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Understanding Screenwriting #37: The Blind Side, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Up in the Air, Wanted, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #37: The Blind Side, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Up in the Air, Wanted, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Blind Side, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Up in the Air, Wanted, For a Few Dollars More, 30 Rock, and Monk, but first…

Fan Mail: Well, well, well. I really pissed off the Bitter Victory crowd in US#36, didn’t I? Luis M took me to task for being concerned with verisimilitude and said that “Unless you come out of that error, a discussion can’t even begin.” I take another view of discussions about films, as you may have gathered from this column. I have found over the years that people have an enormous variety of responses to any given film at any given time they see it. I wrote a book about it, American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, which upset the academic reviewers because I pointed out the variety of ways people feel about movies and moviegoing. There is no one right way, and there is no one right view of a given film.

Doniphon, both in his comments, and especially in his blog piece which Keith was nice enough to link to, made what I think is probably as good a case as could be made for the film. I did notice he mentioned a number of elements that bothered me on the script level. He attributed them to the film showing the confusion of war, but I attribute them to confusion in the scriptwriting process. Doniphon led me to the Jeff Stafford piece on the Turner Classic Movie website, which is a good summary of the production problems with the film, and helps explain where the confusions in the film come from. Script problems can come not only from the writers, but the producers and directors as well.

Tray took me to task for talking about the film as though it is “some stupid war action movie, as opposed to what it is, a meditation on war.” Well, it is a stupid war action movie, and its confusions not only hurt it as an action movie, but also as a meditation on war. The Bridge on the River Kwai manages to be both an action-adventure film and a meditation on war. As one reviewer of the time said of it, “It hilariously reveals the ridiculous things men fight for, and subtly reveals the sublime.”

And speaking of David Lean and his films, I want to give a real shoutout to Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard for their conversation on Lawrence of Arabia at the House. I first saw the film two days after its opening in New York and I have seen it countless times since. Needless to say, I have read a lot of what has been written about it. Jason and Ed’s piece is the best single essay I have ever read about it. What I particularly liked was how they dealt with Lean’s direction. Too many people writing about directors talk mostly about what in actuality the writers contributed to the films, but Jason and Ed focused on his use of space and timing of the sequences. If you want a view of the screenplay of the film, including why the first five-and-a-half minutes (which they had reservations about) is essential to the film, read the first chapter of my book Understanding Screenwriting. But don’t be surprised if you put on the DVD as you read the chapter and end up taking 4 hours to read what should take you about twenty minutes.

And now, let’s see who I can piss off this time..

The Blind Side (2009. Screenplay by John Lee Hancock, based on the book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis. 128 minutes): Maybe the marketing people got it sort of right this time.

In US#29 I took the marketing people who handled The Proposal to task for their first campaigns for the film. They emphasized Sandra Bullock as the Boss From Hell without showing any of the charm of the character. Audiences turned up anyway, and the later trailers had at least one shot of Bullock smiling. The first trailers for this current film made it sound like a gooey, sentimental “white-folks-helping-out-the-underprivileged-black folks” movie. But the second trailer focused on Bullock finding her inner Erin Brockovich and tearing up the screen. Audiences turned up in droves, and although the second trailer is somewhat misleading, the word of mouth is so good (viewers questioned by Cinemascore gave it an A+, which hardly ever happens) that audiences are still turning out in droves. Critics, who hated the movie, would probably say that Bullock’s performance is letting audiences feel good about liking a sentimental film. But the film is much better than just that, and Bullock’s performance is more subtle than the trailer makes it out to be. It is also one of the most generous performances I have ever seen by a star of her magnitude.

John Lee Hancock, using only one element from Lewis’s book, starts the script showing us Michael Oher, a large black 17-year-old whom a cousin talks a private school into admitting. Michael had been passed along from grade to grade in public school and not learned anything. Well, yes he had, it turns out, but he just was unable to write it out on tests. The teachers begin to figure out how to get to him and—wait a minute. This is a SANDRA BULLOCK film and she hasn’t shown up yet, other than in voiceover at the beginning explaining what the title is all about. What the hell is Hancock up to? He is focusing on Michael because the movie is Michael’s story. Michael is so quiet, Hancock as the director has to let us spend time with the character and Quinton Aaron, the actor who plays him. This is Hancock’s extended version of George Roy Hill’s minutes-long close-up of Redford at the beginning of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: letting us become accustomed to somebody we have not seen much of before. These scenes establish Michael as a character and Aaron’s rhythm as a performer. There may be a film editing textbook somewhere that mentions the following but I haven’t seen it: in editing films you often have to key off on the leading actor. If you are cutting a Mel Gibson film, it is going to be cut quicker than a Clint Eastwood film. Hancock as writer and director is setting the tone and rhythm of the film based on Aaron.

