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  and In Harm’s Way  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.
Blu-ray Review: Aldo Lado’s Who Saw Her Die? on Arrow Video
Arrow’s sterling Blu-ray presentation should serve as an excellent character witness for Lado’s elegiac giallo.4.5
The early 1970s brought us two thrillers with all of the following elements: an estranged couple mourning the tragic death of a daughter; a grief-stricken sex scene crosscut with glimpses of its doleful aftermath; a series of murders occurring against the backdrop of Venice in the offseason; and a canal-bound funeral in a black-draped barge. The more famous, of course, is Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. The other is Aldo Lado’s less acknowledged giallo film Who Saw Her Die? But the real surprise here, given the Italian film industry’s not entirely undeserved reputation for the quick cash-in and cheapjack rip-off, is that Who Saw Her Die? actually came out first.
The film opens on a ski slope in France, as a young redheaded girl runs away from her nanny, only to have her head bashed in with a rock by a shadowy figure in black, a sequence seen largely through the killer’s subjective POV. Since violence against children is exceedingly rare in the giallo, even by the bloody standards of the genre, this is an especially shocking set piece. Indeed, the best point of comparison is with Lucio Fulci’s brilliant and disturbing Don’t Torture a Duckling, which came out the same year as Who Saw Her Die?
Both films feature a murderer who’s ultimately revealed to be a priest (or at least a man masquerading as one), whose bizarre motive for murder is to “save” the children from the moral pollution of modern society. Doubtless this coincidence has something to do with the shifting moral climate in Italy at the time, with the recent legalization of divorce and an increasing permissiveness toward depictions of sex and violence in popular culture. Who Saw Her Die? treats this broadmindedness with notable ambivalence, seeing as how its wealthiest and most cultured characters uniformly turn out to be deviants and sexual predators.
Lado introduces us to two of his main characters through a clever bit of visual trickery. We first see Franco Serpieri (George Lazenby) as he waits to greet someone among a group of arriving plane passengers. The camera picks up a pretty brunette woman, and crosscuts between the two as Franco proffers a heartfelt greeting. Only then do we hear an unexpectedly girlish voice in response, as the woman continues on, and Franco stoops down to hoist his daughter, Roberta (Nicoletta Elmi), into shot. Given her striking resemblance to the girl in the film’s prologue, you would not be altogether mistaken if you suspected that this does not bode well.
Throughout the first act, Lado uses his wintry Venetian locations to optimum atmospheric effect. He continually frames Roberta against eerie, nearly empty streets, bridges, and squares. (It doesn’t help that the caring, yet somewhat negligent Franco often leaves her to her own devices, either to pursue work or more personal pleasures.) The sense of foreboding that Lado carefully builds throughout Who Saw Her Die? is cleverly encoded even into the children’s games that Roberta participates in, none more so than the uncanny round dance whose chant supplies the principal motif for Ennio Morricone’s unsettling score. Lado shoots this whirling rondeau with a dizzying verve that would make Brian De Palma proud.
Roberta’s inevitable disappearance is signaled through an adroit visual metonym: the loud shutting of a local butcher shop’s doors. A subsequent shot of the charwoman mopping up a blood-spattered floor leaves little doubt about Roberta’s ultimate fate. Franco, like many a giallo hero before him, takes on the role of amateur detective once Roberta’s body turns up floating face down in the Venetian lagoon. (Female protagonists usually must battle against some sort of attempted gaslighting.) Because Franco is a struggling sculptor, most of the list of suspects happen to be members of his inner circle. Such emphasis on the artistic demimonde is an element of the giallo that was inaugurated by Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the film that almost singlehandedly revamped the genre for the ’70s.
The amount of bloodshed in the film’s murderous set pieces is fairly chaste when compared to other giallo titles, which isn’t to say these sequences aren’t executed with distinctive visual aplomb. The standout killing, via a pair of scissors, takes place against the sterile white preserves of an indoor aviary. And Lado even goes in for a bit of meta filmmaking when one potential eyewitness is garroted in a darkened movie theater. But the most spectacular moment comes when the child murderer finally gets his just desserts, a fiery finale Lado plays out several times over, with Morricone’s music swirling up into the stratosphere, before the killer finally—and rather rudely—comes to ground. Only a producer-imposed final line of dialogue serves to blunt the impact of this chilly, surprisingly elegiac giallo film.
Arrow Video’s new 2K presentation of Who Saw Her Die? represents a marked improvement over previous SD releases dating back to the film’s home-video debut as part of a 2002 Anchor Bay giallo box set. The Blu-ray image reveals more information on the right-hand side, appears darker overall, with less harsh whites, and displays far greater depth and clarity of detail. The English LPCM mono track is quite good, though it’s a shame that former 007 George Lazenby didn’t loop his own voice on the track. For the first time on domestic home video, the Italian-language track has been included. As always, it’s interesting to study the differences in dialogue between the two tracks. Fortunately, both of them do justice to one of the film’s strongest assets: a haunting score from Ennio Morricone that prominently features a heavily reverberated children’s chorus chillingly chanting the film’s Italian title over and over again.
Although it’s only infrequently scene-specific, author and critic Troy Howarth’s commentary covers a lot of giallo-related ground, from the give-and-take relationship between Italian genre filmmaking and more hifalutin arthouse cinema, to the evolution of the giallo genre over the years, arising as an idiosyncratic witches brew out of the cauldron of film noir, the Hitchcockian thriller, and the German krimi films. Howarth also extensively covers the careers of the principal cast and crew. In the featurette “I Saw Her Die,” director Aldo Lado discusses his early years working as assistant director for Bernardo Bertolucci, working on his other giallo-related titles (Short Night of Glass Dolls and Night Train Murders), the personal and professional vicissitudes behind being assigned to Who Saw Her Die?, the ethics of casting the film, and handling child actors. Lado also expresses his personal antipathy for the clergy and the changes to the film’s ending that were mandated by the producers.
The featurette “Nicoletta, Child of Darkness” provides a career-overview conversation with child actress Nicoletta Elmi. When it comes to What Saw Her Die?, Elmi really only remembers playing around both on- and off-set with Lazenby, as well as her one scene with the sterner, more imposing Adolfo Celi. Elmi relates an amusing anecdote about working with Dario Argento on Deep Red, decries the need for censorship (with regard to the themes of Who Saw Her Die?), and describes her own fraught relationship with the horror genre. “Once Upon a Time, in Venice…” features Francesco Barilla, the film’s charmingly opinionated co-writer, talking about his career as writer and occasional director, crafting bizarre secondary characters like the table tennis fanatic in Who Saw Her Die?, blending together various subgenres to optimum effect, and how he would have directed certain sequences in the film (including some very specific costume changes). Lastly, giallo authority Michael Mackenzie delves deeply into the film’s genre bona fides for “Giallo in Venice,” including the particularly gruesome flourish maestro Ennio Morricone built into his evocative score.
