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.
Interview: Bill and Turner Ross on the Constructions of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
The Rosses discuss how performance, accessibility, empathy, and nostalgia figure into their work.
The work of filmmaker brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross has always lived on the more experimental margins of the documentary form, and their latest effort radically pushes definitional notions of nonfiction to a near-breaking point. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets raised eyebrows when Sundance programmers slotted it into the festival’s Documentary Competition section, given that the film, about a Las Vegas dive bar’s last night of operation, was actually shot using a cast of hired actors-cum-barflys in New Orleans. What the filmmakers capture over the course of a whirlwind 18 hours—a day after Donald Trump won the presidency—might lack actuality, but they compensate with unvarnished authenticity.
The Ross brothers, who are based in New Orleans, have long been experts at capturing how people perform their identity within a given space and what that reflects about their humanity. Sometimes the performance is literal, as in their “dance film” Contemporary Color, a celebration of color guard staged by David Byrne at an event at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. But more often, their canvas is bigger, such as New Orleans’s French Quarter in Tchoupitoulas, their Sidney, Ohio hometown in 45365, or the Texas-Mexico border in Western; these documentaries are also populated with people going about their lives in less staged circumstances. With Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, the filmmakers narrow their focus to an admittedly synthetic setting to achieve an identical effect. Once the cameras start rolling and the booze starts flowing, the emotional honesty of the moments they capture outmuscles any concerns over genre labels or definitions.
On a Zoom call prior to the film’s Virtual Cinema release this Friday, I spoke with the Ross brothers about the intellectual and emotional journey leading up to ideating and executing an unconventional project like Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. The conversation also covered how the brothers think about performance, choreography, accessibility, empathy, and nostalgia when making their films.
Your body of work is largely about what we can learn about people from the spaces they occupy and explore. Did your ability to explore these thematics get easier or harder with such a confined location in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets?
Turner Ross: We’re interested in people in the space they inhabit, people in the spaces they create, how the spaces that they occupy both relate to them and are manifested by them. So, I think every film has a bit to do with that. With this one, I wouldn’t say [it was] easier or harder. I would say we always set up a challenge for ourselves. And this was as challenging a dynamic as we could conceive given the films that have preceded it. You know, we’re always trying to learn from what comes before. And the last film that we did was a “four walls” movie, but it was the Barclays Center in New York, tens of thousands of people, several hundred participants and a crew of dozens. We wanted to take that idea of constraints and a limited palette and say, “Can we reduce that down to actually four walls, just the two of us, to a group of people assembled? Can we give a sense of being there to a place that we’ve manifested? Can we elicit an authentic experience from an intention to a scenario?” But those are imposed limitations and obstacles, and that’s what makes it interesting for us.
Bill Ross IV: In some ways, it was nicer to be confined to that space because that limitation was what it was. In other ways, it was incredibly difficult.
You mentioned Contemporary Color as another “four walls” movie. Did that experience of learning how to capture motion within a confined space help in making this one?
TR: Very much so. Contemporary Color is actually a dance film, so it involves choreography. Humans and their choreography through space is always interesting, and so we tried to create a space in which all of the corners of the room had potential. We filled it with people who would have an interesting dance with each other. The difference was we didn’t know the choreography ahead of time. We just kind of had to create the scenario, create opportunities and then follow where they led. And so that made it much more of an interesting dance partner than just observing the thing itself.
You started conceptualizing this film with your Vegas visits in 2009 but didn’t shoot the film until 2016. How did your understanding of the people, the bars, the city, the country change over time? How would the film be different if you’d shot it right away?
BR: I mean, each film is an extension of where we are as humans when we shoot it, so it would certainly have been more immature.
TR: It’s an extension of us as people, as individuals, as humans in the world. It’s an extension of ourselves as artists, the times that we’re in, what we’re thinking about, what we’re responding to. So, certainly, 10 years ago, the world we were responding to is very different than the one that we find ourselves in now. In that sense, the world being available to us as the resource that we mine, certainly that would have been different. But, at the same time, what we were looking for at that time was much more of a gritty, verité, follow-where-it-goes street film in which we were just really wanting to see what was happening in that world. Not so much as a paradigm in which the movie takes place, a metaphor for experience, a framing device—which is what it ends up being in this film—but the actuality of what it was in 2009 during the Great Recession when people were living on the outskirts of Vegas, not seeking pleasure but a place to get by in the world. That spoke to us really as an image, as an experience and as a rich resource for painting a portrait of the contemporary American experience, which, again, extrapolated into these times would be very different. And, for us, it became the backdrop for this film so that we could create a microcosmic story that hopefully spoke to something bigger in that context.
TR: I’d love to see that film!
BR: Oh, that movie would be sweet. But we’ll get to that one. It just wasn’t the right time then. It’s good that we got to think about it for this long. A lot of things were reported in that bucket over the last decade, or I guess it would have been seven years.
You’ve described bars as almost liminal spaces where people go to be someone other than themselves. Is that realization part of what led you to view the people in this film as actors performing characters?
TR: We’re always performing as people, and that comes into the genre-framing conversation. Our awareness of a camera has become a real factor in the world, but that’s not what we’re after. What we were curious about is what are these spaces that we choose to inhabit, that we seek in which to commiserate, that we seek in which to make stories, to tell stories, to put on airs, to be ourselves, to let go of things. Through all of time, people have found these types of spaces. And at the time that we made the film, we felt it was the most conducive space in which to observe and be curious about the conversations people are having with each other when they aren’t talking about something in particular. And, so, if we can all share a drink and have a conversation, what does it sound like? That’s in parallel to our interest in these spaces in general, and as a visual and cultural space, but also as a useful space. Who are we? Why don’t we talk to each other like this? What stories do we tell what stories we tell ourselves? And what are we saying to each other in this moment in time?
Do you see your other films as having performances in their own way?
BR: Always, yeah. In a lot of ways, I don’t see this film being much different than the others. They’re all constructions. There’s a camera in the room and we’re all performing. We’re all presenting what we wish to be seen as. I think that’s been cranked up here, but by how much I don’t really know.
TR: Our films are an amalgam of an experience. How can we distill it down to its essence, to make it sensical when it’s shared? I think that’s part of being a person in the world, what are you going to share with others in order to give them an idea of who you wish them to see? And that’s performance. So, in that sense, our films are also performative. In this sense, we’re just more acutely looking at that.
