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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 Last Full Measure Trades Institutional Critique for Hero Worship

The film largely evades any perspectives that might question the institutions that put our soldiers in harm’s way.

1.5

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The Last Full Measure
Photo: Roadside Attractions

Speaking about the time when Air Force pararescue medic William “Pits” Pitsenbarger descended from a helicopter to aid wounded soldiers trapped in an ambush during the Battle of Xa Cam My, a former soldier, Kepper (John Savage), says, “I thought I saw an angel. There he was right in front of me, all clean and pressed.” Pits’s courageous actions during one of the Vietnam War’s bloodiest battles, where he saved nearly 60 lives and perished after refusing to board the last chopper out of the area so he could continue helping out on the ground, are certainly deserving of the Medal of Honor that he was denied for over 30 years. But writer-director Todd Robinson’s hagiographic The Last Full Measure is frustratingly limited in its scope, stubbornly fixating on the heroism of one man and the grateful yet tortured men he saved while largely evading any perspectives that might question the institutions that needlessly put those soldiers in harm’s way in the first place.

Following Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), an up-and-coming Pentagon staffer assigned to investigate a Congressional Medal of Honor request for Pits three decades after his death, The Last Full Measure takes on the point of view of an indifferent outsider who doesn’t understand the value of awarding a posthumous medal. Unsurprisingly, as Scott travels the country to meet with several of the soldiers whose lives Pits saved, he slowly comes to revere the man and the lasting impact of his actions. In the roles of these wounded survivors, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Samuel L. Jackson, and Peter Fonda each offer glimpses at the feelings of guilt and mental anguish that continue to haunt the men. Yet before we can get a hold of just what eats away at the former soldiers, and what living with their pain is really like, Robinson repeatedly whisks us via flashback to a dreadfully familiar-looking scene of combat, attempting to uplift the spirits with scene after scene of Pits (Jeremy Irvine) saving various men, all with the cool-headedness and unflappable bravery one expects from an action movie hero.

Throughout numerous walk-and-talk scenes set inside the Pentagon, The Last Full Measure manages to convey some of the countless bureaucratic hoops that must be jumped through to get a Medal of Honor request approved. But the murky subplot involving Scott’s boss, Carlton Stanton (Bradley Whitford), and a supposed cover-up of Operation Abilene, the mission that led to the ambush in the village of Cam My, does nothing but pin the blame for all wrongdoing on a mid-level Pentagon director. And even in that, the film’s only qualms are with a cover-up that prevented Pits from being properly recognized, with no thought whatsoever given to the disastrous wartime decisions that were also being hidden from the public.

In the end, Robinson’s portrayal of a scheming Washington insider suppressing the actions of an infallible, almost angelic fallen soldier lends the film a naively simplistic morality. By fixating on the good that came out of a horrifying situation, and painting institutional corruption as a case of one bad apple, The Last Full Measure practically lets the state off the hook, all the while mindlessly promoting nationalistic ideals of unquestioned duty and honor.

Cast: Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, Samuel L. Jackson, Bradley Whitford, Ed Harris, Diane Ladd, Jeremy Irvine, Michael Imperioli, Alison Sudal, Peter Fonda, William Hurt Director: Todd Robinson Screenwriter: Todd Robinson Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 115 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor

Pitt winning here will seem like the stars are lining up given what went down when he was first nominated in 1995.

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

We didn’t predict Anthony Hopkins to get nominated here, thinking that the Golden Globes’s enthusiasm for The Two Popes was a fluke. We were wrong, and he ended up becoming the elder statesman in an acting lineup that contains, on average, by far the oldest nominees. The person we predicted to get in instead, Marriage Story’s Alan Alda, is a year older than Hopkins, so we certainly weren’t betting the farm on any male ingénues.

On the other hand, it sure feels like spry 56-year-old Brad Pitt, who opened his acceptance speech at last night’s SAG Awards with a joke about having a Tinder profile, had this award in the bag the moment his Marlboro Man-ish handyman hopped atop his buddy’s roof to fix the antenna in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, whipping off his shirt to reveal a tawny, fully-abbed torso that scarcely seems to have aged in the nearly 30 years since he seduced the country in Thelma & Louise. He, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s co-lead, has a lot more to do throughout than just doff tees, but the “I’m still here” virility of that moment embodies the entire film’s love letter to old-guard masculinity in Tinseltown.

