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Understanding Screenwriting #33: Amreeka, My One and Only, Ghost Town, Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #33: Amreeka, My One and Only, Ghost Town, Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Amreeka, My One and Only, Larry Gelbart, Ghost Town, Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg, Walt & El Grupo, The September Issue, Sense & Sensibility (different version), but first…

Fan Mail: I am writing this the morning after #32 was published, since I had everything else in the column done and wanted to get it off to Keith as soon as possible, so at the time there was only one comment to respond to. Andrew was clarifying some of the nuances of the Mad Men episodes I wrote about, and I thank him for that. Much as I love the nuances of the show, sometimes it gets a little TOO nuanced. Either that or I am just slowing down. The other thing was that I wrote that item before I had had a chance to read Emily VanDerWerff’s wonderful recaps. I really love Todd’s recaps and look forward to them every time they show up. I think we can all agree he is a worthy successor to the late Andrew Johnston in that department.

Amreeka (2009. Written by Cherien Dabis. 96 minutes): Not as good as it should have been.

The film starts out well. We are on the West Bank following a woman named Muna, a mother of a teenager. We see she sees a slimmer woman in a store, and we get a quick shot of the other woman with a man. From Muna’s reaction, we can pretty much get that this is her ex-husband and his new wife. Then Muna gets a letter saying her request to travel to America, which she submitted before she and her husband divorced, has been approved. Now she does not want to go, but her son Fhadi thinks it would be a great idea. So they go. So far, so good.

But we are now in the immigrants-come-to-America-and-find-out-it’s-not perfect genre. While the West Bank material is new and fresh, the American material is flat and obvious. You can guess what is going to happen with Muna and Fadhi when they go to live with her sister outside Chicago in the days immediately following the invasion of Iraq. Yes, there are kids who give Fadhi a hard time at school. Yes, Muna, who worked in a bank back home, can only get a job at White Castle. The one minor surprise is that the school administrator, Mr. Novatski, who seems to like Muna is, well, maybe you will see that one coming too.

As with any genre picture, you have to bring us something that we either have not seen before (and this picture does a little of that, although six years after the start of the war it seems a little dated) or turn it in an interesting way. The great, underrated American Rhapsody (2001) does exactly that. When the heroine’s daughter, whom she had to leave behind in Hungary when she escaped, comes to live with the heroine, she hates America and wants to go home. Her parents let her when she is older, and on the trip she discovers exactly why her mother had to leave her. It changes everything. There is nothing that compelling in Amreeka.

Dabis’s plotting is also incredibly sloppy. Muna’s brother-in-law’s medical practice is losing patients for the first half of the film and then it is never mentioned again. A possible visit to America by the sisters’ mother is brought up and dropped. The sister and brother-in-law are behind in their mortgage payments, but Muna contributes, which apparently clears everything up, although we know she gets next to nothing at White Castle. There is a scene where Muna is given a credit card, but nothing more is made of it. (If she is paying off the mortgage with it, then the whole family was financially wiped out last year.) And the film does not end, but just stops with the family and Mr. Navotski having dinner at an Arab-American restaurant. Dabis does not even give us a Grapes-of-Wrath-“We’ll go on forever, Pa, because we’re the people” speech to end with.

Part of the script problem may be that Dabis went through a lot of development at places like the Sundance Institute and Film Independent, and the script may have been developed to death. We hear about that all the time at the studios, but it happens in the indie world as well. Sundance in particular has a way of rounding off the rough edges of scripts. Developing a script is very, very difficult, because it is very easy to end up losing what made the script fresh in the first place. I have seen it happen with my students (and yes, sometimes it is my fault), and I know it happens out in the real world of making movies. As a writer, you have to learn how to deal with the development process: how to take the notes you need that will be useful to the script you want to write, and how to deflect those that are somebody else’s idea of what the film should be. It ain’t easy.

My One and Only (2009. Written by Charlie Peters. 108 minutes): Where is Matthew Weiner when you need him?

This is based on the early teen years of actor George Hamilton, although in spite of the occasional joke late in the picture about California sun and tans, we do not learn that in the film until the very end. Hamilton was encouraged by the late talk show host Merv Griffin to have his stories about life with his mother turned into a film. You can see why it would appeal to a talk-show host. The mother is a flake of the first rank who takes off with her two sons when she discovers her husband in bed with another woman. Hi-jinks ensue, and I am sure they made for wonderful anecdotes to fill in eight-minute segments on a talk show. Making a feature about her is another issue all together.

Ever since little Normie’s mom Mrs. Bates killed off the sentimentalized view of mothers in American films in 1960, we have had a boatload of ditzy moms. Just look at the careers of Angela Lansbury and Shirley MacLaine. So if you are going to do a flaky mom in 2009, you had better bring something fresh to the table. That’s not the case here with Anne Deveraux. She is a southern belle who assumes all she has to do is find another man to take care of her. According to an interview with Hamilton in the New Yorker, she was deliberately tracking down former boyfriends, but that is never stated in the film. According to the same interview, the itinerary they took is very different than it is in the film. And according to what Charlie Peters told the WGA, “there really wasn’t a lot in George’s story that I used, and what I did use actually got taken out of the movie.” Peters has also grown up with a single mom, so some of that material made it into the film. So some of the men Anne meets she already knows, some of whom are new, and all turn out not to be The One. So the movie is not only not fresh, but very repetitive. For it to work, the men would have to have been more sharply focused than they are in the script. The actors playing them, especially Chris Noth, Steven Weber and David Koechner, do what they can, but the script does not go deep enough. The same is true of Anne, who is a very one-note character. Renée Zellweger would seem to be perfect casting for her, but Zellweger’s misjudged performance re-enforces the character’s sameness.

The film is set in the fifties, and you haven’t seen this many fifties cars on-screen since the chickie run in Rebel Without a Cause. But cars and set decoration can only do so much. One of the elements of Mad Men that I and others love is that, in addition to the sets and costumes, the scripts get the attitudes of the early sixties right. There is nothing in the script for My One and Only that makes it feel essentially fifties. The story calls out for a sharp look at male and female attitudes of the fifties, but the script keeps missing those opportunities. At the end, George’s voiceover tells us Anne and the boys learned how to survive on their own, but we have not seen that. If we had, My One and Only would have been a better film.

See, I have been saying for years that there is more good writing on American television than in American films and this movie, alas, proves it. And Derek Luke’s comment in the September 18th issue of Entertainment Weekly pretty much tells you why. Talking about working on the pilot for his new TV show Trauma, Luke says, “Ninety percent of the time, none of what we have scripted is what we do. It feels very much like a movie.” The writing on television is often better than in film because the directors and actors do not have the time to “be creative,” i.e., mess up the script. Speaking of which…

Larry Gelbart (1928 – 2009): An appreciation.

Larry Gelbart had “a mind like quicksilver. Larry is like a supernatural being. His mind is so brilliant, and he raises you up to his level.” Who wouldn’t like to have that said about them after they die? How about when they are still alive? The late Everett Greenbaum, a writer who worked with Gelbart on the great TV series M*A*S*H, said that to me nearly twenty years ago in an interview for my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing.

Gelbart got his first joke-writing jobs from a friend of his barber father. Gelbart started in radio, wrote for Bob Hope, and then wrote for Caesar’s Hour. That was the Sid Caesar follow-up to Your Show of Shows, where Gelbart spoke up for the shyer writers in the room like Neil Simon and Woody Allen. Gelbart co-wrote the stage musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Burt Shevelove. He won a Tony for that and another for City of Angels. His movies include The Notorious Landlady, The Wrong Box, Oh God! and Tootsie. The latter is his best known film, but does not hold up as well as several others, probably because of all the other writers who worked on it. I think Gelbart’s best Tootsie line is not in the film, but about the film: “We were going to have a reunion of all the writers who worked on Tootsie, but the Los Angeles Coliseum was booked that day.”

