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Understanding Screenwriting #17: Slumdog Millionaire, Dodge City, Ride Lonesome, ER, & More



Understanding Screenwriting #17: Slumdog Millionaire, Dodge City, Ride Lonesome, ER, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Slumdog Millionaire, Dodge City, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station, His Nibs, How I Met Your Mother, Two and a Half Men, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, CSI, ER, but first…

Fan Mail: Several interesting issues this time around. Both Andrew and Kevin H. raise the question of judging the script in comparison to the film and how fair that might be. Traditionally, criticism has dealt primarily with the art object (i.e., the final product), but more recently, criticism (particularly of the kind I do) has included an historical element of looking at the process as well as the object. We get exhibitions now in museums that look at the process leading up to the final object, such as a painter’s sketches and small scale versions as well as the final work. There has been a growing awareness that art is a process as much as an object. As someone who writes about screenwriting, which is the beginning of the process of filmmaking, I always take an interest in the earlier steps. I think it is perfectly fair to look at the materials created in the process to see the ways the film did, and did not, end up.

One of the things my research has taught me is that in most cases the films are not better than the scripts, in spite of what directors might tell you. Partly that is because filmmaking is an enormously complex undertaking, with any number of things that can go wrong. Of all the scripts I’ve read and the films made from them, I know of only two where the film was better. One was a Nunnally Johnson script called Casanova Brown, where Nunnally had ended up leaving out the motivation for the heroine, so we just had to take on faith that the hero was doing the right thing. The hero was played by Gary Cooper, so we accept his actions. The other was a film made from a script a student of mine wrote. In the writing she never overcame the problem that one of the minor characters was a cliché. Being an actress herself, she corrected it in her direction of the actor playing the part.

So we can, and I think should, look at the scripts and how they develop. In my book Understanding Screenwriting, I have a chapter on Kinsey, which follows the film through three drafts of the script onto the final film. There are those who think it is the best chapter in the book. You can begin to understand how the process works, and get over the idea that the producer, director, or star just waves a magic wand and the film appears. Yeah, it’s more work looking at all this, but it is always more rewarding and informative. So I am going to continue talking about scripts. Both Kevin and Andrew get into some detail of the ways the process works, and we will have to admit sometimes it does not work out as well as we might like.

On the Forrest Gump front, of the options Matt Maul suggests, I think it was the conservatives (and not JUST the conservatives by the way) cheering for what they thought was the message of the film. Although I am not sure they thought of the film as a message picture in that sense. I don’t think they were seeing the irony in a movie that unintentionally presented that point of view. I think the film just fit in their minds with their own point of view.

Pacze Moj asks if there are any subjects that cannot be handled in scripts “according to the basic laws of Hollywood screenwriting.” Probably not, but some you would have to be a genius to make work in a way that Hollywood executives would believe and audiences would accept.

Eric Y, after saying he likes this column’s format (thank you), raises a procedural question as to how long it takes to do the column. That’s hard to say, since it is done over a period of time. I’ll see a movie, TV show, whatever, and I will make some notes on it, then a day or so later I will write up an item. Sometimes I will let several items pile up and write them all in a day. When I get enough, I send them off to Keith, who is the one who comes up with the great photographs that accompany the column. When I was wondering whether I had time to do this column, a friend of mine said, “Come on, Tom, that’s the kind of stuff you do all the time in e-mails to your friends.” She was right. In fact, the item in US#15 on Meet Me in St. Louis started life as something I was adding to my Christmas thank-you e-mails. I have pretty much always looked at films from the standpoint of screenwriting, so this column is just formulizing what I do anyway.

Slumdog Millionaire(2008. Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, based on the novel by Vikas Swarup. 120 minutes): Angels With Dirty Faces go to Mumbai. On steroids.

It is only fitting that after a lot of huffing and puffing, Slumdog Millionaire ended up being partially released by Warner Brothers. Originally it was co-produced by Warner Independent Pictures, and then Warners closed down WIP. The company was about to sell off the picture for spare parts (i.e., cable and DVD) when Twentieth Century-Fox got interested as a result of people writing about the picture from film festivals. Warners figured they might make a buck or two and they settled on a co-distribution deal with Fox. Warners will make more in absolute dollars with The Dark Knight, but they may make a greater return on their investment with this one.

The reason it is fitting it ends up at Warners is that the screenplay very much fits the traditional 1930s Warner Brothers narrative style. Whereas other film historians have written about the differences in studio looks, themes, et al, in my book FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film, I laid out the differences in narrative styles of the major studios. The Warners style is what I called “piling on.” I wrote, “There always seem to be more characters than needed to tell the story, more relationships between the characters, and more plot complications.” There is a LOT of piling on in Slumdog Millionaire.

The basic setup is that Jamal, a poor young man working as a tea server at a phone call center, wins and wins on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Nobody can understand how he can possibly know the answers to all the questions. The police interrogate him, and as he tells his life story we learn in the flashbacks how he happened to know the answers to each question. That would not necessarily hold our attention, but we come to learn he got on the program to impress Latika, a girl he grew up with in the slums. She is now a gangster’s mistress, watched over by Jamal’s brother Salim. Are you beginning to see the similarities with the Warners gangster movies of the thirties?

In addition to the similarities in content, Beaufoy piles on incident after incident after incident as we watch the three grow up. Beaufoy tells the story at a breakneck pace, which appears to have seemed like mere dawdling to director Danny Boyle, who speeds it up even more. As I started watching the film, I thought, “This is horribly over-directed,” but I eventually saw what Beaufoy and Boyle were up to. In a scene late in the picture, the Police Inspector comments that Jamal’s story is “bizarrely plausible.” Well, no it’s not. The coincidences involved in Jamal knowing the answers to THESE questions would be too much if the script and film were not going so fast that we don’t have time to consider the preposterousness of it all. This is a standard way of telling a tall tale: go so fast we do not have time to think. Beaufoy does this very well, which also covers up the fact that the characterizations are very shallow and cliched. But who wants depth in Cinderella?

Dodge City(1939. Original Screenplay by Robert Buckner. 104 minutes): Santa was good to me, take one.

Among the other things under the tree was a boxed set of five Errol Flynn movies, including four of my five favorite Flynn films. This is one of those, the best of all the big Warner Brothers westerns. As such it is a perfect example of that narrative style of Warners in the thirties and forties. Here is a checklist for Dodge City:

Great old-fashioned train. Check.

Stagecoach. Check.

Race between stagecoach and train. Check.

Buffalo. Check.

Stalwart hero (with some Southern sympathies, courtesy of Southern-born Buckner-—see also his Santa Fe Trail). Check.

Two, count ’em two, comic sidekicks for the hero. Check.

Two nasty sidekicks for the villain. Check.

Boot Hill Cemetery. Check.

Ceremony welcoming the railroad. Check.

Cattle drive. Check.

Cattle stampede. Check.

Covered wagon train. Check.

Indians attacking covered wagon train. No.

Dramatic scene for de Havilland and Flynn. Check.

Sing-off in saloon between Northern and Southern supporters, “Marching Through Georgia” vs. “Dixie” (See Buckner above). Check.

The most overpopulated saloon brawl in film history (until the parody of it in Blazing Saddles). Check.

Worried townspeople appoint hero sheriff (almost an hour into the picture because of all the other activity; see how much quicker Wyatt Earp becomes the marshal in My Darling Clementine). Check.

Crusading newspaper editor. Check.

Comedy scene for de Havilland and Flynn. Check.

Murder of crusading newspaper editor. Check.

Assorted jail scenes with comic and nasty sidekicks. Check.

Romantic scene for de Havilland and Flynn. Check.

Fight between good guys and bad guys in burning railroad car. Check.

Double happy ending: Flynn gets de Havilland and she agrees to go with him to clean up Virginia City (No, Virginia City the following year is not technically a sequel, but still…). Check.

Kitchen sink. No.

O.K., YOU try to get all that into 104 minutes and have it still make sense.

Ride Lonesome(1959. Written by Burt Kennedy. 73 minutes) and Comanche Station(1906. Written by Burt Kennedy. 74 minutes): Santa was good to me, take two.

