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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

Review: Duet for Cannibals Is an Intriguing Mix of Pastiche and Parody

Susan Sontag’s debut film serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of her more well-known written work.

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Duet for Cannibals
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Writing on Persona for Sight & Sound in 1967, Susan Sontag rhapsodized about Ingmar Bergman’s unorthodox handling of narrative, praising his decision to utilize the story structure as a “thematic resource” rather than a means of dispensing a coherent plot. “Images and dialogue are given which the viewer cannot help but find puzzling,” she wrote, “not being able to decipher whether certain scenes take place in the past, present or future; and whether certain images and episodes belong to ‘reality’ or ‘fantasy’.”

Two years later, after securing funding from the renowned film production company Sandrews, Sontag made Duet for Cannibals, her own attempt at capturing a slipstream-like roundelay of events, and in Swedish no less. Like Persona, her directorial debut hazards a similar bid for the arrangement of narrative as “variations on a theme,” and while the results aren’t quite on the same level as Bergman, they represent a respectable, effort on Sontag’s part to both break down narrative convention and advance her own personal ideas.

The story deals with a baroque series of escalating mind games between Bauer (Lars Ekborg), a famed German leftist living in exile in Stockholm, and Tomas (Gösta Ekman), his young assistant. Taking on the position from a mixture of politically sympathetic curiosity and financial desperation, Tomas and his relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Ingrid (Agneta Ekmanner), is put under heavy strain. This worsens as Bauer demands more and more of his time, forcing him to take up residence in his apartment, to better serve at his beck and call. Things only get more confusing when Ingrid herself enters the fray, paired against Bauer’s unstable Italian wife, Francesca (Adriana Asti), in a rectangle of dysfunctional connection.

Embarking on its own Bergmanesque fantasia, the film slips freely, often confusingly, between realist and surrealist crosscurrents. In one memorable moment, Tomas and Ingrid go on a boating date that ends abruptly when he spots his employer on shore; he leaps out of the boat to join him, leaving Ingrid behind on the water. The occurrence of such disjunctions itself becomes a form of comedy, as scene after scene quavers between straight-faced severity and utter absurdism. At one point, Tomas’s frustrating encounter with one of Bauer’s dictaphone recordings segues into a head-to-head dispute, the characters’ interpersonal borders proving as porous as those of the film itself. Instances like this prove Bauer’s complete mastery over his domain, promoting the possibility that this entire enterprise is some kind of twisted attempt to cuckold himself, ensnaring his novice employee by using his vivacious wife as bait.

His actual intent remains mysterious, establishing him as the cryptic on-screen analogue to Sontag’s destabilizing formal approach. Whether we’re witnessing the tectonic plates of text and subtext colliding roughly with one another, or just an elaborate gag at the expense of viewers primed to expect impenetrable, pretentious weirdness from their Euro art cinema, is never entirely clear. The film’s ultimate liability, in fact, is that it can’t seem to decide if it’s doing pastiche or parody. It’s clearest thematic throughline remains the metaphorical transfer of horrid, self-serving behavior—disguised as rigorous intellectual purity—forced down from one generation to another. Qualities of the older couple become imprinted upon the younger, in an unnerving mode that mixes the scholarly and the familial, with a marked sexual undertone that seems requisite to this kind of boundary-pushing experimentation.

Yet the sort of theorizing that Duet for Cannibals demands is bound to inevitably draw inquisitive viewers toward the type of analytical over-examination that Sontag railed against in “Against Interpretation,” one of her most famous essays and the basis of much of her work from this time period. The most plausible, and rewarding, explanation may then be that her directorial debut represents a cross-medium introduction of this theory of sensual liberation into the cinematic bloodstream, antagonizing viewers as a further nudge to lay off the heavy textual lifting. It’s a lesson that may hold even greater relevance today, when the internet allows every inch of any given film to be picked over with a fine-toothed comb.

It also doesn’t hurt that Duet for Cannibals is frequently hilarious: An acidulous, dry humor runs beneath its formal provocations, from Bauer slowly spreading shaving cream over his car windshield to obscure the view inside, to a toned, briefs-clad man holding a handstand through the entirety of a pivotal dramatic scene. In this regard, the film feels ahead of its time, while totally leftfield in others. An interesting, if tonally inconsistent, experiment, it serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of its maker’s more well-known written work.

Cast: Gösta Ekman Jr., Lars Ekborg, Adriana Asti, Agneta Ekmanner, Stig Engström Director: Susan Sontag Screenwriter: Susan Sontag Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1969

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Review: The Good Liar Is Ambivalent to Both Genre and History

An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow.

2.5

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The Good Liar
Photo: Warner Bros.

An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow. For the most part, the film successfully marries the levity of con-artist hijinks, the suspenseful ambiguity of a Hitchcockian romance, and the heightened realism of a postwar spy adventure. But like so many pulpish mysteries, its resolution fails to neatly tie up these elements, and though it’s never especially difficult to anticipate at least the general direction in which the plot’s twists are taking us, it’s an enjoyable couple of hours, held together by strong performances and an unpretentious presentation.

For reasons dictated by the protagonists’ ages and historically specific backstories, The Good Liar is set in 2009. British retirees Roy (Ian McKellan) and Betty (Helen Mirren) first meet on an online dating service, initially going by the respective pseudonyms of Brian and Estelle. Once these initial, foreshadowing lies have been dispelled, the two begin an adorably tepid romance, all handshakes and polite compliments. Betty hesitantly invites Roy over to her place when the restaurant where they planned to meet turns out to be closed. They watch Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and the two have a cordial debate about whether the film’s ahistorical representation poisons the minds of the young.

Of course, the Roy that Betty knows is a lie: Hardly a retiree, the octogenarian is an active, high-level financial scammer. We’re acquainted to Roy’s alter ego as he abandons his cane and strides ably into a strip club—a shot presented in low angle so as to capture some gratuitous nudity on the dancers’ raised platform. Roy proceeds to a private booth, where he and his partner in crime, Vincent (Jim Carter), are meeting with a pair of investors (Mark Lewis Jones and Stefan Kalipha) they’ve planning to scam out of their money. This subplot will eventually spill over into the main romantic plot, though through a more circuitous route than expected.

