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Understanding Screenwriting #35: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Bright Star, Whip It,

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Understanding Screenwriting #35: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Bright Star, Whip It,

Coming Up In This Column: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Bright Star, Whip It, The Phenix City Story, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mad Men (2), The Following Weeks of the 2009-2010 Television Season, but first:

Fan Mail: dfantico suggested the ways he would rewrite Law Abiding Citizen in his comments on US#34. I generally avoid telling people how to rewrite a script, although I sometimes fall into that trap. As a screenwriting instructor I try to not to tell students how to rewrite their scripts. I just point out the problems and let them figure it out. They learn more that way.

Since I did not do any comments on the comments on my piece “Talking Back to Documentaries,” let me just throw in a thanks to the people who wrote in on it. I was glad to give you some ideas of stuff to watch. I was particularly touched by the comments from joan, who seemed from the comments to be Betsy MacLane, the co-author of the textbook I use. Glad to know the class meets with your approval.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009. Screenplay by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, based on the book by Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett. 90 minutes): O.K. banana, but a great credit.

I suspect that the children’s book this is based on is probably a charmer, and I can see why kids would love it. Flint Lockwood invents a device that takes the water in clouds and turns it into food: cheeseburgers, pizza, pancakes with butter and syrup, etc. The food drops on the small town Flint lives in and makes it famous, but then the device gets out of control. Nice little story. The problem is the film is 90 minutes long and there is not enough story for 90 minutes. The filmmakers have, pardon the expression, larded up the story with more and more and more food sight gags. It gets relentless. An additional problem is that the characters are rather bland and one-dimensional and they cannot sustain a 90-minute film either. Once the plane takes off to try to stop the device, it is all action, all the time. And of course it is a huge hit, especially with kids, who love the excessive food jokes. I suppose this means that the writers know their audience, but still…

There are the occasional nice moments with the characters, but not enough of them. Sam, the TV weather intern given her big shot at covering the story, has a habit of saying something very smart and then realizing it was too smart for the room. She then resorts to pretending to be stupid. Flint, finally, after way too many examples, calls her on it and she admits she really is smart. Flint changes her look from cutsie weather girl back to nerd, complete with glasses. We are supposed to applaud, but can’t she be cute and smart at the same time? Flint’s father is a fisherman who talks (with James Caan’s voice, a perfect bit of voice casting) in fish metaphors, which also gets tiresome, but the father has a good gag when he tries to e-mail the kill code for the device to his son.

In writing about The Mouse That Roared, I mentioned that it got off to a great start with the gag of a mouse scaring the Columbia logo lady. This film starts off with a banana falling from the sky and hitting her. Not as funny. But then the film recovers beautifully with a main credit that starts: “A Film by…” and then adds “A lot of people.” For once, truth in the credits. Too bad the rest of the film is not up to that joke.

Bright Star (2009. Written by Jane Campion. 119 minutes): Define bright.

My wife and I were really in the mood for a romantic drama, complete with English poets (Keats in this case) and the lovely countryside (my wife is English and I have a nostalgic view of the good old sceptre’d isle). I do have to tell you that my wife stayed awake through the entire film (she is notorious for sleeping through the first act of plays—where do you think I developed by skill at quickly summarizing a play or movie?), but I had trouble keeping my eyes open.

John Keats, as written and directed by Campion, is a real drag. He hardly ever does anything but cough, and he does not seem to have much of a reaction to anything around him. Surely a guy who writes stuff like his would be paying at least some attention to the world. Campion’s real interest is in Fanny Brawne, a seamstress who falls in love with Keats. Now she is paying attention to everything that is going on, and that’s in the writing as well as the directing and acting. Abbie Cornish gives a star performance as Fanny, blowing Ben Whishaw as Keats off the screen, which is not what you want in a love story. Compounding the problem though is that Abbie is not all that sympathetic a character. She mopes a lot (not as much as Keats, but still) and seems rather silly a lot of time. I know people in love act silly, but as screenwriters you have to protect them a little. Just to make matters worse, Keats’s friend and protector, Charles Brown, is set up to be the minimal bad guy in the piece. He keeps dragging Keats away from Abbie to get him to work on his poems. Which makes him the most sympathetic as well as hard-headed of the characters. Referring to another poet entirely, Faulkner said, “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one… If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ’Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”

The England we see in the film is rather dreary, although Campion has provided us with some nice butterflies, but even Rome is dark and gloomy when we see Keats’s coffin there. I realize it is a tragic story, but a little sun might be nice as a counterpoint. The closest we get is Fanny’s little sister “Toots,” who has more charm than anybody else in the movie.

