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Understanding Screenwriting #30: The Hurt Locker, (500) Days of Summer, Chéri, Public Enemies, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #30: The Hurt Locker, (500) Days of Summer, Chéri, Public Enemies, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Hurt Locker, (500) Days of Summer, Chéri, Public Enemies, The Undercover Man, Union Pacific, 1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year, Moonfleet, The Mouse That Roared, Drop Dead Diva, Disneyland Summer 2009 but first…

Fan Mail: You guys are letting me down. I would have figured that in US#29 my comments on Departures, Tetro and two Fellini films would have ticked off somebody enough to comment, but I guess not. So on to the newest haul of goodies.

The Hurt Locker (2008. Written by Mark Boal. 131 minutes): Sometimes first-timers get it right.

The film opens in Iraq in 2004. We are with a three-man bomb disposal squad. The leader, a careful veteran named Thompson, prepares to deal with a possible bomb by the side of the road. He sends out the robot, then goes himself. The other two hang back, since they are clearly supporting characters and may get zapped quickly. Thompson is the star of the unit, and since he is played by Guy Pearce, the one recognizable face, he is obviously the star of the-BOOM-he’s dead. If they are going to kill off Guy Pearce so quickly, nobody is safe, which Boal needs to establish. The scene also establishes the careful techniques required in bomb disposal.

So Thompson’s replacement, Staff Sgt. James, shows up and he does not follow any of Thompson’s procedures, but recklessly jumps right in to deal with the next bomb, which turns out to be several wired together. You may have seen this shot either in the trailer or as the photo in the ad. It is as creepy in the film as it is in the photo, if not creepier. Given what we know about the process from the first scene, his behavior shows us his character. This script is a great example of the truism that action is character. Mark Boal is a journalist who covered Iraq and wrote the article that In the Valley of Elah was based on. He is in the grand tradition of journalists who went on to become good screenwriters, from Roy McCardell through Herman J. Mankiewicz and Nunnally Johnson up to Cameron Crowe and Joe Eszterhas. As a journalist he was used to recording what people said, not what as a writer he thought they ought to say. The dialogue in The Hurt Locker is generally very natural, with only a couple of scenes where you hear the clicking of the writer’s computer keyboard.

Structurally the film is very episodic, as the lives of the bomb disposal people tend to be, but Boal has made each episode different, with new challenges for us as well as for the soldiers. What starts out as a demolition in the desert of assorted bombs they have found turns into a meeting with a group of British mercenaries tracking down members of Hussein’s government. The lead mercenary turns out to be played by Ralph Fiennes, so you know from Guy Pearce’s fate that he will not be around long. He’s not, but the firefight turns into a long, suspenseful sequence, not just an action sequence. And it is a sequence that lets the relationship of James and Sgt. Sanborn, who first resented James, develop out of the action. Sanborn was one of those we thought in the opening scene was going to get killed quickly, but he has turned into a major character. The relationships and revelations about character provide a spine for the episodes without being obvious the way it would if done by a screenwriter who had spent his time reading screenwriting manuals rather than living the experience with the bomb disposal guys.

Titles tell us how long the unit has on its rotation, and then we get a short sequence of James back in the States. We can see he is unhappy not being where the action is. Boal gives us a great single moment of James in a large, really large, supermarket, baffled by all the cereal choices. A friend of mine who saw the film with his wife said his wife came back from shopping later and said it was just like The Hurt Locker. No surprise that by the end of the picture James is back in action in Iraq. Listen to how little in terms of dialogue it takes to tell us he is going back. Show, don’t tell.

(500) Days of Summer (2009. Written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber. 95 minutes): Wait for it.

This rom-com opened to reviewers going on and on about its freshness, enough so that, contrarian that I am, I began to check the similarities to other movies. The writers have turned this into Annie Hall meets Hiroshima Mon Amour. It is about an ordinary guy, Tom, and the woman he is convinced is “the one,” Summer, told not in chronological order, but by skipping around the 500 days of the relationship. That works rather well, as in when we see the couple late in the relationship but early in the picture moping about Ikea and only later in the picture but earlier in the relationship do we see their early, funny days at Ikea. OK, but Woody and Alain have been there before, although Neustadter and Weber handle it very well.

Early in the film/later in the relationship we get a great scene in which Tom’s prepubescent sister is called in as the wise one in an intervention with Tom about Summer. Nice character, but I saw her before as the little sister in Gregory’s Girl (1981). Then a scene of Tom, a wannabe architect, showing Summer buildings of L.A. is a nice variation, but still a variation, of the similar scene in Hannah and Her Sisters. On the bright side, unlike Monsters vs. Aliens (see US#24) this is not just a checklist of other films. The writers use these elements well enough on their own, and with Tom they have created a character we can all sympathize with. He is convinced Summer is “the one” but she does not want to get serious. Since this is written by guys, she is not as well developed as Tom is, although a lot of that in the first part of the movie is her resisting getting serious.

Then, an hour into the movie, the film begins to change and deepen in some very interesting ways. We go to a wedding of a former co-worker of Tom and Summer. Even though at that point the relationship is officially over we know from the number of the day that precedes the scene that it is not really over. Tom and Summer have a couple of nice scenes about a couple trying to figure out what their relationship is now that their “relationship” is over. This is not a typical rom-com scene, although it does have an Annie Hall-ish flavor to it, but by then we are so into the two characters and their story that we don’t mind. Then Neustadter and Weber pull their two best tricks, and we learn something very interesting about Summer and her attitudes, which makes her as equally interesting in terms of this relationship as Tom. The second trick builds from that beautifully and ends the movie with what other critics have called the funniest closing line of any movie this year. I cannot disagree.

Chéri (2009. Screenplay by Christopher Hampton, based on the novels Chéri and La Fin de Chéri by Colette. 92 minutes): Wait for it, but you may not find it worth the wait.

I was very disappointed in this, since I like a lot of Christopher Hampton’s previous work. His stage play and later screenplay for his adaptation of Les liaisons dangereuses (the 1988 film was called Dangerous Liaisons just to make sure American audiences would not think it was in French) shows that he is one of the few English writers who can deal with the French. You could not tell it from his script for Chéri, which starts out with a lot of very clunky voiceover exposition, some of which is covered in more dialogue in the opening scenes. The dialogue then becomes rather flat and Stephen Frears, who directed Dangerous Liaisons, has let or encouraged the actors to overact, especially Kathy Bates in one of her worst performances.

Part of the problem in the first half of the movie is that so much of what is going on is inside the heads of the characters. Hampton has not found a way to get it out in dialogue. Instead we get a lot of shots of Lea, the aging courtesan, and her much younger lover, Chéri, moping about. She is more active than he is, which is part of Colette’s joke, although not as amusing as it was in 1920 when she wrote the novel. The picture picks up in the second half, which is based on the second of the two novels. Chéri has let himself be married off at his mother’s insistence to a rather shallow young girl. Both Lea and Chéri thought, like Summer in (500) Days, that this was just a passing thing, but they realize they were and still are in love. Now Hampton has given the actors something to do: Suffer, which both Michelle Pfieffer as Lea and Rupert Friend as Chéri do well. Whereas (500) Days has built up enough good will toward the characters and the story to make the stronger ending pay off, Chéri has not, and the ending is not as devastating as it should be.

Public Enemies (2009. Screenplay by Ronan Bennett and Michael Mann & Ann Biderman, based on the book “Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the F.B.I. 1933-1934” by Bryan Burrough. 140 minutes): When a screenwriter dies, he becomes a DIRECTOR.

Michael Mann first came to attention as a television writer, particularly on the great seventies series Police Story. Joseph Wambaugh, the cop-turned-novelist who was one of the creators of the show, was particularly impressed with Mann’s ability to do research. Wambaugh was hesitant to criticize the accuracy of Mann’s scripts, which he did a lot of with other writers. See the chapter on Police Story in my Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing for some of his comments. In spite of the legends that grew up about it, Mann was not the creator of the series Miami Vice. That was Anthony Yerkovich, coming off Hill Street Blues, but Mann took over as executive producer from Yerkovich and made it his own. Not necessarily for the better. Ed Waters, who wrote on the show in its second season, later said, “In an effort to keep that visual look that they did so successfully on that show, they would go to a location that would take them three or four hours to get to, and they would shoot a page and a half that day, so something had to give. You have a 55-page script and seven days to shoot it in, you have to shoot seven and a half pages, or whatever, and if you shoot one and a half pages one day, you’re in trouble. So a lot of things were sacrificed to preserve that style. Many of the stories suffered. When you are scrambling to meet the schedule, story values and plot points are going to fall by the wayside. They did.”

