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Understanding Screenwriting #29: Departures, Tetro, The Proposal, Fellini Satyricon, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #29: Departures, Tetro, The Proposal, Fellini Satyricon, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Departures, Tetro, The Proposal, Fellini Satyricon, Fellini’s Roma, Singin’ in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece (book), and the beginning of the cable season, but first…

Fan Mail: Daniel Iffland wrote in about enjoying The Hangover because it is a shaggy dog story, which I agree is part of its charm. As you will see from an item below, Daniel, I am a fan of shaggy dog stories, even if they are not films one usually puts in that category. For example I like and classify as shaggy dog stories The Magician, Touch of Evil, Psycho, and the one discussed below.

Both “JD” and David Marin-Guzman wondered about what happens as a project moves from script to film, again in relation to The Hangover. David was thinking the move from a PG-13 script to an R-rated one may have caused the humor to become lame. It is very possible, since what often happens in the development process is a shift from the tone the original writers wanted. In JD’s case he was bothered by the extremely effeminate performance of the character of Mr. Chow and “wondered if the performance was the same as written on the page or embellished by the actor.” Not having seen any of the drafts of the script, I cannot tell you for sure. But the possibilities are even more complicated than JD suggested. Here is a list of possibilities of what might have happened, along with my guesses as to the probability of those being the case:

1. The character may have been that way in the script from the beginning (possible).

2. The character may have had a hint of that in the Lucas and Moore drafts, then expanded in the “uncredited rewrites” (probable).

3. The actor may have come in with that interpretation, even without it being in the script (unlikely).

4. The director may have seen a bit of that potential in the actor’s performance and pushed him in that direction (probable).

5. The actor and director may have just taken off in that direction, knowing the script always planned to have the photograph at the end with Mr. Chow and the women, figuring that would take the edge off (possible).

6. Same as above, but with the producers, realizing they had gone too far, adding the photograph to take the edge off (probable).

As you can see, making a movie has a lot of moving parts, and unless you were there, you may not know exactly what happened.

Departures (2008. Written by Kundo Koyama. 130 minutes): Yeah, it deserved it.

Several people got very upset when Departures beat out Waltz with Bashir and The Class for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film this year. You may remember from US#15 that I was not fond of Waltz. I do have to admit that I did not see The Class (it sounded too much like what I go through every day teaching; why I would I want to pay money to see that?), but I can see why the Academy voted for Departures. It is a lovely, moving, funny, and hugely satisfying film.

You may know the story from having read about it. Daigo, a young Japanese cellist, loses his job when his orchestra disbands. He and his wife Mika go to his hometown on the coast and live in his late mother’s house. Daigo inadvertently ends up with a job as an encoffiner, somebody who prepares dead bodies to be put in coffins. In America, given our attitudes about death, all of that is done in private. In Japan, it has come to be a ceremony, with family and friends watching.

The obvious place to start the script is with the cellist losing his job, and then once we get to know the characters, getting him involved in his new job. Koyama plays it differently. He starts with Daigo and his older boss, Sasaki, going out to a ceremony. We find out what the job entails as we get caught up in the process. Koyama then gives it a great twist to show this is not going to be all death and sadness. Only then do we get the flashbacks that tell us how he came to that moment.

Koyama spaces the ceremonies through the film like numbers in a musical: Some virtual solos, some ensemble pieces, some quiet, some loud, and all of them revealing the character of Daigo, Sasaki, or others, as well as of Japanese attitudes towards death. The final two ceremonies are rich with details about characters we have met. In the second to last a character we have assumed was just a minor player turns out to have much more to do with the story and its themes than we could have guessed. The final ceremony, away from Daigo’s home town, is a counterpoint to what we have seen Daigo do and a satisfying finish for the film for many reasons.

Daigo’s character is established early in a subtle way as someone who does not tell his wife everything. When she eventually learns of his job, she is turned off, as are many people who knew him when he was growing up. Mika leaves him, then later returns, and in that second-to-last ceremony comes to appreciate the value of what he does to the family of the dead woman, someone Mika came to know when she first came to town. At the last ceremony, Daigo is trying to slow down the funeral directors, who don’t want to bother with a ceremony. When they object, it is Mika who says, “My husband is a professional.” A great, simple line.

The character of Sasaki is played by the wonderful Japanese actor, Tsutomu Yamazaki, whom you may remember as the Japanese equivalent of the lone gunslinger who rides into town and saves the widow’s noodle shop in the great 1985 Itami classic Tampopo. He is older now, but his Gregory Peck-Buster Keaton deadpan is a marvelous counterpoint to Masahiro Motoki’s occasionally frazzled Daigo. Koyama has written them a great pair of characters to play.

Koyama not only handles the story and characters well, but is especially good at the interweaving of themes. We first assume the film is about death, which it is. But then it is also about work. And about marriage. And about friendship. And about nature. Koyama’s touch at shifting from one theme to another is masterful, one of the best examples of its kind I have ever seen. His script is very much in the tradition of the arts of Asia, where elements are seen not only for themselves, but as parts of a much larger whole.

You may be surprised that, in the last paragraph, I did not say the film was about music. It is, of course, but the photograph used in the newspaper ads of Daigo playing his cello out by the mountains in the winter (how does he keep it in tune?) is the only clunky shot in the entire film. That is probably why the marketing people used it. Everything else in the film is so much subtler and so much better.

Tetro (2009. Written by Francis Ford Coppola. 127 minutes): Not easy to write about.

Given that I have been thinking and writing about screenplays for a long time, my comments on most of the scripts, especially for the American films, come fairly easily to me. Experience counts. Sometimes foreign films are also relatively easy to deal with, as was Departures, even as complex as that script was. But there are some scripts that take a lot more effort. Up (US#27) was one, Tetro is another. (Speaking of Up, I went back to see it again, this time in 3-D. I was so caught up again in the story and characters that I was constantly forgetting it was in 3-D. When I did remember I felt the GAPS were usually it effectively, but then they are the GAPS, after all. That’s Geniuses At Pixar, for those of you who missed the reference in US#27.)

I have been watching Coppola’s movies since before many of you were born. No, I did not see his early sixties’ nudies Tonight for Sure or The Bellboy and the Playgirls. As a graduate student at UCLA in the late sixties, though, studying screenwriting with the man who had been his instructor, the late Marvin Borowsky, I was aware of Coppola’s work long before that one he did about the Italian-American family that keeps getting into trouble. I am a huge fan of The Conversation, and since we were able at LACC to score a 35mm print of it at one of Zoetrope’s bankruptcy auctions, I show it almost every semester in my film history course. I do admit to a preference for his narrative films such as The Godfather and The Rainmaker more than his “expand the nature of cinema as we know it” projects, so you can imagine I approached Tetro with a little trepidation. The upside going in was that reviews had indicated he was dealing with character and issues, not just showing off in terms of style.

Bennie, an about-to-be 18-year-old boy, gets off a cruise ship where he works as a waiter, in Buenos Aires. He is tracking down his brother Angelo, who now wants to be called Tetro. Angelo had left the family (they are both sons of a famous classical music conductor), promising to come back to get Bennie, which he did not. The woman who answers the door at the apartment, Miranda, is Tetro’s girl friend. One of Coppola’s weakness as both writer and director is that the women characters are often underdeveloped and/or not well directed. Diane Keaton, who is wonderful in The Godfather II, is awful in the first Godfather. Anjelica Huston gives one of her worst performances in Gardens of Stone. Coppola directed his daughter Sofia, who was good in Inside Monkey Zetterland, like a father rather than a director in Godfather III. Here Miranda is the most likable of the three major characters, and Coppola has beautifully directed the great Spanish actress Mirabel Verdú in the role. Tetro is not the nicest person in the world, and Coppola spends way more time than he needs showing what a pain he can be. On the other hand, Coppola does show us that he is tortured and not just an asshole. One of Coppola’s great skills is his work with actors, and the script provides the opportunity to do that. Why Tetro is so tortured we do not find out until late in the film.

We see Bennie try to redevelop the relationship he once had with his brother, and we see it in the context of music, dance, theater, film and writing. When I wrote about Summer Hours (US#27) I mentioned that it deals with French culture as well as with the family and that American films generally do not do that. Tetro is one that does, and it seems odd but enormously satisfying in an American film.

