Connect with us


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



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.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.


Review: The Secret Garden Is a Pale Imitation of Its Enchanting Source

Its emphasis on the achievement of the individual is practically antithetical to the conclusion drawn by Frances Hodgson Burnett.




The Secret Garden
Photo: STXfilms

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, the story of a young girl who opens herself up the possibilities of human compassion after rejuvenating a garden and caring for her sickly cousin, has resonated with readers of all ages since its publication. And it’s clear from the brooding start of this latest cinematic adaptation that the filmmakers seek to amplify the book’s darker themes. A title card announces that the turbulent post-World War I India that newly orphaned Mary (Dixie Egerickx) finds herself in has been ravaged by a series of violent conflicts, and director Marc Munden initially does a fine job of mirroring the girl’s confusion and insecurity over losing her parents in the uncertainty of her surroundings.

Once Mary moves to the Yorkshire estate of her uncle, Archibald Craven (Colin Firth), the filmmakers also gesture beyond the novel’s thematic borders by having multiple characters—including Craven, who’s still grieving the death of his wife, and his infirm son, Colin (Edan Hayhurst)—face a collective trauma that leaves them unsure of how to deal with their feelings. Unfortunately, the film fails to deliver on its initial promise of branching the story out into bold new emotional terrain after the narrative begins to diminish many of the characters and aspects that made Burnett’s book such a stirring vision of morality.

The secret life and death of the woman who was Craven’s wife and Colin’s mother is only a minor part of the book, but this adaptation pushes this mystery to the narrative forefront and vastly yet uninspiringly expands on it. In a departure from the novel, this rote mystery plotline largely centers on Mary, which only makes her quest feel conspicuously insular and self-serving. This emphasis on the achievement of the individual is practically antithetical to the very conclusion drawn by Burnett in the book: that enrichment and satisfaction is a shared experience that comes through something as simple as human kindness.

The focus on Mary’s plight in the film comes at the expense of capturing the idyllic beauty of the titular hideaway, whose function ultimately feels like an afterthought; it’s but a convenient plot device that exists solely to help Mary solve a problem that very much defies her efforts until the last act. Imbued with the power to cure ailments and react to people’s feelings like a sentient being, the garden offers a dose of fantasy to the film, and, predictably, it’s been rendered with a heavy dose of CGI that makes it feel cold and soulless, never eliciting the sense of calm that the characters feel while gallivanting its grounds.

As in the book, Mary learns to overcome her selfishness by helping to heal Colin, but where Burnett’s story slowly detailed the increasingly invigorating power of Mary and Colin’s friendship and mutual affection, Munden fails to show how Mary’s sleuthing ignites her spirit of generosity. It feels like a cop-out when Colin is healed by the garden’s mysterious properties, causing him to praise Mary for showing him that real magic exists. In lieu of pluming the emotional states of the characters, the film resorts to a whimsical, otherworldly fantasy element as an easy resolution. It’s the sort of fantasy that Burnett didn’t need to make room for in the book, because it recognized something more profound: that real magic isn’t necessary in a world where human beings possess the capacity for compassion.

Cast: Dixie Egerickx, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Edan Hayhurst, Amir Wilson, Isis Davis, Maeve Dermody, Jemma Powell Director: Marc Munden Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: STXfilms Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.
Continue Reading


Review: Psychomagic, a Healing Art Is a Moving Look at Therapeutic Interventions

The film could stand as a fitting encapsulation of the themes that have run throughout Alejandro Jodorowsky’s work.




Psychomagic, a Healing Art
Photo: ABKCO

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first documentary, Psychomagic, a Healing Art, is a moving, visually striking exploration of the unconventional psychotherapeutic techniques that the filmmaker has developed over a lifetime of reading tarot cards and studying various psychological systems and an assortment of Eastern and Western spiritual practices. After a brief introduction, during which Jodorowsky lays out the major tenets of his technique, we witness a selection of individual case histories. The format for these therapeutic interventions varies only slightly: a preliminary interview describes the issues at hand; the particular treatment is undertaken, an activity that seems pitched somewhere between ritual and performance art; and then a follow-up interview permits the participant(s)—some of them are couples—to describe the therapy’s impact on their lives. These episodes are often intercut with a thematically or pictorially related moment from one of Jodorowsky’s earlier films, as though to emphasize the continuity of his vision from narrative cinema to documentary.

Throughout Psychomagic, individual treatments unfold according to a dreamlike, poetic logic. Many of them involve the participant undergoing some sort of symbolic death and rebirth. Often this entails nothing more radical than stripping off one’s old clothes and donning new ones. Sometimes it means reenacting the moment of birth through what Jodorowsky calls “initiatic massage,” a hands-on bit of dialogue-free theater. But the most intense version of this psychic renascence on display here starts with burying a suicidal man up to his neck in the Spanish desert. A glass dish (replete with air holes) covers his exposed head. Slabs of raw meat are spread over his “grave,” and a wake of vultures come to devour the uncooked flesh. Then he’s dug up, cleaned up, and dressed up in an expensive-looking new suit.

