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Understanding Screenwriting #36: An Education, Amelia, Bitter Victory, & More

Nick Hornby does not just balance the two main characters, but all the supporting ones as well.

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An Education
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Coming Up In This Column: An Education, Amelia, The Great Locomotive Chase, Bitter Victory, Ride the High Country, Mad Men, A CSI Trilogy, A Couple of New Series, but first…

Fan Mail: Well, here’s an example of why I love doing this column: Matt Zoller Seitz’s taking exception to my views of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Unlike some writers, I love to be challenged, especially by somebody as smart as Matt. He did not mind what I felt was the lack of enough plot. He liked it as an “absurdist spectacle,” which it was certainly trying to be. It fits in with the type of film that the great film scholar Tom Gunning called the “Cinema of Attractions.” He first used the term to describe very early, pre-storyline films, but the term has come to refer to those films that put the emphasis on spectacle, such as any recent sci-fi film. As a pro-writer fellow, I tend to prefer a little more plot, but there are certainly joys to be found as a viewer in a spectacle. Matt also picked up on something else when he said the filmmakers want to “fill up [the movie] with sight gags.” As I have mentioned on other occasions, comedies live or die by the jokes, and if the jokes are funny can get along with less plot. You make us laugh and we will forgive you almost anything. Make us laugh and enjoy it and we will forgive you anything. And just to assure you that I am not a complete stick in the mud, one of my guilty pleasures is one of Matt’s: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. I agree with any criticism anybody has ever made about it, and I still love it.

“James” raised the question as to whether my teaching at a community college made me too close to the subject to find Community funny. He’s right, although part of it is having heard community colleges traditionally dissed in our culture—I am a little tired of it. He mentioned that other shows have inaccuracies, including 30 Rock. I agree, and it bothers me on those shows as well, particularly the current story arc on 30 Rock about hiring a new performer. Surely if they were hiring a guy for a sketch comedy, somebody would have talked to him when he was not in his robot makeup.

A couple of things left over from my article “Talking Back to Documentaries.” Todd Ford was “amazed” that I get students to talk, since he has found students reluctant to speak up. I have always had students who spoke up, especially at LACC, although I did have a bit of a problem the semester I taught at UCLA. I got the impression students there were afraid to speak up because they might be wrong. It took a little while to open them up.“Cranky” had an interesting look and noted that he/she found the younger students’ comments “quite frustrating.” They can be, but that’s part of the game.

And now, some movies:

An Education (2009. Screenplay by Nick Hornby, based on a memoir by Lynn Barber. 95 minutes): Balance.

An Education is a potentially dangerous piece of material. Lynn Barber’s memoir, first in a short form in Granta magazine, later as a book, tells of her affair with a man in his thirties. When she was sixteen. You can count up on your own all the different ways a film version of this could turn to merde, to use the heroine’s favorite language. Hornby, who is better known as a novelist (High Fidelity, About a Boy, and Fever Pitch) whose books have been made into films, had only done one screenplay before, the adaptation of the 1997 English film of Fever Pitch. He read the short version of the memoir and decided he wanted to do it. He understood immediately the problems. As he told Peter Clines in the September/October 2009 issue of Creative Screenwriting, “We were really careful all the time about balance, because nobody wanted to make a Lolita. It had to be comprehensible. You had to stay a little bit on [the older man] David’s side, at least. I knew what I wanted tonally, and it wasn’t something that made an audience shriek in horror.”

So David is charming, but not in a sleazy way. He seems enchanted by Jenny, as we all are. They get together not just because he is seductive, which would be the easy way out, but also because Jenny is tempted by the upscale life he seems to lead. He takes her out of her dull suburban life. They go to nightclubs. They visit Oxford, which she is hoping to attend. Since she had decided to lose her virginity with him, he takes her to Paris for the weekend. And then Hornby is smart enough not to show us them having sex. And their morning-after conversation is fresher than any other conversation of its kind in the movies. Hornby beautifully hits the balance between David’s seduction and her temptation.

Hornby does not just balance the two main characters, but all the supporting ones as well. We can see her father, who can be very cranky, charmed by David as well. The father agrees to David and Jenny’s Oxford trip because he thinks it will help her get into Oxford. David’s friend and partner, Danny, has a beautiful girlfriend who is stupid about intellectual things, but smart about dresses and men. The headmistress of Jenny’s school has been described in most reviews as anti-Semitic, which she certainly is, but there are other sides to her as well, and in her final scene with Jenny, she is right as often as Jenny is. Likewise, Jenny’s favorite teacher, Miss Stubbs, has several layers to her as well.

Yeah, I know you see where I am going with this. All together now: You write good parts and you get good actors. Peter Sarsgaard as David, Alfred Molina as the father, Rosamund Pike as the dumb blonde, Olivia Williams as Miss Stubbs and Emma Thompson as the headmistress are all at the top of their forms. You can decide on your own which ones give the best performances of their careers. The film of course stands or falls on the actor playing Jenny, and as you know if you have read the reviews, Carey Mulligan has charmed everybody. I do have to admit that she kept reminding me of the American actress/singer Jenny Lewis, who was a student of mine when she was about Jenny’s age. The same names did not help. Unless you are big Jenny Lewis fan as I am, this will not be a problem for you.

Amelia (2009. Screenplay by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, based on the books East to the Dawn by Susan Butler and The Sound of Wings by Mary S. Lovell. 111 minutes): Writing for Hilary.

With all that screenwriting talent and all that source material, this one should have been much better. Ron Bass, the first writer on the project, wrote Rain Man (1988) and My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), just to name two. His take on the material here, as he told Peter N. Chumo II in the September/ October 2009 issue of Creative Screenwriting, worked with the then-director, Phillip Noyce, and focused on the love triangle between Amelia Earhart, George Putnam and Gene Vidal. Bass wanted to “bring her incredible daring and recklessness and skills as a pilot together with her very forward, daring view of how women should be equal in society and her view of how independent she wanted to be in her marriage.” Noyce left the project and Mira Nair came on, replacing Bass with Phelan (Mask [1985] and Girl, Interrupted [1999]). She and Bass have been friends for years and discussed the script. They agreed on a shared credit. What Phelan focused on was Earhart’s yearning “to be free” and “to prove to her father that she would fulfill a dream bigger than anyone had imagined for her except for him.” O.K., you can see how Phelan could have bounced that off what Bass had in mind, but we simply do not get those juxtapositions in the final script.

The script seems to wander and the individual scenes do not dig very deeply. Late in the picture Gene Vidal tells Amelia that many people are saying she is spending too much time on her commercial projects. We may have had our own suspicions, but nobody else in the film has even hinted at that, and it is not really brought up again. Gene was the father of Gore Vidal and we get a couple of potentially charming scenes with young Gore, who is about ten. Gore Vidal told Phelan that he adored Earhart. Fine, but what do you get by putting it in the film? Phelan loves the scene where young Gore gets upset that he is sleeping in a room with jungle wallpaper. Amelia comes in and tells him she had the wallpaper installed to help her get over her fear of the jungle. Which tells us something about her, but on a fairly obvious level. But when Gore asks her if she can marry his father, she replies that she is already married to Putnam. Gore then asks why she can’t marry both of them. A logical question from a ten-year-old who is going to grow up to be Gore Vidal. So what do the filmmakers do with it? Nothing. Amelia just smiles and leaves the room. Team, if this movie is about her ideas of freedom and marriage, you should be able to get at the very least an interesting reaction shot from her. And an equally interesting reaction shot of him. And a sense of connection between the two, based on their unusual views of life. A smile and closing the door does not cut it. The rest of the picture has this same problem: No interesting reaction shots of people to Amelia or Amelia to the other people. Boy, could you tell a lot about Amelia, her attitudes and the attitudes of the times by backtracking through the script and writing in reactions.

When I first heard that Hilary Swank was going to play Amelia Earhart, I thought that, like Julia Roberts and Erin Brockovich, this was the part she was born to play. Swank is a dead ringer for Earhart and she has certainly proved she has the acting chops for it. Of course, Swank is an almost impossible actress to write commercial scripts for. She is not cute and adorable in the Julia Roberts/Cameron Diaz kind of way. Efforts to put her in conventional scripts, such as The Affair of the Necklace (2001) and P.S. I Love You (2007), simply don’t work. She is simply too butch, which I love about her, for those kinds of roles. Given the real Earhart’s androgynous look, she fits the part. Her two Oscar-winning parts, Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Million Dollar Baby (2004), give her a lot of detail to work with within that quasi-masculine range. The script for Amelia does not have that kind of detail. Phelan knew she was writing the script for Swank, but she may well have figured that the part and the actor were so well matched she would not have to write the details that would make it possible for Swank to work her magic. For whatever reason, the film is a real missed opportunity.