So eventually Bullock’s Leigh Anne Touhy shows up. She takes over Michael’s life like she takes over everything else: she and her husband and their two kids take Michael into their house, help him develop his football skills and eventually get him into their alma mater, Mississippi. Hancock has written Leigh Anne as pushy (and by most accounts the real Leigh Anne is even pushier than Hancock and Bullock’s) but also with quieter moments of reflection as she thinks about what she is doing. And Bullock is more than up to the challenge. She could have played it like Roberts played Brockovich, all guns blazing, but she instinctively (or perhaps after a lot of discussion with Hancock) understands that she is playing off Aaron and it’s his movie.

In earlier columns I have written about movies and television series that were Bush-era entertainments in the Obama-era. The Blind Side may be the first Obama-era movie, since it handles race in some subtle and sometimes unnerving ways. On the surface the film can be seen as a “white folks doing good” movie, and undoubtedly a lot of white audiences take it in that simpleminded way and miss the nuances. While Michael is pretty much a saint, most of the other black characters are not. The only other young black men we see are drug dealers who try, late in the picture, to get Michael into the trade. His mother is a druggie who can barely remember him. But in each of those cases, the characters are given more than one dimension. One of the dealers clearly has second thoughts, and the mother is obviously suffering from the embarrassment of her situation when Leigh Anne comes to visit her. The NCAA representative that raises questions about Michael’s admission to Old Miss is a black woman. She is pretty much one-dimensional, and I really wish Hancock had either written her or had the actress playing her act as though the character had a legitimate case to investigate. If you listen to the dialogue in her two scenes, she really does have a case. Unfortunately Hancock rushes the last twenty minutes or so of the film and does not do justice to her character.

An example of the subtle ways the film deals with race is a sequence beginning with Leigh Anne having lunch with three of her pals. One of them wonders if Leigh Anne is not concerned about having a black boy living in the same house with her teenage daughter. Leigh Anne, who is established as a conservative Christian (and not in a satirical way as in most Hollywood films; no wonder the film is a smash hit in middle America), shames the woman for suggesting such a thing. Liberal viewers will be satisfied, but then we see Leigh Anne thinking about it and later asking her daughter if she feels uncomfortable with Michael in the house. It is fairly clear that Leigh Anne is not a racist, but she is a mother concerned about her daughter as well as Michael. As a father and grandfather, I was concerned about the situation when the other woman brought it up, not because of Michael’s race, but because he’s a teenaged boy. I think that’s Leigh Anne’s concern and I share it. Her daughter, Collins, like a lot of young people today, simply doesn’t see what the big deal is about Michael’s race. Later, in the school’s study hall, she leaves the table where she is sitting with some of her white girlfriends and sits with Michael at a table where he is all alone, saying it is just like when they study at home.

Michael eventually gets into Old Miss, with the help of Miss Sue, a tutor hired by the Touhys. Kathy Bates is a bit underemployed in the role, but Hancock has written her a couple of nice scenes: her reactions to “Charge of the Light Brigade” and her little aria on why Michael really does not want to go to the University of Tennessee. All of which lead to the worst scenes in the film where a huddle of real-life football coaches play themselves very badly. I suppose if you write great scenes you get great actors, but if you write mediocre scenes and get amateur actors…

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009. Screenplay by Peter Straughan, inspired by the book by Jon Ronson. 94 minutes): A shaggy goat story.

I love shaggy dog stories, and I love shaggy dog movies. You know, those that you think may be seriously intended and turn out not to be. Like Beat the Devil (the granddaddy of all shaggy dog movies), Bergman’s The Magician, Touch of Evil, the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, and perhaps the greatest of them all, Psycho. Come on, you don’t think Hitch intended that last one as a serious study of mental illness, did you?