Bennie discovers the writing that Tetro has been doing, but not publishing, and he begins to copy it out in a legible way. The writing appears to be in prose, but Bennie turns it into a stage play, without Tetro’s knowing it. This is where I think the script begins to go wrong. We have not had any indication Bennie had any thoughts about becoming a writer, so it seems an odd, unmotivated move for him. Tetro is understandably upset, but the scene where Miranda talks to him about it seems to only skim the surface of the issue. There is a lot more both of them could have said. Tetro does not stop the play, and he goes along with the troupe to an arts festival in Patagonia to present it. (The black-and-white cinematography, both of Buenos Aires and Patagonia, is worth seeing the film in a theater for, especially if, like me, you love black-and-white.) The festival seems more like a film festival than a theater festival, and it is there that Tetro finally explains the family secret to Bennie. In, alas, one of the least dramatic revelation scenes I have ever seen. At this point it becomes apparent that as a writer Coppola has not really prepared us for this moment, either in Bennie’s reactions to Tetro or Tetro’s reactions to Bennie in the preceding scenes. Then we get the scene of their father’s funeral, which just turns weird, especially in Tetro’s disruption, which does not seem to bother the other people very much. And Bennie starting to wear a leather jacket like Tetro’s is not an encouraging sign, either.

So. Here you have a screenplay by a master screenwriter that gives us a lot. There are interesting characters (I like the theater folk the brothers deal with, but “Alone,” the mysterious critic is more a concept than a character, which gives that other great Spanish actress Carmen Maura not enough to do), interesting locations, an interesting setup, but an unsatisfying payoff. I like so much of it that I wish it were better, and I am not sorry I saw it.

The Proposal (2009. Written by Peter Chiarelli. 108 minutes): Sanity prevailed.

No, not in the movie, which I will get to in a minute. But when I looking up the credits on the IMDb in late June, I was horrified to find that IMDb had stopped listing the writers at the top of the first page, which they have done as long as I have been using it. It always seemed to me that giving the writers billing right next to directors was a step in the right direction. I thought for a bit that if you wanted to find the writers now you would have to click on “full cast and crew.” But they had moved them down the first page to the “Additional details” under the cast. A quick check on some older titles showed they did it for every title, not just the new ones. I suspect that too many actors may have complained about writers being billed above them. The good news is that a day later when I checked, they had restored writers to the top of the page. My thanks to any of you who had noticed and complained to IMDb. I had not gotten around to it yet before they changed.

Now then, where were we? Ah, yes, The Proposal. This is a perfect example of how screenwriters and movie audiences are smarter than the marketing people (those idiots again!). In the trailer for this film, we get Sandra Bullock’s Margaret as the Boss From Hell, with her being snippy and everybody afraid of her. Then we see her uncomfortable as she goes off to pretend she is getting married to Andrew, her assistant, and avoid being deported to Canada. The trailer makes Margaret seem just as bad as Jean, the bitch Bullock portrayed in Crash. Don’t the marketers remember that we adore Bullock when she is lovable? They seemed to, since later trailers included at least one shot of her laughing warmly.

Well, in spite of the marketing miscue, audiences turned out in droves for the opening week, and business seems to be holding up. What Chiarelli does at the beginning of the film is not only show Margaret as the Boss From Hell, but as an efficient schmoozer who talks a reclusive author into an appearance on Oprah. She is also a focused worker who does not like incompetents and someone with at least a little sense of humor about herself. So we can see that there is possibility for change with her, which is essential for the film to work. Audiences can look forward to seeing our Sandy.

Chiarelli also sets up her assistant Andrew as more than just the put-upon schlub the trailer makes him out to be. He’s smart and he realizes her demand that she marry him gives him some leverage, which he is determined to use. He has a bit of a ruthless side as well. What we have here is a couple with some balance, again in spite of what the trailer shows you. That makes watching them fun. Andrew is played by Ryan Reynolds, whom I suggested in US#19 was not quite up to the demands of the starring role in Definitely, Maybe. Well, he is here. Probably because his character is better defined than it was in the earlier film. And he has somebody great to play off. Reynolds and Bullock, who have been friends for a while, have great chemistry together and it makes the picture.

Margaret and Andrew fly up to his hometown of Sitka, Alaska for the 90th birthday of his grandmother, the always-welcome Betty White. What keeps this from being just a retread of Meet the Parents is that both Margaret and Andrew have a lot to hide from his family, which gives each scene some dynamics. Needless to say, everything seems to work out, but stick through the end credits. We see bits of Margaret and Andrew’s post-weekend interview with an immigration officer, who also seems to be interviewing some of the characters from Sitka as well. The material is not quite strong enough for a final scene, but with enough good bits and pieces to work under the credits. Never throw anything away.

Fellini Satyricon (1969. Story and screenplay by Federico Fellini and Bernadino Zapponi, additional screenplay material by Brunello Rondi, freely adapted from “Satyricon” by Petronius. 128 minutes): A match not necessarily made in heaven.

In the late sixties, after the enormous successes of La Dolce Vita and 8 ½, Fellini found himself drawn toward the idea of making a film from Satyricon. What we have of the literary Satyricon is about a fourth of the first century book supposedly written by Petronius, an official in Nero’s court. (For a rather nice portrayal of Petronius, look at Leo Genn’s performance in MGM’s otherwise blunderbuss 1951 production of Quo Vadis?.) Satyricon is sort of a novel, but with various diversions, stories, et al. Fellini was interested in it as a demonstration of the “voids, the dark places” we don’t see in the official versions of history, according to Hollis Alpert’s stolid but informative biography, Fellini, A Life. You’d think that the Fellini who made a film about modern Roman decadence (La Dolce Vita) would do something wonderful with ancient Roman decadence.

Well, the decadence is there, but it overpowers everything else. The two main characters, taken from Petronius, are Encolpius and Ascyltus, two young men Fellini saw as hippies of their day. Those characters, and the others, are all surface, with no interior life. They have none of the richness one sees in the characters in Nights of Cabiria or 8 ½. Encolpius and Ascyltus fight over a beautiful 16-year-old boy, Giton, whom Encolpius loves. Giton is even blanker than the other two. We have no idea what if anything is going on inside that pretty little head of his, and when he disappears halfway through the film, we don’t miss him. Encolpius’s attempts to get Giton back take him to a show put on by the actor Vernaccio—the ancient Roman equivalent of the music halls that show up in other Fellini films, but here it has the feeling of being researched rather than felt. Encolpius and Giton pass by a brothel, but it is just faces in windows (see below for the brothels in Fellini’s Roma). One of the centerpieces of the book is Trimalchio’s banquet, in which Petronius satirized the nouveau riche of his day, but in Fellini and Zapponi’s hands, it is just excess, with very little point. We have a sequence with our guys as galley slaves, and quite frankly it is less interesting than the equivalent scene in the 1959 American version of Ben-Hur because we do not care about the characters, and the semi-historical details are not particularly compelling. The writers give us a long scene, not as far as I can tell in the original, of a Roman nobleman sending his children away before killing himself and his wife, but we have no idea who they are or how they relate to anything else in the film. They may have been meant as a shout-out to the actual Petronius, who killed himself in a particularly elegant way, according to Tacitus, but there is nothing in the film that tells us that. Encolpius and Ascyltus arrive at the nobleman’s house later, see the bodies and then have a frolic with the lone surviving maid, who does not seem to mind. Encolpius finds himself in an arena with a man dressed as a minotaur, but the scene is not as compelling as any number of gladiator scenes in American-made Roman epics. The lack of characters and continuity means these scenes must stand on their own, which they do not.

Bernadino Zapponi, Fellini’s co-writer on this, had written a book of stories Fellini liked and had co-written the “Toby Dammit” episode Fellini directed for the 1968 filmed called Spirits of the Dead. Fellini had moved away from the other writers he had worked with before, although one of them, Brunello Rondi, is credited with additional screenplay material in the film’s credits. Whatever he did, it was not enough.

Fellini’s Roma (1972. Story and Screenplay by Federico Fellini and Bernardino Zapponi. 119 minutes [American version]; 128 minutes [original version]): A match a little closer to being made in heaven.

This film should not work for all the reasons Fellini Satyricon does not work: The characters are not very deep, and like a lot of directors Fellini became enamored of scenes more than stories. This film is a collection of scenes in and about Rome. “Fellini” (and I am not sure it is really him, at least in the American version Turner Classic Movies ran in June) tells us in the opening narration that the film does not have conventional characters or story. That may be in response to the fact that Satyricon did not do that well at the American box office, since we like movies that tell stories.

So it’s a documentary, right? Don’t bet the farm on that. They begin with a number of scenes that recreate moments in Fellini’s childhood in Rimini in which he learns about Rome. These scenes could easily fit into Fellini’s next film Amarcord. They are amusing because, unlike the scenes in Satyricon, we can see the connection with real life. They have a warmth missing in the earlier film. Then in a long sequence Fellini recounts his arrival in Rome in the late thirties. He has an actor playing his young self, and the actor is not a lot more expressive than the leads in Satyricon, but he has details to react to. Fellini jumps ahead thirty years and gives us a real documentary sequence of what it is like to arrive in Rome on one of the major motorways. A real documentary? Some of it is, but some of it was done on a set for the motorway Fellini had built. A scene that starts out as documentary turns Fellini-esque. The last time I saw this in a theater, the audience was a bit baffled by this, as younger audiences often are at Fellini, because they do not realize he is a teller of shaggy dog stories. They didn’t realize that Fellini is funny.