We are definitely not in the Warner Brothers A-picture business here. Look at these two films and see how little of that checklist is included in them. These are the last two films in the Budd Boetticher Box Set Matt Zoller Seitz and I were drooling over in US#13. They are spare, low-budget, short films, which simply emphasizes how important a good script is when you don’t have a lot of money. Comanche Station has always been my favorite of all of the series, mostly because it was the first one I saw when they were first released. Seeing them together recently on a Saturday afternoon (when else would you watch them?), my reaction was that Kennedy’s script for Ride Lonesome is a little bit better.

Ben Brigade rides alone (the only thing I object to in Ride Lonesome is the title, which makes it sound like a forties singing cowgirl western), without even a single comic sidekick. He is a bounty hunter who tracks down Billy and outwits him, taking him prisoner. Billy insists his brothers, especially Frank, will come to rescue him. We see Billy’s four henchmen ride off to get Frank. We’re not even ten minutes into the film.

Ben and Billy find a stagecoach swing station that has two more bounty hunters there, Sam and Whit. Very different from Ben and each other. Ben is sly, always thinking the angles, Whit seems rather slow. (Ben is Pernell Roberts in his best performance, just before he fell into Bonanza, Whit is James Coburn in his first screen appearance, before he had developed his distinctive walk.) Sam and Whit would love to take Billy off Ben’s hands, since the wanted posters say anyone who brings Billy in gets an amnesty. Sam obviously needs one, although we never really find out why; Kennedy is very sparse on giving us information, which makes us pay attention even harder. And there is also Mrs. Lane, the wife of the station manager, who has gone missing. And there are Indians who are none too friendly. So obviously it is in Ben’s best interest to get Billy to Santa Cruz as soon as possible. Here is Kennedy’s genius: Ben is in no hurry to get there. He’s taking his own sweet time and taking the long way around. Look at how long before we find out why he’s doing that. And look at the nice little scenes Kennedy gives us between gorgeous shots of them riding in the Eastern Sierras. At one point Sam is discussing ALL his options with Whit, and in a short scene we get everything there is to know about the two of them. Some of the scenes are so good, and the actors are so good, Boetticher can shoot them in a single take.

Sam is talkative, Ben is laconic. When Sam goes on and on about Mrs. Lane, Ben replies, “She’s not ugly.” When she says to Ben, “You don’t seem like a man who would hunt for a man for murder,” he replies, “I am.”

Eventually we get to the spot where even Frank has realized that Ben intends to wait for him: the “hang tree,” an almost dead tree in the middle of a meadow where Frank hung Ben’s wife. Ben doesn’t care about Billy; he just wants Frank. Sam is willing to help him, but will Sam then turn on Ben to get Billy? Kennedy gives us a quick shootout with Ben and Frank and then a faceoff between Ben and Sam. And a perfect ending to that relationship. And the hang tree gets burned at the end.

The opening of Comanche Station is even better than the opening of Ride Lonesome. Jeff Cody is riding through the Eastern Sierras. When Indians come upon him, he simply gets off his horse, lays out the blanket he has with a lot of trinkets. The Indians want to trade two horses for his stuff. He turns them down. They take him into their camp and he trades his trinkets and his rifle for a white woman captive, Nancy Lowe. As they ride away, she tells him who she is. His reply, “I should have known.” Who is she? Why is he rescuing her without knowing who she is?

They come across a stage stop and three men, Ben, whom we later learn Jeff testified against at his army court martial, and two guys who look enough alike that we think they’re brothers. Ben, alas, is not quite the fascinating rouge that Sam was, and so the tension between them is not as interesting as that between Ben and Sam in Ride Lonesome. When Nancy finds out her husband has posted a $5,000 reward, she assumes Jeff is out for the money. Of course, but he’s not. Look at how long it takes before we find out what his real motive is, and how it figures in the ending. The stage does not come and so the five of them have to ride to Lordsburg, going past a lot of great scenery, including a small lake with … what the hell, the hang tree from Ride Lonesome. But it was in a meadow and was burned. Obviously a prop tree that Boetticher and his gang carried around with them. After all, we only saw it on fire in the earlier film, not destroyed.

Ben has told Frank and Dobie, the two non-brothers, of his plan to kill Jeff, then kill Nancy, since the husband is willing to pay for her, dead or alive. Ben’s motivation is revenge and money, which makes him less interesting than Sam. But at least we get a nice scene between Frank and Dobie discussing whether or not they will go along with Ben, or just maybe have to get honest jobs.

Jeff of course ends up delivering Nancy to her husband, and Kennedy delivers a real kicker of an ending, picking up on something that I have not mentioned that has been discussed all the way through the film. A terrific little movie, if not quite as fresh as Ride Lonesome.

His Nibs(1921. Written by Arthur Hoerl. 59 minutes): New York vs. Los Angeles.

Richard Koszarski, a professor at Rutgers, has a new book out called Hollywood on the Hudson: Film and Television in New York From Griffith to Sarnoff. It’s about exactly what the title tells you. As part of the promotion for the book, Koszarski and the UCLA Film & Television Archive are having a series of screenings of surviving films (several of them preserved by the Archive) Koszarski writes about. This is one of the odder ones.

As Koszarski explained it in his introduction to the screening, he thinks what happened was that the Chic Sale, a big star in vaudeville, was hired to appear in a comedy-melodrama called The Smart Aleck. It was shot in Los Angeles but never completed. A year or so later, this film came out with Sale playing several roles, including the proprietor of a small town movie theater. The theater is showing what is obviously The Smart Aleck, although under a different name. We see a lot of the earlier film, with the proprietor saying he cut out the titles. He then narrates and comments on the film. As Koszarski put it, sort of a forerunner of Mystery Science Theatre 3000.

What I found interesting is that The Smart Aleck is a much more interesting film, as much as we get to see of it. It’s better scripted, more coherent, more … well, serious. And shot in Los Angeles. According to Koszarski, the framing material was shot in New York. It is lightweight and frivolous. Sale overplays all of his characters, as opposed to underplaying the lead in The Smart Aleck. By 1921 movies had settled in Hollywood, and the backlash in New York had begun (see US#1 for a brief history of that). This film is a beautiful demonstration of that backlash.

How I Met Your Mother (2009. Episode “Benefits” written by Kourtney Lang. 30 minutes): Taking care of business, take one.

I have mentioned in comments on several Met episodes this season that the writers keep avoiding one of the most interesting storylines they had previously set up: horn-dog Barney in love with Robin. Lang comes back to it with a vengeance in this episode. Robin and Ted have broken up romantically but she had moved in as his roommate. They discover they argue more as roommates than they did when they were dating. Robin thinks they should have sex to release the tension. They do, but the gang finds out. Ted and Robin agree to stop, to maintain their friendship. Fat chance. Meanwhile, Barney is more and more upset and pretending he is not. Whenever the talk in the bar turns to Ted and Robin, he goes outside and trashes a TV set. He runs out of sets and finally has to buy a new set to trash. Ted realizes Barney is in love with Robin, but Barney denies it. Since he can’t talk to the gang about it, he goes to Lily’s grade school class on “sharing feelings day.” Finally he goes to the apartment and confronts Robin, but he bungles it, and she does not pick up on what he is trying to say. By dealing with all of this, Lang gives the entire cast, but especially Neil Patrick Harris as Barney, a lot of great material to work with. And there is something at stake.

On the other hand, they have a running gag in this episode about “reading a magazine” as a euphemism for masturbation. O.K., but then somebody actually says that it is a euphemism for masturbation. Would Seinfeld have needed to spell it out? I don’t think so.

Two and a Half Men (2009. Episode “Thank God for Scoliosis,” teleplay by Chuck Lorre & Mark Roberts, story by Eddie Gorodetsky & Jim Patterson. Episode “I Think You Offended Don” written by Lee Aronsohn & Don Foster & Mark Roberts. 30 minutes): Taking care of business, take two.

I have mentioned in comments on several Men episodes this season that the writers keep avoiding one of the most interesting storylines they have available: Jake is hitting puberty. So in these two episodes they eventually do.

In the first, Alan and his receptionist Melissa flirt, kiss, both apologize, kiss again. They are like Ted and Robin in Met. Alan and Charlie have a nice scene talking about Melissa. The next morning Berta the cleaning lady eventually gets into the discussion about Melissa, or as she refers to her, “Tinkerbell with knockers.” Berta recommends against sex between an employer and employee, recalling a fling she had in the seventies with Telly Savalas. She says “Sooner or later you wake up with a broken heart and a lollipop stuck to your keester.”

