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Understanding Screenwriting #32: Flame & Citron, A Woman in Berlin, Inglourious Basterds, District 9, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #32: Flame & Citron, A Woman in Berlin, Inglourious Basterds, District 9, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Flame & Citron, A Woman in Berlin, Inglourious Basterds, District 9, Sense and Sensibility, Mad Men, The Code, and Hollywood Under Siege (book), but first…

Fan Mail: There were a couple of comments that came in on US#30 after I had sent off #31, so let me respond to those now. “Manu” would like me to review a Hindi film or two. If I see one I want to write about, I certainly will. Keith gives me a lot of freedom to write about what I want to, which is one of the many reasons I love this gig. Olaf Barthel thought the problems with Public Enemies script were from the book. I have not read the book, but I think the script problems were more the doing of the screenwriters. After all, the job of the screenwriters is to make the book work as a screenplay. There is a great example of that later in this column.

On to #31. Craig thought we did not get a precise view of Summer in (500) Days of Summer because we are getting Tom’s view and he is an unreliable narrator. He may have a point, but I think it may just be the way the writers structured the script to give us a “true” insight into her at the end. “-bee” made a very good point that Leslie Mann in Funny People just does not have the “requisite charisma” to bring off the part. Since I whacked Apatow’s kids in the film, I have no trouble whacking his wife as well. “DS” responded to my “Be careful what you wish for” as to my eventually reviewing one of his scripts by noting that if I did review it, it would mean it had been made. And he looked forward to learning from my comments. He added, “I want to keep on learning,” which is exactly the attitude you have to bring to the table. For one of the great “keep on learning” stories, look up the anecdote from Nunnally Johnson at the end of the appendix in the third edition of my FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film.

Flame & Citron (2008. Written by Lars Andersen and Ole Christian Madsen. 130 minutes by IMDb and Los Angeles Times count, 135 minutes by my count): Army of Shadows goes to Denmark.

Ole Christian Madsen, the director as well as a co-writer of this film, said in an interview in the Los Angeles Times that his film about two of the best known Danish resistance movement fighters in World War II was inspired by Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 classic Army of Shadows. Melville was one of the first filmmakers to look at the darker side of the resistance, and for his troubles his film was banned for years in France. What both filmmakers do is avoid the standard heroics of traditional resistance films and look at the queasy moral ground that was part of the fight, even by the good guys in the Good War. I found Army of Shadows both admirable and chilling, and in some ways Flame & Citron is even better. It is not as exciting as Paul Verhoeven’s 2006 film Black Book, but Verhoeven was dealing with people having to make complex moral decisions instantaneously. Flame & Citron takes its time to turn the screws on its characters, and us.

The film begins with newsreels of the Nazi invasion of Denmark in 1940, but with a particularly disquieting voiceover narration. It is not the Voice of God you might expect from a film set in the forties, but rather someone—and we don’t find out who for a while—whispering intimately to someone else. Only later do we learn the voice belongs to Bent, nicknamed Flame because of his red hair, and only at the end do we learn to whom he was, well, I don’t want to spoil it for you. The film proper starts in May 1944, so we get none of the glamor of the early years of the resistance. It has been going on for a while and while killing has become commonplace, it has also begun to exhaust Bent and his partner, Jorgen, nicknamed Citron. Here is the first surprise: they have not been killing Germans, but Danes who collaborated with the Germans. (In traditional resistance films, all the civilians were in the resistance and nobody collaborated. In Army of Shadows and this film that’s not true.) Now they get the word from their boss Winther to kill three Germans. The attempted killings do not go well, to put it politely. Bent, meanwhile, is attracted to a shadowy older woman, Ketty, even though it is not clear whom she works for. As the film progresses, a common question several characters ask other characters is, “Who do you work for?” Sometimes they get answers, sometimes not. Sometimes the answers are true, sometimes not. Sometimes the answers are only partially true, sometimes partially false. While the movie starts out a little slowly, it gets better as it goes along. Yes, there is a traditional shootout involving one of the men, but mostly the writers have given us a collection of great scenes. Late in the picture, Bent has a meeting with his father that gives us in a nutshell the reality of the Nazi occupation and how people dealt with it. Jorgen finds out he is losing his wife, since he has so little time when he can be with her, and the writers give us a great, unsettling scene where he ensures she will be taken care of properly. There is a scene in Stockholm in which the various leaders of Danish Intelligence and the Army try to work out what to do with Flame & Citron; it recalls the final scene between Feisal, Allenby and Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia, and I cannot give it any higher praise.

As screenwriters, here is why you should do your research. The writers talked to the surviving members of the two men’s families, and looked through various archives. In a Stockholm archive they found a final detail about Ketty that gives us her final scene. The picture would be poorer without that scene.

A Woman in Berlin (2008. Screenplay by Max Färberböck and co-writer Catharina Schuchmann, based on the book Anonyma-Eine Frau in Berlin by Anonyma. 131 minutes): Not exactly the feel-good movie of the summer.

The book Anonyma-Eine Frau in Berlin was published in Germany in 1959 to howls of outrage. The anonymous author wrote of her experiences at the end of World War II when the Russians captured Berlin. She and many of the women she knew were raped, multiple times, by various Russian soldiers. The story she tells is how she decided to be the one to choose who raped her, and how she formed various liaisons with Russian officers, ending up with a major. You can see why readers on both sides of the Iron Curtain would not have been happy. It is not surprising it took another fifty years for the book to make it to the screen. Max Färberböck , who also directed, was the writer and director ten years ago of Aimée & Jaguar, in which a German woman falls in love with a female Jewish resistance fighter in Berlin in 1943/44. So he is familiar with the territory.

The current film, like the earlier one, is based on a true story, which in this case gives it a very episodic structure. The writers use that very effectively at the beginning of the film to help capture the chaos of facing the Berliners as the Russian army arrives while the war is still on. We, like the women and old men, are kept off balance. This means the script depends more on individual scenes than a single through-line. The scenes are compelling, and not just because we have not seen much like it before. Billy Wilder’s 1948 film, A Foreign Affair, comes closest, but without the explicitness we get here. The writers here are more sympathetic to the German women than Wilder was three years after the end of the war.

After a long sequence that both sets up the situation and lets us know we as well as the women cannot escape, we begin to see how accommodations are made by everybody. Late in the first hour, “Anonyma,” as the heroine is listed in the cast, meets an old friend, Elke (played by Juliane Köhler, Aimée from the earlier film). Anonyma asks her simply, “How many times?” and Elke replies equally straightforwardly, “Four times.” The two women join others in Anonyma’s building for a, well, you can’t quite call it a party. A get-together, group therapy, whatever. They talk openly about their experiences with the Russian men, laughing about the men and even the experiences. Wilder never had a scene like this.

About 75-minutes into the film, the war ends, and we get a brilliant set-piece of the celebration of the Russians and the Germans. When you think of set-pieces in films, you tend to think of directors showing off (the crop duster sequence in North by Northwest), but here it is a writers’ set-piece, not unlike the laying out of the narrative elements in the first half hour of The Godfather. We get not only the variation of emotions the characters feel, but how those emotions change as the party and scene progress. Like Black Book and Flame & Citron, the scene and the film pull us into the moral complexities of human behavior in the desperate environment of war.

The major, whom Anonyma develops a kind of love for, is eventually sent away, possibly to Siberia, possibly worse, probably at least in part for his relationship with her. Her husband returns, and the difference in his look between an early flashback of him going off to war and how he looks now summarizes the damage war does even to those who manage somehow to survive. The writers have provided great opportunities for all the film’s actors.

The film is not perfect. There are scenes that go on too long, and it was made on what appears to be a limited budget. We are stuck on the street where Anonyma lives and the Russian army seems to hang out. It looks as though it might have been one of exterior street sets from The Pianist. It adds to the claustrophobia of the women’s situation, but when Anonyma does take a ride on a bicycle, she never seems to leave the street. Those are minor flaws.

Inglourious Basterds (2009. Written by Quentin Tarantino. 153 minutes): No, I am not going where you think I am.

You probably thought that since I love and admire Flame & Citron and A Woman in Berlin, particularly for their complex and subtle look at war and what it does to its participants, that I am about to rake Tarantino over the coals for making a silly, shallow, appeal-to-the-twelve-year-old fanboy movie. Like most people, I have a taste for a wide variety of movies. Tarantino is less interested, not to say not interested at all, in writing a subtle look at the morality of war. Like many American screenwriters, who are after all part of the American storytelling tradition, he wants to tell a tale. And as much or more than any other American screenwriter, he wants to tell off-the-wall, wildly entertaining stories. Americans do this better than screenwriters in most other cultures. It is part of our DNA. And different as Inglourious Basterds obviously is from the two films above, it is maybe not as different as you might think.

