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.
Review: Saudi Runaway Is a Raw and Immediate Chronicle of an Escape
Camera, character, and cameraperson are one throughout, and the effect is exquisitely suffocating.3.5
Susanne Regina Meures’s invitation into the filmic world of her exquisite Saudi Runaway is by way of a camera that moves as if attached to a body. It’s a mobility completely devoid of the vulgar familiarity of a GoPro, or the numb slickness of a dolly shot that only simulates the point of view of a character. We don’t yet know where the body is headed but we can feel its fear. Camera, character, and cameraperson are one here, and the effect is suffocating. We see people’s heads bare and covered. Our vision is fuzzy. Soon, though, the wind lifts what turns out to be a piece of a garment—the camera’s sartorial filter. We’re moving inside an abaya. That’s where we remain for most of the film: between the body of a young woman, Muna, plotting her escape from Saudia Arabia and the dark fabric of her garb.
The film’s handheld camera suggests a baby being held. Not just because of how tethered it often is to the cameraperson, but because our mostly hazy gaze suggests eyes just getting used to a terrifying world. By the time Muna tells us that she will try to record “everything” and that “it will be dangerous,” she’s stating the obvious. Though it pulsates with raw intimacy, Saudi Runaway does have its share of obvious elements, from the sound of music when we least need it, to one too many shots of a trapped bird, to Muna telling us, midway through the film, that “the majority of society is conservative.” But its conceptual device is so uncanny, so un-mediated by how Meures structures Muna’s original footage, that we can’t help but excuse the director’s attempts to turn the original fragments into a coherent narrative.
The camera in Saudi Runaway is so prosthetic, and its images all but birthed by Muna, that, at first, it’s difficult to accept that someone other than she is credited with directing the film. Must Westerners save brown women so that they can speak? However, Muna’s occasional prefacing of her murmured voiceover account with “Dear Sue” gives us a hint of a transnational sisterly collaboration. The epistolary layer of Saudi Runaway isn’t fully explained, a technique often used in the essay film genre that helps give a video-diary aesthetic a sense of depth while maintaining its mystery. Is Sue the director or an imaginary friend? Is Sue a rhetorical device like one of Chris Marker addressees in Sans Soleil? Is Sue actually listening?
The fact that this writer sat immediately in front of both Muna and Meures at the film’s Kino International screening at this year’s Berlinale made the experience of watching it all the more eerie. Our real-life escapee was clearly now safe and sound in Germany, reacting in real time—with self-conscious sighs and sad moans—to the presentation of her ordeal.
On screen, we learn that Muna isn’t allowed to leave her family home without being escorted by a male relative. That she will only be allowed to drive if her future husband allows her to. That her father keeps possession of her passport, which she can only renew with his approval. “Be obedient and everything will be fine” is the advice that Muna’s grandmother gives her.
All of the film’s faces, apart from Muna’s, are perpetually pixilated, reminding us that these are images captured without her family members’ consent. That betrayal and guilt might be prerequisites for deliverance. The pixilating effect also means Muna “covers” everyone else’s faces while liberating her own, her flight necessitating an exhilarating mix of precision, and risk, and anxiety. But, also, the anger of those she must dupe in order to leave them behind. “Do you really think you can go to paradise and leave me here in hell?” is Muna’s mother’s reaction to her daughter’s courage. Although with the benefit of hindsight, she eventually anoints Muna’s newfound independence with a WhatsApp voice message praising her. As if freedom were contagious, experienceable by proxy, or the sheer power of imagination.
Director: Susanne Regina Meures Screenwriter: Susanne Regina Meures Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Swallow Is a Provocative Me Too Parable in Body-Horror Guise
Fortunately for the film, Carlo Mirabella-Davis continually springs scenes that either transcend or justify his preaching.3
Writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s Swallow pivots on a queasy premise: the uncontrollable urge of a young trophy wife, Hunter (Haley Bennett), to swallow inedible objects. Hunter first ingests a marble, after touching it as if it’s a talisman, cherishing its assuring tactility. Later, Hunter carefully removes the marble from the toilet after passing it, cleaning it off and placing it on a tray as a trophy. The marble will soon be joined by a stickpin, a lock, and a variety of other increasingly disturbing things. But there’s another wrinkle of perversity to Hunter’s new hobby: She’s pregnant, and the possibility of these objects puncturing her developing child, no matter how irrational, haunts the film.
For a significant portion of Swallow’s running time, Mirabella-Davis maintains an aura of ambiguity, keeping the audience in a state of discomfort as to what Hunter’s ailment precisely means. There are plenty of hints even early on, as Hunter is married to a svelte GQ-ready hunk, Richie (Austin Stowell), who’s more interested in his phone and his job with his prosperous father, Michael (David Rasche), than his wife. Yet Mirabella-Davis initially resists doubling down on the sort of denouncements of the wealthy that come so easy to filmmakers. In his way, Richie seems to care about Hunter, and his mother, Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel), occasionally comforts her. The filmmaker’s initial refusal to totally render these people rich monsters only intensifies the scenario’s mystery and tension.
Mirabella-Davis is also willing to take Hunter to task for her own alienation, as people often tune her out because she has so efficiently rendered herself a dully accommodating and complacent Stepford wife. Her psychological disorder, known as pica, partially appears to be a response to her knowledge of this fact, serving as a contemptuous act of self-punishment, with perhaps an element of sexual gratification. The narrative contains multitudes of subtexts, and Bennett superbly modulates between learned impassivity and outright despair, capturing the pain of a kind of actress who has come to feel trapped in her role. This entrapment is formally complemented by an aesthetic that’s been very fashionable in art-house horror films lately: pristine, symmetrical compositions of stylish, remote residences that express the inhumanity of essentially living in a one-percent fashion catalogue.