Later, there’s a section given over to “social psychomagic,” ritual manifestations that most resemble mass demonstrations. One of them, known as “the Walk of the Dead,” a protest against drug war fatalities that features large groups donning traditional Day of the Dead skeleton costumes, could have been lifted straight from a similar scene in Endless Poetry. Although, on this occasion, at least, Jodorowsky himself doesn’t make that connection.

One segment, involving a woman suffering from throat cancer, comes perilously close to making false claims for the powers of psychomagic but luckily skirts the issue entirely through some well-deployed disclaimers. Jodorowsky invites the woman on stage at a conference with 5,000 attendees, to see whether or not their combined energies can help or heal her, and without making any promises. It’s never entirely clear whether or not she’s cured, but 10 years later, she’s still alive. Nor does she claim in her follow-up interview to have been cured. The “experiment” merely “opened a door” for her healing process to begin.

What most shines through all the therapeutic interventions detailed in the Psychomagic is the scrupulousness of Jodorowsky’s compassion and his deep-seated desire to render whatever assistance he can. As he mentions at one point in the documentary, he never charges money for these treatments. Whether or not the 91-year-old director makes another film, Psychomagic could easily stand as a fitting encapsulation of the themes of suffering and transcendence that have run throughout his entire career.

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky Screenwriter: Alejandro Jodorowsky Distributor: ABKCO Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.
Continue Reading


Review: Sunless Shadows Is a Wrenching View of Patriarchal Power in Iran

Mehrdad Oskouei’s documentary is striking for the way its subjects describe horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language.




Sunless Shadows
Photo: Cinema Guild

Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams is striking for the way that it unhurriedly paints a portrait of its subjects, a group of teenage girls at a juvenile detention center in Iran, before then shocking us with matter-of-factly stated admissions of murder. At first, you may find yourself trying to determine the documentary’s reason for being, alongside wanting to know the girls’ reasons for being incarcerated. We sense that the film is supposed to have a cumulative effect, built on prolonged observation followed by intellectual reflection—until we hear one of the girls say, point blank, that she killed her father. Her no-nonsense statement is in chilling lockstep with the lack of prudishness to Oskouei’s line of questioning throughout Starless Dreams. Whether he’s asking the detainees for their names or details about their traumas and crimes, his disembodied voice maintains the same level of cool.

Sunless Shadows, Oskouei’s second look at the same detention facility, initially focuses on its subjects describing horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language. When a girl remembers the abuse she suffered, all that matters is her words. Redolent of Claude Lanzmann’s approach, Oskouei strips his images to their barest bones as his subjects openly speak about their traumas, as if trying to avoid aestheticizing their pain.

In Sunless Shadows, though, Oskouei eventually digresses from this no-frills approach. By design, the film lacks the astonishment of Starless Dreams, suggesting a great story being told anew and now given over to a sort of formula. A similar relationship can be drawn between Joshua Oppenheimer’s harrowing The Act of Killing and its follow-up, The Look of Silence. Order is the essential culprit in both filmmakers’ attempts to take a second look at the same subject matter. The first film takes advantage of the emotional possibilities of shock or fright, but the force of an unexpected blow is difficult to repeat. By the time we come to the second film, we’re already literate in and, in some ways, inoculated by the banality of evil.

At times, Oskouei also uses a more readily recognizable setup for his interviews. Although most of sequences here take place in the girls’ dormitories, with them sitting haphazardly on the floor surrounded by their bunkbeds, Sunless Shadows is punctuated by interviews with the girls’ mothers, who are also incarcerated (and on death row), and scenes where each girl enters a room and looks straight into the camera to address the family member they’ve killed. These moments bring to mind a reality TV confessional, and their gracelessness is replicated by sequences where the girls’ family members are presumably watching this footage and crying.

The film rekindles the aura of Starless Dreams more faithfully when it doesn’t try to dress up the scenario that links them—patriarchy as an interminable metastasis—with forms that deny the dramatic sufficiency of the girls’ accounts. Theirs are stories of parent-child relations mediated by chicken-carving knives, of a father driving to the desert with the intention of pummeling his daughter to death, of sons fighting tooth and nail for their mother’s execution, unless she pays up. Overtly calculated mise-en-scène in this context feels like an affront.

It’s refreshing, then, when Oskouei harkens back to the core of his project, the ultimately futile killing of the father, the acting out of the unthinkable, the avowing of the unsayable. He does this when he allows language do the talking by itself and when he reduces the cinematic encounter to a matter of language: sincere questions followed by disarming answers. As when the filmmaker asks one of the girls, “Is killing difficult?” To which the girl answers, unwaveringly, “At the time you feel nothing, except for the joy of having done it.”

Director: Mehrdad Oskouei Screenwriter: Mehrdad Oskouei Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 74 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.
Continue Reading


Review: Song Without a Name Boldly Confronts a Legacy of Marginalization

The film is strikingly fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale.



