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Understanding Screenwriting #23: ER, Duplicity, Coraline, Sin Nombre, Tokyo Sonata, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #23: ER, Duplicity, Coraline, Sin Nombre, Tokyo Sonata, & More

Coming Up In This Column: ER, Duplicity, Coraline, Sin Nombre, Tokyo Sonata, Pictures at a Revolution, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice, but first…

Fan Mail: For reasons that are too complicated to go into, I ended up not having comments in US#22 on comments on US#21, so here are a couple.

I may have given some people the wrong idea that I thought Sunshine Cleaning was better than Little Miss Sunshine. I don’t think it is, primarily because of the problems with the ending I mentioned. Joel thought that Little Miss Sunshine was just as dark as Sunshine Cleaning. I think it has its dark moments, but I think the overall tone of Sunshine Cleaning is darker. Tone seems to be a theme in this edition of this column, as you will see. I would agree with Adam’s witty equation: Sunshine Cleaning = In Her Shoes + CSI.

On US#22, Anonymous raised the question about the supernatural element of Saving Grace. I agree with him that those scenes seem unnecessary, but I read somewhere they are part of series creator Nancy Miller’s plan. I will deal with this a little more in the next column after the half-season ending episode.

ER (2009. Episode “And In The End…” written by John Wells. 120 minutes): Not great, but hugely satisfying.

This series finale episode will probably not go down in TV history as one of the great series finales. It is not as spectacular as the ending of Newhart, which is one of the few “It was all a dream” endings ever that actually works. In that one, Bob Hartley, from Newhart’s earlier The Bob Newhart Show, wakes up in bed with his wife Emily saying he had a weird dream about running a Vermont inn, i.e., Newhart. Nor is it as surreal as the ending of St. Elsewhere, where the entire series was shown to have been completely in the mind of Dr. Westphall’s autistic son. What Wells does is do a lot of different things very, very well.

Since this is an episode about endings, it is not surprising that there are two major deaths among the patients. A pregnant woman is brought in and, after a troubled delivery of twins, she bleeds out and ultimately cannot be saved. In a more extended death scene, we get the death of Mrs. Manning, whom we first met when she was brought in in the “Old Times” episode. She has come back in with her husband Paul, who hopes against hope to save her. As I mentioned in US#21 when writing about that episode, we do indeed see Ernest Borgnine as Paul again, and again Borgnine delivers the goods as he watches his wife die. ER has always been realistically ruthless about killing off patients, more so than any other hospital show. The show has also been good about putting together episodes that have internal thematic connections, although they have never taken it as far as St. Elsewhere did. Here the deaths connect with the fact that we are seeing these characters and this location and this institution for the last time—excluding syndication, DVD’s, YouTube and any other delivery systems to be invented in the future, of course.

Wells also makes connections for us with other episodes in the series. Early in the teaser, Lydia, a nurse, wakes up Archie, just as she did Dr. Greene in the pilot film, and the scene is shot the same way, not surprising since this episode’s director, Rod Holcomb, directed the pilot. The death of the mother recalls one of the series’s most devastating episodes, “Love’s Labor Lost” from the first season. The crew waiting at the end for the ambulances to arrive recalls the end of the first act of another season-one episode “Blizzard.” There are others, I am sure, some of them probably unrecognizable to anyone other than Wells himself. Combined, they give us a sense of the texture of the show.

Connections with characters are also crucial to this episode. Many of the characters, and not just the stars, are people we have known and lived with for 15 years. ER, while groundbreaking in several ways, followed the pattern established in the 1970s landmark series Police Story. When that series began, Joseph Wambaugh, ex-cop and novelist and the co-creator as the series, told the writers to “Play the emotional jeopardy, not the physical jeopardy.” Ed Waters, a writer and later story consultant on Police Story, said that this was later expressed as “The cop works on the case, the case works on the cop.” In police and medical shows before Police Story, the professionals went about their business untouched emotionally by what they did. That was not true in Police Story or the shows that followed in its wake: Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, NYPD Blue and many others. ER followed in that pattern and we have been through the wringer with the characters. Sam is still an active duty nurse, and she handles the death of Paul’s wife. Paul has been talking about how devoted he has been to his wife. His daughter shows up and tells Sam, out of earshot of her father, that her mother was hell on wheels and she does not completely understand how her father could have been so devoted to her. Sam calls her mother, with whom we have seen she has a similarly unhappy relationship. We do not need to see the mother, since the writing and Amy Madigan’s performance several episodes ago was enough to stick in our mind.

Wells brings on other characters from the past. Carter’s separated wife arrives, and it may or may not be a happy reunion. Wells writes a nice little scene between Benton and Corday, who once had a brief fling. They are a bit awkward and tentative and there is no way this is going to be a happy reunion. Two of Wells’s less interesting returns are Susan Lewis and Kerry Weaver, to whom he does not give a lot to do in this episode. Weaver was a great character: prickly, difficult, but not completely unsympathetic. Laura Innes, who played her, did a masterful job of straddling the line between likeable and unlikeable with the character, and it is too bad she was not given more to do in this episode.

Wells uses two other interesting characters, one we have seen since the beginning of the series and one we are only just introduced to in this episode. The first one is Rachel Greene, Mark Greene’s daughter. We saw her in the pilot and off and on throughout the series. She has been played by two actresses, Yvonee Zima from 1994 to 2000 and by Hallee Hirsh from 2001 to 2009. Here she shows up as a group of possible medical students touring the ER. Holcomb’s direction, presumably from suggestions in the script, just lets us catch a couple of glimpses of her, so we say to ourselves, “Wait a minute. Isn’t that Rachel?” Eventually it is revealed that she is and she talks to the staff, people she has known since she was a child. At the end of the episode, she is talking with the nurses and word comes in that eight patients from an explosion at a power station are on their way in. A young doctor says to Rachel, “You want to be an ER doc? This is the fun part.” Rachel joins them in the loading area to wait for the ambulances. The patients arrive and the crew goes into action. Carter is giving a set of scrubs and joins in. As he passes Rachel, he says, “Dr. Greene. Coming?” and Rachel, even though she is not even a med student yet, joins them going into the ER. A circle is at least partially closed.

Just as Wells and Holcomb are subtle about reintroducing Rachel, they give us another young doctor floating around in the early scenes. We eventually realize it is Alexis Bledel, the former Rory Gilmore of The Gilmore Girls. Rory did not go to medical school and the character we have here is Dr. Julia Wise, whom we have never seen before. She is involved in the treatment of the pregnant woman and watches the situation turn to shit with Bledel’s gorgeously expressive eyes. We can see the case working on her the way we saw the case work on Dr. Greene in “Love’s Labor Lost.” Dr. Wise will eventually grow into being a great…wait a minute, the series is over.

One of the great strengths of ER has been, more than almost any other television series, its openness to the real world. So many television shows exist in hermetically sealed universes. ER did not. Perhaps it was the central location of the series, but the show always made you aware that there was a real world out there, somewhere. Patients would come in and go out. Patients, like Paul’s wife, would return. And die. “Love’s Labor Lost” would make women aware of a potential medical problem in pregnancy. Doctors and nurses would leave and come back. Doctors and nurses and patients would leave and not come back. The world would go on. Dr. Wise will become a good doctor.

~

Duplicity (2009. Written by Tony Gilroy. 125 minutes): Duplicitous fun, for a while.

As I suspected when I saw the trailer for this one (see US#19), it’s a lot more fun than The International. Clive Owen smiles, laughs, seduces and has great chemistry with Julia Roberts. Julia Roberts smiles, laughs, seduces, and has great chemistry with Clive Owen. And Gilroy has written a script that really takes advantage of the starpower he has. Ray and Claire are spies, working for MI-6 and the C.I.A., respectively. They meet, go to bed, and she steals secrets from him all before the wildly funny opening credit sequence. We know Gilroy is writing in the major key of fun and games with spies and con men. They then end up working for two major cosmetic firms and run a con on them both. We get a lot of the mechanics of the con, which Gilroy keeps very clear, not always an easy task. If you are an adult and paying attention, you can follow it, even though Gilroy does several nice bits of jumping back in time. And Gilroy writes some wonderful supporting characters for such actors as Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson, Denis O’Hare, and Kathleen Chalfont. Yes, the same Kathleen Chalfont who starred in Wit on stage in New York. You write good parts, you get good actors.