Arrow Video’s sterling Blu-ray presentation should serve as an excellent character witness for Aldo Lado’s elegiac giallo.
Cast: George Lazenby, Anita Strindberg, Adolfo Celi, Dominique Boschero, Peter Chatel, Piero Vida, José Quaglio, Alessandro Haber, Nicolette Elmi, Rosemarie Lindt Director: Aldo Lado Screenwriter: Francesco Barilli, Massimo D'Avak Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 1972 Release Date: September 17, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: I Was at Home, But… Pushes Narrative to an Elliptical Breaking Point
Angela Schanalec’s film configures itself most potently in hindsight as a punch to the gut.3
Writer-director Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But…, in the spirit of Yasujiro Ozu’s I Was Born, But…, is technically a domestic drama—albeit one that takes its time revealing the nature of the fractured family at its center and frequently departs from their home. As in her prior feature, 2016’s The Dreamed Path, the German filmmaker has taken a fairly simple premise and built a multilayered series of narrative threads around it, one filled with the detours and inconsistencies of life as it’s experienced on a day-to-day basis. In doing so, Schanelec isn’t complicating or overthinking the familiar, but, rather, inviting her audience to rethink how these seemingly universal narratives function.
Grief is the unifying thread of I Was at Home, But…, though Schanalec gives us the lingering air of despondency well before identifying its source. In the first of many sudden, unexplained spasms of emotion in the film, a woman sprints through a courtyard and up a flight of stairs to embrace a boy being held in some kind of child services office—a scene cut into precise visual fragments by Schanalec’s stiffly choreographed style. After being offered many a context clue, we come to understand that this woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), is the mother of this child, Phillip (Jakob Lassalle), who’s earlier seen emerging from the woods at dawn, his dirtied yellow jacket and look of stone-faced torpor indicating a prolonged absence from his mother’s life. Phillip has a little sister, Flo (Clara Möller), who observes this zombified return, and together the three of them occupy a white-walled, high-ceilinged modern apartment in a gentrified part of Berlin, a home reverberating with the aftershock of a recently deceased patriarch.
These are the concrete details of the film’s scenario, but before they all have a chance to register, Schanalec offers a number of puzzling diversions: a scene of a dog hunting a rabbit before falling asleep in a barn alongside a donkey; a grade-school rehearsal of Hamlet, performed in an affectless, Straub-Huillet-evoking manner from a version of the play translated by Schanalec’s late husband, Jürgen Gosch; and an episode of Astrid purchasing a secondhand bicycle from a man (Alan Williams) who talks through a voice box. Each of these threads recur throughout the film, with the latter in particular amounting to something of a comically elongated red herring as the bike proves faulty and Astrid hassles the man for her money back—all of which can only be said to circuitously tie into Astrid’s emotional arc. Even less logically related to the film’s apparent central narrative is another subplot concerning the deteriorating relationship between Lars (Franz Rogowski), a teacher overseeing Phillip’s reintegration into school, and the man’s girlfriend, Claudia (Lilith Stangenberg).
The manner in which these various threads weave in and out of the scenes sketching the family relationship, commanding equal attention in the way Schanalec, working as her own editor, partitions screen time, makes it tough to call anything the “primary” focus of the film. Throughout I Was at Home, But…, its destabilizing ellipses and odd points of emphasis—a scene of Astrid at a supermarket, for instance, focuses only on her dog as it diligently waits outside with the shopping carts—discourage the viewer from fixating on anything beyond the present moment and its complexity, so that any natural impulse to chart the narrative’s larger trajectory or the psychological development of the characters is frustrated.
Fortunately, Schanalec’s staging is rarely less than compelling. Never as grandiose with her deep-focus master shots as Ruben Östlund, the filmmaker nonetheless shares with the Swedish auteur a preference for subtly off-kilter compositions, chilly soft light, and slick modern architecture, while her exacting use of sound—punctiliously ADR’d and selective—is what most closely aligns her with her frequently cited forebear: Robert Bresson.
This stark cinematic language, combined with a severe acting style in which even a dry cleaner’s assessment that a coat might not wash properly is spoken like a terminal diagnosis, makes I Was at Home, But… a decidedly dreary affair. But this is less a pose of artistic seriousness on Schanelec’s part than a strategic leveling of affect to make key moments register with the sharpness of real-life trauma. In the film’s most harrowing scene, Eggert unleashes a torrent of Method naturalism as her character violently recoils from the unwanted attention and embraces of her despondent children, whose company she’s gradually replacing with a tennis-playing boyfriend, Harald (Thorbjörn Björnsson). Later, Schanelec grants Astrid redemption in the heartbreakingly tender image of the woman holding Flo in an empty locker room after a swim practice, their damp bodies intermingled as one.
Similarly ameliorating the film’s air of formal severity is its subterranean sense of playfulness, which casually reveals itself in the background of frames, the silent pockets of conversation, and the latter halves of Schanelec’s long takes. Whether sliding a pair of student fencers into a frame as a somber conversation plays out in the foreground or observing as an already-malfunctioning bicycle topples over its flimsy kickstand, Schanalec periodically indulges a kind of drawn-out physical comedy, though it’s a dialectical joke in the film’s centerpiece that seems to have been most carefully engineered. In an extended tracking shot, as Astrid walks alongside a filmmaker (All the Cities in the North director Dane Komljen) and berates him over what she interprets as his film’s ethical malpractice of casting actors alongside real hospital patients, it becomes clear that she’s displacing her own pain about her husband and son, who’s troubled by a case of sepsis brought on by his disappearance. But the irony is that her withering critique of acting as a false façade arises in one of the film’s more commanding instances of capital-A acting. The scene closes with the nearest Schanalec gets to writing a howler: “Unbearably bad cinema,” she says, “but I still hope you get the professorship.”
The film is at its best in such instances, when Schanalec’s insight into trauma as a menace that asserts itself at inopportune and confusing moments is powerfully dramatized. It’s less successful when reaching for symbolic associations, as in the strikingly staged but inert passages of Shakespearean recitation that draw out connections between Hamlet and Astrid’s life, or in the strained, bookending bits of business involving the dog and the donkey. For her part, Schanalec has preached in interviews that an experiential, non-intellectual approach to watching her films is ideal, so it’s telling that, in spite of its occasional academicism, I Was at Home, But… configures itself most potently in hindsight as a punch to the gut.
