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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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Robert Forster: Winning in the Late Innings

The Oscar-nominated actor brought a sense of honor and dignity to every role he played.

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Robert Forster
Photo: Miramax

David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive opens with a nighttime ride into oblivion. A limo drifts through the lightless void of the Hollywood Hills, red taillights burning in the blackness. An enigmatic woman, ebony hair and curvaceous red lips lending her the air of a tragic beauty, sits in the back by herself. The limo pulls over, and after the woman says, “We don’t stop here,” the driver aims a gun at her, but a gaggle of joyriding kids comes speeding around the curve and crashes into the vehicle. The woman climbs out of the wreckage stupefied and traipses into the hills, leaving behind the mangled metal and bodies.

Soon, a stoic detective arrives on the scene. He looks like a lawman, serious, a little sad, his face etched with the wrinkles of time. He examines the cars, offers a few terse observations, gazes out at the nocturnal city sprawling before him. It’s Robert Forster’s only scene in the film, and it’s an indelible one, imbued with mystery and menace, an attempt to explain the unexplainable. Saying fewer than 20 words and appearing in only a handful of shots, he exudes an air of wisdom and weariness—that of an indolent man who’s seen some shit and knows the horrors lurking ahead. In a film of dreamy logic and ineffaceable images, Forster’s taciturn detective acts as the final glimpse of reality before we slip into a world of Hollywood hopes and fantasy.

Forster, who died of brain cancer at the age of 78 this past Friday, was a prolific actor who experienced a remarkable second act in his mid-50s after giving a deeply empathetic and vulnerable performance as a love-struck bail bondsman in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a film populated by wounded characters leading unamazing lives, and who aspire to transcend mediocrity. “My career by then was dead,” Forster told the AV Club’s Will Harris in a 2011 interview. “No agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing…I could not believe that he [Tarantino] was talking about the Max Cherry role.”

Like so many of Tarantino’s films, Jackie Brown is replete with colorful, loquacious characters whose banter is clever, trenchant, and self-referential, but Forster’s Max Cherry is reserved and crestfallen, a man who’s settled into complacency and finds in Pam Grier’s flight attendant an unexpected inspiration. It’s one of American cinema’s great unconsummated love stories. Forster is a subtle actor, playing Max as an Everyman who chases people for a living but never seems to find what he’s looking for, and who willingly embroils himself in a dangerous situation because of love. He’s smart, self-sufficient, a decent guy, and yet for Jackie Brown he’s willing to risk his life, or whatever mundane existence he calls a life.

Forster was one of those great actors who appeared in far too few great films. His filmography is rife with bad films, though he was invariably a dependable presence in everything he did. He began his career promisingly, with a supporting role in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, and earned renown for his turn as an ambitious and ill-fated news cameraman in Haskell Wexler’s incandescent Medium Cool. He played a private eye in 1930s Hollywood in the show Banyon (his role in Mulholland Drive almost feels like a brief homage to the short-lived series) and appeared in a slew of genre movies for the rest of the 1970s and 1980s. Of note is Lewis Teague’s Alligator, in which a gargantuan reptile terrorizes a city, William Lustig’s nihilistic grindhouse flick Vigilante, and a rare villainous turn in Delta Force, opposite the indefatigable Chuck Norris.

It wasn’t until Jackie Brown and his subsequent Oscar nomination that Forster reentered the public consciousness. The way Tarantino exhumes old, often “trash” films when crafting his paeans to moving pictures, he also has a preternatural skill for resurrecting the careers of forgotten or faded actors. Tarantino fought for Forster to get the part. When news of Forster’s death went public, the director said in a statement:

“Today the world is left with one less gentlemen. One less square shooter. One less good man. One less wonderful father. One less marvelous actor. I remember all the breakfasts we had at silver spoons. All the stories. All the kind words. All the support. Casting Robert Forster in Jackie Brown was one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my life. I will miss you dearly my old friend.”

Forster appeared in a panoply of listless films and television programs throughout the 2000s (his appearance in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants in 2011 being an exception) but became a household face again in 2018, when he took on the role of Sheriff Frank Truman, Harry S. Truman’s brother, on the third season of Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Whereas Michael Ontkean exuded a mercurial youthfulness on the original series, that of a warm-hearted, just man capable of fiery spontaneity, Forster plays the elder Sheriff Truman rather pensively, sagacious and serene. Which is to say, he acts with the wisdom accrued by experience.

Forster also appeared in a season five episode of Breaking Bad, as a vacuum store owner and “disappearer” named Ed who helps Bryan Cranston’s Walt change identities. A stable presence amid the histrionic theatrics that defined the show’s approach to acting, Forster gives an understated performance and a sense of the real-world left behind by Vince Gilligan’s increasingly combustible melodrama. Forster reprised the part this year in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, the actor’s final screen credit. In a film-stealing scene, Forster stands steadfast and stoical against Aaron Paul’s desperate, bedraggled Jesse Pinkman, refusing to perform his disappearing service over a $1,800 discrepancy. The viewer is, of course, rooting for Jesse, yet one can’t help but respect the conviction of Forster’s unruffled professional. The actor brings a sense of honor and dignity to the role, as he did with every role. Forster was a safe, reliable presence, someone you trusted, unflustered, earnest, whether he was fighting monstrous alligators or swooning after air stewardesses.