Swallow is initially driven by a driving tension, as we’re led to wonder just how awful and crazy Hunter’s habit will become. The film is never as gross as one might fear, as Mirabella-Davis is less interested in shock-jock flourishes than in sincerely rendering Hunter’s physical pain and mental anguish; like Mike Flanagan, Mirabella-Davis is the rare humanist horror filmmaker. As such, Hunter’s choking—the most disturbing detail in the film—becomes a piercing affirmation of her struggle to feel something and be seen.
There’s a strange irony to the film’s second half. As Mirabella-Davis sets about explaining the meaning of Hunter’s predicament, Swallow grows simultaneously more poignant and pat. Dished out in pieces throughout the film, Hunter’s backstory has been self-consciously overstuffed with topical elements of women’s struggles against patriarchal atrocity, from casual objectification and condescension to rape to the struggle to be pro-choice in the United States. (Hunter’s mother is even said to be a right-wing religious fundamentalist.) This psychology eventually waters the evocative premise down with literal-mindedness, so that Swallow becomes less a body horror film than a Me Too parable.
Fortunately, Mirabella-Davis continually springs scenes that either transcend or justify his preaching. Later in the film, a nurse, Luay (Laith Nakli), is hired to keep watch over Hunter. As a refugee of the Syrian civil war, Luay is partially offered up as a device to score points on Hunter’s privilege (he memorably remarks that one doesn’t have time for mind problems when dodging bullets), though he also shows her profound compassion, most acutely when he climbs under the bed with Hunter in a moment of crisis, patting her back with an affection that we’ve never seen extended to her by anyone else.
Near the end of the film, Hunter holes up in a cheap motel, shoveling dirt into her mouth while watching soap operas that peddle the dream of marrying rich and hot—a sequence of profound and wrenching loneliness. And the film’s climax, in which Hunter tracks down a man from her past, Erwin (Denis O’Hare), is equally heartbreaking, exposing Hunter’s swallowing for what it truly is: an attempt at annihilation as atonement, as well as a self-defiling as paradoxical affirmation of control. Hunter resists her status as an accessory by swallowing others.
Cast: Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Denis O’Hare, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, Luna Lauren Velez, Laith Nakli, Babak Tafti Director: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Screenwriter: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 94 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Interview: Corneliu Porumboiu on The Whistlers and Playing with Genre
Porumboiu discusses the links between his latest and Police, Adjective, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.
Anyone inured to the downward-facing schadenfreude of Corneliu Porumboiu’s prior features might be taken aback by The Whistlers, the Romanian auteur’s first foray into slick, international genre filmmaking. The title refers to a crime ring in the Canary Islands that uses a bird-whistling language to evade surveillance. A crooked cop named Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) successfully infiltrates the group, but his undercover status is increasingly compromised by his fixation on Gilda (Catrinel Menghia), the sultry girlfriend of the ringleader, as well as by the tight leash his commanding officer back in Bucharest has him on.
Lest anyone think Porumboiu is making a play for more commercial appeal, The Whistlers is choc-a-block with teasing allusions, including repurposed music like Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” and Jacques Offenbach’s “Baccharole” from The Tales of Hoffman, as well as cinephilic references: One expository dump happens during a screening of The Searchers, while a climactic set piece takes place at an abandoned movie set. I had the pleasure of picking Porumboiu’s brain after the film’s U.S. premiere last fall at the New York Film Festival about his toying with genre, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.
All your films are playful in my opinion, but with this one, you’re playing with genre.
If you had asked me four years ago if one of my films would have flashbacks, I would have said, “No, no way.” [laughs] With The Whistlers, the way it’s structured, I was interested in the process of learning the language. That determined the core of the film. After that, I knew I needed flashbacks so I can have different types of plot movements happening—so that the main character, Cristi, can look differently at things as they happen, because of language. Double-movement. A parallel structure. After that came the other characters in the film, who play specific roles for—in front of—the camera. Catrinel Menghia plays Gilda, which is an assumed name. We don’t know much about this character.
The femme fatale.
Right. She’s assuming that position. At the end of the day, this is a world of people chasing money. They’re using dialogue to have a fight, you know? So, I knew it was time to look back at the classical noirs. I watched some films and began pulling from them.
The film’s plotlines get increasingly convoluted as Cristi learns more about the world he’s stepped into, the threat of a double-cross always looming over him.
Well, at the end I think you get it all back. My focus was to arrive in the middle, to arrive at a type of cinema linked exclusively to his character, his personality. So, I was thinking in classical noir but not dominated by it.
This is your second time working with Vlad Ivanov, the first since Police, Adjective, nearly a decade ago. Was this role written for him?
Yes. Because in a way I was revisiting the character from Police, Adjective, starting from that. To me he’s an almost theological character. So, at the end of the day, I asked myself if this guy, who’s almost like a military officer, who has a very strict background, can his philosophy last? To find this guy 10 years after, what does he still believe in? Who is he now?
Tell me more the difference between then and now.
Well, in the last film he was someone who trusted a certain system, was a part of it. He had his own philosophy, he knew very well where his power was. A decade later he’s completely lost. He doesn’t know what he believes in anymore. I wanted the difference to be subtle but indisputable. He’s become obsessed with money, his motivations are more harsh.
Is there something about Romania’s economic situation that you’re linking this to?