Cast: Maren Eggert, Jakob Lassalle, Clara Möller, Lilith Stangenberg, Franz Rogowski, Thorbjörn Björnsson, Lucas Confurius, Wolfgang Michael Director: Angela Schanalec Screenwriter: Angela Schanalec Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Midnight Traveler Is a Harrowing Document of a Family’s Escape
The documentary doesn’t preclude itself from finding something like poetry in its subjects’ struggles.3.5
Afghani filmmaker Hassan Fazili’s documentary Midnight Traveler has the insular feel of a home movie, but at the same time, the family saga that it recounts can’t avoid placing itself within a larger geo-political context. The film, shot using three mobile phones, captures Fazili and his wife Fatima’s flight from war-torn Afghanistan to the West, along with their young daughters, Nargis and Zahra. The depiction of their journey across 3,500 miles does more than humanize the plight of refugees, so easily spoken of in the terms of mass demographics in the political discourse of Europe and America. It also gives this family’s desperate situation experiential weight, emphasizing the time and the spaces that define their struggle to reach an unknown destination in Europe.
A filmmaker whose documentary film about a Taliban leader has made him a wanted man in Afghanistan, Fazili brings a director’s eye to what may be taken as a representative experience for hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa: the clandestine trek across multiple borders on the path to a Western democracy, reliant at times on seedy smugglers and untrustworthy bureaucrats. Despite the nocturnal intrigue implied by its title, Midnight Traveler takes place mostly during the day, and focuses less on tension than on texture. The first-person camera takes in the details of a life indefinitely in suspense, the transitory homes the family fashions out of goat-inhabited basements in Afghanistan, shady enclaves in the Bulgarian woods, and the squalid rooms of a refugee camp in Sofia.
Balancing rough-edge verité with highly composed images and a meticulous structure, Midnight Traveler doesn’t preclude itself from finding something like poetry in its subjects’ struggles. A memorable scene has the bespectacled Nargis standing on the rocky shore of the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul, reacting giddily to the cool water splashing against her feet. We see what may well be Nargis’s first encounter with the sea through her father’s eyes, the boundless potential he sees in her reflected by the nearby expanse of the Black Sea.
The unsteadiness of mobile-phone video lends Midnight Traveler’s imagery an acute sense of intimacy, but we aren’t totally constrained to the perspective of the family’s patriarch. Fazili occasionally cedes control of his camera (and the voiceover narration) to Fatima or Nargis, who use it to log their own reactions to the family’s travails. Nargis weeps as she recounts witnessing right-wing Bulgarians pelt rocks at a group of refugees that includes her mother; in a lighter moment, Fatima tells the story of how she, an artist and filmmaker in her own right, turned Fazili, the son of a mullah, into an open-minded, secular man.
The documentary’s final act depicts the family’s life in a Serbian camp as they wait through an arcane asylum-application process—an experience that could be described as Kafkaesque but more in the style of the author’s short “Before the Law” parable than of his labyrinthine nightmares. Dreary boredom accompanies a sense of dread as the family waits for over a year to hear whether their application will even be reviewed. Committed to his project, Fazili shoots everything, not even putting down the camera throughout an argument he and Fatima have over his compliment of another female refugee. All the same, Fazili professes to struggling with applying his artistic ambitions to his family: When his youngest daughter, Zahra, goes missing in Serbia, he admits in voiceover that he considered recording as he searched for her through bushes, half expecting to find her dead body.
Although written text on screen periodically appears to fill in the inevitable narrative gaps of a documentary shot on the run, Fazili’s project draws a circle around his family and their immediate conditions. It’s a narrative approach reflected in the shallow focus of a Samsung phone’s camera. Glimpses at the outside world are oblique, perhaps sometimes intentionally vague: Faces of fellow refugees are blurred, and Midnight Traveler never zooms out to give us a sense of the grand, sheer sprawl of Istanbul or Sofia. We’re left feeling as lost and isolated as the Fazilis, in unfamiliar settings—anonymous city streets, goat-inhabited basements, Bulgarian forests—that we perceive only from their embodied perspectives.
The tight focus on the family’s travails belies a structuring absence in Midnight Traveler: the cause and history of the conflict that Fazili, Fatima, and their daughters are fleeing. There’s discussion of the Taliban but not of the other major force at play in war-torn Afghanistan: the United States-led coalition force that’s been fighting in the country for nearly two decades. That NATO now forces refugees from the destabilized region into legal limbo—that seeking help from the U.S., the leader of the coalition, doesn’t even appear to be within the realm of possibilities—may be the unspoken point of this harrowing film.
Director: Hassan Fazili Screenwriter: Emelie Mahdavian Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Interview: Rob Zombie on 3 from Hell, Manson, and the Charisma of Evil
Zombie discusses how he corrals his films’ furious sense of energy and how sex appeal can trump common moral sense.
Musician Rob Zombie is also one of the most original and distinctive of modern horror directors, having fused the theatricality of his concerts and videos with the tropes of Southern-fried slasher films to arrive at an aesthetic that captures the narcotic pull of violence. His films, which include House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects, The Lords of Salem, and the dramatically underrated Halloween II, often feature characters who are gutter poets and expert tenders to their own mythology in the tradition of Charles Manson.
Zombie’s villains also often suggest musicians themselves, as they’re elaborately outfitted and self-conscious of their murder sprees as a kind of performance art, which Zombie films up close with piercing intimacy, fetishizing power while also dramatizing the pain and humiliation of death in extremis. At their best, Zombie’s films are so unnerving because he plunges you unapologetically into their aggression and squalor, which he laces with shards of dark and even unexpectedly loony comedy. (In The Devil’s Rejects, a band of killers has an elaborate argument over whether or not to stop for ice cream.)
Zombie’s latest, 3 from Hell, continues the story of the filmmaker’s most famous characters, the Firefly clan of House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, played by Sid Haig, Bill Mosley, and Zombie’s wife, Sheri Moon Zombie. Last seen going out in a blaze of glory, the Firefly Clan, newly revived and captured by the law, of course embarks on another bender of ultraviolence. Richard Brake, the MVP of Zombie’s 31, plays a new killer who joins the clan, which eventually winds up in a Mexican town that bears a resemblance to the climactic setting of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Speaking on the phone with Zombie last week, we discussed how he corrals his films’ furious sense of energy, his love of screwing with typecasting, and how sex appeal can trump common moral sense.
Your films have a volatile and intimate style, and I’m curious about how you achieve that tone. Is there a rehearsal process? Do your actors need to work themselves up?
Well, we do try to rehearse whenever possible. Rehearsal time seems to be harder and harder these days for films. Have you seen 3 from Hell?
