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Understanding Screenwriting #36: An Education, Amelia, Bitter Victory, Ride the High Country, & More



Understanding Screenwriting #36: An Education, Amelia, Bitter Victory, Ride the High Country, & More

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.

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.



Review: Rocketman Is Dynamic and Formulaic in Equal Measure

As a musical, Dexter Fletcher’s film is just fun enough to (mostly) distract us from its superficiality.




Photo: Paramount Pictures

Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman is yet another biopic about the psycho-sensual highs and lows of being a rock star. The story of Elton John’s life suggests a narrative arc that is, at this point, awfully familiar: a musically gifted boy from working-class England is inspired by the sonic freedom evoked by American rock music; his dissatisfaction with his own life propels him to great success but also makes him susceptible to the temptations of the decadent pop-star lifestyle; his drug habit ruins his personal relationships and even threatens his career; he eventually confronts his demons and stages a comeback—with his new, healthy attitude mirrored by renewed professional success. Roll titles telling us where Elton is now.

To its credit, Rocketman is at least partially aware that we’re familiar with these types of Behind the Music-style biopics. It doesn’t abandon the template, but it does toss us a colorful, energetic musical sequence whenever the protagonist’s family life or struggles with stardom threaten to get too dark. Fantastical song-and-dance scenes, built around some of Elton’s most well-known songs and enhanced by CG effects, serve to express the characters’ submerged feelings (“I Want Love”), transition between Elton’s childhood and adulthood (“Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”), link the performative decadence of mid-‘70s glam rock to that of mid-‘70s sex (“Bennie and the Jets,” somewhat oddly), and simply offer some visually pleasing spectacle (“Crocodile Rock”). Their main effect, though, is to give the film the quality of a karaoke stage musical: Even as Elton nearly overdoses on prescription meds, we’re not here to contemplate mortality, but to enjoy some fondly remembered pop songs. As a musical, Rocketman is just fun enough to (mostly) distract us from its superficiality.

In between the musical sequences, Elton (Taron Egerton), born Reginald Dwight, is portrayed as the unhappy genius inside the sequined chicken costume. Loved insufficiently by his selfish mother (Bruce Dallas Howard) and not at all by his stiff-upper-lipped father (Steven Mackintosh), the young Reggie longs to be somewhere and someone else. It turns out that he’s almost preternaturally gifted at the piano, able to reproduce complex pieces upon hearing them once, and this gift turns out to be his ticket out of working-class London. Starting as a back-up musician for Motown artists on tour in Britain, Reggie soon breaks out on his own, inventing his new stage name by stealing the first name of one of his bandmates, and taking the last name from John Lennon—improvising the latter when he sees a photo of the Beatles hanging in the office of Dick James (Stephen Graham), head of his first record label, DJM.

Rocketman makes clear that Reggie’s adoption of a stage name is more than just marketing, as he’ll insist, later in the film, that his family also call him Elton. The invention of a new persona allows him to escape his humble origins and demeanor. As one of the Motown performers advises him in one of those programmatic lines that these sorts of films specialize in, “Kill the person you are in order to become the person you want to be.” The irony of John’s public image—the mild manner and small stature offset by flamboyant, glittering stage performances—is expanded into a Reggie/Elton dialectic in Rocketman, in which the adult Elton must eventually learn to reconcile himself with his inner child. It’s a reconciliation that will be presented in the most literal of images toward the end of the film.

At DJM, Elton is paired with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and the two form an instant bond. Together, they write many popular songs, some seemingly inspired by their friendship. There’s an ambiguous sexual tension between them, and the film implies that the duo’s “Your Song” may have been an outgrowth of this tension—or, at the very least, that the lonely Elton mistook it as such. Elton’s ultimately platonic friendship with Bernie is the emotional core of Rocketman, depicted as the most stable relationship of Elton’s life. (The film concludes in the ‘80s, just before the singer would meet his eventual husband, David Furnish.)

Fletcher’s film is less squeamish about Elton’s love life—including sex—than a big-budget biopic about a gay star would have been years ago—or, rather, as recent as last year. Elton has an intense and predictably doomed romance with callous music manager John Reid (Richard Madden), but what drives him to booze and drugs is a loneliness and discomfort with himself that goes beyond his marginalized sexual identity. Which is to say, the Elton John of Rocketman doesn’t fit into to the stereotype of the tragic, self-destructive gay man.

There isn’t much to Bernie and Elton’s creative process as depicted in the film. Repeatedly, Bernie shows up with lyrics, and Elton comes up with the music on the spot, as if the tunes came to him from on high. At one point, his mother claims accusatorily that everything has always been too easy for Elton, and as a viewer, one is tempted to agree. Here, Elton’s music is less the outgrowth of hard work and more on the order of religious revelation: Witness, for example, the trippy musical number in which “Crocodile Rock” makes the audience at the famous Troubadour club in Los Angeles levitate. The visually engrossing title-song sequence plays, in overblown glam-rock fashion, with Christ-like images of death and ascension.

Egerton delivers a dynamic performance as the alternatingly sullen and exuberant star, one that fits in perfectly with the film’s embrace of Elton’s loud, diamond-encrusted aesthetic. But if the musical sequences feature spirited performances and colorful mise-en-scène that are pleasurably diverting, much of what surrounds them is bound to elicit groans, from the hackneyed way the film uses minor black characters as props to legitimize its aspiring white rock star, to the one-dimensionality of every character who isn’t Elton or Bernie, to the final delivery of a complacent moral. As a vision Elton has of his beloved grandmother (Gemma Jones) tells him during his stint in rehab, “You write songs millions of people love, and that’s what’s important.” Is it, though? This seems less like a reassurance for a character in the grips of addiction, and more like a reassurance to the audience that they matter.

Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Gemma Jones, Bryce Dallas Howard, Steven Mackintosh Director: Dexter Fletcher Screenwriter: Lee Hall Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 2019 Buy: Video

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Cannes Review: In Pain and Glory, Life and Art Are Wistful Bedfellows

Pedro Almodóvar’s latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned intensity of his finest work.




Pain and Glory
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

A film about an aging artist struggling to recapture his yen for creation, Pain and Glory has the makings of a deeply personal, career-capping work for Pedro Almodóvar. His name may be Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), but the gay filmmaker, with his tussled hair, white beard, and red turtleneck, may as well call himself Pedro. One of the very few differences between them is that Salvador has stopped making films while Almodóvar continues to work at a relatively steady clip. Pain and Glory is a ballsy admission on the Spanish auteur’s part that he hasn’t made a film in more than a decade that can compare with his most outrageous and subversive output, which makes it all the more dispiriting that his latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned, melodramatic intensity that defined, say, Law of Desire, Matador, and Bad Education.

Pain and Glory is most surprising at the outset, as the stern narration that we’ve come to expect from an Almodóvar film is audaciously paired with CG graphics and abstract animations that illustrate Salvador’s anatomical and psychosomatic conditions. The man suffers from tinnitus, chronic back pain, severe headaches, anxiety, depression, and various other ailments. It’s a literally visceral way to begin a film that soon settles into the more familiar pattern of a two-track narrative: There’s Salvador in the present, who works toward repairing a friendship with the heroin-addicted star, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), of his recently restored and most celebrated film, Subor, and there’s Salvador as a young boy (Asier Flores), preternaturally intelligent and perpetually optimistic, living in poverty with his ever-harried mother, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz), until he’s finally sent off to a seminary.

Perhaps all of this might have landed with a little more impact if Almodóvar hadn’t already covered so much of the same territory in Bad Education, which also centers itself around a film director’s relationship with an actor and tells the story of a young altar boy’s life, much of it spent at a seminary, through a series of flashbacks. Another rehash of a nearly identical plot point from that 2004 film is Pain and Glory’s intriguing meta conceit: Alberto convinces Salvador to let him perform a one-man stage adaptation of a monologue the former wrote long ago, an obvious nod to Almodóvar’s longtime collaborator, Banderas, playing a version of the filmmaker here. Pain and Glory is, in fact, defined by its abundance of conspicuously placed Easter eggs. Even in the scenes between the present-day Salvador and his dying mother (Julietta Serrano), namely the moment she tells him not to make films about her, Almodóvar points to the personal turmoil that led to the making of All About My Mother.

Putting aside the boldness of the sequences that kick Pain and Glory into motion, Almodóvar’s formal approach is generally subdued and disciplined throughout. His screenplay is also quite neat in its structure, relating its two plotlines in almost stubbornly linear fashion, reliably hitting standard narrative beats of interpersonal conflict and reconciliation. Almodóvar wouldn’t be the first filmmaker in the history of cinema to mellow with age, and there’s a sense that Pain and Glory’s artistry is a reflection of that trajectory, but that only makes the too-fleeting snapshots of Salvador’s hard-scrabble early years—which includes living inside a white cave with Jacinta and other migrants—feel as if they never transcend easy nostalgia.

Still, Almodóvar’s singular use of color as a barometer of characters’ interiorities and the emotional temperature of a scene remains on vibrant display throughout Pain and Glory. There’s also some wonderful comic repartee between the disheveled Banderas, so exquisitely committed to imparting a sense of his character’s almost ghostly status, and the perpetually bug-eyed Etxeandia. Alberto, upon reuniting with Salvador, almost immediately introduces him to heroin, and, improbably, the way in which they bond through their horrible addiction results in some of the funniest scenes in an Almodóvar film in some time.

It’s another reunion, though, between Salvador and Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), an ex-lover he hasn’t seen since the ‘80s, that finds Almodóvar delivering on the heightened promise of the film’s title. The men are brought back together through an absurd coincidence, after Federico wanders into the performance of Salvador’s play and recognizes that his life has been incorporated into the monologue, but the scene thrums with that distinctly magnetic force of love that’s fundamental to Almodóvar’s best work. Also, the actual moment of Salvador and Federico’s reunion is a gracefully staged dance of advance and retreat, beginning with a late-night conversation at Salvador’s apartment that never leaves the common area. Finally, after an intense kiss, Federico departs, and though he invites Salvador to come visit him and his family, both men seem to implicitly realize that they’ll never see each other again.

Salvador and Federico’s meeting unfolds almost in real time, and touches on their shared past, the lives they lived in the interim, and how much they’ve always meant to each other. The scene recalls other intense emotional meetings in prior Almodóvar films, but more than that, in its duration and focus, it seems drawn from more contemporary inspirations: Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, the final stretch of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, even “Looking for the Future,” the finest episode of Andrew Haigh’s Looking. It also arguably packs even more of an expressive force than any of those works, and serves as a reminder that, however much Almodóvar’s formalist bona fides may have cooled, his ability to craft emotionally acute, achingly felt scenes between men in the throes of love is as vigorous as ever.

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Penélope Cruz, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Navas, Julieta Serrano, César Vicente, Asier Flores, Julieta Serrano Director: Pedro Almodóvar Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Cannes Review: Joan of Arc Never Coalesces into a Fully Rounded Character Study

Bruno Dumont seems perpetually aware of the trap of familiarity, which may be why he indulges in some of his most inscrutable filmmaking.




Joan of Arc
Photo: 3P Productions

Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc may not have earned the French filmmaker many new fans, but it did serve to further his apparent embrace of a more mirthful directorial approach. As radical as any film that the New French Extremity-adjacent auteur has made, Jeanette is also unexpectedly accessible: a full-blown pop-rock musical in which a preteen Joan of Arc frets over her God-given mission to save France during the Hundred Years’ War, all the while head-banging to heavy metal music.

