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Understanding Screenwriting #14: The Reader, Milk, The Day the Earth Stood Still, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #14: The Reader, Milk, The Day the Earth Stood Still, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Reader, Milk, The Day the Earth Stood Still, two Librarian films, but first…

Fan Mail: As usual, the discussion among the readership on Novak and Vertigo was fascinating, especially the nuances of the actor-director relationship that several commenters got into. Now if I can just train you all to look at the writer-actor and writer-director relationships with the same kind of nuance… I do agree with “Tom” that I do not want to turn this into the “Kim Novak Channel.” Fifty years ago when Novak burst on the scene about the same time I burst into puberty, I would have loved to have spent all day thinking about Novak, but time passes and things change.

I also want to avoid this column being as much or more about directors than writing, although I realize I bring some of this on myself, since I do a lot of director-bashing. Filmmaking is very much a collaborative art, and the writer-director collaboration is central. The subject comes up again in this column, particularly in the discussion of The Reader.

Another issue that came up about Vertigo is the fact that we can like movies in spite of their flaws, including flaws in the script. This is true even of a pro-writer fellow like me, as I demonstrated in US#5 in talking about How the West Was Won. I love Kings Row for its script, art direction, and cinematography, even though the acting is generally awful.

Thanks to “st” for the item on Scorsese and Stone. It did not surprise me in the slightest.

As for Matt and Anonymous’s suggestions for using a couple of my lines about Four Christmases as blurbs on the DVD box, the company is welcome to try, but I doubt if most of the potential fans of the film would even know who Lubitsch was. I do, by the way, try to avoid writing stuff that would turn me into a quote whore. There are more than enough of those in the world. See if you can find any potential blurbs in the following:~

The Reader (2008. Screenplay by David Hare, based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink. 123 minutes): Sometimes the magic works. And usually that’s because of all the time, talent, and effort everybody puts into it.

According to David Hare, The Reader was a difficult book to adapt. Talking to Charlie Rose on the December 24th edition of Rose’s PBS show, Hare said he found two problems. The first was that the novel was written in the first person, so he had to create scenes that represent what the “author” is telling us. In other words, the age-old problem screenwriters always face: How Do You Show This? The second was that the novel is written by “Michael,” the middle-aged German, to tell the secret of his relationship at the age of 15 with an older woman he later discovered was an SS guard at Auschwitz. Since nobody ever made a movie to reveal a secret, Hare had to develop a different structure. In Hare’s screenplay, the adult Michael is building up slowly to tell his estranged daughter about his affair. Thus we get—interspersed with the scenes of young Michael and his lover Hanna and scenes of Michael as an adult—scenes in which his daughter is referenced or appears. One, in which he tells the daughter he has never been an open person, manages to suggest in the shortest possible time the beginning of a reconciliation between the two that will pay off in the final scene.

Hare, one of the great contemporary British playwrights (Plenty, Racing Demon) has also written screenplays and directed films himself. His brilliant 2002 screenplay The Hours was directed by Stephan Daldry, who does the honors here. They are not only friends and co-workers, but they share a deep understanding of how both theatre and film work. Hare gets the current script off to a fast start, since, like The Hours, he has a lot of material to cover, and he knows that Daldry and his cast can hit the right notes quickly. Look at how fast Hanna’s character is established (and just established, since Hare is going to develop it in much greater depth from what we first learn about her). We see her take charge of Michael and lead him into the affair almost before Michael is ready and without Hanna realizing the moral implications of the affair with a boy of 15. Look at how those qualities of character come back in what we learn about her later. Kate Winslet fills the character out with precise, actorly details. She even walks like a German. From the first few scenes with Winslet there is the rare blending of the script, the direction and the acting that make it difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. The young German actor David Kross is not as expressive as Winslet (but then who is?); Daldry uses that lack of expressiveness to suggest how unformed a person Michael is at 15. Think about that in relation to what we have discussed over the last several weeks about Hitchcock’s use of Novak’s “blankness” in Vertigo. Ralph Fiennes takes over as the adult Michael, using his minimalist style to match Kross’s, but which also suggests how the love affair stunted Michael’s emotional growth.

Hare, Daldry and Winslet told Charlie Rose that they did not want to make the character of Hanna “likeable” or “humanize” her, and they do not in the traditional sense. They do make her a human being that we can believe has done the things we later learn she has done. The love story always makes us a little uneasy because we can see what Michael (infatuated and not able at 15 to have a distance on the affair) and Hanna (with her moral blindness) cannot. We begin to sense the damage the affair is causing Michael in his scenes with his schoolmates.