Not that anyone’s reading too deeply into it, not when there’s good old-fashioned awards numerology to fall back on. Within minutes of the nominations being announced, Oscar Twitter jumped on the fact that the best supporting actor slate this year is composed of acting winners from 1990 (Joe Pesci), 1991 (Anthony Hopkins), 1992 (Al Pacino), and 1993 and 1994 (Tom Hanks). Fewer pointed out that Pitt was also a nominee in 1995 for 12 Monkeys, losing out to the now-canceled Kevin Spacey. Which makes it seem all the more poetically like the stars are lining up when Pitt wins for a film whose finale proposes a rousing bit of alternate, corrective history in which the “good” guys obliterate the “bad” ones.

Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

Should Win: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology.

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For Sama
Photo: PBS

Few Oscar categories are bigger snub magnets than this one. And while the failure of Apollo 11 to secure a nomination this year was indeed surprising, it was not as telling as the omission of The Biggest Little Farm, a handsomely, if conspicuously, sculpted “pop” documentary that’s very much in the academy’s wheelhouse. It was almost as if the committee responsible for selecting the nominees here was sending a message by embracing, at a time of increased global instability, five documentaries that looked only outward: not at mankind’s possibilities, but at the ways in which we’ve become our own worst enemy.

When discussing the potential winner in this category, Eric and I were pulled in two different directions. “Doc will go American Factory and, by extension, the Obamas, right?” Eric asked. “Honeyland notched an Oscar record by being the first documentary to also be nominated for international feature. That has to mean something?” I asked. Which is to say that he and I, no strangers to this Oscar-predicting process, were sacrificing ourselves to rigamarole, forgetting that, at the end of the day, academy members vote with their hearts above all else.

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology. American Factory specifically takes the closing of a Chinese-owned factory in Ohio as a jumping-off point for a study of the wiles of global capitalism, and it’s every bit as smart as you might expect from a film produced by the Obamas. A more sobering reminder of how the global order of the world has been cataclysmically disrupted in the last four years is another Netflix documentary, The Edge of Democracy, about Brazil’s own national(ist) sickness. It’s a harrowing lament, but it offers the viewer no sense of escape.

Which isn’t to say that the The Cave and especially For Sama, both filmed in Syria and in the midst of war there, are escapist. The two most viscerally powerful documentaries in the category confront us with the chaos of imperial domination. Both films center the female experience of war, but For Sama does so more shrewdly, positing itself not just as a chronicle of war, but an act of remembrance. In a film that doesn’t lack for gut-wrenching images of the dead, one particularly stands out: of a child, after being pulled from his mother’s womb via C section in the wake of a bombing, being brought back to life. Combined with the scenes depicting the citizens of war-torn Aleppo finding humor in the midst of conflict, the film attests not only to the perseverance of the Syrian people, but to the possibility that the country might still be brought back from the edge of oblivion.

Will Win: For Sama

Could Win: The Cave

Should Win: For Sama

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Makeup and Hairstyling

There doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

We couldn’t really say it any better than Odie Henderson, who recently scoffed: “Who wins the Costume Design Oscar for Joker? The Goodwill? Who wins the Makeup Oscar for Joker? A blind Mary Kay consultant?” While we think the Academy will stop short of awarding the motley threads of Todd Phillips’s risible throwback machine in the costume category, the fact that they were nominated at all over, say, the imaginatively garish ‘70s finery that Ruth Carter created for Dolemite Is My Name indicates a level of affection for Joker that no one who doesn’t use the word “snowflake” on a daily basis seems prepared for.

While, to us, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker looks like nothing so much as Marge after sitting still for a makeup gun, as Homer put it best, “Women will like what I tell them to like.” From his lips to the Academy’s ears (and face). And given this category’s expansion didn’t add more multicolored prosthetic creations along the lines of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, but instead more invisible character augmentation along the lines of Judy and Bombshell, there doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

Will Win: Joker

Could Win: Judy

Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film

Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time. As I write this latest prediction for Slant’s rolling Oscar coverage, the top article on the front page of Rotten Tomatoes is a ranking, by Tomatometer, of the nine films nominated for best picture this year. Number one? Parasite. Immediately next to that article is a callout to readers to vote for their favorite film of 2019 that uses Song Kang-ho’s face from Parasite’s poster as the featured image. Regarding that poster, in simply placing black bars over the actors’ faces, it succinctly, eerily, perfectly underlines the film’s obsession with social strata. And you don’t need to look far beyond the aggregate site to land on some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is the film’s main setting.

