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Understanding Screenwriting #112: Before Midnight, Iron Man 3, Stories We Tell, Mad Men, & More

People who saw the film wondered if they met up again. So did the filmmakers.



Before Midnight
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Coming Up In This Column: Before Midnight, Iron Man 3, Fast & Furious 6, Stories We Tell, Some Late Spring and Early Summer 2013 Television, but first…

Fan Mail: A month or so ago a comment was posted to US#68. The original column ran on January 24, 2011 and included an item on Slave Ship. The comment was from Greg Lehman, whose grandmother, Gladys Lehman, was one of several screenwriters on the 1937 film. The story he got from her deals with Darryl Zanuck’s suggestion on the script. At first glance it makes Zanuck sound racist, but after studying him and his career for 45 years, my judgment is that he wasn’t, or at least he was less of one than most of his fellow studio heads. He may well be thought to be treading the fine line between being racist and accepting the potential audience’s racism. Also keep in mind he did not insist on not having blacks in the film; it was simply a suggestion that the writers did not follow. Read Lehman’s comment and make up your own mind.

Of the two comments on US#111, the most interesting one was from “A Very Bemused Commenter,” who thought that the example I gave of 42 dealing with racism in a subtle way wasn’t all that subtle. Reading the item over I can see why he thought that, since it sounds rather blatant the way I wrote it. In the context of the more horrendous scenes in the film, however, it plays as more subtle than I made it seem.

And David Ehrenstein and I are agreeing yet again, this time on what a wonderful actor Fabrice Luchini is. Well, David and I can’t disagree all the time.

Before Midnight (2013; written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke; based on characters created by Linklater and Kim Krizan; 109 minutes.)

Checking in with Jesse and Celine. It all started 18 years ago. Jesse, a young American, persuaded Celine, a young Frenchwoman, to get off the train in Vienna and spend the night with him seeing the city. They walked and talked. Boy, did they walk and talk. And fell in love. And the next morning agreed to meet each other back in Vienna in six months. They were young, in love, and stupid enough not to get each other’s addresses or phone numbers. Ah, well, it would make a good memory for each of them, and a nice minor film called Before Sunrise.

People who saw the film wondered if they met up again. So did the filmmakers, and because a follow-up story could be done on such a low budget, Before Sunset came into being in 2005. The original was written by Richard Linklater with Kim Krizan, but on the sequel it was Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy who worked with Linklater on the script. The actors not only knew their characters, but were collaborative enough to come up with details not just for their own character but for the other as well. Before Sunset takes place nine years later. Jesse has written a book about that night, and he’s at a book signing in Paris. Guess who shows up? If you’ve read what I wrote about the film in the book Understanding Screenwriting, you know that I like it better than Before Sunrise. It’s a tighter script, and the characters are older and less shallow. They’ve lived a little more. In one of the great endings in movies, it looks as though Jesse and Celine will stay together.

In Before Midnight, it’s now the requisite nine years later. We’re watching Jesse say goodbye to his son Henry from his first marriage at an airport in Greece. After the summer together, Henry is going back to his mother in Chicago, and it’s only after he goes through the gate that we get a great close-up of Jesse that shows us how deeply he feels about letting Henry go. That’s the writers knowing what the actor can give to a scene.

In one of the slickest bits of exposition since the opening of Rear Window, Jesse leaves the terminal and gets into a car. Celine is in the passenger seat, and in the back seat are adorable twin girls. No, Celine and Jesse aren’t married, but they’re together. And talking as always. We get some fill-in on what’s happened in the last nine years, and learn Celine is thinking about taking a job she sort of wants. When Jesse suggests they move back to Chicago so he can see Henry more often, the fat is in the fire. Celine is upset that Jesse doesn’t seem to want her to take this job she now says she really, really wants. Jesse is baffled at her reaction. In addition to that discussion, we also get an incredible amount of texture about these characters and this relationship just in this scene, done in two long takes. Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy know these characters inside and out, vertically and horizontally, and every other way you can name. This and other scenes show the quicksilver shifts in tone and attitude between Jesse and Celine that can only come as a result of the collaborators’ experience with these characters. In the arguments here and those that follow, Jesse and Celine are both right in what they say. This isn’t a good-guy/bad-guy situation. I’ll comment below about how Iron Man 3 gives the actors a little more to do than they did in the original film, but that’s nothing compared to this.

Jesse and Celine have dinner with an older author and his friends and family, young and old, and this is the first extended multi-character scene in the series. They all have their views on love and marriage, and the scene brings out the thematic substance of the series in a fresh way. Then for the rest of the film we’re back with just Jesse and Celine, first as they take a long walk down from the house they’re staying at to the village, the next a harrowing scene in a hotel room where their hosts have arranged for them a romantic evening that doesn’t turn out as planned. Though this scene has earned comparisons to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Scenes From a Marriage, it’s not as theatrical as anything in those earlier works, which makes it even more unnerving because it feels more lifelike. Finally there’s a coda on a patio that suggests that the couple will probably stay together, although it may be a close-run thing.

Before Midnight isn’t as focused as Before Sunset, but it manages to get deeper into their relationship. That’s because they have now been together as a couple for nine years, with all the joys and the agonies (and we get both in here) that brings. In Before Sunset, the discussion inside the car dealt with Celine’s professional disappointments and the failure of Jesse’s first marriage—two separate issues. Here the issues all relate to the relationship and give us a greater depth than we’ve seen in the series. I will be waiting patiently for the next nine years.

Iron Man (2013; written by Drew Pearce and Shane Black; based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber, and Jack Curry and the Extremis miniseries written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Adi Granov; 130 minutes.)

Iron Man 3

Lots of cooks, one chef, good broth. I saw the first Iron Man in 2008 and wasn’t impressed. The idea of an iron suit that was that flexible just struck me as stupid. So I passed on Iron Man 2 in 2010, especially when the reviews weren’t that good. In early May, my 11-year-old grandson suggested we have a movie playdate to see Iron Man 3. He had liked the first two, especially the second one. He gave me a capsule summary of Iron Man 2 that was more entertaining than most movies I’ve seen lately, so I got the movie from Netflix. I enjoyed it a bit more than the first one, but it didn’t live up my grandson’s version. There was at least more effort at characterization, which gave the high-powered cast a little more to do. So then we went off to see Iron Man 3 (along with his sister, my daughter and son-in-law).

What first struck me was the plot’s similarity to Iron Man 2, where Tony Stark dealt with two villains, one the weird Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke at his grungiest), the other an industrial competitor of Stark’s, Justin Hammer, who’s in cahoots with Vanko. In Iron Man 3, we also have two villains, one the Mandarin, a weird cross between Fu Manchu and Osama Bin Ladin played by Ben Kingsley with an accent that’s half John Huston and half Richard Nixon, the other an industrial competitor of Stark’s, Aldrich Killian. They’re also in cahoots, but not in the way it seems. That leads to a great scene—way earlier than you think it should come in the film—in which Stark meets the Mandarin. If the first two films didn’t give the actors a lot to do, this scene makes up for it.