The opening scene could have come out of either of the two European films. SS Colonel Landa comes to a farm in occupied France and questions the owner about a Jewish family he has not been able to track down. The scene is slower and less obviously violent than the openings of the other two films. It is much more a suspense scene than an action scene, as are several of the scenes in Basterds. Tarantino has been saying in interviews that his film is more about dialogue than action. The dialogue is not the wild and crazy stuff that we expect from Tarantino, but it does tell us about the characters and the situation. Landa, a wonderful character beautifully played by Christoph Waltz, is a descendant of all those suave Nazis that showed up in films made during the war, and he takes his time talking to the farmer before guns get fired.

American Lt. Aldo Raine, whom we meet in the next “chapter,” talks completely differently. He is a redneck, part Native American from Tennessee, and he sounds like it. In US#16 I made the distinction between Brad Pitt the movie star and Brad Pitt the character actor. Boy, am I glad Pitt was smart enough to bring the character actor along, since Tarantino has given him a great character to play. Pitt delivers a marvelous performance, which has been a bit overshadowed by Waltz’s Landa. They are both terrific, and Tarantino has, more than in any of his previous scripts, made sure they do not talk alike.

I mentioned that there are great suspense scenes in this script. One is when Shosanna, the sole survivor of the farm scene and who now runs a movie theatre in Paris, is brought to a lunch with German army hero Frederick Zoller and Joseph Goebbels. Landa shows up in the middle of the scene. I think Tarantino took the cheap way out by letting us know before this that Shosanna was the survivor, since it probably would have been more dramatic just to throw in the quick flashback we do get in the middle of the scene. I always get my screenwriting students to write in reactions, and Tarantino has given Mélanie Laurent, who plays Shosanna, a great reaction at the end of the scene. I would also like to see the rest of the shot, since Tarantino and his editor Sally Menke seem to cut it short.

I am not spoiling anything at this point by letting you know the ending is VERY revisionist: Hitler and the German high command are killed in an explosion and fire at the movie theatre. Maybe it was that I knew that going into to see the film, but I found that Tarantino had set up and told his tall tale in such an entertaining way that I not only did not care that he had changed the course of history, I felt it did not have the impact for me that it might have had if I had not known. That’s a problem for writer when you come up with such a twist. Especially these days with tweets and such it is unlikely to remain a secret.

So if this is such a tall tale, how is it like those two European films? One of the problems I had with Tarantino’s earlier films is that he seemed unaware that violence hurt people. He took this, I suspect, from the kung fu movies he loved as a video store clerk where nobody seems to be hurt from all the damage done to them. As much as I loved Pulp Fiction, after the shootout in the street I kept thinking, “These guys have lost so much blood they should at least be in shock, if not dead.” I often said jokingly in the nineties that Tarantino should get shot in the foot so he would know the cost of the violence. In Basterds, for all the exuberant action, there are moments when we are aware of the emotional damage, such as Zoller’s reactions to the film of his real-life adventures. No, the film is not as good as others in dealing with this, but the fact that it is there gives at least a little substance to what is otherwise a rousing, American adventure film. Tarantino is maturing, but thank God not too much.

District 9 (2009. Written by Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell. 112 minutes): Killing three birds with one stone.

Not being a big fan of science fiction movies, CGI spectacles, or movies in which slimy things jump out and go boo, I usually end up seeing only one in each genre over the course of the year. District 9 combines all three in one film and throws in social comment and satire as well. And I loved it.

You may know the backstory of this one. Blomkamp was supposed to direct a big-budget version of Halo, but when the project fell apart, producer Peter Jackson asked if he wanted to do something else. Blomkamp suggested a feature based on a six-minute short he had made in 2005 called Alive in Joburg. Jackson agreed and Blomkamp and Tatchell came up with the current script. According to a joint interview with the writers in the August 14th issue of Creative Screenwriting Weekly, Blomkamp was interested in doing a science fiction movie in South Africa, while Tatchell focused on the characters.

A traditional problem with science fiction films is exposition, specifically setting up the world of the film. If a man on a horse with a gun rides over the hill, we know we are in a western until you tell us otherwise. But science fiction films have to establish the world we will be living in and the rules of that world. Star Wars does it by plunging us right into the action and letting us figure out what the rules are. The David Lynch film of Dune spent so much time setting up the world that a friend of mine kept mumbling “They’re only up to page 20,” “They’re only up to page 40.” What the writers do here is throw an enormous amount of exposition at us, but in a great variety of forms. Some of it seems to be television news coverage. Some of it seems to be talking heads from a documentary made after the events. All of this is broken up into very short bits, with snippets not only of information, but also of humor and character. When we first see Wikus, we think he must be a minor bit of comedy relief, which is a wonderful bit of writerly slight-of-hand. Look at the information and opinion we get from MANY people about him. All of that information comes together when we find out why he was selected to head the unit that will resettle the aliens.

Matt Maul and several of the folks who commented on his August 17th review of the film at HND felt the film lost their interest after the first half an hour or 40 minutes. I felt that by that point in the film we had gotten to know Wikus and I for one was rooting for him. Blomkamp and Tatchell have created a variety of problems Wikus has to deal with and then used them in inventive ways. He spritzes some fluid on his hand, and it begins to turn into an alien hand. Which on the one hand makes more people chase him for various reasons, but it also gives him a weapon or two or three. Matt and several people commenting on his review thought the film gives up the faux-documentary style and becomes more conventional. It does not give it up all together, but there are scenes done in a more conventional style, particularly those with the aliens, which I think makes them more sympathetic.

Part of the reason for the sense that the film loses something after the opening is that the opening uses the special effects brilliantly to suggest a much larger scale film than District 9 really is. One thing I LOVE about this film is that the SFX are ENTIRELY at the service of the content of the film: the story, the characters (especially of the aliens) and the ideas. One of the reasons I avoid movies like Transforming the Terminator into G.I. Joe is that the SFX spend a lot of time calling attention to themselves. Because Blomkamp as director is working on what for Hollywood would be a small budget (around $30 million), he does not have time and money to waste on what is not needed.

You can see why Peter Jackson, the director of the 1987 Bad Taste, would be willing to produce this. There is a lot of gore, but as with the SFX, it is only what is needed. The writers and the director do not wallow in it. And it is done humorously. Never underestimate the uses of humor, and by that I do not just mean wisecracks. Here the character humor and the political satire are a nice counterbalance to the action and gore. And the political satire is not heavy-handed. We can see that the aliens have been put into the same kind of slums that black people in South Africa have been put in. We don’t need to be hit over the head with it.

Sense and Sensibility (1995. Screenplay by Emma Thompson, based on the novel by Jane Austen. 135 minutes): I think I was wrong about both Jane and Emma.

In writing about Clueless, the 1995 modern dress version of Austen’s Emma in the book Understanding Screenwriting, I admitted I had problems with Austen as a writer. I had loved the films made in the mid-nineties from her novels, but when I finally got around to reading Emma, “It cured me of being a Janeite forever. The woman is one of the wordiest writers in the English language, never using five words when she can use five hundred or a thousand. You have to wade through so much verbiage to get to the wit and the characters it is hardly worth the effort.” This summer I got around to reading Sense and Sensibility. It is a great airplane read, by the way. You have to concentrate on the language just hard enough to distract you from everything else on the plane. I liked it a lot better than Emma. It is wordy, and you still have to wade through a lot, but I began to appreciate what Janeites see in Austen. Reading the novel also made me appreciate even more than I already did Emma Thompson’s screenplay.

Austen’s novel is dramatic (she loved theatre), but she does not write in scenes. Thompson had to create a number of scenes out of Austen’s general descriptions. In Austen, Edward Ferrars is given no entrance; he just shows up at Norland. Look at his introductory scene in the film. Likewise, Austen’s wordiness extends to her dialogue scenes, which go on forever. I could only find one scene (Elinor telling Edward of Brandon’s offer of a parish) that uses much of Austen’s dialogue. And Edward’s great lines to Elinor at the end, “I have come with no expectation. Only to profess, now that I am at liberty to do so, that my heart is and always will be yours,” is nowhere to be found in Austen. Sometimes Jane needs a real screenwriter to help her out.

Mad Men (2009. “Out of Town” episode written by Matthew Weiner. “Love Among the Ruins” episode written by Cathryn Humphris and Matthew Weiner. Epiosode “My Old Kentucky Home” written by Dhavi Waller and Matthew Weiner. Each episode 60 minutes): Oh joy. Oh rapture. It’s back.

