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Understanding Screenwriting #28: The Hangover, The Brothers Bloom, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #28: The Hangover, The Brothers Bloom, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Hangover, The Brothers Bloom, The Taking of Pelham 123 (2), The White Sister, Ten Wanted Men, Night Train to Munich, Berlin Express, but first…

Fan Mail: Since there were as of this writing no comments on US#27, let me just throw in a promotion for any fans of the column who may be in or around Bloomington, Indiana on Saturday, August 1st. I will be doing a discussion and book signing that day from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Borders Bookstore in Bloomington. The address is 2634 E. Third Street. I would love to meet any of the column’s readers who can drop by.

The Hangover (2009. Written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore. 100 minutes): A thousand fathers…

As I have mentioned, I am not a fan of movies about men behaving like little boys, but I like the team of Lucas & Moore as writers. In addition, the first weekend exit polls were showing that a lot of women were going to see the film, and the weekday business was staying high. So off I went to see it on June 11th, the Thursday after it opened.

Lucas & Moore have set the situation up nicely. We learn at the beginning that Phil, Stu and Alan have somehow misplaced the groom during a weekend bachelor party in Las Vegas. Then we get nearly twenty minutes of flashback setup as the guys go to Vegas. This establishes their characters, which is crucial to the film working. We LIKE these guys, even if they are crude. And each one is different. Phil is the horndog, Stu the uptight one and Alan is only semi-housebroken. Doug, the groom, is rather bland, but we lose him fairly quickly. Lucas & Moore then cut from their arrival in Vegas to the next morning, when they discover not only that Doug is missing, but their suite now has baby, a chicken and a live tiger in the bathroom, among other things. So we have likable characters, some mysteries and a quest, if not quite a Hero’s Journey. The writers come up with some funny gags and a couple of very nice scenes including one with that old charmer, Mike Tyson. Tyson’s scene is a great change of pace in the middle of the film. Needless to say, all works out well in the end.

There are downsides. The characterization, while adequate, is not up to the usual Lucas & Moore standard. The one older character, the bride’s father, is standard issue. The real downside in characterization is the women. Jade, the hooker, is about as standard issue heart-of-gold as you can get, and it does not help that she is played by Heather Graham, who has done many better versions of this part over the last fifty years. The bride here is not as interesting as the bride in Lucas & Moore’s Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. And Stu’s girlfriend is about as obnoxious a woman as we have seen lately in the movies. What happened?

In the interview with Danny Munso in the May/June issue of Creative Screenwriting, written and published before the film opened, Lucas & Moore talk about how they developed the idea on their own, with no mention of other writers or producers working on it. The day I saw the film, Patrick Goldstein’s regular column, The Big Picture, appeared in the Los Angeles Times. He was reporting that Todd Philips, the director of The Hangover, “checked in the other day, calling from London.” Why would a director call the Times from London? Philips told Goldstein that the Lucas & Moore script was really intended as a PG-13 film and he and Jeremy Garelick had done an uncredited rewrite in which “we really pushed the limits and turned it into an R comedy.”

There is a longstanding Hollywood tradition that when a picture opens really well, as The Hangover did, any number of writers come out of the woodwork to claim they did “uncredited rewrites” on the film. When Speed opened well in 1994, there were at least two writers who claimed to have written the final drafts, although the script I saw, which was essentially the film, only had the name of the credited writer, Graham Yost, on it. When Erin Brockovich was released in 2000, suddenly the word on the street was that Richard LaGravenese had actually done the final drafts. That may have caused the credited writer, Susannah Grant, to lose the Oscar. Thanks, Richard.

When I was walking home from seeing The Hangover, I picked up a copy of the freebie LA Weekly, which includes a column, Deadline Hollywood, by Nikki Finke. She is a very snarky writer, but her batting average for accuracy is fairly high. Her column in this issue was all about not only the writers who were claiming to have worked on The Hangover, but the assorted producers who claim to have contributed to the story, none of whom were mentioned by Lucas & Moore. Success has a thousand fathers…I assure you that the same week there were no writers coming out of the woodwork to claim to have done “uncredited rewrites” on Land of the Lost.

When Finke mentions Philips and Gerelick’s rewrites, she says, “Some say the duo was ’robbed’ of a credit by the WGA arbitration.” Probably not, although they may not see it that way. Time for a brief—I hope—discussion of the Writers Guild of America arbitration process. Take out your crayons and notebooks children, there will be a quiz later. Back in the thirties, before the Guild, the studios assigned the screenwriting credits. Favoritism abounded, and the tendency was to give credit to whoever worked on the film last. Writers felt this was unfair, since the hard work of “breaking” the story defined the film more than a few additional dialogue bits. So when the studios finally recognized the Guild, the Guild wanted to establish an arbitration process. The studios fought it, as they saw it as giving up their power, but as screenwriter Philip Dunne said to me in the early seventies, “Now of course the studios couldn’t agree with you more. This takes a big headache off them and puts it on the Guild.”

The arbitration process works this way. When a film is completed, the producer submits to the Guild his suggestion of what the writing credits should be. Every writer who ever worked on the project is then informed of the suggested credits. If everybody agrees (and it does happen. Really), those are the credits. If a writer disagrees, then the credits go to arbitration. Every writer involved submits the material he thinks shows his contributions to the film. (This is why I always tell my screenwriting students to save EVERYTHING.) Three panelists for the Guild, working screenwriters, read through the material without, in theory at least, knowing who the writers actually are. The panel then decides on the credits, with writers having to have written specific percentages of the script to get credit. Usually the writer or writers who worked on the material first are given the first credit. As Winston Churchill said of democracy, it’s the worst system ever invented, except for all the others. Every writer sometimes feels he gets screwed. Some writers even feel they get credits they are not sure they deserve. But generally writers accept the system as a necessary evil and figure if they lose this one, they will win on the next one.

The people who complain about the arbitration system the most are directors. William Wyler was upset that Christopher Fry, who was on the set of Ben-Hur constantly rewriting the dialogue, did not get a credit. Barry Levinson threw one of his patented hissy fits when the Guild awarded top credit on Wag the Dog to Hilary Henkin with David Mamet only sharing the credit. Directors, like the studio producers of the thirties, tend to favor their little pet writers, whose work, when looked at (more or less) objectively was not as big a contribution to the film as the directors thought.

There is nothing, alas, in the Guild rules that say that the contributions of the additional writers have to be improvements. Which leads me to suspect that the problems I had with the script of The Hangover came from the uncredited rewrites. Those problems may have also come from the development process. Producer Chris Bender worked with Lucas & Moore and the material was submitted to New Line, which has released such “chick flicks” as Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and My Sister’s Keeper. New Line passed, and the film ended up at Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers Group President Jeff Robinov, whom Finke describes as “little-liked,” was quoted last year as saying that there would no longer be any films at Warners starring women, since he did not think they could carry a picture. He sort of denied saying it, but the fact that industry people believe he did say it tells you something. Finke includes a quote from Warners studio chairman Alan Horn, Robinov’s boss, giving all credit to Robinov for shepherding The Hangover to its great success. Wait a minute, isn’t success supposed to have a thousand fathers? Finke did not seem to realize that what Horn may have been doing was telling people in Hollywood that the partial reason the women in the film were so misogynistically portrayed was Robinov’s stewardship of the film. Welcome to Hollywood, Jeff.

The Brothers Bloom (2008. Written by Rian Johnson. 113 minutes): I like the movie it started out to be.

As you can tell from the trailers to this film, it is a con-man movie, with lots of charm from Rachel Weisz as a madcap heiress and Rinko Kikuchi as the “muscle” in the con. The film starts quirky: we see the two brothers Bloom, the older one called Stephen, the younger one just Bloom—uh-oh, cuteness alert—as kids running their first con. It’s fun, as is the next one we see now that they are grown up. But Bloom wants to get out of the business. Stephen pulls him back in for one more, this one involving Penelope, the aforementioned heiress. Except Penelope, who has been locked up in her family’s mansion, LOVES the idea of being part of a con. She pushes them further and Bloom of course falls in love with her. OK, it’s not Lubitsch’s (and Samson Raphelson’s) Trouble in Paradise, but what is? Still, we are with it. But remember that the story started with the two brothers. And it keeps getting serious about them. Now if there is one thing I do NOT want in a con-man movie, it is for it to get serious. Especially when, as in this case, it begins to lose the charm that pulled us into it in the first place. I am not saying you cannot change tone in the middle of a film (Psycho, enough said), but we had better want to go where the tonal shift is taking us. In the case of The Brothers Bloom, it is taking us away from what we like in the film. Not a smart move. I kept expecting Johnson to pull off another con or two, either on the characters or on us, but what I take to be his final con is not all that interesting, or much of a surprise.

