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Understanding Screenwriting #27: Up, Summer Hours, A Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #27: Up, Summer Hours, A Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Up, Summer Hours, A Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, Easy Virtue, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story, but first…

Fan Mail: Brandon suggested I may have missed some details of How I Met Your Mother, and he certainly has been a little more perceptive about the show than I was. He’s right that the significance of the meeting with Stella is the connection to Tony and that it leads Ted to teaching. I will also buy Brandon’s point about the story being told the kids over one day, but I was getting in a dig that has bedeviled series television from the beginning: the set-up that is difficult to sustain. Here are three examples from different decades.

Racket Squad was an early fifties show, first in syndication, then on CBS. As I wrote in my book on the history of television writing, they dropped an interesting approach: “In the first episodes, [Captain] Braddock [of the Racket Squad] narrates the stories, but in the second person, addressing the victim of the con. This supposes that Braddock knows everything about the con before the victim tells him, which makes him rather obnoxious.” They changed the narration to third person.

In 1963-64 there was a ninety-minute series called Arrest and Trial. In the first 45-minutes, the cop (Ben Gazzara) arrested somebody. In the second 45-minutes, the defense attorney (Chuck Connors) proved they were innocent. As Sy Salkowitz, who wrote a couple of episodes, said, “If Ben Gazzara made a good arrest, Chuck Connors couldn’t get him off. If Chuck Connors got him off, it made Ben Gazzara look like a stupid ass.” The show died after a year, and it took another 25-years for Dick Wolf to figure out the simple solution to make it work: the lawyers in the second half of the show are THE PROSECUTORS. Duh.

In the first season of Crossing Jordan in 2001, Jordan solved crimes with the help of her ex-cop father by acting out what they knew about the crimes. It was obvious and clunky, and it was dropped fairly quickly.

Up (2009. Screenplay by Bob Peterson, Peter Docter, story by Peter Docter, Thomas McCarthy, Bob Peterson. Yes, in the onscreen credits, they avoid the “and” and “&” completely; it’s known as collaboration. 96 minutes): Nobody cared.

Up has been driving me nuts. In my book Understanding Screenwriting, I made the point in writing about Finding Nemo that the GAPS (Geniuses at Pixar) make a point of writing films that can only be done as animated films. You could not do a live action film about fish having those adventures. You could not do a live action film about cars with those personalities. You could not do a live action film about Monsters, Inc. In the book, I gave the 2003 animated film Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas as an example of an animated film that could have easily been done live action (except for Eris’s hair, which was beautifully animated). So here’s the story of Up: Carl, a cranky 78-year-old man, decides to fulfill his late wife Ellie’s dream of going off to Paradise Falls in South America. Being a former balloon salesman, he attaches hundreds of balloons to the house and with the Wilderness Explorer Russell as a stowaway, they fly off. In South America they discover Charles Muntz, the aged explorer who originally inspired both Carl and Ellie as kids, but he turns out not to be very likable. Carl and Russell protect a bird Muntz is trying to capture, and then new best friends Carl and Russell return to civilization to eat ice cream. Anything in there that requires animation? No. CGI effects for the house flying maybe, but not animation. The characters are real human beings, not fish, rats, or trash compactors. The locations could be found. It could have easily been a live action film.

But it isn’t. And it’s a brilliant ANIMATED film. How the hell did they do that? O.K., I know it’s the GAPS, but how the hell did the GAPS do that? Let’s take care of the obvious things first. As usual with the GAPS, there is a strong, strong story. Danny Munso’s excellent article in the May/June 2009 Creative Screenwriting will tell you how much work went into the process of developing the story. They spend a LONG time developing the story at Pixar, going off to help out on other films as a way of refreshing their brains. The effort shows in the final product. Near the beginning there is a four-minute montage of the life of Carl and Ellie that has received great praise, and rightly so. An article in the Los Angeles Times mentioned that as they originally laid out the montage, it ran twenty minutes. They cut it back to just what they needed. Pay attention to the details in the montage; EVERYTHING in it comes back throughout the picture, sometimes in surprising ways. Meanwhile, it works because you are so caught up in the story and the characters.

Also as usual with the GAPS, there is great characterization. Carl is not just a cranky old man, although he is that as well. Having seen his life with Ellie, we know what all of the adventures he goes through mean to him. Ellie essentially disappears early in the film, but her presence stays with Carl and us. And, as the writers told Munso, the character of Russell calls to mind the character of Ellie, so we can see why, in these circumstances, Carl puts up with Russell, however grumpily. And Ellie’s character pays off beautifully at the end when Carl once again opens up her “My Adventure Book” and gets a surprise.

Writing about WALL-E in US#2, I mentioned that the GAPS are great at writing for the performance of the designers and animators as well as the voice actors, and that is true here. We get the house (and look at how much they get out of the house), the balloons, the scenery, and Muntz’s dirigible.

O.K., all of those things (story, character, visual look) could be done in live action, so we are back to the central question of today’s seminar: why animation for this story? A friend of my wife’s was for many years a medical illustrator at UCLA. Why have a medical illustrator when you can have photographs? Photographs give you so much more detail. Yes, but a good illustrator can draw only what the surgeon, for example, needs to see. How many times have I mentioned that as a writer you only should write what you NEED in a film? The GAPS have used that ability of animation to isolate only what you need to tell THIS story, which in turn focuses our attention on the essentials. They have done this because for twenty some odd years they have been working as a team refining their understanding of their medium (animation) and the stories they bring to it. I doubt if they could have brought off Up when they started, but that they can now is a tribute not only to their talents and collaboration, but to the institution of Pixar. Sometimes individual geniuses are great, but in filmmaking sometimes collaborative genius is essential.

Oh, one other thing. When my wife and I went out to see Up, our intent was to see it in 3-D. The 3-D showing was sold out, so we figured we’d see it in 2-D, since that show was only ten minutes later. Neither we nor the rest of the audience seemed to be bothered by the 2-D version. I am sure the 3-D version has some stunning visuals (mind the GAPS), but our audience was so caught up in the story and characters it gave it a round of applause at the end. In other words, Jeffrey Katzenberg, nobody gave a flying fuck it wasn’t in 3-D.

Summer Hours (2008. Written by Olivier Assayas. 103 minutes): An auteur film, but not really.

As French producers have discovered over the last several decades, you let an auteur director make the film he wants and it is usually a mess: lots of jump cuts, fancy camerawork, people sulking, and not very interesting scripts. So while Assayas is definitely an auteur (he directed as well as wrote this film), he has written a brilliant screenplay for himself, much more coherent than those for some of his other films. Tony Rayns, one of Sight & Sound’s regular critics, described the film in his August 2008 review as “Not exactly plotless but with no clearcut structure.” Which is what you get when you let auteurist critics try to deal with screenwriting.

