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Understanding Screenwriting #18: Gran Torino, The Tall T, The Man Between, Ugly Betty, The Closer, & More

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Gran Torino

COMING UP IN THIS COLUMN: Gran Torino, Revolutionary Road, The Man Between, The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ugly Betty, CSI, Burn Notice, The Closer, Monk, and Trust Me, but first…

Fan Mail: I agree with Harvey Jerkwater that there is great laconic dialogue in Ride Lonesome. You may find my comments below on the other three films in the set interesting.

As for Brock (thanks for the compliments) and Withnail, you appear to be right that “reading a magazine” is a euphemism for taking a dump rather than masturbation. My wife certainly read it the way you did. Ah, the things one learns doing this column.

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Gran Torino (2008. Screenplay by Nick Schenk, story by Dave Johannson & Nick Schenk. 116 minutes): Can Eastwood pick ’em or what?

In writing about Changeling (US#11), I mentioned that Clint Eastwood has generally shown great skill at selecting scripts. Changeling was one of the not-quite-so-good ones, but this one is perfect for him, both as star and director.

The character he plays is Walt Kowalski, a seventysomething Korean War vet who worked on the assembly line at Ford for years. He is the epitome of the grumpy old man, having driven off his two sons and their children (the one lumpy bit of exposition in the script is the conversation between the two sons at their mother’s funeral at the beginning of the film). He gets involved reluctantly with the neighbors next door, a family from the Hmong tribe of Southeast Asia, especially the son, Thao, and his sister, Sue. Walt’s dialogue, and not only his, is filled with racist language, but he comes to appreciate the family.

Sounds grossly sentimental, doesn’t it? It isn’t. Eastwood does grumpy better than anybody, and he has enough blue-collar cred with his audience that we accept his language. In fact, some in the audience may accept it too well. I saw the film at a multiplex in Marina Del Rey, a beach suburb of Los Angeles that is not quite as liberal as it pretends to be. At the same theatre 32 years ago, I saw Eastwood’s The Gauntlet, and it struck me then that the audience of mostly males laughed whenever Eastwood hit Sondra Locke, but didn’t laugh when she hit him. (For where that insight leads, look at the chapter on Eastwood in my book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing.) The audience for Gran Torino laughed at the racist harangues, but some people seemed to be laughing in agreement, while others were just laughing.

As a few critics have noted, one of the best scenes in the film is the one in which Walt takes Thao to Walt’s barber to teach him how to talk like a man, i.e., to use racial epithets in the “right” way. It is a very funny, and a very perceptive, scene because it gets at how a lot of men talk, not only about race, but about other things as well. It is not a stand-alone scene, since there is a great payoff to it in the following scene where Walt takes Thao to a construction site to get him a real job. The film, as a lot of Eastwood’s films are, is very smart about American masculinity and about American multiculturalism, to use the fancy word for it. Walt is a classic American male, blue-collar variety, and he is dealing with a world that has changed. The same could be said of Eastwood’s Josey Wales; look at the band of “others” Josey ends up gathering around him.

The script also has the kind of slow narrative rhythm Eastwood seems to prefer as a director, which gives us time to meet the characters and learn about their culture, both white and Asian-American. Both Thao and Sue are interesting characters, with Sue being one of the more realistic Asian-American women in recent films. She is both Asian (devoted to and irritated with her family) and American (smart-mouthed to Walt and a group of guys who threaten her). The threats to the Thao and his family build up slowly, as do the details that Schenk layers in to make the ending work. We think we know where the film is going, but when we get there, it is a surprise (though not that much of a surprise because of how Schenk has prepared us for it).

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Revolutionary Road(2008. Screenplay by Justin Haythe, based on the novel by Richard Yates. 119 minutes): We have lived on this road before.

Hollywood has not been shy about confronting the perils of suburbia, and I don’t just mean little aliens in E.T.-The Extra-Terrestrial or ghosties in Poltergeist. Even in the fifties, there were such films as the interesting-but-now-rarely-seen No Down Payment and the more successful The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Richard Yates’s novel came out in the early sixties, and we have had a lot of cinematic suburbia since. So what may have seemed fresh at the time of the novel is familiar to us in film terms now.

This would not be a problem with Revolutionary Road if the script were sharper. Too much of it is very flat and on the nose, with the characters saying exactly what they think or feel. I gather from the promotional interviews given by the cast that Yates’s novel describes the characters’ mental states and emotional subtexts very effectively and that the actors used those descriptions as acting guides. Fine, and we do get a lot of interesting emotions from the actors, but the emotions are now all text with no subtext.

In a scene midway through the film, April is talking to her neighbor Shep about her problems with her husband Frank. She lays it out in a lot of dialogue that articulates the problem so well that Kate Winslet’s emoting is just repeating what we hear. We could listen to this scene on the radio and pretty much get what it has to offer. Shep, as we have seen earlier, has the hots for April, so he is listening intently, proving once again the truth of Ron Shelton’s great line in Bull Durham that “A man will listen to anything if he thinks it’s foreplay.” The tension in the scene is all surface. Haythe has not rethought the scene in terms of what sort of emotional give and take can go on in this scene. There is none as written and performed.

Haythe provides no interesting emotional textures to this scene, or to the dance scene that follows, or to the sex in the car that follows that. The scenes march in lockstep with no surprises and no nuances.

Haythe keeps the focus so much on April and Frank that the film becomes an acting exercise for Winslet and DiCaprio. They certainly get a workout and they are both never less than interesting to watch, and they use their off-screen friendship effectively to create the intimacy of the couple. Haythe’s scenes do often provide us with a shifting, and shifty, perspective on each of their characters, so that within a given scene we may start out being sympathetic to April, then shift our feeling to Frank, then back to April. Winslet and DiCaprio are not afraid to go to darker places, but too often the scenes simply have them yelling at each other relentlessly. Both Kate and Leo scream nicely, but a little of it goes a long way.

Because of the intensity of the emotions, the humorlessness of the film becomes a problem. The audience I saw the film with laughed at several places when Haythe had not provided safety valves of humor. You have to relieve the tension and if you do not, the audience will do it for you.

I mentioned shifting emotional allegiances among to the characters. There is an odd example of that in the last scene in the picture. Mrs. Givings is talking to her husband about Frank and April. Her husband, thinking she is silly, simply turns off his hearing aid. Nice laugh, but Mrs. Givings is not wrong about the Wheelers. It reminded me of the scene in Reds where Eugene O’Neill tells Louise exactly how stupid and shallow she and John Reed are and I for one was in complete agreement with him.

The film does not give us as much of a social context as Mad Men does, but then Mad Men is much better written all around. Haythe means to suggest the conformity of the life the Wheelers lead by having several shots of Frank going into the city in his gray flannel suit, surrounded by hundreds of other men in their gray flannel suits. Nunnally Johnson got the same effect in a more precise way in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit with a single shot of three men in the same suit walking down a hallway. Sometimes less is more.

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The Man Between (1953. Screenplay by Harry Kurnitz, based on a story by Walter Ebert. The Imdb lists Erik Linklater as an uncredited co-writer, but I am always cautious about those “uncredited” writers they list. If anybody has more information, feel free to let me know. 100 minutes): Not bad, but not as good.

As good as what? If you have never seen The Third Man, and I cannot seriously imagine that there are people among the readers of The House Next Door who have not, but if there are, then they may enjoy this one. If they can get to see it. It is not available on Region 1 DVD yet, but showed up recently on Turner Classic Movies.

