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Understanding Screenwriting #110: Trance, Evil Dead, Admission, On the Road, & More

I always like a movie that starts out quick, and Trance certainly does that.

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Understanding Screenwriting #110: Trance, Evil Dead, Admission, On the Road, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Trance, Evil Dead, Admission, On the Road, Alice’s Restaurant, Justified, but first…

A Changing of the Guard: You may have noticed that Slant Magazine has been redesigned over the past few weeks. Prior to that, Keith Uhlich, the longtime editor of The House Next Door, moved up to Editor Emeritus status. Keith hornswoggled me into writing this column in 2008, and it’s turned out to be one of the most enjoyable professional experiences of my life. I’m going to miss him. I’m not sure if I ever mentioned it in the column, but it was Keith who found the stills for these pieces, including ones for very obscure films I used to throw into my writing just to test him. When a new column was posted, I felt like a little boy on Christmas morning opening packages to see what wonderful trinkets and gizmos Keith had found. Some, such as the Polish film posters for ‘50s B movies, just made me laugh out loud.

In the reorganization I’ve ended up with Ed Gonzalez, Slant’s film editor and co-founder, as my editor. So far our collaboration seems to working very well, and I assume it will continue to do so. I’m looking forward to seeing what Ed comes up with in terms of stills. Yes, I know I should find them myself, but I’m an absolute Luddite about computers—I’m still surprised when all the words I write show up in more or less the right order in the column—and getting the pictures is way beyond me. I suppose I could learn, but I’m not convinced that at my age I could. Besides, who wants to forgo Christmas morning? And I have already laughed out loud a couple of times at what Ed’s come up with.

Fan Mail:

The one comment on #109 was from Rich Vaughn. His entire comment was “Henry King??? LOL.” This was in reference to my comments on King as a smart director who spent time with the screenwriters finding out what they intended. With the “???” I assume Rich is saying he is “Laughing Out Loud” at the idea of King as a good director. On other hand, he may be joining with me and such notable film historians as Kevin Brownlow and David Shepard who think King is the “Love of Our Lives.” Abbreviations can be confusing.

Trance (2013; screenplay by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge; story by Joe Abearne; 101 minutes.)

Going downhill fast. I always like a movie that starts out quick, and Trance certainly does that. We’re behind the scenes of an auction house, get some sense of how difficult the security system is to break into, and then watch as a crew comes in and steals a painting worth millions. In the process, Franck, the leader of the gang, hits Simon, a worker at the auction. Simon knocks his head on the wall. Okay, except that Simon is the crew’s inside guy, he’s hidden the painting from the crew, and the knock on his head has given him amnesia. Well, you’ve got me interested.

So how does Franck get Simon to remember? Franck eventually has Simon go to Elizabeth, a sexy hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson, enough said). Franck puts a wire on Simon so he can hear what Simon tells Elizabeth. But Elizabeth twigs to the wire, telling whoever is listening that she knows about the painting and wants her share. Still okay, but then we spend a lot of time on the hypnosis process, which is just as dull as psychiatric sessions. So we start getting time jumps, dreams, and imaginary sequences. Since the characters are pretty much one note, we don’t really want to follow them through all that. Then late in the film we begin to get several plot twists which aren’t particularly useful or interesting. Joe Ahearne first wrote and directed this as a 2001 television movie in England under the same title, but this is his first theatrical film. John Hodge has a longer film resume, which includes Shallow Grave (1994), Trainspotting (1996), and The Beach (2000), all of which were directed by Danny Boyle. I haven’t seen The Beach, but both Shallow Grave and Trainspotting have more substantial characters then Trance does. Unfortunately, it looks as though Boyle brought in Hodge not to beef up the characters, but to make this film more “cinematic,” i.e., a true “Danny Boyle” film. But, like Point Blank (1967, see US #108), this film gets over-directed, with all kinds of flashy cutting and camera angles that end up distracting us from the story. The night before I saw it, I watched the last two-hour segment of the British miniseries Spies in Warsaw, whose final sequence has the hero on a train getting the gold reserves of Poland out of the country as the Germans invade. The sequence was woefully under-directed. Maybe the producers of that should have hired Boyle to juice it up.

Evil Dead (2013; screenplay by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues (with dialogue by Diablo Cody, uncredited); based on the screenplay by Sam Raimi; 91 minutes.)

My scary film for the year. I’m not particularly fond of scary movies. I didn’t see the The Evil Dead (1981), or Evil Dead 2 (1987), or Army of Darkness (1992). Scary movies generally seem rather repetitive and often unintentionally funny in their excesses. But I do like to catch one every once in a while, and this one is it for the year. Why this one? Two reasons. Mia, the main character, is played by Jane Levy. I loved her in the TV series Suburgatory, at least until I stopped watching it this year when the writing simply fell apart. She’s certainly up to the physical challenges of this kind of film. The second reason is that Diablo Cody, one of my favorite young screenwriters, has been mentioned as having written the screenplay. Until the release of the film, she was listed as a co-writer on the IMDb page, but that’s now been changed. The idea of Cody doing a full-out horror movie sounded interesting, especially after she stuck her toe in the water with Jennifer’s Body (2009, see US #34). It might have turned out to be as much fun as The Slumber Party Massacre, the 1982 film written by no less than Rita Mae Brown. But she was apparently not that involved. As both an article in the Los Angeles Times and an online interview with Cody make clear, she came on the project merely to help out with the dialogue and whatever other assistance the two writers needed.

Unfortunately, Cody doesn’t seem to be very much present in the film. There are exactly two lines that are distinctively Cody-esque. One is at the beginning when somebody tells Mia she looks well, and she replies, “I look like road kill.” The other is late in the film and it’s Mia giving one of the demons a hard time. You can figure out which one it is. So if we don’t have Cody at full power, what do we have? A movie with a lot of flaws that’s not as bad as some I’ve seen. The setup is that Mia is trying to get off drugs and instead of taking her to a rehab facility, her friends take her to an isolated cabin in the woods. What could possibly go wrong with that, especially since one of Mia’s friends, Olivia, is a nurse? Well, there are demons in the house. The writers do spend at least a little time setting up the characters before all hell breaks loose. There’s some invention in the way the characters use stuff you would find in a deserted cabin. Somebody’s going to get at least a master’s thesis out of the use of the nail gun in this film. On the other hand, the blood flows so extensively that if this film had any pretense to realism, the entire cast would be dead 40 minutes into the film from shock at the loss of blood.

Neither I nor the audience I saw the film with was particularly scared by any of this, since there’s at least a slightly comic tone that seems partly intentional. That tone makes the film more palatable than it might otherwise have been.

Admission (2013; screenplay by Fede Karen Croner; based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz; 107 minutes.)

Dressed to Kill meets From Here to Eternity. This is another film that opens well, then goes downhill. We meet Portia Nathan and watch her work as an admissions person for Princeton University. There’s some very funny stuff in these opening scenes as she deals with potential students and parents of those wannabes. The admissions process to a prestigious Ivy League school is a very fresh subject for a movie, and one that’s been ripe for satire ever since U.S. News and World Report started making lists of the top colleges. The magazine then proceeded to go out of business as a magazine, mostly likely because they could make more money with the college reports. Why would you buy a used college from those guys? Both parents and colleges themselves take the ratings a lot more seriously than they should. At one point, Clarence, the head of the admissions office, mentions that Princeton has fallen from number one to number two and the admissions staff has to work harder. And then it’s never mentioned again. When Portia goes to an alternate school, the students challenge the idea that they should go to Princeton, and Portia’s defense is, ironically, not of Princeton, but of college in general. Boy, could a lot more be done with that. Several sequences were filmed on the Princeton campus, so we may have a situation that faced the makers of From Here to Eternity in 1953. The U.S. army insisted the excesses of James Jones’s novel be softened or else they would not give the studio permission to film on army bases. That shouldn’t have been a problem here since any ivy-covered school could serve as a stand-in; Princeton doesn’t have any Army Air Corps bases these filmmakers needed.