When Mann began to move from television into feature films, both as writer and director, he used the bigger budgets and longer production schedules available in features to make the productions as detailed as his previous interest in research could make them. Sometimes, as in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), his script supported the production. Sometimes, as in the film version of Miami Vice (2006), the script did not. What Mann has been falling into is the trap that many screenwriters fall into when they become directors: They become so desirous of playing with as many of the toys of film production as they can that they lose sight of their original talent as writers. You can see this in the careers of Francis Ford Coppola, the Wachowski Brothers, Oliver Stone, and James Cameron, to name only a few. John Grierson once wrote, referring to Josef Von Sternberg, that when a director dies, he becomes a cinematographer. I think when a screenwriter dies, he becomes a DIRECTOR. It’s happened to Mann.

The book Public Enemies is based on is a wide-ranging study of crime in the Depression, but aside from some brief cameos by Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson, the focus is on John Dillinger. Mann and his writers’ view of Dillinger was that he was cool. Unfortunately that is about it for characterization of Dillinger in the film. When the F.B.I. begins to close in on him, his coolness seems more like stupidity than high style. It is a limited view of the film’s hero.

Out of the research in the book, Mann and his second co-writer, Ann Biderman, began to focus on the rise of the F.B.I.. Unfortunately this is put in terms of making J. Edgar Hoover seem like a thirties Dick Cheney (yeah, I know, he sort of was, but still) and the techniques of the F.B.I., particularly the interrogation of Billie Frechette, seem like the Bush years. I mentioned in US#24 in writing about both Monsters vs. Aliens and Parks and Recreation that those seemed to have been conceived in the Bush era and now seem dated. The same is true of this element of Public Enemies.

Part of the problem with the script is that the writers have not given Mann many actual scenes. There is nothing in here that is the equivalent of the coffee shop scene between De Niro and Pacino in Heat. What we get instead is the buildup to the scenes—a LOT of shots of characters walking into buildings, rooms, etc. Mann’s direction here is like that of the late career Otto Preminger: More establishing shots than there are scenes (look at Advise & Consent [1962] and In Harm’s Way [1965] and you’ll see what I mean). I suppose Mann could defend it here in that it shows Dillinger always in motion, but it leaves his film rather shallow. Even when there is a scene, like the shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge, the writers have not shaped it as a scene. It is just a lot of men firing a lot of guns.

Dillinger is not the only one with very little characterization. There are a lot of supporting actors, but with a couple of exceptions, they are given very little to do. The major exception is Peter Gerety, who puts a lot of life into the lawyer the mob gets for Dillinger. Giovanni Ribisi does a couple of interesting things in his one moderately large scene as Alvin Karpis, but it is too little, too late.

The Undercover Man (1949. Screenplay by Sydney Boehm, additional dialogue by Malvin Wald, adaptation by Jack Rubin of the article “Undercover Man: He Trapped Capone” by Frank J. Wilson. 85 minutes): Public Enemies, 1949 style.

The day after I saw Public Enemies I caught this one on TCM. The obvious thing to say is that this film is better than the new film because the script is better. Yes and yes, but… In this script, we have characters, which we don’t much in Public Enemies. Frank Warren is a Treasury accountant involved in the effort to bring down the “Big Fellow,” who is never named. He is obviously Al Capone, but Capone was caught in the early thirties, so that might have made it seem dated by 1949. Warren is concerned about how his obsessive hunt for documents is not helpful to his marriage, a fact he and his wife talk about. Every time Warren seems to find a potential informant, they get killed. One of the Big Fellow’s accountants has squirreled away a ledger and just as he decides to turn it in, he is killed. His mother and daughter bring it to Warren just as Warren is about to quit. They persuade him that for the sake of his family as well as theirs, he has to go on.

In addition to Warren, his wife, the criminal accountant and his family, and assorted potential informants, we also get a nice characterization of the Big Fellow’s lawyer, very well played by Barry Kelley.

The picture was made as a B-picture at Columbia, and the director was Joseph H. Lewis. The following year Lewis would make the film he is best known for, Gun Crazy. Here the budget undercuts the story. If Public Enemies is overproduced for its script, The Undercover Man is underproduced, all backlots and quick location shots that do not necessarily match the studio streets. It is impossible to tell what city the film is supposed to take place in, since location shots are clearly Los Angeles, but the studio street is more New York or Chicago. There is at least one flubbed line that was not reshot. Unlike Mann, Lewis hardly ever moves his camera, but when he does, as in the killing of the account on the Columbia backlot city street, he gets the most out of it. According to a 1974 article on Lewis by Myron Meisel that appears in the anthology Kings of the Bs, in the big dramatic scenes, Lewis used three cameras and let the actors improvise the scene. I seriously doubt if Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia, would have let Lewis have three cameras, and the dialogue is a little too well-shaped to have been improvised. But then Meisel was writing in the day when everybody believed everything directors told them.

Union Pacific (1939. Screenplay by Walter DeLeon, C. Gardner Sullivan, and Jesse Laskey Jr., based on Jack Cunningham’s adaptation of the novel Trouble Shooter by Ernest Haycox, with uncredited additional writing by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan, Stanley Robb, Jeanie Macpherson, Stuart Anthony, and Harold Lamb. 135 minutes): De Mille and his cast of thousands of writers.

In writing about Cecil D. De Mille and his use of writers in FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film, I noted that “The screenwriting style of the De Mille films is just as suited to his star-director personality as the style of the Marx Brothers films [De Mille and the Marx Brothers were at Paramount at the same time], films suited to their star-actor personalities.” De Mille of course focused on spectacle (there are two train wrecks in Union Pacific), but there is also a pompous solemnity in the writing, no matter who the writers were. De Mille, who was his own producer, pushed all the writers (the list of uncredited writers comes from Robert S. Birchard’s thoroughly researched book Cecil B. De Mille’s Hollywood) to adopt his particular house style. The result in Union Pacific is dramatically very clumsy. As often in De Mille films, there is a lot of setup before he gets to the good stuff. The first two hours of his 1956 version of The Ten Commandments are virtually unwatchable now, but the second two hours at least have some energy. In Union Pacific we get a lot of plotting against the railroad by Barrows, a businessman who is supposedly supporting the Union Pacific in its trek west but is in fact betting most of his money on the Central Pacific coming east from California. Barrows sets up Campeau to run a gambling and liquor operation along the route to slow down the Union Pacific. The Campeau story seems to be the main story, but about 2/3 of the way through he goes missing and does not show up again until De Mille needs a shootout at the end. The first of the two train wrecks does not come until almost an hour and a half into the picture. The second one comes very quickly after the first. Jeff, the trouble shooter, has suggested that they can lay track over the snow rather than going through a mountain. They try it and the track collapses, killing the engineer. Did I mention that Jeff is the hero in this movie? Nobody blames him for his really bad idea. Not even Mollie, the woman who loves him, even though it is her father who was killed in the wreck. De Mille and his writers simply do not take the time to deal with trivial issues like those.

In FrameWork I mentioned that the writing in Union Pacific has a kind of crude energy, but looking at the film again recently, I am not sure it does. The script spends a lot more time than it needs to on the romance of Jeff, Mollie and Dick, an old army buddy of Jeff and now Campeau’s partner. For a film about the building of the railroad, we are indoors a lot, or at least on soundstages. The second unit train scenes, done on location in Utah and California, have a little energy, but are not a patch on those in the 1924 film The Iron Horse, where the conventional plot is less of a downer to the epic scale of the film.

Union Pacific was criticized at the time for its portrayal of the Indians, and rightly so. There is no Indian character that we come to know in the film, and the Indians generally behave stupidly. Their one smart move is to topple the water tower to make the train crash into it in the film’s first train wreck. Then they just dance around and loot the train, waiting for the cavalry to show up and kill them. The other character in the script that raises my PC hackles these days is the hero’s sidekick, Fiesta. As played by Akim Tamiroff, he is as clichéd a Mexican-American as you could find, constantly talking about his different wives in various towns. He reminds us this picture was made in Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939. The same year we had the awful Mexican-American stereotypes in Stagecoach and Prissy et al in Gone with the Wind. Some things have improved in American films.

1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year (2009. Written by Gary Leva and Constantine Nasr. 68 minutes): See, I told you it was Hollywood’s Greatest Year.

This was a documentary produced by Warners that showed up on TCM as a companion piece to their running a lot of the films from that year. As you might expect, we get the usual film historian and critic suspects, and as usual, not much mention of screenwriters. In fact, there are only two. At 47-minutes in, critic F.X. Feeney mentions in passing that Young Mr. Lincoln was written by Lamar Trotti. The second one, three minutes later comes from, whoa, not an historian, but an…actress. Claire Trevor mentions that Dudley Nichols’s screenplay for Stagecoach didn’t have one wasted word in it. I could argue that point, but for now let it stand. Fellow film historians and critics, if an actor, who has to say the words in the script, recognizes the value of a screenplay, shouldn’t the rest of us?