The Man Between is directed by Carol Reed, who earlier directed The Third Man. This one is set in Berlin, instead of Vienna, and also deals with mysterious goings on. The problem is that Graham Greene’s script for The Third Man is perfect: beautifully plotted, filled with great characters, and written to take advantage of the seedy grandeur of post-World War II Vienna. There is no seedy grandeur to 1953 Berlin, just rubble. The script here is by Harry Kurnitz, whose main experience was comedy writing. So we get several good lines, but the plotting is not up to Greene, nor is the characterization.

The story begins with a young, almost-naïve English woman, Susanne Mallinson, arriving in Berlin to visit her brother-in-law. She is not as stupid as Greene’s Holly Martins, and she seems at first to be paying attention to what is going on. Her brother’s wife, Bettina, seems to be hiding something, particularly about Ivo Kern, a German they keep running into. Our curiosity is piqued as well as Susanne’s. Shortly after, we learn that Bettina was married to Ivo and thought he was dead; nice Kurnitz dialogue between Bettina and the brother as to whether they should just live in sin now. Then Susanne gets mistakenly kidnapped by one of the gangsters Ivo knows, who was aiming for Bettina to get to somebody else. Ivo now has to go into East Berlin (this was before the Wall) and retrieve Susanne. Susanne at this point loses definition as a character and becomes a damsel in distress to be rescued. OK, she’s in love with Ivo, but there is a lot more Kurnitz could do. Reed, who has focused on the expressive face of Claire Bloom (Susanne) through the first half of the movie is still focusing on the face, but Kurnitz has given her very little to express.

Ivo is interesting, but no Harry Lime. The brother is a block of wood. The head gangster has no distinguishing character at all, and neither do any of the other characters. There is a little boy who follows Ivo around, probably in tribute to the boy in Greene and Reed’s earlier The Fallen Idol, but without the characterization of the earlier boy. The film at least gives us James Mason as Ivo and Hildegarde Neff as Bettina and like Bloom, they are very watchable.

Once the rescue attempt begins, the plot mechanics take over. The rubble of Berlin is well used, but it’s not Vienna.

If you want slightly more interesting rescue-from-East-Berlin movies, Fox Movie Channel currently has in its rotation the 1954 film Night People, written and directed by Nunnally Johnson. This was Johnson’s first job as a director and he “gets the stuff,” as he put it, but since this was an early CinemaScope film, the views of Berlin, rubble and all, have a picture postcard look. And there is no chase at the end as there ought to be and as Kurnitz gives us.

When Nunnally got back from Berlin, Billy Wilder kept asking him about it, and Nunnally was convinced Wilder was collecting material for his later escape-from-East-Berlin movie, One, Two, Three (1961). Both Kurnitz and Nunnally were funny men, but Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond beat them both for sheer hilarity about the Iron Curtain. And ex-Nazis working for the Americans. And torture by pop music. And Coca-Cola.

~

The Tall T (1957. Screenplay by Burt Kennedy, based on a story by Elmore Leonard. 78 minutes) and Decision at Sundown(1957. Screenplay by Charles Lang, based on a story by Vernon L. Fluharty. 77 minutes) and Buchanan Rides Alone (1958, Screenplay by Charles Lang, based on the novel The Name’s Buchanan by Jonas Ward. The Imdb lists Burt Kennedy as an uncredited co-writer, which may make sense here, but see above for my comments on Imdb’s “uncredited” writers. 79 minutes by my count, 78 according to the IMDb): The other three in the “Budd Boetticher DVD Box Set.” (See US#17 for a discussion of Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station.)

The Tall T is the prototype for the later Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station (see US#17), and it has not quite got it right. It is based on an Elmore Leonard story and so, as you might suspect, it is much talkier than the later films. There may be more dialogue in the first twenty minutes of The Tall T than there is in both the other films combined. Randolph Scott’s Pat is a very open and friendly fellow at the beginning, although he becomes more like his characters in the other two movies as this one progresses.

Kennedy and Budd Boetticher are still looking a little backward. At the beginning Pat rides up to a stage station (in the long shot it is the farm at the end of Comanche Station) like Shane in the movie of the same name. It takes a long time and lot of socializing to get to the beginning of the story. Kennedy would handle the openings of the later films much better. Once Pat and a married couple are held hostage by the outlaws, we are into familiar territory. The chief bad guy, Frank, is a more well-rounded character than Ben in Comanche Station. Although he is not as much fun as Sam in Ride Lonesome, he is scarier than both of them.

After the husband is killed, an actual semi-romance develops between the widow and Pat. It is very conventional and obvious, and you can see why Kennedy did not start any romances in the two films. Watching The Tall T is like watching a gawky teenager; you know he is going to grow up to be somebody good and you can like him for that, but the awkwardness is still there.

Decision at Sundown is in some ways the most conventional of the five films in the set. Bart Allison rides into town seeking to kill Tate Kimbrough for some reason. Tate is the town boss and the townspeople, who have knuckled under to him, begin to realize over the course of the day that Allison may get rid of Tate for them. If The Tall T puts in a nod towards Shane, this one was very much done under the influence of High Noon: the town (the discussions among the townsfolk could have been lifted verbatim from Carl Foreman’s script for High Noon), the limited time frame, the wedding, the groom having had an affair with a shady lady, and a woman who picks up a gun.

Decision at Sundown is a little more hard-edged than High Noon. Bart is first seen riding in a stagecoach. He pulls a gun on the driver and makes him stop the coach. Bart gets out and fires into the air, obviously a signal to his henchman. And the henchman does not immediately show up. What kind of stage robbery is this? Well, it’s not a robbery. The sidekick eventually shows up, and he and Bart ride off without robbing the stagecoach. Don’t tell me you’re not interested in Bart at this point. He is a darker and nastier character than the great Randolph Scott plays in the other films, and unlike Haythe’s script for Revolutionary Road, he does not need to yell to get it across. Like Revolutionary Road, we get moments when our sympathies shift from character to character. Look at what we find out about the backstory of why Bart wants to kill Tate. It’s a lot more complicated than you think it will be. And after he gets his revenge, Bart is not a happy man, since his reason for living for the past three years has been eliminated and he has learned a lot of things about the past he did not really want to know. Hmmm, maybe I was wrong about it being more conventional than the others.

Buchanan Rides Alone is described in the box notes on the set as a “change of pace” and “light-hearted” in comparison with the other four, which is not entirely inaccurate, but stretching a point. The plot may sound familiar to you: a stranger comes to town and gets involved in the disputes among the town leaders, playing them off against each other. Dashiell Hammett did an early version of it with his 1943 novel Red Harvest. Akira Kurosawa did the samurai version with his 1961 Yojimbo, which Sergio Leone copied in his 1964 western, A Fistful of Dollars. Buchanan Rides Alone is the minimalist version of the story without, as always with these five films, a wasted moment. But there is also nice characterization, especially of the members of the family that run the town. Amos, the semi-idiot brother, brings a nice set of off-center notes to the film, and is beautifully played by the character actor Peter Whitney. There is also an outdoor funeral of the sort that John Ford loved; Lang and maybe Kennedy give it a nice twist.

As you may gather from the plot, this is one of the “town” films, but whereas Decision at Sundown was rightly filmed on one of the claustrophobic backlot western streets, this one was filmed at Old Tuscon, Arizona, with the western landscape in each shot. Because it’s right for the script. Which fortunately gives cinematographer Lucien Ballard a chance to warm up for his work with Sam Peckinpah on The Wild Bunch. One shot alone, of a body in a river, with a horse and tree, is as evocative of the old west as anything in John Ford’s canon and reason enough to watch the film.

~

Ugly Betty (2009. Episode “Sisters on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” written by Henry Alonso Meyers. 60 minutes): Talk about your transgressive!

O.K., Betty is trying to track down some photographs of Daniel and Molly, which she has inadvertently sent to a sleazy TV gossip fashionista, the flamingly gay Suzuki St. Pierre. Betty gets his New Jersey address, goes there and finds out that…

Are you ready for this?

