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.
Cannes Review: In Pain and Glory, Life and Art Are Wistful Bedfellows
Pedro Almodóvar’s latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned intensity of his finest work.2.5
A film about an aging artist struggling to recapture his yen for creation, Pain and Glory has the makings of a deeply personal, career-capping work for Pedro Almodóvar. His name may be Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), but the gay filmmaker, with his tussled hair, white beard, and red turtleneck, may as well call himself Pedro. One of the very few differences between them is that Salvador has stopped making films while Almodóvar continues to work at a relatively steady clip. Pain and Glory is a ballsy admission on the Spanish auteur’s part that he hasn’t made a film in more than a decade that can compare with his most outrageous and subversive output, which makes it all the more dispiriting that his latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned, melodramatic intensity that defined, say, Law of Desire, Matador, and Bad Education.
Pain and Glory is most surprising at the outset, as the stern narration that we’ve come to expect from an Almodóvar film is audaciously paired with CG graphics and abstract animations that illustrate Salvador’s anatomical and psychosomatic conditions. The man suffers from tinnitus, chronic back pain, severe headaches, anxiety, depression, and various other ailments. It’s a literally visceral way to begin a film that soon settles into the more familiar pattern of a two-track narrative: There’s Salvador in the present, who works toward repairing a friendship with the heroin-addicted star, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), of his recently restored and most celebrated film, Subor, and there’s Salvador as a young boy (Asier Flores), preternaturally intelligent and perpetually optimistic, living in poverty with his ever-harried mother, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz), until he’s finally sent off to a seminary.
Perhaps all of this might have landed with a little more impact if Almodóvar hadn’t already covered so much of the same territory in Bad Education, which also centers itself around a film director’s relationship with an actor and tells the story of a young altar boy’s life, much of it spent at a seminary, through a series of flashbacks. Another rehash of a nearly identical plot point from that 2004 film is Pain and Glory’s intriguing meta conceit: Alberto convinces Salvador to let him perform a one-man stage adaptation of a monologue the former wrote long ago, an obvious nod to Almodóvar’s longtime collaborator, Banderas, playing a version of the filmmaker here. Pain and Glory is, in fact, defined by its abundance of conspicuously placed Easter eggs. Even in the scenes between the present-day Salvador and his dying mother (Julietta Serrano), namely the moment she tells him not to make films about her, Almodóvar points to the personal turmoil that led to the making of All About My Mother.
Putting aside the boldness of the sequences that kick Pain and Glory into motion, Almodóvar’s formal approach is generally subdued and disciplined throughout. His screenplay is also quite neat in its structure, relating its two plotlines in almost stubbornly linear fashion, reliably hitting standard narrative beats of interpersonal conflict and reconciliation. Almodóvar wouldn’t be the first filmmaker in the history of cinema to mellow with age, and there’s a sense that Pain and Glory’s artistry is a reflection of that trajectory, but that only makes the too-fleeting snapshots of Salvador’s hard-scrabble early years—which includes living inside a white cave with Jacinta and other migrants—feel as if they never transcend easy nostalgia.
Still, Almodóvar’s singular use of color as a barometer of characters’ interiorities and the emotional temperature of a scene remains on vibrant display throughout Pain and Glory. There’s also some wonderful comic repartee between the disheveled Banderas, so exquisitely committed to imparting a sense of his character’s almost ghostly status, and the perpetually bug-eyed Etxeandia. Alberto, upon reuniting with Salvador, almost immediately introduces him to heroin, and, improbably, the way in which they bond through their horrible addiction results in some of the funniest scenes in an Almodóvar film in some time.
It’s another reunion, though, between Salvador and Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), an ex-lover he hasn’t seen since the ‘80s, that finds Almodóvar delivering on the heightened promise of the film’s title. The men are brought back together through an absurd coincidence, after Federico wanders into the performance of Salvador’s play and recognizes that his life has been incorporated into the monologue, but the scene thrums with that distinctly magnetic force of love that’s fundamental to Almodóvar’s best work. Also, the actual moment of Salvador and Federico’s reunion is a gracefully staged dance of advance and retreat, beginning with a late-night conversation at Salvador’s apartment that never leaves the common area. Finally, after an intense kiss, Federico departs, and though he invites Salvador to come visit him and his family, both men seem to implicitly realize that they’ll never see each other again.
Salvador and Federico’s meeting unfolds almost in real time, and touches on their shared past, the lives they lived in the interim, and how much they’ve always meant to each other. The scene recalls other intense emotional meetings in prior Almodóvar films, but more than that, in its duration and focus, it seems drawn from more contemporary inspirations: Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, the final stretch of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, even “Looking for the Future,” the finest episode of Andrew Haigh’s Looking. It also arguably packs even more of an expressive force than any of those works, and serves as a reminder that, however much Almodóvar’s formalist bona fides may have cooled, his ability to craft emotionally acute, achingly felt scenes between men in the throes of love is as vigorous as ever.
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Penélope Cruz, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Navas, Julieta Serrano, César Vicente, Asier Flores, Julieta Serrano Director: Pedro Almodóvar Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Cannes Review: Joan of Arc Never Coalesces into a Fully Rounded Character Study
Bruno Dumont seems perpetually aware of the trap of familiarity, which may be why he indulges in some of his most inscrutable filmmaking.2
Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc may not have earned the French filmmaker many new fans, but it did serve to further his apparent embrace of a more mirthful directorial approach. As radical as any film that the New French Extremity-adjacent auteur has made, Jeanette is also unexpectedly accessible: a full-blown pop-rock musical in which a preteen Joan of Arc frets over her God-given mission to save France during the Hundred Years’ War, all the while head-banging to heavy metal music.