Okay, one scene in particular was difficult: the one where everybody’s held captive in the house, and the warden comes back with Baby. That scene was very difficult because in one room we have, I don’t know, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight actors. First of all, it’s a nightmare to block, because you got people going every which way and in every which direction. And it was just falling flat. The actors kept rehearsing and rehearsing and we could just not energize it. It just kept feeling stagey, and we were all confused because everybody was doing it right. And it was like, “What is the element that’s missing? Why is this not igniting the way it should?” It was driving us all crazy.
Was there any decisive “wrong” thing or was it a matter of fine-tuning everything?
It just wasn’t kicking off on the right foot. And we changed it so that Baby comes through the door, she’s excited at what’s going on and it was just something about that moment. We made one little tweak to how someone was going to do a line of dialogue, and it’s amazing how it created this domino effect and sent this energy through the room, and the whole scene just became crazy. But it’s really frustrating sometimes when you’re trying to figure things out because we’re all working on such a time constraint. It’s not like, “Ah, we got together and rehearsed for 12 weeks.” That was the first time those eight people had ever been in a room together you know, and we’re trying to make this explosive, very complicated scene happen. You keep searching until you figure it out.
I remember watching that long making-of extra on The Devil’s Rejects DVD, and it seemed then like that tight schedule was a source of inspiration. Is that fair to say?
The tight schedule is a blessing and a curse. But I think the curse part would’ve happened no matter what. I’ve made movies with much longer schedules and there’s never enough time. I’m sure when they were shooting Jaws on day 500 they were like, “We need more time!” I don’t think it matters how much time you have, you still don’t have enough time because you always think you can make it better. On most movies, actors shoot something and then go back to their trailer, they play video games, they take a nap, they read a book, they chit chat, have a cigarette. Nobody leaves the set when I’m shooting, because we never have enough down time for them to go anywhere. And that way, they’re always there and in the moment. And that’s what you need: You need to yell “action” and they’re still there. Because it’s really hard when you start a scene, whether it’s a high-energy scene or a low-energy scene, and then people break it down for a half hour while they change the lights. Actors just lose the vibe, and then they come back in and are like, “Ah, man, where was I? What was happening?” And whenever you break for lunch, it’s like, “Ah, crap.” There’s that after lunch lull where everybody comes back full and you gotta ramp everybody’s energy up. So the short schedule works, because we never stop, we never stop, we never stop. And I think the actors like it better because they don’t want to sit by themselves all day in a trailer. They wanna act. It’s like a play.
In 3 from Hell, I like the energy of Baby’s prison scenes, and I love Dee Wallace. Her role is a great bit of anti-typecasting.
Well, I like anti-typecasting. We’ve worked with Dee several times, and Sheri had worked with Dee quite a bit on Lords of Salem. So, I like when I know that actors have a good working energy together, because sometimes they don’t and that can be problematic. When I first offered Dee the role, she didn’t say yes right away. She was like, “Oh God, this is so different, I gotta think about it.” And then the next day she said yes. Because, you know, she usually plays the nice mom or the nice whatever, I guess she’s been typecast since E.T. But, you know, now you can be the mean, shitty lesbian prison guard. You’re an actor, you got it. [laughs]
What makes Dee really pop in this role is that the niceness isn’t entirely gone. The character is chilling because she has a strange vulnerability.
There’s a weird dynamic we wanted to create, where she’s not just this prison guard from something like The Big Bird Cage. Dee’s character is in awe of Baby and in love with her but hates her guts at the same time. I always like creating these weird relationships between the characters. Baby’s in Dee’s head and she knows it. To diverge for a second, I remember seeing this footage of Charles Manson. He was coming in to sit down to be interviewed by Tom Snyder or whoever. In the outtakes before the interview started, Manson was standing there bullshitting with the film crew. It’s so weird. He’s like, “Hey, man, where you from? Oh shit, man, I’ve been there before.” The crew doesn’t think of Manson as a murderer, he’s like a rock star to them. There’s this weird fascination because he’s so fucking famous. It’s a sick thing.
Your films have an edge because they’re willing to tap that fascination. You’re willing to leave moralism behind and groove on the charisma of these evil people. You’re honest about the cultural attraction to killers. Do you think of it that way?
Yeah, I totally do. The reason I can get away with the Fireflies doing what they do in these movies, and people liking them, is because they’re cool and charismatic and sexy. That’s who people are drawn to. If they were like hideous to look at and disgusting, audiences would say they’re horrible. But this guy looks like he’s, you know, Gregg Allman, and this girl looks like she’s like Farrah Fawcett, these guys are awesome! People are into them.
You have a good point. People don’t quite worship David Berkowitz the way they do Charles Manson. One has the sex factor.
Yeah, there’s a cool factor. Manson does look like Dennis Wilson or John Lennon. Though when you research, when Manson and the family shaved their heads and put the swastikas on their foreheads, they lost the youth culture. Before, people were outside the courthouse in L.A., and they were interviewing people, and some of them were wearing “free Manson” shirts. The Family was on the cover of Rolling Stone and all the hippie rags. But the swastikas made people think, “Okay, he’s not the cool hippie dude we thought he was.” Would Jimi Hendrix have been who he was if he was a big fat bald guy? No, it’s because he was fucking cool. Would the Beatles have been the Beatles if they were all ugly, stupid-looking dudes? No, it’s because everyone thought they were good-looking. That goes so far in the world. More now than ever.
Review: Young Ahmed Doesn’t Imagine the Inner Life of an Aspiring Radical
The Dardennes maintain a distance from Ahmed as a way of celebrating their refusal to reduce him to any easy psychological bullet points.2
With Young Ahmed, writer-director Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne apply their pared-down aesthetic to especially provocative subject matter: the radicalization of a teenager living in a small Belgium village. At the start of the film, Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) has already fallen in with a manipulative mentor, Imam Youssouf (Othmane Mouman), who sees everyone but himself as an apostate. Drinking in Youssouf’s teachings, which increasingly endorse jihad, Ahmed is immediately seen as closed-off and incapable of empathy, calling his mother (Claire Bodson) an alcoholic and harassing his teacher, Inès (Myriem Akheddiou), for daring to teach Arabic in a fashion that children find pleasurable.
Over the years, the Dardennes’ aversion to melodrama has been revelatory, allowing small moments to reverberate with an impact that underscores the profound majesty and terror inherent in everyday life. And, on the surface, Young Ahmed feels like a classic Dardenne production, as it’s been staged with their customary docudramatic urgency.