If, with its “exposed breasts connote shady dealings” rhetoric, this introduction to the seedy Roy lands a bit too hard, McKellan’s performance is more successful in threading together the multiple sides of the man. Even before Roy’s criminal associates start alluding to his dark past, McKellan suggests the weight of a troubled history in his character’s actions. He communicates a sadness and resentment that isn’t manifest in the dialogue, even as Roy takes evident pleasure in the money scams he runs on investors and, eventually, on Betty.

The Good Liar is the type of neatly fabricated mystery in which every emphasized detail will prove to be significant, so when Betty’s grandson, Steven (Russell Tovey), explains that his dissertation topic is the Nazi architect Albert Speer, one can guess that WWII will play some role in the resolution of Roy and Betty’s romantic arc. When Betty suggests a continental vacation—first stop, Berlin—it’s fairly obvious that a confrontation with Roy’s shrouded war history is in the mix. Still, the final third of the film proves to be more deeply rooted in ‘40s Germany than even the pointed discussion of Speer suggests, but don’t look to the film for any particular insight into wartime Germany or the experiences of the “greatest generation.” Here, the war serves mostly as a dramatic facilitator of final twist rather than a lived experience.

Eventually, Betty, who, as the duped party throughout, comes off as far less intelligent than the former Oxford professor she’s meant to be, gets some narrative agency. But it comes so late, and in the form of a twist whose general outlines we can sense from very early on, that it hardly avoids feeling tokenistic. Playing the part of sweet Betty, fooled into all manner of duplicitous arrangements with Roy, Mirren has comparatively little to do. At times, you may expect the film to become a kind of geriatric Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but the expected turn comes too late for Betty to really get in on any action. Unlike Inglourious Basterds, with which it self-consciously contrasts itself, The Good Liar isn’t interested in a challenging remix of either genre or history—content instead with mild, safely conventional entertainment.

Cast: Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter, Mark Lewis Jones, Céline Buckens, Nell Williams, Phil Dunster, Laurie Davidson, Jóhannes Kaukur Jóhannesson Director: Bill Condon Screenwriter: Jeffrey Hatcher, Nicholas Searle Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 109 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters Spreads the News, Without Embellishment

Haynes’s film intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate.

2.5

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Dark Waters
Photo: Focus Features

Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters is the sort of film that may win awards and plaudits, even as it’s poised to be overlooked for its craftsmanship. Haynes and screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan communicate their story—a true one about the ways corporate greed can lead to irreparable health crises and environmental damage—without an ounce of pretense, which also means that they risk making it seem indistinguishable from other recent topical films like Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight. Yet while it doesn’t rewrite the book on the legal thriller genre, Dark Waters also intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate. Faint praise, perhaps, but this film aims to spread the news rather than bask in its own glory.

In 1998, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia, attempts to enlist Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) to file suit against DuPont. The chemical company, it seems, has been dumping toxic chemicals in a landfill near Tennant’s farm, polluting its creek and killing its livestock. As an attorney for a firm that defends corporations, Bilott initially refuses the case but eventually goes to bat for Tennant: Bilott grew up in West Virginia and becomes emotionally invested in protecting the land he loved as a child.

In the course of his investigation, Bilott discovers links between cancers and birth defects in the Parkersburg community and Dupont’s unregulated manufacture and disposal of PFOA (or C8), an indestructible chemical prevalent in many everyday household products. Yet what should be an open-and-shut case of corporate malfeasance and corruption drags on for years due to Dupont’s legal maneuvering, which costs Bilott his health and many of Bill’s clients their patience and social inclusion in Parkersburg, a Dupont company town to its core.

Dark Water’s strong suit is its central performances. As Bilott, Ruffalo provides a bristling tension in exploring the grey area between moral conviction and obsession as the lawyer’s selflessness borders on single-mindedness. And a scene-stealing Camp uses his bulk, not to mention a convincing rural drawl, to impart various shades of frustration, outrage, sadness, and disillusionment in the face of Tennant’s near-helpless situation. Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, can only do so much in the role of Bilott’s wife, Sarah, who seems to exist only to criticize others, be it her husband for his tunnel vision or his senior partner, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), for taking Bilott’s self-sacrifice for granted. Given Sarah’s intriguing backstory (she gave up a career in law to become a housewife), as well as Haynes’s predilection for exploring complex women, her characterization feels especially thin.

More important, perhaps, than any of these characters is West Virginia itself. The state isn’t featured often on film, which is a shame since it possesses an abundance of natural beauty. Of course, you won’t see that in Dark Waters, as Edward Lachman’s cinematography evokes the spoilage of that beauty by employing sickly, desaturated blues and greens, especially in outdoor winter scenes where you can practically feel the despair emanating from the screen. In this sense, the film harkens back to Haynes’s Safe, where toxicity appeared to suffuse the protagonist’s ordinary surroundings. The environmental details of Dark Waters reinforce the depth and expansiveness of Dupont’s crime, so that by the time John Denver’s signature “Take Me Home, Country Roads” ironically, if inevitably, plays during one of Bilott’s deflating drives through Parkersburg, Haynes has made the audience feel that this isn’t some remote, godforsaken hamlet, but rather the entire polluted planet.

Still, the best parts of Dark Waters may make you wish that there was more of Haynes in it. The filmmaker hasn’t written one of his own projects since the outstanding Mildred Pierce miniseries, but whereas Carol and Wonderstruck at least continued the director’s thematic and aesthetic preoccupations in their investigation of outcasts searching for romantic and familial connections, Dark Waters feels relatively faceless. Aside from its color scheme, there isn’t much in the film that’s particularly or uniquely cinematic; this is a dramatic rather than a visual showcase, and one often confined to legal conversations in generic offices, meeting rooms, and courts of law. But perhaps it’s to Haynes’s credit that he lets the drama speak for itself, instead of feeling the need to embellish it. After all, the point of this film is to depict how an enormous human and environmental tragedy initially affects a small community, with Tennant, Bilott, and Parkersburg suffering the full-force C-8 blast first and hardest.