A little later we get what again starts out as a documentary episode, of a film crew going into an excavation for the new subway. Except they break through into rooms that have ancient mosaics on the wall. OK, but then the air coming in makes the paintings vanish. Does that really happen? I told you he was a teller of shaggy dog stories, and this one is haunting and poetic.

We get a sequence in a forties music hall, and it is much more detailed and realistic than the similar sequence in Satyricon, as are a couple of lively brothel scenes, one a poor brothel, one a rich one. The women there are not just faces in windows, but march around the men, demanding them to make a choice. Like the music hall sequence, it has a lived, rather that researched feeling.

What starts out to be an interview with an aging aristocrat turns into a fashion show. Of ecclesiastical clothing. If the audience is not laughing by this scene, there is no hope for them with Fellini. Zapponi claims that he came up with the idea for this scene based on the fact that there are a number of stores in Rome that handle such clothing. Whoever came up with it, and I am willing to take Zapponi’s word, it is a simple, but very imaginative jump from that to a fashion show.

The writers have an outdoor festival, which connects with the first night young Fellini came to Rome. Then a group of motorcyclists roar through Rome, and we see the monuments of Rome zip past from the point of view of the cyclists, which connects with the way the past is disappearing in the mosaic scene.

No, there are not conventional characters nor a conventional story, but unlike Satyricon, the individual sequences are so rich and vivid by themselves, and connect up in subtle ways, that the film, in spite of sequences that don’t work, is a satisfying whole. It is not up to the best of Fellini, but how many movies, including those of Fellini, are?

Singin’ in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece (2009. Book by Earl J. Hess and Pratibha A. Dabholkar. 321 pages): More collaboration.

In 1973 Donald Knox did a terrific book called The Magic Factory: How MGM Made An American in Paris. As much as I liked that book, I always thought he should have done it about Singin’ in the Rain, which, American’s Best Picture Oscar aside, is a much better film. Thirty-six years later Hess and Dabholkar have finally gotten around to doing that book. And it’s even better than I hoped.

When Knox was collecting material for his book, the studio files at all studios were generally closed to scholars, so following in the path of people like Kevin Brownlow, he conducted detailed oral history interviews with the collaborators on American. There was a great push at that time, inspired by Brownlow’s monumental book of oral history interviews with survivors of the silent film era, The Parade’s Gone By, to get people on tape before they passed away. Many of the people who worked on Singin’ have since passed away, but many were interviewed by various oral history projects, and the authors have access to all of those. We who were involved in collecting oral histories were told what we were doing was the “first draft of history,” and I find it satisfying Hess and Dabholkar are using them now, and in an interesting way. When you interview people, you usually develop some kind of fondness for them. So you tend to believe what they tell you. Because Hess and Dabholkar are working from transcripts, interviews, and autobiographies, they are very good are telling you that these Hollywood storytellers have often told very different versions over the years of what happened making the film.

The authors use not only those oral histories involving famous people like Gene Kelly. For example there is Rudy Behlmer’s interview with Lela Simone. And who was she? She was a music coordinator and assistant to Arthur Freed, the producer of Singin’. She supervised a lot of the post-production work, including sound effects on the title number. We get not only her recollections, but her notes, since the studios have donated/dumped a lot of their paper archives into university libraries and the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy. As I mentioned above, there are a lot moving parts in the making of any movie. Pauline Kael, writing about Doctor Zhivago, said, “It’s not art, it’s heavy labor.” Making any movie involves heavy labor, and Hess and Dabholkar’s book lets you know how much heavy labor went into the making of one the lightest and most charming American films.

The most detailed account of the script development of the film we have had so far comes from an essay the two screenwriters, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, wrote for the 1972 publication of the script. Hess and Dabholkar follow that, but they also have looked at the surviving script materials. That shows, even more than Comden and Green’s essay, how much collaboration was constantly going on with them and Gene Kelly and the others. The basics of the film were there in the first drafts, but there were constant changes and improvements. And also some possible disasters they avoided. Comden and Green had to go back to New York to work on a show, and at one point they suggested playwright Joseph Fields come in and work with Kelly. Hess and Dabholkar tell what some of Fields’ suggestions were. How could a guy that talented be that wrongheaded? Fortunately sanity prevailed there as well.

I have actually come across a few of my students over the years who do not like Singin’ in the Rain. They are not cretins, nor are they morally deficient. For all the rest of us, this book will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about how the film was made. You may find yourself so exhausted after reading it from the descriptions of all the heavy lifting that went on that you will want to rest a while before looking at the film again.

The Beginning of the Cable Season: Returns and newbies.

In US#26, I wrote about the end of the network television season. It has been followed of course, by the arrival of the summer season on cable, which means the returns of some favorites and some new shows.

Season Three of Burn Notice picks up where season two left off: Michael had jumped out of a helicopter that “Management” had taken him up in to tell him that they were no longer going to protect him. As I suggested in US#21, this opens up a whole new set of people who wish Michael ill. Michael knows he is suddenly showing up on computer lists and in police files. In the first episode, “Friends and Family” (written by Matt Nix), he is approached by an old colleague, Harlan, who says he needs his help. By now Michael should realize people like that are up to no good. In the second episode, “End Run” (written by Craig O’Neill), local detective Paxson picks up Michael’s brother Nate in an effort to get Michael to talk about assorted semi-legal things he has been involved in in the first two seasons. Michael outwits her, and in episode four, “Fearless Leader” (written by Michael Horowitz), Michael manages to find out what cases Paxson is working on and arrange for her to capture one of the biggest fish she is after. She agrees not to go after Michael, but I doubt if we have seen the last of her. Throughout these episodes Madeline (Michael’s mother), Sam, and especially Fiona have been pushing Michael to stop trying to get back into intelligence work and just agree to work with them on cases. Michael is determined to get back in, so we are going to have that as the running theme for the season.

The Closer started up its season differently. In the last episode of the previous season, Brenda and Fritz, the F.B.I. agent, got married. So do we see their period of adjustment? Not so much. In the first episode, “Products of Discovery” (written by Michael Alaimo), it is several months after the wedding, and we are well into the episode before we even get a scene with Fritz. And then it is about their sick cat. I know the kitten is supposed to be a human interest story, but it just came across as weird. Especially when they kept returning to the cat in subsequent episodes. And even after they had to have the cat euthanized, the following week, in “Walking Back the Cat” (written by Leo Geter), Brenda is carrying around a container with kitty’s ashes, which leads to all the obvious sight gags and one-liners. In this episode, we do get to see a little more of Brenda and Fritz working together, since he asks her to see if she can track down a missing person the F.B.I. has an interest in. It is of course a lot more complicated than that, and there is a disagreement between the two of them on procedure, since as a cop she is allowed to lie to a suspect, while he is not. Not as much is made of that as you could. The writers of all the episodes so far are not getting into what a marriage between these two means.

Saving Grace, having killed off Leon at the end of last season, is now dancing around “coma girl,” as Grace refers to the black girl she thinks knows Earl. Three episodes in the girl has still not awakened, although in “Watch Siggybaby Burn” (written by Denitria Harris-Lawrence & Jessica Mecklenberg) we learn that Earl has been taking coma girl on trips and apparently getting her drunk, since alcohol is showing up in her blood stream. We get no indication what the doctors think about that. Meanwhile, Grace, having been behaving herself in the last season, has returned to her wild ways, and in “Watch Siggybaby Burn” she and her pal Rhetta spend a lot of time behaving like teenagers on a bender.

Since my Time-Warner system does not deign to give us Showtime, I have had to pass on Nurse Jackie, but I did pick up a couple of episodes of the other new nurse show, HawthoRNe on TNT. The “Pilot” was written by John Masius, an old St. Elsewhere vet, but you could not tell it. In it we are introduced to Christina Hawthorne, the head nurse at a hospital in Richmond, Virginia, although no one talks in a southern accent. She is of course SuperNurse, saying and doing all the right things, challenging the doctors, and fighting for the patients. When someone asks her, “Who’s side are you on?” Christina of course replies, “Right now, the patient’s.” Yeah, and that makes her different from every other nurse how? I loved Jada Pinkett Smith in Collateral, but mostly she has played supporting roles. She is not yet giving a star performance here that will carry the show. She and everybody else in this episode and the following one, “Healing Time,” are just a little too good-natured and easygoing. The staffs in both St. Elsewhere and ER had a lot of edges to them. The one semi-non-cliched character is nurse Bobbie Jackson, Christina’s best friend, who has an artificial leg. We know because she gets stabbed in it and it doesn’t hurt. Then a guy who wants to date her brings along spackle to their first date. I am not sure how much more you can do with that, and it is not a reason all by itself to watch the show.