You’ll notice that the story material comes from a lot of sources, which could be a bad sign, but the key writer is Shane Black. He was The Hot Screenwriter of the Late Eighties and Early Nineties, having penned the Lethal Weapon series and The Long Kiss Goodnight. Then he went into an apparent decline, coming back, at least artistically, with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005, a wonderful off-the-wall thriller. It starred Robert Downey Jr., and it was clear that Black and Downey were on the same wave length. In the first two Iron Man films, a lot of the humor comes from Downey’s improvisations, which seem stuck in at random. What Black has done is bring that sensibility to everything in Iron Man 3, and the humor is as integral to it as it wasn’t in the first two. I’m also surprised that Marvel let them get away with some of what they do. For example, given my reservations about the Iron Man suit, I was delighted to see how, from the beginning of this film the assorted suits Stark has built sometimes don’t work. That is both funny and suspenseful.

As for my grandson, he’s getting more critical as he matures. He was bothered by the flaming creatures that seem to die and immediately come back to life, which didn’t bother me.

Fast & Furious 6 (2013; written by Chris Morgan; based on characters created by Gary Scott Thompson; 130 minutes.)

Fast & Furious 6

Letty’s back and Dom’s got her. As big a Dorothy Malone fan as I was in 1955, I don’t recall seeing that year’s The Fast and the Furious, which was about an unjustly accused man escaping the cops by getting involved in a sports car race. I wasn’t impressed with 2001’s Fast and the Furious, since it seemed like a more expensive version of the hot-rod movies of the 1950s. The cast was multiracial, a good thing, but the only really interesting actor was Michelle Rodriguez giving great sullen as only Rodriquez can as Letty, the sort-of girlfriend to the film’s sort-of hero, Dom.

I passed on the next several films, including the fourth, in which Letty gets killed. If you’re going to kill off the most interesting actor in a series, the hell with you. However, the fifth one received good reviews and I eventually picked it up on cable and enjoyed it thoroughly. The series had gotten away from just having a lot of street racing and the fifth film actually had a plot-like substance. Dom and the gang were chased by federal agent Luke Hobbs while bringing down a South American drug lord. Luke was played by Dwayne Johnson, who has even more muscles than Vin Deisel’s Dom and more of a sense of humor. Like Iron Man 3, they aren’t so solemn about the franchise, and that continues into Fast & Furious 6. The writer, Chris Morgan, has been part of the team since the third film and understands the characters, who’ve also gotten a little deeper. Not a lot, but a little.

At the end of Fast Five, another federal agent discovers some photographic evidence that Letty isn’t dead. Not having seen Fast & Furious, I have no idea how explicit her death scene was, but Morgan has to do a lot of tap-dancing in Fast & Furious 6 to bring her back. She’s now working for the arch-villain Shaw, whom Hobbs wants to bring down. Hobbs gets Dom and his gang to work with him by showing Dom a recent photo of Letty. Car chases ensue. We eventually find out that Letty had amnesia as a result of the accident that supposedly killed her. Shaw found her and trained her to work for him. So even when our guys find her, she has no idea who they are. At one point, Letty is chased down by Hobbs’s assistant, Riley, and the two of them get into a brutal fight. Well, Riley, a newcomer to the series, is played by martial-arts master Gina Carano, so what would you expect? The seminar on whether this is a blow for feminism in movies will meet next Tuesday at Gloria Steinem’s house.

When Letty and Dom get together, Morgan is smart. He doesn’t have her memory come back instantaneously. Nor even over time. At the end of the film, Dom and the crew have gotten the pardons Hobbs promised them and are back at their old house in Los Angeles. Letty doesn’t remember it, but says it “feels like home.” And if you don’t care about sentimental crap like character and home, rest assured Morgan has written some great action scenes, including a big finish that director Justin Lin has been trying to figure out how to do for the last couple of films. It involves cars, naturally, a big cargo plane, and what has to be the world’s longest runway. One of the crew is supposedly killed in the action, but she may be another Letty.

Stories We Tell (2012; written by Sarah Polley; 108 minutes.)

Stories We Tell

Stories, you want stories? We got your stories right here. In the mid-aughts, Sarah Polley researched a family rumor that her family jokingly spread for years: that she looked nothing like her father, Michael, and that she was possibly the result of an affair her mother, Diane, might have had when she was off in Toronto doing a play nine months before Sarah was born. Diane had died by this point, so Sarah began asking her family and her family’s friends about the validity of the rumor. She tracked down the actor everybody assumed was her biological father, only he wasn’t, but she found the man who was. Most people would just keep quiet about something like that, but Polley is a filmmaker from a theatrical family.

So how do you deal with that on film? She could have written it in a fictionalized form, but she decided on doing it as a documentary. Here are the ways she tells the stories. When she found out about her biological father, she told Michael. Michael, whom Diane had encouraged to write but never had, eventually wrote about the events. But he wrote about them in the third person. In the film, Polley has him reading his text in a recording studio, and that becomes the narration of the film. Polley also interviews family and friends. But this is now six or seven years after her search ended. So what she had the interviewees talk about is how they felt about learning of Sarah’s situation, which means we get their stories about the past, not so much about how they feel about what’s going on now. Some of them aren’t so happy with what Sarah is doing with the film, her biological father most of all, who has an interesting take on whose story this really is. Sarah’s family took a lot of Super 8mm home movies of themselves, and we see the real Diane and can easily understand why everyone loved her. But in some of the Super 8 stuff, it’s not really Diane, but an actress playing her. Sarah has filmed some recreations, but in the style of home movies, not that artificial, arty style you see on the History Channel and elsewhere. We’re aware of it being a recreation, but that makes it a way of telling the story as well. What Sarah has figured out is that there are a lot of ways to tell a story, or stories, something any screenwriter needs to keep in mind. And since this is one of those self-reflexive documentaries that makes us constantly aware that we’re watching a movie being made, i.e. stories being told, the various styles reinforce the content of Stories We Tell. And stay tuned for the final punch line. Sarah puts it there because if she included it earlier, we might make an erroneous assumption about what it means. Its placement just makes it a great finish. At least I think that’s what it means.

Mad Men

Some late spring and early summer 2013 television. I’m not sure this season has been as bad as last spring’s was (see US#94), but it wasn’t particularly good.

Mad Men’s season hasn’t been especially impressive. The merger of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce with Ted’s company hasn’t given the writers that much to work with. The disagreements between Don and Ted aren’t very compelling. Peggy’s comments about them both are true without being interesting. “The Flood,” written by Tom Smuts and Matthew Weiner, is set the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, but doesn’t handle it was well as 2009’s “The Grown Ups,” written by Brett Johnson and Weiner, dealt with the John F. Kennedy assassination. Don’s affair with Sylvia has its moments, but then sort of dithers away. The best episode this season was “The Better Half,” written by Erin Levy and Weiner. Betty, back at her fighting weight, runs into Don at the summer camp their son attends. They have a nice chat on the porch of their motel…and then they get it on. Betty is turning into Don. The next morning, Don comes into the diner and finds Betty and Henry calmly having breakfast together. No yelling, no screaming, no accusations. Yes, she’s becoming Don.