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Review: Cyrano, My Love Thinks Art Is Only Born of Romantic Passion

The film is imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls Shakespeare in Love.

1.5

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Photo: Roadside Attractions

Alexis Michalik’s Cyrano, My Love wears its fondness for Shakespeare in Love very much on its sleeve. Though it serves up nuggets of truth, its take on Edmond Rostand (Thomas Solivérès) and the turbulent circumstances surrounding his creation of Cyrano de Bergerac is an outlandish one, imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls John Madden’s Oscar winner. And while Michalik positions Rostand as the story’s triumphant artist, the French dramatist is often reduced to a skittish ninny—as opposed to the pompous ass that Joseph Fiennes’s Shakespeare was positioned as—whose great art emanates not from the mind, but the cockles of the heart.

For a film so hellbent on the notion that Cyrano de Bergerac was inspired not only by actual events, but real emotions, there’s surprisingly little effort made to articulate with any specificity the conflicted feelings behind Rostand’s penning of what would become the most famous French play of all time. The initial catalyst for his play’s central conceit occurs when he steps in to help an actor friend, Léonidas (Tom Leeb), struggling to find the words to woo a costume designer, Jeanne (Lucie Boujenah), on whom he has a crush. Rostand, in one of the film’s many blatant nods to Cyrano de Bergerac, begins to feed his friend a barrage of romantic lines and relish the secrecy with which he can play out a love affair without disturbing his marriage with his endlessly patient and supportive wife, Rosemonde (Alice de Lencquesaing).

Yet, rather than teasing out the ample psychosexual baggage that should arise from the cognitive dissonance of Rostand writing daily love letters to Jeanne, his unknowing muse, while still professing, with complete honesty, that his only true love is his wife, Michalik pivots his focus to the swirling chaos of Cyrano de Bergerac’s production. With Rostand’s emotional conflict left fairly nebulous, Cyrano, My Love never quite gets to the root of the author’s inspiration, leaving its familiar theatrical farce about the troubles of mounting a stage play grounded in neither genuine emotion nor any palpable stakes.

As the hurdles that Rostand and company face in staging Cyrano de Bergerac grow bigger and Rostand writes pages to be rehearsed before the ink dries, the film introduces a parade of quirky, ostentatious characters. From the historical, such as Sarah Bernhardt (Clémentine Célarié) and Anton Chekhov (Misha Leskot), to the imagined, such as a prostitute (Mathilde Seigner) who’s foisted into the lead role of Roxane, each one is more thinly conceived than the next, with eccentricities dialed up to 11. The most egregious of these larger-than-life characterizations, however, is Monsieur Honoré (Jean-Michel Martial), the black café owner whose sole purpose is to repeatedly tap into his struggles as a minority as a means to galvanize the all-white cast and crew, who he then cheers on from the sidelines.

Cyrano, My Love’s lone performative bright spot comes in the form of a surprisingly nimble turn by Olivier Gourmet, known primarily for his dour turns in many of the Dardenne brothers’ films. Gourmet lends both humor and pathos to the play’s famous but desperate lead actor, Constant Coquelin. But while Coquelin steals the spotlight in a number of scenes, Rostand remains little more than a perpetually anxiety-ridden artist who virtually stumbles into writing a masterpiece during a helter-skelter production. And with little care given to rendering the intense emotional tumult that spurred his artistic process, all the pandemonium of Cyrano, My Love proves to be much ado about nothing.

Cast: Thomas Solivérès, Olivier Gourmet, Mathilde Seigner, Tom Leeb, Lucie Boujenah, Alice de Lencquesaing, Clémentine Célarié, Igor Gotesman, Dominique Pinon, Simon Abkarian, Marc Andréoni, Jean-Michel Martial, Olivier Lejeune, Antoine Dulery, Alexis Michalik Director: Alexis Michalik Screenwriter: Alexis Michalik Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: In Greener Grass, White Picket Fences Cast Shadows Like Tendrils

In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance, as the suburbs have already won.

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Greener Grass
Photo: IFC Films

The opening credits of Greener Grass linger on a twitching, toothy smile covered in braces. Everyone in the film wears braces. Everyone drives a golf cart, too, and dresses in gentle pinks and blues. The lighting is soft and sun-drenched, an effect that’s most pronounced during the film’s soccer matches. In the opening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the camera creeps through a suburb’s pleasant veneer to reveal the rot that festers beneath. But for Greener Grass co-directors, co-writers, and co-stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, the very surface is the thing that’s so unsettling, a place populated by slithering, rictus-grinning meat puppets penned in by white picket fences and their own crippling need to conform.

The trouble, if you could call it that, begins when Jill (DeBoer) abruptly gifts Lisa (Luebbe) with her newborn baby as they watch their other children play soccer. This isn’t, in the film’s bizarre conception of suburbia, a particularly outrageous act. At worst, it’s overly generous, like giving someone a gift more expensive than they’re comfortable accepting; another neighbor, Kim Ann (Mary Holland), later laments that she wasn’t given the child instead. The children in Greener Grass are essentially property, status symbols to reflect upon their owners in their pristine homes and yards, all of which feeds into an undercurrent of pervasive competition that nonetheless reinforces conformity and simply not rocking the boat.