I found it rather interesting to read the episode recap of “Out of Town” on the official AMC website for the show. It gets all the facts down and even makes the opening seem to me clearer than it did when I watched it, but it misses what makes Mad Men unique: the overtones, the nuances. By the way, the official website will also give you a cocktail guide, tell you how to have Mad Men parties, show you videos of the premier, and give you quizzes to take. It will not, however, give you either the writing or acting credits for the show. If I were the agent for the actress who played Shelly, the stewardess, I would be on to both AMC and IMDb about getting her on the cast lists (in fairness to IMDb, within a week, they did have Sunny Mabrey, who plays Shelly, up on the cast list).

Nuances. That’s why we love the show. Sterling Cooper has been taken over by a British firm and look at how that is dealt with in “Out of Town.” Look at the different ways Ken and Peter come into the office of Lane Pryce, the leading Brit. One sits, the other doesn’t; who knows what is the proper etiquette for the Brits? There are constantly little linguistic misunderstandings between the Brits and our guys. Hooker, the “secretary” to Pryce, keeps explaining that he is more than what the Americans mean by secretary, which leads to Joan’s withering “We know.” Which later leads Hooker, who is nicknamed by the female staff “Moneypenny,” to look baffled and to say about Sterling Cooper, “This place is a gynocracy.” You have to love a show in which even the idiots get off perceptive lines. Great writing is profligate with ideas, scenes, dialogue, characters, everything.

After both Pete and Ken have been separately told they are going to be head of accounts, they ride in an elevator and exchange small talk, but we know what each one is thinking. The same with Don seeing Sal in the hotel room, semi-dressed with the bellhop. And listen to the scene with Don and Sal on the plane back to New York. Yes, Don is talking about an idea for the ad campaign for London Fog (and do you think for a second the choice of that brand is coincidental?), but we and Sal know what he is really talking about when he says, “Limit your exposure.” And listen to Sal’s reaction to the mock-up of the ad. Yes, we are watching the sets, costumes, drinking habits, but Mad Men is also a great show to listen to.

In “Love Among the Ruins” I was particularly struck with how the writers are beginning to show the changes in society that the first two seasons have been setting up. Some of the SC guys are dealing with the plans to tear down the old Penn Station and put up the new Madison Square Garden. Roger’s daughter is getting married, and Roger notes the wedding is set for November 23rd. I was suspicious as soon as I heard that, and my suspicions were confirmed at the end of the scene where we see a copy of the invitation. Yep, November 23rd, 1963. Check your history books if you do know what that’s all about. When the younger guys screw up the Penn Station deal, Don steps in and convinces the head of the project that they just need to change the conversation about it in the public eye. And then the London office has Pryce tell Don that they want to drop the project all together. When Don then asks Pryce why the British company bought SC, he simply answers, ” I don’t know.”

The greatest change we are seeing is in Peggy, who is not only speaking up in meetings, but going out to a bar and picking up somebody to have sex with, just like the guys do. The AMC synopsis has her parting line as “This was fun,” but I got it in my notes as “That was fun,” which suggests her distance from the act. What did I say about it being a great show to listen to?

In “My Old Kentucky Home” Don is at a party (or is it Roger and Jane’s wedding?—the AMC synopsis says party, but there are hints that it is a wedding) at a country club. He is put off by Roger’s singing “My Old Kentucky Home” to Jane. In blackface. As the AMC synopsis says, “Don wanders off to an untended bar where he meets an older male wedding guest. Don prepares Old-Fashioneds while the two swap stories about their modest beginnings.” Yes, but that does not anywhere near capture the richness of the scene. The man, Connie, is a rock-ribbed Republican from New Mexico who still feels out of place. He talks about going by a mansion like the club as a kid in his small boat and hearing the parties. He now thinks it is less interesting on the inside. Don of course is used to being a fish out of water, but as we are constantly seeing, he may be the most adult person on the show. He and Connie may be the most together people at the party, able to see what is going on more clearly than the others. Perhaps in Don’s case, this comes from trying to create himself all these years. In 1991 I happened to meet Christ Cosner Sizemore. That name may not mean anything to you until I tell you that she was the real-life “Eve” of The Three Faces of Eve. She was by then a little dumpling of a grandmother, but she was also one of the most together people I have ever met. Well, I thought, she has had forty years of working on pulling herself together. What the Connie-Don scene does is showing us two men who have pulled themselves together. Self-made men.

The Code (2008. Written by Ted Humprey. 104 minutes): Leaving money on the table.

This was originally intended as a theatrical film, and it opened overseas in the first half of this year. Its title then was the infinitely better Thick as Thieves; The Code sounds like one of those bland titles the folks in marketing come up with. You just have to keep knocking those away as a batter hits foul balls until you get something you like. I will grant you that the title The Code does refer to one of the more interesting scenes in the middle of the jewelry store heist when the thieves are guessing at the safe’s code (you know the writer is doing it right when he has you on the edge of your seat while the actors are just reading numbers), but you have to have already seen the film. Like Raiders of the Lost Ark.

So it is a heist picture, and we have not had a good one since Inside Man in 2006. Humphrey’s script is not up to that, but it does give us the pleasures of the genre. There are a lot of twists, including one in the middle of the robbery that I was totally not expecting. The head of the two-man operation, Keith Ripley (a tip of the ski mask to Patricia Highsmith, perhaps), is a wonderful opportunity for Morgan Freeman to throw off that nobility he has been dragging around and show us his badasssss side. He’s not as nasty as he was in Street Smart (1987), but is still not someone you would want to double cross. His partner, Gabby, is Antonio Banderas, and try to avoid thinking early in the film that he may be too long in the tooth for a character who seems to be the junior partner. Robert Forster also shows up to deliver what is probably the only Jules Dassin joke in the history of movies.

The reason I picked this one up on DVD is that the director, Mimi Leder, is a former student of mine. She made her bones directing episodes of LA Law, China Beach, and ER, the latter one winning her an Emmy. She moved into features with The Peacemaker (1997) and Deep Impact (1998), but after the failure of Pay It Forward in 2000, she went back to television. She has always handled both action and character well and she does so here.

The picture probably could have done O.K. if it had been released theatrically in this country, but it ended up going straight to DVD. We are probably going to be seeing more of this, since in the recession companies will not have as much money to open a film theatrically as they had in the past. As for The Code, when it was released in June, it became the first direct-to-DVD release ever to go to number one in the rentals for its week. Somebody left some money on the table, but it may have cost them too much to pick it up.

Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars (2008. Book by Thomas R. Lindlof. 394 pages): A tin ear.

Lindlof’s book is a fascinating look at the making of The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and the protests stirred up against it by the religious right. It does tell us enough near the beginning about the writing of the film to help explain why it was so awful. The first writer on the film was Paul Schrader and we get a few lines of dialogue from his script. The idea was to avoid the fancy literary style of most bibilical films, but the dialogue quoted is so everyday it becomes flat. Jay Cocks’s revisions did not help. The dialogue simply was not very believable in the bibilical context. Scorsese did not help matters by letting them sound like New York working class guys. He and Tom Pollock, the new head of the studio, had a long phone conversation about it. Pollock told Lindlof, “I was one of those who did not want Harvey Keitel as Judas. I thought the accents would be totally jarring and take you out of the movie. Marty had an idea that somehow this would show that the people who followed Jesus were the proletariat of the time, the common workingman. I said, ’All right, Marty, I get it, but why do they have to talk like they’re the common workingmen from the Lower East Side? What’s wrong with just sort of straight-on American?’” Pollock, alas, decided not to push the issue. Too bad, because he was right. I have never seen the picture in full, but I caught about five minutes one night on cable and was so put off by Keitel’s accent I could not stand to watch any more of it. Scorsese does seem to have a tin ear about accents. How else do you explain him letting Michelle Pfeiffer, who can do very good accents, sound like a California surfer-girl in The Age of Innocence (1993)?

The heart of the book is about the controversy and protests when the film was released, and Lindlof has done a great job of researching both sides. So much so that he comes up with this interesting fact. While Universal made only about a $700,000 profit on the film, the man who made the most money off of the situation was Donald Wildmon, the head of the American Family Association. The AFA got $3.2 million in donations in 1988, the year of film, 30% more than the year before. Wildmon’s use of the film as a wedge issue to boost donations was quickly picked up by both the religious and political right. Thanks Marty.

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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Cannes Review: In Pain and Glory, Life and Art Are Wistful Bedfellows

Pedro Almodóvar’s latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned intensity of his finest work.

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Pain and Glory
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

A film about an aging artist struggling to recapture his yen for creation, Pain and Glory has the makings of a deeply personal, career-capping work for Pedro Almodóvar. His name may be Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), but the gay filmmaker, with his tussled hair, white beard, and red turtleneck, may as well call himself Pedro. One of the very few differences between them is that Salvador has stopped making films while Almodóvar continues to work at a relatively steady clip. Pain and Glory is a ballsy admission on the Spanish auteur’s part that he hasn’t made a film in more than a decade that can compare with his most outrageous and subversive output, which makes it all the more dispiriting that his latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned, melodramatic intensity that defined, say, Law of Desire, Matador, and Bad Education.

