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Understanding Screenwriting #31: Funny People, In the Loop, Julie & Julia, The Answer Man, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #31: Funny People, In the Loop, Julie & Julia, The Answer Man, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Funny People, In the Loop, Julie & Julia, The Answer Man, Budd Schulberg and John Hughes: an appreciation, Middle Passage Summer Cable Season 2009, but first…

Fan Mail: Great collection of comments on US#30, folks. I always appreciate them.

Daniel Iffland raised a very good question as to why all the discussions about writers on serialized TV dramas in the mainstream media have not led to more writing about screenwriting in film. Part of the reason is historical: the tradition in writing about directors extends back beyond the development of the auteur theory. There is also the disdain of the East Coast Intellectual Establishment for screenwriters, which I discussed in US#1 as one of the reasons I was doing this column. From the beginning of television, especially in the Golden Age of live dramas in the fifties, there was a greater critical awareness of the writer. Another reason is that films are generally seen as a one-off event, whereas a series is a collection of stories with connecting elements. Once the series is set up, the creative function of the producer/showrunner is to feed the maw: a 22-episode season of a one-hour drama requires a LOT of story material. That’s why showrunners are usually writers: they know how to deliver scripts. You can read more about all of this in my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing.

Welcome to new reader “AJ,” who likes the writer’s perspective the column gives. That’s what I’m here for.

Craig liked (500) Days of Summer because he felt it did not force us to see it from Tom’s (the character, not me, as Craig made clear in his second post) perspective. I am not sure I agree, since we certainly see Summer very much from his perspective. We learn her feelings about all this only when she tells him late in the picture. Craig also had a problem with James running all over town in The Hurt Locker trying to get vengeance for a kid he hardly knew. I did too, but I looked on it as the kind of intense focus a person develops in that kind of situation. You need something to hang on to to keep from going completely bonkers.

“Socalsun” made a nice comparison of The Hurt Locker to Generation Kill, but he felt the film “left [us] with no real sense of who James is.” I’d disagree, since I think we learn a lot about James by how he acts and reacts. One of the smartest reviews of Lawrence of Arabia when it came out said that Lawrence was most himself riding a camel across the desert in long shots rather than in closeups. Action is character.

“DS” hopes he will one day write a script that I will end up reviewing in this column. Be careful what you wish for, of course, but keep at it. I used to keep up on one of my workboards a quote from Norman Mailer that every writer should be aware of. It went something like this: “Tell yourself that no matter what, and what other people say, you deserve to write one more day.” How true.

Funny People (2009. Written by Judd Apatow. 146 minutes): Where’s Billy when you need him?

The idea for this film has potential: George Simmons, curmudgeonly comedian and movie star, learns he has a possibly fatal disease. He becomes a better person because of it, but when he learns the medicine he’s been taking has stopped the disease, he reverts to his former bad self. You can imagine what Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges or Ben Hecht (look at his 1937 script for Nothing Sacred, a forerunner of this film) would have done with it. Alas, Apatow is neither as skilled nor as ruthless as Wilder, Sturges, or Hecht.

The central problem is that the script (for reasons I will mention later, I am counting the film as the final draft of the script, as I have done other occasions) is unfocused and very repetitive, both overall and in individual scenes. We get scenes that take forever to get to their point, if they ever do. When we do get a good scene, such as George’s assistant Ira crying in a restaurant, it comes as so much of a surprise it does not seem to fit into the film. Apatow’s first cut was rumored to be three-hours-and-forty-five-minutes long. Part of the problem is that since the film is about comedians, Apatow let them improvise. That occasionally works in comedy (see the comments on In the Loop below), but if the career of Robert Altman has taught us anything, it is that sustained improv in drama will make a mess of your film. Extended improv can take you out of the characters and especially take you out of the story. There is a reason that Wilder and Sturges tightly scripted their films, even their comedies.

Apatow wrote a better mix of comedy and drama in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. There he gave us a strong set of characters, including the women. The man-child friends of Andy were kept as secondary characters. The drama became whether Andy was willing to grow up and deal with Trish, an actual adult female, and the scenes focused on that. In Knocked Up, Apatow moved one of those men-children into the leading role. The basic problem with that film was why would who appeared to be a smart, talented, intelligent woman want to have anything to do with a guy like that? OK, she was pregnant by him, but still. I think the dramatic shape of Knocked Up was supposed to be that Ben Stone begins to grow up, just like Andy in the previous film. Unfortunately, Apatow spent so much time on the hi-jinks of Ben and his friends that he never really showed us that development. We were just supposed to take it on faith when he started ordering people around in the delivery room.

After George finds out he is getting better, he and Ira descend on his former girlfriend Laura. Nikki Finke in her “Deadline Hollywood” column in the LA Weekly reported that Universal had asked Apatow to shorten this section of the film, and you can see why. Laura, the ex-girlfriend, is not a patch on Virgin’s Trish. She still has some feelings for George, although God knows why, but she also seems to be happily married to Clarke and the mother of two not-entirely adorable girls. (The kids are played by Apatow’s two daughters. The officials who look into child abuse should check out Apatow’s letting one of his tone-deaf off-spring sing “Memories” not only once, but twice.) It does not take much for Laura to have sex with George, even though she does decide finally to stay with Clarke. She describes Clarke as just like George, which, alas, he is. Is it humanly possible for Apatow to write a male character who does not talk a lot about his penis? Clarke would be a lot more interesting if he were really different from George.

For all its flaws, there are some good things in the script. Apatow has written George as a character with a variety of edges, which lets Adam Sandler give one of his best performances. If you never caught Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, you’ll be surprised. Likewise, Ira stretches what Seth Rogen has done before. Apatow has also written an odd little character in Daisy, Ira’s sort-of girl friend, and an actor whose talent I apparently failed to notice on the Parks and Recreation episodes I saw, Aubrey Plaza, gives her a distinctively off-beat rhythm.

In the Loop (2009. Written by Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, and Tony Roche, additional dialogue by Ian Martin and other uncredited contributors. 106 minutes): Sex and the City Redux.

Back in the Dark Ages, in US#1, I wrote about the difficulties of transferring a half-hour television series into the feature Sex and the City. Many of those problems show up in In the Loop, which evolved out of a 2005-2007 British cult TV hit called The Thick of It. It was a foul-mouthed, Mamet-on-steroids look at the British government in the Tony Blair era. Its main character was the government’s head of communications, Malcolm Tucker, who was constantly reaming out assorted bureaucrats. Tucker returns in the film and the question is, do we really want to spend 106 minutes with this guy? If you like this sort of thing, you might, but at that length he gets rather tiresome. Fortunately the writers have provided some other terrific characters to break up his rants. The storyline is a thinly disguised version of the run-up to the Iraq War, complete with a totally unreliable intelligence source. I have mentioned before that some films and television programs now in release seem dated because they are very “Bush era” and we are now in the “Obama era.” That’s a problem here, but the wit and energy help overcome that.

The filmmakers hired a bunch of first rate British and American actors, and then let them go, shooting the script, but also allowing for improvisations. I have no idea how much of the last scene between Peter Capaldi’s Tucker and James Gandolfini’s American General Miller is written or improvised, but it is a beautiful example of the filmmakers’ methods working. The editors, Anthony Boys and Billy Sneddon, have done a great job in shaping the film (this is another example of taking the film as the final draft of the screenplay), leaving in a lot of great stuff while keeping the story moving. The improvs work here because a) there is a strong storyline, and b) this is a comedy. In a comedy, you can get away with almost anything if it makes the audience laugh. The wit of the script and the improvs may help you not to notice that much of the dialogue is very “on the nose,” with people saying exactly what they think. On the other hand, because you are dealing with government bureaucrats, a lot of the dialogue shows people avoiding saying what they really think. The focus on dialogue re-enforces our awareness of this as a former television show, since the film is not particularly visually striking. A lot of the dialogue goes by so fast you may want to check out the quotes on the film’s IMDb page after you see the film to catch the lines you missed.

Julie & Julia (2009. Screenplay by Nora Ephron, based on the book Julie & Julia by Julie Powell and the book My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme. 124 minutes): Food Porn.

Nora Ephron loves food almost as much as Judd Apatow loves penises. All the 6,238 articles, interviews, and recipes about or by Ephron that have appeared in The New York Times in the last months have told us that, if you did not already know from her novel Heartburn. So here we have a movie about master chef Julia Child and Julie Powell, a blogger determined to cook all the recipes in Child’s cookbook in one year, all mixed together. The question is, is there anything in this film that would satisfy those of us who are happy picking up a couple of burgers at a drive-thru?