Everything is seemingly interchangeable in Greener Grass. At a cookout, it takes a full conversation for Jill and Lisa to notice that they’re smooching and hanging on the arms of the wrong husbands, Dennis (Neil Casey and Nick (Beck Bennett), respectively. And when Jill’s young son, Julian (Julian Hilliard), inexplicably transforms into a dog, she’s horrified, but Nick, the boy’s father, seems pleased: Julian may no longer be able to take the advanced math class, but he’s now a prodigy when it comes to playing catch in the backyard.

There isn’t much of a traditional plot to the film, which plays more as a recurring series of sketches that subtly further Jill’s downward spiral. DeBoer and Luebbe let their scenes linger long past the point of discomfort, both in the length of mannered dialogue exchanges and the amount of time they hold a shot without cutting; the camera gingerly pulls out or pushes in while characters perform odd actions in the background, like perpetually folding tighty-whities or fishing out a seemingly infinite supply of pocket change. It feels voyeuristic, and sometimes it is: In one scene, a hand appears to reveal that we’re watching a POV shot, and in another, an off-screen voice begins breathing heavily and starts mock-repeating dialogue.

A schoolteacher, Miss Human (D’Arcy Carden), fixates on the deaths of American pioneers making their way to the West. In pursuit of “a better life,” they lost things along the way, as the people of Greener Grass have lost themselves in their migration to the suburbs. The film is more unsettling for its lack of an ordinary plot structure where, say, Jill might break out of her suburban funk or get everything to explode with violence in a revolt against conformity. In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance. Here, the burbs have already won, having already sent out the white picket fences like tendrils as far as the eye can see. There is no escape.

Cast: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe, Beck Bennett, Neil Casey, Mary Holland, D’Arcy Carden, Janicza Bravo, Dot-Marie Jones, Lauren Adams, Julian Hillard, Asher Miles Fallica Director: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Screenwriter: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Cave Pays Wrenching Tribute to the Doctors Saving Lives in Syria

Its depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after The Cave’s doctors have left Ghouta.

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The Cave
Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films

Feras Fayyad’s documentary The Cave concludes with what almost seems like a non sequitur: After the staff at a Syrian underground hospital are finally forced to evacuate their war-torn city, the film fades to a low-angle shot of a submerged World War II bomber plane. Wade Muller’s camera tracks slowly past the moss-covered plane and an unexploded shell that lies nearby. Yes, it’s a 1940s bomber, and The Cave is about Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, that’s subjected to constant bombardment from contemporary warplanes, but what does this image have to do with the ongoing Syrian Civil War?

Given how instantly recognizable this bomber is despite decades of degradation and overgrowth speaks to how familiar we are with the massive political and moral sins of the 20th century. Fayyad’s point would appear to be that these sins are being recapitulated today in the Middle East. It’s not only the relentless bombing and devastating chemical weapon attacks captured in the film that evoke images of Europe during the West’s greatest conflict, but also the treatment of people attempting to escape the horrors of the Syrian Civil War.

Over the image of the bomber plane, Fayyad places statistics about the tens of thousands of refugees who’ve drowned fleeing the conflict. As in the omnipresent WWII stories we repeatedly tell ourselves are warnings against ever letting such things happen again, thousands of people in the Middle East are trapped, starving, and suffocating, their homes and livelihoods destroyed by a global war being carried out over their heads.

By the time the submerged bomber appears on screen, those schooled in the history of occupied Europe (or who are simply avid tourists) may have already drawn another parallel, as The Cave, the name given to the underground hospital in Ghouta, evokes the Hospital in the Rock, the Budapest hospital built within a bunker under a hill in the leadup to WWII. From inside The Cave, where the camera keeps us for almost the entirety of the documentary, the sound of bombs is muffled, but their consequences are unavoidable. After every raid, the hospital’s dimly lit underground hallway fills up with desperate families carting the wounded, weeping mothers shoving others out of the way to check on their dying sons, and orchestral music streaming on Dr. Salim’s smartphone. The Mozart helps him focus and, he explains, replaces anesthetic, to which the hospital doesn’t have access.

Heading the small staff that operates The Cave during the years-long siege of eastern Ghouta is pediatrician Dr. Amani, a physician so superhumanly dedicated that she’d come off as an idealized abstraction in a fiction film. Fayyad doesn’t delve into her backstory, but Amani appears to come from a relatively privileged background: Her family, whom she speaks to regularly on the phone, seems to be in a safe place, and she’s well-educated and a feminist, an inclination she expresses strategically to the camera and, when necessary, to defend her occupation against overtly misogynist patients. Despite her presumed access to avenues of flight, she’s stayed behind to treat juvenile victims of bombing campaigns and malnourishment, even paying dangerous house visits to diagnose the children of women who can’t leave their homes. Though brave and generous, she’s no saintly paragon of modesty; on occasion, she rages against the regime and their allies, and the 30-year-old outwardly longs for a regular day-to-day life in which she might be permitted to wear mascara.

Fayyad saves its most graphic depiction of the consequences of the siege for the latter part of the documentary, as a chemical weapon attack perpetrated by the regime and its Russian allies sends dozens of choking people—many children—rushing to The Cave for help. Fayyad ratchets up the suspense with a booming score that crescendos as the staff gradually realizes they’re handling patients who are choking rather than bleeding, and recognizes the smell of chlorine beginning to permeate the halls. Despite the real human suffering on screen, the whiff of rhetorical construction supplied by the score and the accelerating pace of the editing makes the scene feel a bit too much like a Hollywood trope, crafting suspense out of pain.