Really ready for it?

He’s straight. And married. And a father.

Obviously in the word of fashion, straight is the new gay. Don’t worry, Betty is not going to out him.

~

CSI (2009. Episode “The Grave Shift” written by David Weddle & Bradley Thompson. Episode “Disarmed and Dangerous” written by Dustin Lee Abraham & Evan Dunsky. 60 minutes): Langston’s first shifts.

So Langston is a doctor and a former professor and now he has had CSI training and is coming to work on his first shift. Wearing a necktie. Hasn’t he watched the first eight seasons? Didn’t they teach him anything in his training?

So here is the problem: we, the audience, are all up to speed on what CSIs do and how they do it. He’s a beginner. Except his background, and Laurence Fishburne’s presence, do suggest “beginner” in anything. “Disarmed and Dangerous” still struggles with the issue. And the decline in the show’s ratings for these episodes suggests the audience is getting fed up as well.

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Burn Notice (2009. Episode “Do No Harm” written by Matt Nix. 60 minutes): Michael is back and he’s angry.

Michael’s angry? Cool, funny Michael? OK, somebody did try to kill him, and this episode sets up that this half-season he is going to be looking for his attempted killer, since Carla is forcing him to. On the other hand, that colorful explosion at the end of the previous half season seems to have done virtually no damage to his warehouse loft. This is a problem writers often have with those great cliffhanger endings: they don’t know how to write themselves out of the holes they dig for themselves. So they just hit the reset button and hope for the best.

~

The Closer (2009. Episode “Good Faith” written by Adam Belanoff. 60 minutes): Same problem.

Did Detective Sanchez die?

Nope, he survived the shooting and is more or less back to normal. Yes, there is a question of his mental readiness, but at least in this episode they are only mentioning it. (In the following episode, “Junk in the Trunk,” Sanchez is completely cleared for duty.) On the other hand, we are getting closer to Brenda and Frtiz’s wedding, which is providing a little comedy relief.

~

Monk(2009. Episode “Mr. Monk and the Lady Next Door,” written by Hy Conrad & Joe Toplyn. 60 minutes): Old fashioned.

Monk is a very old-fashioned show. Like a lot of seventies cop shows, it is mostly about a single cop who cracks a case. We have a supporting cast, but it is not an ensemble show. We do not have the flashy camerawork or the complex story structures of the shows of the current decade. Because the show is on cable, the budget is smaller, and there are not very many elaborate stunts or special effects. What the show depends on is the obsessive-compulsive character of Monk, and the franchise of the show is what unusual person or situation he encounters that sets off his phobias.

In this episode it is a little old lady who helps him across the street when he keeps waiting for a stoplight that does not change. She gets him involved with her complaint about a noisy neighbor, whom it turns out is connected with the week’s case. At first Monk and the old lady get along, but then he suspects she may be involved in the crime, which connects with his feelings of loss of his late wife. The screenwriting is simple, focusing on Monk and the old lady in longer scenes than we normally get on cop shows these days.

And the old lady is played by Gena Rowlands. She and Tony Shalhoub, who plays Monk, have a field day with their scenes, getting everything they can out of them. This is big league acting at its best. As you watch it, you are perfectly happy not to have the bodycam shots of peoples’ innards like you get on CSI or the multiple plot twists Dick Wolf’s writers give you on the Law & Order mothership. Sometimes, just watching great actors at work is enough. Sometimes less IS more.

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Trust Me(2009. Episode “Before and After” written by Hunt Balden & John Convey. 60 minutes): Believe the hype. This is not Mad Men.

Trust Me is set in a contemporary advertising agency, and the pre-release hype emphasizes this is not Mad Men. Yes, it is set in an advertising agency, but it’s not Mad Men. It is set in the present, so it’s not Mad Men. It has two leading men, not one, unlike Mad Men.

Are you clear yet that this is not Mad Men?

No, it’s not, which would not be a problem if it were a better show. The two main ad men, Mason (art director) and Conner (copywriter) are best friends who argue a lot, and midway through the episode, Conner goes off on a sulk. Both of them sulk a lot. They are supposed to come up with an ad campaign, but the campaign they come up with is the weakest one of the ones we have seen over the course of the episode. Stick with, what was the name of that other show?

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: Kajillionaire Whimsically and Sincerely Reflects on Family Ties

Although its crime-caper structure is worn extremely lightly, Kajillionaire represents Miranda July’s first real flirtation with genre.

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Kajillionaire
Photo: Focus Features

Early in Kajillionaire, the third feature by Miranda July, a building manager explains that “I have no filters!” as he tearfully confronts the cash-strapped protagonists to ask for the rent that they owe. This line works as both a mea culpa and a defiant declaration from July herself. The willfully naïve sincerity of her work has as many detractors as devoted fans, and her choice to give such quirky emotional openness to an incidental character like this is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. However, July’s latest effort also shows potential elsewhere to convince a few of her more world-weary cynics, who might have previously seen cloying self-consciousness where others see a broad humanist perspective.

Kajillionaire is notably more driven by narrative than July’s previous two films, Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future, which were mostly content to observe slices of life, searching for transcendence in the everyday. Here, a more contrived story concerns a dysfunctional family composed of disheveled, small-time grifters Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger), and their introverted daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), who see their fortunes change slightly when they encounter worldly and assertive Melanie (Gina Rodriguez). The thirtysomething Melanie finds herself drawn to their criminal lifestyle, as laughably low-key as it might be, and helps them with a new set of scams.

Although its crime-caper structure is worn extremely lightly, Kajillionaire represents July’s first real flirtation with genre, and it’s also the first occasion that she hasn’t given herself a leading role. The multi-hyphenate artist has explored a multitude of perspectives and personalities throughout all her work, but this feels like the first time, at least in her films, that we’re seeing characters who aren’t projections of some aspect of her psyche.

This new focus succeeds in putting her considerable storytelling talents on display more clearly than ever before. Instead of blowing up mundane quandaries and conflicts to an existential scale, as she did in Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future, July shows us people who are doing their best to maintain the unconventional daily grind they’ve found themselves on, and they’re all the more relatable for it. And while it would perhaps be a stretch to say that the Dyne clan’s comical grifting has any real-world political relevance, they do seem to be a reflection of their times, particularly in repeated scenes of them going to absurd lengths to avoid the aforementioned building manager’s demands for rent.

Indeed, the precarity and itinerant lifestyle of the central figures in Kajillionaire can be seen as a logical next step in July’s filmmaking trajectory, from neurotic suburban whimsy and confused sexual awakenings (Me and You and Everyone We Know), through urban millennial angst and impending mortality (The Future). There’s a sense of real-world responsibilities and hardships progressively encroaching on innocence and insularity, and the conflict between these two poles also proves to be the emotional core of Kajillionaire.

Childhood, and particularly immature sexuality, has always been a key theme of July’s work. Here, she adopts an interesting alternative perspective, imagining a character who was denied this whole phase of their life. Old Dolio was part of Richard and Theresa’s money-making schemes since before she was even born (one of the film’s best throwaway gags reveals that she was named after a homeless man who won the lottery, in exchange for an inheritance that never materialized). She received none of the traditional trappings of parental affection, being treated more like a respected accomplice and business partner than a beloved child.

Wood’s hilarious, affecting performance convincingly sells this slightly on-the-nose premise. She depicts a woman with a niche set of skills and a shaky sense of pride in her independence, whose repressed emotions are peeking through the surface at almost every moment. When Old Dolio reluctantly redeems a gift voucher for a massage, following an unsuccessful effort to claim its cash value, there’s a memorable shot of her face seen through the hole in a massage table, as this rare instance of physical contact causes a single tear to fall from her eye. Here, July’s underrated visual sense serves to bring us closer to a character, in contrast to the distancing effect of her more Michel Gondry-esque flights of fancy (such as the nightly stream of pink foam that comes through the wall of the office space where the Dynes are crashing).

