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Understanding Screenwriting #24: Monsters vs. Aliens, Grey Gardens, Parks and Recreation, Southland, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #24: Monsters vs. Aliens, Grey Gardens, Parks and Recreation, Southland, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Monsters vs. Aliens, Grey Gardens, Parks and Recreation, Southland, 30 Rock, Saving Grace, Desperate Housewives, but first…

Fan Mail: In response to Matt Maul’s question about The Dirty Dozen, Franko does try to kill Reisman in the book, which Nunnally took over into the script. It would have made the ending a whole lot less conventional, but that’s true of Nunnally’s script as a whole.

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009. Screenplay by Maya Forbes & Wallace Woldarsky and Rob Letterman and Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger, story by Rob Letterman & Conrad Vernon. 94 minutes): List-making, not screenwriting.

In the opening scene, a computer geek at an Antarctica tracking station knocks a paddle-ball out into the faces of the audience. Since this is one of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s hopes to dominate the world with 3-D movies, I thought it was kind of cutely nostalgic that the opening scene imitated one of the most famous in-your-face moments from House of Wax, one of the best of the 1950s 3-D movies. But then the other references began to pile up: The Day the Earth Stood Still, George Lucas (the movie starts in his home town of Modesto), Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, War of the Worlds, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Mulan, Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Blob, The Three Stooges, Star Wars Episodes II and III, and on and on and on. It was as if the writers felt it was enough just to make the connections, a technique that has thoroughly been discredited by such disastrous move parodies like Date Movie, Meet the Spartans, and Disaster Movie. Just referencing other films without doing anything more simply gets exhausting. Although I should mention that my wife, who has not seen as many science fiction movies as I have—she is a scientist and always objects to the science parts—enjoyed the film more than I did, as did the audience we saw it with.

The film is also very clearly one of those films and television shows (see below) that were conceived and created in the last years of the Bush administration and now seem slightly dated because of it. One of the characters is a general named W.R. Monger and in the beginning he sounds like Bush and acts like Cheney. When we get to the war room scenes, which are modeled on Ken Adam’s design for Dr. Strangelove, he morphs into General Ripper, but the damage has been done.

There is one character the writers have come up with that shows what the film should have been. He is a version of The Blob, here called B.O.B. In the original The Blob it was just that: a pile of Jello that ate people. Here is given a doofus personality, with a voice by Seth Rogen to match. Rogen may end up with Eddie Murphy’s career: much more successful doing voices for cartoons than live action films. B.O.B, in what may be a reference to Dory, the amnesiac fish in Finding Nemo, has no brain and simply picks up on what anybody else says or does. The character, both as written and animated, has a freshness the others don’t. The voice cast is first rate, but the writing for the rest of them blends together so that none of them other than Rogen shine.

Ah, yes, the 3-D elements. The system is used very effectively to give us a sense of the space the characters inhabit, which given that Susan/Ginormica changes sizes several times in the film helps. On the other hand, when Entertainment Weekly recently ran an article hyping the return of 3-D, their letters column a couple of weeks later had two replies, both of them complaining about the return of 3-D. I particularly agree with Mike W. Barr of Akron, Ohio, who asked, “how about some solid scripts and good stories?”

Katenzberg’s millenium is not quite here yet. And you still have to wear those damned glasses.

~

Grey Gardens (2009. Screenplay by Michael Sucsy & Patricia Rozema, story by Michael Sucsy, inspired by the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens. 104 minutes): Back up the truck.

As we have talked about both in this column and in various comments on it, documentaries, particularly in the last forty years, have given us a lot of great characters. As cameras and sound recording devices became lighter weight, it began to be easier to show the audience what people are like. In America, this resulted in films mostly in the direct cinema style, in which the camera follows people as they run for president (Primary), attempt to integrate a university (Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment), treat the criminally insane (Titicut Follies), or sell expensive Bibles to people who cannot afford them (Salesman). In Europe and occasionally in the United States, the lighter-weight equipment was used to interview people, as in the French film Chronicle of a Summer or the American Word is Out. Using the lighter-weight equipment to interview is the style known as cinema verité, although that term has come to be used interchangeably with direct cinema and even documentary itself.

David and Albert Maysles were two of the pioneers of the direct cinema style, but in the late sixties, they began to sneak beyond it into a hybrid style called self-reflexive documentary, which was a mixture of direct cinema and cinema verité. In direct cinema you are usually not supposed to be aware that the filmmaker is there, but in self-reflexive films, you are aware that you are watching a film being made. Why pretend the camera is not there? So in the Maysles’s 1970 film, Gimme Shelter, we watch Mick Jagger’s reactions as he watches the footage the Maysles caught at Altamont of the Hell’s Angels killing a member of the audience.

When the Maysles came around to making Grey Gardens, about two bizarre relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who were living in a decaying mansion in the Hamptons, it was impossible for the film to avoid being self-reflexive. The two women, Big Edie and her daughter Little Edie, kept talking to the brothers. What the film gave us was a stunning and often hysterically funny portrait of two of the most memorable characters in the history of documentary film. Once you saw the original Grey Gardens, you never forgot the Beales. So Albert Maysles (David died in 1987) put together the outtakes into the 2006 documentary The Beales of Grey Gardens, and there was a 2006 Broadway musical Grey Gardens. You would think all of that would have exhausted the subject. Not so.