Still you do get Weisz and Kikuchi, who are terrific. This is a very different part for Weisz and her performance should inspire someone to write a great screwball comedy for her.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3: (Two versions: 1974. Screenplay by Peter Stone, based on the novel by John Godey. 104 minutes. 2009. Screenplay by Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by John Godey. 106 minutes): Directors, can’t kill ’em, can’t make a movie without ’em.

The 1974 version is one of those gritty, New York City crime dramas that multiplied like alligators in the sewers in the early seventies as a result of the huge success of The French Connection in 1971. The setup is simple: Four guys take a car of the New York subway hostage and the good guys try to figure out how to stop them. The idea of taking a subway car hostage is at the ingenious heart of the story. Peter Stone’s screenplay plays like a procedural, following the mechanics of the heist and the efforts to stop it. Since Stone is also the screenwriter of Charade, one of the two best Hitchcock movies Hitchcock did not make, there is a certain amount of wit in the dialogue and characterization (I love the mayor in bed with the flu), which are a nice counterpoint to the suspense. The actors are all journeyman actors who look like New Yorkers, and those that are still alive work on the various Law & Orders. The director is the competent journeyman Joseph Sargent and he gives it speed and a New York attitude, making it the best Sidney Lumet movie Lumet did not make.

So why bother to remake it?

Well, it is highly thought of, and the setup is still ingenious. The writer this time is Brian Helgeland, who did the screenplays for L.A. Confidential and Mystic River. I don’t know what the budget was on the 1974 version, but it probably was not much over $5 million, if that. The budget for this version is reported to be in the $100 million range. For a gritty little thriller? No, for a star vehicle. The two leads of the ’74 version were played by Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, who were terrific actors and gave excellent performances, but for a Major Studio Motion Picture today, you need STARS. Matthau’s Garber was a New York City Transit Inspector, Denzel Washington’s Garber is a shlub of a guy who is working the phones in the situation room. In the ’74 version Garber was more of an everyman, in spite of his position. In the ’09 version Garber is an EveryMan Played by A Star. In ’74, the methodical and efficient head crook was coolly played by Robert Shaw. In ’09, Ryder is a raging psychopath overacted by John Travolta. Helgeland has focused on the relationship of the two, while Stone focused on the mechanics of the two men’s story. Helgeland has Ryder come to like Garber and to demand he talk only to him. Garber also gets an elaborate backstory that plays into the situation. Scenes of the mechanics of the story in ’74, such as a look at how the ransom money is counted and packaged, are dropped so we can get more of the two stars.

While the sick mayor in ’74 is fun, Helgeland’s ’09 mayor is even more fun, more of a tough guy and more involved in the story. Which means scenes and lines for James Gandolfini, who reminds us he is a lot more than Tony Soprano. Helgeland has also added a hostage negotiator, Camonetti (John Tuturro), who comes to respect Garber. Wit is not Helgeland’s strong suit, so we don’t get Stone’s zingers spread out among the more minor supporting roles. Helgeland has also had to drop the original’s naming of each of the hijackers with colors: Blue, Green Grey, since Tarantino stole that and made it his own in Reservoir Dogs. I don’t know how much Washington was paid, but it was probably a lot, which means that Helgeland has to turn him into something of an action hero in the last twenty minutes. Since Washington put on weight for the character, he is not quite believable running around the streets and bridges of New York without appearing to be winded.

So. Helgeland’s script is not awful and has some nice moments. Then they got Tony Scott to direct it. The credit sequence alone has more cuts than in the entire ’74 version. The camera whips around a LOT, and various film speeds are used, too often. When Scott gets into the scenes with Washington and Travolta, the camera slows down and we watch the stars. In very big closeups. This may be one of those films that plays better on television than on a big theater screen, since the jerky-cam shots and the huge closeups will be a little less obnoxious.

I’ve been thinking about why Washington has now done three films with Scott. The closeups may be the answer. Scott, for all his flashy style, appears to love his stars and gives them their head. Washington is better than Travolta here, though the scenes where they finally meet in person are rather nice. But that is Scott getting out of the way of the script and the stars. The rest of the time he is just showing off. Joseph Sargent, by the way, shot the original in not-as-casual-as-they-seem medium shots, and the performances work just as well, if not better.

The White Sister (1923. Scenario by George V. Hobart and Charles E. Whittaker, titles by Will M. Richey and Don Bartlett, based on the novel by Francis Marion Crawford. 135 minutes): They had FACES then.

This is the second of at least four different films made from this novel. I cannot recommend it as an example of great screenwriting for silent films, particularly in terms of plotting, although the problems there may come from the potboiler novel it was based on. Angela, the daughter of an Italian nobleman, is done out of her inheritance by her wicked sister in ways that defy any kind of reality but at least get the story going. Angela falls in love with the dashing officer, Giovanni, but before they can be married, he is sent off to Africa, where he is reported killed. What’s a girl to do? She becomes a nun. Guess who’s not dead? And he shows up just as she is taking her final vows, and the writers really have to twist and turn the action to keep him away from her until after she has taken her vows. In the novel, apparently, he persuades her to renounce her vows and run away, but being an expensive picture, this was changed so they don’t run away. He dies a noble death trying to save people from an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, placating the Catholic Church, which in those days had a certain power over which movies its flocks would attend. The Church in return loaned director Henry King the director of ceremonies at the Vatican to stage the taking of Angela’s vows.

So why bring this movie up in a column on screenwriting? Because it shows you how much story you can tell and how much emotion you can get without dialogue. Unlike a lot of middle-to-late silent films (such as King’s Romola, which like this film was shot in Italy), there is not an overabundance of titles to disrupt the flow of the film. King has been an underrated director, but if great film historians like Kevin Brownlow and David Shepard tell you he was good, pay attention. King understood emotion. Lillian Gish is Angelina and more restrained and subtle here than in many of her Griffith films. Her brilliant leading man was a young actor who had done small parts in a few films. I wrote in US#19 how screenwriter Casey Robinson had created the definitive Errol Flynn part for Flynn. In this case I think the credit for this actor’s impact goes to Henry King for realizing and using the way the camera loves him. A few years later when sound came in, at least some people worried that the actor, who was by then sort of a junior-varsity John Gilbert, would not make the transition to sound. They thought he had a strange voice. If you ever see The White Sister, try NOT to hear Ronald Colman’s voice as you watch him.

Ten Wanted Men (1955. Screenplay by Kenneth Gamet, story by Irving Ravetch & Harriet Frank. 80 minutes): Not quite one of the Ranown westerns, but you can see them coming.

IN US#13, 17 and 18, I wrote about the Budd Boetticher DVD box set and the films in them, which are known as the Ranown films, Ranown being the name of the company formed by producer Harry Joe Brown and actor Randolph Scott. The films in the box set are considered the classics, but Brown and Scott had been making films before those. This is one of them, and its cast includes not only Scott, but Richard Boone and Skip Homeier, all three of whom appear to better effect in other Ranown films.

The story is by Ravetch & Frank before they became famous. He had been writing westerns for several years, and he did two before this one that were particularly good, Vengeance Valley and The Outriders, both from 1950. He did the screenplays as well as the stories for them. In this case, the screenplay was done by Kenneth Gamet, whose credits are mostly run-of-the-mill westerns. The ending of this is such a mess that I suspect it came from Gamet rather than Ravetch & Frank. Ravetch & Frank were about to do a couple of adaptations of Faulkner (The Long Hot Summer [1958] and The Sound and the Fury [1959]), and you can see a hint of that in here with Wick Campbell’s lusting after his Mexican ward. The characterization is not as sharp as in the Burt Kennedy or Charles Lang scripts for the later films.