Dumont’s follow-up, Joan of Arc, now takes on the task of covering the “adult” years of the martyred saint, from her waning days as a warlord to her trial and inevitable execution for heresy. And while it’s almost as surprising as its predecessor, it’s considerably less exhilarating. Whereas the latter half of Jeanette, following a time jump, replaced child actor Lise Leplat Prudhomme with the teenaged Jeanne Voisin, the now 10-year-old Prudhomme has been reinstated in the title role here as the 19-year-old Joan. Right away, this recalibration is extremely dissonant, and it’s one that Dumont exploits particularly well in the lengthy scenes depicting Joan’s trial, during which she’s lectured and berated—like the child that she physically is—by misogynistic, condescending “graduates of theology.”
Much less easy to parse, in terms of intentionality and of classification, is the film’s proximity to the musical genre. An early scene features a suite of songs—sung theatrically by French indie-pop group Kid Wise’s Augustin Charnet—that play over a series of stoical tableaux shots of Prudhumme’s armor-clad Joan, looking pensively into the camera. Dumont briefly seems to be up to something rather brilliant here, reconfiguring the musical tropes of his Joan of Arc saga as a means to manifest the “voices” that the Joan of historical record claimed she heard in her head. But that interpretation gets ever more foggy as the filmmaker goes on to present various musical-esque scenes, but in fractured and recontexualized forms. The most jarring example of this is a lengthy, wordless interlude that features a battalion of soldiers on horseback moving in elaborate patterns, dance-like, a sequence which Dumont shoots in a way that recalls Busby Berkley musicals, with shots from above of the choreographed horses.
At least one aesthetic decision carries over from Jeanette: Only a handful of sets are used in Joan of Arc, and each change usually heralds a major shift in Joan’s lived experience, from battle to trial to imprisonment. (The film’s first third is largely adapted from French Catholic poet Charles Péguy’s play Les Batailles, while the remainder, almost entirely concerned with Joan’s trial and punishment, is based on another Péguy work, Rouen.) However, whereas Jeanette mostly limited itself to exterior shots of the idyllic French countryside, the contrasts in Joan of Arc are striking: The film moves from its opening passage, set amid cascading dunes, to the clean, vertiginous, and imposing interior space of the Royal Chapel, a place that serves to decisively dwarf an already diminutive Joan.
It’s in the pristine halls of the Royal Chapel that ornately dressed men of aristocratic pedigree and high authority—each drolly introduced in a kind of roll call—gather and almost instantly turn into savages, indiscriminately lobbing insults and explicating their own intolerance with unfeeling displays of intellectualized theological reasoning. Naturally, Joan retaliates, steadfastly refusing to disavow her devotion to her own spiritual dogma.
The best part of these trial scenes, and of Joan of Arc in general, is Prudhomme, who, despite her age, gives an extraordinarily committed, and convincing, performance as the teenaged Joan. The cinema is filled with iconic portrayals of the Maid of Orléans, but Prudhomme fully deserves a place among those. It’s a pity, then, that Dumont’s film doesn’t really manage to find many new dimensions to the Joan of Arc mythos—apart from its one inspired casting choice. The filmmaker’s effort to tap into the currents of modernity that run through this centuries-old story can be traced back through film history, at least as far as Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, if not to Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc—which is, of course, predicated on the particular presentation of the cinematic image.
Dumont does, at least, seem perpetually aware of the trap of familiarity, which may be why he indulges in some of his most inscrutable filmmaking—the aforementioned horse dance, and a musical cameo from the film’s composer, French popstar Christophe—and attempts subtle gestures of subversion. Take the final shot of Joan of Arc, which is not unlike the last act of grace and salvation (and blatant homage to Robert Bresson’s Mouchette) that concludes 2010’s Hadewijch. Here, the instantly recognizable composition from the Dreyer film—for which Bresson infamously voiced his distaste—is rejected twofold, as Dumont shoots Joan’s fatal immolation in profile, and from a considerable distance.
Joan of Arc, though, has bigger problems than an over familiarity with its source, as its themes and dynamics also recall other, stronger Dumont films. The articulation of interiority through stylized visualizations of the adolescent Joan is audacious and intriguing, but its philosophical meaning isn’t nearly as fleshed out, nor as emotionally accessible, as the transformation undergone by a devout young woman into a radicalized religious extremist in Hadewijch. And the psychological understanding of Joan—the process of her victimization—isn’t as acute, nor as visceral, as Dumont’s similar biopic on institutionalized sculptor Camille Claudel. Joan of Arc can’t even claim to have the same conceptual rigor that ignited Jeanette—all of which amounts to a film that feels like a nexus point for Dumont’s influences and his preoccupations, but one that never coalesces its potential into the major work it clearly strives to be.
Cast: Lise Leplat Prudhomme, Jean-François Causeret, Daniel Dienne, Fabien Fenet, Robert Hanicotte, Yves Habert, Fabrice Luchini, Christophe Director: Bruno Dumont Screenwriter: Bruno Dumont Running Time: 138 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Cannes Review: Zombi Child Radically Grapples with Colonialism’s Legacy
Bertrand Bonello’s quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract.3.5
Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child roils with colonialist tensions. But as with the director’s prior Nocturama, this quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments here where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper then race relations. Indeed, the decision to switch back and forth between Mélissa and Fanny’s perspectives in the film’s present-day scenes opens the story up to a more complex examination of how the girls view and relate to their own heritage and culture.