Whip It (2009. Screenplay by Shauna Cross, based on her novel. 111 minutes): Not just Juno joining the roller derby.

Bliss is a teenaged girl who joints the roller derby, unbeknownst to her mom Brooke, who forces Bliss to compete in teen beauty pageants. In the middle of the picture Brooke and her husband Earl find out. The confrontation scene between Bliss and Brooke is the only mediocre scene in the entire script—very flat and “on the nose.” The rest of the script is terrific.

Cross has a great feel for the locale of her film: white trash Texas (and the production design is very convincing; I was amazed to discover in the end credits that it was filmed in Michigan), and she gets the details of the lives of her characters right. What would you say to get your best friend to vomit up the alcohol she drank when she doesn’t want to? Listen to what Bliss tells her best friend Pash. More importantly, Cross is not condescending to the characters. They all are not only rich and funny, especially the derby girls, but Cross gives them nice counterpoints. It comes as a surprise to learn that Brooke, for all her pretensions, is a mail delivery person. Earl is not as dumb as you may first think. Pash has an interesting relationship with their boss at the diner. Late in the film, in a charming little scene in a car, we learn that “Maggie Mayhem,” one of the Hurl Scouts team, has a very interesting relationship with a much younger guy. Much, much younger.

This is Cross’s second screenplay, but it is the director’s first film as a director. She is Drew Barrymore, and she has been producing commercially successful, if not exactly critically acclaimed, movies for years. Her DNA from one of America’s greatest acting families shows up in her direction of the actors, most of whom haven’t been this good in years. Look at what Barrymore does with the reactions Cross has given to Marcia Gay Harden’s Brooke in the first scene in the film. Ellen Page as Bliss gives a wider-ranger performance than she did in Juno. Barrymore, unlike a lot of directors, LOVES actors, and it shows. Cross has given Barrymore a great set of characters to play with and Barrymore lets the actors go. True, she lets herself overact a bit in a supporting role, but she’ll learn. The outtakes at the end show the great time everybody had making the movie, and unlike some movies with outtakes at the end, the film gets that feeling across to the audience. Barrymore has given the film an energy and drive that Campion does not give to Bright Star. Now if Campion had just put Keats on roller skates…

The Phenix City Story (1955. Screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring and Crane Wilbur. 100 minutes): Doesn’t quite live up to its reputation.

Writing about The Captive City in US#8, I mentioned this film as “an example of how it [a script based on a true crime story] ought to be done.” I wrote there that it never showed up on DVD or on television. Well now it has appeared on Turner Classic Movies and I have to revise my opinion a bit. I saw this film when it first came out and found it stark and compelling. Since I was also about 13 at the time, some of my love for the film came from the early scene when actress-singer Meg Myles, a very buxom young lady in a low-cut dress, sings the “Phenix City Blues,” but I remember the impact the rest of the film had.

Phenix City, Alabama, was the legendary Sin City for most of the first half of the twentieth century. It was right across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Georgia, and therefore near Fort Benning. Soldiers went across the river for gambling, prostitution and whatever other vices they could find. During World War II the bordellos drove “mattress trucks” up to the gates of Fort Benning to cut down on the soldiers’ travel time. In 1954, Albert Patterson, a local lawyer who had just received the Democratic nomination for State Attorney General, was assassinated, which finally provoked a cleanup of Phenix City. The story made the newspapers and magazines around the country, and the film came out the following year.