Song Without a Name
Photo: Film Movement

Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) wakes up in the early hours of the morning to walk with her husband, Leo (Lucio Rojas), into Lima from their shack in a coastal shantytown on the outskirts of the city. Because she has few alternatives, her late-stage pregnancy doesn’t deter her as she sits in the street selling potatoes to passersby. It’s only natural, then, that when she hears a health clinic’s radio ad offering care to pregnant women, it sounds like a godsend. But once Georgina gives birth to her daughter, the clinic whisks the child off for some supposed medical tests, shoos her out the door, and then seems to vacate the location entirely. In an instant, her life is upended, but as Song Without a Name sensitively makes clear, the indigenous Georgina’s degradation is an all too familiar one in Peruvian society.

Though Melina León’s feature-length directorial debut is set in 1988, it appears as if it’s been beamed from an even earlier time. Its images, captured in boxy Academy ratio, are visibly aged, its faded edges and conspicuously distorted elements bringing to mind an old photograph. As a result, the scenes depicting government officials disregarding the needs of the indigenous Georgina gain a grave sense of timelessness, a feeling emphasized by the lack of period-specific markers amid the ramshackle houses. The events become detached from their specific historical backdrop, suggesting nothing less than the perpetuity of disenfranchisement.

In Song Without a Name, the only person who lends Georgina a sympathetic ear is Pedro (Tommy Párraga), a journalist who, as a gay man, understands what it means to be an outsider, though he initially tries to pass her story off to someone else, as he’s reporting on a paramilitary death squad whose handiwork he observes early in the film. And just when you think that León is going to steer the film into the terrain of a conventional investigative thriller, she remains fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale, through the despair on people’s faces as much as through the formal touches that reflect it.

The film’s backdrop is tumultuous, and the characters have to move on from the kidnapping without truly wanting to because they need to eat, to pay for the roof over their heads, to live. In a haunting moment that evokes how tragedy diminishes the connection between people, Georgina mournfully stays in bed as Leo goes to work alone, but not before he leaves a handprint on the window, barely visible in the black and white of the frame.

León depicts anguish in such stark, all-encompassing terms that she risks overplaying her hand at times, like one scene that positions the closeted Pedro and his lover, Isa (Maykol Hernández), on opposite sides of a thick line of tiles that’s only made more prominent by the camera’s distant position. But mostly, she weaves an atmosphere that borders on ethereal through the jerky distortions of Georgina walking home at night and the ease with which certain pieces of Pedro’s investigation seem to fall into place. León channels Georgina’s devastation to particularly powerful effect in one long take where the mother is taken out of the clinic but continues pleading and crying, unseen, from the other side of the door. Across the minute-long shot, Georgina is determined not to go away, and the scene fades to black with such painful slowness that she seems to be prolonging the transition through force of will, beyond the point where the audience might normally look away.

Cast: Pamela Mendoza, Tommy Párraga, Lucio Rojas, Maykol Hernández, Lidia Quispe Director: Melina León Screenwriter: Melina León, Michael J. White Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.
Continue Reading


Review: Beyoncé’s Black Is King Is a Visual Love Letter to the Black Diaspora

The visual album proposes a pan-African vision of legacy, abundance, and unity.




Black Is King
Photo: Disney+

For Beyoncé, it’s no longer enough for us to listen to her music. We must witness and viscerally feel it. Which is why the visual album is increasingly becoming her preferred mode of expression. As she did with last year’s The Lion King: The Gift soundtrack, the singer recruited heavyweights from West African dance music like Nigeria’s WizKid and Ghana’s Shatta Wale, as well as emerging artists like South Africa’s Busiswa, to star in Black Is King, which Beyoncé based on the music from The Gift. Out of a dazzling fusion of the hottest R&B and Afrobeat trends, this visual album proposes a pan-African vision of legacy, abundance, and unity, making it Beyoncé’s most wide-reaching and ambitious effort yet.

Black Is King is largely inseparable from Disney’s live-action remake of the The Lion King, and to a fault at times. The project follows the arc of the film’s plot, personifying the animal characters with human actors. A young prince (Folajomi Akinmurele), the human stand-in for young Simba, falls from grace and embarks on a coming-of-age odyssey that eventually leads him back home to reclaim the throne. Throughout, large-scale sets, wide shots of the Saharan desert, and eye-catching dance routines distract from this plot. Indeed, it’s difficult to catch when the young prince grows into a young man (Nyaniso Dzedze) as the two actors abruptly switch places between songs without warning, and the introduction of an underdeveloped subplot involving a mysterious artifact may leave viewers scratching their heads.

But Black Is King is no traditional cinematic experience, because it’s performance, symbolism, and music that are integral to it, not any narrative minutiae. To wit, unlike the original version of the album, the deluxe edition of The Gift, which was released alongside Black Is King, forgoes the intermissions lifted from The Lion King’s dialogue, as if to suggest that the songs speak for themselves, without strict adherence to the film it draws from as inspiration.