The season finale, “In Care Of,” written by Cary Wray and Weiner, brought some of this together, but not as well as it could have. The episode, and perhaps the series, reaches a climactic turn with Don blowing a pitch to Hershey’s. He starts by telling a wonderful sentimental story about his father giving him the money to buy a Hershey’s bar, then he cracks and tells the truth of where he got the cash. Don Draper telling the truth! Who’d a thunk it? He later takes his children to the house he grew up in, which is now a ramshackle mess. So the next season may be about the problems of having an ad man tell the truth. Or it may not. We’ll see what Weiner and his crew come up with.

Necessary Roughness and Burn Notice are both back. In Necessary Roughness, Dr. Dani has been let go from the Hawks, which is just as well, since it was limiting the kinds of cases the writers could have her deal with. Nico has returned after not calling her for months and helps her get a job with V3, a mega management firm that deals not only with athletes, but show-business types as well. That will give the writers a lot more options. It does mean that her occasional boyfriend, Matt, is leaving the show to make room for the new characters, and it looked as though TK was leaving as well, but thank God the writers got him signed with V3. He’s much too interesting a character to let go. Starting its seventh season, Burn Notice has gotten far away from its original premise of Michael being a burned spy. He’s now back working for the C.I.A., but still able to bring in non-Company friends like Sam and Jesse if needed, something his C.I.A. control officers don’t feel good about. In the early episodes, this has seemed awkward.

Behind the Candelabra, which was adapted by Richard LeGravenese form the book by Scott Thorson and Alex Thorleifson, aired on HBO because no studio wanted to distribute it theatrically. It’s about Thorson’s relationship with Liberace, and like many films based on memoires, it has a rather limited view of events. Scott and Lee meet, have a long-term affair, and talk about it a lot. The level of conversation is nowhere near the quality of that of Before Midnight, and the film gets very repetitious. Nicely produced, but Lee’s costumes get just as repetitious as the dialogue.

King and Maxwell is a series about two former Secret Service agents who team up as P.I.s. It’s set in Washington D.C., so we’ve already begun to have some characters from their past show up. There’s also a bit of a Rockford Files vibe in that the officials they deal with aren’t smart in funny ways, which makes them very dangerous.

Graceland is a new USA show, which means lots of gorgeous people in bright sunlight solving crimes. The sun in this case shines over Venice, California, but I suspect the stock shots of bikini babes are the same ones used in CSI: Miami and Burn Notice. Graceland is a house where a variety of federal agents (F.B.I., DEA, Customs) live together. The first two episodes had some interesting plotting, even if they don’t pull all the people living in the house together as well as they could have. The third episode, “Heat Run,” written by Stephen Godchaux, does a little bit better at spreading the wealth around.

The Fosters is on the ABC Family Channel, which I don’t normally watch, but I caught the second episode of this. I had intended to see the pilot, but missed it. The second episode didn’t make me hunt down the first one. The setup is that a biracial lesbian couple (she’s white, she’s black) have one child of their own (sort of, he’s the result of the white woman’s first marriage) and then a pile of foster children. The second episode dealt mostly with the kids, who are all played by generically good looking Hollywood teenage types who haven’t yet learned how to act, and very little with the two women. I suspect this is a deliberate choice to make the women seem like just another couple, which on the one hand I admire, but on the other it means the writers aren’t using their premise very well, since we get very little sense of what it’s like for this couple to deal with marriage and children. And needless to say, the show attracted criticism from the right even before it aired. You can read the details of that here.

Rectify was a highly acclaimed miniseries this spring. I DVR’d it, but I’ve yet to watch it, so I will deal with it at a later date.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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Review: Kill It and Leave This Town Vividly Marries the Mundane and the Dreamlike

Mariusz Wilczyński’s animation style strikes an unlikely balance between the childlike and the proficient.




Kill It and Leave This Town
Photo: Outsider Pictures

Composed of sketches in motion, against backdrops of lined paper with the wrinkles, smudges, and tape left visible, Polish artist and performer Mariusz Wilczyński’s Kill It and Leave This Town militates against the extinction of traditional animation techniques. Not for a moment is the viewer allowed to forget that these are drawings, sequenced to create the illusion of movement. If the magic of animation is resurrected in Wilczyński’s hands, it’s a dark magic, as familiar with the grotesque as it is the lyrical.

Kill It and Leave This Town explores the industrial city in Poland where Wilczyński grew up. Among factories humming with machinery, along dreary streets lined with beer cans where the only splashes of color are the red stripe of the Polish flag or the ribbon in an old lady’s hair, Wilczyński’s mother and father stumble through their lives. Wilczyński himself makes cameos from time to time, drawn as a naked giant, at once infantile and overgrown. In one scene, the father attempts to show the family a fairy tale titled “How Fiki Miki Mouse Sailed Across the Seas and Oceans from America” on a slide projector, raving and cursing when the device gets stuck between slides. In another, the mother babbles on her deathbed to a son too busy drawing to pay her any attention. The film borrows its form from poetry as opposed to traditional narrative cinema, resulting in a loose assemblage of vignettes that loop back on one another, recreating the associative activity of memory and imagination.

The film’s animation style strikes an unlikely balance between the childlike and the proficient. Dense spirals pouring out of smokestacks, a recurring motif, resemble smoke only insofar as they cite the scribbles that stand in for it in children’s drawings, whereas the sequence of a mortician’s hands sewing up the body of Wilczyński’s mother exhibits the cold precision of a draftsman. One scene on a trolley is rendered entirely by hand except for the windows, replaced with live-action film of rain droplets streaming down glass. Such atmospheric composites recall Don Hertzfelt’s Everything Will Be Okay, as well as Soyuzmultfilm classics like Yuri Norstein’s Hedgehog in the Fog. Tadeusz Nalepa’s score, with all the charm of someone improvising songs on a guitar, echoes the animation’s off-the-cuff quality.

Wilczyński exploits his medium to bind the mundane with the dreamlike, continuing a long tradition of Eastern European surrealism. In a scene at a fishmonger, the fish floating in a barrel of water become people ready to be gutted and beheaded. Later, Wilczyński’s mother stumbles off the trolley into an ominous figure, sheathed in a trench coat, hat, and gloves, who gives her change for the fare. When she asks, “Who the devil are you,” his head swivels around to reveal a talking cat, like Behemoth from Buglakov’s Master and Margarita, who claims to be “part of that power which wills forever evil, yet does forever good.”

Only in hand-drawn animation can such fairy-tale grotesqueries convince, in part because it never aims for photorealism; Wilczyński leaves in the free-hand scribbles and the stutter between frames for our imagination to iron out. Even in a city only accessible to memory, a world of the past constrained by poverty and despair, anything is possible for Wilczyński, as it must have seemed in childhood—and yet no possibility scrubs clean of the stain of death.

Cast: Krystyna Janda, Andrzej Chyra, Maja Ostaszewska, Małgorzata Kożuchowska Director: Mariusz Wilczyński Screenwriter: Mariusz Wilczyński Distributor: Outsider Pictures Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: 76 Days Is a Harrowing Document of the Covid Outbreak in Wuhan

The documentary may be the defining portrait of the dawning of the Covid-19 pandemic.