The answer is yes. Julia Child turns out to be a terrific character for a film: big, talented, focused, and without a whining bone in her body. Because Child and her personality are so well know, Ephron, the queen of the whiners, could not turn her into one of her typically Ephronesque neurotics. You have seen them in nearly all her films. We are supposed to love them because they are neurotic instead of in spite of it. But really, if Sleepless in Seattle’s Annie Reed were a guy, wouldn’t she have been sent up the river for stalking? Child won’t let Ephron get away with that here, and the script and Meryl Streep’s performance turns her into an heroic figure.

Several reviews of the film have suggested that the film should only have been about Julia and that the Julie story does not hold up its end. That’s partially true (the film only tells Julia’s story up to the publication of the book, and it could have gone on to show her becoming a celebrity TV cook) and partially a tribute to Streep’s performance. But Streep’s Child is such an outsized character, we might have grown tired of just her for two hours. The central problem with the Julie story is that Ephron has reverted to form with her. She whines, and as charming as Amy Adams can be, the concept of the character hurts those scenes. Adams gives us a lot more than charm and she’s taken some unfair hits from critics for Ephron’s writing of the character.

Ephron has also provided several other lively characters, especially in the Julia story. Peter, her husband, is supportive in a variety of specific ways. The great Jane Lynch shows up for a couple of scenes as Julia’s sister, and she steals the one in the restaurant from Streep. That’s not petty larceny, that’s grand theft acting. When the film comes to DVD you should look at that scene several times over to see how she does it. The characters in the Julie story are not as interesting. Her husband Eric is supportive but in a more general way than Paul. Eric is such a bland character we have no idea why he leaves her midway through the film. Don’t worry. He comes back. Ephron assumes good cooking will cover a multitude of sins. In the New York scenes, would it have killed Ephron to have at least one character who just didn’t give a shit about cooking?

The Answer Man (2009. Written by John Hindman. 95 minutes): Minor, but not without interest.

One review of this film made a big deal about how it is nothing but a ripoff of James L. Brooks’s As Good As It Gets: Cranky anti-social guy is warmed up by a nice woman. Excuse me, it’s a genre that goes back a lot further than 1997. How about Hunchback of Notre Dame, Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and the Beast and the assorted films made of them? It’s a romantic genre that men love, since it says that while us guys are pigs or worse, women will understand there is something sweet there and love us. Yeah, good luck on that.

The grouch here is Arlen Faber, who wrote a hugely popular self-help book twenty years ago and almost immediately turned into J.D. Salinger. The woman who brings him out of his shell is Elizabeth, and fortunately Hindman has become the first feature screenwriter to write a part for Lauren Graham that does justice to her ability to take you through a whole run of emotions in a matter of seconds. Compare that to the way she was underused in Evan Almighty and Because I Said So. Hindman has also written nice little roles for Kat Dennings (Norah in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) and Olivia Thirlby (Juno’s friend in Juno). Female stars looking for someone to write a rom-com with a really good role in it for them should check out Hindman and this film.

On the other hand, he does not write the part of Elizabeth’s young son very well. Depending on how you feel about kid characters and kid actors, that will be either a plus or minus for you.

Budd Schulberg (1914 – 2009) and John Hughes (1950 – 2009): An appreciation.

Two screenwriters, Budd Schulberg and John Hughes, died one day apart, Schulberg on August 5, Hughes on August 6th. You cannot imagine two more different writers, masters of writing films in their own times.

Schulberg was the son of occasional studio head B.P. Schulberg, and he grew up playing on the backlot of Paramount. Schulberg developed a sharp eye about Hollywood, which showed up in his first novel, What Makes Sammy Run? It tells the story of Sammy Glick, a Hollywood hustler, based in part on writer-producer Jerry Wald, who rises to the top. Sammy is an iconic figure, and the godfather of The Player’s Griffin Mill and Entourage’s Ari Gold. The book was published when Schulberg was twenty-seven and is still considered one of the two or three best Hollywood novels. When it came out in 1941, it was roundly condemned by the studio bosses. Louis B. Mayer told B.P. that Budd should be deported. B.P. laughed and replied, “Deported? Where? He was one of the few kids who came out of this place. Where are we going to deport him to? Catalina?”

The book also upset the Communist Party. Schulberg had been a member of the Party for a few years in the late thirties, but he refused the Party’s insistence that they be allowed to “help” him write the novel. A reviewer in the Communist paper The Daily Worker wrote a favorable review and then was forced to recant the review a few weeks later. The Party insisted they thought the novel was anti-Semitic, but the book exposed the anti-Semitism in the Party. And the Party felt the novel did not give the Party enough credit in the fight to establish the Screen Writers Guild. You can begin to understand why Schulberg was a friendly witness before HUAC in 1951, although like a number of friendly witnesses, he only named names the committee already had.

Schulberg had started as a junior writer in the thirties (he did some uncredited work on Ben Hecht’s Nothing Sacred), but is best known for his scripts in the fifties, especially On the Waterfront (1954). The film’s director, Elia Kazan, had worked with playwright Arthur Miller on an earlier screenplay called “The Hook” about corrupt labor unions on the New York waterfront. Miller broke off with Kazan when the latter also became a friendly witness for HUAC. Kazan picked up the project with Schulberg as the writer. In the Schulberg obituary in the Los Angeles Times Schulberg is quoted at great length as denying the script and the film were any sort of apologia for his testimony. He said, “I was interested in social conditions on the waterfront and drawing a truthful story, not in justifying my position.” It is true that the focus in narrative terms, as in Miller’s script, is on the labor union. For Miller, however, the main dramatic question is whether Marty, the longshoreman, will make a fight against the leadership of the union. In Schulberg’s script, the question is whether Terry will testify against the leadership. Schulberg’s script does not end with Terry’s testimony, but goes on for another ten to fifteen minutes showing us how he is treated by his community after his testimony. I think the film gets its power from Kazan and Schulberg’s understanding of the emotional and social price paid by Terry for his testimony.

Schulberg and Kazan followed up Waterfront three years later with A Face in the Crowd, a film that was neither a critical nor a commercial hit in its days, but which has gained in reputation over the years. Based on a short story by Schulberg, it tells the story of “Lonesome” Rhodes, a redneck ex-con who becomes a huge star, first on radio, then on the new medium of television. A lot of critics at time insisted that the film’s satire of television was too unbelievable, but virtually everything in the film has come true in one way or another. Paddy Chayefsky’s acclaimed 1976 script for Network owes a lot more to A Face in the Crowd than it admits, as does 1994’s Natural Born Killers.

One reason Face in the Crowd was not a commercial success in 1957 was that it was one of those dark fifties movies like Wilder’s Ace in the Hole that told us a lot about ourselves that we did not want to hear. Kazan also made a serious misjudgment in his direction. He pushed Andy Griffith, in his first film, years before Mayberry, to such emotional levels at the start of the film that Griffith had nowhere to go later, and his performance as Lonesome gets exhausting to watch. On the other hand, when I showed the film in class in 2000, six years after Natural Born Killers, the class admired its restraint. Schulberg’s film was 43 years ahead of its time.

Schulberg and Kazan often talked of remaking A Face in the Crowd, but never got around to it. And in later years, Schulberg was appalled to learn that young people in Hollywood were reading What Makes Sammy Run? not as the cautionary tale he intended but as a how-to-succeed-in-the-industry manual.

John Hughes grew up in the Midwest and spent his teen years in Chicago, which became not only the location for many of his scripts, but where he retreated after he got tired of dealing with the Sammy Glicks of Hollywood. He worked in advertising for a while, then at the National Lampoon. While his name or his pseudonym Edmond Dantes appears in some writing capacity on 39 films, he is best remembered for the eight films he directed as well as wrote. Hughes did not have the wide range of Schulberg, but like many movie stars who don’t have much of an acting range, he could be superb within a narrow range.

I was in my early forties when the classic Hughes films like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off were released, so they did not have the emotional impact for me that they did for people who were in their teens then. I thought Bob Clark’s scripts for the first two Porky’s films with their emphasis on male hormonal excess were more accurate representations of adolescence, but what Hughes got better than anybody else was the emotional temperature of teens. His teens were not as intense as those fifties kids in Rebel Without a Cause or as raunchy as the late nineties kids in the American Pie movies. Teens saw in Hughes’s films both an idealized view of themselves, but also an accurate view of the emotional fluctuations in their lives in suburban America.

Both men were screenwriters for their time. Schulberg looked at the real, wide adult world, which American films did, even in the restricted fifties. By Hughes’s heyday in the eighties, American films were focused more on the teen market, with all the restrictions that implies for filmmakers.

