is a subtle actor, playing Max as an Everyman who chases people for a living but never seems to find what he’s looking for, and who willingly embroils himself in a dangerous situation because of love. He’s smart, self-sufficient, a decent guy, and yet for Jackie Brown he’s willing to risk his life, or whatever mundane existence he calls a life.

Forster was one of those great actors who appeared in far too few great films. His filmography is rife with bad films, though he was invariably a dependable presence in everything he did. He began his career promisingly, with a supporting role in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, and earned renown for his turn as an ambitious and ill-fated news cameraman in Haskell Wexler’s incandescent Medium Cool. He played a private eye in 1930s Hollywood in the show Banyon (his role in Mulholland Drive almost feels like a brief homage to the short-lived series) and appeared in a slew of genre movies for the rest of the 1970s and 1980s. Of note is Lewis Teague’s Alligator, in which a gargantuan reptile terrorizes a city, William Lustig’s nihilistic grindhouse flick Vigilante, and a rare villainous turn in Delta Force, opposite the indefatigable Chuck Norris.

It wasn’t until Jackie Brown and his subsequent Oscar nomination that Forster reentered the public consciousness. The way Tarantino exhumes old, often “trash” films when crafting his paeans to moving pictures, he also has a preternatural skill for resurrecting the careers of forgotten or faded actors. Tarantino fought for Forster to get the part. When news of Forster’s death went public, the director said in a statement:

“Today the world is left with one less gentlemen. One less square shooter. One less good man. One less wonderful father. One less marvelous actor. I remember all the breakfasts we had at silver spoons. All the stories. All the kind words. All the support. Casting Robert Forster in Jackie Brown was one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my life. I will miss you dearly my old friend.”

Forster appeared in a panoply of listless films and television programs throughout the 2000s (his appearance in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants in 2011 being an exception) but became a household face again in 2018, when he took on the role of Sheriff Frank Truman, Harry S. Truman’s brother, on the third season of Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Whereas Michael Ontkean exuded a mercurial youthfulness on the original series, that of a warm-hearted, just man capable of fiery spontaneity, Forster plays the elder Sheriff Truman rather pensively, sagacious and serene. Which is to say, he acts with the wisdom accrued by experience.

Forster also appeared in a season five episode of Breaking Bad, as a vacuum store owner and “disappearer” named Ed who helps Bryan Cranston’s Walt change identities. A stable presence amid the histrionic theatrics that defined the show’s approach to acting, Forster gives an understated performance and a sense of the real-world left behind by Vince Gilligan’s increasingly combustible melodrama. Forster reprised the part this year in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, the actor’s final screen credit. In a film-stealing scene, Forster stands steadfast and stoical against Aaron Paul’s desperate, bedraggled Jesse Pinkman, refusing to perform his disappearing service over a $1,800 discrepancy. The viewer is, of course, rooting for Jesse, yet one can’t help but respect the conviction of Forster’s unruffled professional. The actor brings a sense of honor and dignity to the role, as he did with every role. Forster was a safe, reliable presence, someone you trusted, unflustered, earnest, whether he was fighting monstrous alligators or swooning after air stewardesses.

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