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Understanding Screenwriting #19: Teaching the Young, Minsky’s, Captain Blood, In Old Chicago, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #19: Teaching the Young, Minsky’s, Captain Blood, In Old Chicago, & More

Coming Up in This Column: Teaching the Young, Minsky’s (stage musical), Definitely, Maybe, Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,In Old Chicago, ER, Two and a Half Men, The Closer, Burn Notice, but first…

Fan Mail: A nice collection of comments on US#18.

I will bow to R.A. Porter’s expertise on the explosion in Burn Notice being a shaped charge designed to explode outward. I will not ask where he got that expertise.

Matt Maul and I are certainly on the same wavelength on Ride the High Country, which several critics and historians have called the unofficial last film in the Ranown cycle. I saw it twice in two days when it opened. I hate to tell you though that it may not “hold up pretty well even if you have no idea who Scott and McCrea are.” Several years ago I ran it in my History of Motion Pictures class, and it left the class cold. They had not grown up with Scott and McCrea. I can certainly see why Elmore Leonard liked Richard Boone in The Tall T, since he feels more like an Elmore Leonard character than any of the others.

Steve Santos called for more discussion on the issue of dialogue being “on the nose” and several people complied. So here is at least some of what I think about it. As Steve points out, there is a difference between dialogue on the page and on screen (or on stage for that matter). Dialogue on the page has to carry its weight on its own. In a performance on screen we are also watching the person, so we need to SEE more than what we just hear. That is why I keep hitting (and I will again later in this column) on the issue of reaction shots. What we need to see when someone is talking (if we are not watching the other person’s reaction—look at the famous last scene of Casablanca and notice how much of Bogart’s speech is played on a closeup of Bergman reacting to it) is something more than just what is being said. So if the line is “I like baseball,” what is there is see beyond the basic information? That is why, even though we cannot even see her, Annie Savoy’s “I believe in the church of baseball” is one of the great opening lines in movies. The phrasing of the line tells us that she has a strange mind, as does the rest of the monologue. So much so that by the time we see her, we will follow her anywhere.

This is why I don’t think the dialogue in Gran Torino is as “on the nose” as some of you think. The way Walt expresses himself tells us as much about him as the specifics of what he says. I agree that the talking to himself lines are probably not needed, but some of them are colorful enough to make me want to listen to him. That was not true for me in the Revolutionary Road dialogue.

Dialogue can also be funny, but it is better when it’s not just jokes. I read the Mel Brooks-Gene Wilder screenplay for Young Frankenstein and what struck me about it is that there are not that many JOKES. Mostly the dialogue captures the attitudes of the characters. Wilder’s Frankenstein saying goodbye at the train station to Madeline Kahn’s Elizabeth does not appear to be that funny a scene in the script, but the scene gives both actors attitudes to play: he’s trying to kiss her, she’s trying not to get her hair mussed. Years later, when Brooks did Spaceballs, he passed around the script and asked people to check off the stuff that worked. They did, and they were mostly jokes, and the picture suffered accordingly.

Dialogue can also tell things in subtle ways. Take Bonasera’s opening monologue in The Godfather. On the surface it is an “on the nose” telling of what happened, but more importantly, it brilliantly establishes character. No, not Bonasera’s character, but Don Corleone’s. Bonasera’s speech tells us that the Don is more powerful than the police and courts of law and that people come to him for their idea of justice. I have always contended that by the end of the speech, you could cut to the chair and have Daffy Duck there and we would believe he is the Godfather.

Todd brought up the problem of exposition in dialogue. Actors hate it, since it gives them very little to play, although the “exposition” in Bonasera’s speech gives Salvatore Corsitto a lot of attitude to play. Exposition is a particular problem in science fiction movies with all their technobabble. As Harrison Ford famously said to George Lucas on the first Star Wars film, “You may be able to type this shit George, but you sure can’t say it.” For a more detailed look at the technobabble problem, see the chapter on the Jurassic Park trilogy in my book Understanding Screenwriting.

Teaching the Young: Get them early.

A few weeks ago my wife and I were getting ready to take our seven year old grandson Noam to the Natural History Museum. While waiting for Grandma to get ready, I was channel surfing on the TV before turning it off. Noam was running around like a seven year old. I stopped on one channel. Wide screen. A British officer and an Arab guide had stopped at a well. The officer was playing with his compass. He and the guide notice something in the far distance. Noam started watching, wondering what it was in the distance. I told him to wait. He asked me to turn up the sound. I told him there was no sound in this scene. The figure in the distance was moving closer. Noam was standing completely still. The figure got closer. Noam said, “Grandpa, I want to watch this movie with you.” The figure got closer. I explain the movie is four hours long.

Tafasrantohiscamelandpulledagunand…

BANG!

…theblackfigureshothimandLawrencelookedathiminhorror.

I turned off the TV set and we went to the museum.

Someday I will sit down with Noam and watch the movie. Or better yet, I will take him to one of the annual showings the American Cinematheque has of a 70mm print of Lawrence of Arabia.

Minsky’s(2009. Stage musical, book by Bob Martin, original book by Evan Hunter, Music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. 155 minutes [for now]. Based on the book The Night They Raided Minsky’s by Rowland Barber and the film of the same name written by Arnold Shulman, Sidney Michael, and Norman Lear; 1968, 99 minutes): Another new musical playing Los Angeles before it hits New York.

This started out as a 1960 book by Barber, then was turned into one of the legendary film disasters of the sixties. We have occasionally discussed the issue of how one can critique a screenplay from the final film, since there may be changes as the film is made. Boy, is this ever true with the film of The Night They Raided Minsky’s. Norman Lear, before he became NORMAN LEAR (All in the Family, etc), thought he and the other writers had come up with a good script, and Lear’s judgment about scripts should not be sneezed at. Then, alas, they turned it over to an egomaniacal 27-year-old wunderkind director who had only made one low budget film. They were all hoping he would provide what everybody around the production called the New Look, i.e., not an old MGM musical look but something closer to what Richard Lester had done with The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night and Help!. The shoot was fraught with tension, since the wunderkind thought he had to intimidate the older professional actors to get their respect. It didn’t work. Then Bert Lahr, playing an old vaudevillian, died late in the production, and some of his shots had to be done with a body double. When the first cut was shown, everybody felt it didn’t work. Rather than stay with the editing process, the wunderkind took off to shoot another film, later badmouthing Minsky’s before it was ever released.

The re-editing fell to an experienced film editor named Ralph Rosenblum, who later worked with Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. Rosenblum wrote a great book on film editing called When the Shooting Stops … the Cutting Begins (1979), and the first two chapters deal with his trying to save Minsky’s. He presents it as sort of a textbook case of how a film is “saved in the editing room,” as film editors like to call it. Except he never mentions that the film was a total disaster, even after all of his work. In spite of what film editors say, you cannot “save a film in the editing room” if the basic material, i.e., screenplay, is not there.

Charles Strouse worked on the music for the film and always thought there might be a stage musical in the material. Minsky’s has been in development, to use a Hollywood term, for several years. Bob Martin, the writer of the new book, wrote The Drowsy Chaparone, a modest Broadway hit of a few years ago, and the new show has something of a similar attitude of sharp-eyed insider nostalgia for musical theater. The opening number, “Workin’ Hot” is all about creating an opening number, and the first act finale, “Every Number Needs a Button” is about how numbers and acts need, well, you get the point.