Not unlike Bonello’s House of Pleasures, which in its final moments made a jarring jump from a brothel in the early 20th century to modern-day Paris and prostitutes working a city street, Zombi Child explores the factors that have allowed a social practice, voodoo, to become a constant of history. Mélissa’s aunt, Katy (Katiana Milfort), is a “mambo,” or voodoo priestess, and she’s the only surviving member of Mélissa’s family in the wake of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. Mélissa is drawn to Fanny because the two share an affinity for Stephen King and horror fiction, and as they get closer, Fanny facilitates Mélissa’s initiation into her tight-knit “literary sorority.” But after this act of bonding, the young women begin to move in opposite directions: Mélissa makes an effort to fit into the sorority, singing along to angry French rap when she’d rather be listening to music sung in her native Créole language, while Fanny, reeling from her sudden breakup with her long distance lover, Pablo (Sayyid El Alami), discreetly digs into Mélissa’s past and decides to use voodoo as a remedy for her heartbreak.
The other half of the film’s time-jumping narrative concerns Fanny’s grandfather, Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou), who, in 1962, becomes the victim of a voodoo curse that puts him in an early grave and results in the reanimation of his corpse and him having to perform manual plantation labor in a perpetually “zombified” state. Throughout this section of Zombi Child, Bonello fractures the spatial and temporal coherence of scenes, stringing together elemental, horror movie-adjacent visuals, like the recurring image of an iridescent moon shrouded in clouds and first-person perspective shots that careen through dense sugarcane fields. A clear contrast is established early on between the perpetually dark Haitian landscape and the antiseptic, white-walled interiors of the classrooms in which Fanny and Mélissa are lectured by professors spouting one-sided lessons on world history. But just as its racial politics start to seem too explicit, Zombi Child suddenly and radically reframes itself.
Clairvius’s death turns out to have been the consequence of familial jealousy, and his exploitation as a slave comes at the hands of black plantation farmers, not white men—at least not that we’re made aware of. And if the film is rendered with a veracity that a documentarian would envy, that’s a result of Bonello drawing inspiration from accounts of Haitian slaves being put in medically induced states of “zombification” during the early 20th century. This has the effect of recasting a supernatural fiction narrative as reconstructed history.
Bonello also never gives us the racially charged confrontation that Mélissa and Fanny’s relationship seems to be building toward, as he’s interested in their racial backgrounds only insofar as it shapes their modes of self-identification. Fanny’s refusal to accept her life in the present sets her on a collision course with the forces of Mélissa’s ancestry, and leads to a cataclysm of psychological horror that sees one of these forces to take possession over the other—an undead history rising up to claim a living one. Mélissa, though, draws her identity from her past and her present, and in the same moment that Fanny has her communion with the spiritual forces of voodoo, Mélissa delivers an aural history on the subject—a kind of counter-lecture to those of the white, blowhard professors in Zombi Child.
The film’s off-kilter mix of horror, historiography, and youth movie affords Bonello plenty of opportunity to indulge his pet themes and motifs. He spends much time lingering throughout scenes set at the academy on the sociality of the young women and their engagement with pop culture (notably, Mélissa gives a presentation to her class on Rihanna). In fact, Bonello’s fascination with the dynamics of these relationships seems to drive his interest in the horror genre more so even than the film’s most obvious antecedent, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie—as is indicated by a pretty explicit homage to Brian De Palma’s Carrie.
The film’s most intriguing facet, though, is the way Bonello plays with temporality. The dialectical relationship between past and present has become a central organizing principle of Bonello’s artistry, evident in his anachronistic soundtrack choices and his unmooring of characters from their period settings through decidedly modern behaviors or situations, but here he approaches that dialectic in a crucially different manner. Instead of overlaying modern-day signifiers on a period piece setting, as he did in House of Pleasures, Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. And the anxiety this creates—through discursive editing and match cuts—leads to a feverish payoff, one that uses genre and supernatural elements to further Bonello’s idea of there being one historical continuity.
Cast: Adilé David, Ginite Popote, Louise Labeque, Mackenson Bijou, Mathilde Riu, Ninon François, Patrick Boucheron, Saadia Bentaïeb, Sayyid El Alami, Wislanda Louimat, Katiana Milfort Director: Bertrand Bonello Screenwriter: Bertrand Bonello Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: In Diamantino, Strident Political Satire and Whimsy Go Toe to Toe
The film is at its strongest when depicting how Diamantino becomes a tool of politicians hoping to oust Portugal from the EU.2.5
Part absurdist character study, part satire of various European political crises, Diamantino envisions a Candide-like soccer megastar, Diamantino Matamouros (Carloto Cotta), possessed of naïve but intense imaginations. He lives in a colossal chateau and sleeps on pillows and sheets with his face printed on them, and spends much of his waking life riding the seas on a yacht that’s big enough to ferry a small army. Despite being arguably the most famous person in Portugal, and among the most famous in the world, he’s oblivious to his star power and the weighty expectations placed on him by soccer fans.
Throughout the film, writer-directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt delight in playing up the precarious balance between Diamantino’s self-absorption and his sweet absent-mindedness. Unencumbered by an entourage, Diamantino rarely interacts with anyone besides his loving, supportive father, Chico (Chico Chapas), whose humble kindness is rather jarring when set against the palatial trappings of the family’s digs. Even on the soccer pitch, Diamantino doesn’t exude the focus one associates with an elite athlete, as he spends matches fantasizing about running with colossal, fluffy puppies—playful daydreams that somehow guide his movements as he slips past other players and scores goals.