In 12:08 East of Bucharest, my characters defined themselves in relation to the revolution of 1989, and they believed in communication. In Police, Adjective, you have a boss imposing his own ideology from the top down. In Metabolism, it’s like a game: The director can’t assume his position at the top. Here, my characters don’t believe in anything, they just think in terms of fighting and winning. This is how we perceive the world now, I think.
The transition from value systems to anarchy, or at least a certain realpolitik—even working cooperatively, everyone is looking out for themselves.
I think after the economic crisis, the world changed drastically. I don’t know, the classical noir has a certain vision about the world that’s quite dark, yet was proper for that time. Maybe we can find some similarities today.
Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between this film and Infinite Football?
Infinite Football is about utopia—one man’s political, ideological utopia. He wants to change the game, and what his new game implies is a reflection of the history of Romania. His personal history. But I was doing it in a different way, so I did it like a work in progress.
And you figure into the film as well. You have personal history with these people. They talk to you, talk to the camera, pull you into the frame.
Well, it’s a personal project. Laurentiu, the subject, my friend, he may not have faith in the system, but he has faith in the game, or that his rules will prove themselves. This is the Don Quixote thing of it all.
Spanish and Romanian are not that far from one another, and in order to whistle, the main character has to break his messages down into units of Spanish syllables.
I saw a documentary on TV about La Gomera, the island in Spain. From that I learned about the language of whistling and became very curious. That was 10 years ago. I started to read about the language, and I went to the island where they were teaching it. It was then that I knew I wanted to do a film about the character from Police, Adjective. Being a film about language and codes, I thought I could play with genres; cinema at the end of the day is coding reality, after all. When I write, it’s like going back to the first act, and trying to be there, be present with the characters. Eventually it is them who move me into the story. I have a very particular way of writing. Police, Adjective had eight or nine drafts. I wanted the dialogue to be functional, transactional. And not to go too deep. Each of the characters has a double nature that can’t be opened too much. At the end of the day I’m making these movies for myself. You have to believe in what you’re doing, at least at the beginning of the shoot. [laughs]
I think the first 15 minutes of this film have more edits than all of Police, Adjective. Surely this switch-up is getting you questions from people.
The story called for this approach though. It pushed me to do that.
Critics love packaging things. The “Romanian New Wave,” epitomized by the slowness and realism of your earlier films, is a perfect example. Do you find these categories or tropes at all oppressive?
Well, the truth is it wasn’t a “movement” in the sense of something written down or programmatic. Young filmmakers started working in 2000 and, of course, critics outside Romania don’t know much about Romanian cinema before “us,” so it’s expected that they will put a stamp on new films coming out. For me, each of the directors has their own voice, their own way, developed on its own terms, and for me the movies are especially different now. I’m not offended, but it means I have to speak about my own cinema—none of these generalizations. These critics probably have not seen The Reenactment, or Reconstruction, by Lucian Pintillie, my mentor—the so-called “Old Wave.” This was a hugely important, inspiring film for all of us in my generation. He died before I finished shooting The Whistlers. Regarding Police, Adjective, he told me: “If you cut five or 10 minutes from this film, you’ll have a really good audience.” And I told him, “No.” [laughs]
The generalizations tend to break down, or that’s just the nature of an artist discussing their own work. And the idea of a “movement” implies a finitude or a strategy.
The Treasure was a fable, no? You could find the structure less threatening if you had seen my previous films. Maybe other films from Romania around the same time. But I began to try a nonlinear structure in my documentaries, then applied it to The Whistlers.
Do you prefer the original title, La Gomera, to The Whistlers?
I do think The Whistlers is better. But translated into Romanian, it doesn’t have the same power as La Gomera! Also, I wanted to avoid confusion with Gomorrah.
Review: Autumn de Wilde’s Emma Takes a Classic for a Stylish, Ironic Spin
This lively adaptation plays up the novel’s more farcical elements, granting it a snappy, rhythmic pace.3
Jane Austen’s Emma concerns the mishaps of a self-assured young country aristocrat who prides herself on her savoir faire but who remains, in the terms a certain modern adaptation, totally clueless. A light comedy neither broad enough to be farce nor pointed enough to be satire, the novel lends itself to interpretation as both, given the narrative’s manifold romantic misunderstandings and host of kooky, idle gentry. Without departing far from the text, director Autumn de Wilde’s lively new film adaptation emphasizes the more farcical elements of Austen’s second-longest novel, granting it a snappy, rhythmic pace.
The eponymous gentlewoman, the story’s only three-dimensional character, is played with impressive depth by Anya Taylor-Joy here. On screen, Emma can seem frivolous right up until the climactic moment that forces her into a self-confrontation, but Taylor-Joy’s open, expressive face, so often in close-up, captures Emma’s creeping uncertainty regarding her powers of judgment, as well as her own feelings, even as she continues to act the social butterfly. She’s aided by a screenplay by Eleanor Catton that doesn’t quite resolve the story’s main fault—its concluding romance counts as perhaps the least convincing of any of Austen’s works—but which preserves much of the complexity of its “handsome, clever, and rich” heroine, who must learn to abide by her judgment rather than her vanity.
Emma begins the film at the height of self-regard, the reigning socialite of the small countryside community of Highbury. The 20-year-old has recently made a match for her governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), arranging her marriage—well above her station—to the neighboring widower gentleman Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves). She elects Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a recently arrived schoolgirl of uncertain origins and inelegant manners, to be her next project. She teaches the naïve girl, enraptured by Emma’s ostentatious wealth and delicate bearing, to present herself as worthy of a genteel suitor, manipulating her into rejecting the proposal of hardy local farmer Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells) and to pursue the affections of the young vicar-about-town Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) instead.