This is shot on location in Phenix City, but it is a lot more relentless about making sure we know this than, say, On the Waterfront was the year before about its location shooting. When actor Edward Andrews, playing Rhett Tennant, the owner of the worst club, runs into a little old lady on the street and has a nice chat with her, people at the time knew she was the real notorious town madam. Nowadays, who cares? Like The Captive City, the script is so determined to document the story that it comes out rather flat. There is one really good scene near the beginning where Tennant goes to persuade Patterson not to join the crusaders. Andrews and John McIntyre, two first-rate character actors of the period, get a lot out of the scene. Too many of the rest of the scenes are very flat, and others, particularly those with Richard Kiley as Patterson’s son John, are too melodramatic. Another problem with the script is that it is vague about several points. There are suggestions, but only suggestions, that the sin merchants are connect to organized crime. Part of the vagueness may be that several trials were still going on at the time and the filmmakers could not be too specific. It does hurt the film. There are moments that still shock, such as a death of a little girl, but the script is not good enough to have the film impact today as it did then.

Georgia O’Keeffe (2009. Written by Michael Cristofer. 120 minutes): Another back-up-the-truck film.

In US#24 I brought up the idea that some movies and television shows are so good that instead of having all the nominations and award shows, you can just back up the truck and start shoveling out the awards. I raised that while writing about Grey Gardens. Check the list of Emmy winners this year.

Although the title is Georgia O’Keeffe, this made-for-television movie is about the long, difficult relationship between O’Keeffe, the painter, and her mentor, lover, and salesman, Alfred Steiglitz, one of the great American photographers. One of the comments on the message boards at IMDb complained that the film did not go on after his death and show the rest of her life. Well, you got to leave something for the sequel. And there is more than enough material in her life for another film.

Michael Cristofer is an actor and a playwright. He is best known for his 1977 play The Shadow Box, but he has done several screenplays. His screenplay for The Witches of Eastwick (1987) may have been messed up during that troubled production, and his script for The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) certainly was. I always found it interesting that Julie Salamon, who wrote the book The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood appears never to have talked to Cristofer. Salamon started the project intending to show how a great director, Brian De Palma, makes a great film. What happened of course was a disaster, and in a spectacular failure of nerve, Salamon fails to acknowledge in the book what is clear from everything else in the book: the problem with the film was that De Palma directed it very badly. Cristofer’s comments would have been very illuminating.

Because Cristofer is an actor as well as a writer, he has written a lot of great scenes for Joan Allen as O’Keeffe and Jeremy Irons as Steiglitz to play. Look at the first scene in the apartment he sets her up in. Look at the argument they have late in the picture and how the emotions turn on a dime. Look at the scene with her in the hospital and him trying to persuade her to let his gallery have a show. That last scene is a beautiful example of making a scene work where only one person talks.

Cristofer also lets us see her development as an artist. When she temporarily leaves Steiglitz in New York and goes to New Mexico, we see what attracts her about the place. One of the commentators on the IMDb boards complained that the cinematography made the East Coast scenes look all blue and green. Yes, and they are supposed to look that way so we feel the contrast when she comes West.

The film was shown on Lifetime and should pop up again. Look for it, especially if you have a big screen TV. Do NOT watch it on your iPhone.

Mad Men (2009. “The Gypsy and the Hobo” episode written by Marti Noxon & Cathryn Humphris and Matthew Weiner. 60 minutes): The Best Commercial Break of the Year.

Rather than look at the entire episode (Todd VanDer Werff and Luke de Smet are doing great jobs on their summaries/commentaries, aren’t they?), I want to look at one, or two, of the best scenes of this year. Not just on Mad Men, but in any movie or television show this year.

In the previous episode Betty had found the key to Don’s secret drawer. She looked in the old shoebox and discovered his “stuff,” including the fact that he had been married and divorced before. She did not do anything then, but we knew the day was coming. In this episode she takes the kids off to Philadelphia to see her brother, but as we discover, also to talk to her family’s lawyer about her situation with Don. The lawyer pretty much tells her to stick with Don, since the other options are not good. Meanwhile, Don is planning a getaway with Miss Farrell. They drive by his house and he leaves her in the car to go in for a minute. But he finds that Betty and the kids have come home early. Betty tells the kids to go upstairs to bed and says to Don, “I need to talk to you.”

