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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disneyland, Summer 2009: Spare parts.

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

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

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

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

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

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The 25 Best Films of 2019

Many of the best films this year are concerned with indulgent, unbridled madness, offering formal excess as a parallel to our modern cacophony.

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The 25 Best Films of 2019
Photo: Netflix

This was a great, if bleak, year for cinema, full of mixed signals. As Disney consolidates a monopoly on popular culture, aided by a government that cheers corporate overreach, there are still too many scrappy, visionary films to count. Many such films were distributed by streaming sites like Amazon and Netflix, the latter of which is beginning to suggest 1990s-era Miramax, in terms of making fruitful risks that refute the mega-blockbuster mentality. But there’s a growing disconnect, between what’s available for most people to see and what critics champion, that parallels our era of growing political polarization.

More than ever, we live in an era in which people choose their own news and are hyper-focused on their own niches, which offers a paradox: While there’s freedom in such a lifestyle, it’s also deeply isolating. This context partially explains the exhilaration of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, insular works that, in their popularity and acclaim, recall the audience-unifying glories of ‘70s-era American pop cinema, and of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, an intoxicating, perhaps reactionary fantasy that rues the fading of a diseased patriarchal life that was nevertheless responsible for the comforts of pop culture.

Quentin Tarantino’s tender and transcendent film is, most explicitly, a paean to Hollywood’s ability to control an undivided public’s attention via he-men westerns and musicals and TV arcana. Tarantino, dangerously and daringly, glorifies a less obviously political cinema, implicitly regretting the divisions that would mark the ‘70s and the present. Such division fueled movies this year, that, while troubling, were undeniably in sync with America’s bitter underbelly, such as Todd Phillips’s Joker, Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, and S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete.

Many of the best films this year are concerned with indulgent, unbridled madness, offering formal excess as a parallel to our modern cacophony. One example is Harmony Korine’s extraordinary, absurdly overlooked The Beach Bum, a lurid and beautiful poem of privilege and self-absorption. Another is Bong Joon-ho’s smash hit Parasite, which suggests that every oppressed person oppresses someone lower on the food chain. This year, as political divisions deepen, cinema became more and more inventive with satirizing capitalism while simultaneously rendering its narcotic charms. There were also moments of immersive tranquility and introspection, offered by Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s The Gospel of Eureka, Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and Khalik Allah’s Black Mother, among others.

Do we suffer from too much? Are there too many films, too many hot takes, too much detritus to wade through? In an age of endless excess, the critic’s, and the audience’s, job is to discern patterns and meanings, to whittle chaos down to manageable stimuli. The best films of the year found artists grappling with this very chaos, mining the emotion of the spectacle of the political. Chuck Bowen

Click here for individual contributor ballots and a list of the films that ranked 26–50.


The Gospel of Eureka

25. The Gospel of Eureka

In 2014, Eureka Springs became the first city in Arkansas to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s The Gospel of Eureka doesn’t mention this fact, nor does it seek to explain why a town deeply rooted in Christian faith also has an outsized population of gay and non-binary citizens. The documentary isn’t a study of juxtaposition so much as an exploration of how the many strands of a person or location’s identity can’t easily be disentangled. Eureka Springs, both haunted by and economically beholden to the legacy of noted Christian nationalist Gerald L.K. Smith, proves a vivid backdrop through which to explore how neighbors overcome difference and embrace progress. Like October Country, Mosher and Palmieri’s latest is uniquely attuned to the fickle whims of history, politics, and biographical circumstance. Where their earlier film wondered how both the economics and personal trauma of war reverberated through a family struggling with decades of abuse, despair, and rebellion, this one communicates an atmosphere of persistent connection despite seemingly incongruous belief systems and lifestyles. The Gospel of Eureka’s overriding theme is mutability, and its one true enemy seems to be any form of dogmatism. Christopher Gray


Chinese Portrait

24. Chinese Portrait

As a recording apparatus, the camera no longer disturbs or announces its presence. It’s a ghost in the room, as banal as a limb. Xiaoshuai Wang restores the exceptional status of that most revolutionary of technical devices in Chinese Portrait, a series of short-lived tableaux vivants for which the gravitational pull of the camera is re-staged. The simplicity of bodies barely moving before a camera that brings their quotidian temporality into a halt is nothing short of a radical proposition in our digital era—in the context of a culture obsessed with using cameras precisely as anti-contemplation devices, and a film industry still so invested in producing artificial drama in order to tell its stories. In Chinese Portrait, there’s no need for storylines, tragedy, or spectacle for drama to emerge. The drama is in the minutia of the mise-en-scène, in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t. The drama is in the camera’s de-escalating force, its ability to refuse the endless excitation it could provide in favor of one little thing: elderly people stretching in a park, black and brown horses in a field, two of them licking each other’s backs. This is the camera not as a Pandora’s box, but as a sharp laser beam with curatorial intentions. Diego Semerene