Dumont’s follow-up, Joan of Arc, now takes on the task of covering the “adult” years of the martyred saint, from her waning days as a warlord to her trial and inevitable execution for heresy. And while it’s almost as surprising as its predecessor, it’s considerably less exhilarating. Whereas the latter half of Jeanette, following a time jump, replaced child actor Lise Leplat Prudhomme with the teenaged Jeanne Voisin, the now 10-year-old Prudhomme has been reinstated in the title role here as the 19-year-old Joan. Right away, this recalibration is extremely dissonant, and it’s one that Dumont exploits particularly well in the lengthy scenes depicting Joan’s trial, during which she’s lectured and berated—like the child that she physically is—by misogynistic, condescending “graduates of theology.”

Much less easy to parse, in terms of intentionality and of classification, is the film’s proximity to the musical genre. An early scene features a suite of songs—sung theatrically by French indie-pop group Kid Wise’s Augustin Charnet—that play over a series of stoical tableaux shots of Prudhumme’s armor-clad Joan, looking pensively into the camera. Dumont briefly seems to be up to something rather brilliant here, reconfiguring the musical tropes of his Joan of Arc saga as a means to manifest the “voices” that the Joan of historical record claimed she heard in her head. But that interpretation gets ever more foggy as the filmmaker goes on to present various musical-esque scenes, but in fractured and recontexualized forms. The most jarring example of this is a lengthy, wordless interlude that features a battalion of soldiers on horseback moving in elaborate patterns, dance-like, a sequence which Dumont shoots in a way that recalls Busby Berkley musicals, with shots from above of the choreographed horses.

At least one aesthetic decision carries over from Jeanette: Only a handful of sets are used in Joan of Arc, and each change usually heralds a major shift in Joan’s lived experience, from battle to trial to imprisonment. (The film’s first third is largely adapted from French Catholic poet Charles Péguy’s play Les Batailles, while the remainder, almost entirely concerned with Joan’s trial and punishment, is based on another Péguy work, Rouen.) However, whereas Jeanette mostly limited itself to exterior shots of the idyllic French countryside, the contrasts in Joan of Arc are striking: The film moves from its opening passage, set amid cascading dunes, to the clean, vertiginous, and imposing interior space of the Royal Chapel, a place that serves to decisively dwarf an already diminutive Joan.

It’s in the pristine halls of the Royal Chapel that ornately dressed men of aristocratic pedigree and high authority—each drolly introduced in a kind of roll call—gather and almost instantly turn into savages, indiscriminately lobbing insults and explicating their own intolerance with unfeeling displays of intellectualized theological reasoning. Naturally, Joan retaliates, steadfastly refusing to disavow her devotion to her own spiritual dogma.

The best part of these trial scenes, and of Joan of Arc in general, is Prudhomme, who, despite her age, gives an extraordinarily committed, and convincing, performance as the teenaged Joan. The cinema is filled with iconic portrayals of the Maid of Orléans, but Prudhomme fully deserves a place among those. It’s a pity, then, that Dumont’s film doesn’t really manage to find many new dimensions to the Joan of Arc mythos—apart from its one inspired casting choice. The filmmaker’s effort to tap into the currents of modernity that run through this centuries-old story can be traced back through film history, at least as far as Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, if not to Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc—which is, of course, predicated on the particular presentation of the cinematic image.

Dumont does, at least, seem perpetually aware of the trap of familiarity, which may be why he indulges in some of his most inscrutable filmmaking—the aforementioned horse dance, and a musical cameo from the film’s composer, French popstar Christophe—and attempts subtle gestures of subversion. Take the final shot of Joan of Arc, which is not unlike the last act of grace and salvation (and blatant homage to Robert Bresson’s Mouchette) that concludes 2010’s Hadewijch. Here, the instantly recognizable composition from the Dreyer film—for which Bresson infamously voiced his distaste—is rejected twofold, as Dumont shoots Joan’s fatal immolation in profile, and from a considerable distance.

Joan of Arc, though, has bigger problems than an over familiarity with its source, as its themes and dynamics also recall other, stronger Dumont films. The articulation of interiority through stylized visualizations of the adolescent Joan is audacious and intriguing, but its philosophical meaning isn’t nearly as fleshed out, nor as emotionally accessible, as the transformation undergone by a devout young woman into a radicalized religious extremist in Hadewijch. And the psychological understanding of Joan—the process of her victimization—isn’t as acute, nor as visceral, as Dumont’s similar biopic on institutionalized sculptor Camille Claudel. Joan of Arc can’t even claim to have the same conceptual rigor that ignited Jeanette—all of which amounts to a film that feels like a nexus point for Dumont’s influences and his preoccupations, but one that never coalesces its potential into the major work it clearly strives to be.

Cast: Lise Leplat Prudhomme, Jean-François Causeret, Daniel Dienne, Fabien Fenet, Robert Hanicotte, Yves Habert, Fabrice Luchini, Christophe Director: Bruno Dumont Screenwriter: Bruno Dumont Running Time: 138 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Cannes Review: Zombi Child Radically Grapples with Colonialism’s Legacy

Bertrand Bonello’s quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract.




Zombi Child
Photo: Arte France Cinéma

Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child roils with colonialist tensions. But as with the director’s prior Nocturama, this quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments here where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper then race relations. Indeed, the decision to switch back and forth between Mélissa and Fanny’s perspectives in the film’s present-day scenes opens the story up to a more complex examination of how the girls view and relate to their own heritage and culture.