On the other hand, I know several of the people interviewed and they all have shown appreciation for the work of screenwriters before, so they may well have mentioned some writers and had those comments cut out.

Moonfleet (1955. Screenplay by Jan Lustig and Margaret Fitts, based on the novel by J. Meade Faulkner. 87 minutes): Treasure Island meets Great Expectations.

I was not going to write about this one, since it is such a dud, but I got to browsing in the second volume of John Houseman’s memoirs, Front & Center. This was one of the films Houseman produced for MGM in the middle of the fifties. It was based on a novel that had been a hit in its day and had been recently reissued. Houseman inherited the project from a producer who had left the studio. He recalls, “When I came to examine the novel I discovered that it was a sparse, rather somber tale of a boy and a gentleman-smuggler operating on the southwest coast of England. The screenplay by Jan Lustig and Margaret Fitts had sought to liven it up through the injection of a whole slew of eighteenth century clichés: A wild gypsy girl; a jealous, slightly insane mistress; a wicked Lord; a mysterious titled lady in a gilded coach; a Byronic hero-villain who finally sacrifices his life to save the boy’s.” OK, clichés are our friends, as Crash Davis has told us, but here they are just tacked onto a not-very-interesting story. The gypsy shows up at the beginning, gets a nice dance number and then disappears. I kept hoping for the gypsy girl to come back. No such luck.

The director is the humorless Fritz Lang who obviously had no feel for the material. To make matters worse, Houseman and MGM made the picture in CinemaScope. On the soundstages. In Hollywood. With ’Scope, you’d think there would be more than one brief second unit shot of a castle in England.

The Mouse That Roared (1959. Screenplay by Roger MacDougall and Stanley Mann, based on the novel by Leonard Wibberley. 83 minutes): Silly fun, but not much more.

The setup of the Wibberley novel is amusing: The Duchy of Fenwick has its famous wine hurt by the marketing of a similar American wine and decides to declare war on the United States. They assume they will lose and the Americans will be as generous to them as they were to the Germans and the Japanese after World War II. Unfortunately, they win.

This was one of the first pictures to make fun of the Cold War and possible nuclear war, and it deserves recognition for that. It has been overshadowed by the films that followed, especially Dr. Strangelove (1964). Even in its first release, Mouse was criticized for not doing as much with its idea as it could. The jokes tend to be rather obvious, and there is a lot more slapstick than it needs. One of the writers of the film was Roger MacDougall, who had written the play and screenplay based on the play for The Man in the White Suit (1951). That film does everything right that Mouse doesn’t—it is a very sharply observed comedy of attitudes.

There were two reasons that Mouse did well. It made Peter Sellers a star. Somewhere along the line, it was decided that, like Alec Guiness in the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets, Sellers would play multiple parts: The Grand Duchess (in makeup and dress similar to the Lady Agatha that Guinness plays), the Prime Minister, and the nominal hero of the film, Tully Bascome, a gamekeeper who leads the invasion army. Sellers does not show the range that Guinness did, but the script does not call for it. Still, he is amusing, and you can see his multiple characterizations for Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove coming. Strangelove does everything Mouse would like to do, but does it with, well, genius.

Ah, the second reason. Never underestimate the importance of getting a comedy going with a great laugh. It disarms the audience and puts you ahead of them. Here the best laugh in the film comes even before the credits. We get the Columbia logo, except the lady with the torch is a real woman. Who picks up her dress, shows her legs, sees a mouse, shrieks and runs off the pedestal.

Drop Dead Diva (2009. “Pilot” written by Josh Berman. “The ’F’ Word” written by Joshn Berman & Carla Kettner. “Do Over” written by Alex Taub. Each episode 60 minutes): Here Comes Mr. Jordan meets All of Me meets Legally Blonde meets Samantha Who? meets…

Yeah, it’s recombinant. And complicated to set up. Which Berman does with considerable economy in the pilot. Deb, a ditzy would-be model, dies in a car accident, but when she gets to the pearly gates, or rather office, she manages to get her soul sent back to Earth. But into the body of a plus-size lawyer named Jane, who was shot at the office. Fred, the bureaucrat at the pearly office, comes down as Jane/Deb’s guardian angel, and he helps explain the ground rules. Deb’s soul is inside Jane’s body, but Jane’s brain retains her legal knowledge. Berman has shrewdly established that Jane was already reading self-help books when she was shot, so Deb’s Elle Woods-Stuart Smalley self-improvement affirmations strike a chord. So, why watch, other than to play spot the reference?

Unlike Samantha Who?, Berman has really thought through what it would be like for Jane/Deb to go through this, and he has written a variety of reactions for her to have. Brooke Elliott, most of whose work has been in theater, is great at channeling both Jane and Deb. Look at the Jane in her lust after doughnuts while the Deb in her resists. Look at Jane’s joy at remembering legal information while at the same time having the Deb part of her head hurt from having to actually, like, you know, think. Elliott is just as good at this as Steve Martin was in All of Me.

The plotting of the pilot gets Jane/Deb involved in a couple of cases that Deb can help out with, and I am not sure how often the writers will be able to go to that well. There is also a running plot of Deb’s grieving boyfriend just having been hired at Jane’s law firm, which may give us some scenes, but if he is the sort of smart guy who likes a skinny airhead, would he be attracted to Jane?

And the show is going to have problems with its sponsors. Jane is a “plain jane” and Deb will undoubtedly give her a makeover of some kind, which should make the cosmetic advertisers happy, but at least one commercial on the premiere was for a weight-loss program. Isn’t that slapping your star in the face? And will Elliott manage to avoid having to become anorexic? I hope so. There are too many skinny women on television already. Although I have to tell you that Stacy, one of Deb’s friends, is played by April Bowlby, who was spectacular as Alan’s girlfriend Kandi on Two and a Half Men. She is very thin, but I don’t mind because she can be very funny. She and Elliott did not get much going in the pilot, but the two of them are reason to keep looking in on the show.

“The ’F’ Word” seemed to backslide a little bit from the pilot. Stacy is already working on a plan to have Jane slim down and the new Jane is already wearing more makeup than the old Jane did. And nobody seems to have noticed. The legal cases are not that interesting, and to top it off, the writers end the episode with Jane and Fred talking over one of the cases…out on the balcony. Come on, folks, I know three or four months is forever in television, but some of us still remember Alan and Denny Crane and their balcony.

“Do Over” is a little better. Taub is giving Elliott and Bowlby the right kind of lines to get a little comic rhythm going. I am not sure having Stacy, a would-be actress, play a business woman to put a person Jane is suing on the defensive is really convincing, since it seems to be Bowlby playing the businesswoman, not Stacy. The structure is still two legal stories per episode, but in this one they gave the wrong one to Jane. She should have had the one about the shrink who “killed off” the wrong multiple personality, since that would have resonated with Jane more than the story she got. And haven’t any of the writers ever seen any of Shakespeare’s comedies? Surely Deb’s ex-boyfriend Grayson could have the same kind of confusion with Jane/Deb that the heroes in Will’s plays have when they are confronted with beautiful women pretending to be men.

Disneyland, Summer 2009: Spare parts.

My daughter and I took my grandson to Disneyland and California Adventure the other day, and the contrast between the old Disneyland and the new Disneyland/California Adventure was more striking than ever.

Walt Disney himself was never much interested in the present. Main Street is not Main Street Los Angeles 1955 but turn-of-the century small town America. Frontierland is the past. And both of those are the past seen as nostalgia rather than history. Nostalgia sells, history doesn’t. And Tomorrowland looked to the future. One of the reasons that California Adventure, the park across the plaza from Disneyland has never worked very well, either artistically or commercially, is that it has never had the magic of the original park.

One of Walt Disney’s great skills was his ability to focus on story, as we have discussed before in relation to John Lasseter and Pixar. That focus is a part of the original rides in the park. The Peter Pan flight over London in Fantasyland takes you on a trip. The Pirates of the Caribbean ride takes you into the bayous of south Florida, then past the caves, the castle, the pillaging and burning of Port Royal, the pirates in jail, and finally back into the “real” world. (Kudos to the folks who did the remodeling of Pirates; they have not laid on stuff from the movie too heavily. The captain of the ship opposite the castle is now Barbossa, but Captain Jack Sparrow is almost hidden in his first two appearances. He shows up full form at the end of the ride, and the audio-animatronic people have outdone themselves in capturing the nuances of Johnny Depp’s performance.) The Indiana Jones Adventure is very much in the tradition of the storytelling rides. The best of the California Adventure rides, like the Grizzly River Run (a white water rapids ride) and Soarin’ Over California, take us on a trip, but the other attractions are more conventional. They, and the original idea of the park, are too closely aligned with reality to work in the Disney context.