Pain and Glory is most surprising at the outset, as the stern narration that we’ve come to expect from an Almodóvar film is audaciously paired with CG graphics and abstract animations that illustrate Salvador’s anatomical and psychosomatic conditions. The man suffers from tinnitus, chronic back pain, severe headaches, anxiety, depression, and various other ailments. It’s a literally visceral way to begin a film that soon settles into the more familiar pattern of a two-track narrative: There’s Salvador in the present, who works toward repairing a friendship with the heroin-addicted star, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), of his recently restored and most celebrated film, Subor, and there’s Salvador as a young boy (Asier Flores), preternaturally intelligent and perpetually optimistic, living in poverty with his ever-harried mother, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz), until he’s finally sent off to a seminary.

Perhaps all of this might have landed with a little more impact if Almodóvar hadn’t already covered so much of the same territory in Bad Education, which also centers itself around a film director’s relationship with an actor and tells the story of a young altar boy’s life, much of it spent at a seminary, through a series of flashbacks. Another rehash of a nearly identical plot point from that 2004 film is Pain and Glory’s intriguing meta conceit: Alberto convinces Salvador to let him perform a one-man stage adaptation of a monologue the former wrote long ago, an obvious nod to Almodóvar’s longtime collaborator, Banderas, playing a version of the filmmaker here. Pain and Glory is, in fact, defined by its abundance of conspicuously placed Easter eggs. Even in the scenes between the present-day Salvador and his dying mother (Julietta Serrano), namely the moment she tells him not to make films about her, Almodóvar points to the personal turmoil that led to the making of All About My Mother.

Putting aside the boldness of the sequences that kick Pain and Glory into motion, Almodóvar’s formal approach is generally subdued and disciplined throughout. His screenplay is also quite neat in its structure, relating its two plotlines in almost stubbornly linear fashion, reliably hitting standard narrative beats of interpersonal conflict and reconciliation. Almodóvar wouldn’t be the first filmmaker in the history of cinema to mellow with age, and there’s a sense that Pain and Glory’s artistry is a reflection of that trajectory, but that only makes the too-fleeting snapshots of Salvador’s hard-scrabble early years—which includes living inside a white cave with Jacinta and other migrants—feel as if they never transcend easy nostalgia.

Still, Almodóvar’s singular use of color as a barometer of characters’ interiorities and the emotional temperature of a scene remains on vibrant display throughout Pain and Glory. There’s also some wonderful comic repartee between the disheveled Banderas, so exquisitely committed to imparting a sense of his character’s almost ghostly status, and the perpetually bug-eyed Etxeandia. Alberto, upon reuniting with Salvador, almost immediately introduces him to heroin, and, improbably, the way in which they bond through their horrible addiction results in some of the funniest scenes in an Almodóvar film in some time.

It’s another reunion, though, between Salvador and Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), an ex-lover he hasn’t seen since the ‘80s, that finds Almodóvar delivering on the heightened promise of the film’s title. The men are brought back together through an absurd coincidence, after Federico wanders into the performance of Salvador’s play and recognizes that his life has been incorporated into the monologue, but the scene thrums with that distinctly magnetic force of love that’s fundamental to Almodóvar’s best work. Also, the actual moment of Salvador and Federico’s reunion is a gracefully staged dance of advance and retreat, beginning with a late-night conversation at Salvador’s apartment that never leaves the common area. Finally, after an intense kiss, Federico departs, and though he invites Salvador to come visit him and his family, both men seem to implicitly realize that they’ll never see each other again.

Salvador and Federico’s meeting unfolds almost in real time, and touches on their shared past, the lives they lived in the interim, and how much they’ve always meant to each other. The scene recalls other intense emotional meetings in prior Almodóvar films, but more than that, in its duration and focus, it seems drawn from more contemporary inspirations: Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, the final stretch of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, even “Looking for the Future,” the finest episode of Andrew Haigh’s Looking. It also arguably packs even more of an expressive force than any of those works, and serves as a reminder that, however much Almodóvar’s formalist bona fides may have cooled, his ability to craft emotionally acute, achingly felt scenes between men in the throes of love is as vigorous as ever.

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Penélope Cruz, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Navas, Julieta Serrano, César Vicente, Asier Flores, Julieta Serrano Director: Pedro Almodóvar Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Cannes Review: Joan of Arc Never Coalesces into a Fully Rounded Character Study

Bruno Dumont seems perpetually aware of the trap of familiarity, which may be why he indulges in some of his most inscrutable filmmaking.

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Joan of Arc
Photo: 3P Productions

Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc may not have earned the French filmmaker many new fans, but it did serve to further his apparent embrace of a more mirthful directorial approach. As radical as any film that the New French Extremity-adjacent auteur has made, Jeanette is also unexpectedly accessible: a full-blown pop-rock musical in which a preteen Joan of Arc frets over her God-given mission to save France during the Hundred Years’ War, all the while head-banging to heavy metal music.

Dumont’s follow-up, Joan of Arc, now takes on the task of covering the “adult” years of the martyred saint, from her waning days as a warlord to her trial and inevitable execution for heresy. And while it’s almost as surprising as its predecessor, it’s considerably less exhilarating. Whereas the latter half of Jeanette, following a time jump, replaced child actor Lise Leplat Prudhomme with the teenaged Jeanne Voisin, the now 10-year-old Prudhomme has been reinstated in the title role here as the 19-year-old Joan. Right away, this recalibration is extremely dissonant, and it’s one that Dumont exploits particularly well in the lengthy scenes depicting Joan’s trial, during which she’s lectured and berated—like the child that she physically is—by misogynistic, condescending “graduates of theology.”

Much less easy to parse, in terms of intentionality and of classification, is the film’s proximity to the musical genre. An early scene features a suite of songs—sung theatrically by French indie-pop group Kid Wise’s Augustin Charnet—that play over a series of stoical tableaux shots of Prudhumme’s armor-clad Joan, looking pensively into the camera. Dumont briefly seems to be up to something rather brilliant here, reconfiguring the musical tropes of his Joan of Arc saga as a means to manifest the “voices” that the Joan of historical record claimed she heard in her head. But that interpretation gets ever more foggy as the filmmaker goes on to present various musical-esque scenes, but in fractured and recontexualized forms. The most jarring example of this is a lengthy, wordless interlude that features a battalion of soldiers on horseback moving in elaborate patterns, dance-like, a sequence which Dumont shoots in a way that recalls Busby Berkley musicals, with shots from above of the choreographed horses.

At least one aesthetic decision carries over from Jeanette: Only a handful of sets are used in Joan of Arc, and each change usually heralds a major shift in Joan’s lived experience, from battle to trial to imprisonment. (The film’s first third is largely adapted from French Catholic poet Charles Péguy’s play Les Batailles, while the remainder, almost entirely concerned with Joan’s trial and punishment, is based on another Péguy work, Rouen.) However, whereas Jeanette mostly limited itself to exterior shots of the idyllic French countryside, the contrasts in Joan of Arc are striking: The film moves from its opening passage, set amid cascading dunes, to the clean, vertiginous, and imposing interior space of the Royal Chapel, a place that serves to decisively dwarf an already diminutive Joan.

It’s in the pristine halls of the Royal Chapel that ornately dressed men of aristocratic pedigree and high authority—each drolly introduced in a kind of roll call—gather and almost instantly turn into savages, indiscriminately lobbing insults and explicating their own intolerance with unfeeling displays of intellectualized theological reasoning. Naturally, Joan retaliates, steadfastly refusing to disavow her devotion to her own spiritual dogma.

The best part of these trial scenes, and of Joan of Arc in general, is Prudhomme, who, despite her age, gives an extraordinarily committed, and convincing, performance as the teenaged Joan. The cinema is filled with iconic portrayals of the Maid of Orléans, but Prudhomme fully deserves a place among those. It’s a pity, then, that Dumont’s film doesn’t really manage to find many new dimensions to the Joan of Arc mythos—apart from its one inspired casting choice. The filmmaker’s effort to tap into the currents of modernity that run through this centuries-old story can be traced back through film history, at least as far as Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, if not to Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc—which is, of course, predicated on the particular presentation of the cinematic image.

Dumont does, at least, seem perpetually aware of the trap of familiarity, which may be why he indulges in some of his most inscrutable filmmaking—the aforementioned horse dance, and a musical cameo from the film’s composer, French popstar Christophe—and attempts subtle gestures of subversion. Take the final shot of Joan of Arc, which is not unlike the last act of grace and salvation (and blatant homage to Robert Bresson’s Mouchette) that concludes 2010’s Hadewijch. Here, the instantly recognizable composition from the Dreyer film—for which Bresson infamously voiced his distaste—is rejected twofold, as Dumont shoots Joan’s fatal immolation in profile, and from a considerable distance.