76 Days
MTV Documentary Films

Like Ai Weiwei’s Coronation, Hao Wu and Wiexi Chen’s 76 Days—co-directed by another journalist who chose to remain anonymous—documents the early days of the Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China. While Ai’s film manages to slip a number of pointed critiques of China’s authoritarian tactics passed the country’s typically hawk-eyed censors, 76 Days, which takes its title from the length of Wuhan’s lockdown early in 2020, presents China in a more universally flattering light. What the film lacks in political commentary, however, it makes up for with its tight focus on the daily grind of the medical staff and countless volunteers tirelessly working at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital.

Much of the film follows doctors and nurses, clad in protective gear, as they make their rounds, reassuring patients that everything will be fine, even as they’re only just beginning to understand the virus and how to treat it. The toll this regiment of 12-plus-hour days takes on the staff is palpable in virtually every frame, with insert shots of the medical team asleep on benches or slumped over in chairs speaking to the sheer exhaustion of being a cog in a medical machine, quickly churning through patients with no light at the end of the tunnel. One nurse, while being comforted as her dying father is taken away to quarantine, is ultimately told that she needs to remain composed so she can ready herself to return to work the next day.

Although the staff’s sacrifice and composure under fire is amply documented, 76 Days never stoops to sentimentality, eschewing fawning talking-head interviews and a musical score. Throughout, we’re left brimming in the immediacy of the chaos at hand; only the glimpses we catch of patients who’ve spent weeks, sometimes months, in the hospital provide a concrete sense of time’s passage since the start of the lockdown. Most memorable of these patients is an elderly man who repeatedly leaves his room to wander around the hospital and is continually corralled by different nurses back to his room. His exploits lend the film a bit of levity even as his backstory, once revealed, makes his foibles all the more heartbreaking.

The nightmare of caring for thousands of patients during a pandemic also extends to the intake and discharge processes. This makes for a few touching and cathartic scenes once certain patients finally receive the approval to return home, such as when the aforementioned older gentleman receives applause and well wishes from many of the nursing staff as he exits the hospital. But the film’s most poignant moment comes when an endlessly patient young couple finally meets their newborn child for the first time several weeks after her birth.

These brief glimpses of joy are counterbalanced not only by the gravity of the pandemic as it’s being fought on the frontlines, but also by the cumbersome and often tragic logistical tasks that the hospital staff must perform, such as dealing with the belongings of the dead. Among said belongings is the still-functioning cellphone of one deceased patient that displays 31 missed messages, a mere hint of the suffering that even many of the healthy residents of Wuhan endured in those early days of the outbreak. 76 Days is full of small yet revelatory moments like this, and in keeping its gaze so firmly planted on both the medical staff and patients as they’re forced to navigate the uncharted territory of a deadly new virus, the film may be the defining portrait of the dawning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Director: Hao Wu, Wiexi Chen, Anonymous Distributor: MTV Documentary Films Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Soul More Sublimely Mediates on the Pull of Music Than It Does the Afterlife

In a troubling reversal from Pixar films past, it’s kids who will have to do the most heavy lifting to keep up here.




Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), the main character of Pixar’s Soul, is a jazz pianist living in Harlem who’s desperate for music gigs alongside his part-time job directing the disengaged middle schoolers in his band class. When the school principal offers him full-time hours with benefits, it feels more like a final surrender than a lifeline. The threat of lifelong mediocrity has tightened its grasp around every corner of Joe’s life. In a brilliant stroke, even the classic “When You Wish Upon a Star” tune that plays over the logo before most Disney movies is heard here as if played by Joe’s out-of-tune student ensemble.

Soul, directed by Pete Docter and co-directed by Kemp Powers, quickly reveals that Joe is anything but mediocre. Hearing melody in the wail of sirens and rhythm in the cacophony of a jackhammer, he has music in his, well, soul. When Joe catches his big break auditioning to play with a pro quartet, headlined by imperious jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), the film follows him into “the zone.” Not since Fantasia has a Disney film treated music with such reverence, as the seed of all the visual flowering that follows. As pinks and purples swirl around Joe and as his fingers coax unexpected harmonies from the keyboard (Jon Batiste provides the impassioned playing), Soul gives itself over fully to his music.

For these gloriously substantial few minutes, it’s jazz set to animation rather than the other way around. As such, it’s hard not to want Soul to be all about music, not just as metaphor but as the very real engine that drives the film’s characters forward. Music’s extraordinary impact is palpable when Joe’s face lights up as one of his students, Connie (Cora Champommier), leans into a trombone solo, and as Joe’s fingers escape his anxiety in their own improvisatory pursuit. Walk away 15 minutes into the film, at the end of what would make, on its own, a snazzy, sublime short, and you’ll have seen Pixar’s greatest, purest tribute to the arts.

But Joe’s joy, and soon the film’s, is cut short when he plummets down an open manhole, and finds himself—or, rather, his soul, depicted here as a blue-green turnip-shaped substance with glasses and a fedora—on the pathway to the Great Beyond. Refusing to face death, Joe hurtles into the void toward the Great Before, where not-yet-born souls obtain their personalities in a Youth Seminar. Mistaken for a celebrated psychologist, Joe’s soul is assigned a mentee, a cranky pre-human called 22 (Tina Fey) who refuses to cooperate: She’s unwilling, and, so far, unable to find the “spark” that will allow her to be born into a human body. Previous famous mentors have tried and failed (the soul of Carl Jung amusingly tells the difficult 22, “Stop talking—my unconscious mind hates you”), but Joe sees 22 as his ticket back to Earth.

It’s somewhere around here that Soul, co-written by Docter, Powers, and Mike Jones, starts to veer down its own wrong path, abandoning its accessible storytelling, along with that vitalizing jazz soundtrack, for a confusing maze of pseudo-spiritual planes of existence. Besides the Great Beyond and the Great Before, souls can also be in the Zone, where tuned-in artists like Joe sometimes find themselves while still alive, or in a desert of Lost Souls, which belong to people who’ve forgotten how to live (hedge fund managers, in particular, we’re told).

In this ever-evolving terrain occupied by 2D and 3D life forms, the film’s visual adventurousness takes off as contrasting animation styles collide. At the Youth Seminar, flat, geometric figures with transparent features direct the bulbous souls to where they can pick up personality traits (at the Excitable Pavilion, for example). Meanwhile, a New Age-inflected Mystics Without Borders subplot, with Graham Norton voicing the tripped-out Moonwind, adds a daringly vibrant psychedelic color palette to the gentle blues and greens of the Great Before. But as the categories of souls keep expanding, the rules for these overlapping worlds grow foggy, and by the time that Fey’s voice is coming out of Joe’s body in a switcheroo that’s never quite explained, it’s hard not to feel as if the film has lost track of its internal logic.

At the core of the Pixar model is an exploration of friendship within the familiar parameters of the buddy comedy—Joy and Sadness in Inside Out, Sully and Mike in Monsters, Inc., Marlin and Dory in Finding Nemo, all the way back to Toy Story’s Buzz and Woody—and Soul tries hard to plug into the transformative power of friendship in pairing Joe with 22. Despite Fey’s droll delivery, 22, who says she chooses to speak with the voice of a middle-aged white lady in order to be “annoying,” isn’t convincing enough as a fully formed character for their relationship, or Joe’s investment in 22’s decision to be born, to ever matter.