After Hanna disappears from Michael’s life, we jump ahead to Michael in law school. His class goes to a trial in the mid-sixties of several women on trial for working at Auschwitz. Look at how Hare lets us know how Michael knows one of them is Hanna. The trial scenes are compelling because Hare has written a double set of reactions. Michael is reacting to learning all about Hanna, and Hanna is only barely beginning to come to grips with what she has done. Trials are notoriously talky, but Hare’s use of reactions make these very cinematic scenes.

The script does slow down a bit in the law seminar scenes. There the issues of German guilt and how it affects the next generation of Germans are discussed in a couple of scenes that are too “on the nose,” as opposed to the subtle elements discussed above in the actual trial scenes. I suspect the seminar scenes are much longer in the novel and that Schlink considered them the heart of the book. Hare and Daldry may think they are the heart of the movie, but as often happens with scenes screenwriters think are essential, the rest of the film handles the material so well that these scenes may not be needed. At least they do not have to be as long as they are. The same is true of Michael visiting Auschwitz. I am not sure exactly how long that montage lasts, but we get the point well before it ends.

Hanna goes to prison and the adult Michael sends her tapes of his reading great novels, just as he used to read them to her before they made love. What he has realized in her trial is that she is deeply ashamed she is illiterate and would rather go to prison than admit it. Look at the great, quick scene where the other defendants turn on her because they know that about her. From Michael’s tapes, she learns to read during her twenty years in prison. Being literate is a good thing, right? Yes and no, in Hanna’s case. It makes her come to understand what she has done, so much so that she kills herself when she is to be released from prison. Hare has written two two-character scenes for the end of the film. The first is the adult Michael coming to visit Hanna right before her release. She thinks he still loves her, but when she touches his hand, he pulls it away. She says, “Then, it’s all over.” That’s what thirty years of writing plays and screenplays and directing films has led Hare to: giving us that important moment in a gesture and a simple line. The gesture and the line are not in the scene in the book, which Hare has beautifully developed from what Schlink has given him. The second two-character scene is the adult Michael talking to a woman who testified against Hanna. The scene articulates, through character rather than speeches, volumes of emotion and attitudes about what happened and how the woman and Michael have dealt and are still trying to deal with it. Which is what the movie is all about. Hare said he thought Michael’s affair with Hanna was a metaphor for Germany’s affair with Hitler. Metaphors are a bitch to bring off in film. Hare and the others do it, especially in this scene.

O.K., I can’t resist. One other great, short scene: Hanna and the young Michael are in the bathtub. He is reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover to her. Watch and listen to her reactions, especially her last line.

Milk(2008. Written by Dustin Lance Black. 128 minutes): As often happens, the documentary is better than the feature film.

The documentary was the 1984 The Times of Harvey Milk, which looked back on the life and political work of the first openly gay San Francisco city supervisor. What the documentary filmmakers did was introduce Milk through interviews with people who knew him and worked with him. The interview that always sticks in my mind is one with a straight male union representative who talks about how Milk charmed him into working with him. The interview tells us a lot about Milk, but a lot about the other people as well.

There have been many attempts since the documentary to make a feature about Milk, but this is the one that got made. In the November/December Creative Screenwriting, Dustin Lance Black gives credit to the success of Brokeback Mountain, saying, “If it weren’t for that movie … doing so well, I don’t think we would have been able to make this movie the way we did.” One sign of that is the scene, very early in the picture, of Milk picking up Scott Smith, his first lover and campaign manager. It is obviously a pickup scene, with a long kiss between the two men out in the open, not hidden in any way. Black and the director, Gus Van Sant, let us know right up front this is going to be a movie about gay males. As the film progresses, there are more love scenes between men and they seem perfectly natural in the context. Yes, as both Keith Uhlich and Dan Callahan have pointed out in their comments on the film (November 26th and 25th HND, respectively), we do not get the actual sex scenes out in the open, in the way we do with Michael and Hanna in The Reader, but I’ve always been a bit squeamish about explicit sex scenes in movies, gay or straight. They all seem to be rather generic: naked bodies of the stars or their stunt doubles rolling around in the shadows. At least in The Reader, the sex scenes tell us a LOT about Hanna and Michael’s character.