The original documentary, done in the combination of direct and verité, could only deal directly with the present, one of the limitations of the styles. We get the Edies’ versions of what happened in the past, but they are the epitome of unreliable narrators. The musical dealt with the past by setting the first act in 1941 and the second in 1973, but a film can, more easily than a stage play, jump back and forth between time periods. What Sucsy and Rozema do is set the “present” in the time when the Maysles are filming their documentary. So we get something similar to the self-reflexivity of the documentary, as well as a comment on the documentary making process, AS WELL AS the opportunity to see the Edies go through their routines once again. The documentary making process then becomes a structural element of the film. The second structural element is the backstory in which we find out how they came to be living the way they were. This involves going back to the thirties and coming up to the present. The documentary is not noted for its structure, although there are subtle structural elements in it. We tend to be more demanding of feature films, even if they do premier on HBO.

Sucsy and Rozema bring the two structural lines together in the scene of the Edies watching the completed documentary. This is followed by a brilliant scene in which Big Edie tells Little Edie it would not be good for her to go to the film’s premier, since Little Edie is “an acquired taste.” Little Edie runs out, comes back, and Big Edie admits it was her fault she did not let Little Edie stay in New York City, but insisted she come back to the house. Little Edie replies she could have gone away any time. The women have come to understand how they came to where they are. Little Edie goes to the premier and is delighted to be the center of attention.

That confrontation between them is not the only great scene in the film. When news gets out that two of Jackie O’s relatives are living in squalor, Jackie comes to visit (we have seen her as a seven-year-old earlier, not knowing who she is until someone calls her “Jacqueline”). Now how would you write this scene? You could make Jackie imperious, or disgusted. You could make the Edies ashamed. Or you could do it the way Sucsy and Rozema do it. Jackie is serious (this may be one of the few film portraits of Jackie that takes her seriously) and wants to help. Big Edie is trying to be the gracious hostess. Little Edie is more and more agitated as the scene progresses, then lashes out at Jackie. Little Edie insists she was dating Jack’s older brother Joe, who was supposed to be the one to run for president but was killed in the war, and Little Edie thinks Jackie ended up getting the life of First Lady that she should have had. After she is gone, Big Edie reminds Little Edie that she only met Joe once, at a party, and they never dated.

Another reason for doing a feature film on the subject, beyond giving us their backstory, is to let two actresses have at these two characters. Now let me explain what I meant by “back up the truck.” When you watch a movie, you know fairly early on if it is going to work (I knew a guy who insisted he could tell from the first shot, but I’m not that good). Then there are movies that you know immediately are doing everything right. This films opens with a bit of the scene of the Edies watching the documentary, and we see their reactions. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. This is it. This is the real deal. I felt the same way I did after the first ten minutes of John Adams: forget holding the Emmy nominations and ceremonies, just back up the truck and start shoveling them out to everybody connected with this. I am not an Emmy voter, so I do not know how I could choose between Jessica Lange’s Big Edie and Drew Barrymore’s Little Edie. Lange we are used to giving great performances, from King Kong on (yes, I know the critics slaughtered her for that, but look at it again: it is a brilliant comedy performance), but Barrymore is a revelation. She has done nothing to suggest she has this kind of range. Jeanne Tripplehorn is not obvious casting for Jackie O, but she nails the nuances the writers have given her. And for best supporting actor, look at Ken Howard husband and father, Phelan Beale: Phelan knows what he has to deal with and he knows when he has to get out. I have already told what makes the script great. And Sucsy’s direction follows my general rule for how directors should work: get a great script, get great actors, and then get the fuck out of their way. And, unlike Tom Hooper on John Adams, he does not screw it up by shooting everything at off-kilter angles. As Olivier once said to/or about Orson Welles, “If you’ve got a good script, you don’t have to shoot up the actor’s pantsleg.”

~

Parks and Recreation (2009. Episode “Make My Pit a Park” written by Greg Daniels & Michael Schur. 30 minutes): The bastard child of 30 Rock and The Office.

Here’s one problem with this new show: like Monsters vs. Aliens, it is very much of the George W. Bush era. In the 30 Rock episode “Cutbacks,” which aired the same night as “Make My Pit a Park,” Liz has to deal with the cutbacks that the company has asked for. We get a number of scenes of Jack firing, or about to fire, assorted people, and a discussion of where to cut Liz’s show, as well as her seducing the company hatchet man. In “Park,” on the other hand, the Parks Department seems to be going along just fine, with no budget problems. The satire is Bush-era “bureaucracies screw up all the time,” a descendant of Reagan’s “Gummit [I could never completely trust a man who mispronounced the name of the organization he worked for] is the problem, not the solution.” Bush seemed to make a concerted effort to make his government not work. Granted, though there has been a lot of satire of bureaucracies since long before Bush and will continue to be, the tone in Parks and Recreation still seems a little off. They may recover.

