Coming Up in This Column: Sunshine Cleaning, Everlasting Moments, Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, Horton Foote, Teaching the Young: Take Two, The Mask of Dimitrios, Burn Notice, Castle, ER.
Sunshine Cleaning(2008. Written by Megan Holley. 102 minutes): Not Little Miss Sunshine.
Yes, it has “sunshine” in the title. Yes, it has Alan Arkin as a crusty grandpa. Yes, it has a light colored van. Yes, it is set the Southwest. Yes, the poster is similar. But does Little Miss Sunshine start with a man bringing a shotgun shell into a sporting goods store, asking to look at a shotgun and blowing his head off with it? No. Sunshine Cleaning is a darker film (in spite of what you may think from the trailer), further along the continuum of dramedy to drama than to comedy.
While the trailer and promotion focus on the company set up by Rose and Norah to clean up crime scenes and the hijinks involved in that, the film’s focus is on the relationship of the two sisters. Rose is the oldest and most responsible, Norah the younger and flakiest. But Holley is pitching all kinds of interesting changeups. It is, to our surprise, Norah who feels the need to connect emotionally with a daughter of one of the victims. We don’t find out why until late in the film, but the scenes between her and the daughter Lynn have an edgy uncertainty. Compare the scene where we think Norah may be coming on to Lynn to the scene in the recent “Story of Lucy and Jessie” episode of Desperate Housewives where we think Susan may be coming on to a teacher she works with. In the Housewives scene we know where we are all the time; in Sunshine we are never quite sure, which is much more realistic.
Holley has written great characters for Amy Adams (Rose) and Emily Blunt (Norah) to play, and director Christine Jeffs is smart enough to simply observe the two of them, individually and together. Adams particularly disappears into the character and makes every moment alive. Look at her in the scene where she is explaining to some old high school classmates what she does for a living and how Rose seems to be understanding for the first time the good that she is doing. Another actress might have just assumed Rose had already thought about that, but Adams makes the realization happen NOW, which is what acting is all about.
The structure of the film is the development of the relationship between the sisters, and the one less than believable moment is the ending, when another character does something we would not expect them to do. Holley, in focusing on the sisters, has not developed the other character enough to make the action completely convincing. That may leave you somewhat disappointed by the ending. I don’t think you will be disappointed by the heart, in both senses, of the movie.
Just so long as you keep in mind that it is NOT Little Miss Sunshine.
Everlasting Moments(2008. Screenplay by Niklas Rådström, story by Jan Troell & Agneta Ulfstäder-Troell. 131 minutes): Pictures, still and moving.
The story comes from tales Agneta Ulfstäder-Troell’s mother told her about her grandmother. Maria Larsson is the wife of a rather brutish husband in Sweden in the early 1900s. She learns how to use a still camera she won in a lottery (and be sure to get there at the beginning of the film to hear the wonderful throwaway line of how the camera led to the marriage). The camera provides a relief from her husband and ultimately seven children. Simple enough, but the script gives us not only the story of the marriage (the husband has his virtues as well as his flaws), but a look at life in Sweden of the time. We get details about work, the role of the lower classes, political action, and how World War I affected Sweden. The script brings us slowly into the life of Maria and Sigge, as the husband is called, and it takes a bit before she begins to explore with the camera. But the camera does not automatically change everything in her life, as it probably would in an American version of the story. Her life goes on, and somewhat to our surprise, so does the marriage. The film is a highly textured look at the characters and their lives. To take only one example, look at the details used to show the relationship between Maria and the owner of a photography studio.
The downside is that it begins to run out of steam in the last hour, where there is very little additional development of the story and characters. Like many films based on true stories, it loses its focus in an effort to get everything in. There are a couple of subplots, including one that goes unresolved for the audience involving Maria’s eldest daughter, who grew up to be Ulfstäder-Troell’s mother, that take us away from the main story. For family reasons I can understand why they are there, but they are part of the reason the film is longer than it needs to be.
Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (2008. Written by Kevin Rafferty (O.K., there is no official writer credit on the film, but stick with me on this one). 105 minutes): Structure and character.
Kevin Rafferty, the great documentarian of Atomic Café and Blood in the Face, is the producer, cinematographer, production designer, sound man, and editor of this film. Since the “writing” of a documentary involves the selection of the subject (in this case a legendary, at least in the Ivy League, 1968 football game in which underdog Harvard manages to come up with a tie in the last minute or so of play) as well as the way it is put together, Rafferty as producer and editor gets the de facto writer’s credit on the film. The film of the game provides a relatively easy basic structure, as Rafferty admits in an interview with The New York Times: “I’ve never had a movie jump together so quickly and joyfully. The movie almost cut itself. I’ve spent years cutting a movie and this was the fastest movie I ever cut.” The tricky part was intercutting the interview material he got from many of the participants in the game, since they go off onto other issues, either consciously or not.
Rafferty, a Harvard man, does cheat a little in the beginning when he introduces several of the players, pointing out that the Harvard players seemed to be mostly blue-collar. Well, the team was the underdog, but Harvard is hardly the heart of blue-collar America. Rafferty does let the Yale men seem to be a little more upper class, and one of the more entertaining interviewees, J.P. Goldsmith, does admit that the Yale men were somewhat isolated in New Haven. That’s an understatement. I’m a Yale graduate (class of ’63, boola, boola) and when I was there, a few years before the game in the film, Yale was an incredibly provincial place.
The characters, oh sorry, the people, Rafferty selected will show you why. They are all white and male, as the Ivies were at the time, although Harvard had Radcliffe right down the street. When I was accepted at Yale, I was their 1959 idea of affirmative action: I was a straight, white, Episcopalian male, but I was middle class and from the Middle West. There were virtually no people of color in my class (and Rafferty was not able to interview the one black player on the Harvard team), and of course no women. One of the Yale players admits to having dated a young woman named Meryl Streep, but listen to how she is talked about, which will tell you all you need to know about the sexual provincialism of the Ivy League at the time. The players do talk about the politics at the time, which were more varied than you might expect from the Ivies, but not as varied as the rest of the world. And from several of the players you get a sense of the entitlement they felt. Listen particularly to Yale player Mike Bouscaren talk about the plays he was involved, or thinks he was involved in. It’s enough to want you to send your kids to a good solid community college.
Horton Foote (1916-2009): An appreciation.
Horton Foote, playwright, screenwriter, and television writer, died March 4th at the age of 92. As screenwriting fans, you may best remember him as the author of the great 1962 Oscar-winning adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird. There are those who think Foote’s adaptation improved on the novel. Foote won an Oscar again for his 1983 original screenplay Tender Mercies, a title that could have applied to almost anything Foote wrote. I have never seen as many uses of the word “gentle” as I have in the obits for Foote.
For all his fame as a screenwriter, his experiences with Hollywood were sometimes awful. His play The Chase was adapted by Lillian Hellman (can you think of any writer less suited to adapting Foote?; no one ever use the word “gentle” about Hellman) into one of the legendary flops of the sixties. Hurry Sundown the following year (1967) was slaughtered under Otto Preminger’s hamfisted direction.
Foote is best known and best served as a playwright. But even there the commercial Broadway theater did not do well by him, since his plays were generally not “big,” i.e. melodramatic, enough for the commercial theatre. He had greater success Off-Broadway and in regional theatre, although he finally won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his play The Young Man From Atlanta.
Most his television work were plays and stories he adapted for Public Television in the eighties and nineties, but to me some of his most important and influential work was done for the so-called Golden Age of live television in the fifties. He had already had three plays produced on Broadway when his theatrical partner Vincent Donehue asked him to work on … The Gabby Hayes Show. It was a children’s show that ran from 1950 to 1956 with the cantankerous B-western sidekick as the host. Foote wrote historical stories for the show and Donehue directed. It was produced by the about-be-legendary Fred Coe. Fortunately Coe moved Foote and Donehue up with him when he moved into the hour-long live dramas. Foote’s “gentle” stories were perfectly suited for the limitations of live television. Because the shows were done mostly in New York in the early fifties, there were considerable space limitations for sets and casts. Foote’s classic 1953 teleplay “A Trip to Bountiful” takes place mostly on a bus, which is represented by a couple of seats. Foote said later that live television “was more like theater in those days,” meaning that you did not need elaborate realistic sets. It’s a tossup whether the longer stage version and the 1985 film were better. The stage play was one of the first, if not the first, adapted from an original television play for the stage, helping convince people good writing could come out of television. Yes, that was a LONG time ago.