Gilroy, as you may remember from Michael Clayton, is nothing is not ambitious. So he writes a relationship piece here as well, dealing with whether Ray and Claire can trust each other. Can spies trust anybody, especially those they love? The tone here is minor key, especially in comparison to the rest of the film. The problem with the script is that with the particular twist ending Gilroy uses, the film closes very much in the minor key of the relationship story. It doesn’t seem quite enough for what has gone on before. He could have used it to set up a sequel, but that does not appear to have been on his mind.

~

Coraline (2009. Screenplay by Henry Selick, based on the book by Neil Gaiman. 100 minutes): Writing for animation, or, where’s Walt Disney when you need him?

There is a reason that Walt Disney was the only animator of his time to make a successful, continuing shift from short cartoons to feature-length animated films. He knew the importance of story and characters. If you compare any of the Disney cartoons of the thirties to those turned out by other studios, his all have solid story lines. The others are collections of gags. The reason that DreamWorks Animation and Pixar have had continuing success in feature-length animation is because they have Jeffrey (EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE IN THE WORLD IN THE FUTURE IS GOING TO BE IN 3-D) Katzenberg and John Lassiter, respectively, in charge. Both of them have a strong sense of story and push the people they work with in that direction.

Henry Selick is a whiz at stop-motion animation, as seen in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996). Story, alas, is not his strong suit. Coraline takes FOREVER to get going. The girl and her mom and dad move into an old house out in the country, divided up into apartments. It is a long time before Coraline goes through the secret door and finds a “nicer” version of her mom and dad. Then, after she realizes they are not “nicer,” she has to collect several items to manage her safe return. The rules of that game are not clear. I thought she had to collect the eyeballs of the three ghost children, but it appears that each round ball contains both eyes, which does not make a lot of sense. Then when Coraline has escaped from the word behind the door, the film goes on for another ten minutes, including introducing a character we have only vaguely heard about before, and then not showing us what Coraline is going to tell her. Why bother?

As you may gather from my parenthetical jab at Katzenberg, I am not quite as devoted to 3-D as he is. The 3-D in Coraline is well-used and Selick has obviously thought about it a lot, but I am not convinced it is essential to the story. I do have to admire Selick the director for not throwing a lot of stuff in our faces. Stay through the credits, because there is a lovely use of objects floating out over the audience at the end.

~

Sin Nombre (2009. Written by Cary Fukunaga. 96 minutes): We’ve traveled this road before, and in better company.

Sin Nombre is not exactly the first film to show Latin Americans coming across Mexico to the United States. El Norte (1983), written by Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas, is still the classic in the field, and I think the 2004 film Maria Full of Grace, written by Joshua Marston, is the best of them all. After doing several years worth of research on people who work as “mules” bringing drugs to the U.S., Marston focused his script on one woman, Maria. He provided her with a lot of different motivations to get into that line of work, and then a lot of reactions to what happens to her.

Fukunaga, who also spent time researching people riding the freight trains up Mexico to the border, has not created any character as interesting as Maria. The girl in the film is Sayra and in spite of how the IMDb describes the plot, she really has no particular desire to go north. Her father, who has been living in the U.S., was deported to Honduras. He now wants to take her with him and his brother back to the states. She goes reluctantly, and we get very little of her reactions to what is going on. Then, an hour into the picture, she does something really stupid. She gets off the train and leaves her father. And almost every action she takes after that is more stupid than the last.

She gets off the train because of Casper. He is a member of a gang in Mexico who ends up killing the leader of his own gang for killing his girlfriend. Needless to say, the gang puts out a hit on him, and gang members, as well as gangs related to his gang, track him down. Casper is first established as the cliché of the sensitive tough guy, but we get very little of him beyond that. And the gang members all seem the same. That may be sociologically true, but dramatically it is not very interesting to watch. Casper and Sayra sort of develop a friendship, but you would be hard put to call it a romance, which is why her behavior makes no sense.

In Maria Full of Grace, Marston, who also directed, had the advantage of a great performance from Catalina Sandino Moreno as Maria, but Fukunaga either does not have the acting talent available to him, or simply does not know how to direct them. If he’d written better parts…

~

Tokyo Sonata (2008. Written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Max Mannix, and Sachiko Tanaka. 119 minutes): Another one goes off the rails.

Sasaki is a Japanese salaryman who loses his job. Because it would undermine his authority in his house if it were known he was jobless, he doesn’t tell his wife and two sons. He tries to get work, but he spends most of his days at a field where a lot of other men in his position spend their days. At 45 minutes into the film, his wife happens to spot him at the field, but she doesn’t confront him. Meanwhile the eldest son, Takashi, decides to join a (fictional) unit of the American army to go fight in Iraq. Kenji, the youngest son, takes piano lessons without telling his parents because he knows his dad would refuse to give him permission. So far we are in a Japanese equivalent of The Bicycle Thief: a low-key, neorealist, look at contemporary Japan.

Eighty minutes into the film the family’s house is robbed and the robber takes the wife hostage. She sort of decides to go along with robber. She sees Sasaki in his job as a janitor at a mall when she stops to buy food for her and the robber, and Sasaki runs away from her. He runs into the street and appears to be hit by a van, which leaves him lying in the gutter. Kenji meanwhile tries to protect a friend from getting beaten by the friend’s father. It is like the writers have suddenly gone off the deep end in the way the characters have. Screenwriting instructors are generally so busy talking about structure they never get around to tone. The tone in Tokyo Sonata shifts so drastically at the robbery that we seem to be in a totally different film. Yes, you maybe could defend it on intellectual terms: it represents the rage going on underneath the placid exteriors of the characters. This is something Japanese horror movies and anime use very effectively, but the actions here really come from others in this sequence, not from the family members. In terms of THIS film, it is merely disruptive. The fact that when they all return home, they behave as though nothing had happened does not help, either.

~

Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008. Book by Mark Harris. 477 pages): Imagine: mentioning screenwriters.

Harris’s book, which is now out in paperback, uses the five films nominated for Best Picture of 1967 as a way to examine the changes that were taking place in Hollywood at the time. It is a great, simple idea, and Harris does it more than justice. He seems to have talked to almost everybody who worked on the five films. He follows the development of each of them from the first idea through to the night of the Academy Awards (and his collection of comments from people who were at the Oscars will give you a great inside look at what it is like to be there as a nominee).

Harris is also one of the younger generation of writers about film who actually mention screenwriters and the writing process. Some of that may come from his being married to playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Munich), but there are a growing number of film historians who deal with the screenwriting aspects of films they write about. Sam Staggs, in his books about All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Imitation of Life, always goes into detail on the development of the story and script. Jennifer Smyth, in her monumental Reconstructing American Historical Cinema: From Cimarron to Citizen Kane, a look at thirties historical films, writes as much about writers as directors.

So in Harris’s book we get not only the development of Bonnie and Clyde, which has been written about before, but the writing of The Graduate, which included not only the two credited writers, but two others you may not have known about. William Rose, who wrote Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, turns out not to be quite as liberal in matters of race as you might think from the film. Most fascinating of all is Harris’s looking at Stirling Silliphant’s papers dealing with his ideas of In the Heat of the Night. None of the pictures (the fifth was Doctor Doolittle, and nothing could help it) would have been as good as they were without the development processes he shows you.

Harris’s book is remarkably error-free for a book of its size and scope, but there is one howler I must call him on. Talking about another 1967 film, The Dirty Dozen, he mentions that the first drafts were written by the “seventy-year-old” Nunnally Johnson, and that director Robert Aldrich thought Johnson’s script “would have made a very good, acceptable 1945 war picture. But I don’t think that a good 1945 war picture is a good 1967 war picture.” Aldrich brought in Lukas Heller to make it a 1967 war picture. Harris obviously saw this as part of the generational change he was writing about: the old making way for the new.

