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Understanding Screenwriting #34: Jennifer’s Body, Paris, Art & Copy, We’re Not Married!, The Good Wife, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #34: Jennifer’s Body, Paris, Art & Copy, We’re Not Married!, The Good Wife, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Jennifer’s Body, Paris, Art & Copy, We’re Not Married!, The Good Wife, Community, The First Week of the 2009-2010 Television Season, but first…

Fan Mail: I need to catch up on comments not only from US#33 but a couple from US#32 as well.

In 32, Jamie suggested I try The Last Temptation of Christ again since I never watched the whole thing. Thanks for the suggestion Jamie, but when you get to be my age, you can tell pretty quickly that a picture is not going to work for you, so I think in my remaining years I will probably not get to Last Temptation. Jason Bellamy raised several problems he had with the script for District 9. I can see his points (and that’s the kind of comments and discussions I love), but with that film I found myself in a common situation: the writers had so hooked me in that I was willing to overlook the flaws. If the picture is working for you, you won’t be bothered by the flaws. A classic example: has anybody ever hated Jaws because the weather in every shot in the last half-hour is completely different from the previous shot?

In 33, Matt Zoller Seitz thought it was “great to see some love for Ghost Town.” That’s one of the reasons I don’t just write about new movies. Sometimes we pick up on earlier films that we missed, or are seeing again, and find something new in them. “Female geek” liked the Masterpiece Theatre version of Sense & Sensibility more than I did, although mostly for location, art direction, and acting reasons. Hey, we all like movies for a lot of reasons. “dfantico” wondered if given my comment about Amreeka “not being as good as it could have been” what my take was on Law Abiding Citizen. He thought the idea sounded interesting and wondered what went wrong. As with Last Temptation, I am pretty sure I am going to give this one a miss, so the following is just a guess. Most artists are delusional, which is what makes them interesting. Sometimes those delusions tell us stuff in entertaining ways and those delusions become our delusions. Sometimes the artists’ delusions are so unconnected to ours they don’t work for us. I gather from some interviews I have read with the makers of Law Abiding Citizen that they thought they were making a more serious film than viewers thought it was. The filmmakers apparently did not get far enough beyond the revenge elements of the story for at least the critics. Anyway, that’s my guess, and now on to movies I have seen.

Jennifer’s Body (2009. Written by Diablo Cody. 102 minutes): Not one of the Mistress’s finest, but amusing.

As I am sure you have noticed, there is an enormous backlash against FORMER-STRIPPER-TURNED-AWARD-WINNING-SCREENWRITER Diablo Cody, and a lot of it is showing up in the reviews of this film. Those of you who are long-time readers of this column will remember from US#4 that I was a big fan of Cody’s Juno, even more after looking at it again. One aspect of Cody’s script for Juno that several people complained about was that the dialogue was too cute and everybody talked alike. I shot down that last one in the comments in my column. I happened to like the archness of the dialogue. I happen to like smart-mouthed women, especially smart-mouthed women writers. If we will let Tarantino write like that, why not Cody? Is her being a former stripper more discrediting than him being a former video store clerk?

On the surface, this is a teen horror movie and it appears to bother people that she is not writing a high-minded, award-seeking screenplay. Well, Juno was not that high-minded until it started winning stuff. Liking both Juno and Cody’s wonderful book Candy Girl, I’m willing to cut her some slack. Especially when she gives us, as she does in Jennifer’s Body, some interesting characters. Jennifer is a typical stuck-up beautiful teenage girl who, through assorted hijinks, becomes evil. As the ads say, using one of the lines from Cody’s script, “She’s evil…and not just high school evil.” Her evil takes the form of killing and partially eating boys. Well, you can see why the fanboy critics are a bit upset. Her best friend forever, Needy, finally twigs to what is wrong with Jennifer and realizes she is after Chip, Needy’s boyfriend. A battle ensues, but there is more after that, although some of it seems rushed.

Because she is working in a recognizable genre, Cody’s work here is not as fresh as it seemed in Juno. We get the standard-issue teen horror stuff, but Cody’s heart is more in the Jennifer-Needy relationship. This is not a feminist or even post-feminist take on the horror genre. Cody is not writing like a Woman Writer, but like a woman who writes, with her own particular and sometimes peculiar sensibilities. Cody likes both Jennifer and Needy for different reasons and feels the conflict between them and the hurt it causes, especially to Needy. But she probably sees what finally happens to Needy and what she does about it as a good thing. In the context of the film it is, which is what makes it even creepier than it might otherwise have been.

