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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: In Angels Are Made of Light, a Nation Rebuilds in the Ruins of War

The film is an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.

2.5

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Angels Are Made of Light
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Early in Angels Are Made of Light, a voice breaks through a sea of chatter in a classroom teeming with young boys: “I only know about the time since I was born. What’s history?” The child goes on to explain that history isn’t taught at the Daqiqi Balkhi high school in Kabul, Afghanistan. The question’s poignance is self-evident, particularly because the building itself appears to have been disturbed by the city’s recent trauma. The opening shot of James Longley’s first film since Iraq in Fragments captures splotches of sunlight entering through holes in the school’s exterior. Later, one of the building’s walls collapses, and the children relocate to a location supported by American funding.

Though it inevitably gestures toward American occupation, Angels Are Made of Light is rare in its nearly undivided attention to civilian life in a region fundamentally altered by the U.S.’s so-called war on terror. Much of the film is composed of footage Longley shot at Daqiqi Balkhi from 2011 to 2014, with a particular focus on three brothers: Rostam, Sohrab, and Yaldash. The trio speak in voiceover throughout, and seem to define themselves by their relative interest in work and studying. Sohrab excels in school and doesn’t see himself as fit for manual labor, while the older Rostam works closely with their father. Yaldash, the youngest, works at a tin shop and is anguished when his job interferes with his educational aspirations.

The documentary’s classroom scenes exude a tone of controlled chaos, shot mostly at eye level with the students as they struggle to hear and be heard over the din of their classmates. (This is particularly true at their school’s first location, where numerous classes are taught outside right next to one another.) The passage of time is marked by changes in seasons and the repetition of certain ceremonies, like a teacher appreciation day featuring musical performances by students. Concurrently, there’s a Malickian quality to the near-constant voiceover of the brothers, whose concerns veer from the quotidian (earning money for the family, achieving in school) to the philosophical. Though their voices are profound, their limited perspective yields lengthy stretches of repetitive, meandering sentiments that are inflated by John Erik Kaada’s sometimes intrusive score.

If the children aren’t taught about their country’s history as a site of hostile takeover by other countries, the Taliban, and groups of mujahideen, they have clearly internalized the trauma their homeland has endured. “Death is coming. Doomsday is coming. Everything is coming,” one says. All seem to agree that learning about computers (none of which are seen in the documentary) is the only sure ticket to an escape or a successful career.

As Angels Are Made of Light proceeds, its chorus of narrative voices expands, adding a number of teachers (including the boys’ mother) and another schoolboy who sells hot food at an open market. The teachers add flashes of historical context, which Longley plays over archival footage of Kabul and its ruling governments over the previous decades. Cuts between the city’s past and its present are stark: The contemporary skyline is pockmarked with absent buildings that have been replaced by makeshift structures, and the city’s center is now cluttered with billboards advertising mobile phones and alcohol produced in NATO countries. Eventually, Longley shows current political action in the streets, as mujahideen gather to flog themselves in public, other groups march for democracy, and all focus their attention on 2014 presidential election where Hamid Karzai democratically transfers power to his successor, Ashraf Ghani, as rumors swirl about the Americans’ sway over the vote.

Longley’s decision to avoid addressing Afghani politics until the latter half of his film is sound, perhaps a signal that his young characters are becoming more attuned to the corruption that pervades daily operations in their city, but Angels Are Made of Light lacks the sort of structural framework that can properly sustain its lack of plot and rather confusing array of editorialists speaking in voiceover. The closest the film comes to a guiding focus is the recurring image of a large, ghostly white blimp that looms over Kabul, a blot of menace as children and other citizens look to the sky in hope or prayer. Presumably an observational surveillance craft, the blimp is an ironic mirror of the documentarian’s predicament—a totem that reminds everyone who sees it of the West’s influence on their lives. Longley is aware that his camera serves a similar function, and it’s admirable that he’s able to achieve an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.

Director: James Longley Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 117 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Mike Wallace Is Here Honors a Legend by Arguing with Him

Much like its subject, Avi Belkin’s documentary knows how to start an argument.