Having read the novel, Nunnally’s script, and seen the final results, I have to tell you that Nunnally’s script would have made more of a 1967 picture than the film was. This in spite of the fact that he was sixty-six, not seventy, when he wrote it (he turned seventy later in 1967, after the release of the film). In E.M. Nathanson’s novel, the author gets into the heads of the assorted criminals that make up the “dozen.” By the end of the novel that have all convinced themselves they have become heroes, although it is clear they have not. Movies cannot get into the heads of the characters the way novels do. What Nunnally did was show that in the attack on the chateau, which is only a minor afterthought in the novel, the “dozen” are just as criminally inclined as they were before. For example, early in the film, Franko (John Cassavettes) attempts to kill Major Reisman. In Johnson’s script he tries again at the chateau. That was dropped in Heller’s script and the film. It is only the army report in Johnson’s script that makes them out to be heroes. In the film they become conventional war movie heroes. Johnson’s script is much more anti-authoritarian than the film. The film suggests the army was right to try to turn them into heroes. Most of the ironies of Johnson’s script have been eliminated in the film.

You would think Mark Harris would know better than to take a director’s word in an issue involving a writer.

~

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (2008. Episode “Pilot,” screenplay by Richard Curtis & Anthony Minghella, based on the novel by Alexander McCall Smith. 110 minutes): A new P.I. joins the team.

We’re not in New York. We’re not in L.A. We’re in Botswana. Look it up.

This is the two hour pilot for the new HBO series, and I was shocked, I tell you, to see the TV rating come up at the beginning and NOT have it warn us of sex, violence, language. This on the network of Tony !&[email protected]#^! Soprano and Samantha #%^* Jones and Al %$^@!!*^ Swearengen. Who’da thunk it?

The lack of foul language and explicit sex and explicit violence is a wonderful relief. Here the detective setting up her own agency is Precious Ramotswe. She’s not an ex-cop, just somebody who is very observant. While even the women cops in the American shows are tough as nails, Mma Ramotswe is just a genuinely nice person who wants to help. So her clients discuss their problems over a very civilized cup of tea. Precious does get a secretary, since this is a pilot for the series. The secretary, who never tires of telling us she got 97% on her typing final, is a bit of a prig and a nice counterpoint to Precious (although I worry for the physical well being of the always wonderful Anika Noni Rose; she has developed a funny, awkward walk for the character that may require physical therapy when the series ends). The pilot also establishes a male garage owner who can help Previous out, and a gay hairdresser who works next door. The latter may be a cliché, but at least the writers avoided the obvious: Precious is a large black woman, but they did not give her a skinny white sassy friend.

The tone is very different from American shows. Not only is Precious’s manner quieter than most American P.I.s, but the stories (the pilot involves three cases) are obviously told, very much in the tradition of both African griots (storytellers) and African cinema. We are looking at them from the outside, as opposed to being sucked into the story. Precious does perform the western function of bringing us into the stories, but the stories of the cases have that exaggeration typical of African storytelling. This may not work over the long run for American audiences, since it may make the stories seem unrealistic. In the pilot, the story of the straying husband became slapstick comedy while the missing child story was done in a more melodramatic way. That all may have been part of the planning for the pilot, to let the audiences know there will be several different kinds of stories and storytelling in the series.

~

The Librarian: The Curse of the Judas Chalice (2008. Screenplay by Marco Schnabel, based on characters created by David Titcher. 90 minutes): He’s back!

Readers may remember from US#14 that in December I watched the first two Librarian films on DVD. This one had just been broadcast but I had missed it. I thought after the first two I would give this a watch some afternoon I had free, so I did.

The first two films were very much outdoor adventure movies in the King Solomon’s Mines/Indiana Jones tradition, but this spends most of its time indoors. Flynn, our hero, has gone off to New Orleans on vacation after having a meltdown. He gets involved with a bunch of baddies who are looking for the Judas Chalice, since it will bring vampires back to life and they can rule the world, etc. His female partner this time is Simone Renoir, a French singer. She is, at least for a while, a more conventional romantic foil for Flynn, which makes her a little less interesting than the women in the first two. In one way I am glad I did not get to see this one until now, since Simone is played by Stana Katic from Castle, and it is nice to see her doing something different. She does no eye-rolling here, but a little lower-lip biting, which becomes weird when we find out she is…a vampire.

Noah Wyle is more at home in the romantic adventure genre that he was in the first two, but Flynn is still something of a klutz, although the filmmakers cannot seem to settle on how much of a klutz. In the opening sequence he is neatly dressed in a tuxedo, then sneezes when he drinks some not-quite-real champagne. Fine, but then he immediately turns out to be an excellent swordsman in a duel with one of the baddies. In a museum. With a lot of people there for an auction. With guards. Who don’t try to stop the duel. Even when it threatens to destroy what we think is a valuable painting. The film barely recovers from the idiocies of that scene. It is not up to the first two.

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

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Review: Save Yourselves! Takes Trifling and Spotty Aim at Millennial Softness

The film fails to use its millennial characters to investigate contemporary attitudes about the possibility of world annihilation.

1.5

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Save Yourselves!
Photo: Bleecker Street

Alex Huston Fischer and Eleanor Wilson’s Save Yourselves! is the latest in a recent trend of millennial-themed works of science fiction and fantasy to fast-forward past the dystopian phase of our collapsing world in order to land on its complete annihilation. The film introduces its main characters, stereotypical Brooklynite couple Su (Sunita Mani) and Jack (John Reynolds), chafing from the pressures of constant work and the dull routine of their lives. Feeling that their jobs and relationship have grown stale, they elect to take a week-long trip to a friend’s cabin upstate where they will completely unplug from the outside world. But no sooner do they head out than the camera tilts up to the sky to reveal a white plume resembling a plane contrail splitting into tendrils of light that arc toward the ground. The road is now paved for many a gag at the expense of Su and Jack’s last-to-the-party obliviousness.

Most of the film’s most cutting jokes are offered up before the cataclysmic impact of that strange occurrence becomes known to Su and Jack. While preparing for their trip, Su emails her boss to request a vacation and notes that she will not be reachable by phone or email, which prompts an immediate response telling her that she’s fired, a brutal gag on the scarcity of true vacations without work in present-day American life. And that’s a grind that Su and Jack, like so many of us, are only too content to submit to, as they’re constantly trying to sell themselves on their promise to disconnect, even admitting on their first night as they gawk at the natural beauty of the starlit sky how badly they miss surfing their phones.

More lacerating are the ways that their sheltered lives clash with the necessities of cabin living. This is especially true of Jack, whose emasculation is served up for our delight across scenes where he struggles to be self-reliant. When Su proposes that they tell each other secrets, Jack, with his carefully coiffed appearance and neurotic attentiveness, admits, “I don’t know how to be a man.” He wishes he could be the kind of stereotypically masculine man that his father represents, and his own status as a more enlightened man who respects women and his own feelings is a consciously maintained identity that he often resents.

Yet these sporadic moments of insight into millennial posturing and technological reliance are less of a thematic bedrock on which Save Yourselves! is founded than they are peripheral to the story, which starts to roll out in simplified fashion once Su and Jack learn of the alien invasion that’s been ravaging the planet ever since they unplugged. As for the aliens, they’re merely large balls of fur with no discernible faces or limbs (shades of the beach ball-like alien from John Carpenter’s Dark Star), which inevitably results in redundant moments revolving around Su and Jack first noticing what they assume to be a pouf that keeps materializing around the house, and later a number of images of the seemingly harmless creatures abruptly snaking out an appendage that punches through the bodies of unlucky humans.

Fischer and Wilson attempt to juxtapose the twee tropes of a certain strain of indie comedy—brightly lit and colored images, ever-frazzled protagonists, a generally deadpan tone—with the epic horror of a global-invasion film, something that isn’t unprecedented (see Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal) but here lacks a clear through line. Rather than use its emotionally detached tone as an ironic counterpoint to the terror wreaked by hostile extraterrestrials, the film simply reconfigures the aliens into its mannered atmosphere. As a result, the carnage on that we occasionally glimpse on the screen is neither scary nor darkly amusing.