The show is professional but not particularly inspired. For a while during the first act, it looks as though the scenes are going to be variations of vaudeville sketches (especially a funny one involving two shrinks and their patients, the two leads who have not met cute yet), but that is not carried through in the show. The main character is Billy Minsky, who is trying to save his burlesque theater, especially from the threat of a local censor. Naturally he falls in love with the censor’s daughter. She eventually comes to realize that show people are real people (OK, some of us may argue that point), but that is not as thoroughly developed in the second act as it could be. That is an area they should be working on.

There are more than a few “The theater is great, who would want to be anywhere else” numbers, but at least they are offset by “I Want a Life,” a song sung by two people caught up in the theater who don’t want to be. “Tap Happy” is a typical tap number, but it is not clear what it is doing in THIS show. The numbers for the showgirls are some pretty good parodies of those kinds of numbers, but, OK, I have been trying to avoid the obvious comparison, they are not as good as the faux show numbers in Sondheim’s Follies. To use the late Ron Haver’s great phrase, if Follies was the opening of the West, Minsky’s is the coming of the settlers.

So far in Los Angeles, there has been no report that the wunderkind director of the film has dropped in to see the show. He went on to make such disasters as Sorcerer, The Brink’s Job, Deal of the Century, Jade, and Bug. Amazing how a couple of big hits can keep you working among all those flops. He also directed The French Connection and The Exorcist. He is William Friedkin.

Definitely, Maybe(2008. Screenplay by Adam Brooks. 112 minutes): Where is Richard Curtis when you need him?

My wife and I couldn’t get out to one of the current rom-coms on Valentine’s Day, so it was stay home and watch one of last year’s, which I DVR’d off HBO. Will Hayes is getting divorced and his 10-year-old daughter wants to know how he and her mother met. Wait a minute, isn’t there already a TV series called How I Met Your Mother? Yes, and as often happens, the TV series is better. The characterizations are sharper and it is just plain funnier. Here Will tells the girl, Maya, about three possible contenders, saying he has changed the names to make her (and us) guess which one it was. Will, as written, is a rather uneven character: he is supposed to be interested in politics, but he doesn’t seem obsessive enough to be a political junkie. Brooks spends a lot of time with Will on the 1992 Clinton campaign, but those scenes do not capture any of the texture of the campaign. As with Milk, the documentary (in this case The War Room) is not only better but funnier, as documentaries often are.

Definitely, Maybe does not have the supporting characters either How I Met Your Mother or The War Room have. Emily, the first woman, is rather bland. April seems the most fully fleshed out character, but a lot of that maybe be Isla Fisher managing to make her variations more interesting than they might have been on paper. Summer is blander than you expect anything Rachel Weisz would do, although Weisz does have a nice scene with Kevin Kline, playing a lecherous professor. It suggests what the film could have been. Part of the reason that scene may work is that it does not feature Will, played very blandly by Ryan Reynolds, who so far seems better in supporting roles than starring ones.

One of the production companies involved in the film is Working Title, which has produced most of the good comedies written by Richard Curtis, such as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually. Curtis knows how to do all the things Brooks doesn’t do well here.

Captain Blood (1935. Screenplay by Casey Robinson, based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini. 119 minutes) and The Sea Hawk (1940. Screenplay at Seton I. Miller and Howard Koch. 127 minutes) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex(1939. Screenplay by Norman Reilly Raine and Aeneas MacKenzie, based on the play Elizabeth the Queen by Maxwell Anderson. 106 minutes): Olivia de Havilland versus Brenda Marshall versus Bette Davis.

Yes, I am still working my way through the Christmas goodies. The first two of these are classic Errol Flynn swashbucklers in the Flynn box set. Captain Blood is the film that made Flynn a star after his appearing in smaller parts in a few Warners pictures. One thing that impresses me about the script this time around is how perfectly Robinson writes for Flynn. We all know Flynn as a star, with everything that means, but Robinson was pretty much guessing. Look at all the details of wit and charm that Robinson gives Peter Blood. We tend to think of actor-director combinations (Ford and Wayne, Cukor and Hepburn), but an actor, no matter how charismatic, needs a role that will make him or her a star. Jean Harlow was just another blonde until John Lee Mahin and Anita Loos created “Jean Harlow” for her. Sharon Stone was just a jobbing actress until Joe Eszterhas created Catherine Tramell for her in Basic Instinct. If you don’t believe me on the latter, go over to the IMDb and look at all the stuff Stone did before Basic Instinct and see if you remember her in any of it.

The other thing that impressed with Robinson’s script is that he gave Olivia de Havilland a very interesting character to play. She meets Blood when he is on the auction block in the Caribbean. Amused by his smarts, she buys him, but turns him over to her uncle. She and Blood later come to know each other, but when he gets forward with her, she pulls back. Nowadays, we are so used to scripts in which the couples disagree at the beginning simply because it is expected of them. Here you believe the differences between them. It also helps that de Havilland and Flynn have great chemistry together.

Alas, the same is not true of Flynn and Brenda Marshall in The Sea Hawk. By this time everybody at Warners knew what they had with Flynn and were taking advantage of it. The script is weirdly structured, with the biggest sea battle in the opening half-hour. Most films start off with smaller action sequences and build to the larger ones, but The Sea Hawk goes in reverse. Brenda Marshall plays Doña Maria, the niece of an ambassador to Spain, both of whom Flynn’s Geoffrey Thorpe capture in that sea battle. She comes to appreciate and love Thorpe, but mostly by sitting around Queen Elizabeth’s court. De Havilland’s Arabella is actively involved in the plot. And de Havilland is alive on the screen in the way Marshall is not. Marshall has an angular beauty, but she is very unexpressive, which will kill you in a Warners swashbuckler with Errol Flynn, Claude Raines, Flora Robson as QEI, and with Anton Grot’s great art direction for your eyes and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s wonderful score dazzling your ears. You are going to have to ACT to keep up with that. Warners put de Havilland and Flynn together in nine films. The Sea Hawk is the only pairing of Marshall and Flynn.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is the one picture in the boxed set I had never seen. Now I’ve seen it. And I never have to see it again. It is based on a play by Maxwell Anderson, and you understand why it might have worked on stage. There is a certain drama to the romantic attachment of QEI and the Earl of Essex, but the play and the movie are mostly talk. You can easily see the scene and act breaks. Especially in comparison to the two swashbucklers, the film is inert. Warners has gussied it up with Technicolor, good sets, and gorgeous costumes. The film was nominated for a lot of the “pretty” awards at the Oscars, although the Irish battles, all done on a sound stage, look awful, especially in comparison with The Adventures of Robin Hood the year before. Bette Davis is QEI this time out and Flynn is Essex and they do all right chattering away, but there is not the chemistry Flynn had with de Havilland. De Havilland has a small part in this one, but nothing that gives her a chance to shine.

In Old Chicago (1937. Screenplay by Sonya Levein and Lamar Trotti, based on a story by Niven Busch. 115 minutes in the roadshow version, 95 minutes in the general release version. The current DVD has both): And versus Alice Faye.

In addition to catching up on the year-end movies and the DVDs Santa left me, I spent some of January doing what we academics call a “resume enhancer.” That’s a scholarly article (this one is for a forthcoming book of essays) that you do not get much money for but which looks good on your resume. The article I was doing is called “19th Century-Fox,” and it’s about the historical films Fox did in the thirties and forties. One of the films I focused on was this one.