The Great Locomotive Chase (1956. Written by Lawrence Edward Watkin. 85 minutes): Disney, not Keaton.

I saw this Disney live-action movie when it first came out and enjoyed it as a mildly entertaining Civil War story. I have not seen it since, but years after I saw it, I began to regularly watch Buster Keaton’s The General (1927), which is based on the same true story. So I was curious to finally catch up with this one again. Relax, I am not going to claim it is anywhere near as good as The General. Among Keaton’s other talents, he had the strongest story sense of all the silent comedians, and the narrative line of The General is flawless. As many times as I have seen the film, I have never been able to find a single shot that was not needed. Each scene establishes the characters and then moves the story forward. Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, an engineer on a southern railroad. A group of Yankees steal his train and head north, intending to tear up track and burn bridges so the Confederate Army cannot bring up replacements and supplies when the big Union attack comes. Johnnie takes out after the engine and his resourcefulness convinces the Yankees there is an army following him. Midway through the film he finds his engine and steals it back. Now he is the one being chased as he tries to warn the South of the Union attack. Oh, and his girlfriend, who is not speaking to him, was on the train that was stolen. She thinks he came only to rescue her. Well, would you tell her the truth?

Watkin’s script focuses on James J. Andrews, the northerner who leads the raid. He’s a blockade runner who also works for the north, so he should be a delightful con man, like David in An Education. There are moments in the script where that might have been the intention, but he is played by Fess Parker, who came to stardom as Davey Crockett in the Disney miniseries a few years before. He is stolid and heroic, which is not what is required. Watkin spends way more time than needed to set up the group who go with Andrews. Once the train is stolen, there really is not much time to develop with them.

The southerner who leads the chase is not the engineer, but the conductor of the train, William Fuller. Keaton goes to great length to show how Johnnie loves his train. Watkin does not do anything like that with Fuller. However, his setting out on foot along the tracks, like Johnnie, suddenly turns him into the most heroic and the most interesting character in the film. Which reduces Andrews and his crew in our sight. Keaton was right to start with Johnnie and make him the main character. In Watkin’s version, as in the real incident, the Yankees are captured and sent to prison. Watkin gives us what could have been an interesting scene in which Andrews asks Fuller to come to see him before he, Andrews, is hung. Fuller reluctantly agrees and they at least shake hands. If the script had been better written all along and focused on the battle of wits between the two men, and if it was not Fess Parker as Andrews, the scene might have had some heft.

Stick with the Keaton version. It is not as historically accurate, but who really cares about that.

Bitter Victory (1957. Screenplay by René Hardy, Nicholas Ray, Gavin Lambert, (with Vladimir Pozner, uncredited, and additional dialogue by Paul Gallico), based on the novel by René Hardy. 103 minutes, although other versions run 82, 97, and 100 minutes): The French they are a funny race.

The British film critic, the late Leslie Halliwell, in the earlier editions of his Halliwell’s Film Guide, accurately describes this as a “Glum desert melodrama, turgidly scripted and boringly made.” Sometimes I disagree with Halliwell, often violently, but he is right on the money on this one. Which may be why the film has been dropped from later editions of the book.

The Brits are going to run a commando raid on Rommel’s headquarters in Benghazi. Not to kill Rommel (see the pre-credit sequence in Nunnally Johnson’s elegant 1951 film The Desert Fox for that story), but to capture some documents. Which documents and why? We have no idea, even after they capture them. There seems to be some urgency in setting up this raid, although we see there is a commando group that has been training for it for a long time. But the high command does not have a leader already selected. So the command selects two. First, Major Brand, who appears to be a desk jockey, but who also appears to have spent enough time in intelligence work to identify and understand the documents in question. That is even though they are in German and he says at one point he does not speak any foreign languages. His second-in-command is Captain Leith, who, unbeknownst to Brand, had an affair several years before with the woman who married Brand. Doesn’t the British high command check into these things? Look at the setups for the commando raids in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Guns of Navarone (1961) to see how these scenes ought to be written.

Guess who has show up in the British compound? Yeah, Brand’s wife, and the night before the raid takes off, Leith runs into her in the bar. They sort of recognize each other. Look at Casablanca for how THAT scene ought to be written. Brand sort of realizes something is going on between them, but never really discusses it with his wife.

So off the commandos go, parachuting into the desert. This being a relatively low-budget film, we don’t see the airplanes or the jump, just the guys on the ground burying their parachutes. Their plan of attack on the German compound is to go in shooting, which causes some casualties, and their method of getting the safe open once they have done that is to…let the resident safecracker in the team crack it. After the gunfire has started and the German soldiers are alert? Who planned this mission, Rommel himself?

So they escape to the desert and even though there was some urgency about getting these documents, they now have to trek through the desert to a meeting place. Couldn’t they have been picked up sooner? The place where they are supposed to get camels to ride has only one camel, and when they see two Arabs on horses, they shoot the Arabs, but then don’t chase down the horses. So they march through the desert, talking, talking, talking, mostly philosophy about war, i.e., the sort of thing the French would love if they read it in subtitles. Brand proves to be a coward, Leith dies along the way and, when they do get the papers to the Brits, the general riffles through them a bit and immediately awards Brand the Distinguished Service Cross. Well, in a script in which Brand repeatedly says, “Fall in the men” rather than “Have the men fall in,” it should perhaps not be surprising that no one apparently knows that awarding the DSC is a long and complicated process. The Brits do not hand them out like candy. (Anthony Bushell, who plays the general, was in the tank corps during the war, but who listens to actors?)

O.K., stupid script. But surely a director can make something out of it. Not this time (and not ever—you knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?). Look at how Lean, Thompson and Curtiz handle the scenes mentioned above, and then look how they are staged and directed here. In the Ur-Casablanca scene, the director seems to be fascinated with a minor actor who recreates a military attack unrelated to the film with just his hands and sound effects he makes with his mouth. The attack on the Germans is one of the shoddiest pieces of action filmmaking you will ever see. The desert is reasonably nice to look at, but the scenes there are not a patch on the desert war scenes in The Desert Rats (1953) or The Young Lions (1958). Do not even mention Lawrence of Arabia. Please.

So why am I bothering about this film at all? Partly to exorcise the 103 minutes of my life I will not get back. But there is more to it. In January 1958, when the film was first shown in Paris, a young French film critic, writing a review of the film in an obscure film magazine, said, in reference to the film’s director, “There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray.” The critic was Jean-Luc Godard, the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma.

It just makes you rethink the whole idea of the auteur theory, doesn’t it?

Ride the High Country (1962. Written by N.B. Stone Jr.(and, uncredited, William Roberts, Sam Peckinpah, and Robert Creighton Williams. 94 minutes): Now this really is cinema.

After writing the above screed against Bitter Victory, I went out for a walk, then settled down with a batch of popcorn to watch this film on Turner Classic Movies. I was not intending to write about it, but watching it in this context made me more aware than I had ever been on previous viewings how good the script for it is. Steve Judd is a retired lawman picking up odd jobs in his old age. He hires on to go up to the mining camp of Course Gold and bring back the gold to the bank. He runs into his old friend and partner Gil Westrum and Westrum’s young friend Heck. When Gil finds out there may be as much as a quarter million dollars in gold, he and Heck agree to go along, intending to take the gold either by persuasion or more violent means. Along the way, they end up escorting Elsa, a young girl escaping a tyrannical father to marry one of the miners at the camp. He and his brothers turn out to be pigs and our guys rescue her and take her down the mountain. The Hammond brothers follow and we get a final shootout in which Steve is killed and Gil, who has shown his hand, agrees to deliver the gold to the bank.

Unlike Bitter Victory, the setup of the mission and the characters is clear, efficient, precise, and colorful. Steve thinks the crowds on the town street are cheering him as he rides in, but they are only there for a race between a camel and horses, run by Heck. Steve has to go into the bathroom to put on his classes to read the contract with the bank. Even before the journey starts, Steve and Gil learn that they can only expect about $20,000 instead of a quarter million. When they get there, it’s only $11,000, mostly from the madame of the local bordello, who tells them, “Honey, it’s gold mine.” The talk on the journey up is not philosophy, but Gil talking about the old days and how Steve is owed for all his public service. Steve figures out what Gil is up to and is not surprised when Gil and Heck try to steal the money. The characterizations are rich and full, even with the minor characters, like the justice of the peace who marries Elsa and Billy Hammond. Listen to his drunken speech about marriage. And the script is written to take advantage of the great locations in the Eastern Sierras near Bishop, California. Even though for budgetary reasons, Course Gold was built (the tents were made out of the sails of the replica of The Bounty that MGM had made for its 1962 remake of Mutiny on the Bounty) in Bronson Canyon in the Hollywood Hills.