Soon, all of those jokes about Su and Jack’s difficulties at roughing it start to feel less effective once they launch into survival mode. Jack’s squeamishness about using guns provides a few laughs as he frantically rattles off rehearsed statistics about the danger of firearms, but the extended bits about the couple’s inability to drive stick shift further pulls focus away from the film’s dominant theme of millennial softness. Su and Jack’s previously aired generational anxiety only pays off when they’re saddled with an unexpected companion, but a throwaway joke here and there is about the extent to which the film delves into its characters’ minds.

Crucially, the film fails to use its millennial characters to investigate contemporary attitudes about the possibility of world annihilation. Any news story these days about an asteroid or meteor passing within any noteworthy distance of Earth is greeted with almost-wistful fantasizing about an obliterating collision, and for all of the sarcasm of such reactions, there’s a pronounced death drive among those facing the increasing probability of a slower and more painful extinction that’s been addressed, albeit with more dour severity, in films such as Melancholia. There’s plenty of room for a movie to address such fatalistic ideas with equally bleak humor, but Save Yourselves! lacks the causticness to deliver on that front.

Cast: Sunita Mani, John Reynolds, Ben Sinclair, John Early, Jo Firestone, Gary Richardson Director: Alex Huston Fischer, Eleanor Wilson Screenwriter: Alex Huston Fischer, Eleanor Wilson Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Blood on the Wall Is a Spread-Thin Look at the Migrant Crisis

Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested’s prismatic look at a devastating new chapter in the War on Drugs lacks for cohesiveness.

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Blood on the Wall
Photo: Nick Quested

Cleaning and loading one of the automatic weapons lying on the floor before him, a masked member of a Mexican cartel decries that the “United States gives the weapons, Mexico gives the dead. Americans engage in the wars they want. In Mexico, war just shows up.” It’s a chilling, damning sentiment, and one that, delivered at the start of Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested’s Blood on the Wall, appears to establish the documentary’s guiding principle. But the filmmakers’ interrogation of the myriad ways in which U.S. weapon trades and nefarious interventions in Central America over the past half century have laid the groundwork for the current crises in Mexico is just one of many topics covered here.

Throughout its brisk 93-minute runtime, the documentary not only tackles the disproportionate impact that the War on Drugs has had on Central Americans, it touches on NAFTA, the decentralization of power in Mexico, the C.I.A.’s connection to the Guadalajara cartel, drug mules, the rise of synthetic opioids, community policing, and the massive migrant caravan that, in 2018, made its way from Honduras all the way up to the southern U.S. border. It’s a sprawling, all-encompassing portrait that seeks to identify the causes and effects of the drug war and cartel violence on both a macro and micro scale, but Junger and Quested’s prismatic look at all these complex policies and events lacks for cohesiveness.

Blood on the Wall is at its most incisive and immediate when it hitches its perspective to various members of the migrant caravan—particularly 17-year-old Ludy, whose harrowing, 1,000-mile trek from Guatemala is the personal lens through which we glean the benefits and dangers of traveling in such a massive group of people. It’s during these more intimate stretches that the documentary feels the most grounded. The widespread tragedies caused by policy decisions (and often deliberately) on the part of both the U.S. and Mexico are given an astonishing specificity here that’s absent in the many disturbing yet impersonal shots of decapitated heads and widespread violence captured in other sections of the film.

The attempts to place Ludy’s exodus, and that of thousands of other Central Americans, within a larger context are certainly admirable, even necessary. But in not picking their battles in terms of narrative focus, the filmmakers lose the thread that connects all the disparate issues they cover, and how they led to the mass migration of Central Americans to the United States. Junger and Quested seek to give us a comprehensive and indispensable look at a devastating new chapter in the War on Drugs, but given that their grasp has exceeded their reach, Blood on the Wall ultimately just feels like a starting point for the study of the subject.

Director: Sebastian Junger, Nick Quested Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: 12 Hour Shift Is a Well-Oiled Organ-Harvesting Farce That’s Short on Style

Its revolving-door atmosphere papers over some iffy acting, baggy dialogue, and more than a few minutes of wasted real estate.

2.5

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12 Hour Shift
Photo: Magnet Releasing

Writer-director Brea Grant’s 12 Hour Shift ends, neatly and pointedly, as it begins: in a hospital parking lot, with a cold, hard acknowledgement of a brutal workday’s toll on a person. In the opening scene, Nurse Mandy’s (Angela Bettis) world-weary face suggests a lifetime of sleepless nights, and as she takes drags from a cigarette that’s clearly her lifeline to sanity, she visibly endures her co-worker Cathy’s (Julianne Dowler) small talk about a day she’d like to forget, before then telling her to fuck off after the woman’s pleasantries give way to presumptions about Mandy’s weight and how she’s getting by.

The film’s bookend scenes represent the closest thing to a break that Mandy enjoys during her double shift. Unfortunately, they’re also our only breathers from a story that’s so driven by the necessities of plot that it makes scant room for characterization. Indeed, that opening scene is one of few here where the audience gets to really sit with the characters and their feelings, to think of them as actual people. Its richness is such that when we learn that Mandy runs an organ-stealing operation out of the hospital where she works, and that Cathy’s presumptions about Mandy weren’t so wild, Mandy’s brusqueness toward her co-worker still feels justified.

Bettis makes you believe right out of the gate that Mandy, regardless of how she gets by, has earned her right to tell Cathy to mind her own fucking business. Otherwise, 12 Hour Shift reduces Mandy, and everyone else who comes into her orbit, to a cog in its plot’s wheels. You believe that the character has to snort pills in order to get through a shift (shades of Nurse Jackie), but you may wish for an inkling that she once cared about her patients beyond their capacity to supply her with organs. She’s kind, yes, to one dialysis patient (Ted Ferguson), but it’s hard to shake the impression that the old man only exists to get swept up in the bloody free-for-all that ensues after a kidney intended for a group of gangsters goes missing.

Mandy and her flighty but resourceful half-cousin co-conspirator, Regina (Chloe Farnworth), get into it at various points across 12 Hour Shift’s 86-minute running time, and in a way that suggests that their illicit conduct was an inevitable result of their social position. But Grant also doesn’t convey a palpable sense of place—of the hospital being located somewhere else other than a nondescript Anywheresville—and as such the characters’ pitilessness is never fully contextualized. The film was shot in Jonesboro, Arkansas, but its characters and their accents are such that you’d think that it takes place no further east of Pomona.

Of course, 12 Hour Shift isn’t in the verisimilitude game. The plot, geared as much for comedy as horror, is wound with efficient build-up, and its revolving-door atmosphere is consistent enough to paper over some iffy acting, baggy dialogue, and more than a few minutes of wasted real estate, such as an anemic bit in which the hospital’s head nurse, Karen (Nikea Gamby-Turner), recoils in disgust as she eats whatever it is she decided to lunch on that day.

The film’s highlight is a scene in which an incompetent police officer (Kit Williamson) walks in on Mandy removing a kidney from a dead patient and being unable to process the legitimacy of her actions. The moment is mischievous for the way that Officer Myers tries to square his understanding of Mandy’s profession with her blood-splattered face and clothes, while she walks the razor’s edge between professional calm and murderous rage, trying not to comprise her organ-stealing racket. The close-quarters framing so perfectly intensifies the uneasy, blackly comic energy of the scene that one wishes that the rest of the film wasn’t rife with the shorthand and didn’t have the look and pacing of a multi-camera sitcom.

Cast: Angela Bettis, David Arquette, Chloe Farnworth, Mick Foley, Kit Williamson, Nikea Gamby-Turner, Tara Perry, Brooke Seguin, Dusty Warren, Tom DeTrinis, Thomas Hobson, Julianne Dowler, Briana Lane, Taylor Alden Director: Brea Grant Screenwriter: Brea Grant Distributor: Magnet Releasing Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Netflix’s The Boys in the Band Gives a Cultural Touchstone a Glossy Update

This new Boys in the Band is a Matryoshka doll of period piecery, a flashback of a flashback of a flashback.

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The Boys in the Band
Photo: Netflix

“Call you tomorrow,” says perpetually morose birthday boy Harold to his rapidly unraveling friend Michael at the climax of playwright Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking and still-litigated 1968 queer cultural touchstone The Boys in the Band. More than 50 years after those words were written, they still feel among the saddest, most intimate words of farewell ever uttered between two fictional characters.