O’Connor plays Mr. Elton with palpable smarm, wearing a perpetual shit-eating grin above the ridiculous splayed-out collar of an early-19th-century Anglican vicar. Here, as elsewhere, de Wilde communicates much of what remains implicit in the novel (like Mr. Elton’s odiousness) via a tidy mise-en-scène redolent of Wes Anderson. The sterile pastels of the elegant clothing and the precise movements of both the aristocracy and their servants (who hover about in the background like strange automatons) give the film’s sudden eruptions of human neuroses a droll, punchy tone—as when Mr. Elton casually mentions that it may snow, and a dinner party suddenly erupts into chaos, the nervous guests rushing to the carriages to get back home.
It’s in one of those carriages that, in a scene played perhaps a bit too broadly, a slightly drunk Mr. Elton confronts Emma with the revelation that he’s been aiming to court her, rather than Harriet, whose match with Martin she comes to accept, as it suits both Harriet’s social standing and the girl’s feelings. Outraged at Emma’s tutoring of Harriet in the ways of class presumption is Martin’s landlord, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), a wealthy Highbury bachelor who, as brother to her brother-in-law, counts as family to Emma and her ever-cantankerous father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy). In the lavishly decorated living rooms and salons of their immense estates, Emma and Mr. Knightley bicker in the way that unwitting lovers in Austen tend to, arguing verbosely about the propriety of introducing Harriet to high society.
Emma and Knightley later have occasion to debate the relative virtues of Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) and Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), who arrive separately in town under much whispered ballyhoo. The young and handsome Frank seems destined to ask for Emma’s hand; Jane, the orphaned niece of local gossip Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), is rumored to be heartbroken after forming an inappropriate attachment to her adopted sister’s husband. Emma is as flattered by Frank’s attentions as she is jealous of Jane’s level of gentlewomanly accomplishment. Catton and de Wilde extrapolate from the novel’s succession of social scenarios to make Emma’s doubt about the shifting social field more comically apparent: One of the funniest scenes has the ostensibly modest Jane follow up Emma’s dilettantish performance on the pianoforte with a beautiful, complex sonata, in front of the whole town.
Emma’s discomfort in her new situation will come to a head when she, with Frank’s encouragement, grossly abuses her privilege as a gentlewoman with a practiced wit, embarrassing herself and wounding an old friend. Emma is interested in such textures of early-19th-century society, if not in the latter’s pace. The film fits so much of Austen’s narrative in by judiciously condensing scenes to suit its more ironic tone, occasionally using transitional smash cuts to get right to the point. The result is a stylish, eminently watchable farce that, despite its old-England trappings, is every bit an update as it is an adaptation.
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Amber Anderson Director: Autumn de Wilde Screenwriter: Eleanor Catton Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack, Book
Review: The Trouble with Being Born Is a Chilly Rumination on Memory
In the end, the film suffers from the same issue as its moody androids: enervation borne out of repetition.2
The near future looks a lot like the present in Sandra Wollner’s The Trouble with Being Born, only bleaker and lonelier. That sense of isolation is conveyed right from the start. In the fantastically dreamy introduction, we float through a forest on a summery drift of whispering voiceover and buzzing insects before coming upon a father and young daughter next to a backyard pool. What looks like a relaxing day quickly reads as forced, even icy. While the girl (Lena Watson), Elli, stays by the pool, the father (Dominik Warta) goes inside, only to dash back out again when he sees Elli floating lifeless in the water. “Fuck,” he says. “Not again.” In the next scene, he’s using his phone to reboot the not-quite-drowned Elli.
An android whose deep black eyes and waxily smooth skin—evoking the eerie expressionlessness of Christiane’s face mask in Eyes Without a Face—are the very definition of the Uncanny Valley, Elli was built to replicate the father’s daughter, who disappeared 10 years before. Her reactions are slow and mannered, as though she were puzzling over a bug in her programming instead of playing like a human 10-year-old. Even though her actions are mostly set on a loop built out from scraps of what the father remembers of his daughter, Elli seems to take a mix-and-match approach to those implanted memories, obsessing like an amnesiac trying to make sense of a muddled past. At times, it’s unclear whether the lines in the voiceover (“Mum…doesn’t need to know everything”) are repeated from the human Elli or invented by the android Elli as a way of mimicking her biological predecessor.
The first half of The Trouble with Being Born is narratively thin but heavy with the promise of something more. Inklings of something disturbing in this isolated idyll, that too-close stare of the father and his dressing her just so, are eventually made explicit and disturbing. In one of the more effectively queasy body-horror moments ever put on film, the father removes Elli’s tongue and vagina for cleaning, leaving her naked on the counter. It’s a strikingly disgusting moment, pointing not just to the abuse he subjected his human daughter to, but the casual disdain with which he regards her replacement. But despite the power of this scene and a few others—particularly the wordless shot of Elli watching her father from a distance with the same restless curiosity of the cat flopped next to her, visualizing the unbridgeable gulf between “father” and “daughter”—Wollner continues to fill her film with too little story.
That problem becomes more acute once Elli runs away and the story shifts to another android-human relationship. After Elli is picked up by a passing motorist (Simon Hatzl) who then gifts her like a new toy to his elderly mother (Ingrid Burkhard), still mourning the little brother she lost 60 years before. The ease with which Elli is made into a boy—in the world of the film, reprogramming androids is about as complicated as restarting a smartphone—stands in stark contrast to the violent trauma of abuse that still lingers like a ghost in her flickeringly sentient CPU. But while the setting and the primary human character changes in the second half of the film, Wollner’s narrow view of her story means just more of the same glassy expressions and long maundering silences, like Tarkovsky without the existential pain. At some point, the mirroring begins to feel more like straight repetition without any significant revelation.