So we have a film that starts out fresh and entertaining, and then turns into a combination of romantic drama and soap opera. John, a teacher at the alternative school, is pushing Portia to consider for admission an odd-ball student, Jeremiah, who has terrible grades but great test scores. And John lets it slip that Jeremiah is the baby Portia gave up for adoption as a baby. So Portia begins feeling maternal and ends up cheating to get Jeremiah accepted. She loses her job and also finds out that Jeremiah isn’t really the baby she had. It’s not clear if John knew that (who else would have fudged the birth certificate?) and, if not, who else tried to convince him. The ending gets messier and messier.

I had assumed while watching the film that Croner had taken a comic novel and tried to make it serious, since her best previous credit is the 1998 weepy One True Thing. Boy, was I wrong. In reading a fascinating double interview with Croner and Korelitz, I learned that the novel wasn’t comic at all, but a serious look at a woman of a certain age dealing with her past. The comic stuff about the admissions process came from Croner. She says, “When I found [the novel] Admission, I had just gone through the horrific process of getting my son into a private middle school—which in L.A. is a kind of blood sport. I thought, An admissions officer suffering? That wasn’t sad to me; that had major comic potential. I wanted to write that story! And I relished the opportunity to take a good hard look at what the stress of the college admissions process does to kids and parents.” Well, that should have been like Kubrick working on adapting Peter George’s serious novel Red Alert, finding it funny, and turning it into Dr. Strangelove (1964). Here, to switch movies in the middle of the discussion, Croner ended up with something closer to Dressed to Kill (1980). The latter film starts out as a fresh look at the sexual adventures of a middle-aged woman, then turns into a rehash of Psycho (1960) and gets less interesting as it goes along. Croner needed to access her inner Kubrick instead of her inner De Palma.

On the Road (2013; screenplay by Jose Rivera; based on the novel by Jack Kerouac; 124 minutes.)

Past its sell-by date. Ever since On the Road’s publication in 1957 there’s been talk of bringing Jack Kerouac’s novel to the screen, but nobody could manage it until now. And Rivera and his director Walter Salles haven’t managed it very well, at least partly because the book is almost unfilmable. In 2004, Rivera and Salles collaborated on The Motorcycle Diaries, about the travels of Ernesto “Che” Guevara in South American. That story of men on the road at least had a structure: Che observes the volatile social conditions gripping many countries and it makes him a revolutionary. There’s no such structure to On the Road. Sal Paradise, the fictional version of Kerouac, rides around the country with Dean Moriarity, the fictional version of Neal Cassidy. They have adventures of the sexual, alcoholic, and medicinal variety, but nothing really comes of it. Which was part of the appeal of the book in its day: a rant against the conformity of the ‘50s that appealed to people, nearly all of them men, who wanted to break free from society. The book was a harbinger of the ‘60s, when everybody and his brother went on the road.

In addition to the structural problem of the material as the basis for a film, the film doesn’t have a sense of the conventional America of the ‘50s Kerouac was rebelling against. Salles is Brazilian and Rivera is Puerto Rican, and they were born a year or two before the book came out, so it isn’t surprising that they miss the texture of the times. In one sequence, Sal and Dean go with Ed Dunkle to pick up his wife Galatea, whom he has dumped with relatives in the south. The sequence would be a perfect opportunity to establish what was so constricting about life in the conventional ‘50s, but Rivera and Salles do not do it.

The novel always has appealed mostly to men, who love to get out on the road and be free. The women characters are hardly developed at all, and while that’s true in Rivera’s script, Salles has cast actors like Kristen Stewart, Kristin Dunst, Amy Adams, and Elizabeth Moss as the women. They completely overpower the men on screen. That in turn shows how dated the original material is, since we have had 40-some years of the women’s movement after the novel was published. I’m not suggesting the adaptation should be “politically correct,” but the filmmakers could have dealt with how Kerouac’s limited characterization of women was very much a product of distinctly male and dated point of view. We’ve also had a lot more films about men on the road (see below for one example) in the years since the novel, making this sort of the John Carter (2012) of road movies: Edgar Rice Burroughs’s novel was the inspiration for so many movies that by the time the original was made into a film, it seemed old hat. The novel was fresh and original in its time; the movie is not.

Alice’s Restaurant (1969; screenplay by Venable Herndon and Arthur Penn; based on the song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” by Arlo Guthrie; 111 minutes.)

Still fresh. Arlo Guthrie is the son of the great American songwriter and folksinger Woody Guthrie. Arlo is still singing, currently doing a tour called “Arlo Guthrie: Here Comes the Kid,” celebrating the 100th anniversary of Woody’s birth. “The Kid,” as he’s still nicknamed, is now 65. In the ‘60s he was in his teens and wrote a hugely popular song this film is based on. Arthur Penn, coming off his giant success with Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, teamed with playwright Venable Herndon to write the screenplay based on the song and Arlo’s other adventures. The result, while not the cultural touchstone that Bonnie and Clyde was, is one of the best “hippie” movies of the period. It’s everything the movie On the Road would have liked to have been and isn’t.

Alice’s Restaurant seems to be a lot less structured than it is. We begin with Arlo getting a letter from the draft board saying he’s eligible for the draft. That provides an overall structure for the film, but the first hour or so seems very free form. Arlo tries to go college in Montana, but his long hair bothers a lot of people there. We get a sense of the conventional culture of the time in a few short bits, the kind of scenes that are missing in On the Road. Arlo leaves the college and goes on the road. He passes a tent revival meeting, hears the congregation sing “Amazing Grace” and says via narration, “Seems like Woody’s road might have run through here one time,” a beautiful line, which may have originally come from Arlo. Certainly there are lines later in the script, in Arlo’s voiceover, that are from the song, so maybe Arlo should have gotten an “additional dialogue” credit. Arlo sings in a club in New York City and is dragged off to a crash pad by a self-identified “teenybopper.” She lists the musicians she’s slept with and says she wants to sleep with Arlo because “You’ll probably be an album,” which defines the music scene a lot quicker and sharper than Almost Famous (2000). Arlo lands at a potential hippie commune run by Alice and Ray Brock. They’re an early-middle-aged couple who’ve bought a deconsecrated church. Alice is an earthy maternal figure, given much more characterization than any of the women in On the Road. Ray is something of a charismatic Peter Pan. So far, so rambling.

Then about 59 minutes into the film, a plot-like substance begins to seep in. Arlo and one of the guys go to dump trash from the big Thanksgiving dinner and are arrested for littering. They’re arrested by officer Obie and go before a judge who’s blind. All of that’s true, and not only is Arlo playing himself in the film, so are officer Obie and the judge. Shortly after they’re convicted and sentenced to get rid of the trash (they take it to New York City, of course), Arlo has to go for his army physical. That ends with the Army learning he was convicted of a crime, and they put him in group W, which consists of, as Arlo’s song on the soundtrack tells it, “father-rapers and mother-stabbers.” He’s out of the draft.