Perfect. That’s a funny word. There are no objectively measurable criteria for perfection, but given how many times I’ve heard Bong’s film described as being “perfect” since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, you’d think that there were. Still, the impulse to use it to describe this particular film, so balanced and attuned to the ties that both bind and separate us, evident in everything from the dimensions of Bong’s aesthetic, to his actors’ faces, to their words, makes a certain kind of sense. Quick, can you name the other four films nominated in this category? How apt if you can’t, as this is a film profoundly obsessed with the subterfuge that can be weaponized during class warfare. Or awards campaigns.

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Pain and Glory

Should Win: Parasite

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score

John Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

That one of the five films nominated for original score this year is not a best picture nominee nor had any shot at being one almost makes this category an outlier among this year’s Oscar races, which seem otherwise fixated on frontrunners. John Williams already had the record-setting strength of 51 previous nominations leading into this week’s announcement, so his nod for the third Star Wars installment, or sixth, or ninth, or…does The Mandalorian count? Anyway, suffice it to say that the only thing that could’ve been more knee-jerk than to select nominations solely from among this year’s best picture probables would be to rubber stamp Williams uploading yet more variations on intellectual property.

Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four. Alexandre Desplat already has two wins here, both in the last six years, but Little Women is finally picking up momentum at just the right time. His richly romantic cues, which are practically wall to wall throughout the film, come on like a crushed-velvet dust jacket, binding Greta Gerwig’s shifting timeline together in a way that makes just about everyone who isn’t Sasha Stone want to clutch the entire thing to their bosoms.

Arguably, another film that’s still reaching its crest stage is 1917, and unlike Desplat, composer Thomas Newman is still waiting for his first win, and now holding the category’s longest losing streak. It can’t be said that Newman doesn’t pull out all the stops, piecing together a work that feels inspired by both Hans Zimmer’s pulsating Dunkirk score and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” most memorably used in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. And yet, we’re kind of with Bilge Ebiri, who after the nominations were announced, tweeted, “You didn’t give it to DUNKIRK, you’re not allowed to give it to 1917. Sorry, we’re very strict on this matter.”

Not to say that we expect 1917 to roll snake eyes on its 10 nominations. Only that any nominations for the film related to things that Dunkirk already did better two years ago are a tough sell, despite the draw of Newman’s increasingly amplified Oscar backstory. That’s presuming that the narrative doesn’t wind up over-shadowed by the sidebar-friendly cousin’s duel between Thomas and his cousin, Randy Newman, whose jaunty, Terms of Endearment-esque Marriage Story score appears to have as many detractors as it has fans.

Until the nominations were announced, we admit to assuming that Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Golden Globe win for Todd Phillips’s Joker was going to go down the same way as Justin Hurwitz’s did a year ago: with an Oscar snub. We reasoned that Guðnadóttir, who also perked ears up and won an Emmy last year for her work on HBO’s Chernobyl, was still too fresh a talent for the more cliquey AMPAS musicians’ branch. But now that she’s there, Globe in hand and attached to the film that, by the numbers, the academy loved best this year, she offers even conscience-wracked voters the chance to hand a feature-length 4chan fantasy a guilt-free win by also awarding one of the film’s few female nominees.

Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker

Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917

Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women

Tags: Academy Awards, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker, Thomas Newman, 1917, Alexandre Desplat, Little Women, Randy Newman, Marriage Story, John Williams, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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Review: Dolittle, Like Its Animals, Is Flashy but Dead Behind the Eyes

Dolittle’s inability to completely develop any of its characters reduces the film to all pomp and no circumstance.

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Dolittle
Photo: Universal Pictures

Stephen Gaghan’s Dolittle begins with a just-shy-of-saccharine animated sequence that spins the tale of the eponymous character’s (Robert Downey Jr.) adventures with his wife, who one day dies at sea during a solo voyage. It’s something of a more condensed, less moving version of the prologue to Pixar’s Up, underscoring our protagonist’s upcoming fantastical journey on behalf of Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) with a tinge of melancholy.