When Darryl Zanuck, the head of the studio, saw the enormous success MGM had with San Francisco in 1936, he figured Fox could do an epic historical disaster film. The part of the saloon singer was conceived for Jean Harlow, with all her wisecracking sassiness. Harlow fell ill and died, and Zanuck decided to go with contract actress Alice Faye, who had not yet become a big star. Unfortunately the part was not rewritten for her. She simply does not do sassy as well as Harlow. Zanuck noted it in the rushes and sent a memo to director Henry King saying he thinks Faye is playing it “too sweet and girlish,” especially given her character’s background. He is right, but there is no indication in the film that King corrected the problem.

And the picture made her a star. Go figure. Sometimes an actor carries a film (Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler) and sometimes the film carries the actor (Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde). As Zanuck said in a later memo about another film, “We live and learn.”

The film, by the way, is a lot of fun, especially the full 115 roadshow version, which includes a wonderful trial scene, cut from the shorter version. In it a man is accused of registering to vote under several names—this is Chicago, after all—and he manages to wiggle out of it. I suspect that of the two writers, this scene was written by Lamar Trotti, who had a real feel for that kind of Americana.

Oh, and the fire is great too.

ER (2009. Episode “A Long Strange Trip” written by Joe Sachs. 60 minutes): Nice idea, not well enough developed.

An old man who has been mugged staggers into the ambulance entrance of County General. As the doctors take him inside, we see his view of them, in which they are dressed and wearing the hairstyles of the sixties (great wig work by the hair department here). As the episode proceeds, we see him viewing the nurses and the hospital as though it was back in the fifties and sixties, complete with medical equipment of the period (great work by the prop department). He has no I.D. He can’t talk, but he manages to write “T.B.” on a piece of paper and point to another patient. The doctors all think she has cancer, but a T.B. test confirms the old man’s diagnosis. So who is this guy? Eventually Archie Morris figures out he is Dr. Oliver Kostin, who literally wrote the book on emergency medicine. Dr. Morgenstern, who ran the ER early in the series, shows up. He is Kostin’s proxy, since Kostin is suffering from dementia and has walked away from his nursing home. Morgenstern tells the doctors and nurses everything that Kostin did, including changing the ER from a walk-in clinic to the ER we know and love. He also set up the 911 system and established the paramedics and the use of hospital ambulances and probably created sliced bread as well. He dies in the ER, with the cast all around him.

Now that should have been a lot more moving than it actually was on screen. Unfortunately, Kostin’s story was only one of three or four, so not enough time was devoted to it. Given that this is the final season, and the show has had “one-off” episodes in the past, they could have made the entire episode about him. We do not know Kostin, since he was never a part of the cast of the show. Rance Howard, who plays him, is a familiar face, but not a strong enough presence to overcome how little Sachs gives him to do. The “flashback” views he has in his dementia are mildly interesting, but a lot more could be done with them, especially given all the footage the series has from the last fifteen years.

Two and a Half Men (2009. Episode “I’d Like to Start with the Cat” teleplay by Don Foster & Mark Roberts & Susan Beavers, story by Chuck Lorre. 30 minutes): Also old-fashioned.

In writing about Monk (in US#18), I described it as “old-fashioned,” in the sense of being slower and less flashy as well as focusing on character. The same is true of this episode. Charlie is still dating Chelsea, whom he has been seeing off and on for a couple of seasons. She complains he doesn’t know anything about her. He goes to his therapist and we have a fairly lengthy scene between them. Dr. Freeman, a recurring character, is the incomparable Jane Lynch. I have been told by people who pay more attention to this sort of thing than I do that she actually stood up in one episode years ago. However, as her work was described by one of the showrunners on one of the DVD special features, Lynch comes in, sits down, and just does it. She and Sheen have great chemistry, which the writers write for, and I am perfectly happy watching them go it, just as I was with Rowlands and Shalhoub on Monk. And if that scene was not enough, Charlie brings in Chelsea for couples counseling with Dr. Freeman. Another great scene. Simple.

The Closer (2009. Episode “Power of Attorney” written by Michael Alaimo. 60 minutes): Law & Order.

This is more of a Law & Order script than a conventional Closer episode. Twist, twist, twist. A woman is raped and murder. The cops find the suspect hiding in a tree. The suspect has priors for sexual charges, but was not convicted. A witness cannot pick him out of a lineup. The suspect’s attorney, whom the suspect has on speed dial, will arrange a plea bargain in which the suspect gives up his partner. Since the cops have no physical evidence on the suspect, the district attorney agrees. The suspect gives up his partner … the attorney. But the attorney has seen all the evidence in the case against the suspect and knows they have no evidence against him either.

Ingenious, but it means we do not get much of the character humor that is part of this series. The secondary characters only get occasional lines, but very few reactions, which I had written was one of the strengths of the show in US#6.

Burn Notice (2009. Episode “Bad Breaks” written by Michael Horowitz. 60 minutes): The heart of the show.

This is one of the best of the recent Burn Notice episodes because it does well what this show does best. Yes, we still have Michael trying to track down who put out the hit on him, but that really only involves scenes at the beginning and end with government agent Jason Bly. Yes, we have the standard other plot of Michael agreeing to help out somebody. In this case, it is a friend of his mom’s who is feeling hinky about a guy she met on the Internet. As the friend is telling Michael the questions Prescott, the guy, has been asking her, he shows up. In her bank. With a bunch of guys with guns. To rob it.

So what we have here is Michael in Dog Day Afternoon meets Inside Man. Michael uses ALL, and I mean ALL, of his skills and experience to outwit the robbers. In many episodes, he only uses one of two tricks. Here he is messing up their tools, and their guns; giving them the wrong medications; managing to get Sam and Fiona to set up what turn out to be several diversions. I would go into more details, but the episode was moving at such a breakneck pace my notetaking couldn’t keep up. As far as I am concerned, the more tricks the better.

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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Love Before the Virus: Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s Newly Restored Passing Strangers

The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love.

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Passing Strangers
Photo: PinkLabel

One of the many pleasures to be had in watching Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s newly restored Passing Strangers derives from its status as a historical document, or a piece of queer ethnography. The 1974 film allows us to see but also feel what life was like for gay men during what some have called the golden age of unbridled sex before the AIDS epidemic. Bressan Jr.’s portrait of this history is simultaneously attuned to its sartorial, mediatic, erotic, and affective dimensions, which may come as a surprise to those unaccustomed to explicit sexual imagery being paired with social commentary. Pornography and poetry aren’t counterparts here. Rather, they’re bedfellows, one the logical continuation of the other. Money shots, for instance, aren’t accompanied by moaning or groaning, but by the sounds of a violin.

The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love. They devote so much of their lives to picking up strangers for sex, briefly and by the dozens, but not without secretly wishing that one of them might eventually stay. In this they may not differ much from their contemporary cruising heirs, though they do in their approach. It turns out that asking for a pen pal’s photo before a meetup in 1974 was considered creepy, and using Walt Whitman’s poetry as part of a sex ad was quite fruitful.

That’s exactly what 28-year-old Tom (Robert Carnagey), a bath-house habitué and telephone company worker living in San Francisco, does in the hopes of attracting something long term. The literal poetics of cruising speaks to 18-year-old Robert (Robert Adams), who responds to Tom’s newspaper ad right way. They meet in person and begin a love affair that could only be described as bucolic, including making love in fields of grass, on top of a picnic blanket, to the sound of waves and piano notes, and riding their bikes around town, much like the sero-discordant love birds of Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo do after partaking in a gangbang. In retrospect, promiscuity gains the tinge of an obsessive auditioning of “the one,” who, in Bressan Jr.’s sensual fairy tale, is bound to come along and save us from ourselves.