I almost did not watch the opener of HBO’s Hung. The premise is ridiculous: A high school basketball coach decides to supplement his meager income by hiring out as a male prostitute, since he has a large penis. Then all of the hype about the show was that it was more than its premise. Then several critics agreed that it was more than its premise. I know, the joke here should be that it is not, but the hype and the critics were right, at least about the “Pilot” episode (written by Dimitry Lipkin & Colette Burson). The episode starts off slowly, setting up the context: We are in Detroit and financially times are bad for everybody. Ray Drecker’s wife has left him for a dermatologist who had been a nerd when they were all in school together. He has had to move into his late parents’ house, which is nearly destroyed in a fire. He gets re-involved with a poet, Tanya, he had a one-night stand with, and they inadvertently come up with the idea of him becoming a male prostitute. It is all done in a very low-key, even realistic, way, and some of the dialogue is rather sharp, as are the reactions of the characters. Look at Tanya’s reaction when Ray asks her if she intends to be his pimp: She just looks at him and quietly says, “Yes.” The tone is very interesting. But tone alone cannot carry a show. I am not entirely sure where they can go with the basic idea. Ray is sort of a blank, and can you do this with a Special Guest Star customer every week? It is worth checking out to see what they can do with it.

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: Kajillionaire Whimsically and Sincerely Reflects on Family Ties

Although its crime-caper structure is worn extremely lightly, Kajillionaire represents Miranda July’s first real flirtation with genre.

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Kajillionaire
Photo: Focus Features

Early in Kajillionaire, the third feature by Miranda July, a building manager explains that “I have no filters!” as he tearfully confronts the cash-strapped protagonists to ask for the rent that they owe. This line works as both a mea culpa and a defiant declaration from July herself. The willfully naïve sincerity of her work has as many detractors as devoted fans, and her choice to give such quirky emotional openness to an incidental character like this is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. However, July’s latest effort also shows potential elsewhere to convince a few of her more world-weary cynics, who might have previously seen cloying self-consciousness where others see a broad humanist perspective.

Kajillionaire is notably more driven by narrative than July’s previous two films, Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future, which were mostly content to observe slices of life, searching for transcendence in the everyday. Here, a more contrived story concerns a dysfunctional family composed of disheveled, small-time grifters Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger), and their introverted daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), who see their fortunes change slightly when they encounter worldly and assertive Melanie (Gina Rodriguez). The thirtysomething Melanie finds herself drawn to their criminal lifestyle, as laughably low-key as it might be, and helps them with a new set of scams.

Although its crime-caper structure is worn extremely lightly, Kajillionaire represents July’s first real flirtation with genre, and it’s also the first occasion that she hasn’t given herself a leading role. The multi-hyphenate artist has explored a multitude of perspectives and personalities throughout all her work, but this feels like the first time, at least in her films, that we’re seeing characters who aren’t projections of some aspect of her psyche.

This new focus succeeds in putting her considerable storytelling talents on display more clearly than ever before. Instead of blowing up mundane quandaries and conflicts to an existential scale, as she did in Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future, July shows us people who are doing their best to maintain the unconventional daily grind they’ve found themselves on, and they’re all the more relatable for it. And while it would perhaps be a stretch to say that the Dyne clan’s comical grifting has any real-world political relevance, they do seem to be a reflection of their times, particularly in repeated scenes of them going to absurd lengths to avoid the aforementioned building manager’s demands for rent.

Indeed, the precarity and itinerant lifestyle of the central figures in Kajillionaire can be seen as a logical next step in July’s filmmaking trajectory, from neurotic suburban whimsy and confused sexual awakenings (Me and You and Everyone We Know), through urban millennial angst and impending mortality (The Future). There’s a sense of real-world responsibilities and hardships progressively encroaching on innocence and insularity, and the conflict between these two poles also proves to be the emotional core of Kajillionaire.

Childhood, and particularly immature sexuality, has always been a key theme of July’s work. Here, she adopts an interesting alternative perspective, imagining a character who was denied this whole phase of their life. Old Dolio was part of Richard and Theresa’s money-making schemes since before she was even born (one of the film’s best throwaway gags reveals that she was named after a homeless man who won the lottery, in exchange for an inheritance that never materialized). She received none of the traditional trappings of parental affection, being treated more like a respected accomplice and business partner than a beloved child.

Wood’s hilarious, affecting performance convincingly sells this slightly on-the-nose premise. She depicts a woman with a niche set of skills and a shaky sense of pride in her independence, whose repressed emotions are peeking through the surface at almost every moment. When Old Dolio reluctantly redeems a gift voucher for a massage, following an unsuccessful effort to claim its cash value, there’s a memorable shot of her face seen through the hole in a massage table, as this rare instance of physical contact causes a single tear to fall from her eye. Here, July’s underrated visual sense serves to bring us closer to a character, in contrast to the distancing effect of her more Michel Gondry-esque flights of fancy (such as the nightly stream of pink foam that comes through the wall of the office space where the Dynes are crashing).

Toward the end of the film, July provides some more unintentional provocation to the haters, when Melanie points out that “most happiness comes from dumb things.” This is a more direct version of the revelatory aphorisms that pepper her dialogue, and could also be a comment on the atypically conventional way that she concludes Kajillionaire, as Old Dolio finally opens up to a cathartic, hard-won moment of intimacy with another person. Whether you can allow yourself a similar embrace of July’s indigo child energy is still a matter of taste. But, almost two decades on from the heyday of the early-2000s whimsical bohemia that she epitomized, her latest at least functions as a nostalgic reminder of a time when a lot of us could.

Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, Patricia Belcher, Kim Estes, Da’vine Joy Randolph, Rachel Redleaf Director: Miranda July Screenwriter: Miranda July Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Tate Taylor’s Ava Doesn’t Lack for Star Power, Only Narrative Thrills

Ava isn’t only banal, but also, in its half-hearted stabs at novel ideas, seemingly content with its banality.

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Ava
Photo: Vertical Entertainment

Action thrillers don’t get much more generic than Tate Taylor’s Ava, which tells of a veteran assassin being hunted down by the shadowy organization that employs her. If there’s a twist here, it’s that Ava (Jessica Chastain) is a recovering alcoholic trying to mend her family relationships while fending off attackers after she becomes too careless in the field. But even this thread of family drama is as uninspiring as the film’s thriller trappings. Because Ava never bothers to articulate how its eponymous character’s secret professional life affects her personal life, and vice versa, or even the emotional and psychological toll that such a delicate balancing act must take on her, it’s difficult not to see Ava’s alcoholism as a superficial affectation, a transparent means of making her seem “complicated” as a character.

Ava’s interactions with her mother, Bobbi (Geena Davis), and sister, Judy (Jess Weixler), are marked by a sassy repartee that feels inconsistent with the film’s otherwise gritty atmosphere, though the relaxed nature of these moments gives the impression that Taylor is more at ease handling this aspect of the narrative. A music-free and exhausting fight scene between Ava’s handler, Duke (John Malkovich), and their superior, Simon (Colin Farrell), where the sound is amplified to emphasize the brutal physicality of every punching, bone-crunching hit, would make for mesmerizing cinema if not for the fact that the film’s action sequences are borderline incomprehensible, all frenetic camera movement and erratic editing.

Chastain, at least, proves to be a compelling presence, as she admirably tries to elevate the flimsy, one-note material—most notably in later scenes where her subtle expressions convey Ava’s failing attempts to fight back the emotions that are getting the better of her projected stoicism. But the performance isn’t worthy of the film, which is likely to leave audiences wondering how it even managed to attract so much A-level talent. For Ava isn’t only banal, but also, in its half-hearted stabs at novel ideas, seemingly content with its banality.

Cast: Jessica Chastain, John Malkovich, Colin Farrell, Common, Jess Weixler, Geena Davis, Diana Silvers, Joan Chen Director: Tate Taylor Screenwriter: Matthew Newton Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Time Is an Oblique Look at Black Lives Undone by the Prison System

The film reminds us that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time.

3.5

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Time
Photo: Amazon Studios

If you want to argue that the law enforcement, criminal justice, and penal systems in the U.S. are badly in need of reform, a first instinct may be to point to the hundreds of felony sentences that have been overturned in the last few decades due to wrongful convictions. Arguing that a man was justly convicted but nevertheless victimized by the carceral state—getting people to accept a guilty man as a locus of sympathy—is a taller order, but it’s just what Garrett Bradley does, in plain but morally forceful terms, in her documentary Time.