A month after “A Trip to Bountiful” first aired, Foote’s teleplay “A Young Lady of Property” appeared on The Philco Television Playhouse. It deals with a young woman who is afraid her father, who is going to remarry, will sell the family house. A typical Foote touch has the dramatic face-off between the girl and the fiance off-camera, and we learn about it only from the girl telling her aunt about it. Talk about restraint. And talk about a smart producer: Coe thought it the face-off should be on camera, but figured that Foote knew what he was doing and let him do it his way. Foote later said Coe was “marvelous to work with, very supportive” of the writers.
When I was interviewing writers for my 1992 book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing, I especially wanted to interview Foote, since I remembered his teleplays from my childhood. The quotes above from Foote come from that December 1990 phone interview. It was one of the worst interviews I have ever done. And it was all my fault. When I started doing oral history interviews at UCLA in the late sixties, I quickly developed two rules: 1) do your homework before the interview, and 2) ask your question and shut up. It was not adhering to the first rule that got me into trouble with Foote. I had found a couple of his teleplays, but I could not run down the published edition of his major teleplays. None of the local libraries or bookstores had it. The main UCLA Library was supposed to have the collection, but it had somehow been misplaced. I had to prepare my questions without it.
So when I starting asking him the questions, he kept referring to his introductory essay in the book, which covered everything I was asking. I could tell he thought that if I was not THE village idiot I was certainly his first cousin. I still managed to recover a bit until I used the phrase “a regional writer.” All trace of Foote’s gentleness disappeared, replaced by the toughness he needed to survive as a writer in television, film and theater. Because he wrote about his native Texas and the south, he had been slapped with the “regional writer” label early in his career. He hated it, and rightly so. After all, the New York critics never referred to his contemporary Paddy Chayefsky as a regional writer, and what could have been more regional than “Marty”? The interview ended shortly after that. Sorry, Horton. I tried to make it up to him by dealing with the “regional writer” issue in the book, for whatever good it might do.
It might have done some good. None of the obits that I saw referred to him as a regional writer. I am sure that was less me and more that people have come to realize the region Foote wrote about was America, and the regional (yes) theaters that keep his works in the repertoire know that. Check out his movies, and if and when they show up in New York, check out the plays of a truly ALL-American writer.
Teaching the Young: Get them early, take two.
Readers will remember that a month ago my seven-year-old grandson Noam got caught up in the well scene in Lawrence of Arabia and wanted to watch the movie with me. I figured that would be a couple of years off. Never underestimate the power of a seven-year-old.
A couple of weeks ago we got a call from my daughter Audrey, offering us the chance to spend some “quality time” with our grandson. As usual that meant she had to work, her husband had to work, and their 16-year-old daughter had rehearsal. Audrey had given Noam the option of having a babysitter on that Saturday or going to Grandma and Grandpa’s. He opted for the grandparents and said he wanted to see a movie with me. Audrey suggested one of my Buster Keaton stash, but he said, “No, I want to see Lawrence of Arabia.” Ah, ha.
So he came up and we started. He was not that crazy about the overture or the titles, but began to get at least somewhat into it. He did not care for all of Robert Bolt’s great dialogue and political and character nuances. He had trouble telling the British and the Turks apart, since they all dressed in khaki. He loved the action scenes (he grew up on the Pirates of the Caribbean films, after all), and he loved Maurice Jarre’s music. He did not sit still that much, and was really up and dancing to Jarre’s music.
By the end of the film he was tired of it, and asked me during the scene in Allenby’s office, where Allenby, Feisal, and Dryden dismiss Lawrence, if there were any more battle scenes. When I said no, he went into the other room and continued playing the computer game he started during the intermission.
Afterwards, he said he thought the movie was “good,” but he was disappointed there were no castles or statues in it. He and his parents had been in Jordan a few years ago and seen Petra, the hidden temple seen in the final sequence of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Noam was expecting something like that. He was not alone. In Michael Wilson’s original screenplay there was a scene set in Petra, because David Lean had been there and wanted to shoot it. The sequence included some of the same kind of self-glorification Lawrence shows in the sequence on top of the train. Lean was not able to shoot at Petra because of a combination of technical problems and producer Sam Spiegel’s insistence on moving the second half of the production from Jordan to Spain. Noam did not get all of the nuances of the film, but he understood at least some of what it was about.
It’s a start.
The Mask of Dimitrios(1944. Screenplay by Frank Gruber, based on the novel by Eric Ambler. 95 minutes): Astaire and Rogers.
This is one of those minor classics it took me until now to catch up with, and boy was I glad I did. The story is a little tricky for a studio film of the period. As Leslie Halliwell puts it in his Film Guide, it is “Remarkable for its time in that the story is not distorted to fit romantic stars: character actors bear the entire burden.” A shady character named Dimitrios is killed and his body washes up on the shores of Turkey. Colonel Haki (yes, the same Turkish policeman who shows up in Ambler’s Journey Into Fear, but not played here by Orson Welles, which may be just as well) tells the Dutch author Leyden about his attempts to capture Dimitrios over the last twenty years. Leyden goes looking for more information about Dimitrios and we get several flashbacks of Dimitrios’s adventures. You can see Frank Gruber’s problem: what’s the star part? Well, Leyden is just asking questions and getting bullied by friends and associates of Dimitrios. Dimitrios appears as the star in the flashbacks, but as much time is spent on the scenes with Leyden. So the obvious choice is to just make it a character actor’s holiday.
Leyden is played by Peter Lorre, and since he does not have to whimper around Humphrey Bogart, he can come into his own. It is one of the richest performances he ever gave in an American film, with all kinds of textures. Leyden is employed, bullied, and harassed by Mr. Peters, who is played by Lorre’s occasional film partner, Sydney Greenstreet. Gruber has given them four or five great scenes together, and watching the pair get the most out of them is like watching Astaire and Rogers dance; if you are like me, you will giggle with pure delight. Lorre is the more flexible actor, but Greenstreet plays his voice like a Stradivarius, and both seem giddy knowing that Bogart is not going to break in and stop their fun. Jean Negulesco is the director, and his reputation was that he never talked to the actors, but let them do what they wanted. Sometimes that is a wise move with actors like these.
Dimitrios is the first film role of Zachary Scott, and Gruber establishes him as a sleek cad, which Scott played better than anybody else, including George Sanders. Not to give too much away, but keep in mind this film was made in 1944, the same year as Laura. Undoubtedly it was a time when many people hoped that people they thought were dead would turn out to still be alive. Because the ending is all character actors all the time, it is more suspenseful than most movies of the period, since you have no idea who will shoot who and who will survive.
It is not yet out on DVD, but Turner Classic Movies ran it recently so keep an eye out for it.
Burn Notice(2009. Episode “Lesser Evil” written by Matt Nix. 60 minutes): Transition time.
This was the half-season finale of Burn Notice, and Nix, the series creator, pulled a fast one on us. Since the beginning of the show, Michael has been trying to find out who burned him. This half season he and we thought we were getting closer, since the mysterious Carla seemed to be promising him the information. Of course, she also sent Victor to try to kill him, but what’s a little attempted murder between friends?
In a twist early on in the episode, Victor becomes Michael’s “client” as Michael tries to protect him from Carla, since Victor has promised info that will help them deal with her. A number of car chases ensue, since the producers have saved up a lot of money this season for a number of big action scenes they whipped up for this episode. Victor tells him Carla is no longer with “the company” and is doing “black ops” on her own, which we all pretty much know. She has been trying to hustle Michael into working for her the way she hustled Victor. But Victor also suggests that it was not one person in the company that burned Michael, but simply the way the machine works. This would be an anti-climax except we are still in the middle of the chases and shootouts and are more concerned about them.
Then Fi and Sam manage to kill Carla and a helicopter arrives with a character only identified as “Management,” who reveals to Michael that far from leaving him on his own with the burn notice, they did it to protect him from enemies he made in his spy days. Lots and lots of enemies. Management offers to continue to protect Michael, but he refuses the offer by jumping out of the helicopter and swimming to shore.
O.K., what this means for the series is that the writers no longer have to deal with who burned Michael, which is good, since how much more can you dance around that issue? It also opens up a whole can of new bad guys for Michael to have to deal with. How many enemies did he make in his spy days? As many as the writers need to keep the show going for several years. And since Management is played the always-welcome John Mahoney, we probably have not seen the last of him, either.
Castle(2009. Episode “Flowers for Your Grave” written by Andrew W. Marlowe. 60 minutes): Murder She Wrote meets Moonlighting.
Burn Notice stops, this one starts. Life goes on.