A brief pause here to consider the glory that is Conchata Ferrell, who plays Berta. She has been a great American character actress for thirty years. She is one of those performers who, when she shows up on screen, the audience smiles and relaxes because we know we will be in good hands for however long she is there. Berta originally was supposed to be just a one-shot part, but the showrunners realized what they had and have kept her on as a regular cast member. She gets more lines in the scene under discussion here than she usually does, and she delivers. Usually she only has a couple of lines per episode, but she knocks those out of the park as well. And here is how seeing somebody do well in a great role like Berta can affect how you see them in real life. I know Conchata slightly, since I work with her husband. And whenever I see her, I am always a little surprised that not every line out of her mouth is one of Berta’s zingers. Even great actors require great writing. Listen to her deliver the “keester” line and you’ll see what I mean.

To return to tonight’s symposium. Jake. As Alan is dealing with Melissa and her truly wacko mother, Charlie takes Jake to dinner at a bar, where Janine, the waitress, takes a shine to … Jake. In a big sister sort of way. She invites Jake and Charlie to her place for a real dinner. After dinner Charlie wants Jake to wait in the car, but Jake is determined to stick around, thinking in his adolescent way (or maybe he just saw The Reader) he may have a chance with Janine. He doesn’t, but he outwits Charlie, a first for Jake. Sniff, sniff, our boy is growing up.

In “I Think…” the writers are also dealing with the fact that Judith is pregnant and Alan and we know it was from her one-night quickie with him. She insists they never had unprotected sex. Charlie thinks Jake is upset at the idea of a baby sister, but he’s not. There is a girl who wants to “hook up” with him at a party. He feels embarrassed that he is not more experienced sexually. Charlie gives him advice (and actually not bad advice to give to a 14-year-old boy in those circumstances: admit you don’t know much and hope to learn from her) and Jake is determined to go to the party. But then he decides not to. Sniff, sniff, maybe our boy is not growing up.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit(2009. Episode “Hothouse” written by Charley Davis. 60 minutes): A small step for one actress, a giant leap for all actresses.

Back in the seventies, when women cops showed up in television shows, they seemed to spend most their time working undercover dressed as hookers. The TV Guide logline for this episode was “Benson poses as a madam.” Wow, undercover women cops have graduated from prostitutes to madams.

Except that is not what the episode is about. Dead girl, 14-years-old, from the Ukraine. Everybody assumes from the bruises that she was a hooker. So Benson goes undercover as a madam and approaches a guy they think brings girls in from the Ukraine. She dresses much better than the women cops in the seventies. They arrest the guy, but the only thing he can tell them is that she was not a hooker, but a math whiz. End of Act One. And Benson’s pseudo-madam is out of the story for good.

Now if we can just stop promoting shows with “Benson poses as a madam”…

CSI (2009. Episode “One to Go” written by Carol Mendelsohn & Naren Shankar. 60 minutes): What, Grisson hasn’t left YET?

In US#13 I complimented the writers on CSI for handling Grissom’s leaving in a relatively realistic way. It may just be that this episode comes so long in real time after the previous one, but it struck me they were dragging it out. Several short scenes with some of the team repeat what we have seen in previous episodes. When they finally solve the case and Grissom is actually leaving, the writers do give him a nice walk through the lab. He’s looking at everybody doing their jobs. And he gets a nice goodbye wink from Catherine.

On the other hand, the writers do not quite have the range yet on Professor Langston and Laurence Fishburne. Perhaps it is obvious because they do on the other characters and the actors who have played them for years. The writers need to work this out as they figure out who Langston is and what Fishburne can do with him. If you look at the early episodes of many great TV series, it takes both the writers and the actors (that’s why it is called a collaborative medium) a while to find the groove. The smart money is on these writers and Fishburne.

ER (2009. Episode “Dream Runner” written by Lisa Zwerling. 60 minutes): Domesticated surrealism.

One of the tricks of writing for a television series is that a series over time sets up its own rules. You know there are certain things you can do in ER that you can’t do in Grey’s Anatomy (like have intelligent characters behave intelligently). And unless the showrunners are willing to or have to make big changes (letting Grissom go and bringing Langston onto CSI) you can’t bend the mold too much. Zwerling does some interesting playing around with the character of Neela in this episode, and does it in a way ER normally doesn’t.

In the first two acts we get the basic situation set up: Neela is still dealing with Anna, a young girl with Sickle Cell Anemia. Meanwhile, a patient who is a “Dream Runner” is brought in. A Dream Runner gets up while he is dreaming and behaves as though his dream was real. In this case the guy jumped out a window.

Then in the third act, we get an alternative version of the same day. The Dream Runner, who died in the pervious version, stays alive in this one. In the fourth act, we get another alternate version, this time with Anna appearing to die. In the fifth act, we get another version where Anna lives. In other words, what we have is sort of a Run, Lola, Run episode, but a lot of the variations are relatively minor, such as Neela passing different people in the stairwell, or either Jerry or Archie riding Archie’s father’s motorcycle. The most interesting of the variations is that in all of them Neela is more forceful about suggesting treatments. She has always been a bit of a wuss, and it is nice to see her man up, but how much of that will continue in “real life” in the series? How much can you change in a series?

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

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Interview: J. Hoberman Talks Make My Day, Ronald Reagan, and ‘80s Movie Culture

Hoberman discusses how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered Reagan’s presidency.



They Live
Photo: Film at Lincoln Center

The poster boy of American conservatism, the bar to which all Republicans would unashamedly evaluate future candidates, and yet now seemingly lower on a weekly basis, Ronald Reagan was an ideal movie star with an idealized view of the past. His perfect America would be equivalent to the opening shots of red roses, green lawns, and white picket fences that kick off Blue Velvet, while America’s reality would be what transpires once Bobby Vinton’s song concludes and the swarming ants are revealed beneath the surface.

A time of Hollywood blockbusters and silver screen patriots, macho men and teens headed back to the future, the 1980s, while not considered a golden movie age, saw a symbiotic relationship between American film and the nation’s chosen leader. How else to account for Reagan proposing his “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative in March of 1983, a mere two months before the release of the year’s top grossing film, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi?

With his methodically researched new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman takes a sociological approach to discovering how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered the goings-on of our 40th president’s administration. And on the occasion of the book’s release and accompanying Film at Lincoln Center series, which samples feature films from the ‘80s, I spoke with Hoberman about the first Reagan screen performance he ever saw, being a working film critic during the “Age of Reagan,” and the unexpected rise of real estate mogul and Celebrity Apprentice host Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.

One of your most revered books is Vulgar Modernism, a collection of reviews and essays written during the ‘80s without the benefit, or trappings, of historical hindsight. Now 30-some-odd years later, you’ve taken a step back to take a look at the bigger picture of the decade. What was that experience like?

I should say that this book was the culmination of two earlier books, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War. Make My Day is the end of a trilogy. When I began writing the trilogy, I didn’t realize how central Reagan would be to it, but by the time I started Make My Day, he had become, in effect, the protagonist of the entire trilogy. Make My Day was different from the other two books. It’s not just that I lived through this period, but that I was then a working critic. How was I going to deal with that? In the earlier books, I went out of my way to quote critics and others who wrote about movies because I was very interested in how these films were initially received. In the case of Make My Day, however, it seemed absurd to quote other critics when I was there myself. It took me a while to come to that conclusion because my impulse wasn’t to put myself in the book and yet I realized that I would ultimately have to.

I found that my opinion of the various movies discussed hadn’t changed all that much. My opinion of Reagan was modified somewhat, in that I saw him as a more complicated figure than I did during the 1980s, but I also believe my response to him in the ‘80s was true to the moment. That’s why I included a number of longer pieces in the book, while also annotating them, so that one could see that I wasn’t just reusing the material without thinking about it.

You note that each volume can be read in chronological order, the order in which they were published, or as standalone installments. I took it up after finishing your and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies, and it felt like I was emerging from the pre-’80s underground to a Reaganized American society that had become depressingly anything but countercultural. What was it like being on the underground and Hollywood beat as a critic throughout those years?