As with Juno, a good script gets you a good cast. All kinds of interesting people show up in smaller parts, such as J.K. Simmons as a teacher with a hook for a hand and the most outrageous wig I have seen in years. Amy Sedaris is Needy’s mom, and Cynthia Stevenson is Needy’s boyfriend’s mom. And there is a great, unsettling, uncredited cameo near the end by…

The two leads reminded me of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot. Megan Fox, the hottie du jour, is Jennifer and like Curtis, she gives a good movie-star performance. You may remember that in writing about Fox in the first Transformers movie in US#3, I mentioned she either decided not to or was not directed to bring out the white trash fun of the character. There is a similar problem here, and I think it could come from one of two things. The first would be that she is in her “young movie star” mode and just decided that all she had to do was show up in front of the camera and say the lines, which she does o.k. The second option is that she does not (yet) have the instincts of a true actor to fill out the role. Looking at her performances on the September 26th Saturday Night Live, the first option seems more likely. In the film, she does nice stuff scene by scene, but she doesn’t seem to have an overview of the character. Needy is Amanda Seyfried and like Lemmon she gives a great comic performance, with all kinds of actorly twists and turns. I always thought Seyfried never got the credit she deserved for her work in Mamma Mia!. Her performance in the first scene of that film sets exactly the right tone.

Even though this is a film written and directed by women about women, the opening day audience I saw it with was predominantly young men, undoubtedly there to dribble in their pants over Megan Fox. The picture did not open well, and the box office has declined. I suspect the word-of-mouth from the boys was not good, and potential women viewers were put off by Megan Fox. Too bad. They might enjoy it more than they think.

Paris (2008. Written by Cédric Klapisch. 130 minutes): Trés, trés, trés French.

If you are looking for a moody Romanian movie, skip this. If you are looking for a British heritage costume drama, skip this. If you are looking for an American comic book adaptation, skip this. But, if like me, you enjoyed Paris, je t’aime or Avenue Montaigne, or even Private Fears in Public Places, all from 2006, then this one is for you.

It is yet another multi-character story of a variety of people living in Paris. Klapisch, who is best known for his two other multi-character pieces, L’auberge espagnole (2002) and its sequel Russian Dolls (2005), got the first inspiration for Paris years ago when he met a man going to the hospital in a taxi who was not sure he was going to come back. According to an interview in the Los Angeles Times, Klapisch said, “He was looking at the people in the streets saying to himself that all of those people were so lucky because they were able to walk in the street. That story struck me so much I wanted to use that in the movie.” In the film that guy becomes Pierre, a former dancer now suffering from heart problems. He spends his time looking out his balcony window at people going by. He becomes this film’s equivalent of Lillian Gish rocking the cradle in Intolerance, “uniter of the here and hereafter.” It is Pierre in the cab at the end on his way to a heart transplant, and we see several characters from the film from the cab.

Klapisch shows Paris as very much a multicultural city, which the three films mentioned above do not do, or do not do as much as this one. And Paris certainly does this better than its American equivalents like Short Cuts (1993) and it is much subtler than Crash (2004). Listen to the owner of the bakery talk about the foreign workers she has had. And we also get several working class characters, which is also not common in these kinds of films. One group is several street salespeople and through them we go to the Forum des Halles, the newer and more modern version of Les Halles, the famous Paris wholesale market. And who shows up there but a group of fashion models who just got out from a runway show. We know all the jokes about how unsanitary the French can be, so I was delighted to see one of the salespeople and one of the models not actually have sex in the meat locker.

Klapisch, as he did in L’auberge espagnole, gives us a great gallery of characters and has gotten first-rate actors to play them. Repeat after me: you write scripts with good characters, you can get good actors to play them—and without having to pay them $20 million a picture, which is what you have to pay them to do crap. Paris is definitely not merde.

Art & Copy (2009. A film by Doug Pray, from an original concept by Gregory Beauchamp & Kirk Souder, narrative consultant Timothy J. Sexton. 89 minutes): The real Mad Men.

This is another of the documentaries that slipped into Los Angeles in September. It’s about the world of advertising from the sixties to the present. The structure is something of a mess, with a lot of material that takes away from the heart of the movie. We get several segments of a guy whose job is to change large billboards. A little of that goes a long way. There are also recurring shots of a rocket being prepared to launch, which is supposed to connect with the fact there are a lot of satellites up there spewing out ads on cable systems. But at the end of the film, the rocket launches, and we get the closing line, “Creativity can do anything,” which in the context of the film suggests advertising is like rocket science. Bizarre.

The heart of the movie is the interviews with the ad men and women who have changed the world of advertising from the sixties to the present. They are a wonderful gallery of characters, another example of the general truth that characters in documentaries are often more interesting than those in fiction films. These folks seem much more alive and energetic than the ad men on Mad Men, although some photographs of them from the sixties make them look exactly like Don, Pete, Paul and the gang at Sterling Cooper. Here is a difference between documentary and fiction. In this film, the characters are self-created, with great variations in attitude and behavior. In Mad Men, the characters come out of Matthew Weiner’s singular vision, both of the characters and their place in the world. Art & Copy, as second rate as it is, is showing us the real world and the real people. Mad Men is giving us Weiner’s singular vision of a world. Now, a good documentary can also give us a vision of the world. And an expansive fictional film or series can give us a richly detailed world, which I think Mad Men does. The difference is one of kind rather than degree. In a fiction film you go and live in the world the writers and filmmakers create. In a documentary, you face the real world. Which is why I often find myself watching a documentary and forgetting to breathe. Watching Barbet Schroeder’s great 1976 documentary General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait I did not exhale in the last twenty minutes of the film until I knew that Schroeder had gotten out alive.