Joan of Arc, though, has bigger problems than an over familiarity with its source, as its themes and dynamics also recall other, stronger Dumont films. The articulation of interiority through stylized visualizations of the adolescent Joan is audacious and intriguing, but its philosophical meaning isn’t nearly as fleshed out, nor as emotionally accessible, as the transformation undergone by a devout young woman into a radicalized religious extremist in Hadewijch. And the psychological understanding of Joan—the process of her victimization—isn’t as acute, nor as visceral, as Dumont’s similar biopic on institutionalized sculptor Camille Claudel. Joan of Arc can’t even claim to have the same conceptual rigor that ignited Jeanette—all of which amounts to a film that feels like a nexus point for Dumont’s influences and his preoccupations, but one that never coalesces its potential into the major work it clearly strives to be.

Cast: Lise Leplat Prudhomme, Jean-François Causeret, Daniel Dienne, Fabien Fenet, Robert Hanicotte, Yves Habert, Fabrice Luchini, Christophe Director: Bruno Dumont Screenwriter: Bruno Dumont Running Time: 138 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Cannes Review: Zombi Child Radically Grapples with Colonialism’s Legacy

Bertrand Bonello’s quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract.

3.5

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Zombi Child
Photo: Arte France Cinéma

Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child roils with colonialist tensions. But as with the director’s prior Nocturama, this quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments here where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper then race relations. Indeed, the decision to switch back and forth between Mélissa and Fanny’s perspectives in the film’s present-day scenes opens the story up to a more complex examination of how the girls view and relate to their own heritage and culture.

Not unlike Bonello’s House of Pleasures, which in its final moments made a jarring jump from a brothel in the early 20th century to modern-day Paris and prostitutes working a city street, Zombi Child explores the factors that have allowed a social practice, voodoo, to become a constant of history. Mélissa’s aunt, Katy (Katiana Milfort), is a “mambo,” or voodoo priestess, and she’s the only surviving member of Mélissa’s family in the wake of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. Mélissa is drawn to Fanny because the two share an affinity for Stephen King and horror fiction, and as they get closer, Fanny facilitates Mélissa’s initiation into her tight-knit “literary sorority.” But after this act of bonding, the young women begin to move in opposite directions: Mélissa makes an effort to fit into the sorority, singing along to angry French rap when she’d rather be listening to music sung in her native Créole language, while Fanny, reeling from her sudden breakup with her long distance lover, Pablo (Sayyid El Alami), discreetly digs into Mélissa’s past and decides to use voodoo as a remedy for her heartbreak.

The other half of the film’s time-jumping narrative concerns Fanny’s grandfather, Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou), who, in 1962, becomes the victim of a voodoo curse that puts him in an early grave and results in the reanimation of his corpse and him having to perform manual plantation labor in a perpetually “zombified” state. Throughout this section of Zombi Child, Bonello fractures the spatial and temporal coherence of scenes, stringing together elemental, horror movie-adjacent visuals, like the recurring image of an iridescent moon shrouded in clouds and first-person perspective shots that careen through dense sugarcane fields. A clear contrast is established early on between the perpetually dark Haitian landscape and the antiseptic, white-walled interiors of the classrooms in which Fanny and Mélissa are lectured by professors spouting one-sided lessons on world history. But just as its racial politics start to seem too explicit, Zombi Child suddenly and radically reframes itself.

Clairvius’s death turns out to have been the consequence of familial jealousy, and his exploitation as a slave comes at the hands of black plantation farmers, not white men—at least not that we’re made aware of. And if the film is rendered with a veracity that a documentarian would envy, that’s a result of Bonello drawing inspiration from accounts of Haitian slaves being put in medically induced states of “zombification” during the early 20th century. This has the effect of recasting a supernatural fiction narrative as reconstructed history.

Bonello also never gives us the racially charged confrontation that Mélissa and Fanny’s relationship seems to be building toward, as he’s interested in their racial backgrounds only insofar as it shapes their modes of self-identification. Fanny’s refusal to accept her life in the present sets her on a collision course with the forces of Mélissa’s ancestry, and leads to a cataclysm of psychological horror that sees one of these forces to take possession over the other—an undead history rising up to claim a living one. Mélissa, though, draws her identity from her past and her present, and in the same moment that Fanny has her communion with the spiritual forces of voodoo, Mélissa delivers an aural history on the subject—a kind of counter-lecture to those of the white, blowhard professors in Zombi Child.

The film’s off-kilter mix of horror, historiography, and youth movie affords Bonello plenty of opportunity to indulge his pet themes and motifs. He spends much time lingering throughout scenes set at the academy on the sociality of the young women and their engagement with pop culture (notably, Mélissa gives a presentation to her class on Rihanna). In fact, Bonello’s fascination with the dynamics of these relationships seems to drive his interest in the horror genre more so even than the film’s most obvious antecedent, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie—as is indicated by a pretty explicit homage to Brian De Palma’s Carrie.

The film’s most intriguing facet, though, is the way Bonello plays with temporality. The dialectical relationship between past and present has become a central organizing principle of Bonello’s artistry, evident in his anachronistic soundtrack choices and his unmooring of characters from their period settings through decidedly modern behaviors or situations, but here he approaches that dialectic in a crucially different manner. Instead of overlaying modern-day signifiers on a period piece setting, as he did in House of Pleasures, Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. And the anxiety this creates—through discursive editing and match cuts—leads to a feverish payoff, one that uses genre and supernatural elements to further Bonello’s idea of there being one historical continuity.

Cast: Adilé David, Ginite Popote, Louise Labeque, Mackenson Bijou, Mathilde Riu, Ninon François, Patrick Boucheron, Saadia Bentaïeb, Sayyid El Alami, Wislanda Louimat, Katiana Milfort Director: Bertrand Bonello Screenwriter: Bertrand Bonello Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: In Diamantino, Strident Political Satire and Whimsy Go Toe to Toe

The film is at its strongest when depicting how Diamantino becomes a tool of politicians hoping to oust Portugal from the EU.

2.5

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Diamantino
Photo: Kino Lorber

Part absurdist character study, part satire of various European political crises, Diamantino envisions a Candide-like soccer megastar, Diamantino Matamouros (Carloto Cotta), possessed of naïve but intense imaginations. He lives in a colossal chateau and sleeps on pillows and sheets with his face printed on them, and spends much of his waking life riding the seas on a yacht that’s big enough to ferry a small army. Despite being arguably the most famous person in Portugal, and among the most famous in the world, he’s oblivious to his star power and the weighty expectations placed on him by soccer fans.

Throughout the film, writer-directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt delight in playing up the precarious balance between Diamantino’s self-absorption and his sweet absent-mindedness. Unencumbered by an entourage, Diamantino rarely interacts with anyone besides his loving, supportive father, Chico (Chico Chapas), whose humble kindness is rather jarring when set against the palatial trappings of the family’s digs. Even on the soccer pitch, Diamantino doesn’t exude the focus one associates with an elite athlete, as he spends matches fantasizing about running with colossal, fluffy puppies—playful daydreams that somehow guide his movements as he slips past other players and scores goals.

Diamantino’s carefree, seemingly unflappable temperament, however, is disrupted when he spots a raft of refugees while boating, and his glimpse at real human misery shakes him to the core—so much so that during a make-or-break penalty kick that will decide the World Cup final, he’s too distracted to make the shot, costing Portugal the match. The film’s manic tone swings into overdrive at this point, as Diamantino’s daydreams of haunted refugees are contrasted with his tear-streaked face when it’s blown up on jumbotrons, effectively positioning him as a symbol of his country’s spectacular defeat. And all the while his evil twin sisters (Anabela Moreira and Margarida Moreira) scream at the television set playing the game inside the family’s living room, causing Chico to have a fatal stroke.

This delirious sequence, touching on a celebrity’s political preoccupation and viral media culture, exhibits an audaciousness that’s disappeared from much contemporary comedy, and it sets the tone for the film’s freewheeling style. Humiliated into early retirement, Diamantino announces his embrace of the sort of celebrity activism that regularly comes in for ridicule, declaring that he will adopt a refugee child to honor both the humanitarian crisis and his late father. The Portuguese secret service, already investigating him for suspected money laundering, uses Diamantino’s proclamation to set up an undercover agent, Aisha (Cleo Tavares), to pose as a Cape Verdean refugee child, Rahim, in order to get into his house to gather clues for their case. And while Aisha only finds hilarious evidence of the player’s innocence (his computer files consist of nothing but pet photos), she continues her ruse, if only for the filmmakers to add yet another wrinkle—a lesbian relationship with her colleague, Lucia (Maria Leite)—to the film’s already dense array of plots and themes.