Peter Straughan loved the non-fiction book, but found it had no strong narrative line. Straughan told Peter Clines in the November/December 2009 issue of Creative Screenwriting that it was just a collection of beads. Straughan said, “So the job was really to take all those beads, or as many of them as I could, and string them together into a narrative.” The storyline he settled on was reporter Bob Wilton discovering the assorted beads. But what Straughan does is brilliantly match the structure and the tone of the film. The structure allows him to wander off the main line as he gets assorted information. The information does not lead to the truth, or even a truth, but to wackier and wackier bits of information. Well, that’s not surprising, since the guys Wilton is talking to are part of an Army experiment in the uses of psychic energy. Each character has his own truth, and sometimes it’s a lie. I wrote in US#35 about how Mad Men allows its characters to be wrong. The characters here are wrong as often as they are right. Sometimes their psychic magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t. We and Wilton are on shakier ground with each passing moment. So when we get to a certain kind of reality in Iraq, it seems just as crazy as the stuff we have seen before. As an opening title says, “More of this is true than you would believe.”

The dialogue carries through the tone. Characters tell the most outrageous stories, some of which are true. The stories are nearly always told with a straight face by people who believe them, which makes those people seem even weirder than they are. The tale-telling is a long-established part of American culture (see my comments in US#32 on Inglourious Basterds), and Straughan captures it beautifully.

In spite of an interesting ad campaign (“No Goats. No Glory”), the film has not done well with the public. Shaggy dog movies very often don’t, since audiences are often put off by the tone of the films, which suggest the filmmakers are a little smarter than the audience. Which they are, which is why they are filmmakers.

Up in the Air (2009. Screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kirn. 109 minutes): Not Precious.

My wife and I celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary the other day (save your applause; it is not a record, even for Los Angeles). We settled on dinner and a movie, and decided to try a new restaurant called the Westside Tavern on the bottom floor of the Westside Pavillion. It is right at the foot of the escalators that go up to the Landmark Theater, the multiplex that features a mix of art films and Hollywood stuff. We go to the theaters not because they’re great (the screens are too big, they stupidly insist on reserved seats, they don’t hire union projectionists, and they don’t have any water fountains), but because it’s close to our house and it shows movies we want to see. We have watched the Westside Tavern being built over several years and it finally opened, to a good review in the Los Angeles Times. The food was great if expensive, the portions were neither too large nor too small, the service was good, and the music was soft enough you could carry on a conversation. Yeah, I did have a little gastric distress the next morning, but you pay for your thrills.

Our original idea was to go up the escalator to see Precious, but the more we thought about it, the less that seemed like a choice for a celebration, especially for a happy marriage. So we got to the Pavillion early enough to get tickets for Up in the Air. A much better choice for the occasion. Don’t worry, I will get around to Precious eventually.

Sheldon Turner read the novel when it first came out in 2001 and thought it would make a good movie. He did a script for it sort of on spec, and Kirn decided to go with another production company. That proposed production fell through and eventually the project ended up with Jason Reitman. When the WGA arbitration panel looked at both Turner and Reitman’s scripts, they thought there were enough similarities that Turner deserved co-credit. Since most of what you have read everywhere else assumes it was all Reitman all the time, since Reitman directed the film, you ought to be aware of Turner’s participation. Thanks to Jeff Goldsmith for his article on the making of the film in the November/December 2009 issue of Creative Screenwriting for the details.

And after all of that, how is the script? Terrific. Ryan Bingham was written by Reitman with George Clooney in mind. Reitman was right. It is a perfect part for him. We get all his charm, and not just in the one-note way we do in the Oceans movies, and the quieter side we often saw in ER. Screenwriting manuals generally tell you not to use voiceover, especially at the beginning of the film with the main character telling the audience about himself. But Bingham sort of demands that, since he is a talker of the first rank. He works for a company that sends him and others around to fire people at companies that are too scared to fire their employees themselves. Bingham and Clooney’s combination of charm and sincerity make them the perfect match.

Reitman created the role of Alex, a woman Bingham gets involved with. In the novel he slept with many women while he was flying around the country. What Reitman wanted to create was the female equivalent of Bingham, or as she tells him, “I’m you, with a vagina.” Again, a great role, since she is not like anybody else we have seen in movies. She has sex with Bingham whenever they can arrange it between their flights. It is never established what she does, but she flies as often as Bingham. While they do not have a “cute meet” in the traditional Hollywood sense, their first set of scenes is beautifully written: funny, charming, and surprising. And when their relationship ends, look at how little it takes, in one short scene, for us to know why it is not going to work for them.