So how would you write the scene that follows? Yelling, screaming, throwing things? Not with these writers. What we get is a very quiet but very tense scene in which Betty confronts Don. What the writers are very good at in this scene are the silences, which give the actors a lot to do. We see Betty’s anger, hurt, and bafflement, as well as her determination to find out what the hell is going on with the man she thought she knew. Don is devastated that his secrets have been found out. He says he can explain and Betty tells him he is good at that. So Don is forced to tell the truth for a change, and the one time he strays from it (about when he got the divorce) Betty nails him on it. We know he is telling the truth because we have seen nearly everything he says take place.

Now, what makes this a great scene? First of all, it delivers what we have been waiting for, and as much as I love the show, I keep wishing it would speed up the days of reckoning. I feel that way even more now that I see from this scene how the reckonings will be delivered. Second, the scene rewards the longtime viewers because we know what all this means, even if we don’t know where it will end up. Third, the scene provides, especially in those silences, great opportunities for the actors. Jon Hamm has shown Don skating through a lot, but here he is stunning, particularly in his first closeup when he realizes that Betty knows what is in the drawer. January Jones matches him in suggesting, not telling, all the conflicting feelings Betty is going through. Fourth, the scene provides the opportunity for the director, Jennifer Getzinger, to do it right by not doing much. Getzinger is smart enough to know we just want to watch these characters in this situation. With this quality of writing and acting, all she has to do is let the camera watch. Anything more would be redundant. Fifth, the writers let our knowledge of Miss Farrell out in the car hang over the entire scene (much later we see her get out of the car and walk home). Sixth, the writers and producers are willing to let the scene run longer than any scene I can remember in this series, and longer than almost any other scene in any television series. The entire scene runs nine minutes, which is an eternity in series television. It breaks the rhythm of the show, which is generally shorter scenes, intercutting with other scenes of other characters. This scene stays on these characters as long as it does because the artists know we want to see these characters and how they deal with this situation.

And then we get a commercial break. After which we come back to some of the other characters? Nope. We come back to Don and Betty in their bedroom as Don explains who the people in the photographs are. This scene runs five minutes, also long for a television scene, but again we want to be with these characters and see how it plays out. Don, talking about his brother, begins to cry, and for the first time Betty seems to have at least a little sympathy for him. Would this scene seem too much if there were not a commercial break between it and the previous scene? It might, which is why the writers place the commercial break where they do. I think it is probably easier for us to get back emotionally to Don and Betty if we are completely out of the story than if they had just cut to a scene of the other characters. We are used to commercial breaks by now, and this is one of the best uses of the commercial break I have ever seen.

I said that I would only deal with this one scene, but I cannot resist a comment on the final line of the episode, one of the best fadeout lines of recent years. In the two scenes discussed above, Betty is constantly trying to find out who Don is, not just in terms of names, but of character. In the final scene Don and Betty take their two older kids trick-or-treating. At one house, the guy who comes to the door correctly identifies the kids as a gypsy and a hobo, then looks at Don in his ad man suit and asks, “And who are you supposed to be?” Todd thought in his comments the line was “incredibly on the nose,” but I disagree. “Who are you?” would be on the nose. “Who are you supposed to be?” is a whole lot richer. When you are writing dialogue, one word can make all the difference.

Mad Men (2009. “The Grown Ups” episode written by Brett Johnson and Matthew Weiner. 60 minutes): Structure, structure, structure, and structure.