Beyoncé, who co-directed the visual album, interprets Simba’s reclaiming of the throne for her ends; his royal lineage is evocative of the rich cultural heritage of Africa and her people, and his homecoming is representative of the Black diaspora’s turning to that heritage as a source of strength. The animated and live-action versions of the The Lion King are beloved, if not equally so, and they remain among the few Disney films to be set in Africa, but as they’re both devoid of Black bodies, there’s something galvanizing about witnessing the lavishness of The Lion King interpreted by Black actors, dancers, and musicians.

Black Is King will inevitably be criticized for its ostentatious display of wealth and ostensible failure to represent the day-to-day realities of African countries—which is to say, what the rest of the world hastily and egregiously presumes to be struggle and impoverishment. The visual album’s purpose isn’t to draft some documentary-style exegesis, but to illustrate an imaginative wonderland of possibility and celebration. Black Is King may well be steeped in the opulence of drifting, pimped-out cars (“Ja Ara E”), and a head-spinning wardrobe of designer clothing (“Water”), but this grandiosity is empowering and subversive in its own way. The “Mood 4 Eva” sequence boasts a splendor fit for a Baz Luhrmann film, complete with a breathtaking synchronized swimming routine. Generations of families, from regal grandparents to rambunctious five-year-olds, reside in a mansion and partake in elitist traditions brought to the African continent by European colonizers. All the while, white servants wait on them as they drink tea and play tennis in a verdant garden.

Although Black Is King preaches the moral that Black kingship amounts to responsible manhood, Black femininity is just as integral to Beyoncé’s conceptualization of the visual album. As an unidentified male speaker relates in one voiceover: “Many times, it’s the women that reassemble us. Men taught me some things, but women taught me a whole lot more.” Beyoncé embodies a maternal figure at several points, cradling a baby in “Bigger” and playing a handclap game with her daughter, Blue Ivy, in “Brown Skin Girl.”

It’s this last song that is the film’s most stirring dedication to Black women. Overhead shots of a ballroom depict a formation of debutante dancers, fanning in and out like a flower in bloom. Interspersed throughout are glamor shots of the dark-skinned women Beyoncé sings praise of: Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, and Kelly Rowland. For all of its larger-than-life grandeur, Black Is King still succeeds in conveying the stark intimacy between two people in a scene in which Rowland and Beyoncé share an embrace and gaze at each other lovingly.

If The Gift is a love letter to Africa—as Beyoncé herself described the album—then Black Is King is a love letter to the Black diaspora. In her narration, Beyoncé remarks of “lost languages [that] spill out of our mouths,” and an American flag bearing the red, black, and green of Pan-Africanism proudly waves during “Power.” Like the ‘90s hip-hop MCs who espoused Afrocentricity before her, Beyoncé turns to the African motherland to reconstruct a heritage and identity stolen by slavery and the erosion of time. At the film’s beginning, young Simba hurtles toward Earth from among the stars, leaving the streak of a comet’s tail behind him. No matter how far you stray from home, Beyoncé reminds viewers throughout Black is King that the great Black ancestors can immediately be felt in the stars they inhabit in the night skies.

Cast: Beyoncé, Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, Kelly Rowland, Folajomi Akinmurele, Connie Chiume, Nyaniso Ntsikelelo Dzedze, Nandi Madida, Warren Masemola, Sibusiso Mbeje, Fumi Odeje, Stephen Ojo, Mary Twala, Blue Ivy Carter Director: Emmanuel Adjei, Blitz Bazawule, Beyoncé Screenwriter: Beyoncé, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Clover Hope, Andrew Morrow Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 85 min Rating: NA Year: 2020

Where to Watch Black Is King:
We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.
Continue Reading


Review: Waiting for the Barbarians Loses Its Apocalyptic Power on Screen

Ciro Guerra never quite finds an imagistic equivalent to the novel’s subtly hallucinogenic atmosphere.




Waiting for the Barbarians
Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

“Pain is truth. All else is subject to doubt,” intones the stone-faced Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) in Waiting for the Barbarians, explaining his interrogation methods. The line might as well be the slogan of both J.M. Coetzee’s 1980 novel and director Ciro Guerra’s film adaptation. An agent of an unnamed empire, Holl has arrived at a colonial outpost to essentially produce truth via pain. Horrifying the Magistrate (Mark Rylance) who oversees the remote outpost, Joll captures and tortures members of the local nomadic tribe, forcing them to articulate the “truth” that the Empire needs: that these so-called barbarians are planning an assault on the Empire’s frontier.

Coetzee’s novel, published at the height of South African apartheid, is written in an allegorical mode that, through its nonspecific frontier geography and generalized designation for its protagonists, broadens its scope to address colonialism as a whole. At the same time, though, Coetzee imbues the psychosomatic effects of colonial systems with an unnerving specificity, his clipped prose achieving a paradoxical expressionist realism in its descriptions of the bleak nonplace of the frontier and the depiction of the Magistrate’s inner life. But as true as the film stays to its source—Coetzee wrote the adaption himself—Guerra never quite finds an imagistic equivalent to the novel’s apocalyptic, subtly hallucinogenic atmosphere.