Diamantino’s carefree, seemingly unflappable temperament, however, is disrupted when he spots a raft of refugees while boating, and his glimpse at real human misery shakes him to the core—so much so that during a make-or-break penalty kick that will decide the World Cup final, he’s too distracted to make the shot, costing Portugal the match. The film’s manic tone swings into overdrive at this point, as Diamantino’s daydreams of haunted refugees are contrasted with his tear-streaked face when it’s blown up on jumbotrons, effectively positioning him as a symbol of his country’s spectacular defeat. And all the while his evil twin sisters (Anabela Moreira and Margarida Moreira) scream at the television set playing the game inside the family’s living room, causing Chico to have a fatal stroke.
This delirious sequence, touching on a celebrity’s political preoccupation and viral media culture, exhibits an audaciousness that’s disappeared from much contemporary comedy, and it sets the tone for the film’s freewheeling style. Humiliated into early retirement, Diamantino announces his embrace of the sort of celebrity activism that regularly comes in for ridicule, declaring that he will adopt a refugee child to honor both the humanitarian crisis and his late father. The Portuguese secret service, already investigating him for suspected money laundering, uses Diamantino’s proclamation to set up an undercover agent, Aisha (Cleo Tavares), to pose as a Cape Verdean refugee child, Rahim, in order to get into his house to gather clues for their case. And while Aisha only finds hilarious evidence of the player’s innocence (his computer files consist of nothing but pet photos), she continues her ruse, if only for the filmmakers to add yet another wrinkle—a lesbian relationship with her colleague, Lucia (Maria Leite)—to the film’s already dense array of plots and themes.
Aisha and Lucia’s presence in Diamantino may turn the dial up on the film’s hijinks, but in the process stalls its satirical thrust. To be sure, the film wrings much humor from Aisha’s infiltration of Diamantino’s home, mostly from how quickly she discovers that his innocence is beyond a doubt and that his cruel sisters are comically guilty, as they keep their offshore accounts on a desktop shortcut. Diamantino’s interactions with Aisha are amusing insofar as Cotta commits fully to his character’s over-eager treatment of “Rahim,” serving his adopted child breakfast in bed and getting into tickle fights that underscore the man’s emotional stuntedness. Yet these moments soon come to feel redundant, leaning too much on Lucia’s petulant anger for comic effect as Aisha grows increasingly close to Diamantino.
That Diamantino and Aisha’s relationship comes to define the last act of the film ultimately detracts from the riotous vision that Abrantes and Schmidt sketch of roiling EU tensions and the way celebrity culture can be just another element in the viral branding of extreme politics. Diamantino is on its strongest footing when depicting how its main character becomes a tool of politicians hoping to oust Portugal from the EU. One scene sees him starring in “Pexit” commercial as a folk hero from the Reconquista, during which Muslims were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. The right-wing politicians who fund the ad clearly pledge allegiance to the historical figure’s Islamophobia, though it’s also obvious that they hope that the pleasure Diamantino takes in dancing around in his costume will undercut that impression.
Elsewhere, Diamantino is used as a lab rat for a company that attempts to clone him in order to produce the world’s best soccer team. This stretch finds the film at its most profound, in part because it’s impossible to believe that scientists and supercomputers fail to fathom how a man who lives on an all-sugar diet and daydreams about puppies on the pitch could be the world’s best athlete. The filmmakers draw a line between the absurdity of these experiments and the insidious quest for racial purity behind most eugenics movements, suggesting that neo-fascists are so prone to celebrity worship that they might mistake their favorite star for the master race. It’s rich, relevant material for satire, so it’s a shame that the film pivots away from it to resolve around Diamantino’s relatively straightforward pursuit of happiness.
Cast: Carloto Cotta, Cleo Tavares, Anabela Moreira, Margarida Moreira, Carla Maciel, Chico Chapas, Maria Leite, Filipe Vargas, Joana Barrios Director: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt Screenwriter: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: The Tomorrow Man Gets Too Caught Up in Its Pursuit of Preciousness
The film is content to peddle the naïve notion that love is the panacea for all that ails you.2
The retired recluse at the center of writer-director Noble Jones’s The Tomorrow Man spends his days intensely preparing for the apocalypse. When Ed Hemsler (John Lithgow) isn’t meticulously organizing his home and secret fallout shelter, he’s posting conspiracy theories on an internet forum or glued to the local news. At least, that is, until a female news anchor (Wendy Makkena) starts to directly address him, at which point he turns off his television and tries to get his head straight. But Ed can’t really seem to find a way of easing his troubled mind. Indeed, even after engaging in extended human contact via phone conversations with his son, Brian (Derek Cecil), the old man inevitably launches into diatribes packed with half-baked ideas and comprehensive survival advice.
You’d be correct in thinking that Ed sounds a lot like Michael Shannon’s Curtis from Take Shelter, and for a short time, he follows a similar trajectory. But where Jeff Nichols’s film thrives in the ambiguous space between objective reality and the mind of its strange yet plausibly prescient protagonist, The Tomorrow Man never gives credence to any of Ed’s protestations of doom and gloom, seeing them as symptoms of his loneliness and isolation. And while his extreme paranoia is unmistakably a form of mental illness, Jones increasingly treats it with less and less concern as the film moves forward, instead using it as fodder for both quirky comedy and the catalyst for a light-hearted septuagenarian romance.
