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.
Review: The Old Guard Is a Would-Be Franchise Starter with No New Moves
Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action, the film is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts.2
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard is a modestly successful attempt to build a new fountain of franchise content out of a comic series with nearly limitless potential for spin-offs. The story kicks into motion with a team of four mercenaries with unique powers and an ancient bond setting off to rescue some kidnapped girls in South Sudan. Charlize Theron brings her customarily steely intensity to the role of the group’s cynical, burnt-out leader, Andy, who isn’t crazy about the idea since she doesn’t trust Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the ex-C.I.A. agent who hired them. Given how long it turns out that Andy has been doing this sort of thing, you would imagine that her comrades would listen.
The mission turns out to be a set-up, and the would-be rescuers are wiped out in a barrage of bullets. Except not, because Andy and her team are pretty much unkillable. So as their enemies are slapping each other on the back and conveniently looking the other way, the mercenaries haul themselves to their feet, bodies healing almost instantaneously, bullets popping out of closing wounds. Payback is swift but interesting, because for reasons likely having to do with their being many centuries old—the youngest, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), fought for Napoleon—the four quasi-immortals like to use swords in addition to automatic weaponry.
Written with glints of pulpy panache by Greg Rucka, the comic’s originator, The Old Guard sets up a high-potential premise and proceeds to do not very much with it. Rucka’s conceit is that this tiny group are among the very few people on Earth to have been born essentially immortal. This can be a good thing, but it can also prove problematic, as it means that they watch everybody they know age and die—a trope that was already somewhat worn by the time Anne Rice used it throughout her novels about ever-suffering vampires.
The plot of the film does relatively little after the showdown in South Sudan besides introduce a new member of the mercenary team, Nile (KiKi Layne), establish that Andy is tiring of the wandering warrior life, and show the group plotting revenge on Copley only to have that turn into a rescue mission that conveniently brings them all back together again. As part of the run-up to that mission, new recruit Nile, a Marine who goes AWOL from Afghanistan with Andy after her fellow soldiers see her seemingly fatal knife wound magically heal and treat her as some kind of witch, is introduced to life as a nearly invincible eternal warrior.
That rescue plot is simple to the point of being rote. Billionaire Big Pharma bro Merrick (Harry Melling), seemingly made up of equal parts Lex Luthor and Martin Shkreli, kidnaps two of Andy’s team in the hope of harvesting their DNA for blockbuster anti-aging drugs. Unfortunately for the film, that takes two of its most personable characters temporarily out of action. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) had their meet-cute while fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades and have been wildly in love ever since. After the two are captured and mocked by Merrick’s homophobic gunsels, Joe delivers a pocket soliloquy on his poetic yearning: “His kiss still thrills me after a millennium.” The moment’s romantic burn is more poignant by being clipped to its bare-minimal length and presented with the casual confidence one would expect from a man old enough to remember Pope Urban II.
In other ways, however, The Old Guard fails to explore the effects of living such lengthy lives. Asked by Nile whether they are “good guys or bad guys,” Booker answers that “it depends on the century.” While Rucka’s hard-boiled lines like that can help energize the narrative, it can also suggest a certain flippancy. When the film does deal with crushing weight of historical memory, it focuses primarily on Andy, who’s been around so long that her name is shortened from Andromache the Scythian (suggesting she was once the Amazon warrior queen who fought in the battle of Troy). Except for a brief flashback illustrating the centuries-long escapades of Andy and Quynh (Veronica Ngo) fighting for vaguely defined positive principles (one involved rescuing women accused of witchcraft), we don’t see much of their past. Similarly, except for Andy’s increasing cynicism about the positive impact of their roaming the Earth like do-gooder ronin, they seem to exist largely in the present.
That present is largely taken up with combat, particularly as Booker, Andy, and Nile gear up to rescue Nicky and Joe. Prince-Bythewood handles these scenes with a degree of John Wick-esque flair: Why just shoot a Big Pharma hired gun once when you can shoot him, flip him over, and then stab and shoot him again for good measure? However tight, though, the action scenes’ staging is unremarkable, with the exception of one climactic moment that’s so well-choreographed from an emotional standpoint that the impossibility of a multiplex crowd hooting and clapping in response makes the film feel stifled by being limited to streaming.
Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts. That will likely not stop further iterations from finding ways to plug these characters and their like into any historical moment that has room in it for high-minded mercenaries with marketable skills and a few centuries to kill.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling, Veronica Ngo Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood Screenwriter: Greg Rucka Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: We Are Little Zombies Is a Fun, Wildly Stylized Portrait of Grief
The film is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries.3
Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies follows the exploits of a group of tweens who meet at the funeral home where their deceased parents are being cremated. But, surprisingly, Hitari (Keita Ninomiya), Takemura (Mondo Okumura), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), and Ikiko (Satoshi Mizuno) are united less by sorrow and more by cool indifference, as they see their parents’ deaths as yet another tragedy in what they collectively agree is pretty much a “shit life.” As the socially awkward Hitari claims matter-of-factly in voiceover, “Babies cry to signal they need help. Since no one can help me, there’s no point in crying.”
Through a series of extended flashbacks, Nagahisa relates the kids’ troubled lives, never stooping to pitying or sentimentalizing them or their utter dismay with the adult world. The new friends’ deeply internalized grief and hopelessness are filtered wildly through a hyperreal aesthetic lens that’s indebted to all things pop, from psychedelia to role-playing games. It’s Nagashisa’s vibrant means of expressing the disconnect between the kids’ troubled lives and their emotionless reactions to the various tragedies that have befallen them.