I didn’t really start reviewing the blockbuster films until around 1984. I was the Village Voice’s second-string critic when Andrew Sarris, the first-string critic, fell ill, and I took his spot for a while. As a result, I was reviewing movies that I might otherwise not have. To make things interesting for myself, I began reviewing these movies from a political and ideological perspective. Even when Andy came back, that stayed with me. So, for example, there were a lot of action films during that period that Andy was very glad not to review, like Top Gun, but I did those while also reviewing foreign films, avant-garde films, documentaries, and so on. I always said that I could never be a first-string critic for a newspaper. I would have lost my mind having a steady diet of big Hollywood movies! I would have had to mix things up.

While midnight movies aren’t the primary focus of Make My Day, the underground did find a way into your reviews of ‘80s blockbusters. I recall a review in the Voice titled “White Boys: Lucas, Spielberg, and the Temple of Dumb” in which you tear down the nostalgic Indiana Jones prequel while praising Jack Smith’s nostalgic Normal Love. Was it maddening for you to review the latest Spielberg while underground artists concurrently made the same points to much smaller audiences?

That was really something that came from the heart. I was outraged by Temple of Doom, by its attitude, and I was really sick of these guys, Spielberg and Lucas. I wanted to bring out that there were other forms of filmmaking and other ways of dealing with this material. I was making a point, yes, but it was something that was fueled by emotion rather than reason.

Were there any Spielberg films, or Spielberg-adjacent films like Gremlins or Poltergeist, that you found less than risible throughout the Reagan years?

There were some that I preferred. I liked Gremlins quite a bit, and I enjoyed Back to the Future, which is Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. At the time, I didn’t much care for Poltergeist, but when I looked at it again for the book, I thought it was interesting in terms of its pathology. I should also say that I liked Jaws and E.T., to a degree, although it was no Blade Runner.

Though primarily concerned with Regan’s political reign, you also dig deep into his filmography, noting how his sole villainous role, in The Killers, has always prompted a vocal reaction from every audience you’ve watched it with. Why do you think that is?

Well, I’m not sure that’s still true. A friend recently saw The Killers at Film Forum and told me he was sort of shocked that people didn’t respond to the scene where Reagan slaps Angie Dickinson. The first time I saw The Killers, which was, I think, in June of 1969, I didn’t expect to see Reagan in it. I don’t think I had seen him in a movie before. I was well aware of who he was, of course, and I hated him because I had been at Berkeley the previous summer, when students were public enemy number one and there were disturbances every night—the whole thing was extremely compelling for me as a 19-year-old. The point I wanted to make was that my whole view of Reagan was predicated on The Killers. To me, he seemed to be playing himself. I had a very naïve response. I couldn’t understand why he would do the role. I mean, what crazy hubris prompted him to show what he dreamed of becoming on screen? I recognize my response as primitive, but it also demonstrates the power of movie images. I didn’t see him as acting, even though he clearly is. I saw it as him projecting his evil, bastardly essence.

Speaking of essence, it’s odd re-watching Donald Trump’s numerous cameos in American film and television. Unlike Reagan’s silver-screen presence, Trump literally always played himself: an obscenely rich braggadocio. Whereas Reagan’s “lovable” persona no doubt helped his later career in politics, Trump’s media appearances helped to fortify his reputation as an arrogant huckster.

This is the point I tried to make at the end of the book. I was surely thinking about Trump a lot while writing the book, but he only became president when I was close to finishing it. Trump may have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but it doesn’t come as a result of the movies. He’s a celebrity and a celebrity is someone who’s able to project a cartoon version of themselves, or a larger-than-life version of themselves, into the media world: TV, the tabloid press, and so on. Trump is being true to this persona. I didn’t really see Trump’s presidency coming. For me, he was a New York City character, a local celebrity who was regularly exposed in the Village Voice’s narrative of New York City corruption. I had no sense of how he existed to the rest of America, in Celebrity Apprentice. Clearly that’s what put him over, or at least helped to put him over. That and his appearances on Fox News as a kind of pundit and even his involvement with professional wrestling.

As you mention in your book, the uncomfortably awkward 1979 CBS Ted Kennedy sit-down interview with Roger Mudd ultimately derailed Kennedy’s attempt at a presidential run. It’s hard to imagine, given the feckless attempts by our current political leaders to appear like an everyman, that current presidential candidates’ chances could be derailed by the televised struggle to answer a basic question. If anything, we might view the guffaw as endearing and humanizing. Trump says dumb stuff on a daily basis, and we all just accept it. Have we become desensitized to politicians being put on the spot and not being able to come up with succinct answers?

I think it’s different for different candidates. Being the younger brother of J.F.K., who was the first real political star, created a lot of expectations. People credit Kennedy’s success in the 1960 election with his appearance in the first debate, for looking so much better than Nixon. That may be simplistic, but it’s not simplistic for people to think that TV had something to do with Kennedy becoming president. I think this is a case of “live by the sword, die by the sword,” that his brother just stumbled so badly in that interview, in what was essentially his television debut. He did go on all the way to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, but the myth of the Kennedy charm and invincibility was destroyed by that interview.

Looking at subsequent presidents, Reagan certainly had an elastic sense of reality. But in his distortions and lies and misstatements, he was by and large upbeat and, when he wasn’t, he was at least coherent. Trump lies so continuously that you feel that that must be part of his appeal for his base, that he’s just going to make this stuff up. They think it’s funny or entertaining or maybe that it represents a “greater degree of authenticity.”

There had been a very interesting point made by Theodor W. Adorno about Hitler’s appeal. I’m not saying that Trump is Hitler, but he’s a demagogue and Hitler was too. Adorno, who lived through Hitler’s lies, made the point that intellectuals and serious people didn’t get Hitler’s appeal. Before he came to power, he just seemed like a clown. There was something ridiculous about Hitler’s assertions and his tantrums. What they didn’t realize was that’s precisely what his fans liked about him. I think that’s also the case with Trump and his supporters.

If Nashville, as you point out in the book, foresaw the real-life presidential assassination attempts that were soon to come, could you see the same cinematic influences happening today? Are there films today that you think are foreshadowing things that could come into fruition within our own political future?

Nashville was a movie made at a time when movies were much more central to American culture than they are now. It was made by a filmmaker, Robert Altman, who was directly addressing, as an artist, what was going on. I bracketed Nashville with Jaws because in some respects, Jaws is a similar movie, although I’m not sure if Spielberg was consciously making an allegory. Some things in the film are political, for example the behavior of the Mayor of Amity, but beyond that the movie itself was utterly central to American culture. There was nothing more important during the summer of 1975 than Jaws. There’s no movie that has that kind of centrality anymore, nor do movies as a whole.

A number of television shows seemed to be predicting Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election. There were shows like Madam Secretary and Veep and Homeland, strong, female, political heroes, or, in the case of Veep, comic. But what were they compared to Celebrity Apprentice? Those aforementioned shows were very feeble in terms of reaching an audience and I think it was more a projection of the people who made it. When I look at movies now, and I have to say that I don’t see as many movies as I used to, I see some that seem to manifest things that are in the air. Jordan Peele’s Get Out would be the best example of this. That movie was made and conceived while Obama was president, but it certainly projected the post-Trump mood. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is interesting because, on the one hand, it’s a movie about 1969, and yet it’s also a movie about 2019. It can’t help but manifest some of our current fantasies and tensions. But even if it had a bigger audience than Nashville, people just aren’t taking it the same way.

And Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood presents a cinematic take that has a romanticized, almost fetishistic view of a 1969 that never truly existed, at least not the way Tarantino wishes it did…

Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it. I would put it somewhat differently, but we can let people discover for themselves if they haven’t seen it!

The book also talks a great deal about the revisionism and idealization of specific time periods that were said to represent wholesome Americana. The ‘50s is a big one, but as you point out, the movies’ view of the ‘50s were drastically different from the one the world actually experienced. I remember growing up in the ‘90s convinced Happy Days was a TV show not just about the ‘50s, but from the ‘50s itself.