As I write this on November 7th, I have not yet read Luke’s comments on this episode, nor watched the season finale, but I wanted to get this column finished and into Keith. I am not going to go into this episode as deeply as I am sure Luke is going to (see comments in previous item). However, having dealt with just a couple of scenes in the previous item, I want to say a word about the structure of this episode, which is brilliant. I had assumed Weiner and his team were saving the Kennedy Assassination for the final episode of the season. I think the filmmakers were assuming we were assuming that, and they protected their episode by sending out completely bogus loglines to TV Guide and newspapers: “A candidate makes an impression on Don. Peggy is questioning her taste in men.” Well, that worked. I for one was caught off-guard when Pete goes in to talk to Harry and the television is on. Harry dismisses it as saying he has to watch to check the commercials, but he does turn off the sound. The notice of a news bulletin comes up on the set, and Pete and Harry just continue talking. We are well into the scene before others come in and they turn up the sound. It is twenty some minutes into the episode, which means the writers are giving themselves enough time to show the immediate impact of the assassination on nearly everybody in the cast.

So right away we get the famous Cronkite footage? Guess again. We see Betty and Carla, sitting at opposite ends of the couch, watching the NBC announcement of Kennedy’s death. Using that footage tells us in a subtle way that we are not just going to get the obvious clips or obvious reactions; a shoutout here to the show’s researchers, who found all kinds of interesting footage for this episode. We do get the Cronkite stuff, but only after Duck has unplugged the TV set in his hotel room before Peggy shows up for their tryst. He plugs it back in and they watch Cronkite together.

Don tells his kids at home that everything will be O.K. (how Don of him) and we will just have a new president. Pete matches that with the comment to his wife that nothing will change with Johnson as president. Joe Dougherty, whom I interviewed for my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing, said that one problem they had on thirtysomething was that the networks would never let them have a character be wrong. About anything. Thank goodness television has grown up a little bit since those ancient days in the eighties. Mad Men could not exist under those rules.

We of course have assumed that the wedding of Roger’s daughter would be called off, since it was scheduled for the day after the assassination. No, big public events were canceled or postponed, but the wedding goes on, which gives the writers a lot to work with. Not all those invited show up. Several attendees are in the kitchen watching the news coverage, which give us another great selection of footage. They seem to be watching the Texas lawmen whom we know from the famous clip of Oswald being shot, but the shooting does not occur here. The writers also have time to give us a wide variety of reactions to the assassination. I believe it was Peter’s wife who says, “You don’t shoot the President of the United States,” which was my reaction when, as a 21 year-old Navy officer, I heard the news. (My second thought was, “What about Jackie?” and my third thought was “Well, that ruins Vaughn Meader’s career.” Look him up.)

We then get the clip of the Oswald shooting at the end of the episode, with Betty watching. She goes out for a walk “to clear her head,” but meets Harry. He sort of proposes, and they kiss, but she returns to Don. Don thinks she’s just upset at the assassination, but she tells him he can’t hear her. Don may have a point, but it may be that the writers have in mind a line that someone said at the time. It was that America could recover from the Kennedy Assassination, but probably not from the Oswald killing.

So, what the writers have done here is shaped an episode around the public event and brilliantly interwoven it with the private lives of the characters. Which certainly anticipates the sixties.

The Following Weeks of the 2009-2010 Television Season: Carrying on.

As you may have noticed, the newer movies I have looked at in this column have been in theaters for a while. I did not get out to any new movies during the month of October. Some of that is that there were not that many I wanted to see, but mostly it was that I was busier than usual teaching at Los Angeles City College. At least partially due to the tanking job market in California, our enrollments are higher than ever. Since I require papers and essay tests in my film history classes, that has meant a lot of paper-grading. Add to that a whole bureaucratic hassle involving the state assessment of our classes, and time was short. I did, however, manage to keep up with the television season. Here are some comments on some shows from the last several weeks.

Community just got so stupid that I had to give up watching it. I eagerly await someone doing a really good, sharp, funny comedy about community colleges.

