Coming Up In This Column: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Angels & Demons, The Dam Busters, In Plain Sight, Glee, The End of the Television Season, but first…
Fan Mail: First of all, thanks to those who mentioned in their comments on US#25 that they liked the column even if they disagreed with it. As I said near the beginning of the run of the column, I like to start discussions.
A couple of readers took me to task for not understanding Sugar. “Wrongshore” listed a number of reasons he felt Sugar had left the farm team, so it was clear to him as it was not to me. I agreed with him that every one of the reasons he mentioned might be the reasons, but I just did not think the film did the work that Wrongshore did in figuring out what the reasons were. “Anonymous” mentioned that a Chinese woman and a Thai woman at a Q&A in San Francisco both felt the film was their lives. I’m glad they did, but there are a number of films that cover the immigrant experience better. I have mentioned El Norte in writing about a couple of films and it is still one of the best. A more obscure one that I just love (and showed again a couple of weeks ago in my History of Documentary Film class at LACC) is Mai’s America, about a teenaged Vietnamese girl who comes to the U.S. as an exchange student. My foreign students feel that film is their life. I think it’s available on DVD, or you could just come and take my class the next time I show it.
I agree with “Max Winter” that State of Play is not as rushed as we were all afraid it might have been, what with condensing a mini-series into a feature. Credit the three screenwriters with knowing what they needed to have. “Anonymous” thought the miniseries was great, which means I will have to check it out some time. Meanwhile, here’s some stuff I have checked out lately.
Ghosts of Gilfriends Past (2009. Written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore. 100 minutes): Sometimes it’s the writers.
To see or not to see? The trailers for this one looked moderately amusing, and I like Jennifer Garner enough to put up with Matthew McConaughey. There were at least a couple of good lines in the trailer. Then the reviews were generally poor. And a clip on one of the talk shows suggested nobody knew how to cut the cake-falling scene. But then I learned that the writers were two of the four writers on Four Christmases, which you will remember from US#13 that I liked a whole lot more than the critics.
Well, this one has its moments, but is not quite up to that one. The structure of Four Christmases, which probably came from the other two writers (they get credit for the story and are the first credited on the screenplay, which usually means they worked on it first), was more inventive than this one. While the earlier film worked several variations on the family-holiday genre, this one at first seems to be a wedding film, although that turns out to be less true than you might think. Then there is the obvious romantic comedy element: Connor Mead, a womanizer, will realize the error of his ways and end up with Jenny, the girl he has had an off-and-on crush on since they were kids. So we pretty much know the road we are taking in a way we did not in Four Christmases. As anyone can tell from the trailer, that road is a variation on A Christmas Carol (and Charlie Dickens needs to get a new agent—he is not mentioned anywhere in the credits). So Lucas and Moore have three sets of constraints to work with.
Which they do reasonably effectively. Conner’s anti-love attitude is as much a disruption at the wedding as Kym’s was in Rachel Getting Married, and his change of heart rectifies the problems he causes earlier. One problem is that the writers keep harping on Conner’s horn-dog attitudes, which you do not need to do if you have cast Matthew McConaughey. If you have Clint Eastwood walk into the film as a tough cop, you don’t need to keep telling us he’s tough. After McConaughey was cast, they should have gone through the script and condensed it a lot. On the other hand, Lucas and Moore write several other interesting characters for the wedding, including the bride’s father, an old (older in the script than he can possibly be in Robert Forster’s performance) Army man. The bride’s mother, is not given a lot to do, other than a nice early scene with Conner. I like that Lucas and Moore have continued what they started in Four Christmases in creating some nice roles for more mature actors. Men of a certain age such as myself still think Anne Archer, who plays the mother, is a fox.
Jenny is a good fit for Jennifer Garner, since it enables her to use her considerable charm. Jenny is also smart. Let me say that again. She is also smart. I don’t know if this is in the script, or just a great detail from the set decorator, but she has an uneven stack of books on the floor by her bed. Like she actually reads them. She is a doctor and we believe she is, unlike Cameron Diaz in There’s Something About Mary. From very early in the picture, Jenny has Conner’s number and on several occasions takes him down a peg. Not quite up to Hildy and Walter in His Girl Friday, but the thinking is the same.
The writers have written a nice version of Marley’s Ghost for Michael Douglas to play, and the first ghost that visits Conner is Allison Vandermeersh, the 16-year-old he lost his virginity to. Emma Stone is terrific, even if she does overdo it. At one point she shows Conner a lineup of all the women he has ever had, and several of them tell him how long they were his girlfriends. Some for a very short time. This is a domesticated version of the great harem sequence in Fellini’s 8 ½ and funny, if not quite as magical. The ghost of the present is Melanie, Conner’s assistant, whom we just thought was a minor character in the opening scene, but she gets more to do in the center of the film. The ghost of things yet to come is a blonde in a diaphanous gown who never says a word, a nice change of pace from all the talk in the other scenes. She does get one great bit of business near the end of the film. In the morning after, Lucas and Moore throw in one direct steal from A Christmas Carol that produced the best laugh in the film for me. By then we are into Conner’s story more than the Carol connection, but pay attention to the little kid shoveling snow.