Perhaps, on the other hand, that moment of tension could be said to effectively convey some aspect of the events as the doctors felt it. Other excessively stylistic elements in The Cave, however, that work against the urgency of its messaging. The handheld, intimate format of the bulk of the documentary is preceded by a languid opening drone shot of the skyline of Al Ghouta, in which missiles are shown gliding into the mass of buildings and erupting into slowly moving dust and smoke. Ironically, this shot almost beautifies or poeticizes the ongoing destruction of the city, its cool and distanced perspective conflicting sharply with the later embodied close-ups of the suffering victims of the bombings.

As the film goes on, the bombings draw closer to The Cave, part of which is actually destroyed by one raid. Samaher, the doctor put in charge of preparing the hospital’s meager rations, cooks in fits and starts, running away from the stove whenever the sound of a plane rattles the nearby wall. Many of the male members of the team chide her for her skittish, sometimes nervously playful behavior, but candid shots pick up even the even-keeled Salim crying after a rare and brief Skype call with his family. The film’s depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after Amani, Salim, and Samaher have left Ghouta.

Director: Feras Fayyad Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Addams Family Is an Ooky Show of Confused Messaging

Throughout, the film tirelessly hammers home the point of being true to yourself.

1.5

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The Addams Family
Photo: United Artists Releasing

The Addams family has always proudly embraced its otherness with a mix of confidence and indifference to the opinions of judgy neighbors. And Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan’s animated The Addams Family is no different in that regard, setting up its fish-out-of-water scenario as soon as Morticia (Charlize Theron) and Gomez (Oscar Isaac) take off to New Jersey and settle into the Goth mansion where they’ll raise their two children, Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard). All, of course, with the help of their loopy Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) and loyal servant, Lurch (Conrad Vernon), whose rocking out on the mansion’s giant pipe organ constitutes the majority of the film’s score.

With the family’s strict adherence to ceremonies steeped in their vaguely Eastern European roots, particularly the saber dance that Pugsley prepares for throughout the film, the metaphor for the immigrant experience writes itself. But The Addams Family’s targets are ultimately not the seemingly resentful bigots who fear the Addamses’ presence in their neighborhood, but an outmoded notion of suburban conformity that harks back to the 1950s. MAGA-esque indignation, which occasionally creeps in through a comment spewed from within an angry mob, is dwarfed by a distaste for, of all things, tract housing and HGTV-esque renovations.

In fact, the film’s villain, Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), doesn’t fear the Addamses for their cultural differences, but rather for the devaluing affect their eyesore of a house, perched on a hill, will have on the community of homes she’s building nearby and planning to market on her hugely popular television show. While Margaux’s town is called Assimilation, the lockstep conformity demanded here isn’t one that requires the Addamses to reject any deeply held beliefs or cultural norms, merely to apply a quick slap of paint to their home and endure a wardrobe change or two. This leaves The Addams Family feeling pretty toothless, even for a family film, as it’s unwilling to even pinpoint the true roots of the townspeople’s fears. Its eventual forgiveness of their thinly veiled jingoism, passing the enraged residents off as otherwise friendly, well-meaning people who simply fell victim to the manipulations of the greedy Margaux, only further dilutes any potentially relevant commentary.

In a subplot involving Wednesday’s venturing into Assimilation Middle School and befriending Margaux’s daughter, Parker (Elsie Fisher), The Addams Family offers an intriguing twist on the idea of the Addamses as a perfect family. When Wednesday shows signs of accepting Parker’s fashion advice, she finds in her family, particularly Morticia, the very same intolerance they’re confronted with around town. But this nugget of wisdom is soon lost in the wind when Wednesday returns home to protect her family in their hour of need. Until the finale, the film tirelessly hammers home the importance of being true to yourself, yet its ultimate resolution, one of relatively uneasy compromise, confuses even that simple point. You be you, but eventually everyone wants to fit in one way or another, so maybe change just a bit?

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz, Finn Wolfhard, Nick Kroll, Snoop Dogg, Bette Midler, Allison Janney, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Elsie Fisher, Tituss Burgess Director: Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan Screenwriter: Matt Lieberman, Pamela Pettler Distributor: United Artists Releasing Running Time: 87 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Mister America Is an Essential Addition to the On Cinema Universe

The long and circuitous narrative history of the so-called OCU weighs heavily on Eric Notarnicola’s film.

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Mister America
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Equal parts absurdist satire and ambitious serialized melodrama, Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, and Eric Notarnicola’s online comedy series On Cinema and its extended universe—including Decker and The Trial miniseries—together comprise one of the brilliant multimedia projects of the decade. Originated in 2011 as a rambling podcast featuring the inane and unenlightening movie chatter of fictional amateur reviewers also named Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington, the show has since blossomed into an elaborate Siskel and Ebert-style pastiche that has increasingly focused on the ongoing drama playing out between the hosts at the expense of any critical insight, all while intersecting with and commenting on the real world in ever-elaborate ways. As a self-contained enterprise completely produced and financed by the fictional simulacrum of Heidecker, the various twists and turns of the show’s content over the course of its now 11 seasons come as a direct extension of the showrunner’s ego and overreach, with Turkington, the self-described “expert,” more often than not a misery-ridden victim of his tyrannical partner’s outrageous whims.