How were you all navigating the need to be specific to get the precise sense of place but also generalizable enough that anyone could see their own truth or experience reflected in the film?
BR: A lot of it is casting. We’re casting a wide variety of folks for a lot of different reasons, but one of them being that folks will see themselves in someone there. Or pieces of themselves throughout. And that seems to have been the case so far, which has been great. But the beginning of the question was Vegas…
TR: We wanted to tell a specific story that was also universal. That’s what Bill was talking about with casting. We wanted to make sure that there was representation in there so that there were different voices heard, which were authentic [and] would not [convey] an inauthentic experience, some sort of staged experiment, but something that spoke to an authenticity that we had perceived and experienced on our own. So, yes, we did a lot when it come to the framing of that world. We spent a lot of time in Vegas, certainly scouting and considering that and wanting to be authentic to that locale. But we also wanted to create a boundary in between so that when people watch the film, it isn’t so acute that they feel removed. We want people to have this experiential opportunity. We spoke today with a woman in Moscow, different people all over the world, different age groups, different backgrounds, and [even though it] may not be [their] space, they know something like it. Those may not be your people, but you might know folks like ‘em. And we wanted that to be the overriding idea, and not so much that this is a singular, specific story. We hoped that we would get to something that was more universal, even though it is a singular milieu.
We sometimes see the camera in the bar mirrors. Was it just too logistically complex trying to hide its presence? Did you just embrace your visibility?
BR: This is our fifth feature, and at this point, I think I’m just done trying to cut around us. We are there. If we weren’t there, there wouldn’t be a film. More and more, we have embraced the fact that we’re just in the room. It’s very intentional, but we’re not focusing on ourselves. Because it’s a mirrored room, we are popping up. We are leaving ourselves in there to say that this was a collective experience. This is all something that we experienced together. And we’re shooting not at these folks, but with [them]. We are together.
A moment that really struck me in the film is the really heartfelt conversation at the end of the bar between Bruce and Pam, both older and of different racial backgrounds. We see them at first in close-up, then you zoom out to see from other people’s vantage point from the other end of the bar in long shot. Throughout much of the film, we’re in a moment so thoroughly, and then it evaporates. Why linger here a bit and change perspectives?
BR: There’s two parts to that. One is, editorially, we needed to condense the scene timewise. But, also, because of that perspective, the scene becomes richer because the folks that you bounce around to are having trivial conversations when they are having a big life moment down here. And that’s the way a bar works. Now, you’re totally oblivious that somebody is having a life-changing, cathartic moment down here, and you and your buddies are talking about Olive Garden three seats down. I thought it was very telling what those spaces can be.
TR: And we wanted that inclusivity of the myriad experience and how the same situation, even within a small tight-knit framework, is experienced differently. And, as a viewer, that was Bill speaking to the cinematic intention. We realized that it was much more accessible as a film if we used the language of cinema to move around the space and to allow the viewers to say, “I have my own stream of consciousness in this space and can move around to the different conversations at will. I’m privy to all of the things in a way that even the people within the bar [aren’t].” The omniscience is in favor of the viewer.
BR: There was one cut of this where we would just stick with Pam and Bruce for, like, eight minutes uninterrupted and not bounce around the room. We love that cut, but nobody else did! So we had austere intentions, and then realized we need to revert to the language of the movies.
Beyond just the difficulties of getting someone to watch or program something that’s four-and-a-half-hours long, which is the length of your original favored cut, why whittle the film down to an hour-and-a-half? What’s lost and what’s gained?
BR: An audience is gained! [laughs]
TR: We always say that we make movies for ourselves first. We make movies for each other, and we try to solve that thing. Well, that four-and-a-half-hour movie was the movie that we made for ourselves and for each other. It turns out that what we loved about it was not translated to people outside of our own peculiar bubble. What we needed to do was distill that down to something that allowed people in and wasn’t so cold and obstructive as to pull people out. It’s not about observation, it’s about inclusion for the people within it and the viewers, and we had to eventually really lean towards the viewer. Because if we’re not successful in the end, if we can’t share this, there’s not an act of empathy. We can’t create an artifact and then share it with an audience to have them have their experience. And so that is why it’s 90 minutes.
Was it an intentional decision to shoot the day after the 2016 election or just a happy accident?
BR: I don’t know if it was “happy,” but it just sort of turned out that way.
TR: Generally, we’re reflecting the state of the world at the time, what we were feeling and thinking. We were feeling sort of divided as a country and in terms of perspectives, and we were feeling pretty lost and like we should be able to do better than our vote on Election Day allowed. As artists, it was time for us to go to work. We set out to get the film in motion before we knew the results of the election. It wasn’t about us making a film about our politics, but it was about the body politic. What is the state of people and what are they saying to each other? Let’s not make an election film, but let’s make a film about who we are during this time.
Trump is this kind of looming, mostly unspoken presence undergirding a lot of what’s happening on screen, just as he has been in pretty much any bar for the last five years. How did you go about navigating the elephant in the room?
BR: It was just like a bar, with folks just getting into it, and that didn’t feel quite right. So we’d move elsewhere. But that balance was struck in the edit. We didn’t shy away from shooting all of it. It was present.
TR: But it also was a motivating factor in terms of why we chose to execute the film the way that we did: to create a container, a safe space to bring in a broad swath of people to choreograph the inclusion of those types. In scouting actual bars, there were some bars that, because of the way that Bill and I look, we would walk in, we’d turn the cameras on and they’d start chanting: “Trump, Trump, Trump!” Just assuming a certain point of view, and that’s not the film that we wanted to make.
BR: To be clear, he is not talking about the Roaring 20s! [laughs]
TR: We scouted 100 bars, and we interviewed hundreds of people to be involved in this film. And there were certain spaces that certainly did have a limited viewpoint, and people found their own corner to back into. That’s just not what we wanted to explore. We didn’t want to have a space that spoke to a singular experience. We wanted myriad viewpoints and the opportunity to feel like you belonged in a space. That’s both why we chose to shoot at that time and why we created our space the way that we did.
I’m sure you’re getting this a lot, but obviously the film has evolved to take on additional meaning when being released in a pandemic where almost no one can congregate in a bar, or at least enjoy one like the Roaring 20s patrons are. Do you think it might change the meaning or reception of the film given that the audience is likely in a state of heightened nostalgia for the environment of a bar?