Not only do Lucas and Moore make Jenny smart, they give her another potential boyfriend, whom the bride (who is not written as a conventional bridezilla, just a woman who wants her wedding to be perfect) has invited as a possible hookup for Jenny. He is Brad, he is a doctor, and he is wonderful. In many ways we would be happier if Jenny went with him (how much you feel that way may depend on what you think of McConaughey). I don’t know when he was cast, but it may not be an accident that he looks more than a little like Barack Obama. When Jenny and Connor finally get together, I kept wondering what happened to Brad. The writers did not let me down: he gets paired off quickly with someone you would not expect.
Oh, and the editing of the cake scene. It is much better in the film than it was in the trailer or the film clip. Leave film editing to the professionals.
Angels & Demons (2009. Screenplay by David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Dan Brown. 138 minutes): Sometimes it’s not the writers.
To see or not to see, take two. You may remember (US#2) that I really did not like The DaVinci Code. So what am I doing seeing the sequel? In a theater, no less First of all, it’s May and the BIG summer movies are coming out one a week, and I was in the mood for a big noisy movie. Since I have no taste for or intention to see stuff like Wolverine, Star Trek, Terminator or the upcoming Transformers, that sort of leaves Angels & Demons. The trailer has its interesting moments, including a relatively light one in which Tom Hanks’s Professor Langdon reacts to some problems the Vatican guys are giving him with, “Hey, you fellows called me.” A perfect line for Hanks. Then it seemed as though it was going to have a little more action than the first one. A friend of mine who has read both The DaVinci Code and this book said this one was more likely to make an interesting film. Ewan McGregor, who plays McKenna, showed up with a clip on The Tonight Show and suggested he and Hanks were able to get a little actor stuff going. And the deal maker was that it was shot in some of my favorite places in Rome, one of my most favorite cities in the world. So why not?
Well, it’s no Roman Holiday or Three Coins in the Fountain, but it is not as awful as The DaVinci Code. I suspect that Goldsman, who wrote the first one, and Ron Howard, who directed both, realized this was a chance at a do-over to show they were not as incompetent as the first film suggested. (I have always thought that Spielberg did the second Jurassic Park movie because he knew how badly he had geeked the first one—see the chapter on the three Jurassic Park movies in my book Understanding Screenwriting for details.) The Koepp-Goldsman script here is much less talky than Goldsman’s for Code. We get some lengthy, repetitive exposition (the newscast voiceover at the beginning made me a little nervous), but nothing like Sir Leigh Teabing in the first one. And a lot of the exposition is delivered while everybody in the movie is running around all those great Roman locales, such as the Pantheon and the Bernini Four Rivers fountain in the Piazza Navona. I did not notice any credits for physical trainers for the cast, but they must have had them, given all that running.
The plot, while preposterous in MANY different ways, at least moves fast, so you do not have time to think about it. All right, sometimes you cannot avoid noticing the plot holes. How can one guy have kidnapped the four cardinals? How did that other guy know that they would find the canister at exactly that time? Why did the College of Cardinals let McKenna into their conference? And then why did they let him make the longest and dullest speech in the film? Generally though, the story moves quickly enough, and with a lot more suspense than that of The DaVinci Code. There is more at stake here than the doctrinal question in the earlier film, and the find-them-before-they-blow-up-the-Vatican timeline keeps our attention.
The script does go on too long after the big St. Peter’s Square scene. I must admit I looked at my watch when that scene was finished and said to myself, “This is going to go on for another twenty minutes?” It does, and not in a good way.
While there is nothing in here like the story in Code that will offend the Church, the script does get in a couple of little digs that Howard skates over in his direction. For example, at one point after an early vote for the Pope, newscasters from each country are shown announcing that the cardinals from their country are the favorites. It doesn’t have the comic punch it should. And a reference to the Vatican not being a large corporation is done while passing a Mercedes the Vatican owns. O.K., but you could do more with it.