The film’s narration lacks that sense of interiority that makes Waiting for the Barbarians on the page more than a simple moral tale; the anguish of the Magistrate and the barbarian stragglers held captive in the outpost aren’t expressionistically reflected in the exterior world, and the adaptation excises the dream sequences and reveries that Coetzee intersperses throughout the book. The scorched-desert oranges of Chris Menges’s cinematography communicate a sense of the oppressive frontier environment, but the staging of the Magistrate’s moral awakening and fall from imperial favor tends toward the cold and distanced. A degree of alienation may be an intended effect—the titular gerund “waiting” already indicates the story’s Beckettian overtones—but Lucretia Martel’s Zama much more impressively, and hauntingly, blends listless existentialism and colonial brutality.

As a man who believes himself to be kindly and modest, even as he serves in a position of authority, Rylance crafts an instantly recognizable and sympathetic performance of naïve white guilt. Still, the Magistrate’s arc of moral awakening has a tidiness that belies the rough frontier setting. In an early scene, the middle-aged colonial functionary confesses that he has no ambitions toward imperial heroism—that, hopefully, posterity will remember merely that “with a nudge here, a touch there, I kept the world on its course.” Through a series of tribulations that force the reality of empire into visual and tactile perception, he will realize that he has been complicit in a “world course” of endless war and extermination—proving, in a sense different than he intended it, Joll’s thesis that pain leads to truth.

The Magistrate turns out to be virtually alone in his opposition to the regime of brutalization that Joll installs in the outpost. With his brusque disposition and strange accoutrements (his sunglasses are a novelty in the world of the story, and they have a peculiar, knotted design here), Joll is a Deppian villain if ever there was one. Thankfully, though, the actor doesn’t let his embodiment of faceless power slip into cartoonish mugging, as Joll mostly works as a Kafkaesque embodiment of cynical authoritarian severity. It may be simply that Joll doesn’t get enough screen time to cross the line between allegory and parody, as he’s briefly replaced by Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson), a less outwardly “civilized” iteration of the imperial thug whom the Magistrate finds in Joll’s place after returning from an excursion to the desert.

Wracked with guilt over his complicity in the Empire’s campaign of torture and murder, the Magistrate takes in a native woman, identified only as the Girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan), whose ankles have been broken by Joll and Mandel’s uniformed goons. The Magistrate’s mostly chaste obsession with the Girl, whom he views as a means of soothing his white guilt, leads to his becoming a pariah in his own town, and the regime of torture he passively opposed is turned into a crucible for his new understanding of the barbarians’ plight.

There’s nothing particularly challenging or incisive about the notion that our main character must go through great pain to become a better person, and Guerra’s scenes of transmogrification through pain aren’t made to hit home in the way they do in the novel. However, it’s much to the film’s credit that it doesn’t see symbolic gestures on the part of oppressors—like the Magistrate’s Jesus-like washing of the Girl’s feet—as sufficient or effective acts of reparation. The story’s guilty conscience exceeds that of its protagonist, and the film, in the end, evinces the awareness that the unnamed but unambiguously European society at its center will be at the mercy of the “barbarians” that colonialism has invented.

Cast: Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Robert Pattinson, Sam Reid Director: Ciro Guerra Screenwriter: J.M. Coetzee Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.
Continue Reading


Review: A Thousand Cuts Sounds the Alarm on Rodrigo Duterte’s Tyranny

The film uses endangered press freedom in the Philippines to illustrate the threat posed to liberal democracy by weaponized social media.




A Thousand Cuts
Photo: Frontline

Centered on a heroic narrative that’s almost drowned out by the bleakness of its surrounding material, Ramona S. Diaz’s A Thousand Cuts uses endangered press freedom in the Philippines to illustrate the threat posed to liberal democracy by weaponized social media. Fortunately, Diaz resists the urge felt by many artists to see all geopolitical matters through the lens of America’s decaying polity. Still, it’s impossible not to feel the shadow of Donald Trump in the documentary when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte tells crusading journalist Maria Ressa that her lonely, besieged, and truth-telling outlet is “fake news.” What works for one would-be autocrat apparently works for another.

Ressa is the executive editor of Rappler, a buzzy Philippines news site fighting disinformation at the source by optimizing itself for maximum social media dissemination. A sprite of cheery efficiency who seems happiest when presenting people with horrific facts, Ressa delivers a dire, if unsurprising, message when she says that “lies laced with anger and hate spread fastest” on social media. She adds that her country is particularly fertile ground for such viral firestorms, given that the average Filipino spends approximately 10 hours a day online.