In the wake of the success of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Crowley’s coup was to populate an entire play with modern homosexuals getting slowly hammered at a party and, eventually, doing exactly as George and Martha did with Honey and Nick: picking away at each other in a seemingly endless cycle of “get the guests” parlor games. None more so than Michael, the more-or-less central figure whose radiant sense of Catholic guilt—and discomfort with his receding hairline—have made a jet-setting, debt-amassing alcoholic of him.

It’s Michael that Crowley says he most identified with when writing the play. And that identification with the story’s most overtly abusive partygoer undoubtedly helped the play—and especially its eventual film adaptation directed by a then-up-and-coming William Friedkin—develop a fraught relationship with the gay community. Some spoke out against its purported implicit suggestion that all gay men are basket cases; others saw in the play’s depiction of outcasts defiling their own safe space with catty barbs something true about themselves. And some undoubtedly recognized both aspects working in merciless tandem.

The best that can be said for Netflix’s new version is that there are surprisingly few recognizable touches from producer Ryan Murphy, who also produced director Joe Mantello’s Broadway revival. Foremost among those is the fact that Murphy and Mantello opted for a full slate of nine openly gay actors to take the stage, and keeps them all on board here. That triumph of representation aside, though, The Boys in the Band alternates between recreating Friedkin’s film—right down to the near-identical set design of Michael’s (Jim Parsons) apartment—and diverging in ways that end up cutting the tension, diffusing performances, and underlining points of a script that never lacked for declarative character.

Halfway through, Michael, having fallen off his six-week wagon and completing his turn into a queer Mr. Hyde, takes the reins of his party and forces his friends to play a sadistic game of telephone, making each of them call their one true love and come clean about their feelings. It’s during this second act that each actor would normally be given their chance to dig deep, laying bare the memories that still haunt their tortured adult lives. Here, though, Mantello frequently cuts away from their monologues for florid flashbacks, just at the point where the audience should feel the air leaking out of that claustrophobic living room. Equally superfluous is a coda that shows where each character goes after the party disbands, literalizing Michael’s monologue about running through life.

Which is to say, a filmed version of the revival would have done better justice to it. Even so, there are enough performances herein to have made any act of preservation worth the bother, most notably Tony-nominated Robin de Jesús as the camp-quipping Emory (an admittedly juicy part that Hoovers up the spotlight, as it did for Cliff Gorman in the original), and Andrew Rannells as the rampantly unfaithful Larry, whose unwillingness to submit to his lover Hank’s (Tuc Watkins) pleas to at least include him in threesomes rather than stepping out behind his back represents the play’s most fascinating variation on self-defeating behavior. And while Zachary Quinto, as Harold, lacks Leonard Frey’s exquisitely simmering sense of self-loathing, when it counts (“Call me tomorrow”), he rises to the material.

In reviving the play on Broadway and transposing the exact cast to a new film adaptation, much as Friedkin did back in 1970, Mantello could arguably have very easily updated the timestamp on the material and set his hostile revelers against each other in present-day New York. There’s enough flexibility in the premise to highlight just how far gay rights have come while at the same time acknowledging the restraints many gay men still fight against, expertly outlined by Alan Downs in The Velvet Rage. But that he didn’t suggests he’s among those who view Crowley’s play as a time capsule, if not outright antiquated, rendering the whole enterprise of preserving the stage version in film form weirdly self-amplifying. This Boys in the Band is a Matryoshka doll of period piecery, a flashback of a flashback of a flashback.

Cast: Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Tuc Watkins, Robin de Jesús, Michael Benjamin Washington, Charlie Carver, Brian Hutchison Director: Joe Mantello Screenwriter: Mart Crowley, Ned Martel Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 122 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7, While Timely, Exudes Movie-of-the-Week Vibes

It pulses with relevancy in a time when debates over authoritarianism, protests, and the necessity of radicalism are convulsing America.

2.5

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The Trial of the Chicago 7
Photo: Netflix

Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 pulses with relevancy in a time when high-stakes debates over authoritarianism, protests, and the necessity of radicalism are convulsing America. Sorkin uses an ensemble approach to tell the story of the anti-war activists charged with conspiracy and incitement to riot after the street fighting that ripped through Chicago in August 1968 during the Democratic National Convention. While necessary, given the number of key characters involved, the approach also allows Sorkin to establish different factions among the defendants who are debating the merits of their wildly varying methods to the same cause even as they’re fighting to stay out of federal prison.

The result feels like a melding of the straight-forward courtroom narrative that Sorkin delivered in A Few Good Men and the fuzzier political complexities he explored in The West Wing. Cutting quickly to the courtroom, The Trial of the Chicago 7 lays out the lengthy 1969 trial as a politically motivated showcase, later inserting recreations of the protests as they come up during cross-examination. While lead federal prosecutor Richard Schulz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is given some room to hem and haw about how far he’s being asked to bend the law, the Justice Department (under new management that year with the election of Richard Nixon) is shown as fully intent on making an example of the hippies. Clearly eager to help them out is Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), whose shutting down of any dissent becomes so rote that the defendants take to shouting “overruled!” before the judge can whenever defense attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) makes an objection.

The grab-bag of defendants serve as a handy cross-section of the factional, squabbling anti-Vietnam War movement. Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), serve as the starchy and serious counterpoint to the puckish and prankish Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), members of the Youth International Party (Yippies), while middle-aged conscientious objector David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) serves as a kind of father figure to the group. Some dark comic relief is provided by John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), the film’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, baffled as to why they’re even there. But the true odd man out is Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who had no connection to the rest of the defendants and no part in any of the protest planning, having only been in Chicago for four hours to give a speech. (A plausible theory that Sorkin puts forth is that Seale was there as a token black radical to scare the jury.)

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is most urgent when showing Seale’s at first infuriated and later desperate attempts to be separated from the seven other defendants or at least be allowed to defend himself. When Judge Hoffman’s glowering authoritarianism causes Seale to be handcuffed to his chair and gagged to stop him from speaking (which actually happened in an American courtroom), a sense of fulsome outrage finally grips the story. But the film, which moves on too quickly from the side plot involving Seale’s connection to Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), feels far more at home in the heady, emotive debates that spark between the white defendants. Abbie Hoffman, whose performative clowning is given thoughtful coloring by Cohen’s vulnerable performance, sees culture as just as important as politics and thinks Hayden is naïve and something of a square. “I don’t have time for cultural revolution,” Hayden hits back. “It gets in the way of actual revolution.”

That back and forth isn’t only an evergreen debate for the left but one that particularly engages Sorkin, whose better episodes of The West Wing limned the clash of idealism and realism. While Abbie Hoffman, who knew just how ludicrous he was being in court but saw the attention-getting as vital to the Chicago Seven’s cause, often gets the better of these exchanges with Hayden, Sorkin’s heart seems to be clearly on the side of practicality. At one point, frustrated by Rubin’s complaints that nobody on the jury “looks like us,” Kunstler slyly replies, “Any of you ever show up for jury duty? No? Then shut the fuck up.”

Unfortunately, the film has relatively little of that kind of punchiness. As a director, Sorkin hasn’t yet grasped how to meld personal drama and historical sweep into a cohesive whole. Although the strong cast helps the film through some of its weaker segments, Sorkin’s attempt to bring a Spielbergian fluidity to the flashbacks to convention riot chaos often fall flat. But while The Trial of the Chicago 7 ends on something of a movie-of-the-week note, given the timing of its release as a current Department of Justice gins up spurious charges against political enemies, it nevertheless carries a certain past-is-prologue immediacy.

Cast: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, Noah Robbins, Danny Flaherty, Ben Shenkman, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Caitlin Fitzgerald, Alice Kremelberg, John Doman, J.C. MacKenzie, Damien Young, Wayne Duvall, C.J. Wilson Director: Aaron Sorkin Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 129 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: On the Rocks Is a Screwball Comedy with a Twist of Unresolved Tension

Sofia Coppola captures how our idealized, movie-fed ideas of “night life” reflect our longing for adventure as well as our loneliness.