Toward the end of the film, July provides some more unintentional provocation to the haters, when Melanie points out that “most happiness comes from dumb things.” This is a more direct version of the revelatory aphorisms that pepper her dialogue, and could also be a comment on the atypically conventional way that she concludes Kajillionaire, as Old Dolio finally opens up to a cathartic, hard-won moment of intimacy with another person. Whether you can allow yourself a similar embrace of July’s indigo child energy is still a matter of taste. But, almost two decades on from the heyday of the early-2000s whimsical bohemia that she epitomized, her latest at least functions as a nostalgic reminder of a time when a lot of us could.

Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, Patricia Belcher, Kim Estes, Da’vine Joy Randolph, Rachel Redleaf Director: Miranda July Screenwriter: Miranda July Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Tate Taylor’s Ava Doesn’t Lack for Star Power, Only Narrative Thrills

Ava isn’t only banal, but also, in its half-hearted stabs at novel ideas, seemingly content with its banality.

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Ava
Photo: Vertical Entertainment

Action thrillers don’t get much more generic than Tate Taylor’s Ava, which tells of a veteran assassin being hunted down by the shadowy organization that employs her. If there’s a twist here, it’s that Ava (Jessica Chastain) is a recovering alcoholic trying to mend her family relationships while fending off attackers after she becomes too careless in the field. But even this thread of family drama is as uninspiring as the film’s thriller trappings. Because Ava never bothers to articulate how its eponymous character’s secret professional life affects her personal life, and vice versa, or even the emotional and psychological toll that such a delicate balancing act must take on her, it’s difficult not to see Ava’s alcoholism as a superficial affectation, a transparent means of making her seem “complicated” as a character.

Ava’s interactions with her mother, Bobbi (Geena Davis), and sister, Judy (Jess Weixler), are marked by a sassy repartee that feels inconsistent with the film’s otherwise gritty atmosphere, though the relaxed nature of these moments gives the impression that Taylor is more at ease handling this aspect of the narrative. A music-free and exhausting fight scene between Ava’s handler, Duke (John Malkovich), and their superior, Simon (Colin Farrell), where the sound is amplified to emphasize the brutal physicality of every punching, bone-crunching hit, would make for mesmerizing cinema if not for the fact that the film’s action sequences are borderline incomprehensible, all frenetic camera movement and erratic editing.

Chastain, at least, proves to be a compelling presence, as she admirably tries to elevate the flimsy, one-note material—most notably in later scenes where her subtle expressions convey Ava’s failing attempts to fight back the emotions that are getting the better of her projected stoicism. But the performance isn’t worthy of the film, which is likely to leave audiences wondering how it even managed to attract so much A-level talent. For Ava isn’t only banal, but also, in its half-hearted stabs at novel ideas, seemingly content with its banality.

Cast: Jessica Chastain, John Malkovich, Colin Farrell, Common, Jess Weixler, Geena Davis, Diana Silvers, Joan Chen Director: Tate Taylor Screenwriter: Matthew Newton Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Time Is an Oblique Look at Black Lives Undone by the Prison System

The film reminds us that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time.

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Time
Photo: Amazon Studios

If you want to argue that the law enforcement, criminal justice, and penal systems in the U.S. are badly in need of reform, a first instinct may be to point to the hundreds of felony sentences that have been overturned in the last few decades due to wrongful convictions. Arguing that a man was justly convicted but nevertheless victimized by the carceral state—getting people to accept a guilty man as a locus of sympathy—is a taller order, but it’s just what Garrett Bradley does, in plain but morally forceful terms, in her documentary Time.

The man in question is Robert Richardson, convicted along with his wife, Sibil, of robbing a credit union in Shreveport, Louisiana on the morning of September 16, 1997. At the time, the couple had four sons, and Sibil was pregnant with twin boys. Considering her situation, Sibil took a plea bargain and was sentenced to 12 years, though she was out on parole after only three-and-a-half. Meanwhile, Robert was sentenced to 65 years without parole.

Bradley doesn’t, and perhaps doesn’t need to, trot out statistics to make the case that Robert’s draconian sentence represents a perpetuation of anti-Black racism. She’s got the receipts: years of home-video diaries that Sibil recorded for Robert as she worked tirelessly to support her family while also trying to secure legal motions for his re-sentencing. All the while, their boys grew up without their father. Time opens with a montage of these home videos, set to Tsegue-Maryam’s whirl-a-gig piano piece “The Mad Man’s Laughter”: Sibil waking the twins for the first day of school; observing them playing in the snow; riding rollercoasters with them; filming them play at a pool party; and giving them lectures on work ethic at school.

At the end of the documentary, we see some of this footage again, of Robert and Sibil’s boys at play and growing up, only this time run in reverse. The camera performs an act that for Sibil and her family is impossible, rolling back the lost years, completing the story’s happy ending. Matching the black and white of Sibil’s home movies, Bradley’s new footage captures the culmination of the herculean efforts that eventually get Robert released after 21 years. But, of course, Robert’s return can’t restore lost time, like the camera seems to.

Bradley’s film gives us glimpses into the status of the family as it stands in the weeks leading up to Robert’s release. Now living in New Orleans, the boys are in the process of striking out on their own. The youngest, twins Justus and Freedom, are diligent college students, and at one point we catch glimpses of one’s poli-sci debate and another’s dedicated French study. An elder brother, Richard, is on the cusp of graduating medical school. “Success is the best revenge,” Sibil muses at one point, as she waits in her office for a call from a judge.

The film’s title evokes “doing time,” but we don’t see Robert actually serving his sentence; instead, we feel its duration in the gap it’s left in his family’s life, and in their words we’re offered an oblique commentary on the history of Black incarceration. “It’s almost like slavery time, like the white man keep you there until he figures it’s time for you to get out,” Robert’s mother avers to the camera. It’s a statement that could serve as a succinct summary of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, though it’s delivered with the extemporaneity and subdued anguish of lived observation rather than with muted scholarly precision.

Bradley’s film is about feeling time, about conveying some idea of what 21 years feels like to someone else. In images of the almost imperceptible movement of clouds over New Orleans, Barrett finds a lyrical metaphor for time’s ineffability—as well as for abiding faith in the eventuality of grace (“God looks over the sparrows, Sibil. He’s going to look over us,” Sibil recalls Robert saying to her after his sentencing). Far more than a polemic against the prison-industrial complex, Time reminds us in eminently cinematic ways that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time.

Director: Garrett Bradley Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now

These great horror films are currently streaming on Netflix.