The other character Bingham has to deal with is Natalie, a recent college grad who has come up with a system to fire people over webcams and not in person. Her and Bingham’s boss send them out together so she can find out what firing people is like in the real world. Natalie is also a fresh character we have not seen before: smart, contained, and able to play with the big kids. That is also true of Anna Kendrick who plays her. Kendrick has a scene in which she sits across from Clooney and the great Vera Farmiga as Alex and discusses what has recently happened to her. You try holding your own against these two. Well, Reitman wrote her the scene to do it.

The tone Reitman sets is not just conventional romantic comedy, but with an overtone of seriousness. Some of this developed as the film was being made while the economy was tanking last year. How do you make a film about a guy who fires people that people will want to see in these times? Yes, having George Clooney helps, although he did not help The Men Who Stare at Goats with the public. Reitman shot a series of interviews with real people who had been fired and cuts them into the film, along with some scenes with established actors. The choice and the organization of those documentary elements (yes, that is part of the writing process as well), give a weight and balance to the film. Talk about a high-wire act. And as in any high-wire act, you are either good or you are dead. They are all good in this one.

Wanted (2008. Screenplay by Michael Brandt & Derek Haas and Chris Morgan, story by Michael Brandt & Derek Haas, based on a comic book series by Mark Millar & J.G. Jones. 100 minutes): Agent Cody Banks with an R rating.

I missed this one in theaters. It was sort of on my list, but not that high up. I caught up with it recently on HBO and since the credits are at the end of the film, I did not know going in it was based on a comic book series.

So as I am watching it, I keep thinking that this is hitting all the comic book cliches. The hero, Wesley, is a drone who is put upon by all the adults in his world, who are portrayed as gorgons. His girlfriend is cheating on him with a guy who is apparently his only friend. Wesley is over twenty-one, but it feels like a bad day in high school.

But suddenly he is picked up by Fox, a beautiful, sleek woman with one expression in her repertoire: a fashion model “I sulk, therefore I am” look. She takes him to what looks like an old castle where he meets Sloan. Sloan tells Wesley his father was a gifted assassin who worked for The Fraternity. The Fraternity is a centuries old group who get their orders from, as Anna Russell used to say when describing plots of grand operas “I am not making this up,” an ancient weave, whose missed stitches are ones and zeros that are decoded into the names of the targets. Wesley’s dad left him when he was a baby and, like most kids with distant or missing dads, Wesley eats up the idea that his dad was out having adventures of the sort that would appeal to a teenage boy. So he goes into rigorous physical and mental training to become an assassin, specifically so he can kill Cross, the man who killed his father. Fox becomes his minder, which is where the movie sneaks into Cody Banks territory. The teenage special agent in that one had an adult woman minder who was also, like Fox, very sexy, and way out of his league. The age difference between Wesley and Fox is not as great as that between Cody and his minder, but it never occurs to Wesley that he might have a chance with Fox. He wouldn’t of course, but still. And then Fox provides the essential teen male fantasy moment: she and Wesley go back to his apartment to retrieve something, and she gives him a big, long, sexy kiss right in front of his unfaithful girlfriend. When you were in your teens wouldn’t you have loved to have someone who looks like Angelia Jolie plant one on you in front of your ex-girlfriend?

So Wesley gets trained, in some moderately lively action scenes, and eventually has to go to Europe to track down Cross. Except guess what? Cross is his real father and is trying to protect him from The Fraternity. Is he a great dad or what? When you were a teen, wouldn’t you have liked to have had a professional assassin as your dad to protect you? More action scenes happen, including the best one in the picture, involving a train, a car, and a bridge. Like most everything else in the picture, I didn’t believe it for a minute, but at least this one I enjoyed, being a long-time connoisseur of trains, train wrecks, and especially train wrecks involving bridges. See, Luis M, I can do without verisimilitude when the film has no intention of delivering it. Wesley eventually tracks down and single-handedly kills almost everyone in The Fraternity. Killing Sloan is reserved for the final scene in the film.

The film is intended as one of those “Cinema of Attractions” that I mentioned in US#36, and if you are into high-tech action, you may enjoy it. I generally prefer at least a little sense in the story. And a little humor, of which there is none in the film. The director is the Russian Timur Bekmambetov, and if anybody found any humor in his Night Watch or Day Watch, neither of which I have seen, please let me know.

For a Few Dollars More (1965. Screenplay by Sergio Leone and Luciano Vincenzoni, scenario (story) by Fulvio Morsella and Sergio Leone, additional (English) dialogue by Luciano Vincenzoni; and uncredited, Fernando Di Leo and Segio Donati. 131 minutes): The best of the three.