Enter Ronnie (Blythe Danner), the beautiful but equally socially awkward woman whom Ed meets while stocking up on supplies at the local grocery store. Her subtly twitchy awkwardness serves as the perfect balance to Ed’s boisterous neuroticism; her steadfast use of cash and strategic purchasing leads Ed to believe that he’s found a kindred spirit, one who’s equally prepped for the end of the world. Naturally, there’s a catch, and the ever-fastidious Ed eventually discovers Ronnie’s deep, dark secret: that she’s a hoarder.
It’s a fairly ridiculous odd-couple scenario, but when Jones keeps things small and focuses on Ed and Ronnie’s burgeoning love affair and Ronnie’s clumsy efforts at tempering Ed’s cantankerousness, Lithgow and Danner imbue the film with a warmth and generosity that lends their characters a bit of humanity. The two actors’ effortlessly charming rapport enlivens, at least in brief spurts, a film that otherwise reduces its characters to their eccentricities, from her love of war documentaries to his appreciation of ball bearings.
But The Tomorrow Man displays an utter lack of interest in exploring how Ed and Ronnie came to be so reclusive. Following their initial meet cute, the film gets caught up in its pursuit of preciousness. And Jones’s indifference to the more disturbing elements of his characters’ interior worlds effectively reduces serious mental health issues to harmless neuroses. Late into The Tomorrow Man, Ed takes to the message boards to post that “sometimes people need to be who they are even if they don’t want to be who they are.” It’s a sentiment of acceptance that’s hard to argue against, but one that ignores the fact that Ed and Ronnie are in dire need of psychiatric help. And that’s because Jones is content to peddle the naïve notion that, regardless of your situation, love is the panacea for all that ails you.
Cast: John Lithgow, Blythe Danner, Derek Cecil, Katie Aselton, Sophie Thatcher, Eve Harlow, Wendy Makkena Director: Noble Jones Screenwriter: Noble Jones Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 94 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Cannes Review: The Dead Don’t Die Is Undone by its Meta-Film Aspirations
In Jim Jarmusch’s film, what starts as a subtle undercurrent of knowing humor curdles into overt self-referentiality.2
Jim Jarmusch’s strength has always been his ability to craft films that seem lackadaisical and navel-gazing on the surface, but which are actually very methodical, revealing essential truths about the socioeconomic conditions of modern American life. The filmmaker’s latest, The Dead Don’t Die, zips through vignettes set in the small town of Centerville in the days leading up to the zombie apocalypse, and for an hour-plus, the film is sharp, acerbic, and surprisingly melancholic, probing at the generational divides between its characters, who behave in vastly different ways throughout the end of days.
Eventually, however, and perhaps because Jarmusch senses that his trademark deadpan doesn’t have the same novel appeal that it once did, what starts as a subtle undercurrent of knowing humor curdles into overt self-referentiality. It’s not so much a snapping-into-focus as a whiplash-inducing lurch into meta-film territory that Jarmusch doesn’t seem to realize is already a very stale play for this genre of film.
Or maybe he just doesn’t care. There’s much evidence here to suggest that Jarmusch’s prime interest in making a zombie movie is to emphasize the soul-deadening state of America, maybe even the world. So when the film’s zombies roam around murmuring the names of the products they consumed when they were alive (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, coffee, and so on), writing this all off as a lame literalization of the most prevalent theme from George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead isn’t so much a scathing critique of his approach as a confirmation of the message he’s imparting: that our culture is nothing but a zombified version of itself.
The Dead Don’t Die is at its best when mulling the contours of the relationships between the cross-generational cast of characters. Neither Cliff (Bill Murray), the resigned, veteran cop, nor Ronnie (Adam Driver), his self-aware but generally unfeeling rookie partner, are particularly well drawn in and of themselves, but their repartee makes them interesting, as Cliff’s air of wisdom and experience dissipates when he finally realizes that Ronnie understands the rules of their genre-inflected universe better than he ever will, and Ronnie, all stoical resolve, is unable to process Cliff’s sobering, earnest emotional outbursts.
The Venn diagram of all things Jarmuschian and all things Lynchian has always shown a significant bit of overlap, but in working with an ensemble cast that throws together longtime collaborators with a gallery of fresh faces—all populating a mosaic of small-town life that’s pervaded by ethereal dread—Jarmusch mounts something akin to his own Twin Peaks: The Return. The greatest affinity between The Dead Don’t Die and David Lynch’s series, though, is the shared interest in investigating how a younger generation can assimilate into the filmmakers’ highly idiosyncratic styles and affect the tenor of their worldviews.
To that end, The Dead Don’t Die feels most poignant when it threads the experience of its various characters and exerts a kind of equalizing force over them. The best example of this, and also something like the film’s philosophical lodestone, is the eponymous country theme song, recorded by Sturgill Simpson and played in various contexts throughout. The song’s ingratiating, hummable melody eventually illuminates how art can have disparate effects on audiences. For the carefree hipster played by Selena Gomez, the tune is an outlet for escape as she drives through the countryside. But it becomes downright oppressive when Cliff gets sick of Ronnie playing it in their police car and chucks the CD out the window.
That range of response is also reflected in the overall trajectory of the film, which begins in a register of playful irreverence—even as characters spout pronouncements of environmental disaster wrought by fracking, or ponder what kind of creature may have mauled two women found dead at a diner—before gradually succumbing to its anger. That isn’t inherently bad, of course, but the film’s dreary, didactic denouement proves that Jarmusch is unable to translate his righteous fury at the state of the world into a cinematic statement as compelling, creative, or weird as The Dead Don’t Die manages to be when it’s simply content to be a hangout movie that just so happens to be set during the zombie apocalypse.