The man in question is Robert Richardson, convicted along with his wife, Sibil, of robbing a credit union in Shreveport, Louisiana on the morning of September 16, 1997. At the time, the couple had four sons, and Sibil was pregnant with twin boys. Considering her situation, Sibil took a plea bargain and was sentenced to 12 years, though she was out on parole after only three-and-a-half. Meanwhile, Robert was sentenced to 65 years without parole.

Bradley doesn’t, and perhaps doesn’t need to, trot out statistics to make the case that Robert’s draconian sentence represents a perpetuation of anti-Black racism. She’s got the receipts: years of home-video diaries that Sibil recorded for Robert as she worked tirelessly to support her family while also trying to secure legal motions for his re-sentencing. All the while, their boys grew up without their father. Time opens with a montage of these home videos, set to Tsegue-Maryam’s whirl-a-gig piano piece “The Mad Man’s Laughter”: Sibil waking the twins for the first day of school; observing them playing in the snow; riding rollercoasters with them; filming them play at a pool party; and giving them lectures on work ethic at school.

At the end of the documentary, we see some of this footage again, of Robert and Sibil’s boys at play and growing up, only this time run in reverse. The camera performs an act that for Sibil and her family is impossible, rolling back the lost years, completing the story’s happy ending. Matching the black and white of Sibil’s home movies, Bradley’s new footage captures the culmination of the herculean efforts that eventually get Robert released after 21 years. But, of course, Robert’s return can’t restore lost time, like the camera seems to.

Bradley’s film gives us glimpses into the status of the family as it stands in the weeks leading up to Robert’s release. Now living in New Orleans, the boys are in the process of striking out on their own. The youngest, twins Justus and Freedom, are diligent college students, and at one point we catch glimpses of one’s poli-sci debate and another’s dedicated French study. An elder brother, Richard, is on the cusp of graduating medical school. “Success is the best revenge,” Sibil muses at one point, as she waits in her office for a call from a judge.

The film’s title evokes “doing time,” but we don’t see Robert actually serving his sentence; instead, we feel its duration in the gap it’s left in his family’s life, and in their words we’re offered an oblique commentary on the history of Black incarceration. “It’s almost like slavery time, like the white man keep you there until he figures it’s time for you to get out,” Robert’s mother avers to the camera. It’s a statement that could serve as a succinct summary of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, though it’s delivered with the extemporaneity and subdued anguish of lived observation rather than with muted scholarly precision.

Bradley’s film is about feeling time, about conveying some idea of what 21 years feels like to someone else. In images of the almost imperceptible movement of clouds over New Orleans, Barrett finds a lyrical metaphor for time’s ineffability—as well as for abiding faith in the eventuality of grace (“God looks over the sparrows, Sibil. He’s going to look over us,” Sibil recalls Robert saying to her after his sentencing). Far more than a polemic against the prison-industrial complex, Time reminds us in eminently cinematic ways that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time.

Director: Garrett Bradley Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now

These great horror films are currently streaming on Netflix.

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The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now
Photo: New Line Cinema

Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors and incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”

At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. And some of our favorites are currently streaming on Netflix. Budd Wilkins


The Blackcoat’s Daughter

10. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)

The Blackcoat’s Daughter has a sad, macabre integrity. Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, Emma Roberts, Lauren Holly, and James Remar are poignant in their minimalist roles, and writer-director Oz Perkins arranges their characters in a cleverly constructed narrative prism that simultaneously dramatizes violence and its aftermath in an endless chain reaction of perpetual cause and effect. And the carnage, when it arrives, is staged with an aura of guttural bitterness that refuses to give gore-hounds their jollies, elaborating, instead, on the desolation of the characters committing the acts. When the demons appear in the film, and in terrifyingly fleeting glimpses, Perkins understands them to spring from the deepest chasms of human despair. Bowen


1922

9. 1922 (2017)

In 1922, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) initially scans as a broadly brutish characterization given by an actor looking to disrupt his handsomely aloof image, following a cinematic tradition of expressively filthy, monosyllabic and flamboyantly antisocial characters such as Daniel Plainview and Karl Childers. Though Jane’s dramatization of rage is haunting and shrewdly comical in its overt and ultimately moving über-manliness. The casual violence of Wilfred’s physicality is subtly calibrated, particularly the tension in his muscled back as he drinks lemonade on the porch after a hard day of murder. Complementing Jane’s portrait of coiled wrath, Molly Parker physicalizes the fear that informs every minute wrinkle of Arlette’s relationship with her husband, which the character attempts to paper over with bravado, inadvertently sealing her doom. Arlette is one of countless women who’re damned if they do and if they don’t, yet somehow the men are able to rationalize themselves as the victims. 1922 informs Stephen King’s pulp feminism with primordial, biblically ugly force. Bowen


The Invitation

8. The Invitation (2015)

The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan


Sinister

7. Sinister (2012)

Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Calum Marsh


Session 9

6. Session 9 (2001)

As in real estate, the three most important factors in Brad Anderson’s brooding Session 9 are: location, location, location. The filmmakers have hit upon something special with the Danvers State Mental Hospital, whose sprawling Victorian edifice looms large over the narrative: A motley crew of asbestos-removal workers, led by matrimonially challenged Gordon (Peter Mullan), run afoul of a baleful, possibly supernatural, influence within its decaying walls. Anderson uses to brilliant effect a series of archived audio recordings—leading up to the titular “breakthrough” session—that document a disturbing case of split personality. While the film doesn’t entirely stick its murderous finale, no one who hears those scarifying final lines of dialogue will soon forget them. Wilkins


Before I Wake

5. Before I Wake (2016)

Director Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake hints—in flashes—at a remarkably cruel psychodrama, physicalizing one of the worst and most common fears that orphans share: that they’re awful and unlovable, and therefore undeserving of parents. This fear is similar to the terror that parents have of inadvertently destroying or disappointing their children, and Flanagan unites these anxieties with a ghoulishly inventive plot turn that he doesn’t fully explore. Flanagan is deeply invested in Cody’s (Jacob Tremblay) welfare, to the point of rigidly signifying the various manifestations of the boy’s nightmares, pigeonholing irrationality into a rational framework so as to justify a moving yet literal-minded finale. Chaos could’ve opened Before I Wake up, allowing it to breathe, though Flanagan’s beautiful and empathetic film cannot be taken for granted. Bowen


The Evil Dead

4. The Evil Dead (1981)

The Evil Dead still feels like the punchiest horror flick this side of a Dario Argento giallo. Sam Raimi relentlessly fashions the film’s first half as a creepy-crawly sweat chamber with evil seemingly taking the form of an omniscient, roaming camera, gleefully poking fun at his five protagonists along the way. Despite the signs—the difficult-to-start vehicle, the fallen bridge—no one else believes the woods are alive. Ash (Bruce Campbell), horrordom’s most memorable wuss, and his girlfriend, Linda (Betsy Baker), share an intimate, peek-a-boo moment in which he gives her a necklace, and when he’s later forced to kill her, Raimi takes great joy in referencing this coquettish exchange of affection. Now infamous for its over-the-top gore and cheesy effects sequences, The Evil Dead is most impressive for Raimi’s unnerving wide angle work and his uncanny, almost unreal ability to suggest the presence of intangible evil via distant headlights, bleeding light sockets, and, in the film’s most awesome set piece, a simple game of cards. Gonzalez


The Guest

3. The Guest (2014)

The Guest is carried by an intense and surprising mood of erotic melancholia. Adam Wingard leans real heavy on 1980s—or 1980s-sounding—music in the grandly, outwardly wounded key of Joy Division, and he accompanies the music with visual sequences that sometimes appear to stop in their tracks for the sake of absorbing the soundtrack. The film is a nostalgia act for sure, particularly for The Hitcher, but it injects that nostalgia with something hard, sad, and contemporary, or, perhaps more accurately, it reveals that our hang-ups—disenfranchisement, rootlessness, war-mongering, hypocritical evasion—haven’t changed all that much since the 1980s, or ever. Bowen


Poltergeist

2. Poltergeist (1982)

Tobe Hooper is officially credited for having directed Poltergeist, but it’s co-scripter Steven Spielberg’s fingerprints that are all over this dark-mirror image of E.T. and Close Encounters of a Third Kind, about unseen spirits tormenting a suburban family. It’s structured as an escalating series of reveals, from the frisson elicited by inexplicably mobile furniture on up to third-act hysteria derived from birth imagery, child peril, and the eternal creep factor of video snow in a dark room. Hooper’s Grand Guignol flourishes are occasionally evident, particularly when a paranormal investigator pulls his own face off, but the technical proficiency is all Spielberg’s, as is the abiding interest in families and the influences (supernatural or otherwise) that disrupt them. Abhimanyu Das


The Silence of the Lambs

1. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Detective thrillers often concern contests of male ego, involving brilliant investigators who confront physically superior and equally brilliant psychopaths. Often lost among such face-offs are considerations of the lives that are destroyed and ruined over the course of the narratives, as these thrillers exist to evoke and satisfy our own fears and resentments. By contrast, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is grounded in the psyche of a ferocious yet unproven female protagonist, whose thoughtful fragility intensifies the film’s violence, invigorating it with a sense of dread and violation. The film is a strange and still novel mixture of coming-of-age character study, murder mystery, and Grand Guignol horror spectacle. Bowen

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Review: Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda Is the Eraserhead of Animal Documentaries

In Kossakovsky’s latest, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human.