Middle Passage Summer Cable Season 2009: Comings and goings.

The Closer has continued to avoid showing us much of how Brenda and Fritz are adjusting to marriage. He shows up in cases from time to time, but that’s about it. In “Identify Theft” (teleplay by James Duff & Steven Kane, story by Ken Martin) Brenda’s mother shows up with Brenda’s niece Charlie, a teenage girl who is having discipline problems. Brenda puts her to work making friends with a teenager who may be a murderer. Charlie sort of comes to appreciate what Brenda does, which may or may not do Charlie any good. Not surprisingly, since she is played by Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon’s daughter, Sosie Bacon, she was back in “Smells Like Murder” (written by Duppy Demetrius). Since she was staying with Brenda and Fritz longer than she thought, she had a friend of hers mail a box of marijuana-laced brownies. Brenda, well-known for her sweet tooth, had several. Hi-jinks ensued. Demetrius also wrote in a nice set of reactions of members of Brenda’s team as they deal with a box delivered to the office that contains a dead body.

In US#29 I noted that on Saving Grace Grace and Rhetta were behaving more and more like teenagers and less like grownup employees of the police department. They have only gotten worse. And Grace has not learned a lot more about “coma girl,” at least until the “Looks Like a Lesbian Attack to Me” episode. “Coma girl,” or Neely, shows up there as a stripper working a pole and calling herself either Angel or Angela (I am not sure because most of the actors in the show are following Holly Hunter’s lead and trying to talk without moving their lips; mediocre sound mixing does not help). Earl takes her away in a “vortex of light,” as Grace describes it. But then Grace later meets her in a bar and discovers she knows as much about college football as Grace and her colleagues do. I am not sure if the show jumped the shark or just a dolphin or two with its “Popcorn” episode, written by Sibyl Gardner & Annie Bruner. The whole murder plot set up in the first half of the show turned out to be an elaborate practical joke that the cops were playing on Butch and his television reporter girlfriend. And when I say elaborate, I mean elaborate, with phony bodies, phony informants, the works. Now wouldn’t some supervisor logically object to spending so much of the department’s time and effort on a practical joke? Especially when there are real crimes to be solved. The nadir of the episode, the season, and the show came in one of the final scenes where Grace and Ham come to Rhetta’s lab and crawl around on the floor while talking to Rhetta. Is it something in the water?

Hung is not living up to its potential. In various episodes we are getting a lot of material about Ray, his ex-wife, his kids, and their problems, and less and less about his job as a “happiness consultant.” And the details about that job seem skipped over. I am not asking that it turn into hard-core porn (that’s what the Internet is for), but if the show is going to be about a guy who provides sex to women, then the episodes and scenes ought to be about that.

Drop Dead Diva continues to be uneven. In “The Chinese Wall” episode (written by Thania St. John), Jane represents Deb’s mother in her divorce while Grayson represents her father. There are some great reactions for Brooke Elliott as she deals with her/Deb’s mom, especially as she finds out that the marriage had not been a happy one but that they had stayed together for Deb. On the downside, the B story was about dog cloning, which Boston Legal would have done better. I have been glad to see they have had no more balcony scenes that I complained about in US#30. The other mediocre element in “Chinese Wall” was that Fred, Jane/Deb’s guardian angel, is trying to learn how to romance Stacy by…watching romantic movies. Haven’t we been there a lot before?

Burn Notice finished up its half season. In the last four episodes the show introduced Tom Strickler, who is sort of an agent for spies and other ne’er-do-wells. He pitched Michael the idea that if Michael would work for him, he would use his connections to get Michael back into legitimate intelligence work. Strickler is the kind of wonderfully sleazy character this show handles very well. He was as good as his word, which was something of a surprise. In the final episode, “Long Way Back” (written by Craig O’Neill), Irish thugs come to get Fiona. Michael, Sam, Fi, and Fi’s brother set up the lead thug O’Neill with a bomb with O’Neill’s signature. They also seem to have made up a second bomb, which they leave with Strickler’s body, whom Michael kills when he realizes Strickler has betrayed him by telling O’Neill where they are. Sorry to see Strickler get it, but at least he got the agency interested in Michael. Diego, the agency’s man dealing with Michael, calls him up to tell him his file is being renewed. Sure. And then Diego is killed by friends of Strickler. So we now have a different bunch of baddies to chase Michael when the show resumes in the winter. As I suspected, the question of Fi’s not wanting Michael to go back into the agency has been a recurring issue, but it generally has only been alluded to. At the beginning of “Long Way Back” Fi is leaving Miami to go back to Ireland, and that is left up in the air at the end of the episode.

In Plain Sight has, fortunately, been spending less and less time with Mary’s obnoxious family and more on her cases. A favorite episode of mine in this season was “Let’s Get It Ahn” (written by the series creator David Maples). Most episodes are relatively simple in terms of narrative, but this one was so complicated I had to stop taking notes. Helen, an artist, was counterfeiting money, maybe for the North Koreans, or the C.I.A., or who knows who. Everybody official is denying any connection with her. But Mary is protecting her, although she keeps slipping away. Who is trying to find her? And why is somebody planting clues to lead them to her? And that’s just the first half. You have to like a show that keeps you running to catch up. On the family front, Mary has almost inadvertently gotten herself engaged to her boyfriend, ex-minor leaguer Raphael, but most of the complications of that do not distract us too much from the main stories. In the season finale, “Don’t Cry for Me, Albuquerque” (written by Jessica Butler), Mary is assigned to protect Latin American political organizer Francesca Garcia, who is just as outside the box as Mary is. The State Department has abducted her from her unnamed country and spread the word she is in prison in that country, hoping this will start the revolution. So baddies from that country will come to take her out? Nope. Francesca decides she does not want to live in the very luxurious house the State Department is providing, and moves into what Mary calls a “dangerous area,” with druggies and drug salesmen as her neighbors. She thinks they are just like the guys she grew up with. When Mary gets shot, Francesca thinks it was Mary’s fault for challenging those nice drug dealers. We are left at the end with Mary in critical condition and the extent of her injuries not completely known. Are you betting like I am that she will recover and the show will not turn into a rehab drama?

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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Review: The Old Guard Is a Would-Be Franchise Starter with No New Moves

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action, the film is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts.

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The Old Guard
Photo: Netfflix

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard is a modestly successful attempt to build a new fountain of franchise content out of a comic series with nearly limitless potential for spin-offs. The story kicks into motion with a team of four mercenaries with unique powers and an ancient bond setting off to rescue some kidnapped girls in South Sudan. Charlize Theron brings her customarily steely intensity to the role of the group’s cynical, burnt-out leader, Andy, who isn’t crazy about the idea since she doesn’t trust Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the ex-C.I.A. agent who hired them. Given how long it turns out that Andy has been doing this sort of thing, you would imagine that her comrades would listen.

The mission turns out to be a set-up, and the would-be rescuers are wiped out in a barrage of bullets. Except not, because Andy and her team are pretty much unkillable. So as their enemies are slapping each other on the back and conveniently looking the other way, the mercenaries haul themselves to their feet, bodies healing almost instantaneously, bullets popping out of closing wounds. Payback is swift but interesting, because for reasons likely having to do with their being many centuries old—the youngest, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), fought for Napoleon—the four quasi-immortals like to use swords in addition to automatic weaponry.

Written with glints of pulpy panache by Greg Rucka, the comic’s originator, The Old Guard sets up a high-potential premise and proceeds to do not very much with it. Rucka’s conceit is that this tiny group are among the very few people on Earth to have been born essentially immortal. This can be a good thing, but it can also prove problematic, as it means that they watch everybody they know age and die—a trope that was already somewhat worn by the time Anne Rice used it throughout her novels about ever-suffering vampires.

The plot of the film does relatively little after the showdown in South Sudan besides introduce a new member of the mercenary team, Nile (KiKi Layne), establish that Andy is tiring of the wandering warrior life, and show the group plotting revenge on Copley only to have that turn into a rescue mission that conveniently brings them all back together again. As part of the run-up to that mission, new recruit Nile, a Marine who goes AWOL from Afghanistan with Andy after her fellow soldiers see her seemingly fatal knife wound magically heal and treat her as some kind of witch, is introduced to life as a nearly invincible eternal warrior.

That rescue plot is simple to the point of being rote. Billionaire Big Pharma bro Merrick (Harry Melling), seemingly made up of equal parts Lex Luthor and Martin Shkreli, kidnaps two of Andy’s team in the hope of harvesting their DNA for blockbuster anti-aging drugs. Unfortunately for the film, that takes two of its most personable characters temporarily out of action. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) had their meet-cute while fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades and have been wildly in love ever since. After the two are captured and mocked by Merrick’s homophobic gunsels, Joe delivers a pocket soliloquy on his poetic yearning: “His kiss still thrills me after a millennium.” The moment’s romantic burn is more poignant by being clipped to its bare-minimal length and presented with the casual confidence one would expect from a man old enough to remember Pope Urban II.