Not unlike Bonello’s House of Pleasures, which in its final moments made a jarring jump from a brothel in the early 20th century to modern-day Paris and prostitutes working a city street, Zombi Child explores the factors that have allowed a social practice, voodoo, to become a constant of history. Mélissa’s aunt, Katy (Katiana Milfort), is a “mambo,” or voodoo priestess, and she’s the only surviving member of Mélissa’s family in the wake of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. Mélissa is drawn to Fanny because the two share an affinity for Stephen King and horror fiction, and as they get closer, Fanny facilitates Mélissa’s initiation into her tight-knit “literary sorority.” But after this act of bonding, the young women begin to move in opposite directions: Mélissa makes an effort to fit into the sorority, singing along to angry French rap when she’d rather be listening to music sung in her native Créole language, while Fanny, reeling from her sudden breakup with her long distance lover, Pablo (Sayyid El Alami), discreetly digs into Mélissa’s past and decides to use voodoo as a remedy for her heartbreak.

The other half of the film’s time-jumping narrative concerns Fanny’s grandfather, Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou), who, in 1962, becomes the victim of a voodoo curse that puts him in an early grave and results in the reanimation of his corpse and him having to perform manual plantation labor in a perpetually “zombified” state. Throughout this section of Zombi Child, Bonello fractures the spatial and temporal coherence of scenes, stringing together elemental, horror movie-adjacent visuals, like the recurring image of an iridescent moon shrouded in clouds and first-person perspective shots that careen through dense sugarcane fields. A clear contrast is established early on between the perpetually dark Haitian landscape and the antiseptic, white-walled interiors of the classrooms in which Fanny and Mélissa are lectured by professors spouting one-sided lessons on world history. But just as its racial politics start to seem too explicit, Zombi Child suddenly and radically reframes itself.

Clairvius’s death turns out to have been the consequence of familial jealousy, and his exploitation as a slave comes at the hands of black plantation farmers, not white men—at least not that we’re made aware of. And if the film is rendered with a veracity that a documentarian would envy, that’s a result of Bonello drawing inspiration from accounts of Haitian slaves being put in medically induced states of “zombification” during the early 20th century. This has the effect of recasting a supernatural fiction narrative as reconstructed history.

Bonello also never gives us the racially charged confrontation that Mélissa and Fanny’s relationship seems to be building toward, as he’s interested in their racial backgrounds only insofar as it shapes their modes of self-identification. Fanny’s refusal to accept her life in the present sets her on a collision course with the forces of Mélissa’s ancestry, and leads to a cataclysm of psychological horror that sees one of these forces to take possession over the other—an undead history rising up to claim a living one. Mélissa, though, draws her identity from her past and her present, and in the same moment that Fanny has her communion with the spiritual forces of voodoo, Mélissa delivers an aural history on the subject—a kind of counter-lecture to those of the white, blowhard professors in Zombi Child.

The film’s off-kilter mix of horror, historiography, and youth movie affords Bonello plenty of opportunity to indulge his pet themes and motifs. He spends much time lingering throughout scenes set at the academy on the sociality of the young women and their engagement with pop culture (notably, Mélissa gives a presentation to her class on Rihanna). In fact, Bonello’s fascination with the dynamics of these relationships seems to drive his interest in the horror genre more so even than the film’s most obvious antecedent, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie—as is indicated by a pretty explicit homage to Brian De Palma’s Carrie.

The film’s most intriguing facet, though, is the way Bonello plays with temporality. The dialectical relationship between past and present has become a central organizing principle of Bonello’s artistry, evident in his anachronistic soundtrack choices and his unmooring of characters from their period settings through decidedly modern behaviors or situations, but here he approaches that dialectic in a crucially different manner. Instead of overlaying modern-day signifiers on a period piece setting, as he did in House of Pleasures, Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. And the anxiety this creates—through discursive editing and match cuts—leads to a feverish payoff, one that uses genre and supernatural elements to further Bonello’s idea of there being one historical continuity.

Cast: Adilé David, Ginite Popote, Louise Labeque, Mackenson Bijou, Mathilde Riu, Ninon François, Patrick Boucheron, Saadia Bentaïeb, Sayyid El Alami, Wislanda Louimat, Katiana Milfort Director: Bertrand Bonello Screenwriter: Bertrand Bonello Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: In Diamantino, Strident Political Satire and Whimsy Go Toe to Toe

The film is at its strongest when depicting how Diamantino becomes a tool of politicians hoping to oust Portugal from the EU.




Photo: Kino Lorber

Part absurdist character study, part satire of various European political crises, Diamantino envisions a Candide-like soccer megastar, Diamantino Matamouros (Carloto Cotta), possessed of naïve but intense imaginations. He lives in a colossal chateau and sleeps on pillows and sheets with his face printed on them, and spends much of his waking life riding the seas on a yacht that’s big enough to ferry a small army. Despite being arguably the most famous person in Portugal, and among the most famous in the world, he’s oblivious to his star power and the weighty expectations placed on him by soccer fans.

Throughout the film, writer-directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt delight in playing up the precarious balance between Diamantino’s self-absorption and his sweet absent-mindedness. Unencumbered by an entourage, Diamantino rarely interacts with anyone besides his loving, supportive father, Chico (Chico Chapas), whose humble kindness is rather jarring when set against the palatial trappings of the family’s digs. Even on the soccer pitch, Diamantino doesn’t exude the focus one associates with an elite athlete, as he spends matches fantasizing about running with colossal, fluffy puppies—playful daydreams that somehow guide his movements as he slips past other players and scores goals.

Diamantino’s carefree, seemingly unflappable temperament, however, is disrupted when he spots a raft of refugees while boating, and his glimpse at real human misery shakes him to the core—so much so that during a make-or-break penalty kick that will decide the World Cup final, he’s too distracted to make the shot, costing Portugal the match. The film’s manic tone swings into overdrive at this point, as Diamantino’s daydreams of haunted refugees are contrasted with his tear-streaked face when it’s blown up on jumbotrons, effectively positioning him as a symbol of his country’s spectacular defeat. And all the while his evil twin sisters (Anabela Moreira and Margarida Moreira) scream at the television set playing the game inside the family’s living room, causing Chico to have a fatal stroke.