Compact tracking shots capture Ahmed’s escalating frustration, turning his attempts to protest his school and family into miniature studies of process. A few of these sequences are brilliant, particularly the long wind-up preceding the scene in which Ahmed tries to kill Inès for utilizing pop music as a teaching tool. The Dardennes emphasize the chilling carefulness with which Ahmed wraps a knife up in napkins; even in murder, he’s a diligent student, eager in his way to please and be heard. When Ahmed takes a swing at Inès, the Dardennes time it so that we are as shocked as she is, even though we’ve already witnessed an excruciatingly suspenseful scene in which Ahmed diligently makes his way up to her classroom.
But the Dardennes’ minimalism also feels like an evasive and self-congratulatory stunt in Young Ahmed. In many of their films, elliptical structures communicate the scattershot-ness of people’s lives, suggesting an endless string of calamity and confusion. Here, though, the ellipses suggest an unwillingness to imagine the inner life of an aspiring radical. The Dardennes’ decision to begin the film with Ahmed already in the sway of repressive, violent ideology is a deliberate one, so that his emotional fall won’t be the focus of the audience’s attention. Initially, the Dardennes don’t exactly engender pity for Ahmed, as that response would compromise their fetishizing of his impenetrability as a testament to their own humanist bona fides. In other words, the Dardennes maintain a distance from Ahmed as a way of celebrating their refusal to reduce him to any easy psychological bullet points, which ironically reduces him to something else: a signifier of their virtue.
Yet Ahmed’s seduction by Youssouf is still fleetingly “explained” with references to family trauma that unsurprisingly suggest that Ahmed has daddy issues and is looking for a mentor. The Dardennes don’t dramatize these traumas, as such events might destabilize the plaintive quotidian mood they cultivate throughout and require them to stretch and challenge the strict boundaries they’ve applied to this subject matter. Other key moments are astonishingly left off screen as well, such as when Ahmed’s mother learns that her son has attempted murder. Such scenes would probably provide the audience with an emotional catharsis, which would disrupt the traditional Dardenne formula of delaying such a crescendo until the final moment.
Young Ahmed is staked entirely on dolling out suggestive bread crumbs, until we’re finally permitted to cry when Ahmed learns the error of his ways—a moment that’s as pat as it is well-staged. In the end, the film is melodramatic, though it’s pitched at arthouse audiences who see themselves as superior to melodrama. In Robert Bresson’s work, delayed gratification suggests the holiness of all moments, climatic and ordinary alike—a state that the Dardennes have achieved in the past on their own stylistic terms. In Young Ahmed, though, this device empowers them to prune their thorny subject matter down to an inspirational punchline.
Cast: Idir Ben Addi, Myriem Akheddiou, Othmane Moumen, Olivier Bonnaud, Victoria Bluck, Claire Bodson, Amine Hamidou, Yassine Tarsimi, Cyra Lassman Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne Screenwriter: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Oh Mercy! Is a Bracing Study of Violence Born of Helplessness
Arnaud Desplechin evinces a glancing touch with showing how social tension and need inform law and crime.3
Arnaud Desplechin’s Oh Mercy! exudes a loose and anecdotal rhythm that refutes traditional three-act plotting. Based on a 2008 documentary, the film follows a police precinct in Roubaix as it pursues various cases, and Desplechin is bracingly concerned less with any isolated crime or character than he is in conveying simultaneousness by seizing on stray details. There’s a sense in Oh Mercy! of the dwarfing mechanics of maintaining process amid chaos, which is rare for films and common of perfunctory crime novels
Before the authorities in Desplechin’s film can comprehend an act of arson, a serial rapist commits another assault in a subway. And before someone can make sense of that action, a girl runs away. Police officers drift in and out of the frame making vivid impressions, such as Benoît (Stéphane Duquenoy), a beefy man who specializes in sex crimes and balks at handling the subway case, wondering why a woman can’t be assigned to address the needs of the young female victim. And presiding over the madness is the police captain, Yakoub Daoud (Roschdy Zem), a quiet and dignified model of patience and sobriety, who must navigate nesting strands of social tensions, on the personal as well as the political level.
Oh Mercy! is a striking stylistic departure for Desplechin. By the standards of florid pseudo auto-biopics such as Kings and Queen and Ismael’s Ghosts, this film is an exercise in formal and tonal restraint. Desplechin has cited The Wrong Man as an influence here, and one can see the Alfred Hitchcock film’s docudramatic legacy in prolonged sequences that savor the particulars of, say, taking fingerprints, or of advising a suspect to shed all potentially dangerous articles of clothing, such as a belt or the cord in a hoodie.
Considering the hyperbole of many of his prior films, Desplechin evinces a glancing touch with showing how social tension and need inform law and crime. Daoud, for instance, is of Algerian descent, and his whole family returned to their homeland a few years back. This information is revealed pointedly yet fleetingly and allowed to hang in the air, though Desplechin and Zem, in a tough and evocative performance, dramatize how the character uses his outsider status to play the role of the sage and the alien. Zem also explores—though tossed-off looks and the elegant stiffness of his posture—the loneliness of such a state.
Desplechin doesn’t speechify in Oh Mercy!, but Daoud’s ancestry obviously evokes France’s role in the Algerian War. And the crimes that plague Roubaix underscore the modern crisis of French neighborhoods that are succumbing to poverty, as people flee or steal and kill as small businesses dry up. Roubaix is said here to be rife with neighborhoods that people with common sense should avoid, and, as the crimes pile up, Desplechin communicates an impression of police officers trying in vain to stave off a gathering storm. Oh Mercy! is set around Christmastime, and the holiday lights seem to mock the austere and ramshackle buildings. For the first half of the film, few crimes have any resolution, and Desplechin’s devotion to loose, unfulfilled narrative strands is poignant and daringly risks frustration.
Oh Mercy! is partially disappointing because Desplechin doesn’t fulfill the thrilling randomness of his conceit, as the film does settle on a “big case,” though even in this narrative certain textures are distinctive. For one, that big case—the murder of an elderly woman for pitiful, petty reasons that are realistic of actual crimes—bleeds into the earlier arson case, as the witnesses of the latter are the perpetrators of the former. Are the murder and the arson connected? Desplechin is also content to let that possibility hang.
As Daoud, Benoît, and others question Claude (Léa Seydoux) and Marie (Sara Forestier) for the murder, Desplechin reveals the police to be earnest and inventive to the point of courting authoritarianism, particularly Daoud, a brilliant empath who uses his outsider status to identify the bitterness, the poverty, the alienation, that have driven Claude and Marie to kill more or less for the hell of it, turning it against them in increasingly manipulative measures. Desplechin’s allegiance to The Wrong Man is evident here in the sheer obsessive length of these sequences, as the assorted interrogations of Claude and Marie are essentially the entire second half of the film. Like Hitchcock, Desplechin wants us to feel the suspects’ entrapment.