The long and circuitous narrative history of the so-called On Cinema universe (or OCU)—far too head-spinning a metafiction to summarize in a few sentences—weighs heavily on Mister America, the first theatrical release to emerge from the Adult Swim-sponsored fictional world. But Heidecker and company have taken steps to extend the subject matter beyond its niche audience. In a shrewd maneuver that marks a first within the OCU, Mister America is framed as the work of an outside creator: Josh Lorton, a documentary filmmaker (played by series director Notarnicola) drawn to the peculiar case of Tim’s run for district attorney of San Bernardino county—a bit carried out for several months this year on Heidecker’s real Twitter account. In presenting itself as an unbiased, third-party view, Mister America allows itself the luxury of recapping critical pieces of the fictional timeline without coming across as monotonous filler for the devoted fans, since Lorton’s position as a neutral observer simply curious about a local eccentric brings a new angle on familiar absurdities.

Playing journalist, Lorton fills in the context behind Tim’s district attorney campaign with clips from recent seasons, ersatz local news clippings, and social media posts. As part of season nine, Tim ran the Electric Sun Desert Music Festival, an EDM bacchanalia funded by scam money and fueled by suspicious vape oil that left 20 teenagers dead and put Tim on trial, facing a life sentence. This string of events led to the OCU’s most challenging and formally audacious experiment yet: the aesthetically exacting five-hour mock-broadcast, courtesy of the fictional Apple Valley News, of this weeklong trial (the judge of which, Curtis Webster’s Edward Szymczyk, appears in Mister America to provide shell-shocked commentary). One mystery member of the jury was responsible for the trial’s inconclusive verdict, and Mister America picks up with Tim having hired this person, a reactionary single woman named Toni (Terri Parks), as his campaign assistant on the basis of her dubious former ad experience.

The shady and ill-advised people Tim aligns himself with on the show—including Axiom and Manuel, the members of Tim’s nü-metal band Dekkar, and Dr. San, the spiritual guru responsible for the Electric Sun’s lethal vape oil—provide ludicrous counterpoint to the ongoing toxicity of Tim and Gregg’s relationship. Likewise, the Tim-Toni dynamic proves to be Mister America’s richest vein, as Toni’s guileless support, which verges on idol worship, if not romantic interest, periodically softens Tim’s autocratic harshness, and the scenes between the two in Tim’s Best Western “office” offer a compelling push-pull between dictatorial behavior and collaborative stupidity. In the film’s funniest scene, a boozed-up Tim tries to dictate an impromptu social media press release about his D.A. opponent, Vincent Rosetti (Don Pecchia), while Toni struggles to open a Word document, with Tim’s sudden rhetorical adrenaline gradually yielding to a resignation over his partner’s incompetence.

The wishy-washy campaign run by Tim and Toni suggests the kind of misguided political adventure many impassioned Trump supporters might theoretically embark upon in the wake of their leader’s success: an emphasis on eradicating crime, getting things back to the way they used to be, and leveraging personal vendettas for political gain. In this case, the outsized target is “Rosetti the Rat,” Tim’s moniker for the prosecutor who went after him in court, for whom he harbors such hatred that it leads to the campaign slogan, “We Have a Rat Problem.”

An uproarious montage follows Tim, fancied up in a bargain-basement beige suit and wraparound shades, as he plants signs with this slogan throughout his community, and the film’s trajectory hinges on an imagined showdown with Rosetti that’s almost guaranteed to never happen. Rather than going toe-to-toe with Rosetti on the campaign trail, Tim must instead contend with Gregg, whose participation in Lorton’s documentary throws Tim into one of his tantrums, as his On Cinema co-host knows the truth and wants nothing more than to spoil the bogus campaign—at least when not showering Lorton with unwanted movie trivia.

Just as it’s intriguing to watch Tim present himself for Lorton’s camera, outside the usual venues over which he exerts control, Gregg, too, winds up a more complex character by virtue of being observed in the film’s real-life setting. Already established within the OCU as a deeply troubled figure who medicates his loneliness via a fetishistic collector mentality, the neurotic ambassador of the rinky-dink Victorville Film Archive comes across even more sad and socially inept in Lorton’s presence. Several times, spurned by the camera crew, Gregg wanders off into the strip-mall anonymity of San Bernardino with no destination in mind. These shots, simultaneously haunting and amusing, color Gregg’s involvement in Tim’s personal affairs as the compulsions of a man with no other prospects in life beyond his cardboard boxes of useless VHS tapes—an impression created in On Cinema but given palpable heft in Mister America.

All of this may seem preposterously overcomplicated to the uninitiated, but the film is actually rather safe and inclusive in its comedic approach, leaning toward upbeat cutting and broad punchlines at the occasional expense of the drier, thornier documentation of psychological warfare on display in The Trial and On Cinema. The film’s streamlined form is justified by the journalistic framing device, of course, but Heidecker and Turkington’s combined improvisational genius is best served in the more open formats of the shows, when they have the free reign to be long-winded and dig into their characters’ respective pathologies.

That’s not to say that Mister America entirely lacks such antics—the climactic town hall meeting, which rapidly escalates toward hysteria, plays out in a convincing approximation of real time—but that it retrofits the pricklier excesses of Heidecker and Turkington’s comedy into a more recognizable mockumentary shape. In any case, what’s so fascinating about the world of On Cinema is the way each creative outgrowth expands and deepens the lore, and Mister America’s universe-specific innovations, including the introduction of Lorton’s outside observer, renders the film indispensable in context.