As soon as the film shifts to live action, we immediately sense the loss felt by Dolittle in the overgrown vines and shrubbery that surround the famed doctor and veterinarian’s estate, as well as in his unkempt appearance. But any hopes that the film might follow through on its promise to explore Dolittle’s emotional turmoil are quickly dashed once he begins interacting with the animal friends who keep him company. Their banter is ceaseless and mostly ranges from corny and tiresome to downright baffling, as evidenced by a pun referencing Chris Tucker in Rush Hour that may leave you wondering who the target is for half of the film’s jokes.

The tenderness of Dolittle’s prologue does resurface sporadically across the film, most memorably in a late scene where the good doctor shares the pain of losing a spouse with a fierce dragon that’s also enduring a similar grief. But just as the film seems primed to say something profound about the nature of loss, Dolittle shoves his hand into the dragon’s backside—with her permission of course—in order to extract a bagpipe and an array of armor, leading the fiery beast to unleash a long, loud fart right into the doctor’s face.

That moment is crass, juvenile, and, above all, cheap in its cynical undercutting of one of Dolittle’s rare moments of vulnerability. But it serves as a ripe metaphor for the filmmakers’ incessant need to respond to a show of earnestness with a dollop of inanity, as if believing that their young audience can’t handle anything remotely sincere without a chaser of flatulence.

But worse than the film’s failure to truly probe Dolittle’s emotional landscape is how it surrounds him with a series of uncompelling character types. While the film seems to mostly unfold through the eyes of young Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), who becomes Dolittle’s apprentice after witnessing the doctor communicate with animals, he serves little purpose aside from drawing the man out of his shell. And Dolittle’s arch-enemy, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen, chomping on every bit of scenery within reach), has little motivation to justify his ceaseless quest to stop his rival from attaining an elixir that will save Queen Victoria’s life.

Despite repeatedly paying lip service to notions of grief and opening oneself up to the world, Dolittle ultimately plays like little more than an extended showpiece for its special effects. But even the CGI on display here is patchy at best, with the countless animals that parade through the film’s frames taking on a creepy quality as their photorealistic appearance often awkwardly clashes with their cartoonish behavior. The film’s notoriously troubled production, which went so off the rails that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles director Jonathan Liebesman was brought on board for reshoots, is evident in its clumsy staging and lifeless interplay between humans and animals, but it’s the film’s inability to completely develop any of its characters that reduces it to all pomp and no circumstance. Like the CGI animals that inhabit much of the film, Dolittle is flashy and colorful on the outside but dead behind the eyes.

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Jessie Buckley, Harry Collett, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland Director: Stephen Gaghan Screenwriter: Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Bad Boys for Life Is a Half-Speed Echo of Michael Bay’s Toxic Formula

In the end, the film’s perpetuation of the franchise’s endorsement of police brutality comes back to bite it.

.5

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Bad Boys for Life
Photo: Columbia Pictures

From its parodically overused low-angle and circling tracking shots to its raw embodiment of Michael Bay’s unique brand of jingoism and adolescent vulgarity, Bad Boys II arguably remains the purest expression of the director’s auteurism. Bay doesn’t direct the film’s belated sequel, Bad Boys for Life, leaving one to wonder what purpose this franchise serves if not to give expression to his nationalist, racist, and misogynistic instincts.

Intriguingly, Bad Boys for Life is helmed by the Belgian team of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, whose streetwise, racially focused crime films, from 2014’s Image to 2018’s Gangsta, represent positions that are nearly the polar opposite of those of Bay’s work. Except the filmmakers do nothing to shake the franchise from its repellent roots, merely replicating Bay’s stylistic tics at a more sluggish pace, losing the antic abandon that is his only redeeming quality as an artist. At best, the half-speed iterations of Bay’s signature aesthetic reflect the film’s invocation of too-old-for-this-shit buddy-movie clichés, with Miami cops Mike Lowery (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) forced to contend with growing old and obsolete.

The film is quick to establish that Marcus, newly a grandfather, longs to settle down, even as Mike continues to insist that he’s at the top of his game. It’s then that the partners are thrown for a loop when Mike is shot by Armando (Jacob Scipio), whose drug kingpin father Mike killed and whose mother, Isabel (Kate del Castillo), he helped get imprisoned in Mexico. Both men are left traumatized by the event, with a horrified Marcus forswearing a life of violence, while Mike seeks brutal revenge for his wounded sense of masculine security. And for a brief moment, Bad Boys for Life finds fertile ground in the emotional chasm that opens between the two pals, with Mike’s single-minded rage leaving Marcus morally disgusted.