With its chiptunes-laden soundtrack and chapter-like form, which mimics the levels of a video game, We Are Little Zombies will draw understandable comparisons to Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But it’s Nagisa Oshima’s Three Resurrected Drunkards that offers a more precise analogue to this film’s provocative rhyming of stylistic zaniness and extreme youthful alienation. Oshima’s anarchically playful farce stars the real-life members of the Folk Crusaders as a disaffected group of rebellious musicians, and when the kids of We Are Little Zombies decide to form a band to express themselves, they even perform a bossa nova version of the Folk Crusaders’s theme song for the 1968 film. This and the many other cultural touchstones in We Are Little Zombies are seamlessly weaved by Nagahisa into a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries, be they social media or a dizzying glut of pop-cultural creations.
Nagahisa’s aesthetic mirrors his main characters’ disconnect from reality, incorporating everything from stop-motion animation to pixelated scenes and overhead shots that replicate the stylings of 8-bit RPGs. At one point in We Are Little Zombies, an unsettling talk show appearance brings to mind what it would be like to have a bad acid trip on the set of an old MTV news program. Nagahisa accepts that the kids’ over-engagement with screen-based technology is inextricably embedded in their experience of reality and ultimately celebrates the sense of camaraderie and belonging that the foursome finds in pop artifacts and detritus. This is particularly evident once their band, the Little Zombies of the film’s title, starts to explore their antipathy toward and frustrations with a seemingly indifferent world.
The Little Zombies wield the same charming punk spirit as the film, and once instant fame reveals its viciously sharp teeth, Nagahisa doesn’t hold back from peering into the nihilistic abyss that stands before the kids. As in Three Resurrected Drunkards, We Are Little Zombies’s most despairing notes are couched in the distinctive language of pop culture. Hitari’s attempts to grab essential items before running away from the home of a relative (Eriko Hatsune) are staged as a video game mission. The band’s hit song—titled, of course, “We Are Little Zombies”—is an infectious, delightfully melodic banger all about their dispassionate existence. There’s even a fake death scene of the kids that, as in Three Resurrected Drunkards, effectively restarts the film’s narrative, allowing the characters to once again test their fate.
For all of this film’s reliance on the stylistic ticks of video games, its narrative arc isn’t limited to the typically linear journey embarked upon by many a gaming protagonist, and the foursome’s path leads neither to enlightenment nor even happiness per se. What they’ve discovered in the months since their parents’ deaths is a solidarity with one another, and rather than have them conquer their fears and anxieties, Nagahisa wisely acknowledges that their social disconnection will remain an ongoing struggle. He understands that by tapping into the unifying, rather than alienating, powers of pop culture, they’re better equipped to deal with whatever additional hard knocks that the modern world will inevitably throw their way.
Cast: Keita Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, Sena Nakajima, Kuranosukie Sasaki, Youki Kudoh, Sosuke Ikematsu, Eriko Hatsune, Jun Murakami, Naomi Nishida Director: Makoto Nagahisa Screenwriter: Makoto Nagahisa Distributor: Oscilloscope Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Palm Springs Puts a Fresh Spin on the Time-Loop Rom-Com
The film smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle.3
The pitch for Palm Springs likely went: “Edge of Tomorrow meets Groundhog Day but with a cool Coachella rom-com vibe.” All of those components are present and accounted for in Max Barbakow’s film, about two people forced to endure the same day of a Palm Springs wedding over and over again after getting stuck in a time loop. But even though the concept might feel secondhand, the execution is confident, funny, and thoughtful.
Palm Springs starts without much of a hook, sidling into its story with the same lassitude as its protagonist, Nyles (Andy Samberg). First seen having desultory sex with his shallow and always peeved girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner), Nyles spends the rest of the film’s opening stretch wandering around the resort where guests are gathered for the wedding of Misty’s friend, Tala (Camila Mendes), lazing around the pool and drinking a seemingly endless number of beers. “Oh yeah, Misty’s boyfriend” is how most refer to him with casual annoyance, and then he gives a winning wedding speech that one doesn’t expect from a plus-one.
The reason for why everything at the wedding seems so familiar to Nyles, and why that speech is so perfectly delivered, becomes clear after he entices the bride’s sister and maid of honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), to follow him out to the desert for a make-out session. In quick succession, Nyles is shot with an arrow by a mysterious figure (J.K. Simmons), Sarah is accidentally sucked into the same glowing vortex that trapped Nyles in his time loop, and she wakes up on the morning of the not-so-great day that she just lived through.
Although Palm Springs eventually digs into the knottier philosophical quandaries of this highly elaborate meet-cute, it takes an appealingly blasé approach to providing answers to the scenario’s curiosities. What initially led Nyles to the mysterious glowing cave in the desert? How has he maintained any semblance of sanity over what appears to be many years of this nightmare existence? How come certain people say “thank you” in Arabic?
This attitude of floating along the sea of life’s mysteries without worry parallels Nyles’s shrugging attitude about the abyss facing them. In response to Sarah’s panicked queries about why they are living the same day on repeat, Nyles throws out a random collection of theories: “one of those infinite time loop situations….purgatory….a glitch in the simulation we’re all in.” His ideas seem half-baked at first. But as time passes, it becomes clear that Nyles has been trapped at the wedding so long that not only has he lost all concept of time or even who he was before it began, his lackadaisical approach to eternity seems more like wisdom.
Darkly cantankerous, Sarah takes a while to come around to that way of thinking. Her version of the Kübler-Ross model starts in anger and shifts to denial (testing the limits of their time-loop trap, she drives home to Texas, only to snap back to morning in Palm Springs when she finally dozes off) before pivoting to acceptance. This segment, where Nyles introduces Sarah to all the people and things he’s found in the nooks and crannies of the world he’s been able to explore in one waking day, plays like a quantum physics rom-com with a video-game-y sense of immortality. After learning the ropes from Nyles (death is no escape, so try to avoid the slow, agonizing deaths), Sarah happily takes part in his Sisyphean games of the drunk and unkillable, ranging from breaking into houses to stealing and crashing a plane.
