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

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

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The Old Guard
Photo: Netfflix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We Are Little Zombies
Photo: Oscilloscope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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Palm Springs
Photo: Hulu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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Hamilton
Photo: Disney+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Family Romance, LLC
Photo: MUBI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.5

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Force of Nature
Photo: Lionsgate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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John Lewis: Good Trouble
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020
Photo: Arte France Cinéma

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

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

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

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

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

Film About a Father Who

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

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

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

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

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

The Kiosk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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My Spy
Photo: Amazon Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Audition Grapples with the Consequences of Oppressive Discipline

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

3

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The Audition
Photo: Strand Releasing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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