The plot is very simple on the surface: When Hélène, the 75-year-old mother dies, her three adult children must decide what to do not only with her house out in the provinces, but with the artwork in the house. Frédéric, the oldest and the only one still living in France, would like to keep the house and artwork together and in the family. Adrienne, a designer who lives in New York, and Jérémie, who is living in China and about to move there permanently, would just as soon sell everything and split the money. In an American film you could see this quickly turning into a raging melodrama with lots of yelling and screaming and family secrets spilling out all over the place. It will surprise you to learn that there are only a couple of scenes in which voices are raised in this film. It is obvious the siblings disagree, but equally obvious they love each other.

That plot may justify Rayns’s “not exactly plotless,” but the structure is very rich and complex. This is not just about the family, this is also about France, French culture, and globalization. At the family get-together in the beginning, before Hélène dies, she goes over with Frédéric what is in the house and what she would like done with it. We can’t follow all the names and art pieces, but we get enough. Later, we see the representatives of the Musée D’Orsay and others going through the house and evaluating what is there. This scene works beautifully because we know what these things MEAN to the family. And that scene is matched near the end when Frédéric and his wife are “visiting” several of the objects on display at the Musée. American films tend to look more at individuals rather than the culture, but Summer Hours is as much about culture as character.

Assayas also beautifully structures the characters. In addition to the siblings and their stories, there is Frédéric’s wife Lisa, who is a classic example of someone who has married into the family and as a partial outsider sees it a lot clearer than the insiders. You know someone like that in your family. We first see this during the family gathering, then it pays off in the scene in the Musée.

Frédéric’s and Lisa’s daughter, Sylvie, the oldest of the grandchildren, is first seen in an informal treasure hunt at the family gathering. Then she disappears from the film, only to come back when Frédéric has to pick her up after her arrest for shoplifting. I thought this was an extraneous scene, but it’s not. The three siblings have figured out that the kids are not really interested in the house and therefore are not part of the discussion on what to do with it. Sylvie’s attitude in the police station would seem to confirm that. Then in the final sequence Sylvie and her younger brother and a group of their friends have a last weekend party at the house. You can see what’s going to happen. Only it doesn’t, as Assayas the screenwriter pulls off two or three twists, including a final one that provides the most sublime ending of a film since Julie Delpy’s lack of reaction to Ethan Hawke’s “I know” in Before Sunset.

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009. Screenplay by Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon, based on characters created by Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon. 105 minutes): Bigger, better, but not necessarily funnier.

One thing before we start: Not only does Charlie Dickens need to get a new agent (see US#26), but so does Milan Trenc. And who’s he when he’s at home? He wrote the book that the 2006 Night at the Museum was based on. He was credited on that film, but not on the sequel, while the two screenwriters get credits not only for screenplay but for the characters. O.K., O.K., they did elaborate on what was essentially a children’s book, but since I am required by blood oath to defend writers, I’m just saying…

I was mildly amused by the first film, but it struck me as somewhat underdeveloped. While generally I am not in favor of sequels becoming bigger, this is something of an exception. The original focused on Larry Dailey, who ends up working as a night guard at the American Museum of Natural History. The exhibitions come to life at night and hi-jinks ensue. Some of them were funny, but I felt more could be done with the idea.

When Garant and Lennon were asked to do the sequel, they decided to take some of those characters they created for the first Museum to the Smithsonian in Washington. The setup for the sequel is that the old exhibits are being shipped off to storage in the Federal Archives, which for purposes of this film are under the Smithsonian. Larry, who has kept up his friendship with the exhibits, learns that the tablet that enables them to come to life has been shipped with them and could cause harm if it falls into evil hands, which of course it does. Since the Smithsonian is several different museums spread out over the Mall, this gives the writers a lot more to play with. The brother of the boy Pharoah in the first film plans to use the tablet to bring to life the most evil characters in history, including Napoleon, Ivan the Terrible, and Al Capone, to help in his plan to take over the world. He tries, Larry tries to stop him, hi-jinks ensue. Sounds like a plot to me.

What is it with reviewers and scripts? Both the reviewer of the film and columnist Peter Bart in Weekly Variety (May 25-31), complained, with Bart commenting, “Most important, this is a film that displays a truly surreal sensibility in that it has no tenable plot.” What they were both thrown by is the fact that structure in gag comedy is not as crucial as it is in other genres. Look at the reviews of the “early, funny” Woody Allen movies and they all complain about the lack of plot. Look up the original reviews of the Marx Brothers movies and you will find the same thing. The plot in the new movie is a very simple framework upon which to hang the gags. A picture like this depends on the gags, and they are as surreal and off-the-wall (literally in the sequences when paintings and photographs come to life) as anything in Duck Soup. The ratio of hits to misses is very high in this movie.

Yet I was not laughing, and usually I am an easy laugh. But I was not laughing because I was so charmed by surrealism of what they came up with that I did not mind not laughing. I have that response sometimes to Buster Keaton’s stuff as well. The way they use the famous photo of the sailor kissing the girl in Times Square at the end of World War II is just plain ingenious. Watching one of Jeff Koons’ balloon pieces come to life is charming. The quick meeting of Amelia Earhart and the Tuskegee Airman comes with a throwaway line that contains more social comment that most films manage in two hours. A comedy can work if it makes you laugh a lot. It can also work, as this one does, by making you enjoy what you are, if not laughing at, smiling at.

The writers, who are performers as well as writers, have also written great parts for the actors, which help hold the film together. I think this may be Ben Stiller’s best work, surprisingly subtle in his reactions to the craziness going on around him. The evil Pharoah is Kahmunrah and is played by the great Hank Azaria. Azaria is imitating the voice of Boris Karloff, who starred in the original The Mummy. Bill Hader is as good a General Custer as Errol Flynn was in They Died With Their Boots On, but in a very different key. (Hader was equally good a few months ago in a more realistic role in Adventureland. I am not sure he is going to be a star, but he’s already a better character actor than his work on Saturday Night Live would lead you to believe.)

I love Carla Gugino, but she was not particularly memorable in the first Museum film. The equivalent part here is Amelia Earhart, played by Amy Adams as a combination of Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell, and Claudette Colbert. Garant and Lennon have given her some great thirties dialogue and she runs with it. She more than holds her own against the great CGI effects. Shawn Levy, the director, was quoted in the June 1 New Yorker on what he discovered about male members of the audience, “I spent two years working on this highly complex movie, loaded with FX and C.G.I. [sic. Somebody tell David Remnick that Industry Standard is no periods] stuff, the most memorable visual turns out to be Amy’s, uh, rear in her jodhpurs.” Would you consider that writing for performance?

Easy Virtue (2008. Screenplay by Stephan Elliott & Sheridan Jobbins, based on the play by Noël Coward. 97 minutes): It’s Coward, but not as funny.