It is in some ways surprising that the script holds together as well as it does, since there were four writers who worked on it. The credited writer was N.B. Stone Jr., who had only one other feature film to his credit, the 1955 Man With a Gun. He spent most of his career writing for television, particularly for westerns. His friend, William Roberts, had a greater career in features, mostly notably the 1960 version of The Magnificent Seven. Roberts talked about his work on the film in an extended interview in the 1978 book Blueprint on Babylon by J.D. Marshall. While Roberts is not listed in the IMDb as one of the writers, Mariette Hartley, who played Elsa, calls the screenplay the “Bill Roberts/N.B. Stone script” in her memoir Breaking the Silence, so at least some of what Roberts said in the interview may be true. Roberts was working on another project at MGM when producer Richard Lyons kept bugging him about possible ideas for movies. One day Lyons mentioned that he knew that Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, two friends who had separately appeared in about a million westerns, wanted to do a picture together. Roberts mentioned this to Stone to see if he had any ideas. Stone mentioned a story he had stolen from Ernest Haycox about an older man and his young delinquent partner who go up to get the gold. Roberts asked if he could make it two older guys instead of just one. Stone allowed as how he could. Roberts suggested their meeting the girl. Pretty soon Roberts was helping Stone write the story. It was Roberts who took the meeting with Lyons, McCrea and Scott, since Stone had a drinking problem. The deal almost fell through when McCrea refused for religious reasons to play Gil. Scott didn’t care and they switched roles. Stone and Roberts did the script, although Roberts was never paid for his work and could not ask for a WGA credit. He was happy to get his friend a job. Unfortunately for Stone, the picture turned out so well he was inundated with offers. His alcoholism kept him from doing any more feature work. Roberts said in the interview, “So the final irony was that here I was thinking I’ll do my old buddy Beau (Stone’s nickname) a favor and it was anything but a favor. It was probably the worst thing I could have done to him.” No good deed goes unpunished.

The director assigned to the picture was Sam Peckinpah, who had made only one feature, but had written and directed westerns for television, most notably The Westerner in 1960. Peckinpah had family that had lived in the California gold country for generations and undoubtedly a lot of the rich texture of the character and locales comes from him. The fourth writer was Robert Creighton Williams, who under the name Bob Williams had written a pile of B westerns for such stars as Rocky Lane, Rex Allen and Monte Hale. I don’t know what his actual contribution to the script was, but I suspect it was to keep it clean and clear, like a good B western.

That’s all you need to make true cinema: talent (I haven’t even mentioned the supporting cast or the great cinematographer Lucien Ballard), collaboration and a sense of what makes it a movie. Even if you had never seen a Joel McCrea western before, the final shot will take your breath away.

Mad Men (2009. “Shut the Door. Have a Seat” episode written by Matthew Weiner & Erin Levy. 60 minutes): More structural variety.

In the last column, I wrote about how the writers of the previous episode had beautifully structured the use of the Kennedy Assassination and how the writers of the episode before that had dared to break the structural rhythm of their episode by having a couple of scenes that ran longer than the scenes in this show normally do.

So what do the writers of this season finale do? Yet another changeup. We get a lot of short scenes, moving the storylines ahead at what seems for Mad Men a lightening pace. Do you suppose that is Matthew Weiner zinging all of us who complained about the slow pace of this season? We get enough plot turns in this episode to fill out any five previous episodes. This works here because we know these characters and their stories, so, for example, when Don says he wants Pete to come to the new company because he is looking ahead, we have seen Pete stumble into the “Negro market,” as Don calls it. When he goes to Peggy’s apartment, it does not surprise us that she turns him down, because we have seen her unhappiness with him.

The speed of this episode, and the changes it suggests for all the characters, also follows nicely in the wake of the Kennedy Assassination. We are now two weeks after the assassination and things are both returning to normal and not returning to normal at all. The assassination is only mentioned a couple of times in the episode, since, yes, people have a lot else on their mind. It does come up in a wonderfully indirect way in Don’s speech to Peggy about how something terrible has happened to people who buy things and how they now think about themselves. He says that Peggy understands that, and we know that she does from everything we know about her.

I will leave it to Todd and Luke to sort out all the meanings of this episode, since that may be a full-time job, but Weiner and Levy have set up next season, whenever it will take place, beautifully.

A CSI trilogy: Sweeps weeks tricks.

You can see the network thinking at CBS. We have three CSI shows, why not have a multiple crossover for the November sweeps?

The story begins on CSI: Miami with “Bone Voyage” written by Barry O’Brien. The CSIs find parts of different people out in the swamps where they usually finds body parts. One of the parts, a foot, turns out to belong to a girl who had gone missing in Las Vegas. So Ray Langston, now of the Mother Ship, goes to Miami and trades stares with Horatio Caine. With the release of several of the longtime supporting actors on CSI: Miami, this is more Caine’s show than ever. Based on what has happened with the show, and the billboards CBS put up around LA, CBS seems to think people watch this show because of David Caruso (Caine) rather than in spite of him. The story is moderately interesting, and provides many opportunities for shots of babes in bikinis (God forbid you should be fat in Miami and die; nobody would care) and shots of the lab with all kinds of color lights on glass panels in the foreground so that we can barely see the actors. Ray does connect with the mother of another missing girl.

The story continues on the CSI:NY episode “Hammer Down” written by Peter M. Lenkov & Pam Veasey. An overturned truck turns out to be one used in the interstate trafficking of young (and thin of course) women for prostitution and body parts. Evidence shows that the missing girl Ray was interested in was in the truck. So Ray comes up to New York and trades stares with Detective Mack Taylor. They meet a woman convict who tells them what she knows about the trafficking operation. And where do they meet her? In prison? Nope. In what I think (and you New Yorkers can correct me) is Battery Park. Why out in the open? Well, this episode was first broadcast on Veteran’s Day and Taylor and Ray have a little heart-to-heart talk about vets and surviving the traumas the CSIs go through. A minor, one-off scene and it makes you aware of how underused the talents of Gary Sinise (Taylor) and Laurence Fishburne (Ray) are in the scene. They are better served by some of the scenes that are more important to the plot. CSI:NY has been the one series of the three that has had the most trouble finding its own style. In this episode at least its two stars, Sinise and Melina Kanakaredes, play second fiddle to some of the supporting players.

At the end of the episode, the missing girl is in a truck on her way to…Vegas of course, since that’s the one city left in the franchise. So Ray is back on his home territory in “The Lost Girls” episode, written by David Weddle & Bradley Thompson, and the storylines run a little bit smoother. There are still the problems I have mentioned before about the writers not really letting Catherine step up and take charge, but they are less of a problem in this episode. The girl is eventually found, alive, but we don’t get a reconciliation scene with her mom, whom we have followed through the three episodes, but only with Ray, whom she has never met. But he is the star of the show.

Being plot-driven shows, the three series do not have enough time to get the most out of Ray visiting the other shows. His character is just as hardworking as the characters on the other shows, and they get along fine, but the styles of the three series are so different he does not fit in that well. As opposed to the world of the Law & Order shows, which are stylistically a whole and have successful crossovers all the time. There was no necessity, from the point of view of writing, to bring Ray to the other CSI shows. But that’s network television in November.

A Couple of New Shows: Yeah, what I just said.

I was going to mention these shows earlier in the season, but am only now just getting around to them.

As I wrote in US#16, I haven’t watched NCIS that much, but last spring I did catch the episode that was the pilot for NCIS: Los Angeles. I have managed to catch a couple of episodes of the new series. The setup is of course similar to the original: a group of Navy Criminal Investigators look into crimes connected with the military. The original works because of the chemistry between the characters, which has helped turn it, late in its run, into one of the most popular shows on television. The characterization is not as sharp in the spinoff. The focus is less on the group as a whole, and more on the buddy-movie pairing of Special Agents G. Callen and Sam Hanna. By the time I caught the “Endgame” episode, written by Gary Glasberg, that had become the major focus of the show. I complained that in NCIS the head of the group and the main lead, Jethro Gibbs, always knows better than anybody else. It gets annoying with him. In the spinoff the head of the unit is Henrietta “Hetty” Lang. No, she’s not a statuesque blonde. She’s Linda Hunt, costumed to remind us that Edna E. Mode in The Incredibles was based at least in part on Hunt. Hetty knows more than just everything, and the way Hunt reads the lines, it’s funny. And strange. And a wonderful change of pace from the series plotting. William Goldman, in his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, recounts writing a scene for Hunt in the feature version of Maverick (1994) that was spectacular. It was also so good and so bizarre they had to cut it from the film, since the rest of the movie could not live up to it. That’s a problem with Hunt: she gets so much out of her lines that you never want the camera to leave her. When Howard Hawks said that there were some people the camera loves, he and we generally thought in terms of good-looking people like Cary Grant. Hunt is not a beauty by any conventional standard, but try not watching her when she is on. So far the writers for the series have used her well in that “change of pace” role. The other good thing about the series is that the main office does not look like an office. It makes me think the unit has bought and refurbished Norma Desmond’s old place on Sunset Boulevard.