BR: That’s funny because nobody’s asked us that yet! I thought people would. You have to think it’s going to. I mean, it’s got to!
TR: We’re as curious as you are. On the one hand, the themes in the film are still relevant and resonant. And, on the other hand, they change their articulation because of where we’ve ended up at this moment.
BR: Not just about your feelings on bars, but so much of what’s brought up in the film has been heightened because everything is heightened right now.
TR: And not only what they’re talking about, what the people are actually saying to each other. The context of the film, this idea of the end of things and uncertain futures, wrestling with identity and where we’re all headed, these sort of existential themes that are intertwined in the conceit of the film and in the way that people are having discourse with each other. I’m super curious. What a bizarre fucking time to put out a film at all! Especially this one, where we’re on edge about everything, we can’t share space in this way. Who are we? I think that’ll be reflected in the kind of feedback we get.
It strikes me that you didn’t make this as an explicitly “nostalgic” film. Would you be okay if people received it that way?
BR: My biggest fear would be if they were just like, “Okay.” Any sort of reaction, if they want to argue with it, great! People are free to do what they want to do, I just hope it’s not just like, “Okay, honey. Well, we watched that.” As if it’s just one more piece of content.
TR: In the moment that we made it, our concern was not to date the film, to say, “Let’s let it be of the world that it is, but let’s also not fix it in that for all of time, hopefully.” At the same time, it’s already in the rearview, so you can’t help but have some sort of nostalgia for it. Or, I don’t know, maybe there’s a hope for moving on. I think, inevitably, we make these things together to go through a catharsis together and with the people that we make them with. Then, it’s left up to the audience, and I’m fascinated by what an audience does with it once it’s theirs. I’ll be super curious to have those conversations.
Review: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets Is an Elegiac Mosaic of Disillusionment
It’s in certain characters’ trajectories that the Ross brothers locate the tragic soul of the bar.3.5
In a 1946 essay for London’s Evening Standard, George Orwell wrote: “And if anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it.” In other words, the British author was on the lookout for the ideal watering hole, which he argues requires a combination of these specific offerings as well as more ineffable qualities. But the article’s thrust isn’t so simple, as Orwell spends the first three-quarters of it describing in detail a bar that doesn’t exist, referred to by the fictitious moniker of “The Moon Under Water.” You might think that you’re reading a rare lifestyle report from your favorite anti-totalitarian author, only to suddenly be made aware of your victimhood in a little literary sleight of hand.
Orwell’s playful essay provides the inspiration for Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, a quasi-real-time portrait of what might be seen as an ideal dive bar by today’s standards, though filmmaker brothers Bill and Turner Ross eschew Orwell’s rug-pulling. Here, we’re never let in on the fact that the Roaring 20s, the Las Vegas haunt that serves as the film’s setting, is actually located in the Rosses’ hometown of New Orleans, or that its denizens are actually a motley crew of Louisiana drinkers (one looks like Elliott Gould, another like Seymour Cassel) that the filmmakers recruited and primed for their roles. This edifice of fakery is critical to the film’s meaning. As Orwell opined for a more perfect world where such a social space could exist, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets fabricates its own rosy vision of social unity, drunkenly commiseration, and aesthetic perfection, if only to deliberately undercut this idealism through the staging of its narrative around the bar’s final night and the election of Donald Trump.
The Roaring 20s may not be everyone’s idea of perfection. After an Altmanesque credit sequence establishing the bar’s exterior in zooming telephoto shots, the audience’s first glimpse at the interior finds custodian-cum-freeloader Michael Martin being broken from his early-afternoon slumber by the arriving bartenders and helped promptly to a swig of whiskey, and events from this point forward tap into a similar reservoir of pity and humor. Where the beauty emerges is in the intimacy and familiarity with which the patrons are able to relate to one another as more and more alcohol is consumed. For much of the film, egos, tempers, and prejudices fall away as more and more regulars pile into the bar, increasingly constituting a diverse cross section of what appear to be outer Vegas wanderers and failures.
Limiting views of the surrounding city to brief, bleary interludes shot on an un-color-calibrated Panasonic DVX100b, the Ross brothers center the action squarely around the bar, lending everything a brownish pink patina that suggests the view through a bottle of Fireball and draping every hangable surface with off-season Christmas lights. Taken as part of a dialogue with such gems from the canon of booze-soaked cinema as Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery and Eagle Pennell’s Last Night at the Alamo, this auburn glow distinguishes Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets as more texturally expressive than photographically verisimilar—a film that approximates a night of inebriation rather than merely memorializing it.
Having used two cameras over the course of their 18-hour shoot, the Rosses are able to rely on montage editing to foster a sense of omniscience without losing the feeling of temporal continuity. The result is a film whose attention jumps sporadically to different bits of conversation and activity just as the beer-saturated brain of your average pub-dweller might. Part of this seamless integration of perspectives has to do with the film’s dynamic and precise use of music, which blends non-diegetic Rhodes-piano noodlings from composer Casey Wayne McAllister with popular songs heard within the bar both on the jukebox and in impromptu sing-alongs. Unconcerned with airs of documentary objectivity, the Ross brothers allow themselves to essentially play disc jockeys, and within this framework many of their choices for background needle drops land with a certain poetic gravitas, complementing, contradicting, or in some cases even guiding the emotional temperature of the room.
Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler” is heard twice, first played by a bartender on an acoustic guitar to get the early evening energy going and later on the jukebox when much of that energy has dissipated, while Jhené Aiko’s desolate breakup ballad “Comfort Inn Ending” provides contrapuntal accompaniment to the evening’s one flare-up of macho tempers. Most affecting is when A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems” underscores a shot of an embittered but tender war vet, Bruce Hadnot, glowering at the end of the bar—a lengthily held beat that will be relatable to anyone who’s ever found introspection in the midst of pummeling noise. Each example hints at the melancholy direction that the film ultimately takes, and like any DJ worth their salt, the Rosses manage the transition from euphoria to pathos gradually and imperceptibly.