The contours of these worlds seem just hazy enough to land on the safe side of blasphemy; sometimes it seems like the film’s imprecision is a deliberate attempt to draw piecemeal from various belief systems and sidestep offending religious audiences by addressing the presence or absence of higher powers at all. But the viewers that seem most painfully left behind are the ones to which Soul should rightly matter the most: kids. Soul swirls with self-help lingo about finding your spark and seeking your purpose, but that’s almost entirely in the context of Joe’s midlife crisis, a sliver of the human experience with which children seem unlikely to resonate. In a troubling reversal from Pixar films past, which magnanimously welcomed grownups along for a sophisticated ride, it’s kids who will have to do the most heavy lifting to keep up here.

Coco’s take on the Land of the Dead and Inside Out’s representation of depression exemplify explorations of “grownup” topics with a probing awareness of the ways they also touch kids’ lives. For a while, it seems that Soul, in its treatment of the Great Before, will have a similar capacity for digging into big, unanswerable questions with care and clarity. But while most Pixar films pride themselves on presenting rich, fantastical responses to real-world wonderings, Soul keeps conjuring up visions that don’t correspond precisely enough to anything in the real world. It’s not clear whether the film ultimately offers a call to arms to pursue a passion or a warning that creative passion alone doesn’t provide for a fulfilling life.

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, Angela Bassett, Cora Champommier, Margo Hall, Daveed Diggs, Rhodessa Jones, Wes Studi Director: Pete Docter Screenwriter: Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Review: Black Bear Is an Unnerving Look at the Baggage that Fuels Creation

Shot through with darkly existentialist humor, the film finds Aubrey Plaza throwing a gauntlet to filmmakers who have typecast her in the past.




Black Bear
Photo: Momentum Pictures

Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear belongs to a long tradition of sexual psychodrama, in which a handful of frustrated and privileged characters hole up in a remote place and exorcize their resentments. This tradition is so venerable that it was parodied by Christopher Guest over 30 years ago in The Big Picture, and there’s also a dark strand of existentialist humor running through this similarly self-conscious film.

Levine casts doubt on his narrative’s sense of reality in the opening sequence, wherein a young woman (Aubrey Plaza) is sitting on a pier in a swimsuit looking out at a vast foggy lake. After a moment, she rises and proceeds into a luxurious home, ascends a flight of stairs, and sits at a desk and smokes a cigarette. Soon, she begins to write in a notebook and the narrative segues into what’s presumably a dramatization of the story she fashions. This scene will be repeated several times in Black Bear, suggesting both a leitmotif and a temporal loop.

We then see this woman, Allison, being dropped off on a road a bit away from the home. Meeting Allison at the drop-off point is Gabe (Christopher Abbott), who immediately sets about flirting with her. It’s the sort of flirtation indulged by aspiring artists and self-conscious intellectuals-in-training, rife with deflections, fake-outs, and challenges to the nature of reality that complement the suggestion that the entire situation is possibly a projection of some kind. Allison and Gabe arrive at the residence to meet Blair (Sarah Gadon), who’s pregnant with Gabe’s child, which wasn’t mentioned when Gabe was probing Allison about her career as a filmmaker and, especially, her relationship status. The trio have a long and boozy dinner and air a variety of grievances, leading to a shocking accident.

Allison, initially suggesting a prototypical Plaza character, seemingly prizes hip detachment above all else, in the process enraging the judgmental Blair, who was hoping for help in persecuting Gabe for various slights. This characterization of Allison is a purposeful trap door—a sop to expectation that Levine detonates. In Black Bear’s first half, Allison is cast as a male fantasy—a sexy, seemingly willing and wandering artist who’s uninterested in Blair’s sermonizing about gender roles. In effect, Allison gratifies the submerged feelings of men and even women who may feel that women wish to be subjugated—feelings that are perversely validated in the moment by Blair’s caustic hectoring, which is realistic of the patter of the blowhard at parties who wishes to bore everyone into submission with rigid political views. The film’s early scenes are so stacked against Blair that one may forgive Gabe’s own simplistic speechifying, though such forgiveness may prompt us to examine our own biases.

Remarkably, the film’s emotional intensity is inseparable from its parlor game-like self-consciousness, especially when Allison’s “cool girl” demeanor is unexpectedly demolished. At its halfway mark, Black Bear effectively reboots itself, switching the core identities of the women, with only Gabe tellingly gaining more power in the process. Suddenly, Allison becomes the vulnerable and rejected party, and Plaza imbues her transformed character with a raw and frenzied anguish. Plaza throws a gauntlet to filmmakers who have typecast her in the past, while Levine plumbs the various forms of subjugation that fuel the creative process.

In Black Bear’s second half, the remote house is now a set for an independent film with a plot that roughly re-stages the earlier clashes between Allison, Blair, and Gabe, who are now reimagined as two actresses and the director, respectively. The film thusly expands beyond the confines of a chamber play to include a micro community, with sustained, confidently intricate set pieces—reminiscent of the game-show scenes in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia—that explore the exhilaration and terror of corralling dozens of working parts and personalities to create something palatable for audiences. Both films understand such corralling to thrive in part on exploitation, and in the case of Black Bear, the film-within-a-story-within-the-film is constructed around Gabe’s gaslighting of Allison, which Levine stages with a sense of unnerving intimacy that might playfully echo his own experience working with his spouse, filmmaker and actress Sophie Takal, who’s among Black Bear’s co-producers.

Levine is hunting big game in Black Bear, as the film reflects to varying degrees the influence of dozens of self-reflective film classics, mostly notably Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. If Black Bear feels too neat, a little too resolved as a game, it may be because the framing device gives us a convenient exit, though even the conclusion isn’t without ambiguities. Given that both stories are sex triangles fueled by exploitation, you may be driven to wonder if Plaza’s writer is attempting to find a way to channel real trauma. Or, perhaps more disturbingly, she’s conjuring it out of thin air, accessing unvarnished pain out of sheer talent and for the hell of it. This coda restores the smug Plaza stereotype to an extent, while alluding to the vast emotional undertow it suppresses.

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon, Lindsay Burdge, Alexander Koch, Paola Lázaro, Jennifer Kim, Shannon O’Neill, Grantham Coleman, Haitao Zeng, Lou Gonzalez Director: Lawrence Michael Levine Screenwriter: Lawrence Michael Levine Distributor: Momentum Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Survival Skills Surreally Straddles the Line Between Parody and Pathos

Survival Skills feels like something you’d stumble upon on Adult Swim circa 2014.




Survival Skills
Photo: Cranked Up Films

Purporting to be an actual VHS-shot police training video unearthed from the last gasp of the Reagan era, Survival Skills feels like something you’d stumble upon on Adult Swim circa 2014, sandwiched between Too Many Cooks and reruns of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Yet writer-director Quinn Armstrong’s debut feature resists indulging the easy trappings of our current cultural obsession with ‘80s-era aesthetics as it digs into some rather contentious and particularly timely subject matter.

Survival Skills opens on a training guide introducing his lesson on a stagy classroom set. Credited as the Narrator, he’s played by Stacy Keach, a recognizable enough personality to immediately break any illusion of found-footage “authenticity.” But seeing as Armstrong will continue to break the fourth wall and experiment with meta-fictional ideas throughout, Keach, with his never-failing gravitas, becomes the perfect chaperone for this cracked video project.