M*A*S*H was his masterpiece, a vast improvement on the film, which suffered from Robert Altman’s misdirection of Ring Lardner Jr.’s great script. If you don’t believe me, read the chapter on M*A*S*H in Storytellers. His work on the series, as well as his teleplays for Mastergate and Barbarians at the Gate mark him very much as a public writer. He was dealing with the social issues of the times. Even though M*A*S*H was officially about the Korean War, Gelbart and everybody else, including the audiences, knew it was about Vietnam. We tend to think of writers hiding away in their offices, but playwrights, screenwriters and television writers are, at their best, public writers, informing and enlightening us about the world in which we live. And with Larry Gelbart, making us laugh our asses off about it all as well.

Ghost Town (2008. Written by David Koepp & John Kamps. 102 minutes): The Dentist Has a Wonderful Sixth Sense.

This is one of those movies I did not get around to seeing last year. It currently runs 73 times a day on the various HBO channels, so I caught up with it. David Koepp is better known as a writer of big blockbusters like two of the Jurassic Park movies, the first Mission: Impossible movie, and the first Spider-Man movie, and his only comedy before this was the 1992 Death Becomes Her. From that you can see why he did not get offered a lot of comedies. Well, it turns out he has a flair for a certain kind of comedy. Ghost Town turns out to be one of his best scripts.

Yes, it is recombinant. Bertram Pincus is a dentist very much in the tradition of W.C. Fields in his classic 1932 short The Dentist, a curmudgeon of the first rank. He likes being a dentist because he doesn’t have to listen to his patients, since their mouths are stuffed with equipment. One day he goes in for a routine colonoscopy and he dies for seven minutes during the operation. When he comes out of it, he can, like Cole Sear, see dead people. Except they all want him to do favors for them among the living. Chief among those is Frank, who wants him to keep his widow, Gwen, from marrying a human rights lawyer. You can see where this is going. Bertram falls for Gwen and becomes a better man. But getting there is half of the fun, because Koepp and Kamps (weren’t they a dance act in vaudeville?) don’t make it just a comedy. Ricky Gervais plays Bertram, and what the writers do is not just make him a typical Gervais grouch. We see his, I am not sure I want to call this, but his sensitive side. They have written in some great reactions for him to have, and those counterbalance his nastiness.

The writers have also written the best part Téa Leoni has had in years. She is a grownup adult who has exactly the kind of reactions to Bertram you would expect a grownup to have. The writers have developed a very nice relationship arc for them, using their respective careers as the basis for it. Give them good material, and, not surprisingly, Leoni and Gervais are in top form. The writers have also written some very good secondary parts as well. If the pops up on your HBO channels, you could do a lot worse.

Yoo-Hoo,  Mrs. Goldberg (2009. Written by Aviva Kempner. 92 minutes): And not a foot of film from Triumph of the Will.

The first few weeks in September seemed to be documentary weeks in Los Angeles. This is one that opened several weeks ago and I caught it just before it went off.

The structure is apparently very simple. This is a biography of Gertrude Berg, who started in radio in the thirties and moved into television in the late forties. Her great creation was Molly Goldberg, a Jewish wife and mother who talked to her neighbors out of the family apartment window. Goldberg created the character first for radio, not only writing all the scripts, but playing the part herself. She originally thought they would get an actress, but she played the part for a few weeks, and then when she was out sick, the letters piled up at the network wanting her back. The show was canceled in the mid-forties, but Berg talked her way into early television, and the show ran for three years on CBS, two on NBC, one on Dumont and one in syndication.

I said the structure was apparently simple, but if you look closely you can see that it is not strictly chronological. The early television shows were live and only survive on kinescopes, so visually they are rather fuzzy. Eventually the show was filmed, and scenes from those years are visually sharper. So you can tell where the filmmakers are using clips from later episodes to make a point about earlier ones. The film also seems to drop actor Philip Loeb when he was let go from the show for his “left-wing” views, but then comes back later to him to tell you what happened after that. That decision makes structural sense when you see the film.

And stick around during the end credits. The filmmakers have interviewed not only members of Berg’s family and her co-workers, but some notable people who are fans. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was one of those fans, and her final anecdote about her, Thurgood Marshall and her first appearance before the Supreme Court is worth the price of admission.

Oh, yes. In the brief montage about the rise of Nazism, the filmmakers become the first documentarians I know NOT to use a single clip from Triumph of the Will.

Walt & El Grupo (2008. Written by Theodore Thomas. 106 minutes): Well, only one clip from Triumph of the Will.

Theodore Thomas is the son of the great Disney animator Frank Thomas. In 1995 he made the charming documentary Frank and Ollie about his dad and Ollie Johnston, another Disney great. Given that this current film is presented by the Disney Foundation and released by the Disney Company, you may guess that it is not going to be a scathing, dig-out-the-dirt look at Uncle Walt. Don’t let that throw you. It is a fascinating look at the creative process at the studio, and like The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story (see US#27), it’s about the collaboration process as much as about Walt.

In the years leading up to World War II (hence the one clip of Hitler from Triumph), the American government was concerned that countries in South America were leaning a little too much toward the Nazi side. So the government came up with the idea of sending Americans on good-will visits and even making films. Orson Welles’s fans will remember his adventures in South America at the time. Disney was asked to go and he said yes, only after getting approval that the trip could be the basis for a film or two when he got back. He took with him several of his artists: not only animators, but writers, musicians and others. They became collectively known as El Grupo (The Group) and Thomas spends a lot of time on them. We see the home movies Disney’s team shot, still photographs and the drawings his people made. One of the artists on the trip was Mary Blair, and Thomas shows her pre-trip paintings (dark watercolors) and her sketches and post-trip work (bright and colorful). Looking at some of her trip sketches, it will not surprise you to learn near the end of the film that she was one of the designers of It’s a Small World. We see some of what the artists came up with for the 1942 Disney film Saludos Amigos, and then Thomas is shrewd enough to interview several South Americans who were involved in the trip. Surprise, there is no agreement whatsoever on whether the film was good, condescending, brilliant or trivializing.

Some of the narration comes from recorded interviews with Disney himself, obviously done years ago. In addition to Disney’s comments on the trip, we get his account of the animators’ strike that was tearing the studio apart at the time. Historians may disagree with his viewpoint. Thomas shows us what the cities they visited (Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro especially) looked like then and now. Between those shots, the interviews with the people in those countries and the bits of narration made from the letters the artists sent to their families back home, we end up with a nostalgic look at Disney, his artists and the countries themselves.

The September Issue (2009. A film by R.J. Cutler. 90 minutes): No Hitler, but Anna Wintour.

One of the issues we have discussed from time to time in this column and in the comments on it is how the characters in documentary films are often so much more interesting than their fictional equivalents. This is an exception to that. It is a doc about Vogue magazine’s uber-editor, Anna Wintour, as she prepares to get out the September 2007 issue. Wintour was the model for the Amanda Priestly character in the book and film of The Devil Wears Prada. Amanda is a much more interesting character on film than Anna is. Anna is cold and concealing, and we never see any of Amanda’s rants. Late in the picture, in answer to a question from the crew, Anna says her best quality is her decisiveness. She’s right, and that is what makes her not very interesting on-screen. We see her go past row after row after row of pictures as she decides which ones to use or not use in the magazine. Very repetitive. Since she never opens up to the camera, we and the filmmakers spend a lot more time with Grace Coddington, who is the creative director of Vogue. Coddington started at the American Vogue the same day Wintour did. She is open to the camera, funny and observant. Unlike Wintour, she wears her heart on her sleeve, and you can’t not watch her. Coddington is one of the only people on the magazine who stands up to Wintour, and she has more creativity than Wintour or anybody else at the magazine. The photo shoots she produces are gorgeous. Her shoot set in the twenties is one that Wintour keeps cutting pictures from as the issue progresses. When we see the final lineup and realize that most of what was cut has now been put back, at least one person in the audience I saw the film with applauded.