While Noël Coward’s great plays such as Private Lives, Design for Living, and Blithe Spirit (currently on Broadway; Congratulations to Angela Lansbury for her Tony for it; Geezer Power Rules!) are often revived, the 1926 play this film is based on is not, and with good reason. As Stephan Elliott told Peter Clines in an interview in the May 22 Creative Screenwriting Weekly, what we think of as the great Noël Coward wit simply is not there in this early drama. Coward himself did not think much of the play and those who have seen Eliot Stannard’s 1927 film adaptation are not that crazy about it, either. (Yes, yes, I know, the 1927 film was directed by the fat little kid Stannard was teaching everything he needed to know to make movies; see Charles Barr’s elegant English Hitchcock for details of Stannard’s importance to the kid’s career.)

When Stephan Elliott, who also directed, and his writing partner took on the project, they decided to bring some Coward-like wit to the story. There is some, some of it probably from the play, which Elliott found rather vicious, but the melodrama aspects of it keep crowding it out. In the play Larita is an older woman who marries a young British man, John, and goes with him to his parents’ country house, which she finds absolutely stifling. The play is set entirely in the house, but Elliott and Jobbins have opened it up, although that is not entirely the word for it, since they have made sure that even in the exterior scenes Larita is hemmed in by others. Though they have made Larita closer in age to John, there are still a number of lines that suggest a greater age difference than we can see. The writers have brought the period forward to 1929, to judge from a reference to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and Larita has now become a race car driver cheated out of winning the Grand Prix at Monte Carlo because she is a woman. She is first cousin to Night’s Amelia Earhart, but the writers here have not given her great dialogue Garant and Lennon have given Earhart. The costumers here have also not given Jessica Biel the formfitting jodhpurs the other costumers gave Amy Adams.

I have not read the original play, but it is obvious from its production history that Larita is the star part. The film is written that way as well, with the writers picking up and expanding on Larita’s wish to be rid of the stuffy upper-class English society. Jessica Biel has given some good performances (The Illusionist), and she gives a good performance here. Unfortunately, it is not the required movie-star performance. She does not come in and command the screen the way she needs to do. She is not helped by the platinum blonde hair, the makeup and the cinematography. Biel is not as physically luscious here as she usually is, which is too bad, because that could have given her performance an interesting texture. Kristin Scott Thomas does take command as John’s mother, who is determined to keep up appearances. Thomas knows her way around a bitchy line, and while Biel holds her own in that department, we have to score it advantage Thomas.

The drama sort of works, and there is a nice moment when John’s father, played by many women’s definitive Mr. Darcy, Colin Firth, does the tango with Larita when John won’t. Which nicely sets up the very satisfying ending.

The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story (2009. No writing credit. 101 minutes): Collaboration.

Robert (lyrics) and Richard (music) Sherman came to work for Walt Disney as the only songwriters on staff at the studio. They not only wrote the songs for Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book, but “It’s a Small World” for the exhibit of the same name at the 1964 World’s Fair and the later rides at the Disney theme parks. The pre-credits sequence establishes most of that and then gives us the kicker: the two brothers couldn’t stand to be around each other when they weren’t working together. The film is made by Gregory V. Sherman and Jeff Sherman, two cousins, each one the son of one of the brothers. They had not spoken to each other for nearly forty years when they met up and decided to do this film. They were not able to reconcile their fathers, but they have come up with a terrific film that shows you how the brothers managed to create such terrific songs while not otherwise speaking to each other.

As we have talked about on many occasions, documentaries can give us wonderful characters, and the brothers, who are still alive, are definitely characters, in every sense of the term. They are surrounded by other interesting characters as well, many of whom we see interviewed for the film. We get not only interviews with actors like Julie Andrews and Haley Mills, but musicians like John Williams (there is some wonderful footage of a much younger Williams hanging out with the brothers; who knew the composer of Star Wars used to be a hippie?), Randy Newman (no slouch at doing songs for animated films himself), and Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin).

What is at the heart of the film is the collaboration of the brothers, and especially their collaboration with Walt Disney himself. I am not the only person to point out that John Lasseter, the head of Pixar, who is also interviewed, is the closest thing we have to Disney in his sense of story and his belief in the collaborative process. See the comments on Up above for details. Seeing this film the day after Up gave me a real sense of connection between the past and the present in animation. And quite frankly, it also made me appreciate how much better the animation is in some Pixar films than it is in some of the Disney classics.

As I mentioned in US#2 about The Order of Myths, one question that nearly always comes up with documentaries is what was left on the cutting room floor. One person who is never mentioned in the film, and who appears only briefly and unidentified in one clip, is Michael Eisner. Eisner took over Disney in the early eighties and revived the studio, bringing back animated musicals. He was the Emperor and Pope of the studio, appearing on television to introduce Disney shows. Why isn’t he here?

One possible answer to that comes from Alan Menken, who talks in the film about coming to the studio to do The Little Mermaid. He was told the Sherman Brothers had an office down the hall, but the person telling him said it in a rather dismissive way. That may have come from Eisner, since the Pope and Emperor sets the tone, in this case a deep lack of respect for tradition.

I was thinking about this after I saw the film and I was reminded of a visit I made to the Abbey at St. Florian, outside of Linz, Austria, in 1998. We were shown around the apartments that had been grandly decorated for potential visits from Popes and Emperors (you didn’t think I was just being snarky about Eisner, did you?). Nobody was particularly impressed, especially when we learned the Popes and Emperors almost never visited. But down at the end of the same hallway, there were two little non-descript rooms. One had a small bed, the other had a table, chair and piano. We were enthralled. These were the rooms when Anton Bruckner lived and composed.

Power fades, talent abides.


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

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The 25 Best Films of 2019

Many of the best films this year are concerned with indulgent, unbridled madness, offering formal excess as a parallel to our modern cacophony.

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The 25 Best Films of 2019
Photo: Netflix

This was a great, if bleak, year for cinema, full of mixed signals. As Disney consolidates a monopoly on popular culture, aided by a government that cheers corporate overreach, there are still too many scrappy, visionary films to count. Many such films were distributed by streaming sites like Amazon and Netflix, the latter of which is beginning to suggest 1990s-era Miramax, in terms of making fruitful risks that refute the mega-blockbuster mentality. But there’s a growing disconnect, between what’s available for most people to see and what critics champion, that parallels our era of growing political polarization.

More than ever, we live in an era in which people choose their own news and are hyper-focused on their own niches, which offers a paradox: While there’s freedom in such a lifestyle, it’s also deeply isolating. This context partially explains the exhilaration of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, insular works that, in their popularity and acclaim, recall the audience-unifying glories of ‘70s-era American pop cinema, and of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, an intoxicating, perhaps reactionary fantasy that rues the fading of a diseased patriarchal life that was nevertheless responsible for the comforts of pop culture.

Quentin Tarantino’s tender and transcendent film is, most explicitly, a paean to Hollywood’s ability to control an undivided public’s attention via he-men westerns and musicals and TV arcana. Tarantino, dangerously and daringly, glorifies a less obviously political cinema, implicitly regretting the divisions that would mark the ‘70s and the present. Such division fueled movies this year, that, while troubling, were undeniably in sync with America’s bitter underbelly, such as Todd Phillips’s Joker, Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, and S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete.