The last half hour of the film turns darker. We’ve always been suspicious of whether Alice and Ray can make the commune work, and they can’t. Shelly, one of their strays, dies form a drug overdose or suicide (it’s unclear), and Arlo is going on the road again, trying to figure out who he is. The collapse of the hippie dream the film shows always seemed to me to be more accurate than most of the similar films of the period. It comes organically out of what we see and know about the characters, rather than tacked on, as is the shooting at the end of Easy Rider (also 1969). Alice’s Restaurant is a better and more haunting film than Easy Rider, even if it’s not as well known.

Justified (2013; season four; various writers; approximately 45 minutes per episode.)

Mags Who? Most Justified fans probably think season two was the show’s best, simply because of the character of Mags Bennett, the ruthless matriarch of a backwoods crime family. She was a fascinating character, and Margo Martindale rightly won a pile of awards for her performance. Season three last year didn’t have anything quite that spectacular. Season four, which just finished, didn’t have a standout character like Mags, but it’s a better piece of storytelling.

The first episode, “Hole in the Wall,” written by Graham Yost, gets things going by starting when a man in a parachute falls to his death in Harlan in 1983. Thirty years later, Constable Bob, not exactly the complete doofus he sometimes seems, arrests two people trashing up Raylan’s father’s house. They’ve found a diplomatic pouch…with a lot of money in it. And a driver’s license that suggests the man was Waldo Truth. Meanwhile, Boyd’s Oxy sales are down, because of a local travelling preacher and his tent show. And Ellen May, one of the hookers Ava runs, has shot and killed one of her customers. So what’s going to be the main storyline for the season? Technically it’s tracking down Waldo Truth, who’s in fact Drew Thompson, who’s still alive. The other elements not only take up story time, but connect in all different kinds of ways. It takes real confidence of the part of Yost, Justified’s showrunner, to set all of this into motion.

We think that the travelling preacher is going to be a major character, especially when Ellen May gets religion with him. But in the third episode he’s bitten by a rattlesnake and dies. Boyd and Ava figure they have to get rid of Ellen May, so they send Boyd’s friend from the Army, Colt, to take her out and kill her. They tell Ellen May she’s going to get out of town on a bus, but she’s not as stupid as she seems, and escapes. We assume she’s out of the show after Colt can’t find her, but several episodes later, she shows up. She’s been protected by Shelby Parlow, a lawman supposedly on Boyd’s payroll. Meanwhile, the Detroit mob is looking for Drew Thompson, who knows a lot about their operation. Since the evidence suggests he’s still in Kentucky, they get Boyd to help. Boyd figures this is a chance to shake down rich guys who may make it possible for Ava and him to go legit. That leads to great scenes of Boyd and Ava dealing with the upper crust and imagining a legit life.

“Drew Thompson” turns out to be somebody closer to home, and for those of you who’ll watch the season on a busy weekend sometime in the future, it’s too good a twist to spoil. Now the writers are juggling their several balls very effectively, as Raylan and the marshals try to get “Drew” out of Harlan. Much easier said than done, and it takes them two full episodes, “Get Drew” (written by Dave Andron & VJ Boyd) and “Decoy” (written by Yost and Chris Provenzano), and all of the brain power of the different marshals and the writers to bring it off. The show spends the kind of time you could not spend in a feature, and it’s richer for it. And then “Drew” almost screws up his deal by…well, that’s a spoiler as well.

While no one is as dominant a personality as Mags, there’s the usual gallery of nicely drawn characters. Colt is a spooky guy, and gets a great death scene. Nicky Augustine is a slimeball representative of the Detroit mob who thinks he can outsmart his new boss, Sammy. We’ve met Sammy before and think he probably can. Their showdown, which Raylan sets up without leaving his fingerprints on it, shows us a new side of Sammy. And best of all, we ache along with Boyd and Ava for what they want and cannot have. The season ends with Winn Duffy, now Detroit’s man in the area who wants to Boyd to handle his drug sales. Just when Boyd thought he was out, they pull him back in.

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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Interview: Seth Rogen on An American Pickle and Reconnecting with His Roots

Rogen discusses collaborating with Simon Rich, how the film enriched his understanding of Judaism, the exhibition prospects of comedy in the streaming era, and more.

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Seth Rogen
Photo: HBO

It’s been over two decades since Seth Rogen made his small-screen debut in Freaks and Geeks, though one could be forgiven for assuming he’s been in the business much longer given all that he’s accomplished since then. He wrote for the acclaimed shows Da Ali G Show and Undeclared in the early aughts, before then breaking out in front of the camera in two comedy smashes released in the summer of 2007, Knocked Up and Superbad, the latter of which he co-wrote with creative partner Evan Goldberg. Rogen helped usher in the still-dominant Apatow era of big-screen comedy, a reign that not even the North Korean government could topple with the cyber-attack launched in response to his 2014 Kim Jong-un assassination satire The Interview.

While Rogen’s on-camera appearances have waned slightly over the past few years, his creative output hasn’t, as he and his partners at Point Grey continue to ramp up production across film, TV, and streaming. Their latest effort, An American Pickle, holds the distinction of being HBO Max’s first original narrative feature to premiere on the platform. But it also portends a distinctly more mature and reflective shift in Rogen’s own work as the cinematic face of exuberant millennial prolonged adolescence nears middle age.

The film stars Rogen in dual roles as Ben, a contemporary secular Brooklynite app developer, and Herschel, his devoutly Jewish great-grandfather who emigrated from eastern Europe and reemerges in the present day after being brined in a vat of pickles for a century. Neither the film or the characters in it dwell much on the absurd premise, and An American Pickle blossoms into a silly but sweet tale of misunderstanding and reconciliation between distant generations that share little other than a bloodline.

I chatted with Rogen on the eve of An American Pickle’s release. Our discussion covered how he collaborated with writer Simon Rich, how the film enriched his own understanding of Judaism, and how he envisions the exhibition prospects of comedy in the streaming era.

I saw Knocked Up as a teenager, and now it weirds me out that I’m older than you were when you made it. While working on it, were you aware that it might become such a generational touchstone for millennials? How do you feel about it now that it’s almost like a period piece?

I think when you make a movie you never truly know how it’s going to be received, honestly. Watch Hearts of Darkness, that’s a good lesson in that! There’s people on the set of the worst movie you’ve ever seen who think they’re making a masterpiece, and there’s people on the set of a masterpiece thinking that no one’s going to watch or see it ever—and even if they do, they’ll hate it. It’s not uncontrollable, but it’s hard to control and almost impossible to do with some sort of consistency. To that end, I’m glad that people still like any of our movies. The fact that any of them are viewed as remotely relevant in some way is lovely. You really don’t know what’s going to stand the test of time until time has passed, really.

I ask about that film partly because I feel there’s an interesting evolution we can chart from there to An American Pickle, which has an insight and understanding that feels like it can only be conveyed by learning and living. Is this the kind of film you could only have made at this point in your life?

Yeah, I think it’s definitely born of an older brain. Especially the themes of grief and how to process things we learned as kids, how we may have rejected those things even though they might add value to our lives, those themes are much more prevalent in my life as I get closer to 40 than when I was in my mid-20s. The idea of making a movie about grief and reconnecting with my roots was not prominent on my radar! [laughs]

There’s such poignancy to the way the film shows how past generations, be it through religion or some other factor, are better equipped to handle grief and hardship. Has any of that been valuable, pandemic or otherwise, in your life?

Yeah, I think religion specifically. My wife’s mother passed away earlier this year, and her uncle, actually. I’ve just seen with that specifically. Judaism has actionable protocols that do help. At one point in my life, I would probably write off all of it and say there was nothing helpful I was ever taught about religion. Now as I get older, I can cherry-pick and say you can take elements of this and apply them to your life as you find them helpful. Not all of this was born out of fooling people. Some of it was born out of truly trying to help people.