A scene early in the film is a good demonstration of the hit-and-miss quality of the film. Langdon and Vittoria Vetra (I can only assume that name is Dan Brown’s inside joke, since it is close to Victoria Vetri, the 1968 Playmate of the Year who, under her stage name Angela Dorian, appeared in Rosemary’s Baby, in which Mia Farrow asks her character if she is Victoria Vetri) have been granted access to the Vatican Archives. They find the rare manuscript they are seeking and then, even though the lives of the kidnapped cardinals are at stake, TALK about the meaning of it. Maybe that is Ron Howard’s fault, but I would have thought that Langdon would start looking through it AS they talk. But then Vetra brings the scene to a funny and surprising close. Vetra, by the way, is played by the great Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer, who was Avner’s wife in Munich. Unlike Audrey Tautou in Code or, going back further, Emmanuelle Béart in Mission Impossible, she is a non-American actress who instinctively understands how to hold her own is a big noisy American film. She even steals a couple of shots from Tom Hanks, which is more than just petty larceny.
The Dam Busters (1955. Screenplay by R. C. Sherriff, based on the book by Paul Brickhill and the book Enemy Coast Ahead by Wing Comdr. Guy Gibson. 125 minutes): The British version, “N” word and all.
Nearly every Memorial Day I pay tribute to those who served in the armed forces by watching a war movie. You have to pick carefully, of course. One year it was Bridge on the River Kwai, which does not exactly honor those in the military. I figured this year it would be my DVD of The Great Escape. I recently read Glenn Lovell’s Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges, a solid, modest (under 300 pages, in comparison with those door-stop director biographies we usually get) book on a director whose films (Bad Day at Black Rock and The Magnificent Seven in addition to Escape) give as much pleasure as anybody’s. Then TCM, in its usual 36 hours of war movies on the Memorial Day weekend, ran the British version of The Dam Busters. So even though Memorial Day is an American holiday, I paid tribute to our cousins and their efforts to blow up three important German dams during World War II.
I had seen and liked the American cut when I saw it in 1955 and have not seen it since. The American cut is 22 to 23 minutes shorter depending on who’s counting. There were two obvious areas that were probably cut (I remember a lot about movies, but there are limits, even to my movie memory) for the American release. The first half-hour of the film includes some nice scenes of B.N. Wallis, the Vickers engineer who devised the scheme, trying to convince the British bureaucrats it might work. The bureaucrats are not shown as stupid, just skeptical, as well they should be. Wallis’ idea was to drop a bomb on the reservoirs behind the days and have it bounce over the defenses, then sink to 30 feet under water, and explode at the base of the dam. Would you believe such an idea? The second section that was probably condensed was the slower portion leading up to the raid, where we watch the airman writing letters to loved ones and getting their affairs in order. While I am generally of the opinion, often expressed here, that longer is not better, both sets of scenes add to the film.
One change that had to have been made for the American market was the nickname of Wing Comdr. Gibson’s dog. Apparently he really was called a word beginning with “N” that rhymes with digger. It’s there all the way through this version, but it was probably looped in the American version.
The film is very much in the tradition of the British documentaries of the war, and a lot of the bombing raid, which takes up the last 45- or so minutes of the film could come straight out of Harry Watt’s 1941 Target for Tonight. There is the usual British understatement throughout the film. Michael Redgrave plays Wallis as one of those slightly distracted but obsessive British scientists, the forerunner of Q in the Bond films. Richard Todd plays Gibson as a little nicer than he apparently was in real life, but with more of a hearty, friendly quality than a stiff upper lip.
Sherriff’s script is great at not telling us things until we need to know them. We have no idea in the opening scene why Wallis is skimming marbles out of a water tub, but we want to find out, so we are hooked. It is well past the hour mark when Wallis finally tells the bureaucrats where the idea originally came from. The one scene everybody who saw the film remembers is Gibson getting the idea of how to keep the plane at the right height—since they have to fly so low the altimeters do not work. We have already been told what the problem is, and then we have what we first think is a little throwaway scene of Gibson and a friend at a theatrical show. We see Gibson thinking, and we see what he looks at, but there is no dialogue about it. Next we see his plan in action. And only in the next scene do we get an explanation, which by then we really want to hear.
Rumor has it that Peter Jackson is producing a remake. I am sure it will be bigger, and the special effects (which seem chintzy to us these days, but which got an Oscar nomination) will be much more elaborate. I am not sure he can improve on Sherriff’s script, but if he does not mess up the story and have Hobbits flying the planes, I’ll be there.
In Plain Sight (2009. Episode “Rubble With a Cause” written by Alexander Cary. Episode “Aguna Matatala,” written by David Slack. Each episode 60 minutes): Ah, the road not taken.
In “Rubble,” Lewis, a witness in a bombing, got heroic when he saw another building bombed and went in to try to save people. Unfortunately this got his face on television before he was trapped under some of the rubble. So Mary and her team have to try to a) protect him from being shot by a sniper, b) protect him from being outed by a nosy reporter, and c) keep him from dying. Mary of course is the one who threads through the rubble to sit by him. After all, she’s the star of show. Unlike a lot of other episodes, there is not a lot of running around in this one. And the witness is not a flake, unlike the pot farmer and the woman with three kids (see US#25). Lewis is an ex-military man who now works for a private security firm. In one of the best scenes, he and Mary talk about how you deal with having killed somebody. The suspense is structured well and there are multiple twists. What Mary’s partner Marshall thinks is a sniper on a roof is just the reporter and her cameraman. Lewis’s former partner, the defendant in the case, is not trying to kill him as we all thought. This A story is a good one, well told.