3.5

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On the Rocks
Photo: A24

Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks opens with a series of gestures that establish the film’s entire emotional framework. In a voiceover against a backdrop of darkness, a man tells his daughter—playfully but with an unmistakable edge of seriousness—that she will always be his, even after marriage. We then see Laura (Rashida Jones) and Dean (Marlon Wayans) getting married, and soon descending an elaborate spiral staircase into the cavernous pool of an elegant hotel. Coppola then cuts to Dean already in the water waiting for Laura, who takes the plunge to join him, before then cutting to toys on the floor of a New York City loft—years of marriage compressed into a heartbreaking handful of seconds, as a relationship has evolved from storybook infancy into a romantic partnership that’s enriched by and freighted with obligation, while haunted by an obsessive father’s influence.

Like many Coppola protagonists, Laura and Dean are casually affluent, living in a glass cage of designer parties and restaurants. Yet this is the world that Coppola knows, and her films don’t feign pretense of understanding working-class universality, whatever that may be to begin with. In fact, guilt over this rarefication complicates Laura’s encroaching not-quite-midlife crisis. She feels relentlessly average next to Dean’s chic collaborators, yet she senses that it’s unseemly to feel the pain of the struggling, and such anxieties are embodied by the myopic, comically self-pitying droning of a fellow mom, Vanessa (Jenny Slate). Jones’s body language communicates this anguish vividly, nearly subliminally: Laura is a poignant lump who stands and dresses in order to vanish, coming to see herself only as a supplicant to her children. And she suspects that this behavior might lose Dean’s attention.

In On the Rocks, Coppola utilizes the comic-melancholic tone that she perfected in Somewhere. A shot of Laura lying on her bed, as one of those little robot vacuums buzzes about in hapless circles, instantly evokes Laura’s ennui. And Coppola is particularly adept at expressing the growing confusion between Laura and Dean, who isn’t the cartoon of the inept husband in Lost in Translation but a realistically distracted man too busy to see that he’s ignoring his wife’s needs. One moment is especially strange, even a little dangerous: Dean plops down in the bed in the middle of the night exhausted from work, kissing and touching Laura hungrily until she speaks and ruins the moment, killing the spontaneity of pure sex, the “fucking” that’s referenced in a Chris Rock special that Laura was watching earlier in the night, with the ongoing reality of the work of their relationship. Coppola never over-emphasizes any moments or symbols, particularly a moving motif with wrist watches, cultivating a growing tension that’s intensified by fraught close-ups and passages of pointed silence.

As Laura becomes convinced that Dean is having an affair, her father, Felix (Bill Murray), eases back into her life after returning from a trip to Paris. Rarefied even by Laura’s standards, Felix is an art dealer and womanizing bon vivant who sucks the oxygen out of every room. Felix’s thoughtfulness is somehow selfish, as he showers Laura with the sort of attention that Dean should pay her, except it’s suffocating and vainglorious. He isn’t quite the paralyzed lonely rich man that Murray played in Lost in Translation and Coppola’s 2015 Netflix holiday special A Very Murray Christmas; this character’s loneliness is subtler, hidden under extroversion and revealed fleetingly in startling moments, such as when Felix, feeling a sudden desolation, asks his driver to take him home. There was glamour to Murray’s earlier lost men, who were so quiet that you could project yourself onto them, but Murray renders Felix pathetic even as the character abounds in his distinctively curt and caustic charm.

Laura and Felix work their way through New York, with a side trip to Mexico, in order to find out if Dean is cheating on her—a screwball adventure that Coppola invests with richly unresolved, contradictory undercurrents. Felix has a penchant for absurdist sexism (one of the best bits in the film finds him convinced that he’s growing deaf only to female voices), and he displays undisguised glee at the prospect of proving Dean’s infidelity, which might normalize his cheating on Laura’s mother years ago. Laura might initially be rooting for Dean’s betrayal as well, as it offers a pat answer to her feelings of stagnation.

Their adventure is dotted with lovely curlicues, such as Felix prattling on while recklessly driving a sports car around New York until he’s pulled over by police offers whom he readily charms with his hail-fellow-well-met routine. Coppola, Jones, and Murray capture how such charm is both real and fake, affirming and demoralizing all at once. No wonder Laura feels eclipsed by everyone, including her husband. She was taught early on by Felix to be a spectator, and her latent rage erupts in a moment of reckoning in Mexico.

There are few modern filmmakers who possess Coppola’s gift for capturing how our idealized, movie-fed ideas of “night life” reflect our longing for adventure as well as our loneliness. On the Rocks has the same piercing, hazy, noir-esque beauty as Lost in Translation, Somewhere, and A Very Murray Christmas, as quite a bit of it is set in dimly lit hotels and bars that allow people to be anonymously captivating while getting loose on expensive cocktails.

Sitting across from one another, talking of their own relationship while pretending to speak of Laura’s marriage, Felix and Laura make for an enchantingly odd couple, their energies redolent of a classic movie duo, merged with the despairing yet droll preoccupations of a filmmaker who appears to be cutting to the heart of her own demons. Yet On the Rocks has a bounce—a swing and sense of hopefulness—that’s new to Coppola’s work. As Laura implies, endless passion is exhausting, expected only by the selfish. Somewhere on the sliding scale between combustible heat and resignation is something like grace, where communion is likely.

Cast: Rashida Jones, Bill Murray, Marlon Wayans, Jenny Slate, Jessica Henwick, Jules Willcox, Nadia Dajani, Barbara Bain, Musto Pelinkovicci Director: Sofia Coppola Screenwriter: Sofia Coppola Distributor: A24 Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Interview: Miranda July on Kajillionaire and the Malleability of Movies

The multihyphenate artist discusses why the medium she wants to work in comes before her ideas.

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Miranda July
Photo: Focus Features

Prior to chatting with Miranda July last week, I was assigned homework—a first in my experience as an interviewer. The multihyphenate artist’s team sent over a copy of her decades-spanning monograph (titled, perhaps naturally, Miranda July), which is both a compilation of her output across mediums and a clear line of sight into her creative and collaborative process. And if you’ve had the chance to read the tome, released by Prestel in April, you will know that July’s continued artistic endeavors have rendered it outdated.

July’s third feature, Kajillionaire, only represents the tip of the iceberg of her recent interdisciplinary efforts. Over the course of November and December 2019, she crafted a “movie” on Instagram with actress Margaret Qualley. In March, she curated the “Covid International Arts Festival,” a celebration of art during quarantine. That was followed by a more self-contained short film, Jopie, edited together from footage she crowdsourced from her Instagram followers during pandemic-related lockdown. And her debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, joined the Criterion Collection this year.

While Kajillionaire might be July’s most expensive feature to date, the extra bells and whistles don’t come at the expense of her singularly off-kilter perspective. The premise alone, about a family of eccentric thieves living in the margins of Los Angeles, makes the film feel of a piece with a recent wave of cinematic scammers both real (Fyre Festival and Theranos) and imagined (Parasite and Shoplifters). Yet, as filtered through July’s unconventional lens, the grift is never the goal of the narrative. The film goes in surprising and poignant directions once the tight-knit team welcomes an affably green newcomer, Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), into their fold, exposing long-simmering tensions between the emotionally stunted Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) and her eccentric parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger).

I spoke to July over the phone as Kajillionaire prepared for a theatrical run prior to hitting VOD in October. Our conversation covered the porous boundaries of what constitutes a movie, why the medium she wants to work in comes before her ideas, as well as why she’s confounded by reactions to her latest feature as a work of “genre.”

You’ve been on my side of this exchange before, interviewing Rihanna for The New York Times. I watched the video in the profile where you talked about worrying you might start acting like her? I have a lot of fears when interviewing, but that’s not one of them. Where does that stem from exactly?

You’re used to watching someone who’s such a star like that without them being able to see you. You’re just unclear on what you look like, or what you might unconsciously do in front of their face. I sing along to her! Obviously, I’m not going to do that in the moment, but I guess it’s just a way of describing the fear being looked back at by someone who really should only go one way.