I had missed A Fistful of Dollars when it was first released in the United States, so this one was my first experience with Leone’s westerns. I saw it in the summer of 1967, and I liked Lee Van Cleef more than Clint Eastwood. I had seen Van Cleef in a whole pile of American westerns in the fifties, and Eastwood had not yet made much of an impression on me. I am not sure I have seen the whole film since 1967, although I have caught bits and pieces on television, but usually in a pan-and-scan format, which is NOT the way to see this film.

When I did get around to A Fistful of Dollars I was not particularly impressed. I thought its obvious source, Yojimbo (1961), was much better. And the third film in the trilogy, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, seemed way overdone. In Fistful there was not enough money for the production, and for Ugly there was too much. The budget for this one is just about right for the script. The script provides a nice balance between the two major characters, Colonel Douglas Mortimer (Van Cleef) and Monco (Eastwood), sort of like the relationship between the old marshal and the kid in N. B. Stone Jr.’s story that became the basis for Ride the High Country (see US#36). Van Cleef was only five years older than Eastwood at the time, but he has a maturity and gravitas that Eastwood does not yet have. The script lets them play off nicely not only against each other, but against the Italian Opera villains of the piece.

One thing Leone understood as a director was how to use Eastwood’s minimalist style against the overacting of the Italian actors. What Leone apparently did not understand was Eastwood’s sense of humor. That is on display here probably because (according to Eastwood’s biographer Patrick McGilligan) Eastwood worked with Luciano Vincenzoni, who spoke English, on the dialogue for the film. It seems odd to praise a visual film like this for its dialogue, but listen to it and what Eastwood does with. It shows up more in this film than in any other film in the trilogy. Or in any other Leone film. The Eastwood dry, deadpan humor may be why the trilogy did so well commercially. Much, much better than any of Leone’s other, humorless movies. No wonder Leone held a grudge against Eastwood in later years and seldom missed an opportunity to put him down. Directors often get pissy about actors whose absence in their movies shows up the directors’ limitations.

30 Rock (2009. “Dealbreakers Talk Show #0001.” Written by Kay Cannon. 30 minutes): Uninspired.

The problem I have been having with the fall season’s 30 Rock is that it is simply not as inspired as previous seasons. This episode is a prime example. Liz is getting set to do a talk show based on her bestselling book Dealbreakers. Jack is nervous about it because his archenemy Devin has called to tell him that Devin will smear Jack in front of the economic stimulus people if Dealbreakers fails. Liz is nervous because she is not really a performer. So she behaves like Jenna and locks herself in her dressing room. So Jack cancels the show. That’s it. But what about Devin? Surely there are a lot more inventive ways to deal with the talk show and even to get her out of it, which 30 Rock needs to do or else it changes completely. The only funny bit was Frank, who took over running TGS, turning more and more into Liz, complete with wig. I would have liked that a lot more if the rest of the show had been as funny.

Monk (2009. “Mr. Monk and the End, Parts I and II. Written by Andy Beckman. Each episode 60 minutes): Goodbye and farewell.

Scott Collins, writing in the Los Angeles Times, has covered the details of what Monk has meant to cable television very well, so I will not repeat what he wrote, but I do want to add a note about what it meant for writing for cable. On the one hand, the writing of Monk is rather seventies: a detective with some peculiarity (raincoat, wheelchair, etc) solves a single crime in each episode. That style went out with Hill Street Blues in the eighties and all of what I call The Children of Hill Street: crime shows with multiple storylines, story arcs, and huge casts. The production costs for a cable series simply could not match what the networks were doing. So while on the one hand Monk was a throwback, on the other hand, it took the peculiarity further than the earlier shows did. Columbo, Ironside, and Mannix were all heroic characters, Monk was not. And just as we accepted the less heroic on the network shows, e.g. Sipowicz in NYPD Blue, we accepted a character like Monk. Monk was not as elaborately produced as the network shows, but the writing and the character held us. And that led to a whole pile of less than heroic heroes, or at least deeply flawed characters: Grace on Saving Grace, Brenda Lee on The Closer, and many others. If it were not for Monk, the USA network would never have had as its slogan “Characters welcome.”

And as Monk goes away, knowing who murdered Trudy and that he has a 25-year-old daughter to drive crazy, we know that characters will always be welcome.