The director is H. Bruce “Lucky” Humberstone, who directed films from the twenties through the early sixties without making a good film. Why did he work so much, other than being “Lucky”? To use Nunnally Johnson’s phrase, he got the stuff. Not great stuff, sometimes not very good stuff, but the stuff. He got the action and the acting, which is not all that good here, on the screen. He shot Ten Wanted Men in the Arizona desert, in and around the classic western town set at Old Tucson. He’s no Budd Boetticher, but he gives good cactus for the money.

Night Train to Munich (1940. Screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, based on a story by Gordon Wellesley. 90 minutes): Train Day on Turner Classic Movies, Track One.

In US#3 I wrote that The Lady Vanishes was the granddaddy of all train thrillers, but I had fogotten that Sidney Gilliat wrote the real granddaddy of all train thrillers, Rome Express, in 1932. His regular partner was Frank Launder and in 1938 they wrote The Lady Vanishes. As a result of the enormous success of that, they got hired to do this one. Boy, experience tells. A world at war helps to. The Lady Vanishes is very much a between-the-wars thriller, with very general details about spies and their ilk. By the time they came to write this one, the war in Europe had started, and it gives the film a little more weight. The film begins with a newsreel montage of the events leading up to the war. Then we are in Czechoslovakia as the German invasion is about to begin. We are in a munitions plant that the Nazis are aiming for, and as planes fly over, one of the executives says, “Ours?” Another replies, “No, theirs.” See what I mean about experience counting? That is simple and effective screenwriting. The scientist/technician the Nazis want manages to escape to England, but his daughter is left behind and thrown into a concentration camp. Her escape is the model of efficient screenwriting: a searchlight is turned off by a mysterious hand, the light comes back on, the camera pans to a hole in the fence. We know she’s gone.

Watching this today, we know she is in good hands because the man who helped her escape is identified as “Karl Marsen,” but we know he is really Victor Laszlo in disguise, since he is played by Paul Henreid. Look at the date of the film again. If you don’t know the film, it’s a shock to learn Victor Laszlo is a Nazi. He has been assigned to get her to England to find her father, so Marsen can kidnap him and take him back to Germany, which he does. Look at the exchange of closeups between Anna and Marsen at the submarine when she realizes he’s not a nice man. That’s depending on your actors and not your dialogue.

So now the father is back in Germany, and how are we going to get him out? Gus Bennett (and look at how inventively Gilliat and Launder set up him up), part of British Intelligence, pretends to be a Nazi officer, finds the father and soon we are on the train of the main title. How can you believe a Britisher as a Nazi officer? Well, he’s played by Rex Harrison, whose natural imperiousness seems perfectly at home in a Nazi uniform.

Two of the more amusing characters that Gilliat and Launder created for The Lady Vanishes show up here, again touring Europe. There are two very obtuse Englishmen, Charters and Caldicott. In the first film they were comedy relief, constantly worried more about the England-Australia Test Match results than the intrigue. Here they are involved in the final rescue, and because they are so obtuse, we are not confident they will not mess things up. This is a perfect example of taking characters from an earlier film and using them in inventive ways. Experience tells.

And in answer to the question you want to ask, yes, I do think it is better than The Lady Vanishes, even if the director is “only” Carol Reed. This is the other best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock did not make.

Berlin Express (1948. Screenplay by Harold Medford, story by Curt Siodmak. 87 minutes): Train Day on Turner Classic Movies, Track Two.

TCM was running these together in the middle of the night, so since I was DVR-ing the first one… As Ernie Banks used to say, “It’s great day. Let’s play two.” Alas, this is not quite up to Night Train to Munich.

The earlier film was almost entirely studio bound, but this is very much one of those late forties films where the studios sent the cast and crew to foreign countries to use up the theatrical revenues that were frozen by those countries. So we get scenes shot in Paris, Frankfurt, and Berlin. Boy, did our bombers do some damage on those last two. It also has the late forties documentary style of narration. Too much narration. Way too much narration.

A group of multi-national passengers on a train from France to Germany are sort-of witnesses to the killing of a peacemaker who has a plan for the unification of Germany. Except that it was someone pretending to be him on the train and not the main guy himself. OK, I realize this was only the late forties, but wouldn’t a politician/statesman as important as this guy have had his photograph in the newspaper at least a couple of times? And wouldn’t one of the passengers realize it was not him on the train?

Well, since he is still alive, he almost immediately gets kidnapped. Why didn’t they just kidnap him at first? And why is it so crucial to the neo-Nazis (who are interestingly portrayed as thugs, not suave villains) that they learn his plan? After all, it is just a political plan, not the specs for an atomic bomb.

So he is kidnapped and several of the passengers join in the hunt for him. This being a late forties film supervised at RKO by Dore Schary (see the item on Millard Kaufman in US#22 for more on Schary), each of the passengers is from one of the four countries running Germany. The film becomes a message-y model for international cooperation. It was released in May 1948, which means it was probably written before the famous October 1947 HUAC hearings in Washington. This may explain why the Russian soldier in the group is not portrayed as the epitome of evil. Everybody connected with this film wants us all to get along, which is not quite how it all worked out in the years following 1948.

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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Review: Tigers Are Not Afraid Wrings Preciousness from a Drug War’s Carnage

It never resolves its commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly coherent argument about the legacy of trauma.

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Tigers Are Not Afraid
Photo: Shudder

Writer-director Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a tapestry of flourishes. All are inseparable from Mexico’s gangland carnage, but its most memorable one is also rooted in magical-realist tradition, namely 100 Years of Solitude. The novel tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, and in one particularly exacting and vivid passage, master fabulist Gabriel García Márquez details how the seemingly eternal Ursula Iguarán learns of her son José Arcadio’s death after a trickle of blood from his body winds its way through war-torn Macondo, around corners, across terraces, down steps, and over curbs, before finally arriving at his mother’s doorstep. “Holy mother of God,” she says.

Ursula comprehends the truth of that thread of blood even before it leads her back to her son’s body. By contrast, the protagonist of Tigers Are Not Afraid, Estrella (Paola Lara), prevaricates so as to put distance between herself and the horrors around her. “We forget who we are, when the things from outside come to get us,” she says in voiceover at the start of the film. She doesn’t see the line of blood that runs from a dead man’s head and follows her all the way home until it’s already tracing a path across her living room floor and up a wall, finally creating the shape of an insect on a dress that hangs from the ceiling. Estrella’s mother is missing, and in this moment, the girl seems to know that she’s being sent a message, which she won’t learn to decipher until she becomes more fluent in the language of fairy tales.

At its most assured, Tigers Are Not Afraid strikingly literalizes the idea of the ties that bind, suggesting how the living and the dead walk hand in hand, almost as a matter of course, in a modern-day Mexico where 160,000 have been killed and 53,000 have disappeared since the beginning of the drug war in 2006. Before Estrella stumbles upon the aforementioned dead man’s body, you get the sense that today isn’t the first time she’s seen boys use police tape as limbo sticks, or dragged her fingers across walls riddled with bullet holes. Which isn’t to say that the girl is desensitized to this violence. She seems to almost exist at a remove from it, and López sensitively syncs the swaying of her camera to the girl’s visible numbness.

That sensitivity, however, proves to be a kind of redundancy. Throughout Tigers Are Not Afraid, López effectively conjures an aura of ordinariness, but she never resolves her commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly coherent argument about the legacy of trauma. The film concerns Estrella and a group of orphaned boys going head to head with a cartel after young El Shine (Juan Ramón López) swipes a gun and phone from the treacherous El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), and when that narrative isn’t picking up signals from the supernatural realm, you sense its allegiance to so many films indebted to the neorealist tradition, from Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados to Héctor Babenco’s Pixote. Tigers Are Not Afraid is alive to the harsh reality of its main characters’ lives, though at times it feels as if López’s only means of accessing that truth is by conspicuously shaking her camera.