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Bill Camp, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, Louisa Krause Director: Todd Haynes Screenwriter: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 126 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Charlie’s Angels Has Good Intentions but Lives in La-La Land

All the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal the film’s creative conservatism.

1.5

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Charlie’s Angels
Photo: Columbia Pictures

As a minor cultural institution, Charlie’s Angels has, in all its TV and film incarnations, operated as a kind of Rorschach test: Fans see it flying the female empowerment flag by bringing women into the traditionally male detective genre, while critics by and large view it as a symptom of feminist backlash, objectifying its stars in the service of campy male fantasy. Now, by diversifying its cast and placing a female writer-director, Elizabeth Banks, at its helm, the new Charlie’s Angels attempts to remove all political doubt: These Angels are woke and answer to no man, not even one issuing orders from a speaker box. The intention is pure, but in the end, the emancipatory aims of this reboot exist only in la-la land, its feminism failing to resonate beyond the cynicism of corporate rebranding.

Mostly remembered as a montage of iconic images, the 1970s Aaron Spelling-produced TV series was actually a bore, its success depending solely on the charisma of its lead actresses; the two early-aughts films, both directed by McG, were 100% cheesecake, hypersexualizing its actresses in what amounted to glorified music videos. The new Charlie’s Angels moves well and at least puts forth a semblance of reality, with a few moments hinting at the tense, moody spy thriller it might have been. Yet the dominant strain of its DNA is the Generic Action Movie, and all the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal its creative conservatism.

The plot centers on the usual stuff of spies and saboteurs. Not yet an official Angel, Elena (Naomi Scott) works for a company that’s run by an Elon Musk type (Sam Claflin) and creates an electronics product that possesses deadly potential. When her superiors bury her report on its risks, Elena enlists the Angels—Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska)—to help blow the whistle. But sinister parties, of course, want the gadget for themselves, and most of the film consists of a series of car chases, break-ins, and stakeouts as the Angels pursue the MacGuffin in the name of global security. Speaking of global: Charlie’s private investigation firm is now an international business, with multiple Bosleys leading their own teams of lady spies. And in a first for the franchise, our Angels’ Bosley is played by a woman (Banks).

Indeed, the film has a female-led, rather than female-focused, bent. Having nothing to do with the story, the opening credits sequence features a celebratory montage of girls from around the world, and the finale and end credits reveal Charlie’s agency to be run by women, a far cry from the TV series’s patriarchal framing: “Once upon a time there were three little girls…now they work for me. My name is Charlie.” Banks’s coup de grace “twist” on the Charlie’s Angels formula is diversity in casting, as the Angels are played by one out actress and two of color.

Stewart is the film’s most potentially interesting presence. In the opening scene, Sabina seduces a bad guy by wearing an ultra-femme disguise that includes a cascade of flowing blond hair, and when removing it to enter fight mode, she reveals a dyed, short-cropped butch ‘do. Yet the rest of the film fails to develop the code-switching possibilities of her character or anyone else’s. There’s a slew of nearly preternatural wardrobe changes (at one point, Sabina dons a jockey’s outfit for some reason), but that’s been par for the course in the world of Charlie’s Angels since the Ford administration, with much of the franchise’s appeal residing in the material fetishism attendant in an endless game of dress-up. Like their predecessors, these Angels look glamorous and gorgeous while fighting crime, and while Stewart’s queerness may qualify her objectification, and actually makes her more of a subject (as when she sneaks a lascivious peek at an attractive woman), it’s only in a relative sense. Overall, her on-screen appearance is lensed as much for exploitative pleasure as vicarious admiration.

One major appeal of the Charlie’s Angels properties is seeing men consistently underestimate the physical and intellectual capability of its female leads. But because she dares nothing visually or dramatically original, Banks prevents the Angels from exhibiting unique or surprising traits. The Angels’ bios are strictly single-line affairs: Sabina is rebellious and sarcastic, Jane is steely and professional, and Elena is goofy and wide-eyed. And all of them quip and banter in similarly sitcom-ish rhythms. Ultimately, Banks believes it’s enough that queer and brown women perform the same suspense-free action set pieces and combat choreography that their white male counterparts have performed since time immemorial.

In contrast to McG’s films, which took place in the realm of a live-action candy-colored cartoon, the world of this Charlie’s Angels vaguely resembles our own, giving Banks the opportunity to show what real—or at least real-er—women can do in seriously intense and perilous situations. But save for a few stressed situations and unique notes (such as Luis Gerardo Méndez’s Q-like Saint, who’s both the Angels’ weapons expert and their health advisor and spiritual guru), this film is so much disposable entertainment. It’s too frenetic, tongue in cheek, and impersonal to extend its vague feminism to true individualism.

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, Sam Claflin, Noah Centineo, Jonathan Tucker, Nat Faxon, Chris Pang, Luis Gerardo Méndez Director: Elizabeth Banks Screenwriter: Elizabeth Banks Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Interview: Lauren Greenfield on The Kingmaker and Threats to Democracy

Greenfield discusses how the film relates to her body of work and the warnings Americans ought to heed from it.

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Photo: Showtime Documentary Films

When it comes to documenting stories about the dark underbelly of wealth in contemporary society, Lauren Greenfield is like a moth drawn to a flame. A photographer by trade who has ventured into documentary filmmaking, Greenfield broke out in 2012 with The Queen of Versailles, a “riches-to-rags” tale of how billionaire Florida couple Jackie and Robert Siegel attempted to build an American equivalent to Versailles. Their absurd ambition amounts to their folly as construction kicks off at the height of the Great Recession and strains their precarious finances, leaving the mansion unfinished. Greenfield continued this theme in her 2018 documentary Generation Wealth, a companion film to her monograph of the same name that follows multiple less bombastic tales of how an unfettered pursuit of opulence and glamour results in deep emptiness.