While all who enter the Roaring 20s achieve some kind of emotional arc before departing thanks to the filmmakers’ democratic distribution of their attentions, there are a few who emerge as main characters, and it’s in their trajectories that Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets locates the tragic soul of the bar. Michael is one of them. Beginning the day as a freewheeling conversationalist, ripping drinks and catching up with whoever rolls through, he spends the dwindling hours of the night in a dazed stupor on a corner sofa, pathetically asserting to a fellow bar patron that “there is nothing more boring than someone who used to do stuff and just sits in a bar.” In a few instances, the Ross brothers cede the floor to the bar’s security cameras, whose detachment and “objectivity” eschew the warmth of the filmmakers’ ground-level cameras, rendering the bar as little more than a physical space. Seen from this cold, inhuman eye, Michael registers as lonely, beaten-down, and insignificant.
Similarly positioned on the margins of the sociable space created by the Roaring 20s, and often identified by its more imposing and strange attractions (such as the Stratosphere and Pyramid casinos), Las Vegas plays a role analogous to the bar’s security cameras. As seen through a motion-blurred, sepia-toned camera, the city represents a reality of false hopes that’s failed the film’s humble pleasure seekers—whether in the form of dead-end jobs that have led them away from their passions or in a military industrial complex that treats its servants as interchangeable. At one point, Bruce brings up Trump on the occasion of his recent election, confidently proffering grave predictions for his presidency. The subject doesn’t get touched again, but it’s a subtext for the whole film—not the Trump presidency per se, but the mere fact of pessimism in the face of leadership. Like Orwell’s “The Moon Under Water,” the Roaring 20s seen in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets doesn’t really exist. Even if it did, no one would save it, which makes the desperation with which its denizens hang on to it all the more touching.
Director: Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross Distributor: Utopia Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Relic Is a Lushly Metaphoric Vision of a Splintered Family
The film heralds the arrival a bold and formidable voice in horror cinema.2.5
Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), don’t say much on the drive to Grandma Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) house. The old woman is missing, and when Sam crawls through the doggy door into the home, she looks around with concern, absorbed until Kay knocks impatiently at the door to be let in. Still no words. The women of Relic aren’t exactly close, as evidenced by the palpable coldness between Kay and Sam as they look through this cluttered abode. Edna’s forgetfulness having grown exhausting, Kay tells a cop that she hasn’t spoken to her eightysomething mother in weeks. And the guilt is written on Kay’s face, even in the distant shot that frames her within the walls of the police station.
Though Relic is her debut feature, Natalie Erika James demonstrates a confident grasp of tone and imagery throughout the film. She and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff strikingly conjure an ominous stillness, particularly in the scenes set inside Edna’s increasingly unfamiliar home, where the characters appear as if they’re being suffocated by the walls, railing, low ceilings, and doorways. Relic fixates on rotting wood, the monolithic scope of the Australian woods, and the colors on Edna’s front door’s stained-glass window that meld, eventually, into a single dark spill, as though the house is infected by the old cabin that haunts Kay’s dreams.
Edna soon reappears, unable to explain where she’s been and complicating an already distant family dynamic. The interactions between the three women are marked by an exhaustion that’s clearly informed by past experience—a feeling that Edna’s disappearance was almost expected. But not even James’s command behind the camera can quite elevate just how hard Relic falls into the shorthand of too many horror movies with old people at their center: the unthinking self-harm, the wandering about in the night, the pissing of oneself.
The film remains restrained almost to a fault, revealing little about its characters and their shared histories. Though some of this vagueness could be attributed to Relic’s central metaphor about dementia, the general lack of specificity only grows more apparent in the face of the film’s oldsploitation standbys, leaving us with precious little character to latch onto.
But such familiar elements belie Relic’s truly inventive climax, an abrupt shift into a visceral nightmare that tears apart notions of body and space and then sews them back together in a new, ghastly form. James resists bringing the film’s subtext to the forefront, in the process imbuing her enigmatic images with a lasting power, turning them into ciphers of broader ideas like abandonment, responsibility, and resentment as they relate to the withering human figure. Never relenting with its atmosphere of suffocating decay, the final stretch of Relic, if nothing else, heralds the arrival a bold and formidable voice in horror cinema.
Cast: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote Director: Natalie Erika James Screenwriter: Natalie Erika James, Christian White Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Love Before the Virus: Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s Newly Restored Passing Strangers
The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love.
One of the many pleasures to be had in watching Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s newly restored Passing Strangers derives from its status as a historical document, or a piece of queer ethnography. The 1974 film allows us to see but also feel what life was like for gay men during what some have called the golden age of unbridled sex before the AIDS epidemic. Bressan Jr.’s portrait of this history is simultaneously attuned to its sartorial, mediatic, erotic, and affective dimensions, which may come as a surprise to those unaccustomed to explicit sexual imagery being paired with social commentary. Pornography and poetry aren’t counterparts here. Rather, they’re bedfellows, one the logical continuation of the other. Money shots, for instance, aren’t accompanied by moaning or groaning, but by the sounds of a violin.
The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love. They devote so much of their lives to picking up strangers for sex, briefly and by the dozens, but not without secretly wishing that one of them might eventually stay. In this they may not differ much from their contemporary cruising heirs, though they do in their approach. It turns out that asking for a pen pal’s photo before a meetup in 1974 was considered creepy, and using Walt Whitman’s poetry as part of a sex ad was quite fruitful.
That’s exactly what 28-year-old Tom (Robert Carnagey), a bath-house habitué and telephone company worker living in San Francisco, does in the hopes of attracting something long term. The literal poetics of cruising speaks to 18-year-old Robert (Robert Adams), who responds to Tom’s newspaper ad right way. They meet in person and begin a love affair that could only be described as bucolic, including making love in fields of grass, on top of a picnic blanket, to the sound of waves and piano notes, and riding their bikes around town, much like the sero-discordant love birds of Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo do after partaking in a gangbang. In retrospect, promiscuity gains the tinge of an obsessive auditioning of “the one,” who, in Bressan Jr.’s sensual fairy tale, is bound to come along and save us from ourselves.
Passing Strangers, which originally screened at adult cinemas and gay film festivals, recalls Francis Savel’s 1980 porno Equation to an Unknown in how smut and romance are so intimately bound in the forms of queer intimacy that the film depicts. This may also be due to the dearth of gay cinematic representation at the time—of gay men perhaps needing to dream of prince charming and of bareback anal sex in the same movie session, satisfying the itch for love and for filth in one fell swoop. But while Equation to an Unknown is completely wrapped up in a fantasy glow, there’s something more realistic, or pragmatic, about Passing Strangers.