And character, or rather the lack of it, is one of the biggest problems with Black’s screenplay. Scott Smith appears to have almost no character at all. He is described as being a brilliant campaign manager, but we never see his brilliance. When he tells Milk “I can’t go through another one [campaign],” we have no idea why. Black has the same problem with most of the other supporting characters. Cleve Jones is one-note enthusiasm. Anne Kronenberg is given a great entrance, but then we don’t see that much of her again. And Jack Lira is strictly a cliché. Dan White, the ex-supervisor who shot Milk, is developed a little more, with at least some texture to him. Milk himself is well-written and provides a great opportunity for Sean Penn to be loveable, a word not usually associated with Penn’s performances, for the first time since Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

The other major problem with the script is that Black is very “on the nose” about the political elements of the story. There is none of the texture that Hare provides in The Reader. Black is preaching to the choir, with the exception of some of the Dan White scenes. Anita Bryant is seen only in news footage, while John Briggs, who promoted the Proposition 6 that Milk helped to defeat, is an on-screen character, but very much a cliched one. Bryant is too, or at least the selection of clips of her turn her into one. It is not surprising then that, at the end of the film when we are given titles that tell us what happened to most of the people, we never find out what happened to Briggs and Bryant. Briggs continued in politics until the early eighties, then got into consulting. Bryant went through bankruptcy and divorce.

The end titles also give us pictures of the “real” characters, and with all deference to the actors playing them, the real people look a whole lot more interesting than the actors do in the film. Sometimes, reality is just better.

The Day the Eearth Stood Still (2008. Written by David Scarpa, based on the screenplay by Edmund H. North. 103 minutes): What, no Klaatu barada nikto?

Julian Blaustein, the producer of the 1951 original The Day the Earth Stood Still, didn’t really want to make a science fiction movie. Science fiction was then the province of B-pictures and B-picture studios, not majors like Twentieth Century-Fox. What Blaustein wanted to do was a film commenting on the Cold War. In view of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Blacklist, Blaustein figured a frontal assault would be too controversial. He had the genius idea that a minor little genre like sci-fi was a way to sneak a message by. He found a willing partner in screenwriter Edmund H. North and a willing studio head in Darryl F. Zanuck. It was North who took the Harry Bates short story “Farewell to the Master” and turned it into a political story. Zanuck, from his years of doing message pictures like The Grapes of Wrath and Gentleman’s Agreement, knew that the secret was to make the story and characters compelling, which he pushed North and Blaustein to do. (The backstory here is from James Shaw’s article “The Day the Earth Stood Still: Dramatizing a Political Tract” in the July/August 1998 Creative Screenwriting and Zanuck’s August 10, 1950 memo to Blaustein and North reprinted in Rudy Behlmer’s Memo From Darryl F. Zanuck.)

Zanuck, who had virtually no experience with science fiction, pushed them to establish the reality of the story by starting, not as one draft did in the spaceship, but with the real world reacting to the news of the ship. The director, Robert Wise, shot a lot of the film on location in Washington D.C. in the style of the “torn from the headlines” films of the period, such as Boomerang! (See US#12 for a discussion of that film and its style). Wise’s directing style is straightforward and gets us through the story with a minimum of flash. The one scene that has never really worked is the one in the cab when the spaceman Klaatu has to explain to Helen how to communicate with Gort, his rather large robot. He is teaching her to say “Klaatu barada nikto.” There always has seemed to me the wrong kind of tension between the actors, Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal. Recently Neal has said that the most difficult thing about doing the film was the language, by which she obviously means this phrase. If you look at the scene knowing that, you can see that Rennie and Neal never look each other in the eye during the scene, since they obviously had trouble keeping straight faces saying such gobbledygook. I have no idea if somewhere in the Fox archives are outtakes of them breaking up, but I would hope there are.

The first version of The Day the Earth Stood Still was made for a relatively modest $995,000 and brought in theatrical rentals of $1.85 million. A hit, but not a huge hit. But even films that are not huge hits can have a long life and influence the culture. Little boys around the world, not being trained as classical actors like Patricia Neal, ran around for years easily yelling “Klaatu barada nikto.” On a more serious level, Blaustein’s idea of putting political content into science fiction pictures was eagerly taken up by the makers of such fifties sci-fi films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Godzilla. And later science fiction films, most of them made by the now-grownup little boys who had run around yelling “Klaatu barada nikto,” became an A-picture genre, with budgets to match. So it is not surprising that someone came up with the idea of remaking the film.

David Scarpa said in an interview with the WGA that he was not particularly familiar with the original film when he heard Fox was planning a remake. He threw his name into the ring, and was surprised to discover that he was the only candidate. Instead of looking at the film, he started developing his own ideas of what a new version would be, based on the setup of the original: a man from outer space comes to earth with a message for earthlings. It was not until well into the process that he saw the film. He was smart to do it that way, since, as he recognized, if he had seen the film first, he would have been too intimidated to write the new one. He said that if you tried to do a literal, shot-by-shot remake, it would not work because the times have changed. He is right in more ways than one. In the original, Klaatu has come to warn earth to give up their nuclear weapons, a major political concern of the early fifties. That horse has left the barn. Scarpa’s idea, which is a good one, is that Klaatu has come to warn earthlings not to destroy the planet, i.e., Klaatu as Al Gore. That makes the story more contemporary, but Scarpa has followed Zanuck’s original advice and focused on the characters. The original film is pretty much told from an omniscient perspective. The new version tells the story from Helen’s point of view. In the older film, Helen is simply some kind of office worker. Here, forty-five years after Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, she is an astrobiologist (according to the film) or a xenobiologist (according to a story on Scarpa in the November/December Creative Screenwriting). This gives her greater involvement in the story.