While A Thousand Cuts appears more engaged in the flesh-and-blood conflicts of cutthroat Filipino politics, it highlights one of Ressa’s more impactful data dives: of a self-amplifying network of 26 fake accounts effectively spreading false Duterte propaganda to over three million people. The result of such dissemination ranges from fast-spreading memes (calling Rappler’s many female reporters “presstitutes”) to mobs (angry Duterte fans live-streaming from Rappler’s lobby while supportive posts call for the journalists to be raped, murdered, and beheaded). As is the case with strongmen the world over, the animus behind all this virtual bile is the reporting of inconvenient truths. All throughout the film, which commences in 2018 and follows the government’s anti-Rappler campaign through a court decision in June 2020, Ressa and her reporters put out punchy stories about potential corruption in Duterte’s family and how his anti-drug vigilante campaign led to thousands of killings in shadowy circumstances.

A Thousand Cuts presents this as a lopsided battle. Rappler’s upright, mostly young colleagues try to discern the real story behind a smokescreen of spin. Meanwhile, Duterte mesmerizes crowds with his surreally rambling speeches, careening from claims that a bullet is the best way to stop drug abuse to talking about the size of his penis. At the same time, we see his surrogates barnstorming around the country like fascist carnival barkers whipping up crowds. The president’s head of police, Bato Dela Rosa, is a bald and clowning bruiser who mixes bloodthirsty declarations of his eagerness to kill for his boss with off-key ballads. While Rosa goes for WWE appeal, girl-group performer and pro-Duterte mean girl Mucho Uson seems more like what would happen if a Pussycat Doll were employed by Steve Bannon.

The film is most darkly enthralling when it’s showing this combat (albeit a mostly physically distanced one) between a cartoonish villain like Duterte and underdogs like Ressa. In addition to bringing a frisson of interpersonal drama to the narrative, the almost existential conflict shows in stark terms just how much the country has to lose. The conflict over press freedom ranges from legal harassment to a barrage of violent threats. Some of the film’s most wrenching moments are the testimonials from Rappler’s inspiring writers, who are as dedicated as Ressa but not as seemingly impervious to the atmosphere of constant menace created by the sense of impunity implied by Duterte’s bullying swagger. “I’m terrified every day,” says Patricia Evangelista, wiry with tension and fear. “Maria doesn’t scare easily. I do.”

A Thousand Cuts loses some steam when it departs the hot conflict of the Philippines for the cooler environs of Manhattan. There, on a couple occasions that we see later in the film, Ressa speaks at or is honored by a number of gala first-world events, from the Atlantic Festival to a shindig with Amal and George Clooney. While these moments are likely there to show Ressa in more relaxed settings, they seem far less necessary than what’s happening back in the Philippines. Ressa’s happy-warrior personality shines so brightly in this film that watching her fight the good fight is all the humanizing she requires. “We are meant to be a cautionary tale,” Ressa says about her battle for press freedom and the democratic rule of law in an environment increasingly choked off by vitriol and propaganda. “We are meant to make you afraid.” Sounding an alarm meant to be heard around the wired world, her film does just that.

Director: Ramona S. Diaz Distributor: PBS Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.
Continue Reading


Review: I Used to Go Here Mines Cringe Comedy from Collegiate Nostalgia

The film is almost sadistically driven to turn a woman’s trip down memory lane into fodder for cringe humor.




I Used to Go Here
Photo: Gravitas Ventures

Following the unceremonious cancellation of the book tour for her recently released debut novel, 35-year-old Kate (Gillian Jacobs) is suddenly afflicted with the existential angst that can result from taking stock of one’s life. Kris Rey’s lightly comedic I Used to Go Here proceeds to chart the aftermath of Kate’s personal and professional disappointments after she’s pulled in various directions by her desperate struggle for acceptance. And in doing so, the film initially taps into the insecurities that plague many a professional writer. But once Kate starts to cope with her subpar book sales by taking her old professor, David (Jemaine Clement), up on his offer for her to speak at her alma mater, I Used to Go Here begins to indulge all manner of collegiate nostalgia, trafficking in the clichés of so many works concerned with adults who struggle to recapture the hopefulness of their youth.

For her part, Jacobs is rather convincing at portraying the exhausting mental gymnastics that some artists do in order to appear confident and successful in public, while licking their wounds in private. Rey, however, grows increasingly disinterested in probing Kate’s state of emotional instability in any meaningful way, instead leaning into the sheer awkwardness of situations wherein Kate attempts to relive her glory days. Indeed, there’s an almost discomfiting sadism to the manner in which Rey has Kate grapple with one embarrassment after another as the young woman tries to regain some semblance of self-respect.

From the baby shower where Kate is forced to take a picture with three pregnant friends and hold up a book as her proxy child, to the uncomfortable revelation that David’s wife, Alexis (Kristina Valada-Viars), doesn’t like Kate’s writing, I Used to Go Here relentlessly stacks the deck against Kate. In fact, her failings are laid on so thick that it becomes impossible to imagine how she ever managed to get a legitimate book deal in the first place. By the time she’s had her third blow-out with her bed-and-breakfast host (Cindy Gold), her ex-fiancé stops returning her calls, and her much awaited New York Times book review is revealed to be emphatically negative, it’s clear that the film primarily sees Kate as a mere avatar for every struggling artist, leading her through broadly comic stations of the writer’s cross as her dreams of fame and success crumble on the very same campus on which they were birthed.