Tom’s voiceover narration, which takes the shape of disaffected epistolary exchanges with his newfound beloved, orients us through the action. Motivations are explained. At times, however, Bressan Jr. indulges in experimental detours. These are precisely the most beautiful, and atemporal, sequences in the film—scenes where sex is juxtaposed with the sound of a construction site or the buzzing of a pesky mosquito, or one where an audience of orgy participants give a round of applause after somebody ejaculates. And the film’s surrendering to moments of inexplicable poesis reaches its apex in a shot of a boy in clown makeup holding his mouth agape. It’s an exquisitely brief shot, indelible in its strangeness.
Review: Tom Hanks Stubbornly Steers Greyhound into Sentimental Waters
With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play.1.5
With his almost supernatural likeability, impeccable reputation, and penchant for appearing in films rooted in American history, Tom Hanks has become a national father figure. The actor’s ongoing project, particularly urgent as we seek to redefine our relationship with our history and iconography, is to remind us of when the United States actually rose to the occasion. Unsurprisingly, this project often centers on World War II, one of the least controversial pinnacles of American collaboration on the world stage.
Continuing this tradition, Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound concerns the efforts to provide Britain with troops and supplies via Allied naval convoys on the Atlantic, which German U-boat “wolf packs” stalk and sink, attempting to break a Western blockade. Adapted by Hanks from C.S. Forester’s novel The Good Shephard, the film is a celebration of duty and competency that’s so quaint it’s almost abstract, as it arrives at a time of chaos, selfish and blinkered American governing, and a growing bad faith in our notion of our own legacy.
Set over a few days in 1942, the film dramatizes a fictionalized skirmish in the real-life, years-long Battle of the Atlantic. The American destroyer Greyhound, leader of a convoy that includes Canadian and British vessels, is commanded by Ernest Krause (Hanks), an aging naval officer with no experience in battle. Text at the start of the film explains that there’s a portion of the Atlantic that’s out of the range of air protection, called the Black Pit, in which convoys are especially vulnerable to the wolf packs. For 50 hours, Krause and his crew will be tested and severely endangered as they seek to cross this treacherous stretch of the sea.
This skeletal scenario has potential as a visceral thriller and as a celebration of Allied ingenuity and daring. Unfortunately, Hanks’s script never adds any meat to the skeleton. One can see Hanks’s passion for history in the loving details—in the references to depth charge supply, to windshield wipers freezing up, to the specific spatial relationships that are established (more through text than choreography) via the various vessels in this convoy. What Hanks loses is any sense of human dimension. In The Good Shephard, Krause is frazzled and insecure about leading men who’re all more experienced in battle than himself. By contrast, Krause’s inexperience is only mentioned in Greyhound as a testament to his remarkable, readymade leadership. The film’s version of Krause is stolid, undeterred, unshakably decent ol’ Tom Hanks, national sweetheart. As such, Greyhound suffers from the retrospective sense of inevitability that often mars simplified WWII films.
Greyhound’s version of Krause lacks the tormented grace of Hanks’s remarkable performance in Clint Eastwood’s Sully. This Krause also lacks the palpable bitterness of Hanks’s character in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, as well as the slyness that the actor brought to both Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can and Bridge of Spies. In Greyhound, Hanks falls prey to the sentimentality for which his detractors have often unfairly maligned him, fetishizing Krause’s selflessness in a manner that scans as ironically vain. As a screenwriter, Hanks throws in several writerly “bits” to show how wonderful Krause is, such as his ongoing refusal to eat during the Greyhound’s war with U-boats. (A three-day battle on an empty stomach seems like a bad idea.) Meanwhile, the crew is reduced to anonymous faces who are tasked with spouting jargon, and they are, of course, unquestionably worshipful of their commander, as are the voices that are heard from the other vessels in the convoy.
Schneider lends this pabulum a few eerie visual touches, as in the slinky speed of the German torpedoes as they barely miss the Greyhound, but the film is largely devoid of poetry. The stand-offs between the vessels are competently staged, but after a while you may suspect that if you’ve seen one torpedo or depth charge detonation you’ve seen them all. With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play. In short, Greyhound takes a fascinating bit of WWII history and turns it into a blockbuster version of bathtub war.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Karl Glusman, Stephen Graham, Elisabeth Shue, Tom Brittney, Devin Druid, Rob Morgan, Lee Norris, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Maximilian Osinski, Matthew Zuk, Michael Benz Director: Aaron Schneider Screenwriter: Tom Hanks Distributor: Apple TV+ Running Time: 91 min Rating: 2020 Year: PG-13
Review: The Beach House’s Moodiness Is Dissipated by Shaky Characterization
The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action.2
Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, in which a satellite crashes to Earth with an alien virus on board, is an expression of Space Age anxieties, about how the zeal to reach the stars could have unintended and dangerous consequences. In Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House, something lethal instead rises from the depths of the ocean, a kind of “alien” invasion coming up from below rather than down from the cosmos, better reflecting the environmental anxieties of our present day. It still feels like comeuppance for human hubris, but this time in the form of intraterrestrial, not extraterrestrial, revenge.
The potentially extinction-level event is played on a chamber scale as domestic drama. Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) are college sweethearts who go to his family’s beach house during the off-season, in a seemingly abandoned town, to work on their personal problems. They’re unexpectedly joined there by Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), old friends of Randall’s father, and the four agree to have dinner together. It’s then that Emily, an aspiring astrobiologist, conveniently provides some context for what’s about to happen, as she makes reverential conversation at the table about the mysterious depths of the sea and the sometimes extreme conditions in which new life can be created and thrive.
That night, while tripping balls on edibles, the couples look out and marvel at the sparkling, purple-tinged landscape outside their beach house. (The smell is less gloriously described as being like that of sewage and rotten eggs.) It’s not a hallucination, though, because whatever ocean-formed particulate is turning the night sky into a psychedelic dreamscape and the air cloudy is also making the characters sick. There’s some interesting and serendipitous overlap between the film’s central horror and our present Covid-19 crisis, as the malady seems to be airborne, affecting the lungs and making the characters cough. It also affects older people more quickly than the young, with the milder symptoms including exhaustion.
Brown emphasizes the oddness of nature with an eye for detail focused in close-up on, say, the eerie gooeyness of oysters, and by vivifying the film’s settings with bold colors: On the second night, the air glows mustard and red, recalling recent California wildfires. The ubiquitous haze also evokes John Carpenter’s The Fog and Frank Darabont’s The Mist, but other genre influences are also on display, from Cronenbergian body horror, as in the gory removal of a skin-burrowing worm, to zombie flicks, given the slowness of the hideously infected victims.