As for the film’s supernatural flourishes, none are as inspired as that thread of blood that trails Estrella at various points. Little flying creatures suggest visitors from Guillermo del Toro’s cabinet of curiosities, while a gathering of ghosts inside an expansive, derelict building brings to mind a Silent Hill freak-out. And in the case of the tiger graffiti on a wall that comes to life at one point, there isn’t even the sense that we’re watching the dead’s handiwork. After a while, death’s intrusions come to feel more cosmetic than substantial.

Early in the film, López fascinatingly suggests that Estrella’s perception of the world, after a teacher grants her three wishes, is both shield and sword. But after the girl uses one of those wishes to commit an act of brutality, the film’s fairy-tale conceit reveals itself as an engine for easy absolution. By the time the girl arrives at an understanding of her world that isn’t too far removed from the logic of her opening voiceover, Tigers Are Not Afraid has so given itself over to feeling the innocence of cocooning that it only effectively haunts us with its preciousness.

Cast: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas, Tenoch Huerta, Nery Arredondo, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero Director: Issa López Screenwriter: Issa López Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 83 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette Serves Up Lifetime-Grade Chestnuts of Wisdom

The film is a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

The opening passages of Where’d You Go, Bernadette include a handful of scenes in which an agoraphobic architect and mother, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), restlessly expresses her internal thoughts inside the empty rooms of her Seattle mansion. Observed in flowing Steadicam shots, these soliloquies—recorded and translated to text by Manjula, the digital assistant on Bernadette’s smartphone—give space to reflect on how the woman’s eclectic furnishings grow out of her racing mental landscape. And in performing them, Blanchett offers the rare cinematic spectacle of a mother in her alone time, compelled to let her imagination and anxieties loose outside the pressures of maternal duty. In these moments, the film, an unapologetically straightforward adaptation of Maria Semple’s best-selling novel, briefly takes on the tone of something candidly personal.

It’s a shame, then, that Where’d You Go, Bernadette is cloyingly beholden to the demands of its crowd-pleasing narrative arc—that of a creative woman driven to ennui by motherhood and middle age yet rescued from the brink by an inspiring vacation and the love of her family. It’s nice, reassuring stuff, not false by any standard, but told with such didacticism and cuteness that one can’t help but be bewildered by the fact that the film was co-written and directed by Richard Linklater. Where the Texas auteur’s leisurely paced Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!! excel in their attention to the nuanced spectacle of characters changing over time, Where’d You Go, Bernadette plays like all of its air has been sucked out in the interest of plot progression, which it conducts with the workshopped efficiency of a television movie mindful of commercial breaks. In fact, with its coverage-dependent mise-en-scène, off-the-rack musical score, and tacked-on bookending voiceovers, Linklater’s latest feels strangely close to something Lifetime might have churned out in the early aughts.

The film establishes its narrative conflicts quickly and bluntly, often through dialogue, simple juxtaposition, and, in one particularly dull case, a YouTube mini-documentary about Bernadette that plays in full in order to clarify her backstory. A brilliant and influential architect in the midst of a long hiatus after a demoralizing relocation and a series of miscarriages, she displaces her creative frustration on her city and its inhabitants, including her prosperous, TED Talks-giving husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup); stuffy neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig); and Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), a gossipy associate of Elgie and friend of Audrey. Her only routine source of joy is her wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), who loves her unconditionally and whom she treats perhaps a bit too much like a peer.

Symptomatic of Linklater’s always-generous worldview, the film sees Bernadette’s quirks not as deficiencies, but as inevitable side effects of life’s persistent curveballs. When the character refers to herself as a “creative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares,” it’s clear that the filmmaker endorses that assessment, and perhaps even recognizes it as a description of his own artistic career. For all their suspicion toward Bernadette, Elgie and Audrey aren’t characterized entirely negatively either, for each is given a path to redemption, and Wiig’s portrayal of her character’s transition from belligerence to empathy in particular is one of the highpoints of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

Rather, in true boomer fashion, Linklater reserves his cynicism for technology, kickstarting the film’s third act with the contrived revelation that Manjula is actually a Russian-operated phishing scheme seeking to steal Bernadette’s identity. This development briefly gets a Department of Homeland Security agent, Marcus Strang (James Urbaniak), and a therapist, Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer), caught up in the narrative, but it’s all really just a busy preamble to the Antarctica family vacation that’s hinted at from the very first scene. Bernadette has her reservations about the trip, Bee thinks it will be cathartic for the family, Elgie is too preoccupied with his career to concern himself with the logistics, and the shadowy forces behind Manjula are poised to swoop in and cause chaos during the scheduled dates.

What ends up happening is neither the transporting escape Bee wants nor the complete disaster Manjula intends to enact, but something messily in between that triggers a coordinated stream of life lessons—and a few uninspired drone shots of icebergs. Indeed, in its eagerness to diagnose Bernadette’s existential impasse, the film lays on thick the kind of back-patting chestnuts of wisdom that have become increasingly common in Linklater’s recent films, groaners like “Popularity is overrated” and “You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna do.” Such sentiments have always been window dressing in Linklater’s nonchalantly libertarian body of work, but if in many cases his films have tacitly acknowledged the limits of language to articulate life’s mysteries, here there’s very little sense of a frontier to be explored. If Bernadette is Linklater and Blanchett’s collaborative expression of the right balance between parenting and artistry, it’s a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening—and privileged—idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Emma Nelson, Zoe Chao, James Urbaniak, Judy Greer Director: Richard Linklater Screenwriter: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, Vincent Palmo Jr. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 130 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

The film is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.

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What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
Photo: KimStim

With What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, Roberto Minervini returns to the American South to tell the stories of several African-Americans living in New Orleans, over the summer of 2017. These stories are so self-contained that the documentary comes to suggest an anthology film, which, in this case, has been organized around a pervading theme of how political and personal textures intersect in everyday black life. And in the tradition of the anthology film, Minervini’s material is also variable, suggesting that the filmmaker could’ve been more ruthless in the editing room and less beholden to the pleasures of his self-consciously neat aesthetic.

Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Minervini’s subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew that’s clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titus’s inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocence—an impression that’s affirmed later in the film when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titus’s hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness that’s bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love that’s deeply poignant.

Juxtaposed with this coming-of-age youth narrative are stories of a recovering crack addict, Judy Hill, who’s realized her dream of opening a bar, and of a local chapter of the New Black Panthers, which is investigating and protesting several murders, such as the recent decapitation and burning of a local black man. Intellectually, one can see why Minervini believes these threads belong together, as they both illustrate how African-Americans foster their own infrastructures as a reaction to the corruption and indifference of governments on various levels. But Minervini’s cross-cutting shortchanges both of these story threads. Minervini reveals preciously little about the principle murder that the New Black Panthers are seeking to avenge, using it vaguely as a symbol of Southern atrocity at large, and the practical details of operating Judy’s bar are reduced to sketches. In both cases, the specifics of the subjects’ concerns haven’t been entirely dramatized.

In certain portions of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, particularly those featuring the New Black Panthers, Minervini taps into reservoirs of anger that are nearly at odds with his chilly formalism. The film was shot by D.P. Diego Romero in pristine black and white, with long takes that drink in the details of the landscapes and people’s bodies. One is often encouraged to savor the beauty of the lighting, especially in Judy’s bar, and Minervini eschews typical documentary devices like narration and interviews. In terms of gliding, sumptuous style, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, as both films verge on turning class struggles into moving coffee-table books.

We’re supposed to feel as if we’ve slipped effortlessly into the lives of Minervini’s subjects, which might have been possible if more time had been devoted to pivotal moments. If Minervini wasn’t able to capture the moment when Judy learns that she must close the bar, then perhaps he could’ve wrestled with his inability to capture it. Judy demands a meta-textual approach anyway, as she is a highly charismatic and self-absorbed person who is often clearly performing for the camera, most gratingly when she responds to her mother’s fear of homelessness with a monologue about her own generosity. A filmmaker like Robert Greene might’ve challenged Judy and utilized her for a riff on the power of self-mythology, but Minervini prizes his faux-objectivity; he’s more interested in mood than process or character. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.

Director: Roberto Minervini Screenwriter: Roberto Minervini Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Good Boys’s Raunchy Take on Tweendom Is the Same Old Shtick

Gene Stupnitsky’s film is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action.