As places to be trapped for all eternity, this idyll doesn’t seem half bad at first. Barbakow’s fast-paced take on the pleasingly daffy material helps, as does the balancing of Milioti’s angry agita with Samberg’s who-cares recklessness. Eventually the story moves out of endlessly looping stasis into the problem-solution phase, with Sarah deciding she can’t waste away in Palm Springs for eternity. But while the question of whether or not they can escape via Sarah’s device for bridging the multiverse takes over the narrative to some degree, Palm Springs is far more interesting when it ruminates lightly on which puzzle they’re better off solving: pinning their hopes on escape or cracking another beer and figuring out how to be happy in purgatory. Palm Springs isn’t daring by any stretch, but it smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle that’s similar to Groundhog Day but without that film’s reassuring belief that a day can be lived perfectly rather than simply endured.
Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Millioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendez, Tyler Hoechlin, Chris Pang Director: Max Barbakow Screenwriter: Andy Siara Distributor: Neon, Hulu Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Hamilton Comes Home, Still Holding Conflicting Truths at Once
The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage.3.5
The actual physical production of Hamilton has never been at the heart of the show’s fandom. Its lyrics have been memorized en masse, Hamilton-inspired history courses have been created across grade levels, and its references have invaded the vernacular, but, for most, Hamilton’s liveness has been inaccessible, whether due to geography or unaffordability. Hamilton the film, recorded over two Broadway performances in 2016 with most of the original Broadway cast, winningly celebrates the still-surprisingly rich density of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score and the show’s much-heralded actors. But this new iteration is most stunning in its devotion to translating Hamilton’s swirling, churning storytelling—the work of director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler—to the screen.
Most films of live theater feel partial and remote. There’s usually a sense that with every move of the camera we’re missing out on something happening elsewhere on stage. The autonomy of attending theater in person—the ability to choose what to focus on—is stripped away. But instead of delimiting what we see of Hamilton, this film opens up our options. Even when the camera (one of many installed around, behind, and above the stage) homes in on a lone singer, the shots tend to frame the soloists in a larger context: We can watch Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), but we can also track the characters behind him or on the walkways above him. Every shot is rife with detail and movement: the rowers escorting Alexander Hamilton’s (Miranda) body to shore, Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones) hovering beneath a stairway as Hamilton confesses his infidelities to Burr, ensemble members dancing in the shadows of David Korins’s imposing set. There’s no space to wonder what might be happening beyond the camera’s gaze.
Off-setting the cast album’s appropriate spotlight on the show’s stars, the film, also directed by Kail, constantly centers the ensemble, even when they’re not singing, as they enact battles and balls or symbolically fly letters back and forth between Hamilton and Burr. Audiences who mainly know the show’s music may be surprised by how often the entire cast is on stage, and even those who’ve seen Hamilton live on stage will be delighted by the highlighted, quirky individuality of each ensemble member’s often-silent storytelling.
Kail shows impressive restraint, withholding aerial views and shots from aboard the spinning turntables at the center of the stage until they can be most potent. The film also convincingly offers Hamilton’s design as a stunning work of visual art, showcasing Howell Binkley’s lighting—the sharp yellows as the Schuyler Sisters take the town and the slowly warming blues as Hamilton seeks his wife’s forgiveness—just as thoughtfully as it does the performances.
And when the cameras do go in for a close-up, they shade lyrics we may know by heart with new meaning. In “Wait for It,” Burr’s paean to practicing patience rather than impulsiveness, Odom (who won a Tony for the role) clenches his eyes shut as he sings, “I am inimitable, I am an original,” tensing as if battling to convince himself that his passivity is a sign of strength and not cowardice. When Eliza Hamilton (Philippa Soo) glances upward and away from her ever-ascendant husband as she asks him, “If I could grant you peace of mind, would that be enough?,” it’s suddenly crystal clear that she’s wondering whether taking care of Alexander would be enough for herself, not for him, her searching eyes foreshadowing her eventual self-reliance. And there’s an icky intimacy unachievable in person when Jonathan Groff’s mad King George literally foams at the mouth in response to the ingratitude of his colonies.
The production’s less understated performances, like Daveed Diggs’s show-stealing turn (also Tony-winning) in the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and Renée Elise Goldsberry’s fiery embodiment (yes, also Tony-winning) of the shrewd, self-sacrificing Angelica Schuyler Church, benefit, too, from the way that the film’s pacing latches onto Miranda’s propulsive writing. In Jefferson’s return home, “What’d I Miss,” the camera angles change swiftly as if to keep up with Diggs’s buoyancy.
Despite Christopher Jackson’s warm and gorgeous-voiced performance, George Washington remains Hamilton’s central sticking point. While Jefferson receives a dressing down from Hamilton for practicing slavery, Washington, who once enslaved over 200 people at one time at Mount Vernon, shows up in Hamilton as a spotless hero who might as well be king if he wasn’t so noble as to step down. There’s a tricky tension at Hamilton’s core: Casting performers of color as white founding “heroes” allows the master narrative to be reclaimed, but it’s still a master narrative. For audiences familiar with the facts, the casting of black actors as slave owners (not just Jefferson) is an unstated, powerful act of artistic resistance against the truths of the nation’s founding. But for those learning their history from Hamilton, especially young audiences, they will still believe in Washington’s moral purity, even if they walk away picturing the first president as Christopher Jackson.