You’ve obviously done quite a bit of writing yourself on other projects. When it comes to something like An American Pickle, do you mostly just stay in your lane as an actor and let Simon Rich tailor the script to you? Or are you still involved in some writerly capacity?

I’m definitely still involved in some writerly capacity. I respect the writer and know their name is the one that’s on it ultimately, and they have to be able to stand behind all of it and take ownership over it. But I try to be constructive! I just try to help and support the ideas that I can. I try to acknowledge it and say this isn’t what I would do, always, but I’m not the writer! I try to respect that.

This film was originally geared toward theaters and is now going directly to streaming on HBO Max. In your mind, does the method of distribution affect the work you make? Or are you a platform agnostic and a laugh is a laugh on a big or a small screen?

We definitely make some films that are geared more toward a big-screen experience, in our minds at least, and some we are much more comfortable with that not being the experience. This being the perfect example of one of those! We understand that if we intend to keep making films for theaters, then they have to earn that right to be in a theater. Not every film automatically is granted that at this moment, and we understand that those are different types of films sometimes. It’s not always based on budget or anything like that. Good Boys, although it wasn’t expensive, is a movie we were confident would do well in theaters. There are some more expensive movies we would not be as confident that would be the best place for them. It’s an active conversation, but I do think some movies are better geared towards a cinematic experience and some towards a streaming one.

It still strikes me as crazy that so much data shows comedy is one of the genres people most want to view at home instead of in a room full of people.

I think people just like comedy! But to me, some of the greatest experiences I’ve had in a theater, I don’t think of the action movies I saw. I think about when I saw There’s Something About Mary or South Park in theaters, the Jackass movies, these wild experiences where you can barely hear what’s happening. Those are my favorite moviegoing experiences, and I think a lot of people feel that way.

Any chance you’d do a This Is the End sequel? It’s a movie I’ve thought about a lot over the last few months each time celebrities try to center themselves in the dialogue around a moment of crisis.

Not a sequel, specifically, but we do talk about building on the genre of famous people playing themselves interacting with supernatural situations. There maybe is more to be done with that.

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Review: The Secret Garden Is a Pale Imitation of Its Enchanting Source

Its emphasis on the achievement of the individual is practically antithetical to the conclusion drawn by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

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The Secret Garden
Photo: STXfilms

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, the story of a young girl who opens herself up the possibilities of human compassion after rejuvenating a garden and caring for her sickly cousin, has resonated with readers of all ages since its publication. And it’s clear from the brooding start of this latest cinematic adaptation that the filmmakers seek to amplify the book’s darker themes. A title card announces that the turbulent post-World War I India that newly orphaned Mary (Dixie Egerickx) finds herself in has been ravaged by a series of violent conflicts, and director Marc Munden initially does a fine job of mirroring the girl’s confusion and insecurity over losing her parents in the uncertainty of her surroundings.

Once Mary moves to the Yorkshire estate of her uncle, Archibald Craven (Colin Firth), the filmmakers also gesture beyond the novel’s thematic borders by having multiple characters—including Craven, who’s still grieving the death of his wife, and his infirm son, Colin (Edan Hayhurst)—face a collective trauma that leaves them unsure of how to deal with their feelings. Unfortunately, the film fails to deliver on its initial promise of branching the story out into bold new emotional terrain after the narrative begins to diminish many of the characters and aspects that made Burnett’s book such a stirring vision of morality.

The secret life and death of the woman who was Craven’s wife and Colin’s mother is only a minor part of the book, but this adaptation pushes this mystery to the narrative forefront and vastly yet uninspiringly expands on it. In a departure from the novel, this rote mystery plotline largely centers on Mary, which only makes her quest feel conspicuously insular and self-serving. This emphasis on the achievement of the individual is practically antithetical to the very conclusion drawn by Burnett in the book: that enrichment and satisfaction is a shared experience that comes through something as simple as human kindness.

The focus on Mary’s plight in the film comes at the expense of capturing the idyllic beauty of the titular hideaway, whose function ultimately feels like an afterthought; it’s but a convenient plot device that exists solely to help Mary solve a problem that very much defies her efforts until the last act. Imbued with the power to cure ailments and react to people’s feelings like a sentient being, the garden offers a dose of fantasy to the film, and, predictably, it’s been rendered with a heavy dose of CGI that makes it feel cold and soulless, never eliciting the sense of calm that the characters feel while gallivanting its grounds.

As in the book, Mary learns to overcome her selfishness by helping to heal Colin, but where Burnett’s story slowly detailed the increasingly invigorating power of Mary and Colin’s friendship and mutual affection, Munden fails to show how Mary’s sleuthing ignites her spirit of generosity. It feels like a cop-out when Colin is healed by the garden’s mysterious properties, causing him to praise Mary for showing him that real magic exists. In lieu of pluming the emotional states of the characters, the film resorts to a whimsical, otherworldly fantasy element as an easy resolution. It’s the sort of fantasy that Burnett didn’t need to make room for in the book, because it recognized something more profound: that real magic isn’t necessary in a world where human beings possess the capacity for compassion.

Cast: Dixie Egerickx, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Edan Hayhurst, Amir Wilson, Isis Davis, Maeve Dermody, Jemma Powell Director: Marc Munden Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: STXfilms Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Review: Psychomagic, a Healing Art Is a Moving Look at Therapeutic Interventions

The film could stand as a fitting encapsulation of the themes that have run throughout Alejandro Jodorowsky’s work.

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Psychomagic, a Healing Art
Photo: ABKCO

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first documentary, Psychomagic, a Healing Art, is a moving, visually striking exploration of the unconventional psychotherapeutic techniques that the filmmaker has developed over a lifetime of reading tarot cards and studying various psychological systems and an assortment of Eastern and Western spiritual practices. After a brief introduction, during which Jodorowsky lays out the major tenets of his technique, we witness a selection of individual case histories. The format for these therapeutic interventions varies only slightly: a preliminary interview describes the issues at hand; the particular treatment is undertaken, an activity that seems pitched somewhere between ritual and performance art; and then a follow-up interview permits the participant(s)—some of them are couples—to describe the therapy’s impact on their lives. These episodes are often intercut with a thematically or pictorially related moment from one of Jodorowsky’s earlier films, as though to emphasize the continuity of his vision from narrative cinema to documentary.

Throughout Psychomagic, individual treatments unfold according to a dreamlike, poetic logic. Many of them involve the participant undergoing some sort of symbolic death and rebirth. Often this entails nothing more radical than stripping off one’s old clothes and donning new ones. Sometimes it means reenacting the moment of birth through what Jodorowsky calls “initiatic massage,” a hands-on bit of dialogue-free theater. But the most intense version of this psychic renascence on display here starts with burying a suicidal man up to his neck in the Spanish desert. A glass dish (replete with air holes) covers his exposed head. Slabs of raw meat are spread over his “grave,” and a wake of vultures come to devour the uncooked flesh. Then he’s dug up, cleaned up, and dressed up in an expensive-looking new suit.

Later, there’s a section given over to “social psychomagic,” ritual manifestations that most resemble mass demonstrations. One of them, known as “the Walk of the Dead,” a protest against drug war fatalities that features large groups donning traditional Day of the Dead skeleton costumes, could have been lifted straight from a similar scene in Endless Poetry. Although, on this occasion, at least, Jodorowsky himself doesn’t make that connection.