Almost immediately, though, the film turns to gleeful violence, showing how grotesque the consequences of Mike’s vigilantism actions can be, only to then largely justify his actions. When Mike violates orders during a surveillance assignment to abduct a possible lead, that source is left dead in a gruesomely elaborate shootout that’s played for satire-less kicks. Partnered with a new unit of inexperienced, tech-savvy rookies (Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, and Charles Melton), Mike can only express his dismay at the new generation resorting to gadgets and nonlethal, perhaps even—dare one say—legal, measures of law enforcement. Each one gets a single defining characteristic (Hudgens’s Kelley is a trigger-happy fascist in the making and Ludwig’s Dorn possesses a bodybuilder’s physique that belies his pacifism), and they all exist for Smith to target with stale jokes about old-school justice.

Likewise, the surprising soulfulness that Lawrence brings to his character is ultimately just fodder for jokes about how the weary, flabby new grandpa isn’t getting laid. Unsurprisingly, then, Marcus only reclaims his virility as a man by lunging back into a life of chaotic police action. Even his turn toward faith and a vow of peace is mocked, as when he finds himself in possession of a machine gun during a hectic chase and Mike reassures him that God gave that to him in a time of need. “Shit, I do need it!” Marcus exclaims, but the humor of Lawrence’s delivery only momentarily distracts us from the film’s flippant take on his spirituality.

By saddling both heroes and villains alike with quests for revenge, Bad Boys for Life broaches deeper thematic possibility than has ever existed in this franchise. Indeed, the film’s focus on aging, when paired with a last-act reveal that forces the characters to think about the legacies that are passed on to future generations, places it in unexpected parallel to another recent Will Smith vehicle, Gemini Man. But where Ang Lee’s film actually grappled with the implications of violence bred and nurtured in our descendants, this movie merely gets some cheap sentimentality to contrast with its otherwise giddy embrace of carnage.

In the end, the film’s perpetuation of the franchise’s endorsement of police brutality comes back to bite it. The aforementioned scene with Marcus discovering the machine gun is played as a joke, even though the man, half-blind but refusing to wear the glasses that show his age, fires wildly at gunmen on motorcycles weaving around civilian vehicles. Watching this scene, it’s hard not to think of the recent, real-life case of Miami cops firing hundreds of rounds at armed robbers despite being surrounded by commuters, not only killing the suspects but their hostage and a random bystander. This coincidental timing is a reminder that the supposed harmlessness of glib entertainments like Bad Boys for Life plays a part in normalizing the increasing police-state tactics and mentality of our nation’s over-armed law enforcement.

Cast: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Vanessa Hudgens, Joe Pantoliano, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Paola Núñez, Kate del Castillo, Jacob Scipio Director: Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah Screenwriter: Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, Joe Carnahan Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actress

Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you.

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Renée Zellweger
Photo: LD Entertainment

Well hi, everybody, it’s nice to see you. Loyal readers of Slant’s Oscar coverage know that we don’t like to beat around the bush, and this year we have even less reason to do so what with the accelerated awards calendar forcing us to kick-start our rolling predictions earlier than usual. So, as we busy ourselves in the next few days catching up with some remaining blindspots, and being thankful that we don’t actually ever have to see Cats, we will be bringing you our predictions in some of Oscar’s easier-to-call categories.

Which isn’t to say that we’re going to be drama-free. Case in point: the revelation that Eric Henderson, my fellow awards guru, made on Twitter this week that “Scarlett Johansson is genuinely better in Jojo Rabbit than in Marriage Story.” He also asked us to throw the tweet back in this face four or five years from now, but I say right now is as good a time as any.