In other ways, however, The Old Guard fails to explore the effects of living such lengthy lives. Asked by Nile whether they are “good guys or bad guys,” Booker answers that “it depends on the century.” While Rucka’s hard-boiled lines like that can help energize the narrative, it can also suggest a certain flippancy. When the film does deal with crushing weight of historical memory, it focuses primarily on Andy, who’s been around so long that her name is shortened from Andromache the Scythian (suggesting she was once the Amazon warrior queen who fought in the battle of Troy). Except for a brief flashback illustrating the centuries-long escapades of Andy and Quynh (Veronica Ngo) fighting for vaguely defined positive principles (one involved rescuing women accused of witchcraft), we don’t see much of their past. Similarly, except for Andy’s increasing cynicism about the positive impact of their roaming the Earth like do-gooder ronin, they seem to exist largely in the present.

That present is largely taken up with combat, particularly as Booker, Andy, and Nile gear up to rescue Nicky and Joe. Prince-Bythewood handles these scenes with a degree of John Wick-esque flair: Why just shoot a Big Pharma hired gun once when you can shoot him, flip him over, and then stab and shoot him again for good measure? However tight, though, the action scenes’ staging is unremarkable, with the exception of one climactic moment that’s so well-choreographed from an emotional standpoint that the impossibility of a multiplex crowd hooting and clapping in response makes the film feel stifled by being limited to streaming.

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts. That will likely not stop further iterations from finding ways to plug these characters and their like into any historical moment that has room in it for high-minded mercenaries with marketable skills and a few centuries to kill.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling, Veronica Ngo Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood Screenwriter: Greg Rucka Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: We Are Little Zombies Is a Fun, Wildly Stylized Portrait of Grief

The film is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries.

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We Are Little Zombies
Photo: Oscilloscope

Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies follows the exploits of a group of tweens who meet at the funeral home where their deceased parents are being cremated. But, surprisingly, Hitari (Keita Ninomiya), Takemura (Mondo Okumura), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), and Ikiko (Satoshi Mizuno) are united less by sorrow and more by cool indifference, as they see their parents’ deaths as yet another tragedy in what they collectively agree is pretty much a “shit life.” As the socially awkward Hitari claims matter-of-factly in voiceover, “Babies cry to signal they need help. Since no one can help me, there’s no point in crying.”

Through a series of extended flashbacks, Nagahisa relates the kids’ troubled lives, never stooping to pitying or sentimentalizing them or their utter dismay with the adult world. The new friends’ deeply internalized grief and hopelessness are filtered wildly through a hyperreal aesthetic lens that’s indebted to all things pop, from psychedelia to role-playing games. It’s Nagashisa’s vibrant means of expressing the disconnect between the kids’ troubled lives and their emotionless reactions to the various tragedies that have befallen them.

With its chiptunes-laden soundtrack and chapter-like form, which mimics the levels of a video game, We Are Little Zombies will draw understandable comparisons to Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But it’s Nagisa Oshima’s Three Resurrected Drunkards that offers a more precise analogue to this film’s provocative rhyming of stylistic zaniness and extreme youthful alienation. Oshima’s anarchically playful farce stars the real-life members of the Folk Crusaders as a disaffected group of rebellious musicians, and when the kids of We Are Little Zombies decide to form a band to express themselves, they even perform a bossa nova version of the Folk Crusaders’s theme song for the 1968 film. This and the many other cultural touchstones in We Are Little Zombies are seamlessly weaved by Nagahisa into a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries, be they social media or a dizzying glut of pop-cultural creations.

Nagahisa’s aesthetic mirrors his main characters’ disconnect from reality, incorporating everything from stop-motion animation to pixelated scenes and overhead shots that replicate the stylings of 8-bit RPGs. At one point in We Are Little Zombies, an unsettling talk show appearance brings to mind what it would be like to have a bad acid trip on the set of an old MTV news program. Nagahisa accepts that the kids’ over-engagement with screen-based technology is inextricably embedded in their experience of reality and ultimately celebrates the sense of camaraderie and belonging that the foursome finds in pop artifacts and detritus. This is particularly evident once their band, the Little Zombies of the film’s title, starts to explore their antipathy toward and frustrations with a seemingly indifferent world.

The Little Zombies wield the same charming punk spirit as the film, and once instant fame reveals its viciously sharp teeth, Nagahisa doesn’t hold back from peering into the nihilistic abyss that stands before the kids. As in Three Resurrected Drunkards, We Are Little Zombies’s most despairing notes are couched in the distinctive language of pop culture. Hitari’s attempts to grab essential items before running away from the home of a relative (Eriko Hatsune) are staged as a video game mission. The band’s hit song—titled, of course, “We Are Little Zombies”—is an infectious, delightfully melodic banger all about their dispassionate existence. There’s even a fake death scene of the kids that, as in Three Resurrected Drunkards, effectively restarts the film’s narrative, allowing the characters to once again test their fate.

For all of this film’s reliance on the stylistic ticks of video games, its narrative arc isn’t limited to the typically linear journey embarked upon by many a gaming protagonist, and the foursome’s path leads neither to enlightenment nor even happiness per se. What they’ve discovered in the months since their parents’ deaths is a solidarity with one another, and rather than have them conquer their fears and anxieties, Nagahisa wisely acknowledges that their social disconnection will remain an ongoing struggle. He understands that by tapping into the unifying, rather than alienating, powers of pop culture, they’re better equipped to deal with whatever additional hard knocks that the modern world will inevitably throw their way.

Cast: Keita Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, Sena Nakajima, Kuranosukie Sasaki, Youki Kudoh, Sosuke Ikematsu, Eriko Hatsune, Jun Murakami, Naomi Nishida Director: Makoto Nagahisa Screenwriter: Makoto Nagahisa Distributor: Oscilloscope Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Palm Springs Puts a Fresh Spin on the Time-Loop Rom-Com

The film smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle.

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Palm Springs
Photo: Hulu

The pitch for Palm Springs likely went: “Edge of Tomorrow meets Groundhog Day but with a cool Coachella rom-com vibe.” All of those components are present and accounted for in Max Barbakow’s film, about two people forced to endure the same day of a Palm Springs wedding over and over again after getting stuck in a time loop. But even though the concept might feel secondhand, the execution is confident, funny, and thoughtful.

Palm Springs starts without much of a hook, sidling into its story with the same lassitude as its protagonist, Nyles (Andy Samberg). First seen having desultory sex with his shallow and always peeved girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner), Nyles spends the rest of the film’s opening stretch wandering around the resort where guests are gathered for the wedding of Misty’s friend, Tala (Camila Mendes), lazing around the pool and drinking a seemingly endless number of beers. “Oh yeah, Misty’s boyfriend” is how most refer to him with casual annoyance, and then he gives a winning wedding speech that one doesn’t expect from a plus-one.

The reason for why everything at the wedding seems so familiar to Nyles, and why that speech is so perfectly delivered, becomes clear after he entices the bride’s sister and maid of honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), to follow him out to the desert for a make-out session. In quick succession, Nyles is shot with an arrow by a mysterious figure (J.K. Simmons), Sarah is accidentally sucked into the same glowing vortex that trapped Nyles in his time loop, and she wakes up on the morning of the not-so-great day that she just lived through.

Although Palm Springs eventually digs into the knottier philosophical quandaries of this highly elaborate meet-cute, it takes an appealingly blasé approach to providing answers to the scenario’s curiosities. What initially led Nyles to the mysterious glowing cave in the desert? How has he maintained any semblance of sanity over what appears to be many years of this nightmare existence? How come certain people say “thank you” in Arabic?

This attitude of floating along the sea of life’s mysteries without worry parallels Nyles’s shrugging attitude about the abyss facing them. In response to Sarah’s panicked queries about why they are living the same day on repeat, Nyles throws out a random collection of theories: “one of those infinite time loop situations….purgatory….a glitch in the simulation we’re all in.” His ideas seem half-baked at first. But as time passes, it becomes clear that Nyles has been trapped at the wedding so long that not only has he lost all concept of time or even who he was before it began, his lackadaisical approach to eternity seems more like wisdom.