Richard Castle is a mystery novelist and he is questioned about a murder that uses a scene similar to one of his novels. He is questioned by Detective Kate Beckett. He’s cute. She’s cute. He smirks, since Nathan Fillion who plays him gives good smirk. She rolls her eyes, since Stana Katic gives good eye roll. Needless to say, he gets involved in the case and equally needless to say, by the end of the hour they have solved it. She wants nothing more to do with him, but his friend the mayor has let her boss know that Castle is going to be hanging out with her to study her as a model of the heroine of his next series of books. Series started.
Marlowe does give us the kind of grace notes you hope for in a genre piece like this. Castle has a teenage daughter who seems more mature than he does, and his freewheeling mother is living with them. Not much is done with the mother this time out, but since she is played by the great Susan Sullivan, there should be some fun with her later on. In a gimmick in the pilot that probably will not be repeated that often, Castle’s poker buddies are real-life mystery novelists James Patterson and Steven J. Cannell, who offer him advice on the case. And one other touch that I really, really loved. Castle is wrong. Just once, in this episode, but it was nice to see the smirk go missing for a couple of minutes.
ER (2009. Episode “Old Times” written by John Wells. 60 minutes): Old times indeed.
This is why we go to the theater. This is why we watch movies. This is why we watch television. We watch actors act out stories that move us and tells us about the world we live in, past and present, real and fictional. And creating those stories is not as easy as John Wells makes it seem here.
One problem the writers of ER have had the last few months has been balancing the ongoing stories, the single episode stories, and the coming end of the series. In US#19 I discussed this in regards to the “A Long Strange Trip” episode, and it was a problem in the March 5th “What We Do” episode, which tried to balance a documentary unit in the ER with ongoing stories. The series pulled that off better in the “Ambush” episode that opened the fourth season.
This episode’s teaser has a young woman on the Chicago subway, carrying a baby. We follow her off the train and into the ER, establishing the usual chaos of the ER, which we know now the way we did not when the series started. The fact that the baby is black and she is white helps us believe her story that she found the baby. The fact she leaves the ER almost immediately makes us doubt her story. The baby has a seizure, and over the episode we watch the doctors stabilize the baby and Banfield bond with it. About the only expected thing in the episode is that we pretty much guess early on that this is going to be the baby Banfield adopts before the end of the series.
Act One: At Northwestern Hospital Carter is about to be released when Dr. Kurtag sweeps in announces they may have a kidney for him. Here’s the first surprise. Kurtag is played, with all the arrogance of every surgeon you ever met, by Christian Clemenson. Clemenson just got off Boston Legal playing Jerry Espenson, and Kurtag could not be further from Espenson. Part of the joy of watching a theatrical repertory company is seeing the actors play a variety of parts. Television especially is our national repertory theater and seeing a variety of performances from a single actor is part of the pleasure it gives us.
We cut to Washington University Medical Center in Seattle. Thank God there is not a crossover with, eewww, Grey’s Anatomy. We follow a woman walking into a waiting room, where we discover she is Carol Hathaway, whom we last saw nine years ago. Wells makes no big deal out of it, which makes it the more moving. She is still a nurse and checking with a variety of people who are here from other hospitals awaiting possible organs for transplant. Neela and Sam are awaiting a heart for the 36-year-old mother we have seen in previous episodes. Hathaway tells everyone there may be a delay. Billy, a 16-year-old boy on a bicycle, was hit and is brain dead, but his grandmother, the only family member they can find, held his hand and felt a squeeze. The doctors know this reflex is common, but the grandmother is convinced the boy will survive. And who walks in but Dr. Doug Ross, Hathaway’s husband, whom we have also not seen for nine years. Again, no big deal. He explains in more detail, then Hathaway goes off to try to convince Nora, the grandmother. A simple scene, and since Wells, who also directed, knows that he has Juliana Margulies as Hathaway and Susan Sarandon as Nora (well, you write great parts, you get great actors) he does not have to overdramatize the scene, either in the writing or the directing. As Christine Jeffs on Sunshine Cleaning knows and Jean Negulesco in his whole career knew, Wells knows if you have good material, you can let the actors carry the scene. Hathaway comes back to the waiting room and asks Neela and Sam if they could take a kidney that will become available back to Northwestern, since they are going to Chicago. We know who the kidney is for, even if Neela and Sam do not. Nora insists her daughter has to be there to decide the fate of the boy.
Act Two: We get Hathaway and Ross talking, reminding us of how charming he can be, and then he finds out that Neela and Sam are from County. Now how would you write that scene? Wells handles it with great simplicity. Ross mentions that he was there. He asks about people we know have gone, such as Weaver and Lewis. We and Ross lived through a lot with them, which Wells is reminding us in an off-hand way. Back in Chicago a woman is brought in for vomiting, and who is her devoted husband Paul but Ernest Borgnine, who won the Oscar 54 years ago for the film version of Marty. Borgnine has done a lot of crap in his career since, but in his early nineties he still has the chops. Wells does not give him big scenes here, but we may see him later. At Northwestern who shows up in Carter’s room but Benton, who terrorized Carter when Carter first came to County. Now they are like two old veterans, which the actors are, catching up. In Seattle, Ross talks to Nora about Billy, asking about him. At one point he asks, “Generous?” We see from Hathaway’s reaction she knows he’s sprung the trap. I had to watch Sarandon’s reactions twice to realize that Nora knows, at least subconsciously. Ross asks again for permission, Nora shakes her head, then almost imperceptibly nods, then nods again, all the while dealing with her grief. Now you know why Wells got Sarandon to do the part, and why Sarandon did it. Sarandon takes you into the woman’s heart, without a lot of speeches. Wells has been at this a long time and worked with a lot of great actors, and as is true of most great screenwriters, he understands what actors can bring to the moment and how to write to let them do that.
Act Three: Nora watches as Billy is brought through on a gurney. Look at how little Sarandon does and how much she gets out of it. After a bit back in Chicago, we see Neela and Sam getting into an elevator, each with her own cooler. That’s all you need for that scene. After another Banfield and the baby scene, we pick up Neela and Sam at the airport. Their plane has had to return, but the clerk (Wells’s attention to detail: look at her reaction to learning there is a heart in the cooler) manages to get them to hitch a ride on a private jet with … a reggae group. Now imagine all the scenes Wells could write with Neela and Sam, ganja, music, etc. He does not give us any of them because that is not what the story is about. And it’s often better to let the audience imagine something like that. At Northwestern Benton asks Carter if he has let his parents or his wife know, and Carter tells him no. We may or may not remember Carter’s African adventures, but we do remember his wife. He does have a picture of her, leading to Benton’s great line, “You married a sister?” Sam arrives with the kidney, and Neela arrives with the heart, going past the woman’s daughter.
Act Four: At Northwestern, Benton stays with Carter through the surgery, irritating Kurtag by insisting they all go through the pre-surgery checklist. The checklist turns up a missing item, which they get before the surgery starts, and which they need, of course. Just like cop show are supposed to reassure us that justice will prevail, doctor shows are supposed to reassure us that good doctors will prevent mistakes. And lawyer shows, at least David E. Kelly’s, show us that none of that is true. At County there are problems with the heart, but Neela insists the patient has a better chance with it than without. She persuades an older, white, male doctor she is right. Remember the problems that Neela has had asserting herself? They’re gone. And then there are problems with the heart and Neela has to use the paddles. After a scene with Banfield and the baby’s mother, who came back to check on her, Neela comes in and asks the daughter if she would like to see her mom. At Northwestern Benton is there when Carter wakes up and shows him the bag of 800ccs of urine to prove his new kidney is now working. Carter has Benton speed dial his wife, and Carter tells her he has “some really good news.” In Seattle, Ross and Hathaway are asleep when Hathaway gets a call from the hospital. Chicago has called and the heart is working fine. She tells Ross that the heart went to a 36-year-old mom. Even if you are looking at the clock, you are now awaiting the big reveal: Ross and Hathaway realizing the kidney has gone to John Carter, whom they started working with fifteen years ago. Have you learned nothing from the way Wells has written this episode? Hathaway adds, “And the kidney went to some doctor.” They cuddle and we fade out.
Life does go on. People connect, lose touch, connect again. Films and television shows connect, sometimes lose touch, sometimes connect again. That’s why we can’t not watch.
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.
Review: Parasite Satirically Feeds on the Ills That Divide a Society
Bong Joon-ho’s excoriation of a dehumanizing social culture is mounted with dazzling formal invention.3
The first film Bong Joon-ho has made in 10 years that’s set entirely in his native South Korea, Parasite finds the eccentric, genre-driven auteur scaling back the high-concept ambitions of his prior two films, the post-apocalyptic Snowpiercer and the globe-trotting ecological fable Okja, in favor of examining a close-knit family dynamic that’s reminiscent of the one at the center of The Host, Bong’s 2007 breakout monster flick. Except this time the monster isn’t some amphibious abomination that results from extreme genetic mutation, but the insidious forces of class and capital that divide a society’s people.