Passing Strangers, which originally screened at adult cinemas and gay film festivals, recalls Francis Savel’s 1980 porno Equation to an Unknown in how smut and romance are so intimately bound in the forms of queer intimacy that the film depicts. This may also be due to the dearth of gay cinematic representation at the time—of gay men perhaps needing to dream of prince charming and of bareback anal sex in the same movie session, satisfying the itch for love and for filth in one fell swoop. But while Equation to an Unknown is completely wrapped up in a fantasy glow, there’s something more realistic, or pragmatic, about Passing Strangers.

Tom’s voiceover narration, which takes the shape of disaffected epistolary exchanges with his newfound beloved, orients us through the action. Motivations are explained. At times, however, Bressan Jr. indulges in experimental detours. These are precisely the most beautiful, and atemporal, sequences in the film—scenes where sex is juxtaposed with the sound of a construction site or the buzzing of a pesky mosquito, or one where an audience of orgy participants give a round of applause after somebody ejaculates. And the film’s surrendering to moments of inexplicable poesis reaches its apex in a shot of a boy in clown makeup holding his mouth agape. It’s an exquisitely brief shot, indelible in its strangeness.

Newly restored from the original negative in a 2K scan, Passing Strangers is now available to stream on PinkLabel as part of The Bressan Project.

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Review: Tom Hanks Stubbornly Steers Greyhound into Sentimental Waters

With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play.

1.5

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Greyhound
Photo: Apple TV+

With his almost supernatural likeability, impeccable reputation, and penchant for appearing in films rooted in American history, Tom Hanks has become a national father figure. The actor’s ongoing project, particularly urgent as we seek to redefine our relationship with our history and iconography, is to remind us of when the United States actually rose to the occasion. Unsurprisingly, this project often centers on World War II, one of the least controversial pinnacles of American collaboration on the world stage.

Continuing this tradition, Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound concerns the efforts to provide Britain with troops and supplies via Allied naval convoys on the Atlantic, which German U-boat “wolf packs” stalk and sink, attempting to break a Western blockade. Adapted by Hanks from C.S. Forester’s novel The Good Shephard, the film is a celebration of duty and competency that’s so quaint it’s almost abstract, as it arrives at a time of chaos, selfish and blinkered American governing, and a growing bad faith in our notion of our own legacy.

Set over a few days in 1942, the film dramatizes a fictionalized skirmish in the real-life, years-long Battle of the Atlantic. The American destroyer Greyhound, leader of a convoy that includes Canadian and British vessels, is commanded by Ernest Krause (Hanks), an aging naval officer with no experience in battle. Text at the start of the film explains that there’s a portion of the Atlantic that’s out of the range of air protection, called the Black Pit, in which convoys are especially vulnerable to the wolf packs. For 50 hours, Krause and his crew will be tested and severely endangered as they seek to cross this treacherous stretch of the sea.

This skeletal scenario has potential as a visceral thriller and as a celebration of Allied ingenuity and daring. Unfortunately, Hanks’s script never adds any meat to the skeleton. One can see Hanks’s passion for history in the loving details—in the references to depth charge supply, to windshield wipers freezing up, to the specific spatial relationships that are established (more through text than choreography) via the various vessels in this convoy. What Hanks loses is any sense of human dimension. In The Good Shephard, Krause is frazzled and insecure about leading men who’re all more experienced in battle than himself. By contrast, Krause’s inexperience is only mentioned in Greyhound as a testament to his remarkable, readymade leadership. The film’s version of Krause is stolid, undeterred, unshakably decent ol’ Tom Hanks, national sweetheart. As such, Greyhound suffers from the retrospective sense of inevitability that often mars simplified WWII films.

Greyhound’s version of Krause lacks the tormented grace of Hanks’s remarkable performance in Clint Eastwood’s Sully. This Krause also lacks the palpable bitterness of Hanks’s character in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, as well as the slyness that the actor brought to both Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can and Bridge of Spies. In Greyhound, Hanks falls prey to the sentimentality for which his detractors have often unfairly maligned him, fetishizing Krause’s selflessness in a manner that scans as ironically vain. As a screenwriter, Hanks throws in several writerly “bits” to show how wonderful Krause is, such as his ongoing refusal to eat during the Greyhound’s war with U-boats. (A three-day battle on an empty stomach seems like a bad idea.) Meanwhile, the crew is reduced to anonymous faces who are tasked with spouting jargon, and they are, of course, unquestionably worshipful of their commander, as are the voices that are heard from the other vessels in the convoy.

Schneider lends this pabulum a few eerie visual touches, as in the slinky speed of the German torpedoes as they barely miss the Greyhound, but the film is largely devoid of poetry. The stand-offs between the vessels are competently staged, but after a while you may suspect that if you’ve seen one torpedo or depth charge detonation you’ve seen them all. With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play. In short, Greyhound takes a fascinating bit of WWII history and turns it into a blockbuster version of bathtub war.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Karl Glusman, Stephen Graham, Elisabeth Shue, Tom Brittney, Devin Druid, Rob Morgan, Lee Norris, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Maximilian Osinski, Matthew Zuk, Michael Benz Director: Aaron Schneider Screenwriter: Tom Hanks Distributor: Apple TV+ Running Time: 91 min Rating: 2020 Year: PG-13

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Review: The Beach House’s Moodiness Is Dissipated by Shaky Characterization

The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action.

2

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The Beach House
Photo: Shudder

Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, in which a satellite crashes to Earth with an alien virus on board, is an expression of Space Age anxieties, about how the zeal to reach the stars could have unintended and dangerous consequences. In Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House, something lethal instead rises from the depths of the ocean, a kind of “alien” invasion coming up from below rather than down from the cosmos, better reflecting the environmental anxieties of our present day. It still feels like comeuppance for human hubris, but this time in the form of intraterrestrial, not extraterrestrial, revenge.

The potentially extinction-level event is played on a chamber scale as domestic drama. Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) are college sweethearts who go to his family’s beach house during the off-season, in a seemingly abandoned town, to work on their personal problems. They’re unexpectedly joined there by Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), old friends of Randall’s father, and the four agree to have dinner together. It’s then that Emily, an aspiring astrobiologist, conveniently provides some context for what’s about to happen, as she makes reverential conversation at the table about the mysterious depths of the sea and the sometimes extreme conditions in which new life can be created and thrive.

That night, while tripping balls on edibles, the couples look out and marvel at the sparkling, purple-tinged landscape outside their beach house. (The smell is less gloriously described as being like that of sewage and rotten eggs.) It’s not a hallucination, though, because whatever ocean-formed particulate is turning the night sky into a psychedelic dreamscape and the air cloudy is also making the characters sick. There’s some interesting and serendipitous overlap between the film’s central horror and our present Covid-19 crisis, as the malady seems to be airborne, affecting the lungs and making the characters cough. It also affects older people more quickly than the young, with the milder symptoms including exhaustion.

Brown emphasizes the oddness of nature with an eye for detail focused in close-up on, say, the eerie gooeyness of oysters, and by vivifying the film’s settings with bold colors: On the second night, the air glows mustard and red, recalling recent California wildfires. The ubiquitous haze also evokes John Carpenter’s The Fog and Frank Darabont’s The Mist, but other genre influences are also on display, from Cronenbergian body horror, as in the gory removal of a skin-burrowing worm, to zombie flicks, given the slowness of the hideously infected victims.