Aisha and Lucia’s presence in Diamantino may turn the dial up on the film’s hijinks, but in the process stalls its satirical thrust. To be sure, the film wrings much humor from Aisha’s infiltration of Diamantino’s home, mostly from how quickly she discovers that his innocence is beyond a doubt and that his cruel sisters are comically guilty, as they keep their offshore accounts on a desktop shortcut. Diamantino’s interactions with Aisha are amusing insofar as Cotta commits fully to his character’s over-eager treatment of “Rahim,” serving his adopted child breakfast in bed and getting into tickle fights that underscore the man’s emotional stuntedness. Yet these moments soon come to feel redundant, leaning too much on Lucia’s petulant anger for comic effect as Aisha grows increasingly close to Diamantino.

That Diamantino and Aisha’s relationship comes to define the last act of the film ultimately detracts from the riotous vision that Abrantes and Schmidt sketch of roiling EU tensions and the way celebrity culture can be just another element in the viral branding of extreme politics. Diamantino is on its strongest footing when depicting how its main character becomes a tool of politicians hoping to oust Portugal from the EU. One scene sees him starring in “Pexit” commercial as a folk hero from the Reconquista, during which Muslims were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. The right-wing politicians who fund the ad clearly pledge allegiance to the historical figure’s Islamophobia, though it’s also obvious that they hope that the pleasure Diamantino takes in dancing around in his costume will undercut that impression.

Elsewhere, Diamantino is used as a lab rat for a company that attempts to clone him in order to produce the world’s best soccer team. This stretch finds the film at its most profound, in part because it’s impossible to believe that scientists and supercomputers fail to fathom how a man who lives on an all-sugar diet and daydreams about puppies on the pitch could be the world’s best athlete. The filmmakers draw a line between the absurdity of these experiments and the insidious quest for racial purity behind most eugenics movements, suggesting that neo-fascists are so prone to celebrity worship that they might mistake their favorite star for the master race. It’s rich, relevant material for satire, so it’s a shame that the film pivots away from it to resolve around Diamantino’s relatively straightforward pursuit of happiness.

Cast: Carloto Cotta, Cleo Tavares, Anabela Moreira, Margarida Moreira, Carla Maciel, Chico Chapas, Maria Leite, Filipe Vargas, Joana Barrios Director: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt Screenwriter: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Tomorrow Man Gets Too Caught Up in Its Pursuit of Preciousness

The film is content to peddle the naïve notion that love is the panacea for all that ails you.

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The Tomorrow Man
Photo: Bleecker Street

The retired recluse at the center of writer-director Noble Jones’s The Tomorrow Man spends his days intensely preparing for the apocalypse. When Ed Hemsler (John Lithgow) isn’t meticulously organizing his home and secret fallout shelter, he’s posting conspiracy theories on an internet forum or glued to the local news. At least, that is, until a female news anchor (Wendy Makkena) starts to directly address him, at which point he turns off his television and tries to get his head straight. But Ed can’t really seem to find a way of easing his troubled mind. Indeed, even after engaging in extended human contact via phone conversations with his son, Brian (Derek Cecil), the old man inevitably launches into diatribes packed with half-baked ideas and comprehensive survival advice.

You’d be correct in thinking that Ed sounds a lot like Michael Shannon’s Curtis from Take Shelter, and for a short time, he follows a similar trajectory. But where Jeff Nichols’s film thrives in the ambiguous space between objective reality and the mind of its strange yet plausibly prescient protagonist, The Tomorrow Man never gives credence to any of Ed’s protestations of doom and gloom, seeing them as symptoms of his loneliness and isolation. And while his extreme paranoia is unmistakably a form of mental illness, Jones increasingly treats it with less and less concern as the film moves forward, instead using it as fodder for both quirky comedy and the catalyst for a light-hearted septuagenarian romance.

Enter Ronnie (Blythe Danner), the beautiful but equally socially awkward woman whom Ed meets while stocking up on supplies at the local grocery store. Her subtly twitchy awkwardness serves as the perfect balance to Ed’s boisterous neuroticism; her steadfast use of cash and strategic purchasing leads Ed to believe that he’s found a kindred spirit, one who’s equally prepped for the end of the world. Naturally, there’s a catch, and the ever-fastidious Ed eventually discovers Ronnie’s deep, dark secret: that she’s a hoarder.

It’s a fairly ridiculous odd-couple scenario, but when Jones keeps things small and focuses on Ed and Ronnie’s burgeoning love affair and Ronnie’s clumsy efforts at tempering Ed’s cantankerousness, Lithgow and Danner imbue the film with a warmth and generosity that lends their characters a bit of humanity. The two actors’ effortlessly charming rapport enlivens, at least in brief spurts, a film that otherwise reduces its characters to their eccentricities, from her love of war documentaries to his appreciation of ball bearings.

But The Tomorrow Man displays an utter lack of interest in exploring how Ed and Ronnie came to be so reclusive. Following their initial meet cute, the film gets caught up in its pursuit of preciousness. And Jones’s indifference to the more disturbing elements of his characters’ interior worlds effectively reduces serious mental health issues to harmless neuroses. Late into The Tomorrow Man, Ed takes to the message boards to post that “sometimes people need to be who they are even if they don’t want to be who they are.” It’s a sentiment of acceptance that’s hard to argue against, but one that ignores the fact that Ed and Ronnie are in dire need of psychiatric help. And that’s because Jones is content to peddle the naïve notion that, regardless of your situation, love is the panacea for all that ails you.

Cast: John Lithgow, Blythe Danner, Derek Cecil, Katie Aselton, Sophie Thatcher, Eve Harlow, Wendy Makkena Director: Noble Jones Screenwriter: Noble Jones Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 94 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Cannes Review: The Dead Don’t Die Is Undone by its Meta-Film Aspirations

In Jim Jarmusch’s film, what starts as a subtle undercurrent of knowing humor curdles into overt self-referentiality.

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Dead Don't Die
Photo: Focus Features

Jim Jarmusch’s strength has always been his ability to craft films that seem lackadaisical and navel-gazing on the surface, but which are actually very methodical, revealing essential truths about the socioeconomic conditions of modern American life. The filmmaker’s latest, The Dead Don’t Die, zips through vignettes set in the small town of Centerville in the days leading up to the zombie apocalypse, and for an hour-plus, the film is sharp, acerbic, and surprisingly melancholic, probing at the generational divides between its characters, who behave in vastly different ways throughout the end of days.

Eventually, however, and perhaps because Jarmusch senses that his trademark deadpan doesn’t have the same novel appeal that it once did, what starts as a subtle undercurrent of knowing humor curdles into overt self-referentiality. It’s not so much a snapping-into-focus as a whiplash-inducing lurch into meta-film territory that Jarmusch doesn’t seem to realize is already a very stale play for this genre of film.

Or maybe he just doesn’t care. There’s much evidence here to suggest that Jarmusch’s prime interest in making a zombie movie is to emphasize the soul-deadening state of America, maybe even the world. So when the film’s zombies roam around murmuring the names of the products they consumed when they were alive (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, coffee, and so on), writing this all off as a lame literalization of the most prevalent theme from George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead isn’t so much a scathing critique of his approach as a confirmation of the message he’s imparting: that our culture is nothing but a zombified version of itself.

The Dead Don’t Die is at its best when mulling the contours of the relationships between the cross-generational cast of characters. Neither Cliff (Bill Murray), the resigned, veteran cop, nor Ronnie (Adam Driver), his self-aware but generally unfeeling rookie partner, are particularly well drawn in and of themselves, but their repartee makes them interesting, as Cliff’s air of wisdom and experience dissipates when he finally realizes that Ronnie understands the rules of their genre-inflected universe better than he ever will, and Ronnie, all stoical resolve, is unable to process Cliff’s sobering, earnest emotional outbursts.

The Venn diagram of all things Jarmuschian and all things Lynchian has always shown a significant bit of overlap, but in working with an ensemble cast that throws together longtime collaborators with a gallery of fresh faces—all populating a mosaic of small-town life that’s pervaded by ethereal dread—Jarmusch mounts something akin to his own Twin Peaks: The Return. The greatest affinity between The Dead Don’t Die and David Lynch’s series, though, is the shared interest in investigating how a younger generation can assimilate into the filmmakers’ highly idiosyncratic styles and affect the tenor of their worldviews.