Greenfield’s new documentary, The Kingmaker, began with her interest in another powerful symbol for the hollowness of wealth and power. In the Philippines, former First Lady Imelda Marcos evicted the native population of Calauit Island, located in the Calamian Archipelago, and replaced the inhabitants with African animals. Though the regime of her husband, Ferdinand E. Marcos, fell and drove the family into exile and disrepute, the animals remained. Generations later, the creatures’ inbreeding and the general disarray of the island’s ecosystem appears to be a fitting testament to the corruption and incompetence of their rule.

And yet, once Greenfield began to sit with the octogenarian Imelda Marcos, she found a subject spinning an alternate story, as well as a populace willing to believe it. The Kingmaker portrays the unfolding of a terrifying period in the history of the Philippines of how a political dynasty can rewrite the history of human rights abuses and corruption in order to return to power. While events continue to unfold in the country, the necessary forces and people are in place to pave the way for Imelda’s son, Bongbong Marcos, to assume the presidency in 2022.

I spoke with Greenfield prior to The Kingmaker’s premiere at DOC NYC to discuss how the documentary relates to her body of work as a whole as well as the warnings Americans ought to heed from it as a similar political dynamic to the one in the Philippines develops stateside.

You’ve said elsewhere that you liked Imelda on a personal level, but much like The Queen of Versailles, The Kingmaker itself remains a little ambiguous so the audience can come to their own conclusions about the subject. How do you finesse that ambiguity in your filmmaking and in the editing process?

It’s a little bit different with Imelda Marcos because I came in knowing the history. I was more interested in the paradox between the fact that when you’re with her, she’s kind and generous and personable, versus the terrible consequences of the huge human rights abuses she was complicit with. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I think she’s nice, let’s let the audience come to that conclusion.” I felt journalistically, ethically, and historically that I need to give the audience the information so they could see that what she was doing was telling untruths. So they could see that she was an unreliable narrator. That’s why, when I realized that about her, I brought in other voices that the audience would instinctively feel are credible.

It’s a little bit of a different journey because, in the beginning, you’re sucked into her personality, which is lovely and charismatic, and I wanted people to see that. It was the key to her political success. But, even by the end of the first act, when you know she’s depopulated an indigenous population to bring in the animals to her pet project island, I think you can’t abide by that anymore. By the time you hear about martial law and torture, you’re not thinking she’s nice anymore. Jackie Siegel was another journey because you start out thinking she’s horrible, and then you end up kind of rooting for her. For Imelda, I wanted to show her humanity, but it’s a paradox of how can a human do these terrible things and not feel any remorse.

When you started filming Imelda, you thought maybe the film would become a redemption story? At what point did you begin to realize that wasn’t going to play out?

I was still hoping for it, even at the very end—that maybe she’d have some kind of revelation. I thought there’d be a moment where she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t see it that way.” But looking back now, I was being naïve. Of course, this is not her first rodeo. She’s talked to the press a million times. During the election, I realized they were just going to lean into their story. There was a TV interview that Bongbong did, and the reporter said, “Are you going to say you’re sorry? Are you going to say you’re sorry for martial law?” That’s what people really wanted, for him to apologize. And he said, “What do I have to apologize for? Should I apologize for the roads? The infrastructure? The building that happened during that period? If I hurt somebody, I would apologize, but what do I have to apologize for?” When I heard that a few months into the election campaign, I realized they were going to lean into the story, into their rewriting of history that those were the good times, and they weren’t going to apologize. It’s kind of a Trumpian move: never apologize, never say you’re wrong, just say, “It was good, it was great!” And then people will eventually believe you.

Isn’t the film, at least for Imelda, a redemption story? She’s restoring honor to the family name and, in doing so, putting some power behind their wealth, which has become a little toothless in the absence of actual clout.

Well, she is trying to whitewash history. That’s her goal, politically, and it’s why she chose to participate in the film. She wants to put out her version of the Marcos legacy. That’s not what I meant by “redemption story.” I meant her having a moral moment of realizing she’s done something wrong. She does tell herself that she’s doing something good. I do believe she thinks she’s doing good, and that she believes her own story.

Everyone tells themselves a story of their life that makes sense, but the difference between the visions of grandeur of people like Imelda and Jackie Siegel and the average person is that they can manipulate reality to become their fantasy using wealth.

Her story helps her survive. It pushes her to keep going. Deep down, she feels like she’s doing the right thing. If she felt like she was doing terrible things, it would get in her way. It’s a strategic story that helps her live with it and get a young electorate on board for a comeback.

I found it a little difficult to discern toward the end: Does Imelda and the rest of the Marcos family see the contradictions in boosting a candidate like Rodrigo Duterte, who runs against the perceived corruption of a system only to re-legitimize a self-dealing former dynasty? Or is the irony completely lost on them?

I’m not sure that there’s a lot of irony there. Even though he pretends he’s one of the people, working class, talks trash, and swears, he’s actually from a place of privilege. There’s also a lot of corruption going on in this government. When Bongbong was campaigning, he also said he was going to go against corruption. That’s what everybody says. The reality is that Duterte’s father was in Ferdinand Marcos’s cabinet. Duterte looks up to Marcos. He’s threatened martial law. He likes the idea of the strongman. So, I think that they’re pretty aligned.

I was more surprised that Bongbong would align with Duterte because Bongbong was Western-educated and has the veneer of a legitimate politician, so I was surprised that he would go with somebody responsible for so many street killings. But, at the end of the day, it’s political. They made an alliance that’s helped them both. They could give Duterte support for becoming president, and in return they got the hero’s burial that Imelda has wanted for decades. Duterte backed the sister, Imee, for senate, and she won—as did every candidate that Duterte backed. Going into the next election, Duterte’s backing is extremely important.

A thread through your work is that people suffering from the adverse effects of wealth tend to cast themselves as victims in their own stories. From your experience, do you think that narrative holds any water? Or is it just a survival technique?