The Narrator’s first order of business is creating the ideal police trainee, filtering the expected qualities needed for the job through an ancient computer system to end up with Jim Williams (Vayu O’Donnell), an all-American goody-two-shoes who we’ll follow through his first year on the force in quaint Middletown, U.S.A. Speaking in insufferably chipper soundbites, Jim acts and sounds exactly like someone who you’d see in the kind of stilted training video that Survival Skills spoofs throughout. But as we enter Jim’s video world, the joke becomes that he’s almost the only one here who behaves this way, while his hardened partner—curiously named Allison Lohmann (Erika Kreutz), in what must be some kind of inside joke—and the people they encounter are all perplexed by his alien manner. No matter, though, as Jim continues to take his cues from the Narrator’s booming voice, which seems to be heard solely by him.

The line between the staged world and the real one blurs even further when Jim and Allison are tasked with responding to a domestic violence call involving a married couple, the Jennings. After the cops diffuse the situation, Mr. Jennings (Bradford Farwell) assures them that everything is okay while Mrs. Jennings (Emily Chisholm) sheepishly nods along, but Jim can’t shake the feeling that something is off. Defying orders from his superiors (and the natural progression of the training video), Jim begins a quixotic attempt to rescue Mrs. Jennings and her daughter (Madeline Anderson) from a situation that no one but him seems to particularly care about, while the Narrator desperately tries to steer him back on track.

Unlike many a throwback that adopts a retro look and doesn’t offer much beyond hollow non sequiturs (Jack Henry Robbins’s VHYes instantly comes to mind), the film avoids cheapening its domestic-abuse storyline by using its formal conceit to also highlight another absurdity that Jim must confront: the impossibility of positive, meaningful police work within a broken legal (and social) system. The only lesson Jim can ultimately take away from his training is how to not get too involved, while his well-meaning suggestions to Mrs. Jennings that she flee her husband and file charges provoke immediate scorn from the same person he’s trying to help, since she’s already well aware how stacked the system is against her.

While mostly pulling off this tricky balancing act of humor and real-life horror, Survival Skills doesn’t quite go far enough in its critiques, especially in a climate where police-community relations are more frayed than ever. The whimsical mechanics of Armstrong’s world occasionally take precedence over the thematic issues at play, making it strange at times that Jim, who for all intents and purposes is a glorified android (Allison tellingly nicknames him “Robocop”), becomes so obsessed with this one case when he can barely read the room in any other setting. This dichotomy is even more pronounced in scenes with Jim’s hyperbolically domesticated wife, Jenny (Tyra Colar), who, while being the only other person in the film to behave in the same pre-programmed way, is clearly undergoing a stifled breakdown of her own. In these moments, Armstrong hints at but doesn’t fully comment on the correlation between the pressures of police work and domestic violence in police families.

The final act of Survival Skills, however, still intrigues, with Jim’s impossible quandary causing his idyllic existence to come unglued at the seams. Armstrong forcefully dives headfirst into the deep end of the meta pool, staging an aptly surreal revenge climax before Keach’s narrator concludes with a blunt lesson in the futility of policing. It’s a sentiment that ultimately resonates beyond the film’s stylistic posturing.

Cast: Stacy Keach, Vayu O’Donnell, Spencer Garrett, Ericka Kreutz, Tyra Colar, Emily Chisholm, Bradford Farwell Director: Quinn Armstrong Screenwriter: Quinn Armstrong Distributor: Cranked Up Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: I’m Your Woman Is an Unresolved Grab at Feminist Revisionism

Julia Hart drains the crime film genre of its macho bluster without replacing it with anything.




I’m Your Woman
Photo: Amazon Studios

Julia Hart’s I’m Your Woman is, in practice, a feminist response to the decidedly male-centric crime genre. Rather than follow a hoodlum named Eddie (Bill Heck) as he eludes his gangster cohorts, the film tracks Eddie’s wife, Jean (Rachel Brosnahan), and their baby, Harry, as the latter are inducted into an underworld witness protection program. Such a premise has immense potential, especially given that Jean knows little about Eddie’s profession and that anyone could be an enemy looking to get back at him through her and Harry. A head of paranoid steam, resonant of Jean’s indentured status as a “kept” woman, could have been built up by the film, but Hart and co-screenwriter Jordan Horowitz are barely invested in engendering suspense. Instead, I’m Your Woman is content to have us cheer Jean as she comes into her own apart from Eddie’s lies and manipulations—except that she never does, which appears to be an accidentally achieved irony on the filmmakers’ part.

I’m Your Woman is set in the 1970s, in conjunction with the second and third waves of feminism, and more pressingly so that Hart may have reason to offer the retro pop songs and ostentatious set designs that are common of films replicating the era. A strange opening scene, in which Eddie presents the mysteriously acquired Harry to Jean as one might an impulse purchase from a fancy store, establishes above all Jean’s complacency, which would shame a stereotypical American housewife of the 1950s, let alone the ‘70s. Indeed, Jean is so accommodating, defenseless, and opinion-less that she resembles a cult member, and as such you may wonder how she’s held the firebrand Eddie’s attention. As proffered here, these details are stereotypical and unconvincing, existing only as easy thematic signifiers.

None of this might matter if I’m Your Woman were remotely serviceable as a thriller, but it’s composed of a thicket of incoherent exposition, with a cipher at its center. Jean often hears rumors of what’s happening to Eddie while he’s hiding somewhere else, mostly as related by her primary protector, Cal (Arinzé Kene), and these stories suggest the conventional male-centric narrative that’s being consciously elided by Hart and Horowitz. But this gambit backfires, given that the story that Cal relates to Jean, however convoluted, is more exciting than the one we actually see play out on screen. At times, I’m Your Woman appears to be tipping its hat to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Gloria—two films, both made by men, that are far more curious about the inner lives of women than this one. Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes didn’t see their heroines merely as embodiments of an agenda, but also as volatile, intelligent, furious living and breathing human beings.

By contrast, nothing seems to elicit a recognizably human emotion from Jean. Once she’s sprung from life as Eddie’s plus one, Jean remains supernaturally passive—entirely reactive and played by the usually inventive Brosnahan in a monotonal stupor that nulls Hart’s theme of female empowerment. Jean is almost killed several times, and commits murder in self-defense, all without evincing remorse, panic, or jubilation at facing extremities of human existence, which Hart films perfunctorily without offering even scraps of the sort of basic narrative context that might’ve made these sequences thrilling. In other words, Hart drains the crime film genre of its macho bluster without replacing it with anything, only to restore said bluster belatedly and halfheartedly once she’s run her single idea into the ground.

Cast: Rachel Brosnahan, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Arinzé Kene, Frankie Faison, Marceline Hugot, James McMenamin, Jarrod DiGiorgi, Bill Heck, James Charles, Justin Charles Director: Julia Hart Screenwriter: Julia Hart, Jordan Horowitz Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 120 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Superintelligence Keeps a Lid on Melissa McCarthy’s Comic Energy

The big disappointment of the film is that McCarthy’s performance is all Jekyll and no Hyde.