Scarpa also realized the story would have to have more action than the original. The look and feel of the earlier film is simple, but audiences today expect science fiction films will have A-picture budgets ($90 million in this case) and A-picture action and special effects scenes. So the sequences of Klaatu in the original walking around Washington, learning about humans, have been replaced by his being chased by a lot of military people and equipment. There is not, thank goodness, action overkill, as there might have been.

As inventive as Scarpa has been, he has not carried through as well as he could have on the idea that Klaatu is warning us about the ecological problems on earth. When Gort, now much larger than the original but with the same lack of personality, disintegrates into what look like little metal termites, he/they are just rampaging monsters, with little connection to the ecological point. In the original Gort can stand up to weapons, since it proves that Klaatu has the power to destroy earth if they do not stop the arms race. Here, Gort and the Gortlets are just used for special effects scenes. The idea of earth standing still, central to the original as a show of Klaatu’s power, here seems tacked on, as if they got well into the script and realized that if they were going to use the name of the original, they had to use that gimmick. Couldn’t Scarpa have come up with some ecological variation on that?

In the original film, Klaatu makes an admittedly long-winded speech to a group of important people, so we know they have heard his message. The current film is missing a similar scene. Klaatu tells Helen he will not destroy the earthlings if they change their ways, but has that message gotten through to anybody in any position of power? We don’t know.

Scarpa has developed the characters more than North did. This is especially true of Helen. It is alas also true of her son, Bobby in the original, Jacob here. Bobby shows Klaatu around, but Jacob spends more time than we need dealing with issues of his dead mother and father. Helen is his stepmother, who married his father after the death of his wife. Which is spending a lot of time just so Jacob can make a lot of comments about how his dad would have killed the aliens. Which, since Helen is white and Jacob is African-American, is a lo-o-o-ng way to go for an inside joke: Jacob is played by Jaden Smith, the son of Will Smith, who kicked alien butt in Independence Day.

Scarpa has given Klaatu an interesting twist. This Klaatu has just been morphed into the human body we see him in, and Scarpa gives Klaatu a line that it is going to take him some time to adjust to his new body. Keanu Reeves works that effectively in his minimalist style. Scarpa was also smart enough not to force Reeves and Jennifer Connelly to try to say, “Klaatu barada nikto.”

So. Is it as good as the original? No. But it is not as bad as we were all afraid it was going to be. On the other hand, consider this: several of the supporting roles are taken by actors we are familiar with from television, such as Jon Hamm from Mad Men and Kyle Chandler from Friday Night Lights. Their presence only makes you aware of how much better the writing is that they work with on television.

The Librarian: Quest for the Spear(2004. Written by David N. Titcher. 106 minutes) and The Librarian: Return to King Solomon’s Mines(2006. Written by Marco Schnabel, based on characters created by David N. Titcher. 92 minutes): Saturday afternoon movies.

By Saturday December 20th, I had finished my classes and assigned the final grades. My wife was off at church choir practice, so I wandered down to the neighborhood Blockbuster in search of a Saturday afternoon movie: fun, not too challenging, probably with a lot of action. I had seen the promos for The Librarian films on TNT, but had not bothered to see any. Blockbuster had the first two, and I picked up the second one, primarily because it had Gabrielle Anwar in it, whom I love in Burn Notice. It was entertaining enough that a couple of days later when I had the time, I went back and picked up the first one. I suppose I could be flashy and write about them in the order in which I saw them, but I am just not that much of a show-off. Really.

The setup is that Flynn Carsen, a bookish geek with a multitude of degrees (David Titcher seems to think getting advanced degrees is so easy you can just pile them on), gets hired at the mysterious Library, which is a combination of library and Smithsonian Institute. Not only does it have books, but rare items, such as the Lost Ark of the Covenant and Excalibur, which seems to float around on its own. Quest for the Spear begins with Flynn being hired by Judson, who seems to run the place, along with his administrative assistant Charlene. We get a long introduction to the library, which I suspect is part of the additional fourteen minutes added to the DVD from the original broadcast. It is not long before Flynn, who is a complete geek, is sent to South America to retrieve part of a Spear that, when combined with the two other parts, gives great power, yadda, yadda, yadda. The fun of the film is that Flynn is a complete klutz, but he knows stuff that can get him out of most situations. He is protected by Nichole, a strapping blonde, who rightly tells him he is the brains and she is the brawn. That’s a nice twist, and one that has been picked up on by more than a few television shows such as Chuck. Flynn is played by Noah Wyle, who explains in the introduction to the DVD that he wanted to do the part because he had been doing heavyweight drama (ER, of course) and this film had comedy, romance, and adventure. Not bad, but he is not yet as comfortable in those genres as he is in drama. Nichole is played by Sonya Walger, whom any geek would love to have protecting him. The characters and Wyle and Walger develop a nice chemistry over the course of the film.