I love 30 Rock, as you have gathered, but I have never gotten into either the British or American versions of The Office. One reason for my not caring for both The Office(s) and this first episode of Parks and Recreation is the use of the faux-documentary style. Christopher Guest makes it work in short 90-minute doses in films, but it can get unwieldy over the length of a series. But wait a minute, this is just the 30-minute pilot for the new show. Yes, but the basic problem is the concept is inconsistently used. Are the characters being filmed in a direct cinema style or in a cinema verité style? It seems to be a combination of both, which certainly can work in documentary films such as Grey Gardens. If you are going to shoot the show in that way, then the writing has to be very particular to that style, and in Parks and Recreation it’s not. As JJ said in comments on my item on Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 in US#21, “documentaries are unbeatable resources for writers in regards to authentic dialogue and unforgettable characters.” Listen to what Frederick Wiseman HEARS people say in his documentaries. Daniels and Schur have not come anywhere close to that in this script.

The other part of what JJ said dealt with characters, and at least in this pilot episode, the characters are not nearly as interesting as those in Grey Gardens, the Wiseman documentaries, or the Guest mockumentaries. Here is also where 30 Rock has it all over Parks and Recreation. There is no one the equivalent of Jack or Jenna here. Amy Poehler may have a wider acting range than Tina Fey, but the character of Leslie Knope does not so far fit her talents the way Liz fits Tina.

Hmm. Could that be because Tina Fey also writes the character of Liz?

~

Southland (2009. Episode “Pilot” written by Ann Biderman. 60 minutes): FROM THE PRODUCER OF ER JOHN WELLS.

That’s the way the hype for this new show went, and you can understand why. With the series finale of ER, Wells was in the news. And NBC ran this in the old ER timeslot. And the IMDb seems to have gone along with the hype, since Biderman’s name does not yet show up on the page for the show, nor does her credit appear on her page (ed. note: Biderman’s name has subsequently been added). She already won an Emmy for writing the “Steroid Roy” episode of NYPD Blue back in 1994, and she is the co-writer of the new (lower voice here to show respect) MICHAEL MANN FILM Public Enemies. According to the on-screen credits, she is not only the writer of the pilot, but also the creator of the show. What does a girl writer have to do in this town to get noticed?

Unfortunately, what I am noticing is that her script is not very interesting. It is one more cop show that looks and sounds like all the others. One of the main cases, the cops deal with is a missing child, could have come straight out of Law & Order: SVU. The other is a gang drive-by shooting that could have come out of any number of shows.

Well, what about the characters? The pilot primarily follows new officer Ben Sherman on his first day of patrol. Standard way to start a series, even if it does bring to mind Training Day. But Ben is a blank (and it does not help that Benjamin McKenzie is no Ethan Hawke). We get no sense of his inner life, if he has one. We have no idea how he is reacting to what he sees and what he does. His partner is John Cooper, and his rants are not nearly as wonderful as those of Denzel Washington’s Alonzo. We also get very little sense of the other cops, with the slight exception of the black woman detective Lydia Adams, but she does not seem that swift when it takes her longer than the audience to figure out the significance of the ants at her crime scene. Yes, it is nice to have a black woman detective, but it’s been 35 years since Get Christie Love and even longer since S. Epatha Merkerson came to Law & Order. And while there is one cop that may be Latino, there are no Asians in Biderman’s LAPD. The racial and sexual makeup of the LAPD has changed a lot, but this series makes it look like the LAPD of Police Story in the 1970s. The cinematography, by the way, also recalls the bleached out look of Police Story, so at least they have the light right.

Even the one potentially interesting plot twist is 28-years-old. In one of the final shots we see macho training officer Cooper at a bar. He notices a guy he had previously seen arrested for gay prostitution. We notice it’s a gay bar. O.K., but the discovery at the end of the pilot for Hill Street Blues that Public Defender Joyce Davenport and Captain Frank Furillo, whom we have seen arguing all episode, are in the bathtub together got there first. O.K., that one was heterosexual, but still…

~

Parks and Recreation (2009. Episode “Canvassing” written by Rachel Axler. 30 minutes): Episode two.

Episode two is a slight improvement. I don’t know what the time gap was between when the pilot was filmed and when the second episode was written, but the writing has begun to take into consideration that we are now in the Obama era. Ron, Leslie’s boss, has a to-the-camera speech in which he talks about how with all the stimulus money coming in, the department will actually have to DO something, which obviously offends his bureaucratic heart.

Axler has also begun to add layers to the character of Leslie. In the pilot she was sort of a general doofus, but she gets an edge in here, since we see her manipulative side. While canvassing the public, she tells one of her co-workers that she learned from Karl Rove how to phrase the questions so you get the answers you want. We see her sneaky in some other ways. Amy Poehler can do all that and more, so this is a good trend. And she was joined in this episode by the great Pamela Reed as her mother Marlene, who appears to be successful in every way Leslie is not. If the writers are looking for ways to separate this show from The Office, they may have found it with Marlene.

I am still dubious about the faux documentary style, but with better character definition with Leslie, I did not find it as objectionable.

~

Southland (2009. Episode “Mozambique” written by Ann Biderman. 60 minutes): Second episode. And Biderman’s name is still not up on the Southland page on IMDb (ed. note: see above Southland entry).