That makes perfect sense, and I think other people share that same experience. The genius of that show is that it portrayed the ‘50s “as it should have been.” Jean Baudrillard has a memorable description of walking in to see Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 black-and-white film The Last Picture Show and, for a moment, thinking it was actually a movie from the period it depicted: the early ‘50s. It was a hyper-real version of it. That’s what Happy Days was. I think Reagan’s genius was to be able to do that on a larger scale, to conjure up an idealized ‘60s almost out of whole cloth, vague memories, old television, and old movies in his own conviction, even if that was ultimately a fantasy. It was an idealization of the period.

On the occasion of your book’s release, you’ve programmed a selection of double features for an upcoming series at Film at Lincoln Center. Outside of a closeness in release dates, like The Last Temptation of Christ and They Live, what went into the pairing up of certain titles?

I appreciate that question. I really love the concept of double bills. Whenever it’s possible, I like to teach using double bills, because then the movies can talk to each other—and I don’t have to talk as much. Ideally the movies should comment on each other. The reason for including The Last Temptation of Christ was a bit tricky. I thought that the response that it got certainly looked forward to the culture wars of the ‘90s. There was such hostility directed toward that movie and, by extension, the movie industry as a whole. As Trump would say, it was as “an enemy of the people.” And to me, They Live seems to be the bluntest, most direct critique of Reaganism ever delivered, and it was delivered at the very, very end of his presidency. In a sense, it was already over, as the film came out just before the 1988 presidential election. I see both They Live and The Last Temptation as political movies, one overtly political and one that was taken in a political manner.

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Review: Vita & Virginia Leaves the Nuances of a Love Affair to the Imagination

The film frequently falls back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.




Vita & Virginia
Photo: IFC Films

When capricious socialite and writer Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) first glimpses Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) at a bohemian party in Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia, the latter is the midst of a dance, her head leaning back and arms freely swaying in the air. It’s an uncharacteristic moment of outgoingness for the author, who by this time in the early 1920s has had only modest success, and the throbbing ambient techno music that underscores the scene lends her and Vita’s desires a strange and striking modernity. But the film doesn’t fully commit to such anachronistic flourishes in its portrait of the two women’s tumultuous love affair, instead frequently falling back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.

Vita’s deviousness and unpredictability does, for a time, make for some compelling proto-feminist drama, thanks in large part to Arterton’s bold performance. Vita is amusingly blasé in the face of both her heiress mother, Lady Sackville (Isabella Rossellini), who protests to her dressing as a man and openly having affairs with women, and her diplomat husband, Harold (Rupert Penry-Jones), completely dismissing his concerns about maintaining their marriage of convenience. Elsewhere, Debicki is left with the difficult task of dramatizing Virginia’s escalating strife, and with little help from a script that basically skirts over the serious mental health issues that plagued Woolf throughout her life. In fact, Virginia’s joys and struggles as they arise from Vita’s hot-and-cold treatment of her are rarely given any concrete form aside from the occasional ham-fisted touch of CGI-enhanced magical realism, as when vines grow out of the woodwork when Virginia returns home after first sleeping with Vita.

Outside of these moments, Virginia’s interiority is given similarly blunt expression through her relationships with her passive yet understanding husband, Leonard (Peter Ferdinando), her lively artist sister, Vanessa (Emerald Fennell), and Vanessa’s roommate, the flamboyant painter Duncan Grant (Adam Gillen). Each of these archetypes always seems to be conveniently on hand to explicitly outline the details of Virginia’s emotional state. The only time her thoughts and emotions, as well as Vita’s, are articulated with any nuance is through a series of epistolary interludes that see Arterton and Debicki reading the love letters that Sackville-West and Woolf wrote to one another. And yet, these moments are so awkwardly and unimaginatively incorporated into the film, with the actresses speaking their words directly into the camera, that the letters’ flowery language is effectively drained of its poeticism.

Vita & Virginia eventually lands on Woolf writing her breakthrough novel, Orlando, which was inspired by her relationship with Sackville-West. But as Button gives us only a vague sense of what drew these two vastly different women together, she leaves to the imagination how Sackville-West had such a lasting and profound effect on one of the great authors of the 20th century. In Orlando, Woolf writes, “Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth.” There’s more ambiguity, complexity, or passion in that one line regarding the elusive and illusory qualities of Vita’s love for Virginia than there is in all of Button’s film.

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isabella Rossellini, Rupert Penry-Jones, Peter Ferdinando, Emerald Fennell, Gethin Anthony, Rory Fleck Byrne, Karla Crome Director: Chanya Button Screenwriter: Chanya Button Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ready or Not Ribs the One Percent with More Laughs than Horror

Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot.




Ready or Not
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s horror film Ready or Not is centered around a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek, and if that sounds unconscionably silly, at least the filmmakers are aware of that. Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy’s screenplay embraces the inherent absurdity of this premise, concocting an elaborate narrative justification as to why a bunch of grown-ups would be engaged in a murderous version of the classic kids’ game. It all boils down to a family ritual: Anyone marrying into the obscenely wealthy Le Domas clan must play a game at midnight on their wedding night, and this game, which is selected at random by a puzzle box, could be anything from old maid to checkers.

Bright-eyed good girl Grace (Samara Weaving), who’s just wedded the family’s favorite son, Alex (Mark O’Brien), gets picked to play hide-and-seek, and that’s where the trouble begins. Because while the other games proceed in perfectly ordinary fashion, the Le Domases have made a violent mythology surrounding this one game: The family must capture its newest member and slaughter them in a ritual sacrifice before sunrise, or else each family member will be cursed to die. And so, the Le Domases give Grace time to hide anywhere she likes in their sprawling country manor before they set out with rifles and crossbows to find her.

Gradually, the convoluted family mythology comes to overtake the goofy simplicity of the film’s premise, and to the point that one is apt to forget that a game of hide-and-seek is even going on. But Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett keep things lively with a lavish visual style that nods toward Kubrick’s The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, and even Barry Lyndon, while still maintaining an identity of its own. Lit mostly with candles, the sprawling villa in which the film mostly takes place assumes a creepy aura reminiscent of the opulently spooky house in Robert Wise’s The Haunting. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett’s mildly showy use of long takes and lithe camera movements exhibit an ironic grandiosity that suits the film’s light-hearted sadism.

Funny but not quite a comedy, Ready or Not, to its credit, leans in to the arbitrariness of its own myths and rules. Some of the members of the Le Domas clan aren’t even sure they believe in their family curse, and they bicker over whether they should be allowed to utilize modern technology, such as their mansion’s security cameras, to track Grace down. But the film’s constant reiteration and reevaluation of the Le Domases’ goofy traditions can sometimes make things feel repetitive and slightly exhausting, impressions which are enhanced by the lackadaisical handling of the film’s kills. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett primarily employ violence for laughs, but they frequently flub the punchline with a confusingly quick edit or an awkwardly shaky handheld shot. Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot. But this gonzo capper has the effect of retroactively diminishing the tame, uninventive bloodshed that preceded it.

Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O'Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Nicky Guadagni, Elyse Levesque, John Ralston Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett Screenwriter: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Jawline Takes a Measured Look at Social Media Stardom

The film is refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.




Photo: Hulu

The perma-glossy avatar of our profit-minded social media era is the cheery influencer, that species of professional bon vivant who seems perpetually more put together than anyone could be. Liza Mandelup’s debut documentary feature, Jawline, traces the dynamics that drive such influencers, their intensely adoring fans, and the malicious managers who try to turn a profit on them, and it’s refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.

The film begins on Austyn Tester, a sweet, poor Tennessee teen with a few thousand followers across Instagram, Twitter,, and YouNow who’s itching to escape his hometown and become an online celebrity. Mandelup mostly focuses on his daily efforts toward achieving that fame, including his semi-disciplined uploading regimen and the many retakes required to snag the perfect post. He spends much of his times posting, singing, and assuaging his young fans’ personal frustration on live chat. Only a slight variant on his actual personality, Austyn’s online brand, a “follow your dreams, no matter what” sort of positivity, would be unremarkable if it weren’t for its apparent impact on his teen girl fans.