White Collar is a new show on USA, and it’s a retread of the old series It Takes a Thief: F.B.I. guy Peter recaptures con man Neal, who he earlier put away, and puts him to work helping him break up scams. The “Pilot” episode, created and written by Jeff Eastin was, as most pilots are, rushed in trying to set up the basic situation. It also established that Neal was going to live in a room in a mansion owned by June, but she was dropped in the subsequent episodes, as was the black, lesbian assistant to Peter. The assistant was replaced by Agent Lauren Cruz, who is Latina and straight. Make up your own comment. The plotting has settled down to focus on the scams and on the “bromance” between Peter and Neal. Both sort of envy the life the other leads and the writers have given them a lot to play off against each other. They have particularly written an interesting character in Peter, who is different from most TV law officers. I would not exactly call him soft, but he is not as hard-edged as most of his clan. Tim DeKay, who plays Peter, has been around as a journeyman actor for 15 years or more, but he is showing some star quality here. In this part, at least, the camera loves him.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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The film’s command of action defuses concerns about whether it offers a thorough social critique.

2.5

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Black and Blue
Photo: Screen Gems

Deon Taylor’s Black and Blue is an intensely political, niche thriller that, if it generates much mainstream discourse, will likely spark angry boycotts from those on one side of the aisle and searing hot takes from those on the other. Step a few feet back from its fast-paced saga of a valiant solitary policewoman hunted through the streets of New Orleans as she attempts to return incriminating body-camera footage to her precinct and you’ll see a narrative that construes a cop as a Black Lives Matter hero simply for using her mandated body camera as she should. This is a major-studio film that may go further than many others, including Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, in implicating police forces as systemic perpetuators of white supremacy, but it’s also one that handles the representation of poverty clumsily at best.

What’s more, Black and Blue’s action-movie tropes redirect its characters’ mistrust of authority into a narrative that tacitly approves of the militarization of the police and society at large. These same tropes, though, are part of what defuses such concerns about whether the film offers a thorough social critique. Despite its real-world trappings, Black and Blue comes off as fantasy, a story with the exaggerated features and simple satisfactions of a dream. Crooked cops will get their comeuppance, prejudices will be upended, and those not yet beyond redemption will be redeemed. Beyond the film’s spurious messaging about finding a middle ground between being black and being “blue,” its extended chase through New Orleans’s 9th Ward might offer simple, effective action-movie catharsis to those who’ve been outraged by this decade’s flood of videos of police offers shooting unarmed black people.

Perhaps unintentionally, Black and Blue’s setting and action reminds us that, with the advent of body cameras, the sci-fi dystopias depicted in various films from the 1980s and ‘90s have come true. Resembling the A plot of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, the film’s main action is jump-started by the mafia-style execution of a young black man by police, an explosive event that’s captured on video by a woman wearing a camera. And in Black and Blue, that woman, rookie cop Alicia West (Naomie Harris), is also the one tasked with delivering the footage to the authorities. The shooting, committed by narcotics detective Terry Malone (Frank Grillo) and his circle of drug-dealing police officers, takes place in a scummy, abandoned factory, and when the assembled perpetrators notice the wide-eyed rookie filming them, they repeatedly shoot her. West unexpectedly survives, and so the film also brings to mind Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, another sci-fi classic that hinges on a piece of incriminating video footage.

Mostly shielded by her body armor but grazed by a bullet on her side, West somehow slips away from the murderous cops. Black and Blue tends to solve such narrative impasses via the magic of montage: We see West stumbling away down a passageway but don’t see exactly how she escapes. Now pursued by the extensive cabal of officers, she makes it to a convenience store where a childhood friend, Mouse (Tyrese Gibson), reluctantly helps her patch herself up. Mouse and the tight-knit community of the nearby Kingston Manor apartment complex, the film makes clear, don’t like cops; an earlier scene has Mouse and his sister, Missy (Nafessa Williams), refuse to acknowledge that they know West, who’s recently returned from two tours in Afghanistan after growing up in their neighborhood. As seen from the perspective of West and her partner, Kevin (Reid Scott), this impoverished area is full of shifty-eyed gangsters, and Black and Blue veers into problematic terrain early on when it lays ominous bass notes under close-ups of black men slinking around in and out of the cops’ view.

The filmmakers, though, deploy such hammy racism mostly to undermine it. Deacon Brown (James Moses Black), an officer who saves West from one of the aforementioned black youth, is quickly revealed to be part of Malone’s conspiracy, and therefore complicit in the murder of unarmed men and the attempted murder of West herself. While Black and Blue indulges some of the worst stereotypes about black poverty, the dehumanizing practices of the police are portrayed as the truly pernicious social force. And West must ultimately reintegrate herself with the film’s black community: After skirting from place to place within the 9th Ward, her ultimate recourse is to bring the body camera to Kingston Manor and let the people there, including the hot-headed local kingpin, Darius (Mike Colter), see the footage for themselves.

What follows is a fun, if muddled, climax that upends some of the expectations set by the bulk of the film. While Black and Blue is much more comfortable dispatching the gangsters who are trying to kill West than the cops shown to be their moral equivalents, the intense showdown at Kingston Manor proves that the film’s typical action-movie ethos of violent retribution can also extend to figures of authority. And while it settles in a place that offers a less probing critique of the status quo than its makers might be intending, its over-the-top climax provides a brief, cathartic release from the real-world issues its story raises.

Cast: Naomie Harris, Tyrese Gibson, Mike Colter, Frank Grillo, Reid Scott, Nafessa Williams, James Moses Black Director: Deon Taylor Screenwriter: Peter A. Dowling Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century

These are the films from this millennium that have most shocked us by plumbing our deepest primordial terrors.

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The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century
Photo: Focus World
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on October 10, 2018.

Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”

At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. Budd Wilkins


Them

50. Them (2006)

Hoody-clad sadists attack a couple, alone in their country home. That’s all the setup that co-writers/directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud need to dredge up some uniquely discomfiting chills. You won’t be able to shake Them after seeing it because it’s scary without being grisly or full of cheap jump scares. Instead, it’s a marvel of precise timing and action choreography. The silence that deadens the air between each new assault becomes more and more disquieting as the film goes on. Likewise, the house where Them is primarily set in seems to grow bigger with each new hole the film’s villains tear out of. To get the maximum effect, be sure to watch this one at night; just don’t watch it alone. Simon Abrams


Black Death

49. Black Death (2010)

Grim aesthetics and an even grimmer worldview define Black Death, in which ardent piousness and defiant paganism both prove paths toward violence, hypocrisy, and hell. Christopher Smith’s 14th-century period piece exudes an oppressive sense of physical, spiritual, and atmospheric weight, with grimy doom hanging in the air like the fog enshrouding its dense forests. His story concerns a gang of thugs, torturers, and killers led by Ulric (Sean Bean), a devout soldier commissioned by the church to visit the lone, remote town in the land not afflicted by a fatal pestilence, where it’s suspected a necromancer is raising the dead. Dario Poloni’s austere script charts the crew’s journey into a misty netherworld where the viciousness of man seems constantly matched by divine cruelty, even as the role of God’s hand—in the pestilence, and in the personal affairs of individuals—remains throughout tantalizingly oblique. Nick Schager


The Invitation

48. The Invitation (2015)

The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan


Midsommar

47. Midsommar (2019)

Anybody who’s seen Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man or similar folk horror films will hardly be surprised by any of the plot turns in Ari Aster’s Midsommar. From early on, there’s no doubt that the pagan rituals at the film’s center will spell doom for the group of friends who visit rural Sweden in a quasi-anthropological attempt to observe a cult’s summer solstice festival. The film masterfully builds itself around the inevitability of a mass terror, aligning our foreknowledge of that with the anxiety felt by the main character, Dani (Florence Pugh), in the wake of a recent family tragedy. The result is a deeply unnerving film about the indissoluble, somehow archaic bond between self and family—one more psychologically robust than Aster’s similarly themed Hereditary. And it’s also very funny. Pat Brown