This one has not improved. Ben is a little livelier than he was in the pilot, but we still do not get much of a sense of an inner life. The plot lines are still very conventional and the other characters are not showing much definition. And we get the old plot gimmick of one of the cops sleeping with a TV reporter, which Boomtown did better. There was one flicker of life in that storyline. The cop and the reporter are making out and his daughter sees them. And the daughter is not that upset, since she thinks mom’s a bitch. Boy, could you run with that, but Biderman doesn’t.

We also get no more about Cooper’s homosexuality, and we still don’t have the racial and gender mix of the real LAPD.

~

30 Rock (2009. Episode “Jackie Jormp-Jomp” written by Kay Cannon & Tracey Wigfield. 30 minutes): That’s how you do it.

Liz has been suspended for sexual harassment for seducing the corporate guy and is going nuts trying to figure out what to do with her days. She falls in with a group of rich women in her building who get massages and go shopping. The writers wrote in a nice semi-montage in which Liz is talking how she cannot spend the day with them as, behind her, the day passes by. Sharp writing, sharp acting, and a nice use of computer technology. And a great payoff: just as Liz thinks she can adjust to this lifestyle, she discovers the women are so lacking in any emotional connection to the real world that they are in fact a fight club. That’s taking an audience around a corner they did not even know was there.

~

Saving Grace (2009. Episode “But There’s Clay” written by Danitria Harris-Lawrence & Talicia Raggs. Episode “So What’s the Purpose of a Platypus” written by Mark Israel. Episode “I Believe in Angels” written by Nancy Miller and Roger Wolfson. 60 minutes each.): Hello Maggie. Goodbye Maggie. Goodbye Leon.

“But There’s Clay” introduces us to another new foil for Grace, now that Abby has gone back to IA. And Grace is just as restrained as she was with Abby, which suggests a change on the part of the showrunners about Grace’s character. The new character is Maggie, and the widower of Grace’s sister is attracted to her. We can see why: she is earthy and lively and fits right in. Grace is suspicious and in “What’s the Purpose of a Platypus” she discovers that Maggie is part of a two-person team of con artists who are out to scam Chuck, the widower of the money he got from his wife’s death. Too bad, because as played by Kathy Baker, Maggie could have been an interesting addition to the show. That’s always a problem with introducing new characters into an ongoing show: how does it affect the mix? It may have been that Maggie was too similar to Grace.

As I mentioned in my comments on reader’s comments in US#23, I have put off dealing with the increasing time spent with Leon, the man on death row, since I wanted to see how it played out. It did seem to take away from those two episodes mentioned above, but in “I Believe in Angels” the episode focuses on Leon’s execution. I think what they were doing was wrapping up Leon’s story, since they had gone about as far with him as they could. What the episode does do is end up with a suggestion of another plot line involving Earl and the black girl Grace goes to see at the end. Grace asks her if she knows an angel named Earl, and the girl’s lack of a “What the hell you talking about, crazy white lady?” suggests she does. I, for one, got tired of the Leon story and am interested to see where they take the new one when the series resumes.

~

Desperate Housewives (2009. Episode “Look Into Their Eyes and You See What They Know” written by Matt Berry. 62 minutes): Drat! Edie really is dead.

I did not write about the “A Spark to Pierce the Dark.” (This show, having run out of the titles of Sondheim songs for their episodes, is now using lines from within the songs; as one of the 73 straight men in the U.S. according to the last census who likes Sondheim, I find the habit only mildly amusing.) I noticed that at end of “A Spark,” after Edie had wrecked her car and been jolted with electricity, her hand was still moving. Yes, I know about all the on-and-off line discussions, arguments, etc. about Nicollette Sheridan leaving the show. But perverse character than I am, I hoped it was just showrunner Marc Cherry and Sheridan setting us up so they could pull a fast one on us. No such luck.

This episode does give Edie a very nice farewell. The surviving wives and Mrs. McCluskey are taking Edie’s ashes to, well, we don’t know where at first. In each of the acts, one of the wives tells of some dealing with Edie that gives us a rounder picture of her. Each one is appropriate for the character it is given to. I particularly liked the scene of Edie taking Lynette, suffering from chemo treatments, to a biker bar to “teach her how to flow her own pillows,” i.e., be the strong person that Edie knew Lynette is.

Given all the Sondheim references, I was a bit surprised by the end. As Edie’s ashes float around Wisteria Lane (her son did not want them), Edie gives us a voiceover that sounds cribbed from Emily’s speeches about appreciating life at the end of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Hey, if you are going to steal, steal from the best, whether it’s Sondheim or Wilder.

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

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Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust

The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.

I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?

Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.

Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.

To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.

Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.

Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?

Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.

Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.

It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.

How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?

Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.

How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”

Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.

Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?

No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.

You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?

I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.

My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”

And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.

I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.

It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]

On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.

That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!

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Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre

Aaron Henry is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

Aaron Henry’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.

Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.

Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.

But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.

Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brad Smith, Jeff Pope, Andra Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert

The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.

The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.

At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.

As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.

Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident

Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.

1.5

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.

Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.

Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.

Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.

De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.

Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Crawl Is Fun and Economical but Lacks Go-for-Broke Inventiveness

The film is more straight-faced than Alexandre Aja’s prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws.