3

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Mike Wallace Is Here
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Much like its subject, Mike Wallace Is Here knows how to start an argument. Avi Belkin’s archival documentary begins with the legendary broadcaster (who died in 2012) interviewing Bill O’Reilly at the peak of the latter’s influence as a Fox News blowhard. “That is not an interview, that’s a lecture,” Wallace moans before O’Reilly calls him a “dinosaur” and then really twists the knife: “You’re the driving force behind my career,” he tells Wallace. The exchange is riveting and, in some ways, inscrutable, as both of these TV personalities are so skilled at performance it can seem impossible to know if their dialogue is in earnest or some knowing fight among titans happy to march into battle.

Though it’s almost certainly fair to say that Wallace set the stage for an era of ostentatious and increasingly dangerous “personality journalism,” the breadth and quality of Wallace’s work is rich enough to lend some tension to Belkin’s exploration of the reporter as celebrity. Assembled with a propulsive momentum from dozens of televised interviews of and by Wallace, Mike Wallace Is Here portrays its subject as a self-made man, or, as his colleague Morley Safer calls him, “an invention.” Born Myron Wallace, he adopted his broadcast name while working as a performer on radio and then television, a decision made with no shortage of anxiety due to Wallace’s self-consciousness about his acne scars from childhood.

Ironically, Wallace’s breakthrough as a broadcaster (after a series of acting and promotional gigs) came with a show that revolutionized the television interview through its intense lighting and use of invasive closeups. Clips from his show Night-Beat—the first of two Wallace-led interview programs sponsored by cigarette companies and cloaked in smoke—reveal that the media personality was already aware of the showmanship innate in his brand of journalism. He introduces the show by saying “My role is that of a reporter,” and hones his skill for unsettling his guests with obnoxious editorial comments before asking questions. (“Many people hated your husband, and you,” he once said to Eleanor Roosevelt.)

Belkin weaves Wallace’s personal story into the documentary’s parade of interviews in a manner that’s unsurprisingly superficial, glossing over his many marriages, the death of his 19-year-old son, Peter, in a mountain-climbing accident in Greece in 1962 (Wallace cites the tragedy as a pivotal moment in the creation of 60 Minutes and the revival of his career), and a suicide attempt circa 1986. In interviews where Wallace is the subject—with the likes of Barbara Walters and other 60 Minutes colleagues—he’s alternately open and evasive about these flashpoints in his life, often demonstrating the very behavior he has no patience for as an interviewer. Belkin shrewdly reveals Wallace’s hypocrisy through editing, cutting to, for instance, a clip of Wallace grilling Larry King about his string of failed marriages.

Mike Wallace Is Here only suffers in its treatment of the broadcaster’s time at 60 Minutes, dispensing with cleverly edited commentary in favor of a swift survey of the major news of the second half of the 20th century. These include necessary digressions, such as General William C. Westmoreland’s libel suit against a CBS Reports special that Wallace anchored accusing the Army general of falsifying the American military’s analysis of the strength of the Vietnamese army in order to keep the war in Vietnam going, and the tumultuous process of televising Wallace’s interview with the tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (the subject of Michael Mann’s The Insider). But this extensive highlight reel seems to forget that the documentary is scrutinizing Wallace as it’s celebrating him.

At its nerviest, Mike Wallace Is Here uses the words of other celebrities to psychoanalyze Wallace. The film argues (and at times Wallace acknowledges) that his success is a product of his sense of shame, first about the way that he looked and then about the way that he behaved, loved, and parented. When Wallace is coy, Belkin effectively imagines a more honest response by cutting to someone else saying what he believes is true. After showing Wallace dancing around his lack of pride for a while, he cuts to Barbara Streisand talking about how “fear is the energy toward doing your best work.” In the very same interview, she calls Wallace “a son of a bitch,” and Mike Wallace Is Here is at its best when it seems to be in direct debate with this journalistic legend. The film honors Wallace best when it seems to be arguing with him.