Unlike the Hitchcock of The Wrong Man, Desplechin fosters a conflicted, disturbing kind of double empathy: Daoud, largely a good man, becomes a debatably justified tyrant, especially when he handcuffs himself to Claude and questions her in a confrontation that has a sexual intimacy, and Claude and Marie, killers, are unmistakably tragic. The film’s master image is among the greatest images of Desplechin’s career: the women, recreating their strangulation of the victim for the police, briefly hold their hands together under the victim’s pillow. Here, Desplechin links unforgiveable violence with ferocious human need.
Cast: Roschdy Zem, Léa Seydoux, Sara Forestier, Antoine Reinartz, Sébastien Delbaere, Christophe Filbien, Damien Giloteaux, Jérémy Brunet, Stéphane Duquenoy Director: Arnaud Desplechin Screenwriter: Arnaud Desplechin, Léa Mysius Running Time: 119 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Marriage Story Is a Blistering Look at the Charred Aftermath of Love
Throughout, the subtle glimpses of a couple’s lingering affection for one another complicate the bitterness of their separation.3
Like most of Noah Baumbach’s films, Marriage Story initially occupies a rather nebulous spot between broad-strokes comedy and raw melodrama. For one, its depiction of the challenges of a young couple’s divorce makes plenty of room for inside jokes about the art word and its oddball denizens. But as the initially amicable split between an acclaimed New York playwright, Charlie (Adam Driver), and his actress wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), takes a sour turn, the film becomes more acerbic, fixating on how familiarity breeds contempt. At one point, we catch a glimpse of old magazine profile of the couple—written at the height of their artistic collaboration and domestic bliss—titled “Scenes from a Marriage,” a throwaway allusion to Ingmar Bergman that’s also a winking promise of the decline and fall to come.
At first looking to handle their divorce without the involvement of lawyers, Charlie and Nicole hit a rough patch when latter, who gave up a Hollywood career to move to New York and act in Charlie’s avant-garde plays, heads back to Los Angeles to shoot a television pilot, taking with her the couple’s young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). While in town, the various divorcées on set encourage Nicole to lawyer up, and she takes a meeting with divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), a yuppie whose breezy chattiness can turn on a dime to cold-blooded strategic talk over how to win a court battle that Nicole doesn’t even want to be a part of.
Nicole, so passive at the start of her meeting with Nora, is initially marginalized within the frame by cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s camera, isolated in a corner of the room in angled compositions that make her look smaller than she really is. But as she begins to talk about her relationship, Nicole almost subconsciously begins to assert herself, getting up and walking around Nora’s office like she owns the place. Gradually, Marriage Story reorients the camera around Nicole, pushing closer until she dominates the frame. In an instant, you can sense that her meekness has been replaced by outrage at Charlie’s accumulated microaggressions.
Abruptly, an ostensibly pain-free divorce turns ugly, with Nicole serving a bewildered and hurt Charlie with legal papers. As Johansson plays up Nicole’s increasingly steely resolve against Charlie, Driver emphasizes Charlie’s bafflement as he’s forced to keep flying between New York and L.A. to meet with what few attorneys in town Nicole didn’t consult with first, thus limiting his options. As Henry grows more literally and emotionally distant from his father, Charlie is set adrift, haplessly attempting to retain his child’s love and keep his cool with Nicole.
At first, the film’s portrait of Charlie’s shortcomings, of the way he directs everyone in his life as if they were starring in one of his plays, is almost forgiving. Indeed, Charlie is so mild-mannered that Nicole’s vindictive behavior toward him comes to feel monstrous in its overreaction. But just as Baumbach’s understanding of Nicole starts to verge on the misogynistic, the film abruptly course-corrects, shedding light onto how much of Charlie’s ostensibly kind nature is a mask for a deliberately controlling, narcissistic personality. And in a handful of scenes, Marriage Story homes in on just how perceptive Nicole was of his manipulations, forcing us to reconsider the justifiability of her rage against her husband.
Baumbach executes this sudden clarification of Charlie’s true self with incisive aplomb, and in no small part with the help of Driver’s emotionally charged pivot toward manifesting the depths of Charlie’s toxic entitlement. Nicole’s unyielding resolve to open Charlie’s eyes to his worst flaws culminates in a furious argument between the two in which Driver rips the mask off of Charlie’s ostensible patience and good-faith attempts at an amicable split. The more heated the two get, the deeper they reach into their arsenal of repressed grievances to craft more savage criticisms of the other’s failings. Baumbach uses arrhythmic shot-reverse-shot patterns throughout the film to stress the latent tension in Charlie and Nicole’s interactions, but here each cut adds an element of danger, following the rapid escalation of fury between the frayed couple to the point that one expects violence at any second.
As dark as it gets, Marriage Story regularly offsets its tension with comic relief, particularly in a strong set of supporting performances. Alan Alda shines as Charlie’s genteel divorce attorney, Bert Spitz, who reassures his client that they won’t go all the way to court but must act as if they are, which, in a twisted bit of legal logic worthy of Joseph Heller, only makes a court battle all the more likely. And when a court-appointed social worker (Mary Hollis Inboden) comes to evaluate Charlie’s behavior around Henry, she exudes a stiff politeness, somehow both quizzical and clinically disinterested. This makes for erratic rhythms in conversation that, as a befuddled Charlie attempts to pass her inspection, cast the woman as both straight man and foil. “Do you ever observe married couples,” Charlie asks at one point, desperate to fill the frequent silence left by her visit. “No,” she responds, the confusion in her voice her first outward display of emotion. “Why would I?”
But the film’s prevailing mood is one of flailing anger and pain. Even at its most blistering, though, Marriage Story contains small moments of grace in which Nicole and Charlie reflexively help or comfort each other. These subtle glimpses of their lingering affection for one another and familiarity complicate the bitterness of their separation. Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference,” and only two people who were once as deeply in love as Nicole and Charlie were could have spent so long observing every minute detail of their partner to become so obsessed with each other’s flaws in the first place.
Cast: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Julie Hagerty, Azhy Robertson, Ray Liotta, Mary Hollis Inboden Director: Noah Baumbach Screenwriter: Noah Baumbach Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 135 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Villains Serves Up Gratingly Quirky Case-and-Mouse Hijinks
Maika Monroe’s engaging performance serves only to highlight how feeble and unconvincing the rest of the film is.1.5
It’s emblematic of the problems with Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s blackly comic thriller Villains that by far the most compelling thing in the film is its end credits sequence. Set to Courtney Barnett’s grungy punk anthem “Pedestrian at Best,” the animated end titles are an explosion of whacked-out Day-Glo excess, suggesting a film of raucousness and acidity rather than the gratingly quirky cat-and-mouse game to which they’re attached.