2.5

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Gunda
Photo: Neon

On paper, Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda, a wordless documentary about the everyday life of a few farm animals—a mama pig, two cows, a one-legged chicken—may suggest a quiet idyll in the vein of the goatherding sequences from Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte. But with its stark, forbidding black-and-white cinematography and dense, unsettling sound design, the film resembles nothing so much as Eraserhead.

The newborn piglets in Kossakovsky’s film, whose faces look surprisingly alien-like in extreme close-up and whose aching squeals can be rather unnerving, even at times resemble the baby from David Lynch’s cult classic. By eschewing the Disneyfied anthropomorphism of Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins and the tidy narrativizing of the Planet Earth series, Kossakovsky refuses to resort to the old cliché that animals are “just like us.” They’re not, really. And in Gunda, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human.

Which isn’t to say that we don’t form a relationship with these creatures. Relying heavily on shallow-focus shots often positioned near ground level—and thus close to its subjects’ eyeline—the film gives us something of the experience of being a farm animal: of grazing in a field, caring for a newborn, and aimelessly roaming around a farm. As in his prior work, Kossakovsky trusts his audience to stick with the film through lengthy shots where nothing in particular seems to be happening until, gradually, a miniature narrative begins to emerge. But while ¡Vivan las Antipodas! and Aquarela played out largely in a series of breathtakingly composed long shots that allowed the audience to drink in the scenery of various international locales, in Gunda, Kossakovsky follows the opposite impulse: pulling his camera in as close as he can get to these animals and keeping their environment largely out of frame.

In the film’s harrowing and unusual opening shot, a hog that’s lying down and seemingly in pain is framed by a barn door. Kossakovsky’s camera closes in with a slow Kubrickian zoom, but we don’t quite understand what’s happening here until a tiny newborn piglet emerges from behind its mother. She’s been giving birth, but Kossakovsky treats this usually joyous moment as if it were a death scene. Only by the film’s end do we truly understand why.

Sadly, the rest of Gunda is rarely so meticulously composed. The film’s meandering sequences tend to grow repetitive, only rarely crystallizing into meaningful or memorable form. There’s a tedium to much of Gunda that may be true to the lives of its animal subjects but makes for dull watching after the first hour. The scenes involving the mother pig and her children exert a fascinating pull—particularly the mother’s sometimes brutal parenting tactics, such as when she stomps on the runt of her litter—but the sequences involving the chickens and the cows feel like filler and a distraction from the pigs, who are the emotional core of the film.

As Gunda lurches toward its close, an impending sense of doom starts to hover over it as we begin to realize just how much these animals’ lives are directed, controlled, and circumscribed by human hands. But there’s an unfortunate lack of specificity here that’s rare in Kossakovsky’s work: Though shot across three different countries (Norway, Spain, and the U.K.), the film feels as though it’s all taking place on a single farm, one that could be located almost anywhere. That universality is undoubtedly the point, as Gunda isn’t simply an observational documentary, but one with a message about the cruelty of livestock agriculture. Though the creatures at its center live in relatively pleasant free-range environments, a far cry from the industrial hellscapes denounced by documentaries like Food, Inc. and vividly depicted as essentially a death camp in Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, they’re ultimately objects of exploitation. The human use of animals for livestock is, the film suggests, inherently brutal. If Gunda never subjects us to gruesome images of slaughter à la Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts, it nevertheless closes with a prolonged single-shot sequence that’s more heartbreaking than any depiction of the goings-on in an abattoir ever captured on film.

In this sequence, a truck pulls up to the barn where the pigs live and drives off with the piglets, leaving the mama pig in a state of grief-stricken perplexity. For minutes on end, we watch her pacing around, clearly distressed and unable to fathom why her piglets have been taken from her. It’s the kind of viscerally upsetting moment that, as Orson Welles said of Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, would make a stone cry. And if this conclusion doesn’t quite make up for Gunda’s fundamental monotonousness, it does at least lend some shape and significance to the rambling sequences that precede it, calling into question how free these free-range animals really are. By the time the credits roll on the film, we realize we’ve been watching not so much a sketch of the lives of farm animals as a threnody for their deaths.

Director: Victor Kossakovsky Screenwriter: Victor Kossakovsky, Ainara Vera Distributor: Neon Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Werner Herzog’s Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds

The documentary’s ethnographic bent is balanced out by a healthy dose of hard science.

3

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Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds
Photo: Apple+

Filmmaker Werner Herzog and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer team up again for Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, which stands as something of a companion piece to their previous collaboration, 2016’s Into the Inferno. Where the earlier film followed them on a globetrotting game of hopscotch to gaze into the hellmouth abyss of active volcanoes (and obsess over them with a motley crew of visionary scientists), their latest finds them looking to the skies for trailblazers of a completely different sort.

Herzog and Oppenheimer once again dash off to various far-flung destinations in order to investigate the multifaceted phenomena surrounding asteroids and meteorites, with each of the film’s episodes loosely strung together like so many gaudy beads on a necklace. What emerges is the fact that these extraterrestrial entities represent both bringers of life, having conceivably contributed basic organic building blocks to our planet’s primordial inorganic “soup,” as well as harbingers of disaster and death, as in the impact on the Yucatan peninsula that brought about the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.

Indeed, that prehistoric event serves as a sort of epicenter for Fireball, to which Herzog and Oppenheimer return at several points. The film opens with footage from a Day of the Dead ceremony in Mérida, Yucatan—crowds adorned with the requisite black-and-white skeleton makeup—that finds its direct echo at about the midway point when we visit Chichén Itzá and discover a forecourt there that’s decorated with numerous skeletal figures.

The symbolic duality of the meteorite is made most manifest at a stop at the Ramgarh crater in India. At its center stands a 10th-century temple to the god Shiva, whose cosmic dance regulates the cycles of creation and destruction across vast stretches of time. The meteorite’s significance to other belief systems is illustrated by a visit to the Kaaba in Mecca, Islam’s most sacred site. (Here, the filmmakers had to rely on amateur cellphone footage, since nonbelievers aren’t allowed near the shrine.) And at the Wolfe Creek crater, aboriginal artist Katie Darkie discusses taking inspiration from folklore and legends involving the impact site.

The film’s ethnographic bent is balanced out by a healthy dose of hard science. As usual for a Herzog documentary, the focus is just as much on the scientists themselves as it is on their pursuits. We learn all about quasicrystal structures via a jigsaw puzzle, take a tour of the Center for Meteorite Studies with a jittery scientist who’s especially loathe to drop any of the precious collection, and visit the Pan-STARRS Observatory in Hawaii, where scientists monitoring the skies for approaching asteroids excitedly compare megapixel capacities. In perhaps the film’s most rhapsodic interlude, we witness the sheer joy of members of the Korean Polar Research Institute when they discover a handful of meteoritic shards that stand out in stark contrast to the endless white glare of the Antarctic glaciers.

The moment is reminiscent of scenes from Encounters at the End of the World, in which Oppenheimer first appeared in a Herzog production. Nor is this the only callback in Fireball. Descending into a cave at the bottom of a cenote in the Yucatan where the Maya civilization used to inter their dead, we’re instantly reminded of similar ritual usages in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. At one point, footage from the Hollywood blockbuster Deep Impact is incorporated into the mix, in order for Herzog to evaluate it as what you might call disaster poetry.

One of the most striking effects here occurs whenever Herzog and Oppenheimer slow down the film’s often-hectic pace to let viewers ponder the sheer beauty of the imagery, whether that’s painterly rendered details of landscape or the natural splendor of closely observed crystals and minerals. Herzog has always had a keen eye for remote places, and Fireball lets him visit his fair share of them. As ever, his assessments are delivered in his trademark Teutonic deadpan. For instance, he describes the village of Chicxulub, near the center of the Yucatan impact crater, as “so godforsaken you want to cry.” Nor does he have much fondness for its “dimwitted dogs.” Asides like this leaven the visual poetry with some welcome humor.