There’s not a lot of exposition about the illness, as Brown’s screenplay is primarily focused on Randall and Emily’s fight to survive the mysterious onslaught. But you probably won’t care if they do. The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action. The Beach House had convincingly argued that these two people shouldn’t be together, that their relationship has long passed its prime. He mocks her plans for advanced study and calls her life goals bullshit, even though he has none himself; he suggests that they move into the beach house, to live in a state of permanent vacation, while he tries to figure out what life means. When she’s high and getting sick and asking him for help, he dismisses her, lest it harsh his mellow. But instead of engineering his downfall, Midsommar-style, Emily does everything she can in the last third to help save him. It feels sudden, unearned, and unconvincing—enough to make you root for the monsters from the ocean floor.

Cast: Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Maryann Nagel, Jake Weber Director: Jeffrey A. Brown Screenwriter: Jeffrey A. Brown Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Old Guard Is a Would-Be Franchise Starter with No New Moves

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action, the film is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts.

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The Old Guard
Photo: Netfflix

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard is a modestly successful attempt to build a new fountain of franchise content out of a comic series with nearly limitless potential for spin-offs. The story kicks into motion with a team of four mercenaries with unique powers and an ancient bond setting off to rescue some kidnapped girls in South Sudan. Charlize Theron brings her customarily steely intensity to the role of the group’s cynical, burnt-out leader, Andy, who isn’t crazy about the idea since she doesn’t trust Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the ex-C.I.A. agent who hired them. Given how long it turns out that Andy has been doing this sort of thing, you would imagine that her comrades would listen.

The mission turns out to be a set-up, and the would-be rescuers are wiped out in a barrage of bullets. Except not, because Andy and her team are pretty much unkillable. So as their enemies are slapping each other on the back and conveniently looking the other way, the mercenaries haul themselves to their feet, bodies healing almost instantaneously, bullets popping out of closing wounds. Payback is swift but interesting, because for reasons likely having to do with their being many centuries old—the youngest, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), fought for Napoleon—the four quasi-immortals like to use swords in addition to automatic weaponry.

Written with glints of pulpy panache by Greg Rucka, the comic’s originator, The Old Guard sets up a high-potential premise and proceeds to do not very much with it. Rucka’s conceit is that this tiny group are among the very few people on Earth to have been born essentially immortal. This can be a good thing, but it can also prove problematic, as it means that they watch everybody they know age and die—a trope that was already somewhat worn by the time Anne Rice used it throughout her novels about ever-suffering vampires.

The plot of the film does relatively little after the showdown in South Sudan besides introduce a new member of the mercenary team, Nile (KiKi Layne), establish that Andy is tiring of the wandering warrior life, and show the group plotting revenge on Copley only to have that turn into a rescue mission that conveniently brings them all back together again. As part of the run-up to that mission, new recruit Nile, a Marine who goes AWOL from Afghanistan with Andy after her fellow soldiers see her seemingly fatal knife wound magically heal and treat her as some kind of witch, is introduced to life as a nearly invincible eternal warrior.

That rescue plot is simple to the point of being rote. Billionaire Big Pharma bro Merrick (Harry Melling), seemingly made up of equal parts Lex Luthor and Martin Shkreli, kidnaps two of Andy’s team in the hope of harvesting their DNA for blockbuster anti-aging drugs. Unfortunately for the film, that takes two of its most personable characters temporarily out of action. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) had their meet-cute while fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades and have been wildly in love ever since. After the two are captured and mocked by Merrick’s homophobic gunsels, Joe delivers a pocket soliloquy on his poetic yearning: “His kiss still thrills me after a millennium.” The moment’s romantic burn is more poignant by being clipped to its bare-minimal length and presented with the casual confidence one would expect from a man old enough to remember Pope Urban II.

In other ways, however, The Old Guard fails to explore the effects of living such lengthy lives. Asked by Nile whether they are “good guys or bad guys,” Booker answers that “it depends on the century.” While Rucka’s hard-boiled lines like that can help energize the narrative, it can also suggest a certain flippancy. When the film does deal with crushing weight of historical memory, it focuses primarily on Andy, who’s been around so long that her name is shortened from Andromache the Scythian (suggesting she was once the Amazon warrior queen who fought in the battle of Troy). Except for a brief flashback illustrating the centuries-long escapades of Andy and Quynh (Veronica Ngo) fighting for vaguely defined positive principles (one involved rescuing women accused of witchcraft), we don’t see much of their past. Similarly, except for Andy’s increasing cynicism about the positive impact of their roaming the Earth like do-gooder ronin, they seem to exist largely in the present.

That present is largely taken up with combat, particularly as Booker, Andy, and Nile gear up to rescue Nicky and Joe. Prince-Bythewood handles these scenes with a degree of John Wick-esque flair: Why just shoot a Big Pharma hired gun once when you can shoot him, flip him over, and then stab and shoot him again for good measure? However tight, though, the action scenes’ staging is unremarkable, with the exception of one climactic moment that’s so well-choreographed from an emotional standpoint that the impossibility of a multiplex crowd hooting and clapping in response makes the film feel stifled by being limited to streaming.

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts. That will likely not stop further iterations from finding ways to plug these characters and their like into any historical moment that has room in it for high-minded mercenaries with marketable skills and a few centuries to kill.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling, Veronica Ngo Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood Screenwriter: Greg Rucka Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: We Are Little Zombies Is a Fun, Wildly Stylized Portrait of Grief

The film is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries.

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We Are Little Zombies
Photo: Oscilloscope

Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies follows the exploits of a group of tweens who meet at the funeral home where their deceased parents are being cremated. But, surprisingly, Hitari (Keita Ninomiya), Takemura (Mondo Okumura), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), and Ikiko (Satoshi Mizuno) are united less by sorrow and more by cool indifference, as they see their parents’ deaths as yet another tragedy in what they collectively agree is pretty much a “shit life.” As the socially awkward Hitari claims matter-of-factly in voiceover, “Babies cry to signal they need help. Since no one can help me, there’s no point in crying.”

Through a series of extended flashbacks, Nagahisa relates the kids’ troubled lives, never stooping to pitying or sentimentalizing them or their utter dismay with the adult world. The new friends’ deeply internalized grief and hopelessness are filtered wildly through a hyperreal aesthetic lens that’s indebted to all things pop, from psychedelia to role-playing games. It’s Nagashisa’s vibrant means of expressing the disconnect between the kids’ troubled lives and their emotionless reactions to the various tragedies that have befallen them.

With its chiptunes-laden soundtrack and chapter-like form, which mimics the levels of a video game, We Are Little Zombies will draw understandable comparisons to Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But it’s Nagisa Oshima’s Three Resurrected Drunkards that offers a more precise analogue to this film’s provocative rhyming of stylistic zaniness and extreme youthful alienation. Oshima’s anarchically playful farce stars the real-life members of the Folk Crusaders as a disaffected group of rebellious musicians, and when the kids of We Are Little Zombies decide to form a band to express themselves, they even perform a bossa nova version of the Folk Crusaders’s theme song for the 1968 film. This and the many other cultural touchstones in We Are Little Zombies are seamlessly weaved by Nagahisa into a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries, be they social media or a dizzying glut of pop-cultural creations.

Nagahisa’s aesthetic mirrors his main characters’ disconnect from reality, incorporating everything from stop-motion animation to pixelated scenes and overhead shots that replicate the stylings of 8-bit RPGs. At one point in We Are Little Zombies, an unsettling talk show appearance brings to mind what it would be like to have a bad acid trip on the set of an old MTV news program. Nagahisa accepts that the kids’ over-engagement with screen-based technology is inextricably embedded in their experience of reality and ultimately celebrates the sense of camaraderie and belonging that the foursome finds in pop artifacts and detritus. This is particularly evident once their band, the Little Zombies of the film’s title, starts to explore their antipathy toward and frustrations with a seemingly indifferent world.