Villains pits an ostensibly lovable pair of offbeat outlaws, Jules (Maika Monroe) and Mickey (Bill Skarsgård), against an oddball husband-and-wife duo, George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick), whose impeccable manners and stuck-in-the-‘70s aesthetic belies their complete sociopathy. The film opens on Jules and Mickey haphazardly, but successfully, robbing a convenience store before promptly running out of gas not long after making their getaway. What seems like the setup for a jokey riff on the Bonnie and Clyde story takes a darker turn when the drug-addled duo breaks into a nearby house hoping to steal a car or at least siphon some gas only to find a young girl (Blake Baumgartner) chained up in the basement. Just as Jules and Mickey are deciding what to do with the kid, George and Gloria arrive home, setting off a game of brinkmanship between the two couples.
While Berk and Olsen manage a few clever twists, there’s no sense of stakes throughout, and in no small part because the four main characters feel less like real people caught up in a dangerous situation than repositories of phony eccentricities. George and Gloria’s house, furnished in the style of the late 1970s, with burnt-orange couches and an antique cathode-ray TV, is too impeccably art-directed to feel like anything other than a film set. His smooth-talking salesman patter is overwritten, robbing the character of any truly sinister edge. And while her bizarre behavior—she seduces Mickey with a burlesque routine and treats a baby doll as if it were her infant son—is supposedly motivated by her mental instability, it comes off more like the filmmakers’ desperate attempts to get a rise out of the audience.
Jules and Mickey are a bit more down to earth but scarcely more believable, mostly because Villains feels the need to keep underlining the zaniness of their criminality as, for example, they struggle to figure out how to rob a cash register and snort cocaine for energy the way Popeye eats spinach. It doesn’t help that the performances tend toward the mannered and over-the-top. Donovan and Sedgwick adopt the exaggerated Southern drawl of a televangelist couple, while Skarsgård is shouty and demonstrative. Only Monroe really strikes the right balance between the absurd and the sincere, finding a sense of vulnerability within Jules’s naïve dreaminess. But her sensitive, engaging performance stands out too sharply, ultimately serving only to highlight how feeble and unconvincing the rest of the film is.
Cast: Bill Skarsgård, Maika Monroe, Jeffrey Donovan, Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Baumgartner, Noah Robbins Director: Dan Berk, Robert Olsen Screenwriter: Dan Berk, Robert Olsen Distributor: Alter Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: The Laundromat Flimsily Addresses the Panama Papers Scandal
Steven Soderbergh takes a macro approach to the scandal, though the results, with rare exception, are vexingly micro.1.5
Steven Soderbergh takes a macro approach to the true-life Panama Papers scandal with The Laundromat, though the results, with rare exception, are vexingly micro. Smug one-percenters Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) and Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman, speaking in an uproariously broad German accent) are the often on-screen narrators of the film. They’re the heads of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca & Co., which provided offshore financial services to shady clientele (Wall Street types, arms merchants and dictators, Margaret Thatcher’s son, etc.) until a leak by an anonymous source, still known only as “John Doe,” brought the company down in 2016 and led to global repercussions.
From the showy first scene (Soderbergh once again serves as director of photography under his usual pseudonym, Peter Andrews), the dapperly dressed Fonseca and Mossack act like the wronged heroes of an ages-old saga. They pompously begin their story at the start of humanity, the two of them, like gods in tailored suits, gifting a group of cavemen the means to make fire. In the same shot, the duo descends into a gaudy nightclub where they attempt to explain, Big Short-style, the enduring power of money and the ways in which shell companies shield the super-rich from taxes. It’s a to-camera lecture that’s drier than the Sahara Desert. Though the woozy ennui that quickly sets in seems somewhat intentional, as if Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, adapting Jake Bernstein’s 2017 book Secrecy World, are making the point that schemes like this are by their nature insipid and impossible to explain. The less sense it all makes, the better protection for those massive liquid assets.
There is, of course, an ample human cost to all the wheeling and dealing. Some of the money Mossack Fonseca oversaw was connected to a low-cost insurance company that sold a fraudulent policy to Shoreline Cruises, the tourist outfit behind the 2005 Ethan Allen boat accident on Lake George, in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, that claimed 21 lives. Soderbergh very effectively recreates that tragedy here, focusing in particular on retiree Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), whose husband, Joe (James Cromwell), drowns after the vessel capsizes. Ellen launches her own investigation when the insurance payout from Joe’s death proves a pittance and the “golden years” existence she hoped for slips away. (Sharon Stone pops up as an officious realtor who snatches the Las Vegas apartment of Ellen’s dreams right out from under her.) Ellen, however, is more of a recurring protagonist since The Laundromat takes a Traffic approach narratively, jumping around the globe for a series of visually color-coded vignettes that focus on different, and seemingly disparate, characters.
There’s a noirish encounter between the Ethan Allen’s bewildered Captain Perry (Robert Patrick) and the agitated go-between, Matthew Quirk (David Schwimmer), who bought the illicit insurance policy that’s landed Shoreline Cruises in hot water. Elsewhere, a ludicrously wealthy man (Nonso Anozie), preparing for a party in his sun-soaked mansion, navigates the fall-out from an affair by attempting to buy the silence of both his daughter (Jessica Allain) and his wife (Nikki Amuka-Bird) with a portfolio that’s ostensibly, but not actually, worth millions. But the best in a largely banal show is a gut-busting visit to a dusty south-of-the-border bar where Will Forte and Chris Parnell, playing characters credited as “Doomed Gringo #1” and “Doomed Gringo #2,” discuss Neil Diamond and run afoul of a cartel boss.
As in Soderbergh’s Traffic, all of these bits and pieces are connected, in this case to Mossack Fonseca’s underhanded business practices. And also like Traffic, The Laundromat flirts with and occasionally tips over into racist stereotyping, as in a chilly Far East vignette in which Matthias Schoenaerts plays a debonair man of mystery named Maywood who’s poisoned by a woman, Gu Kailai (Rosalind Chao), who has high-up connections to the Chinese government and very much acts the part of the nefarious Dragon Lady seductress.
Streep herself is involved in another kind of ethnically based narrative wrinkle, though it’s something of a spoiler to say exactly how. (Best to just note that Ellen Martin isn’t the only role that the actress plays here.) The particulars of this choice are staggeringly ill-advised. Though they do act as foundation for The Laundromat’s impressive coup-de-cinema finale in which Streep sheds several chameleonic skins and offers a fourth-wall-shattering call to arms—a bold climax in no way worthy of the flimsy film that precedes it.