Many of the best films this year are concerned with indulgent, unbridled madness, offering formal excess as a parallel to our modern cacophony. One example is Harmony Korine’s extraordinary, absurdly overlooked The Beach Bum, a lurid and beautiful poem of privilege and self-absorption. Another is Bong Joon-ho’s smash hit Parasite, which suggests that every oppressed person oppresses someone lower on the food chain. This year, as political divisions deepen, cinema became more and more inventive with satirizing capitalism while simultaneously rendering its narcotic charms. There were also moments of immersive tranquility and introspection, offered by Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s The Gospel of Eureka, Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and Khalik Allah’s Black Mother, among others.

Do we suffer from too much? Are there too many films, too many hot takes, too much detritus to wade through? In an age of endless excess, the critic’s, and the audience’s, job is to discern patterns and meanings, to whittle chaos down to manageable stimuli. The best films of the year found artists grappling with this very chaos, mining the emotion of the spectacle of the political. Chuck Bowen

Click here for individual contributor ballots and a list of the films that ranked 26–50.


The Gospel of Eureka

25. The Gospel of Eureka

In 2014, Eureka Springs became the first city in Arkansas to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s The Gospel of Eureka doesn’t mention this fact, nor does it seek to explain why a town deeply rooted in Christian faith also has an outsized population of gay and non-binary citizens. The documentary isn’t a study of juxtaposition so much as an exploration of how the many strands of a person or location’s identity can’t easily be disentangled. Eureka Springs, both haunted by and economically beholden to the legacy of noted Christian nationalist Gerald L.K. Smith, proves a vivid backdrop through which to explore how neighbors overcome difference and embrace progress. Like October Country, Mosher and Palmieri’s latest is uniquely attuned to the fickle whims of history, politics, and biographical circumstance. Where their earlier film wondered how both the economics and personal trauma of war reverberated through a family struggling with decades of abuse, despair, and rebellion, this one communicates an atmosphere of persistent connection despite seemingly incongruous belief systems and lifestyles. The Gospel of Eureka’s overriding theme is mutability, and its one true enemy seems to be any form of dogmatism. Christopher Gray


Chinese Portrait

24. Chinese Portrait

As a recording apparatus, the camera no longer disturbs or announces its presence. It’s a ghost in the room, as banal as a limb. Xiaoshuai Wang restores the exceptional status of that most revolutionary of technical devices in Chinese Portrait, a series of short-lived tableaux vivants for which the gravitational pull of the camera is re-staged. The simplicity of bodies barely moving before a camera that brings their quotidian temporality into a halt is nothing short of a radical proposition in our digital era—in the context of a culture obsessed with using cameras precisely as anti-contemplation devices, and a film industry still so invested in producing artificial drama in order to tell its stories. In Chinese Portrait, there’s no need for storylines, tragedy, or spectacle for drama to emerge. The drama is in the minutia of the mise-en-scène, in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t. The drama is in the camera’s de-escalating force, its ability to refuse the endless excitation it could provide in favor of one little thing: elderly people stretching in a park, black and brown horses in a field, two of them licking each other’s backs. This is the camera not as a Pandora’s box, but as a sharp laser beam with curatorial intentions. Diego Semerene


The Competition

23. The Competition

Claire Simon’s The Competition follows the rigorous selection process for Paris’s iconic film and television school La Fémis, which every year accepts 60 new students, out of some 1,000 applicants. Throughout, Simon’s camera quietly observes the various phases of the selection process, aware that to best capture the anxiousness of a moment is to not embellish it. As a result, we come to take great pleasure in watching the most menial of tasks, such as a committee member counting numbers or checking boxes on a form. While those responsible for the selection process keep things mostly courteous among themselves during deliberations, it’s precisely when conflict emerges around a candidate that we realize how gracious Simon is with her subjects. It would have been easy to play up the drama or drum up miserabilist tales around the high hopes of candidates and the frustrations that follow. Simon focuses instead on how candidates trying to make a case for themselves are often self-contradicting, and as such difficult to truly assess; the film is also about the impossibility of objective criteria when it comes to such matters. The truly awful performances are never shown, only referred to in passing after they happened. This isn’t some reality show that allows us to revel in schadenfreude or root for charismatic underdogs. Semerene


Ad Astra

22. Ad Astra

Throughout Ad Astra, James Gray uses the grand metaphors of science fiction to mourn the distance between a father and son that’s so often internalized as self-alienation. This repression, Gray underlines, has utility in a rationalized society: Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is the perfect astronaut because nothing unnerves him, as testified to by his diligently recorded pulse rate, oxygen levels, and the other defining statistics of his thoroughly technologized body. The inhuman coldness his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), foisted upon him is precisely what enables him to survive his epic quest from Earth to Neptune. Among Ad Astra‘s more universal themes is coping with and moving beyond the sins of previous generations, with overtones that evoke the climate catastrophe that global capitalism has prepared for us. When Roy finally finds his elusive target, floating out there somewhere around the rings of Neptune, Gray captures a heartbreak that will be familiar to many: a confrontation between a grown son and his erstwhile hero, both appearing suddenly small, frail, and all too fallibly human. Pat Brown


Climax

21. Climax

Gaspar Noé’s Climax reminds us how pleasurable it can be when a filmmaker essentially discards plot for the sake of unhinged formalism. The film works on two levels, as it’s a celebration of body and movement, featuring astonishing and painful-looking choreography, as well as an examination of the sexual resentment that drives a mixed-race dancing troupe. In early passages, actors more or less speak to the camera, a device that suggests a blunt clearing of the air. Later, when the dancers succumb to the effects of LSD-spiked sangria, Climax becomes a brilliant fever dream, an orgy of raw, flamboyantly colored psychosis that’s truer to the spirit of Dario Argento’s Suspiria than Luca Guadignino’s recent remake. Above all else, Climax feels pure, as Noé cuts to the root of his obsession with the intersection between sex, violence, and power. It’s a horror musical of hard, beautiful nihilism. Bowen

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Slant’s Best Films of 2019: The Runners-Up and Individual Ballots

These are the films that just missed making it onto our list of the best films of 2019, and our contributors’ individual ballots.

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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

From Chuck Bowen’s introduction to Slant Magazine’s Top 25 Films of 2019: “This was a great, if bleak, year for cinema, full of mixed signals. As Disney consolidates a monopoly on popular culture, aided by a government that cheers corporate overreach, there are still too many scrappy, visionary films to count. Many such films were distributed by streaming sites like Amazon and Netflix, the latter of which is beginning to suggest 1990s-era Miramax, in terms of making fruitful risks that refute the mega-blockbuster mentality. But there’s a growing disconnect, between what’s available for most people to see and what critics champion, that parallels our era of growing political polarization.” Click here to read the feature and see if your favorite films of the year made our list. And see below for a list of the films that just missed making it onto our list, followed by our contributors’ individual ballots.