Cast: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, Luka Sabbat, Rosie Perez, Eszter Balint, Iggy Pop, Sara Driver, RZA, Carol Kane, Larry Fessenden, Tom Waits Director: Jim Jarmusch Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum Sees a Series Resting on Its Laurels
The choreography is as brutal as you expect, but the repetition in style from the first two films makes the effect less surprising.2.5
At the end of another knock-down, drag-out pummeling in Chad Stahelski’s John Wick 3: Parabellum, the man with the samurai sword sticking out of his chest says to Keanu Reeves’s John Wick, “That was a pretty good fight, huh?” It’s a throwaway gag, the kind that action directors like to use for a breather after a particularly bruising melee. But it also comes off as something of a gloat—one of a few signs in the film that stuntman turned director Stahelski, for better and worse, is content to coast on a winning formula.
The third installment in this series about a hitman who would really like to stay retired and mourn his dead wife and dog picks up about five seconds after John Wick: Chapter 2 ended. Winston (Ian McShane) gives Wick a one-hour grace period before he’s “excommunicado” from the Continental, neutral ground for members of the criminal underworld, after killing a crime lord. A $14 million bounty has been put on his head, and as roughly one in seven people in the world of the film appears to be an assassin, that means that at least two or three killers with dollar signs in their eyes chase after Wick down every Manhattan city block.
The immediate result of this in the film’s pell-mell opening stretch is that the ever-resourceful Wick kills many, many, many people. He kills them with knives, hatchets, and in a particularly imaginative sequence set in a stable, by getting a horse to kick an assailant in the face. Much of this stretch is mindful of what made the prior films in the John Wick series tick. In other words, Stahelski puts Wick through an increasingly absurd and bloody series of confrontations whose intensity plays off Reeves’s hangdog demeanor with deadpan comic timing.
That fidelity to what’s expected of a John Wick film is initially a relief, at least before the filmmakers start looking for new dramatic terrain to explore. Normally this would be a positive development. After all, just how far can you stretch a concept that’s essentially Run John Run? But all the little story beats that break up the central chase narrative, mostly in the form of hints about Wick’s origin story, ultimately do little to develop the story or character and just serve to pad out the running time with more human obstacles for Wick to stoically annihilate.
Having more or less set the entire criminal universe against him, Wick has to call in just about every favor he has. Given his long and only hinted-at backstory, that leaves the film’s writers a lot of room to play with. Jumping from one roost to the next, Wick asks for help from the Director (Angelica Huston), a member of the high-level crime lords known as the High Table, and Sofia (Halle Berry), an ex-assassin who owes Wick a debt and who’s just as good as he is with a blade and a gun, only she has a pair of kill-on-command canines at her side.
It’s satisfying to watch as John Wick 3 expands the glimmers of fantastical world-building that had previously gilded the series’s retired-killer-on-the-run narrative. The outré garnishes like the gold-coin currency, the killer spies disguised as homeless people, and the Continental—lavish, crooks-only hotels that suggest what might happen if Ian Schrager got the chance to whip up something for the mob—work as a baroque counterpoint to the stripped-down economy of Wick’s dialogue. His response to what he needs for help as the High Table’s stormtroopers close in for the kill? “Guns. Lots of guns.”
The returning cast continues to provide greater and more nuanced depth of character than is called on from Reeves, especially Lance Reddick as a serenely authoritative Continental concierge, a scrappy Laurence Fishburne as the lord of the homeless, and the ever-lugubrious McShane as the New York Continental’s sherry-sipping manager. Asia Kate Dillon also makes a fierce new entry to the series as the Adjudicator, a steely emissary from the High Table.
The production design doesn’t disappoint, either, with its chiaroscuro portrait of an always rainy and crowded New York. Splashes of neon and lens flare play off the antiquated production design. Anachronisms like old-fashioned yellow cabs and 1970s-era computers are paired with a cutting-edge armory of high-tech weapons and oddball details like the criminal underworld secretaries costumed like Suicide Girls who decided to enter the work force.
As for the action choreography, it’s as brutal as you expect, though the repetition in style from the first two films makes the effect less surprising. Wick piles up bodies by the dozen and never puts one bullet in a goon’s head when three or four will more effectively splatter his brains over the wall. Besides the previously mentioned throwdown in a stable, though, the only other fight scene in the film that stands out is the one set inside an antique store: The unarmed Wick and his blade-preferring attackers have murderous fun smashing open and utilizing the contents of one display case, throwing knife after knife at each other.
But the further the film illuminates the spiderweb of criminal enterprise undergirding its world, the more burdensome the overlong story becomes. The somewhat blasé tone that played as just slightly tongue-in-cheek in the first John Wick is starting by this point to feel like complacency. But given the repetitive nature of much of this entry’s narrative, the eventually numbing action choreography—punch, flip, stab, shoot, punch, flip, stab, shoot—and the setup for more of the same in a now seemingly inevitable John Wick 4, it’s possible that even fans could wind up as exhausted as Wick himself.
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Asia Kate Dillon, Mark Dacascos, Lance Reddick, Anjelica Huston, Tobias Segal, Said Taghmaoui, Jerome Flynn Director: Chad Stahelski Screenwriter: Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, Marc Abrams Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 130 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Perfect Is a Series of Lurid Pillow Shots in Search of a Soul
Eddie Alcazar’s film is a purposefully inscrutable, wandering, disconnected, symbolic, and highly precious mood bath.1
Eddie Alcazar’s Perfect is the sort of purposefully inscrutable, wandering, disconnected, symbolic, and highly precious mood bath that you’ll either adore or loathe. There are stilted allusions to everyone from Nicolas Winding Refn to Panos Cosmatos to Mel Gibson to the granddaddies of modern cinematic surrealism, Luis Buñuel and David Lynch. But these references add up to nothing more than a catalogue of fetishes.