Cast: Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Jeffrey Wright, Melissa Rauch, Jeff Michalski, Jane Morris, Robert Patrick, David Schwimmer, Cristela Alonzo, Larry Clarke, Will Forte, Chris Parnell, Nonso Anozie, Larry Wilmore, Jessica Allain, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Matthias Schoenarts, Rosalind Chao, Kunjue Li, Ming Lo, James Cromwell, Sharon Stone Director: Steven Soderbergh Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: To the Ends of the Earth Masterfully Reckons with the Nature of Fear
With his latest, Kiyoshi Kurosawa celebrates the conquering of fear as our greatest hope against the world’s horrors.4
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films are, by and large, intensely fixated on representing the experience of fear, and the range of human preoccupations that generate it: burgeoning technological development, encroaching environmental disaster, ecological instability, the lingering presence of the dead, and, of course, our capacities and limitations as individuals. More recently, the Japanese auteur has illustrated just how foundational, and persuasive, that fear is to the human psyche through a more stripped-down aesthetic. And this approach led him to a logical terminus: 2016’s Creepy, a seemingly straightforward procedural that, in its absence of any real explanation for the violent behaviors that its characters are prone to, put forth the chilling suggestion that no less than our free will itself is innately negated by the insurmountable influence of our own fear.
Kurosawa’s latest represents an even more radical departure for the filmmaker, as he abandons his typically taut narrative framework for a film squarely focused on character—a strategy that results in the his most intricately rendered portrait of the psychology of fear to date. To the Ends of the Earth is not, by any measure, a horror film, but it uses aesthetic and philosophical foundations that Kurosawa laid in his genre work to insinuate tensions and anxieties lurking beneath the serene surface of everyday life. The film’s setup could almost be interpreted as a kind of self-aware joke: A Japanese camera crew arrive in Uzbekistan with the purpose of shooting footage for a travel show and become increasingly frustrated over not having enough usable material. As such, generally little in the way of incident occurs for much of the film. However, To the Ends of the Earth isn’t just a meandering film born of an auteur’s plane ticket to a foreign country: If Kurosawa is less interested in narrative dynamics, it’s because he’s focused on an acute understanding of societally and sociologically conditioned behavior.
Yoko (Atsuko Maeda) is a diligent and unwavering TV host, and the sole woman traveling with the camera crew. When the cameras are on her, she performs energetically and enthusiastically, without hesitation—wolfing down a bowl of undercooked rice with aplomb and toughing out multiple turns on a ludicrously raucous amusement park ride, all so that her cohorts can “get the shot.” Off camera, though, a very different Yoko appears: a docile young woman whose exchanges with her director, Yoshioko (Shota Sometani), and cameraman, Iwao (Ryo Kase), are marked by an obvious impression that, as a woman, she reacts subordinately to the men who give her instructions, even when doing so puts her wellbeing at risk. Yoko’s gender likewise colors her interactions with the Uzbeks she encounters: One man bristles at taking her out in his boat, and another shows great concern for her safety when she’s on the park ride, but only in a way that infantilizes her, as he initially assumes that Yoko is “under age,” then refers to her as a “child” even after it’s explained to him that she’s an adult.
The film seems at first to position itself as a study on how gender roles inform the different ways that Yoko is treated by the countryman with whom she’s traveling, and by the local Uzbeks. But Kurosawa has only just begun to develop his underlying thesis by this point. As Yoko strikes out on her own, exploring the landscape of an entirely foreign Uzbekistan, she’s guided by both her curiosity and her considerable cautiousness, two poles of her personality that determine behavior in a variety of spaces, from the more sparsely populated residential areas, to the densely crowded marketplaces, to the sprawling plains beyond the city.
Since Yoko herself doesn’t speak the language, Kurosawa chooses not to subtitle the Uzbek dialogue spoken throughout To the Ends of the Earth, and this decision, combined with the use of a filmic grammar that often feels ported over from the director’s horror films (dramatic lighting, wide frames that emphasize an individual’s feelings of alienation, and eerie silences), serves to envelop us in the psychological space of a young woman whose emotional engagement with a foreign culture, as well as her careerist ambitions and her ability to be open with those around her, are subject to ingrained fears and anxieties.
Kurosawa elevates his film above exploitation of these feelings with a pair of sequences that gesture toward profound understanding. In the first, Yoko hears the distant sound of a woman singing, enters into an imposing building from which the voice emanates, and wanders through a series of rooms, with Kurosawa’s camera tracking behind her. Each room has its own unique design and distinctive color scheme, and as Kurosawa begins to match-cut between them, Yoko seems as if she’s being surreally transported through some unconscious space. Finally, the rooms lead to a lavish concert hall, the lights dim, and Kurosawa cuts from a close-up of Yoko’s face in shadow to a wide shot of a stage, where Yoko suddenly, and disarmingly, launches into a Japanese rendition of Edith Piaf’s “Hymne à l’amour.”
Soon after, Yoko awakes in her hotel room, unsure if what she experienced was dream or reality, and we’re left unsure as to what the liberated charge of her performance is really meant to represent. But later, a translator for Yoko and her crew, Temur (Adiz Rajabov), explains the history behind the Navoi Theater, the building that Yoko may or may not have already visited. Temur explains that the theater was built by Japanese POWs in World War II, who carefully followed the instructions of their captors in crafting six waiting rooms, each designed according to a different Uzbek regional style. Timur marvels at the story of men who “had been enemy combatants,” but who worked hard and created something transcendent. The scene concludes, with a close-up of Yoko, as she processes what she’s heard.
Just as the Navoi Theater was a catalyst for Japanese prisoners to transcend the horrors of war, the story of its construction impresses upon Yoko the possibility of liberating herself from her own deepest fears about the world. The rest of the film, then, imbues its most harrowing moments—including a chase sequence and a sudden threat to Yoko’s boyfriend back in Tokyo—with a new emotional and philosophical gravitas. This shift also serves to recontextualize Kurosawa’s horror aesthetics as a means of progressing to the film’s final moment of catharsis. “Even if the sky falls and the Earth goes to pieces/I won’t be afraid,” sings Yoko with absolute conviction—a declaration that, it cannot be discounted, also serves to punctuate a career spent crafting apocalyptic narratives depicting the ruin of humanity. With To the Ends of the Earth, Kurosawa celebrates the conquering of fear as our greatest hope against the world’s horrors.
Cast: Atsuko Maeda, Shôta Sometani, Ryo Kase, Adiz Rajabov, Tokio Emoto Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa Screenwriter: Kiyoshi Kurosawa Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
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