This delirious sequence, touching on a celebrity’s political preoccupation and viral media culture, exhibits an audaciousness that’s disappeared from much contemporary comedy, and it sets the tone for the film’s freewheeling style. Humiliated into early retirement, Diamantino announces his embrace of the sort of celebrity activism that regularly comes in for ridicule, declaring that he will adopt a refugee child to honor both the humanitarian crisis and his late father. The Portuguese secret service, already investigating him for suspected money laundering, uses Diamantino’s proclamation to set up an undercover agent, Aisha (Cleo Tavares), to pose as a Cape Verdean refugee child, Rahim, in order to get into his house to gather clues for their case. And while Aisha only finds hilarious evidence of the player’s innocence (his computer files consist of nothing but pet photos), she continues her ruse, if only for the filmmakers to add yet another wrinkle—a lesbian relationship with her colleague, Lucia (Maria Leite)—to the film’s already dense array of plots and themes.

Aisha and Lucia’s presence in Diamantino may turn the dial up on the film’s hijinks, but in the process stalls its satirical thrust. To be sure, the film wrings much humor from Aisha’s infiltration of Diamantino’s home, mostly from how quickly she discovers that his innocence is beyond a doubt and that his cruel sisters are comically guilty, as they keep their offshore accounts on a desktop shortcut. Diamantino’s interactions with Aisha are amusing insofar as Cotta commits fully to his character’s over-eager treatment of “Rahim,” serving his adopted child breakfast in bed and getting into tickle fights that underscore the man’s emotional stuntedness. Yet these moments soon come to feel redundant, leaning too much on Lucia’s petulant anger for comic effect as Aisha grows increasingly close to Diamantino.

That Diamantino and Aisha’s relationship comes to define the last act of the film ultimately detracts from the riotous vision that Abrantes and Schmidt sketch of roiling EU tensions and the way celebrity culture can be just another element in the viral branding of extreme politics. Diamantino is on its strongest footing when depicting how its main character becomes a tool of politicians hoping to oust Portugal from the EU. One scene sees him starring in “Pexit” commercial as a folk hero from the Reconquista, during which Muslims were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. The right-wing politicians who fund the ad clearly pledge allegiance to the historical figure’s Islamophobia, though it’s also obvious that they hope that the pleasure Diamantino takes in dancing around in his costume will undercut that impression.

Elsewhere, Diamantino is used as a lab rat for a company that attempts to clone him in order to produce the world’s best soccer team. This stretch finds the film at its most profound, in part because it’s impossible to believe that scientists and supercomputers fail to fathom how a man who lives on an all-sugar diet and daydreams about puppies on the pitch could be the world’s best athlete. The filmmakers draw a line between the absurdity of these experiments and the insidious quest for racial purity behind most eugenics movements, suggesting that neo-fascists are so prone to celebrity worship that they might mistake their favorite star for the master race. It’s rich, relevant material for satire, so it’s a shame that the film pivots away from it to resolve around Diamantino’s relatively straightforward pursuit of happiness.

Cast: Carloto Cotta, Cleo Tavares, Anabela Moreira, Margarida Moreira, Carla Maciel, Chico Chapas, Maria Leite, Filipe Vargas, Joana Barrios Director: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt Screenwriter: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Tomorrow Man Gets Too Caught Up in Its Pursuit of Preciousness

The film is content to peddle the naïve notion that love is the panacea for all that ails you.




The Tomorrow Man
Photo: Bleecker Street

The retired recluse at the center of writer-director Noble Jones’s The Tomorrow Man spends his days intensely preparing for the apocalypse. When Ed Hemsler (John Lithgow) isn’t meticulously organizing his home and secret fallout shelter, he’s posting conspiracy theories on an internet forum or glued to the local news. At least, that is, until a female news anchor (Wendy Makkena) starts to directly address him, at which point he turns off his television and tries to get his head straight. But Ed can’t really seem to find a way of easing his troubled mind. Indeed, even after engaging in extended human contact via phone conversations with his son, Brian (Derek Cecil), the old man inevitably launches into diatribes packed with half-baked ideas and comprehensive survival advice.

You’d be correct in thinking that Ed sounds a lot like Michael Shannon’s Curtis from Take Shelter, and for a short time, he follows a similar trajectory. But where Jeff Nichols’s film thrives in the ambiguous space between objective reality and the mind of its strange yet plausibly prescient protagonist, The Tomorrow Man never gives credence to any of Ed’s protestations of doom and gloom, seeing them as symptoms of his loneliness and isolation. And while his extreme paranoia is unmistakably a form of mental illness, Jones increasingly treats it with less and less concern as the film moves forward, instead using it as fodder for both quirky comedy and the catalyst for a light-hearted septuagenarian romance.

Enter Ronnie (Blythe Danner), the beautiful but equally socially awkward woman whom Ed meets while stocking up on supplies at the local grocery store. Her subtly twitchy awkwardness serves as the perfect balance to Ed’s boisterous neuroticism; her steadfast use of cash and strategic purchasing leads Ed to believe that he’s found a kindred spirit, one who’s equally prepped for the end of the world. Naturally, there’s a catch, and the ever-fastidious Ed eventually discovers Ronnie’s deep, dark secret: that she’s a hoarder.

It’s a fairly ridiculous odd-couple scenario, but when Jones keeps things small and focuses on Ed and Ronnie’s burgeoning love affair and Ronnie’s clumsy efforts at tempering Ed’s cantankerousness, Lithgow and Danner imbue the film with a warmth and generosity that lends their characters a bit of humanity. The two actors’ effortlessly charming rapport enlivens, at least in brief spurts, a film that otherwise reduces its characters to their eccentricities, from her love of war documentaries to his appreciation of ball bearings.