Darkly cantankerous, Sarah takes a while to come around to that way of thinking. Her version of the Kübler-Ross model starts in anger and shifts to denial (testing the limits of their time-loop trap, she drives home to Texas, only to snap back to morning in Palm Springs when she finally dozes off) before pivoting to acceptance. This segment, where Nyles introduces Sarah to all the people and things he’s found in the nooks and crannies of the world he’s been able to explore in one waking day, plays like a quantum physics rom-com with a video-game-y sense of immortality. After learning the ropes from Nyles (death is no escape, so try to avoid the slow, agonizing deaths), Sarah happily takes part in his Sisyphean games of the drunk and unkillable, ranging from breaking into houses to stealing and crashing a plane.

As places to be trapped for all eternity, this idyll doesn’t seem half bad at first. Barbakow’s fast-paced take on the pleasingly daffy material helps, as does the balancing of Milioti’s angry agita with Samberg’s who-cares recklessness. Eventually the story moves out of endlessly looping stasis into the problem-solution phase, with Sarah deciding she can’t waste away in Palm Springs for eternity. But while the question of whether or not they can escape via Sarah’s device for bridging the multiverse takes over the narrative to some degree, Palm Springs is far more interesting when it ruminates lightly on which puzzle they’re better off solving: pinning their hopes on escape or cracking another beer and figuring out how to be happy in purgatory. Palm Springs isn’t daring by any stretch, but it smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle that’s similar to Groundhog Day but without that film’s reassuring belief that a day can be lived perfectly rather than simply endured.

Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Millioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendez, Tyler Hoechlin, Chris Pang Director: Max Barbakow Screenwriter: Andy Siara Distributor: Neon, Hulu Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Hamilton Comes Home, Still Holding Conflicting Truths at Once

The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage.

3.5

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Hamilton
Photo: Disney+

The actual physical production of Hamilton has never been at the heart of the show’s fandom. Its lyrics have been memorized en masse, Hamilton-inspired history courses have been created across grade levels, and its references have invaded the vernacular, but, for most, Hamilton’s liveness has been inaccessible, whether due to geography or unaffordability. Hamilton the film, recorded over two Broadway performances in 2016 with most of the original Broadway cast, winningly celebrates the still-surprisingly rich density of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score and the show’s much-heralded actors. But this new iteration is most stunning in its devotion to translating Hamilton’s swirling, churning storytelling—the work of director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler—to the screen.

Most films of live theater feel partial and remote. There’s usually a sense that with every move of the camera we’re missing out on something happening elsewhere on stage. The autonomy of attending theater in person—the ability to choose what to focus on—is stripped away. But instead of delimiting what we see of Hamilton, this film opens up our options. Even when the camera (one of many installed around, behind, and above the stage) homes in on a lone singer, the shots tend to frame the soloists in a larger context: We can watch Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), but we can also track the characters behind him or on the walkways above him. Every shot is rife with detail and movement: the rowers escorting Alexander Hamilton’s (Miranda) body to shore, Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones) hovering beneath a stairway as Hamilton confesses his infidelities to Burr, ensemble members dancing in the shadows of David Korins’s imposing set. There’s no space to wonder what might be happening beyond the camera’s gaze.

Off-setting the cast album’s appropriate spotlight on the show’s stars, the film, also directed by Kail, constantly centers the ensemble, even when they’re not singing, as they enact battles and balls or symbolically fly letters back and forth between Hamilton and Burr. Audiences who mainly know the show’s music may be surprised by how often the entire cast is on stage, and even those who’ve seen Hamilton live on stage will be delighted by the highlighted, quirky individuality of each ensemble member’s often-silent storytelling.

Kail shows impressive restraint, withholding aerial views and shots from aboard the spinning turntables at the center of the stage until they can be most potent. The film also convincingly offers Hamilton’s design as a stunning work of visual art, showcasing Howell Binkley’s lighting—the sharp yellows as the Schuyler Sisters take the town and the slowly warming blues as Hamilton seeks his wife’s forgiveness—just as thoughtfully as it does the performances.

And when the cameras do go in for a close-up, they shade lyrics we may know by heart with new meaning. In “Wait for It,” Burr’s paean to practicing patience rather than impulsiveness, Odom (who won a Tony for the role) clenches his eyes shut as he sings, “I am inimitable, I am an original,” tensing as if battling to convince himself that his passivity is a sign of strength and not cowardice. When Eliza Hamilton (Philippa Soo) glances upward and away from her ever-ascendant husband as she asks him, “If I could grant you peace of mind, would that be enough?,” it’s suddenly crystal clear that she’s wondering whether taking care of Alexander would be enough for herself, not for him, her searching eyes foreshadowing her eventual self-reliance. And there’s an icky intimacy unachievable in person when Jonathan Groff’s mad King George literally foams at the mouth in response to the ingratitude of his colonies.

The production’s less understated performances, like Daveed Diggs’s show-stealing turn (also Tony-winning) in the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and Renée Elise Goldsberry’s fiery embodiment (yes, also Tony-winning) of the shrewd, self-sacrificing Angelica Schuyler Church, benefit, too, from the way that the film’s pacing latches onto Miranda’s propulsive writing. In Jefferson’s return home, “What’d I Miss,” the camera angles change swiftly as if to keep up with Diggs’s buoyancy.

Despite Christopher Jackson’s warm and gorgeous-voiced performance, George Washington remains Hamilton’s central sticking point. While Jefferson receives a dressing down from Hamilton for practicing slavery, Washington, who once enslaved over 200 people at one time at Mount Vernon, shows up in Hamilton as a spotless hero who might as well be king if he wasn’t so noble as to step down. There’s a tricky tension at Hamilton’s core: Casting performers of color as white founding “heroes” allows the master narrative to be reclaimed, but it’s still a master narrative. For audiences familiar with the facts, the casting of black actors as slave owners (not just Jefferson) is an unstated, powerful act of artistic resistance against the truths of the nation’s founding. But for those learning their history from Hamilton, especially young audiences, they will still believe in Washington’s moral purity, even if they walk away picturing the first president as Christopher Jackson.

But Hamilton is complex and monumental enough of a work to hold conflicting truths at once. In attempting to recraft our understanding of America’s founding, it may fall short. In forcibly transforming the expectations for who can tell what stories on which stages, Hamilton has been a game-changer. And as a feat of musical theater high-wire acts, Miranda’s dexterity in navigating decades of historical detail while weaving his characters’ personal and political paths tightly together is matched only by his own ingenuity as a composer and lyricist of songs that showcase his characters’ brilliance without distractingly drawing attention to his own.

Dynamized by its narrative-reclaiming, race-conscious casting and hip-hop score, and built around timeline-bending reminders that America may be perpetually in the “battle for our nation’s very soul,” Hamilton, of course, also lends itself particularly easily to 2020 connections. But the greater gift is that Hamilton will swivel from untouchability as Broadway’s most elusive, priciest ticket to mass accessibility at a moment of keen awareness that, to paraphrase George Washington, history has its eyes on us. The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage. That we are sharing Hamilton here and now offers as much hope as Hamilton itself.

Cast: Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Phillipa Soo Director: Thomas Kail Screenwriter: Ron Chernow, Lin-Manuel Miranda Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 160 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: In Family Romance, LLC, Reality and Fantasy Affectingly Collide

Throughout, it’s as though Werner Herzog were more witness than author, simply registering Japan being Japan.

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Family Romance, LLC
Photo: MUBI

Werner Herzog’s Family Romance, LLC presents Japan as a place where the technological follies of modernity that many see as embryonic in the West are allowed to blossom unabashedly. The Orientalism inherent to this myth, that of Japan as a high-tech dystopia where human alienation reaches its pathetic zenith, is somewhat masked here by the film’s style, which inhabits that strangely pleasurable cusp between fact and fiction. We are never quite sure of the extent to which situations and dialogues have been scripted and, as such, it’s as though Herzog were more witness than author, more passerby than gawker, simply registering Japan being Japan.

The film is centered around Ishii Yuichi, playing a version of himself, who owns a business that rents out human beings to act like paparazzi, family members, lovers, or bearers of good (albeit fake) news. One of his clients, for example, is a woman who wants to relive the moment when she won the lottery. We follow Ishii as he travels to his business calls, which may consist of going to a funeral home that offers coffin rentals by the hour for people to test out, or to a hotel where the clerks behind the helpdesk and the fish in the aquarium are robots.

The camera, otherwise, follows Ishii’s encounters with his 12-year-old “daughter,” Mahiro (Mahiro). The girl’s mother, Miki (Miki Fujimaki), has enlisted Ishii to play Mahiro’s missing father, who abandoned her when she was two, and make it seem as if he’s suddenly resurfaced. The film’s most interesting moments don’t arise from its largely obvious critiques of simulation, but from the human relationship between Ishii and Mahiro. In the end, the film’s smartest trick is getting the audience to genuinely feel for this young girl on screen, acting for us, all while scoffing at Ishii’s clients for scripting their own emotional experiences.