The big show this summer at Disneyland is Fantasmic, a sound-and-light spectacle at the Rivers of America in front of New Orleans square. Unfortunately, in its taking up of Walt’s interest in technology, there is more sound and light then there is narrative form. We get songs, water plumes, dancers, fire, a group of actors doing Peter Pan shtick on the sailing ship Columbia, fireworks and probably more things I cannot remember. I think, but cannot be sure, that it is about Mickey outdoing an evil queen. My daughter said the show included everything my 17-year-old granddaughter hates about Disney: The misogyny of evil queens and surrealism. In between the plumes of water and the fireworks, there are images projected against a curtain of smoke. Some of them are identifiable to Disney fans. When Mickey first comes on, we get bits and pieces of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Fantasia. Later we get similar bits and pieces from one of my favorite pieces of Disney surrealism, the Pink Elephants on Parade from Dumbo. But since they are all projected into smoke, you cannot see them very well. I realize the studio owns the material, but I am sure if anybody else wanted to use the material in this way, the studio would say no. It seemed to me to be nothing more than cannibalizing the past for spare parts, expecting us to be nostalgic about them. He said, tugging at his Mickey Mouse T-shirt.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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Festivals

Cannes Directors’ Fortnight Lineup Includes The Lighthouse, Zombi Child, and More

In addition to Directors’ Fortnight, the festival announced the films that would screen as part of the ACID lineup.

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The Lighthouse
Photo: A24

Five days after Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux revealed the films that would be competing for the Palm d’Or this year on the Croisette, the Cannes Film Festival has announced the films that will screen as part of the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight. Among those are Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, a dark fantasy horror film starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson shot on 35mm black-and-white film stock, and Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, which recounts the destiny of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who was famously said to have been turned him into a zombie.

See below for the full lineup, followed by the ACID slate.

Directors’ Fortnight Lineup:

Opening Film

Deerskin (Quentin Dupieux)

Official Selection

Alice and the Mayor (Nicolas Pariser)
And Then We Danced (Levan Akin)
The Halt (Lav Diaz)
Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää)
Song Without a Name (Melina León)
Ghost Tropic (Bas Devos)
Give Me Liberty (Kirill Mikhanvovsky)
First Love (Takashi Miike)
The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
Lillian (Andreas Horwath)
Oleg (Juris Kursietis)
Blow It to Bits (Lech Kowalski)
The Orphanage (Shahrbanoo Sadat)
Les Particules (Blaise Harrison)
Perdrix (Erwan Le Duc)
For the Money (Alejo Moguillansky)
Sick Sick Sick (Alice Furtado)
Tlamess (Ala Eddine Slim)
To Live to Sing (Johnny Ma)
An Easy Girl (Rebecca Zlotowski)
Wounds (Babak Anvari)
Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)

Closing Film

Yves (Benoît Forgeard)

Special Screenings

Red 11 (Roberto Rodriguez)
The Staggering Girl (Luca Guadagnino)

Shorts

Two Sisters Who Are Not Sisters (Beatrice Gibson)
The Marvelous Misadventures of the Stone Lady (Gabriel Abrantes)
Grand Bouquet (Nao Yoshigai)
Je Te Tiens (Sergio Caballero)
Movements (Dahee Jeong)
Olla (Ariane Labed)
Piece of Meat (Jerrold Chong and Huang Junxiang)
Ghost Pleasure (Morgan Simon)
Stay Awake, Be Ready (An Pham Thien)

ACID Lineup:

Features

Blind Spot (Pierre Trividic, Patrick-Mario Bernard)
Des Hommes (Jean-Robert Viallet, Alice Odiot)
Indianara (Aude Chevalier-Beaumel, Marcello Barbosa)
Kongo (Hadrien La Vapeur, Corto Vaclav)
Mickey and the Bear (Annabelle Attanasio)
Solo (Artemio Benki)
As Happy as Possible (Alain Raoust)
Take Me Somewhere Nice (Ena Sendijarevic)
Vif-Argent (Stéphane Batut)

Third Annual ACID Trip

Las Vegas (Juan Villegas)
Brief Story from the Green Planet (Santiago Loza)
Sangre Blanca (Barbara Sarasola-Day)

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Review: Carmine Street Guitars Is a Beautiful Portrait of an Everyday Paradise

The film celebrates the thingness of things, as well as the assuring clarity and lucidity that can arise from devotion to knowledge.

3.5

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Carmine Street Guitars
Photo: Sphinx Productions

The concept of Carmine Street Guitars is simplicity itself. Director Ron Mann documents the legendary Greenwich Village guitar store of the film’s title over a period of five days, watching as mostly famous customers stroll in to peruse and play instruments and shoot the breeze with guitar maker Rick Kelly. There’s no voiceover, no overt narrative, and little orienting text—and none of the encounters in this film are structured or presented as info-bite-style interviews. Mann artfully sustains the illusion of someone who’s just hanging out, capturing whatever draws his attention. Consequentially, the documentary communicates the magic of this place even to someone who’s never been to New York City.

Mann has a knack for telling you more than he appears to be. Fashioning intimate compositions, he surveys Kelly and his apprentice, Cindy Hulej, as they build guitars together in companionable silence. Kelly and Hulej are a poignant study in contrasts: Kelly is a graying sixtysomething man with a bit of a belly, while Cindy is a lean twentysomething woman who, with her bright blond hair and multiple tattoos, suggests a rock star. Occasionally, Hulej will solicit Kelly’s approval for one of her designs or for the artwork or poetry she’s burning into the back of a guitar, which he grants with a humble hesitation that subtly says, “You don’t need my approval.” Meanwhile, up front in the store, Kelly’s mother answers the phone. At one point, she says she’s happy to be here, though, at her age, she’s happy to be anywhere.

Shots of Kelly and Hulej working also allow one to savor the tactility of Carmine Street Guitars itself. Hulej works to the left of the back of the store, while Kelly stays to the right of it. Above Kelly is a storage of wooden planks taken from various landmarks of New York, such as Chumley’s and McSorley’s. Kelly poetically says that he likes to build guitars from the “bones of New York.” The resin dries out in older wood, allowing for more openings in the material which in turn yields greater resonation. Such fascinating details arise naturally in the film’s images and conversations. Over the course of Carmine Street Guitars, Kelly fashions a McSorley’s plank into an incredibly evocative guitar, as the gnarled wood gives it the appearance of possessing scar tissue. Near the end of the documentary, musician Charlie Sexton walks in and plays this guitar, and the idea of scar tissue takes on a different meaning. Sexton, Kelly, and the store itself are textured survivors of another era.

This is never explicitly stated in Carmine Street Guitars, but the film offers an analogue daydream in a 21st century that’s been nearly gentrified to death by corporations. The building next to Carmine Street Guitars was once used by Jackson Pollack and is now being sold by a yuppie real estate agent for six million dollars. The yuppie walks into the guitar shop, drooling over the potential sales opportunity, and his entrance feels like an obscenity—a return to the reality that we frequent stores like Carmine Street Guitars, and films like Carmine Street Guitars, in order to evade. It’s only at this point that Kelly’s democratic bonhomie hardens into defensive contempt, as he virtually refuses to speak to the agent. This episode haunts the film, suggesting a fate that can only be bidden off for so much longer.

Carmine Street Guitars celebrates the thingness of things, as well as the assuring clarity and lucidity that can arise from devotion to knowledge. Kelly’s guitar shop is a cocoon, a place of contemplation, and so it feels inevitable when Jim Jarmusch walks into the store. After all, Jarmusch’s recent films, like Only Lovers Left Alive and Paterson, also celebrate creation and erudition while ruing the arrival of a new culture that’s hostile to such desires. Kelly and Jarmusch talk about the filmmaker’s new guitar, which is partially made from Catalpa wood, leading to a riff on the trees that have been formative in each man’s life. In another moving interlude, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline searches for a guitar for frontman Jeff Tweedy, settling on an instrument that reflects Kelly’s own characteristic design: a telecaster with a dropped horn. Such moments reveal artisanship to be a form of communion, as a personal object for Kelly has been refashioned into a symbol of another artistic partnership.