The problem is Brandi. She keeps calling Peter, the man she met at AA when she pretended to be her mom. He won’t return her calls. She goes to the meeting place, but he won’t talk to her. She shows up at a meeting and admits to one and all what she did. She apologizes, says they are doing a great thing, and leaves.
In “Aguna Matatala” Peter shows up at Mary’s house to thank Brandi for speaking up and ask her out. It also turns out he’s very rich. So what does he want with Brandi? Has his sobriety made him so dense he does not realize she is a flake? He wants to take her to a swell society function. What is this man thinking? The episode ends with Peter and Brandi, who does look gorgeous (with a little help from Jinx, who is visiting on a day off from rehab) heading off to the ball. Do you have the same suspicion I do that the AA Thought Police forced the showrunners to turn Peter and Brandi into something conventional, rather than the unconventional approach I suggested in US#25?
Glee (2009. Episode “Pilot” written by Ryan Murphy & Brad Flachuck & Ian Brennan. 60 minutes): Not as smart-assed as it thinks it is.
Fox promoted this new show as being so good they could show the pilot in May and then not run the rest of the series until the Fall. Good luck with that. The hype was that this was fresh and original, like Murphy’s cable show Nip/Tuck. It is not that fresh nor original. The setup is that Will Schuester, a high school teacher, is taking over running the glee club. Ah yes, another straight white male who will enlighten the multi-culti heathens. We also have the dumb football coach, the uncaring principal, the sports jock who can sing, the talented but bossy girl, the nerd in the wheelchair and of the course the fat and sassy Black girl. There is also a lot of snarky dialogue, which gets tiresome very quickly, since there does not seem to be a lot of point to it. The intent was to be a sort of satire of the “high school musical” type. There are moments that suggest that, but then there are other moments when the writers seem to be taking all this seriously, as in Will’s dropping the club, then deciding to come back. That is played for unearned sentiment. O.K., this is the pilot, and there are trying to stuff as much into it as they can, a flaw in most pilots, but they simply have not got the balance right.
The End of the Season: And maybe an era.
While cable tends to go on year around, or at least at times the networks are into reruns, the network shows are finishing their seasons. In this item I am going to look at a few of them, and make a few guesses on what the future will bring for writing for the networks. First up is Castle, which has developed nicely since I first wrote about in US#21. There has been a lot less smirking by Castle and eye-rolling by Beckett. Castle’s daughter Alexis is still the most mature one of the bunch, and Susan Sullivan has been given several good scenes as Castle’s mom. As I suspected when I first wrote about it, they have not repeated Castle’s poker games with real mystery writers. Castle and Beckett have developed a working relationship that is not all flirting and bantering. Beckett seems a real professional.
The story structures seem to borrow from Law & Order: what we first suspect is true turns out not to be, as is the next thing, etc. This works nicely with Castle coming up with way out suggestions for what the case may be about. Beckett and the other cops know he is probably wrong, as Castle will cheerfully admit when he is proved wrong. Castle also uses his connections, including those on the other side of the law. In the final episode, “A Death in the Family” (teleplay by Andrew W. Marlowe, story by Marlowe and Barry Schindel), Castle talks to a Mafia guy he knows to find out whom the mob has put out a hit on. Beckett couldn’t do that, but it is useful information.
In the “Little Girl Lost” episode (written by Elizabeth Davis) we meet F.B.I. agent Sorenson, with whom Beckett had an affair. The affair ended when he moved to the Boston office, but he is now back in New York and ready to take up with Beckett again. She is not so sure she wants to do that, although she is clearly still attracted. We also find out in that episode from Sorenson that Beckett has been a big fan of Castle’s books since long before he came to work with her. Nothing more is done with that at this point. In “A Death in the Family” Castle goes looking into the murder of Beckett’s mother even after Beckett has told him not to. A forensic scientist looks at the file and tells Castle the mother was probably the victim of a serial killer. Castle is reluctant to tell Beckett, but his mother insists he should. He is about to when the final fadeout comes.
CSI has still not found its bearings since Grissom left. Catherine has taken over command of the unit, but the various writers have not written her as though she has taken over. Marg Helgenberg could certainly play that (look at her as K.C. in China Beach), but the writing is not there. The writers are giving a lot of screen time to Langston, but he is not the one in charge, since he is the newbie. Laurence Fishburne certainly has command presence, but they have not created a character that lets him use it.