Back in the sixties, when Robert Drew was developing Direct Cinema, he tried to pick what others have called a Crisis Structure. He prefers the term “turning point,” situations like the presidential primary in Primary (1960) or the integration of the University of Alabama in Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963). For all the running around in The September Issue, we do not get any sense that there is much of a crisis or that it is a turning point in the magazine’s history. Nor is the film particularly interesting as a demonstration of process, like the 1935 film Night Mail. The lack of either of these two elements comes from the basic subject matter. I am sure that for millions of people, high fashion of the kind Vogue indulges in is of some concern, but the process of putting out this issue of the magazine is not automatically dramatic.

I have talked before about films and television shows that were begun in the Bush era and now seem dated. Something similar happens with this film. The particular issue shown in the film came in at 840 pages, the largest issue ever. The current September issue is only 584 pages. The recession has had a dramatic impact on the clothing industry. People who spent lots of money on the clothes Wintour and Vogue pushed on them are watching what pennies they have left. As a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times on September 13th pointed out, both the recession and the Internet have changed the industry. Back in 2007, the designers had their runway shows, Vogue and other magazines reported on them in future issues and six months later customers could find the clothes in stores. Now the runway shows are showing up immediately on the Internet and customers want the clothes NOW. They can buy them NOW on the Internet, and Internet stores are personalizing the information for individual customers. And there are several Internet bloggers on fashion who are undercutting the previously accepted authority of an editor like Wintour. As someone who has always thought high fashion was a con (there is not a single outfit anywhere in The September Issue I can imagine a human being wearing in real life), I think the collapse of the high fashion racket is overdue. The September Issue shows you the beginning of its last gasps. It is too bad that Cutler did not do his film on this year’s September issue. Sometimes as a documentary filmmaker you get lucky, and sometimes you don’t.

Sense & Sensibility (2008. Screenplay by Andrew Davies, based on the novel by Jane Austen. 180 minutes): Take two.

Since I was on a Sense & Sensibility kick (See US#32), I figured why not look at this British made-for-television version. The writer here was Andrew Davies, who has made a long and successful career of literary adaptations for television. Some of his television films include Vanity Fair (1998), Doctor Zhivago (2002), and Bleak House (2005). He has adapted three other Austen novels, Pride and Prejudice (1995), Emma (1996) and Northanger Abbey (2007). His script for this version of Sense & Sensibility is adequate, but pales in comparison to Emma Thompson’s version. He has to construct his version of some of the scenes that Thompson created, but they are less interesting than hers.

In Davies’s version, Edward rides up to Norland, then catches Elinor beating a carpet outside, something Fanny had asked the maid to do. It is a conventional cute meet without the texture of the Edward-Margaret scene in Thompson. When Edward gets ready to leave Norland, he does not seem to be about to tell Elinor anything. That may be more natural than Thompson’s scene, but it’s not as dramatic.

Davies throws in a sword duel later in the film between Brandon and Willoughby, although neither Austen nor Thompson had it. Yes, it gives a little action scene, but who goes to Austen adaptations for action scenes? And it is never referred to again in the film.

One character Thompson dropped was Mrs. Ferrars, Edward and Robert’s mother, but Davies gives us a couple of nice scenes from the book with her. He also does a good job on the scene with Lucy and Elinor, with Edward arriving in the middle. Davies’s version of the Marianne-Elinor discussion of Elinor not having told Marianne about Lucy’s engagement is closer to Austen’s version, although it does end with Elinor breaking down in tears—not in Austen. I think Thompson’s version is better, since Elinor’s outburst at Marianne gives us an emotional release for our feelings for Elinor that neither Austen nor Davies do.

Davies does include a version of Austin’s scene of Willoughby coming to Cleveland to seek forgiveness from Elinor, which Thompson did not. Davies has flattened out the subtlety of Austen’s scene. Here we just have him asking forgiveness and Elinor giving him a hard time. Davies does not have Marianne overhear the scene, which Austen also does not. That saves some dialogue a little later.

When Edward arrives at Barton Cottage and lets them know he is not married, Davies has turned his monologue into a very conventional “I love you” scene, without the subtlety and power of Thompson’s version. She understands the emotions of the scene better than he does. Davies does not end with a wedding like Thompson does, but with Brandon carrying Marianne across the threshold of his house, and Elinor and Edward outside their small house.

Since Davies’s version was intended to run as either three one-hour episodes, or two ninety-minute episodes (it was shown in the latter form in the U.S.), there is a certain amount of padding that Thompson’s version did not have. In Davies’s version, and this may be less him than the director, editor or producer, there are more establishing shots of the English countryside than they really need. The also have several shots of a group of shells hanging from a rope. We see Margaret putting it together early in the film, but then we got a lot of shots of it later. We don’t NEED them.

Another problem with the Davies version is that the casting is not as good as in Thompson’s version. Janet McTeer is the biggest name in the cast, but she is Mrs. Dashwood, and McTeer is simply too strong a screen presence to play such a quiet character. None of the others are inadequate, but they suffer in comparison with Thompson, Winslet, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman and that crowd. Well, who wouldn’t? That crowd would have made the film from Davies’s script better, but they were much more elegantly served by Thompson’s script.

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: Tommaso Both Rues and Relishes the Power of the Artist

Abel Ferrara’s film is about that precise feeling of living with an itch unscratched.

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Tommaso
Photo: Kino Lorber

Many films have dealt with the highs and lows of addiction, even the challenges of recovery. Less common are films about living at length with sobriety, about the peace it can bring and the lingering absence that an addict in recovery must learn to accept. To live in recovery is to live with a kind of death: of your warped sense of normalcy for the sake of functionality. A quote from Peter Schjeldahl’s New Yorker piece “The Art of Dying” sums this tension up beautifully and painfully: “If you’re a real alcoholic, you will never feel quite right. Whatever you want will be a little bit out of reach. Can’t handle that? Get the fuck out of here and get drunk.” Abel Ferrara’s Tommaso is about that precise feeling of living with an itch unscratched, which the protagonist manages with a life of fetishistic interiority.

Here, Willem Dafoe again plays a surrogate of Ferrara: a filmmaker, Tommaso, living in Rome, where he can readily finance his arty productions. Early passages linger attentively on the everyday textures of Tommaso’s existence. He sips espresso served to him by a barista who asks him for updates on his life; studies Italian; shops for fresh produce at a nearby market; makes pasta for his much younger wife, Nikki (Cristina Chiriac), and their daughter; works on a script that will eventually turn into Ferrara’s Siberia; and coaches young and attractive actors on the art of feeling pure feelings for a role, without self-consciousness. For a while, Tommaso serves as a straight male aesthete’s dream of the successful artist’s way of being, as the protagonist is a good-looking, authoritative older man who enjoys financial freedom as well as the attention of young women. And he appears to be sensitive and thoughtful to boot.

This lovely idyll serves several purposes for Ferrara. Simply, this atmosphere offers a fulfillment of wishes, as it’s an act of masturbation and perhaps of self-congratulation, an impression that’s affirmed by the several excuses that are made for young female nudity. Yet Ferrara, a significant artist and a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, also understands that Tommaso’s open sensitivity and sensuality are ironically evasive.