One other flaw in the film: The ad men of course talk about their successes, such as the Volkswagen campaign in the sixties or the “Morning in America” Reagan campaign in 1984. There is very little discussion of the campaigns that did not work. Nor is there any discussion of the fact that most advertising does not work. Think about it: how many commercials have you seen that actually made you try a product or a service? If advertising were that good, we would all be drinking New Coke and driving Edsels. My conclusion, based on years of study, is that the media are not nearly as influential as they think they are.

We’re Not Married! (1952. Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, based on the story “If I Could Remarry” by Gina Kaus and Jay Dratler, adaptation by Dwight Taylor. 86 minutes): Not one of the Master’s finest, but amusing.

I have mentioned before that I wrote a biography of Nunnally Johnson, haven’t I? Well, I did. He is of course best known as the screenwriter of The Dirty Dozen, The World of Henry Orient, The Three Faces of Eve, How to Marry a Millionaire, Woman in the Window, Jesse James and, of course, The Grapes of Wrath. We’re Not Married! is minor Johnson at best, but not without its pleasures. It popped up recently in the rotation on the Fox Movie Channel and it was good for 86 minutes of relief from the cares of the day.

The setup is that Justice of the Peace Bush married six couples before his license took effect. One case has come to the attention of Governor Bush’s office through Attorney General Bush, and the governor’s secretary, also a Bush family member (we are in a southern state, after all) suggests simply sending out letters to the other five couples. Hijinks ensue. This is one of those early fifties films that has multiple stories, like O. Henry’s Full House the same year. Nunnally, by the way, wrote the “Ransom of Red Chief” episode for the latter film, but took his name off when director Howard Hawks turned his sly comedy into a slapstick farce.

I have not read the story the film is based on, but I know from talking to Nunnally that the first two episodes are his. Well, the first one, about a radio couple that hate each other off the air but are lovebirds on the air actually comes from a radio sketch by Fred Allen, who stars in the episode with Ginger Rogers. Allen was a huge star in radio who, unlike Jack Benny, never successfully made the transition to television or film. He made a few films, but he was not a visual actor. What Nunnally added to the sketch was a sequence of the couple’s morning routine as they glide wordlessly around their bedroom and bathroom. It is purely visual and a nice counterpoint to all the talk in the radio studio, which has a lot of Allen’s satire of commercials. And you think product placement on television today is excessive. The upshot is that the couple has to remarry to continue their high-paying radio jobs. Yes, this was Hollywood avoiding television in its early days.

The second episode is the best known. Annabel Norris is a young married mother competing in the under-funded Mrs. Mississippi contest. When she learns she is not married, she is at first sad, then realizes she can now compete in the Miss Mississippi contest. A young Marilyn Monroe plays Annabel. Nunnally had met her years before but was not particularly impressed with her, either as an actress or as a person. But he noticed the studio was sending around pinup photos of her, and the idea for the story “came to me out of her figure.” The film used several “professional beauty contestants” as extras, and Johnson asked one of them how Monroe would do in a real competition. The woman replied, “She’d win them all.” Monroe handles the shot where she goes from sad to happy rather well.

The third couple is the Woodruffs, and Nunnally’s writing suggests, without being specific about it, that Mr. Woodruff has had several girlfriends. When he reads the letter, he has a dream montage of possible girlfriends. It ends with a bill for $72 at a nightclub, which is enough in 1952 terms to make him burn the letter.

Things start to go wrong for the film with the fourth couple. He is a rich Texas oil man, she is a gold digger. She arranges to meet him at his hotel after a business meeting in New Orleans, but she sends another woman, a private detective, and a witness. She then files for divorce, using the evidence of his “infidelity” as blackmail to get more than just half of his money. Guess when the letter arrives. The writing is nice, but the sequence is badly directed by Edmund Goulding, whose direction gets worse as the film progresses. Here he lets normally reliable character actor Paul Stewart overact as the woman’s lawyer, and he lets Louis Calhern be rather cute as the oil man. Calhern does not do cute well. You know the episode is badly directed when a young(er) Zsa Zsa Gabor gives the best performance in it.

The failure of the last episode is both Nunnally’s and Goulding’s. Willie Reynolds is going off with the Army and has already received his letter. He plans to remarry his wife later, but as the train is pulling out, she arrives from a doctor’s appointment to tell him that she “is.” That’s fifties dialogue for her being pregnant. Now Willie becomes obsessed that his baby should not be “illegitimate.” Nobody says “bastard” although someone does use the term “foul ball.” Willie jumps off the train, gets his wife to fly to the port and tries to get married while avoiding the shore patrol. Yes, it does seem to be a mix of Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero (both 1944) especially when you know that Willie is played by Eddie Bracken. Nunnally, bless his heart, was simply not as ruthless as Preston Sturges as a writer, and Goulding, who could handle dramas like Dark Victory (1939) and film noirs like Nightmare Alley (1947), certainly was not as ruthless as Sturges the director.

Undoubtedly in deference to the censors, we see the four couples remarry, even though Mr. Woodruff burned his letter. Not of course the Texas couple. Even the fifties censors may have agreed that some dissolved marriages should stay that way.