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The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now
Photo: New Line Cinema

Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors and incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”

At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. And some of our favorites are currently streaming on Netflix. Budd Wilkins


The Blackcoat’s Daughter

10. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)

The Blackcoat’s Daughter has a sad, macabre integrity. Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, Emma Roberts, Lauren Holly, and James Remar are poignant in their minimalist roles, and writer-director Oz Perkins arranges their characters in a cleverly constructed narrative prism that simultaneously dramatizes violence and its aftermath in an endless chain reaction of perpetual cause and effect. And the carnage, when it arrives, is staged with an aura of guttural bitterness that refuses to give gore-hounds their jollies, elaborating, instead, on the desolation of the characters committing the acts. When the demons appear in the film, and in terrifyingly fleeting glimpses, Perkins understands them to spring from the deepest chasms of human despair. Bowen


1922

9. 1922 (2017)

In 1922, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) initially scans as a broadly brutish characterization given by an actor looking to disrupt his handsomely aloof image, following a cinematic tradition of expressively filthy, monosyllabic and flamboyantly antisocial characters such as Daniel Plainview and Karl Childers. Though Jane’s dramatization of rage is haunting and shrewdly comical in its overt and ultimately moving über-manliness. The casual violence of Wilfred’s physicality is subtly calibrated, particularly the tension in his muscled back as he drinks lemonade on the porch after a hard day of murder. Complementing Jane’s portrait of coiled wrath, Molly Parker physicalizes the fear that informs every minute wrinkle of Arlette’s relationship with her husband, which the character attempts to paper over with bravado, inadvertently sealing her doom. Arlette is one of countless women who’re damned if they do and if they don’t, yet somehow the men are able to rationalize themselves as the victims. 1922 informs Stephen King’s pulp feminism with primordial, biblically ugly force. Bowen


The Invitation

8. The Invitation (2015)

The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan


Sinister

7. Sinister (2012)

Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Calum Marsh


Session 9

6. Session 9 (2001)

As in real estate, the three most important factors in Brad Anderson’s brooding Session 9 are: location, location, location. The filmmakers have hit upon something special with the Danvers State Mental Hospital, whose sprawling Victorian edifice looms large over the narrative: A motley crew of asbestos-removal workers, led by matrimonially challenged Gordon (Peter Mullan), run afoul of a baleful, possibly supernatural, influence within its decaying walls. Anderson uses to brilliant effect a series of archived audio recordings—leading up to the titular “breakthrough” session—that document a disturbing case of split personality. While the film doesn’t entirely stick its murderous finale, no one who hears those scarifying final lines of dialogue will soon forget them. Wilkins


Before I Wake

5. Before I Wake (2016)

Director Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake hints—in flashes—at a remarkably cruel psychodrama, physicalizing one of the worst and most common fears that orphans share: that they’re awful and unlovable, and therefore undeserving of parents. This fear is similar to the terror that parents have of inadvertently destroying or disappointing their children, and Flanagan unites these anxieties with a ghoulishly inventive plot turn that he doesn’t fully explore. Flanagan is deeply invested in Cody’s (Jacob Tremblay) welfare, to the point of rigidly signifying the various manifestations of the boy’s nightmares, pigeonholing irrationality into a rational framework so as to justify a moving yet literal-minded finale. Chaos could’ve opened Before I Wake up, allowing it to breathe, though Flanagan’s beautiful and empathetic film cannot be taken for granted. Bowen


The Evil Dead

4. The Evil Dead (1981)

The Evil Dead still feels like the punchiest horror flick this side of a Dario Argento giallo. Sam Raimi relentlessly fashions the film’s first half as a creepy-crawly sweat chamber with evil seemingly taking the form of an omniscient, roaming camera, gleefully poking fun at his five protagonists along the way. Despite the signs—the difficult-to-start vehicle, the fallen bridge—no one else believes the woods are alive. Ash (Bruce Campbell), horrordom’s most memorable wuss, and his girlfriend, Linda (Betsy Baker), share an intimate, peek-a-boo moment in which he gives her a necklace, and when he’s later forced to kill her, Raimi takes great joy in referencing this coquettish exchange of affection. Now infamous for its over-the-top gore and cheesy effects sequences, The Evil Dead is most impressive for Raimi’s unnerving wide angle work and his uncanny, almost unreal ability to suggest the presence of intangible evil via distant headlights, bleeding light sockets, and, in the film’s most awesome set piece, a simple game of cards. Gonzalez


The Guest

3. The Guest (2014)

The Guest is carried by an intense and surprising mood of erotic melancholia. Adam Wingard leans real heavy on 1980s—or 1980s-sounding—music in the grandly, outwardly wounded key of Joy Division, and he accompanies the music with visual sequences that sometimes appear to stop in their tracks for the sake of absorbing the soundtrack. The film is a nostalgia act for sure, particularly for The Hitcher, but it injects that nostalgia with something hard, sad, and contemporary, or, perhaps more accurately, it reveals that our hang-ups—disenfranchisement, rootlessness, war-mongering, hypocritical evasion—haven’t changed all that much since the 1980s, or ever. Bowen


Poltergeist

2. Poltergeist (1982)

Tobe Hooper is officially credited for having directed Poltergeist, but it’s co-scripter Steven Spielberg’s fingerprints that are all over this dark-mirror image of E.T. and Close Encounters of a Third Kind, about unseen spirits tormenting a suburban family. It’s structured as an escalating series of reveals, from the frisson elicited by inexplicably mobile furniture on up to third-act hysteria derived from birth imagery, child peril, and the eternal creep factor of video snow in a dark room. Hooper’s Grand Guignol flourishes are occasionally evident, particularly when a paranormal investigator pulls his own face off, but the technical proficiency is all Spielberg’s, as is the abiding interest in families and the influences (supernatural or otherwise) that disrupt them. Abhimanyu Das


The Silence of the Lambs

1. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Detective thrillers often concern contests of male ego, involving brilliant investigators who confront physically superior and equally brilliant psychopaths. Often lost among such face-offs are considerations of the lives that are destroyed and ruined over the course of the narratives, as these thrillers exist to evoke and satisfy our own fears and resentments. By contrast, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is grounded in the psyche of a ferocious yet unproven female protagonist, whose thoughtful fragility intensifies the film’s violence, invigorating it with a sense of dread and violation. The film is a strange and still novel mixture of coming-of-age character study, murder mystery, and Grand Guignol horror spectacle. Bowen

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Review: Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda Is the Eraserhead of Animal Documentaries

In Kossakovsky’s latest, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human.

2.5

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Gunda
Photo: Neon

On paper, Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda, a wordless documentary about the everyday life of a few farm animals—a mama pig, two cows, a one-legged chicken—may suggest a quiet idyll in the vein of the goatherding sequences from Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte. But with its stark, forbidding black-and-white cinematography and dense, unsettling sound design, the film resembles nothing so much as Eraserhead.

The newborn piglets in Kossakovsky’s film, whose faces look surprisingly alien-like in extreme close-up and whose aching squeals can be rather unnerving, even at times resemble the baby from David Lynch’s cult classic. By eschewing the Disneyfied anthropomorphism of Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins and the tidy narrativizing of the Planet Earth series, Kossakovsky refuses to resort to the old cliché that animals are “just like us.” They’re not, really. And in Gunda, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human.

Which isn’t to say that we don’t form a relationship with these creatures. Relying heavily on shallow-focus shots often positioned near ground level—and thus close to its subjects’ eyeline—the film gives us something of the experience of being a farm animal: of grazing in a field, caring for a newborn, and aimelessly roaming around a farm. As in his prior work, Kossakovsky trusts his audience to stick with the film through lengthy shots where nothing in particular seems to be happening until, gradually, a miniature narrative begins to emerge. But while ¡Vivan las Antipodas! and Aquarela played out largely in a series of breathtakingly composed long shots that allowed the audience to drink in the scenery of various international locales, in Gunda, Kossakovsky follows the opposite impulse: pulling his camera in as close as he can get to these animals and keeping their environment largely out of frame.

In the film’s harrowing and unusual opening shot, a hog that’s lying down and seemingly in pain is framed by a barn door. Kossakovsky’s camera closes in with a slow Kubrickian zoom, but we don’t quite understand what’s happening here until a tiny newborn piglet emerges from behind its mother. She’s been giving birth, but Kossakovsky treats this usually joyous moment as if it were a death scene. Only by the film’s end do we truly understand why.