No, seriously, shocking as that tweet was to this fan of Marriage Story’s entire acting ensemble, that some are already predicting the actress as a possible spoiler in supporting actress in the wake of Jojo Rabbit scoring six nominations, it’s gotten us thinking about the ostensibly evolving tastes of AMPAS’s membership at a time when it’s struggling to diversify itself. And based on how things went down at last year’s Oscars, the only conclusion we can come up with is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Immediately after Glenn Close lost the Oscar last year to Olivia Coleman, Eric sent me a text wondering why AMPAS hates the former so much, to which I offered that there’s nothing more unwavering than Hollywood’s support for actors playing real-life individuals. Well, that and its support for actors who actually want to be exalted by the industry. Even in a world where Renée Zellweger isn’t also being helped by a comeback narrative, and has yet to follow Joaquin Phoenix’s savvy lead by getting arrested at Jane Fonda’s weekly climate change protest and erasing our memory of her performance at the Golden Globes, she’s nominated for a generally well liked performance in a film that has actually performed well at the box office.

On Monday, more outcry was provoked by the Oscar nominations, again for women being shut out of the best director race, but also for the snubbing of several actors of color, most notably Jennifer Lopez and Lupita N’yongo. Some will speculate that Cynthia Erivo, the only actor of color to be nominated this year, is a potential spoiler here, but whether she stands to benefit from a core of protest votes is something that can never be known. This fine actress’s performance checks off almost as many boxes as Zellweger’s, if not, at the end of the day, the one that matters most: representing a film about the industry itself, in this case one that will allow a reliably backward-looking Hollywood to atone for sins committed against their own.

Will Win: Renée Zellweger, Judy

Could Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

Should Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

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Review: Intrigo: Death of an Author Is Damned by Its Lack of Self-Awareness

The film evinces neither the visceral pleasures of noir nor the precision to uncover deeper thematic resonances.

1.5

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Intrigo: Death of an Author
Photo: Lionsgate

“Surprise me!” demands reclusive author Alex Henderson (Ben Kingsley) near the start of Intrigo: Death of an Author of budding novelist Henry (Benno Fürmann), who’s come to him in search of advice. As an audience member, it’s difficult not to end up making exactly the same exhortation to director Daniel Alfredson’s film. With each plot point being not only easy to predict, but also articulated and elaborated on multiple times by an awkwardly on-the-nose narration, the only shock here is that a film apparently concerned with the act of storytelling could be so lacking in self-awareness.

Henry is a translator for the recently deceased Austrian author Germund Rein and is working on a book about a man whose wife disappeared while they were holidaying in the Alps, shortly after her revelation that she would be leaving him for her therapist. Most of the tedious opening half hour of the film is taken up with Henry telling this tale to Kingsley’s enigmatic Henderson, after he meets him at his remote island villa. The pace picks up a little when David switches to giving the older writer an account of the mystery surrounding Rein’s death and how this could be connected to his story, which (surprise!) may not be entirely fictional.

Death of An Author is the most high-profile release of the Intrigo films, all directed by Alfredson and based on Håkan Nesser’s novellas. Alfredson was also at the helm of two film versions of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, but he still doesn’t appear to have developed the stylistic tools necessary to elevate his pulpy source material. Here, his aesthetic seems to be aiming for the icy polish of a modern noir, but it leans toward a safe kind of blandness, evincing neither the visceral pleasures of the genre nor the precision to uncover deeper thematic resonances.

While Fürmann’s stilted central performance at times threatens to sink Death of An Author, Kingsley always appears just in time to keep the unwieldy thing afloat. Nonetheless, his character’s cynical meta commentary, alternately engaged and aloof, is ruinous: As Henderson criticizes Henry’s story, he effectively draws too much attention to the film’s own flaws.

Death of an Author’s mise en abyme framing device has a similarly self-sabotaging effect. It initially promises an interesting push and pull between a writer’s literary perspective on reality and their own lived experience, but as so much of Henry’s psychology is explained through clunky expository dialogue instead of being expressed visually, no such conflict is possible. The structure ends up just distancing us further from the characters, as well as undermining the tension generated by the more procedural elements of the plot. Ultimately, aside from some picturesque scenery and a satisfyingly dark ending, all we’re left to enjoy here is the vicarious thrill of Kingsley’s smug, scene-stealing interlocutor occasionally denouncing Henry as a hack, and implicitly dismissing the whole scenario of the film as trite and clichéd.

Cast: Ben Kingsley, Benno Fürmann, Tuva Novotny, Michael Byrne, Veronica Ferres, Daniela Lavender, Sandra Dickinson Director: Daniel Alfredson Screenwriter: Daniel Alfredson, Birgitta Bongenhielm Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 106 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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