In the end, The Trouble with Being Born suffers from the same issue as its moody androids: enervation borne out of repetition. There are some attempts here and there to comment on the replacement of human connection with silicone facsimiles. We almost never see people together. The only time the mother, who spends much of her time walking her dog and wistfully pondering the past, is with another person is when her son drops off Elli. Shopping malls, car-choked roads, and distant skyscrapers dominate the landscape. But rather than truly exploring the ramifications of its futuristic conceit, whether from a broader societal or individualistic and relational perspective, the film just keeps looping back to the same luminously filmed but ultimately blank silences.
Cast: Lena Watson, Dominik Warta, Ingrid Burkhard, Jana McKinnon, Simon Hatzl Director: Sandra Wollner Screenwriter: Sandra Wollner, Roderick Warich Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog Wages a War Between Language and Cinema
It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic.3
Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog is based on 19th-century Russian philosopher and mystic Vladimir Solovyov’s prophetic Three Conversations, which, through a series of dialectical maneuvers, addresses such topics as economic materialism, nationalism, and abstract moralism. The film takes place on a snow-covered hillside, where a large pastel-pink mansion sits and Puiu turns the philosophical into drama. Sheltered in the mansion’s walls are a small group of aristocrats that includes a politician, a general and his wife, and a young countess. It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic. A Christmas gathering stretches on in what seems to be real time, as the party’s high-minded philosophical and political chatter takes on an increasingly strained air.
That tension is heightened by the obstacles that Puiu uses to discombobulate his audience. Malmkrog is the Transylvanian village where the film takes place, yet the characters, who speak primarily in French, talk of being in Russia. And as they discuss imminent war and the potential outcomes of violence, it’s as if the film appears to exist outside of time and place. Doorways and mirrors obfuscate who’s involved in a conversation, and the characters move through the mansion as though compelled by spirits of the past, with cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru often lighting all those drawing rooms using only natural light sources. Malmkrog exudes a painterly expressiveness that’s a far cry from the cold, handheld aesthetic that typically defines the look of Puiu’s work and the Romanian New Wave as a whole.
The film’s first scene lasts nearly an hour and is a magnificent example of staging. The camera glides left and right, with each movement matched by a change in composition that the actors match as though dancing to the music behind their endless words. This balletic circularity, slow but constantly surprising, recalls Max Ophüls’s fixation on the oneiric, circular properties of time. In a surprising moment of violence, a number of characters die on a staircase, only for them to come back to life a scene later, and without comment from anyone. When Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard), the mansion’s wealthy owner and Malmkrog’s central figure, looks up the staircase, it’s as if he recalls what previously occurred there. The moment echoes one from Letter from an Unknown Woman where Joan Fontaine’s Lisa stares up the very staircase up which Louis Jourdan’s Stefan and another woman ascended years earlier.
Whenever Nikolai, who makes the domineering Stefan from Ophüls’s 1948 masterpiece seem meek by comparison, utters lines like “prayer is a soap for the soul,” he carries himself like the Sherlock Holmes of moral arbitration. But he’s closer to a 19th-century Ben Shapiro: a pompous rat obsessed with facts and logic, who won’t let a woman finish a point for fear that he won’t be able to counteract it with a cogent counter-argument. It’s not always clear to what extent Puiu is satirizing this type of behavior, given the spectacle of the man’s endless pontificating, and that the other characters only rarely undercut his words with references to his verbosity. Puiu clearly believes in Nikolai enough to make him the mouthpiece for Solovyov’s philosophizing, which makes it harder to buy to what extent these people are being sent up, and how much Puiu wants the viewer to eat up his words wholesale.
With our perspective held hostage in one place, memory and imagination blur into one. When Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité) reads from a book, the account of a vicious battle between Cossacks and bashi-bazouks, the effect is rapturous. In this claustrophobic endurance test, Puiu transports the viewer through language to a scene with the epic scope of the film’s runtime. He focuses on listening faces, themselves teleported to a different space.
Like his characters, Puiu wages his own war of discourses, in his case between language and cinema. Whenever Malmkrog seems to have settled into a formal rhythm, the filmmaker flips it, using a different device to interrogate how people talk, and to what extent they listen. One heightened dialogue exchange culminates with the main characters staring out of the window in complete stillness. Then Nikolai starts to move, unstuck from this tableau, and seemingly from time. The boundaries of reality keep getting pushed at, to the point that one almost expects the mansion’s walls to fall and reveal a film set. Later, he glides away from a tea reception to observe the servants, who silently rearrange the house and conceal their own power structure through glances and outbursts of violence that are hidden from the wealthy class. They are like spirits, pulling out chairs for aristocrats who don’t acknowledge them, clearing out items like empty champagne glasses that hint at the echo of a past time.
The creeping dread of history repeatedly overwhelms character and viewer, particularly during General Edouard’s (Ugo Broussot) screed on the world’s necessary “Europeanness,” which becomes a Buñuelian account of fascist tendencies and culminates in the film’s most shocking moment. His wife, the imperious, frizzy-haired Madeline (Agathe Bosch), obsesses over the authority behind language: who may speak, and how. This is the sneaky vessel for a larger discussion on power and control. Living in a religious nation, Nikolai posits, one must first understand what Christianity is, and define national identity from that. The characters situate this in the context of war, and a globe that’s shrinking in the face of technological progress.