Cinema as practiced in the traditional model of a narrative feature like Kajillionaire is very much a one-way conversation between you and the audience. But the Instagram project you did with Margaret Qualley is a little more of a two-way conversation because it allows the audience to become a part of it. Especially as so many American cinemas remain closed, do you think this kind of social media cinema could start to kind of supplant or substitute what we traditionally think of as cinema?

Yeah! I feel like we have such insane tools, our phones are really such good cameras. And the means for sharing things. I’m sort of surprised more hasn’t been done. I remember right before the pandemic actually saying to someone, “No one’s using Live stories [on Instagram]. Like, that’s weird! Why is that feature not being used more? Because there’s so much that can be done!” Now, that’s an example, the pandemic has pushed that forward. I mean, it’s a terrible time politically for a pandemic. But in terms of filmmaking and tools [laughs], we are better equipped than we would have been even a few years ago.

As an artist, you seem ahead of the curve in recognizing that social media is a venue for entertainment and storytelling as much as it is for messaging and advertising. As someone who’s created art for both social media platforms and traditional cinema, how do you regard them in relation to each other as audiovisual entertainment?

I guess one thing to keep in mind is I’m working in so many mediums. I mean, I used to call my performances “live movies,” so I’m not a purist. I’m sort of the opposite of that as far as cinema goes. What I loved about doing that project with Margaret was that it was very immediate and spontaneous. It allowed her a little more agency than an actor would usually have on a set. I couldn’t have, like, perfect control over her because she was also living her life. And I would ask, “What are you doing?” She’d be like, “Okay, I’m gonna be at Paris Fashion Week,” and we were kind of building things around her real life to some degree. And then, also, it’s porous. Like, Jaden [Smith] became involved because I noticed he was following it. He had commented on posts. So I just DMed him, and I said, “Do you want to be part of it? Imagine that, that’d be like a Purple Rose of Cairo-level of cinema if that happened!” It’s amazing.

The way you have described your process makes it seem almost cyclical—as if you could never follow making a movie with another movie. What’s behind that impulse?

I should say, actually, I do often want to make another movie right away. I think the Margaret thing was a little bit like my muscles are still warm from this. But each of those disciplines is really important to me. And if I don’t write another book, I won’t keep growing as a writer. I’m really interested in figuring out how to write. It sounds so boring but, like, I don’t want to do another movie because that’s too long. It’s too many years in between, and I’m aware of how finite this life is. I’m really just trying to get to do both.

Is the medium you want to work in where the germ of a project starts? Or does the idea itself determine how it’s going to be expressed?

Usually it’s the medium because, in a dumb way, I know I need a movie idea when I’m done with a book. So, I’m just kind of a mercenary or something. But then, also, the mediums themselves have different energies and capacities, and they inspire me. If you think of Instagram as a medium, I’m having fun thinking, “What can you actually do there that I couldn’t do just now in Kajillionaire?” Or, “What can I do in fiction that would be just terrifying to do if there had to be real people involved?”

I was struck by a quote about Kajillionaire in your monograph that was attributed to Richard Jenkins, but apparently you repeated frequently: “It doesn’t necessarily have to be right, it just has to be alive.” What does “alive” mean in the context of this film or your art in general?

I think he partly said that to me because I, as a writer-actor, get pretty hung up on my words [being] said exactly how I pictured them. Because I’ve already acted out all these parts, and I think they know it and can feel it on some level. But that can also go both ways. It makes me really precise, clear, and able to communicate to my crew. I know what I want, but at the same time, there’s something that has to be out of your control, free, and kind of unhinged to take flight. I know that even as just a writer: You gotta let go, even of yourself. That was that was so powerful because it’s not like I changed my process from the day he said that on, but it emboldened to me to do things that were almost counterintuitive. Just to see what would happen if I could be more alive.

Your previous features have been explicitly about lonely or isolated humans interfacing with technology and contemporary society. That element isn’t entirely absent in Kajillionaire, but it seems a little more in the background. Were you consciously trying to approach these themes in a more oblique way?

Well, I’m never thinking that there’s a theme that I have interest [in]. But I had become a mother since my last movie, that was influencing me and making me a little more conscious of what parenting means, the sort of inherent tyranny within family structures. I think I was influenced by writing a novel that, while it wasn’t like a heist story, did have sort of twists, turns, and reveals. I knew I wanted to do that in a feature film.

You’ve talked about the narcissism of the Dyne parents being one of their defining characteristics, and it got me thinking about how the trait seems to be generational. When people say millennials are narcissists, for example, that’s largely a reflection of the fact that they were raised by boomers, who are often categorized as narcissists. Was that something you were looking to explore through the film?

When you’re only a daughter, if you’re not yet—or are never going to be—a mother, then you just have this sense of parenting as almost like God or something. It’s only something you can shake your fist at. And then, once you’re on the other side of it, it’s like, “Well, hold on this thing that’s your whole childhood, this was just like a series of decisions I made because I was in a weird place in my life—some of them conscious, some of them accidental.” The whole thing doesn’t hold water so tightly as it does when you’re on the other side of it. That seemed kind of criminal to me. I mean, not to be too literal. And then also it seems like the child’s job is to betray the parents, like that’s inherent and will always happen. Yes, all these things are made more explicit and heightened in the movie, but I think I was feeling them in a gut, new way in the years that I was conceiving of the movie.

I’ve noticed a repeated sticking point of yours: female directors are so often asked about whether their work is autobiographical because people, consciously or not, presume that men create while women just reflect. With Kajillionaire, where you aren’t in front of the camera as a performer, has that experience changed at all?

Yeah, maybe it helps that I’m not in it. But people love saying I’ve made a genre movie, and that seems really male. Which, to me, is so funny because it’s a pretty emo heist movie. It becomes abundantly female by the end. But, yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I think I’m getting asked probably a lot more about, like, “Is that my family?” than the Ocean’s 11 people are being asked that. The funny thing is it’s not that I don’t think personal stuff is interesting. You just want men to be asked the same thing.

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Review: Beginning Is a Transfixing Study of a Woman’s Faith Being Tested

The low-key, serene natural beauty of Beginning’s setting provides a counterpoint to the often-disturbing events of the film.

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Beginning
Photo: New York Film Festival

Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning centers around a Jehovah’s Witness missionary, Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), who lives with her husband, David (Rati Oneli), and young son in a remote village in the mountains outside of Tbilisi. The close-knit community they tend to faces extreme prejudice and persecution from the local Orthodox Christian majority, as illustrated in the film’s startling opening. After seeing and hearing nothing for a minute or so, except the sound of a woman whispering, apparently in prayer, we glimpse congregants entering a small chapel. A sermon plays out in a static, unbroken shot from the rear of the room, before being interrupted by petrol bombs thrown through the chapel’s doors, eventually sending the building up in flames. Abruptly transitioning from reflective, communal peace to shock and panic, the scene casts a long shadow over the subsequent events, suffusing even the calmest, most intimate scenes with a sense of uncertainty and tension.

The attack also functions as an indirect representation of the senseless violence at the core of the Old Testament story of Isaac, which is the passage being discussed by the congregation before they’re forced to flee. Foreshadowing another shocking event late in the film, one that shows the imperceptible force of religious scripture weighing on the characters, this blurring of boundaries between spiritual imagination and reality reveals itself to be a key theme of the narrative. As the children of the community learn Bible stories and verses in preparation for their upcoming baptism ceremony, their carefree attitude and weak grasp of the basics of their religion is contrasted with the heavy moral burden that Yana and her husband have placed upon themselves. As seriously as Beginning treats their faith, we’re also given a sense of the apparent futility of their mission, and the sacrifices they have made for it.

The aftermath of the burning of the chapel leads to more personal trauma for Yana, who faces an uphill struggle against various abuses of power, institutional failures, and societal prejudice, while seeking a new purpose in life and trying to stay true to her religious convictions. Holding together many of the film’s long, often dialogue-free scenes is an impressive performance by Sukhitashvili, who balances vulnerability with a kind of opaque self-possession, never allowing us to grasp the full extent of Yana’s motivations. As traumatized as the woman is by what befalls her and her community, she also appears frustrated by her victimization, by her husband’s inaction in the face of injustice, and by her own diminished prospects since she abandoned her former career as an aspiring actress. A visit to her mother also reveals a family history of male neglect, which is a particular type of behavior that she apparently feels obliged to overcome by whatever means necessary.