The Little Zombies wield the same charming punk spirit as the film, and once instant fame reveals its viciously sharp teeth, Nagahisa doesn’t hold back from peering into the nihilistic abyss that stands before the kids. As in Three Resurrected Drunkards, We Are Little Zombies’s most despairing notes are couched in the distinctive language of pop culture. Hitari’s attempts to grab essential items before running away from the home of a relative (Eriko Hatsune) are staged as a video game mission. The band’s hit song—titled, of course, “We Are Little Zombies”—is an infectious, delightfully melodic banger all about their dispassionate existence. There’s even a fake death scene of the kids that, as in Three Resurrected Drunkards, effectively restarts the film’s narrative, allowing the characters to once again test their fate.

For all of this film’s reliance on the stylistic ticks of video games, its narrative arc isn’t limited to the typically linear journey embarked upon by many a gaming protagonist, and the foursome’s path leads neither to enlightenment nor even happiness per se. What they’ve discovered in the months since their parents’ deaths is a solidarity with one another, and rather than have them conquer their fears and anxieties, Nagahisa wisely acknowledges that their social disconnection will remain an ongoing struggle. He understands that by tapping into the unifying, rather than alienating, powers of pop culture, they’re better equipped to deal with whatever additional hard knocks that the modern world will inevitably throw their way.

Cast: Keita Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, Sena Nakajima, Kuranosukie Sasaki, Youki Kudoh, Sosuke Ikematsu, Eriko Hatsune, Jun Murakami, Naomi Nishida Director: Makoto Nagahisa Screenwriter: Makoto Nagahisa Distributor: Oscilloscope Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Palm Springs Puts a Fresh Spin on the Time-Loop Rom-Com

The film smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle.

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Palm Springs
Photo: Hulu

The pitch for Palm Springs likely went: “Edge of Tomorrow meets Groundhog Day but with a cool Coachella rom-com vibe.” All of those components are present and accounted for in Max Barbakow’s film, about two people forced to endure the same day of a Palm Springs wedding over and over again after getting stuck in a time loop. But even though the concept might feel secondhand, the execution is confident, funny, and thoughtful.

Palm Springs starts without much of a hook, sidling into its story with the same lassitude as its protagonist, Nyles (Andy Samberg). First seen having desultory sex with his shallow and always peeved girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner), Nyles spends the rest of the film’s opening stretch wandering around the resort where guests are gathered for the wedding of Misty’s friend, Tala (Camila Mendes), lazing around the pool and drinking a seemingly endless number of beers. “Oh yeah, Misty’s boyfriend” is how most refer to him with casual annoyance, and then he gives a winning wedding speech that one doesn’t expect from a plus-one.

The reason for why everything at the wedding seems so familiar to Nyles, and why that speech is so perfectly delivered, becomes clear after he entices the bride’s sister and maid of honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), to follow him out to the desert for a make-out session. In quick succession, Nyles is shot with an arrow by a mysterious figure (J.K. Simmons), Sarah is accidentally sucked into the same glowing vortex that trapped Nyles in his time loop, and she wakes up on the morning of the not-so-great day that she just lived through.

Although Palm Springs eventually digs into the knottier philosophical quandaries of this highly elaborate meet-cute, it takes an appealingly blasé approach to providing answers to the scenario’s curiosities. What initially led Nyles to the mysterious glowing cave in the desert? How has he maintained any semblance of sanity over what appears to be many years of this nightmare existence? How come certain people say “thank you” in Arabic?

This attitude of floating along the sea of life’s mysteries without worry parallels Nyles’s shrugging attitude about the abyss facing them. In response to Sarah’s panicked queries about why they are living the same day on repeat, Nyles throws out a random collection of theories: “one of those infinite time loop situations….purgatory….a glitch in the simulation we’re all in.” His ideas seem half-baked at first. But as time passes, it becomes clear that Nyles has been trapped at the wedding so long that not only has he lost all concept of time or even who he was before it began, his lackadaisical approach to eternity seems more like wisdom.

Darkly cantankerous, Sarah takes a while to come around to that way of thinking. Her version of the Kübler-Ross model starts in anger and shifts to denial (testing the limits of their time-loop trap, she drives home to Texas, only to snap back to morning in Palm Springs when she finally dozes off) before pivoting to acceptance. This segment, where Nyles introduces Sarah to all the people and things he’s found in the nooks and crannies of the world he’s been able to explore in one waking day, plays like a quantum physics rom-com with a video-game-y sense of immortality. After learning the ropes from Nyles (death is no escape, so try to avoid the slow, agonizing deaths), Sarah happily takes part in his Sisyphean games of the drunk and unkillable, ranging from breaking into houses to stealing and crashing a plane.

As places to be trapped for all eternity, this idyll doesn’t seem half bad at first. Barbakow’s fast-paced take on the pleasingly daffy material helps, as does the balancing of Milioti’s angry agita with Samberg’s who-cares recklessness. Eventually the story moves out of endlessly looping stasis into the problem-solution phase, with Sarah deciding she can’t waste away in Palm Springs for eternity. But while the question of whether or not they can escape via Sarah’s device for bridging the multiverse takes over the narrative to some degree, Palm Springs is far more interesting when it ruminates lightly on which puzzle they’re better off solving: pinning their hopes on escape or cracking another beer and figuring out how to be happy in purgatory. Palm Springs isn’t daring by any stretch, but it smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle that’s similar to Groundhog Day but without that film’s reassuring belief that a day can be lived perfectly rather than simply endured.

Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Millioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendez, Tyler Hoechlin, Chris Pang Director: Max Barbakow Screenwriter: Andy Siara Distributor: Neon, Hulu Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Hamilton Comes Home, Still Holding Conflicting Truths at Once

The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage.

3.5

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Hamilton
Photo: Disney+

The actual physical production of Hamilton has never been at the heart of the show’s fandom. Its lyrics have been memorized en masse, Hamilton-inspired history courses have been created across grade levels, and its references have invaded the vernacular, but, for most, Hamilton’s liveness has been inaccessible, whether due to geography or unaffordability. Hamilton the film, recorded over two Broadway performances in 2016 with most of the original Broadway cast, winningly celebrates the still-surprisingly rich density of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score and the show’s much-heralded actors. But this new iteration is most stunning in its devotion to translating Hamilton’s swirling, churning storytelling—the work of director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler—to the screen.

Most films of live theater feel partial and remote. There’s usually a sense that with every move of the camera we’re missing out on something happening elsewhere on stage. The autonomy of attending theater in person—the ability to choose what to focus on—is stripped away. But instead of delimiting what we see of Hamilton, this film opens up our options. Even when the camera (one of many installed around, behind, and above the stage) homes in on a lone singer, the shots tend to frame the soloists in a larger context: We can watch Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), but we can also track the characters behind him or on the walkways above him. Every shot is rife with detail and movement: the rowers escorting Alexander Hamilton’s (Miranda) body to shore, Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones) hovering beneath a stairway as Hamilton confesses his infidelities to Burr, ensemble members dancing in the shadows of David Korins’s imposing set. There’s no space to wonder what might be happening beyond the camera’s gaze.

Off-setting the cast album’s appropriate spotlight on the show’s stars, the film, also directed by Kail, constantly centers the ensemble, even when they’re not singing, as they enact battles and balls or symbolically fly letters back and forth between Hamilton and Burr. Audiences who mainly know the show’s music may be surprised by how often the entire cast is on stage, and even those who’ve seen Hamilton live on stage will be delighted by the highlighted, quirky individuality of each ensemble member’s often-silent storytelling.