Mulholland Drive

46. Mulholland Drive (2001)

David Lynch’s meta noir Mulholland Drive literalizes the theory of surrealism as perpetual dream state. Told as it is using a highly symbolic, ravishingly engorged language of dreams, this bloody valentine to Los Angeles naturally leaves one feeling groggy, confused, looking forward and back, hankering to pass again through its serpentine, slithery hall of mirrors until all its secrets have been unpacked. Whether Mulholland Drive anticipated the YouTube Age we live in (and which Inland Empire’s digital punk poetics perfectly embody) is up for debate, but there’s no doubt that this movie-movie will continue to haunt us long after Lynch has moved on to shooting pictures using the tools of whatever new film medium awaits us—tools that he will no doubt have helped to revolutionize. Ed Gonzalez


Sinister

45. Sinister (2012)

Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Calum Marsh


Maniac

44. Maniac (2012)

Made in collaboration with Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, and with the sort of fearless artistic freedom often allowed by European financing, Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac begins with a psychopath’s synth-tastically scored stalking of a party girl back to her apartment, outside which he cuts her frightened scream short by driving a knife up into her head through her jaw. The film deceptively delights in capturing the mood of an exploitation cheapie before latching onto and running with the conceit only halfheartedly employed by William Lustig in the 1980 original, framing the titular maniac’s killing spree—this time set in Los Angeles—almost entirely from his point of view. A gimmick, yes, but more than just a means of superficially keying us into the psyche of the main character, Frank, an antique mannequin salesman played memorably by a minimally seen Elijah Wood. As in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, this approach becomes a provocative means of sympathizing with the devil. Gonzalez


Depraved

43. Depraved (2019)

What does a Frankenstein figure look like in 2019? According to Larry Fessenden’s Depraved, he’s a guy with war-addled, once-noble intentions set adrift by male ego and shady benefactors. He’s a white man grasping for control in a world coming apart, a cog in a machine who hasn’t broken free so much as changed the machine’s function—from that of war to that of the pharmaceutical industry. The film, Fessenden’s first feature as both writer and director since 2006’s The Last Winter, paints multiple psychological portraits that are sad, angry, and strangely beautiful. It shows us the mind of not just PTSD-afflicted field surgeon Henry (David Call), but also that of his prototypical sewn-together “monster,” Adam (Alex Breaux), and his assistant and Big Pharma bankroller, Polidori (Joshua Leonard). Throughout, the film it remains firmly focused on its thesis of Frankenstein as a lens for examining modern society. Fessenden catalogues what personalities and power dynamics have shifted and what hasn’t changed at all. He diagnoses the rot of our era through these solipsistic men that pour their prejudices and their insecurities into Adam, an open book eventually read back to its authors with a violence they cultivated themselves. Steven Scaife


28 Days Later

42. 28 Days Later (2002)

Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is a post-apocalyptic zombie movie indebted to the traditions of John Wyndham and George A. Romero, opening with its young hero wandering abandoned streets calling out “Hello! Hello!” into the void. A marvel of economic storytelling, the film follows a handful of survivors that evaded a deadly “Rage” virus that tore across England, the riots and destruction that ensued, and the legion of infected victims who roam the streets at night for human meat. A bleak journey through an underground tunnel brings to mind one of the finest chapters in Stephen King’s The Stand; similar such references are far from being smug in-jokes, but rather uniquely appreciative of previous horror texts. The Rage virus itself feels particularly topical in our angry modern times. But maybe the more appropriate metaphor is that anyone who’s struggled through a grouchy, apocalyptic mood during 28 days of nicotine/drug/alcohol withdrawal will find their hostile sentiments reflected in this anger-fueled nightmare odyssey. Jeremiah Kipp


Piranha 3D

41. Piranha 3D (2010)

Piranha 3D tips its cap to Jaws with an opening appearance by Richard Dreyfuss, yet the true ancestors of Alexandre Aja’s latest are less Steven Spielberg’s classic (and Joe Dante and Roger Corman’s more politically inclined 1978 original Piranha) than 1980s-era slasher films. Unapologetically giddy about its gratuitous crassness, Aja’s B movie operates by constantly winking at its audience, and while such self-consciousness diffuses any serious sense of terror, it also amplifies the rollicking comedy of its over-the-top insanity. Aja’s gimmicky use of 3D is self-aware, and the obscene gore of the proceedings is, like its softcore jokiness, so extreme and campy—epitomized by a hair-caught-in-propeller scalping—that the trashy, merciless Piranha 3D proves a worthy heir to its brazen exploitation-cinema forefathers. Schager

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Review: Zombieland: Double Tap Shrugs Toward the End of the World

Behind the film’s self-awareness and irony is a hollow emotional core.

1.5

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Zombieland: Double Tap
Photo: Columbia Pictures

“Double tap,” the belated Zombieland sequel’s namesake, refers to the rule of shooting a zombie more than once in order to ensure that it’s dead. Like the rest of the rules devised by the series’s dweebish protagonist, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), it’s spelled out in large on-screen text, an amusingly self-aware touch in the original 2009 film that has, a decade later into our irony-poisoned present, lost its luster.

Part of that is because the sequel highlights these rules more frequently and prominently, injecting them with flashy text effects that are more distracting than funny. But it’s also because self-awareness doesn’t feel nearly as refreshing as it did in 2009, with seemingly every big studio movie nowadays winking and nodding at audiences, trying to swaddle us in layers of protective irony (that writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick went on to script the vacuous Deadpool films is no accident). Zombieland: Double Tap effortlessly operates in the same groove as the original, but that’s less a compliment than a measure of a failure to evolve.

Revising the world of Zombieland feels like returning to a television program you gave up on watching; though the cast has aged, the character dynamics remain largely the same, if slightly more exaggerated and perhaps overly familiar. Boisterous gunslinger Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) is a little more cartoonish now, while Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) is all grown up. She’s more than old enough to drive, and thus old enough to run away with a pacifist hippie, Berkeley (Avan Jogia), prompting Columbus, Tallahassee, and conwoman Wichita (Emma Stone) to track her down. They’re a makeshift family now, despite still referring to one another by the city aliases that were meant to prevent getting too attached.

A newcomer to their group still goes by her real name, Madison (Zoey Deutch), and as a caricatured dumb blonde, she typifies much of the film’s easy, uninspired comedy. The supremely overqualified cast powers through tiresome, pop culture-laden exchanges via sheer charisma; Stone, though unfortunately reduced to playing a “jealous girlfriend” type, is particularly expressive. But returning director Ruben Fleischer, despite pairing with the usually excellent cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, too often shoots the actors in close-up, robbing much of the film of the chemistry that the actors display in wider shots.

Double Tap also plays unthinkingly into the zombie fantasy as survivalist gun porn, even going so far as to add a Gen Z commune of idiot pacifists who melt down guns into peace symbols. This sequel, however, is too mediocre for such an idea to register with more than a shrug. The film isn’t using the concept to make a point, after all; behind the self-awareness and the irony is merely a hollow emotional core, a lack of anything to say because saying something would require ambition rather than complacent winks and nods.

Cast: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, Emma Stone, Rosario Dawson, Zoey Deutch, Avan Jogia, Luke Wilson, Thomas Middleditch Director: Ruben Fleischer Screenwriter: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, Dave Callaham Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil Transforms Thorny Folklore into Fluff

In transforming folk metaphors into utilitarian attributes of an action hero, Disney exposes the emptiness of their product.

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Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

“Once upon a time…or perhaps twice upon a time, for you may remember this story,” begins the voiceover narration of Disney’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. To its credit, the film opens by addressing the elephant in the castle: that we, as modern filmgoers, surely know this story well, through all its incarnations as old-fashioned fairy-tale romance and as insipid CG action-fantasy. But this sequel’s attempt to deflect attention from its own tiresomeness only highlights the cynicism of a corporation that insists on franchising the reboots of its adaptations—on repeating the process of filtering the imaginative irrationality of folk tales through layers upon layers of calculation.

Angelina Jolie returns as Maleficent, once one of the most deliciously evil villainesses in the Disney canon, who now—like Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West—has been reduced to a mildly grumpy environmentalist. Disney has erected a mythos around the character to explain her malevolent deeds—or rather, to expose them as truly good. Channeling themes of historical revisionism and post-colonial white guilt, the Malefi-verse positions its title character as defender of the marshlands known as The Moors and its multifarious magical inhabitants, the Dark Fey, against the incursions and crimes of the late-Renaissance Europeans who live nearby. In the film, whose subtitle has virtually nothing to do with its plot, she’s supplied with an army of fellow Feys primed to resist the destruction of their native lands by greedy humans. The deviousness suggested by Maleficent’s occasional wry, sharp-toothed smiles and curling horns is hardly on display in her actions, which have thoroughly virtuous motivations.