2.5

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Crawl
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Unlike the giddily crass Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is a quiet beast of a film. It’s built not on a foundation of over-the-top gore, but on a series of escalations. As a hurricane barrels toward Florida, ace swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) becomes worried after her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), doesn’t return her phone calls. She travels to her old family home and finds him unconscious in the house’s flooded crawl space, with large alligators swimming in the water.

Early on, the camera often lingers on the deceptive stillness of the rising water for maximum suspense. Haley and her father are trapped in the house with no more than the tools they can find or already have on hand, MacGyvering their very survival out of shovels, flashlights, and flares. The best parts of the film slyly set up those tools and other objects, including a swing set and a rat trap, only to bring them back at some later, climactic moment.

If Crawl, then, is an easily digestible piece of workmanlike thrills, its only real bit of gristle is its po-faced father-daughter bonding. Haley and Dave are somewhat estranged; the family home was meant to have been sold off after Dave’s recent divorce from Haley’s mother; and flashbacks to childhood swim meets show father and daughter tempting fate with flagrantly ironic use of the term “apex predator.” In the face of certain death, they cobble their relationship back together through Hallmark-card platitudes while sentimental music plays on the film’s soundtrack. It’s the absolute thinnest of familial drama, and it will do little to redirect your emotional investment away from the survival of the family dog.

Between these family moments, of course, the flood waters run red as people get got by gators. Aja is prone to lingering in prolonged closeup on things like a protruding bone being shoved back into place, but he otherwise seems to have gotten the most inspired bits of underwater violence out of his system with Piranha 3D. Crawl is more straight-faced than his prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws. And while these moments are suspenseful, with nail-biting scrapes involving a handgun, some loose pipes, and one particularly clever shower-door maneuver, there’s precious little of the go-for-broke invention or outrageousness that might have made the film more than a fun and economical thriller.

Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Morfydd Clark Director: Alexandre Aja Screenwriter: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Farewell Thoughtfully Braids the Somber and the Absurd

The film taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

3.5

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The Farewell
Photo: A24

In the opening scene of writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Chinese grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), affectionately referred to as Nai Nai by her family, and her Chinese-American granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), have a warm, affectionate phone conversation in which each woman incessantly lies to the other. A professionally adrift, financially bereft millennial whose writing ambitions have come to naught, Billi lets her grandmother believe her life is busy and full of social engagements; for her part, Nai Nai insists that she’s at her sister’s house, rather than in a drably decorated doctor’s office. Wang frames Nai Nai against the kitschy, oversized picture of a lagoon that hangs on the wall, as if to emphasize the flimsiness of the illusions the pair is painting for one another.

The sequence calls to mind the advantage of audio-only phone calls: for allowing us to more easily maintain the falsehoods that comprise a not insignificant portion of our relationships. Given that minor mistruths prop up our most basic social connections, Wang focuses The Farewell on the moral quandary of whether a big lie—specifically, culturally contingent situations—might actually be an expression of genuine love. The film takes up the question with a tone of melancholic drollery, a sense of irony that doesn’t lose touch with the human feelings at its core. The Farewell is “based on an actual lie,” evidently an episode from Wang’s life, and its careful mixture of the somber and the absurd rings true to life.

As it turns out, Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer, but Billi’s father’s family elects to lie to the woman about her MRI results, an action that’s evidently within the bounds of Chinese law. But as Billi’s assimilated immigrant father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), points out to his brother, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), during a crisis of conscience, such a thing is both frowned upon in America and prosecutable. Struggling even more with the decision, of course, is the more Americanized Billi, who can’t reconcile her Western notions of love and the sanctity of the individual with the widespread practice of lying to family members about their impending deaths.

To create a cover for a family visit to Beijing, the family forces Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Hanwei), who lives in Japan, to marry his girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), of three months. This plan provides plenty of fodder for Wang’s dry humor, as the family attempts to maintain the veneer of celebration while also bidding farewell to their ostensibly clueless matriarch, who’s confused by Hao Hao and Aiko’s lack of affection and the generally dour mood that predominates in the lead-up to the wedding. It’s potential material for a farce, but even in its funny moments, Wang’s film is contemplative rather than frenetic, preferring to hold shots as her characters gradually, often comically adjust to the reality that Nai Nai will soon be gone.

Awkwafina, hitherto notable mostly for her comic supporting roles, gives a revelatory lead performance as Billi, the thirtysomething prone to bouts of adolescent sullenness. Perhaps playing a Bushwick-based, first-generation-American creative type isn’t much of a stretch for the Queens-born rapper/actress, but she immediately brings to the role the depth of lived experience: We believe from the first frames in the long-distance love between Billi and her grandmother, and the existential crisis the young woman feels as she negotiates two cultures’ differing approaches to death and disease. In taking us to Beijing through Billi’s eyes, which are often blinking back tears as she says goodbye without articulating “goodbye,” The Farewell’s morose but not hopeless comedy taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Hanwei Director: Lulu Wang Screenwriter: Lulu Wang Distributor: A24 Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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Review: The Lion King Remake Finds Its Place in the Circle of Consumption

This ostentatiously expensive remake is reliant on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.