The Good Wife is turning out to be as good as I thought it would be (see US#34). The writers are keeping a nice balance between Alicia’s private and public life. In “Conjugal” (written by Angela Amato Velez), Will and Diane, the two heads of the law firm Alicia is working for, discuss what Alicia brings to the firm, which is that she thoroughly buffaloes all those lawyers who used to work for her husband. The series writers have been very good about developing the supporting characters. I mentioned in US#34 that the pilot did not overdo establishing the other characters, but you just knew that if they had hired Josh Charles as Will and Christine Baranski as Diane, it wasn’t to keep them unemployed. This scene shows why, as does the way the “Fixed” episode (written by Todd Ellis Kessler) gives Diane an interesting B story about a potential addition to the firm. Cary (Matt Czuchry), the other new associate, is in competition with Alicia for the full-time job. Czuchry was Logan Huntzberger on Gilmore Girls and caught Logan’s Ivy League arrogance and smarmy charm a little too well. I know it was a good performance, but Logan was wrong for our Rory (that’s the grandfather in me talking), and I was glad to see she dumped him. Czurchy, who I am sure in private is kind to widows and orphans, brings some of those same smarmy qualities to Cary. The “Home” episode (written by Dee Johnson) has him working on a case with Alicia, and Johnson lets us know that he has had virtually no trial experience. This gives him a legitimate vulnerability, as well as providing an opportunity for Alicia to shine in court. I also loved that Johnson had Alicia take her two kids back to the suburbs where they lived. The kids really wanted to go back to living there, but by the end of the episode they had come to see the suburbs’ flaws and were perfectly happy in their new big city digs.

Eastwick is still mostly charming, although it has been slow about developing the women’s powers. I found the “Bonfire and Betrayal” episode (written by showrunner Maggie Friedman and Rina Mimoun) particularly irritating in that the three women kept saying, “I’m sorry” to each other and everybody else. Come on, folks, we watch this show to see the women use their powers, not apologize for them. I was thinking of suggesting an Eastwick drinking game where you take a drink every time one of the women says “I’m sorry,” but everybody would be completely blotto by the thirty minute commercial break.

Castle has gotten a little off its game. The mysteries are getting more complicated, and until the “Famous Last Words” episode (written by Jose Molina), the show was in danger of getting away from what made it special: the relationships between Castle, Beckett, Castle’s daughter Alexis, and Castle’s mom. The “Famous Last Words” episode got that balance back.

Cougar Town settled down a bit in subsequent episodes. Some were about sex, some were not. In “Don’t Come Around Here No More” (written by Sanjay Shah), Jules, out of desperation, has a date with a man old enough to be her father. We don’t see the date, which turns out just to be a setup for a neighborhood barbecue. Too bad, since the show could have gotten some mileage out of a woman wanting to date younger guys stuck with an older guy. The show this seems to be turning into is a more conventional sitcom than it started out to be. That may or may not be a good thing.

Modern Family is growing on me. They have pretty much cut out the idea that this is a documentary, at least in the way the story scenes are shot. The interview material is still there, and some of that writing is very good. The writers are developing the characters beyond the stereotypes the show started with, always a good sign. I particularly like Mitchell and Cameron, the gay married couple. They are both so ordinary and so gay at the same time, something that a lot of other shows have had problems dealing with (were you ever really convinced that Will of Will and Grace was gay? I wasn’t). I loved that Cameron once played college football and is as big a football fan as his father-in-law Jay.

The Barney-Robin relationship is still providing much more entertainment on How I Met Your Mother than Ted’s supposed search for the mother. I was particularly impressed with the writing of the “Bagpipes” episode. The writer was Robia Rashad, who was new to me, although she has written for other shows I have watched, including the wonderful Aliens in America. Her speech for Marshall in which he describes himself as a master of relationships (i.e., watching Sandra Bullock movies without complaining) was nicely crafted, as were a couple of other speeches. She has been hired this season on the show as a story editor. Obviously a talent to watch. And listen to.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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Review: 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.

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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.

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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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Review: Midway Delights in the Thrill of Battle Without Actual Peril

In the film, the Battle of Midway suggests something out of a photorealistic animated film.

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Midway
Photo: Summit Entertainment

“With the advent of CGI,” critic J. Hoberman writes in his 2012 book Film After Film: Or, What Became Of 21st Century Cinema?, “the history of motion pictures was now, in effect, the history of animation.” Rarely has this point been more vividly illustrated than in Roland Emmerich’s slick historical combat epic Midway, in which the eponymous WWII naval battle is depicted with such an abundance of shimmery digital effects that it suggests something out of a photorealistic animated film.