There’s not a lot of exposition about the illness, as Brown’s screenplay is primarily focused on Randall and Emily’s fight to survive the mysterious onslaught. But you probably won’t care if they do. The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action. The Beach House had convincingly argued that these two people shouldn’t be together, that their relationship has long passed its prime. He mocks her plans for advanced study and calls her life goals bullshit, even though he has none himself; he suggests that they move into the beach house, to live in a state of permanent vacation, while he tries to figure out what life means. When she’s high and getting sick and asking him for help, he dismisses her, lest it harsh his mellow. But instead of engineering his downfall, Midsommar-style, Emily does everything she can in the last third to help save him. It feels sudden, unearned, and unconvincing—enough to make you root for the monsters from the ocean floor.
Cast: Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Maryann Nagel, Jake Weber Director: Jeffrey A. Brown Screenwriter: Jeffrey A. Brown Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: The Old Guard Is a Would-Be Franchise Starter with No New Moves
Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action, the film is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts.2
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard is a modestly successful attempt to build a new fountain of franchise content out of a comic series with nearly limitless potential for spin-offs. The story kicks into motion with a team of four mercenaries with unique powers and an ancient bond setting off to rescue some kidnapped girls in South Sudan. Charlize Theron brings her customarily steely intensity to the role of the group’s cynical, burnt-out leader, Andy, who isn’t crazy about the idea since she doesn’t trust Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the ex-C.I.A. agent who hired them. Given how long it turns out that Andy has been doing this sort of thing, you would imagine that her comrades would listen.
The mission turns out to be a set-up, and the would-be rescuers are wiped out in a barrage of bullets. Except not, because Andy and her team are pretty much unkillable. So as their enemies are slapping each other on the back and conveniently looking the other way, the mercenaries haul themselves to their feet, bodies healing almost instantaneously, bullets popping out of closing wounds. Payback is swift but interesting, because for reasons likely having to do with their being many centuries old—the youngest, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), fought for Napoleon—the four quasi-immortals like to use swords in addition to automatic weaponry.
Written with glints of pulpy panache by Greg Rucka, the comic’s originator, The Old Guard sets up a high-potential premise and proceeds to do not very much with it. Rucka’s conceit is that this tiny group are among the very few people on Earth to have been born essentially immortal. This can be a good thing, but it can also prove problematic, as it means that they watch everybody they know age and die—a trope that was already somewhat worn by the time Anne Rice used it throughout her novels about ever-suffering vampires.
The plot of the film does relatively little after the showdown in South Sudan besides introduce a new member of the mercenary team, Nile (KiKi Layne), establish that Andy is tiring of the wandering warrior life, and show the group plotting revenge on Copley only to have that turn into a rescue mission that conveniently brings them all back together again. As part of the run-up to that mission, new recruit Nile, a Marine who goes AWOL from Afghanistan with Andy after her fellow soldiers see her seemingly fatal knife wound magically heal and treat her as some kind of witch, is introduced to life as a nearly invincible eternal warrior.
That rescue plot is simple to the point of being rote. Billionaire Big Pharma bro Merrick (Harry Melling), seemingly made up of equal parts Lex Luthor and Martin Shkreli, kidnaps two of Andy’s team in the hope of harvesting their DNA for blockbuster anti-aging drugs. Unfortunately for the film, that takes two of its most personable characters temporarily out of action. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) had their meet-cute while fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades and have been wildly in love ever since. After the two are captured and mocked by Merrick’s homophobic gunsels, Joe delivers a pocket soliloquy on his poetic yearning: “His kiss still thrills me after a millennium.” The moment’s romantic burn is more poignant by being clipped to its bare-minimal length and presented with the casual confidence one would expect from a man old enough to remember Pope Urban II.
In other ways, however, The Old Guard fails to explore the effects of living such lengthy lives. Asked by Nile whether they are “good guys or bad guys,” Booker answers that “it depends on the century.” While Rucka’s hard-boiled lines like that can help energize the narrative, it can also suggest a certain flippancy. When the film does deal with crushing weight of historical memory, it focuses primarily on Andy, who’s been around so long that her name is shortened from Andromache the Scythian (suggesting she was once the Amazon warrior queen who fought in the battle of Troy). Except for a brief flashback illustrating the centuries-long escapades of Andy and Quynh (Veronica Ngo) fighting for vaguely defined positive principles (one involved rescuing women accused of witchcraft), we don’t see much of their past. Similarly, except for Andy’s increasing cynicism about the positive impact of their roaming the Earth like do-gooder ronin, they seem to exist largely in the present.
That present is largely taken up with combat, particularly as Booker, Andy, and Nile gear up to rescue Nicky and Joe. Prince-Bythewood handles these scenes with a degree of John Wick-esque flair: Why just shoot a Big Pharma hired gun once when you can shoot him, flip him over, and then stab and shoot him again for good measure? However tight, though, the action scenes’ staging is unremarkable, with the exception of one climactic moment that’s so well-choreographed from an emotional standpoint that the impossibility of a multiplex crowd hooting and clapping in response makes the film feel stifled by being limited to streaming.
Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts. That will likely not stop further iterations from finding ways to plug these characters and their like into any historical moment that has room in it for high-minded mercenaries with marketable skills and a few centuries to kill.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling, Veronica Ngo Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood Screenwriter: Greg Rucka Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: We Are Little Zombies Is a Fun, Wildly Stylized Portrait of Grief
The film is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries.3
Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies follows the exploits of a group of tweens who meet at the funeral home where their deceased parents are being cremated. But, surprisingly, Hitari (Keita Ninomiya), Takemura (Mondo Okumura), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), and Ikiko (Satoshi Mizuno) are united less by sorrow and more by cool indifference, as they see their parents’ deaths as yet another tragedy in what they collectively agree is pretty much a “shit life.” As the socially awkward Hitari claims matter-of-factly in voiceover, “Babies cry to signal they need help. Since no one can help me, there’s no point in crying.”
Through a series of extended flashbacks, Nagahisa relates the kids’ troubled lives, never stooping to pitying or sentimentalizing them or their utter dismay with the adult world. The new friends’ deeply internalized grief and hopelessness are filtered wildly through a hyperreal aesthetic lens that’s indebted to all things pop, from psychedelia to role-playing games. It’s Nagashisa’s vibrant means of expressing the disconnect between the kids’ troubled lives and their emotionless reactions to the various tragedies that have befallen them.