The Competition

23. The Competition

Claire Simon’s The Competition follows the rigorous selection process for Paris’s iconic film and television school La Fémis, which every year accepts 60 new students, out of some 1,000 applicants. Throughout, Simon’s camera quietly observes the various phases of the selection process, aware that to best capture the anxiousness of a moment is to not embellish it. As a result, we come to take great pleasure in watching the most menial of tasks, such as a committee member counting numbers or checking boxes on a form. While those responsible for the selection process keep things mostly courteous among themselves during deliberations, it’s precisely when conflict emerges around a candidate that we realize how gracious Simon is with her subjects. It would have been easy to play up the drama or drum up miserabilist tales around the high hopes of candidates and the frustrations that follow. Simon focuses instead on how candidates trying to make a case for themselves are often self-contradicting, and as such difficult to truly assess; the film is also about the impossibility of objective criteria when it comes to such matters. The truly awful performances are never shown, only referred to in passing after they happened. This isn’t some reality show that allows us to revel in schadenfreude or root for charismatic underdogs. Semerene


Ad Astra

22. Ad Astra

Throughout Ad Astra, James Gray uses the grand metaphors of science fiction to mourn the distance between a father and son that’s so often internalized as self-alienation. This repression, Gray underlines, has utility in a rationalized society: Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is the perfect astronaut because nothing unnerves him, as testified to by his diligently recorded pulse rate, oxygen levels, and the other defining statistics of his thoroughly technologized body. The inhuman coldness his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), foisted upon him is precisely what enables him to survive his epic quest from Earth to Neptune. Among Ad Astra‘s more universal themes is coping with and moving beyond the sins of previous generations, with overtones that evoke the climate catastrophe that global capitalism has prepared for us. When Roy finally finds his elusive target, floating out there somewhere around the rings of Neptune, Gray captures a heartbreak that will be familiar to many: a confrontation between a grown son and his erstwhile hero, both appearing suddenly small, frail, and all too fallibly human. Pat Brown


Climax

21. Climax

Gaspar Noé’s Climax reminds us how pleasurable it can be when a filmmaker essentially discards plot for the sake of unhinged formalism. The film works on two levels, as it’s a celebration of body and movement, featuring astonishing and painful-looking choreography, as well as an examination of the sexual resentment that drives a mixed-race dancing troupe. In early passages, actors more or less speak to the camera, a device that suggests a blunt clearing of the air. Later, when the dancers succumb to the effects of LSD-spiked sangria, Climax becomes a brilliant fever dream, an orgy of raw, flamboyantly colored psychosis that’s truer to the spirit of Dario Argento’s Suspiria than Luca Guadignino’s recent remake. Above all else, Climax feels pure, as Noé cuts to the root of his obsession with the intersection between sex, violence, and power. It’s a horror musical of hard, beautiful nihilism. Bowen

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Slant’s Best Films of 2019: The Runners-Up and Individual Ballots

These are the films that just missed making it onto our list of the best films of 2019, and our contributors’ individual ballots.

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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

From Chuck Bowen’s introduction to Slant Magazine’s Top 25 Films of 2019: “This was a great, if bleak, year for cinema, full of mixed signals. As Disney consolidates a monopoly on popular culture, aided by a government that cheers corporate overreach, there are still too many scrappy, visionary films to count. Many such films were distributed by streaming sites like Amazon and Netflix, the latter of which is beginning to suggest 1990s-era Miramax, in terms of making fruitful risks that refute the mega-blockbuster mentality. But there’s a growing disconnect, between what’s available for most people to see and what critics champion, that parallels our era of growing political polarization.” Click here to read the feature and see if your favorite films of the year made our list. And see below for a list of the films that just missed making it onto our list, followed by our contributors’ individual ballots.