After a while, we notice that we don’t see Nikki and their daughter that often. Gradually, we learn that Tommaso is a recovering addict, going to N.A. meetings that are populated by a few striking characters who offer realistic testimonials to the struggles of dependency. Evocatively, Tommaso talks of once trying to remake La Dolce Vita in Miami with an actor who was also an addict, and he shares a heartbreaking story of a daughter from a previous marriage asking if he was leaving the house, drunk, because of her. Tommaso’s tranquil rhythms are misleading, as we see that the protagonist has insulated himself not only from temptation but connection; his very fear of losing his family is what threatens to drive them away. Underneath his manners, Tommaso feels the alienation, the missing-ness, of living sober as an addict.

Tommaso has a glancing, sketchbook-like quality. Through elegant long takes and stately pace, the audience becomes privy to the entire spectrum of Tomasso’s daily physical and emotional experience. Certain episodes in the film occur with so little context that they don’t seem to be literally believable, yet they aren’t quite visually coded as fantasy, as many scenes in Siberia are. For one, when Nikki is seen making out with a man in a park where Tommaso is playing with their daughter, we can’t tell if this moment is real or a paranoid projection. But the distinction barely matters, as we’re confronting Tommaso’s emotional reality.

Another episode is even more strikingly specific: Tommaso is insulted that Nikki didn’t wake him for a family lunch. In the moment, one is sympathetic toward Tommaso, though Ferrara establishes just how often Tommaso is in his own world, whether he’s teaching classes, surveying Rome, or honing his script; he presents as courtly and empathetic in public, and to himself, while casually thinking mostly of himself, a resonance that Ferrara allows us to gradually discern. Nikki doesn’t check on him because it doesn’t occur to her that it would matter, an instinct that signifies her immaturity as well as his essential selfishness.

Ferrara has mastered a type of scene in which the ecstatic intersects with the ordinary. In Welcome to New York, a rapist’s prolonged physical humiliation upon his arrest and processing became a casual indictment of the legal system—complicated morally by the fact that he deserved it. In 4:44 Last Day on Earth, Ferrara stages an essay on the comforts of rarefied life upon its impending demise. In Tommaso, we’re allowed to feel both the comfort and limitation of prescribed rituals. In Tommaso’s case, said rituals, which include meditation in addition to his other daily activities, stave off and replace more damaging hungers. Late in the film, a shockingly violent encounter, potentially imaginary, embodies the fear addicts have of reverting to their worst and most impulsive tendencies.

Ferrara’s collaborations with Dafoe, including the extraordinary Pasolini, are studies of privilege, power, fantasy, and loneliness. They’re also surveys of Dafoe’s remarkably suggestive presence and physicality, as well as flirtations with European artiness. Tommaso is erotic in a manner that’s unusual for American films, suggesting that Ferrara has truly gotten Italy into his bloodstream. Almost every encounter here is freighted with the promise of sex—the kind that’s understood to be possible primarily because of Tommaso’s success and station. These wandering, episodic films are politically conscious, yet they’re also about the lurid pleasure of being a man with a certain degree of reputation. In Tommaso, Ferrara both rues and enjoys his protagonist’s power and insularity, which scans less as hypocrisy than as an honest admission of the difficulty of navigating the divide between accountability and temptation.

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Cristina Chiriac, Anna Ferrara, Stella Mastrantonio, Alessandra Scarci Director: Abel Ferrara Screenwriter: Abel Ferrara Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Shirley Is an Astonishingly Frenzied Portrait of Creation and Madness

Every scene in Josephine Decker’s film operates at a maximum frenzy fraught with subtext.

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Shirley
Photo: Neon

Even the most daring or imaginative films can get bogged down by moments of unnecessary exposition. By contrast, Josephine Decker’s Shirley doesn’t take any encounter as a given, as every scene operates at a maximum frenzy fraught with subtext—with sexual tension, bitterness, class and gender resentment, and acidic comedy that springs from the intersection of all of the aforementioned pressures. At any moment in this astonishing, frustrating film, we’re alternately in and out of the characters’ wavelengths, and continually forced to reorient our perceptions of the various relationships driving the narrative. Next to Decker’s films, the rigid staging of most cinematic conversations feels prim.

There are no ordinary images in Shirley. Decker and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen give the film a hazy look that suggests an act of recollection, in which autumnal colors bleed together while certain objects and portions of settings and actors pristinely peek through the frame. Meanwhile, the camera is often moving, as in Decker’s previous films, switching between point-of-view shots and compositions in which characters look directly at us, or homing in on close-ups that allow for other characters to enter scenes unnoticed, paving the way for jarring surprises. Individually, none of these devices is original to Decker, but she’s united them with a fluidity and a sensual puckishness that’s all her own.

Shirley and Decker’s prior film, Madeline’s Madeline, both concern the porous boundaries separating creativity from madness and collaboration from exploitation. Adapted by screenwriter Sarah Gubbins from the 2014 novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell, Shirley focuses on iconic short story author and novelist Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her life with her husband, professor and critic Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), in North Bennington, Vermont. Hyman is tenured at Bennington College, and he’s invited a newlywed couple, Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young), to live with him and Shirley for a period of time. Over several months, the two couples play escalating mind games as Shirley attempts to write a novel about the disappearance of a local college girl.

Shirley and Stanley and Rose and Fred often suggest the same couple from two different periods of time (before and after success), and Decker’s hallucinatory style occasionally leaves us wondering if the film is building toward this revelation. After all, Shirley and Stanley have what Fred at the very least wants: acclaim and status. Fred thinks he’s going to be Stanley’s apprentice and eventual successor, while Stanley seems to regard him as an errand boy. (Stanley also smugly recruits Rose as the housekeeper, or Shirley’s minder.)

Rose’s motivations are murkier: She’s pregnant and initially seems to enjoy playing housewife, until we learn that she quit college for Fred and the baby. It gradually comes to light that Shirley, already legendary for “The Lottery,” and who carries far more weight with Stanley than Rose appears to with Fred, also has something that Rose longs: respect. On the other hand, the romance between Rose and Fred feels kinder, more idealized, than the manipulative parlor games played by Shirley and Stanley, though this juxtaposition is ironic as well. Stanley and Shirley’s overt cruelty toward one another suggests truthfulness, a willingness to honor one another’s eccentricities, while Rose and Fred play into courtly tropes.

Shirley recalls Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Phantom Thread. Like the former, it features elaborate, self-consciously performative scenes of drunk and talented characters airing their resentments, turning their outbursts into a kind of weird and potentially cathartic poetry. And like the latter, it’s concerned with the atmosphere that a potentially disturbed artist must cultivate in order to create. The comparison to the Paul Thomas Anderson film may be particularly instructive, as Shirley also derives its emotional suspense by gradually revealing to viewers the “rules of the house.” In Phantom Thread, we learn that a young innocent is capable of ruthless adaptation that benefits her artist-lover’s need for domination while bettering her own station. In Shirley, we learn the extent to which each couple is manipulating the other, and how Shirley’s creative drive is also fueled by a form of role play.

The notion of role play is affirmed by the film’s stylized performances. Moss and Stuhlbarg deliver their lines as if they were stanzas, and the actors’ vocal precision is complemented by piercing physical gestures that suggest periods and commas. Stuhlbarg has never before been this gloriously full of himself, and he has a particularly evocative moment in which Stanley disparages Fred’s dissertation, stretching the word “derivative” out as if it were taffy. In another scene, Stanley coaxes the agoraphobic, alcoholic Shirley out of bed with a cigarette, tossing it to her like a snack. In such moments, we’re allowed to feel the intimacy as well as the cruelty of this relationship, qualities which are essentially inseparable. (Shirley needs Stanley to be a jerk so she can rebel against him, as this is the source of her inspiration—a notion that’s also reminiscent of Phantom Thread.)