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

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Review: Hyènas Brilliantly Chips Away at a City’s Colonialist Architecture

Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1992 film resonates primarily for its lacerating comedic writing and pacing.

4

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Hyènas
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Djibril Diop Mambéty spared no one when mercilessly depicting populations who were simultaneously eating themselves from within and being exploited by the economic interests of outside forces. Mambéty’s great Touki Bouki from 1973 viewed this dual process through the prism of the postcolonial relationship between Senegal and France. And in Mambéty’s second feature, 1992’s Hyènas, Senegal is pitted against larger global institutions, such as the World Bank, that prey on small nations whose financial instability makes them more likely to embrace warped logic and false promises at their own expense.

Mambéty confines the proceedings to Colobane, a small commune in Dakar, where its population and governmental order are turned upside down by the return of former resident Linguere Ramatou (Ami Diakhate), whose newfound wealth has become a subject of much dispute and angst within the community. The woman, who’s said by locals to be “richer than the World Bank,” becomes Mambéty’s stand-in for how an institutional form of thinking, with its financial rather than human emphasis, corrupts local interests by vacuously promising short-term riches to citizens that, in turn, produce long-term financial crises.

One of Mambéty’s primary strengths is how his sense of detail instantly brings the locations of his films to life. Hyènas opens within the market owned by Dramaan (Mansour Diouf), a beloved local merchant whose generosity with patrons is almost immediately apparent, as he allows several customers to purchase expensive goods on credit rather than having them pay up front. Mambéty establishes each nook and cranny of the market’s space through a series of static shots that gradually reveal the amount of people—none of which offer payment for their acquisitions—toiling around the premises. When Dramaan’s wife (Faly Gueye) appears, and Dramaan says, out of her earshot, that she disapproves of his business practices, it’s the first suggestion in Mambéty’s carefully plotted script that mutual trust is the first casualty in the exchange of money between people linked to differing motivations. As the Colobane community takes even greater advantage of Dramaan later in the film, Hyènas further turns the man’s plight into an absurdist tale of capitalism’s follies.

Linguere’s return to Colobane provides the film with its driving plot device, as she announces to the population that she will pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the community in exchange for Dramaan’s murder. Linguere was abandoned by Dramaan years prior after giving birth to their daughter and has come back with the sole intention of wreaking havoc on the man’s life. At least, it initially seems that way; in a later scene, Linguere explains, “The world has made me a whore,” and so she plans to “turn the world into a whorehouse.”

Mambéty imagines how Linguere’s wealth co-signs her agenda of revenge; her dangling of expensive goods over the heads of locals hungry for their piece of the pie is akin to the lie of global monetary cooperation promised by organizations like the International Monetary Fund. Senegal, once again, becomes dependent on global rather than local sources of income and exchange. Mambéty, though, follows the thematic example set by Ousmane Sembène’s Xala, in which a Senegalese politician’s sexual impotence is a symbol of his corruption, by refusing to exonerate local officials within Senegal for their complicity in embracing Westernization. When Dramaan meets with Colobane’s mayor (Mamadou Mahourédia Gueye) to discuss the bounty that’s been placed on his head, the latter says, “[Leopold] Senghor himself went for a walk with the Queen of England…if we were savages, they would not come here.” By implicating the mayor’s deference to Western forms of knowledge and self-definition, Mambéty deftly wrestles with the complexity of corruption’s reach.

Despite its rather serious and finally tragic appraisal of Senegal’s quagmire within the world system, Hyènas resonates primarily for its lacerating comedic writing and pacing. As Dramaan comes to mistakenly believe that he will be elected Colobane’s next mayor, only to learn that, in fact, he’s more likely to be killed before an election takes place, Mambéty ratchets up the film’s ludicrousness to simultaneously critique the Senegalese government and widespread consumerism, and with equal ferocity. This is best encapsulated by the moment where Dramaan realizes that everyone who isn’t paying him seems to own the same, new pair of yellow boots made in Burkina Faso. Dramaan’s market, filled with foreign goods ranging from European tobacco to Coca-Cola, is itself exploiting its owner; the man has paid a high price for quality only for the local marketplace to abuse his ambitions.

These ideas also propelled Touki Bouki, in which a pair of college-aged youths from Dakar, a city adored with so many Pepsi logos and Mobil oil towers, (dream of migrating to France. In a memorable scene from that film, a pair of French professors dismiss Senegal’s local culture by articulating the distinctly colonialist logic of France’s superiority. While Hyènas forgoes such an explicit drag of French supremacy, the film’s lucid indignation and satirical take on Senegal’s raw deal proves just as convincing.