Yeah, I don’t think we need to shed any tears for Imelda. What I’m trying to do here, and in Generation Wealth, is to focus on the one percent and look at how it affects everybody else. That’s the important thing: looking at the long-term consequences of the Marcos regime and how the abuse of wealth and power affects everybody else. I came in looking at that through the animal island, but that’s really symbolic for how the Philippines was hurt by how the Marcos family, in taking five to 10 billion dollars, hurt development, created persistent poverty, and made the people vulnerable to bringing back another strongman and supporting people like Bongbong Marcos, but especially Duterte. Benigno Aquino, the president when I was filming and son of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, said his father told him you can’t have democracy when you’re hungry. That’s what we see in the Philippines, democracy being threatened because people’s basic needs are not being met.

It almost feels like we’re doomed to live in a plutocracy forever.

That’s the irony. That’s what was so sad. It’s also similar to Trump, as people’s needs were not being met, so they voted for change only to have somebody who’s really on the side of the wealthy. It’s ironic that these people get brought in by the support of the working class. But in the Philippines, you’re not even talking about the working class. You’re talking about deep, deep poverty where people are getting money, food, or clothing in exchange for votes. And especially without proper information, the history not being taught in the schoolbooks or not as many outlets of independent journalism, it’s very hard for a democracy to thrive.

You’ve noted that Imelda is yet another adherent of the “dictator chic” style—the gauche, in-your-face extravagance that attracts aspiring autocrats from Trump to Saddam Hussein. As someone who observes the intersection of wealth and aesthetics, do you have any theories about why this phenomenon cuts across the globe?

In a way, that was a little bit more of what I looked at in Generation Wealth. There’s an aspirational nobility that people with power want, like being a king or a queen. You see that in the portrait of Imelda at the beginning of the film and in some of the commissioned portraiture she did—and, for that matter, some of what the Siegels did. You can see the love for gold that Trump has. I think it’s an association with nobility, especially for the nouveau riche and people who are ambitiously climbing their way up.

As someone who’s studied and documented wealth across the world, what do you make of this moment in America where it seems like a large portion of the country worships an opulent, self-proclaimed wealthy leader and another large portion finds inspiration in politicians who are rallying people against the idea of concentrated wealth?

Well, I definitely think we’re at a really precarious time at the moment, because the amount of inequality we have right now is dangerous for any society or democracy. And dangerous economically. We have this myth of the American dream where anyone can go from rags to riches. I think that’s what’s standing between us and revolution, even though many people are not sharing in the spoils of our economy. It’s because of this “keeping up with the Kardashians” mindset. In Generation Wealth, I looked at how in the space of a generation, people went from “keeping up with the Joneses,” their neighbors, to keeping up with the Kardashians, these ultra-wealthy people they see on TV. It’s so unrealistic, and yet there’s this deep myth in the culture that you can become that one day, through a reality show or whatever it is. Obama called that out more than two decades ago when he was a lawyer. The thing about Donald Trump is that people think they can be him one day, or maybe their child can be him. There’s this illusion that keeps people accepting the status quo.

And then I think there’s a waking up happening, particularly among young people, that that’s not going to happen, and that there’s some real rot. The game is rigged, and what they’re telling us is the goal—being rich—isn’t actually making people happy. Especially on the millennial side, there are signs of people waking up and wanting something different. The problem is that the culture and corporate capitalism are so slanted toward keeping the status quo. Just money in politics, for example, and the disinformation from social media. We saw it in the Philippines, we saw it here, we saw it with Brexit. That’s the thing Andy Bautista [former head of the Philippines’ Presidential Commission on Good Government] keeps telling me about the Philippines: If you have money, you have speech because you can put forward lies on social media and convince people of that. And it’s kind of like that here as well.

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Review: The Hottest August Is a Rich Patchwork of Discontented Voices

Brett Story’s documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division.

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The Hottest August
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Throughout The Hottest August, director Brett Story asks her interview subjects—a collection of mostly working-class, outer-borough residents of New York City—for their feelings about the future. More interesting than these people’s answers are the way their faces change as they process the question, invariably morphing into an ironic smirk. From there, the responses are despairing, even at their most hopeful, as nearly every subject answers with a summation of their career goals or their desire to earn more money.

Our collective failure to reckon with the onward march of climate change and vulture capitalism is the often unspoken subject of this structuralist documentary, which was filmed over the course of August 2017. Though Story makes her themes clear in a voiceover narrative (recited by Clare Coulter) that combines the director’s own writings with those of Karl Marx, Zadie Smith, and Annie Dillard, the people in The Hottest August have other things on their minds. A college student who works at a call center for wealthy investors describes herself as an “entrepreneur,” while a man driving a food truck has to move out of his apartment the following day without having found a new home. Periodically, the artist Ayodamola Okunseinde wanders the streets as a character he calls “The Afronaut,” clad in an Afro-futuristic spacesuit designed to encourage others to consider their own futures.

Even without this surreal image, the film’s photography (by Derek Howard) has an alien vibe, emphasizing humans that look rather small amid the buildings, beaches, and blockades they navigate every day. Apart from a ‘20s-themed costume party on Governor’s Island, a few public parks, and, of course, a subway car, most of the landscapes in The Hottest August are weirdly underpopulated. This is appropriate for a film that seems equally inspired by Chris Marker’s sci-fi-inflected essay films and Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer, and also for a work that must invariably address the gentrification of New York’s neighborhoods.

The middle- and upper-class New Yorkers glimpsed in The Hottest August are most often seen peering through windows or standing in desolate corporate courtyards. Gridlike compositions of air-conditioning units are dotted with running flat-screen televisions or films projected onto white walls. The public square is hard to locate, and Story finds them where she can: a Black Lives Matter rally where black speakers address an overwhelmingly white crowd; a Staten Island cop bar where politics are deemed verboten until one ex-police officer goes on a rant against a mythical welfare queen; a recreational softball league that descends into a near brawl; or the beach, where most of the subjects Story talks to are underemployed.