Visiting Mer Island in the Torres Strait between Australia and New Guinea, Herzog and company are treated to a lovely bit of local lore involving falling stars, as well as the revival of a ritual dance interpreting the tale that hasn’t been performed in nearly 50 years. As day darkens into night, assembled on the slender strand between land and see, the dance reanimates the age-old interplay between the living and their dead ancestors. For a moment, before the screen slowly fades to black, all these elements are held in beautiful balance.

Director: Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer Screenwriter: Werner Herzog Distributor: Apple+, Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Another Round Honestly and Poignantly Grapples with Alcohol’s Pull

Thomas Vinterberg’s latest, like The Hunt, is ultimately a parable about breaking a social contract.

3

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Another Round
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

There’s a revealing moment early in Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round when high school teacher Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) and his friends and colleagues—Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Peter (Lars Ranthe), and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang)—are out for a birthday dinner. By this point, the audience knows that Martin is in the throes of a midlife crisis, sleepwalking through his history courses, inspiring the ire of students and parents alike, while regarding his family as little more than roommates. (Throughout, Mikkelsen doesn’t foreground self-pity or defensiveness, suggesting that Martin is too far gone to rouse himself to indignation, hiding under a veil of accommodation.) Because he’s driving, Martin initially resists drinking at the dinner, though his friends talk him into changing his mind, and soon he’s downing a shot of vodka and a few glasses of red wine in quick succession. Mikkelsen shows us the alcohol taking control of Martin in something like real time, his studious reserve vanishing to reveal great waves of sadness, bitterness, and salvation.

Anyone who knows alcoholism knows that face—of completion and fulfillment at the cost of alienation. The poignant terror of the scene resides in how quickly the booze grabs Martin, as if he’s an empty vessel waiting for his charge. In this light, Martin’s prior aloofness takes on new meaning. Though he has many real disappointments familiar to midlife, he was probably a dry drunk who didn’t know it. Over dinner, Nikolaj mentions the Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, who said that people are born with a blood alcohol content that’s .05 percent too low, and that people should maintain a higher level in order to bring out their potential. We know from Martin’s face that he should stay away from alcohol, but he takes this idea at face value and begins drinking at school. Once the first day is over, he asks Nikolaj for a ride home, claiming that he can’t drive, revealing that he’s begun to experiment with the Skårderud philosophy. We expect Nikolaj to insist that Martin get help, but he and the others immediately join in, claiming that their boozing will be the basis of a future report.

The suspense of Another Round has little to do with whether or not these men will “prove” if day-drinking boosts livelihood. Rather, it’s derived from two nervous mysteries: the question of how long it will take them to recognize this idea for the rationalizing cry for help that it is, and how much damage will be done in the meantime. There’s also a kernel of satire here that one wishes Vinterberg had mined more fulsomely: that the men are taking to the next level a social obsession with alcohol and the various mythologies that we utilize to justify it. Alcohol is still greatly mythologized, associated with virile (masculine) creativity, with great writers and movers and shakers. Martin works the most famous boozers into his lectures, such as Hemingway and Churchill, and his literal and figurative intoxication brings his classes to life. Initially, the theory works, mostly for Martin, but for the other men as well.

In 1995, Vinterberg and Lars von Trier co-founded the Dogme 95 movement, which, broadly speaking, stresses found lighting and parred productions as resistance to the bloat of studio productions. Today, Vinterberg’s films still reflect this ideology, favoring handheld, docudramatic camerawork and few overtly expressionistic frills, which has often seemed prosaically “realistic” in the past. But this aesthetic serves a masterful purpose in Another Round, as his characters are calmly, objectively regarded as they drift further into alcoholism.

Their debauchery is clearly pleasurable in the moment, as benders with friends can be, but the camera is mercilessly attentive to the toll the booze takes—to the confusion, the staggering, the babbling, and especially to the existential pain of a massive hangover after days of being at sea. Overt formal fireworks might’ve glorified this behavior (think of Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas, which equated a prolonged suicide-by-liquor to a stylish, woozy jazz concert), whereas Vinterberg honors the lure and the danger of drinking simultaneously.

Still, it doesn’t require much artistic ingenuity to make the case that addiction is bad. Another Round is elevated by its cast, especially Mikkelsen, who gives one of the greatest, most lived-in performances of his career, and by a nagging ambiguity. Even as booze begins to destroy these men, the film doesn’t entirely refute the Skårderud philosophy. Someone dies, a marriage nearly dissolves, and the other men sober up, which they soon tire of in the tradition of many people who feel incomplete without indulging in their governing habit. They’re happier after returning to booze, and the teachers among them accomplish the mission of energizing their students. Martin, once a dancer, even begins to dance again.

Like every alcoholic, the film’s main characters are nagged by the exceptions to the rule (the Churchills of the world), by the possibility that they can keep their hungers within a certain perimeter. Another Round, like Vinterberg’s The Hunt, is ultimately a parable about breaking a social contract. Martin and his friends break a code by day-drinking, but perhaps they refuted a larger contract by going sober in a world that values casual lubrication. Every recovering alcoholic is intimately familiar with such a contract, which is among the profound challenges of putting the bottle down and keeping it down. One is reminded of that haunting line from Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master: “You can’t take this life straight, can you?”

Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, Magnus Millang, Maria Bonnevie, Susse Wold, Helene Reingaard Neumann, Michael Asmussen, Martin Greis-Rosenthal Director: Thomas Vinterberg Screenwriter: Tobias Lindholm, Thomas Vinterberg Running Time: 115 min Rating: 2020 Year: 2020

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Review: Wildfire Vibrantly Entwines Personal and Political Trauma

The structure of Wildfire’s narrative doesn’t emerge out of a simplistic progression from strife to reconciliation.

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Wildfire
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

The archival footage of the Troubles that opens Cathy Brady’s Wildfire constitutes a remembrance of an era that’s barely bygone. Indeed, as celebratory clips of the peacemaking Good Friday Agreement replace images of gunsmoke, fire, and post-bombing rubble, the film smash cuts to more recent news footage about Brexit and its possible impact on the Irish border, a reminder that the past, and certainly this one, is never past.

The uncertainty surrounding the border of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland is evident in Kelly’s (Nika McGuigan) belabored entry into the latter at the start of the film. Stopped for a heightened security search, the shabbily dressed woman must empty everything out of her camping backpack and strip before being let go, as well as told that it’s been a year since she was reported missing. Comparatively, her journey to her hometown on the Northern Irish border goes significantly easier, but as she slips into the country, the ease of her passage is undermined by the worry that future crossings could be more fraught.

The legacy of the Troubles and the wider history of British colonialism hangs heavy over the film’s early stretches. Kelly crosses the border next to a sign welcoming people to Northern Ireland, but someone, in a unionist gesture, has spray-painted “One” over the “Northern.” In contrast, she encounters Union Jack flags blowing in the wind as she walks down the street, even a building plastered with a giant loyalist motto: “Prepared for Peace. Ready for War.” Yet these omnipresent reminders of national violence give way to more personal legacies of trauma when Kelly heads to the home of her sister, Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone), who had all but given her up for dead. Lauren has struggled to deal with Kelly’s disappearance, and her return conjures ghosts from their past, including the long-repressed memory of their mother’s death.

The sisters’ denial regarding their family history is reflected in a Northern Ireland working to leave its own past behind. Lauren works for an Amazon-esque company that epitomizes post-national globalism; she spends her days in a warehouse so massive that the end of the building disappears at the vanishing point of the frame, suggesting the storage facility at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. A generational divide also reflects how quickly tragedy is forgotten. Lauren’s younger co-workers came of age after the Troubles, and as such they’re completely removed from its horrors, sniggering at the prosthetic leg of a manager who lost her limb in an explosion as those old enough to remember the constant terror of the time fume at the show of insensitivity. And the sectarian nature of that history of violence is subtly born out in the judgmental whispers about whether Lauren and Kelly’s mother died by suicide, a reminder of the influence still exerted by religion and dogma on people who seem otherwise secular.

Slowly, though, the film’s focus shifts away from its social backdrop and toward the increasingly raw emotions that McGuigan and Noone evoke as they chart their characters’ frayed relationship. McGuigan (who passed away of cancer soon after completing the film) emphasizes Kelly’s wild, fatalistic spirit, as if she had inherited it from her mother, always nervous and casting one eye toward the exit even as she attempts to repair her relationship to her sister. Noone, meanwhile, captures the rage of someone who’s learned to accept the loss of a loved one, only to have that person re-enter their life and reignite all the anger and pain that they learned to compartmentalize. Lauren’s veneer of stability starts to crumble almost immediately, as she simultaneously unleashes her fury at her sister and anyone who dares to gossip about her. The sisters each embody a wildly different response to trauma (flight versus fight), though neither approach truly confronts the underlying tragedies that shaped them.