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The Lion King
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It’s somewhat paradoxical to critique Disney’s recent series of “live-action” remakes for precisely repeating the narratives, emotional cues, shot sequences, and soundscapes of their earlier animated versions. More than young children, who might well be content watching the story in vibrant 2D, it’s the parents who are the target audience of this new take on The Lion King, which aims to light up adults’ nostalgia neurons. In this sense, Jon Favreau’s film achieves its goals, running through a text beloved by an entire generation almost line for line, and shot for shot—with some scenes extended to reach the two hours seemingly required of Hollywood tentpoles. Throughout, though, one gets the impression that there’s something very cheap at the core of this overtly, ostentatiously expensive film, reliant as it is on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.

The new film differs from its source in simulating a realistic African savannah and wildlife through digital animation and compositing, but it doesn’t provide anything resembling a genuinely new idea, visually or dramatically. Favreau meticulously recreates the framing and montage of 1994’s The Lion King as he runs through the unaltered storyline. The young lion prince Simba (voiced as a cub by JD McCrary and as a grown lion by Donald Glover) witnesses his father Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones) seemingly accidental death by stampede. Unknown to Simba, his uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), murdered his own brother, but the jealous would-be heir manipulates the rambunctious young lion into accepting the blame for his father’s death. In self-exile, Simba represses his guilt by adopting the carefree philosophy of meercat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), until his long-lost betrothed, Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter), happens across him and convinces him to return to reclaim his throne.

The film’s world, as conceived by Favreau’s camera and an army of CG animators, is far less expressive than the one Disney’s original artists created in 1994. Tied to the idea of recompositing a reality, the filmmakers take less license in making the elephant graveyard where malicious hyenas Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), Azizi (Eric André), and Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key) live a fantastical, nightmarish terrain, and they constrain the choreography of the animals during Simba’s performance of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” to the bounds of actual animal physiology. Such musical sequences suffer under the regime of realism: Scar’s villainous exposition song, “Be Prepared,” appears in a truncated version spoken more than sung by Ejiofor, effectively robbing the original song of its devious exuberance.

The characters’ faces are also less pliable, less anthropomorphized—their demeanor harder to read—than in the traditional animation format of the original film. This isn’t necessarily a hindrance to crafting an affecting story (see Chris Noonan’s Babe), but the closeness with which Favreau hews to the original film means that the moments crafted for the earlier medium don’t quite land in this one. Scar isn’t nearly so menacing when he’s simply a gaunt lion with a scar, and Nala and Simba’s reunion isn’t as meaningful when their features can’t soften in humanlike fashion when they recognize each other. The Lion King invites—indeed, attempts to feed off of—reference to the original but consistently pales in comparison.

There’s another important difference one feels lurking in the margins of this film. The attitude of the first Lion King toward nature approached something like deference. The original film isn’t flawless: In its depiction of a patrilineal kingdom being saved from a usurper and his army of lazy serfs by the rightful heir, it questionably projected human politics into a nonhuman world. But it was an ambitious project by the then comparatively modest Walt Disney Studios to craft an expressive, living portrait of the animal kingdom. In contrast, there’s a hubristic quality to this CG-infused remake, as if Disney is demonstrating that its digitally fabricated imagery can fully capture the reality of a healthy, autonomous animal world—at a historical moment when that world is in danger of being totally snuffed out by the human race’s endless cycles of production and reproduction. The subject of this tiresome retread is ultimately less the “circle of life” and more the circle of consumption.

Cast: Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, John Kani, JD McCrary, John Oliver Director: Jon Favreau Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson, Brenda Chapman Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Rojo Is a Chilly Allegory for the Distance Between Classes

It masterfully sustains a sense of “wrongness” that will be felt even by those unfamiliar with Argentina’s history.

3

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Rojo
Photo: Distrib Films

With Rojo, writer-director Benjamín Naishtat conjures a haunting aura of debauched boredom, evoking a climate in which something vast yet barely acknowledged is happening under the characters’ noses. Though the film is set in Argentina in 1975, on the cusp of a coup and at the height of the Dirty War, when U.S.-backed far-right military groups were kidnapping, torturing, and killing perceived liberal threats, these events are never explicitly mentioned. Instead, the characters do what people choosing to ignore atrocity always have, talking around uncomfortable subjects and focusing on the mundane textures of their lives. Meanwhile, Naishtat expresses Argentina’s turmoil via symbols and sequences in which aggression erupts out of seemingly nowhere, actualizing the tension that’s hidden in plain sight. Throughout the film, Naishtat masterfully sustains a sense of “wrongness” that will be felt even by audiences who’re unfamiliar with Argentina’s history.

The film opens with a home being emptied of its belongings—an image that will come to scan as a metaphor for a country that’s “cleaning house.” Naishtat then springs an odd and creepy encounter between a famous attorney, Claudio (Darío Grandinetti), and a man who will eventually come to be known as “the hippie” (Diego Cremonesi). Claudio is sitting at a stylish restaurant minding his own business and waiting for his wife, Susana (Andrea Frigerio), when the hippie storms in and demands that Claudio give up his table. The hippie reasons that he’s ready to eat now, while Claudio is inhabiting unused space. Claudio gives up the table and proceeds, with his unexpected civility in the face of the hippie’s hostility, to humiliate this interloper. And this scene reflects how skillful Naishtat is at tying us in knots: In the moment, Claudio is the sympathetic party, but this confrontation becomes a parable of how people like the hippie are being pushed out—“disappeared”—by a country riven with political divisions.