Cast: Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, Terri Parks, Don Pecchia, Curtis Webster Director: Eric Notarnicola Screenwriter: Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, Eric Notarnicola Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Gemini Man Erects a Cardboard World Around Its Special Effects

Whatever new technology facilitated its genesis, the film is just another assembly-line reproduction.

1.5

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Gemini Man
Photo: Paramount Pictures

In centering its action melodrama around the confrontation between its main character and a duplicated version of himself, Ang Lee’s Gemini Man joins some dubious company: the forgotten Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Replicant, the late-pre-governor-era Arnold Schwarzenegger film The Sixth Day, and Richard Lester’s abortive superhero sequel Superman 3. These films relied on split-screen techniques and misleading cuts to split their respective heroes in two—tricks that had, in essence, existed since Georges Méliés. New digital technologies appear to have spurred this old Hollywood hobbyhorse back into action, as Gemini Man’s preternaturally gifted, recently retired secret agent Henry Brogan (Will Smith) confronts not just a clone, but a younger clone, logically dubbed Junior and also played by Smith, de-aged via facial scanning and semi-automated digital animation.

If the special effects industry has devised some new tricks, however, Gemini Man is hardly evidence that Hollywood screenwriters have. Co-written by Billy Ray, Darren Lemke, and David Benioff, the film never successfully redirects our attention from its naked exhibition of advanced CG and toward some sort of meaningful conflict. The broadly sketched attributes that define Brogan are either totally utilitarian (he has a bee allergy, which comes into play in a manner so haphazard that one suspects that the payoff was added at the last minute) or completely unexplored (such as his insomnia). Sometimes, the script’s sense of characterization also betrays its undercooked thinking about its ostensible main subject. To wit, the film dwells both on how Brogan’s traumatic upbringing shaped his psychology and on how different Junior’s youth has been, but then it has Brogan assemble a precise and specific psychological profile of Junior based on his own mind. Nature or nurture? Whichever one, apparently, is convenient to producing a teary-eyed Will Smith in a given scene.

Given Benioff’s writing credit here, it’s also hard not to draw a connection between the phony female badassery of HBO’s Game of Thrones and how Gemini Man treats Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the agent sent to surveil Brogan in his retirement. When Brogan, attempting to relax and do some boating, outs the attractive young woman working at the dock as an undercover D.I.A. agent (definitely not C.I.A., for whatever reason), he observes, ostensibly impressed, her distinguished record: how she never received a single demerit despite her expansive resume of operations throughout the globe. Brogan then spends the remainder of Gemini Man explaining standard spy procedures to her, like going on the lam, as if she were a rookie. (Lee, Benioff, and company also stage an egregious scene that sees Danielle the seasoned spy strip for an awkward pat-down from Junior.)

Junior has been sent to kill Brogan by Clay Verris (Clive Owen, doing his best to menacingly hit those American diphthongs), Junior’s surrogate father and the head of Gemini, a private military contractor. Brogan, it seems, constitutes a proverbial loose end for both the D.I.A. and Gemini, which cloned him in 1995 and now has his replacement ready to go. The seeming arbitrariness of Verris choosing Junior to assassinate Brogan is hardly accounted for by the film’s explanation, which has something to do with Brogan being Junior’s “darkness” that he must vanquish in order to…become a real man? It’s unclear, particularly as it appears that Verris didn’t want Junior to discover that they were actually the same man.

Perhaps appropriately, Gemini Man suggests a hybrid clone of Bourne, 007, and Terminator flicks. An internecine conflict between shifty agency types divided over what to do about Brogan plays out in dry cellphone exchanges, a pursuit through mostly random places around the globe provides the film with exotic backgrounds for motorcycle chases and extended fisticuffs, and a late-film revelation about Gemini’s ultimate goals raises the specter of a post-human world. Throughout, the action is underwhelming, as Lee uses rapid cuts and tight angles to disguise faulty CG—but to no avail. The problem is less Junior’s digitally altered face—which, while not perfect, can actually emote—and more the rubber bodies that bounce around the frame, rolling out of car accidents and flipping into karate kicks.

Gemini Man is an action movie whose attempt to carry emotional weight is betrayed by the utter weightlessness of both its spectacle and its narrative. There’s a story here about middle age and the loss of youth, the uncanniness of knowing you were once a person you no longer are—the existential discomfort of looking in a mirror and seeing someone else looking back. Occasionally one gets a glimpse of the film Lee thinks he’s making: Brogan avoids mirrors, as he avers on a few occasions, and interestingly, Lee frames close-ups almost frontally, the actors nearly staring into the camera, as in a mirror (or a Yasujirō Ozu film). There’s a self-reflexive element to Gemini Man, concerning the illusory preservation of youth in the cinema and the way Hollywood reflects ideal selves back to us. But Lee can’t do much with this idea, and even a soulful pair of performances from Smith can’t enliven the cardboard world erected around the special effects at the heart of the film. In the end, whatever new technology facilitated its genesis, Gemini Man is just another assembly-line reproduction.