How I Met Your Mother IS still playing us and Ted’s kids along as to who the mother is. Are you getting as tired of this as the kids must be? The kids have been on that damned couch for four years listening to dad tell these stories. Hasn’t it occurred to either of them just to get up, go in the kitchen and get the short version from their mom so they can all get on with their lives? Or is Ted more sadistic than we thought? Is that going to be the finale of the show: Child Protective Services breaking down the door and rescuing the kids?
The “Right Place Right Time” episode (written by Stephen Lloyd) ran an elaborate set of actions that showed how Ted, carrying the all-important yellow umbrella, ended up on a street corner where he met, ta-da, Stella. Who left him at the altar earlier in the season. But in the “As Far As She Can” episode (written by Carter Bays & Craig Thomas) the next week, we learn Stella is not their mom. She is still with Tony, who wants to make it up to Ted for Stella dumping him. Not much good comes out of that, although there is a hint that something will in the future. In other words, exactly the thing that keeps clogging up the show. In the season finale “The Leap” (written by Bays and Thomas), Ted gives up architecture and turns to teaching. He tells us in the narration that the mother is in his class. Pull out to reveal a class of several hundred people.
Meanwhile, Bays and Thomas have finally gotten back to Barney and Robin. Barney is about to tell Robin he loves her when she tells him she loves him. And Barney replies that they are just friends. We find out that Robin had heard Barney telling Ted he was in love with her, so she discussed it with Lily, who suggested she tell him first, which would naturally make him have second thoughts. This eventually leads to a scene in which Robin and Barney are alternately admitting and retracting their love. Neil Patrick Harris and Cobie Smulders have a fine time with it.
I do, by the way, have a little sympathy for the show’s writers in the second half of the season. Both Cobie Smulders (Robin) and Alyson Hannigan (Lily) are very, very pregnant. Neither pregnancy was written into the show, so for the last several episodes both actresses have been sitting down a lot, holding LARGE purses in front of them, etc. It limits what the writers can do.
The writers of Two and a Half Men have been writing themselves into a corner. Charlie and Chelsea are engaged and appear to be headed for marriage. This happened several years ago with Charlie and Mia and the writers wrote their way out of that one. In “Good Morning Mrs. Butterworth” (teleplay by Eddie Gorodetsky & Mark Roberts, story by Don Foster & Sid Youngers), the next to the last episode, they lay out an interesting possibility that would have, alas, completely changed the character of the show. In the episode, Alan and Chelsea are becoming good friends. He goes shopping with her at the Farmer’s Market and discusses physical exercises. As Berta points out to Charlie, Alan is Chelsea’s gay best friend. Alan of course is straight and one can imagine what might happen if he took Chelsea away from Charlie. Like I say, it would completely disrupt the show.
The writers’ solution to the problem, or the possible solution, showed up in the last episode, “Baseball Was Better with Steroids” (teleplay by Chuck Lorre and Lee Aronsohn, story by Mark Roberts & Susan Beavers). Alan, who tried ventriloquism as a hobby in the previous episode, is now in a coffee shop trying to write a screenplay. Who shows up but Mia. She is divorced and back in town. When Alan tells Charlie, Charlie realizes he still has feelings for Mia, which is essentially where the season ends (after Judith has given birth to what we all know is Alan’s baby). Not a big cliffhanger, but enough to give them something to work with next year.
Desperate Housewives got rid of Edie (US#24) and in the two-part season finale (“Everybody Says Don’t” written by John Pardee & Joey Murphy, “It’s Only in Your Head” written by Jeffrey Richmond) they also finish off the Dave storyline. Dave has tried and failed to kill Mike, Susan, and finally their son, M.J. Dave has been shipped off to the hospital for the criminally insane, so presumably we won’t be seeing him any time soon. In “The Born Identity” episode (written by Steven Ross) of Ugly Betty they sent Betty’s one true friend at Mode, Christina, back to Scotland. They had earlier gotten rid of Betty’s two boyfriends, Henry and Gio, and sent Helena off to a new job. In the two-part season finale (“Curveball” written by Terry Proust & Jon Kinally, “The Fall Issue” written by Silvia Horta) they kill off Daniel’s bride Molly, and it looks as though they may be getting rid of Marc, although that is left very much up in the air. I hope they keep him, since he provides a nice wacky presence, and both the writers and actor Michael Urie have done some nice work deepening a character you would not have thought was very deep. Henry was brought back in this two-parter, but only temporarily, so he is now gone for a second time.
The attrition rate on network shows is an effect of the recession on network television. The big sponsors, like the car companies, will have less and less to spend on advertising, and the networks will have to get along with less money for programming. So next season will see more “reality” shows as well as NBC having nothing but Jay Leno at 10 p.m. five nights a week, eliminating the time slots where they used to have ER, Homicide: Life on the Streets, L.A. Law, Hill Street Blues, and a few others. What we are seeing at the end of this season is the beginning of the cuts that will be more obvious over the next seasons.