In a cramped apartment, a family of four are sent into a panic when the WiFi network they’ve been pirating goes offline. Ki-jung (Park So-dam) and her brother, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), scurry about as their father, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), instructs them to try holding their phones up to the ceiling, and to stand in every nook and cranny of their home until they find a new connection. All the while, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) bemoans her husband’s laziness and prods him to find work. But it’s Ki-woo who pulls his family out of their impoverished life, when he gets an opportunity to tutor Da-hye (Jung Ziso), daughter of the rich Park family.
Parasite essentially puts an absurdist spin on both the concept behind Hirokazu Kore-eda’s sentimental Shoplifters from last year and the bitter class commentary that underpins Nagisa Oshima’s 1969 film Boy. Bong positions Ki-taek and his family as grifters so adept at pulling off cons as a unit that they successfully convince the Parks to bring them all into their employ, in one capacity or another. Ki-jung becomes an “arts therapy” teacher for the Park clan’s precocious young son, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun), and, later, the rich family’s driver and nanny are pushed out of their jobs through elaborate scandals manufactured by the poor family, in order to install Ki-taek and Moon-gwang, respectively, into those roles.
Bong pulls off a neat trick by insinuating that the parasite of his film’s title must be Ki-taek’s family; after all, they certainly live off the “host” to which they’ve attached themselves. But in typical fashion, Bong starts to lace Parasite with all sorts of complications that begin to challenge the audience’s perceptions—left turns and big reveals that not only bring new layers to the film’s social commentary, but also develop the characters and their attendant psychologies, which encompass the psychic toll of shame, lack of empathy, and deception.
The twists in this narrative also activate some of Bong’s more inspired and sociopolitically loaded visual ideas. At one point in the film, the slum village where Ki-taek and his family live is devastated by a massive flood during a night of severe weather. Meanwhile, in the upper-class neighborhood where the Park clan lives, a backyard camping trip is ruined by rain. The particular layout of one unexpected setting, which sees members of the lower class literally occupying a space below the rich, doubles as an ingenious metaphor for class subjugation. Remarkably, Bong even finds room for a commentary on Korean peninsula relations.
The only thing that keeps Parasite just slightly below the tier of Bong’s best work, namely The Host and his underrated and similarly themed 2000 debut film, Barking Dogs Never Bite, is the overstuffed pile-up of incident that occurs toward the end. This is frequently an issue for Bong’s films (both Snowpiercer and Okja climax with busy and disorientating action set pieces that lose sight of their characters in the process), and here it manifests in a boldly gruesome scene of violence that’s undercut by a lengthy and rather contrived denouement.
Ultimately, Bong’s excoriating indictment of South Korea’s dehumanizing social culture isn’t far removed from that of Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, but he mounts it with a dazzling control of genre conventions that he continues to seamlessly bend to his absurd comic rhythms. Parasite also reinstates the emotional core that’s been missing from Bong’s recent work, and even feigns a concise narrative structure. It’s the kind of bold and uncompromising work that confirms why Bong is one of our most exciting auteurs, for how his sociocultural criticisms can be so biting, so pungent, when they’re imbued with such great focus and sense of intent.
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-shik, Lee Sun-kyun, Park So-dam, Cho Yeo-jeong, Lee Jung-eun, Chang Hyae-jin, Jung Ziso, Jung Hyeon-jun Director: Bong Joon-ho Screenwriter: Bong Joon-ho, Han Jin-won Running Time: 131 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Perfection Walks Impersonally Though a Labyrinth of Gimmicks
The crazier Richard Shepard’s film gets, the more routine and mechanical it comes to feel.2.5
Richard Shepard’s The Perfection is, for better and worse, an ingenious toy. The plot is clever, but the film is all plot. Shepard and co-writers Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder repeatedly paint themselves into corners, only to free themselves with twists that bring about increasingly diminishing returns. The first switchback is legitimately startling, but the fourth is exhausting and belabored even by the standards of self-consciously cheeky exploitation shockers. As The Perfection mutates from gothic-tinged lesbian romance to body-horror thriller to revenge film, its lack of atmosphere becomes apparent, and the characters begin to seem as if they exist only to move through a labyrinth of gimmicks.
The film opens, promisingly, in Black Swan mode, introducing us to women with potentially rickety senses of self who may come to eat one another alive for our delectation. Charlotte (Allison Williams) travels to Shanghai to reconnect with her mentor, Anton (Steven Weber), who nurtured her to become one of the world’s great cello players, before she retired to care for her ailing mother. (We also pointedly learn, via shock cuts, that Charlotte was institutionalized after her mother’s death.) Charlotte meets Anton’s new pet prodigy, Lizzie (Logan Browning), at a swanky party, and Shepard springs the first and subtlest of the narrative’s many surprises. Conditioned by films such as All About Eve, we expect Charlotte and Lizzie to resent one another and fall into a catty rivalry. However, Lizzie worships Charlotte, and Charlotte doesn’t seem to want to return to the industry, and so the women, free of envy, connect after a night of collaboration, drinking, dancing, and sex.
Shepard’s handling of Charlotte and Lizzie’s lovely, companionable night together is telling of his direction of the film at large. He rushes through it with a montage, collapsing Charlotte and Lizzie’s cello duet, their clubbing, and their coupling all together, reducing their union to a math equation: Meet Cute + Flirtation + Sex = Inciting Incident. For, say, Peter Strickland, this sequence might’ve taken up half the film, allowing him to celebrate and fetishize these gorgeous women while stylishly exploring their loneliness and alienation. And for Dario Argento in his prime, this scene might’ve been an opening aria of erotic terror.
For Shepard, though, it’s just business, and his disappointing haste squanders the heat that’s been worked up in one of The Perfection’s best scenes, when Lizzie observes an infidelity at a concert and whispers to Charlotte that it makes her wet. Even more egregiously, Shepard glosses over a significant bit of information, as Charlotte claims to have lost her virginity to Lizzie. What would it feel like to be sexually arrested and then to so suddenly fall into bed with someone as attractive, worldly, and confident as Lizzie? Shepard doesn’t care to know—and this confession is eventually revealed to be fodder for one of the film’s many twists.
Shepard’s mercenary pace at times serves the film well. When Charlotte and Lizzie awaken the morning after, the filmmaker sustains, for about 15 minutes, an expert tone of slow-dawning dread. Both women are hungover, but Lizzie is dramatically ill, and Shepard plunges us into her panic and helplessness, capping the scene with the perverse spectacle of Lizzie vomiting yellow maggots against a bus’s windows, clutching her head in pain. Several tensions merge at this point in The Perfection: the fear of being sick in another country, of having to grapple with a new lover’s biological eccentricities, and a basic tension wrought by the violation of narrative expectation, as we’re meant to wonder how we moved from a film in the vein of Black Swan to something in the key of a zombie-outbreak movie. Shepard merges these tonal disparities with a lurid reveal, at which point his film goes completely bonkers.
Funny thing, though: The crazier The Perfection gets, the more mechanical it becomes. Shepard appears to be so proud of the film’s first twist—which pivots on a spectacular gaslighting—that he can’t leave well enough alone. It’s then that the film’s narrative “rules” start changing every few minutes, with Charlotte, Lizzie, and Anton trading the batons of “hero,” “villain,” “victim,” and “avenger” back and forth between them. A film as impersonal and plot-centric as The Perfection needs at least some kind of warped logic to sustain a sense of there being stakes at play. In this case, if anything goes then nothing matters.
Cast: Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber, Alaina Huffman, Milah Thompson, Molly Grace, Winnie Hung Director: Richard Shepard Screenwriter: Eric C. Charmelo, Richard Shepard, Nicole Snyder Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 90 min Rating: TV-MA Year: 2019
Review: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood Is an Elegy to an Era’s Sunset
The film is Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus, a sweeping statement on an entire generation of American popular culture.4
Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is presented, right down to the ellipses in its title, as a diptych. But instead of just being a way to structure a piece of entertainment for commercial reasons—like the Grindhouse double feature, the two-part Kill Bill, and the “roadshow” version of The Hateful Eight, which was broken up by an intermission—this demarcation separates two distinct periods: the beginning of the end (February 1969) and the end itself (the summer of ‘69). And it’s a juxtaposition that shows old Hollywood in a time of transition, from dog days to death throes.