We know the relationship between Mahiro and Ishii to be false on multiple levels. They may not be professional actors, but they are very much acting, and their interactions nonetheless tap into something quite authentic and emotional. Although their kinship is an act of make-believe, it’s driven by similar malaises that plague “real” father-daughter relationships. Mahiro, who doesn’t meet Ishii until she’s a pre-teen and is presumably unaware that it’s all just an act, struggles to articulate feelings that overwhelm her. Asking for a hug from Ishii is a Herculean task for her. But granting her the hug is also a Herculean task for Ishii, who ultimately confesses to wondering whether his real family, too, has been paid by someone else to raise him. Must a father’s hug be so clinical even when he’s getting paid to do it?

Such moments as that awkward father-daughter hug, a scene where Mahiro gives Ishii an origami animal that she made for him (“It’s delicate, so be careful,” she says), and another where she confesses that she likes a boy all point to the ways in which feeling slips out of even the most perfectly scripted protocols. That’s a relief for the kind of society that Family Romance, LLC aims to critique, one where tidy transactions are meant to neuter the messy unpredictability of human interactions but fail. Emotion slips out despite diligent attempts to master it, forcing even those who stand to gain the most from hyper-controlled environments to eventually face the shakiness of their own ground. Ishii, for instance, is forced to reconsider his business model when Mahiro’s demand for love starts to affect him. Ishii’s fear that he may also have been swindled by actors posing as parents tells us that authors are subjects, too, and that the equation between reality and fantasy is never quite settled.

Cast: Ishii Yuichi, Mahiro, Miki Fujimaki, Umetani Hideyasu, Shun Ishigaki Director: Werner Herzog Screenwriter: Werner Herzog Distributor: MUBI Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Force of Nature, Much Like Mel Gibson, Is an Absolute Disaster

The film presents its scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena.

.5

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Force of Nature
Photo: Lionsgate

If cancel culture truly had the power its detractors ascribed to it, then Michael Polish’s Force of Nature would have probably never starred Mel Gibson. The film stars the one-time Hollywood idol as a trigger-happy retired cop who hurls insults like “cocksucker” at men who inconvenience him. By itself, casting Gibson as the kind of manic, violence-prone cop for which he was once known for playing speaks to the film’s defiantly conservative politics, its will to return to a cinematic era when violent white cops were viewed as good cops. But also having Gibson’s Ray toss out homophobic slurs almost turns this insipid action flick into a statement about Gibson himself, as if the actor’s own record of making such remarks should be viewed as the charmingly impolitic outbursts of an old-fashioned geezer.

Because Ray joins a multiethnic crew of good guys to save the day, we’re presumably meant to view his personality flaws as minor, the attributes of a classical cop masculinity that’s entered its dotage but ready to be awakened for one last shoot-out with big-city scum. The big city in this case is San Juan, Puerto Rico, which, as the film begins, is under siege by a hurricane. Set almost entirely in a cramped apartment building, Force of Nature is part Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, part The Raid: Redemption (or one of its many clones), attempting but failing to imitate both the former’s eccentric take on the clash of extreme personalities and extreme weather and the intensity of the latter’s kinetic, close-quarters action.

Despite being the biggest star on the bill, Gibson isn’t quite at the center of the narrative, even if the meaningless flash forward that opens Force of Nature, of Ray shooting at two figures in the rain, initially suggests otherwise. Ray plays second fiddle to Emile Hirsch’s point-of-view character, Cordillo, the San Juan police officer who refuses to learn a word of Spanish and might as well be wearing a MAGA hat. (“Where is el victim-o?” he asks regarding an incident at a supermarket early in the film.) Cordillo and his new partner, Peña (Stephanie Cayo), are assigned to help move San Juan’s residents to shelters, encountering Ray and his daughter, Troy (Kate Bosworth), at the apartment complex where Griffin (Will Catlett), Ray and Troy’s newly arrested neighbor, needs to feed his very hungry pet.

For those who’ve seen Netflix’s Tiger King, it will be clear from the 100 pounds of meat that Griffin intends to feed his pet that the man illegally owns some kind of wild cat. And if this offbeat scenario doesn’t elicit the laughs it may be aiming for, that’s at least in part due to composer Kubilay Uner’s score, which applies Wagnerian bombast to nearly every narrative event, as if it could will the paper-thin plot into some kind of significance. The tonal inconsistencies, however, aren’t confined to this clash between image and soundtrack. On a visual level, it’s difficult to know what to make of the scene in which Griffin’s pet, kept entirely off screen, drags Griffin into its pitch-black den and mauls him in front of a not-quite-horrified Cordillo, while a gang that Ray identifies as high-end burglars begins a raid of the complex. Neither funny nor suspenseful, it’s a bewildering mash of visual codes.

Led by a ruthless figure known as John the Baptist (David Zayas), the burglars first make an appearance in the second of the film’s two prologues, in which John kidnaps an elderly woman to get into her safety deposit box, before executing her as well as his accomplice in plain sight—a scene that somewhat belies Ray’s later in-the-know description of the gang as clever plotters. The nature of their interest in Ray, Troy, and Griffin’s apartment building is left vague until a late reveal, a nonsensically belated introduction of the story’s MacGuffin that contributes to the feeling of arbitrariness that pervades the film.

While Peña and Ray confront John and his crew, Cordillo and Troy go off to find medical supplies, along the way developing a thoroughly underwritten and ill-conceived romance; Troy is abruptly drawn to Cordillo after he shares his history of accidental violence against a former girlfriend (Jasper Polish). Meanwhile, the wounded Griffin is left under the watch of Paul (Jorge Luis Ramos), a German about whom multiple characters ask, in all sincerity, if he’s a Nazi, and based solely on his white hair and nationality—certainly not on any arithmetic, as the seventysomething man appears far too young to have been a Nazi Party member.

It would all be material for a parody of cheap-action-flick sensibilities: the preoccupation with Nazism, the hollow romance, the valorization of white male rage barely masked behind a rudimentary psychologism. Unfortunately, Cory M. Miller’s screenplay presents all these scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena. The truth, of course, is that Force of Nature, much like the consequences of the hurricane that clearly inspired it, is a man-made disaster.

Cast: Emile Hirsch, Mel Gibson, Kate Bosworth, David Zayas, Stephanie Cayo, Will Catlett, Jasper Polish, Jorge Luis Ramos Director: Michael Polish Screenwriter: Cory M. Miller Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 91 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: John Lewis: Good Trouble Places a Hero in Dialogue with the Past

The film is well-outfitted with telling, thematically rich shards of historical information.

3

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John Lewis: Good Trouble
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

John Lewis isn’t easily rattled. As a nonviolent foot soldier for desegregation and voting rights in the 1960s, he was severely beaten on several occasions. As a U.S. representative since 1987, he’s contended with a Republican Party that has tacked steadily rightward. John Lewis: Good Trouble presents another, if much less demanding, test for the congressman: Watching his life unspool around him on three large screens in a darkened D.C. theater.

Dawn Porter’s authoritative documentary mixes contemporary and archival material, and the latter includes many rare images, including some that the 80-year-old civil rights pioneer himself had never seen. Porter and her crew decided to show their findings to the Georgia Democrat while simultaneously filming his reactions, and the emotions prompted by this experience are palpable but carefully modulated on his part. Like most successful politicians, Lewis knows how to stay on message, and it’s clear from the moments captured here that he long ago decided which of his private feelings would be elements of his public persona.

One example of this is Lewis’s story about his early desire to become a preacher. As a boy, he says, he would address the chickens on his sharecropper family’s Alabama farm but could never get them to say “amen.” Porter places this anecdote early in Good Trouble, amid comments from family members, so it plays like a revelatory glimpse at Lewis’s formative years. But the congressman, of course, began constructing his biography long before this particular documentary crew arrived. And Porter acknowledges this fact with a scene, toward the film’s end, where Lewis tells the story again during a get-together of former congressional staffers and it becomes clear that everybody in the room already knows it.