Kail shows impressive restraint, withholding aerial views and shots from aboard the spinning turntables at the center of the stage until they can be most potent. The film also convincingly offers Hamilton’s design as a stunning work of visual art, showcasing Howell Binkley’s lighting—the sharp yellows as the Schuyler Sisters take the town and the slowly warming blues as Hamilton seeks his wife’s forgiveness—just as thoughtfully as it does the performances.

And when the cameras do go in for a close-up, they shade lyrics we may know by heart with new meaning. In “Wait for It,” Burr’s paean to practicing patience rather than impulsiveness, Odom (who won a Tony for the role) clenches his eyes shut as he sings, “I am inimitable, I am an original,” tensing as if battling to convince himself that his passivity is a sign of strength and not cowardice. When Eliza Hamilton (Philippa Soo) glances upward and away from her ever-ascendant husband as she asks him, “If I could grant you peace of mind, would that be enough?,” it’s suddenly crystal clear that she’s wondering whether taking care of Alexander would be enough for herself, not for him, her searching eyes foreshadowing her eventual self-reliance. And there’s an icky intimacy unachievable in person when Jonathan Groff’s mad King George literally foams at the mouth in response to the ingratitude of his colonies.

The production’s less understated performances, like Daveed Diggs’s show-stealing turn (also Tony-winning) in the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and Renée Elise Goldsberry’s fiery embodiment (yes, also Tony-winning) of the shrewd, self-sacrificing Angelica Schuyler Church, benefit, too, from the way that the film’s pacing latches onto Miranda’s propulsive writing. In Jefferson’s return home, “What’d I Miss,” the camera angles change swiftly as if to keep up with Diggs’s buoyancy.

Despite Christopher Jackson’s warm and gorgeous-voiced performance, George Washington remains Hamilton’s central sticking point. While Jefferson receives a dressing down from Hamilton for practicing slavery, Washington, who once enslaved over 200 people at one time at Mount Vernon, shows up in Hamilton as a spotless hero who might as well be king if he wasn’t so noble as to step down. There’s a tricky tension at Hamilton’s core: Casting performers of color as white founding “heroes” allows the master narrative to be reclaimed, but it’s still a master narrative. For audiences familiar with the facts, the casting of black actors as slave owners (not just Jefferson) is an unstated, powerful act of artistic resistance against the truths of the nation’s founding. But for those learning their history from Hamilton, especially young audiences, they will still believe in Washington’s moral purity, even if they walk away picturing the first president as Christopher Jackson.

But Hamilton is complex and monumental enough of a work to hold conflicting truths at once. In attempting to recraft our understanding of America’s founding, it may fall short. In forcibly transforming the expectations for who can tell what stories on which stages, Hamilton has been a game-changer. And as a feat of musical theater high-wire acts, Miranda’s dexterity in navigating decades of historical detail while weaving his characters’ personal and political paths tightly together is matched only by his own ingenuity as a composer and lyricist of songs that showcase his characters’ brilliance without distractingly drawing attention to his own.

Dynamized by its narrative-reclaiming, race-conscious casting and hip-hop score, and built around timeline-bending reminders that America may be perpetually in the “battle for our nation’s very soul,” Hamilton, of course, also lends itself particularly easily to 2020 connections. But the greater gift is that Hamilton will swivel from untouchability as Broadway’s most elusive, priciest ticket to mass accessibility at a moment of keen awareness that, to paraphrase George Washington, history has its eyes on us. The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage. That we are sharing Hamilton here and now offers as much hope as Hamilton itself.

Cast: Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Phillipa Soo Director: Thomas Kail Screenwriter: Ron Chernow, Lin-Manuel Miranda Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 160 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: In Family Romance, LLC, Reality and Fantasy Affectingly Collide

Throughout, it’s as though Werner Herzog were more witness than author, simply registering Japan being Japan.

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Family Romance, LLC
Photo: MUBI

Werner Herzog’s Family Romance, LLC presents Japan as a place where the technological follies of modernity that many see as embryonic in the West are allowed to blossom unabashedly. The Orientalism inherent to this myth, that of Japan as a high-tech dystopia where human alienation reaches its pathetic zenith, is somewhat masked here by the film’s style, which inhabits that strangely pleasurable cusp between fact and fiction. We are never quite sure of the extent to which situations and dialogues have been scripted and, as such, it’s as though Herzog were more witness than author, more passerby than gawker, simply registering Japan being Japan.

The film is centered around Ishii Yuichi, playing a version of himself, who owns a business that rents out human beings to act like paparazzi, family members, lovers, or bearers of good (albeit fake) news. One of his clients, for example, is a woman who wants to relive the moment when she won the lottery. We follow Ishii as he travels to his business calls, which may consist of going to a funeral home that offers coffin rentals by the hour for people to test out, or to a hotel where the clerks behind the helpdesk and the fish in the aquarium are robots.

The camera, otherwise, follows Ishii’s encounters with his 12-year-old “daughter,” Mahiro (Mahiro). The girl’s mother, Miki (Miki Fujimaki), has enlisted Ishii to play Mahiro’s missing father, who abandoned her when she was two, and make it seem as if he’s suddenly resurfaced. The film’s most interesting moments don’t arise from its largely obvious critiques of simulation, but from the human relationship between Ishii and Mahiro. In the end, the film’s smartest trick is getting the audience to genuinely feel for this young girl on screen, acting for us, all while scoffing at Ishii’s clients for scripting their own emotional experiences.

We know the relationship between Mahiro and Ishii to be false on multiple levels. They may not be professional actors, but they are very much acting, and their interactions nonetheless tap into something quite authentic and emotional. Although their kinship is an act of make-believe, it’s driven by similar malaises that plague “real” father-daughter relationships. Mahiro, who doesn’t meet Ishii until she’s a pre-teen and is presumably unaware that it’s all just an act, struggles to articulate feelings that overwhelm her. Asking for a hug from Ishii is a Herculean task for her. But granting her the hug is also a Herculean task for Ishii, who ultimately confesses to wondering whether his real family, too, has been paid by someone else to raise him. Must a father’s hug be so clinical even when he’s getting paid to do it?

Such moments as that awkward father-daughter hug, a scene where Mahiro gives Ishii an origami animal that she made for him (“It’s delicate, so be careful,” she says), and another where she confesses that she likes a boy all point to the ways in which feeling slips out of even the most perfectly scripted protocols. That’s a relief for the kind of society that Family Romance, LLC aims to critique, one where tidy transactions are meant to neuter the messy unpredictability of human interactions but fail. Emotion slips out despite diligent attempts to master it, forcing even those who stand to gain the most from hyper-controlled environments to eventually face the shakiness of their own ground. Ishii, for instance, is forced to reconsider his business model when Mahiro’s demand for love starts to affect him. Ishii’s fear that he may also have been swindled by actors posing as parents tells us that authors are subjects, too, and that the equation between reality and fantasy is never quite settled.

Cast: Ishii Yuichi, Mahiro, Miki Fujimaki, Umetani Hideyasu, Shun Ishigaki Director: Werner Herzog Screenwriter: Werner Herzog Distributor: MUBI Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Force of Nature, Much Like Mel Gibson, Is an Absolute Disaster

The film presents its scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena.