The Runners-Up:

26. The Plagiarists
27. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
28. The Lighthouse
29. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
30. End of the Century
31. Ray & Liz
32. The Wild Pear Tree
33. Honeyland
34. In My Room
35. Agnès by Varda
36. Her Smell
37. Dragged Across Concrete
38. The Image Book
39. Diane
40. Asako I & II
41. I Lost My Body
42. Gemini Man
43. Shadow
44. In Fabric
45. Us
46. The Mountain
47. Our Time
48. Little Women
49. The Dead Don’t Die
50. Diamantino


The Ballots:


Chuck Bowen

1. The Irishman
2. An Elephant Sitting Still
3. Her Smell
4. The Beach Bum
5. Diane
6. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
7. Marriage Story
8. Pain and Glory
9. Climax
10. The Competition

Honorable Mention: High Flying Bird, One Child Nation, American Factory, The Souvenir, Grass, Ray & Liz, Dragged Agaainst Concrete, Uncut Gems, The Gospel of Eureka, Ash Is Purest White

Pat Brown

1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
2. Uncut Gems
3. Peterloo
4. Marriage Story
5. Midsommar
6. The Gospel of Eureka
7. The Farewell
8. The Souvenir
9. Transit
10. Ad Astra

Honorable Mention: Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Irishman, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Ash Is Purest White, John Wick 3: Parabellum, The Beach Bum, Knives Out, Luce, Synonyms, Us

Jake Cole

1. Ash Is Purest White
2. Uncut Gems
3. The Irishman
4. High Life
5. La Flor
6. The Souvenir
7. An Elephant Sitting Still
8. Parasite
9. Transit
10. Black Mother

Honorable Mention: I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, Ad Astra, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Pain & Glory, A Hidden Life, Asako I & II, The Wild Pear Tree, Little Women, End of the Century, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Clayton Dillard

1. Uncut Gems
2. Climax
3. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
4. La Flor
5. High Life
6. Ash is Purest White
7. Pain & Glory
8. In My Room
9. Gemini Man
10. The Competition

Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Atlantics, The Beach Bum, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Black Mother, Diamantino, Marriage Story, Ray & Liz, The Silence of Others, Under the Silver Lake

Ed Gonzalez

1. Transit
2. Long Day’s Journey into Night
3. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
4. Black Mother
5. Ad Astra
6. Peterloo
7. The Competition
8. Ray & Liz
9. The Irishman
10. Climax

Honorable Mention: The Souvenir, An Elephant Sitting Still, Parasite, Asako I & II, End of the Century, Marriage Story, The Gospel of Eureka, The Beach Bum, Dragged Across Concrete, The Plagiarists

Christopher Gray

1. Transit
2. Atlantics
3. Parasite
4. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
5. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
6. I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians
7. Us
8. End of the Century
9. Ash is Purest White
10. Dark Waters

Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Asako I & II, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Black Mother, An Elephant Sitting Still, La Flor, Gemini Man, The Irishman, The Souvenir, Uncut Gems

Wes Greene

1. Uncut Gems
2. Marriage Story
3. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
4. La Flor
5. Transit
6. A Hidden Life
7. In My Room
8. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
9. End of the Century
10. Ash Is Purest White

Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Diane, An Elephant Sitting Still, Her Smell, The Image Book, Parasite, Peterloo, The Plagiarists, The Souvenir, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

Oleg Ivanov

1. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
2. The Lighthouse
3. A Hidden Life
4. To Dust
5. Shadow
6. In Fabric
7. Pain & Glory
8. Aniara
9. Parasite
10. Rolling Thunder Revue

Honorable Mention: The Mountain, Diamantino, Rezo, The Wild Pear Tree, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, Her Smell, Birds of Passage, Hail Satan?, Leto, The Silence of Others

Joshua Minsoo Kim

1. The Plagiarists
2. An Elephant Sitting Still
3. Chinese Portrait
4. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
5. Uncut Gems
6. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
7. Parasite
8. Suburban Birds
9. Black Mother
10. Marriage Story

Honorable Mention: Atlantics, Grass, Honeyland, The Irishman, The Lighthouse, Non-Fiction, Our Time, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Ray & Liz, Varda by Agnes

Carson Lund

1. Transit
2. The Irishman
3. The Souvenir
4. A Hidden Life
5. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
6. The Plagiarists
7. The Mountain
8. Ray & Liz
9. The Beach Bum
10. Dragged Across Concrete

Honorable Mention: The Hottest August, Dark Waters, Marriage Story, Atlantics, Empty Metal, Uncut Gems, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Ad Astra, High Life, Our Time

Sam C. Mac

1. Ash Is Purest White
2. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
3. Waves
4. Chinese Portrait
5. The Beach Bum
6. Uncut Gems
7. Asako I & II
8. The Gospel of Eureka
9. A Hidden Life
10. Pasolini

Honorable Mention: Long Day’s Journey into Night, Grass, 3 Faces, Peterloo, Our Time, Transit, The Plagiarists, Shadow, In Fabric, Suburban Birds

Niles Schwartz

1. The Irishman
2. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
3. The Souvenir
4. A Hidden Life
5. Pain & Glory
6. Peterloo
7. Atlantics
8. Climax
9. The Dead Don’t Die
10. Transit

Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Black Mother, Diane, Dragged Across Concrete, High Flying Bird, Marriage Story, Parasite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Rolling Thunder Revue, Uncut Gems

Diego Semerene

1. Agnès by Varda
2. The Wild Pear Tree
3. I Lost My Body
4. Ash is Purest White
5. The Competition
6. Chinese Portrait
7. Parasite
8. Sauvage
9. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
10. Honeyland

Honorable Mention: Long Day’s Journey into Night, 3 Faces, Atlantics, What You Gonna Do When the World Is on Fire?, Knife + Heart, Non-Fiction, Celebration, The Image Book, Black Mother, Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Derek Smith

1. Uncut Gems
2. La Flor
3. Transit
4. The Souvenir
5. Parasite
6. Atlantics
7. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
8. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
9. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
10. The Beach Bum

Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Ash is the Purest White, Black Mother, Diamantino, A Hidden Life, High Life, Honeyland, The Hottest August, The Irishman, Marriage Story

Keith Uhlich

1. Peterloo
2. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
3. La Flor
4. The Irishman
5. Pain & Glory
6. Domino
7. The Gospel of Eureka
8. Chained for Life
9. Under the Silver Lake
10. Atlantics

Honorable Mention: The Dead Don’t Die, The Farewell, Gemini Man, A Hidden Life, High Flying Bird, Knives Out, In Fabric, Our Time, Shadow, Transit

Keith Watson

1. Parasite
2. Uncut Gems
3. The Image Book
4. The Lighthouse
5. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
6. High Life
7. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
8. The Irishman
9. The Gospel of Eureka
10. Honeyland

Honorable Mention: Ash Is Purest White, Chinese Portrait, Climax, Cold Case Hammarskjöld, Hustlers, Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Mountain, Our Time, Los Reyes, The Souvenir

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Review: Seberg Is an Ill-Defined Ode to an Icon of the French New Wave

Throughout, the filmmakers occlude the most fascinating and potentially powerful elements of Jean Seberg’s history.

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Seberg
Photo: Amazon Studios

During her return to Hollywood in the late 1960s, Jean Seberg became a visible supporter of the Black Panther Party. This put her on the watch list of J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I., and, hounded by their surveillance and muckraking, she would die of an apparent suicide in 1979. It’s a tragic story, but on its face, it’s not material for a political thriller, even if Benedict Andrews’s Seberg tries halfheartedly to make it one.

In transforming Seberg’s life into a plot-heavy narrative of secrets, intrigue, and betrayals, the filmmakers occlude the most fascinating and potentially powerful elements of her history. And, along the way, they do something of a disservice to the actress’s memory by stopping short of depicting her tragic end—concluding the film, of all places, at the end of a redemptive arc for Jack Solomon, an F.B.I. agent played by Jack O’Connell.

Kristen Stewart plays Seberg as a basically honest but somewhat impulsive woman whose fragility is almost always apparent, given the unsteady gazes and fidgety movements that are Stewart’s trademarks as an actor. It’s a performance that lacks a certain specificity. Even if Seberg suffered from doubts, she could put on a certain small-town Midwestern solidness, as is apparent in interviews from the ‘60s. Stewart’s indifferent imitation of the real Seberg’s diction-coach-inflected Midwestern accent also sticks out for its inconsistency, constantly pulling the viewer out of 1968 and muddling our sense of who this woman is meant to be.

But if Stewart’s Seberg is vaguely drawn, she’s a Rembrandt portrait in comparison to the cardboard F.B.I. agent that Andrews and screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse construct as the secondary main character. The film constantly intercuts between Seberg’s activism and bid for Hollywood stardom and Solomon’s surveillance of and growing sympathy for her. A decent, milquetoast G-man, Solomon essentially exists here to recuperate the image of the F.B.I., even as he’s portrayed as being in charge of the campaign against Seberg. While his hypermasculine colleagues trade racist jokes and exploit their male privilege—patently illustrated in an extraneous scene in which his partner, Carl (Vince Vaughn), essentially commits domestic abuse over dinner—Solomon is set up as the idealized model of an F.B.I. agent, a consummate professional interested only in uncovering crimes.