The Good Wife (2009. “Pilot” episode written by Robert King & Michelle King. 60 minutes): Writing for The Face.

When Julianna Margulies first got into acting, she was told that she did not have “the face” for movies. She was not an All-American girl and she was not ethnic enough. Or she was too ethnic, which in Hollywood terms means any woman with black hair. Fortunately the creators of ER realized she had a great face: expressive, capable of happiness but with an undercurrent of sadness. Originally Carol Hathaway died in the pilot of ER, but they realized what they had with her, and the rest, as they say, is history. Except that other writers have had great difficulty writing for that face. Her films after she left ER are mediocre uses of her talent. Her series last year, Canterbury’s Law, was not awful, but she was playing a conventional tough lawyer. Fortunately Robert and Michelle King have figured out what to do with the face. Yes, this is a form of what I have called on many occasions writing for performance. Alicia Florrick is the wife of a politician caught in a sex scandal. In the opening scene she is “standing by her man” at the inevitable press conference. She has that sad look that women in that situation tend to. In a great writing detail, she sees a loose thread on her husband’s coat and is hesitant about pulling it off. Do you really want to start unraveling your life? She reaches for it and he takes her hand and they leave. And in the hallway she slaps him. Not hard enough for me, but she still loves him.

So you think the show is going to be about her dealing with the immediate aftermath of the scandal, which would maybe last a season, but then the Kings jump ahead six months. Smart move. The husband’s in prison, although trying to weasel his way out. She has had to go to work to pay the bills, so she is starting a new job at a law firm, not having practiced for 15 years. So it’s just going to be another damned lawyer show. Not so fast. Yes, there are law cases. In the pilot she handles a second trial for a pro bono client and gets her off, but a lot of the hour is taken up with Alicia dealing with the new organization of her life. Yes, that includes the job, but also the kids, and a mother-in-law who is staying with them temporarily (great touch: the teenaged daughter has set Alicia’s cellphone ring tone for calls from the mother-in-law to play the Twilight Zone theme). And she still has to deal with her husband, so the subtext of sadness in Margulies’s face is a recurring base line. And she has to work with people who worked with her husband and against him when he was the State’s Attorney for Chicago.

The pilot is one of the most relaxed pilots I have ever seen. It does not feel like the writers are trying to push everything into the first hour. We meet several of the people she works with and even though we do not see that much of them, they all look to have real potential for the show.

I also like the legal details. Having served on several juries, I am always disappointed that legal shows do not really show what goes on with juries. Here Alicia talks to the jurors on the first trial of her client. Officially they split 6-6, but she finds out they were really 11 firmly for conviction and 1 for acquittal. Except the one for acquittal is not Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men, but a crazy cat lady who had no substantial reasons for voting for acquittal. The jury decided to tell the judge the vote was 6-6 or else he would not have let them go. I hope the series gets into jury territory again. Meanwhile I will settle for The Face in the best role she’s had since ER.

Community (2009. “Pilot” and “Spanish 101” episodes written by Dan Harmon. Each episode 30 minutes): This ain’t it.

There is a wonderful sitcom to be written about community colleges, but this one is not it. Its basic premise is flawed. Jeff, a lawyer, is discovered by the Bar Association not to have completed his BA, so he is suspended until he can. As John Cleason, the Attorney Regulation Counsel for the Colorado Supreme Court, noted in the September 28-October 4 issue of TV Guide, a lawyer who was found to have lied in this way would have been disbarred for eight years, with the likelihood that he would never get reinstated. Here Jeff decides to go to a community college to get his BA. CCs do not offer BAs. The highest they offer is an Associate of Arts degree. Jeff talks to a CC professor whom he got out of a DUI and hustles him into getting the answers for “all the tests in all the courses” Jeff will be taking this semester. There is no way the prof can get all that, but he gives him an envelope that appears to have them in it. At least the envelope turns out to have blank pieces of paper in it, but the prof mentions that Jeff would probably be demanding this stuff for four years. CC’s are only two years. Then we see the prof drinking wine in his office. And to get the pilot off to an even worse start, before the bad plotting kicks in, we have a scene of a dean talking on the campus quad in what appears to be a formal meeting of a large group of students about their first week at school. The meeting would be indoors, so the bullhorn would not disrupt classes.

By now you have guessed that I teach at a CC. Not only that, but the exteriors of the pilot were shot at Los Angeles City College where I teach. You can see why I tuned in to the show, and why it pisses me off. Jeff is one of those wiseass guys that network executives, who are wiseass guys themselves, seem to like to head up shows. There is otherwise nothing appealing about him. Now if they had made him one of Diablo Cody’s wiseass women… The “study group” he forms primarily to hit on a cute blonde is at least made up of the kind of variety of people you might meet on a CC campus. The single thing that rings even partially true about the show is Jeff’s speech to them after they find out he is not really a tutor. He tells them that despite the problems they as individuals have had, they are all valuable people and are now part of a community. He means the study group, but it could apply to the college as well.