But with each scene, Puiu strips away the layers of his ornate style, so that by hour three, all that’s left is the close-up. With Nikolai’s straight face berating Olga, evangelizing on resurrection, the sophistication of the dialogue rarely matches that of Puiu’s aesthetic form. As Malmkrog becomes less ostentatious in style, the redundancy of its philosophizing becomes almost impossible to ignore, having made its conclusions about the inability of the intellectual class in combating fascism through language by the 100-minute mark. Puiu’s assaultive mass of a film speaks to modern times in its depiction of aristocrats indulging in comfortable platitudes as the world edges toward the precipice of chaos, but the Romanian auteur doesn’t entirely make the case for sticking around to listen.
Cast: Agathe Bosch, Frédéric Schulz-Richard, Diana Sakalauskaité, Ugo Broussot, Marina Palii, István Téglás Director: Cristi Puiu Screenwriter: Cristi Puiu Running Time: 200 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: For Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, the Cruelty Is the Point
The thrill of the film’s craftsmanship is inseparable from its main character’s abuse.1.5
Elisabeth Moss brings unexpected shades to the flimsiest of roles, and she makes it look so easy. Even if you go into writer-director Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man blind, you will know what Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) did to his wife, Cecilia Kass (Moss), simply from the way she moves one of his hands from her belly. Across a taut and nerve-wracking opening sequence, Cecilia orchestrates what becomes increasingly clear is an elaborate escape. If it’s easy to overlook the hoariness with which the camera lingers at various points on some object that portends things to come, that’s because Moss never stops conveying the agony of the years-long abuse that Cecilia has endured, through the surreptitiousness of her gait and the way paralyzing bolts of fear shoot through her body.
That kind of talent only helps a film like The Invisible Man that doesn’t really care about abuse beyond its function as a plot device. After escaping Adrian’s clutches, Cecilia goes to live with a childhood friend (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter (Storm Reid). Or, rather, struggles to live, as leaving the house is too hard for Cecilia to bear. Cecilia never really stops talking about the control that Adrian exercised over her, even after she learns that he committed suicide, thus freeing her to finally put her life back together. But there’s a frustrating friction to such scenes, between an actress sincerely committed to expressing her character’s pain and a filmmaker interested in trauma only as far it whets our appetite for how a psychopathic tech magnate who specialized in optics could possibly torment his wife from beyond the grave.
With his directorial debut, Insidious 3, Whannell effectively goosed an otherwise insipid haunted-house attraction with clever twists on a franchise’s trite dependence on the jump scare. But it was Upgrade, which saw him freed of franchise responsibilities, as well as longtime collaborator James Wan, that felt closer to a coming-out party for the filmmaker. And it practically announced him as a master, if not of horror, then of evasion, for the way his acute sense of movement is so thrilling in the moment that it can make one overlook his rickety storytelling. Upgrade is a film that’s less suspicious of the not-so-brave new world of tomorrow that anti-authoritarian tech bros are rapidly ushering in than it is in awe of what their toys can do. Its meditation on vengeance is closer to justification: that it’s okay that a bro turned half-machine is going on a violent rampage because of what was done to his wife.
The Invisible Man, another distinctly male fantasy set in a more recognizable present-day San Francisco, has even less to say than that, though it seeks to also entertain us with all that a techie can do with one of his toys. And that it does, as in an impressive early scene inside James’s house where Cecilia walks out of the kitchen while making breakfast and a long shot unobtrusively captures a knife falling off the counter and the flame on one of the gas burners being turned to high. The frisson of unease to this and several other scenes, of a man hiding in not-so-plain sight as he mounts a spectacular show of gaslighting, is close to unbearable. And when the titular menace is finally glimpsed, if only intermittently, the straight shot of action-infused momentum that marks the sequence as he lays waste to a small army of police officers inside the hallway of a mental institution feels like a release, for Cecilia and the audience.
But to what end does Whannell really fashion all this style? In one scene, and only one scene, the film tells us that Cecilia is an architect, not to illuminate all that she’s capable of as a creative, but to allow for the moment where she shows up to an interview at an architecture firm and discovers that the samples of her work were removed from her portfolio. That scene, some 30 minutes into The Invisible Man, is the moment where the film starts to provoke a certain queasiness, where it becomes clear that Cecilia only exists, for Adrian and for Whannell, to be terrorized, to be held up in the air, to be flung across a room, to be punched, to not be believed, to be thought of as insane. And to be raped. That this violation happens off screen proves that Whannell has foresight, that he’s aware of the controversy that surrounded Hollow Man upon its release in 2000. But that we must be told that it also took place at an indeterminate time, almost as a matter of course, feels like an icky attempt at not having to actually grapple with the implications of the crime by casting doubt on it.
Out of sight, out of mind. That feels like Whannell’s mantra. Indeed, by the time it gets around to the business of Cecilia being believed, the film starts to collapse under the weight of an increasingly absurd series of plot reveals for the way she turns the tables on the invisible man to feel like anything but an afterthought. Even then, when her tormentor is right there out in the open, it’s still clear that Whannell only thinks of violence in terms of how it can be paid back. Which is to say, he’s consistent. Through to the end, you can’t get off on the thrill of this film’s craftsmanship without also getting off on the spectacle of more than just Cecilia brought to the brink of destruction. Like its style, The Invisible Man’s cruelty is the point.