This parade of humiliating experiences is given a brief respite as Kate’s bonds with Hugo (Josh Wiggins), a college student who admires her work and with whom she shares a real, albeit short-lived, connection. It’s the lone relationship in the film that feels truly authentic, and it’s when Kate is with Hugo that we begin to get a sense of who she is and what informed her personal life before her professional one fell apart. But soon Kate is being pitted against David’s new star pupil, April (Hannah Marks), who is, of course, revealed to be Hugo’s girlfriend. It’s a particularly trite way of highlighting the stark contrasts between who Kate was in her youth and who she’s become in the decade-plus since, and it’s par for the course in a film driven to turn a woman’s trip down memory lane into fodder for cringe humor.

Cast: Gillian Jacobs, Jemaine Clement, Kate Micucci, Hannah Marks, Jorma Taccone, Zoe Chao, Josh Wiggins, Forrest Goodluck, Jennifer Joan Taylor, Rammel Chan Director: Kris Rey Screenwriter: Kris Rey Distributor: Gravitas Ventures Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.
Continue Reading


Review: Like Its Characters, She Dies Tomorrow Stays in a Holding Pattern

Perhaps as a result of her attempting to avoid all matter of clichés, not just of genre, Amy Seimetz revels in vagueness.




She Dies Tomorrow
Photo: Neon

For a while, Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow seems like a chamber play about a single woman in a tailspin. Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) wanders her recently purchased, relatively empty house, drinking wine, playing opera on vinyl on repeat, and shopping for leather jackets online. Sheil, one of the rawest actors working in American cinema, informs these actions with wrenching agony, communicating the lost-ness, the emptiness of profound depression, which Seimetz complements with surrealist formalism. Lurid colors bleed into the film’s frames, suggesting that Amy is potentially hallucinating, and there are shards of barely contextualized incidents that suggest violent flashbacks or memories. And the subtlest touches are the most haunting, such as the casual emphasis that Seimetz places on Amy’s unpacked boxes, physicalizing a life in perpetual incompletion.

Seimetz and Sheil, who collaborated on the filmmaker’s feature-length debut, Sun Don’t Shine, and the first season of The Girlfriend Experience, are intensely intuitive artists, and Seimetz, an extraordinary actor in her own right, is almost preternaturally in tune with Sheil. The first act of She Dies Tomorrow is a cinematic mood ring in which Seimetz invites Sheil to explore the emotional spectrums of alienation. This stretch of the film is poignant and almost intangibly menacing, redolent of the final 30 minutes of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, which also bridged mental illness with surrealist fantasy and horror-film tropes.

Despite its undeserved reputation as an inscrutable riddle to be solved, Mulholland Drive ended on a note of devastating, cathartic clarity. In She Dies Tomorrow, however, Seimetz pointedly doesn’t give the audience closure, which is meant to communicate the endless work of mental health as well as the lingering aura of doom that seems to be a permanent part of modern life. These are laudable ambitions in theory, but as it expands on its high-concept premise, the film comes to feel more and more, well, theoretical, trapped as an idea in its author’s mind, rather than existing as a fully living and breathing work.

Amy is suffering from more than depression. She’s convinced that she’s going to die, which her friend, Jane (Jane Adams), attributes to Amy’s falling off the wagon. But this fatalistic sensation is revealed to be contagious, as Jane councils Amy and then returns to her own home to find that she also feels with utter conviction that her hours are numbered. Seimetz then springs a startling and resonant surprise: Jane, a totem of stability to Amy, visits the house of her brother, Jason (Chris Messina), and his wife, Susan (Katie Aselton), where she’s seen as an alternately annoying and pitiable kook. Rarely has a filmmaker captured so delicately how we play different roles in different people’s lives, our identities shifting with an ease that’s scary when one gives it a moment of thought. The ease of this self-erasure, or self-modification, suggests instability, for which the film’s communicable death fear is in part a metaphor.

Eventually, though, She Dies Tomorrow goes into a holding pattern. We’re trapped with a half dozen people as they writhe in fear, proclaiming endlessly the approaching expiration of their lives. Seimetz doesn’t offer conventional horror thrills, but she stints on existential ruminations too. After Brian (Tunde Adebimpe), a friend of Jason and Susan, is driven by a death fear to commit a startling act, his girlfriend, Tilly (Jennifer Kim), says to him that she’s been waiting for Brian’s ailing father to die so she could break up with him after a certain waiting period with a clear conscience. And because this confession is delivered in offhanded and robotic fashion, you may wonder why Tilly wants to leave Brian.