These themes and associations bob under Carmine Street Guitars’s surface, as musicians noodle around with Kelly. This pregnant sense of implication is Mann’s supreme achievement, and as such the film risks being taken for granted as a charming little diversion, when it should be celebrated as a beautiful portrait of an everyday paradise. When Hulej weeps in gratitude, on her fifth anniversary of working for Carmine Street Guitars, you want to weep with her.

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Review: Hyènas Brilliantly Chips Away at a City’s Colonialist Architecture

Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1992 film resonates primarily for its lacerating comedic writing and pacing.

4

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Hyènas
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Djibril Diop Mambéty spared no one when mercilessly depicting populations who were simultaneously eating themselves from within and being exploited by the economic interests of outside forces. Mambéty’s great Touki Bouki from 1973 viewed this dual process through the prism of the postcolonial relationship between Senegal and France. And in Mambéty’s second feature, 1992’s Hyènas, Senegal is pitted against larger global institutions, such as the World Bank, that prey on small nations whose financial instability makes them more likely to embrace warped logic and false promises at their own expense.

Mambéty confines the proceedings to Colobane, a small commune in Dakar, where its population and governmental order are turned upside down by the return of former resident Linguere Ramatou (Ami Diakhate), whose newfound wealth has become a subject of much dispute and angst within the community. The woman, who’s said by locals to be “richer than the World Bank,” becomes Mambéty’s stand-in for how an institutional form of thinking, with its financial rather than human emphasis, corrupts local interests by vacuously promising short-term riches to citizens that, in turn, produce long-term financial crises.

One of Mambéty’s primary strengths is how his sense of detail instantly brings the locations of his films to life. Hyènas opens within the market owned by Dramaan (Mansour Diouf), a beloved local merchant whose generosity with patrons is almost immediately apparent, as he allows several customers to purchase expensive goods on credit rather than having them pay up front. Mambéty establishes each nook and cranny of the market’s space through a series of static shots that gradually reveal the amount of people—none of which offer payment for their acquisitions—toiling around the premises. When Dramaan’s wife (Faly Gueye) appears, and Dramaan says, out of her earshot, that she disapproves of his business practices, it’s the first suggestion in Mambéty’s carefully plotted script that mutual trust is the first casualty in the exchange of money between people linked to differing motivations. As the Colobane community takes even greater advantage of Dramaan later in the film, Hyènas further turns the man’s plight into an absurdist tale of capitalism’s follies.

Linguere’s return to Colobane provides the film with its driving plot device, as she announces to the population that she will pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the community in exchange for Dramaan’s murder. Linguere was abandoned by Dramaan years prior after giving birth to their daughter and has come back with the sole intention of wreaking havoc on the man’s life. At least, it initially seems that way; in a later scene, Linguere explains, “The world has made me a whore,” and so she plans to “turn the world into a whorehouse.”

Mambéty imagines how Linguere’s wealth co-signs her agenda of revenge; her dangling of expensive goods over the heads of locals hungry for their piece of the pie is akin to the lie of global monetary cooperation promised by organizations like the International Monetary Fund. Senegal, once again, becomes dependent on global rather than local sources of income and exchange. Mambéty, though, follows the thematic example set by Ousmane Sembène’s Xala, in which a Senegalese politician’s sexual impotence is a symbol of his corruption, by refusing to exonerate local officials within Senegal for their complicity in embracing Westernization. When Dramaan meets with Colobane’s mayor (Mamadou Mahourédia Gueye) to discuss the bounty that’s been placed on his head, the latter says, “[Leopold] Senghor himself went for a walk with the Queen of England…if we were savages, they would not come here.” By implicating the mayor’s deference to Western forms of knowledge and self-definition, Mambéty deftly wrestles with the complexity of corruption’s reach.

Despite its rather serious and finally tragic appraisal of Senegal’s quagmire within the world system, Hyènas resonates primarily for its lacerating comedic writing and pacing. As Dramaan comes to mistakenly believe that he will be elected Colobane’s next mayor, only to learn that, in fact, he’s more likely to be killed before an election takes place, Mambéty ratchets up the film’s ludicrousness to simultaneously critique the Senegalese government and widespread consumerism, and with equal ferocity. This is best encapsulated by the moment where Dramaan realizes that everyone who isn’t paying him seems to own the same, new pair of yellow boots made in Burkina Faso. Dramaan’s market, filled with foreign goods ranging from European tobacco to Coca-Cola, is itself exploiting its owner; the man has paid a high price for quality only for the local marketplace to abuse his ambitions.

These ideas also propelled Touki Bouki, in which a pair of college-aged youths from Dakar, a city adored with so many Pepsi logos and Mobil oil towers, (dream of migrating to France. In a memorable scene from that film, a pair of French professors dismiss Senegal’s local culture by articulating the distinctly colonialist logic of France’s superiority. While Hyènas forgoes such an explicit drag of French supremacy, the film’s lucid indignation and satirical take on Senegal’s raw deal proves just as convincing.

Cast: Ami Diakhate, Mansour Diouf, Calgou Fall, Faly Gueye, Mamadou Mahourédia Gueye, Issa Ramagelissa Samb, Dijbril Diop Mambéty Director: Djibril Diop Mambéty Screenwriter: Djibril Diop Mambéty Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 1992

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Review: Chasing Portraits Is Welcome Personal Testimony, but Its Scope Is Narrow

Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

2.5

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Chasing Portraits
Photo: First Run Features

Before World War II, Poland’s Jewish population was the largest in Europe, numbering over three million. Afterward, only 10% of that populace remained. Although the current right-wing Polish government prefers to suppress this fact, the 300,000 surviving Jews faced continued persecution at the hands of gentile Poles—themselves the victims (though to a much lesser degree) of Nazi persecution. Today, when the number of Jews in Poland is well under 10,000, one can visit the old Jewish quarters in cities like Warsaw and Krakow, where street kiosks sell small plastic caricatures of Hasidic Jews. On the streets, though, you’re unlikely to encounter any actual Hasids.

In her trip to Warsaw in search of her great-grandfather’s lost paintings, Chasing Portraits director Elizabeth Rynecki stumbles across these figurines. As she observes in voiceover, there’s nothing overtly demeaning about the miniature, jovial, cartoonish Jews, but the image they project doesn’t feel right, given local history. And one must agree that there’s an undeniable aspect of minstrelsy to them: Unlike her great-grandfather Moshe’s textured scenes of Jewish life in Warsaw, they’re almost certainly not self-representations. Given the Jewish culture that was destroyed in Poland—and whose richness is embodied by Moshe’s few surviving paintings—the grinning trinkets seem all the more like frivolous kitsch.

Rynecki’s discovery of these unsettling souvenirs is potentially one of the most interesting parts of Chasing Portraits, given that she happens across them while on the trail of lost Jewish art. As a curator at a Warsaw museum observes to the filmmaker, Moshe’s work depicts traditional moments of Jewish culture in a distinctly modern sensibility, attesting to the robustness of the Jewish culture on the eve of its destruction. In this way, his paintings are the opposite of the post-facto plastic caricatures, and Rynecki’s confrontation with the mass-produced simulacra of absent Jews is a moment when her highly personal documentary almost extends toward a wider perspective. But she doesn’t linger for too long on what the Holocaust and Judaism mean in Poland today, as she’s on her way to ask a private collector named Wertheim about how his family managed to acquire some of Moshe’s works.

Rynecki’s insular approach works well early on in the film, when she, in conversations with her father, outlines who her great-grandfather was and what his surviving paintings mean to the family. Of around 800 works that Moshe painted before he was murdered at the Majdanek death camp, just over 100 survive in the possession of the family, with an unknown number in the hands of private collections and Polish museums. That much is a miracle, but Rynecki—more so, it seems, than her father, a Holocaust survivor himself—wants to discover more. In the film, we see her consult with historians, compose emails to private collectors, and read excerpts of her grandfather George’s memoirs, in preparation for her trip to Poland.

Chasing Portraits is about Rynecki’s investigative process rather than Moshe’s paintings themselves; in voiceover, she narrates each step of her process as she takes on the role of amateur historian. And in maintaining an intense focus on her investigation—how she reads out the emails she writes to institutions, and shows us footage from each flight she takes from one corner of the world to another—the film raises probing questions that it dutifully bypasses. Her encounters with the Wertheim family are a case in point: The first Wertheim brother claims the family own paintings by Moshe because they bought it from a farmer, but the second tells the more plausible story that they have the paintings because their parents, resistance fighters hiding in the Polish woods, raided them from a bombed-out train.