Mistress of Evil posits a “true story” behind the official one recorded in the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, as rather than persecuting the princess subsequently known as Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent has adopted her and raised her. Aurora (Elle Fanning), though she’s grown up among the Fey, has fallen in love with Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). Throughout, we’re given little evidence of their mutual attraction beyond the fact that they’re both young humans, though Joachim Rønning’s film does attempt to elicit our sympathies for their union with an early scene that stages a YouTube-ready surprise proposal. Though she harbors doubts about this union, Maleficent initially tries to play the good mother, reluctantly accepting the match. But then, at the engagement dinner, Phillip’s mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), frames Maleficent for the sleeping curse that befalls King John (Robert Lindsay). Wounded in the subsequent confrontation, Maleficent flees and finds herself in an enclave of other vulture-winged, goat-horned Feys, led by Borra (Ed Skrein) and Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

As played by Jolie, Maleficent is less a character than a pose. Rather than suggesting potency and confidence, the character’s impassiveness conveys indifference, a disinterested neutrality that emanates from behind Jolie’s green contacts and prosthetic cheekbones. Neither Maleficent’s anger at the humans who framed her nor her muted concern for the oppressed Fey succeeds in selling the clichéd plotline concerning indigenous rebellion. As debate rages in the ranks of the outcast Fey regarding a prospective uprising against the murderous humans—the screenplay, of course, makes Conall’s plea for a moderate response to creeping genocide more appealing than Borra’s call for a revolution—Jolie’s perpetually cool persona fails to anchor our feelings in the fate of the forest’s denizens.

The rebellious Fey recruit Maleficent for the same reason that the humans fear her: the magical powers she possesses. Yet Maleficent’s powers are ill-defined, the magical green tendrils that extend from her hands little more than a reference to visual effects devised for Disney’s classic animated Sleeping Beauty from 1959. But aspects of the magic in Mistress of Evil still draw inspiration from its diluted source material: the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale classic that the animated film was based on. In that story, the wise woman’s curse not only puts the princess to sleep, but also freezes all life in the castle in place and envelops the structure in an impenetrable thorn bush. Many princes attempt and fail to forcibly enter the castle, hacking away at the bushes, but after a century, the brambles open up on their own, at last allowing a prince to enter the princess’s chamber, so to speak.

In Mistress of Evil, we see the character that Disney has dubbed Maleficent deploy similar magical effects to much less metaphorical ends: She freezes a cat in the air mid-pounce to protect her were-raven familiar, Diaval (Sam Riley), and she conjures up spindly thorn branches to shield herself and Chonall from a volley of crossbow bolts. The filmmakers, no doubt, see such references to the original tale as forms of felicitous homage, but in transforming folk metaphors into utilitarian attributes of an action hero, Disney exposes the emptiness of their product. The film arranges a marriage between fairy-tale motifs and a CG-algorithm-driven plot that’s as bland and arbitrary as the one it stages between its nondescript human couple, processing thorny folklore into smooth, consumable pop culture.

Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Ed Skrein, Harris Dickinson, Robert Lindsay, Warwick Davis Director: Joachim Rønning Screenwriter: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, Linda Woolverton Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: Tell Me Who I Am Feels as One-Sided as the Curated Lie at Its Center

By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothers’ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the scope of their abuse.

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Tell Me Who I Am
Photo: Netflix

When Alex Lewis was 18 years old, he was involved in a motorcycle crash that left him with a severe case of amnesia. When he awoke in a hospital following the accident, he couldn’t recall where he lived or who his friends were. He didn’t even know his name. As for the woman babbling and pacing around the foot of his bed, he was taken aback to learn that she was his mother. The only thing Alex did remember was that the young man standing before him, Marcus, was his identical twin, and that they had a special connection.

Upon returning to their family estate, Marcus began the lengthy process of reacquainting Alex with the particulars of his life, as well as re-teaching him the basics, like how to tie his shoes. And through it all, Marcus did his best to present a rosy picture of their parents, assuring Alex that their mother, Jill, was “cool” and that they took nice vacations to France when they were kids. It wasn’t until after their parents’ death that Alex began to suspect that their upbringing may not have been as pleasant as Marcus suggested. And after Alex discovered a cabinet full of sex toys in Jill’s room and a photograph of him and his brother naked with their heads torn off, the horrible truth began to dawn on Alex: that he and his brother were sexually abused by their mother. Marcus would go on to confirm the abuse but refused to provide additional details, leaving his brother with questions that would haunt him for years.

Based on a book co-written by Alex and Marcus, Ed Perkins’s Tell Me Who I Am tells the brothers’ story with an Errol Morris-lite mix of expressionistic reenactments and interviews in which the subjects speak directly into the camera. Like the similarly themed Three Identical Strangers, the film parcels out disarming hints and shocking revelations at a steady clip, with a view toward maximizing the emotional impact of the material. It’s undeniably effective and affecting, escalating toward a harrowing confrontation-cum-reconciliation between the two brothers in which Marcus finally reveals the full horror of what they endured as kids: that, in addition to being abused by their mother, they were subjected to sexual assaults at the hands of multiple abusers, in what essentially amounted to an elite pedophilia ring.

In its richer, more rewarding moments, Tell Me Who I Am hints at the complex relationship between memory and identity. Alex relies on photographs to fill in the blanks in his memory, and yet, these seemingly objective recordings of the past, curated for him by his brother, are as conspicuous for what they reveal as for what they don’t. (As Alex muses at one point, “We take photos of weddings. You never take photos at funerals.”) But for a film about the power of getting a full and accurate accounting of the truth, it’s frustrating how little Tell Me Who I Am reckons with its own revelations. By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothers’ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the sheer scope of the boys’ abuse.

Tell Me Who I Am hints at the brothers having been caught up in a seemingly extensive sexual abuse ring, one involving aristocrats and at least one well-known artist, all of whom remain unnamed. It’s a scandal reminiscent of recently exposed conspiracies of silence that surround wrongdoing, such as those involving Jeffrey Epstein, Jimmy Savile, and the Catholic Church. And while Perkins’s film wants us to believe that the brothers’ saga reaches a definitive conclusion when they tearfully embrace after Alex learns about what happened to him, it leaves the viewer with a host of unanswered questions. Who exactly was part of Jill’s social circle? How extensive was Alex and Marcus’s abuse? Were there other victims?

Even a cursory glance at news articles about the men and reviews of their book suggests how much Perkins has massaged the details of the Lewis brothers’ lives to craft his sleek, emotionally punchy narrative. From watching Tell Me Who I Am, one wouldn’t know that there was at least one other confirmed victim: Alex and Marcus’s younger brother, whose existence the film doesn’t even acknowledge. By forcing Alex and Marcus’s story into such a rigidly linear narrative of redemption, the film ends up losing sight of its subjects altogether, reducing them to mere representations of its core theme: the brother who wants to learn about his past versus the brother who’d rather keep it buried.

That’s why Tell Me Who I Am’s attempt to end on a note of closure—“It’s over finally,” Alex says, as the camera tracks away from the house where he was abused—comes off as phony. Perhaps Alex feels that he finally understands who he really is, but the film leaves us with so many unanswered questions, it’s hard not feel that the picture we’ve been given of these men is nearly as misleading and incomplete as the one Marcus provided to Alex all those years ago.

Director: Ed Perkins Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Gloss of Stuffed Is at Odds with Taxidermy’s Inherent Boldness

Erin Derham’s unadventurous aesthetic inoculates her from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.

1.5

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Stuffed
Photo: Music Box Films

Erin Derham’s Stuffed opens with a montage of the various taxidermists she profiles throughout her documentary. This opening lays bare the film’s argument in unmistakable terms: that taxidermy is an art form, closer to the work of Tim Burton than that of Norman Bates. But it also exposes the film’s most unbearable flaw, as Derham supports her hagiographic argument by sewing together her case studies with a relentless, and relentlessly generic, score that speaks to her devotion to formula.

It’s an unadventurous formula at odds with the documentary’s attempts to establish taxidermy as a highly complex, anti-paradigmatic endeavor involving great amounts of scientific precision, as well as creative audacity and whimsical experimentation. Derham insists so much on taxidermists’ labor being more than the mere production of replicas that her refusal to adopt a more playful aesthetic approach as she portrays the quirky imagination of taxidermists feels like equivocation. It’s as if she approached the documentary’s making with thick rubber gloves, thus inoculating herself from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.