But The Tomorrow Man displays an utter lack of interest in exploring how Ed and Ronnie came to be so reclusive. Following their initial meet cute, the film gets caught up in its pursuit of preciousness. And Jones’s indifference to the more disturbing elements of his characters’ interior worlds effectively reduces serious mental health issues to harmless neuroses. Late into The Tomorrow Man, Ed takes to the message boards to post that “sometimes people need to be who they are even if they don’t want to be who they are.” It’s a sentiment of acceptance that’s hard to argue against, but one that ignores the fact that Ed and Ronnie are in dire need of psychiatric help. And that’s because Jones is content to peddle the naïve notion that, regardless of your situation, love is the panacea for all that ails you.

Cast: John Lithgow, Blythe Danner, Derek Cecil, Katie Aselton, Sophie Thatcher, Eve Harlow, Wendy Makkena Director: Noble Jones Screenwriter: Noble Jones Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 94 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Cannes Review: The Dead Don’t Die Is Undone by its Meta-Film Aspirations

In Jim Jarmusch’s film, what starts as a subtle undercurrent of knowing humor curdles into overt self-referentiality.




Dead Don't Die
Photo: Focus Features

Jim Jarmusch’s strength has always been his ability to craft films that seem lackadaisical and navel-gazing on the surface, but which are actually very methodical, revealing essential truths about the socioeconomic conditions of modern American life. The filmmaker’s latest, The Dead Don’t Die, zips through vignettes set in the small town of Centerville in the days leading up to the zombie apocalypse, and for an hour-plus, the film is sharp, acerbic, and surprisingly melancholic, probing at the generational divides between its characters, who behave in vastly different ways throughout the end of days.

Eventually, however, and perhaps because Jarmusch senses that his trademark deadpan doesn’t have the same novel appeal that it once did, what starts as a subtle undercurrent of knowing humor curdles into overt self-referentiality. It’s not so much a snapping-into-focus as a whiplash-inducing lurch into meta-film territory that Jarmusch doesn’t seem to realize is already a very stale play for this genre of film.

Or maybe he just doesn’t care. There’s much evidence here to suggest that Jarmusch’s prime interest in making a zombie movie is to emphasize the soul-deadening state of America, maybe even the world. So when the film’s zombies roam around murmuring the names of the products they consumed when they were alive (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, coffee, and so on), writing this all off as a lame literalization of the most prevalent theme from George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead isn’t so much a scathing critique of his approach as a confirmation of the message he’s imparting: that our culture is nothing but a zombified version of itself.

The Dead Don’t Die is at its best when mulling the contours of the relationships between the cross-generational cast of characters. Neither Cliff (Bill Murray), the resigned, veteran cop, nor Ronnie (Adam Driver), his self-aware but generally unfeeling rookie partner, are particularly well drawn in and of themselves, but their repartee makes them interesting, as Cliff’s air of wisdom and experience dissipates when he finally realizes that Ronnie understands the rules of their genre-inflected universe better than he ever will, and Ronnie, all stoical resolve, is unable to process Cliff’s sobering, earnest emotional outbursts.

The Venn diagram of all things Jarmuschian and all things Lynchian has always shown a significant bit of overlap, but in working with an ensemble cast that throws together longtime collaborators with a gallery of fresh faces—all populating a mosaic of small-town life that’s pervaded by ethereal dread—Jarmusch mounts something akin to his own Twin Peaks: The Return. The greatest affinity between The Dead Don’t Die and David Lynch’s series, though, is the shared interest in investigating how a younger generation can assimilate into the filmmakers’ highly idiosyncratic styles and affect the tenor of their worldviews.

To that end, The Dead Don’t Die feels most poignant when it threads the experience of its various characters and exerts a kind of equalizing force over them. The best example of this, and also something like the film’s philosophical lodestone, is the eponymous country theme song, recorded by Sturgill Simpson and played in various contexts throughout. The song’s ingratiating, hummable melody eventually illuminates how art can have disparate effects on audiences. For the carefree hipster played by Selena Gomez, the tune is an outlet for escape as she drives through the countryside. But it becomes downright oppressive when Cliff gets sick of Ronnie playing it in their police car and chucks the CD out the window.

That range of response is also reflected in the overall trajectory of the film, which begins in a register of playful irreverence—even as characters spout pronouncements of environmental disaster wrought by fracking, or ponder what kind of creature may have mauled two women found dead at a diner—before gradually succumbing to its anger. That isn’t inherently bad, of course, but the film’s dreary, didactic denouement proves that Jarmusch is unable to translate his righteous fury at the state of the world into a cinematic statement as compelling, creative, or weird as The Dead Don’t Die manages to be when it’s simply content to be a hangout movie that just so happens to be set during the zombie apocalypse.

Cast: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, Luka Sabbat, Rosie Perez, Eszter Balint, Iggy Pop, Sara Driver, RZA, Carol Kane, Larry Fessenden, Tom Waits Director: Jim Jarmusch Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum Sees a Series Resting on Its Laurels

The choreography is as brutal as you expect, but the repetition in style from the first two films makes the effect less surprising.




John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
Photo: Lionsgate

At the end of another knock-down, drag-out pummeling in Chad Stahelski’s John Wick 3: Parabellum, the man with the samurai sword sticking out of his chest says to Keanu Reeves’s John Wick, “That was a pretty good fight, huh?” It’s a throwaway gag, the kind that action directors like to use for a breather after a particularly bruising melee. But it also comes off as something of a gloat—one of a few signs in the film that stuntman turned director Stahelski, for better and worse, is content to coast on a winning formula.

The third installment in this series about a hitman who would really like to stay retired and mourn his dead wife and dog picks up about five seconds after John Wick: Chapter 2 ended. Winston (Ian McShane) gives Wick a one-hour grace period before he’s “excommunicado” from the Continental, neutral ground for members of the criminal underworld, after killing a crime lord. A $14 million bounty has been put on his head, and as roughly one in seven people in the world of the film appears to be an assassin, that means that at least two or three killers with dollar signs in their eyes chase after Wick down every Manhattan city block.