The Runners-Up:

26. The Plagiarists
27. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
28. The Lighthouse
29. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
30. End of the Century
31. Ray & Liz
32. The Wild Pear Tree
33. Honeyland
34. In My Room
35. Agnès by Varda
36. Her Smell
37. Dragged Across Concrete
38. The Image Book
39. Diane
40. Asako I & II
41. I Lost My Body
42. Gemini Man
43. Shadow
44. In Fabric
45. Us
46. The Mountain
47. Our Time
48. Little Women
49. The Dead Don’t Die
50. Diamantino


The Ballots:


Chuck Bowen

1. The Irishman
2. An Elephant Sitting Still
3. Her Smell
4. The Beach Bum
5. Diane
6. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
7. Marriage Story
8. Pain and Glory
9. Climax
10. The Competition

Honorable Mention: High Flying Bird, One Child Nation, American Factory, The Souvenir, Grass, Ray & Liz, Dragged Agaainst Concrete, Uncut Gems, The Gospel of Eureka, Ash Is Purest White

Pat Brown

1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
2. Uncut Gems
3. Peterloo
4. Marriage Story
5. Midsommar
6. The Gospel of Eureka
7. The Farewell
8. The Souvenir
9. Transit
10. Ad Astra

Honorable Mention: Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Irishman, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Ash Is Purest White, John Wick 3: Parabellum, The Beach Bum, Knives Out, Luce, Synonyms, Us

Jake Cole

1. Ash Is Purest White
2. Uncut Gems
3. The Irishman
4. High Life
5. La Flor
6. The Souvenir
7. An Elephant Sitting Still
8. Parasite
9. Transit
10. Black Mother

Honorable Mention: I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, Ad Astra, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Pain & Glory, A Hidden Life, Asako I & II, The Wild Pear Tree, Little Women, End of the Century, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Clayton Dillard

1. Uncut Gems
2. Climax
3. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
4. La Flor
5. High Life
6. Ash is Purest White
7. Pain & Glory
8. In My Room
9. Gemini Man
10. The Competition

Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Atlantics, The Beach Bum, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Black Mother, Diamantino, Marriage Story, Ray & Liz, The Silence of Others, Under the Silver Lake

Ed Gonzalez

1. Transit
2. Long Day’s Journey into Night
3. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
4. Black Mother
5. Ad Astra
6. Peterloo
7. The Competition
8. Ray & Liz
9. The Irishman
10. Climax

Honorable Mention: The Souvenir, An Elephant Sitting Still, Parasite, Asako I & II, End of the Century, Marriage Story, The Gospel of Eureka, The Beach Bum, Dragged Across Concrete, The Plagiarists

Christopher Gray

1. Transit
2. Atlantics
3. Parasite
4. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
5. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
6. I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians
7. Us
8. End of the Century
9. Ash is Purest White
10. Dark Waters

Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Asako I & II, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Black Mother, An Elephant Sitting Still, La Flor, Gemini Man, The Irishman, The Souvenir, Uncut Gems

Wes Greene

1. Uncut Gems
2. Marriage Story
3. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
4. La Flor
5. Transit
6. A Hidden Life
7. In My Room
8. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
9. End of the Century
10. Ash Is Purest White

Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Diane, An Elephant Sitting Still, Her Smell, The Image Book, Parasite, Peterloo, The Plagiarists, The Souvenir, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

Oleg Ivanov

1. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
2. The Lighthouse
3. A Hidden Life
4. To Dust
5. Shadow
6. In Fabric
7. Pain & Glory
8. Aniara
9. Parasite
10. Rolling Thunder Revue

Honorable Mention: The Mountain, Diamantino, Rezo, The Wild Pear Tree, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, Her Smell, Birds of Passage, Hail Satan?, Leto, The Silence of Others

Joshua Minsoo Kim

1. The Plagiarists
2. An Elephant Sitting Still
3. Chinese Portrait
4. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
5. Uncut Gems
6. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
7. Parasite
8. Suburban Birds
9. Black Mother
10. Marriage Story

Honorable Mention: Atlantics, Grass, Honeyland, The Irishman, The Lighthouse, Non-Fiction, Our Time, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Ray & Liz, Varda by Agnes

Carson Lund

1. Transit
2. The Irishman
3. The Souvenir
4. A Hidden Life
5. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
6. The Plagiarists
7. The Mountain
8. Ray & Liz
9. The Beach Bum
10. Dragged Across Concrete

Honorable Mention: The Hottest August, Dark Waters, Marriage Story, Atlantics, Empty Metal, Uncut Gems, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Ad Astra, High Life, Our Time

Sam C. Mac

1. Ash Is Purest White
2. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
3. Waves
4. Chinese Portrait
5. The Beach Bum
6. Uncut Gems
7. Asako I & II
8. The Gospel of Eureka
9. A Hidden Life
10. Pasolini

Honorable Mention: Long Day’s Journey into Night, Grass, 3 Faces, Peterloo, Our Time, Transit, The Plagiarists, Shadow, In Fabric, Suburban Birds

Niles Schwartz

1. The Irishman
2. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
3. The Souvenir
4. A Hidden Life
5. Pain & Glory
6. Peterloo
7. Atlantics
8. Climax
9. The Dead Don’t Die
10. Transit

Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Black Mother, Diane, Dragged Across Concrete, High Flying Bird, Marriage Story, Parasite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Rolling Thunder Revue, Uncut Gems

Diego Semerene

1. Agnès by Varda
2. The Wild Pear Tree
3. I Lost My Body
4. Ash is Purest White
5. The Competition
6. Chinese Portrait
7. Parasite
8. Sauvage
9. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
10. Honeyland

Honorable Mention: Long Day’s Journey into Night, 3 Faces, Atlantics, What You Gonna Do When the World Is on Fire?, Knife + Heart, Non-Fiction, Celebration, The Image Book, Black Mother, Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Derek Smith

1. Uncut Gems
2. La Flor
3. Transit
4. The Souvenir
5. Parasite
6. Atlantics
7. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
8. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
9. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
10. The Beach Bum

Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Ash is the Purest White, Black Mother, Diamantino, A Hidden Life, High Life, Honeyland, The Hottest August, The Irishman, Marriage Story

Keith Uhlich

1. Peterloo
2. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
3. La Flor
4. The Irishman
5. Pain & Glory
6. Domino
7. The Gospel of Eureka
8. Chained for Life
9. Under the Silver Lake
10. Atlantics

Honorable Mention: The Dead Don’t Die, The Farewell, Gemini Man, A Hidden Life, High Flying Bird, Knives Out, In Fabric, Our Time, Shadow, Transit

Keith Watson

1. Parasite
2. Uncut Gems
3. The Image Book
4. The Lighthouse
5. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
6. High Life
7. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
8. The Irishman
9. The Gospel of Eureka
10. Honeyland

Honorable Mention: Ash Is Purest White, Chinese Portrait, Climax, Cold Case Hammarskjöld, Hustlers, Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Mountain, Our Time, Los Reyes, The Souvenir

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Review: Seberg Is an Ill-Defined Ode to an Icon of the French New Wave

Throughout, the filmmakers occlude the most fascinating and potentially powerful elements of Jean Seberg’s history.