Admittedly, some of the more interesting parts of Seberg come from Solomon’s research: As he watches iconic moments from the actress’s career, recreated by Stewart, he begins to assemble a portrait of a woman damaged by both Hollywood’s and the federal government’s efforts to control her life. In scenes that might have had more impact if either character had more definition, Seberg imprints herself on Solomon through black-and-white footage and surveillance tapes, and, at times, Seberg gestures toward a Hollywoodized version of The Lives of Others. Eventually, Solomon begins informing on himself, making anonymous phone calls to Seberg to tell her she’s under watch. But Solomon is too conveniently good, too isolated from the reactionary “boy’s club” culture of the F.B.I., for his transformation to carry much weight. Furthermore, this fabricated character functions to glom a handy moral redemption onto a story that would not appear to have many good feels readily available to it.

In fact, there’s much here that feels too convenient. For one, the filmmakers downplay the radicalness of supporting the Black Panther Party and their allies in 1968. The story is told from a perspective in which lending such support is almost transparently the right thing to do, even if it flies in the face of Hoover’s F.B.I. This is admirable, in a sense, but it gives us little impression of the tumult and uncertainty of American society in the late ‘60s. For a film about a period of unrest and the icon at the center of Godard’s aesthetically groundbreaking Breathless, it’s also markedly conventional. Andrews plays it safe with his framing and storytelling, not capturing much of a sense of atmosphere in his depiction of a society and a Hollywood institution undergoing waves of turmoil and reorganization.

Furthermore, the filmmakers’ choices regarding narrative focus are telling: Solomon’s half of the story drives the most important pieces of the plot—since it’s the surveillance that ruins Seberg’s relationships and fractures her sanity. Meanwhile, her lover, the black radical Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), and his wife (Zazie Beetz) are turned into functionaries of the main white characters. Surely these historical figures, too, experienced mental anguish at the hands of the F.B.I.’s surveillance apparatus, but their oppression, when discussed here, becomes mere background to Seberg’s breakdown. Once again, black liberation becomes white people’s story, as Seberg’s connection with a movement composed principally of black people is subordinated to the film’s gratuitous interest in planting a good man in the F.B.I. Unable to imagine and unwilling to explore what oppression truly feels like, it contents itself with saying the right things and centering white people as the sole agents of history.

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Jack O’Connell, Anthony Mackie, Margaret Qualley, Zazie Beetz, Yvan Attal, Vince Vaughn, Stephen Root, Colm Meaney, Gabriel Sky Director: Benedict Andrews Screenwriter: Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Black Christmas Takes a Simplistic Stab at the Battle of the Sexes

Sophia Takal’s remake elides the thorny, complicated nature of the original’s sexual politics.

1.5

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Black Christmas
Photo: Universal Pictures

Bob Clark’s 1974 Canadian horror classic Black Christmas depends, for effect, on the terrifying unknowability of its killer, and delights in a twisted web of psychosexual tensions. As a proto-slasher film set in a sorority house, it’s also surprisingly celebratory of female agency and empowerment, particularly through its normalized depiction of women discussing abortion a mere five years after Canada officially legalized the procedure. Sophia Takal’s remake, however, elides the thorny, complicated nature of the original’s sexual politics, transforming what was once a terrifyingly ambiguous male threat upon unsuspecting women into an explicit and hackneyed embodiment of the patriarchy itself in the form of a fraternity of hooded, Skull and Bones-esque alpha males.

Takal and co-screenwriter April Wolfe obviously aim to update Black Christmas for the Me Too era, but they settle for hollow wish fulfillment rather than meaningful social critique. When Kris (Aleyse Shannon), the most politically active of the core group of sorority girls in the film, steps up to a group of emphatically evil frat boys—“You messed with the wrong sisters!”—it’s apparent that the filmmakers are less interested in actually dissecting the precepts and effects of college rape culture and the patriarchal dominance still coursing through our institutions of higher learning than they are in clumsily upending that male authority with increasingly pedantic signposts of “don’t tread on me” girl power.

It’s a shame because Takal exhibits a deep sensitivity toward her main protagonist, Riley (Imogen Poots), which is particularly evident in the film’s depiction of the young woman’s trauma from being drugged and raped three years ago by Brian (Ryan McIntyre), the former president of DKO, Hawthorne College’s most prestigious fraternity. It’s both moving and amusing to see Riley, after years of not being believed, and several of her sorority sisters perform a clever twist on “Up on the Housetop” at DKO’s Christmas party, for the way it calls out rape culture and deliberately embarrasses Brian upon his return to campus. But following this scene, Black Christmas’s condemnation of toxic masculinity is dulled as it goes about painting both its male and female characters in broader and broader strokes.