One segment, involving a woman suffering from throat cancer, comes perilously close to making false claims for the powers of psychomagic but luckily skirts the issue entirely through some well-deployed disclaimers. Jodorowsky invites the woman on stage at a conference with 5,000 attendees, to see whether or not their combined energies can help or heal her, and without making any promises. It’s never entirely clear whether or not she’s cured, but 10 years later, she’s still alive. Nor does she claim in her follow-up interview to have been cured. The “experiment” merely “opened a door” for her healing process to begin.

What most shines through all the therapeutic interventions detailed in the Psychomagic is the scrupulousness of Jodorowsky’s compassion and his deep-seated desire to render whatever assistance he can. As he mentions at one point in the documentary, he never charges money for these treatments. Whether or not the 91-year-old director makes another film, Psychomagic could easily stand as a fitting encapsulation of the themes of suffering and transcendence that have run throughout his entire career.

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky Screenwriter: Alejandro Jodorowsky Distributor: ABKCO Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Sunless Shadows Is a Wrenching View of Patriarchal Power in Iran

Mehrdad Oskouei’s documentary is striking for the way its subjects describe horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language.

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Sunless Shadows
Photo: Cinema Guild

Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams is striking for the way that it unhurriedly paints a portrait of its subjects, a group of teenage girls at a juvenile detention center in Iran, before then shocking us with matter-of-factly stated admissions of murder. At first, you may find yourself trying to determine the documentary’s reason for being, alongside wanting to know the girls’ reasons for being incarcerated. We sense that the film is supposed to have a cumulative effect, built on prolonged observation followed by intellectual reflection—until we hear one of the girls say, point blank, that she killed her father. Her no-nonsense statement is in chilling lockstep with the lack of prudishness to Oskouei’s line of questioning throughout Starless Dreams. Whether he’s asking the detainees for their names or details about their traumas and crimes, his disembodied voice maintains the same level of cool.

Sunless Shadows, Oskouei’s second look at the same detention facility, initially focuses on its subjects describing horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language. When a girl remembers the abuse she suffered, all that matters is her words. Redolent of Claude Lanzmann’s approach, Oskouei strips his images to their barest bones as his subjects openly speak about their traumas, as if trying to avoid aestheticizing their pain.

In Sunless Shadows, though, Oskouei eventually digresses from this no-frills approach. By design, the film lacks the astonishment of Starless Dreams, suggesting a great story being told anew and now given over to a sort of formula. A similar relationship can be drawn between Joshua Oppenheimer’s harrowing The Act of Killing and its follow-up, The Look of Silence. Order is the essential culprit in both filmmakers’ attempts to take a second look at the same subject matter. The first film takes advantage of the emotional possibilities of shock or fright, but the force of an unexpected blow is difficult to repeat. By the time we come to the second film, we’re already literate in and, in some ways, inoculated by the banality of evil.

At times, Oskouei also uses a more readily recognizable setup for his interviews. Although most of sequences here take place in the girls’ dormitories, with them sitting haphazardly on the floor surrounded by their bunkbeds, Sunless Shadows is punctuated by interviews with the girls’ mothers, who are also incarcerated (and on death row), and scenes where each girl enters a room and looks straight into the camera to address the family member they’ve killed. These moments bring to mind a reality TV confessional, and their gracelessness is replicated by sequences where the girls’ family members are presumably watching this footage and crying.

The film rekindles the aura of Starless Dreams more faithfully when it doesn’t try to dress up the scenario that links them—patriarchy as an interminable metastasis—with forms that deny the dramatic sufficiency of the girls’ accounts. Theirs are stories of parent-child relations mediated by chicken-carving knives, of a father driving to the desert with the intention of pummeling his daughter to death, of sons fighting tooth and nail for their mother’s execution, unless she pays up. Overtly calculated mise-en-scène in this context feels like an affront.

It’s refreshing, then, when Oskouei harkens back to the core of his project, the ultimately futile killing of the father, the acting out of the unthinkable, the avowing of the unsayable. He does this when he allows language do the talking by itself and when he reduces the cinematic encounter to a matter of language: sincere questions followed by disarming answers. As when the filmmaker asks one of the girls, “Is killing difficult?” To which the girl answers, unwaveringly, “At the time you feel nothing, except for the joy of having done it.”

Director: Mehrdad Oskouei Screenwriter: Mehrdad Oskouei Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 74 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Song Without a Name Boldly Confronts a Legacy of Marginalization

The film is strikingly fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale.

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Song Without a Name
Photo: Film Movement

Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) wakes up in the early hours of the morning to walk with her husband, Leo (Lucio Rojas), into Lima from their shack in a coastal shantytown on the outskirts of the city. Because she has few alternatives, her late-stage pregnancy doesn’t deter her as she sits in the street selling potatoes to passersby. It’s only natural, then, that when she hears a health clinic’s radio ad offering care to pregnant women, it sounds like a godsend. But once Georgina gives birth to her daughter, the clinic whisks the child off for some supposed medical tests, shoos her out the door, and then seems to vacate the location entirely. In an instant, her life is upended, but as Song Without a Name sensitively makes clear, the indigenous Georgina’s degradation is an all too familiar one in Peruvian society.

Though Melina León’s feature-length directorial debut is set in 1988, it appears as if it’s been beamed from an even earlier time. Its images, captured in boxy Academy ratio, are visibly aged, its faded edges and conspicuously distorted elements bringing to mind an old photograph. As a result, the scenes depicting government officials disregarding the needs of the indigenous Georgina gain a grave sense of timelessness, a feeling emphasized by the lack of period-specific markers amid the ramshackle houses. The events become detached from their specific historical backdrop, suggesting nothing less than the perpetuity of disenfranchisement.

In Song Without a Name, the only person who lends Georgina a sympathetic ear is Pedro (Tommy Párraga), a journalist who, as a gay man, understands what it means to be an outsider, though he initially tries to pass her story off to someone else, as he’s reporting on a paramilitary death squad whose handiwork he observes early in the film. And just when you think that León is going to steer the film into the terrain of a conventional investigative thriller, she remains fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale, through the despair on people’s faces as much as through the formal touches that reflect it.

The film’s backdrop is tumultuous, and the characters have to move on from the kidnapping without truly wanting to because they need to eat, to pay for the roof over their heads, to live. In a haunting moment that evokes how tragedy diminishes the connection between people, Georgina mournfully stays in bed as Leo goes to work alone, but not before he leaves a handprint on the window, barely visible in the black and white of the frame.

León depicts anguish in such stark, all-encompassing terms that she risks overplaying her hand at times, like one scene that positions the closeted Pedro and his lover, Isa (Maykol Hernández), on opposite sides of a thick line of tiles that’s only made more prominent by the camera’s distant position. But mostly, she weaves an atmosphere that borders on ethereal through the jerky distortions of Georgina walking home at night and the ease with which certain pieces of Pedro’s investigation seem to fall into place. León channels Georgina’s devastation to particularly powerful effect in one long take where the mother is taken out of the clinic but continues pleading and crying, unseen, from the other side of the door. Across the minute-long shot, Georgina is determined not to go away, and the scene fades to black with such painful slowness that she seems to be prolonging the transition through force of will, beyond the point where the audience might normally look away.

Cast: Pamela Mendoza, Tommy Párraga, Lucio Rojas, Maykol Hernández, Lidia Quispe Director: Melina León Screenwriter: Melina León, Michael J. White Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Beyoncé’s Black Is King Is a Visual Love Letter to the Black Diaspora

The visual album proposes a pan-African vision of legacy, abundance, and unity.