This may be the result of a certain courting, conscious or not, of digital streaming platforms through the mimicry of impersonally glossy production values. In any case, it leaves the viewer in a position akin to that of the fussy eater trying to pick unwelcomed ingredients out of their food. We want to savor the taxidermists’ artistry, except the clichéd polish that envelops the film keeps getting in the way. It’s an artistry that’s bold by design, as the taxidermist utilizes dead matter not with the utilitarian goal of resurrecting it, but as raw material to sculpt something altogether new. If the Paris Museum of Hunting and Nature invited artists Sophie Calle and Serena Carone in 2018 to intervene in its collection of retired guns and taxidermic realism precisely because of the unusual juxtaposition of conceptual art and refurbished dead matter, moose in red gowns and all, Stuffed defines taxidermy itself as already marrying fanciful concepts with the illusion of beastly or avian resurrection.

Taxidermist Madison Rubin tells us she loves “seeing the insides and the anatomy of things” as she skins 11 ermines with the meticulousness of a sculptor, or a dollmaker. Others evoke the resurgence of taxidermy, which used to be particularly popular in the Victorian era, in these times of digital de-materialization. And some attest to the specificity of the medium—how no other art form can convey texture the way taxidermy does. Yet Derham seems more invested in glossing over the numerous chapters she’s divided the film’s narrative into than in exploring the depths of her story. Taxidermy and sustainability, taxidermy and climate change, the ethics of taxidermy, taxidermy and museums, taxidermy as a business, taxidermy in fashion—all of these get addressed too rapidly, sometimes in just a couple of minutes.

The rush feels particularly unfortunate when Derham turns her attention to rogue taxidermy, a Lynchean subgenre located at the intersection of dioramas, cabinets of curiosities, and surrealist art. Here, Calle and Carone’s red ballgown-wearing stuffed roadkill would feel right at home—that is, delightfully out of place in the world. Instead, Stuffed quickly continues in its quest of a happy, peppy denouement to match the pristine porelessness of its sheen.

Director: Erin Derham Distributor: Music Box Films Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Trick Will Treat You to Meatheaded, Commentary-Free Ultraviolence

Patrick Lussier’s film is an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy.

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Trick
Photo: RLJE Films

In the 2000s, a film company called the Asylum flooded Blockbuster shelves with “mockbusters”: cheaply produced, straight-to-DVD knockoffs of box-office dominators with titles such as Transmorphers, Ghosthunters, and Snakes on a Train. Patrick Lussier’s horror mystery Trick feels like an Asylum spin on Todd Phillips’s Joker, as both are about marginalized white guys who paint their faces, start killing people, and become kings of the incels. But where the licensed DC spinoff is an irresponsible and irredeemable pity party for a creep, this cheap lookalike is just an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy, assembled crudely from horror and cop-movie clichés.

Trick opens with a handy list of the dictionary definitions of its title, hinting at the filmmakers’ estimation of their target audience’s intelligence. Trick is also the name of the film’s villain, short for Patrick (Thom Niemann), an 18-year-old who, on Halloween night in 2015, attends a party with his classmates in their Hudson Valley town. During a game of spin the bottle—played with a knife—Trick is pressured to kiss another dude but instead starts stabbing and slashing everyone. (The subtext of repressed homosexuality is never alluded to again in the film.) Incapacitated and brought to urgent care, Patrick breaks free from his restraints and drops more bodies until police shoot him repeatedly in a hallway, knocking him out of a second-story window, neatly alluding simultaneously to both John Carpenter’s original Halloween (the defenestration) and Rick Rosenthal’s 1981 sequel (the hospital setting). Trick staggers to the river and vanishes, presumed dead.

But more killings follow, on or around Halloween, in towns downriver from the first. Detective Mike Denver, the only cop who believes Patrick survived, is played by Omar Epps, who credibly delivers preposterous dialogue like a pro. In the film’s most ludicrous killing, Trick uses a crane to swing the tombstone of an F.B.I. agent (Vanessa Aspillaga) he murdered the year before through the windshield of a car in order to smash a wounded police officer (Dani Shay) sitting inside, a scene Denver sums up to a colleague: “He murdered your deputy with the gravestone of a fed I got killed. Who does that?” Then, after a beat, “What does that?”

Good question. To be scary, a horror villain needs either to be a credible menace or tap into a more primal social fear. But Trick is just implausible. He’s resilient like Rasputin, more violent than a rabid animal. At a time when cellphones and social media are ubiquitous, no one ever got a photo of him, and his classmates can barely even describe his features, just that he was smart as fuck—like, smarter than the teachers. The film shows off his far-fetched cleverness when he kills a different F.B.I. agent (Robert G. McKay) with a Rube Goldbergian guillotine involving a sharp wire, a utility pole, and a bundle of cinderblocks. Its employment makes for Purge-level spectacle without the social commentary to back it up. The beheading is just meatheaded ultraviolence—as inane as any other aspect of Trick.

Cast: Omar Epps, Ellen Adair, Kristina Reyes, Tom Atkins, Max Miller, Thom Neimann, Jamie Kennedy Director: Patrick Lussier Screenwriter: Todd Farmer, Patrick Lussier Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Robert Forster: Winning in the Late Innings

The Oscar-nominated actor brought a sense of honor and dignity to every role he played.

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Robert Forster
Photo: Miramax

David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive opens with a nighttime ride into oblivion. A limo drifts through the lightless void of the Hollywood Hills, red taillights burning in the blackness. An enigmatic woman, ebony hair and curvaceous red lips lending her the air of a tragic beauty, sits in the back by herself. The limo pulls over, and after the woman says, “We don’t stop here,” the driver aims a gun at her, but a gaggle of joyriding kids comes speeding around the curve and crashes into the vehicle. The woman climbs out of the wreckage stupefied and traipses into the hills, leaving behind the mangled metal and bodies.

Soon, a stoic detective arrives on the scene. He looks like a lawman, serious, a little sad, his face etched with the wrinkles of time. He examines the cars, offers a few terse observations, gazes out at the nocturnal city sprawling before him. It’s Robert Forster’s only scene in the film, and it’s an indelible one, imbued with mystery and menace, an attempt to explain the unexplainable. Saying fewer than 20 words and appearing in only a handful of shots, he exudes an air of wisdom and weariness—that of an indolent man who’s seen some shit and knows the horrors lurking ahead. In a film of dreamy logic and ineffaceable images, Forster’s taciturn detective acts as the final glimpse of reality before we slip into a world of Hollywood hopes and fantasy.

Forster, who died of brain cancer at the age of 78 this past Friday, was a prolific actor who experienced a remarkable second act in his mid-50s after giving a deeply empathetic and vulnerable performance as a love-struck bail bondsman in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a film populated by wounded characters leading unamazing lives, and who aspire to transcend mediocrity. “My career by then was dead,” Forster told the AV Club’s Will Harris in a 2011 interview. “No agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing…I could not believe that he [Tarantino] was talking about the Max Cherry role.”

Like so many of Tarantino’s films, Jackie Brown is replete with colorful, loquacious characters whose banter is clever, trenchant, and self-referential, but Forster’s Max Cherry is reserved and crestfallen, a man who’s settled into complacency and finds in Pam Grier’s flight attendant an unexpected inspiration. It’s one of American cinema’s great unconsummated love stories. Forster is a subtle actor, playing Max as an Everyman who chases people for a living but never seems to find what he’s looking for, and who willingly embroils himself in a dangerous situation because of love. He’s smart, self-sufficient, a decent guy, and yet for Jackie Brown he’s willing to risk his life, or whatever mundane existence he calls a life.

Forster was one of those great actors who appeared in far too few great films. His filmography is rife with bad films, though he was invariably a dependable presence in everything he did. He began his career promisingly, with a supporting role in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, and earned renown for his turn as an ambitious and ill-fated news cameraman in Haskell Wexler’s incandescent Medium Cool. He played a private eye in 1930s Hollywood in the show Banyon (his role in Mulholland Drive almost feels like a brief homage to the short-lived series) and appeared in a slew of genre movies for the rest of the 1970s and 1980s. Of note is Lewis Teague’s Alligator, in which a gargantuan reptile terrorizes a city, William Lustig’s nihilistic grindhouse flick Vigilante, and a rare villainous turn in Delta Force, opposite the indefatigable Chuck Norris.

It wasn’t until Jackie Brown and his subsequent Oscar nomination that Forster reentered the public consciousness. The way Tarantino exhumes old, often “trash” films when crafting his paeans to moving pictures, he also has a preternatural skill for resurrecting the careers of forgotten or faded actors. Tarantino fought for Forster to get the part. When news of Forster’s death went public, the director said in a statement:

“Today the world is left with one less gentlemen. One less square shooter. One less good man. One less wonderful father. One less marvelous actor. I remember all the breakfasts we had at silver spoons. All the stories. All the kind words. All the support. Casting Robert Forster in Jackie Brown was one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my life. I will miss you dearly my old friend.”