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Seberg
Photo: Amazon Studios

During her return to Hollywood in the late 1960s, Jean Seberg became a visible supporter of the Black Panther Party. This put her on the watch list of J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I., and, hounded by their surveillance and muckraking, she would die of an apparent suicide in 1979. It’s a tragic story, but on its face, it’s not material for a political thriller, even if Benedict Andrews’s Seberg tries halfheartedly to make it one.

In transforming Seberg’s life into a plot-heavy narrative of secrets, intrigue, and betrayals, the filmmakers occlude the most fascinating and potentially powerful elements of her history. And, along the way, they do something of a disservice to the actress’s memory by stopping short of depicting her tragic end—concluding the film, of all places, at the end of a redemptive arc for Jack Solomon, an F.B.I. agent played by Jack O’Connell.

Kristen Stewart plays Seberg as a basically honest but somewhat impulsive woman whose fragility is almost always apparent, given the unsteady gazes and fidgety movements that are Stewart’s trademarks as an actor. It’s a performance that lacks a certain specificity. Even if Seberg suffered from doubts, she could put on a certain small-town Midwestern solidness, as is apparent in interviews from the ‘60s. Stewart’s indifferent imitation of the real Seberg’s diction-coach-inflected Midwestern accent also sticks out for its inconsistency, constantly pulling the viewer out of 1968 and muddling our sense of who this woman is meant to be.

But if Stewart’s Seberg is vaguely drawn, she’s a Rembrandt portrait in comparison to the cardboard F.B.I. agent that Andrews and screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse construct as the secondary main character. The film constantly intercuts between Seberg’s activism and bid for Hollywood stardom and Solomon’s surveillance of and growing sympathy for her. A decent, milquetoast G-man, Solomon essentially exists here to recuperate the image of the F.B.I., even as he’s portrayed as being in charge of the campaign against Seberg. While his hypermasculine colleagues trade racist jokes and exploit their male privilege—patently illustrated in an extraneous scene in which his partner, Carl (Vince Vaughn), essentially commits domestic abuse over dinner—Solomon is set up as the idealized model of an F.B.I. agent, a consummate professional interested only in uncovering crimes.

Admittedly, some of the more interesting parts of Seberg come from Solomon’s research: As he watches iconic moments from the actress’s career, recreated by Stewart, he begins to assemble a portrait of a woman damaged by both Hollywood’s and the federal government’s efforts to control her life. In scenes that might have had more impact if either character had more definition, Seberg imprints herself on Solomon through black-and-white footage and surveillance tapes, and, at times, Seberg gestures toward a Hollywoodized version of The Lives of Others. Eventually, Solomon begins informing on himself, making anonymous phone calls to Seberg to tell her she’s under watch. But Solomon is too conveniently good, too isolated from the reactionary “boy’s club” culture of the F.B.I., for his transformation to carry much weight. Furthermore, this fabricated character functions to glom a handy moral redemption onto a story that would not appear to have many good feels readily available to it.

In fact, there’s much here that feels too convenient. For one, the filmmakers downplay the radicalness of supporting the Black Panther Party and their allies in 1968. The story is told from a perspective in which lending such support is almost transparently the right thing to do, even if it flies in the face of Hoover’s F.B.I. This is admirable, in a sense, but it gives us little impression of the tumult and uncertainty of American society in the late ‘60s. For a film about a period of unrest and the icon at the center of Godard’s aesthetically groundbreaking Breathless, it’s also markedly conventional. Andrews plays it safe with his framing and storytelling, not capturing much of a sense of atmosphere in his depiction of a society and a Hollywood institution undergoing waves of turmoil and reorganization.

Furthermore, the filmmakers’ choices regarding narrative focus are telling: Solomon’s half of the story drives the most important pieces of the plot—since it’s the surveillance that ruins Seberg’s relationships and fractures her sanity. Meanwhile, her lover, the black radical Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), and his wife (Zazie Beetz) are turned into functionaries of the main white characters. Surely these historical figures, too, experienced mental anguish at the hands of the F.B.I.’s surveillance apparatus, but their oppression, when discussed here, becomes mere background to Seberg’s breakdown. Once again, black liberation becomes white people’s story, as Seberg’s connection with a movement composed principally of black people is subordinated to the film’s gratuitous interest in planting a good man in the F.B.I. Unable to imagine and unwilling to explore what oppression truly feels like, it contents itself with saying the right things and centering white people as the sole agents of history.

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Jack O’Connell, Anthony Mackie, Margaret Qualley, Zazie Beetz, Yvan Attal, Vince Vaughn, Stephen Root, Colm Meaney, Gabriel Sky Director: Benedict Andrews Screenwriter: Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Black Christmas Takes a Simplistic Stab at the Battle of the Sexes

Sophia Takal’s remake elides the thorny, complicated nature of the original’s sexual politics.

1.5

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Black Christmas
Photo: Universal Pictures

Bob Clark’s 1974 Canadian horror classic Black Christmas depends, for effect, on the terrifying unknowability of its killer, and delights in a twisted web of psychosexual tensions. As a proto-slasher film set in a sorority house, it’s also surprisingly celebratory of female agency and empowerment, particularly through its normalized depiction of women discussing abortion a mere five years after Canada officially legalized the procedure. Sophia Takal’s remake, however, elides the thorny, complicated nature of the original’s sexual politics, transforming what was once a terrifyingly ambiguous male threat upon unsuspecting women into an explicit and hackneyed embodiment of the patriarchy itself in the form of a fraternity of hooded, Skull and Bones-esque alpha males.

Takal and co-screenwriter April Wolfe obviously aim to update Black Christmas for the Me Too era, but they settle for hollow wish fulfillment rather than meaningful social critique. When Kris (Aleyse Shannon), the most politically active of the core group of sorority girls in the film, steps up to a group of emphatically evil frat boys—“You messed with the wrong sisters!”—it’s apparent that the filmmakers are less interested in actually dissecting the precepts and effects of college rape culture and the patriarchal dominance still coursing through our institutions of higher learning than they are in clumsily upending that male authority with increasingly pedantic signposts of “don’t tread on me” girl power.

It’s a shame because Takal exhibits a deep sensitivity toward her main protagonist, Riley (Imogen Poots), which is particularly evident in the film’s depiction of the young woman’s trauma from being drugged and raped three years ago by Brian (Ryan McIntyre), the former president of DKO, Hawthorne College’s most prestigious fraternity. It’s both moving and amusing to see Riley, after years of not being believed, and several of her sorority sisters perform a clever twist on “Up on the Housetop” at DKO’s Christmas party, for the way it calls out rape culture and deliberately embarrasses Brian upon his return to campus. But following this scene, Black Christmas’s condemnation of toxic masculinity is dulled as it goes about painting both its male and female characters in broader and broader strokes.