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, Benedict Hardie Director: Leigh Whannell Screenwriter: Leigh Whannell Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 125 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: Guns Akimbo Squanders a Nifty Setup with Excruciating Humor
Writer-director Jason Lei Howden’s humor might have been tolerable if his film was at least reasonably imaginative.1.5
For much of Jason Lei Howden’s Guns Akimbo, Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) is in his jammies, because getting dressed is difficult when your hands are nailed to pistols. Eating and using the bathroom are no easy feat either. With this, the film hits on an amusing setup for physical comedy, as Miles can do little but stumble about as he strives to drive a car or use his phone with his nose. He also must avoid being shot by Nix (Samara Weaving), his designated opponent in a kill-or-be-killed online competition called Skizm. But the film ultimately fails to capitalize on its concept and gets smothered by its smug, abrasive tone.
Miles is a coder for a video game titled Nuts Bust 2, one of too-many examples of the film’s groan-inducing comedy. He’s also a bizarrely self-aware depiction of an internet troll, as Miles admits via narration that, in order to feel worthwhile, he seeks out arguments in comment sections and reports “offensive content.” When he goes to Skizm’s chatroom to tell the viewers off, he runs afoul of the organization’s facial-tattooed leader, Riktor (Ned Dennehy), who at one point says, “I’m going to do a poo-poo in my pantaloons,” because why not? Those guns for hands and his forced participation in Skizm are Miles’s punishment.
Most of Guns Akimbo’s dialogue squanders an intriguing concept through truly excruciating attempts at humor, oscillating between snide comments, gay panic jokes, and capital-A attitude-laden one-liners. In one scene, Miles remarks that the world looks “so HD” because, with gun-hands, he can’t go outside with his face in his phone.
The humor might have been tolerable if the film was at least reasonably imaginative. Radcliffe really digs into Miles’s sniveling bafflement and the expressive Weaving clearly has a lot of hammy fun as the unhinged Nix. But too much of Guns Akimbo consists of unremarkable car chases and gun fights that hardly feel transformed at all by Miles’s unique predicament. We watch a lot of people fire a lot of guns against a lot of concrete backdrops, except Howden deploys a hyperactive camera style that’s always zooming around the characters in slow motion or fast forward. He appears to be going for the Neveldine/Taylor style of films like Crank and Gamer, except he’s not nearly as inventive and most of his flourishes outright distract from the action choreography, sometimes obscuring it altogether.
Worse, Guns Akimbo strains to be self-aware, with Miles assuring audiences via narration that this isn’t one of those stories where he wins back his ex-girlfriend, Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), in the end. And it’s weirdly self-congratulatory for a film that visibly revels in torturing Weaving’s character and eventually has Nova kidnapped for the big climax anyway. The film has even less to say about the sort of obsessive spectatorship that makes up the story’s backdrop, as though simply depicting reality-TV audiences and internet users as assholes is some profound statement. Luckily, unlike Miles, viewers have a say in the matter. They aren’t bolted to the couch and the remote isn’t nailed into their hands; they’re free to quit watching at any time, or simply opt not to watch this obnoxious film at all.
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Samara Weaving, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Ned Dennehy, Rhys Darby, Grant Bowler, Edwin Wright Director: Jason Lei Howden Screenwriter: Jason Lei Howden Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: The Assistant Is a Chilling Portrait of Workplace Harassment
The film is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as its main character.3
With The Assistant, writer-director Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in the Tribeca offices of a film mogul, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing much of its resonance. Offices encourage professional functionality as a way of divorcing people from themselves, leading them to make actions without a sense of complicity. What starts small—throwing co-workers under the bus, neglecting friends due to punishing work hours—can blossom over time into people enabling atrocity under the guise of “doing what they’re told.”
With this psychology in mind, Green fashions The Assistant as a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae. The film opens with a young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), being picked up from her apartment for work so punishingly early that it’s almost impossible to tell if it’s morning or night. By 8 a.m., she’s been making copies, printing documents, reading emails, and tending to office errands for hours. Other employees gradually drift in, talking obligatorily of their weekends off—a privilege that Jane isn’t accorded.
In these early scenes, Green conjures a peculiar, very palpable dread, her precise, anal-retentive compositions suggesting what might happen if David Fincher were to adapt Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” This dread springs from two places, as the visual palette is silvery and moody, evoking a potential corporate thriller, though the film refuses to move beyond the expository stage and gratify this expectation, and so we fear that we may be trapped with Jane in her tedium. We are, and this is by Green’s moral schematic.
The Assistant is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as Jane. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the film mogul is only evoked via male pronouns (he’s never seen but often referenced and occasionally heard over the phone, usually in a torrent of rage against Jane for her inability to talk down his wife, who knows of his infidelity). Jane brings another assistant the wrong sandwich, and he treats her cruelly; it never occurs to him, or anyone else, to thank Jane for the tasks she performs for everyone in the office. At best, Jane’s co-workers regard her with a kind of pitying befuddlement, as if she’s not quite real. When Jane eats, it’s quickly and without pleasure, and she’s always alert to being watched. No one speaks of their personal lives. Green springs one perceptive, poignant detail after another, especially when the mogul compliments Jane via email just as she thinks he’s reached his limit with her. This is, of course, a major tool of the master manipulator: praise when least expected, and only enough to keep the person in your sphere of influence and at your mercy.
Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere. Jane finds an earring in the mogul’s office, which is repeatedly seen from a distance through its open door and becomes a chilling symbol for the mogul himself, suggesting his unshakable presence even in absence. There are jokes made about his couch, which Jane cleans. Young, beautiful women are brought into the office at late hours, and are referenced by both male and female employees with contempt. Growing fearful for one of the women, Jane tries to complain to an unsympathetic H.R. officer who sets about gaslighting her. It becomes evident that we’re watching—from the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit person—a parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Green’s grasp of Jane’s indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable.