Emmerich, a latter-day heir to the cinema-as-spectacle tradition of Cecil B. DeMille, employs special effects in Midway not to induce a sense of you-are-there verisimilitude, nor to exhilarate audiences with a series of death-defying stunts. Rather, the film’s scenes of combat are more like elaborate paintings, similar in spirit and function to the cycloramas that were such popular attractions at the turn of the 20th century: vast panoramas that compact all the major highlights of a particular event into a single canvas.

Unlike Saving Private Ryan, there’s no attempt here to key the viewer to the chaos and horror of battle. In fact, there’s scarcely any blood to be found in Midway. In addition to the Battle of Midway, the film depicts the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, and other skirmishes in the Pacific during WWII, and these sequences, so bathed in honeyed sunlight, exude a sense of wide-eyed gee-whiz glee: all the fun of battle with none of the icky gore.

Midway is a paean to those brave American soldiers of the greatest generation, one that positions the brave sailors of the U.S. Navy as scrappy underdogs who, after the humiliating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, make it their mission to avenge themselves on the Japanese. The film studiously avoids acknowledging anything about the era it depicts that might make its target audience (read: white History Channel-watching patriarchs) uncomfortable. Nowhere is this more evident than in its treatment—or, rather, complete non-treatment—of race. Emmerich not only completely sidesteps the issue of racial segregation in the military, black soldiers are completely unseen in the film, despite the fact that many African-Americans served on U.S. ships that fought at Midway, albeit primarily in support roles.

Though most of the film’s characters, a bland succession of largely interchangeable good ol’ boys, are based on real-life historical personages, Wes Tooke’s leaden screenplay renders them all as little more than stock war-movie types. Devil-may-care flyboy Dick Best (Ed Skrein), a ‘40s-era twist on Top Gun’s Maverick who gains some maturity when he’s promoted to command his own unit of pilots, is the closest thing that Midway has to a protagonist. Less flashy but similarly righteous is a naval intelligence officer, Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), who fights the good fight against the bureaucracy in order to convince the higher-ups that the Japanese plan to attack the Midway atoll. Woody Harrelson also shows up looking tired and slightly lost as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, while Dennis Quaid is saddled with the role of Vice Admiral Bull Halsey, who’s mostly on hand to attest that shingles are absolutely terrible.

The Americans are all salty, gruff, and jokey, while the Japanese are somber and aphoristic, though both sides share a fondness for speaking in banal clichés. The script never invests us in any of these characters, failing to establish real narrative stakes for any of them. The plot is really little more than perfunctory filler between the battle sequences, which are peppered throughout the film with the regularity of dance numbers in a Rogers and Astaire musical.

Midway is reportedly a longtime passion project for Emmerich, for which he scraped together funds from a number of sources, making it one of the most expensive independent films of all time. (These funders included some Chinese equity firms, which may account for the presence of a completely tangential subplot involving Army Air Forces officer Jimmy Doolittle, played by Aaron Eckhart, bonding with oppressed peasants in Japanese-occupied China). But while Emmerich’s childlike excitement at the whiz-bang action of naval combat is palpable, the film’s battle sequences lack any real suspense or sense of danger. In these moments, Midway suggests old newsreel footage come to life. The film’s veneer may be unmistakably modern, but it’s no less devoted to promoting and flattering a certain idea of heroism, even as it keeps the men inside all those ships and planes at a distance from audiences.

Cast: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Mandy Moore, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid, Darren Criss, Jake Weber, Brennan Brown, Alexander Ludwig, Tadanobu Asano, Keean Johnson, Luke Kleintank, Jun Kunimura, Etsushi Toyokawa, Brandon Sklenar, James Carpinello, Jake Manley Director: Roland Emmerich Screenwriter: Wes Tooke Distributor: Summit Entertainment Running Time: 138 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Klaus Gorgeously Grapples with the Reinvention of Tradition

Sergio Pablos’s film is essentially a metaphor for its own unique and refreshing mode of expression.