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Good Boys
Photo: Universal Pictures

Gene Stupnitsky’s Good Boys is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action, though it lacks the Netflix show’s frankness and authenticity. While hearing sixth graders curse and exhibit their burgeoning sexual awareness constitutes the film’s entire gimmick, its coarse language and surprising displays of sexual material mask an inner timidity. In the post-“puberty monster” world ushered in by Big Mouth, a show that cares to acknowledge that girls also experience puberty, both the film’s jokes and easy coming-of-age morality tale seem tame, beautified for an audience it assumes will not want to confront the abjectness of tweens’ emotional and sexual imaginations.

That said, there are laughs to be had in Good Boys, many of them deriving from the main characters’ mistaken understanding of the adult world. Max (Jacob Tremblay), for example, believes that his college-age neighbor, Hannah (Molly Gordon), is a “nymphomaniac” because she has sex both on land and at sea. Thor (Brady Noon), who pretends to possess advanced knowledge and experience in all areas, misinterprets his parents’ sex toys as weapons. And Lucas (Keith L. Williams) comes to believe that Hannah and her friend, Lily (Midori Francis), are irredeemable drug addicts because they want to do the “sex drug” molly.

Max doesn’t know how to kiss girls, and his middle-school mind tells him that the best way to learn is by using his father’s (Will Forte) drone to spy on Hannah kissing her boyfriend, Benji (Josh Caras). That leads to Hannah and Lily taking the drone, and as recompense, Thor steals Hannah’s purse, which contains a vitamin bottle full of molly that the boys promptly lose. Part of the film’s at least outwardly risqué treatment of tween boyhood is that the boys’ possession of and efforts to procure a party drug drives much of the story. And that story is a chain of cause and effect that abides by the protagonists’ middle-school priorities: If Max doesn’t find more molly, he will lose his father’s drone, which means that he never gets to kiss a girl.

The cascading series of absurd situations that are driven by Max’s desire to kiss his crush, Brixlee (Millie Davis), includes the boys trashing a frat house, selling a sex doll to a weirdo (Stephen Merchant), and handing over the bottle full of molly to an oblivious cop (Sam Richardson). (This last bit is as tenuous as a dangling thread for conspicuously missing a punchline, almost as if the filmmakers never got around to shooting it.) In the end, the trio, the so-called “bean bag boys,” must learn that middle school will mean growing apart to some extent: Max is into girls and the sixth-grade social scene, Thor loves theater, and Lucas is a kindly nerd who enjoys card games. That these interests aren’t in the least mutually exclusive, particularly for Generation Z, proves beyond the film’s capacity to acknowledge.

Good Boys’s humor is by and large the same as that of any other male-centric R-rated comedy; if it differentiates itself from other iterations of the genre, it’s through a group of pre-teens making verbosely obscene comments and engaging in gross-out physical comedy. There’s a sense that Good Boys draws open a curtain and peeks into a rarely seen and dimly remembered space of tweendom. But it’s satisfied with just this peek—and as convincingly as the filmmakers can compel their child stars to enunciate obscene exclamations, the film never captures much of the feeling, of the world of childhood experience, in which they might be based. As a result, Good Boys never transcends its Superbad-but-with-11-year-olds shtick.

Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis, Izaac Wang, Millie Davis, Josh Caras, Will Forte, Retta, Lil Rel Howery, Sam Richardson, Stephen Merchant Director: Gene Stupnitsky Screenwriter: Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cold Case Hammarskjöld Is a Gonzo Look at an Unsolved Mystery

The film is about a mystery that isn’t solved, and how that inconclusiveness spotlights the insidious functions of society.

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Cold Case Hammarskjöld
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Like Oliver Stone’s JFK and David Fincher’s Zodiac, Mads Brügger’s documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld is about a mystery that isn’t solved, and how that inconclusiveness spotlights the insidious functions of society. Brügger also has in common with Stone and Fincher a visceral fascination with the minutiae of a particularly flabbergasting conspiracy theory. At one point near the end of the film, Brügger even comes clean, admitting that his investigation of the suspicious 1961 plane crash that killed United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld is mostly a pretense for allowing him to partake of a larger reportorial adventure that includes, among other things, Belgium assassins. By that point, though, Brügger needn’t bother with the confession, as his true obsessions are already quite clear.

Brügger is also the de facto host of Cold Case Hammarskjöld, and he has a penchant for hamming it up that brings to mind Werner Herzog. At the start of the film, as if seemingly ready for a safari, the Danish filmmaker is seen wearing an all-white uniform, which he claims is the wardrobe worn by the ultimate villain of his narrative. Brügger is holed up in a hotel with two African secretaries, Saphir Mabanza and Clarinah Mfengu, dictating to them the events we’re about to see. Both the wardrobe and the presence of these secretaries are gimmicks, and while the former is harmless, the latter is of questionable taste.

Much of the film pivots on various colonialist atrocities wrought in Africa by the British and other imperialist powers. And so it seems that Brügger wants the shock of these implications to register on the faces of Saphir and Clarinah, people who have a potentially intimate connection to his alternate history. In other words, he seems to have hired these women in order to achieve a sensational effect. To their credit, they don’t oblige him, and their sober intensity suggests that they don’t need a white man to tell them of the evils of the world.

Of course, Brügger isn’t trying to be likable, as he’s pointedly allergic to the pathos affected by Herzog and, more gallingly, Michael Moore. There’s something of an irony to many first-person documentaries: They prove that bad news often makes for good drama, with their makers all the while feeling the need to make a show of being enraged or saddened. Brügger, who resembles a slimmer Louis C.K., never once bothers with this pose, and his honesty gives Cold Case Hammarskjöld an aura of self-absorption that’s weirdly bracing and resonant in an age that’s dominated seemingly by nothing but conspiracy theories, “alternate facts” that suggest that reality is dictated by those with the most power. Brügger, a scrappy journalist, seeks truth as a means of accessing that very power, looking to cement his own name.

Brügger’s narrative is an intimidating thicket of dead ends, coincidences, and a seemingly endless procession of interviews with creepy elderly white men who almost certainly know more than they care to admit. Hammarskjöld was a drab-looking, pipe-smoking Swedish diplomat whom many assumed would be the very embodiment of minding the status quo of global politics, though he turned out to be an idealist who was especially concerned with the exploitation of the Congo. Several powers were vying for control of the Congo’s mineral resources, including Belgium, the Soviet Union, and Britain, and Hammarskjöld supported nothing less than revolution, leading to a costly U.N.-backed military mission in Katanga. On September 18, 1961, a U.N. plane carrying Hammarskjöld went down in a field in Northern Rhodesia—an area that’s now part of Zambia—eight miles from the Ndola airport, which Brügger memorably describes as a perfect “kill room” for being tucked away from prying eyes.

Following a labyrinthine trail, Brügger makes an intoxicatingly convincing case for the U.N. DC-6 crash, which killed Hammarskjöld and 15 others, as a murder conspiracy. Interviewing people who lived near the Ndola airport at the time, Brügger reveals that investigators didn’t pay any attention to these witnesses, who spoke of bursting, gunshot-like sounds and of fire coming from the plane—negligence that’s probably due as much to racism and a disinterest in the truth. Brügger also speaks with Charles Southall, a former official of the National Security Agency, who heard a recording of the crash that references a second plane and gunshots. Along the way, various potential smoking guns pop up, including a panel of metal riddled with what appears to be bullet holes, and, most ghastly, an ace of spades card that was placed on Hammarskjöld’s corpse, which was remarkably and inexplicably intact following the crash.

The documentary’s structure is somewhat loose, reflecting how detection often involves running in circles, discarding trails only to see them heat up again, and so forth. At times, Brügger’s transitions can be murky, as he’ll be talking to a new person before we can entirely digest how he arrived at this point. But the somewhat arbitrary quality of Cold Case Hammarskjöld becomes a significant source of its power, suggesting less a singular answer than a reality composed of a hundred half-truths. Eventually, Brügger homes in on a secret operation known as the South African Group for Maritime Research, or SAIMR, which becomes the object of the filmmaker’s obsession, to the point that Hammarskjöld is nearly forgotten.