Sadly, the rest of Gunda is rarely so meticulously composed. The film’s meandering sequences tend to grow repetitive, only rarely crystallizing into meaningful or memorable form. There’s a tedium to much of Gunda that may be true to the lives of its animal subjects but makes for dull watching after the first hour. The scenes involving the mother pig and her children exert a fascinating pull—particularly the mother’s sometimes brutal parenting tactics, such as when she stomps on the runt of her litter—but the sequences involving the chickens and the cows feel like filler and a distraction from the pigs, who are the emotional core of the film.

As Gunda lurches toward its close, an impending sense of doom starts to hover over it as we begin to realize just how much these animals’ lives are directed, controlled, and circumscribed by human hands. But there’s an unfortunate lack of specificity here that’s rare in Kossakovsky’s work: Though shot across three different countries (Norway, Spain, and the U.K.), the film feels as though it’s all taking place on a single farm, one that could be located almost anywhere. That universality is undoubtedly the point, as Gunda isn’t simply an observational documentary, but one with a message about the cruelty of livestock agriculture. Though the creatures at its center live in relatively pleasant free-range environments, a far cry from the industrial hellscapes denounced by documentaries like Food, Inc. and vividly depicted as essentially a death camp in Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, they’re ultimately objects of exploitation. The human use of animals for livestock is, the film suggests, inherently brutal. If Gunda never subjects us to gruesome images of slaughter à la Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts, it nevertheless closes with a prolonged single-shot sequence that’s more heartbreaking than any depiction of the goings-on in an abattoir ever captured on film.

In this sequence, a truck pulls up to the barn where the pigs live and drives off with the piglets, leaving the mama pig in a state of grief-stricken perplexity. For minutes on end, we watch her pacing around, clearly distressed and unable to fathom why her piglets have been taken from her. It’s the kind of viscerally upsetting moment that, as Orson Welles said of Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, would make a stone cry. And if this conclusion doesn’t quite make up for Gunda’s fundamental monotonousness, it does at least lend some shape and significance to the rambling sequences that precede it, calling into question how free these free-range animals really are. By the time the credits roll on the film, we realize we’ve been watching not so much a sketch of the lives of farm animals as a threnody for their deaths.

Director: Victor Kossakovsky Screenwriter: Victor Kossakovsky, Ainara Vera Distributor: Neon Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Werner Herzog’s Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds

The documentary’s ethnographic bent is balanced out by a healthy dose of hard science.

3

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Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds
Photo: Apple+

Filmmaker Werner Herzog and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer team up again for Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, which stands as something of a companion piece to their previous collaboration, 2016’s Into the Inferno. Where the earlier film followed them on a globetrotting game of hopscotch to gaze into the hellmouth abyss of active volcanoes (and obsess over them with a motley crew of visionary scientists), their latest finds them looking to the skies for trailblazers of a completely different sort.

Herzog and Oppenheimer once again dash off to various far-flung destinations in order to investigate the multifaceted phenomena surrounding asteroids and meteorites, with each of the film’s episodes loosely strung together like so many gaudy beads on a necklace. What emerges is the fact that these extraterrestrial entities represent both bringers of life, having conceivably contributed basic organic building blocks to our planet’s primordial inorganic “soup,” as well as harbingers of disaster and death, as in the impact on the Yucatan peninsula that brought about the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.

Indeed, that prehistoric event serves as a sort of epicenter for Fireball, to which Herzog and Oppenheimer return at several points. The film opens with footage from a Day of the Dead ceremony in Mérida, Yucatan—crowds adorned with the requisite black-and-white skeleton makeup—that finds its direct echo at about the midway point when we visit Chichén Itzá and discover a forecourt there that’s decorated with numerous skeletal figures.

The symbolic duality of the meteorite is made most manifest at a stop at the Ramgarh crater in India. At its center stands a 10th-century temple to the god Shiva, whose cosmic dance regulates the cycles of creation and destruction across vast stretches of time. The meteorite’s significance to other belief systems is illustrated by a visit to the Kaaba in Mecca, Islam’s most sacred site. (Here, the filmmakers had to rely on amateur cellphone footage, since nonbelievers aren’t allowed near the shrine.) And at the Wolfe Creek crater, aboriginal artist Katie Darkie discusses taking inspiration from folklore and legends involving the impact site.

The film’s ethnographic bent is balanced out by a healthy dose of hard science. As usual for a Herzog documentary, the focus is just as much on the scientists themselves as it is on their pursuits. We learn all about quasicrystal structures via a jigsaw puzzle, take a tour of the Center for Meteorite Studies with a jittery scientist who’s especially loathe to drop any of the precious collection, and visit the Pan-STARRS Observatory in Hawaii, where scientists monitoring the skies for approaching asteroids excitedly compare megapixel capacities. In perhaps the film’s most rhapsodic interlude, we witness the sheer joy of members of the Korean Polar Research Institute when they discover a handful of meteoritic shards that stand out in stark contrast to the endless white glare of the Antarctic glaciers.

The moment is reminiscent of scenes from Encounters at the End of the World, in which Oppenheimer first appeared in a Herzog production. Nor is this the only callback in Fireball. Descending into a cave at the bottom of a cenote in the Yucatan where the Maya civilization used to inter their dead, we’re instantly reminded of similar ritual usages in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. At one point, footage from the Hollywood blockbuster Deep Impact is incorporated into the mix, in order for Herzog to evaluate it as what you might call disaster poetry.

One of the most striking effects here occurs whenever Herzog and Oppenheimer slow down the film’s often-hectic pace to let viewers ponder the sheer beauty of the imagery, whether that’s painterly rendered details of landscape or the natural splendor of closely observed crystals and minerals. Herzog has always had a keen eye for remote places, and Fireball lets him visit his fair share of them. As ever, his assessments are delivered in his trademark Teutonic deadpan. For instance, he describes the village of Chicxulub, near the center of the Yucatan impact crater, as “so godforsaken you want to cry.” Nor does he have much fondness for its “dimwitted dogs.” Asides like this leaven the visual poetry with some welcome humor.

Visiting Mer Island in the Torres Strait between Australia and New Guinea, Herzog and company are treated to a lovely bit of local lore involving falling stars, as well as the revival of a ritual dance interpreting the tale that hasn’t been performed in nearly 50 years. As day darkens into night, assembled on the slender strand between land and see, the dance reanimates the age-old interplay between the living and their dead ancestors. For a moment, before the screen slowly fades to black, all these elements are held in beautiful balance.

Director: Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer Screenwriter: Werner Herzog Distributor: Apple+, Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Another Round Honestly and Poignantly Grapples with Alcohol’s Pull

Thomas Vinterberg’s latest, like The Hunt, is ultimately a parable about breaking a social contract.

3

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Another Round
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

There’s a revealing moment early in Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round when high school teacher Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) and his friends and colleagues—Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Peter (Lars Ranthe), and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang)—are out for a birthday dinner. By this point, the audience knows that Martin is in the throes of a midlife crisis, sleepwalking through his history courses, inspiring the ire of students and parents alike, while regarding his family as little more than roommates. (Throughout, Mikkelsen doesn’t foreground self-pity or defensiveness, suggesting that Martin is too far gone to rouse himself to indignation, hiding under a veil of accommodation.) Because he’s driving, Martin initially resists drinking at the dinner, though his friends talk him into changing his mind, and soon he’s downing a shot of vodka and a few glasses of red wine in quick succession. Mikkelsen shows us the alcohol taking control of Martin in something like real time, his studious reserve vanishing to reveal great waves of sadness, bitterness, and salvation.