Near the beach in the Rockaways, one small home has been raised multiple stories on stacks of wooden pallets. Those closest to the water ignore post-Hurricane Sandy evacuation notices and dismiss climate change as Al Gore’s ploy to get rich and speaking with certainty that the hurricane’s status as a “100-year storm” means that they’re safe for another century. That’s not the most immediate delusion to be found in The Hottest August, which spends a few scenes with working-class Italian-American couple who gradually express their frustration with a diversifying neighborhood, culminating in an actual “I’m not racist, but” monologue.

Where Story’s previous film, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, meticulously depicted how the tentacles of mass incarceration creep into civic life, The Hottest August is a more loosely guided snapshot of generalized resentment. People are mad at the rich, who they also want to be. And then there are those clever enough to seek to profit from the ambient rage of the era: an entrepreneur who runs an industrial space where clients can destroy everything in sight, or a hipster from a VR company who barely believes his own bullshit about the automation revelation yielding a universal basic income where all will be free to do as they please.

With The Hottest Summer, Story puts on display a New York City that’s very different from the one depicted in Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, where every corner and office is teeming with representations of active, often progressive political and social discourse. While there are moments of grace and whimsy in here (a woman on a bench texting next to a duck, a smart young skateboarder who rides Story for interviewing some loudmouthed teens in the same park), the documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division, where millions of selves who have by and large given up on one another.

Director: Brett Story Distributor: Grasshopper Film

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Review: I Lost My Body Finds Poetry in Tracing Life’s Uncertainties

It focuses equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable.

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I Lost My Body
Photo: Netflix

Naofel (Hakim Faris) has a small birthmark between the knuckles of his right hand’s pointer and middle fingers. This would be the appendage’s most distinctive characteristic if not for the fact that, after being severed from Naofel’s body, it develops a will of its own. Throughout I Lost My Body, the hand skitters around of its own accord, using its fingers to crawl out of the hospital lab where it was kept following Naofel’s grim accident. Jérémy Clapin’s animated film chronicles the journey of that hand through, among other places, the rooftops and gutters of Paris, into a river and across a highway, in an attempt to reunite with its owner, dodging animals and cars along the way.

Do hands have memories? Naofel’s right hand certainly seems to. As the wayward appendage propels itself through the air with an open umbrella or flicks a lighter to fend off a bunch of subway rats, flashbacks recall the young man’s troubled, lonely life. He feels adrift, barely present in a world that seems only to have harsh words and unhappiness for him. He’s at odds with the relatives who took him in after the death of his parents in a car accident, and his half of a shared room is unfurnished save for the mattress placed directly on the floor. He works as a pizza delivery boy, but he isn’t a particularly good one, as he’s often late and, in one scene, scatters his pizza boxes into the street after crashing his bike into a car.

Many of I Lost My Body’s flashbacks foreground Naofel’s hand as though presenting its perspective. People and objects loom above it, its digits taking up wide swaths of the frame as they cling with insect-like precision to boxes or hold a microphone in their grip. Tight close-ups capture the fingers tapping random objects or emerging from the sand, and there are even POV shots of the hand peeking out from a dumpster or prodding the plastic bag it’s wrapped in. These sequences are a great showcase for the film’s subdued, naturalistic, and, above all, detail-rich hand-drawn animation: We see fidgeting fingers grabbing onto a locker door, a pigeon laboriously nudging the hand out of a gutter, and Naofel penciling lines onto blocks of wood that he’ll later trace over with a saw in his woodworking apprenticeship.

The metaphor at the heart of the film seems deceptively obvious: disconnection from the world and other people, literalized through a hand severed from its rightful body. But Clapin complicates that metaphor every step of the way, as in a flashback where Naofel’s father explains to him that, in order to catch a fly, the boy must aim where the fly will be rather than where it is. But knowing how to catch the fly doesn’t necessarily make the task any easier to accomplish, and the film’s depiction of fate follows a similarly unpredictable trajectory.

Through images of loneliness, as in a wooden igloo cobbled together on a rooftop, I Lost My Body builds an atmosphere of isolation and, above all, uncertainty. Because while Naofel takes his father’s advice to heart, his own attempts to live unpredictably, ahead of fate, do not always work out for him. His infatuation with Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois), initially so stirring as they close their eyes to listen to the rain and the wind from separate ends of an apartment intercom, goes in a few stalkerish directions. She rejects him for being a creep, and Naofel ironically comes to find fulfillment not in a relationship, as he had hoped, but in the woodworking he initially took up only to impress Gabrielle. I Lost My Body finds poetry in tracing life’s uncertainties, focusing equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable, as one part of a delicate whole.

Cast: Hakim Faris, Victoire Du Bois, Patrick d'Assumçao Director: Jérémy Clapin Screenwriter: Jérémy Clapin, Guillaume Laurant Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Report Is Noncommittal on the Moral Morass of the Dubya Era

In the end, it can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s flawed human fabric.

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The Report
Photo: Amazon Studios

The moral morass of the George W. Bush era is surveyed and scrutinized in writer-director Scott Z. Burns’s The Report, a true-life docudrama that bears all the visually monochromatic, thematically jaundiced hallmarks of Burns’s collaborations, as screenwriter, with Steven Soderbergh. Burns even manages to slightly best his mentor with his second solo feature. Compared to Burns and Soderbergh’s most recent joint effort—the feeble, scattershot Netflix-produced satire The LaundromatThe Report zeroes in on its incendiary sociopolitical subject with laser focus. That still doesn’t mean it adequately challenges preconceived notions about an especially dark period in American history.

The film’s title refers to the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, a 6,700-page document that took a long, hard, and unflattering look at the C.I.A.’s post-9/11 use of detention and torture—or, in politico parlance, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Daniel Jones, the committee’s lead investigator, is the protagonist, and he’s played by Adam Driver with a reserved sternness and solemnity that’s occasionally leavened by full-throated flashes of righteous indignation. Jones is all work, no play, and it’s evident that Burns intends this forbearing crusader as an audience surrogate. Yet Daniel mostly remains a cipher, a human enigma attempting, with Sisyphean effort, to expose and unravel the most sadistic and inhumane institutional practices.