Photo: HBO Max

Melissa McCarthy successfully transitioned from television to film playing outcasts who chafe at conventional standards of appearances and manners. The exhilaration of the actress’s performances, especially in Paul Feig comedies like Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy, resides in the volcanic force she lends characters who might be reduced in to wallflowers in your run-of-the-mill production. Such visceral comic energy represents a revenge-of-the-oppressed transcendence, as these vehicles find a diminutive, overweight middle-aged woman stealing productions out from under more traditionally sophisticated stars via the profound force of her personality and talent. McCarthy is a veritable superstar-as-everyperson, which is a rare pose for an actor to convincingly master.

The big disappointment, then, of Ben Falcone’s Superintelligence is that McCarthy’s performance is all Jekyll and no Hyde. At first, Carol (McCarthy), a computer programmer who quit her job years ago out of frustration with corporate heartlessness, appears to be the sort of stunted ne’er-do-well that the actress specializes in playing. Superintelligence’s early scenes are its sharpest, parodying how Google- and Apple-type companies attempt to launder the complacency they demand from consumers and employees alike with therapeutic babble about wellness and self, which Carol isn’t able to convincingly sell. After a botched interview for a new dating site amusingly called Badankadonk, the viewer is primed to wait patiently for Carol’s rage to explode in characteristic McCarthy fashion, as a satirical rebuke against the faux-progressive hivemind of our social media age, yet this combustion never occurs.

Superintelligence is less a parody of modern consumerism than a bland gene splice of a rom-com and a 1980s-era film in which a loner befriends either an alien, a robot, or, in this case, a sentient, super-intelligent program voiced—in another amusing touch—by James Corden. Porting a narrative with such a distinctly Cold War-era makeup into the modern day also has satiric potential, for suggesting the similarity between past and present anxieties about technology run amok. And this commonality is acknowledged by the film in exactly one joke, in which the sentient program emulates the computer from John Badham’s WarGames in order to screw with characters who’re all old enough to get the reference.

Falcone and screenwriter Steve Mallory soon skimp on another wellspring for comedy, as the program gifts Carol with wealth and fashionable baubles—the sorts of privileged things that she comes to resent less once she’s capable of attaining them. Such hypocrisy, alive and well in virtually every present-day American, is acknowledged in a few fleeting jokes and soon forgotten, and even the general premise of a super-intelligent program as a kind of modern god-slash-genie is sidelined. Superintelligence is a junkyard of missed opportunities, as the unutilized ideas and gimmicks are revealed to exist as window dressing adorning a simple, frictionless kind of comedy-of-remarriage between Carol and the man who got away, George (Bobby Cannavale), who’s defined only by his sweetness and availability.

Superintelligence is probably intended by Falcone, McCarthy’s husband and regular collaborator, as a conventional star vehicle in which McCarthy plays the sort of wistful lonely heart that was once monopolized by the likes of Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock. The film’s conventionality is meant to show that McCarthy needn’t always play the tormented weirdo with reserves of inner rage; she can also be a regular lead with regular problems with a regularly good-looking man as her “one and only.” But such generic and insidiously conformist attitudes, though born of reverence, insult and inhibit McCarthy’s talents.

McCarthy was authentically weird, profane, and confident, and therefore sexy, when playing a character who stood up to all those sexist men in Spy, which positioned her opposite of Jason Statham romantically without treating it as a big deal. By contrast, Falcone self-consciously lionizes McCarthy as an avatar of normalized romantic longing, trapping her in the process. The filmmakers here fatally forget that we love Melissa McCarthy because she isn’t a princess.

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Bobby Cannavale, James Corden, Brian Tyree Henry, Jean Smart, Ben Falcone, Josh McKissic Director: Ben Falcone Screenwriter: Steve Mallory Distributor: HBO Max Running Time: 108 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Review: Julien Temple’s Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan

The film is affectingly poignant in its frequently uncomfortable presentation of MacGowan’s physical ruination.




Crock of Gold
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

The legend of Shane MacGowan, frontman for the Pogues and imbiber extraordinaire, looms large over Julien Temple’s alternately fantastical and down-to-earth documentary Crock of Gold. Since achieving international renown in the 1980s leading the biggest Irish band after U2—and just about the only one to fully celebrate and explore their Irishness—MacGowan carved out a position as one of rock’s most determined boozers, druggies, fighters, and all-around hellraisers. But though he had a Keith Richards-sized appetite, being on a smaller budget meant going without a protective rock-star bubble.

MacGowan’s kinetic and alcohol-fueled energy was a big part of the Pogues’s appeal, vividly captured here by the footage Temple includes of people roaring and dancing in packed concert venues. But time took its toll, as evidenced by MacGowan’s downward spiral of performances sabotaged by his copious drinking. Eventually, the slurred speech, physical decrepitude, and ever-more gnarled dentition spotted in the archival footage from the 1980s and ‘90s became like a self-fulfilling stereotype of the dedicated Irish drunk. While Temple includes a full view of MacGowan in his earlier form, the spiky-haired and Brendan Behan-worshipping punk balladeer, the story is told primarily through the lens of MacGowan’s racked and ruined present visage, prematurely aged and slurring his speech from a wheelchair. In MacGowan’s mind, he destroyed his body in pursuit of a different kind of legend entirely.

Much of the musician’s personal history is relayed via present-day interviews with interlocutors such as Johnny Deep—a friend of MacGowan’s and one of the film’s producers—former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. But here and there throughout Crock of Gold, MacGowan looks back over his own life, telling stories with a slow, slurring mumble punctuated by the occasional surly snap of pique or wheeze that approximates a laugh.

MacGowan acknowledges the problematic aspects of being the drunken Irishmen who hated British stereotypes of drunken Irishmen. “You want Paddy?” he asks rhetorically. “I’ll give you fucking Paddy.” But beyond the aggression that came from being a hyper-imaginative kid who hated the discrimination he felt being raised in 1960s England, he says that his creative drive was ultimately to create a different kind of legend. He wanted to do nothing less than save Irish culture. If not that, he wanted to at least resurrect the feeling that he had during the childhood summers he spent back in his extended family’s farmhouse in Tipperary (a one-time safe house for the I.R.A.), where even as a six-year-old he took part in the drinking and smoking and singing during the clan’s frequent all-night bashes.

MacGowan’s take on his culture is fiercely proud yet somewhat removed; his Irishness seems to come almost as much through literature and myth as through his family. Dreamy black-and-white recreations of a boy gamboling through Irish fields and archival footage of the Easter Rising and Ireland’s War of Independence fuel the sense that everything MacGowan strove for later in his art was in his mind a kind of fantasy crusade. “I did what I did for Ireland,” he says.

Raised mostly in England, MacGowan found the perfect outlet for that old poetry-infused rebel spirit when as a teenager he discovered his tribe in London’s punk scene. The raw chaos fit his natural state. After a several-month stay in Bedlam, his first concert was the Sex Pistols. Although this feels like a too-good story from a man who doesn’t mind gilding the lily, Temple includes grubby old footage showing MacGowan ecstatically pogo-ing just feet away from Johnny Rotten. Temple’s evocation of London street life in the period is short but vivid, in particular a segment set to “The Old Main Drag”, MacGowan’s semi-autobiographical song about a teenage hustler (“Just hand jobs,” he says with a grin in a later interview).