Carey Elwes’s misogynist Professor Gelson, who’d be twirling his mustache if he had one, is a virtual clone of acclaimed psychologist Jordan Peterson, and he’s surrounded by a fleet of interchangeable, cartoonishly villainous dudebros involved in some shady dealings at DKO that shift from the harmlessly cliché to the patently absurd. The women of this remake don’t exactly fare much better, as they’re constantly lauded for their strength and loyalty—most ridiculously in a lengthy digression during which the sorority sisters are compared to ants—yet with the exception of Riley, they never rise above their paper-thin conceptions.

The filmmakers’ overly simplistic depiction of good and evil is mitigated to some degree by the presence of Landon (Caleb Eberhardt), the awkward white-knight character whose compassion and respect for Riley serves as a much-needed, though muted, contrast to the rampant machismo and fragility that defines so many of the film’s other male characters. But as the large horde of black-masked and hooded men spread across campus, slaughtering sorority girls with reckless abandon, Black Christmas builds to a strained confrontation between the sexes that doesn’t fall into any sort of gray area when it comes to its depiction of male-female conflict. Instead, the film hammers home the same simplistic, however valid, points about male sovereignty on college campuses that it’s already made at least a dozen times.

With this third act’s introduction of supernatural elements linked to a mysteriously powerful black liquid that leaks from within the college founder’s bust, Black Christmas goes completely off the rails, setting up an action set piece that makes the “Marvel Women assemble” moment from Avengers: Endgame seem slyly deployed by comparison. Takal is gleeful in her depiction of the patriarchy getting its comeuppance, but her expression of female empowerment is misguided for succumbing to revenge fantasy, suggesting that the path toward equality lies in the very same forms of violence that men have enacted upon women for centuries.

Cast: Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady, Caleb Eberhardt, Cary Elwes, Simon Mead, Madelaine Adams, Zoë Robins, Ryan McIntyre Director: Sophia Takal Screenwriter: Sophia Takal, April Wolfe Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 92 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Jumanji: The Next Level Finds a Series Stuck in Repeat Mode

The moments in which the film’s blockbuster stars play memorably against type are quickly subsumed by the ugly chaos of the action.

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Jumanji: The Next Level
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji: The Next Level visibly strains to justify its existence beyond the desire for profit. The wild success of its predecessor guaranteed another entry in the series, but there’s so little reason for its characters to return to the video game world of Jumanji that this film struggles to orient them toward a collision course with destiny.

Now scattered to the winds of collegiate life, Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and Bethany (Madison Iseman) keep in touch via group text as they plan a reunion over winter break. Kasdan shoots these moments with excruciating pauses that would seem a deliberate reflection of the awkward cadences of texting were the characters’ in-person conversations not every bit as stilted and arrhythmic. It’s hardly any wonder, then, that Spencer, already so anxiety-ridden, is driven to such insecurity over the possibility that the members of his friend group went their separate ways that he reassembles the destroyed Jumanji game in order to feel some of the heroism he did during the gang’s earlier adventure.

Soon, Spencer’s friends discover what he did and go into Jumanji to get him, the twist this time being that everyone gets assigned to a different player than they were last time, complicating their grasp of the game’s mechanics. But making matters worse is that Jumanji also sucks in Spencer’s grandfather, Eddie (Danny DeVito), who gets assigned Spencer’s old hero, Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), as well as Eddie’s estranged business partner and friend, Milo (Danny Glover), who’s placed into the body of zoologist Frankling Finbar (Kevin Hart).

The sight of Johnson and Hart shaking up their stale partnership by play-acting as old men briefly enlivens The Next Level after 40 minutes of laborious setup and leaden jokes. Watching the Rock scrunch up his face as he strains to hear anyone and speaking every line in a high, nasal whine with halting confusion does get old after a while, but there’s an agreeable hint of his tetchy, anxious performance in Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales to be found here.

Hart may be even better, tempering his exhausting manic energy by running to the other extreme to parody Glover’s deliberate manner of speaking. The actor draws out every sentence into lugubrious asides and warm pleasantries even in the midst of danger. In the film’s only laugh-out-loud moment, Milo spends so much time spouting asinine facts that he fails to prevent Eddie from losing a player life, prompting a baffled and anguished Milo to lament, “Did I kill Eddie by talking too slow, just like he always said I would?”

But such moments, in which the film’s blockbuster stars play against type, are quickly subsumed by the ugly chaos of the action. There’s no sense of escalation to The Next Level, with each set piece almost instantly collapsing into a busy spectacle of eluding stampeding animals, running across rope bridges, and taking on waves of enemies. There’s no weight to any of these sequences, nor to the game’s new villain, a brutal conqueror (Rory McCann) who embodies all the laziness of the writing of antagonists for hastily assembled sequels.