While Tarantino’s films tend to provide audiences with much evidence of where the auteur’s love of Hollywood’s lurid lore finds root (in blaxploitation, World War II dramas, kung-fu movies, or spaghetti westerns), Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood gets the closest of any to giving us the complete picture. In this sense, the film is nothing less than Tarantino’s magnum opus—a sweeping statement on an entire generation of American popular culture and an almost expressionistic rendering of the counterculture forming at its margins, gradually growing in influence. It’s an uncharacteristically thoughtful and sobering film for Tarantino, while somehow also being his funniest, and most casually entertaining.
In the film’s first section, old Hollywood comes to life through montages of flashing neon signs, majestic old movie theater marquees on the Sunset Strip, and long-haired hippies hanging out on street corners, trying to bum rides from people who pass them by in their hot cars. Tarantino’s late-‘60s Hollywood is an immersive playground of opulence and iconicity, and thanks to the many exhilarating driving sequences that dot the film, the Los Angeles neighborhood conjures the adrenalized sensation of velocity and acceleration.
Navigating through this fast-paced Hollywood is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading star of TV westerns trying to break into the movies, and his best friend and longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Both characters are complete fabrications, as are most of the titles they’re associated with, like Kill Me Now Ringo, Said the Gringo and Three in an Attic. And as Tarantino detours his narrative through depictions of these fictional projects, subjecting us to many scenes of Dalton playing different characters, this at first just seems like an excuse to make spoofy versions of disposable Hollywood product, like the fake trailers that appear between Planet Terror and Death Proof in Grindhouse. But these scenes actually serve to sketch the shifting dynamics on film sets of the late-‘60s, like the emergence of Method acting, and they also position Dalton as a kind of Tarantino surrogate.
In one of the film’s most clever sequences, Dalton regales his eight-year-old co-star (Julia Butters), in between takes on the set of some low-budget western, with the story of the novel that he’s been reading. The character in the story is an aging cowboy who used to be the best but now is a shadow of his former self. As Dalton tells the story of the man’s misfortune, and all his aches and pains, he starts to well up, obviously recognizing how much this all applies to him. But the way the sequence plays out, with the young girl with the forceful feminist outlook putting Dalton in his place when he tries to call her by a cute nickname, effectively puts Tarantino in the hot seat, and for that matter DiCaprio, another artist whose aging career comes with the danger of obsolescence and of falling out of step with the times.
Progressing on a parallel track to Dalton and Booth’s narratives is another storyline, and the one that Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood has already become infamous for. The real-life Sharon Tate (Margo Robbie) comes to feel like the flipside of Dalton and Booth, her next-door neighbors in the film. The “It” girl flits through parties with her celebrated Polish filmmaker husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), and good friend, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch). If the changing times threaten to discard and ignore Dalton and Booth, they’re bringing Tate too much attention: At various points in Tarantino’s film, she’s watched and coveted from afar, as in a scene in which Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) gossips while ogling her at a party.
In the film’s finest scene, Tate even watches herself: at a matinee screening of Phil Karlson’s 1968 Dean Martin vehicle The Wrecking Crew. The sequence is resonant in no small part for its layers, with Robbie, as Tate, watching the real Tate (Tarantino uses actual footage from The Wrecking Crew for the scene). The whole thing suggests a kind of eerie feedback loop of celebrity and its cycles of consumption, but it’s also a profoundly moving scene: Effortlessly nailing the moment, and without any dialogue, Robbie responds, in character, to the film on a diegetic level, watching her own performance, but at the same time, there’s also the added metatextual layer of Robbie watching the very actress whom she’s playing.
It’s the film’s commitment to fortifying its themes with such layers of self-reflexivity, while still anchoring its concepts to fully realized, emotionally invested characters, that makes it one of Tarantino’s great films—a dense but focused effort that validates the divisive artist’s status as one of American cinema’s preeminent pop-cultural figures. It’s also that self-reflexive lens through which to read Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood that makes its finale harder to write off as the misstep that it would otherwise seem to be. Tarantino does, perhaps unsurprisingly, revert to some of his more vexing shock-jock tendencies, and even squanders some of his film’s emotional gravitas. But it’s difficult to deny how effectively he sets up what’s to come, when, in the midst of a tense debate between members of the Manson Family, one young woman (Mikey Madison) delivers an incendiary edict: “If you grew up watching TV, you grew up watching murder—my idea is to kill the people who taught us to kill!”
This chilling sentiment becomes the nexus of the film’s significantly darker second half, which jumps six months ahead to take the temperature of Hollywood on the eve of the Charles Manson murders. As the landscape and the sociocultural identity of Hollywood continue to change, inching toward a post-Flower Generation comedown, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood takes on an elegiac quality. The shift facilitates one of Tarantino’s more brilliant needle drops to date: of the Rolling Stones’s wistful, wounded, and ominous “Out of Time” playing over a montage of Dalton and Booth returning to L.A. from a sojourn to Europe and a pregnant Tate preparing her home for the arrival of her baby boy.
The flash and fun of the film’s first half gives way to a haunting decline into the valley of alcoholism, and to increasing signs that a new generation is about to push the old one out. And, then, inevitably, those tensions come to a head one August night on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills. It’s this sequence, and the Tarantino-branded ultraviolence that it ushers in, that puts the greatest strain on a film that had been setting itself up for tragedy but ends far afield from that. Still, this subversion points a path to our understanding of the broader intent of Tarantino’s commentary in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, which is less about addressing the violence that people commit against each other than it is about lamenting the existential violence that sustains some and leaves others out of time.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Mike Moh, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Al Pacino, Nicholas Hammond, Samantha Robinson, Lorenza Izzo, Costa Ronin, Perla Haney-Jardine, Damon Herriman, Lena Dunham, Kurt Russell, Scoot McNairy, Michael Madsen, Rumer Willis, Rafal Zawierucha Director: Quentin Tarantino Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 159 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Jeonju IFF 2019: Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, & Introduzione all’oscuro
These are three enigmatic, challenging, and weird works of art by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.
Shortly after arriving in Jeonju, the mid-sized Korean city about 200 kilometers south of Seoul that serves as the site of the Jeonju International Film Festival, I pulled my bedraggled, jet-lagged body over to the guest center to pick up my press credentials. As I made my way through the carnivalesque open-air city block known as Jeonju Cinema Town, I found myself, to my surprise, in the midst of a rather peculiar, almost surreal scenario as a bunch of white- and black-suited stormtroopers marched in lockstep toward me, weapons at the ready, flanking none other than the Grand Imperial Poobah himself, Darth Vader.
The group maneuvered around me without incident, eager to pose for selfies with the crowd of locals assembled in the area, but after over 20 hours of travel, the encounter took on a vaguely sinister air, as if the forces of Hollywood monoculture had been dispatched to this relatively remote cinephile retreat to ensure that no one here got the wrong idea: Have fun with your cute little art films, but remember who really wields the power in the world of cinema.
I suppose these are the sorts of strange inclinations that strike you when your body’s circadian rhythms have been shaken up like a snow globe, but, despite the presence of the Walt Disney Company as one of the festival’s premier sponsors, the films I saw—personal, challenging, at times exhilarating work from all across the world—couldn’t have seemed further away from the market-tested franchises that clog American cineplexes. Having said that, it’s with some irony that one of the first films I took in at Jeonju IFF was in fact a sequel—albeit one whose eccentric sense of humor and repetitive, unresolved narrative mean it’s never going to be mistaken for the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The sequel in question is Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to Li’l Quinquin. One of the great left turns in the history of auteurism, Dumont’s 2014 miniseries signaled his transition from austere Bressonian miserablism to a singular brand of deadpan grotesquerie that gleefully explodes the thin line between the clever and the stupid. Dumont doesn’t vary his style too much for the sequel, as it’s another bizarre sunlit mystery set in the windswept countryside of Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And Dumont has reassembled the same cast of non-professional local oddballs led by Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a twitchy, hapless police detective investigating matters way beyond his depths.
Dumont, though, still finds ways to mess with his audience’s expectations, starting with the baffling and completely inexplicable change of the title character’s name. If the earlier film felt like Dumont’s riff on popular international crime dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing, Coincoin turns out to be his spin on The X-Files, a sci-fi pod-people procedural featuring a mysterious black goo from outer space that inhabits its victims and forces them to give birth to their own uncanny clones. Like many stories about body-snatching, the series is a satire—here on provincial racism, the poor treatment of African migrants, and the rise of the French far right—but Dumont isn’t simply interested in topical point-scoring against Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant politician who represents Nord-Pas-de-Calais.
Rather, with its ambling, directionless narrative and lackadaisical long shots that perversely undercut the screenplay’s gags, Coincoin evokes a deep-rooted spirit of reactionary malaise, of people whose lives are hopelessly circumscribed by their own fears and prejudices. Dumont rigorously resists developing his plot or deepening his characters: They’re all trapped in an absurd loop, doomed to endlessly say the same things and reenact the same jokes.