Director: Avi Belkin Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 94 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.

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Demolition Girl
Photo: Japan Cuts

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.

Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.

At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.

And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.

A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.

More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.

The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.

Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.

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Review: David Crosby: Remember My Name Sees a Legend Carrying On

The film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

2.5

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David Crosby: Remember My Name
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

One gets the sense when hearing David Cosby perform that, like many naturally gifted vocalists, he was born to express himself through song, and given his tumultuous personal and professional life, the act of singing may be the only means through which Crosby can briefly maintain an equilibrium amid so much chaos. Womanizing, drug abuse, and band breakups are certainly par for the course for countless musicians, especially those who came up in the late 1960s, but Crosby is an extreme case even by those standards. It’s difficult to think of another living musician more strongly and uniformly despised by his former bandmates and collaborators and, aside from Keith Richards, another whose continued survival is more shocking in light of what he’s put his body through.

Aided by Cameron Crowe, who, as a Rolling Stone writer, interviewed Crosby various times and is on hand here to again pick the musician’s brain, A.J. Eaton’s David Crosby: Remember My Name opens with a fairly standard music-doc overview that traces Crosby’s productive early years with the Byrds and his ascent to fame with both iterations of Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s no effort made to hide Crosby’s thorny personality or the chaos he brought to each of these early projects, but Eaton and Crowe seem initially content to butter Crosby up, joining him in waxing rhapsodic about his widespread influence and lasting importance as a musician.

The hagiographic tone slowly fades as the film moves past the perfunctory career retrospective and begins delving into the nitty-gritty details of Crosby’s bumpy road to stardom and his rapid descent into disgrace, spurred on by his decades-long battle with drug addiction. While Crosby often proves a tough nut to crack, rarely willing to linger too long on the painful moments of a life eventful enough to fill several documentaries, Crowe and Eaton eventually disarm him enough to tap into the frustrated, damaged, and regretful man hiding all those years beneath his patented walrus mustache and wispy, long hair. As Crosby discusses the petulance and rage he often unfairly directed at fellow bandmates and his mistreatment of many of his girlfriends, several of whom he got hooked on cocaine and heroin, one can sense not only the depth of his remorse and anguish, but also the resigned helplessness that little can be done in his twilight years to repair the many bridges he’s permanently scorched.

Throughout Remember My Name, archival interviews with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young make it abundantly clear that Crosby has alienated each of his former bandmates to such a degree that none of them will talk to him again. Only former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn appears in a newly recorded interview for the film, and he does so presumably only to describe how “insufferable” Crosby was as a fellow bandmate.

At nearly 80 years old, Crosby is happily married and in the midst of a creative resurgence with a string of acclaimed solo albums, but even these small joys are mitigated by his admission that he’s only touring, and thus often away from his wife, because he needs the money. During a leisurely drive with Crowe, Crosby visits his old stomping grounds in Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip and recounts those halcyon days when he lived with Joni Mitchell and sang his first song with Nash and Stills. But the magic of these locales has long since faded, leaving Crosby in an uncharacteristically introspective state and all too aware of how close he is to the end of his life. As he wistfully tells Crowe that he already has eight stents in his heart and will likely die in the next couple of years, the film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

Director: A.J. Eaton Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy

Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.

Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.

Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.

Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.

Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.

Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change

Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.

Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.

Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?

Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.

Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?

Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.

There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.

Yeah.

Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.

Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.

You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.

The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.

Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?

Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.

That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.

I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.

Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.

You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.

Right.

Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.

I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.

Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.

Yeah.

People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.

To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?

Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.

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American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell

Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.

A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.

Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.

If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.

Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.

Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.

As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.

Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.

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Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians

Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.

3.5

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I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Photo: Big World Pictures

Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.

For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.

A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.

Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.

Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.

Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.

Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust

The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.

I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?

Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.

Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.

To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.

Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.

Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?

Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.

Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.

It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.

How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?

Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.

How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”

Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.

Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?

No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.

You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?

I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.

My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”

And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.

I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.

It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]

On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.

That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!

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Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre

Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.

Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.

Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.

But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.

Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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