The action is Indiana Jones on a budget, but the CGI effects work well enough on even a large-screen television. The humor is above average, such as when Nichole slaps one of the women villains upside the head for thinking romantically about Flynn and says, “Get your own geek.” The best line comes when Flynn is back at the library, trying to keep the bad guy from putting together the parts of the Spear. Flynn has called Judson and asked him to bring the Marines. Judson shows up alone and when Flynn questions this, Judson shows him his Marine Corps tattoo. A fair amount of martial arts ensues, ending with Judson asking the bad guys, “Anybody else want a piece of me?” O.K., now if Judson is played by Tom Selleck, that’s a conventional line. But Judson is Bob Newhart.

At the end of Quest, Flynn is trying to set up a meeting with Nichole and his mother, who does not really believe that Flynn finally has a girlfriend. Nichole rides up on a motorcycle, tells Flynn she is being chased. Flynn gets on the motorcycle and they drive off, chased by some baddies. His mom is stupefied.

So Return to King Solomon’s Mines should pick up at that point, right? Nope. Nichole has disappeared, which is a loss for the film. (She may well be missing in action because after this movie Sonya Walger got a lot of work in recurring roles on television series, such as Lost.) She is replaced by Anwar, playing an archeologist as a variation on Fiona from Burn Notice. I love her in the series, but here she and her character do not develop the kind of chemistry that Wyle and Walger did with their characters. Flynn is less of a klutz here than he was in the first one, which also cuts down on whatever natural tension the character might have had with Anwar’s character. David Titcher has been replaced as the writer and Schnabel’s dialogue is not up to Titcher’s.

The Judson and Charlene characters are given more to do in this film than in the first one, taking advantage of the experience of both Newhart and Jane Curtin as Charlene. Charlene has become a combination of Miss Moneypenny and Judi Dench’s M. The setting this time is Africa, with South Africa filling in for Egypt, Morocco, and what appears to be Utah in the opening sequence, which owes more than a little to the opening of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But then both of these films owe a lot to their predecessors, not only the Indiana Jones films, but those films’ predecessors. After all, in this second film, they are not heading for Joe Smith’s Mines, but H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. Part of the fun of the Librarian movies is to spot the references.

The third film in the series, The Librarian: The Curse of the Judas Chalice (Hmm, DaVinci Code, anyone?) was broadcast in early December. Maybe when I have a free Saturday after it comes out on DVD…

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

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Review: Parasite Satirically Feeds on the Ills That Divide a Society

Bong Joon-ho’s excoriation of a dehumanizing social culture is mounted with dazzling formal invention.

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Parasite
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

The first film Bong Joon-ho has made in 10 years that’s set entirely in his native South Korea, Parasite finds the eccentric, genre-driven auteur scaling back the high-concept ambitions of his prior two films, the post-apocalyptic Snowpiercer and the globe-trotting ecological fable Okja, in favor of examining a close-knit family dynamic that’s reminiscent of the one at the center of The Host, Bong’s 2007 breakout monster flick. Except this time the monster isn’t some amphibious abomination that results from extreme genetic mutation, but the insidious forces of class and capital that divide a society’s people.

In a cramped apartment, a family of four are sent into a panic when the WiFi network they’ve been pirating goes offline. Ki-jung (Park So-dam) and her brother, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), scurry about as their father, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), instructs them to try holding their phones up to the ceiling, and to stand in every nook and cranny of their home until they find a new connection. All the while, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) bemoans her husband’s laziness and prods him to find work. But it’s Ki-woo who pulls his family out of their impoverished life, when he gets an opportunity to tutor Da-hye (Jung Ziso), daughter of the rich Park family.

Parasite essentially puts an absurdist spin on both the concept behind Hirokazu Kore-eda’s sentimental Shoplifters from last year and the bitter class commentary that underpins Nagisa Oshima’s 1969 film Boy. Bong positions Ki-taek and his family as grifters so adept at pulling off cons as a unit that they successfully convince the Parks to bring them all into their employ, in one capacity or another. Ki-jung becomes an “arts therapy” teacher for the Park clan’s precocious young son, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun), and, later, the rich family’s driver and nanny are pushed out of their jobs through elaborate scandals manufactured by the poor family, in order to install Ki-taek and Moon-gwang, respectively, into those roles.