Van der Weyden sums up that mentality in a single line: “Progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s a group of black men who periodically appear throughout the film only to be consistently and summarily dismissed in a fit of racist panic. Each time, we expect the film to create some meaningful interaction between the white townsfolk and these migrants, and each time we’re rebuffed—that is, until a final musical explosion of kumbaya-like camaraderie that’s somehow goofy, moving, tedious, and invigorating all at the same time.
Dumont is one of the few artists in cinema willing to risk exhausting his audience to induce a particular effect, but he’s not the only one, as demonstrated by James Benning’s L. Cohen, a 45-minute static shot of a seemingly unremarkable field with a mountain visible in the distance. It’s an elegantly composed frame, reminiscent of an American Regionalist painting and whose centrally located peak perhaps coyly refers to the Paramount logo.
After 20 minutes, even the most hardened cinephiles are bound to be squirming in their seat, at which point Benning reveals his remarkable trump card: As the sky quickly darkens and blackness falls over the Earth, we realize that we’ve been watching the leadup to a total solar eclipse. It’s a moment of quiet astonishment and confusion for anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming, bringing us close to the feeling a caveman might’ve had when the same event occurred. With typical mathematical precision, Benning has placed the eclipse at the exact center of the film, allowing us to explore the subtle shadows that precede and follow it.
The film, however, isn’t just some academic structuralist exercise, as it’s also a meditation on death, a fact highlighted by the next startling moment: the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Itself” on the soundtrack, a stark divergence from the ominous drone (identified by Benning during his festival Q&A as the hum of airplanes flying overhead) that fills the rest of the film. This song and the dedication of the film to the recently deceased Cohen add a deeper layer of meaning to Benning’s precisely calibrated study of light and time.
L. Cohen is in essence a meditation on temporality. All things are fleeting, even grand interplanetary ballets. Considering the brief alignment of these celestial bodies puts one in a cosmic mood and calls to mind a cryptic, haunting line from a different Cohen song, “Stories of the Street”: “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.”
One could also find the specter of death looming over Introduzione all’oscuro, an expressionistic tribute to director Gastón Solnicki’s good friend, Hans Hurch, the recently departed director of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. Described by the director not as a film about Hurch, but a film for him, Introduzione all’oscuro dispenses with biography entirely, instead evoking its subject’s buoyant, ragtag spirit in an almost subliminal fashion: through music, film, and the city of Vienna. Hurch “appears” in the film primarily through his letters and through his voice, recorded by Solnicki when he provided notes on one of the director’s previous films. Solnicki does appear on screen: a comically lonely figure visiting some of Hurch’s favorite Viennese haunts—such as the Café Engländer, from which he would periodically steal cups—on a journey that drolly recalls Holly Martins’s investigation into the apparent death of his pal Harry Lime in The Third Man.
Like Solnicki’s Kékszakállú before it, Introduzione all’oscuro is what might be called “slideshow cinema”—a procession of taut, piquant compositions whose relationship to one another isn’t precisely clear but which, when taken together, create an indelible impression of a highly specific milieu. Structured more like a piece of avant-garde music than a narrative work or traditional documentary, the film has a hypnotic yet often dissonant allure. It pulls us into a strange liminal zone where Hurch seems to be simultaneously present and absent, haunting the film like a benevolent spirit. Solnicki simply has one of the best eyes in cinema today, and it’s the pungency of his images which makes the film such an endlessly compelling experience, even when the reasons behind Solnicki’s individual choices remain obscure.
Abstruseness, though, is no crime. In fact, the greatest pleasures of Jeonju IFF were to be found in grappling with “difficult” films such as Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, and Introduzione all’oscuro: enigmatic, challenging, and even downright weird works of art made by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.
The Jeonju International Film Festival ran from May 2—11.
Review: As Teen Comedy, Booksmart Is Sweet and Nasty in Fine Balance
It’s an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness.3
An uncharitable way of describing Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut, Booksmart, is as a gender-flipped version of Superbad. Like Greg Mottola’s 2007 film, it concerns a pair of best friends who’ve spent their high school years as outsiders but, at the end of their senior year, decide to attend the biggest, coolest graduation party imaginable. As in Superbad, getting to the party devolves into an almost picaresque gauntlet through suburban nightlife, consisting of comical encounters with outlandish characters (both films even feature a “creepy car guy”). Booksmart and Superbad also share a ribald, R-rated sense of humor and a sex scene interrupted by vomit—even the same casting director (the venerable Allison Jones).
For all that, Wilde’s film is less a derivative of Mottola’s teen comedy than a corrective to it. Its exaggerated universe is less mean-spirited than the one depicted in Superbad, where so much of the humor depended on Jonah Hill loudly proclaiming his character’s misogyny. Booksmart isn’t above getting laughs from sex jokes that land somewhere between honest and outrageous—there’s a recurring bit about Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) masturbating with her stuffed panda doll—but it does show that teenage conversations about sex can be funny without being demeaning. And its belief in its main characters as more than just stand-ins for the most distorted beliefs that virginal high schoolers have about sex gives the film a fuller, more satisfying arc.
Amy and her best friend, Molly (Beanie Feldstein), are their elite Valley High School’s A-type-personality do-gooders, well-meaning in their ambition and their wokeness, but with streaks of haughtiness and self-righteousness. Beanie is class president, the kind of kid who pushes the school principal (Jason Sudeikis) to arrange a budget meeting with the juniors on the last day of class. In contrast to the brashly assertive Molly, Amy is meek, barely able to eke out syllables when talking to her crush, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), but she’s also intensely woke, adorning her denim jacket with feminist-slogan patches and her car with “Elizabeth Warren 2020” bumper stickers. The pair are so close that they’re often mistaken for being a couple (Amy has been out since the 10th grade), and they definitely don’t party.
As school is letting out, Molly discovers that her and Amy’s monk-like approach to high school life has been for naught. Although the two pride themselves on respectively getting into Yale and Columbia, it seems that virtually all of their classmates have a similarly propitious future lined up. Even the horny goofball Theo (Eduardo Franco), who repeated seventh grade three times, was recruited for a six-figure job with Google. Molly adopts partying as her new project, dragging the reluctant Amy, all the more anxious because Ryan will be at the party, along with her. The problem is that, not being a part of their school’s social scene, they have no idea where the party actually is, and limited means of figuring it out.
The obliviously indefatigable Molly is a star-making role for Feldstein, who keeps let her highly dynamic character—Molly can be both very rigid and very foolhardy—from feeling inconsistent, or leading to broad caricature. As the quieter Amy, Devers’s role is mostly reactive, but, in the tumultuous climax, she supplies the film’s most poignant and relatable moments. As the omnipresent Gigi, a troubled party girl who inexplicably appears at each of the girls’ wayward stops on their journey to the party, Billie Lourd channels a chaotic energy, becoming the film’s strung-out jester. Lourd is just part of an altogether impressive ensemble that also includes Jessica Williams as the teacher who loves Amy and Molly perhaps a bit too much, and Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s super-Christian, super-supportive parents.
For the most part sharply written, and tighter and more consistently funny than the fragmented improv-style Superbad, Booksmart nevertheless has a couple of stretches that don’t quite land. There’s a claymated ayahuasca-tripping sequence that neither suits the rest of the film nor is followed up on in any way by the narrative. And the film’s conclusion is more than a little formally messy, with Wilde relying on a too-rapid succession of non-diegetic pop songs as emotional accents and to fast-forward the plot—at one crucial moment even drowning out the dialogue. But despite these small missteps, Booksmart feels like an innovation, an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness, and that you can be gross without being too mean.
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Billie Lourd, Diana Silvers, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin, Eduardo Franco, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Mike O’Brien Director: Olivia Wilde Screenwriter: Olivia Wilde Katie Silberman, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Terminator: Dark Fate Official Trailer: Going Back to the Well with Sarah Connor
Linda Hamilton at least makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.
Today, Paramount dropped the trailer for the sixth entry in the Terminator series, Terminator: Dark Fate, which promises to deliver…more of the same? With this film, Deadpool director Tim Miller aims to give the series a reboot: by pretending that none of the films that came after Terminator 2: Judgement Day ever existed (sorry, Rise of the Machines fans), maybe even Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. “Welcome to the day after judgment day,” reads the poster, promising the badass return of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. And on that front, the film looks to deliver, as Hamilton certainly makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.
But based on everything else that’s on display throughout the trailer, we’re worried that there’s not anything new that a film in this series stands to bring to the table besides running and gunning, with the occasional wink thrown in for good measure. Cast in point: Mackenzie Davis stars as Grace, an “enhanced human” who looks to fill the hanger-on role to Connor that Edward Furlong’s John Connor did to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, now apparently living in woodsy retirement, and at the ready to give sage advice. In short, we’re not impressed, and that also holds true of that cover of Björk’s “Hunter” by some zombie man singer.