The second episode, “Spanish 101” thought that having an Asia guy teaching the Spanish class was funny. Maybe, but Harmon turned him into a cliché. Although Harmon went to a real CC once, he shows not only no understanding of the heart of such a college, but is completely condescending to the people who attend. In “Spanish 101,” two of the women in the student set up an on-campus protest against the death of a journalist in Latin America. Great, except that Harmon has written them as idiots for doing so.

Maybe Harmon and his writers will begin to get it right as the show develops, but I am not holding my breath.

The First Week of the 2009 – 2010 Television Season: More or less, new and used.

It was September again, the kids were back in school and the networks rolled out new and returning shows. Here are some of each.

HBO is turning into a real network, premiering a show in September. Who’da thunk it? The show is Bored to Death and the title is not completely accurate. The pilot episode “Stockholm Syndrome” was written by Jonathan Ames and is about “Jonathan Ames,” a writer whose girlfriend has just left him. Loving classic detective stories, he puts an ad on Craigslist as an investigator. Soon he is investigating a missing persons case. Maybe, but once you get over the Craigslist gimmick, it’s another amateur detective show. And there’s not much new about the love of Raymond Chandler that Ames brings to it.

The season opener of How I Met Your Mother, “Definitions” (written by Carter Bays & Craig Thomas) indicates the show is finally going to deal with Robin and Barney. Lily locks them in a room until they have “the talk” about what their relationship is. The problem is, they don’t know, which can be interesting to deal with. They decide to tell Lily they are a couple. She lets them out, and as they walk down the street, Ted says to Lily, “You do realize they’re lying,” to which she replies, “They don’t realize they are not lying.” Quite frankly all of that is a lot more interesting than Ted teaching a class where we have been relentlessly told the mother is going to show up.

Accidentally on Purpose is Knocked Up with Jenna Elfman in place of Katherine Heigl. The idea is still stupid: smart woman gets knocked up by idiot guy, and instead of dumping him, she stays with him. The only improvement is that the guy is not the complete slob that Seth Rogen’s Ben Stone was in the movie. But at least in the “Pilot” (written by Claudia Lonow), he is not particularly distinctive or memorable. Sometimes having a woman writer doesn’t help.

Leave to the writers of Two and a Half Men to find an inventive way to get rid of Mia, at least for now. In “818-jikpuzo” (teleplay by Don Foster & Eddie Gorodetsky & Susan Beavers, story by Chuck Lorre & Lee Aronsohn & Mark Roberts), Mia asks Charlie to help her develop her singing career. She turns out to be a terrible singer. Charlie tells her the truth, and that’s it. Now they just have to figure out how to keep him from marrying Chelsea. Meanwhile we get a great line for Berta (about Mia’s mouth, “That’s a pretty mouth, but it ain’t made for singing”) and a great scene with Jane Lynch as his shrink. Charlie is constipated from trying to decide which woman he wants. The shrink says, “As soon as you pick one, you can go two.” That’s why all those writers make all that money.

With “Deep in Death” (written by Andrew J. Marlowe) Castle brings back the poker game, this time with Stephen J. Cannell and Michael Connelly. Since Castle had looked into Beckett’s mother’s murder and told her about it, there is now an additional layer of irritation on her part towards him, which will help keep the show going. Based on something his daughter says, Castle finally apologizes to Beckett for investigating. She does not fall into his arms, but lets him continue to tag along, which she was threatening to stop. After all, if she stops him, there is no show. The plot on this episode was wonderfully complicated, involving a body in a tree that was stolen out of the Medical Examiner’s van and the Russian Mafia, some of whom turn out to be fans of Castle’s books.

Modern Family is one of the most critically acclaimed shows of the new season, but I have my doubts. In the “Pilot” (written by Steven Levitan & Christopher Lloyd), we are introduced to three branches of what turns out to be the same family. The father, Jay, is now married to a second younger wife, Gloria, who as one critic noted, borrowed a little too much cuchi cuchi from Charo. Jay’s daughter Claire is married to Phil, who is trying to be a cool dad. Jay’s son Mitchell is gay and living with Cameron. They have adopted a Vietnamese baby. Yes, it is a step in the right direction that they are accepted, more or less (Jay’s a little iffy) as part of the family. The problem, however, is that the writing is mostly in the traditional sitcom rhythm: setup, setup, punchline; setup, setup, punchline. Fine, except that the show is filmed in a faux documentary style, and the rhythm simply does not fit. The show runs into some of the same problems I mentioned in US#24 in writing about Parks and Recreation.

You would think that since I love Two and a Half Men, which is all about sex, that I would love Cougar Town, which is all about sex. Well, Men is not ALL about sex. It is also about the characters. Based on the “Pilot” (written by Bill Lawrence & Kevin Biegel) this show is all about sex. Jules is a fortysomething divorced mother who hasn’t had any for a while, and she talks to all her friends entirely about sex. When she is at the high school football game, she drools over the teen boys. She goes to a bar with Laurie, her employee (she runs a real estate office, so there is in the episode a line or two about real estate and not sex) and picks up a younger guy. And gets caught having oral sex with him by her teenage son. And her divorced husband. The relentlessness of the talk about sex makes this seem like a porn movie, where the only interest of any of the characters is sex. It’s just creepy. Like Groucho Marx said, I like cigars, but I take them out of my mouth once in a while.