Bong pulls off a neat trick by insinuating that the parasite of his film’s title must be Ki-taek’s family; after all, they certainly live off the “host” to which they’ve attached themselves. But in typical fashion, Bong starts to lace Parasite with all sorts of complications that begin to challenge the audience’s perceptions—left turns and big reveals that not only bring new layers to the film’s social commentary, but also develop the characters and their attendant psychologies, which encompass the psychic toll of shame, lack of empathy, and deception.

The twists in this narrative also activate some of Bong’s more inspired and sociopolitically loaded visual ideas. At one point in the film, the slum village where Ki-taek and his family live is devastated by a massive flood during a night of severe weather. Meanwhile, in the upper-class neighborhood where the Park clan lives, a backyard camping trip is ruined by rain. The particular layout of one unexpected setting, which sees members of the lower class literally occupying a space below the rich, doubles as an ingenious metaphor for class subjugation. Remarkably, Bong even finds room for a commentary on Korean peninsula relations.

The only thing that keeps Parasite just slightly below the tier of Bong’s best work, namely The Host and his underrated and similarly themed 2000 debut film, Barking Dogs Never Bite, is the overstuffed pile-up of incident that occurs toward the end. This is frequently an issue for Bong’s films (both Snowpiercer and Okja climax with busy and disorientating action set pieces that lose sight of their characters in the process), and here it manifests in a boldly gruesome scene of violence that’s undercut by a lengthy and rather contrived denouement.

Ultimately, Bong’s excoriating indictment of South Korea’s dehumanizing social culture isn’t far removed from that of Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, but he mounts it with a dazzling control of genre conventions that he continues to seamlessly bend to his absurd comic rhythms. Parasite also reinstates the emotional core that’s been missing from Bong’s recent work, and even feigns a concise narrative structure. It’s the kind of bold and uncompromising work that confirms why Bong is one of our most exciting auteurs, for how his sociocultural criticisms can be so biting, so pungent, when they’re imbued with such great focus and sense of intent.

Cast: Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-shik, Lee Sun-kyun, Park So-dam, Cho Yeo-jeong, Lee Jung-eun, Chang Hyae-jin, Jung Ziso, Jung Hyeon-jun Director: Bong Joon-ho Screenwriter: Bong Joon-ho, Han Jin-won Running Time: 131 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Perfection Walks Impersonally Though a Labyrinth of Gimmicks

The crazier Richard Shepard’s film gets, the more routine and mechanical it comes to feel.

2.5

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The Perfection
Photo: Netflix

Richard Shepard’s The Perfection is, for better and worse, an ingenious toy. The plot is clever, but the film is all plot. Shepard and co-writers Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder repeatedly paint themselves into corners, only to free themselves with twists that bring about increasingly diminishing returns. The first switchback is legitimately startling, but the fourth is exhausting and belabored even by the standards of self-consciously cheeky exploitation shockers. As The Perfection mutates from gothic-tinged lesbian romance to body-horror thriller to revenge film, its lack of atmosphere becomes apparent, and the characters begin to seem as if they exist only to move through a labyrinth of gimmicks.

The film opens, promisingly, in Black Swan mode, introducing us to women with potentially rickety senses of self who may come to eat one another alive for our delectation. Charlotte (Allison Williams) travels to Shanghai to reconnect with her mentor, Anton (Steven Weber), who nurtured her to become one of the world’s great cello players, before she retired to care for her ailing mother. (We also pointedly learn, via shock cuts, that Charlotte was institutionalized after her mother’s death.) Charlotte meets Anton’s new pet prodigy, Lizzie (Logan Browning), at a swanky party, and Shepard springs the first and subtlest of the narrative’s many surprises. Conditioned by films such as All About Eve, we expect Charlotte and Lizzie to resent one another and fall into a catty rivalry. However, Lizzie worships Charlotte, and Charlotte doesn’t seem to want to return to the industry, and so the women, free of envy, connect after a night of collaboration, drinking, dancing, and sex.

Shepard’s handling of Charlotte and Lizzie’s lovely, companionable night together is telling of his direction of the film at large. He rushes through it with a montage, collapsing Charlotte and Lizzie’s cello duet, their clubbing, and their coupling all together, reducing their union to a math equation: Meet Cute + Flirtation + Sex = Inciting Incident. For, say, Peter Strickland, this sequence might’ve taken up half the film, allowing him to celebrate and fetishize these gorgeous women while stylishly exploring their loneliness and alienation. And for Dario Argento in his prime, this scene might’ve been an opening aria of erotic terror.