However, Moss also underscores the potential limitations of Decker’s florid excess, rendering Shirley climactically unhinged from the outset, riding high on the character’s flamboyant oddness, as she did with her roles in Her Smell and The Invisible Man. The former film had tonal contrast, allowing Moss to eventually ease up on the melodramatics and offer moments of delicate beauty. In The Invisible Man and Shirley, Moss puts on a hell of a show, but you’re conscious of the work behind her performance. Shirley’s always “on,” either drunk, enraged, manipulative, stumbling, glinting, castigating whoever’s around, or all of the above, allowing Moss to continually run at fever pitch; she’s the mad hatter as master of ceremonies, and she grows rather repetitive as the film itself comes to spin in circles. This self-consciousness is justified by the film’s final reveal, and by this conception of Shirley as a character, but it grows stifling nevertheless. Moss, like Shirley in general, is always in your face.

As with Madeline’s Madeline, there’s sentimentality running underneath Shirley’s bravura, as this is another film that glorifies madness as a tool of an artist’s trade—a way-too-common notion in cinema that cheapens the pain of madness itself. Decker implicitly presents Shirley’s neuroses as a weapon against sexism, as a refusal to merely be an administrator’s wife, which means that we’re introduced to the usual clichés of hypocritical women who bought into the system that Shirley fights. Shirley also, of course, serves as a warning to Rose, whom she conflates with the woman driving her novel, another person dashed by patriarchy.

Jackson’s writing isn’t this tidy. Eleanor, the lonely heart at the center of The Haunting of Hill House, isn’t a thesis marker, but a miserable, uncertain, talented, and intelligent person who’s potentially without a purpose, at least to herself; her pain is wrenching, while Moss renders Shirley’s craziness powerful and affirming. If there was more than just a hint of Eleanor’s vulnerability in Moss’s Shirley, this might have been an unruly classic. Decker is too mighty an artist to go in for trendy girl power. In fact, Decker, with her ferocious subjective poetry, could probably make a brilliant adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House.

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman, Odessa Young, Molly Fahey, Adelind Horan, Allen McCullough, Edward O’Blenis Director: Josephine Decker Screenwriter: Sarah Gubbins Distributor: Neon Running Time: 107 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Infiltrators Uneasily Marries the Real and the Performed

The film is never more compelling than when relying on footage of the real NIYA DREAMers.

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The Infiltrators
Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

At the start of Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera’s The Infiltrators, photo-negative infrared shots conjure the imposing nature of border enforcement. The miles of fencing along the United States border with Mexico come through as a flickering whiteness, with the migrants walking across the desert suggesting truly alien forms. In voiceover, 22-year-old Marco Saavedra (Maynor Alvarado) discusses being undocumented and the intense fear that young immigrants and second-generation Americas have for their parents. Documentary footage depicts ICE and CBP agents arresting people like Marco in front of their families, tearful children giving press conferences, and the menacing detention facilities where undocumented persons are held in limbo. Then, Marco relates that as much as any immigrant would do to stay out of such a place, he hatched a plan to deliberately be placed in one.

Blending archival footage, interviews with real people, and dramatized reenactments, Ibarra and Rivera’s film traces the efforts of Marco and the group of radical DREAMers to which he belongs, the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, to assist detainees to prevent their deportation. The dramatizations frame the film as a thriller, one in which detainees have to constantly slip papers to each other and visit lawyers under the noses of guards who seethe with resentment. More than once, detainees are surprised with news of their sudden deportation, forcing Marco and his comrades on the outside to scramble to save them. Yet the most troubling aspect depicted here is how detention facilities, in which people are deliberately kept without being charged to limit their legal rights to attorneys, are designed to induce hopelessness. It isn’t the abruptness with which guards summon detainees to get on planes that causes the most stress here, but the purgatorial waiting that precedes it.

The juxtaposition of real and fictionalized elements, complete with chyrons identifying individuals and the actors playing them, isn’t exactly new to nonfiction filmmaking, and several documentarians have compellingly used such techniques to unpack the lines between performance and reality. At times in The Infiltrators, the real people involved in the story talk about how they approached their attempts to infiltrate detention facilities as actors, finding ways to look sufficiently guilty to officers who’re understandably quick to suspect why undocumented immigrants would volunteer to be deported. This dimension to the young adults’ actions is intriguing but left dangling by the film, which mostly sticks to unsuspenseful reenactments of Marco’s mildly clandestine activities within one detention center.

The film is never more compelling than when relying on footage of the real NIYA DREAMers, teenagers and twentysomethings who put themselves at severe risk by publicly protesting for their rights and those of their families and others like them. There’s far more urgency in watching Mohammed, a gay Iranian youth, confront politicians while at risk for deportation to a country he’s never known and is openly hostile to his sexual identity than there is in shots of Marco and others strategically handing off manila folders set to suspenseful music. The young people’s ability to create and exploit media for outreach likewise feels like an exciting subject that The Infiltrators fails to deeply explore, where it could have illuminated just how well activists can mobilize modern technology and media with minimal resources.

Cast: Maynor Alvarado, Chelsea Rendon, Manuel Uriza, Juan Gabriel Pareja, Vik Sahay Director: Cristina Ibarra, Alex Rivera Screenwriter: Alex Rivera, Aldo Velasco Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Aya Koretzky’s Around the World When You Were My Age

Across the film, the most idiosyncratic reactions of an ordinary human become real documents of human history.

3.5

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Around the World When You Were My Age
Photo: Crim Productions

Jiro Koretzky left his native Japan in 1979 for a year-long trip around the world, from Moscow all the way to Beirut, mostly traveling in his white Ford Taunus. Jiro spent time in Scandinavia, Yugoslavia, North Africa, and Syria, and by the time he was ready to fly back home, the young man had discovered the one thing missing from the hyper-organization of Japanese cities: passion. Almost four decades later, his daughter, filmmaker Aya Koretzky, happened upon a metallic box full of photographic slides and detailed diary entries that Jiro amassed during his journey and decided to make a film about it. The result is Around the World When You Were My Age, and it’s a beautiful tribute to her father’s passion.

The boxy format of Koretzky’s Bolex camera mimics the proportions of her father’s original 16mm and 35mm slides. This may give the impression of a filmmaker who’s merely stitching old swatches together, but Around the World When You Were My Age isn’t a found-footage film. Koretzky’s poetic interventions, through reenactment and narration, attest to a self-ethnography bearing the freshest of fruits. This is a case of cinematic intimacy that renders visible old transmissions between father and daughter as much as it yields new ones.

Here, Koretzky’s opening of her father’s box, where Jiro’s memories lay dormant for so long, is a kind of cracking of her symbolic DNA—the one that carries the key to the generational transmission of emotions instead of genetic material. Or, perhaps, the filmmaker’s unearthing of what the father once buried is something like the reading of a father’s will before his demise. Except the inheritance here has already been distributed throughout Koretzky’s upbringing: her artistic sensibility, her fondness for silence, and her peripatetic urge. As the unconscious and the ineffable are made tangible through the cinematic image in a delicate father-daughter duet, she now knows where her own passions came from.

Koretzky performs her excavations gently and respectfully, refusing the position of the filmmaker offspring hellbent on settling old scores or demystifying the presumable bliss of family albums. Instead, she performs the humble contemplation of those who are genuinely curious—the ones we would trust to peruse our most special private collections. Koretzy is open to whatever the archive happens to bring without hoping to impose order in what is, by design, volatile and loose, like the most inextinguishable of sensations. Around the World When You Were My Age, then, is much closer to a series of lyrical vignettes (shades of Jonas Mekas and Michel de Montaigne) than to what we have come to expect from filmmakers who utilize their own relatives to (re-)write family narratives.

Across the film, the most idiosyncratic reactions of an ordinary human become real documents of human history. We see what the world looked like in 1979 and what it felt like to exist in it as a foreign flaneur. We learn that Moscow felt so large that it was as if there was “no human scale,” that the comforts of Helsinki were only rivaled by its monotony and absence of human presence, that everything in Stockholm was expensive except for milk, and that in the south of Italy one could sense “the whole of Europe condensed” in one little instant, while eating spaghetti to the sound of an accordion played by the homeless.