The immediate result of this in the film’s pell-mell opening stretch is that the ever-resourceful Wick kills many, many, many people. He kills them with knives, hatchets, and in a particularly imaginative sequence set in a stable, by getting a horse to kick an assailant in the face. Much of this stretch is mindful of what made the prior films in the John Wick series tick. In other words, Stahelski puts Wick through an increasingly absurd and bloody series of confrontations whose intensity plays off Reeves’s hangdog demeanor with deadpan comic timing.

That fidelity to what’s expected of a John Wick film is initially a relief, at least before the filmmakers start looking for new dramatic terrain to explore. Normally this would be a positive development. After all, just how far can you stretch a concept that’s essentially Run John Run? But all the little story beats that break up the central chase narrative, mostly in the form of hints about Wick’s origin story, ultimately do little to develop the story or character and just serve to pad out the running time with more human obstacles for Wick to stoically annihilate.

Having more or less set the entire criminal universe against him, Wick has to call in just about every favor he has. Given his long and only hinted-at backstory, that leaves the film’s writers a lot of room to play with. Jumping from one roost to the next, Wick asks for help from the Director (Angelica Huston), a member of the high-level crime lords known as the High Table, and Sofia (Halle Berry), an ex-assassin who owes Wick a debt and who’s just as good as he is with a blade and a gun, only she has a pair of kill-on-command canines at her side.

It’s satisfying to watch as John Wick 3 expands the glimmers of fantastical world-building that had previously gilded the series’s retired-killer-on-the-run narrative. The outré garnishes like the gold-coin currency, the killer spies disguised as homeless people, and the Continental—lavish, crooks-only hotels that suggest what might happen if Ian Schrager got the chance to whip up something for the mob—work as a baroque counterpoint to the stripped-down economy of Wick’s dialogue. His response to what he needs for help as the High Table’s stormtroopers close in for the kill? “Guns. Lots of guns.”

The returning cast continues to provide greater and more nuanced depth of character than is called on from Reeves, especially Lance Reddick as a serenely authoritative Continental concierge, a scrappy Laurence Fishburne as the lord of the homeless, and the ever-lugubrious McShane as the New York Continental’s sherry-sipping manager. Asia Kate Dillon also makes a fierce new entry to the series as the Adjudicator, a steely emissary from the High Table.

The production design doesn’t disappoint, either, with its chiaroscuro portrait of an always rainy and crowded New York. Splashes of neon and lens flare play off the antiquated production design. Anachronisms like old-fashioned yellow cabs and 1970s-era computers are paired with a cutting-edge armory of high-tech weapons and oddball details like the criminal underworld secretaries costumed like Suicide Girls who decided to enter the work force.

As for the action choreography, it’s as brutal as you expect, though the repetition in style from the first two films makes the effect less surprising. Wick piles up bodies by the dozen and never puts one bullet in a goon’s head when three or four will more effectively splatter his brains over the wall. Besides the previously mentioned throwdown in a stable, though, the only other fight scene in the film that stands out is the one set inside an antique store: The unarmed Wick and his blade-preferring attackers have murderous fun smashing open and utilizing the contents of one display case, throwing knife after knife at each other.

But the further the film illuminates the spiderweb of criminal enterprise undergirding its world, the more burdensome the overlong story becomes. The somewhat blasé tone that played as just slightly tongue-in-cheek in the first John Wick is starting by this point to feel like complacency. But given the repetitive nature of much of this entry’s narrative, the eventually numbing action choreography—punch, flip, stab, shoot, punch, flip, stab, shoot—and the setup for more of the same in a now seemingly inevitable John Wick 4, it’s possible that even fans could wind up as exhausted as Wick himself.

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Asia Kate Dillon, Mark Dacascos, Lance Reddick, Anjelica Huston, Tobias Segal, Said Taghmaoui, Jerome Flynn Director: Chad Stahelski Screenwriter: Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, Marc Abrams Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 130 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Perfect Is a Series of Lurid Pillow Shots in Search of a Soul

Eddie Alcazar’s film is a purposefully inscrutable, wandering, disconnected, symbolic, and highly precious mood bath.




Photo: Brainfeeder Films

Eddie Alcazar’s Perfect is the sort of purposefully inscrutable, wandering, disconnected, symbolic, and highly precious mood bath that you’ll either adore or loathe. There are stilted allusions to everyone from Nicolas Winding Refn to Panos Cosmatos to Mel Gibson to the granddaddies of modern cinematic surrealism, Luis Buñuel and David Lynch. But these references add up to nothing more than a catalogue of fetishes.

There’s a narrative in Perfect—sort of. A beautiful young man billed in the credits as Vessel 13 (Garrett Wareing) calls his equally beautiful mother (Abbie Cornish), who appears to be roughly the same age. Sonny boy has done something bad, having either beaten his girlfriend to death or nurtured an elaborate fantasy over the act, which, in this world, is more or less the same thing. The mother, all icy, well-tailored matter-of-factness, sends Vessel 13 to a remote spa somewhere in a mountainous jungle where she once spent time herself. There, he’s advised to choose his path, which entails cutting chunks of flesh out of his face that resemble cubed tuna tartar, and inserting crystal silicon into the exposed wounds.

Vessel 13’s acts of self-surgery are the film’s most original flourishes, involving some fun horror-movie gimmickry. The instruments for cutting the flesh come in a see-through plastic container, with cardboard backing, recalling an action figure’s packaging, complete with a mascot that suggests an anime Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Vessel 13’s scalpel is basically a drafting knife—a nice touch, given that this man is tasked with making himself over.