To that end, The Dead Don’t Die feels most poignant when it threads the experience of its various characters and exerts a kind of equalizing force over them. The best example of this, and also something like the film’s philosophical lodestone, is the eponymous country theme song, recorded by Sturgill Simpson and played in various contexts throughout. The song’s ingratiating, hummable melody eventually illuminates how art can have disparate effects on audiences. For the carefree hipster played by Selena Gomez, the tune is an outlet for escape as she drives through the countryside. But it becomes downright oppressive when Cliff gets sick of Ronnie playing it in their police car and chucks the CD out the window.

That range of response is also reflected in the overall trajectory of the film, which begins in a register of playful irreverence—even as characters spout pronouncements of environmental disaster wrought by fracking, or ponder what kind of creature may have mauled two women found dead at a diner—before gradually succumbing to its anger. That isn’t inherently bad, of course, but the film’s dreary, didactic denouement proves that Jarmusch is unable to translate his righteous fury at the state of the world into a cinematic statement as compelling, creative, or weird as The Dead Don’t Die manages to be when it’s simply content to be a hangout movie that just so happens to be set during the zombie apocalypse.

Cast: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, Luka Sabbat, Rosie Perez, Eszter Balint, Iggy Pop, Sara Driver, RZA, Carol Kane, Larry Fessenden, Tom Waits Director: Jim Jarmusch Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum Sees a Series Resting on Its Laurels

The choreography is as brutal as you expect, but the repetition in style from the first two films makes the effect less surprising.

2.5

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John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
Photo: Lionsgate

At the end of another knock-down, drag-out pummeling in Chad Stahelski’s John Wick 3: Parabellum, the man with the samurai sword sticking out of his chest says to Keanu Reeves’s John Wick, “That was a pretty good fight, huh?” It’s a throwaway gag, the kind that action directors like to use for a breather after a particularly bruising melee. But it also comes off as something of a gloat—one of a few signs in the film that stuntman turned director Stahelski, for better and worse, is content to coast on a winning formula.

The third installment in this series about a hitman who would really like to stay retired and mourn his dead wife and dog picks up about five seconds after John Wick: Chapter 2 ended. Winston (Ian McShane) gives Wick a one-hour grace period before he’s “excommunicado” from the Continental, neutral ground for members of the criminal underworld, after killing a crime lord. A $14 million bounty has been put on his head, and as roughly one in seven people in the world of the film appears to be an assassin, that means that at least two or three killers with dollar signs in their eyes chase after Wick down every Manhattan city block.

The immediate result of this in the film’s pell-mell opening stretch is that the ever-resourceful Wick kills many, many, many people. He kills them with knives, hatchets, and in a particularly imaginative sequence set in a stable, by getting a horse to kick an assailant in the face. Much of this stretch is mindful of what made the prior films in the John Wick series tick. In other words, Stahelski puts Wick through an increasingly absurd and bloody series of confrontations whose intensity plays off Reeves’s hangdog demeanor with deadpan comic timing.

That fidelity to what’s expected of a John Wick film is initially a relief, at least before the filmmakers start looking for new dramatic terrain to explore. Normally this would be a positive development. After all, just how far can you stretch a concept that’s essentially Run John Run? But all the little story beats that break up the central chase narrative, mostly in the form of hints about Wick’s origin story, ultimately do little to develop the story or character and just serve to pad out the running time with more human obstacles for Wick to stoically annihilate.

Having more or less set the entire criminal universe against him, Wick has to call in just about every favor he has. Given his long and only hinted-at backstory, that leaves the film’s writers a lot of room to play with. Jumping from one roost to the next, Wick asks for help from the Director (Angelica Huston), a member of the high-level crime lords known as the High Table, and Sofia (Halle Berry), an ex-assassin who owes Wick a debt and who’s just as good as he is with a blade and a gun, only she has a pair of kill-on-command canines at her side.

It’s satisfying to watch as John Wick 3 expands the glimmers of fantastical world-building that had previously gilded the series’s retired-killer-on-the-run narrative. The outré garnishes like the gold-coin currency, the killer spies disguised as homeless people, and the Continental—lavish, crooks-only hotels that suggest what might happen if Ian Schrager got the chance to whip up something for the mob—work as a baroque counterpoint to the stripped-down economy of Wick’s dialogue. His response to what he needs for help as the High Table’s stormtroopers close in for the kill? “Guns. Lots of guns.”

The returning cast continues to provide greater and more nuanced depth of character than is called on from Reeves, especially Lance Reddick as a serenely authoritative Continental concierge, a scrappy Laurence Fishburne as the lord of the homeless, and the ever-lugubrious McShane as the New York Continental’s sherry-sipping manager. Asia Kate Dillon also makes a fierce new entry to the series as the Adjudicator, a steely emissary from the High Table.

The production design doesn’t disappoint, either, with its chiaroscuro portrait of an always rainy and crowded New York. Splashes of neon and lens flare play off the antiquated production design. Anachronisms like old-fashioned yellow cabs and 1970s-era computers are paired with a cutting-edge armory of high-tech weapons and oddball details like the criminal underworld secretaries costumed like Suicide Girls who decided to enter the work force.

As for the action choreography, it’s as brutal as you expect, though the repetition in style from the first two films makes the effect less surprising. Wick piles up bodies by the dozen and never puts one bullet in a goon’s head when three or four will more effectively splatter his brains over the wall. Besides the previously mentioned throwdown in a stable, though, the only other fight scene in the film that stands out is the one set inside an antique store: The unarmed Wick and his blade-preferring attackers have murderous fun smashing open and utilizing the contents of one display case, throwing knife after knife at each other.

But the further the film illuminates the spiderweb of criminal enterprise undergirding its world, the more burdensome the overlong story becomes. The somewhat blasé tone that played as just slightly tongue-in-cheek in the first John Wick is starting by this point to feel like complacency. But given the repetitive nature of much of this entry’s narrative, the eventually numbing action choreography—punch, flip, stab, shoot, punch, flip, stab, shoot—and the setup for more of the same in a now seemingly inevitable John Wick 4, it’s possible that even fans could wind up as exhausted as Wick himself.

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Asia Kate Dillon, Mark Dacascos, Lance Reddick, Anjelica Huston, Tobias Segal, Said Taghmaoui, Jerome Flynn Director: Chad Stahelski Screenwriter: Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, Marc Abrams Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 130 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Perfect Is a Series of Lurid Pillow Shots in Search of a Soul

Eddie Alcazar’s film is a purposefully inscrutable, wandering, disconnected, symbolic, and highly precious mood bath.

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Perfect
Photo: Brainfeeder Films

Eddie Alcazar’s Perfect is the sort of purposefully inscrutable, wandering, disconnected, symbolic, and highly precious mood bath that you’ll either adore or loathe. There are stilted allusions to everyone from Nicolas Winding Refn to Panos Cosmatos to Mel Gibson to the granddaddies of modern cinematic surrealism, Luis Buñuel and David Lynch. But these references add up to nothing more than a catalogue of fetishes.

There’s a narrative in Perfect—sort of. A beautiful young man billed in the credits as Vessel 13 (Garrett Wareing) calls his equally beautiful mother (Abbie Cornish), who appears to be roughly the same age. Sonny boy has done something bad, having either beaten his girlfriend to death or nurtured an elaborate fantasy over the act, which, in this world, is more or less the same thing. The mother, all icy, well-tailored matter-of-factness, sends Vessel 13 to a remote spa somewhere in a mountainous jungle where she once spent time herself. There, he’s advised to choose his path, which entails cutting chunks of flesh out of his face that resemble cubed tuna tartar, and inserting crystal silicon into the exposed wounds.

Vessel 13’s acts of self-surgery are the film’s most original flourishes, involving some fun horror-movie gimmickry. The instruments for cutting the flesh come in a see-through plastic container, with cardboard backing, recalling an action figure’s packaging, complete with a mascot that suggests an anime Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Vessel 13’s scalpel is basically a drafting knife—a nice touch, given that this man is tasked with making himself over.

But much of Alcazar’s film is fatal hokum passed off as a mystical quest for transcendence. In place of most of the dialogue is an ongoing voiceover, which is composed of non-profundities such as “The way out is really the way in,” “In this great illusion of love, an object cannot exist without something else to reflect itself back onto itself,” and, most hilarious of all, “The problem with the truth is that once you know the truth, you can’t un-know it.” Few films could recover from such an unceasing tide of nonsense.

Meanwhile, Vessel 13 wanders the spa’s grounds while gorgeous young women hang about an atmospheric pool seemingly posing for a special collaboration between Rue Morgue and GQ, which Alcazar complements with a neon-bathed lightshow designed to flout his bona fides as a serious arthouse figure. The self-surgeries gradually turn Vessel 13 pale and bald, fostering a weird likeness to Jason Voorhees from 1980’s Friday the 13th. Why would the spa’s treatment, which turned Mom into, well, Abbie Cornish, transform this young man into a ghoul? It has something to do with facing your inner ugliness and expunging it so that you may become a carefree hottie again, and frolic on the beach with a new, even hotter woman without fear of bashing in her brains. Erasing said ugliness also involves elaborate black-and-white visions of a quasi-Aztec society, where Vessel 13 sees himself as a barbarian eating a live human baby. By this point in the film, one might as well shrug and ask, “Why not?”