Likewise, for all the emphasis on video game characters who can be swapped out on a whim, it’s the players themselves who come across as the most thinly drawn and interchangeable beneath their avatars. None of the kids have any real personality, merely a single defining quirk that makes it easy to identify them when their avatars mimic them. And when the film pauses to address some kind of character conflict, be it Spencer and Martha’s ambiguous relationship or Eddie and Milo’s attempts at reconciliation, it only further exposes the film’s meaninglessness. The original 1995 film, disposable as it may be, finds actual pathos in its menacing escalation of horrors and the existential terror of contemplating a lifetime stuck in the game as the world moved on. The Next Level, on the other hand, is a moribund, hollow exercise, dutifully recycling blockbuster and video game tropes without complicating either.

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Ser’Darius Blain, Morgan Turner, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Awkwafina, Rhys Darby, Rory McCann Director: Jake Kasdan Screenwriter: Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 123 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Chinese Portrait Is a Grand Reckoning with the Passage of Time

The drama here is in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t.

3.5

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Chinese Portrait
Photo: Cinema Guild

As a recording apparatus, the camera no longer disturbs or announces its presence. It’s a ghost in the room, as banal as a limb. Xiaoshuai Wang restores the exceptional status of that most revolutionary of technical devices in Chinese Portrait, a series of short-lived tableaux vivants for which the gravitational pull of the camera is re-staged.

The simplicity of bodies barely moving before a camera that brings their quotidian temporality into a halt is nothing short of a radical proposition in our digital era—in the context of a culture obsessed with using cameras precisely as anti-contemplation devices, and a film industry still so invested in producing artificial drama in order to tell its stories. In Chinese Portrait, there’s no need for storylines, tragedy, or spectacle for drama to emerge. The drama is in the minutia of the mise-en-scène, in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t. The drama is in the camera’s de-escalating force, its ability to refuse the endless excitation it could provide in favor of one little thing: elderly people stretching in a park, black and brown horses in a field, two of them licking each other’s backs. This is the camera not as a Pandora’s box, but as a sharp laser beam with curatorial intentions.

The drama here is also in Chinese Portrait’s very concept, which is similar to that of Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames, where motion is born out of prolonged stillness, and to that of Susana de Sousa Dias’s works on the effects of Portuguese dictatorship, Obscure Light and 48, where stillness is all there is, photographs namely, and yet so much moves. Wang’s film also bears a kinship with Agnès Varda’s later work, where a human being is made singular in a fast-moving world by standing still and recognizing the device that records them. Both Varda and Wang seem to see sacrilege in taking the camera for granted. A couple of tableaux in Chinese Portrait derail the notion of the individual embossed from their habitat by the camera’s insistent gaze, as in a group of men kneeling down to pray, their backs to the audience, and a later segment of a crowd standing entirely motionless in the middle of an abandoned construction site, sporting scarves and winter jackets, staring at the camera in unison.

Something remains quite alive and oddly “natural” within the documentary’s portraits as Wang’s mostly still subjects inhabit the gap between staging and posing by appearing disaffected. Or perhaps they’re stunned by modernity’s deadlock. Everyone seems perpetually in transit yet perpetually stuck. Wang’s fleeting portraits feature Chinese folk confronting the lens in their everyday environments, but not all of them react to the camera’s might in the same way. Some stand still and stare while others look away, but they’re all largely aware of the recording device singling them out as muses of the landscape.

The portraits offer evidence of differing temporalities in this numbingly fast world, too convinced of its universal globalism. Evidence of conflicting temporalities within worlds, too, as some subjects in the same frame bother to stop and others go on about their lives. In a provincial alleyway, various men sit on stoops from foreground to background. Some stare into the horizon—that is, a cemented wall, the film’s most recurring motif. Others refuse to allow the viewers to be the only ones looking. Several bathers on a sandy beach stare at the off-camera ocean, except for one man wearing a large fanny pack, certainly staring at us behind his shades. At a construction site, an excavator digs while another worker sits on a slab of concrete, gawking at us as we gawk at them. A man rests his hands on his hoe to look at the camera with a half-smile, like someone from the 1980s, who may approach the cameraperson to ask what channel this is for and when he can expect to be on television.

Through the sheer power of blocking, the methodical positioning of elements in the frame, Wang reaches back to a time when there was an interval, a space for waiting and wondering, between an image being taken and an image being seen. Another temporality, indeed, captured by cameras, not telephones. That was back when sharpie scribbles would don the tail end of film reels, which are kept in the frame here by Wang, as one portrait transitions into the next. The filmmaker’s urgent reminder seems to be that it’s not all just one continual flow. Time can actually stop, and we can choose to look or to look away.