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Klaus
Photo: Netflix

From Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, mainstream animation has taken a long-overdue look in the mirror as of late. Increasingly, animated films are opting for more experimental approaches, and often by taking inspiration from past techniques. Sergio Pablos’s Klaus is one such project, a throwback to classical animation that appropriately bakes its concern with tradition right into its plot. As a sort of Santa Claus origin story, the film examines the ways that tradition is built and torn down, all through an aesthetic that’s striking, beautiful, and as innovative as it is mindful of its own history.

The film follows the disgraced Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), a failing student at a postal academy, as he’s exiled to the frozen northern town of Smeerensburg. His father (Sam McMurray), the very rich head of the international postal service, has given him an ultimatum: establish a functioning post office in Smeerensburg, where so many others have failed before, or be cut off from his luxurious lifestyle. As a tipsy ferryman, Mogens (Norm MacDonald), notes at one point, the townsfolk have one thing to say to each other and no need for letters to say it: In some long-standing Hatfield-McCoy-esque familial feud, they swing axes and fire muskets at one another, making the ramshackle town a perpetual warzone.

No one in Smeerensburg sends their children to school because that would mean mingling with the enemy, and out-of-work teacher Alva (Rashida Jones) has adapted by using the schoolhouse for her side gig as a fishmonger, filleting catches right on her desk in front of the chalkboard. As he visits the unaccommodating locals, Jesper discovers a gruff, reclusive woodsman named Klaus (J.K. Simmons). Though Jesper initially suspects the hulking, white-bearded man of being an axe murderer who traffics in severed heads, Klaus only wants to help the town’s beleaguered children by gifting them handmade toys. All they have to do is ask for one by sending a letter with, of course, postage paid to Jesper.

The gears of the kids’ animated holiday movie are immediately apparent here, not just in the presence of a treacly tie-in song, but also in how Jesper’s own motivations will inevitably come back to bite him, with a requisite “I’m sorry” scene following a requisite “I quit” scene. These moments somewhat drag down the back half of Klaus, but the sheer extent of the film’s visual invention ensures that even such lulls are fabulous to look at. The exaggerated character designs are at once spindly and pleasantly rounded, and, most impressively, the textured, naturalistic lighting gives the film’s throwback techniques a distinctive and thoroughly modern edge. Pablos worked on Disney’s Treasure Planet and Tarzan, and that lineage is readily apparent in the bouncy, vibrant life that runs through all the character movements.

Beyond its characters’ wondrously cartoonish, emphatic gesticulations, much of the film’s humor results from unlikely circumstances of violence and hardship. When delivering presents in one scene, Jesper stuffs toys in socks hung to dry above a fireplace because he doesn’t dare enter the rest of the house, as we see him boxed into the center of the frame by a pack of sleeping, toothy dogs. And he drops into homes via chimney because the unwelcoming townsfolk of Smeerensburg, whose lawns and porches are littered with spikes and bear traps, naturally keep their doors locked. In the world of the film, Christmas traditions emerge through children’s rumors: Klaus’s wagon becomes a flying sleigh by pure circumstance, sent sailing through the air once the wheels come off, and when one child sees it just before it crashes to the ground, the story of the “sleigh” spreads like a haphazard game of telephone.

There’s an anarchic edge to both the film’s humor, as in a glimpse at a group of creepy kids building a snowman with so many carrots stuck into it that it suggests a stabbing victim, and the way it builds its uncanny origin story, all the while remaining skeptical of entrenched customs. Characters note that the long-running Smeerensburg feud (one scene shows it in the form of a cave painting) is what the town was built on, but the film’s dominant thematic current is that it’s time to move on, that remaining shackled to tradition or stuck in a rut only impedes progress. And with gorgeous animation that makes what was once old feel new again, Klaus essentially becomes a metaphor for its unique and refreshing mode of expression.

Cast: Jason Schwartzman, J.K. Simmons, Rashida Jones, Will Sasso, Neda M. Ladda, Sergio Pablos, Norm Macdonald, Joan Cusack, Sam McMurray Director: Sergio Pablos Screenwriter: Sergio Pablos, Jim Mahoney, Zack Lewis Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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