With its chiptunes-laden soundtrack and chapter-like form, which mimics the levels of a video game, We Are Little Zombies will draw understandable comparisons to Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But it’s Nagisa Oshima’s Three Resurrected Drunkards that offers a more precise analogue to this film’s provocative rhyming of stylistic zaniness and extreme youthful alienation. Oshima’s anarchically playful farce stars the real-life members of the Folk Crusaders as a disaffected group of rebellious musicians, and when the kids of We Are Little Zombies decide to form a band to express themselves, they even perform a bossa nova version of the Folk Crusaders’s theme song for the 1968 film. This and the many other cultural touchstones in We Are Little Zombies are seamlessly weaved by Nagahisa into a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries, be they social media or a dizzying glut of pop-cultural creations.
Nagahisa’s aesthetic mirrors his main characters’ disconnect from reality, incorporating everything from stop-motion animation to pixelated scenes and overhead shots that replicate the stylings of 8-bit RPGs. At one point in We Are Little Zombies, an unsettling talk show appearance brings to mind what it would be like to have a bad acid trip on the set of an old MTV news program. Nagahisa accepts that the kids’ over-engagement with screen-based technology is inextricably embedded in their experience of reality and ultimately celebrates the sense of camaraderie and belonging that the foursome finds in pop artifacts and detritus. This is particularly evident once their band, the Little Zombies of the film’s title, starts to explore their antipathy toward and frustrations with a seemingly indifferent world.
The Little Zombies wield the same charming punk spirit as the film, and once instant fame reveals its viciously sharp teeth, Nagahisa doesn’t hold back from peering into the nihilistic abyss that stands before the kids. As in Three Resurrected Drunkards, We Are Little Zombies’s most despairing notes are couched in the distinctive language of pop culture. Hitari’s attempts to grab essential items before running away from the home of a relative (Eriko Hatsune) are staged as a video game mission. The band’s hit song—titled, of course, “We Are Little Zombies”—is an infectious, delightfully melodic banger all about their dispassionate existence. There’s even a fake death scene of the kids that, as in Three Resurrected Drunkards, effectively restarts the film’s narrative, allowing the characters to once again test their fate.
For all of this film’s reliance on the stylistic ticks of video games, its narrative arc isn’t limited to the typically linear journey embarked upon by many a gaming protagonist, and the foursome’s path leads neither to enlightenment nor even happiness per se. What they’ve discovered in the months since their parents’ deaths is a solidarity with one another, and rather than have them conquer their fears and anxieties, Nagahisa wisely acknowledges that their social disconnection will remain an ongoing struggle. He understands that by tapping into the unifying, rather than alienating, powers of pop culture, they’re better equipped to deal with whatever additional hard knocks that the modern world will inevitably throw their way.
Cast: Keita Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, Sena Nakajima, Kuranosukie Sasaki, Youki Kudoh, Sosuke Ikematsu, Eriko Hatsune, Jun Murakami, Naomi Nishida Director: Makoto Nagahisa Screenwriter: Makoto Nagahisa Distributor: Oscilloscope Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Palm Springs Puts a Fresh Spin on the Time-Loop Rom-Com
The film smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle.3
The pitch for Palm Springs likely went: “Edge of Tomorrow meets Groundhog Day but with a cool Coachella rom-com vibe.” All of those components are present and accounted for in Max Barbakow’s film, about two people forced to endure the same day of a Palm Springs wedding over and over again after getting stuck in a time loop. But even though the concept might feel secondhand, the execution is confident, funny, and thoughtful.
Palm Springs starts without much of a hook, sidling into its story with the same lassitude as its protagonist, Nyles (Andy Samberg). First seen having desultory sex with his shallow and always peeved girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner), Nyles spends the rest of the film’s opening stretch wandering around the resort where guests are gathered for the wedding of Misty’s friend, Tala (Camila Mendes), lazing around the pool and drinking a seemingly endless number of beers. “Oh yeah, Misty’s boyfriend” is how most refer to him with casual annoyance, and then he gives a winning wedding speech that one doesn’t expect from a plus-one.
The reason for why everything at the wedding seems so familiar to Nyles, and why that speech is so perfectly delivered, becomes clear after he entices the bride’s sister and maid of honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), to follow him out to the desert for a make-out session. In quick succession, Nyles is shot with an arrow by a mysterious figure (J.K. Simmons), Sarah is accidentally sucked into the same glowing vortex that trapped Nyles in his time loop, and she wakes up on the morning of the not-so-great day that she just lived through.
Although Palm Springs eventually digs into the knottier philosophical quandaries of this highly elaborate meet-cute, it takes an appealingly blasé approach to providing answers to the scenario’s curiosities. What initially led Nyles to the mysterious glowing cave in the desert? How has he maintained any semblance of sanity over what appears to be many years of this nightmare existence? How come certain people say “thank you” in Arabic?
This attitude of floating along the sea of life’s mysteries without worry parallels Nyles’s shrugging attitude about the abyss facing them. In response to Sarah’s panicked queries about why they are living the same day on repeat, Nyles throws out a random collection of theories: “one of those infinite time loop situations….purgatory….a glitch in the simulation we’re all in.” His ideas seem half-baked at first. But as time passes, it becomes clear that Nyles has been trapped at the wedding so long that not only has he lost all concept of time or even who he was before it began, his lackadaisical approach to eternity seems more like wisdom.
Darkly cantankerous, Sarah takes a while to come around to that way of thinking. Her version of the Kübler-Ross model starts in anger and shifts to denial (testing the limits of their time-loop trap, she drives home to Texas, only to snap back to morning in Palm Springs when she finally dozes off) before pivoting to acceptance. This segment, where Nyles introduces Sarah to all the people and things he’s found in the nooks and crannies of the world he’s been able to explore in one waking day, plays like a quantum physics rom-com with a video-game-y sense of immortality. After learning the ropes from Nyles (death is no escape, so try to avoid the slow, agonizing deaths), Sarah happily takes part in his Sisyphean games of the drunk and unkillable, ranging from breaking into houses to stealing and crashing a plane.