Cast: Will Smith, Clive Owen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Benedict Wong, Douglas Hodge, Theodora Miranne, Linda Emond, Ralph Brown Director: Ang Lee Screenwriter: David Benioff, Billy Ray, Darren Lemke Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 117 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: The Dead Center Is an Atmospheric Study of Human Futility

The film is in tune with the need to remain lucid and empathetic while in the maw of human extremity.

3

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The Dead Center
Photo: Arrow Films

People who work in intense environments, such as police stations, social services offices, and hospitals, are familiar with the strain of needing to remain lucid and empathetic while in the maw of human extremity. Primarily set in a hospital over a few days, writer-director Billy Senese’s The Dead Center, which follows a handful of medical professionals as they grapple with something that symbolizes their fear of succumbing to their patients’ sickness, is profoundly in tune with this sense of strain.

Senese and cinematographer Andy Duensing capture the hard white and sickly yellow light of a hospital in the middle of the night, as well as the eerie alternation of droning white noise and silence that can define such a setting. The filmmakers allow this hospital, especially the psychiatric ward, to creep into our bones. (It certainly helps that the staff here isn’t composed of actors who appear to be out of central casting, as they suggest truly harried and exhausted members of the working class.) Occasionally puncturing this nocturnal twilight are the piercing sounds of patients in crisis, and Senese expertly captures this ebb and flow between the expectation of violence and weathering it. At its best, The Dead Center exudes some of the concentrated lo-fi intensity of Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane.

The Dead Center has a horror-movie hook, which often lingers at the narrative’s margins and screams of Chekhov’s gun. The film opens with an ambulance delivering to the hospital a John Doe (Jeremy Child) who sliced his wrists and chest. Senese films the ambulance’s trip from a god’s-eye view, suggesting a supernatural presence that might not be all that friendly. Later, after John Doe is toe-tagged and bagged, he sits up, and Senese springs an unforgettably creepy sound effect: the crinkling of the body bag, which suggests the crackling of electricity. And this effect is complemented by the poignant sight of the quivering John Doe rising from the bag and wandering the hospital and slipping into an empty bed for warmth. In this moment, Senese grounds resurrection in the textures of a very realistic setting.

John Doe is discovered by the hospital’s staff, and psychiatrist Daniel Forrester (Shane Carruth) is charged with discerning his identity and illness, though Forrester, a renegade with considerable emotional issues himself, doesn’t get far with this endeavor. Carruth invests a familiar type—the hotdog professional with little personal life—with a haunting and unusually opaque vulnerability. He keys us into Forrester’s desperation to hide his own weaknesses from his staff, though his pain is only partially explained. Meanwhile, in a parallel narrative thread, medical investigator Edward Graham (Bill Feehely) investigates John Doe’s origins. This trail leads him to a motel room drenched in blood, and, in another bone-chilling detail, Graham drains a tub of blood to reveal a spiral carved at the bottom. Uncovering John Doe’s identity, Graham discovers a man marked by death, who has become a corporeal Grim Reaper.

The Dead Center is ultimately an atmospheric study of human futility. John Doe might be a monster, but he’s also the ultimate incurable victim, who destroys any degree of control that Forrester and Graham fight to assume over their surroundings. Not unlike H.P. Lovecraft, Senese allows his audience to feel as if it’s only seeing but a tip of a malign iceberg, and that ineffable impression of vastness is existentially frightening.

Cast: Shane Carruth, Poorna Jagannathan, Jeremy Childs, Bill Feehely Director: Billy Senese Screenwriter: Billy Senese Distributor: Arrow Films Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Mary Quickly Squanders Its Promising Horror-Movie Hook

Michael Goi’s film comes to feel as if lacks a through line, collapsing into a series of disconnected horror-movie beats.

1.5

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Mary
Photo: RLJE Films

With Mary, whose title refers to an ancient ship with a history of drifting off course and losing its crews, director Michael Goi and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski have settled on a fertile setting for a haunting. This isn’t a grand ship in the vein of either version of Ghost Ship, but a vessel that’s intimate with seemingly little in the way of the sort of nooks and crannies that are integral to games of supernatural hide and seek.

As the latest doomed crew boards the Mary, with the purposes of turning her into a tourist boat along the Florida coast, Goi derives some suspense by implicitly prompting the audience to wonder where the bad stuff can happen, given the constriction of the setting. Intensifying this unease is the film’s one unnerving image: of the boat’s masthead, which is a wooden carving of a beautiful woman with wide, accusatory eyes—presumably Mary, a siren.

At first, it seems as if Mary is going to be a riff on Stephen King’s Christine, in which a young man became romantically obsessed with a vintage vehicle, a 1957 Plymouth Fury. Just as Christine beckoned to its next victim from a junkyard, as a seemingly innocuous antique, the Mary calls to David (Gary Oldman), from a distance as he’s scoping another boat at an auction. Like Christine, the Mary seems impractically beat up, which is a part of the seduction, as they both play into the hero complexes of emasculated men. In David’s case, he’s attempting to break free of a life as a captain for another man’s business, and to help his family rebound from a domestic crisis that isn’t revealed until late in the film. Which is to say that Mary has a promising hook to go with its setting: Initially, it appears that it will tell a story of David’s undoing, of his obsession with a haunted ship that destroys him with promises of redemption.