But Hamilton is complex and monumental enough of a work to hold conflicting truths at once. In attempting to recraft our understanding of America’s founding, it may fall short. In forcibly transforming the expectations for who can tell what stories on which stages, Hamilton has been a game-changer. And as a feat of musical theater high-wire acts, Miranda’s dexterity in navigating decades of historical detail while weaving his characters’ personal and political paths tightly together is matched only by his own ingenuity as a composer and lyricist of songs that showcase his characters’ brilliance without distractingly drawing attention to his own.
Dynamized by its narrative-reclaiming, race-conscious casting and hip-hop score, and built around timeline-bending reminders that America may be perpetually in the “battle for our nation’s very soul,” Hamilton, of course, also lends itself particularly easily to 2020 connections. But the greater gift is that Hamilton will swivel from untouchability as Broadway’s most elusive, priciest ticket to mass accessibility at a moment of keen awareness that, to paraphrase George Washington, history has its eyes on us. The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage. That we are sharing Hamilton here and now offers as much hope as Hamilton itself.
Cast: Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Phillipa Soo Director: Thomas Kail Screenwriter: Ron Chernow, Lin-Manuel Miranda Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 160 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020
Review: In Family Romance, LLC, Reality and Fantasy Affectingly Collide
Throughout, it’s as though Werner Herzog were more witness than author, simply registering Japan being Japan.3
Werner Herzog’s Family Romance, LLC presents Japan as a place where the technological follies of modernity that many see as embryonic in the West are allowed to blossom unabashedly. The Orientalism inherent to this myth, that of Japan as a high-tech dystopia where human alienation reaches its pathetic zenith, is somewhat masked here by the film’s style, which inhabits that strangely pleasurable cusp between fact and fiction. We are never quite sure of the extent to which situations and dialogues have been scripted and, as such, it’s as though Herzog were more witness than author, more passerby than gawker, simply registering Japan being Japan.
The film is centered around Ishii Yuichi, playing a version of himself, who owns a business that rents out human beings to act like paparazzi, family members, lovers, or bearers of good (albeit fake) news. One of his clients, for example, is a woman who wants to relive the moment when she won the lottery. We follow Ishii as he travels to his business calls, which may consist of going to a funeral home that offers coffin rentals by the hour for people to test out, or to a hotel where the clerks behind the helpdesk and the fish in the aquarium are robots.
The camera, otherwise, follows Ishii’s encounters with his 12-year-old “daughter,” Mahiro (Mahiro). The girl’s mother, Miki (Miki Fujimaki), has enlisted Ishii to play Mahiro’s missing father, who abandoned her when she was two, and make it seem as if he’s suddenly resurfaced. The film’s most interesting moments don’t arise from its largely obvious critiques of simulation, but from the human relationship between Ishii and Mahiro. In the end, the film’s smartest trick is getting the audience to genuinely feel for this young girl on screen, acting for us, all while scoffing at Ishii’s clients for scripting their own emotional experiences.
We know the relationship between Mahiro and Ishii to be false on multiple levels. They may not be professional actors, but they are very much acting, and their interactions nonetheless tap into something quite authentic and emotional. Although their kinship is an act of make-believe, it’s driven by similar malaises that plague “real” father-daughter relationships. Mahiro, who doesn’t meet Ishii until she’s a pre-teen and is presumably unaware that it’s all just an act, struggles to articulate feelings that overwhelm her. Asking for a hug from Ishii is a Herculean task for her. But granting her the hug is also a Herculean task for Ishii, who ultimately confesses to wondering whether his real family, too, has been paid by someone else to raise him. Must a father’s hug be so clinical even when he’s getting paid to do it?
Such moments as that awkward father-daughter hug, a scene where Mahiro gives Ishii an origami animal that she made for him (“It’s delicate, so be careful,” she says), and another where she confesses that she likes a boy all point to the ways in which feeling slips out of even the most perfectly scripted protocols. That’s a relief for the kind of society that Family Romance, LLC aims to critique, one where tidy transactions are meant to neuter the messy unpredictability of human interactions but fail. Emotion slips out despite diligent attempts to master it, forcing even those who stand to gain the most from hyper-controlled environments to eventually face the shakiness of their own ground. Ishii, for instance, is forced to reconsider his business model when Mahiro’s demand for love starts to affect him. Ishii’s fear that he may also have been swindled by actors posing as parents tells us that authors are subjects, too, and that the equation between reality and fantasy is never quite settled.
Cast: Ishii Yuichi, Mahiro, Miki Fujimaki, Umetani Hideyasu, Shun Ishigaki Director: Werner Herzog Screenwriter: Werner Herzog Distributor: MUBI Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Force of Nature, Much Like Mel Gibson, Is an Absolute Disaster
The film presents its scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena..5
If cancel culture truly had the power its detractors ascribed to it, then Michael Polish’s Force of Nature would have probably never starred Mel Gibson. The film stars the one-time Hollywood idol as a trigger-happy retired cop who hurls insults like “cocksucker” at men who inconvenience him. By itself, casting Gibson as the kind of manic, violence-prone cop for which he was once known for playing speaks to the film’s defiantly conservative politics, its will to return to a cinematic era when violent white cops were viewed as good cops. But also having Gibson’s Ray toss out homophobic slurs almost turns this insipid action flick into a statement about Gibson himself, as if the actor’s own record of making such remarks should be viewed as the charmingly impolitic outbursts of an old-fashioned geezer.