Though a strictly minimalist approach means that her visual motifs emerge organically from the action, Kulumbegashvili makes a few unexpected, rather Hanekian compositional choices that break with the film’s sense of naturalism to more explicitly wring allegorical significance from certain sequences. Early on, Beginning introduces its main antagonist, an unnamed detective played by Kakha Kintsurashvili, in the extreme foreground, appearing unexpectedly from the right of the frame after a nighttime shot of the still-smoldering church fire gradually goes out of focus. He then walks off toward the fire raging in the distant background as Yana’s son and the other local children curiously follow him. The eerie religious symbolism here is subtle enough to keep the film grounded in the material world, while still hinting at an undercurrent of spirituality and superstition beneath its austere surface.

The low-key, serene natural beauty of Beginning’s setting provides a counterpoint to the often-disturbing events of the film, most obviously in one extended scene of a rape whose sounds are completely drowned out by the gentle burbling of the river shallows where it takes place. The idea of a god whose silence both challenges and affirms religious faith is driven home forcefully here. Indeed, the sensorial environment that Kulumbegashvili builds with a rich, naturalistic sound design, as well as the feeling of stasis created by the film’s glacial pacing, could qualify it as an example of what Paul Schrader has referred to as the “transcendental style.” And though Beginning is a lot less ostentatious than Schrader’s First Reformed, it does share that film’s intense focus, and a central theme of faith being tested. Both even conclude with a surprising tonal shift, accompanying a pivot in their protagonists’ behavior from a tightly controlled precision toward a mystical catharsis.

The introduction of a kind of magic realism at the end of Beginning is simultaneously jarring and strangely logical, following from its ambient mood of quiet spiritual intensity and haunting dread. A harrowing final narrative development is left ambiguous and unresolved by Kulumbegashvili, after which the filmmaker abruptly cuts to an uncanny sequence in which holy retribution seems to be delivered by the landscape itself. Demonstrating the extent of Yana’s resilience in facing the most extreme and personal tests of faith, and her willingness to sacrifice everything for her community, Kulumbegashvili vividly imagines powerlessness and despair being transformed into a supernatural, redemptive force.

Cast: Ia Sukhitashvili, Rati Oneli, Kakha Kintsurashvili, Saba Gogichaishvili Director: Dea Kulumbegashvili Screenwriter: Dea Kulumbegashvili, Rati Oneli Running Time: 125 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Tragic Jungle Turns a Woman’s Exploitation into a Potent Allegory

It operates in an ambiguous register, suggesting that a woman is working in unison with nature to dole out revenge for their exploitation.

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Tragic Jungle

Yulene Olaizola’s Tragic Jungle begins with Mexican chicleros scaling and notching huge trees in order to collect their sap. As the men hack away with their machetes, the zigzagging patterns they leave on the trees bring to mind injuries of flesh and blood, an impression underscored by the pinkish living part that’s revealed beneath the surface of the bark. Though this practice of collecting gum sap dates all the way to the Aztec and Mayan empires, the sight of the workers silently and miserably toiling for their boss feels like a demonstration of the unfettered agency of colonial capitalism, and as the milky sap trickles down the paths carved by the machetes, the trees suggest victims crying out for justice.

Set in the 1920s on the border between Mexico and Belize (at this time still part of the larger British territory of Honduras), the film then jumps across the Rio Hondo that divides both nations to track the clandestine movement of Agnes (Indira Andrewin), who’s running away from an arranged marriage to a white settler with the help of her sister, Florence (Shantai Obispo), and a guide, Norm (Cornelius McLaren). Dressed in virginal white, Agnes stands out against the greens of the jungle, and while all three characters are Belizean, they exist at a remove from their immediate surroundings, as they all speak perfect, unaccented English.

The film’s first act concerns itself with Agnes’s attempted escape and the power differentials at play in this world. When the woman’s prospective husband, Cacique (Dale Carley), shows up to her home for the wedding, he does so flanked by guards toting shotguns, as if he already expected some kind of resistance. And though Norm instructed the women to cover their tracks, they’re quickly found, and the juxtaposition between Norm arduously rowing a canoe and Cacique and his men arriving suddenly on the scene via motorboat speaks volumes about the hopeless futility of escaping this man and the imperial might that he represents. Furious at Agnes’s betrayal, Cacique doesn’t even attempt to retrieve his runaway bride, instead having his men open fire on her, killing Norm and Florence and leaving her for dead.

This narrative arc plays out as a vicious critique of colonialism, but Tragic Jungle takes a dramatic turn when the unconscious Agnes is found by the chicleros. The sight of the sleeping beauty flanked by the hard laborers suggests an image out of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the initial scenes between the English-speaking woman and the Spanish-speaking men make for awkward, amusing interactions, albeit ones also charged with sexual tension, as some of the men aren’t devoted to protecting her virtue. Agnes herself, who earlier acknowledged her sexual inexperience and curiosity to her sister, is at once apprehensive and receptive to the callous advances of the more aggressive workers. The convoluted sexual politics that arise from her excitement and fear complicate subsequent scenes where sexual violation becomes indistinguishable from fantasy.

As if sparked by Agnes’s ambiguous responses to her sexual encounters, the film foists itself into a mythic realm in its final act, with the chicleros who get closest to her falling ill or dying under mysterious circumstances. As a result, the men start to regard Agnes as the female demon Xtabay of Yucatec Mayan myth. Sofia Oggioni’s cinematography up to this point stressed the verdant hyperreality of the jungle and the ways that the characters at once mesh with their environment and are in conflict with it; an earlier shot of Agnes asleep under the chicleros’ mosquito netting is lit in such a way that she appears encased in spiderwebs, in a limbo state until she’s devoured. But the visuals become even more hypnotic as the men start to fret over their new ward, with colors growing brighter during the day, and nighttime shots losing a bit of their sharpness as Agnes’s interactions with the men, once marked by obvious menace, become more difficult to parse. In one jarring moment, an imaginative use of CGI distorts the woman’s features to acknowledge the extent to which the film has been turned on its head into a work of horror with no easily identifiable foe or hero.

Andrewin, too, modulates her performance in fascinating ways, lacing Agnes’s indeterminate passivity with hints of smirking malice that challenge all preconceived notions of the character. Tragic Jungle never becomes a full-on horror film, but Olaizola engages with indigenous legends and colonial history across a story where misogyny is turned against the patriarchy in ways that recall recent genre offerings like The Witch. Compared to that film’s turn toward the outright macabre, though, Tragic Jungle operates in a dreamier, more ambiguous register. It suggests that Agnes is working in unison with nature to dole out revenge for their exploitation against men who second-guess their fears and superstitions until they realize too late they should have trusted their instincts from the start.

Cast: Indira Andrewin, Gilberto Barraza, Mariano Tun Xool, Gabino Rodríguez, Eligio Meléndez, Eliseo Mancilla de la Cruz, Dale Carley, Shantai Obispo, Nedal Mclaren Director: Yulene Olaizola Screenwriter: Yulene Olaizola, Rubén Imaz

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Review: Kajillionaire Whimsically and Sincerely Reflects on Family Ties

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

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Kajillionaire
Photo: Focus Features

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wood’s hilarious, affecting performance convincingly sells this slightly on-the-nose premise. She depicts a woman with a niche set of skills and a shaky sense of pride in her independence, who has nevertheless struggled to break free from her parents after almost 27 years, and whose repressed emotions are peeking through the surface at almost every moment. When Old Dolio reluctantly redeems a gift voucher for a massage, following an unsuccessful effort to claim its cash value, there’s a memorable shot of her face seen through the hole in a massage table, as this rare instance of physical contact causes a single tear to fall from her eye. Here, July’s underrated visual sense serves to bring us closer to a character, in contrast to the distancing effect of her more Michel Gondry-esque flights of fancy (such as the nightly stream of pink foam that comes through the wall of the office space where the family crashes).

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

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

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