There’s a narrative in Perfect—sort of. A beautiful young man billed in the credits as Vessel 13 (Garrett Wareing) calls his equally beautiful mother (Abbie Cornish), who appears to be roughly the same age. Sonny boy has done something bad, having either beaten his girlfriend to death or nurtured an elaborate fantasy over the act, which, in this world, is more or less the same thing. The mother, all icy, well-tailored matter-of-factness, sends Vessel 13 to a remote spa somewhere in a mountainous jungle where she once spent time herself. There, he’s advised to choose his path, which entails cutting chunks of flesh out of his face that resemble cubed tuna tartar, and inserting crystal silicon into the exposed wounds.
Vessel 13’s acts of self-surgery are the film’s most original flourishes, involving some fun horror-movie gimmickry. The instruments for cutting the flesh come in a see-through plastic container, with cardboard backing, recalling an action figure’s packaging, complete with a mascot that suggests an anime Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Vessel 13’s scalpel is basically a drafting knife—a nice touch, given that this man is tasked with making himself over.
But much of Alcazar’s film is fatal hokum passed off as a mystical quest for transcendence. In place of most of the dialogue is an ongoing voiceover, which is composed of non-profundities such as “The way out is really the way in,” “In this great illusion of love, an object cannot exist without something else to reflect itself back onto itself,” and, most hilarious of all, “The problem with the truth is that once you know the truth, you can’t un-know it.” Few films could recover from such an unceasing tide of nonsense.
Meanwhile, Vessel 13 wanders the spa’s grounds while gorgeous young women hang about an atmospheric pool seemingly posing for a special collaboration between Rue Morgue and GQ, which Alcazar complements with a neon-bathed lightshow designed to flout his bona fides as a serious arthouse figure. The self-surgeries gradually turn Vessel 13 pale and bald, fostering a weird likeness to Jason Voorhees from 1980’s Friday the 13th. Why would the spa’s treatment, which turned Mom into, well, Abbie Cornish, transform this young man into a ghoul? It has something to do with facing your inner ugliness and expunging it so that you may become a carefree hottie again, and frolic on the beach with a new, even hotter woman without fear of bashing in her brains. Erasing said ugliness also involves elaborate black-and-white visions of a quasi-Aztec society, where Vessel 13 sees himself as a barbarian eating a live human baby. By this point in the film, one might as well shrug and ask, “Why not?”
Perfect is desperately evasive about what it’s actually eaten up with: sex. The film feels like an excuse to corral a bunch of good-looking people together at a hip location and fashion a variety of lurid pillow shots. That’s not an inherently unpromising desire, though Alcazar can’t lay off the self-aggrandizing mumbo jumbo, and a sense of humor would’ve helped. The filmmaker honestly appears to believe that Perfect is an examination of privilege, particularly our ruthless standards of beauty, when it’s really just an embodiment of the same. This interchangeable collection of sequences has no soul.
Cast: Garrett Wareing, Abbie Cornish, Courtney Eaton, Tao Okamoto, Leonardo Nam, Maurice Compte, Alicia Sanz, Sarah McDaniel, Rainey Qualley Director: Eddie Alcazar Screenwriter: Ted Kupper Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Ritesh Batra’s Photograph Lives and Dies by Its Frustrating Excisions
In pushing so many seemingly crucial moments off screen, the film transforms its main characters into blank slates.2
Ritesh Batra’s Mumbai-set Photograph is a film as reserved as its protagonists. Full of quiet, contemplative shots of would-be lovebirds Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), the film strikes a muted tone that serves as a conscious contrast to the high-blown romances of mainstream Indian cinema. Even as it takes a subtler, more realistic approach to romance across class and religious divisions in India, it almost self-reflexively resembles a Bollywood love story, but only in outline form, as if its stillness were an effect of its having lost the musical numbers that typically define such films.
In the tradition of so many works about star-crossed lovers, Rafi and Miloni come from different worlds. Rafi is a Muslim from a rural village who works as a street photographer, attempting to force his services on tourists visiting the Gateway of India. Miloni is a young, bourgeois Hindu excelling in, but not particularly excited by, her courses on chartered accountancy. They meet one day when Rafi convinces Miloni to pose for a photograph, using his usual pitch that a photo is a material memory—the preservation of a moment that would otherwise fade away. Miloni poses for the photograph, but lost in her thoughts, she leaves with one of the two copies before Rafi can hand her the other.
Separately, the twentysomething Miloni and fortysomething Rafi are each coping with pressure from their elders: Miloni’s parents want her to move to America to study, while Rafi still deals with admonitions from his grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar) that he hasn’t yet married. To mollify her, Rafi includes the photo of Miloni in a letter, claiming she’s his fiancée, and soon the grandmother announces that she’s on her way to Mumbai to meet the prospective bride. It’s at this point that anyone who’s ever seen a romantic comedy can guess where this masquerade is headed, and that the film isn’t going to be interested in a rewriting any rules. If anything, the places where the story does diverge from the expected path, as in a conversation between Rafi and a ghost, are more mystifying than meaningful.