Brügger never entirely proves SAIMR’s existence, as he’s led to the organization via documents uncovered from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that are suspiciously on the nose, suggesting the stuff of bad spy fiction. SAIMR is said to be a private mercenary group, probably serving the U.N. in secret, and responsible for Hammarskjöld’s murder as well as a plot to kill the black population of Africa with cheap medical centers that are actually giving patients shots of the H.I.V. virus. This revelation is so operatically evil, so beyond the pale of a liberal’s worst fantasies, that it serves to transform Cold Case Hammarskjöld into a kind of political horror film. And Brügger, in his meticulous sense of sensationalism, does prove one point via his lack of answers: that he and his dogged collaborators are asking questions which should’ve been posed at much higher levels of multiple chains of government. In Brügger’s hands, the general indifference of the major world powers to the possible murder of a key political figure suggests nothing less than maintenance of a diseased hierarchy.

Director: Mads Brügger Screenwriter: Mads Brügger Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 122 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Blinded by the Light Is a Wet, Sloppy, Public Kiss to Bruce Springsteen

The film bottles a palpable emotion of unabashed joy, even when the rest of it seems to barely hold together.

2.5

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Blinded by the Light
Photo: New Line Cinema

As rebel icons go, Bruce Springsteen is as unlikely as they come. One does not, after all, tend to look to a man nicknamed “The Boss” for advice on raging against the machine. But in 1987 England under Margaret Thatcher, amid economic turmoil and fascist demonstrations, a British-Pakistani teenager, Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), hungers for a dissenting voice in his life. Javed is constantly at the whim of his domineering, recently laid-off father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), and his only real outlet for his troubles is writing poetry. But once his friend, Roops (Aaron Phagura), foists Born in the U.S.A. and Darkness on the Edge of Town cassettes upon him, Javed gets swept up in Springsteen’s music, hearing no small part of himself in the white American singer-singer’s working-class howl.

What follows in Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light is a wet, sloppy, public kiss to Springsteen that’s at once hackneyed and infectious. Inspired by co-screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor’s 2007 memoir Greetings from Bury Park, the film has a love for Springsteen’s music that feels raw and real. For one, it sees no shame in Javed and his pals dorkily dancing in the streets to “Born to Run,” as the filmmakers understand that teenage obsession really is that all-encompassing, so open-hearted that it naturally teeters into absolute corn.

Blinded by the Light is also endearing for not feeling like its edges have been sanded off. Indeed, you may find yourself worrying about Javed plastering the walls of his room exclusively in Springsteen posters, or about the way he gives a teasing, zombie-like moan to the stick-in-the-mud kid running the school radio station: “Bruuuuce.” There is, the film understands, a dizzying thrill to finding yourself in something that’s not even explicitly designed for you, like you’re in on a secret. Springsteen certainly wasn’t thinking of a British-Pakistani kid when writing his lyrics, but they speak to Javed anyway.

Chadha’s film bottles a palpable emotion of unabashed joy, even when the rest of the story seems to barely hold together. Its comedy is always mugging and its melodrama is especially heightened, and to the point that scenes are apt to trigger secondhand embarrassment, as when Javed and Roops chant Bruce lyrics at boys harassing them. Much of the drama feels like the narrative of a music video, which needs to be big and obvious enough so that viewers can recognize what’s happening based on the imagery and the music alone. But with the songs stripped away in Blinded by the Light’s latter half, the supporting characters and themes are left as stumbling, half-sketched husks. It becomes clear that the music cues fill in so many gaps, standing in for whatever nuance might have otherwise supported scenes like a parade confrontation that relies on the blaring “Jungleland” sax solo.

Cast: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Hayley Atwell, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Dean-Charles Chapman, Rob Brydon, Meera Ganatra Director: Gurdinder Chadha Screenwriter: Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurdinder Chadha, Sarfraz Manzoor Distributor: New Line Cinema Running Time: 117 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: 47 Meters Down: Uncaged Soars When It Disregards Characterization

The film wrings white-knuckle tension less through jump scares than from the darkness of a seemingly infinite void.

2.5

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47 Meters Down: Uncaged
Photo: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures

While Johannes Roberts’s 47 Meters Down was marred by strained dialogue and flat characterizations, it certainly knew how to instill a sense of dread in the audience. That film’s premise, about two sisters with conflicting personalities who take an adventurous excursion that goes horribly awry, carries over to 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, though this standalone film is less concerned with exploring its main characters’ familial relationship. And that’s mostly for the better, as it gives Roberts more than enough room to foreground the grueling terror of coming into contact with sharks in the ocean deep.

In its opening stretch, Uncaged aggressively runs the gamut of teen-movie clichés. Indeed, as soon as it’s done establishing the contentious relationship between two stepsisters, shy and awkward Mia (Sophie Nélisse) and outgoing and popular Sasha (Corinne Foxx), the film is flashing the girls’ frustration with their archeologist father, Grant (John Corbett), for spending too much time working. And then there’s Catherine (Brec Bassinger), the prototypical mean girl who fake-apologizes for foisting Mia into the pool outside the international all-girls high school they all attend in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. That Uncaged doesn’t end with Mia, accidentally or otherwise, throwing Catherine into a shark’s maw is the final proof that all of the film’s initially corny character work is in service of absolutely nothing.

Mercifully, though, the film quickly shifts into thriller mode once Sasha drags Mia off to a remote region of the Yucatán, where their father recently discovered a submerged Mayan city. Soon after Mia, Sasha, and the latter’s adventurous friends, Nicole (Sistine Rose Stallone) and Alexa (Brianne Tju), arrive at the site and enjoy a swim above the main entrance to the city, they decide to strap on scuba gear and plunge into the water in order to gawk at the ancient relics that lurk below the surface. One crashed city column later and the girls come face to face with a deadly species of sharks that has evolved to survive in the darkness of the labyrinthine system of caves and tunnels where marine life isn’t supposed to exist.

Roberts wastes no time ratcheting up the tension, and a stifling sense of claustrophobia, once the girls find themselves trapped underwater and are forced to navigate a series of increasingly tight passageways, all while trying to harness the dwindling supply of oxygen from their scuba tanks. The filmmakers sustain this vise-grip suspense as the girls continue to face an array of unexpected, increasingly challenging obstacles, which, in fairly realistic fashion, extends their time stuck below the surface alongside the blind yet vicious sharks. At one point, they discover a pocket of air that proves to be as much of a bane as it is a boon.

Throughout, Roberts makes ample use of negative space as Mia and company make their way through the Mayan city with flashlights in hand. All the while, the bubbles from their scuba gear and the clouds of dust caused by falling rocks intensify their feelings of disorientation and panic, while also helpfully obscuring the low-rent nature of the film’s CGI effects. If, toward the end of Uncaged, the impact of these visual tactics is dulled by a few too many “gotcha” moments, the film more or less keeps things efficiently moving, wringing white-knuckle tension less through jump scares than from the darkness of a seemingly infinite void.

Cast: Sistin Stallon, Corinne Foxx, Brianne Tju, Sophie Nelisse, Brec Bassinger, Khylin Rhambo, Davi Santos, John Corbett, Nia Long Director: Johannes Roberts Screenwriter: Ernest Riera, Johannes Roberts Distributor: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Amazing Johnathan Documentary Is Gratingly Self-Knowing

Over and over, the film reminds us that banking on a gimmick isn’t an adequate substitute for an incisive character portrait.

1.5

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Photo: Hulu

Despite its title, Ben Berman’s The Amazing Johnathan Documentary isn’t exactly about comedian-cum-magician John Edward Szeles. The film initially seems like it will remain within the boundaries of conventional portraiture. We’re presented with clips of Szeles’s performances, talking-head interviews with his family and other comedians, and the news that he only has a year left to live due to a heart condition called cardiomyopathy. Then, a title card indicates that we’re a few years into the future and that Szeles has outlived his prognosis. He decides to start performing again—against his doctor’s wishes—and the looming prospect of death gives Berman enough material to supply this film.

Unfortunately, Berman’s plans for a straightforward documentary are thwarted by events beyond his control. Most notably, it comes to light that another documentary about Szeles’s life is being produced, apparently by the people behind Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. The news makes Berman visibly nervous, and The Amazing Johnathan Documentary soon devolves into an awkward account of its own completion, with Berman talking with the other documentary’s crew, worrying about his own film being overshadowed, and stressing out about the extent to which Szeles might favor the other project.