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Black Is King
Photo: Disney+

For Beyoncé, it’s no longer enough for us to listen to her music. We must witness and viscerally feel it. Which is why the visual album is increasingly becoming her preferred mode of expression. As she did with last year’s The Lion King: The Gift soundtrack, the singer recruited heavyweights from West African dance music like Nigeria’s WizKid and Ghana’s Shatta Wale, as well as emerging artists like South Africa’s Busiswa, to star in Black Is King, which Beyoncé based on the music from The Gift. Out of a dazzling fusion of the hottest R&B and Afrobeat trends, this visual album proposes a pan-African vision of legacy, abundance, and unity, making it Beyoncé’s most wide-reaching and ambitious effort yet.

Black Is King is largely inseparable from Disney’s live-action remake of the The Lion King, and to a fault at times. The project follows the arc of the film’s plot, personifying the animal characters with human actors. A young prince (Folajomi Akinmurele), the human stand-in for young Simba, falls from grace and embarks on a coming-of-age odyssey that eventually leads him back home to reclaim the throne. Throughout, large-scale sets, wide shots of the Saharan desert, and eye-catching dance routines distract from this plot. Indeed, it’s difficult to catch when the young prince grows into a young man (Nyaniso Dzedze) as the two actors abruptly switch places between songs without warning, and the introduction of an underdeveloped subplot involving a mysterious artifact may leave viewers scratching their heads.

But Black Is King is no traditional cinematic experience, because it’s performance, symbolism, and music that are integral to it, not any narrative minutiae. To wit, unlike the original version of the album, the deluxe edition of The Gift, which was released alongside Black Is King, forgoes the intermissions lifted from The Lion King’s dialogue, as if to suggest that the songs speak for themselves, without strict adherence to the film it draws from as inspiration.

Beyoncé, who co-directed the visual album, interprets Simba’s reclaiming of the throne for her ends; his royal lineage is evocative of the rich cultural heritage of Africa and her people, and his homecoming is representative of the Black diaspora’s turning to that heritage as a source of strength. The animated and live-action versions of the The Lion King are beloved, if not equally so, and they remain among the few Disney films to be set in Africa, but as they’re both devoid of Black bodies, there’s something galvanizing about witnessing the lavishness of The Lion King interpreted by Black actors, dancers, and musicians.

Black Is King will inevitably be criticized for its ostentatious display of wealth and ostensible failure to represent the day-to-day realities of African countries—which is to say, what the rest of the world hastily and egregiously presumes to be struggle and impoverishment. The visual album’s purpose isn’t to draft some documentary-style exegesis, but to illustrate an imaginative wonderland of possibility and celebration. Black Is King may well be steeped in the opulence of drifting, pimped-out cars (“Ja Ara E”), and a head-spinning wardrobe of designer clothing (“Water”), but this grandiosity is empowering and subversive in its own way. The “Mood 4 Eva” sequence boasts a splendor fit for a Baz Luhrmann film, complete with a breathtaking synchronized swimming routine. Generations of families, from regal grandparents to rambunctious five-year-olds, reside in a mansion and partake in elitist traditions brought to the African continent by European colonizers. All the while, white servants wait on them as they drink tea and play tennis in a verdant garden.

Although Black Is King preaches the moral that Black kingship amounts to responsible manhood, Black femininity is just as integral to Beyoncé’s conceptualization of the visual album. As an unidentified male speaker relates in one voiceover: “Many times, it’s the women that reassemble us. Men taught me some things, but women taught me a whole lot more.” Beyoncé embodies a maternal figure at several points, cradling a baby in “Bigger” and playing a handclap game with her daughter, Blue Ivy, in “Brown Skin Girl.”

It’s this last song that is the film’s most stirring dedication to Black women. Overhead shots of a ballroom depict a formation of debutante dancers, fanning in and out like a flower in bloom. Interspersed throughout are glamor shots of the dark-skinned women Beyoncé sings praise of: Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, and Kelly Rowland. For all of its larger-than-life grandeur, Black Is King still succeeds in conveying the stark intimacy between two people in a scene in which Rowland and Beyoncé share an embrace and gaze at each other lovingly.

If The Gift is a love letter to Africa—as Beyoncé herself described the album—then Black Is King is a love letter to the Black diaspora. In her narration, Beyoncé remarks of “lost languages [that] spill out of our mouths,” and an American flag bearing the red, black, and green of Pan-Africanism proudly waves during “Power.” Like the ‘90s hip-hop MCs who espoused Afrocentricity before her, Beyoncé turns to the African motherland to reconstruct a heritage and identity stolen by slavery and the erosion of time. At the film’s beginning, young Simba hurtles toward Earth from among the stars, leaving the streak of a comet’s tail behind him. No matter how far you stray from home, Beyoncé reminds viewers throughout Black is King that the great Black ancestors can immediately be felt in the stars they inhabit in the night skies.

Cast: Beyoncé, Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, Kelly Rowland, Folajomi Akinmurele, Connie Chiume, Nyaniso Ntsikelelo Dzedze, Nandi Madida, Warren Masemola, Sibusiso Mbeje, Fumi Odeje, Stephen Ojo, Mary Twala, Blue Ivy Carter Director: Emmanuel Adjei, Blitz Bazawule, Beyoncé Screenwriter: Beyoncé, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Clover Hope, Andrew Morrow Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 85 min Rating: NA Year: 2020

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Review: Waiting for the Barbarians Loses Its Apocalyptic Power on Screen

Ciro Guerra never quite finds an imagistic equivalent to the novel’s subtly hallucinogenic atmosphere.

2.5

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Waiting for the Barbarians
Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

“Pain is truth. All else is subject to doubt,” intones the stone-faced Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) in Waiting for the Barbarians, explaining his interrogation methods. The line might as well be the slogan of both J.M. Coetzee’s 1980 novel and director Ciro Guerra’s film adaptation. An agent of an unnamed empire, Holl has arrived at a colonial outpost to essentially produce truth via pain. Horrifying the Magistrate (Mark Rylance) who oversees the remote outpost, Joll captures and tortures members of the local nomadic tribe, forcing them to articulate the “truth” that the Empire needs: that these so-called barbarians are planning an assault on the Empire’s frontier.

Coetzee’s novel, published at the height of South African apartheid, is written in an allegorical mode that, through its nonspecific frontier geography and generalized designation for its protagonists, broadens its scope to address colonialism as a whole. At the same time, though, Coetzee imbues the psychosomatic effects of colonial systems with an unnerving specificity, his clipped prose achieving a paradoxical expressionist realism in its descriptions of the bleak nonplace of the frontier and the depiction of the Magistrate’s inner life. But as true as the film stays to its source—Coetzee wrote the adaption himself—Guerra never quite finds an imagistic equivalent to the novel’s apocalyptic, subtly hallucinogenic atmosphere.

The film’s narration lacks that sense of interiority that makes Waiting for the Barbarians on the page more than a simple moral tale; the anguish of the Magistrate and the barbarian stragglers held captive in the outpost aren’t expressionistically reflected in the exterior world, and the adaptation excises the dream sequences and reveries that Coetzee intersperses throughout the book. The scorched-desert oranges of Chris Menges’s cinematography communicate a sense of the oppressive frontier environment, but the staging of the Magistrate’s moral awakening and fall from imperial favor tends toward the cold and distanced. A degree of alienation may be an intended effect—the titular gerund “waiting” already indicates the story’s Beckettian overtones—but Lucretia Martel’s Zama much more impressively, and hauntingly, blends listless existentialism and colonial brutality.