What does all this mean for both television writing and writers? First, the budgets for shows will be more limited, so writers will have to have less action and fewer characters. Instead of car crashes, there will be more and probably longer dialogue scenes, not necessarily a bad thing. Special effects will be cut back, which may hurt the science fiction shows and even a show like CSI. I for one could do with a lot less CGI and prosthetic gore on CSI, so that might also not be a bad thing. There will ultimately be fewer shows with large ensemble casts. In other words, network shows will look more like cable shows, with their limited casts and budgets. Given the quality of writing on cable shows, all of this may not be a bad thing.
The new situation may not be so good for writers, which the networks and studios won’t shed any tears over, since they still hold a grudge from last year’s writers’ strike. There will be a lot fewer jobs for writers, and some of those will have moved to Canada and other countries where production costs are cheaper. Writing staffs, including all those executive producers who are essentially writers with bigger titles, will be smaller. So the writers will be writing more, and the writing will probably be more rushed. Writers may not have time to revise a script from the Not-Quite-So Good category to the Good category. This has always been a problem with network television with its orders for 22 episodes per season. One reason writing on cable often seems better is that cable needs fewer episodes, and the writers have a chance to polish the scripts before they are shot. It is not unusual for the scripts for a mini-season to be completed before any of them are shot, which ultimately also helps keeping production costs down. That probably would not be possible with a 22-episode order, and we have already begun to see shorter orders from the networks, as with Castle in the last part of the season.
So we may be at the end, at least temporarily, of the era of the big network shows. And by big, I do not mean just in terms of production values. Will any network be able to afford an ER, with its large cast and long narrative lines? I like the under-populated Monk and In Plain Sight, but there was, and still is, some satisfaction to be found on a different level of magnitude in a great network show.
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: Jumanji: The Next Level Finds a Series Stuck in Repeat Mode
The moments in which the film’s blockbuster stars play memorably against type are quickly subsumed by the ugly chaos of the action.1
Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji: The Next Level visibly strains to justify its existence beyond the desire for profit. The wild success of its predecessor guaranteed another entry in the series, but there’s so little reason for its characters to return to the video game world of Jumanji that this film struggles to orient them toward a collision course with destiny.
Now scattered to the winds of collegiate life, Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and Bethany (Madison Iseman) keep in touch via group text as they plan a reunion over winter break. Kasdan shoots these moments with excruciating pauses that would seem a deliberate reflection of the awkward cadences of texting were the characters’ in-person conversations not every bit as stilted and arrhythmic. It’s hardly any wonder, then, that Spencer, already so anxiety-ridden, is driven to such insecurity over the possibility that the members of his friend group went their separate ways that he reassembles the destroyed Jumanji game in order to feel some of the heroism he did during the gang’s earlier adventure.
Soon, Spencer’s friends discover what he did and go into Jumanji to get him, the twist this time being that everyone gets assigned to a different player than they were last time, complicating their grasp of the game’s mechanics. But making matters worse is that Jumanji also sucks in Spencer’s grandfather, Eddie (Danny DeVito), who gets assigned Spencer’s old hero, Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), as well as Eddie’s estranged business partner and friend, Milo (Danny Glover), who’s placed into the body of zoologist Frankling Finbar (Kevin Hart).
The sight of Johnson and Hart shaking up their stale partnership by play-acting as old men briefly enlivens The Next Level after 40 minutes of laborious setup and leaden jokes. Watching the Rock scrunch up his face as he strains to hear anyone and speaking every line in a high, nasal whine with halting confusion does get old after a while, but there’s an agreeable hint of his tetchy, anxious performance in Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales to be found here.
Hart may be even better, tempering his exhausting manic energy by running to the other extreme to parody Glover’s deliberate manner of speaking. The actor draws out every sentence into lugubrious asides and warm pleasantries even in the midst of danger. In the film’s only laugh-out-loud moment, Milo spends so much time spouting asinine facts that he fails to prevent Eddie from losing a player life, prompting a baffled and anguished Milo to lament, “Did I kill Eddie by talking too slow, just like he always said I would?”
But such moments, in which the film’s blockbuster stars play against type, are quickly subsumed by the ugly chaos of the action. There’s no sense of escalation to The Next Level, with each set piece almost instantly collapsing into a busy spectacle of eluding stampeding animals, running across rope bridges, and taking on waves of enemies. There’s no weight to any of these sequences, nor to the game’s new villain, a brutal conqueror (Rory McCann) who embodies all the laziness of the writing of antagonists for hastily assembled sequels.