Wanting to “give tradition a kick in the ass” and make “Irish hip again,” MacGowan infused the lilt of traditional Irish music with a mixture of punk speed, wartime urgency, and late-night boozy romanticism. His recollections of the Pogues’s early years when their first three albums were met with increasing acclaim and popularity make clear that he knows that was the high point. The near-constant touring that followed the breakthrough success of 1988’s If I Should Fall from Grace with God seems to have pushed his addictions over the edge. Most everything after the ‘80s—the later albums of dwindling quality, varying side projects and break-ups, and late-career encomiums—are handled in mostly chronological but still somewhat blurred fashion by Temple in an approximation of how MacGowan likely remembers them. In this way, the film is of a piece with the ruinous spectacle that Temple’s Sex Pistols films covered and the fireside intimacy of Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, affectingly poignant in its frequently uncomfortable presentation of MacGowan’s physical ruination.

Director: Julien Temple Running Time: 124 min Year: 2020

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Review: Before Turning Histrionic, Uncle Frank Is a Tender Look at Outsider Kinship

Alan Ball quickly loses sight of the sense of power that fuels the film’s early moments when his characters basically just gaze at each other.




Uncle Frank
Photo: Amazon Studios

Alan Ball’s ‘70s-set Uncle Frank commences as a rare portrait of the love between an uncle and his niece. Beth (Sophia Lillis), a provincial teenager with cosmopolitan dreams, is in awe of her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), a gay man living in New York City, a very long way from his South Carolina roots. “Uncle Frank was different,” Beth tells us in voiceover as we watch her pine for him at a family get-together. He was different than everyone around her because he was a college professor, his fingernails were always clear, and he used aftershave. But mostly because she could listen to him all day.

That sequence is shot like a conversation between lovers, slow-motioned laughter and all. But this isn’t the budding of incestuous love. It’s the sort of veneration that children are sometimes lucky enough to feel for the one adult in their midst who’s freer than most. Which is perhaps why many a queer uncle learns very quickly how disrupting their presence can be in family affairs. Frank represents a certain elsewhere. He truly listens to Beth, which visibly feels like some kind of a first for her. At one point, he tells her what she needs to hear with kindness—namely to believe in her dreams, which is code for her to get the hell out of the South. Four years later, she’s an NYU freshman obsessed with Harper Lee, Jane Austen, and Mark Twain.

When Beth moves to New York and they start hanging out, Frank can’t hide his homosexuality for long. After all, he lives with his long-term partner, Wally (Peter Macdissi), and an iguana named Barbara Stanwyck. Beth has never interacted with gay people before but gets used to the idea very quickly. And it’s at this moment, when the distance between uncle and niece shortens, that Uncle Frank ceases to be a tender portrait of outsider kinship and transforms into a histrionic road movie with screwball intentions, more interested in plot twists than the characters themselves. It’s an unfortunate pivot, as Ball loses sight of the sense of power that fuels the film’s early moments when his characters basically just gaze at each other, basking in what the other has to give, and something queer is transmitted.

When Frank’s father (Stephen Root) passes away, he drives back to the family home with Beth in tow. Also tagging along in a separate car, and much to Frank’s chagrin, is Wally, effectively triggering a predictable series of alternately kooky and unfortunate events, all interspersed with traumatic flashbacks to the source of the animosity between Frank and his father. It’s a whirlwind of melodrama that, before arriving at the obligatory happy ending, harkens back to the film’s initial quietude when Beth, sitting across from Frank at a diner, asks him, “Did you always know you were gay?” He responds that he always knew he was different, and in this moment Ball lets the characters breathe again, framing them much as he did at the start of Uncle Frank—in the midst of bonding, as a different sort of inheritance is passed on.

Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root, Lois Smith, Jane McNeil, Caity Brewer, Hannah Black, Burgess Jenkins, Zach Sturm, Colton Ryan, Britt Rentschler, Alan Campell, Cole Doman, Michael Perez Director: Alan Ball Screenwriter: Alan Ball Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Croods: A New Age Is a Step Up that Still Leaves You Wanting More

The film is brightly colored, inventively designed, and constantly flirting with the outright psychedelic.




The Croods: A New Age
Photo: Universal Pictures

Brightly colored, inventively designed, and constantly flirting with the outright psychedelic, The Croods: A New Age resembles what it might be like for a three-year-old to take an acid trip. Whereas its relatively subdued predecessor, directed by Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco, was grounded in some semblance of the real world, the sequel follows the path of another DreamWorks Animation series, Trolls, by packing as much manic energy and candy-coated visual excess into its runtime as it possibly can. The approach mostly improves on the limp family-comedy of the original, trading tired jokes about overprotective fathers for sprawling action sequences and a bevy of oddball creatures including wolf-spider hybrids, kung fu-fighting monkeys, and a King Kong-sized baboon with porcupine spikes.

Which isn’t to say that A New Age turns its back on the Crood family. In fact, it juggles a half-dozen or so emotional arcs pertaining to their daily lives, with the relationship between the feisty Eep (Emma Stone) and her conservative father, Grug (Nicolas Cage), once more at the heart of the narrative. As the film opens, the Croods, who’ve accepted Eep’s boyfriend, Guy (Ryan Reynolds), into the family fold, are desperately searching for food and safety when they happen upon an Edenic walled paradise owned by the technologically advanced Phil and Hope Betterman (Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann), who chafe at the boorish antics of the backwards Croods. Discovering that they knew Guy when he was a boy, the Bettermans contrive to kick the coarse cavemen off their property while stealing Guy away from Eep to live with them and create a family with their cheery daughter, Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran).

Though ostensibly existing in the prehistoric world, the Bettermans, with their turquoise jewelry and rope sandals, epitomize a certain kind of well-heeled contemporary liberalism, where a rehearsed casual demeanor masks a fundamental narrow-mindedness and even intolerance of the uncouthness of their perceived inferiors. They’re the kind of people who won’t let a struggling family stay for long on their unused property but will send them off with a passive-aggressive smile and gift basket full of fancy soaps. The Bettermans are surprisingly complex, thanks in large part to Dinklage and Mann’s nuanced voice acting. In particular, Dinklage finds droll humor in a man whose conceitedness belies an essentially good heart.

This sort of gentle satire on class divisions isn’t the most natural fit with the film’s sweeping prehistoric milieu, but the screenplay manages to strike a relatively deft balance between its character moments and the comedy-adventure set pieces that are the film’s real raison d’être. A New Age doles out its emotional beats with a refreshingly light touch, never allowing sentimentalism to overpower its buoyant sense of adventure. But aside from some delightfully crusty line readings by Cloris Leachman as Gran, the film is rarely laugh-out-loud funny. Indeed, the film is so packed full of incident that it rarely gives its jokes the space to land.

Similarly, its overall sense of spectacle is stronger than any particular image or scene. We’re never wanting for things to look at in the film—there’s nearly always some wacky creature or impossible Roger Dean-style landscape or virtuosic bit of animation onscreen—but we rarely get much chance to take any of them in before the film has moved on to the next thing. There’s plenty to look at in A New Age, but not a whole lot to truly savor.

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Cloris Leachman, Peter Dinklage, Leslie Mann, Kelly Marie Tran Director: Joel Crawford Screenwriter: Kevin Hageman, Dan Hageman, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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