Yet The Assistant also feels too narrow, too comfortable with its thesis. The rendering of the mogul as an unseen specter is effective but also dime-store lurid in the tradition of mediocre horror movies, and this device also conveniently absolves Green of having to wrestle with how a Weinstein type might live with himself. George Huang’s similarly themed 1994 film Swimming with Sharks, which is mostly inferior to The Assistant, benefited from such a friction, as its own Weinstein surrogate (played by Kevin Spacey) had a magnetism that complicated and enriched the script’s anger. There’s also something insidious about Green’s evasion, as the mogul’s absence elevates him, mythologizes him, which reflects how people low on the power ladder see powerful exploiters. But Green physicalizes this idea without standing outside of it, challenging it, or contextualizing it; she traps us in a monotonous hell and leaves us there. Her fury with Weinstein and his ilk contains an element of awe.
Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, Stéphanye Dussud, Juliana Canfield, Alexander Chaplin, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bregje Heinen Director: Kitty Green Screenwriter: Kitty Green Distributor: Bleecker Street Media Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy Is a Half-Hearted Spin on Peter Pan
Wendy veers awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never accruing any lasting emotional impact.2
Like Beasts of the Southern Wild before it, Wendy unfolds through the eyes of a child. Benh Zeitlin’s sophomore feature puts a new spin on Peter Pan, and not only because it takes on the perspective of a 10-year-old Wendy Darling (Devin France). The film’s modern-rustic settings and costumes and relative lack of fantastical elements—notwithstanding the presence of a majestic, glowing sea creature, referred to as “mother,” who may hold the secret to reversing time—also play a large part in re-envisioning J.M. Barrie’s classic. But Zeitlin’s brand of magical realism strains in its conflicting desires to both demystify Neverland (never mentioned by name in the film), chiefly by grounding it in a rather prosaic reality, and imbue the story with all the enchanting qualities we’ve come to expect from fantasies of everlasting childhood. Like its version of Peter (Yashua Mack), Wendy wants to fly, yet, because of its self-imposed restrictions, it never quite gets off the ground.
Across this tale of a child lurching toward adulthood, there’s a sense of wonder and awe to the sea creature’s brief appearances, and to Wendy’s initial encounters with the free-spirited Peter, who playfully eggs her on from atop the train that regularly roars across the barren, rural locale that houses her family’s rundown diner. But Wendy’s whimsical flourishes, from Dan Romer’s incessantly rousing score to Wendy’s breathy and all-too-mannered voiceover, brush awkwardly against the film’s dour conception of a Neverland drained of all its magic and grandeur. Despite this, Zeitlin strives to capture an unbridled sense of childlike exuberance as kids cavort around the rugged cliffside vistas of the remote volcanic island that Peter calls home. But lacking any of the mystical features typically associated with them, Peter and his cohorts’ behaviors appear overly precocious to the point of ludicrousness; it’s almost as if they’re performing a twee, optimistic rendition of Lord of the Flies.
Unlike Quvenzhané Wallis, whose magnetic presence imbued Beasts of the Southern Wild with a pervasive warmth and soulfulness, Mack is an unfortunately listless presence as Peter. Several years younger than Wendy and her twin brothers, Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin), Peter appears, more often than not, like a six-year-old playing dress-up. His utter lack of charisma and gusto renders him an ill-fitting avatar for boisterous youthfulness, while his occasionally domineering, yet still unimposing, demeanor hardly makes him out to be the inspirational figure that the film ultimately wants him to be. Not only does he allow one boy to drown at one point, he chops off the hand of another to prevent him from aging.
Such events position Wendy as a twisted take on Peter Pan, but these moments are never given room to breathe. Rather, they’re uniformly undermined by the film cutting back to the idyllic adventures of children, in lockstep with Zeitlin’s relentless pursuit of galvanizing his audience through a gleefully idealized vision of the world. This jarring intrusion of darker elements into the story makes for bizarre clashes in tone, leaving Wendy to veer awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never to accrue any lasting emotional impact. When Peter buoyantly declares that “to grow up is a great adventure,” one is left to wonder not only why the boy who never grows up would, out of nowhere, embrace this worldview, but why Wendy, or any of the other children, would want to follow such a troubling figure on that journey.
As Wendy stumbles into its final act, where adult pirates attempt to use Wendy as bait to catch the giant sea creature, it becomes even more convoluted, contradictory, and murky in what it’s trying to say about growing up. Wendy eventually begins to stand up to and question Peter, both for his mistreatment of her brother and his harshness toward the adults Peter has excommunicated to an impoverished community on the outskirts of the island. But no sooner does she chide Peter than she’s back on his side, cheering him on as he fights off an admittedly cleverly devised Captain Hook. It’s as if she, much like the film, can’t seem to settle on whether Peter’s a hero or a borderline psychopath, or if childhood is a magical time to live in permanently or a necessary step on the way to adulthood. Rather than meaningfully subverting audience expectations, Wendy instead plays like a half-hearted twist on the familiar tale that ultimately doesn’t change the moral at the core of countless other Peter Pan adaptations: childhood is magical, and growing up is scary but inevitable.
Cast: Tommie Lynn Milazzo, Shay Walker, Devin France, Stephanie Lynn Wilson, Ahmad Cage, Gage Naquin, Krzysztof Meyn, Gavin Naquin, Romyri Ross Director: Benh Zeitlin Screenwriter: Benh Zeitlin, Eliza Zeitlin Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020