As a man who believes himself to be kindly and modest, even as he serves in a position of authority, Rylance crafts an instantly recognizable and sympathetic performance of naïve white guilt. Still, the Magistrate’s arc of moral awakening has a tidiness that belies the rough frontier setting. In an early scene, the middle-aged colonial functionary confesses that he has no ambitions toward imperial heroism—that, hopefully, posterity will remember merely that “with a nudge here, a touch there, I kept the world on its course.” Through a series of tribulations that force the reality of empire into visual and tactile perception, he will realize that he has been complicit in a “world course” of endless war and extermination—proving, in a sense different than he intended it, Joll’s thesis that pain leads to truth.

The Magistrate turns out to be virtually alone in his opposition to the regime of brutalization that Joll installs in the outpost. With his brusque disposition and strange accoutrements (his sunglasses are a novelty in the world of the story, and they have a peculiar, knotted design here), Joll is a Deppian villain if ever there was one. Thankfully, though, the actor doesn’t let his embodiment of faceless power slip into cartoonish mugging, as Joll mostly works as a Kafkaesque embodiment of cynical authoritarian severity. It may be simply that Joll doesn’t get enough screen time to cross the line between allegory and parody, as he’s briefly replaced by Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson), a less outwardly “civilized” iteration of the imperial thug whom the Magistrate finds in Joll’s place after returning from an excursion to the desert.

Wracked with guilt over his complicity in the Empire’s campaign of torture and murder, the Magistrate takes in a native woman, identified only as the Girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan), whose ankles have been broken by Joll and Mandel’s uniformed goons. The Magistrate’s mostly chaste obsession with the Girl, whom he views as a means of soothing his white guilt, leads to his becoming a pariah in his own town, and the regime of torture he passively opposed is turned into a crucible for his new understanding of the barbarians’ plight.

There’s nothing particularly challenging or incisive about the notion that our main character must go through great pain to become a better person, and Guerra’s scenes of transmogrification through pain aren’t made to hit home in the way they do in the novel. However, it’s much to the film’s credit that it doesn’t see symbolic gestures on the part of oppressors—like the Magistrate’s Jesus-like washing of the Girl’s feet—as sufficient or effective acts of reparation. The story’s guilty conscience exceeds that of its protagonist, and the film, in the end, evinces the awareness that the unnamed but unambiguously European society at its center will be at the mercy of the “barbarians” that colonialism has invented.

Cast: Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Robert Pattinson, Sam Reid Director: Ciro Guerra Screenwriter: J.M. Coetzee Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: A Thousand Cuts Sounds the Alarm on Rodrigo Duterte’s Tyranny

The film uses endangered press freedom in the Philippines to illustrate the threat posed to liberal democracy by weaponized social media.

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A Thousand Cuts
Photo: Frontline

Centered on a heroic narrative that’s almost drowned out by the bleakness of its surrounding material, Ramona S. Diaz’s A Thousand Cuts uses endangered press freedom in the Philippines to illustrate the threat posed to liberal democracy by weaponized social media. Fortunately, Diaz resists the urge felt by many artists to see all geopolitical matters through the lens of America’s decaying polity. Still, it’s impossible not to feel the shadow of Donald Trump in the documentary when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte tells crusading journalist Maria Ressa that her lonely, besieged, and truth-telling outlet is “fake news.” What works for one would-be autocrat apparently works for another.

Ressa is the executive editor of Rappler, a buzzy Philippines news site fighting disinformation at the source by optimizing itself for maximum social media dissemination. A sprite of cheery efficiency who seems happiest when presenting people with horrific facts, Ressa delivers a dire, if unsurprising, message when she says that “lies laced with anger and hate spread fastest” on social media. She adds that her country is particularly fertile ground for such viral firestorms, given that the average Filipino spends approximately 10 hours a day online.

While A Thousand Cuts appears more engaged in the flesh-and-blood conflicts of cutthroat Filipino politics, it highlights one of Ressa’s more impactful data dives: of a self-amplifying network of 26 fake accounts effectively spreading false Duterte propaganda to over three million people. The result of such dissemination ranges from fast-spreading memes (calling Rappler’s many female reporters “presstitutes”) to mobs (angry Duterte fans live-streaming from Rappler’s lobby while supportive posts call for the journalists to be raped, murdered, and beheaded). As is the case with strongmen the world over, the animus behind all this virtual bile is the reporting of inconvenient truths. All throughout the film, which commences in 2018 and follows the government’s anti-Rappler campaign through a court decision in June 2020, Ressa and her reporters put out punchy stories about potential corruption in Duterte’s family and how his anti-drug vigilante campaign led to thousands of killings in shadowy circumstances.

A Thousand Cuts presents this as a lopsided battle. Rappler’s upright, mostly young colleagues try to discern the real story behind a smokescreen of spin. Meanwhile, Duterte mesmerizes crowds with his surreally rambling speeches, careening from claims that a bullet is the best way to stop drug abuse to talking about the size of his penis. At the same time, we see his surrogates barnstorming around the country like fascist carnival barkers whipping up crowds. The president’s head of police, Bato Dela Rosa, is a bald and clowning bruiser who mixes bloodthirsty declarations of his eagerness to kill for his boss with off-key ballads. While Rosa goes for WWE appeal, girl-group performer and pro-Duterte mean girl Mucho Uson seems more like what would happen if a Pussycat Doll were employed by Steve Bannon.

The film is most darkly enthralling when it’s showing this combat (albeit a mostly physically distanced one) between a cartoonish villain like Duterte and underdogs like Ressa. In addition to bringing a frisson of interpersonal drama to the narrative, the almost existential conflict shows in stark terms just how much the country has to lose. The conflict over press freedom ranges from legal harassment to a barrage of violent threats. Some of the film’s most wrenching moments are the testimonials from Rappler’s inspiring writers, who are as dedicated as Ressa but not as seemingly impervious to the atmosphere of constant menace created by the sense of impunity implied by Duterte’s bullying swagger. “I’m terrified every day,” says Patricia Evangelista, wiry with tension and fear. “Maria doesn’t scare easily. I do.”

A Thousand Cuts loses some steam when it departs the hot conflict of the Philippines for the cooler environs of Manhattan. There, on a couple occasions that we see later in the film, Ressa speaks at or is honored by a number of gala first-world events, from the Atlantic Festival to a shindig with Amal and George Clooney. While these moments are likely there to show Ressa in more relaxed settings, they seem far less necessary than what’s happening back in the Philippines. Ressa’s happy-warrior personality shines so brightly in this film that watching her fight the good fight is all the humanizing she requires. “We are meant to be a cautionary tale,” Ressa says about her battle for press freedom and the democratic rule of law in an environment increasingly choked off by vitriol and propaganda. “We are meant to make you afraid.” Sounding an alarm meant to be heard around the wired world, her film does just that.

Director: Ramona S. Diaz Distributor: PBS Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: I Used to Go Here Mines Cringe Comedy from Collegiate Nostalgia

The film is almost sadistically driven to turn a woman’s trip down memory lane into fodder for cringe humor.

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I Used to Go Here
Photo: Gravitas Ventures

Following the unceremonious cancellation of the book tour for her recently released debut novel, 35-year-old Kate (Gillian Jacobs) is suddenly afflicted with the existential angst that can result from taking stock of one’s life. Kris Rey’s lightly comedic I Used to Go Here proceeds to chart the aftermath of Kate’s personal and professional disappointments after she’s pulled in various directions by her desperate struggle for acceptance. And in doing so, the film initially taps into the insecurities that plague many a professional writer. But once Kate starts to cope with her subpar book sales by taking her old professor, David (Jemaine Clement), up on his offer for her to speak at her alma mater, I Used to Go Here begins to indulge all manner of collegiate nostalgia, trafficking in the clichés of so many works concerned with adults who struggle to recapture the hopefulness of their youth.