CSI is trying to make up for mishandling the transition of Grissom’s leaving. In “Family Affair” (written by Bradley Thompson & David Weddle) we learn that when Riley left, she criticized Catherine’s leadership. Nice try guys, but the problem was not Catherine, but the way the writers did not deal with her taking command. I am not sure bringing back Sara is going to help that much.

Eastwick has some potential. It is based on the book The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike and the screenplay for the 1987 film by Michael Christopher. The “Pilot” (written by Maggie Friedman) introduces us to three women in the small New England town of Eastwick. Roxie makes arts and crafts, Joanna is a reporter for the local paper, and Kat is a frazzled housewife. The pilot spends most of its time setting up that by simultaneously throwing coins into a fountain, the women gets specific special powers. This in turn seems to attract Darryl Van Horn, who buys up a local mansion, the newspaper, and the wick factory and takes the women under his wing. We don’t yet know why, but we can bet hijinks will ensue, especially since we find out at the end of the pilot that the real Darryl Van Horn died some time ago.

This being television, and this being the third attempt to turn this into a series, there are elements that call to mind other series. The voiceover is so Desperate Housewives, you expect the women to live on Wisteria Lane. The main town square set was the square in Star’s Hollow on Gilmore Girls. And the idea of the three witches got a workout in Charmed. One difference from Charmed is that the women here are grownups. Rebecca Romijn as Roxie is as beautiful as ever and she is voluptuously sensuous here in a way she’s never been before, not even in Femme Fatale (2002). Lindsey Price as Joanna, once she takes off her glasses and dresses up a bit, is a not-too-distant second. Darryl is played by Paul Gross, who was wonderful as the unhinged stage director in the great 2003-2006 Canadian series Slings and Arrows. He does not have Nicholson’s eyebrows, thank goodness, but he is making the part his own. This one is worth checking in on.

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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Film

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

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

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert

The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.

The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.

At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.

As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.

Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident

Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.

1.5

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.

Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.

Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.

Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.

De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.

Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Crawl Is Fun and Economical but Lacks Go-for-Broke Inventiveness

The film is more straight-faced than Alexandre Aja’s prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws.

2.5

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Crawl
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Unlike the giddily crass Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is a quiet beast of a film. It’s built not on a foundation of over-the-top gore, but on a series of escalations. As a hurricane barrels toward Florida, ace swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) becomes worried after her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), doesn’t return her phone calls. She travels to her old family home and finds him unconscious in the house’s flooded crawl space, with large alligators swimming in the water.

Early on, the camera often lingers on the deceptive stillness of the rising water for maximum suspense. Haley and her father are trapped in the house with no more than the tools they can find or already have on hand, MacGyvering their very survival out of shovels, flashlights, and flares. The best parts of the film slyly set up those tools and other objects, including a swing set and a rat trap, only to bring them back at some later, climactic moment.

If Crawl, then, is an easily digestible piece of workmanlike thrills, its only real bit of gristle is its po-faced father-daughter bonding. Haley and Dave are somewhat estranged; the family home was meant to have been sold off after Dave’s recent divorce from Haley’s mother; and flashbacks to childhood swim meets show father and daughter tempting fate with flagrantly ironic use of the term “apex predator.” In the face of certain death, they cobble their relationship back together through Hallmark-card platitudes while sentimental music plays on the film’s soundtrack. It’s the absolute thinnest of familial drama, and it will do little to redirect your emotional investment away from the survival of the family dog.

Between these family moments, of course, the flood waters run red as people get got by gators. Aja is prone to lingering in prolonged closeup on things like a protruding bone being shoved back into place, but he otherwise seems to have gotten the most inspired bits of underwater violence out of his system with Piranha 3D. Crawl is more straight-faced than his prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws. And while these moments are suspenseful, with nail-biting scrapes involving a handgun, some loose pipes, and one particularly clever shower-door maneuver, there’s precious little of the go-for-broke invention or outrageousness that might have made the film more than a fun and economical thriller.

Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Morfydd Clark Director: Alexandre Aja Screenwriter: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Farewell Thoughtfully Braids the Somber and the Absurd

The film taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

3.5

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The Farewell
Photo: A24

In the opening scene of writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Chinese grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), affectionately referred to as Nai Nai by her family, and her Chinese-American granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), have a warm, affectionate phone conversation in which each woman incessantly lies to the other. A professionally adrift, financially bereft millennial whose writing ambitions have come to naught, Billi lets her grandmother believe her life is busy and full of social engagements; for her part, Nai Nai insists that she’s at her sister’s house, rather than in a drably decorated doctor’s office. Wang frames Nai Nai against the kitschy, oversized picture of a lagoon that hangs on the wall, as if to emphasize the flimsiness of the illusions the pair is painting for one another.

The sequence calls to mind the advantage of audio-only phone calls: for allowing us to more easily maintain the falsehoods that comprise a not insignificant portion of our relationships. Given that minor mistruths prop up our most basic social connections, Wang focuses The Farewell on the moral quandary of whether a big lie—specifically, culturally contingent situations—might actually be an expression of genuine love. The film takes up the question with a tone of melancholic drollery, a sense of irony that doesn’t lose touch with the human feelings at its core. The Farewell is “based on an actual lie,” evidently an episode from Wang’s life, and its careful mixture of the somber and the absurd rings true to life.