Several of these fans are interviewed throughout the film. Each one is grappling with unique problems, from abusive families to bullying, though all of them justify their interest in Austyn and his peers for their willingness to listen, emphasizing the therapeutic effect of his livestreams. Jawline displays a certain evenhandedness here. The girls’ intense reliance on a stranger for comfort is uncomfortable to watch, but the film doesn’t trivialize this dependence. In an act of fan service, Austyn meets with a small group of girls at a local mall where their intense affections make themselves plain. Mandelup records them pushing an uncomfortable Austyn to ride around motorized stuffed animals so they can post it on Instagram, all the while demanding affirmations from him. Later, one girl forces him to share his phone number with her. Here, Jawline suggests a limit to his affection for them, if it ever existed, as well as the emotionally transactional nature of the relationship between fan and influencer.

The libidinal peak of this surreal relationship, though, occurs when Austyn and other influencers go on tour, performing shows for adoring fans with the hopes of upping their follower count in the process. On stage, the teens pose with fans, sing, and dance, all without any clear knack for it, in what amount to in-person livestreams. In this moment, there isn’t much that can be said about these largely cookie-cutter performers except that they’re toned, twinky, and peppy, and their fans love them for it. Mandelup’s footage of their displays is transfixing, not because the performances are spectacular—the shows are expensive to attend but often happen in dingy unadorned venues—but because the nearly contentless shows are only about the fans’ adulation. From an outsiders’ perspective, there’s a dizzying mismatch between the palpable intensity of their fervor and what they’re actually responding to.

How to relate to teen girls, how to monetize what’s relatable, and how to make the content more relatable and more profitable? These are the sorts of questions pondered by social media talent manager Michael Weist. He’s great to watch in the way reality TV villains are, as his success is propelled by a well-known combo of business sense, greed, and probable chicanery (appropriately, he finds himself in legal trouble by the film’s end). Around 21 years old, Weist has somehow marketed himself into a role as an authority figure on social media stardom, roping in young wannabe celebs and growing their followings. He’s turned a house in L.A. into a content factory, living there with his clients while haranguing them into posting, recording, and being on call 24/7 for their needs. Ever-candid, Weist reveals his long game at one point without being prompted: to run influencers through the content mill before they’re old enough to drink, at which point he can move on to the next hot prospect seeking fame.

At the heart of Weist’s efforts is the exploitation of Austyn’s more successful colleagues to commodify young girls’ emotions. Jawline is most fascinating when it tracks this process in action. Mandelup doesn’t draw as much attention to it as she could, meandering through IRL details that don’t quite elucidate or explain as much as they pretend to and don’t measure up to the retina-display realities of virtual stardom. A similar problem shows up in the documentary’s way of depicting tween girls. One notable scene involves slow-motion portraits of the fans accompanied by their disembodied voiceovers explaining why they spend so much time online. The scene is conceived in the spirit of chromatic maximalism, with the girls brightly lit against floral-print and pastel backgrounds, in a manner that humanizes their experience but flattens their differences, as if one were the precondition of the other. The style presents their range of justifications for standom as more or less equivalent to each other, reducing these girls to the same faceless morass of drives that Weist cashes in on.

More importantly, while Jawline’s depictions of predatory managers, overblown hopes, and obsessive followers spell out reasons to be despondent about the way this economy works, the film doesn’t look past its narrow horizon. There’s little indication of how this phenomenon is so profitable or how wide reaching this it is. Instead, Jawline offers a deflationary, measured suggestion that the current crop of influencers differs only in quantity from celebrity cults in Hollywood or the music industry. The latest iteration of celebrity is just monetizing a new type of media. All that’s really changed is that the stars burn dimmer and fade younger.

Director: Liza Mandelup Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 99 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Brittany Runs a Marathon Is a Moralizing Buzzkill of a Comedy

The film is inspirational only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.




Brittany Runs a Marathon
Photo: Amazon Studios

Watching writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Brittany Runs a Marathon is a bit like listening to a runner describe a motivational poster—the type with a single-word slogan below a stock photograph—that inspired them to persevere as they trained themselves to be a serious runner. Sensing that such overt preachiness would be irksome, the film cloaks its proselytizing in self-aware jokes about how much more pleasurable sitting around is than running and a token acknowledgment that there’s nothing wrong with being out of shape. But the screenplay’s cute, if somewhat insipid, humor doesn’t prevent the film from feeling self-righteous. Indeed, for a comedy about a woman who makes a personal decision to get in shape, Brittany Runs a Marathon sure engages in a lot of moralizing.

At the start of the film, twentysomething Brittany (Jillian Bell) is overweight and working part time as an usher for a small off-Broadway theater, which somehow provides enough income for her to regularly drink champagne at high-end clubs with her roommate, Gretchen (Alice Lee). Walking back to their Queens apartment after nights of hard drinking and eating greasy food, they often catch their uptight, bougie neighbor, Catherine (Erica Hernandez), going out for an early morning run, seemingly judging them for their indulgence. It’s only a matter of time, then, before Brittany is informed by a Yelp-recommended doctor (Patch Darragh) that her lifestyle has led to elevated blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass index—and an ominous close-up on the doctor’s chart shows us that she’s crossed over into obese terrain.

And so Brittany begins running, ill-advisedly, in her beat-up Chuck Taylors, which she soon upgrades to spotless, turquoise New Balances. Catherine, for some reason forgiving of Brittany’s persistent churlishness, introduces the young woman to a local running club. What follows is surely intended to inspire laughs of recognition in audience members who picked up running in adulthood, as the neophyte Brittany hangs out at the back of the group with a fellow reformed slacker, Seth (Micah Stock). The new trio sets themselves an ambitious goal: to complete the New York Marathon the following November.

The film makes jokes about how hard running can be, but there’s an earnestness behind such humor that leaves certain sacred cows untouched. Most of these have to do with the self—namely, self-discipline, self-love, and self-actualization. As the film sees it, all those things can be realized through running. Seth may joke about how ready he is to stop, or how much he’d rather be doing something else, but he keeps going, and if Brittany cheats on her diet and eats some cheese fries, it’s portrayed as a dramatic, shameful misstep. We’re told over and over that Brittany is valued by her friends, old and new, because she’s funny, but we see scant evidence of this, particularly as her devotion to running takes on a quite pious dimension.

Arriving for comic relief and romantic interest is Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who works the night shifts at the same house-sitting service where Brittany has begun picking up hours during the day to fund her marathon training. Casually trashing the house they’re meant to be looking after, Jern supplies Brittany Runs a Marathon with the levity that began to evaporate from the film as soon as Brittany started exercising. But as her flirtatiously contentious relationship with Jern deepens, the other parts of her life become a plodding series of confrontations. Her improving self-image emboldens Brittany to kick Gretchen to the curb, accusing her friend of having always viewed her as a “fat sidekick.”

It’s a fair enough grievance for the character to have, but at a certain point in Brittany’s active defense of herself, the film takes on a self-righteous tone, associating its protagonist’s newfound healthy living with virtuousness and seeing Gretchen as despicable for her profligate lifestyle. Brittany Runs a Marathon’s positioning of exercise as a moral triumph is nothing more than a marketing technique, as Colaizzo’s film is “inspirational” only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.

Cast: Jillian Bell, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Michaela Watkins, Lil Rel Howrey, Micah Stock, Mikey Day, Alice Lee, Dan Bittner, Peter Vack, Patch Darragh Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo Screenwriter: Paul Downs Colaizzo Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Official Secrets Is an Ambitious Muckraking Thriller Prone to Melodrama

Gavin Hood wrings suspense out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts.




Official Secrets
Photo: IFC Films

Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets is a muckraking thriller that revels in wonderfully lived-in details as well as generic biopic platitudes. The film tells a story that might have caused a sensation in Britain and the U.S. had it not been drowned out by those nations’ war machines. In 2003, Katherine Gun, a British translator for an intelligence agency, leaked an email in which the American National Security Agency urged for surveillance of pivotal members of the U.N. Security Council. This operation was for the purpose of blackmailing the U.N. into voting for the American invasion of Iraq (which President George W. Bush authorized later that year anyway, without the U.N.’s approval). Katherine leaked this email, and faced prosecution from her government under the Official Secrets Act of 1989.

In the film’s first half, the filmmakers offer a fastidious glimpse at how the press responds to Katherine’s (Kiera Knightley) whistleblowing. Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), Martin Bright (Matt Smith), and Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) are anti-war reporters for The Observer, which is in favor of the war and eager to maintain its relationship with Tony Blair’s government. Hood wrings suspense, and docudramatic fascination, out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts. Various jargon in the N.S.A. email is decoded, as insiders weigh its legitimacy. An intensification of surveillance is referred to as a “surge effort,” intelligence sources are “product lines,” and so forth.