In Rynecki’s narrative, these conflicting stories become a personal conundrum: If the paintings were looted rather than bought, she may be able to make a claim on them. In the end, it’s Rynecki’s growth, her decision about whether or not to become a claimant, that structures the film. But this approach means skirting over other thematic threads that might have emerged from this project, such as the ethics of museum versus private ownership of recovered art like Moshe’s, the meaning of art in desperate times, the politics of remembrance in Poland. Chasing Portraits is thus valuable as part of an expansive mosaic of personal testimonies to the legacy of the Holocaust, but it’s a documentary of sometimes disappointingly narrow scope. Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

Director: Elizabeth Rynecki Screenwriter: Elizabeth Rynecki Distributor: First Run Features Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: If the Dancer Dances Diminishes Its Subject by Succumbing to Hagiography

The documentary is incessant about reminding us of the late Merce Cunningham’s achievements.

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If the Dancer Dances
Photo: Monument Releasing

More than once in Maia Wechsler’s If the Dancer Dances, a dance is described by one of numerous talking heads as existing only in the moment; once any movement or routine is complete, it essentially can never be replicated to an exacting degree. But the film inadvertently appears as if it’s trying to prove that poetic and insightful observation wrong, which becomes increasingly clear as we follow choreographer Stephen Petronio as he and his dance company work on a production of Merce Cunningham’s RainForest.

Wechsler’s depiction of the company seems unwilling to step out of Cunningham’s shadow, given the extent to which the members of the current production and Cunningham’s former pupils happily provide hagiographic accounts of the groundbreaking avant-garde choreographer and his work. In an about-face from the repeated description of dance’s unreplicable nature, the new RainForest’s choreographers and dancers set out to duplicate rather than interpret the work. The fawning over Cunningham, and the implication from the company that they’ll never be able to live up to his vision, only exposes an overbearing inferiority complex running throughout the documentary.

If the Dancer Dances really only comes to life when showcasing the company’s rehearsals, throughout camera movements that match the gracefulness of the dancers and compositions that incorporate multiple points of action. Wechsler’s observational methods in these sequences capture mini-dramas in themselves, such as when choreographers quietly confer, attempting to adjust the dance routine that’s playing out in front of them.

Still, rather than letting the audience simply observe the company at work and letting the process speak for itself, Wechsler incessantly reminds us of Cunningham’s monolithic presence via scores of interviews that laud his work process. The film’s constant lionizing of the man amid so much rehearsal footage has the unintended effect of sapping the dancers of agency. Throughout, it’s as if Wechsler is judging the company’s artistic decisions based on whether or not Cunningham himself would consider them right or wrong.

At one point in the film, a former colleague of Cunningham’s explains that the late choreographer, in an effort to ensure that his works felt fresh, tried to never be influenced by other productions. This anecdote rings of irony, given how the film includes numerous sequences of Petronio’s choreographers discussing how to ape Cunningham’s aesthetic in precise detail—and often in incomprehensibly abstract directions that even some of the dancers appear not to grasp. The film operates under the impression that for any present or future company to change any one aspect of Cunningham’s original vision would be blasphemous and offensive, which turns If the Dancer Dances less into the insightful backstage documentary it wants to be, and more into a gushing, sycophantic love letter.

Director: Maia Wechsler Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Watch the Trailer for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix Series When They See Us

Netflix will release the series on May 31.

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When They See Us
Photo: Netflix

In 1989, the rape and near-murder of Trisha Meili in Central Park rocked the nation. A little over a year later, a jury convicted five juvenile males—four African-American and one Hispanic—to prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. In the end, the defendants spent between six and 13 years behind bars. Flashforward to 2002, after four of the five defendants had left prison, and Matias Reyes, a convicted murder and serial rapist serving a lifetime prison term, came forward and confessed to raping Meili. DNA evidence confirmed his guilt, and proved what many already knew about the so-called “Central Park jogger case”: that the police investigation of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, conducted at the beginning of the Giuliani era in New York City, was motivated less by a thirst for justice than it was by racial animus.

Last year, Oscar-nominated Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay announced that she would be making a series based on the infamous case, and since then hasn’t been shy, on Twitter and elsewhere, about saying that she will be putting Donald J. Trump in her crosshairs. Trump, way back in 1989, ran an ad in the Daily News advocating the return of the death penalty, and as recently as 2016, claimed that McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise are guilty of the crime for which they were eventually exonerated—behavior consistent with a presidential campaign that, like the case against the Central Park Five, was a full-time racist dog whistle.

Today, Netflix dropped the trailer for When They See Us, which stars Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood, Christopher Jackson, Joshua Jackson, Omar J. Dorsey, Adepero Oduye, Famke Janssen, Aurora Perrineau, William Sadler, Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Storm Reid, Dascha Polanco, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Justin Cunningham, Ethan Herisse, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, and Asante Blackk.

According to the official description of the series:

Based on a true story that gripped the country, When They See Us will chronicle the notorious case of five teenagers of color, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four part limited series will focus on the five teenagers from Harlem—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. Beginning in the spring of 1989, when the teenagers were first questioned about the incident, the series will span 25 years, highlighting their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.

See the trailer below:

Netflix will release When They See Us on May 31.

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Review: The Curse of La Llorona Is More Laugh Riot than Fright Fest

With The Curse of La Llorona, the Conjuring universe has damned itself to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.

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The Curse of La Llorona
Photo: Warner Bros.

Michael Chaves’s The Curse of La Llorona opens in 17th-century Mexico with an all-too-brief rundown of the legend of La Llorona. This weeping woman (Marisol Ramirez) is quickly established as a mother who, in a fit of jealousy, drowned her two children in order punish her cheating husband. And after immediately regretting her actions, she commits suicide, forever damning herself to that liminal space between the land of the living and the dead, to snatch up wandering children to replace her own.

Flash-forward to 1973 Los Angeles, where we instantly recognize an echo of La Llorana’s parental anxieties in Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), a widowed mother of two who struggles to balance the demands of her job as a social worker for Child Protective Services and the pressures of adjusting to single parenthood. One might expect such parallels to be further expanded upon by The Curse of La Llorona, but it quickly becomes evident that the filmmakers are less interested in character development, narrative cohesion, or the myth behind La Llorona than in lazily transposing the film’s big bad into the Conjuring universe.

It’s no surprise, then, that La Llorona, with her beady yellow eyes, blood-drained skin, and rotted mouth and fingernails is virtually indistinguishable from the antagonist from Corin Hardy’s The Nun; just swap out the evil nun’s tunic and habit for a decaying wedding dress and you’d never know the difference. Even more predictably, The Curse of La Llorona relies heavily on a near-ceaseless barrage of jump scares, creaking doors and loud, shrieking noises as La Llorona first terrorizes and murders the detained children of one of Anna’s clients (Patricia Velasquez), before then moving on to haunting Anna and her kids (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou). But this family is so thinly conceived and their behavior so careless and illogical in the face of a known force of evil that viewers may find themselves less terrified by La Llorona than overjoyed by her reign of terror.

Once Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a curandero whose healing powers promise to lift La Llorona’s curse, arrives on the scene, the film makes a few concessions to Mexican cultural rituals, as well as offers brief but welcome respites of humor. But after the man rubs down the Garcia house with eggs and protects its borders with palo santo and fire tree seeds, The Curse of La Llorona continues unabated as a rote scare-a-thon. Every extended moment of silence and stillness is dutifully disrupted by sudden, overemphatic bursts of sound and fury that are meant to frighten us but are more likely to leave you feeling bludgeoned into submission.

All the while, any notions of motherhood, faith within and outside of the Catholic Church, and Mexican folklore that surface at one point or another are rendered both moot and undistinctive in the midst of so much slavish worshipping at the altar of franchise expansion. Indeed, by the time Annabelle’s Father Perez (Tony Amendola) pays a house visit in order to dutifully spout exposition about the series’s interconnected religious elements, it becomes clear that the Conjuring universe is damned to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.

Cast: Linda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Patricia Velasquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola Director: Michael Chaves Screenwriter: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood & W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch

Stratton goes beyond the production of Sam Peckinpah’s film, on to its impact and reception and legacy.

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Reinventing Hollywood

The 1940s were the decade in which Hollywood attained what we now term “classical” status, when the innovations and developments of cinema’s formative years coalesced into a high level of sophistication across all areas—technological, visual, narrative. The narrative element is the focus of Reinventing Hollywood, film historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Bordwell’s latest deep dive into the aesthetics of film.

Bordwell begins with a series of questions: “What distinctive narrative strategies emerged in the 1940s? Where did they come from? How did various filmmakers use them? How did the innovations change the look and sound of films?” He then proceeds with quite thorough answers across 500-plus pages. The narrative developments were gradual and cumulative. While the earliest narrative cinema was static and stagebound, inheriting principles of storytelling from theater and the most basic novelistic tendencies, a richer narrativity developed throughout the 1930s, when the visual language of silent cinema melded with the oral/aural elements of “talkies” to create a more systemized approach to narrative filmmaking.