.5

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Force of Nature
Photo: Lionsgate

If cancel culture truly had the power its detractors ascribed to it, then Michael Polish’s Force of Nature would have probably never starred Mel Gibson. The film stars the one-time Hollywood idol as a trigger-happy retired cop who hurls insults like “cocksucker” at men who inconvenience him. By itself, casting Gibson as the kind of manic, violence-prone cop for which he was once known for playing speaks to the film’s defiantly conservative politics, its will to return to a cinematic era when violent white cops were viewed as good cops. But also having Gibson’s Ray toss out homophobic slurs almost turns this insipid action flick into a statement about Gibson himself, as if the actor’s own record of making such remarks should be viewed as the charmingly impolitic outbursts of an old-fashioned geezer.

Because Ray joins a multiethnic crew of good guys to save the day, we’re presumably meant to view his personality flaws as minor, the attributes of a classical cop masculinity that’s entered its dotage but ready to be awakened for one last shoot-out with big-city scum. The big city in this case is San Juan, Puerto Rico, which, as the film begins, is under siege by a hurricane. Set almost entirely in a cramped apartment building, Force of Nature is part Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, part The Raid: Redemption (or one of its many clones), attempting but failing to imitate both the former’s eccentric take on the clash of extreme personalities and extreme weather and the intensity of the latter’s kinetic, close-quarters action.

Despite being the biggest star on the bill, Gibson isn’t quite at the center of the narrative, even if the meaningless flash forward that opens Force of Nature, of Ray shooting at two figures in the rain, initially suggests otherwise. Ray plays second fiddle to Emile Hirsch’s point-of-view character, Cordillo, the San Juan police officer who refuses to learn a word of Spanish and might as well be wearing a MAGA hat. (“Where is el victim-o?” he asks regarding an incident at a supermarket early in the film.) Cordillo and his new partner, Peña (Stephanie Cayo), are assigned to help move San Juan’s residents to shelters, encountering Ray and his daughter, Troy (Kate Bosworth), at the apartment complex where Griffin (Will Catlett), Ray and Troy’s newly arrested neighbor, needs to feed his very hungry pet.

For those who’ve seen Netflix’s Tiger King, it will be clear from the 100 pounds of meat that Griffin intends to feed his pet that the man illegally owns some kind of wild cat. And if this offbeat scenario doesn’t elicit the laughs it may be aiming for, that’s at least in part due to composer Kubilay Uner’s score, which applies Wagnerian bombast to nearly every narrative event, as if it could will the paper-thin plot into some kind of significance. The tonal inconsistencies, however, aren’t confined to this clash between image and soundtrack. On a visual level, it’s difficult to know what to make of the scene in which Griffin’s pet, kept entirely off screen, drags Griffin into its pitch-black den and mauls him in front of a not-quite-horrified Cordillo, while a gang that Ray identifies as high-end burglars begins a raid of the complex. Neither funny nor suspenseful, it’s a bewildering mash of visual codes.

Led by a ruthless figure known as John the Baptist (David Zayas), the burglars first make an appearance in the second of the film’s two prologues, in which John kidnaps an elderly woman to get into her safety deposit box, before executing her as well as his accomplice in plain sight—a scene that somewhat belies Ray’s later in-the-know description of the gang as clever plotters. The nature of their interest in Ray, Troy, and Griffin’s apartment building is left vague until a late reveal, a nonsensically belated introduction of the story’s MacGuffin that contributes to the feeling of arbitrariness that pervades the film.

While Peña and Ray confront John and his crew, Cordillo and Troy go off to find medical supplies, along the way developing a thoroughly underwritten and ill-conceived romance; Troy is abruptly drawn to Cordillo after he shares his history of accidental violence against a former girlfriend (Jasper Polish). Meanwhile, the wounded Griffin is left under the watch of Paul (Jorge Luis Ramos), a German about whom multiple characters ask, in all sincerity, if he’s a Nazi, and based solely on his white hair and nationality—certainly not on any arithmetic, as the seventysomething man appears far too young to have been a Nazi Party member.

It would all be material for a parody of cheap-action-flick sensibilities: the preoccupation with Nazism, the hollow romance, the valorization of white male rage barely masked behind a rudimentary psychologism. Unfortunately, Cory M. Miller’s screenplay presents all these scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena. The truth, of course, is that Force of Nature, much like the consequences of the hurricane that clearly inspired it, is a man-made disaster.

Cast: Emile Hirsch, Mel Gibson, Kate Bosworth, David Zayas, Stephanie Cayo, Will Catlett, Jasper Polish, Jorge Luis Ramos Director: Michael Polish Screenwriter: Cory M. Miller Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 91 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Film

Review: John Lewis: Good Trouble Places a Hero in Dialogue with the Past

The film is well-outfitted with telling, thematically rich shards of historical information.

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John Lewis: Good Trouble
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

John Lewis isn’t easily rattled. As a nonviolent foot soldier for desegregation and voting rights in the 1960s, he was severely beaten on several occasions. As a U.S. representative since 1987, he’s contended with a Republican Party that has tacked steadily rightward. John Lewis: Good Trouble presents another, if much less demanding, test for the congressman: Watching his life unspool around him on three large screens in a darkened D.C. theater.

Dawn Porter’s authoritative documentary mixes contemporary and archival material, and the latter includes many rare images, including some that the 80-year-old civil rights pioneer himself had never seen. Porter and her crew decided to show their findings to the Georgia Democrat while simultaneously filming his reactions, and the emotions prompted by this experience are palpable but carefully modulated on his part. Like most successful politicians, Lewis knows how to stay on message, and it’s clear from the moments captured here that he long ago decided which of his private feelings would be elements of his public persona.

One example of this is Lewis’s story about his early desire to become a preacher. As a boy, he says, he would address the chickens on his sharecropper family’s Alabama farm but could never get them to say “amen.” Porter places this anecdote early in Good Trouble, amid comments from family members, so it plays like a revelatory glimpse at Lewis’s formative years. But the congressman, of course, began constructing his biography long before this particular documentary crew arrived. And Porter acknowledges this fact with a scene, toward the film’s end, where Lewis tells the story again during a get-together of former congressional staffers and it becomes clear that everybody in the room already knows it.

Good Trouble, which takes its title from Lewis’s advice to young activists to get into “what I call good trouble,” is partly a testimonial. It includes snippets of praise from Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as congressional new wavers Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who says she wouldn’t be where she is today without Lewis’s example. Yet the film also recalls moments when Lewis wasn’t in perfect sync with his allies, notably the bitter primary for the seat he now holds in Georgia’s 5th District. Lewis defeated Julian Bond by winning support of the district’s white voters, and by hinting that Bond had a drug problem. Earlier, Lewis had recoiled from the militancy of “Black Power” and lost his position in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Lewis doesn’t say much about these chapters in his life, just as he doesn’t reveal a lot when he gives tours of his homes in Atlanta and D.C. A widower, he seems to live alone, though a cat is glimpsed inside the Georgia house at one point. One of the documentary’s most personal stories, about his tearful reaction to the news that his great-great-grandfather registered to vote in 1867, is told not by the congressman but by cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., who unveiled the voter card on the show he hosts, Finding Your Roots. Good Trouble is well-outfitted with such telling shards of historical information, and Porter skillfully fits them together, assembling her subject’s biography thematically rather than chronologically.

Thus, a section on the young Lewis’s battle for African-American suffrage naturally begins in the 1960s before leading to 2014, when a Supreme Court ruling undermined the Voting Rights Act, and ultimately to the 2016 and 2018 elections swayed by voter suppression. The effect is illuminating, if not especially visceral. When the filmmakers arranged this kind of “This Is Your Life” for Lewis, they may not have elicited as much emotion as they’d hoped from the congressman. But they did fashion a microcosm of what the entire Good Trouble shows: the present in dialogue with the past, and a hero in the context of a larger movement.

Director: Dawn Porter Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 97 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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