It can be fascinating, of course, to watch a film that’s purely about process, revealing of the ways that those tied to an operation come off as cogs in a Moloch-like machine. And it helps, at least initially, that Driver is so good at conveying a total single-mindedness. When Jones looks around the cloistered, colorless basement office that will serve as headquarters for his investigation, he’s like an artist glancing at a blank canvas. For Jones, the swamp isn’t something to be drained, but to dip his brush in. And he’s painting a picture for an audience that, for the most part, is likely to undercut and minimize his efforts.

Burns is clearly reappropriating and remixing cinematic lessons learned from Alan J. Pakula’s starry Watergate exposé All the President’s Men. Jones’s boss, senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, letting her wig do most of the acting), assumes the role of Ben Bradlee-esque overseer. Archival footage of many of the big names in the torture debate (such as Dubya and Dick Cheney) is peppered throughout. And there’s even a paranoia-tinged encounter between Jones and a Deep Throat-like figure played with nauseated edge by Tim Blake Nelson.

The margins of The Report are filled to the brim with character actors doing creditably yeoman work, among them Corey Stoll as Cyrus Clifford, Jones’s pragmatic lawyer, Jon Hamm as chiding National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, Ted Levine as officious C.I.A. Director John Brennan, and Matthew Rhys as a New York Times reporter desperate for a scoop. Elsewhere, Maura Tierney and Michael C. Hall, as a pair of ideologically adaptable bureaucrats, headline the sections of the decade-plus narrative that detail the nitty gritty of the enhanced interrogation program, waterboarding most definitely included.

Cinematographer Eigil Bryld shoots these latter sequences with a sickly green-orange tinge that one supposes is meant to convey ethical queasiness. Whereas the scenes featuring Jones and his team poring over papers and presenting their findings to functionaries in various stages of outrage (or not) tend toward the icy blues or the ultra-high-def neutrality of a David Fincher production. Ever-shifting color temperatures aside, The Report is rarely stimulating. Its conscious detachment from the events it portrays proves not so much analytical as noncommittal. The closest it comes to picking a side is a tossed-off moment in which Jones throws some scowling shade at a TV commercial for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which was rather unconvincingly sold during its release as a work of objective nonpartisanship.

It’s strange, then, that Burns tosses a flagrantly uncritical bone in The Report’s final scenes, as John McCain, often held up as a model of principled dissent, is shown passionately decrying the United States’s torture program on the Senate floor. As in many a Hollywood production about American transgression, Burns ultimately can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s monumentally flawed human fabric.

Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Ted Levine, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, Corey Stoll, Maura Tierney, Jon Hamm Director: Scott Z. Burns Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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The Best Stephen King Movies, Ranked

We’ve compiled the best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

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The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Stephen King is one of the most influential of all contemporary writers, an artist who followed Richard Matheson’s example in wedding irrational horror with the surreal minutiae of everyday American life. The most distinctive elements of King’s remarkably vast bibliography—his exacting and uncanny empathy for working-class people and his loose, pop-culture-strewn prose—are rarely accounted for in the dozens of films that have been made from his novels and stories, which often predictably emphasize his propulsive plotting. Consequently, these adaptations often resemble routine genre films with a smattering of King’s dialogue, which sounds better on the page than when performed by often self-conscious actors who look as if they’d rather be anywhere than trapesing around a simulation of King’s beloved Maine. But a number of excellent films have been made from the author’s writing, either by doubling down on the neurotic naïveté of the author’s Americana or by striking new ground, recognizing that a good film needs to be a movie, rather than a literal-minded act of CliffsNotes-style embalming. To commemorate the recent release of Cell, we’ve compiled the 10 best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the countless, mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 8, 2015.


Stand by Me

10. Stand by Me (1986)

Those who accuse Stand by Me of indulging shameless boomer nostalgia are missing the point, as that’s precisely what the film is about. Director Rob Reiner dials down the violent hopelessness of King’s source material (the novella The Body), but still emphasizes the cruelty and loneliness that mark four boys’ coming-of-age odyssey to see the corpse of a young man nearly their age. The film is framed as one of the grown boy’s remembrances, as he attempts to spin his unreconciled feelings into the more tangible stuff of…coming-of-age fiction. At times it’s hokey, and, yes, the soundtrack does some major emotional heavy lifting, but the feast of excellent acting compensates greatly, particularly by Wil Wheaton, Kiefer Sutherland, and River Phoenix. Stand by Me remains one of the best adaptations of King’s more sentimental non-horror writing, and it’s far superior to preachy, insidiously insulting staples like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.


Creepshow

9. Creepshow (1982)

Still one of the great comic-book movies in that it approximates the actual tactile act of reading and flipping through a magazine, ideally on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a can of soda by your side. George Romero directed from King’s original script, which pays homage to EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and the filmmaker displays a visual confidence and tonal flexibility that’s reminiscent of his Dawn of the Dead. The bright, deep, and garish cinematography is both beautiful and disturbing, enriching King’s gleefully vicious writing while providing a framework for the lively performances of a game, celebrity-rich cast. The film straddles an ideal line between straight-faced seriousness and parody, particularly in the unnerving climax of a story in which we can hear the pained gurgling of aquatic zombies.


Silver Bullet

8. Silver Bullet (1985)

A creepy drive-in horror movie that throws a werewolf into a boy’s sentimental coming-of-age tale. Based on King’s slim Cycle of the Werewolf, which was released with gorgeous illustrations by artist Bernie Wrightson, Silver Bullet weds evocative imagery with spare plotting that allows each scene to breathe, giving the film an nightmarish free-associative energy. There are several boffo sequences, particularly when the werewolf seizes a man’s baseball bat, his paw shown to be beating the man to death from below thick fog, or when the wolf is outsmarted by the protagonist, one of his eyes blown to pieces by a bottle rocket. Speaking of the monster, the movie has one of the great wolf designs, which suggests a huge, bitter, upstanding bear with a terrifying snout. The human identity of the creature is a great, characteristically blasphemous King twist.