This sort of commitment to texture is reminiscent of the novels of John Le Carré, as are the juicy scenes in which Beaumont and Bright reach out to people in the MI6 and the British government. Though Hood isn’t a moody stylist in the key of, say, Alan J. Pakula, his handling of the film’s actors is sharp, as their crisp and musical cadences allow the audience to understand that every spoken word matters, and that, if the reporters misstep at any time, they could potentially lose more than their contacts.

Katherine is eventually defended by an attorney, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), who has vast experience with human rights cases and with working within the labyrinthine British government. Fiennes’s probing, tormented, erudite charisma is always pleasurable, but this section of Official Secrets, meant to provide the legal counterpoint to the journalism thread, is shortchanged, as Hood starts to juggle too many balls at once. Interspersed with Emmerson’s adventurous interpretation of the Official Secrets Act are moments in which Katherine must rush to prevent her Turkish-Kurdish husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), from being deported out of an obvious retaliation against Katherine. These scenes are unimaginatively staged and unmoving—a sop to melodrama that temporarily halts the film’s procedural momentum.

It’s strange that the domestic dimension of the protagonist’s life should feel like clutter, which underscores a larger issue with Official Secrets: Katherine herself isn’t especially compelling as rendered here, as she almost entirely operates in the formula mode of aggrieved, persecuted, self-righteous avenger. A major ellipsis in the narrative is telling, as the British government forces Katherine to wait almost a year in limbo before deciding whether or not to persecute her, which Hood skips to keep the story moving. The emotional toil of such a year could’ve provided a personal counterpoint to the film’s political gamesmanship. As it is, the filmmaker reduces Katherine to a supporting character in her own story.

Cast: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Indira Varma, MyAnna Buring, Rhys Ifans, Tamsin Greig, Jack Farthing, Hattie Morahan, Conleth Hill, Katherine Kelly, Kenneth Cranham, Hanako Footman, Adam Bakri Director: Gavin Hood Screenwriter: Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein, Gavin Hood Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Tigers Are Not Afraid Wrings Preciousness from a Drug War’s Carnage

It never resolves its commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma.




Tigers Are Not Afraid
Photo: Shudder

Writer-director Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a tapestry of flourishes. All are inseparable from Mexico’s gangland carnage, but its most memorable one is also rooted in magical-realist tradition, namely 100 Years of Solitude. The novel tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, and in one particularly exacting and vivid passage, master fabulist Gabriel García Márquez details how the seemingly eternal Ursula Iguarán learns of her son José Arcadio’s death after a trickle of blood from his body winds its way through war-torn Macondo, around corners, across terraces, down steps, and over curbs, before finally arriving at his mother’s doorstep. “Holy mother of God,” she says.

Ursula comprehends the truth of that thread of blood even before it leads her back to her son’s body. By contrast, the protagonist of Tigers Are Not Afraid, Estrella (Paola Lara), prevaricates so as to put distance between herself and the horrors around her. “We forget who we are, when the things from outside come to get us,” she says in voiceover at the start of the film. She doesn’t see the line of blood that runs from a dead man’s head and follows her all the way home until it’s already tracing a path across her living room floor and up a wall, finally creating the shape of an insect on a dress that hangs from the ceiling. Estrella’s mother is missing, and in this moment, the girl seems to know that she’s being sent a message, which she won’t learn to decipher until she becomes more fluent in the language of fairy tales.

At its most assured, Tigers Are Not Afraid strikingly literalizes the idea of the ties that bind, suggesting how the living and the dead walk hand in hand, almost as a matter of course, in a modern-day Mexico where 160,000 have been killed and 53,000 have disappeared since the beginning of the drug war in 2006. Before Estrella stumbles upon the aforementioned dead man’s body, you get the sense that today isn’t the first time she’s seen boys use police tape as limbo sticks, or dragged her fingers across walls riddled with bullet holes. Which isn’t to say that the girl is desensitized to this violence. She seems to almost exist at a remove from it, and López sensitively syncs the swaying of her camera to the girl’s visible numbness.

That sensitivity, however, proves to be a kind of redundancy. Throughout Tigers Are Not Afraid, López effectively conjures an aura of ordinariness, but she never resolves her commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma. The film concerns Estrella and a group of orphaned boys going head to head with a cartel after young El Shine (Juan Ramón López) swipes a gun and phone from the treacherous El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), and when that narrative isn’t picking up signals from the supernatural realm, you sense its allegiance to so many films indebted to the neorealist tradition, from Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados to Héctor Babenco’s Pixote. Tigers Are Not Afraid is alive to the harsh reality of its main characters’ lives, though at times it feels as if López’s only means of accessing that truth is by conspicuously shaking her camera.

As for the film’s supernatural flourishes, none are as inspired as that thread of blood that trails Estrella at various points. Little flying creatures suggest visitors from Guillermo del Toro’s cabinet of curiosities, while a gathering of ghosts inside an expansive, derelict building brings to mind a Silent Hill freak-out. And in the case of the tiger graffiti on a wall that comes to life at one point, there isn’t even the sense that we’re watching the dead’s handiwork. After a while, death’s intrusions come to feel more cosmetic than substantial.

Early in the film, López fascinatingly suggests that Estrella’s perception of the world, after a teacher grants her three wishes, is both shield and sword. But after the girl uses one of those wishes to commit an act of brutality, the film’s fairy-tale conceit reveals itself as an engine for easy absolution. By the time the girl arrives at an understanding of her world that isn’t too far removed from the logic of her opening voiceover, Tigers Are Not Afraid has so given itself over to feeling the innocence of cocooning that it only effectively haunts us with its preciousness.

Cast: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas, Tenoch Huerta, Nery Arredondo, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero Director: Issa López Screenwriter: Issa López Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 83 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette Serves Up Lifetime-Grade Chestnuts of Wisdom

The film is a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.




Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

The opening passages of Where’d You Go, Bernadette include a handful of scenes in which an agoraphobic architect and mother, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), restlessly expresses her internal thoughts inside the empty rooms of her Seattle mansion. Observed in flowing Steadicam shots, these soliloquies—recorded and translated to text by Manjula, the digital assistant on Bernadette’s smartphone—give space to reflect on how the woman’s eclectic furnishings grow out of her racing mental landscape. And in performing them, Blanchett offers the rare cinematic spectacle of a mother in her alone time, compelled to let her imagination and anxieties loose outside the pressures of maternal duty. In these moments, the film, an unapologetically straightforward adaptation of Maria Semple’s best-selling novel, briefly takes on the tone of something candidly personal.

It’s a shame, then, that Where’d You Go, Bernadette is cloyingly beholden to the demands of its crowd-pleasing narrative arc—that of a creative woman driven to ennui by motherhood and middle age yet rescued from the brink by an inspiring vacation and the love of her family. It’s nice, reassuring stuff, not false by any standard, but told with such didacticism and cuteness that one can’t help but be bewildered by the fact that the film was co-written and directed by Richard Linklater. Where the Texas auteur’s leisurely paced Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!! excel in their attention to the nuanced spectacle of characters changing over time, Where’d You Go, Bernadette plays like all of its air has been sucked out in the interest of plot progression, which it conducts with the workshopped efficiency of a television movie mindful of commercial breaks. In fact, with its coverage-dependent mise-en-scène, off-the-rack musical score, and tacked-on bookending voiceovers, Linklater’s latest feels strangely close to something Lifetime might have churned out in the early aughts.

The film establishes its narrative conflicts quickly and bluntly, often through dialogue, simple juxtaposition, and, in one particularly dull case, a YouTube mini-documentary about Bernadette that plays in full in order to clarify her backstory. A brilliant and influential architect in the midst of a long hiatus after a demoralizing relocation and a series of miscarriages, she displaces her creative frustration on her city and its inhabitants, including her prosperous, TED Talks-giving husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup); stuffy neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig); and Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), a gossipy associate of Elgie and friend of Audrey. Her only routine source of joy is her wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), who loves her unconditionally and whom she treats perhaps a bit too much like a peer.