Anyone who knows alcoholism knows that face—of completion and fulfillment at the cost of alienation. The poignant terror of the scene resides in how quickly the booze grabs Martin, as if he’s an empty vessel waiting for his charge. In this light, Martin’s prior aloofness takes on new meaning. Though he has many real disappointments familiar to midlife, he was probably a dry drunk who didn’t know it. Over dinner, Nikolaj mentions the Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, who said that people are born with a blood alcohol content that’s .05 percent too low, and that people should maintain a higher level in order to bring out their potential. We know from Martin’s face that he should stay away from alcohol, but he takes this idea at face value and begins drinking at school. Once the first day is over, he asks Nikolaj for a ride home, claiming that he can’t drive, revealing that he’s begun to experiment with the Skårderud philosophy. We expect Nikolaj to insist that Martin get help, but he and the others immediately join in, claiming that their boozing will be the basis of a future report.

The suspense of Another Round has little to do with whether or not these men will “prove” if day-drinking boosts livelihood. Rather, it’s derived from two nervous mysteries: the question of how long it will take them to recognize this idea for the rationalizing cry for help that it is, and how much damage will be done in the meantime. There’s also a kernel of satire here that one wishes Vinterberg had mined more fulsomely: that the men are taking to the next level a social obsession with alcohol and the various mythologies that we utilize to justify it. Alcohol is still greatly mythologized, associated with virile (masculine) creativity, with great writers and movers and shakers. Martin works the most famous boozers into his lectures, such as Hemingway and Churchill, and his literal and figurative intoxication brings his classes to life. Initially, the theory works, mostly for Martin, but for the other men as well.

In 1995, Vinterberg and Lars von Trier co-founded the Dogme 95 movement, which, broadly speaking, stresses found lighting and parred productions as resistance to the bloat of studio productions. Today, Vinterberg’s films still reflect this ideology, favoring handheld, docudramatic camerawork and few overtly expressionistic frills, which has often seemed prosaically “realistic” in the past. But this aesthetic serves a masterful purpose in Another Round, as his characters are calmly, objectively regarded as they drift further into alcoholism.

Their debauchery is clearly pleasurable in the moment, as benders with friends can be, but the camera is mercilessly attentive to the toll the booze takes—to the confusion, the staggering, the babbling, and especially to the existential pain of a massive hangover after days of being at sea. Overt formal fireworks might’ve glorified this behavior (think of Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas, which equated a prolonged suicide-by-liquor to a stylish, woozy jazz concert), whereas Vinterberg honors the lure and the danger of drinking simultaneously.

Still, it doesn’t require much artistic ingenuity to make the case that addiction is bad. Another Round is elevated by its cast, especially Mikkelsen, who gives one of the greatest, most lived-in performances of his career, and by a nagging ambiguity. Even as booze begins to destroy these men, the film doesn’t entirely refute the Skårderud philosophy. Someone dies, a marriage nearly dissolves, and the other men sober up, which they soon tire of in the tradition of many people who feel incomplete without indulging in their governing habit. They’re happier after returning to booze, and the teachers among them accomplish the mission of energizing their students. Martin, once a dancer, even begins to dance again.

Like every alcoholic, the film’s main characters are nagged by the exceptions to the rule (the Churchills of the world), by the possibility that they can keep their hungers within a certain perimeter. Another Round, like Vinterberg’s The Hunt, is ultimately a parable about breaking a social contract. Martin and his friends break a code by day-drinking, but perhaps they refuted a larger contract by going sober in a world that values casual lubrication. Every recovering alcoholic is intimately familiar with such a contract, which is among the profound challenges of putting the bottle down and keeping it down. One is reminded of that haunting line from Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master: “You can’t take this life straight, can you?”

Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, Magnus Millang, Maria Bonnevie, Susse Wold, Helene Reingaard Neumann, Michael Asmussen, Martin Greis-Rosenthal Director: Thomas Vinterberg Screenwriter: Tobias Lindholm, Thomas Vinterberg Running Time: 115 min Rating: 2020 Year: 2020

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Review: Wildfire Vibrantly Entwines Personal and Political Trauma

The structure of Wildfire’s narrative doesn’t emerge out of a simplistic progression from strife to reconciliation.

3

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Wildfire
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

The archival footage of the Troubles that opens Cathy Brady’s Wildfire constitutes a remembrance of an era that’s barely bygone. Indeed, as celebratory clips of the peacemaking Good Friday Agreement replace images of gunsmoke, fire, and post-bombing rubble, the film smash cuts to more recent news footage about Brexit and its possible impact on the Irish border, a reminder that the past, and certainly this one, is never past.

The uncertainty surrounding the border of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland is evident in Kelly’s (Nika McGuigan) belabored entry into the latter at the start of the film. Stopped for a heightened security search, the shabbily dressed woman must empty everything out of her camping backpack and strip before being let go, as well as told that it’s been a year since she was reported missing. Comparatively, her journey to her hometown on the Northern Irish border goes significantly easier, but as she slips into the country, the ease of her passage is undermined by the worry that future crossings could be more fraught.

The legacy of the Troubles and the wider history of British colonialism hangs heavy over the film’s early stretches. Kelly crosses the border next to a sign welcoming people to Northern Ireland, but someone, in a unionist gesture, has spray-painted “One” over the “Northern.” In contrast, she encounters Union Jack flags blowing in the wind as she walks down the street, even a building plastered with a giant loyalist motto: “Prepared for Peace. Ready for War.” Yet these omnipresent reminders of national violence give way to more personal legacies of trauma when Kelly heads to the home of her sister, Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone), who had all but given her up for dead. Lauren has struggled to deal with Kelly’s disappearance, and her return conjures ghosts from their past, including the long-repressed memory of their mother’s death.

The sisters’ denial regarding their family history is reflected in a Northern Ireland working to leave its own past behind. Lauren works for an Amazon-esque company that epitomizes post-national globalism; she spends her days in a warehouse so massive that the end of the building disappears at the vanishing point of the frame, suggesting the storage facility at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. A generational divide also reflects how quickly tragedy is forgotten. Lauren’s younger co-workers came of age after the Troubles, and as such they’re completely removed from its horrors, sniggering at the prosthetic leg of a manager who lost her limb in an explosion as those old enough to remember the constant terror of the time fume at the show of insensitivity. And the sectarian nature of that history of violence is subtly born out in the judgmental whispers about whether Lauren and Kelly’s mother died by suicide, a reminder of the influence still exerted by religion and dogma on people who seem otherwise secular.

Slowly, though, the film’s focus shifts away from its social backdrop and toward the increasingly raw emotions that McGuigan and Noone evoke as they chart their characters’ frayed relationship. McGuigan (who passed away of cancer soon after completing the film) emphasizes Kelly’s wild, fatalistic spirit, as if she had inherited it from her mother, always nervous and casting one eye toward the exit even as she attempts to repair her relationship to her sister. Noone, meanwhile, captures the rage of someone who’s learned to accept the loss of a loved one, only to have that person re-enter their life and reignite all the anger and pain that they learned to compartmentalize. Lauren’s veneer of stability starts to crumble almost immediately, as she simultaneously unleashes her fury at her sister and anyone who dares to gossip about her. The sisters each embody a wildly different response to trauma (flight versus fight), though neither approach truly confronts the underlying tragedies that shaped them.

The structure of Wildfire’s narrative doesn’t emerge out of a simplistic progression from strife to reconciliation, as Brady has Kelly and Lauren follow a realistically erratic trajectory. Indeed, no sooner does Lauren reunite with Kelly than she screams for her sister to leave, only to then share a moment of fond nostalgia before bristling again at the memories that Kelly revives. Mutual and individual efforts to make good are constantly thwarted, while occasional moments of joyous interaction between them speak to a lifelong bond that not even decades-suppressed agony can undo. In the film’s most mesmerizing scene, the sisters suddenly cut loose and dance to Them’s “Gloria” inside a seemingly empty pub, working up an ecstatic sweat before it’s ultimately revealed that the space is filled with befuddled onlookers.