For Shepard, though, it’s just business, and his disappointing haste squanders the heat that’s been worked up in one of The Perfection’s best scenes, when Lizzie observes an infidelity at a concert and whispers to Charlotte that it makes her wet. Even more egregiously, Shepard glosses over a significant bit of information, as Charlotte claims to have lost her virginity to Lizzie. What would it feel like to be sexually arrested and then to so suddenly fall into bed with someone as attractive, worldly, and confident as Lizzie? Shepard doesn’t care to know—and this confession is eventually revealed to be fodder for one of the film’s many twists.

Shepard’s mercenary pace at times serves the film well. When Charlotte and Lizzie awaken the morning after, the filmmaker sustains, for about 15 minutes, an expert tone of slow-dawning dread. Both women are hungover, but Lizzie is dramatically ill, and Shepard plunges us into her panic and helplessness, capping the scene with the perverse spectacle of Lizzie vomiting yellow maggots against a bus’s windows, clutching her head in pain. Several tensions merge at this point in The Perfection: the fear of being sick in another country, of having to grapple with a new lover’s biological eccentricities, and a basic tension wrought by the violation of narrative expectation, as we’re meant to wonder how we moved from a film in the vein of Black Swan to something in the key of a zombie-outbreak movie. Shepard merges these tonal disparities with a lurid reveal, at which point his film goes completely bonkers.

Funny thing, though: The crazier The Perfection gets, the more mechanical it becomes. Shepard appears to be so proud of the film’s first twist—which pivots on a spectacular gaslighting—that he can’t leave well enough alone. It’s then that the film’s narrative “rules” start changing every few minutes, with Charlotte, Lizzie, and Anton trading the batons of “hero,” “villain,” “victim,” and “avenger” back and forth between them. A film as impersonal and plot-centric as The Perfection needs at least some kind of warped logic to sustain a sense of there being stakes at play. In this case, if anything goes then nothing matters.

Cast: Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber, Alaina Huffman, Milah Thompson, Molly Grace, Winnie Hung Director: Richard Shepard Screenwriter: Eric C. Charmelo, Richard Shepard, Nicole Snyder Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 90 min Rating: TV-MA Year: 2019

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Review: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood Is an Elegy to an Era’s Sunset

The film is Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus, a sweeping statement on an entire generation of American popular culture.

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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is presented, right down to the ellipses in its title, as a diptych. But instead of just being a way to structure a piece of entertainment for commercial reasons—like the Grindhouse double feature, the two-part Kill Bill, and the “roadshow” version of The Hateful Eight, which was broken up by an intermission—this demarcation separates two distinct periods: the beginning of the end (February 1969) and the end itself (the summer of ‘69). And it’s a juxtaposition that shows old Hollywood in a time of transition, from dog days to death throes.

While Tarantino’s films tend to provide audiences with much evidence of where the auteur’s love of Hollywood’s lurid lore finds root (in blaxploitation, World War II dramas, kung-fu movies, or spaghetti westerns), Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood gets the closest of any to giving us the complete picture. In this sense, the film is nothing less than Tarantino’s magnum opus—a sweeping statement on an entire generation of American popular culture and an almost expressionistic rendering of the counterculture forming at its margins, gradually growing in influence. It’s an uncharacteristically thoughtful and sobering film for Tarantino, while somehow also being his funniest, and most casually entertaining.

In the film’s first section, old Hollywood comes to life through montages of flashing neon signs, majestic old movie theater marquees on the Sunset Strip, and long-haired hippies hanging out on street corners, trying to bum rides from people who pass them by in their hot cars. Tarantino’s late-‘60s Hollywood is an immersive playground of opulence and iconicity, and thanks to the many exhilarating driving sequences that dot the film, the Los Angeles neighborhood conjures the adrenalized sensation of velocity and acceleration.

Navigating through this fast-paced Hollywood is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading star of TV westerns trying to break into the movies, and his best friend and longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Both characters are complete fabrications, as are most of the titles they’re associated with, like Kill Me Now Ringo, Said the Gringo and Three in an Attic. And as Tarantino detours his narrative through depictions of these fictional projects, subjecting us to many scenes of Dalton playing different characters, this at first just seems like an excuse to make spoofy versions of disposable Hollywood product, like the fake trailers that appear between Planet Terror and Death Proof in Grindhouse. But these scenes actually serve to sketch the shifting dynamics on film sets of the late-‘60s, like the emergence of Method acting, and they also position Dalton as a kind of Tarantino surrogate.