Rafi’s plan to hoodwink his grandmother is contingent on Miloni’s participation. Luckily, he runs into Miloni on the bus, but Batra leaves their conversation out of the film, cutting to Miloni agreeing to the scheme. Her motivation, beyond the general impression Photograph gives us of her kind-heartedness, is that she’s lost the original photograph Rafi gave her. The photo was confiscated in class by her creepy accountancy teacher (Jim Sarbh), whose attraction to Miloni becomes a minor subplot. It appears Miloni liked her own image so much that she’s willing to play the part of Rafi’s fiancée in exchange for a new picture.
Batra excises other pivotal plot points from the film, giving scenes an elliptical, allusive tone. The point, underlined by Rafi and Miloni’s visits to a movie theater playing Bollywood musicals, appears to be the filmmaker’s belief that he’s telling a familiar story whose more rote moments don’t need reiteration. Photograph tries instead to focus on interstitial, lived-in scenarios, like Rafi lying awake in the one-bedroom apartment he shares with four other street photographers, or he and Miloni enjoying shaved ice and kulfi, an ice cream-like desert.
But in pushing so many seemingly crucial moments off screen, Photograph transforms its main characters into blank slates. For one, the absence of the scene in which Miloni agrees to lie to Rafi’s grandmother makes Malhotra’s character seem inscrutable, a meekly smiling void. In a society chock-full of imaging technologies, the prospect of a new photograph doesn’t seem a particularly strong motivation to entangle herself in Rafi’s lies—particularly considering that he involved her by using her image without her knowledge. Photograph’s admittedly clever conclusion suggests that Batra wants to make his audience swoon, but the film’s contrivances and conspicuous excisions undercut our connection to the characters.
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra, Farrukh Jaffar, Vijay Raaz Director: Ritesh Batra Screenwriter: Ritesh Batra, Emeara Kamble Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 108 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: The Wandering Soap Opera Is a Riddle Stubbornly Wrapped in an Enigma
After a while it seems like one needs to be in some kind of dream state in order to properly savor the film.2
The most remarkable aspect of The Wandering Soap Opera isn’t in the film itself but in its trajectory to the screen. The late master filmmaker Raúl Ruiz shot a collection of sequences in his native Chile way back in 1990 before abandoning the project. Then, several years after his death in 2011, Valeria Sarmiento, Ruiz’s widow and frequent collaborator, decided to complete it. It’s a path that echoes that of Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind and Manoel de Oliveira’s The Visit or Memories and Confessions, and one that brings a ghostly tinge to the satiric vignettes that comprise the film.
The Wandering Soap Opera is divided into a series of chapters that initially abide by the campy conventions of Latin American soap operas: melodramatic dialogue, a gloomy sound score, stiff acting, implausible scenarios, and ridiculously unconvincing special effects. This is a world where every man seems to have salt-and-pepper hair, don a suit and tie, and hold a stake in some financial company. They’re also constantly in the process of either seducing a woman or conducting some shady business practice with another man over rounds of scotch. The sequences, however, eventually turn these conventions into what seems to be some kind of national critique or allegory, and through the surreal exaggeration of the genre’s tropes.
In the film, one character says that soaps are “the fourth power,” another does mean things to a pig, and another caresses a bunny rabbit. An actress says she has multiple names: Alma Rios, Alma Comunista, and Scheherazade. A ghostly character is juxtaposed to a soap scene, like a double exposure, in order to deride it, remarking on its artifices. We’re told that nothing is real or happens in a soap opera. It’s all just fake characters commenting on other fake characters, someone says, conflating the film itself with how audiences consume soaps.
In one sequence, a woman responds to the incessant flirting of a man by asking if he’s a leftist and establishing his politics as prerequisite for him to touch her. In the same vignette, the woman keeps reminding the man that “people are watching” them. She eventually tells him she loves men with big muscles, which prompts the man to hand the woman a chunk of raw meat. This and other scenes unfold in very cryptic fashion, suggesting some kind of master plan toward a biting political critique that at times feels like we’re too illiterate to enjoy.
There’s a strong presence of a political code in this darkly humorous film, but it never seems as if we can quite crack it or what it’s in service of. And this opaqueness makes many of the sequences seem either too cerebral or just downright dull. The exception is when the over-the-top approach is such that the film veers toward complete absurdity, allowing us to completely revel in the nonsense on screen instead of wanting for meaning. As when a bearded man sucking on a popsicle asks a stranger where La Concepción Street is located, only for another man to join them and let them know that his wife’s name is, yes, Concepción.
That particular sequence becomes an unbridled play of associations that recalls the best segments of Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales. In the Ruiz film, all characters end up revealing some intimate knowledge of or silly relationship with the word “Concepción.” Suddenly the characters decide to push somebody’s broken-down vehicle while chatting about how awful it would be for a father to name his daughter Concepción, knowing that sooner or later she would get the nickname of Concha. Someone then wonders if “Hermes” is spelled with or without an “H,” before then heading off to a bar called “H” with a man named Homer.
It would seem that we’re in the middle of someone’s dream, and after a while it seems like one needs to be in some kind of dream state in order to properly savor The Wandering Soap Opera. Or to regress to a child-like state, where the pleasures of language aren’t in sense-making, but in the sheer joy of uttering or hearing gibberish for gibberish’s sake.
Cast: Luis Alarcón, Patricia Rivadeneira, Francisco Reyes, Consuelo Castillo, Roberto Poblete, Liliana García Director: Raúl Ruiz, Valeria Sarmiento Screenwriter: Pía Rey, Raúl Ruiz Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
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