Perfect is desperately evasive about what it’s actually eaten up with: sex. The film feels like an excuse to corral a bunch of good-looking people together at a hip location and fashion a variety of lurid pillow shots. That’s not an inherently unpromising desire, though Alcazar can’t lay off the self-aggrandizing mumbo jumbo, and a sense of humor would’ve helped. The filmmaker honestly appears to believe that Perfect is an examination of privilege, particularly our ruthless standards of beauty, when it’s really just an embodiment of the same. This interchangeable collection of sequences has no soul.

Cast: Garrett Wareing, Abbie Cornish, Courtney Eaton, Tao Okamoto, Leonardo Nam, Maurice Compte, Alicia Sanz, Sarah McDaniel, Rainey Qualley Director: Eddie Alcazar Screenwriter: Ted Kupper Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ritesh Batra’s Photograph Lives and Dies by Its Frustrating Excisions

In pushing so many seemingly crucial moments off screen, the film transforms its main characters into blank slates.

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Photograph
Photo: Amazon Studios

Ritesh Batra’s Mumbai-set Photograph is a film as reserved as its protagonists. Full of quiet, contemplative shots of would-be lovebirds Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), the film strikes a muted tone that serves as a conscious contrast to the high-blown romances of mainstream Indian cinema. Even as it takes a subtler, more realistic approach to romance across class and religious divisions in India, it almost self-reflexively resembles a Bollywood love story, but only in outline form, as if its stillness were an effect of its having lost the musical numbers that typically define such films.

In the tradition of so many works about star-crossed lovers, Rafi and Miloni come from different worlds. Rafi is a Muslim from a rural village who works as a street photographer, attempting to force his services on tourists visiting the Gateway of India. Miloni is a young, bourgeois Hindu excelling in, but not particularly excited by, her courses on chartered accountancy. They meet one day when Rafi convinces Miloni to pose for a photograph, using his usual pitch that a photo is a material memory—the preservation of a moment that would otherwise fade away. Miloni poses for the photograph, but lost in her thoughts, she leaves with one of the two copies before Rafi can hand her the other.

Separately, the twentysomething Miloni and fortysomething Rafi are each coping with pressure from their elders: Miloni’s parents want her to move to America to study, while Rafi still deals with admonitions from his grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar) that he hasn’t yet married. To mollify her, Rafi includes the photo of Miloni in a letter, claiming she’s his fiancée, and soon the grandmother announces that she’s on her way to Mumbai to meet the prospective bride. It’s at this point that anyone who’s ever seen a romantic comedy can guess where this masquerade is headed, and that the film isn’t going to be interested in a rewriting any rules. If anything, the places where the story does diverge from the expected path, as in a conversation between Rafi and a ghost, are more mystifying than meaningful.

Rafi’s plan to hoodwink his grandmother is contingent on Miloni’s participation. Luckily, he runs into Miloni on the bus, but Batra leaves their conversation out of the film, cutting to Miloni agreeing to the scheme. Her motivation, beyond the general impression Photograph gives us of her kind-heartedness, is that she’s lost the original photograph Rafi gave her. The photo was confiscated in class by her creepy accountancy teacher (Jim Sarbh), whose attraction to Miloni becomes a minor subplot. It appears Miloni liked her own image so much that she’s willing to play the part of Rafi’s fiancée in exchange for a new picture.

Batra excises other pivotal plot points from the film, giving scenes an elliptical, allusive tone. The point, underlined by Rafi and Miloni’s visits to a movie theater playing Bollywood musicals, appears to be the filmmaker’s belief that he’s telling a familiar story whose more rote moments don’t need reiteration. Photograph tries instead to focus on interstitial, lived-in scenarios, like Rafi lying awake in the one-bedroom apartment he shares with four other street photographers, or he and Miloni enjoying shaved ice and kulfi, an ice cream-like desert.

But in pushing so many seemingly crucial moments off screen, Photograph transforms its main characters into blank slates. For one, the absence of the scene in which Miloni agrees to lie to Rafi’s grandmother makes Malhotra’s character seem inscrutable, a meekly smiling void. In a society chock-full of imaging technologies, the prospect of a new photograph doesn’t seem a particularly strong motivation to entangle herself in Rafi’s lies—particularly considering that he involved her by using her image without her knowledge. Photograph’s admittedly clever conclusion suggests that Batra wants to make his audience swoon, but the film’s contrivances and conspicuous excisions undercut our connection to the characters.

Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra, Farrukh Jaffar, Vijay Raaz Director: Ritesh Batra Screenwriter: Ritesh Batra, Emeara Kamble Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 108 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: The Wandering Soap Opera Is a Riddle Stubbornly Wrapped in an Enigma

After a while it seems like one needs to be in some kind of dream state in order to properly savor the film.

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The Wandering Soap Opera
Photo: Cinema Guild

The most remarkable aspect of The Wandering Soap Opera isn’t in the film itself but in its trajectory to the screen. The late master filmmaker Raúl Ruiz shot a collection of sequences in his native Chile way back in 1990 before abandoning the project. Then, several years after his death in 2011, Valeria Sarmiento, Ruiz’s widow and frequent collaborator, decided to complete it. It’s a path that echoes that of Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind and Manoel de Oliveira’s The Visit or Memories and Confessions, and one that brings a ghostly tinge to the satiric vignettes that comprise the film.

The Wandering Soap Opera is divided into a series of chapters that initially abide by the campy conventions of Latin American soap operas: melodramatic dialogue, a gloomy sound score, stiff acting, implausible scenarios, and ridiculously unconvincing special effects. This is a world where every man seems to have salt-and-pepper hair, don a suit and tie, and hold a stake in some financial company. They’re also constantly in the process of either seducing a woman or conducting some shady business practice with another man over rounds of scotch. The sequences, however, eventually turn these conventions into what seems to be some kind of national critique or allegory, and through the surreal exaggeration of the genre’s tropes.

In the film, one character says that soaps are “the fourth power,” another does mean things to a pig, and another caresses a bunny rabbit. An actress says she has multiple names: Alma Rios, Alma Comunista, and Scheherazade. A ghostly character is juxtaposed to a soap scene, like a double exposure, in order to deride it, remarking on its artifices. We’re told that nothing is real or happens in a soap opera. It’s all just fake characters commenting on other fake characters, someone says, conflating the film itself with how audiences consume soaps.

In one sequence, a woman responds to the incessant flirting of a man by asking if he’s a leftist and establishing his politics as prerequisite for him to touch her. In the same vignette, the woman keeps reminding the man that “people are watching” them. She eventually tells him she loves men with big muscles, which prompts the man to hand the woman a chunk of raw meat. This and other scenes unfold in very cryptic fashion, suggesting some kind of master plan toward a biting political critique that at times feels like we’re too illiterate to enjoy.

There’s a strong presence of a political code in this darkly humorous film, but it never seems as if we can quite crack it or what it’s in service of. And this opaqueness makes many of the sequences seem either too cerebral or just downright dull. The exception is when the over-the-top approach is such that the film veers toward complete absurdity, allowing us to completely revel in the nonsense on screen instead of wanting for meaning. As when a bearded man sucking on a popsicle asks a stranger where La Concepción Street is located, only for another man to join them and let them know that his wife’s name is, yes, Concepción.

That particular sequence becomes an unbridled play of associations that recalls the best segments of Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales. In the Ruiz film, all characters end up revealing some intimate knowledge of or silly relationship with the word “Concepción.” Suddenly the characters decide to push somebody’s broken-down vehicle while chatting about how awful it would be for a father to name his daughter Concepción, knowing that sooner or later she would get the nickname of Concha. Someone then wonders if “Hermes” is spelled with or without an “H,” before then heading off to a bar called “H” with a man named Homer.

It would seem that we’re in the middle of someone’s dream, and after a while it seems like one needs to be in some kind of dream state in order to properly savor The Wandering Soap Opera. Or to regress to a child-like state, where the pleasures of language aren’t in sense-making, but in the sheer joy of uttering or hearing gibberish for gibberish’s sake.

Cast: Luis Alarcón, Patricia Rivadeneira, Francisco Reyes, Consuelo Castillo, Roberto Poblete, Liliana García Director: Raúl Ruiz, Valeria Sarmiento Screenwriter: Pía Rey, Raúl Ruiz Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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