In one of the film’s most clever sequences, Dalton regales his eight-year-old co-star (Julia Butters), in between takes on the set of some low-budget western, with the story of the novel that he’s been reading. The character in the story is an aging cowboy who used to be the best but now is a shadow of his former self. As Dalton tells the story of the man’s misfortune, and all his aches and pains, he starts to well up, obviously recognizing how much this all applies to him. But the way the sequence plays out, with the young girl with the forceful feminist outlook putting Dalton in his place when he tries to call her by a cute nickname, effectively puts Tarantino in the hot seat, and for that matter DiCaprio, another artist whose aging career comes with the danger of obsolescence and of falling out of step with the times.

Progressing on a parallel track to Dalton and Booth’s narratives is another storyline, and the one that Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood has already become infamous for. The real-life Sharon Tate (Margo Robbie) comes to feel like the flipside of Dalton and Booth, her next-door neighbors in the film. The “It” girl flits through parties with her celebrated Polish filmmaker husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), and good friend, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch). If the changing times threaten to discard and ignore Dalton and Booth, they’re bringing Tate too much attention: At various points in Tarantino’s film, she’s watched and coveted from afar, as in a scene in which Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) gossips while ogling her at a party.

In the film’s finest scene, Tate even watches herself: at a matinee screening of Phil Karlson’s 1968 Dean Martin vehicle The Wrecking Crew. The sequence is resonant in no small part for its layers, with Robbie, as Tate, watching the real Tate (Tarantino uses actual footage from The Wrecking Crew for the scene). The whole thing suggests a kind of eerie feedback loop of celebrity and its cycles of consumption, but it’s also a profoundly moving scene: Effortlessly nailing the moment, and without any dialogue, Robbie responds, in character, to the film on a diegetic level, watching her own performance, but at the same time, there’s also the added metatextual layer of Robbie watching the very actress whom she’s playing.

It’s the film’s commitment to fortifying its themes with such layers of self-reflexivity, while still anchoring its concepts to fully realized, emotionally invested characters, that makes it one of Tarantino’s great films—a dense but focused effort that validates the divisive artist’s status as one of American cinema’s preeminent pop-cultural figures. It’s also that self-reflexive lens through which to read Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood that makes its finale harder to write off as the misstep that it would otherwise seem to be. Tarantino does, perhaps unsurprisingly, revert to some of his more vexing shock-jock tendencies, and even squanders some of his film’s emotional gravitas. But it’s difficult to deny how effectively he sets up what’s to come, when, in the midst of a tense debate between members of the Manson Family, one young woman (Mikey Madison) delivers an incendiary edict: “If you grew up watching TV, you grew up watching murder—my idea is to kill the people who taught us to kill!”

This chilling sentiment becomes the nexus of the film’s significantly darker second half, which jumps six months ahead to take the temperature of Hollywood on the eve of the Charles Manson murders. As the landscape and the sociocultural identity of Hollywood continue to change, inching toward a post-Flower Generation comedown, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood takes on an elegiac quality. The shift facilitates one of Tarantino’s more brilliant needle drops to date: of the Rolling Stones’s wistful, wounded, and ominous “Out of Time” playing over a montage of Dalton and Booth returning to L.A. from a sojourn to Europe and a pregnant Tate preparing her home for the arrival of her baby boy.

The flash and fun of the film’s first half gives way to a haunting decline into the valley of alcoholism, and to increasing signs that a new generation is about to push the old one out. And, then, inevitably, those tensions come to a head one August night on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills. It’s this sequence, and the Tarantino-branded ultraviolence that it ushers in, that puts the greatest strain on a film that had been setting itself up for tragedy but ends far afield from that. Still, this subversion points a path to our understanding of the broader intent of Tarantino’s commentary in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, which is less about addressing the violence that people commit against each other than it is about lamenting the existential violence that sustains some and leaves others out of time.

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Mike Moh, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Al Pacino, Nicholas Hammond, Samantha Robinson, Lorenza Izzo, Costa Ronin, Perla Haney-Jardine, Damon Herriman, Lena Dunham, Kurt Russell, Scoot McNairy, Michael Madsen, Rumer Willis, Rafal Zawierucha Director: Quentin Tarantino Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 159 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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

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

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Coincoin and the Extra-Humans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Booksmart
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Terminator: Dark Fate
Photo: Paramount Pictures

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

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

Watch the official trailer below:

Paramount Pictures will release Terminator Dark Fate on November 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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The Souvenir
Photo: A24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Aladdin Is a Magic Corporate Ride to Nowhere Special

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

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Aladdin
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Brightburn Is a Soulless Mishmash of Disparate Genre Elements

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

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Brightburn
Photo: Screen Gems

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

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

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

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

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

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