Lauren and Kelly’s tumultuous confrontations with their pasts and each other naturally has echoes in the film’s nods to Ireland’s fraught, and by no means settled, modern history. Yet Wildfire crucially never reduces itself to allegory, instead living through the unpredictable, jagged arcs of its characters as they work toward an understanding of themselves and each other. The militarized social strife that informed Lauren and Kelly’s childhoods is but one piece in a larger tapestry of horrors that must be dealt with, and Brady suggests that it’s only through reconciling personal conflicts that a populace can improve its political future.

Cast: Nika McGuigan, Nora-Jane Noone, Martin McCann, Kate Dickie, Aiste Gramantaite, David Pearse, Joanne Crawford Director: Cathy Brady Screenwriter: Cathy Brady Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: The Truffle Hunters Warmly Regards a Disappearing Way of Life

The film’s reminder of the fragility of agrarian traditions in the face of a merciless profit motive is delivered with tact and subtlety.

2.5

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The Truffle Hunters
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

The boom in farm-to-table cuisine over the past decade, in both fine-dining circles and more modest gastropubs, has led to restaurants pointing out on their menus the suppliers and farms from which their ingredients have been sourced. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s documentary The Truffle Hunters taps into this cultural conversation, tracing a line from the food on the plate back to the laborers who harvest it, and yet what it implies is that even with the increased transparency around food sourcing, there remains an essential mystique that must go unpunctured when it comes to certain foods.

Profiling a handful of elderly men from Piedmont, Italy, who pursue precious white alba truffles in the forests of the country’s northern region, the film tries to thread the needle between shining a light on its subjects’ niche trade and not spoiling their secrets. It does so by placing the emphasis on the people themselves over the treasures they dig up, a strategy that aligns the film more with the cine-portraits of Les Blank than, say, Netflix’s Chef’s Table.

Unlike Blank’s nonchalantly matter-of-fact films, though, The Truffle Hunters is shot in a painterly visual style that creates a degree of distance from its subjects. Clearly identifying with and celebrating the expertise of these devoted practitioners and their resistance to nosy profiteers, Dweck and Kershaw seem driven by a desire to enshrine the men in timeless tableaux, the likes of which you might see hung on the walls of a museum next to a Vermeer. To this end they’ve made a lovely film, one teeming with punctilious frames in which everything has been arranged just so. But it also prompts the assumption that the filmmakers took their fair share of liberties with the art direction in the hunters’ homes, which, despite being well within their rights as artists, keeps the film from ever feeling truly spontaneous.

The Truffle Hunters concerns itself with a handful of characters: a few expert foragers; their beloved fungi-sniffing canines; an urban buyer who’s always chasing the suppliers’ elusive secrets; and a crotchety gourmand who samples the delicacies brought his way by other such buyers. Dweck and Kershaw establish a leisurely movement between these different threads, presenting each in the same handsome, methodical manner so as to encourage viewers to draw their own conclusions about the ethics of the buyer-supplier dynamic.

The sequences devoted to the highbrow arena of truffle auctions, where enthusiasts come to sniff and evaluate samples of the earthy substance, are no less detailed in their observation than the passages in the forest and at country homes. But what eventually becomes self-evident is the warmth, self-sufficiency, and camaraderie of the hunters compared to the businesslike aloofness of those on the receiving end of their labor—insatiable careerists who, in a handful of scenes, are shown to barely even evince much pleasure for the food itself.

This reminder of the fragility of agrarian traditions in the face of a merciless profit motive is a welcome one delivered with tact and subtlety, but Dweck and Kershaw occasionally deliver it at the expense of their titular subjects. The highlight of The Truffle Hunters is the hilarious rapport between one persevering scavenger and his grumpy wife, who’s fed up with her husband’s imperiling trips into the woods at night—and for good reason, as several scenes illustrate just how physically taxing the process can be for an ailing body. These sketches of domestic life are rich with lived-in authenticity, and the proximity they grant us to a unique, off-the-grid way of life recalls a similar quality that defines Blank’s films about gumbo sorcerers in the bayou. It’s hard not to wonder how much more of that magic could have been captured had Dweck and Kershaw not bothered to so carefully compose and light their shots.

Director: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Concrete Cowboy Is Detail-Rich for What’s Basically an Afterschool Special

Concrete Cowboy is stirring when it really dives into specificity.

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Concrete Cowboy
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

Ricky Staub’s Concrete Cowboy is based on the real-life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club of Northern Philadelphia, where African-Americans teach potentially troubled children to ride and care for horses as a way of avoiding the temptations of the streets. The reveal of this club is gracefully handled by Staub, as the film’s young protagonist, Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), is dropped off on the doorstep of his father, Harp (Idris Elba), after his mother has given up trying to rein in the delinquent teen. This drop-off occurs at night, and Harp clearly doesn’t live in the best part of town. Scared, Cole asks a neighbor about his father’s current whereabouts and is directed to the nearby “stable,” which sounds in this context like a bar. Cole follows a street and a slum opens up into a literal stable, carved out of dilapidated buildings, with a field where horses roam while cowboys bullshit over a fire and beer. Staub stages this scene with offhand matter-of-factness, allowing us to feel the magic of Cole’s discovery—of a hopeful place existing where it, by all odds, should not.

Adapted from G. Neri’s 2009 novel Ghetto Cowboy, the film is involving when Staub and co-screenwriter Dan Walser stick to the particulars of Harp and the other cowboys’ lives as well as the general working culture of the stable. The horses are kept behind a brick wall in a building that was once suburban, which is rich in cobwebs that bring to mind Miss Havisham’s mansion in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Before he can ride a horse, Cole must of course pay his dues, shoveling horse shit out of the stable into a dumpster across the street. Staub fashions an entire, richly specific sequence out of this single action, offering a tribute to the pride of diligent work, especially when it’s servicing passion rather than mere survival. Some of the cowboys are also played by their actual counterparts, and their conversation is similarly detailed, rooted in the legacy of Philly and the Fletcher Street club.

Sadly, these details aren’t allowed to dictate the terms of the narrative, existing instead as window dressing for what amounts to an Afterschool Special. Too much of the film’s runtime is devoted to a shopworn conflict: Will Cole turn to dealing drugs or will he stick with the club? We know the answer to that question 10 minutes into the film, and so the perfunctory scenes of Cole riding around and surveying late-night parties and drop-offs feel like an unnecessary distraction from the cowboys. And Concrete Cowboy grows less detailed as it progresses. We’re not told how the cowboys barely subsidize their lifestyle (based on the news, the real-life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club appears to be more organized, and funded), or if they work other jobs. The cowboys’ relationship to their surrounding community is also glossed over in the film, more or less dramatized by a single celebration sequence.

The delicacy of the film’s early scenes is regrettably missing from other moments that have the potential to be moving. When Harp fashions a special saddle so that a paralyzed cowboy may ride a horse again, we don’t need derivative slow-motion and music to comprehend the poignancy of such a gesture. We also don’t require expository dialogue to tell us that Cole feels excluded in this moment from a father who’s never shown him such generosity, as we glimpse this embittered yet admiring heartbreak in the boy’s face. However, Cole’s wound is cauterized in another wonderful scene, when Harp plays John Coltrane on vinyl and explains to Cole that he was named after the jazz legend. Again, Concrete Cowboy is stirring when it really dives into specificity, avoiding what the New Yorker literature critic James Wood recently defined as our original sin: cliché, which, according to Wood, blocks our apprehension of reality.

Cast: Caleb McLaughlin, Idris Elba, Method Man, Lorraine Toussaint, Jharrel Jerome, Swen Temmel, Byron Bowers, Lamont Fountain, Liz Priestley Director: Ricky Staub Screenwriter: Ricky Staub, Dan Walser Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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