Because Ray joins a multiethnic crew of good guys to save the day, we’re presumably meant to view his personality flaws as minor, the attributes of a classical cop masculinity that’s entered its dotage but ready to be awakened for one last shoot-out with big-city scum. The big city in this case is San Juan, Puerto Rico, which, as the film begins, is under siege by a hurricane. Set almost entirely in a cramped apartment building, Force of Nature is part Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, part The Raid: Redemption (or one of its many clones), attempting but failing to imitate both the former’s eccentric take on the clash of extreme personalities and extreme weather and the intensity of the latter’s kinetic, close-quarters action.
Despite being the biggest star on the bill, Gibson isn’t quite at the center of the narrative, even if the meaningless flash forward that opens Force of Nature, of Ray shooting at two figures in the rain, initially suggests otherwise. Ray plays second fiddle to Emile Hirsch’s point-of-view character, Cordillo, the San Juan police officer who refuses to learn a word of Spanish and might as well be wearing a MAGA hat. (“Where is el victim-o?” he asks regarding an incident at a supermarket early in the film.) Cordillo and his new partner, Peña (Stephanie Cayo), are assigned to help move San Juan’s residents to shelters, encountering Ray and his daughter, Troy (Kate Bosworth), at the apartment complex where Griffin (Will Catlett), Ray and Troy’s newly arrested neighbor, needs to feed his very hungry pet.
For those who’ve seen Netflix’s Tiger King, it will be clear from the 100 pounds of meat that Griffin intends to feed his pet that the man illegally owns some kind of wild cat. And if this offbeat scenario doesn’t elicit the laughs it may be aiming for, that’s at least in part due to composer Kubilay Uner’s score, which applies Wagnerian bombast to nearly every narrative event, as if it could will the paper-thin plot into some kind of significance. The tonal inconsistencies, however, aren’t confined to this clash between image and soundtrack. On a visual level, it’s difficult to know what to make of the scene in which Griffin’s pet, kept entirely off screen, drags Griffin into its pitch-black den and mauls him in front of a not-quite-horrified Cordillo, while a gang that Ray identifies as high-end burglars begins a raid of the complex. Neither funny nor suspenseful, it’s a bewildering mash of visual codes.
Led by a ruthless figure known as John the Baptist (David Zayas), the burglars first make an appearance in the second of the film’s two prologues, in which John kidnaps an elderly woman to get into her safety deposit box, before executing her as well as his accomplice in plain sight—a scene that somewhat belies Ray’s later in-the-know description of the gang as clever plotters. The nature of their interest in Ray, Troy, and Griffin’s apartment building is left vague until a late reveal, a nonsensically belated introduction of the story’s MacGuffin that contributes to the feeling of arbitrariness that pervades the film.
While Peña and Ray confront John and his crew, Cordillo and Troy go off to find medical supplies, along the way developing a thoroughly underwritten and ill-conceived romance; Troy is abruptly drawn to Cordillo after he shares his history of accidental violence against a former girlfriend (Jasper Polish). Meanwhile, the wounded Griffin is left under the watch of Paul (Jorge Luis Ramos), a German about whom multiple characters ask, in all sincerity, if he’s a Nazi, and based solely on his white hair and nationality—certainly not on any arithmetic, as the seventysomething man appears far too young to have been a Nazi Party member.
It would all be material for a parody of cheap-action-flick sensibilities: the preoccupation with Nazism, the hollow romance, the valorization of white male rage barely masked behind a rudimentary psychologism. Unfortunately, Cory M. Miller’s screenplay presents all these scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena. The truth, of course, is that Force of Nature, much like the consequences of the hurricane that clearly inspired it, is a man-made disaster.
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Mel Gibson, Kate Bosworth, David Zayas, Stephanie Cayo, Will Catlett, Jasper Polish, Jorge Luis Ramos Director: Michael Polish Screenwriter: Cory M. Miller Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 91 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: John Lewis: Good Trouble Places a Hero in Dialogue with the Past
The film is well-outfitted with telling, thematically rich shards of historical information.3
John Lewis isn’t easily rattled. As a nonviolent foot soldier for desegregation and voting rights in the 1960s, he was severely beaten on several occasions. As a U.S. representative since 1987, he’s contended with a Republican Party that has tacked steadily rightward. John Lewis: Good Trouble presents another, if much less demanding, test for the congressman: Watching his life unspool around him on three large screens in a darkened D.C. theater.
Dawn Porter’s authoritative documentary mixes contemporary and archival material, and the latter includes many rare images, including some that the 80-year-old civil rights pioneer himself had never seen. Porter and her crew decided to show their findings to the Georgia Democrat while simultaneously filming his reactions, and the emotions prompted by this experience are palpable but carefully modulated on his part. Like most successful politicians, Lewis knows how to stay on message, and it’s clear from the moments captured here that he long ago decided which of his private feelings would be elements of his public persona.
One example of this is Lewis’s story about his early desire to become a preacher. As a boy, he says, he would address the chickens on his sharecropper family’s Alabama farm but could never get them to say “amen.” Porter places this anecdote early in Good Trouble, amid comments from family members, so it plays like a revelatory glimpse at Lewis’s formative years. But the congressman, of course, began constructing his biography long before this particular documentary crew arrived. And Porter acknowledges this fact with a scene, toward the film’s end, where Lewis tells the story again during a get-together of former congressional staffers and it becomes clear that everybody in the room already knows it.