Watch the official trailer below:
Paramount Pictures will release Terminator Dark Fate on November 1.
Review: Woodstock Offers a New Look at the Three Days that Defined a Generation
Throughout, the era-defining yet problem-plagued music festival astounds in large part for all the disasters that didn’t occur.3
According to Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, the 1969 Woodstock festival seemed fated to fail. But a rare convergence of good luck, good intentions, and good vibes somehow snapped into place and crystallized over a few days in August the aspirations of a counterculture about to hit its peak. The festival’s planners, mostly promoters and music-industry pros, talk off-camera throughout this gloriously gleeful documentary about their somewhat spur-of-the-moment concept in a purposefully overlapping mosaic that makes it difficult to determine who’s saying what. Their original idea was simply a big concert that would celebrate the opening of a recording studio in the bucolic artist community of Woodstock, NY and take advantage of the musicians living nearby.
That conceit ballooned into a sprawling three-day cultural amoeba of feel-good psychedelia billed as “An Aquarian Exposition” to be held in a bucolic setting. It would ideally seem, according to one organizer, “like visiting another world.” Creating that gateway to paradise, however, hit one snag after another. Conservative fears about an invasion of hippies led to much anger among locals and triggered permitting issues. Original desired stars like Bob Dylan, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones all passed on the vent. Months’ worth of construction at the original site in Wallkill, NY had to be scrapped at the last minute.
But Woodstock shows also how both lucky circumstances and in-depth planning saved the day. The lineup swelled with a killer roster of acts whom David Crosby defines simply as “everybody we thought was cool”: Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Creedence Clearwater, Janis Joplin, and so on. According to writer Bob Spitz, interest grew as the organizers put the word out through the underground press, and though their top estimates of attendance topped out at 150,000, the eventual total was closer to a potentially unmanageable 400,000. Seemingly foolhardy ideas like hiring Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm commune to handle what they termed “security” and what Wavy defined as trying to “spread grooviness,” helped the increasingly massive enterprise maintain an appealingly mellow tone. Then, a Republican dairy farmer named Max Yasgur, who just happened to have a visually gorgeous sweep of land shaped like a natural amphitheater, agreed to host the festival.
Just about everyone interviewed in Barak Goodman and Jamilia Ephron’s documentary still marvels a half-century on at the scope and tranquility of what happened, though the potential for disaster provides some dramatic grit to the narrative. Much of the festival’s harmoniousnes was a result of on-the-spot empathetic resourcefulness, from Hog Farm’s thrown-together Sunday-morning “breakfast in bed” and “freak-out” tents for people on bad acid trips to the previously resentful locals who spontaneously emptied their pantries to feed the long-haired kids who had been tromping through their front yards. The crowds were soothed by the reassuring voice of the festival announcer, whose “we”-focused addresses over the PA system strengthened the communal spirit, which is then echoed in the film’s starry-eyed reminiscences of interviewees who all sound as though they wish they could go back.
Woodstock cannot hope to supplant Michael Wadleigh’s more symphonic and experiential 1970 documentary. But conversely, its tighter, narrower focus on narrative and context ultimately tells a bigger story at roughly half the length. Co-director Goodman has shown in some of his darker work for PBS’s American Experience, like his episode about the Oklahoma City bombing, a knack for building suspense. He deploys that skill here marvelously when showing the sea of humanity converging on Yasgur’s farm, balancing a fear of impending disaster (short supplies, last-minute glitches, a crowd many times larger than the highest estimates) with the dawning realization that things might just work out.
That tightrope-walking drama is maintained through the actual concert portion of the movie. The musical highs, Hendrix’s squalling “Star-Spangled Banner” and Richie Haven’s raucous two-hour jam (filling the gap while helicopters ferried musicians in over the blocked roads), play out while the vast crowd contends with food shortages and an unexpected rainstorm. But even though the attendees rushed past the mostly unbuilt fencing and by default created what organizer John Roberts here terms “the world’s greatest three-day freebie,” he and his partners appear now happier about the instant community that metamorphosed in the mud than the fact that as a business venture the concert was “in deep shit.”
Woodstock hits many of the expected notes about the concert’s place in the nation’s cultural history. But it’s refreshingly less self-satisfied than awestruck at the simple beauty of what happened at the Woodstock festival and the utopian example it provided to the world. Though unmentioned here, the disastrous music festival that occurred four months later at Altamont Speedway, in the hills of Northern California’s East Bay, where the organizers’ callous indifference to advance planning led to chaos and multiple deaths, shows just how rare the event that occurred in Bethel across three days back in August ‘69 remains to this day.
Director: Barak Goodman, Jamila Ephron Distributor: PBS Distribution Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Is a Knotty Trip Down Memory Lane
Its stylistic fluctuations are a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today.3.5
True to the mission of its protagonist, a well-meaning student filmmaker working on a thesis feature about a community foreign to her, writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is engaged in a running dialogue with itself around the notion of how—and how not—to make a personal narrative. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a London-based, upper-middle-class young woman coming of age in Margaret Thatcher’s England who feels a moral imperative to transpose her own experiences onto a fictional story set in working-class Sunderland, and she’s given ongoing opportunities in her film workshops to try to articulate why that is. Hogg, who based the character on her own early experiences as an artist, views Julie’s trajectory tenderly but through the lens of a greater maturity, dotting the young woman’s path with interlocutors who challenge and redirect her inclinations. Gradually, Julie’s certitude seems to fall out from under her, transforming Hogg’s film in the process.
Pivotal among these forces is Anthony (Tom Burke), a spectacularly smug older man with ambiguous professional and personal affiliations who becomes inexorably drawn to Julie, and she to him. When he first appears on screen across a table from Julie at a café, Hogg frames the scene in the kind of spacious, sophisticated master shot that defined her 2013 film Exhibition, snapping The Souvenir out of the close-up-heavy, fly-on-the-wall aesthetic with which it opens. The shift in style registers the exhilarating impact Anthony has on Julie, who is up to that point seen as a wallflower at college parties, taking photos and rolling a Bolex in the corner while bouncing in and out of conversations. Sizing up Julie’s film project with suave dismissiveness, Anthony suggests that she might heed the influence of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were able to express personal emotions free of the constraints of realism, and later proposes that “it’s not enough to be sincere or authentic.”
Julie takes such counseling in stride even when it comes from her casually condescending professors (also men), giving her a headstrong resilience that Swinton-Byrne beautifully underplays. But Julie’s toughness doesn’t equate to stubborn pride, and soon The Souvenir turns away from its portrait of early filmmaking ambition and toward the knotty dynamics of Anthony and Julie’s strengthening relationship—itself modeled off a fling in Hogg’s past. The director orchestrates this formal shapeshift with sly subtlety, first introducing the couple’s scenes together as elliptical diversions from the central storyline, then gradually lengthening them until the sequences set in and around Julie’s film school take a backseat entirely. Now sharing an apartment, Anthony and Julie go through the growing pains of coexistence—the former posits a “Wall of Jericho” made of pillows in a reference to It Happened One Night to solve his discomfort in bed—but nonetheless find a strange harmony in their dissonant personalities, with his brutal honesty charming her and her placidity disarming him.
In Anthony’s case, however, this apparent personality yardstick proves misleading, as it turns out that he’s frank about everything but his own life. Talk of a vague government job creates an impression of a posh background belied by Anthony and Julie’s trip to visit his parents, and later, an offhand remark made by one of Anthony’s friends when he’s in the bathroom yields the startling revelation—cued by spatially disorienting mirror shots and the gentle use of Dutch angles—that Julie’s boyfriend is a heroin addict. Hogg omits the scene where Julie confronts Anthony about this revelation, but the mark it leaves on their relationship is implicitly, delicately apparent in every part of The Souvenir moving forward. The neatly organized, white-walled apartment where much of the action takes place becomes charged with tension, not only from the threat of dissident bombing that percolates outside its windows (a reality contemporaneous to the film’s early-‘80s setting), but also from Anthony’s frequent, unexplained comings and goings, which starkly contrast Julie’s more fixed physicality as she spends her time hunched over a typewriter.