Good Trouble, which takes its title from Lewis’s advice to young activists to get into “what I call good trouble,” is partly a testimonial. It includes snippets of praise from Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as congressional new wavers Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who says she wouldn’t be where she is today without Lewis’s example. Yet the film also recalls moments when Lewis wasn’t in perfect sync with his allies, notably the bitter primary for the seat he now holds in Georgia’s 5th District. Lewis defeated Julian Bond by winning support of the district’s white voters, and by hinting that Bond had a drug problem. Earlier, Lewis had recoiled from the militancy of “Black Power” and lost his position in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Lewis doesn’t say much about these chapters in his life, just as he doesn’t reveal a lot when he gives tours of his homes in Atlanta and D.C. A widower, he seems to live alone, though a cat is glimpsed inside the Georgia house at one point. One of the documentary’s most personal stories, about his tearful reaction to the news that his great-great-grandfather registered to vote in 1867, is told not by the congressman but by cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., who unveiled the voter card on the show he hosts, Finding Your Roots. Good Trouble is well-outfitted with such telling shards of historical information, and Porter skillfully fits them together, assembling her subject’s biography thematically rather than chronologically.

Thus, a section on the young Lewis’s battle for African-American suffrage naturally begins in the 1960s before leading to 2014, when a Supreme Court ruling undermined the Voting Rights Act, and ultimately to the 2016 and 2018 elections swayed by voter suppression. The effect is illuminating, if not especially visceral. When the filmmakers arranged this kind of “This Is Your Life” for Lewis, they may not have elicited as much emotion as they’d hoped from the congressman. But they did fashion a microcosm of what the entire Good Trouble shows: the present in dialogue with the past, and a hero in the context of a larger movement.

Director: Dawn Porter Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 97 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020: Mon Amour, Film About a Father Who, & The Kiosk

There’s colossal might to a cinematic image achieved through the scrappiest of means.

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Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020
Photo: Arte France Cinéma

In the opening narration to his documentary Mon Amour, David Teboul recalls a message that his former lover, Frédéric, sent him in the middle of the night before taking his life: “It’s crazy how many things we must invent to keep us from just eating, shitting, and sleeping.” The great organizer of these “many things” we invent to convince ourselves to be something more than mere organisms is the belief in love. That, anyway, is the idea that organizes Mon Amour as Teboul travels from his native France to Siberia in order to interview locals about their experiences with love, as a way to mourn the end of his own love story.

What Teboul finds in Siberia is quite disheartening: that love, when it materializes in the figure of the lover, burns fast, and what seemed like a panacea to make our miserable world a livable place turns into the poison we call domesticity. Lovers become enemies we can’t get rid of. But the little bit of love that’s saved in the ashes of the deflated mirage that once promised to save us is once in a while rekindled through Teboul’s prodding as he interviews elderly couples who seem to articulate their feelings for the first time in ages.

The very dispositions of these individuals mimic the abyss between what was once a prospect of a pleasurable life and the crude reality of vodka and violence that replaced it. In the rare moments when someone sings the praises of togetherness, they do so by looking down or away, as if addressing their own partners when speaking about love would mean losing the little bit of honor they have left after putting up with so much betrayal.

Although Teboul interviews young people, too, the strongest portraits are those of the elderly, who, on some level, take advantage of their cinematic moment to air their grievances and, once in a while, admit gratitude. A very old-looking woman in her mid-60s who lost her sight from reading too much Pushkin late at night tells us that any other man would surely have left her long ago, but not her husband, who senses when she’s awake in the middle of the night, makes her tea, and tells her that if she dies he will follow her to the grave. Teboul’s questions can be refreshingly unexpected. As when he asks the woman what her husband’s favorite body part is. When she whispers the answer into his cute little mushroom ears, you sense that it’s the closest thing to an “I love you” that he will ever hear. We don’t know if his eyes water as she praises his ears, for he looks down and away, before then heart-breakingly saying, “The main thing is not to suffer, and not to make others suffer.”

Teboul juxtaposes these portraits with digressions about his simultaneously wonderful and dismal times with Frédéric. These reflections borrow from Hiroshima Mon Amour, which Teboul watched as a child and has haunted him ever since. Frédéric, like Emmanuelle Riva’s character in that film, was also from Nevers. In these poetic detours, we see barely lit naked bodies meant to represent Teboul and his ghostly lover, recalling the opening of Alain Resnais’s film. It often feels like these autobiographical avowals, plagued by unnecessary classical music, belong to a different film. But they’re symbolically important, if not indispensable, as if Teboul was offering a self-implicating gift in exchange for awakening the long dormant intimacies of strangers.

Film About a Father Who

An image from Lynne Sachs’s Film About a Father Who. © Lynne Sachs

The absence of love, and our insistence on spending our entire lives looking for it anyway, is also at the core of Lynne Sachs’s Film About a Father Who. Sheffield Doc/Fest is screening several of Sachs’s documentaries on its streaming platform. For Film About a Father Who, Sachs spent over three decades amassing footage (from Super 8 to digital) of her father, an eccentric salesman from Utah who lived a Hugh Hefner kind of life, neglecting his children and hosting a different girlfriend almost every night at his official family home. Lots and lots of them got pregnant, which resulted in Sachs having what feels like hundreds of siblings, whose testimonials she collects here. Some didn’t know who their father was until they were adults. Others, in order to protect themselves from so much hurt, still think of him as a kind of godfather.

The title of the film is an obvious play on Film About a Woman Who…, Yvonne Rainer’s experimental masterpiece about heteronormativity and monogamy. Rainer’s approach is acerbic, perhaps even folkloric, in the sense that her film portrays one specific woman wallowing in the sinking boat of heterosexual coupledom at the same time that it tells the archetypal tale of heterosexual domesticity writ large. Sachs’s approach feels a lot less multi-layered. Film About a Father Who is so fast-paced and Sachs’s narration so detached, or literal, that it can seem more like an underdeveloped absurdist comedy as random siblings keep turning up out of nowhere to give a brief account of their contradicting feelings toward their father. One of Sachs’s many sisters recounts how their father was arrested for possession of weed when they were kids and how she didn’t know whether to weep or jump with joy at the time. But the family constellation in Sachs’s film is so vast we never spend enough time with any one single relative to see them as something other than an element.

There’s a sort of North American pragmatic froideur in the film, also present in self-ethnographic films like Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, that Rainer queers through stylistic experimentation, and that Teboul completely avoids by surrendering to melancholia with gusto. There isn’t much of a point in self-ethnographies where filmmakers protect their vulnerability through intellectualization, or prod their family wounds with a 10-foot pole. At one point in her narration, Sachs tells her audience that Film About a Father Who isn’t a portrait but, rather, her attempt to understand “the asymmetry of my conundrum.” The film is also shot in such a matter-of-fact manner that you may forget that the father is actually the filmmaker’s. It doesn’t help that the father himself pleads the fifth on every question and Sachs often directs her camera elsewhere, toward her siblings, instead of letting it linger on the silent and sad remnants of an aging womanizer.

Alexandra Pianelli also captures aging bodies in The Kiosk, but in a very different fashion. Her film was entirely shot on her phone, which was mostly stuck to her head, and without her ever leaving the tiny area behind the cash register of her family’s press kiosk in a posh area of Paris. We never see the world outside of Pianelli’s field of vision from her counter, and yet it feels like she shows us the entire mechanics of the contemporary world.

The Kiosk

An image from Alexandra Pianelli’s The Kiosk. © Les Films de l’oeil sauvage

The film’s subjects are mostly the elderly regulars who seem to show up at the kiosk everyday, for magazines and for Pianelli’s company. Pianelli crafts a tale of hopeful pessimism about humans’ relationship to otherness by explaining the ecosystem of her trade—namely, the slow decline of the printing industry in France and how the physical circulation of ideas can be the only connection to the world for an aging population that doesn’t master digital technology and for whom kiosks play the role of cafés, pubs, or even the analyst’s couch.

When filmmaker Pedro Costa said, at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, that all one needs to make a great film is “three flowers and a glass of water,” not “money, cars, and chicks,” this is what he means: the colossal might of the cinematic image achieved through the scrappiest of means. The Kiosk is a master class in filmmaking resourcefulness. Pianelli paints a portrait of our times through simple drawings that she makes of her clients, makeshift props and miniature sets made out of cardboard, and the anachronic gadgets around her workstation: a cassette tape player, an early-19th-century clock, coin holders that bear her great-grandparents’ fingerprints, and the very publications that she sells. Pianelli’s no-nonsense voiceover glues these elements together with the stunning honesty of the unflappable young Parisian for whom difference is an existential aphrodisiac. There’s no affectedness here. It’s as if a refined cinematic object accidently emerged on the road to her making an artisanal project for the sheer pleasure of making something out of dead time.