Dolores Claiborne

7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)

Five years after her career-making performance in Misery, Kathy Bates returned to Stephen King territory with Dolores Claiborne, which, like the book, disappointed nearly everyone for not being a typical horror story, instead combining the traditions of martyred-woman melodrama with gothic mystery. Critics, who only seem capable of praising melodrama when it’s directed by one of their pre-approved canon placeholders (like Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk), also turned their noses up at Dolores Claiborne, and it’s a real shame. Both the novel and the film get at the heart of King’s preoccupations with sexism and classicism, spinning a fractured narrative of a mother, her daughter, the man who nearly ruined their lives, and the all-encompassing pitilessness of aging. Yes, the film is behaviorally broad, but this broadness is utilized by the reliably underrated director, Taylor Hackford, as a form of catharsis. And Bates’s performance as the titular character is positively poetic. Her delivery of a monologue about Dolores’s work routine particularly locate the weird, qualified dignity of thanklessness, reveling in the pride and transcendence that can be wrestled from menial-ness. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Dolores Claiborne has the feel of King’s voice.


Misery

6. Misery (1990)

No one performs King’s dialogue like Kathy Bates. She embraces and owns the moving cuckoo logic of his best orations, understanding that they’re almost always rooted in class anxiety. The most disturbing quality of Misery, both the novel and the film, is the fact that we relate to Annie Wilkes, psychotic “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (superbly played in the film by James Caan), more than we do her victims. Bates is so intimately in tune with Annie that we feel for her when she fails to impress Paul, somehow temporarily forgetting that she’s holding him hostage and torturing him. Annie is yet another of King’s unleashed nerds, a repressed soul seeking actualization, but she isn’t sentimentalized, instead embodying the ferocious self-absorption that fuels obsession, leading to estrangement. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman regrettably trim King’s most ambitiously subjective material, but they compensate by focusing pronouncedly on the cracked love story at the narrative’s center.

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Review: Last Christmas Wears Its Sloppy Heart on Its Kitschy Sleeve

There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.

1.5

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Last Christmas
Photo: Universal Pictures

Multiple times in Last Christmas, Kate and her immigrant parents (Emma Thompson and Boris Isakovic) say that they hail from the “former Yugoslavia,” a rather outdated and strangely non-specific way of referring to their origins. When Kate comforts an Eastern European couple on the bus after they’re accosted by a Brexiter, they excitedly but vaguely ask her, “You’re from our country?” At this point, Last Christmas has begun to sound downright evasive, and you may wonder if the filmmakers even know where Kate’s family is supposed to come from. To screenwriters Bryony Kimmings and Emma Thompson, such details would appear to be extraneous to this anti-Brexit Christmas Carol. Merely tacking an affirmation of immigrant rights onto a familiar Christmas narrative about selflessness requires little more than an evocation of a general Slavic-ness about the characters.

Another element that Paul Feig’s film keeps pointedly indistinct is the nature of a recent illness that the twentysomething Kate (Emilia Clarke) has endured. Clearly depressed in the wake of a major health event, the aspiring singer is ostentatiously selfish, exploiting what remains of her friends’ and her boss’s good will. Currently homeless, she travels with a roller suitcase from crash pad to crash pad, drinking heavily, bringing home one-night stands, and openly flirting with customers at work. Kate is employed full time at a Christmas shop in London whose wisecracking owner (Michelle Yeoh) goes by the name Santa. At one point, Santa expresses distress at Kate’s haggard, disheveled state because she doesn’t want the young woman to drop dead. “I don’t have enough tinsel to cover your body,” she worries.

The grounds for Santa’s concern that a woman in her mid-20s may be killed by the lifestyle lived by many Londoners in their mid-20s is left open because its ultimate reveal three-quarters of the way through the film points toward one of the silliest twist endings in recent memory. We only learn what happened to Kate when she reveals the scar from an operation to Tom (Henry Golding), the beautiful, saintly man she begins seeing after finding him bird-watching outside the Christmas shop. Suffice it to say, Last Christmas is “inspired by” the Wham! song of the same name, specifically one line—and one line only—from its chorus.

Kate loves George Michael—one imagines she feels a bond with the late singer, the son of a Balkan immigrant himself, though the filmmakers leave this unexplored—and thus Last Christmas attempts to remake some of his most well-known songs into seasonally appropriate tunes. Obligatory montages to “Faith” and “Freedom” speed us through parts of Kate’s Tom-facilitated rehabilitation from cynical wastrel to Christmas-spirited patron of the homeless, though these segments are brief, cutting off the songs before we realize they have absolutely nothing to do with the jolly Christmas vibes that the film attempts to give off. Even “Last Christmas” is only heard in snippets, lest we realize that the song’s lyrics have little to do with seasonal giving and charity, and everything to do with regret, hurt, and resentment.

Last Christmas counts on our absorbing the sugary sound of Michael’s music but none of its substance. This is perhaps the film’s fatal flaw, and it’s not unrelated to its evasiveness regarding Kate’s origins and its simplistic affirmation of liberal outrage at Brexit. There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters—true from the beginning, but particularly after its last-act reveal—that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.

Besides the general sound of Michael’s music, Last Christmas clearly draws influence from classic Christmas-themed films like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Shop Around the Corner. Such films, though, earned their Christmas miracles and holiday moralizing by grounding their stories in a sense of the community created by bonds between fully realized characters. Clarke works hard to make the messy, perpetually flustered Kate relatable, but the film surrounds the character with a community as kitschy and false as the trinkets she sells in Santa’s shop.

Cast: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Emma Thompson, Michelle Yeoh, Boris Isakovic, Lydia Leonard Director: Paul Feig Screenwriter: Bryony Kimmings, Emma Thompson Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Video

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