The structure of Wildfire’s narrative doesn’t emerge out of a simplistic progression from strife to reconciliation, as Brady has Kelly and Lauren follow a realistically erratic trajectory. Indeed, no sooner does Lauren reunite with Kelly than she screams for her sister to leave, only to then share a moment of fond nostalgia before bristling again at the memories that Kelly revives. Mutual and individual efforts to make good are constantly thwarted, while occasional moments of joyous interaction between them speak to a lifelong bond that not even decades-suppressed agony can undo. In the film’s most mesmerizing scene, the sisters suddenly cut loose and dance to Them’s “Gloria” inside a seemingly empty pub, working up an ecstatic sweat before it’s ultimately revealed that the space is filled with befuddled onlookers.

Lauren and Kelly’s tumultuous confrontations with their pasts and each other naturally has echoes in the film’s nods to Ireland’s fraught, and by no means settled, modern history. Yet Wildfire crucially never reduces itself to allegory, instead living through the unpredictable, jagged arcs of its characters as they work toward an understanding of themselves and each other. The militarized social strife that informed Lauren and Kelly’s childhoods is but one piece in a larger tapestry of horrors that must be dealt with, and Brady suggests that it’s only through reconciling personal conflicts that a populace can improve its political future.

Cast: Nika McGuigan, Nora-Jane Noone, Martin McCann, Kate Dickie, Aiste Gramantaite, David Pearse, Joanne Crawford Director: Cathy Brady Screenwriter: Cathy Brady Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: The Truffle Hunters Warmly Regards a Disappearing Way of Life

The film’s reminder of the fragility of agrarian traditions in the face of a merciless profit motive is delivered with tact and subtlety.

2.5

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The Truffle Hunters
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

The boom in farm-to-table cuisine over the past decade, in both fine-dining circles and more modest gastropubs, has led to restaurants pointing out on their menus the suppliers and farms from which their ingredients have been sourced. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s documentary The Truffle Hunters taps into this cultural conversation, tracing a line from the food on the plate back to the laborers who harvest it, and yet what it implies is that even with the increased transparency around food sourcing, there remains an essential mystique that must go unpunctured when it comes to certain foods.

Profiling a handful of elderly men from Piedmont, Italy, who pursue precious white alba truffles in the forests of the country’s northern region, the film tries to thread the needle between shining a light on its subjects’ niche trade and not spoiling their secrets. It does so by placing the emphasis on the people themselves over the treasures they dig up, a strategy that aligns the film more with the cine-portraits of Les Blank than, say, Netflix’s Chef’s Table.

Unlike Blank’s nonchalantly matter-of-fact films, though, The Truffle Hunters is shot in a painterly visual style that creates a degree of distance from its subjects. Clearly identifying with and celebrating the expertise of these devoted practitioners and their resistance to nosy profiteers, Dweck and Kershaw seem driven by a desire to enshrine the men in timeless tableaux, the likes of which you might see hung on the walls of a museum next to a Vermeer. To this end they’ve made a lovely film, one teeming with punctilious frames in which everything has been arranged just so. But it also prompts the assumption that the filmmakers took their fair share of liberties with the art direction in the hunters’ homes, which, despite being well within their rights as artists, keeps the film from ever feeling truly spontaneous.

The Truffle Hunters concerns itself with a handful of characters: a few expert foragers; their beloved fungi-sniffing canines; an urban buyer who’s always chasing the suppliers’ elusive secrets; and a crotchety gourmand who samples the delicacies brought his way by other such buyers. Dweck and Kershaw establish a leisurely movement between these different threads, presenting each in the same handsome, methodical manner so as to encourage viewers to draw their own conclusions about the ethics of the buyer-supplier dynamic.

The sequences devoted to the highbrow arena of truffle auctions, where enthusiasts come to sniff and evaluate samples of the earthy substance, are no less detailed in their observation than the passages in the forest and at country homes. But what eventually becomes self-evident is the warmth, self-sufficiency, and camaraderie of the hunters compared to the businesslike aloofness of those on the receiving end of their labor—insatiable careerists who, in a handful of scenes, are shown to barely even evince much pleasure for the food itself.

This reminder of the fragility of agrarian traditions in the face of a merciless profit motive is a welcome one delivered with tact and subtlety, but Dweck and Kershaw occasionally deliver it at the expense of their titular subjects. The highlight of The Truffle Hunters is the hilarious rapport between one persevering scavenger and his grumpy wife, who’s fed up with her husband’s imperiling trips into the woods at night—and for good reason, as several scenes illustrate just how physically taxing the process can be for an ailing body. These sketches of domestic life are rich with lived-in authenticity, and the proximity they grant us to a unique, off-the-grid way of life recalls a similar quality that defines Blank’s films about gumbo sorcerers in the bayou. It’s hard not to wonder how much more of that magic could have been captured had Dweck and Kershaw not bothered to so carefully compose and light their shots.

Director: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Concrete Cowboy Is Detail-Rich for What’s Basically an Afterschool Special

Concrete Cowboy is stirring when it really dives into specificity.

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Concrete Cowboy
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

Ricky Staub’s Concrete Cowboy is based on the real-life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club of Northern Philadelphia, where African-Americans teach potentially troubled children to ride and care for horses as a way of avoiding the temptations of the streets. The reveal of this club is gracefully handled by Staub, as the film’s young protagonist, Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), is dropped off on the doorstep of his father, Harp (Idris Elba), after his mother has given up trying to rein in the delinquent teen. This drop-off occurs at night, and Harp clearly doesn’t live in the best part of town. Scared, Cole asks a neighbor about his father’s current whereabouts and is directed to the nearby “stable,” which sounds in this context like a bar. Cole follows a street and a slum opens up into a literal stable, carved out of dilapidated buildings, with a field where horses roam while cowboys bullshit over a fire and beer. Staub stages this scene with offhand matter-of-factness, allowing us to feel the magic of Cole’s discovery—of a hopeful place existing where it, by all odds, should not.

Adapted from G. Neri’s 2009 novel Ghetto Cowboy, the film is involving when Staub and co-screenwriter Dan Walser stick to the particulars of Harp and the other cowboys’ lives as well as the general working culture of the stable. The horses are kept behind a brick wall in a building that was once suburban, which is rich in cobwebs that bring to mind Miss Havisham’s mansion in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Before he can ride a horse, Cole must of course pay his dues, shoveling horse shit out of the stable into a dumpster across the street. Staub fashions an entire, richly specific sequence out of this single action, offering a tribute to the pride of diligent work, especially when it’s servicing passion rather than mere survival. Some of the cowboys are also played by their actual counterparts, and their conversation is similarly detailed, rooted in the legacy of Philly and the Fletcher Street club.

Sadly, these details aren’t allowed to dictate the terms of the narrative, existing instead as window dressing for what amounts to an Afterschool Special. Too much of the film’s runtime is devoted to a shopworn conflict: Will Cole turn to dealing drugs or will he stick with the club? We know the answer to that question 10 minutes into the film, and so the perfunctory scenes of Cole riding around and surveying late-night parties and drop-offs feel like an unnecessary distraction from the cowboys. And Concrete Cowboy grows less detailed as it progresses. We’re not told how the cowboys barely subsidize their lifestyle (based on the news, the real-life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club appears to be more organized, and funded), or if they work other jobs. The cowboys’ relationship to their surrounding community is also glossed over in the film, more or less dramatized by a single celebration sequence.

The delicacy of the film’s early scenes is regrettably missing from other moments that have the potential to be moving. When Harp fashions a special saddle so that a paralyzed cowboy may ride a horse again, we don’t need derivative slow-motion and music to comprehend the poignancy of such a gesture. We also don’t require expository dialogue to tell us that Cole feels excluded in this moment from a father who’s never shown him such generosity, as we glimpse this embittered yet admiring heartbreak in the boy’s face. However, Cole’s wound is cauterized in another wonderful scene, when Harp plays John Coltrane on vinyl and explains to Cole that he was named after the jazz legend. Again, Concrete Cowboy is stirring when it really dives into specificity, avoiding what the New Yorker literature critic James Wood recently defined as our original sin: cliché, which, according to Wood, blocks our apprehension of reality.

Cast: Caleb McLaughlin, Idris Elba, Method Man, Lorraine Toussaint, Jharrel Jerome, Swen Temmel, Byron Bowers, Lamont Fountain, Liz Priestley Director: Ricky Staub Screenwriter: Ricky Staub, Dan Walser Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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