As it turns out, Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer, but Billi’s father’s family elects to lie to the woman about her MRI results, an action that’s evidently within the bounds of Chinese law. But as Billi’s assimilated immigrant father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), points out to his brother, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), during a crisis of conscience, such a thing is both frowned upon in America and prosecutable. Struggling even more with the decision, of course, is the more Americanized Billi, who can’t reconcile her Western notions of love and the sanctity of the individual with the widespread practice of lying to family members about their impending deaths.

To create a cover for a family visit to Beijing, the family forces Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Hanwei), who lives in Japan, to marry his girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), of three months. This plan provides plenty of fodder for Wang’s dry humor, as the family attempts to maintain the veneer of celebration while also bidding farewell to their ostensibly clueless matriarch, who’s confused by Hao Hao and Aiko’s lack of affection and the generally dour mood that predominates in the lead-up to the wedding. It’s potential material for a farce, but even in its funny moments, Wang’s film is contemplative rather than frenetic, preferring to hold shots as her characters gradually, often comically adjust to the reality that Nai Nai will soon be gone.

Awkwafina, hitherto notable mostly for her comic supporting roles, gives a revelatory lead performance as Billi, the thirtysomething prone to bouts of adolescent sullenness. Perhaps playing a Bushwick-based, first-generation-American creative type isn’t much of a stretch for the Queens-born rapper/actress, but she immediately brings to the role the depth of lived experience: We believe from the first frames in the long-distance love between Billi and her grandmother, and the existential crisis the young woman feels as she negotiates two cultures’ differing approaches to death and disease. In taking us to Beijing through Billi’s eyes, which are often blinking back tears as she says goodbye without articulating “goodbye,” The Farewell’s morose but not hopeless comedy taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Hanwei Director: Lulu Wang Screenwriter: Lulu Wang Distributor: A24 Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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Review: The Lion King Remake Finds Its Place in the Circle of Consumption

This ostentatiously expensive remake is reliant on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.

1

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The Lion King
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It’s somewhat paradoxical to critique Disney’s recent series of “live-action” remakes for precisely repeating the narratives, emotional cues, shot sequences, and soundscapes of their earlier animated versions. More than young children, who might well be content watching the story in vibrant 2D, it’s the parents who are the target audience of this new take on The Lion King, which aims to light up adults’ nostalgia neurons. In this sense, Jon Favreau’s film achieves its goals, running through a text beloved by an entire generation almost line for line, and shot for shot—with some scenes extended to reach the two hours seemingly required of Hollywood tentpoles. Throughout, though, one gets the impression that there’s something very cheap at the core of this overtly, ostentatiously expensive film, reliant as it is on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.

The new film differs from its source in simulating a realistic African savannah and wildlife through digital animation and compositing, but it doesn’t provide anything resembling a genuinely new idea, visually or dramatically. Favreau meticulously recreates the framing and montage of 1994’s The Lion King as he runs through the unaltered storyline. The young lion prince Simba (voiced as a cub by JD McCrary and as a grown lion by Donald Glover) witnesses his father Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones) seemingly accidental death by stampede. Unknown to Simba, his uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), murdered his own brother, but the jealous would-be heir manipulates the rambunctious young lion into accepting the blame for his father’s death. In self-exile, Simba represses his guilt by adopting the carefree philosophy of meercat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), until his long-lost betrothed, Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter), happens across him and convinces him to return to reclaim his throne.

The film’s world, as conceived by Favreau’s camera and an army of CG animators, is far less expressive than the one Disney’s original artists created in 1994. Tied to the idea of recompositing a reality, the filmmakers take less license in making the elephant graveyard where malicious hyenas Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), Azizi (Eric André), and Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key) live a fantastical, nightmarish terrain, and they constrain the choreography of the animals during Simba’s performance of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” to the bounds of actual animal physiology. Such musical sequences suffer under the regime of realism: Scar’s villainous exposition song, “Be Prepared,” appears in a truncated version spoken more than sung by Ejiofor, effectively robbing the original song of its devious exuberance.

The characters’ faces are also less pliable, less anthropomorphized—their demeanor harder to read—than in the traditional animation format of the original film. This isn’t necessarily a hindrance to crafting an affecting story (see Chris Noonan’s Babe), but the closeness with which Favreau hews to the original film means that the moments crafted for the earlier medium don’t quite land in this one. Scar isn’t nearly so menacing when he’s simply a gaunt lion with a scar, and Nala and Simba’s reunion isn’t as meaningful when their features can’t soften in humanlike fashion when they recognize each other. The Lion King invites—indeed, attempts to feed off of—reference to the original but consistently pales in comparison.