Good Trouble, which takes its title from Lewis’s advice to young activists to get into “what I call good trouble,” is partly a testimonial. It includes snippets of praise from Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as congressional new wavers Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who says she wouldn’t be where she is today without Lewis’s example. Yet the film also recalls moments when Lewis wasn’t in perfect sync with his allies, notably the bitter primary for the seat he now holds in Georgia’s 5th District. Lewis defeated Julian Bond by winning support of the district’s white voters, and by hinting that Bond had a drug problem. Earlier, Lewis had recoiled from the militancy of “Black Power” and lost his position in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
Lewis doesn’t say much about these chapters in his life, just as he doesn’t reveal a lot when he gives tours of his homes in Atlanta and D.C. A widower, he seems to live alone, though a cat is glimpsed inside the Georgia house at one point. One of the documentary’s most personal stories, about his tearful reaction to the news that his great-great-grandfather registered to vote in 1867, is told not by the congressman but by cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., who unveiled the voter card on the show he hosts, Finding Your Roots. Good Trouble is well-outfitted with such telling shards of historical information, and Porter skillfully fits them together, assembling her subject’s biography thematically rather than chronologically.
Thus, a section on the young Lewis’s battle for African-American suffrage naturally begins in the 1960s before leading to 2014, when a Supreme Court ruling undermined the Voting Rights Act, and ultimately to the 2016 and 2018 elections swayed by voter suppression. The effect is illuminating, if not especially visceral. When the filmmakers arranged this kind of “This Is Your Life” for Lewis, they may not have elicited as much emotion as they’d hoped from the congressman. But they did fashion a microcosm of what the entire Good Trouble shows: the present in dialogue with the past, and a hero in the context of a larger movement.
Director: Dawn Porter Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 97 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020: Mon Amour, Film About a Father Who, & The Kiosk
There’s colossal might to a cinematic image achieved through the scrappiest of means.
In the opening narration to his documentary Mon Amour, David Teboul recalls a message that his former lover, Frédéric, sent him in the middle of the night before taking his life: “It’s crazy how many things we must invent to keep us from just eating, shitting, and sleeping.” The great organizer of these “many things” we invent to convince ourselves to be something more than mere organisms is the belief in love. That, anyway, is the idea that organizes Mon Amour as Teboul travels from his native France to Siberia in order to interview locals about their experiences with love, as a way to mourn the end of his own love story.
What Teboul finds in Siberia is quite disheartening: that love, when it materializes in the figure of the lover, burns fast, and what seemed like a panacea to make our miserable world a livable place turns into the poison we call domesticity. Lovers become enemies we can’t get rid of. But the little bit of love that’s saved in the ashes of the deflated mirage that once promised to save us is once in a while rekindled through Teboul’s prodding as he interviews elderly couples who seem to articulate their feelings for the first time in ages.
The very dispositions of these individuals mimic the abyss between what was once a prospect of a pleasurable life and the crude reality of vodka and violence that replaced it. In the rare moments when someone sings the praises of togetherness, they do so by looking down or away, as if addressing their own partners when speaking about love would mean losing the little bit of honor they have left after putting up with so much betrayal.
Although Teboul interviews young people, too, the strongest portraits are those of the elderly, who, on some level, take advantage of their cinematic moment to air their grievances and, once in a while, admit gratitude. A very old-looking woman in her mid-60s who lost her sight from reading too much Pushkin late at night tells us that any other man would surely have left her long ago, but not her husband, who senses when she’s awake in the middle of the night, makes her tea, and tells her that if she dies he will follow her to the grave. Teboul’s questions can be refreshingly unexpected. As when he asks the woman what her husband’s favorite body part is. When she whispers the answer into his cute little mushroom ears, you sense that it’s the closest thing to an “I love you” that he will ever hear. We don’t know if his eyes water as she praises his ears, for he looks down and away, before then heart-breakingly saying, “The main thing is not to suffer, and not to make others suffer.”
Teboul juxtaposes these portraits with digressions about his simultaneously wonderful and dismal times with Frédéric. These reflections borrow from Hiroshima Mon Amour, which Teboul watched as a child and has haunted him ever since. Frédéric, like Emmanuelle Riva’s character in that film, was also from Nevers. In these poetic detours, we see barely lit naked bodies meant to represent Teboul and his ghostly lover, recalling the opening of Alain Resnais’s film. It often feels like these autobiographical avowals, plagued by unnecessary classical music, belong to a different film. But they’re symbolically important, if not indispensable, as if Teboul was offering a self-implicating gift in exchange for awakening the long dormant intimacies of strangers.
The absence of love, and our insistence on spending our entire lives looking for it anyway, is also at the core of Lynne Sachs’s Film About a Father Who. Sheffield Doc/Fest is screening several of Sachs’s documentaries on its streaming platform. For Film About a Father Who, Sachs spent over three decades amassing footage (from Super 8 to digital) of her father, an eccentric salesman from Utah who lived a Hugh Hefner kind of life, neglecting his children and hosting a different girlfriend almost every night at his official family home. Lots and lots of them got pregnant, which resulted in Sachs having what feels like hundreds of siblings, whose testimonials she collects here. Some didn’t know who their father was until they were adults. Others, in order to protect themselves from so much hurt, still think of him as a kind of godfather.
The title of the film is an obvious play on Film About a Woman Who…, Yvonne Rainer’s experimental masterpiece about heteronormativity and monogamy. Rainer’s approach is acerbic, perhaps even folkloric, in the sense that her film portrays one specific woman wallowing in the sinking boat of heterosexual coupledom at the same time that it tells the archetypal tale of heterosexual domesticity writ large. Sachs’s approach feels a lot less multi-layered. Film About a Father Who is so fast-paced and Sachs’s narration so detached, or literal, that it can seem more like an underdeveloped absurdist comedy as random siblings keep turning up out of nowhere to give a brief account of their contradicting feelings toward their father. One of Sachs’s many sisters recounts how their father was arrested for possession of weed when they were kids and how she didn’t know whether to weep or jump with joy at the time. But the family constellation in Sachs’s film is so vast we never spend enough time with any one single relative to see them as something other than an element.