Pianelli humanizes the figure of the press kiosk clerk who, in turn, humanizes the strangers she comes across, from seniors who spend more time with her than with their own children to the Bangladeshi asylum seeker who goes to her for legal help. In one sequence, Pianelli witnesses a homeless man insistently offering his metro-ticket money to a bourgeois lady upset that the machine won’t take her credit card. We also learn that the demographics of the clientele per day of the week is contingent on what kinds of publications come out on which day, as well as which niche newspapers are the most anti-Semitic, anti-Arab, or pro-monarchy.

Pianelli lets the serious emerge but doesn’t dwell on it. Seriousness often comes wrapped up in quirkiness and play, as when she plays a guessing game with the audience, telling us what a random customer will buy before they open their months, solely based on what they wear, and always she gets it right. Men in suits and ties go for either the newspaper Le Figaro or Les Echos, while the well-coiffed ladies who don fur coats gravitate toward Voici, unless Kate Moss’s ass is on the cover of a nearby fashion magazine.

At one point, Pianelli says that she considers herself a seller of dreams. By this she means that each magazine at the kiosk stokes a different fantasy, from a supermodel body to a nation without Arabs. But The Kiosk makes Pianelli a saleswoman of a very different sort. Instead of working as the intermediary between vulnerable denizens and the idealized images that tease and haunt them, she cobbles a much more original fantasy through the bodies they actually have. The kiosk becomes the prototype for the most utopian vision of the public library, or any old space inhabited by a curious mind—an ebullient infinity of poetry and care.

Sheffield Doc/Fest’s online platform will be available to all public audiences from June 10—July 10.

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Review: My Spy Is a Clumsy Mix of Comedy, Action, and Romance

Peter Segal’s film is pulled in so many different directions that it comes to feel slack.

1.5

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My Spy
Photo: Amazon Studios

From Arnold Schwarzenneger in Kindergarten Cop to Dwayne Johnson in The Game Plan, pairing an oversized, hyper-masculine actor with a cute and precocious youngster has long been a staple of Hollywood family-friendly entertainment, as well as something of a rite of passage for action stars since the 1990s. And now, with My Spy, it’s Dave Bautista’s turn to ward off an array of villains with the help of a spunky, three-foot tall sidekick.

To its credit, Peter Segal’s film at least has the decency to cop to its derivativeness throughout, with several shots that cheekily poke fun at characters slow-walking away from explosions and one character calling out how a scene feels eerily similar to the famous fight scene near a propeller plane in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But these occasional self-referential nods prove to be only fleeting distractions from how antiquated and unimaginative My Spy is much of the time, and how clumsily it tends to its mixture of comedy, action, and romance.

The film’s mismatched duo consists of nine-year-old Sophie (Chloe Colman) and JJ (Bautista), a C.I.A. operative who’s spying on the girl and her mother, Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley), with the help of his tech officer, Bobbi (Kristen Schaal). It’s all for a good reason, as Sophie’s Uncle Marquez (Greg Bryk) not only recently murdered her father, but is now caught up in some shady Russian dealings that have put Sophie and her mother in danger. But these more nefarious threats fade to the background as soon as the film starts to fixate on Sophie’s concerns about being the new girl at school, as well as her blackmailing of JJ, which results in the beefcake being uncomfortably forced into the role of surrogate father.

Given that JJ is still reeling from his prior overseas combat experience and Kate is coping with the fresh challenges of single motherhood and a time-consuming job, My Spy too readily foreshadows their later romantic entanglement. And while Bautista and Fitz-Henley share a charming, easy repartee, and Coleman has impressive comic timing for a child actor, the film is pulled in so many different directions that it comes to feel slack. JJ’s efforts alone are split three ways, as he’s not only dealing with becoming a long-term father figure to Sophie and partner to Kate, both of whom force him to confront his trauma, but he’s also stuck with Bobbi, who hero-worships him and wants to learn all his tricks of the trade.

And that is to say nothing of the half-baked subplot involving the Russian crooks (Vieslav Krystyan and Jean-Michel Nadeau), or the gay couple (Devere Rogers and Noah Dalton Danby) that appears to have stumbled in from the set of a ‘90s sitcom. Schaal’s unrestrained zaniness ensures that a few jokes land here and there, but My Spy is ultimately sunk by a reliance on clichéd character types—the emotionally distant vet, the overworked single mom, the isolated new kid at school—that leaves it feeling like several mildly amusing after-school specials were stitched together with a handful of action scenes tossed in for good measure.

Cast: Dave Bautista, Chloe Coleman, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Kristen Schaal, Greg Bryk, Ken Jeong, Nicola Correia-Damude, Devere Rogers, Noah Dalton Danby Director: Peter Segal Screenwriter: Erich Hoeber, Jon Hoeber Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 101 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: The Audition Grapples with the Consequences of Oppressive Discipline

With great clarity, the film conveys how discipline can be directed both inward and outward.

3

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The Audition
Photo: Strand Releasing

A film about the oppressive discipline of classical musicianship, Ina Weisse’s The Audition recalls The Piano Teacher, only with the erotic grotesqueries dialed all the way down. Nina Hoss, like Isabelle Huppert in Michael Haneke’s film, plays a middle-aged music teacher whose fragile sense of self becomes entwined with a new student. Here, though, the student isn’t a peer but a young high school violinist, Alexander (Ilja Monti), and her projections onto him, mercifully, are more about her own perceived failures than any shameful sexual hang-ups. Even if it takes us to some rather dark places, Weisse’s spin on the tortured psyche of a professional female musician is more humanistic than Haneke’s.

Weisse, a violinist herself, clearly knows the pressures of high-caliber musicianship. The film aptly opens with an audition in which we see the impassive administrators of a Berlin youth conservatory, including Anna (Hoss), evaluating young teens taking turns playing orchestral instruments on stage. Although each of them has prepared multiple pieces to play, the judges consistently cut them off moments through their first piece—an unforgiving intimidation tactic that introduces us to the film’s portrait of music education as a regime of oppression.

Anna’s cold exterior is momentarily broken by Alexander’s audition, which, however much his performance of a difficult piece by Édouard Lalo moves her, fails to fully impress her colleagues. Gradually we learn that Alexander’s visible nervousness is part of what draws her to him, as Anna suffers from a nervous condition that led her to retire from an orchestra and become an instructor, and continues to manifest itself in a daily inability to make decisions, as in an early scene in which she repeatedly changes orders and then tables when out to dinner with her husband, Philippe (Simon Abkarian). “Whenever I play, I’m thinking of how I’ll fail,” she later confesses to Christian (Jens Albinus), a colleague with whom she’s having an affair.

Anna takes Alexander on as her student, to prepare him for their school’s intermediate exam—also referred to in the dialogue as an audition. The film’s German title, Das Vorspiel, has two meanings—“audition” and “prologue”—and most of Weisse and Daphne Carizani’s screenplay, in fact, could be seen as a kind of prologue, centered around the series of rehearsals preceding Alexander’s big performance for the conservatory, tracking their gradual devolution into punishing routines. Anna begins directing her own self-punishing thoughts onto the vulnerable young boy, at one point forcibly clipping his fingernails.

The filmmakers let us into Anna’s life through compact scenes that often open in media res, or end abruptly in the midst of a character’s movement. It’s a subtle way of communicating the anxiety encroaching on the order of Anna’s world. Glimpses of Philippe, a luthier who runs a shop below their apartment, handling her with kids’ gloves, and of her son Jonas’s (Serafin Mishiev) neutral responses to her presence, come to be emplaced within the atmosphere of alienation that Anna’s unraveling sense of discipline has produced. Anna, of course, knows that her insecurities themselves actually lie at the root of the problems in her life—a neurotic feedback loop of inner despair that Hoss captures wordlessly in her performance as a woman who puts on an increasingly fractured stone face for the outside world.

Discipline can be directed both inward and outward, as personal rigor or as interpersonal punitiveness. Anna has been raised in a culture of self-discipline, as a line from her father (Thomas Thieme) intimates. “Your mother always saw her illness as a lack of discipline,” he reminds Anna, a recollection that neatly sums up the cultural and possible genetic roots of her issues. The Audition is about the relation between those inward and outward senses of discipline, as the strict self-control that Anna has internalized cracks, turns outward in imperious, borderline violent behavior, and eventually shatters.

It all builds toward a tragic conclusion that may have better served the narrative by letting the consequences of Anna’s unglamorous breakdown remain as understated as Hoss’s captivating performance. Nevertheless, The Audition captures with clarity an irony at the base of accomplished musical expression: the conflict between interiority and imposed technique, which can be fraught with repressed frustration and resentment.

Cast: Nina Hoss, Simon Abkarian, Jens Albinus, Ilja Monti, Serafin Mischiev, Thomas Thieme Director: Ina Weisse Screenwriter: Ina Weisse, Daphne Carizani Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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