Symptomatic of Linklater’s always-generous worldview, the film sees Bernadette’s quirks not as deficiencies, but as inevitable side effects of life’s persistent curveballs. When the character refers to herself as a “creative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares,” it’s clear that the filmmaker endorses that assessment, and perhaps even recognizes it as a description of his own artistic career. For all their suspicion toward Bernadette, Elgie and Audrey aren’t characterized entirely negatively either, for each is given a path to redemption, and Wiig’s portrayal of her character’s transition from belligerence to empathy in particular is one of the highpoints of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

Rather, in true boomer fashion, Linklater reserves his cynicism for technology, kickstarting the film’s third act with the contrived revelation that Manjula is actually a Russian-operated phishing scheme seeking to steal Bernadette’s identity. This development briefly gets a Department of Homeland Security agent, Marcus Strang (James Urbaniak), and a therapist, Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer), caught up in the narrative, but it’s all really just a busy preamble to the Antarctica family vacation that’s hinted at from the very first scene. Bernadette has her reservations about the trip, Bee thinks it will be cathartic for the family, Elgie is too preoccupied with his career to concern himself with the logistics, and the shadowy forces behind Manjula are poised to swoop in and cause chaos during the scheduled dates.

What ends up happening is neither the transporting escape Bee wants nor the complete disaster Manjula intends to enact, but something messily in between that triggers a coordinated stream of life lessons—and a few uninspired drone shots of icebergs. Indeed, in its eagerness to diagnose Bernadette’s existential impasse, the film lays on thick the kind of back-patting chestnuts of wisdom that have become increasingly common in Linklater’s recent films, groaners like “Popularity is overrated” and “You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna do.” Such sentiments have always been window dressing in Linklater’s nonchalantly libertarian body of work, but if in many cases his films have tacitly acknowledged the limits of language to articulate life’s mysteries, here there’s very little sense of a frontier to be explored. If Bernadette is Linklater and Blanchett’s collaborative expression of the right balance between parenting and artistry, it’s a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening—and privileged—idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Emma Nelson, Zoe Chao, James Urbaniak, Judy Greer Director: Richard Linklater Screenwriter: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, Vincent Palmo Jr. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 130 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

The film is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.




What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
Photo: KimStim

With What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, Roberto Minervini returns to the American South to tell the stories of several African-Americans living in New Orleans, over the summer of 2017. These stories are so self-contained that the documentary comes to suggest an anthology film, which, in this case, has been organized around a pervading theme of how political and personal textures intersect in everyday black life. And in the tradition of the anthology film, Minervini’s material is also variable, suggesting that the filmmaker could’ve been more ruthless in the editing room and less beholden to the pleasures of his self-consciously neat aesthetic.

Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Minervini’s subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew that’s clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titus’s inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocence—an impression that’s affirmed later in the film when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titus’s hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness that’s bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love that’s deeply poignant.

Juxtaposed with this coming-of-age youth narrative are stories of a recovering crack addict, Judy Hill, who’s realized her dream of opening a bar, and of a local chapter of the New Black Panthers, which is investigating and protesting several murders, such as the recent decapitation and burning of a local black man. Intellectually, one can see why Minervini believes these threads belong together, as they both illustrate how African-Americans foster their own infrastructures as a reaction to the corruption and indifference of governments on various levels. But Minervini’s cross-cutting shortchanges both of these story threads. Minervini reveals preciously little about the principle murder that the New Black Panthers are seeking to avenge, using it vaguely as a symbol of Southern atrocity at large, and the practical details of operating Judy’s bar are reduced to sketches. In both cases, the specifics of the subjects’ concerns haven’t been entirely dramatized.

In certain portions of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, particularly those featuring the New Black Panthers, Minervini taps into reservoirs of anger that are nearly at odds with his chilly formalism. The film was shot by D.P. Diego Romero in pristine black and white, with long takes that drink in the details of the landscapes and people’s bodies. One is often encouraged to savor the beauty of the lighting, especially in Judy’s bar, and Minervini eschews typical documentary devices like narration and interviews. In terms of gliding, sumptuous style, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, as both films verge on turning class struggles into moving coffee-table books.

We’re supposed to feel as if we’ve slipped effortlessly into the lives of Minervini’s subjects, which might have been possible if more time had been devoted to pivotal moments. If Minervini wasn’t able to capture the moment when Judy learns that she must close the bar, then perhaps he could’ve wrestled with his inability to capture it. Judy demands a meta-textual approach anyway, as she is a highly charismatic and self-absorbed person who is often clearly performing for the camera, most gratingly when she responds to her mother’s fear of homelessness with a monologue about her own generosity. A filmmaker like Robert Greene might’ve challenged Judy and utilized her for a riff on the power of self-mythology, but Minervini prizes his faux-objectivity; he’s more interested in mood than process or character. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.

Director: Roberto Minervini Screenwriter: Roberto Minervini Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Good Boys’s Raunchy Take on Tweendom Is the Same Old Shtick

Gene Stupnitsky’s film is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action.




Good Boys
Photo: Universal Pictures

Gene Stupnitsky’s Good Boys is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action, though it lacks the Netflix show’s frankness and authenticity. While hearing sixth graders curse and exhibit their burgeoning sexual awareness constitutes the film’s entire gimmick, its coarse language and surprising displays of sexual material mask an inner timidity. In the post-“puberty monster” world ushered in by Big Mouth, a show that cares to acknowledge that girls also experience puberty, both the film’s jokes and easy coming-of-age morality tale seem tame, beautified for an audience it assumes will not want to confront the abjectness of tweens’ emotional and sexual imaginations.

That said, there are laughs to be had in Good Boys, many of them deriving from the main characters’ mistaken understanding of the adult world. Max (Jacob Tremblay), for example, believes that his college-age neighbor, Hannah (Molly Gordon), is a “nymphomaniac” because she has sex both on land and at sea. Thor (Brady Noon), who pretends to possess advanced knowledge and experience in all areas, misinterprets his parents’ sex toys as weapons. And Lucas (Keith L. Williams) comes to believe that Hannah and her friend, Lily (Midori Francis), are irredeemable drug addicts because they want to do the “sex drug” molly.

Max doesn’t know how to kiss girls, and his middle-school mind tells him that the best way to learn is by using his father’s (Will Forte) drone to spy on Hannah kissing her boyfriend, Benji (Josh Caras). That leads to Hannah and Lily taking the drone, and as recompense, Thor steals Hannah’s purse, which contains a vitamin bottle full of molly that the boys promptly lose. Part of the film’s at least outwardly risqué treatment of tween boyhood is that the boys’ possession of and efforts to procure a party drug drives much of the story. And that story is a chain of cause and effect that abides by the protagonists’ middle-school priorities: If Max doesn’t find more molly, he will lose his father’s drone, which means that he never gets to kiss a girl.

The cascading series of absurd situations that are driven by Max’s desire to kiss his crush, Brixlee (Millie Davis), includes the boys trashing a frat house, selling a sex doll to a weirdo (Stephen Merchant), and handing over the bottle full of molly to an oblivious cop (Sam Richardson). (This last bit is as tenuous as a dangling thread for conspicuously missing a punchline, almost as if the filmmakers never got around to shooting it.) In the end, the trio, the so-called “bean bag boys,” must learn that middle school will mean growing apart to some extent: Max is into girls and the sixth-grade social scene, Thor loves theater, and Lucas is a kindly nerd who enjoys card games. That these interests aren’t in the least mutually exclusive, particularly for Generation Z, proves beyond the film’s capacity to acknowledge.

Good Boys’s humor is by and large the same as that of any other male-centric R-rated comedy; if it differentiates itself from other iterations of the genre, it’s through a group of pre-teens making verbosely obscene comments and engaging in gross-out physical comedy. There’s a sense that Good Boys draws open a curtain and peeks into a rarely seen and dimly remembered space of tweendom. But it’s satisfied with just this peek—and as convincingly as the filmmakers can compel their child stars to enunciate obscene exclamations, the film never captures much of the feeling, of the world of childhood experience, in which they might be based. As a result, Good Boys never transcends its Superbad-but-with-11-year-olds shtick.

Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis, Izaac Wang, Millie Davis, Josh Caras, Will Forte, Retta, Lil Rel Howery, Sam Richardson, Stephen Merchant Director: Gene Stupnitsky Screenwriter: Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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