There’s a sort of North American pragmatic froideur in the film, also present in self-ethnographic films like Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, that Rainer queers through stylistic experimentation, and that Teboul completely avoids by surrendering to melancholia with gusto. There isn’t much of a point in self-ethnographies where filmmakers protect their vulnerability through intellectualization, or prod their family wounds with a 10-foot pole. At one point in her narration, Sachs tells her audience that Film About a Father Who isn’t a portrait but, rather, her attempt to understand “the asymmetry of my conundrum.” The film is also shot in such a matter-of-fact manner that you may forget that the father is actually the filmmaker’s. It doesn’t help that the father himself pleads the fifth on every question and Sachs often directs her camera elsewhere, toward her siblings, instead of letting it linger on the silent and sad remnants of an aging womanizer.
Alexandra Pianelli also captures aging bodies in The Kiosk, but in a very different fashion. Her film was entirely shot on her phone, which was mostly stuck to her head, and without her ever leaving the tiny area behind the cash register of her family’s press kiosk in a posh area of Paris. We never see the world outside of Pianelli’s field of vision from her counter, and yet it feels like she shows us the entire mechanics of the contemporary world.
The film’s subjects are mostly the elderly regulars who seem to show up at the kiosk everyday, for magazines and for Pianelli’s company. Pianelli crafts a tale of hopeful pessimism about humans’ relationship to otherness by explaining the ecosystem of her trade—namely, the slow decline of the printing industry in France and how the physical circulation of ideas can be the only connection to the world for an aging population that doesn’t master digital technology and for whom kiosks play the role of cafés, pubs, or even the analyst’s couch.
When filmmaker Pedro Costa said, at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, that all one needs to make a great film is “three flowers and a glass of water,” not “money, cars, and chicks,” this is what he means: the colossal might of the cinematic image achieved through the scrappiest of means. The Kiosk is a master class in filmmaking resourcefulness. Pianelli paints a portrait of our times through simple drawings that she makes of her clients, makeshift props and miniature sets made out of cardboard, and the anachronic gadgets around her workstation: a cassette tape player, an early-19th-century clock, coin holders that bear her great-grandparents’ fingerprints, and the very publications that she sells. Pianelli’s no-nonsense voiceover glues these elements together with the stunning honesty of the unflappable young Parisian for whom difference is an existential aphrodisiac. There’s no affectedness here. It’s as if a refined cinematic object accidently emerged on the road to her making an artisanal project for the sheer pleasure of making something out of dead time.
Pianelli humanizes the figure of the press kiosk clerk who, in turn, humanizes the strangers she comes across, from seniors who spend more time with her than with their own children to the Bangladeshi asylum seeker who goes to her for legal help. In one sequence, Pianelli witnesses a homeless man insistently offering his metro-ticket money to a bourgeois lady upset that the machine won’t take her credit card. We also learn that the demographics of the clientele per day of the week is contingent on what kinds of publications come out on which day, as well as which niche newspapers are the most anti-Semitic, anti-Arab, or pro-monarchy.
Pianelli lets the serious emerge but doesn’t dwell on it. Seriousness often comes wrapped up in quirkiness and play, as when she plays a guessing game with the audience, telling us what a random customer will buy before they open their months, solely based on what they wear, and always she gets it right. Men in suits and ties go for either the newspaper Le Figaro or Les Echos, while the well-coiffed ladies who don fur coats gravitate toward Voici, unless Kate Moss’s ass is on the cover of a nearby fashion magazine.
At one point, Pianelli says that she considers herself a seller of dreams. By this she means that each magazine at the kiosk stokes a different fantasy, from a supermodel body to a nation without Arabs. But The Kiosk makes Pianelli a saleswoman of a very different sort. Instead of working as the intermediary between vulnerable denizens and the idealized images that tease and haunt them, she cobbles a much more original fantasy through the bodies they actually have. The kiosk becomes the prototype for the most utopian vision of the public library, or any old space inhabited by a curious mind—an ebullient infinity of poetry and care.
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Review: My Spy Is a Clumsy Mix of Comedy, Action, and Romance
Peter Segal’s film is pulled in so many different directions that it comes to feel slack.1.5
From Arnold Schwarzenneger in Kindergarten Cop to Dwayne Johnson in The Game Plan, pairing an oversized, hyper-masculine actor with a cute and precocious youngster has long been a staple of Hollywood family-friendly entertainment, as well as something of a rite of passage for action stars since the 1990s. And now, with My Spy, it’s Dave Bautista’s turn to ward off an array of villains with the help of a spunky, three-foot tall sidekick.
To its credit, Peter Segal’s film at least has the decency to cop to its derivativeness throughout, with several shots that cheekily poke fun at characters slow-walking away from explosions and one character calling out how a scene feels eerily similar to the famous fight scene near a propeller plane in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But these occasional self-referential nods prove to be only fleeting distractions from how antiquated and unimaginative My Spy is much of the time, and how clumsily it tends to its mixture of comedy, action, and romance.
The film’s mismatched duo consists of nine-year-old Sophie (Chloe Colman) and JJ (Bautista), a C.I.A. operative who’s spying on the girl and her mother, Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley), with the help of his tech officer, Bobbi (Kristen Schaal). It’s all for a good reason, as Sophie’s Uncle Marquez (Greg Bryk) not only recently murdered her father, but is now caught up in some shady Russian dealings that have put Sophie and her mother in danger. But these more nefarious threats fade to the background as soon as the film starts to fixate on Sophie’s concerns about being the new girl at school, as well as her blackmailing of JJ, which results in the beefcake being uncomfortably forced into the role of surrogate father.