Carey Elwes’s misogynist Professor Gelson, who’d be twirling his mustache if he had one, is a virtual clone of acclaimed psychologist Jordan Peterson, and he’s surrounded by a fleet of interchangeable, cartoonishly villainous dudebros involved in some shady dealings at DKO that shift from the harmlessly cliché to the patently absurd. The women of this remake don’t exactly fare much better, as they’re constantly lauded for their strength and loyalty—most ridiculously in a lengthy digression during which the sorority sisters are compared to ants—yet with the exception of Riley, they never rise above their paper-thin conceptions.

The filmmakers’ overly simplistic depiction of good and evil is mitigated to some degree by the presence of Landon (Caleb Eberhardt), the awkward white-knight character whose compassion and respect for Riley serves as a much-needed, though muted, contrast to the rampant machismo and fragility that defines so many of the film’s other male characters. But as the large horde of black-masked and hooded men spread across campus, slaughtering sorority girls with reckless abandon, Black Christmas builds to a strained confrontation between the sexes that doesn’t fall into any sort of gray area when it comes to its depiction of male-female conflict. Instead, the film hammers home the same simplistic, however valid, points about male sovereignty on college campuses that it’s already made at least a dozen times.

With this third act’s introduction of supernatural elements linked to a mysteriously powerful black liquid that leaks from within the college founder’s bust, Black Christmas goes completely off the rails, setting up an action set piece that makes the “Marvel Women assemble” moment from Avengers: Endgame seem slyly deployed by comparison. Takal is gleeful in her depiction of the patriarchy getting its comeuppance, but her expression of female empowerment is misguided for succumbing to revenge fantasy, suggesting that the path toward equality lies in the very same forms of violence that men have enacted upon women for centuries.

Cast: Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady, Caleb Eberhardt, Cary Elwes, Simon Mead, Madelaine Adams, Zoë Robins, Ryan McIntyre Director: Sophia Takal Screenwriter: Sophia Takal, April Wolfe Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 92 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Jumanji: The Next Level Finds a Series Stuck in Repeat Mode

The moments in which the film’s blockbuster stars play memorably against type are quickly subsumed by the ugly chaos of the action.

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Jumanji: The Next Level
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji: The Next Level visibly strains to justify its existence beyond the desire for profit. The wild success of its predecessor guaranteed another entry in the series, but there’s so little reason for its characters to return to the video game world of Jumanji that this film struggles to orient them toward a collision course with destiny.

Now scattered to the winds of collegiate life, Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and Bethany (Madison Iseman) keep in touch via group text as they plan a reunion over winter break. Kasdan shoots these moments with excruciating pauses that would seem a deliberate reflection of the awkward cadences of texting were the characters’ in-person conversations not every bit as stilted and arrhythmic. It’s hardly any wonder, then, that Spencer, already so anxiety-ridden, is driven to such insecurity over the possibility that the members of his friend group went their separate ways that he reassembles the destroyed Jumanji game in order to feel some of the heroism he did during the gang’s earlier adventure.

Soon, Spencer’s friends discover what he did and go into Jumanji to get him, the twist this time being that everyone gets assigned to a different player than they were last time, complicating their grasp of the game’s mechanics. But making matters worse is that Jumanji also sucks in Spencer’s grandfather, Eddie (Danny DeVito), who gets assigned Spencer’s old hero, Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), as well as Eddie’s estranged business partner and friend, Milo (Danny Glover), who’s placed into the body of zoologist Frankling Finbar (Kevin Hart).

The sight of Johnson and Hart shaking up their stale partnership by play-acting as old men briefly enlivens The Next Level after 40 minutes of laborious setup and leaden jokes. Watching the Rock scrunch up his face as he strains to hear anyone and speaking every line in a high, nasal whine with halting confusion does get old after a while, but there’s an agreeable hint of his tetchy, anxious performance in Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales to be found here.

Hart may be even better, tempering his exhausting manic energy by running to the other extreme to parody Glover’s deliberate manner of speaking. The actor draws out every sentence into lugubrious asides and warm pleasantries even in the midst of danger. In the film’s only laugh-out-loud moment, Milo spends so much time spouting asinine facts that he fails to prevent Eddie from losing a player life, prompting a baffled and anguished Milo to lament, “Did I kill Eddie by talking too slow, just like he always said I would?”

But such moments, in which the film’s blockbuster stars play against type, are quickly subsumed by the ugly chaos of the action. There’s no sense of escalation to The Next Level, with each set piece almost instantly collapsing into a busy spectacle of eluding stampeding animals, running across rope bridges, and taking on waves of enemies. There’s no weight to any of these sequences, nor to the game’s new villain, a brutal conqueror (Rory McCann) who embodies all the laziness of the writing of antagonists for hastily assembled sequels.

Likewise, for all the emphasis on video game characters who can be swapped out on a whim, it’s the players themselves who come across as the most thinly drawn and interchangeable beneath their avatars. None of the kids have any real personality, merely a single defining quirk that makes it easy to identify them when their avatars mimic them. And when the film pauses to address some kind of character conflict, be it Spencer and Martha’s ambiguous relationship or Eddie and Milo’s attempts at reconciliation, it only further exposes the film’s meaninglessness. The original 1995 film, disposable as it may be, finds actual pathos in its menacing escalation of horrors and the existential terror of contemplating a lifetime stuck in the game as the world moved on. The Next Level, on the other hand, is a moribund, hollow exercise, dutifully recycling blockbuster and video game tropes without complicating either.

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Ser’Darius Blain, Morgan Turner, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Awkwafina, Rhys Darby, Rory McCann Director: Jake Kasdan Screenwriter: Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 123 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Chinese Portrait Is a Grand Reckoning with the Passage of Time

The drama here is in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t.

3.5

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Chinese Portrait
Photo: Cinema Guild

As a recording apparatus, the camera no longer disturbs or announces its presence. It’s a ghost in the room, as banal as a limb. Xiaoshuai Wang restores the exceptional status of that most revolutionary of technical devices in Chinese Portrait, a series of short-lived tableaux vivants for which the gravitational pull of the camera is re-staged.

The simplicity of bodies barely moving before a camera that brings their quotidian temporality into a halt is nothing short of a radical proposition in our digital era—in the context of a culture obsessed with using cameras precisely as anti-contemplation devices, and a film industry still so invested in producing artificial drama in order to tell its stories. In Chinese Portrait, there’s no need for storylines, tragedy, or spectacle for drama to emerge. The drama is in the minutia of the mise-en-scène, in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t. The drama is in the camera’s de-escalating force, its ability to refuse the endless excitation it could provide in favor of one little thing: elderly people stretching in a park, black and brown horses in a field, two of them licking each other’s backs. This is the camera not as a Pandora’s box, but as a sharp laser beam with curatorial intentions.