We learn nothing else about their relationship, and so this confession feels like a conceit—an acknowledgment of the hypocrisies and evasions of grief—without the detail and immediacy of drama. Such scenes, commandingly acted and possessed of unrealized potential, are a disappointment after the film’s visceral first act. Later on in She Dies Tomorrow, there’s a moment with Jane and several other women laying by a poolside that has incredible visual power—bridging zoning out in the sun with complacent disenchantment with death with the power of taking control of female identity—but it’s similarly left hanging.

Perhaps as a result of her attempting to avoid all matter of clichés, not just of genre, Seimetz revels in vagueness. The notion of a communicable fear of death leads the characters to talk, minimally, of seizing the day, which is a cliché in itself. Seimetz is principally concerned with mood, with stylized dread that’s created by lingering on everyday objects and the use of slow motion and frenzied color schemes. Jane is a struggling artist who takes pictures of protozoa-like things blown up by a microscope, and Seimetz lingers on these to suggest that an explanation for life’s mysteries, or at least those of She Dies Tomorrow, are nearly within sight.

The apocalyptic atmosphere that Seimetz conjures here, especially among the privileged characters, is reminiscent of Karyn Kasuma’s The Invitation. That film’s ending was also disappointingly ordinary, but Kasuma gave her protagonists more room to breathe, revealing in their desperation, bitterness, and suffocating superficiality. In She Dies Tomorrow, Seimetz only gets that close to Amy and Jane, before splintering her film into off into missed opportunities. And given the film’s ambitions, that sense of squandering may be intentional.

Cast: Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Chris Messina, Kentucker Audley, Jennifer Kim, Katie Aselton, Tunde Adebimpe, Josh Lucas, Michelle Rodriguez, Adam Wingard, Madison Calderon, Director: Amy Seimetz Screenwriter: Amy Seimetz Distributor: Neon Running Time: 84 min Rating: R Year: 2020

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.
Continue Reading


Review: Jessica Swale’s Summerland Revels in Recycling Tales As Old As Time

Throughout, the film’s characters exhibit little life outside of their moments of tragedy and symbolic connections.




Photo: IFC Films

Writer-director Jessica Swale’s Summerland does a maddening double Dutch between cliché-laden genre modes. It is, by turns, a melancholic reverie on England’s home-front struggles during World War II and the looming end of an empire, a melodrama about a child teaching a crotchety spinster how to love, and a remembrance of a lesbian love affair. Each of these kinds of stories are typically prone to treacly sentiment, and when thrown together here, the end result is a film whose characters only seem to exist as vessels of pathos, exhibiting little life outside of their moments of tragedy and symbolic connection.

We first meet Alice (Penelope Wilton), a reclusive author and scholar, in her dotage, bristling at unwanted visitors to her seaside cottage in Kent. The film then flashes back to the war, with a younger Alice (Gemma Arterton) writing in the same home. Though tormented by local youths and resented by townsfolk for her antisocial behavior, Alice is perfectly content with solitude, until she learns that she’s been placed in charge of Frank (Lucas Bond), a boy evacuated from London as the Blitz rages on. Alice is, of course, outraged, and struggles to fob the child off onto anyone else in the United Kingdom, insisting that she must live under self-imposed isolation in order to focus on her research into pagan myths.

From the moment Frank arrives on her doorstep, there’s never any doubt that Alice will warm up to the child, and it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t obsess over her emotional thawing. But the boy’s presence does reawaken Alice’s suppressed memories of a romance she once shared with a young writer, Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), during their university days. Their relationship suffered from their shared fear of discovery, and as it flits between past and present, Summerland never takes the time to build its characters, only providing simplistic glimpses of Alice’s past that are restricted to such overplayed images as the accidental brushing of hands and tear-stricken admissions of the impossibility of her being with Vera.

The revelation of Alice’s romantic life is the first of a series of twists that drive the remainder of the story, frequently at the expense of giving the actors room to breathe. Swale comes from the world of theater, and it shows in her functional compositions, which often frame the characters against the English countryside, typically in long shot and static medium-close-ups of them stagily expounding upon their feelings, almost as if they were playing to the cheap seats. And the film’s dialogue is perennially on the nose, as when Alice abruptly goes on a rant about religion and its suppressiveness that’s so obvious that even young, naïve Frank appears to understand that she’s really talking about her sexuality. And as each new dramatic upheaval shoves the slightest hints of subtle character growth out of the frame, the actors are reduced to repeatedly shuffling through the same gestures of shock and grief.

By constantly darting between so many overlapping forms of misery and longing, Summerland never gives its characters any interiority, making them purely reactive agents to the hell to which Swale subjects them. Though the film, surprisingly, concludes on a hopeful note, it indulges every dour cliché along the way, which, when paired with Swale’s drab direction, effectively saps the energy out of its many demonstrative moments of sorrow.

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay, Lucas Bond Director: Jessica Swale Screenwriter: Jessica Swale Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

Where to Watch Summerland:
We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.
Continue Reading