As Bordwell notes at one point in Reinventing Hollywood, “[p]rinciples of characterization and plot construction that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s were reaffirmed in the early sound era. Across the same period there emerged a clear-cut menu of choices pertaining to staging, shooting and cutting scenes.” In short, it was the process whereby “talkies” became just “movies.” Narrative techniques specifically morphed and solidified throughout the ‘30s, as screenwriters and filmmakers pushed their way toward the discovery of a truly classical style.

While the idea of a menu of set choices may sound limiting, in reality the options were numerous, as filmmakers worked out a process of invention through repetition and experimentation and refinement. Eventually these narrative properties and principles became conventionalized—not in a watered-down or day-to-day way, but rather codified or systematized, where a sort of stock set of narrative devices were continually reworked, revamped, and re-energized. It’s what Bordwell calls “an inherited pattern” or “schema.”

Also in the ‘40s, many Hollywood films traded in what Bordwell terms “mild modernism”—a kind of light borrowing from other forms and advances in so-called high modernism, such as surrealism or stream-of-consciousness narratives like James Joyce’s Ulysses: high-art means for popular-art ends (Salvador Dalí’s work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound being a notable example). These techniques included omniscient point of view, the novelistic ability to traverse time and space (ideally suited for cinema), and involved flashback or dream sequences. This “borrowing of storytelling techniques from adjacent arts […] encouraged a quick cadence of schema and revision,” an environment of “…novelty at almost any price.”

Such novelties included “aggregate” films that overlaid a plethora of storytelling techniques, such as Sam Wood’s 1940 adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed multiple protagonists, complex flashback sequences, and voiceover narration drawn from the most advanced theater. Perhaps no other film embodied these “novelties” so sharply as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, an “aggressive aggregate” that amounts to a specifically cinematic yet total work of art, weaving together not only narrative techniques such as multiple character or “prismatic” flashbacks (screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s term), but also drawing on elements from music, painting, and photography, as well as Welles’s first loves, theater and radio. In some ways, Citizen Kane may be seen as a kind of fulcrum film, incorporating nearly all that had come before it and anticipating most everything after.

Though Bordwell references the familiar culprits—Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kane—he doesn’t just stick with the A films, as he goes deep into the B’s (and even some C’s and D’s), in an effort to show the wide-ranging appeal and effectiveness of these narrative models no matter their technical execution. He also alternates chapters with what he calls Interludes—that is, more intensive readings illustrating a preceding chapter’s discussion, homing in on specific films, genres and filmmakers, and not always the ones which one might expect. There’s an interlude on Joseph Mankiewicz, for example, a sort of intellectual master of multi-protagonist films like All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa, and the truly original Preston Sturges, whose films pushed narrative norms to their absolute limits. There’s also an intriguing interlude on the boxing picture and the resiliency of certain narrative tropes—fighter refusing to throw the fight and thus imperiled by gangsters, for example—demonstrating how Hollywood’s “narrative ecosystem played host to variants.”

Reinventing Hollywood is a dense read. Its nearly 600 pages of text, including detailed notes and index, isn’t for the academically faint at heart. Often Bordwell offers frame-by-frame, even gesture-by-gesture analyses using accompanying stills, mining synoptic actions and tropes across multiple films of the era. The book can read strictly pedagogical at times, but overall, Bordwell’s writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon. Despite its comprehensive scholarly archeology (and such sweet academic euphemism as, say, “spreading the protagonist function”), the book is leveled at anyone interested in cinematic forms and norms.

The title is telling. Clearly, narrative cinema was already invented by the time the ‘40s rolled around, but in Hollywood throughout that decade it became so systematized that it progressed into something new, indeed something that exists through today: a narrative film style that’s evocative enough to affect any single viewer and effective enough to speak to a mass audience.

Part of the charm of what was invented in the ‘40s is the malleability of the product. Narrative standards and conventions were designed for maximum variation, as well as for revision and challenge. And perhaps no decade offered more revision and challenge than the 1960s, not only to film culture but world culture as a whole. By the mid-to-late ‘60s, the old Hollywood studio system had expired, leaving in its wake a splintered version of itself. Yet despite the dissolution of the big studios, the resilience of the classical film style engendered by those studios was still evident. Popular narrative films retained the clear presentation of action borne in earlier films, however much they shuffled and reimagined patterns and standards.

One such movie that both embraced and pushed against Hollywood standards is director Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch. It possesses such richness in both themes and execution, in form and content, that there’s a lot to mine. With its tale of a band of out-of-time outlaws scamming and lamming away their fatal last days in Mexico during the country’s revolution, it revels in and reveres western conventions as much as it revises them.

The film carries a personal elusive impact, particularly on first viewing. In The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, journalist and historian W.K. Stratton quotes filmmaker Ron Shelton on this phenomenon: “Something was different about this movie…it was more than [just another shoot-‘em-up] but I couldn’t figure out what…I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since.” The book examines the epic making of this epic film, and goes a good way toward explaining the reasons behind the film’s unique power. Stratton is a Texan and also a poet, and both of these credentials make him perhaps the ideal candidate for exploring this pure piece of western poetry.

Stratton maps the story of the film from germ to gem. Conceived in the early ‘60s by stuntman Roy N. Sickner as a somewhat typical “outlaw gringos on the lam” story, the property evolved over the course of the ensuing years as much as the country itself. America in 1967 and ‘68 was a vastly different place than it was in ‘63. Stratton notes how “[t]he picture…would never have been filmed had not circumstances come into precise alignment. It was the product of a nation torn by divisions unseen since the Civil War, a nation that was sacrificing thousands of its young to a war in Southeast Asia…a nation numbed by political assassination…where a youthful generation was wholesale rejecting values held by their parents.”

A film made in such turbulent times required its own turbulent setting. If America had become no country for old men, and Vietnam was no country for young men, then Mexico during the revolution was no country for either. Stratton gives brisk but detailed chapters on the Mexican Revolution, filling in the tumultuous history and social geography for what would become a necessarily violent film. But just as the film could never have been made in another time, it could also have never been made without Sam Peckinpah. As Stratton notes, Peckinpah was a Hollywood rarity, a director born in the actual American West who made actual westerns, and a maverick director who, like Welles, fought against the constraints of an industry in which he was a master. Peckinpah was a rarity in other ways as well. A heavy-drinking, light-fighting proto-tough guy who was also a devotee of Tennessee Williams (“I guess I’ve learned more from Williams than anyone”), Peckinpah was a storyteller who could break your heart as well as your nose. His second feature, the very fine Ride the High Country, was tough and tender; it was also, coincidentally, another story of old outlaws running out their time.

Stratton traces the entire trajectory of the film’s making, from the start-and-stop scripting to the early involvement of Lee Marvin, right on through to every aspect of production: its much-lauded gold-dust cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, who early in his career worked on Three Stooges comedies “…because it gave him a chance to experiment with camera trickery”); the elegant violence, or violent elegance, of its editing; and its casting and costuming.

The chapters on those last two elements are particularly rewarding. Costuming is a somewhat underlooked aspect of westerns, simply because the sartorial trappings seem so generic: hats, guns, boots, and bonnets. Yet period clothing is so essential to the texture of westerns because it can, or should, convey the true down and dirtiness of the time and place, the sweat, the swill and the stench. The Wild Bunch, like all great westerns, feels filthy. Wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson not only had the daunting task of providing authenticity in the costumes themselves—much of them period—but of overseeing the sheer volume of turnover. Because Peckinpah “planned to make heavy use of squibbing for the movie’s shoot-outs…[e]ach time a squib went off, it ripped a whole in a costume and left a bloody stain.” Considering the overwhelming bullet count of the film, in particular the barrage of the ending, it’s no wonder that “[a]ll the costumes would have to be reused and then reused again and again.”

But perhaps no aspect was more important to the success of Peckinpah’s film than its casting. While early on in the process Marvin was set to play the lead role of Pike Bishop, the actor, thankfully, bowed out, and after the consideration of other actors for the role, including Sterling Hayden and Charlton Heston, in stepped William Holden. As good as all the other actors could be, Holden projected more of the existential weariness of the Bishop character, a condition that Marvin’s coarseness, for example, might have effaced. Stratton agrees: “There could not have been a better matching of character and actor. Holden was a…deeply troubled man, a real-life killer himself…on a conditional suspended sentence for manslaughter [for a drunk driving accident, a case that was later dropped].”