Szeles’s interviews with online publications, radio shows, and Berman himself readily—and redundantly—corroborate the filmmaker’s impression that his subject is more excited about the other documentary being made about him. Berman doesn’t ask questions that carve out the fullness of anyone on camera, as he seems more interested in making sure that we grasp the severity of his dilemma. By the time he interviews John’s parents in order to draw empathy from them, claiming that he “for once […] was making a documentary out of love and art,” The Amazing Jonathan Documentary comes to feel like an echo chamber of affirmation.

Much like Szeles’s own act—composed of prop gags built around simplistic puns, gross-out illusions, and jokes that riff on his ostensible inabilities as a magician—Berman’s film is convinced of its own cleverness. While The Amazing Johnathan Documentary hints at being a meta film about the hardships of documentary filmmaking, or a mirror to Berman’s own foibles as a person, it’s constantly cut short by a lack of foresight. At one point, Berman decides to smoke meth with Szeles—who’s revealed to have been addicted to the drug in the past—as an act of “gonzo journalism” and to make the documentary more “interesting,” though the moment is ultimately cut from the film for legal reasons. Later, when Szeles accompanies Criss Angel to the presentation of the latter’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Berman is forced to use press footage because he didn’t make the event. This resulted from a lack of communication between Berman and Szeles, illuminating their current rift, but Berman’s acknowledgement of this tension is emblematic of the film’s biggest failure: The lack of cooperation from Berman and Szeles isn’t outrageous enough to be amusing on its own, nor does it come across as anything more than run-of-the-mill discord among colleagues.

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary seems born out of necessity rather than intent—a side effect of Berman needing to find a sensible ending for the film. We eventually find out that Always Amazing, the other documentary being made about Szeles, actually has no connection to Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. And in a desperate, last-ditch stab at coherence, Berman ends up getting Simon Chinn—the Oscar-winning producer behind those films—to sign on as his executive producer. The moment feels like a consolation prize for those who had to sit through so much ego-massaging on Berman’s part. It’s a final stroke of luck for the filmmaker, but it also suggests a bandage being placed on a gunshot wound, reminding us again that banking on a gimmick isn’t an adequate substitute for an incisive character portrait.

Director: Ben Berman Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Aquarela Viscerally Attests to Mother Nature’s Fight for Survival

At heart, Aquarela is a war film: a cacophonous survey of the global battle between man and water.

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Aquarela
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

On the surface, Victor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela suggests a conventional nature doc, filled as it is with breathtaking images that attest to Mother Nature’s might and majesty. But at heart, it’s a war film: a cacophonous survey of the global battle between man and water. The film’s wide array of visual evidence showing people in brutal disharmony with their surroundings presents a compelling case that as humanity continues to assault the planet through climate change, our Earth is fighting back twice as hard.

The film opens with a series of scenes in which a group of Russian officials traipse around a large expanse of ice, periodically stabbing at it with long poles. It takes a while before we understand that they’ve been tasked with recovering automobiles that have fallen through the frozen body of water, which has started to thaw earlier in the season than normal. In one nail-biting sequence, a car speeds along the ice before, without warning, abruptly falling through and disappearing beneath the surface. A rescue crew saves the driver and passenger in a chaotic sequence in which no one’s safety seems guaranteed, not even those behind the camera, whom we never see but whose terror is palpable in the nervous camerawork.

From a sequence of a sailboat operated by a single woman battling a fierce storm to shots in which giant chunks of ice that have fallen off a glacier bob up and down in the water like gigantic breaching whales, Aquarela doesn’t lack for simultaneously awesome and terrifying images. There’s a ferociousness and churning volatility to the film’s view of nature—a point heavily underlined by Eicca Toppinen’s heavy metal-inflected score. Though not quite as abrasive as Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan, which utilized an arsenal of GoPro cameras to create a turbulent, viscerally unsettling document of a commercial fishing trawler’s voyage at sea, Aquarela evinces a similar desire to overwhelm and discombobulate its audience. Kossakovsky employs a deeply immersive sound design that emphasizes the rough swoosh of waves and the shattering cracks of thawing glaciers.

Through a variety of cinematographic gestures—picturesque long shots, underwater footage, and tracking shots of waves—Kossakovsky gives us a wide view of the diversity of forms that water takes on Earth. Massive fields of drift ice are juxtaposed against ocean water that seems viscous and almost as black as oil. But Aquarela isn’t merely interested in showcasing water’s different states of matter, as it also constructs a subtle but distinct narrative in which water itself is the protagonist in a war for its own survival. After one particularly violent sequence of glaciers cracking apart, we see a disquieting shot of jagged, broken ice that suggests a battlefield strewn with the bodies of fallen soldiers. But later in the film, it’s as if the water is avenging itself on humankind with a series of hurricanes and torrential downpours.

Aquarela ultimately closes with the image of a rainbow appearing across Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall. If that sounds like a serene coda, it feels more like the mournful calm after a particularly harrowing catastrophe. Someday, this battle between nature and humanity will end, but Kossakovsky suggests that there will be no victors on either side, only victims.

Director: Victor Kossakovsky Screenwriter: Victor Kossakovsky, Aimara Reques Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 89 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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The 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time

These films are fearless in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own.

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Blade Runner
Photo: Warner Bros.

“The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by the 100 boldly imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a visionary depiction of a near-future dystopia, is almost impossible to imagine as a work of prose fiction. Strip away the Art Deco glory of its towering cityscapes and factories and the synchronized movements of those who move through those environments and what’s even left? It’s no accident that some of the greatest cinematic adaptations of sci-fi novels bear only a passing resemblance to their source material. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, simply mines some of the concepts from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about human-looking androids, using them as the raw material for a haunting urban future-noir that owes more to visual artists like Moebius and Antonio Sant’Elia than it does to Dick himself. Then there’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which transfigures Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s briskly paced novella Roadside Picnic into a slow, mesmerizing journey into an uncanny space.

Ballard may have been right that literary sci-fi has provided all the interesting themes and ideas for which sci-fi in general has become known, but he failed to grasp how cinema has expanded our understanding of sci-fi by pricking at our collective visual consciousness. The titles on our list of the 100 best sci-fi movies of all time have shown us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed. Some of these depictions are humorous, others haunting. Some rely on complicated special effects, others use none at all. But they’re united by their fearlessness in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own. Keith Watson


Altered States

100. Altered States (Ken Russell, 1980)

Ken Russell’s psychedelic Altered States examines one man’s egregious deflection of paternal responsibility in the name of scientific innovation. Fantasy and self-indulgence are the most powerful narcotics in the film—drugs that allow Harvard scientist Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) to flirt with an increasingly volatile dream state where, as he puts it, “time simply obliterates.” Consumed by religious repression and self-guilt regarding his father’s painful death from cancer decades ago, Eddie becomes addicted to medicating his own primal urges through lengthy self-deprivation experiments. The theme of escape dominates the film, especially during Eddie’s visit with a native tribe from Central Mexico where a peyote session causes Eddie to hallucinate, visualized by Russell as a nightmarish dreamscape of striking imagery. It’s an incredibly subjective sequence, placing the viewer inside Eddie’s headspace during a lengthy and jarring slide show from hell. Lava flows, sexual acts, and animal disembowelment all crash together, images that take on even more symbolic meaning later in the film when Eddie begins to evolve physically into a simian form. Glenn Heath Jr.