The Souvenir flirts with a few conventional movie premises—the doomed romance, the spiral into the hell of drug addiction, the pursuit of self-actualization—without ever fully engaging one, which doesn’t indicate an uncertainty on Hogg’s part so much as a supreme confidence in the intricacies of her own material. Likely to some viewers’ dismay, Julie’s story isn’t one that ever comes to hinge on an a-ha moment, a sudden realization that she’s strayed from her artistic passion in her entanglement with a toxic partner. Rather, Hogg evokes both the seductive appeal of an irrational romance and the less sexy but nonetheless potent comfort of falling into the role of nurturer, a discipline shown in a few touching scenes to be inherited by Julie from her mother (Tilda Swinton). What’s more, it can’t be said that Anthony’s influence is purely deleterious, as his bouts of real vulnerability, carried off with a persuasive display of wounded pride by Burke, repeatedly push Julie toward greater sensitivity and awareness.
Perhaps ambivalent herself to Anthony’s recommendation that Julie seek inspiration from Powell and Pressburger’s work, Hogg shoots in a grainy, underlit 16mm palette that has less to do with period fetishism than with draining the sparkle from Julie’s privileged upbringing. The Souvenir is shot from a measured distance, often with the camera in rooms adjacent to the actors so that walls and other objects populate the foreground, and the resulting sense is of being simultaneously immersed in the spaces of Hogg’s early adulthood and at an intellectual remove from them, a fusion seemingly reflective of the director’s own mixed emotions in revisiting this story. In this case, however, that quality of fluctuation isn’t a deficiency but a virtue, a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today, and the mark of a film that’s beholden to no recipe but its own.
Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Jack McMullen, Frankie Wilson, Richard Ayoade, Jaygann Ayeh Director: Joanna Hogg Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg Distributor: A24 Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Aladdin Is a Magic Corporate Ride to Nowhere Special
Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake is content to trace the original’s narrative beats with perfunctory indifference.1
Compared to a few other recent live-action remakes of Disney’s animated films, which at least attempted to bring striking story wrinkles or an auteurist perspective to bear on their interpretations, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is a remake in the most literal sense. Much of the film’s first act traces the narrative beats of the 1992 animated feature, and in shot-for-shot fashion: Thieving street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets and charms the princess of his native Agrabah, Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and ultimately runs afoul of scheming grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), before obtaining a magic lamp containing a genie (Will Smith) who has the power to transform the young pauper into a prince worthy of Jasmine’s station.
The steadfastness with which every aspect of the original is replicated by this new Aladdin makes Ritchie’s film a grueling example of the streaming-era notion of art as content. Because there’s no chemistry between Massoud and Scott, the legitimacy of Aladdin and Jasmine’s flirtations is largely sold on the basis of the viewer’s preexisting knowledge that these two will become a couple. Elsewhere, the relationship between Jafar and the Sultan (Navid Negahban) is an even paler imitation. In the original, Jafar’s viciousness was at least partially driven by his hatred of the Sultan, who issued inane commands to his grand vizier in all sorts of parodically infantile and buffoonish of ways. Here, though, the Sultan is a negligible figure, neither callous nor especially influential, thus robbing his subordinate of a compelling motive. The Jafar of this film is evil simply because he’s been designated as the story’s big bad.
If the dogged faithfulness of Ritchie’s film to the original proves consistently stultifying, it’s the most noticeable deviations that ultimately damn the remake. In an attempt to give Jasmine something to do other than be the object of men’s affections, Ritchie and co-writer John August blend the character’s traditional frustrations at being trapped behind palace walls with a newfound resentment over how her capacity to rule as sultan is thwarted by traditional gender roles. Nonetheless, her desires to lead are bluntly articulated and reflective of a broader tendency among the film’s characters to express their awareness of their own repression by tilting their heads back and staring off into the distance as they speak extemporaneously about their dreams. Poor Scott is also burdened with the film’s big new song, “Speechless,” an instantly dated empowerment anthem that suggests the sonic equivalent of that old woman’s botched restoration of the Ecce Homo fresco in Borja, Spain.
The film does come somewhat to life during its musical numbers. Though these sequences are marked by simplistic and unengaging choreography, they don’t quell the verve of Howard Ashman and Tim Rice’s original songs. Less successful is Smith, who, unable to match the intensity of Robin Williams’s performance as the Genie in the original film, leans into his signature drawling sarcasm to bring his spin on the character to life, effectively draining the Genie of everything that made him so memorably larger than life in the first place. Even when portraying some of the Genie’s more antic behavior, Smith mostly takes the path of least resistance, injecting just enough energy into his performance to hint at Williams’s memorable take on the character but without seeming as if he’s actually working up a sweat.
Elsewhere, Massoud mostly goes through the motions in establishing Aladdin as a rakish pauper, but the actor comes alive in a comic scene that sees his street urchin, newly styled as a prince by the Genie, presenting himself to the Sultan’s court. Having never been trained on any points of social graces, Aladdin can only stammer out pleasantries, using strange honorifics to refer to the Sultan as he curtsies instead of bows. Later, the Genie helps Aladdin perform an elaborate dance by controlling the young man’s body in order to wow the Sultan’s court. Impressively, Massoud manages to perform complicated steps while looking as if every movement is done against his will, giving Aladdin’s flailing motions a slapstick quality.
Such flashes of personality, though, are few and far between in this remake. Certainly there was a lot of room to bring a contemporary perspective to this material—to counter the original’s problematic representation of its Middle-Eastern milieu and deepen its characters. Instead, the film settles for telling you a joke you’ve already heard and botching the delivery.
Cast: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Alan Tudyk, Frank Welker, Billy Magnussen Director: Guy Ritchie Screenwriter: John August, Guy Ritchie Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 128 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Review: Brightburn Is a Soulless Mishmash of Disparate Genre Elements
The way the film shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped of its most crucial narrative parts.1
Like a lot of kids squirming through puberty, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) is an asshole. Unlike most, however, he’s from outer space and possessed of formidable superpowers. Soon after learning of his abilities, he stalks a classmate, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), who consoled him in class after he was teased for his incredible smarts. Brandon makes a show of controlling Caitlyn’s laptop before appearing outside her bedroom window, eerily floating in the air. By this point in director David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, one is still optimistic that Brandon’s creeper tendencies will be the most insidious of his problems. But when Caitlyn calls him a pervert, after letting him fall to the ground during a “trust fall” exercise in gym class, Brandon crushes the bones in her hand after she’s forced to help him up. By the end of the film, Caitlyn will prove to be one of the lucky ones.
That Yarovesky and screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn don’t exactly push the link between Brandon’s pubescence and his growing self-awareness isn’t the first sign that something is amiss here. Right out of the gate, Brightburn reveals itself unwilling to animate its characters’ emotional dramas, using visual shorthand to simply hint at them. In the opening scene, set more than 10 years in the past, the camera pans across a bookshelf full of fertility books, informing the audience that Brandon’s parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman), really want to have a baby. Later, while helping his dad with chores, Brandon accidentally throws a lawnmower halfway across the family farm. This is when he recognizes that he has superpowers, but rather than prolong the kid’s doubt across more than one scene, the film zips straight to the moment where he’s about to shove his hand into the lawn mower’s spinning blades to confirm his suspicions that he’s nothing short of invincible.
More genre films—more films, period—could stand to have a lot less fat on their bones, but the way Brightburn shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped even of its most crucial narrative parts. Outside of one pulpy hallucination sequence, the film stubbornly refuses to give a concrete sense of the desperation that drove Tori and Kyle to adopt Brandon, just as it can’t be bothered to give shape to the mythology of his creation—or rather, his arrival. For a spell, though, this suggests a purposeful show of evasion. Much is made of the red light that peeks out from the floorboards in the family barn and to which Brandon is drawn throughout the film. If you’re a fan of Larry Cohen’s canon, you may wonder if the kid will be revealed as a kindred spirit of the ever-glowing human-alien antagonist from God Told Me To, here to make sport of our biological urge to procreate in our increasingly decaying world.
No such luck, as Brightburn is a meaningless mishmash of disparate genre elements. The truth of what lurks beneath the floorboards turns out to be of no particular consequence—not exactly a red herring, just a bit of hogwash that confirms Brandon to be a gene splice of Damien and Superman. Maybe a sense of majesty, of mythic grandeur, might have made him feel as if he was less arbitrarily willed into being, though Yarovesky certainly conveys the weight of the kid’s killing spree. Not its existential weight, only its repugnant force. At one point, one of his victims struggles to hold up the lower part of his grotesquely shattered jaw, as Brandon pulls off the mask that he wears because, presumably, he understands that that’s what someone with superhuman powers should do. Brightburn never shows us how Brandon came to such a realization, but it does let us glimpse the stone-cold delight he takes in erasing human life—a spectacle of violence that exists for its own soulless sake.
Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Jennifer Holland, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Gregory Alan Williams, Steve Agee, Emmie Hunter Director: David Yarovesky Screenwriter: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019
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