The film’s voiceover, by father and daughter, mostly consists of readings from Jiro’s diary. But Koretzky also knows exactly when narration, no matter how pretty, must go quiet—so that the objects in the frame can speak for themselves. Some of the most memorable sequences in the film are when all we hear are the noises made by scissors, a broom, an analog camera, the waiving of a polaroid, a finger retracing a journey on a paper map, or a slug slithering on a globe. Sudden moments of complete silence also remind us that the filmmaker’s commitment isn’t necessarily to information or knowledge, but to the poetics of feeling.

Director: Aya Koretzky Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Vast of Night Is a Wistful Riff on the Intimacy of Radio Dramas

The filmmakers patiently savor the great thrill of genre stories: anticipation.

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The Vast of Night
Photo: Amazon Studios

Early in The Vast of Night, there’s a striking tracking shot through the gymnasium of a high school in the fictional 1950s-era town of Cayuga, New Mexico. The gym is being prepared for the big basketball game that night, and we’re shown how various students and professionals work together to complete this task, talking over one another with a propulsive snappiness that evokes a Howard Hawks comedy. The sequence is exhilarating, especially because one doesn’t normally encounter such verbal and visual intricacy in a genre film. But it’s also misleading, as it suggests that The Vast of Night will involve a wide cast of characters, though it’s closer to a two-hander between a local radio DJ, Everett (Jake Horowitz), and a high school student, Fay (Sierra McCormick), who works the town switchboard and shares Everett’s fascination with radios, recorders, and the like.

As Everett and Fay converge inside the gym, director Andrew Patterson has the wit to allow us to believe that we’re discovering these characters for ourselves as the camera just happens to land on them. Right away, they radiate their intelligence in contrasting fashions: Everett is confident yet sarcastic, on the border of being a know-it-all, while Faye is earnest and attentive. They exist somewhat apart from the Cayuga community at large, and they quickly shunt off to their respective offices, the churches of their obsessions. The Vast of Night is a homage to genre shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, even featuring its own faux credits montage, but it’s truly a riff on the intimacy of radio dramas.

Patterson’s tracking shots and big, soft, beautiful Scope images are clearly indebted to John Carpenter’s films. Yet Patterson has absorbed more than Carpenter’s pyrotechnical style, as he understands the melancholy soulfulness of the legend’s best work. With its obsession with radio callers, who gradually reveal a potential alien invasion, The Vast of Night most explicitly suggests the radio station-set scenes from The Fog if they were to be expanded to compose an entire film. Talking to people in radio land who recognize an eerie droning sound that comes through on a phone line, Everett and Faye clearly relish the collaboration of solving a mystery and of symbolically assembling their own radio thriller. And Patterson and screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger never break the incantatory spell with pointless freneticism, patiently savoring the great thrill of genre stories: anticipation.

The Vast of Night features several long monologues in which older people tell Everett and Faye of their experiences with clandestine military projects. Informed with a hushed intensity, these monologues allow various political resonances to seep into the narrative. For example, one caller (Bruce Davis) to Everett’s radio show doesn’t expect anyone to believe him because he’s black and elderly, a suspicion that he acknowledges with a poignant matter-of-factness. And as Everett and Faye hear increasingly odd stories, you may find yourself reconsidering that tracking shot at the start of the film, which captured a breadth of community from which Everett and Faye largely exclude themselves. They’re uncovering the sadness lurking under a small town—the racism, communist paranoia, and heartbreaks that cause people to yearn for a supernatural explanation as a way of evading their sense of helplessness.

Late into The Vast of Night, Patterson springs another tracking shot that reveals the proximity of Cayuga High School, the town’s switchboard, and the radio station to each other. They’re all close to one another but separated at night by gulfs of darkness and emptiness. The film doesn’t offer much in the way of a payoff, lacking the kinetic savagery of Bruce McDonald’s similarly themed Pontypool, but that’s the point. The lovely, wistful The Vast of Night pivots instead on a decidedly friendlier vision of localized culture, decades before corporations would unify most radio into a detached, impersonal stream of advertisements.

Cast: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer, Bruce Davis, Cheyenne Barton, Gregory Peyton, Mallorie Rodak, Mollie Milligan, Ingrid Fease, Pam Dougherty Director: Andrew Patterson Screenwriter: James Montague, Craig W. Sanger Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 91 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: On the Record Is a Richly Contextualized Look at Rape Culture

On the Record implicates nothing less than the entirety of American culture in hip-hop’s sins.

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On the Record
Photo: HBO

Misogyny has been a sticking point for critics of hip-hop ever since the genre became a cultural phenomenon in the late 1980s and ‘90s. For those who not only value the artistry of hip-hop, but also recognize it as the defiant aesthetic expression of an oppressed population, calling out systemic sexism within that culture is a fraught undertaking. The accusation that rappers perpetuate demeaning ideas about women can also serve as ammunition for conservatives uncomfortable with black self-expression—and, moreover, can feed into historical representations of black men as inherently sexually aggressive.

As Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s documentary On The Record stresses, a fear of betraying black America as a whole has led to a culture of silence among black women involved in the music industry that may be even more pervasive than that in the white Hollywood circles where the Me Too movement has been the most visible. When they do come forward, these women are inevitably speaking against the backdrop of the sordid, shameful role black sexuality has played in America’s oppression of its black population—to the lynchings of black men on accusations of sexual transgression, to the Senate’s steamrolling of Anita Hill in 1992.

The film focuses on the sexual assault allegations that led to hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons’s 2017 fall from grace, and in particular on former Def Jam executive Drew Dixon’s mindset as she brings herself to tell her story to the New York Times. But thanks to dips into history that show the roots of black misogyny in the abuses and iniquities of a racist society, as well as a critical mass of testimonies from activists and academics that provide a contextual framework, On the Record implicates nothing less than the entirety of American culture in hip-hop’s sins. At the origin of black women’s reticence stands nothing other than slavery, the U.S.’s original sin, which began the dehumanizing tradition of treating black women as disposable sexual objects and viewing black men as potentially dangerous sexual predators.

Simmons’ victims’ sense of their own complex relations to such historical power structures emerges from the film’s lucid recounting of the sexual assault allegations against him. “I didn’t want to let the culture down,” Dixon explains of her decision to keep the fact that Simmons raped her in 1995 private for more than two decades. As a black woman, she felt she faced additional pressure to stay quiet and limit her—and Simmons’s—exposure. Beyond her concern about detonating the career of an important black figure, she recalls watching Hill’s testimony during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings and realizing that when a woman publicly accuses a man of serious sexual violations, the perverse result is that the perpetrator is able to align his reaction with that of the public, affecting disgust and outrage. As the accuser, she says, “you are defiled again because you have to tell people, and it’s on your lips.”

There’s a tragic irony here that a more literary-minded documentary might bring to the fore: that a musical form focused so intently on the power of the spoken word—and on the black voice in particular—gives rise, in its thoroughly capitalized form, to a culture that denies the voices of black women. Hip-hop attained mass appeal in part by leaning hard into hypermasculine display and “explicit” lyrics, but now, like the old boys’ club of the 1991 U.S. Senate, institutional hip-hop stands aghast at the words on the lips of abused women. Simmons has persisted in his denial of any wrongdoing whatsoever, and as with so many powerful men, the chorus that sprung up to defend him was only slightly tempered by the accelerating accumulation of accusers. (Dixon was among the first four accusers; there have been 16 more, many of whom appear in the documentary.)