Astonishingly, Goi and Jaswinski drop that hook immediately. David, who has the most invested in the ghost ship, is shunted off to the film’s sidelines as the Mary works his family over in predictable ways. The man’s wife, Sarah (Emily Mortimer, who’s every bit as game as Oldman), is plagued by nightmares, while their little daughter, another Mary (Chloe Perrin), draws creepy pictures of a mystery woman. Tommy (Owen Teague), the boyfriend of David and Emily’s older daughter, Lindsey (Stefanie Scott), is driven insane almost immediately, while Lindsey is batted around as a victim between various infected parties.

With Goi and Jaswinski unwilling to explore a kinky, psychosexual bond between a man and his demonic lady ghost-boat, Mary comes to feel as if lacks a through line, collapsing into a series of disconnected horror-movie beats. The film’s momentum is further stifled by a framing device—seemingly ported over from a generic cops-and-robbers television show—in which Sarah is interrogated about what happened aboard the Mary. The filmmakers are attempting, via this framing device, to impart a sense of mystery and inevitability upon the narrative, but it serves to make Mary feel as if it’s half over before it even began.

Cast: Gary Oldman, Emily Mortimer, Owen Teague, Stefanie Scott, Chloe Perrin, Michael Landes, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Jennifer Esposito Director: Michael Goi Screenwriter: Anthony Jaswinski Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 84 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: First Cow Aims, and Often Strains, to Illuminate the American Experiment

Its themes are propped up by characters who come off as half-formed avatars rather than flesh-and-blood human beings.

2.5

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First Cow
Photo: A24

The best Kelly Reichardt films strike a sublime balance between character study and socioeconomic critique. First Cow—a mostly 19th-century-set drama co-written by Reichardt and frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, and based in part on his 2004 debut novel The Half-Life—is one of the director’s shakier efforts. The film begins with an especially incisive William Blake quote (“The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship”), and its themes of systemic exploitation, the enduring vagaries of the free market, and the alternately tender and tempestuous bonds of male camaraderie are propped up by characters who come off as half-formed avatars rather than flesh-and-blood human beings.

That isn’t to say Reichardt, who’s edited all of her films since Old Joy, has lost the ability to create multilayered, gently provocative imagery. First Cow’s opening scene, set in the present day, is particularly beautiful, visually and thematically. A young woman (Alia Shawkat) walking her dog uncovers a pair of skeletons beside an Oregon river. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt frames the bones in a steady, un-showy composition (the film is photographed in the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio) so that it takes a few seconds to realize what you’re looking at. The slow-dawning revelation of the moment epitomizes Reichardt’s tendency in First Cow, as well as in many of her other films, to let drama emerge steadily and organically.

How did these bones get here? Reichardt is content to leisurely amble toward the answer to this question, and that approach does intrigue in the early going. In the Pacific Northwest wilderness of the 1820s, a cook named Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) accompanies an aggressive group of trappers as they head toward an Oregon Territory outpost. One night he discovers a Chinese immigrant, King-Lu (Orion Lee), hiding naked in the nearby brush. King-Lu is apparently on the run from some Russian ruffians, so Cookie hides him among the trappers’ belongings. The pair reconnect again at the outpost, where they become drinking buddies and, eventually, partners in fortune-seeking crime.

The outpost’s wealthiest resident, a haughty Englishman referred to only as Chief Factor (Toby Jones), has just brought in the first cow to grace the territory. Figowitz and King-Lu decide to steal the cow’s milk—under cover of night, and as often as needed—which they then use as the key ingredient in artisanal pastries that become a lucrative staple of the outpost’s thoroughfare. Their unwitting benefactor finds out about the treats (though not, at first, about their underhanded procuring methods) and offers them a handsome sum to bake pastries for him personally. And so the cycle of exploitation, righteous and not, continues—until it can’t.

None of that summary quite captures First Cow’s gravelly ambience. The outpost itself is as vividly realized and lived-in a location as the mining town in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a film Reichardt nods to here via both Anthony Gasparro’s mud-strewn production design and the presence of Rene Auberjonois as a scarecrow-thin eccentric with a crow always on his shoulder. The sense of a nascent community rising up out of the primordial muck is palpable, so it’s unfortunate that Figowitz and King-Lu ultimately feel outside it all.

This isn’t the fault of Magaro or Lee. Both performers have a pleasing and often very funny rapport, especially whenever they exchange conspiratorial glances over a shared bottle of whiskey. However, Reichardt sees Figowitz and King-Lu, first and foremost, as the bag of bones they will become (abusers and victims both of capitalist injustice), rather than the men they are in each given moment. Their all-too-apparent endpoint supersedes their tragically flawed existence, which has the adverse effect of diminishing their humanity, reducing them to paper-thin symbols. This wreaks havoc with a finale that grasps for a profound elementalism akin to one of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s lushly ardent fantasias, but instead comes off with the contrived ambiguity and labored didacticism of lesser John Sayles.

There’s more insight into economic, racial, and social inequities in the offhand, unsubtitled exchange that Reichardt captures between two Native American women (one played by Lily Gladstone, the breakout star of Certain Women) as they converse among themselves in Chief Factor’s home. It’s the supporting cast and the side details that really sing in First Cow, both giving a sense of the alternately hopeful and despairing qualities of the American experiment that Reichardt aims, and too often strains, to illuminate.

Cast: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer, Lily Gladstone, Alia Shawkat, Rene Auberjonois, Jared Kasowski Director: Kelly Reichardt Screenwriter: Jonathan Raymond, Kelly Reichardt Distributor: A24 Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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