Tensions between Claudio and the hippie escalate, and the hippie eventually shoots himself in the face with a pistol. Rather than taking the man to the hospital, Claudio drives him out to the desert, leaving his body there and allowing him to die. What’s shocking here is the matter-of-fact-ness of Claudio’s actions; based on his demeanor, Claudio might as well be carrying trash out to the dump, and he moves on with his life, returning to work and basking in the adulation that his profession has granted him. In a conventional thriller, this moral trespass would be the driving motor of the film, yet Naishtat drops the incident with the hippie for the majority of Rojo’s running time, following Claudio as he networks and engages in other scams.

Naishtat emulates, without editorializing, the casualness of his characters, and so Rojo is most disturbing for so convincingly suggesting idealism to be dead—with gritty brownish cinematography that further suggests a sensorial muddying. With little-to-no sense of stability, of faith in a social compass, the characters here often emphasize what should be trivial happenings. Susana’s decision to drink water at a gathering, rather than coffee or tea, becomes a kind of proxy gesture for the resistance that her and her social class are failing to show elsewhere, while a comic disappearance during a magic show macabrely mirrors the government’s killing and kidnapping of dissidents. Rojo’s centerpiece, however, is an eclipse that engulfs a beach in the color red, as Susana wanders a wooded area lost while Claudio, lacking sunglasses, blocks his eyes. The color red is also associated with communism, of course, as if the targets of this regime are demanding to be recognized.

Rojo eventually reprises the hippie narrative, as a famed Chilean detective, Sinclair (Alfredo Castro), comes hounding Claudio for answers, yet this development is soon revealed to be an elaborate fake-out. Out in the desert, one’s primed to expect the ruthlessly intelligent Sinclair to provide the wandering narrative a catharsis by forcing Claudio to take responsibility for something. But these men, both wealthy and respected, are of the same ilk. Though they’re each bound by routine and pretense, the death of lower classes means equally little to both of them. At this point, it’s clear that Rojo is less a thriller than a brutally chilly satire, concerning men who have the privilege, like other people who haven’t been deemed expendable by their government, to playact, offering ceremonial outrage that gratifies their egos while allowing a diseased society that benefits them to carry on with business as usual.

Cast: Darío Grandinetti, Andrea Frigerio, Alfredo Castro, Laura Grandinetti, Rafael Federman, Mara Bestelli, Claudio Martínez Bel, Abel Ledesma, Raymond E. Lee Director: Benjamín Naishtat Screenwriter: Benjamín Naishtat Distributor: Distrib Films Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Art of Self-Defense Totters Between Raw Ferocity and Lifeless Comedy

The dojo of this film is the ultimate unsafe space, a place of deadpan irony and appalling brutality.

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The Art of Self-Defense
Photo: Bleecker Street

Writer–director Riley Stearns is a fan and practitioner of jiu-jitsu, which he’s credited with making him healthier and less lazy. Yet the filmmaker’s sophomore feature, The Art of Self-Defense, would seem to posit martial arts as the epitome of toxic masculinity. The dojo here is the ultimate unsafe space, a fight club stripped of Fincherian chic, which Stearns replaces with deadpan irony and appalling brutality.

The film centers on an accounts auditor, Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), the platonic ideal of a hypomasculine twerp. He tells people his name like it’s a question, and his favorite music is “adult contemporary.” Even his pet dachshund reads as a loser: scrawny, with disproportionate features. Such meekness attracts the ire of bullies: his inanimate answering machine surreally berates him; French tourists in a coffee shop laugh at him (in French, which they don’t realize he understands); and, most seriously, a motorcycle gang nearly beats him to death. He’s just that kind of guy, so contemptibly inadequate that people want to hurt him.

Wandering the lonely streets of his unnamed city, Casey happens upon one of the film’s few populated spaces: a karate studio where Anna (Imogen Poots) provides a group of children with the affirmation and social support system Casey so desperately craves. “I want to be,” he says, “what intimidates me.” When he joins the adult class, he gets something extra from the studio’s sensei (Alessandro Nivola): a heaping side of male chauvinism. Soon, Casey is studying German—a manlier language than French, says the sensei—and listening to metal. He also stops petting his dog, so as not to coddle it, changes his desktop wallpaper at work to bare breasts, and punches his accommodating boss in the throat for being friendly.

Nivola dominates The Art of Self-Defense as his sensei does his loyal students, achieving alpha-male status with well-articulated arrogance, while Poots provides a valuable counter voice as Anna, calling attention to the preposterousness of that sexism as a talented and powerful woman, held back by the gender roles ingrained in this system of unarmed combat. (A scene in which Anna recounts an attempted sexual assault against her at the dojo, for which she was subsequently blamed and punished, is particularly affecting.) And Eisenberg’s Casey is the easily influenced straight man caught between the two, drawn to the pride and confidence offered by the sensei but also to the compassionate strength embodied by Anna.