As places to be trapped for all eternity, this idyll doesn’t seem half bad at first. Barbakow’s fast-paced take on the pleasingly daffy material helps, as does the balancing of Milioti’s angry agita with Samberg’s who-cares recklessness. Eventually the story moves out of endlessly looping stasis into the problem-solution phase, with Sarah deciding she can’t waste away in Palm Springs for eternity. But while the question of whether or not they can escape via Sarah’s device for bridging the multiverse takes over the narrative to some degree, Palm Springs is far more interesting when it ruminates lightly on which puzzle they’re better off solving: pinning their hopes on escape or cracking another beer and figuring out how to be happy in purgatory. Palm Springs isn’t daring by any stretch, but it smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle that’s similar to Groundhog Day but without that film’s reassuring belief that a day can be lived perfectly rather than simply endured.
Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Millioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendez, Tyler Hoechlin, Chris Pang Director: Max Barbakow Screenwriter: Andy Siara Distributor: Neon, Hulu Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Hamilton Comes Home, Still Holding Conflicting Truths at Once
The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage.3.5
The actual physical production of Hamilton has never been at the heart of the show’s fandom. Its lyrics have been memorized en masse, Hamilton-inspired history courses have been created across grade levels, and its references have invaded the vernacular, but, for most, Hamilton’s liveness has been inaccessible, whether due to geography or unaffordability. Hamilton the film, recorded over two Broadway performances in 2016 with most of the original Broadway cast, winningly celebrates the still-surprisingly rich density of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score and the show’s much-heralded actors. But this new iteration is most stunning in its devotion to translating Hamilton’s swirling, churning storytelling—the work of director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler—to the screen.
Most films of live theater feel partial and remote. There’s usually a sense that with every move of the camera we’re missing out on something happening elsewhere on stage. The autonomy of attending theater in person—the ability to choose what to focus on—is stripped away. But instead of delimiting what we see of Hamilton, this film opens up our options. Even when the camera (one of many installed around, behind, and above the stage) homes in on a lone singer, the shots tend to frame the soloists in a larger context: We can watch Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), but we can also track the characters behind him or on the walkways above him. Every shot is rife with detail and movement: the rowers escorting Alexander Hamilton’s (Miranda) body to shore, Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones) hovering beneath a stairway as Hamilton confesses his infidelities to Burr, ensemble members dancing in the shadows of David Korins’s imposing set. There’s no space to wonder what might be happening beyond the camera’s gaze.
Off-setting the cast album’s appropriate spotlight on the show’s stars, the film, also directed by Kail, constantly centers the ensemble, even when they’re not singing, as they enact battles and balls or symbolically fly letters back and forth between Hamilton and Burr. Audiences who mainly know the show’s music may be surprised by how often the entire cast is on stage, and even those who’ve seen Hamilton live on stage will be delighted by the highlighted, quirky individuality of each ensemble member’s often-silent storytelling.
Kail shows impressive restraint, withholding aerial views and shots from aboard the spinning turntables at the center of the stage until they can be most potent. The film also convincingly offers Hamilton’s design as a stunning work of visual art, showcasing Howell Binkley’s lighting—the sharp yellows as the Schuyler Sisters take the town and the slowly warming blues as Hamilton seeks his wife’s forgiveness—just as thoughtfully as it does the performances.
And when the cameras do go in for a close-up, they shade lyrics we may know by heart with new meaning. In “Wait for It,” Burr’s paean to practicing patience rather than impulsiveness, Odom (who won a Tony for the role) clenches his eyes shut as he sings, “I am inimitable, I am an original,” tensing as if battling to convince himself that his passivity is a sign of strength and not cowardice. When Eliza Hamilton (Philippa Soo) glances upward and away from her ever-ascendant husband as she asks him, “If I could grant you peace of mind, would that be enough?,” it’s suddenly crystal clear that she’s wondering whether taking care of Alexander would be enough for herself, not for him, her searching eyes foreshadowing her eventual self-reliance. And there’s an icky intimacy unachievable in person when Jonathan Groff’s mad King George literally foams at the mouth in response to the ingratitude of his colonies.
The production’s less understated performances, like Daveed Diggs’s show-stealing turn (also Tony-winning) in the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and Renée Elise Goldsberry’s fiery embodiment (yes, also Tony-winning) of the shrewd, self-sacrificing Angelica Schuyler Church, benefit, too, from the way that the film’s pacing latches onto Miranda’s propulsive writing. In Jefferson’s return home, “What’d I Miss,” the camera angles change swiftly as if to keep up with Diggs’s buoyancy.
Despite Christopher Jackson’s warm and gorgeous-voiced performance, George Washington remains Hamilton’s central sticking point. While Jefferson receives a dressing down from Hamilton for practicing slavery, Washington, who once enslaved over 200 people at one time at Mount Vernon, shows up in Hamilton as a spotless hero who might as well be king if he wasn’t so noble as to step down. There’s a tricky tension at Hamilton’s core: Casting performers of color as white founding “heroes” allows the master narrative to be reclaimed, but it’s still a master narrative. For audiences familiar with the facts, the casting of black actors as slave owners (not just Jefferson) is an unstated, powerful act of artistic resistance against the truths of the nation’s founding. But for those learning their history from Hamilton, especially young audiences, they will still believe in Washington’s moral purity, even if they walk away picturing the first president as Christopher Jackson.
But Hamilton is complex and monumental enough of a work to hold conflicting truths at once. In attempting to recraft our understanding of America’s founding, it may fall short. In forcibly transforming the expectations for who can tell what stories on which stages, Hamilton has been a game-changer. And as a feat of musical theater high-wire acts, Miranda’s dexterity in navigating decades of historical detail while weaving his characters’ personal and political paths tightly together is matched only by his own ingenuity as a composer and lyricist of songs that showcase his characters’ brilliance without distractingly drawing attention to his own.
Dynamized by its narrative-reclaiming, race-conscious casting and hip-hop score, and built around timeline-bending reminders that America may be perpetually in the “battle for our nation’s very soul,” Hamilton, of course, also lends itself particularly easily to 2020 connections. But the greater gift is that Hamilton will swivel from untouchability as Broadway’s most elusive, priciest ticket to mass accessibility at a moment of keen awareness that, to paraphrase George Washington, history has its eyes on us. The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage. That we are sharing Hamilton here and now offers as much hope as Hamilton itself.
Cast: Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Phillipa Soo Director: Thomas Kail Screenwriter: Ron Chernow, Lin-Manuel Miranda Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 160 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020
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