Director: Xiaoshuai Wang Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 79 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Bombshell Is a Collection of Quirks in Search of a Trenchant Criticism

The film is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Roger Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.

1.5

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Bombshell
Photo: Lionsgate

With Bombshell, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph make heroes of the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the late chairman and CEO of Fox News who was accused by several former employees—including star anchors Megyn “Santa Just Is White” Kelly and Gretchen Carlson—of sexual harassment in 2016. The filmmakers keenly depict these women’s courage and fixate on the toxic culture at Fox that fostered so much fear and intimidation, but Bombshell is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.

The film begins in the summer of 2016 with the Republican Party presidential debate in Iowa, where Kelly (Charlize Theron), the moderator, confronts Donald Trump with highlights of his long history of misogyny. This grilling, and her increasingly—if relatively—feminist stance on the Fox News daytime program The Kelly File, is met by backlash from the ascendant Trump cult, as well as Ailes (John Lithgow), whose professional relationship with Kelly at first seems productive in spite of its combativeness. Meanwhile, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from another Fox program, The Real Story, possibly for her own newfound—if, again, relative—feminism, and counters by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes.

Waiting for colleagues to make similar accusations in order to bolster her case, Carlson is left twisting in the wind by a collective fearful silence—a silence that even fierce former victim Kelly obeys—while Ailes and his litigation team prepare a defense. A third storyline involves “millennial evangelical” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing the many ambitious young women who suffered Ailes’s demeaning treatment in order to get ahead at Fox and the other organizations for which he worked.

Bombshell operates in a style that has become numbingly de rigueur since Oliver Stone’s W., in which political and corporate corruption are presented in a dramatic yet amiably humorous style that takes the edge off any potentially trenchant critique. Fourth walls are broken, jokes punctuate scenes, and the ambiance remains oddly congenial despite the purportedly suffocating and repressive environment of the Fox News offices.

Thankfully, there are moments when the actors transcend the too-casual tone. Lithgow portrays Ailes not merely as a dirty old man, but as a pitiful control freak whose disgusting actions unwittingly reveal a deep insecurity. The tensely coiled Kelly is a mass of contradictions, and one argument that she has with her husband, Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass), over an embarrassingly fawning follow-up interview with Trump is memorable for allowing Theron to reveal the strain imposed on Kelly by conflicting personal, professional, and political allegiances. Robbie—frequently playing off a versatile Kate McKinnon’s co-worker/lover—moves from bubbly naïveté to painful humiliation with convincing subtlety.

And yet, Bombshell is predicated on several dubious ideas that ultimately blunt its power. The film relishes the downfall of a public figure, as well as the growing chaos of a divided Fox News. By the end of the film, we’re expected to feel righteous satisfaction when justice comes to Ailes in the form of a disgraceful resignation. But such a response can only feel hollow when the country continues to suffer from widespread problems cultivated by Fox from the same sexist, callous, and exploitative worldview at the root of Ailes’s behavior. The film only briefly and tangentially explores this worldview, and mostly uses it to simply highlight conservative hypocrisy and the general sliminess of the Fox organization.

Bombshell also delights in referencing battles fought among high-profile public figures, emphasizing the kind of inside baseball that the media routinely focuses on instead of more complex and endemic manifestations of national issues. Rather than understand Ailes’s harassment in relation to the sexism so deeply embedded in American corporate media and culture, the filmmakers reduce that sorry tradition to the confines of the Fox News offices and elite legal channels. This approach allows viewers to understand the organizational and legal pressures that made it so hard for Carlson and others to speak out about Ailes, but once Carlson files her charges, the abuse that she and others endured becomes overshadowed by competitive backroom negotiations and maneuverings.

The film reinforces this emphasis with gratuitous appearances by actors playing famous Fox News personalities (Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity) who are tangential to the narrative, as well as cutesy direct-address segments meant to make us feel in the know about the world of Fox. This is the stuff that Roach, who’s mostly directed broad comedies, and Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short, clearly relish, but rather than connecting with the viewer through these strategies, Bombshell mostly feels insular, remote, and superficial. It would be nice if for once an accessible mainstream film took on the institutional powers that detrimentally shape our world with anger and incisiveness rather than a bemused concern.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Charles Randolph Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity

Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.

2.5

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Richard Jewell
Photo: Warner Bros.

Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.

Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.

Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.

Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.

In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.

In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)

Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.

Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.

Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate

This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.

2.5

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Cunningham
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.

Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.

Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”

As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.

In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.

Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.

Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line

There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.

1.5

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The Two Popes
Photo: Netflix

Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.

This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.

The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.

Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.

The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.

Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.

That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.

As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.

The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.

Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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