Forster appeared in a panoply of listless films and television programs throughout the 2000s (his appearance in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants in 2011 being an exception) but became a household face again in 2018, when he took on the role of Sheriff Frank Truman, Harry S. Truman’s brother, on the third season of Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Whereas Michael Ontkean exuded a mercurial youthfulness on the original series, that of a warm-hearted, just man capable of fiery spontaneity, Forster plays the elder Sheriff Truman rather pensively, sagacious and serene. Which is to say, he acts with the wisdom accrued by experience.

Forster also appeared in a season five episode of Breaking Bad, as a vacuum store owner and “disappearer” named Ed who helps Bryan Cranston’s Walt change identities. A stable presence amid the histrionic theatrics that defined the show’s approach to acting, Forster gives an understated performance and a sense of the real-world left behind by Vince Gilligan’s increasingly combustible melodrama. Forster reprised the part this year in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, the actor’s final screen credit. In a film-stealing scene, Forster stands steadfast and stoical against Aaron Paul’s desperate, bedraggled Jesse Pinkman, refusing to perform his disappearing service over a $1,800 discrepancy. The viewer is, of course, rooting for Jesse, yet one can’t help but respect the conviction of Forster’s unruffled professional. The actor brings a sense of honor and dignity to the role, as he did with every role. Forster was a safe, reliable presence, someone you trusted, unflustered, earnest, whether he was fighting monstrous alligators or swooning after air stewardesses.

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Review: Cyrano, My Love Thinks Art Is Only Born of Romantic Passion

The film is imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls Shakespeare in Love.

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Photo: Roadside Attractions

Alexis Michalik’s Cyrano, My Love wears its fondness for Shakespeare in Love very much on its sleeve. Though it serves up nuggets of truth, its take on Edmond Rostand (Thomas Solivérès) and the turbulent circumstances surrounding his creation of Cyrano de Bergerac is an outlandish one, imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls John Madden’s Oscar winner. And while Michalik positions Rostand as the story’s triumphant artist, the French dramatist is often reduced to a skittish ninny—as opposed to the pompous ass that Joseph Fiennes’s Shakespeare was positioned as—whose great art emanates not from the mind, but the cockles of the heart.

For a film so hellbent on the notion that Cyrano de Bergerac was inspired not only by actual events, but real emotions, there’s surprisingly little effort made to articulate with any specificity the conflicted feelings behind Rostand’s penning of what would become the most famous French play of all time. The initial catalyst for his play’s central conceit occurs when he steps in to help an actor friend, Léonidas (Tom Leeb), struggling to find the words to woo a costume designer, Jeanne (Lucie Boujenah), on whom he has a crush. Rostand, in one of the film’s many blatant nods to Cyrano de Bergerac, begins to feed his friend a barrage of romantic lines and relish the secrecy with which he can play out a love affair without disturbing his marriage with his endlessly patient and supportive wife, Rosemonde (Alice de Lencquesaing).

Yet, rather than teasing out the ample psychosexual baggage that should arise from the cognitive dissonance of Rostand writing daily love letters to Jeanne, his unknowing muse, while still professing, with complete honesty, that his only true love is his wife, Michalik pivots his focus to the swirling chaos of Cyrano de Bergerac’s production. With Rostand’s emotional conflict left fairly nebulous, Cyrano, My Love never quite gets to the root of the author’s inspiration, leaving its familiar theatrical farce about the troubles of mounting a stage play grounded in neither genuine emotion nor any palpable stakes.

As the hurdles that Rostand and company face in staging Cyrano de Bergerac grow bigger and Rostand writes pages to be rehearsed before the ink dries, the film introduces a parade of quirky, ostentatious characters. From the historical, such as Sarah Bernhardt (Clémentine Célarié) and Anton Chekhov (Misha Leskot), to the imagined, such as a prostitute (Mathilde Seigner) who’s foisted into the lead role of Roxane, each one is more thinly conceived than the next, with eccentricities dialed up to 11. The most egregious of these larger-than-life characterizations, however, is Monsieur Honoré (Jean-Michel Martial), the black café owner whose sole purpose is to repeatedly tap into his struggles as a minority as a means to galvanize the all-white cast and crew, who he then cheers on from the sidelines.

Cyrano, My Love’s lone performative bright spot comes in the form of a surprisingly nimble turn by Olivier Gourmet, known primarily for his dour turns in many of the Dardenne brothers’ films. Gourmet lends both humor and pathos to the play’s famous but desperate lead actor, Constant Coquelin. But while Coquelin steals the spotlight in a number of scenes, Rostand remains little more than a perpetually anxiety-ridden artist who virtually stumbles into writing a masterpiece during a helter-skelter production. And with little care given to rendering the intense emotional tumult that spurred his artistic process, all the pandemonium of Cyrano, My Love proves to be much ado about nothing.

Cast: Thomas Solivérès, Olivier Gourmet, Mathilde Seigner, Tom Leeb, Lucie Boujenah, Alice de Lencquesaing, Clémentine Célarié, Igor Gotesman, Dominique Pinon, Simon Abkarian, Marc Andréoni, Jean-Michel Martial, Olivier Lejeune, Antoine Dulery, Alexis Michalik Director: Alexis Michalik Screenwriter: Alexis Michalik Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: In Greener Grass, White Picket Fences Cast Shadows Like Tendrils

In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance, as the suburbs have already won.

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Greener Grass
Photo: IFC Films

The opening credits of Greener Grass linger on a twitching, toothy smile covered in braces. Everyone in the film wears braces. Everyone drives a golf cart, too, and dresses in gentle pinks and blues. The lighting is soft and sun-drenched, an effect that’s most pronounced during the film’s soccer matches. In the opening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the camera creeps through a suburb’s pleasant veneer to reveal the rot that festers beneath. But for Greener Grass co-directors, co-writers, and co-stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, the very surface is the thing that’s so unsettling, a place populated by slithering, rictus-grinning meat puppets penned in by white picket fences and their own crippling need to conform.

The trouble, if you could call it that, begins when Jill (DeBoer) abruptly gifts Lisa (Luebbe) with her newborn baby as they watch their other children play soccer. This isn’t, in the film’s bizarre conception of suburbia, a particularly outrageous act. At worst, it’s overly generous, like giving someone a gift more expensive than they’re comfortable accepting; another neighbor, Kim Ann (Mary Holland), later laments that she wasn’t given the child instead. The children in Greener Grass are essentially property, status symbols to reflect upon their owners in their pristine homes and yards, all of which feeds into an undercurrent of pervasive competition that nonetheless reinforces conformity and simply not rocking the boat.

Everything is seemingly interchangeable in Greener Grass. At a cookout, it takes a full conversation for Jill and Lisa to notice that they’re smooching and hanging on the arms of the wrong husbands, Dennis (Neil Casey and Nick (Beck Bennett), respectively. And when Jill’s young son, Julian (Julian Hilliard), inexplicably transforms into a dog, she’s horrified, but Nick, the boy’s father, seems pleased: Julian may no longer be able to take the advanced math class, but he’s now a prodigy when it comes to playing catch in the backyard.

There isn’t much of a traditional plot to the film, which plays more as a recurring series of sketches that subtly further Jill’s downward spiral. DeBoer and Luebbe let their scenes linger long past the point of discomfort, both in the length of mannered dialogue exchanges and the amount of time they hold a shot without cutting; the camera gingerly pulls out or pushes in while characters perform odd actions in the background, like perpetually folding tighty-whities or fishing out a seemingly infinite supply of pocket change. It feels voyeuristic, and sometimes it is: In one scene, a hand appears to reveal that we’re watching a POV shot, and in another, an off-screen voice begins breathing heavily and starts mock-repeating dialogue.

A schoolteacher, Miss Human (D’Arcy Carden), fixates on the deaths of American pioneers making their way to the West. In pursuit of “a better life,” they lost things along the way, as the people of Greener Grass have lost themselves in their migration to the suburbs. The film is more unsettling for its lack of an ordinary plot structure where, say, Jill might break out of her suburban funk or get everything to explode with violence in a revolt against conformity. In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance. Here, the burbs have already won, having already sent out the white picket fences like tendrils as far as the eye can see. There is no escape.

Cast: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe, Beck Bennett, Neil Casey, Mary Holland, D’Arcy Carden, Janicza Bravo, Dot-Marie Jones, Lauren Adams, Julian Hillard, Asher Miles Fallica Director: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Screenwriter: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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