The drama here is also in Chinese Portrait’s very concept, which is similar to that of Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames, where motion is born out of prolonged stillness, and to that of Susana de Sousa Dias’s works on the effects of Portuguese dictatorship, Obscure Light and 48, where stillness is all there is, photographs namely, and yet so much moves. Wang’s film also bears a kinship with Agnès Varda’s later work, where a human being is made singular in a fast-moving world by standing still and recognizing the device that records them. Both Varda and Wang seem to see sacrilege in taking the camera for granted. A couple of tableaux in Chinese Portrait derail the notion of the individual embossed from their habitat by the camera’s insistent gaze, as in a group of men kneeling down to pray, their backs to the audience, and a later segment of a crowd standing entirely motionless in the middle of an abandoned construction site, sporting scarves and winter jackets, staring at the camera in unison.

Something remains quite alive and oddly “natural” within the documentary’s portraits as Wang’s mostly still subjects inhabit the gap between staging and posing by appearing disaffected. Or perhaps they’re stunned by modernity’s deadlock. Everyone seems perpetually in transit yet perpetually stuck. Wang’s fleeting portraits feature Chinese folk confronting the lens in their everyday environments, but not all of them react to the camera’s might in the same way. Some stand still and stare while others look away, but they’re all largely aware of the recording device singling them out as muses of the landscape.

The portraits offer evidence of differing temporalities in this numbingly fast world, too convinced of its universal globalism. Evidence of conflicting temporalities within worlds, too, as some subjects in the same frame bother to stop and others go on about their lives. In a provincial alleyway, various men sit on stoops from foreground to background. Some stare into the horizon—that is, a cemented wall, the film’s most recurring motif. Others refuse to allow the viewers to be the only ones looking. Several bathers on a sandy beach stare at the off-camera ocean, except for one man wearing a large fanny pack, certainly staring at us behind his shades. At a construction site, an excavator digs while another worker sits on a slab of concrete, gawking at us as we gawk at them. A man rests his hands on his hoe to look at the camera with a half-smile, like someone from the 1980s, who may approach the cameraperson to ask what channel this is for and when he can expect to be on television.

Through the sheer power of blocking, the methodical positioning of elements in the frame, Wang reaches back to a time when there was an interval, a space for waiting and wondering, between an image being taken and an image being seen. Another temporality, indeed, captured by cameras, not telephones. That was back when sharpie scribbles would don the tail end of film reels, which are kept in the frame here by Wang, as one portrait transitions into the next. The filmmaker’s urgent reminder seems to be that it’s not all just one continual flow. Time can actually stop, and we can choose to look or to look away.

Director: Xiaoshuai Wang Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 79 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Bombshell Is a Collection of Quirks in Search of a Trenchant Criticism

The film is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Roger Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.

1.5

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Bombshell
Photo: Lionsgate

With Bombshell, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph make heroes of the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the late chairman and CEO of Fox News who was accused by several former employees—including star anchors Megyn “Santa Just Is White” Kelly and Gretchen Carlson—of sexual harassment in 2016. The filmmakers keenly depict these women’s courage and fixate on the toxic culture at Fox that fostered so much fear and intimidation, but Bombshell is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.

The film begins in the summer of 2016 with the Republican Party presidential debate in Iowa, where Kelly (Charlize Theron), the moderator, confronts Donald Trump with highlights of his long history of misogyny. This grilling, and her increasingly—if relatively—feminist stance on the Fox News daytime program The Kelly File, is met by backlash from the ascendant Trump cult, as well as Ailes (John Lithgow), whose professional relationship with Kelly at first seems productive in spite of its combativeness. Meanwhile, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from another Fox program, The Real Story, possibly for her own newfound—if, again, relative—feminism, and counters by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes.

Waiting for colleagues to make similar accusations in order to bolster her case, Carlson is left twisting in the wind by a collective fearful silence—a silence that even fierce former victim Kelly obeys—while Ailes and his litigation team prepare a defense. A third storyline involves “millennial evangelical” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing the many ambitious young women who suffered Ailes’s demeaning treatment in order to get ahead at Fox and the other organizations for which he worked.

Bombshell operates in a style that has become numbingly de rigueur since Oliver Stone’s W., in which political and corporate corruption are presented in a dramatic yet amiably humorous style that takes the edge off any potentially trenchant critique. Fourth walls are broken, jokes punctuate scenes, and the ambiance remains oddly congenial despite the purportedly suffocating and repressive environment of the Fox News offices.

Thankfully, there are moments when the actors transcend the too-casual tone. Lithgow portrays Ailes not merely as a dirty old man, but as a pitiful control freak whose disgusting actions unwittingly reveal a deep insecurity. The tensely coiled Kelly is a mass of contradictions, and one argument that she has with her husband, Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass), over an embarrassingly fawning follow-up interview with Trump is memorable for allowing Theron to reveal the strain imposed on Kelly by conflicting personal, professional, and political allegiances. Robbie—frequently playing off a versatile Kate McKinnon’s co-worker/lover—moves from bubbly naïveté to painful humiliation with convincing subtlety.

And yet, Bombshell is predicated on several dubious ideas that ultimately blunt its power. The film relishes the downfall of a public figure, as well as the growing chaos of a divided Fox News. By the end of the film, we’re expected to feel righteous satisfaction when justice comes to Ailes in the form of a disgraceful resignation. But such a response can only feel hollow when the country continues to suffer from widespread problems cultivated by Fox from the same sexist, callous, and exploitative worldview at the root of Ailes’s behavior. The film only briefly and tangentially explores this worldview, and mostly uses it to simply highlight conservative hypocrisy and the general sliminess of the Fox organization.

Bombshell also delights in referencing battles fought among high-profile public figures, emphasizing the kind of inside baseball that the media routinely focuses on instead of more complex and endemic manifestations of national issues. Rather than understand Ailes’s harassment in relation to the sexism so deeply embedded in American corporate media and culture, the filmmakers reduce that sorry tradition to the confines of the Fox News offices and elite legal channels. This approach allows viewers to understand the organizational and legal pressures that made it so hard for Carlson and others to speak out about Ailes, but once Carlson files her charges, the abuse that she and others endured becomes overshadowed by competitive backroom negotiations and maneuverings.

The film reinforces this emphasis with gratuitous appearances by actors playing famous Fox News personalities (Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity) who are tangential to the narrative, as well as cutesy direct-address segments meant to make us feel in the know about the world of Fox. This is the stuff that Roach, who’s mostly directed broad comedies, and Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short, clearly relish, but rather than connecting with the viewer through these strategies, Bombshell mostly feels insular, remote, and superficial. It would be nice if for once an accessible mainstream film took on the institutional powers that detrimentally shape our world with anger and incisiveness rather than a bemused concern.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Charles Randolph Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity

Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.

2.5

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Richard Jewell
Photo: Warner Bros.

Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.

Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.

Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.

Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.

In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.

In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)

Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.

Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.

Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate

This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.

2.5

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Cunningham
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.

Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.

Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”

As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.

In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.

Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.

Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line

There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.

1.5

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The Two Popes
Photo: Netflix

Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.

This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.

The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.

Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.

The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.

Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.

That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.

As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.

The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.

Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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