This spot-on matching of actor to role extended all the way through to the rest of the Wild Bunch: Ernest Borgnine as Pike’s sidekick, Dutch Engstrom, emanating toward Pike an anguished love and loyalty; old-time actor Edmond O’Brien as old-timer Freddie Sykes; Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, Pike’s stoic ex-partner and now head of the pursuing posse; Jaime Sanchez as the doomed Mexican Angel; and perhaps most especially Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the wild, vile Gorch brothers. (While Oates was a member of what might be called Peckinpah’s stock company, Johnson was an estranged member of John Ford’s.)

Along with broad, illuminating biographies of these actors, Stratton presents informative material on many of the peripheral yet vital supporting cast. Because the film is set and was filmed in Mexico, much of it verisimilitude may be credited to Mexican talent. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Mexican film industry was second only to Hollywood in terms of quality product and critical prestige. Peckinpah drew from this talent pool for many of his film’s key characters, none more indelible than that of General Mapache (to whom the bunch sell guns and, by extension, their souls), one of the vilest, most distasteful figures in any American western. For this role, Peckinpah chose Emilio Fernández, a.k.a. El Indio, recognized and revered at that time as Mexico’s greatest director. Apparently, Fernandez’s scandalous and lascivious on-set behavior paralleled the unpredictable immorality of his character. Like almost everyone involved with this film, Fernandez was taking his part to the extreme.

Stratton goes beyond the production of The Wild Bunch, on to its impact and reception and legacy. A sensation upon its release, the film was both lauded and loathed for its raw violence, with some critics recognizing Peckinpah’s “cathartic” western for what it was, others seeing nothing but sick exploitation (including in its bloody treatment of Mexican characters). While other films of the time created similar buzz for their depiction of violence, notably Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (a film often compared to The Wild Bunch), the violence of Peckinpah’s film was as much moral as physical. All one need do is compare it to a contemporary and similarly storied film like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a winking high-jinks movie in which, in Marvin’s resonant phrase, “no one takes a shit.”

Everyone involved with The Wild Bunch attributes its power to Peckinpah and the environment he fostered in its making. “[S]omething remarkable was occurring at…rehearsal sessions,” writes Stratton. “Under Peckinpah’s direction, the actors went beyond acting and were becoming the wild bunch and the other characters in the movie.” Warren Oates confirms this sentiment: “…it wasn’t like a play…or a TV show […] It was our life. We were doing our fucking lives right there and lived it every day […] We were there in truth.”

Stratton considers The Wild Bunch “the last Western […] It placed a tombstone on the head of the grave of the old-fashioned John Wayne [films].” One may argue with this, as evidence shows that John Wayne—especially the Wayne of John Ford westerns—is still very much alive in the popular consciousness. Yet there is a fatal finality to The Wild Bunch, a sense of something lowdown being run down. The film is complex and extreme less in its physical violence than in its moral violence, as it transposes the increasing cynicism of 1968 to an equally nihilistic era, all while maintaining a moving elegiac aura. No image or action expresses this attitude clearer and more powerfully than the bunch’s iconic sacrificial end walk, four abreast, to rescue one of their own, to murder and be murdered into myth. If the film is a tombstone, Stratton’s book is a fit inscription.

David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood is now available from University of Chicago Press, and W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film is now available from Bloomsbury Publishing.

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Film

Review: The Heart of Someone Great Is in the Details of Female Friendship

The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman.

2.5

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Someone Great
Photo: Netflix

Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Someone Great presents a vision of New York that makes the bustling metropolis feel like a small town. The film’s setting is a utopian playground where everyone seems to know everyone else and bumping into friends and acquaintances on the street is a regular occurrence. Robinson exploits the narrative possibilities of this framework, as all it takes for three friends, Jenny (Gina Rodriguez), Erin (DeWanda Wise), and Blair (Brittany Snow), to dive into another misadventure is to simply turn a corner.

The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman; surely it’s no coincidence that a James Joyce poster hangs in the background of one scene. Set to an eclectic, almost perpetual soundtrack of songs, the film follows Jenny, Erin, and Blair as they float on a wave of spontaneity. The friends are gung-ho about having one last night on the town, and as the they make plans to attend a music festival on the eve of Jenny moving to San Francisco, the film makes a vibrant show of every fallout, every sharp turn in mood and behavior across this journey, which also finds Jenny grappling with her recent breakup with Nate (Lakeith Stanfield), her boyfriend of nine years.

In the world of Someone Great, a flashily decorated room is an extension of a person’s personality, every object a vessel of human memories. Jenny is wounded, and the film tenaciously homes in how everything around her feels like a totem of lost love. Robinson elaborates on Jenny’s pain as much through the young woman’s exchanges with her two best friends, each dealing with their own emotional troubles, as through the neon-dappled flashbacks to Jenny and Nate’s time together. But if Jenny, Erin, and Blair’s scenes together are marked by an infectiousness fueled in no small part by Rodriguez, Wise, and Snow’s incredible rapport, the vignettes of Jenny and Nate’s past feel comparatively inert—an almost steady stream of generic and often awkward articulations of how it is to fall in and out of love.

Someone Great also gives itself over to a needlessly somber tone whenever Jenny reflects on her relationship with Nate, and the effect is so self-serious that you’d think she’s the first person to lose a lover in human history. Her breakup certainly stands in sharp contrast to Blair’s own split from her long-term boyfriend (Alex Moffat), the fallout of which is treated as an offhand (and very funny) joke. Fortunately, though, Robinson is always quick to reorient the focus of her film, sweetly underscoring throughout the value of Jenny’s friendship to Erin and Blair, and how their bond is bound to persist regardless of the hard knocks these women weather on the long and often bumpy road to romantic fulfillment.

Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow, DeWanda Wise, LaKeith Stanfield, Peter Vack, Alex Moffat, RuPaul Charles, Rosario Dawson Director: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Screenwriter: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 92 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Festivals

Cannes Lineup Includes New Films by Terrence Malick, Céline Sciamma, & More

Perhaps as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t make it onto the lineup.

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Pain and Glory
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

This morning, the lineup for the 72nd Cannes Film Festival was revealed, and just as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t. Most notably, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in America and James Gray’s Ad Astra were nowhere to be found. Gray, whose had four of his previous films appear in competition at the festival, is still working on Ad Astra, which seems destined at this point to make its premiere at a fall festival. As for Tarantino, who’s still editing this ninth feature ahead of its July 26 theatrical release, Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux told press this morning that there’s still a chance that Once Upon a Time in America could be added to the festival lineup in the upcoming weeks.

Terrence Malick will return to Cannes for the first time since winning the Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life with the historical drama and ostensibly mainstream-friendly A Hidden Life, previously known as Radegund. Ken Loach and the Dardennes, both double winners of the Palme d’Or, will also debut their latest works, Sorry We Missed You and Young Ahmed, respectively, in the competition program. As previously announced, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die will kick off the festival on May 14, and Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman will screen out of competition on May 16, two weeks before the film hits U.S. theaters. (The Director’s Fortnight and Critics Week selections will be announced at a later date.)

See below for a complete list of this year’s competition, Un Certain Regard, out of competition, and special and midnight screenings.

Competition
Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar
The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio
Wild Goose Lake, Yinan Diao
Parasite, Bong Joon-ho
Young Ahmed, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Oh Mercy! , Arnaud Desplechin
Atlantique, Mati Diop
Matthias and Maxime, Xavier Dolan
Little Joe, Jessica Hausner
Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach
Les Misérables, Ladj Ly
A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick
Nighthawk, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
The Whistlers, Corneliu Porumboiu
Frankie, Ira Sachs
The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma
It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman
Sybil, Justine Triet

Out of Competition
Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher
The Best Years of Life, Claude Lelouch
Maradona, Asif Kapadia
La Belle Epoque, Nicolas Bedos
Too Old to Die Young, Nicolas Winding Refn

Special Screenings
Share, Pippa Bianco
Family Romance LLC, Werner Herzog
Tommaso, Abel Ferrara
To Be Alive and Know It, Alain Cavalier
For Sama, Waad Al Kateab and Edward Watts

Midnight Screenings
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, Lee Won-Tae

Un Certain Regard
Invisible Life, Karim Aïnouz
Beanpole, Kantemir Balagov
The Swallows of Kabul, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobé Mévellec
A Brother’s Love, Monia Chokri
The Climb, Michael Covino
Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont
A Sun That Never Sets, Olivier Laxe
Chambre 212, Christophe Honoré
Port Authority, Danielle Lessovitz
Papicha, Mounia Meddour
Adam, Maryam Touzani
Zhuo Ren Mi Mi, Midi Z
Liberte, Albert Serra
Bull, Annie Silverstein
Summer of Changsha, Zu Feng
EVGE, Nariman Aliev

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