For her part, Jacobs is rather convincing at portraying the exhausting mental gymnastics that some artists do in order to appear confident and successful in public, while licking their wounds in private. Rey, however, grows increasingly disinterested in probing Kate’s state of emotional instability in any meaningful way, instead leaning into the sheer awkwardness of situations wherein Kate attempts to relive her glory days. Indeed, there’s an almost discomfiting sadism to the manner in which Rey has Kate grapple with one embarrassment after another as the young woman tries to regain some semblance of self-respect.

From the baby shower where Kate is forced to take a picture with three pregnant friends and hold up a book as her proxy child, to the uncomfortable revelation that David’s wife, Alexis (Kristina Valada-Viars), doesn’t like Kate’s writing, I Used to Go Here relentlessly stacks the deck against Kate. In fact, her failings are laid on so thick that it becomes impossible to imagine how she ever managed to get a legitimate book deal in the first place. By the time she’s had her third blow-out with her bed-and-breakfast host (Cindy Gold), her ex-fiancé stops returning her calls, and her much awaited New York Times book review is revealed to be emphatically negative, it’s clear that the film primarily sees Kate as a mere avatar for every struggling artist, leading her through broadly comic stations of the writer’s cross as her dreams of fame and success crumble on the very same campus on which they were birthed.

This parade of humiliating experiences is given a brief respite as Kate’s bonds with Hugo (Josh Wiggins), a college student who admires her work and with whom she shares a real, albeit short-lived, connection. It’s the lone relationship in the film that feels truly authentic, and it’s when Kate is with Hugo that we begin to get a sense of who she is and what informed her personal life before her professional one fell apart. But soon Kate is being pitted against David’s new star pupil, April (Hannah Marks), who is, of course, revealed to be Hugo’s girlfriend. It’s a particularly trite way of highlighting the stark contrasts between who Kate was in her youth and who she’s become in the decade-plus since, and it’s par for the course in a film driven to turn a woman’s trip down memory lane into fodder for cringe humor.

Cast: Gillian Jacobs, Jemaine Clement, Kate Micucci, Hannah Marks, Jorma Taccone, Zoe Chao, Josh Wiggins, Forrest Goodluck, Jennifer Joan Taylor, Rammel Chan Director: Kris Rey Screenwriter: Kris Rey Distributor: Gravitas Ventures Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Like Its Characters, She Dies Tomorrow Stays in a Holding Pattern

Perhaps as a result of her attempting to avoid all matter of clichés, not just of genre, Amy Seimetz revels in vagueness.

2.5

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She Dies Tomorrow
Photo: Neon

For a while, Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow seems like a chamber play about a single woman in a tailspin. Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) wanders her recently purchased, relatively empty house, drinking wine, playing opera on vinyl on repeat, and shopping for leather jackets online. Sheil, one of the rawest actors working in American cinema, informs these actions with wrenching agony, communicating the lost-ness, the emptiness of profound depression, which Seimetz complements with surrealist formalism. Lurid colors bleed into the film’s frames, suggesting that Amy is potentially hallucinating, and there are shards of barely contextualized incidents that suggest violent flashbacks or memories. And the subtlest touches are the most haunting, such as the casual emphasis that Seimetz places on Amy’s unpacked boxes, physicalizing a life in perpetual incompletion.

Seimetz and Sheil, who collaborated on the filmmaker’s feature-length debut, Sun Don’t Shine, and the first season of The Girlfriend Experience, are intensely intuitive artists, and Seimetz, an extraordinary actor in her own right, is almost preternaturally in tune with Sheil. The first act of She Dies Tomorrow is a cinematic mood ring in which Seimetz invites Sheil to explore the emotional spectrums of alienation. This stretch of the film is poignant and almost intangibly menacing, redolent of the final 30 minutes of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, which also bridged mental illness with surrealist fantasy and horror-film tropes.

Despite its undeserved reputation as an inscrutable riddle to be solved, Mulholland Drive ended on a note of devastating, cathartic clarity. In She Dies Tomorrow, however, Seimetz pointedly doesn’t give the audience closure, which is meant to communicate the endless work of mental health as well as the lingering aura of doom that seems to be a permanent part of modern life. These are laudable ambitions in theory, but as it expands on its high-concept premise, the film comes to feel more and more, well, theoretical, trapped as an idea in its author’s mind, rather than existing as a fully living and breathing work.

Amy is suffering from more than depression. She’s convinced that she’s going to die, which her friend, Jane (Jane Adams), attributes to Amy’s falling off the wagon. But this fatalistic sensation is revealed to be contagious, as Jane councils Amy and then returns to her own home to find that she also feels with utter conviction that her hours are numbered. Seimetz then springs a startling and resonant surprise: Jane, a totem of stability to Amy, visits the house of her brother, Jason (Chris Messina), and his wife, Susan (Katie Aselton), where she’s seen as an alternately annoying and pitiable kook. Rarely has a filmmaker captured so delicately how we play different roles in different people’s lives, our identities shifting with an ease that’s scary when one gives it a moment of thought. The ease of this self-erasure, or self-modification, suggests instability, for which the film’s communicable death fear is in part a metaphor.

Eventually, though, She Dies Tomorrow goes into a holding pattern. We’re trapped with a half dozen people as they writhe in fear, proclaiming endlessly the approaching expiration of their lives. Seimetz doesn’t offer conventional horror thrills, but she stints on existential ruminations too. After Brian (Tunde Adebimpe), a friend of Jason and Susan, is driven by a death fear to commit a startling act, his girlfriend, Tilly (Jennifer Kim), says to him that she’s been waiting for Brian’s ailing father to die so she could break up with him after a certain waiting period with a clear conscience. And because this confession is delivered in offhanded and robotic fashion, you may wonder why Tilly wants to leave Brian.

We learn nothing else about their relationship, and so this confession feels like a conceit—an acknowledgment of the hypocrisies and evasions of grief—without the detail and immediacy of drama. Such scenes, commandingly acted and possessed of unrealized potential, are a disappointment after the film’s visceral first act. Later on in She Dies Tomorrow, there’s a moment with Jane and several other women laying by a poolside that has incredible visual power—bridging zoning out in the sun with complacent disenchantment with death with the power of taking control of female identity—but it’s similarly left hanging.

Perhaps as a result of her attempting to avoid all matter of clichés, not just of genre, Seimetz revels in vagueness. The notion of a communicable fear of death leads the characters to talk, minimally, of seizing the day, which is a cliché in itself. Seimetz is principally concerned with mood, with stylized dread that’s created by lingering on everyday objects and the use of slow motion and frenzied color schemes. Jane is a struggling artist who takes pictures of protozoa-like things blown up by a microscope, and Seimetz lingers on these to suggest that an explanation for life’s mysteries, or at least those of She Dies Tomorrow, are nearly within sight.

The apocalyptic atmosphere that Seimetz conjures here, especially among the privileged characters, is reminiscent of Karyn Kasuma’s The Invitation. That film’s ending was also disappointingly ordinary, but Kasuma gave her protagonists more room to breathe, revealing in their desperation, bitterness, and suffocating superficiality. In She Dies Tomorrow, Seimetz only gets that close to Amy and Jane, before splintering her film into off into missed opportunities. And given the film’s ambitions, that sense of squandering may be intentional.

Cast: Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Chris Messina, Kentucker Audley, Jennifer Kim, Katie Aselton, Tunde Adebimpe, Josh Lucas, Michelle Rodriguez, Adam Wingard, Madison Calderon, Director: Amy Seimetz Screenwriter: Amy Seimetz Distributor: Neon Running Time: 84 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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