On the Record lets such abstract themes as who gets a voice in hip-hop remain mostly implicit. As in Dick’s The Hunting Ground, which Ziering produced and documented the prevalence of rape on college campuses, the filmmakers approach their subject with journalistic rigor, leaving the interpretation to Dixon and the other interviewees. “We all lose when brilliant women go away,” rues former Source writer Kiera Mayo toward the end of the film, reflecting on how, despite her successes, Dixon left the industry after continued harassment by Simmons and Arista chief L.A. Reid. It’s a melancholy realization. While the culture of ‘90s hip-hop has become an object of nostalgic longing akin to boomers’ beloved classic rock (as evidenced by films like Straight Outta Compton), On the Record suggests a different vision of the era—one that longs more for what could have been than what was.

Director: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering Distributor: HBO Max Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: As Melodrama, The High Note Barely Strikes a Chord

Everything here wraps up as tidily as it does in your average Hallmark Channel movie.

1.5

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The High Note
Photo: Focus Features

Nisha Ganatra’s The High Note is ostensibly about the virtues of taking risks in art-making, of sacrificing the comforts of coasting on past successes for the hard-won rewards of creating something new. And yet the film itself is as formulaic as they come, an agglomeration of soap-operatic story beats and music-industry clichés whose low-key tone may be an attempt at channeling the naturalism of Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born but comes off instead as tentative, as if Ganatra were afraid of really leaning into the big, unruly emotions simmering beneath The High Note’s placid surface.

At the heart of the film is the ambition and self-doubt of Maggie Sherwood (Dakota Johnson), a personal assistant who dreams of producing records, and her boss, Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), a Diana Ross-like diva facing a crossroads in her career. Grace is deciding whether she wants to risk her legacy by releasing a new album or take the easy road by accepting an offer to headline her own show at Caesars Palace. Her longtime manager (Ice Cube) presses her to cash out with the Vegas residency, but Maggie encourages her—as much as she can, given her relatively junior position—to make some new music. Meanwhile, Maggie covertly produces her own mixes of Grace’s live recordings in the hopes that she can convince Grace to hire her instead of a slick EDM producer (Diplo, playing an air-headed version of himself) who wants to bury her soulful pipes under layers of Auto-Tune and pounding beats.

Flora Greeson’s screenplay is peppered with some clear-eyed wisdom about the entertainment world, such as its observations about the way that so much of the music industry is based around managing artists’ deep-seated insecurities. The characters’ occasional speechifying about the difficult position that women in music often face is on point, if a bit perfunctory, but more incisively, it’s used to subtly suggest the way that these very real obstacles can be used as scapegoats by people, like Grace, who are afraid to simply put themselves out there. But these brief moments of insight are largely overridden by the film’s weak-kneed plotting, repetitiveness, and corny contrivances. Practically every conflict the film raises is resolved just a few scenes later. The film never allows its characters to do anything cruel or mean or misguided without almost immediately absolving them of responsibility.

Nowhere is this tendency more prevalent than in a subplot involving Maggie’s relationship with a talented but self-doubting musician, David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Everything comes to a head when Maggie attempts to orchestrate a plan to get the opening act (Eddie Izzard) for Grace’s live-album release party to drop out, which will give David the opportunity to perform in front of a bunch of industry big wigs, not to mention Grace herself. While in a different film, this scheme might have served as a big hokey climax, here the whole thing summarily blows up in Maggie’s face, causing her to get fired by Grace and get dumped by David. But while that semi-subversion of our expectations is certainly welcome, The High Note simply trades one unconvincing plot contrivance for another when, just a few scenes later, a major revelation precipitates a rapid succession of reconciliations between characters.

Everything wraps up as tidily as it does in your average Hallmark Channel movie, with no character being forced to sacrifice anything or make a truly difficult decision. Maggie, Grace, and David all make up and record an album together (Maggie naturally produces), and the film closes with Grace and David performing a triumphant concert for a huge crowd of screaming fans as Maggie watches adoringly from backstage. The characters in The High Note talk a lot about the unfair challenges of the music world, but the film ultimately reaffirms what the audience already knows: that success has a lot more to do with who you know—and who you’re related to—than it does about hard work or artistic integrity.

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Zoë Chao, Ice Cube, June Diane Raphael, Deniz Akdeniz, Bill Pullman, Eddie Izzard, Diplo Director: Nisha Ganatra Screenwriter: Flora Greeson Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 113 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: In Darya Zhuk’s Crystal Swan, Touching Is Dreaming

Throughout the film, it’s as if mundane objects hold the remedies for the wretchedness of everyday life.

3

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Crystal Swan
Photo: Loco Films

Darya Zhuk’s 1990s-set Crystal Swan centers around Velya (Alina Nasibullina), a young woman who refuses to conform to the provincial miserabilism of Belarusian life. Being a DJ, house music provides her with some much-needed escapism, but she dreams of fleeing to America—or, at least, a fantasy of America where every kid has their own bedroom and parents knock before they come in. That’s the antithesis of Velya’s life in Minsk, where her mother (Svetlana Anikey) spends her days chastising Velya and mourning the troubles caused by the collapse of communism: no money, no pension, no rules.

In order to obtain a tourist visa, Velya needs to show the American embassy that she has strong links to her place of residence. The jobless young woman pretends, then, that she’s a manager at a crystal-making factory, putting down a fake number for the workplace on the application form. But when she’s told that the embassy will call her back in the next few days, Velya rushes to find the home associated with the random number she made up.

Eventually, Velya discovers that the number belongs to a family in the countryside who are in the midst of making preparations for the wedding of their eldest son, Stepan (Ivan Mulin), a bitter young man traumatized by his days in the army and resigned to marrying a woman he doesn’t love. Velya ends up spending the next two days with the dysfunctional family as she tries to convince them to lie for her when the embassy calls. The presence of a weird girl from Minsk trying to use the supposed simpletons so she can flee to America makes some in the family resent her and others to question their previously held truths, as if Velya brought with her from the big city the prickly reminder that resignation is not all there is to life.

Zhuk crafts an exquisite tale of doom and gloom colored by a farcical ethos, from Velya’s no-holds-barred audacity and kookiness (shades of Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan) to the physical comedy-derived drunkenness as the lingua franca of family get-togethers. But the film’s most remarkable quality is perhaps the way Zhuk so delicately arranges these two currents—namely, the more absurd elements that initiate the film and the progressively visceral sequences where Velya might as well be the little girl with the dead cat in Sátántangó, a much more nihilistic take on post-Soviet desolation. In the latter moments, Velya assumes the position of the terrified child watching the pathetic theater of her elders through the window, and the desolate future that awaits her if she doesn’t run for the hills.

Crystal Swan is also rich in analogical pleasures, which are rooted in the film’s narrative premise and rife with metaphorical possibilities, as in the way Zhuk pays special attention to the materiality of ‘90s objects and the sounds they make. The entire plot revolves around a telephone that will supposedly ring. But when and if it does, will Velya be there to answer it? Will anyone be around to hear it? Bulky phonebooths, posters on teenager’s walls, the mechanical clicking of a photo camera—none of it feels like anodyne technological kinks.

When a VHS tape gets stuck in a VCR, people are forced to go outside and play. Cassette tapes appear as a potentially radical archive passed on to Stepan’s younger brother, Kostya (Ilya Kapanets), who may think twice—thanks to the liberating power of house music—about the naturalization of violence. It’s as if mundane objects hold the remedies for the wretchedness of everyday life. How they work and how they break appear as opportunities for daring to seize the possibility of going elsewhere and for debunking supposedly irreversible things.

Cast: Alina Nasibullina, Ivan Mulin, Yuriy Borisov, Svetlana Anikey, Ilya Kapanets, Anastasia Garvey, Lyudmila Razumova Director: Darya Zhuk Screenwriter: Helga Landauer, Darya Zhuk Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Lovebirds Is Weighed Down by Plot Incident and Silly Twists

Once the film shifts into a broader comedic register, it no longer capitalizes on Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae’s gift for gab.

