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

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

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The Secret Garden
Photo: STXfilms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Psychomagic, a Healing Art
Photo: ABKCO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunless Shadows
Photo: Cinema Guild

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Song Without a Name
Photo: Film Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Black Is King
Photo: Disney+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Waiting for the Barbarians
Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Thousand Cuts
Photo: Frontline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I Used to Go Here
Photo: Gravitas Ventures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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She Dies Tomorrow
Photo: Neon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Film

Review: Jessica Swale’s Summerland Revels in Recycling Tales As Old As Time

Throughout, the film’s characters exhibit little life outside of their moments of tragedy and symbolic connections.

1.5

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Summerland
Photo: IFC Films

Writer-director Jessica Swale’s Summerland does a maddening double Dutch between cliché-laden genre modes. It is, by turns, a melancholic reverie on England’s home-front struggles during World War II and the looming end of an empire, a melodrama about a child teaching a crotchety spinster how to love, and a remembrance of a lesbian love affair. Each of these kinds of stories are typically prone to treacly sentiment, and when thrown together here, the end result is a film whose characters only seem to exist as vessels of pathos, exhibiting little life outside of their moments of tragedy and symbolic connection.

We first meet Alice (Penelope Wilton), a reclusive author and scholar, in her dotage, bristling at unwanted visitors to her seaside cottage in Kent. The film then flashes back to the war, with a younger Alice (Gemma Arterton) writing in the same home. Though tormented by local youths and resented by townsfolk for her antisocial behavior, Alice is perfectly content with solitude, until she learns that she’s been placed in charge of Frank (Lucas Bond), a boy evacuated from London as the Blitz rages on. Alice is, of course, outraged, and struggles to fob the child off onto anyone else in the United Kingdom, insisting that she must live under self-imposed isolation in order to focus on her research into pagan myths.

From the moment Frank arrives on her doorstep, there’s never any doubt that Alice will warm up to the child, and it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t obsess over her emotional thawing. But the boy’s presence does reawaken Alice’s suppressed memories of a romance she once shared with a young writer, Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), during their university days. Their relationship suffered from their shared fear of discovery, and as it flits between past and present, Summerland never takes the time to build its characters, only providing simplistic glimpses of Alice’s past that are restricted to such overplayed images as the accidental brushing of hands and tear-stricken admissions of the impossibility of her being with Vera.

The revelation of Alice’s romantic life is the first of a series of twists that drive the remainder of the story, frequently at the expense of giving the actors room to breathe. Swale comes from the world of theater, and it shows in her functional compositions, which often frame the characters against the English countryside, typically in long shot and static medium-close-ups of them stagily expounding upon their feelings, almost as if they were playing to the cheap seats. And the film’s dialogue is perennially on the nose, as when Alice abruptly goes on a rant about religion and its suppressiveness that’s so obvious that even young, naïve Frank appears to understand that she’s really talking about her sexuality. And as each new dramatic upheaval shoves the slightest hints of subtle character growth out of the frame, the actors are reduced to repeatedly shuffling through the same gestures of shock and grief.

By constantly darting between so many overlapping forms of misery and longing, Summerland never gives its characters any interiority, making them purely reactive agents to the hell to which Swale subjects them. Though the film, surprisingly, concludes on a hopeful note, it indulges every dour cliché along the way, which, when paired with Swale’s drab direction, effectively saps the energy out of its many demonstrative moments of sorrow.

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay, Lucas Bond Director: Jessica Swale Screenwriter: Jessica Swale Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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