Tomorrow I'll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea

99. Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (Jindřich Polák, 1977)

A film as brilliantly constructed as it is titled, Jindřich Polák’s Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea is a swinging comedy about a secret cabal of Nazis who’ve discovered the secret of time travel and are intent on using it to go back to World War II and supply Hitler with an atomic bomb. The plot also involves a pair of twins, mistaken identities, and anti-ageing pills, and yet, despite having to keep all these narrative balls in the air, the film never feels convoluted or over-stuffed. Instead, it’s a delightfully wacky farce that treats its potentially terrifying premise with cheerfully irreverent humor, exemplified by the film’s opening credits, which feature archival footage of Hitler manipulated to make it look like he’s boogieing to disco music. And if all that’s still not enough, Polák’s film also offers a nifty showcase of some of the grooviest low-budget futuristic production design the ‘70s Soviet bloc had to offer. Watson


Flash Gordon

98. Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980)

A gleefully cheesy throwback to the sci-fi serials of yesteryear, Mike Hodges’s Flash Gordon is as pure a camp spectacle as you’re likely to find. A glitzy—at times garish—extravaganza of brightly colored sets, skin-baring costumes, and otherworldly vistas that wouldn’t seem out of place in the gatefold of a Yes album, the film is silly and cartoonish in the best sense of those terms. Featuring such outlandish characters as the fu manchu-sporting villain Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow), Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed, bare-legged and sporting giant metallic wings), and the blank-eyed beefcake at the center of it all, Flash (Sam J. Jones), the film is very much in on its own joke. Produced by Dino de Laurentiis to cash in on the post-Star Wars mania for space-opera flicks, Flash Gordon ultimately has more in common with tongue-in-cheek cult musicals like Phantom of the Paradise and Xanadu than it does with George Lucas’s action-packed monomyth. That’s thanks in large part to the rip-roaring soundtrack by Queen, whose spirited pomposity seamlessly complements the film’s flamboyant comic-strip visual delights. Watson


The Invisible Man

97. The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933)

James Whale’s anarchically playful The Invisible Man is an outlier among Universal’s line of classic monster movies. More of an inventive mash-up of black comedy and sci-fi than true horror, the film is an incendiary piece of speculative fiction that counterbalances its cautionary-tale tropes by perpetually reveling in the chaos its megalomaniacal protagonist stirs up, even as his intensifying violent impulses shift from harmlessly prankish to straight-up lethal. This pervasive sense of moral ambiguity is only strengthened by Whale’s decision to keep Claud Rains’s Dr. Jack Griffin invisible until the film’s closing seconds and elide his character’s backstory altogether. Griffin’s unknowability and cryptic motivations are mirrored in his literal invisibility, allowing his corruption and unquenchable thirst for power to take on a universal quality that implicates the audience even as it as it entertains them. Derek Smith


The Brother from Another Planet

96. The Brother from Another Planet (John Sayles, 1984)

A gentle-hearted satire on race and the immigrant experience, John Sayles’s The Brother from Another Planet follows an unnamed mute extra-terrestrial (Joe Morton) who, after crash-landing in the Hudson River, navigates life in the Big Apple. The hook, of course, is that while this “brother” hails from a far-off planet, to the people of New York, he looks like just another black guy. This premise, which could’ve been mined for easy laughs or obvious platitudes about racism, is instead, in Sayles’s hands, a sensitive, socially observant fable about the difficulties of assimilation. The brother is, in all senses of the term, an alien: far from home, isolated from those around him, unsure how to navigate local social interactions, and, ultimately, unsure if he belongs in this world at all. Bolstered by Morton’s soulful lead performance—few have ever made the act of listening so compelling to watch—Sayles’s film is science fiction at its most succinct and humane. Watson


Days of Eclipse

95. Days of Eclipse (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1988)

Aleksandr Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse opens with a majestic birds’ eye view tracking shot of a desolate desert landscape. As the camera speeds up, it descends from the heavens, violently crashing into the ground in a poverty-stricken Turkmenistani community. The shot invokes a metaphorical image of invasion, and after a hard cut, we’re offered a blistering glimpse of that invasion’s impact: a landscape neglected to the point of decay, crumbling amid the oppressive heat and other inexplicable natural phenomena. Alternating between drab sepia tones and more vividly colorful footage, Sokurov films a multicultural community through the disoriented, foreign eyes of Malyanov (Aleksei Ananishnov), a Russian physician sent on a vague mission to bring modern science to the village. But Malyanov remains a stranger in a strange land, unable to commune with the shell-shocked villagers, whose trauma and desperation has rendered them alien to all outsiders. Like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God, both also based on novels by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Days of Eclipse transforms an ordinary landscape into something mystical and otherworldly. And in this film in particular, it perfectly embodies the unbridgeable disconnect between colonizer and colonized. Smith


Voyage to the End of the Universe

94. Voyage to the End of the Universe (Jindřich Polák, 1963)

While some Czech New Wave filmmakers in the 1960s explored the interconnected social and political foibles of people in their home country, Jindrich Polák’s effects-laden Voyage to the End of the Universe trades the oppressed Soviet-ruled Czech Republic for the outer reaches of the cosmos. The journey of the starship Ikarie XB-1 in searching for life on another planet isn’t without the Czech New Wave’s notable playfulness when detailing how travelers cope with the monotony of space travel (here’s looking at you, dance party sequence), though Polák expresses a darkly fatalistic worldview as well. If the haunting sequence of Ikarie XB-1 crew members finding a doomed ship that went on a similar mission is any indication, Polák suggests that sheer advancements in innovation and searching for a new life-sustaining planet is ultimately an exercise in futility, since human life, in both the individual sense and as a species, will end at some point. It seems we might as well, like the film’s bored cosmonauts, just simply let go and dance the night away. Wes Greene


The Thing from Another World

93. The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951)

Legend has it that The Thing from Another World was helmed not by its credited director, Christian Nyby, but by producer Howard Hawks. The film certainly provides ample evidence to suggest that such a covert switch occurred, as the its controlled atmosphere of dread and abundant rapid-fire repartee between the primary players seem to have been molded according to Hawks’s trademark template. Regardless, what remains most remarkable about the film is its continued ability to function as both a taut science-fiction thriller and a telling snapshot of the Cold War paranoia beginning to sweep the country in post-WWII America. The story, about the battle between a group of stranded military personnel and an alien creature fueled by human blood, is a model of economic storytelling. The conflict between Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) is one between Force and Reason, and represents a debate over whether America should cope with its Soviet adversaries through military confrontation or intellectual and diplomatic study. Given the ‘50s political climate, it’s no surprise that the film’s climax answers such a question by painting the sympathetic Carrington as a danger to mankind and the violent Hendry as a heroic warrior. Nick Schager


The World’s End

92. The World’s End (Edgar Wright, 2013)

Edgar Wright wrapped up his Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy with The World’s End, a rollicking alien-invasion ode to boozing up and moving on that bests even Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz in its comingling of hilarious buddy humor, aesthetically electric action, and genre shout-outsmanship. The story of a group of high school friends reunited to complete a famed pub crawl at the behest of their once-great, now-pitiful leader (Simon Pegg), only to find that their sleepy rural England hometown has been turned into a picture-perfect haven for extraterrestrial cyborg pod people, Wright’s film is a blistering barrage of contentious one-liners and CG-ified mayhem. Staged with the director’s usual high-wire dexterity and bolstered a cast that handles whip-crack dialogue with giddy aplomb, it’s the filmmaker’s most exciting, inventive, and purely entertaining mash-up to date—not to mention, in its alternately sympathetic and critical portrait of a man-child navigating the literal and figurative pitfalls of growing up, also his most heartfelt. Schager


Liquid Sky

91. Liquid Sky (Slava Tsukerman, 1982)

The world of Slava Tsukerman’s cult classic suggests the neon-tinged flipside of Warhol’s Factory. Anne Carlisle memorably plays dual roles: as Jimmy, a male model with a raging drug addiction, and Margaret, a bisexual girl who could easily pass for Aimee Mann during her ‘Til Tuesday days. Otto von Wernherr (Madonna enemy and early collaborator) plays a German scientist chasing after an alien spacecraft that visits the Earth in order to feed off the opium-producing receptors inside the brains of heroin users. During sexual orgasm, these receptors produce a sensation similar to the feeling produced by the brain during the absorption of heroin. The film’s aliens (visually represented using negative film stock of a blood-shot eye) feed off of this pleasure principle, spontaneously combusting humans as they engage in sexual intercourse. Aliens, drugs, clubs, orgasms, and big hair! On its crazed surface, Liquid Sky is a celebration of the ‘80s counter-culture. But more than three decades after its release, the bad behavior and paranoia depicted here seemingly foreshadows both the ramifications of said culture’s sexual indiscretions and a nation’s political naïveté. Ed Gonzalez

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