But much of Alcazar’s film is fatal hokum passed off as a mystical quest for transcendence. In place of most of the dialogue is an ongoing voiceover, which is composed of non-profundities such as “The way out is really the way in,” “In this great illusion of love, an object cannot exist without something else to reflect itself back onto itself,” and, most hilarious of all, “The problem with the truth is that once you know the truth, you can’t un-know it.” Few films could recover from such an unceasing tide of nonsense.

Meanwhile, Vessel 13 wanders the spa’s grounds while gorgeous young women hang about an atmospheric pool seemingly posing for a special collaboration between Rue Morgue and GQ, which Alcazar complements with a neon-bathed lightshow designed to flout his bona fides as a serious arthouse figure. The self-surgeries gradually turn Vessel 13 pale and bald, fostering a weird likeness to Jason Voorhees from 1980’s Friday the 13th. Why would the spa’s treatment, which turned Mom into, well, Abbie Cornish, transform this young man into a ghoul? It has something to do with facing your inner ugliness and expunging it so that you may become a carefree hottie again, and frolic on the beach with a new, even hotter woman without fear of bashing in her brains. Erasing said ugliness also involves elaborate black-and-white visions of a quasi-Aztec society, where Vessel 13 sees himself as a barbarian eating a live human baby. By this point in the film, one might as well shrug and ask, “Why not?”

Perfect is desperately evasive about what it’s actually eaten up with: sex. The film feels like an excuse to corral a bunch of good-looking people together at a hip location and fashion a variety of lurid pillow shots. That’s not an inherently unpromising desire, though Alcazar can’t lay off the self-aggrandizing mumbo jumbo, and a sense of humor would’ve helped. The filmmaker honestly appears to believe that Perfect is an examination of privilege, particularly our ruthless standards of beauty, when it’s really just an embodiment of the same. This interchangeable collection of sequences has no soul.

Cast: Garrett Wareing, Abbie Cornish, Courtney Eaton, Tao Okamoto, Leonardo Nam, Maurice Compte, Alicia Sanz, Sarah McDaniel, Rainey Qualley Director: Eddie Alcazar Screenwriter: Ted Kupper Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ritesh Batra’s Photograph Lives and Dies by Its Frustrating Excisions

In pushing so many seemingly crucial moments off screen, the film transforms its main characters into blank slates.




Photo: Amazon Studios

Ritesh Batra’s Mumbai-set Photograph is a film as reserved as its protagonists. Full of quiet, contemplative shots of would-be lovebirds Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), the film strikes a muted tone that serves as a conscious contrast to the high-blown romances of mainstream Indian cinema. Even as it takes a subtler, more realistic approach to romance across class and religious divisions in India, it almost self-reflexively resembles a Bollywood love story, but only in outline form, as if its stillness were an effect of its having lost the musical numbers that typically define such films.

In the tradition of so many works about star-crossed lovers, Rafi and Miloni come from different worlds. Rafi is a Muslim from a rural village who works as a street photographer, attempting to force his services on tourists visiting the Gateway of India. Miloni is a young, bourgeois Hindu excelling in, but not particularly excited by, her courses on chartered accountancy. They meet one day when Rafi convinces Miloni to pose for a photograph, using his usual pitch that a photo is a material memory—the preservation of a moment that would otherwise fade away. Miloni poses for the photograph, but lost in her thoughts, she leaves with one of the two copies before Rafi can hand her the other.

Separately, the twentysomething Miloni and fortysomething Rafi are each coping with pressure from their elders: Miloni’s parents want her to move to America to study, while Rafi still deals with admonitions from his grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar) that he hasn’t yet married. To mollify her, Rafi includes the photo of Miloni in a letter, claiming she’s his fiancée, and soon the grandmother announces that she’s on her way to Mumbai to meet the prospective bride. It’s at this point that anyone who’s ever seen a romantic comedy can guess where this masquerade is headed, and that the film isn’t going to be interested in a rewriting any rules. If anything, the places where the story does diverge from the expected path, as in a conversation between Rafi and a ghost, are more mystifying than meaningful.

Rafi’s plan to hoodwink his grandmother is contingent on Miloni’s participation. Luckily, he runs into Miloni on the bus, but Batra leaves their conversation out of the film, cutting to Miloni agreeing to the scheme. Her motivation, beyond the general impression Photograph gives us of her kind-heartedness, is that she’s lost the original photograph Rafi gave her. The photo was confiscated in class by her creepy accountancy teacher (Jim Sarbh), whose attraction to Miloni becomes a minor subplot. It appears Miloni liked her own image so much that she’s willing to play the part of Rafi’s fiancée in exchange for a new picture.

Batra excises other pivotal plot points from the film, giving scenes an elliptical, allusive tone. The point, underlined by Rafi and Miloni’s visits to a movie theater playing Bollywood musicals, appears to be the filmmaker’s belief that he’s telling a familiar story whose more rote moments don’t need reiteration. Photograph tries instead to focus on interstitial, lived-in scenarios, like Rafi lying awake in the one-bedroom apartment he shares with four other street photographers, or he and Miloni enjoying shaved ice and kulfi, an ice cream-like desert.

But in pushing so many seemingly crucial moments off screen, Photograph transforms its main characters into blank slates. For one, the absence of the scene in which Miloni agrees to lie to Rafi’s grandmother makes Malhotra’s character seem inscrutable, a meekly smiling void. In a society chock-full of imaging technologies, the prospect of a new photograph doesn’t seem a particularly strong motivation to entangle herself in Rafi’s lies—particularly considering that he involved her by using her image without her knowledge. Photograph’s admittedly clever conclusion suggests that Batra wants to make his audience swoon, but the film’s contrivances and conspicuous excisions undercut our connection to the characters.

Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra, Farrukh Jaffar, Vijay Raaz Director: Ritesh Batra Screenwriter: Ritesh Batra, Emeara Kamble Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 108 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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