Given that JJ is still reeling from his prior overseas combat experience and Kate is coping with the fresh challenges of single motherhood and a time-consuming job, My Spy too readily foreshadows their later romantic entanglement. And while Bautista and Fitz-Henley share a charming, easy repartee, and Coleman has impressive comic timing for a child actor, the film is pulled in so many different directions that it comes to feel slack. JJ’s efforts alone are split three ways, as he’s not only dealing with becoming a long-term father figure to Sophie and partner to Kate, both of whom force him to confront his trauma, but he’s also stuck with Bobbi, who hero-worships him and wants to learn all his tricks of the trade.
And that is to say nothing of the half-baked subplot involving the Russian crooks (Vieslav Krystyan and Jean-Michel Nadeau), or the gay couple (Devere Rogers and Noah Dalton Danby) that appears to have stumbled in from the set of a ‘90s sitcom. Schaal’s unrestrained zaniness ensures that a few jokes land here and there, but My Spy is ultimately sunk by a reliance on clichéd character types—the emotionally distant vet, the overworked single mom, the isolated new kid at school—that leaves it feeling like several mildly amusing after-school specials were stitched together with a handful of action scenes tossed in for good measure.
Cast: Dave Bautista, Chloe Coleman, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Kristen Schaal, Greg Bryk, Ken Jeong, Nicola Correia-Damude, Devere Rogers, Noah Dalton Danby Director: Peter Segal Screenwriter: Erich Hoeber, Jon Hoeber Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 101 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020
Review: The Audition Grapples with the Consequences of Oppressive Discipline
With great clarity, the film conveys how discipline can be directed both inward and outward.3
A film about the oppressive discipline of classical musicianship, Ina Weisse’s The Audition recalls The Piano Teacher, only with the erotic grotesqueries dialed all the way down. Nina Hoss, like Isabelle Huppert in Michael Haneke’s film, plays a middle-aged music teacher whose fragile sense of self becomes entwined with a new student. Here, though, the student isn’t a peer but a young high school violinist, Alexander (Ilja Monti), and her projections onto him, mercifully, are more about her own perceived failures than any shameful sexual hang-ups. Even if it takes us to some rather dark places, Weisse’s spin on the tortured psyche of a professional female musician is more humanistic than Haneke’s.
Weisse, a violinist herself, clearly knows the pressures of high-caliber musicianship. The film aptly opens with an audition in which we see the impassive administrators of a Berlin youth conservatory, including Anna (Hoss), evaluating young teens taking turns playing orchestral instruments on stage. Although each of them has prepared multiple pieces to play, the judges consistently cut them off moments through their first piece—an unforgiving intimidation tactic that introduces us to the film’s portrait of music education as a regime of oppression.
Anna’s cold exterior is momentarily broken by Alexander’s audition, which, however much his performance of a difficult piece by Édouard Lalo moves her, fails to fully impress her colleagues. Gradually we learn that Alexander’s visible nervousness is part of what draws her to him, as Anna suffers from a nervous condition that led her to retire from an orchestra and become an instructor, and continues to manifest itself in a daily inability to make decisions, as in an early scene in which she repeatedly changes orders and then tables when out to dinner with her husband, Philippe (Simon Abkarian). “Whenever I play, I’m thinking of how I’ll fail,” she later confesses to Christian (Jens Albinus), a colleague with whom she’s having an affair.
Anna takes Alexander on as her student, to prepare him for their school’s intermediate exam—also referred to in the dialogue as an audition. The film’s German title, Das Vorspiel, has two meanings—“audition” and “prologue”—and most of Weisse and Daphne Carizani’s screenplay, in fact, could be seen as a kind of prologue, centered around the series of rehearsals preceding Alexander’s big performance for the conservatory, tracking their gradual devolution into punishing routines. Anna begins directing her own self-punishing thoughts onto the vulnerable young boy, at one point forcibly clipping his fingernails.
The filmmakers let us into Anna’s life through compact scenes that often open in media res, or end abruptly in the midst of a character’s movement. It’s a subtle way of communicating the anxiety encroaching on the order of Anna’s world. Glimpses of Philippe, a luthier who runs a shop below their apartment, handling her with kids’ gloves, and of her son Jonas’s (Serafin Mishiev) neutral responses to her presence, come to be emplaced within the atmosphere of alienation that Anna’s unraveling sense of discipline has produced. Anna, of course, knows that her insecurities themselves actually lie at the root of the problems in her life—a neurotic feedback loop of inner despair that Hoss captures wordlessly in her performance as a woman who puts on an increasingly fractured stone face for the outside world.
Discipline can be directed both inward and outward, as personal rigor or as interpersonal punitiveness. Anna has been raised in a culture of self-discipline, as a line from her father (Thomas Thieme) intimates. “Your mother always saw her illness as a lack of discipline,” he reminds Anna, a recollection that neatly sums up the cultural and possible genetic roots of her issues. The Audition is about the relation between those inward and outward senses of discipline, as the strict self-control that Anna has internalized cracks, turns outward in imperious, borderline violent behavior, and eventually shatters.
It all builds toward a tragic conclusion that may have better served the narrative by letting the consequences of Anna’s unglamorous breakdown remain as understated as Hoss’s captivating performance. Nevertheless, The Audition captures with clarity an irony at the base of accomplished musical expression: the conflict between interiority and imposed technique, which can be fraught with repressed frustration and resentment.
Cast: Nina Hoss, Simon Abkarian, Jens Albinus, Ilja Monti, Serafin Mischiev, Thomas Thieme Director: Ina Weisse Screenwriter: Ina Weisse, Daphne Carizani Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
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