The whole cast, however, struggles with Stearns’s overarching tone, and his screenplay’s occasional wit is usually delivered by the actors in such a deadpan that it flatlines. The contrasting flashes of ultraviolence, on the mat and off, thus have no counterbalance, leaving The Art of Self-Defense tottering between raw ferocity and lifeless comedy.

Stearns’s 2014 feature-length debut, Faults, was a tightly constructed and alluringly mysterious riff on similar issues, about the malleability of a man who lacks confidence. But it was unpredictable in its depiction of the slowly changing power dynamic between its characters; the film broke down and unmoored its audience along with its protagonist, a deprogrammer of cult members tricked into becoming one. In this film, though, the plot twists are telegraphed early. The hero is overly coded as pathetic, and we’re invited to laugh at him with the French tourists, not only to shake our heads at his brief, incel-like transformation into an overcompensating bro, but finally to find comfort in his use of violence to depose his violent sensei. The stakes seem low: Casey rejects the manipulative madman, a blackmailer with a black belt, who harnessed karate’s power for ill, but Steans is careful to vindicate karate itself, which might please its admirers but leave everyone else feeling indifferent.

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Phillip Andre Botello, David Zellner, Steve Terada Director: Riley Stearns Screenwriter: Riley Stearns Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Sword of Trust Is an Amiable Look at Southern Disillusionment

Marc Maron’s commanding aura of regret gives the film, despite its missed opportunities, an emotional center.

2.5

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Sword of Trust
Photo: IFC Films

Like most Lynn Shelton films, Sword of Trust is amiable and humanistic almost to a fault. The filmmaker has a gift for oddball humor, and for allowing her actors to form memorable and moving rapports, yet with the exception of Your Sister’s Sister, there often seems to be little at stake in her work. Sword of Trust often feels similarly slight, even though it’s about the legacy of the American Civil War and the “post-truth” crisis that’s currently plaguing the country. An engaging tension between tone and theme animates the film, but you may wish that Shelton had approached her material with more focus.

Much of the film is set in an Alabaman pawn shop presided over by Mel, who’s played by Marc Maron and who resembles every character the actor-comedian played since enjoying a career resurgence with his series Maron (episodes of which Shelton directed). Like Maron himself, Mel is a lovable curmudgeon, a recovering addict who utilizes his past troubles as a signifier of his hard-won wisdom and humility, which he laces with acidic humor and sharp timing. Since Maron, a spin-off of his “WTF” podcast, Maron has grown astonishingly as an actor, with a rumpled charisma that suggests 1970s-era legends like Elliott Gould. Unlike most comedians acting in films, Maron isn’t afraid to slow down his performative biorhythms, which is especially evident in a lovely early scene in Sword of Trust when Mel sees an ex (Shelton) and silently trundles toward the front of the shop closer to her, clearly weighing his words.

Shelton takes her time acclimating the audience to life in Mel’s pawn shop. Mel has a lackadaisical millennial assistant, Nathaniel (Jon Bass), who’s enthralled with internet conspiracy theories, and he enjoys ice teas with Jimmy (Al Elliott), an elderly African-American man who runs a nearby restaurant. These loose observational moments are Shelton’s specialty, and she subtly allows us to grasp the sadness of her characters. These people have forged a kind of liberal bohemian idyll in the middle of a red state, but they’re lonely, drifting through life. Maron telegraphs this loneliness in how he has Mel appraise objects, with a weariness that suggests a need for both connection and money.

Kicking the film’s plot in gear is a couple, Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins), who inherit from Cynthia’s deceased grandfather a Union sword that a cult of truthers believes to be evidence that the South won the Civil War. This is a spectacular idea for a satire of our modern age—in which memes and online mythology warp discourse—that Shelton reduces mostly to an inciting incident and a MacGuffin. Cynthia and Mary partner with Mel to sell the sword to the cult, which leads to a few surprisingly scary-flaky scenes that momentarily jolt the film’s easygoing vibes. Particularly eerie is a scene with Hog Jaws, a truther henchman who’s played by Toby Huss with an unusually casual sense of menace. This is a man who doesn’t need to threaten people because he understands he’s inherently threatening.

Given its narrative involving a Jewish man pretending to take reactionary Southern values seriously, Sword of Trust at times suggests a kind of sketch-TV version of BlackKklansman. Shelton sees the truthers as bigoted buffoons, as symptoms of people’s current need to follow their own ideology, regardless of facts and carefully nurtured online, but with few exceptions, she doesn’t bring the tension between the liberals and the good-old-boys to a head. The filmmaker comes very close to suggesting that everyone has their reasons, even hateful fanatics—a potentially explosive implication in itself that, in this context, deflates the satire. One wishes that the film’s political textures had been nurtured, as they are essentially window dressing for what becomes a miniature coming-of-age road-trip comedy, the sort of indie that used to be common in the ‘90s. Yet Maron’s commanding aura of regret gives Sword of Trust an emotional center despite its missed opportunities.

Cast: Marc Maron, Jon Bass, Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Toby Huss, Dan Bakkedahl, Lynn Shelton, Al Elliott, Timothy Paul, Whitmer Thomas Director: Lynn Shelton Screenwriter: Lynn Shelton, Michael Patrick O’Brien Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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