Likewise, for all the emphasis on video game characters who can be swapped out on a whim, it’s the players themselves who come across as the most thinly drawn and interchangeable beneath their avatars. None of the kids have any real personality, merely a single defining quirk that makes it easy to identify them when their avatars mimic them. And when the film pauses to address some kind of character conflict, be it Spencer and Martha’s ambiguous relationship or Eddie and Milo’s attempts at reconciliation, it only further exposes the film’s meaninglessness. The original 1995 film, disposable as it may be, finds actual pathos in its menacing escalation of horrors and the existential terror of contemplating a lifetime stuck in the game as the world moved on. The Next Level, on the other hand, is a moribund, hollow exercise, dutifully recycling blockbuster and video game tropes without complicating either.
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Ser’Darius Blain, Morgan Turner, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Awkwafina, Rhys Darby, Rory McCann Director: Jake Kasdan Screenwriter: Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 123 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Review: Chinese Portrait Is a Grand Reckoning with the Passage of Time
The drama here is in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t.3.5
As a recording apparatus, the camera no longer disturbs or announces its presence. It’s a ghost in the room, as banal as a limb. Xiaoshuai Wang restores the exceptional status of that most revolutionary of technical devices in Chinese Portrait, a series of short-lived tableaux vivants for which the gravitational pull of the camera is re-staged.
The simplicity of bodies barely moving before a camera that brings their quotidian temporality into a halt is nothing short of a radical proposition in our digital era—in the context of a culture obsessed with using cameras precisely as anti-contemplation devices, and a film industry still so invested in producing artificial drama in order to tell its stories. In Chinese Portrait, there’s no need for storylines, tragedy, or spectacle for drama to emerge. The drama is in the minutia of the mise-en-scène, in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t. The drama is in the camera’s de-escalating force, its ability to refuse the endless excitation it could provide in favor of one little thing: elderly people stretching in a park, black and brown horses in a field, two of them licking each other’s backs. This is the camera not as a Pandora’s box, but as a sharp laser beam with curatorial intentions.
The drama here is also in Chinese Portrait’s very concept, which is similar to that of Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames, where motion is born out of prolonged stillness, and to that of Susana de Sousa Dias’s works on the effects of Portuguese dictatorship, Obscure Light and 48, where stillness is all there is, photographs namely, and yet so much moves. Wang’s film also bears a kinship with Agnès Varda’s later work, where a human being is made singular in a fast-moving world by standing still and recognizing the device that records them. Both Varda and Wang seem to see sacrilege in taking the camera for granted. A couple of tableaux in Chinese Portrait derail the notion of the individual embossed from their habitat by the camera’s insistent gaze, as in a group of men kneeling down to pray, their backs to the audience, and a later segment of a crowd standing entirely motionless in the middle of an abandoned construction site, sporting scarves and winter jackets, staring at the camera in unison.
Something remains quite alive and oddly “natural” within the documentary’s portraits as Wang’s mostly still subjects inhabit the gap between staging and posing by appearing disaffected. Or perhaps they’re stunned by modernity’s deadlock. Everyone seems perpetually in transit yet perpetually stuck. Wang’s fleeting portraits feature Chinese folk confronting the lens in their everyday environments, but not all of them react to the camera’s might in the same way. Some stand still and stare while others look away, but they’re all largely aware of the recording device singling them out as muses of the landscape.
The portraits offer evidence of differing temporalities in this numbingly fast world, too convinced of its universal globalism. Evidence of conflicting temporalities within worlds, too, as some subjects in the same frame bother to stop and others go on about their lives. In a provincial alleyway, various men sit on stoops from foreground to background. Some stare into the horizon—that is, a cemented wall, the film’s most recurring motif. Others refuse to allow the viewers to be the only ones looking. Several bathers on a sandy beach stare at the off-camera ocean, except for one man wearing a large fanny pack, certainly staring at us behind his shades. At a construction site, an excavator digs while another worker sits on a slab of concrete, gawking at us as we gawk at them. A man rests his hands on his hoe to look at the camera with a half-smile, like someone from the 1980s, who may approach the cameraperson to ask what channel this is for and when he can expect to be on television.
Through the sheer power of blocking, the methodical positioning of elements in the frame, Wang reaches back to a time when there was an interval, a space for waiting and wondering, between an image being taken and an image being seen. Another temporality, indeed, captured by cameras, not telephones. That was back when sharpie scribbles would don the tail end of film reels, which are kept in the frame here by Wang, as one portrait transitions into the next. The filmmaker’s urgent reminder seems to be that it’s not all just one continual flow. Time can actually stop, and we can choose to look or to look away.