There’s another important difference one feels lurking in the margins of this film. The attitude of the first Lion King toward nature approached something like deference. The original film isn’t flawless: In its depiction of a patrilineal kingdom being saved from a usurper and his army of lazy serfs by the rightful heir, it questionably projected human politics into a nonhuman world. But it was an ambitious project by the then comparatively modest Walt Disney Studios to craft an expressive, living portrait of the animal kingdom. In contrast, there’s a hubristic quality to this CG-infused remake, as if Disney is demonstrating that its digitally fabricated imagery can fully capture the reality of a healthy, autonomous animal world—at a historical moment when that world is in danger of being totally snuffed out by the human race’s endless cycles of production and reproduction. The subject of this tiresome retread is ultimately less the “circle of life” and more the circle of consumption.

Cast: Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, John Kani, JD McCrary, John Oliver Director: Jon Favreau Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson, Brenda Chapman Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Rojo Is a Chilly Allegory for the Distance Between Classes

It masterfully sustains a sense of “wrongness” that will be felt even by those unfamiliar with Argentina’s history.

3

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Rojo
Photo: Distrib Films

With Rojo, writer-director Benjamín Naishtat conjures a haunting aura of debauched boredom, evoking a climate in which something vast yet barely acknowledged is happening under the characters’ noses. Though the film is set in Argentina in 1975, on the cusp of a coup and at the height of the Dirty War, when U.S.-backed far-right military groups were kidnapping, torturing, and killing perceived liberal threats, these events are never explicitly mentioned. Instead, the characters do what people choosing to ignore atrocity always have, talking around uncomfortable subjects and focusing on the mundane textures of their lives. Meanwhile, Naishtat expresses Argentina’s turmoil via symbols and sequences in which aggression erupts out of seemingly nowhere, actualizing the tension that’s hidden in plain sight. Throughout the film, Naishtat masterfully sustains a sense of “wrongness” that will be felt even by audiences who’re unfamiliar with Argentina’s history.

The film opens with a home being emptied of its belongings—an image that will come to scan as a metaphor for a country that’s “cleaning house.” Naishtat then springs an odd and creepy encounter between a famous attorney, Claudio (Darío Grandinetti), and a man who will eventually come to be known as “the hippie” (Diego Cremonesi). Claudio is sitting at a stylish restaurant minding his own business and waiting for his wife, Susana (Andrea Frigerio), when the hippie storms in and demands that Claudio give up his table. The hippie reasons that he’s ready to eat now, while Claudio is inhabiting unused space. Claudio gives up the table and proceeds, with his unexpected civility in the face of the hippie’s hostility, to humiliate this interloper. And this scene reflects how skillful Naishtat is at tying us in knots: In the moment, Claudio is the sympathetic party, but this confrontation becomes a parable of how people like the hippie are being pushed out—“disappeared”—by a country riven with political divisions.

Tensions between Claudio and the hippie escalate, and the hippie eventually shoots himself in the face with a pistol. Rather than taking the man to the hospital, Claudio drives him out to the desert, leaving his body there and allowing him to die. What’s shocking here is the matter-of-fact-ness of Claudio’s actions; based on his demeanor, Claudio might as well be carrying trash out to the dump, and he moves on with his life, returning to work and basking in the adulation that his profession has granted him. In a conventional thriller, this moral trespass would be the driving motor of the film, yet Naishtat drops the incident with the hippie for the majority of Rojo’s running time, following Claudio as he networks and engages in other scams.

Naishtat emulates, without editorializing, the casualness of his characters, and so Rojo is most disturbing for so convincingly suggesting idealism to be dead—with gritty brownish cinematography that further suggests a sensorial muddying. With little-to-no sense of stability, of faith in a social compass, the characters here often emphasize what should be trivial happenings. Susana’s decision to drink water at a gathering, rather than coffee or tea, becomes a kind of proxy gesture for the resistance that her and her social class are failing to show elsewhere, while a comic disappearance during a magic show macabrely mirrors the government’s killing and kidnapping of dissidents. Rojo’s centerpiece, however, is an eclipse that engulfs a beach in the color red, as Susana wanders a wooded area lost while Claudio, lacking sunglasses, blocks his eyes. The color red is also associated with communism, of course, as if the targets of this regime are demanding to be recognized.

Rojo eventually reprises the hippie narrative, as a famed Chilean detective, Sinclair (Alfredo Castro), comes hounding Claudio for answers, yet this development is soon revealed to be an elaborate fake-out. Out in the desert, one’s primed to expect the ruthlessly intelligent Sinclair to provide the wandering narrative a catharsis by forcing Claudio to take responsibility for something. But these men, both wealthy and respected, are of the same ilk. Though they’re each bound by routine and pretense, the death of lower classes means equally little to both of them. At this point, it’s clear that Rojo is less a thriller than a brutally chilly satire, concerning men who have the privilege, like other people who haven’t been deemed expendable by their government, to playact, offering ceremonial outrage that gratifies their egos while allowing a diseased society that benefits them to carry on with business as usual.

Cast: Darío Grandinetti, Andrea Frigerio, Alfredo Castro, Laura Grandinetti, Rafael Federman, Mara Bestelli, Claudio Martínez Bel, Abel Ledesma, Raymond E. Lee Director: Benjamín Naishtat Screenwriter: Benjamín Naishtat Distributor: Distrib Films Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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