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Lovebirds

Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae) are past the honeymoon phase depicted in the brief prologue to The Lovebirds. When we pick up with them four years later, they’re in the midst of a heated argument that, after some time, reveals itself to be about something far more petty than it first appears: whether they can win The Amazing Race.

At its best, Michael Showalter’s film revels in loose, digressive humor, as in a scene where Jibran and Leilani discuss the differences between a gangbang and an orgy. The couple is playful and clever in equal measure, yet every fight between them confirms that their relationship is past its due date. That is, until an encounter with a killer cop (Paul Sparks) on their way to a friend’s party that makes them realize that they’re better off together—at least until they can exonerate themselves for the crime that will likely be pinned on them.

The film’s opening act banks heavily on the chemistry between Nanjiani and Rae, who effortlessly bounce witty, seemingly improvised lines off one another. Throughout, you don’t doubt that their characters are still very much in love, even as you understand that they’ve grown tired of dealing with each other’s shortcomings. When the film rests primarily on Nanjiani and Rae’s verbal riffing, it’s quite winning and consistent in delivering jokes that are not only funny, but also speak to the root causes of Jibran and Leilani’s personality clashes.

While it’s initially content to keep its focus on the bickering duo as they continue to drive each other mad while trying to solve the murder they witnessed, The Lovebirds regrettably becomes weighed down by plot incident and silly twists. The film foists the couple into a bizarre underworld of political corruption, widespread blackmail, and sex cults, shifting into a significantly broader comedic register that no longer capitalizes on its stars’ gift for gab. As Jibran and Leilani’s relationship woes progressively take a back seat to the formulaic unfolding of a needlessly convoluted, and rather dull, mystery, The Lovebirds slowly derails as it settles into the predictable patterns of many of the action rom-coms that have come before it.

Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Issa Rae, Paul Sparks, Anna Camp, Kyle Bornheimer, Catherine Cohen, Barry Rothbart, Andrene Ward-Hammond, Moses Storm Director: Michael Showalter Screenwriter: Aaron Abrams, Brendan Gall Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Film

Review: The Painter and the Thief Suggests an Intimate Hall of Mirrors

Throughout the documentary, Benjamin Ree upsets conventions, offering a moving portrait of two lost souls.

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The Painter and the Thief
Photo: Neon

For The Painter and the Thief, director Benjamin Ree filmed Oslo-based painter Barbora Kysilkova for three years as she befriended Karl-Bertil Nordland, a drug addict who was convicted of stealing two of her paintings from a museum. The documentary initially thrives on forms of misdirection, as Ree allows us to believe that we’re watching a traditional study of contrasts: between an established professional woman and a tormented bad boy. We’re also led to assume, potentially by our own prejudices, that Kysilkova will be the film’s central consciousness, with Nordland as an intimidating and remote “other.” Through skillful chronological scrambling that consistently redefines moments, underscoring the subjectivity of each person, Ree upsets these conventions, offering a moving portrait of two lost souls.

The Painter and the Thief suggests an intimate hall of mirrors, in which artistic creation parallels addiction. Kysilkova responds to Nordland’s life force, basing several drawings on him, while Ree utilizes them both for his cinema, while Nordland at times consumes drugs, particularly during a painful relapse. No person is singularly understood as being “used” here, as the various relationships are symbiotic, with Nordland’s addiction suggesting a substitute for the intoxication that Kysilkova and Ree achieve through art-making. Nordland has the soul of an artist as well, as he’s sensitive, observant, and given to poetic observations, suggesting a vessel who’s looking for a purpose, which Ree and Kysilkova each provide. (You may wish that Ree had brought himself more into his own frames, adding another mirror and deepening the film’s auto-critical texture in the tradition of, say, Robert Greene’s work, but Ree probably, and understandably, didn’t wish to distract from his commanding subjects.)

In a primordially powerful moment, Nordland weeps when he sees the first photoreal canvas that Kysilkova has rendered of him, as she’s turned him into an elegant man in a white hoodie swishing a glass of red wine. In her lifelike yet slightly stylized paintings, Kysilkova physicalizes Nordland’s dreams of stability and respectability, granting him the gift of her attention. The paintings allow Nordland to enter a world he felt beyond him, symbolically rejoining community after years of the semi-isolation that’s fostered by addiction. Little of these impressions are directly expressed, which would dilute the spell, but Ree’s intimate compositions allow us to feel as if we can read the stirrings of Kysilkova and Nordland’s souls.

We first see the thief through the painter’s eyes. Tall, with a lean, tatted-up frame, Nordland is charismatic and sexy, suggesting an outlaw version of actor Timothy Olyphant. There’s something else about Nordland that perhaps only people with experience with addiction will be especially alive to: His visceral emotional pain suggests a perpetual atonement for his wrongdoings, and this atonement suggest the potential for transcendence, which appeals to artists and people with savior complexes, such as Kysilkova.

Transcendence arrives much later when Nordland goes to prison for another crime, after a lengthy stay in a hospital for a car accident that nearly killed him, and gradually cleans up, grows out a beard, and puts flesh as well as muscle on his body. Nordland is a stubborn survivor who’s willing to suffer for the camera and canvas alike; he’s volatile, profoundly lucky, and seems to achieve a hard-won grace. Drinking coffee with Kysilkova near the end of The Painter and the Thief, he’s softer, cuddlier, and less threatening that he was before prison, and, rediscovering carpentry, he’s even becoming an artist. At a certain point in the film, Nordland resembles less a subject of Kysilkova’s than an old coconspirator.

The viewer also sees the painter through the thief’s eyes, though these alternating perspectives harmonize as Ree continues to hopscotch around in time, offering more context and allowing us to grow to love both people equally. While Kysilkova sees Nordland, Ree sees both of them, to whom he has astonishing access. Meanwhile, Nordland also sees more of Kysilkova than she probably knows, as Ree has an acute understanding of how people can damn near smell one another’s pain, finding their own emotional water level. Kysilkova was once abused by a boyfriend and fled to Oslo to escape him. Devastated, she gave up painting for a while until a new boyfriend helped to rehabilitate her self-confidence. And the first painting she created upon her rebirth, “Swan Song,” is one of the ones that Nordland stole with an accomplice who wasn’t caught. This resonance is almost too good to be true, as Nordland almost literally accessed the secret heart of Kysilkova’s torment.

One of the film’s most palpable tensions is pointedly undiscussed. Kysilkova and Nordland appear to be attracted to one another, and they touch and converse with the sort of casual sureness that usually arises from sustained romance. Perhaps Ree believes that the distinction between a sexual and artistic union is unimportant or none of our business, though Kysilkova’s boyfriend is clearly concerned at times. And maybe the distinction doesn’t matter, as Kysilkova and Nordland have enjoyed a relationship that seems to have healed them, allowing them to face their gnawing hatred of themselves. Whatever labels are applied and whatever other additional actions were taken, Ree has caught a love story in a bottle.

Regardless of their romantic status, The Painter and the Thief ends with an unmistakable consummation: on a medium shot of Kysilkova’s painting of the pair laying intimately on a couch together, Kysilkova’s face replacing that of Nordland’s ex-girlfriend, the actual model for the painting. This is a projection of Kysilkova’s, perhaps of a desire she won’t or can’t actualize, which she instead utilizes to fashion a beguiling, idealized communion. In this canvas, the various social distinctions between Kysilkova and Nordland have been obliterated. Ree has enabled two people to broker a connection on camera in front of us. To capture such a birth, or to at least appear to, is to perform a kind of magic act.

Director: Benjamin Ree Distributor: Neon Running Time: 102 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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