Director: Xiaoshuai Wang Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 79 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Bombshell Is a Collection of Quirks in Search of a Trenchant Criticism
The film is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Roger Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.1.5
With Bombshell, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph make heroes of the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the late chairman and CEO of Fox News who was accused by several former employees—including star anchors Megyn “Santa Just Is White” Kelly and Gretchen Carlson—of sexual harassment in 2016. The filmmakers keenly depict these women’s courage and fixate on the toxic culture at Fox that fostered so much fear and intimidation, but Bombshell is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.
The film begins in the summer of 2016 with the Republican Party presidential debate in Iowa, where Kelly (Charlize Theron), the moderator, confronts Donald Trump with highlights of his long history of misogyny. This grilling, and her increasingly—if relatively—feminist stance on the Fox News daytime program The Kelly File, is met by backlash from the ascendant Trump cult, as well as Ailes (John Lithgow), whose professional relationship with Kelly at first seems productive in spite of its combativeness. Meanwhile, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from another Fox program, The Real Story, possibly for her own newfound—if, again, relative—feminism, and counters by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes.
Waiting for colleagues to make similar accusations in order to bolster her case, Carlson is left twisting in the wind by a collective fearful silence—a silence that even fierce former victim Kelly obeys—while Ailes and his litigation team prepare a defense. A third storyline involves “millennial evangelical” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing the many ambitious young women who suffered Ailes’s demeaning treatment in order to get ahead at Fox and the other organizations for which he worked.
Bombshell operates in a style that has become numbingly de rigueur since Oliver Stone’s W., in which political and corporate corruption are presented in a dramatic yet amiably humorous style that takes the edge off any potentially trenchant critique. Fourth walls are broken, jokes punctuate scenes, and the ambiance remains oddly congenial despite the purportedly suffocating and repressive environment of the Fox News offices.
Thankfully, there are moments when the actors transcend the too-casual tone. Lithgow portrays Ailes not merely as a dirty old man, but as a pitiful control freak whose disgusting actions unwittingly reveal a deep insecurity. The tensely coiled Kelly is a mass of contradictions, and one argument that she has with her husband, Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass), over an embarrassingly fawning follow-up interview with Trump is memorable for allowing Theron to reveal the strain imposed on Kelly by conflicting personal, professional, and political allegiances. Robbie—frequently playing off a versatile Kate McKinnon’s co-worker/lover—moves from bubbly naïveté to painful humiliation with convincing subtlety.
And yet, Bombshell is predicated on several dubious ideas that ultimately blunt its power. The film relishes the downfall of a public figure, as well as the growing chaos of a divided Fox News. By the end of the film, we’re expected to feel righteous satisfaction when justice comes to Ailes in the form of a disgraceful resignation. But such a response can only feel hollow when the country continues to suffer from widespread problems cultivated by Fox from the same sexist, callous, and exploitative worldview at the root of Ailes’s behavior. The film only briefly and tangentially explores this worldview, and mostly uses it to simply highlight conservative hypocrisy and the general sliminess of the Fox organization.
Bombshell also delights in referencing battles fought among high-profile public figures, emphasizing the kind of inside baseball that the media routinely focuses on instead of more complex and endemic manifestations of national issues. Rather than understand Ailes’s harassment in relation to the sexism so deeply embedded in American corporate media and culture, the filmmakers reduce that sorry tradition to the confines of the Fox News offices and elite legal channels. This approach allows viewers to understand the organizational and legal pressures that made it so hard for Carlson and others to speak out about Ailes, but once Carlson files her charges, the abuse that she and others endured becomes overshadowed by competitive backroom negotiations and maneuverings.
The film reinforces this emphasis with gratuitous appearances by actors playing famous Fox News personalities (Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity) who are tangential to the narrative, as well as cutesy direct-address segments meant to make us feel in the know about the world of Fox. This is the stuff that Roach, who’s mostly directed broad comedies, and Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short, clearly relish, but rather than connecting with the viewer through these strategies, Bombshell mostly feels insular, remote, and superficial. It would be nice if for once an accessible mainstream film took on the institutional powers that detrimentally shape our world with anger and incisiveness rather than a bemused concern.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Charles Randolph Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity
Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.2.5
Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.
Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.
Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.
Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.
In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.
In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)
Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.
Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.
Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate
This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.2.5
Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.
Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.
Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”
As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.
In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.
Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.
Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line
There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.1.5
Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.
This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.
The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.
Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.
The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.
Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.
That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.
As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.
The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence
The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.3
The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.
Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).
Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.
Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”
Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.
Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.
By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.
Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.
Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother
It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.3
Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.
The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).
Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.
It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.
That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.
Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”
In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.
Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality
Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.
“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.
The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.
Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.
During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.
Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.
What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?
What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.
I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.
As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?
It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.
How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.
Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.
You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?
We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.
Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.
That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?
I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.
Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?
Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.
You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?
That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.
Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?
When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.
Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?
Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.
The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?
I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!
I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.
That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.
Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.3
Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.
For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.
Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.
Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.
Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.
Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019