Cast: Ami Diakhate, Mansour Diouf, Calgou Fall, Faly Gueye, Mamadou Mahourédia Gueye, Issa Ramagelissa Samb, Dijbril Diop Mambéty Director: Djibril Diop Mambéty Screenwriter: Djibril Diop Mambéty Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 1992

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Review: Chasing Portraits Is Welcome Personal Testimony, but Its Scope Is Narrow

Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

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Chasing Portraits
Photo: First Run Features

Before World War II, Poland’s Jewish population was the largest in Europe, numbering over three million. Afterward, only 10% of that populace remained. Although the current right-wing Polish government prefers to suppress this fact, the 300,000 surviving Jews faced continued persecution at the hands of gentile Poles—themselves the victims (though to a much lesser degree) of Nazi persecution. Today, when the number of Jews in Poland is well under 10,000, one can visit the old Jewish quarters in cities like Warsaw and Krakow, where street kiosks sell small plastic caricatures of Hasidic Jews. On the streets, though, you’re unlikely to encounter any actual Hasids.

In her trip to Warsaw in search of her great-grandfather’s lost paintings, Chasing Portraits director Elizabeth Rynecki stumbles across these figurines. As she observes in voiceover, there’s nothing overtly demeaning about the miniature, jovial, cartoonish Jews, but the image they project doesn’t feel right, given local history. And one must agree that there’s an undeniable aspect of minstrelsy to them: Unlike her great-grandfather Moshe’s textured scenes of Jewish life in Warsaw, they’re almost certainly not self-representations. Given the Jewish culture that was destroyed in Poland—and whose richness is embodied by Moshe’s few surviving paintings—the grinning trinkets seem all the more like frivolous kitsch.

Rynecki’s discovery of these unsettling souvenirs is potentially one of the most interesting parts of Chasing Portraits, given that she happens across them while on the trail of lost Jewish art. As a curator at a Warsaw museum observes to the filmmaker, Moshe’s work depicts traditional moments of Jewish culture in a distinctly modern sensibility, attesting to the robustness of the Jewish culture on the eve of its destruction. In this way, his paintings are the opposite of the post-facto plastic caricatures, and Rynecki’s confrontation with the mass-produced simulacra of absent Jews is a moment when her highly personal documentary almost extends toward a wider perspective. But she doesn’t linger for too long on what the Holocaust and Judaism mean in Poland today, as she’s on her way to ask a private collector named Wertheim about how his family managed to acquire some of Moshe’s works.

Rynecki’s insular approach works well early on in the film, when she, in conversations with her father, outlines who her great-grandfather was and what his surviving paintings mean to the family. Of around 800 works that Moshe painted before he was murdered at the Majdanek death camp, just over 100 survive in the possession of the family, with an unknown number in the hands of private collections and Polish museums. That much is a miracle, but Rynecki—more so, it seems, than her father, a Holocaust survivor himself—wants to discover more. In the film, we see her consult with historians, compose emails to private collectors, and read excerpts of her grandfather George’s memoirs, in preparation for her trip to Poland.

Chasing Portraits is about Rynecki’s investigative process rather than Moshe’s paintings themselves; in voiceover, she narrates each step of her process as she takes on the role of amateur historian. And in maintaining an intense focus on her investigation—how she reads out the emails she writes to institutions, and shows us footage from each flight she takes from one corner of the world to another—the film raises probing questions that it dutifully bypasses. Her encounters with the Wertheim family are a case in point: The first Wertheim brother claims the family own paintings by Moshe because they bought it from a farmer, but the second tells the more plausible story that they have the paintings because their parents, resistance fighters hiding in the Polish woods, raided them from a bombed-out train.

In Rynecki’s narrative, these conflicting stories become a personal conundrum: If the paintings were looted rather than bought, she may be able to make a claim on them. In the end, it’s Rynecki’s growth, her decision about whether or not to become a claimant, that structures the film. But this approach means skirting over other thematic threads that might have emerged from this project, such as the ethics of museum versus private ownership of recovered art like Moshe’s, the meaning of art in desperate times, the politics of remembrance in Poland. Chasing Portraits is thus valuable as part of an expansive mosaic of personal testimonies to the legacy of the Holocaust, but it’s a documentary of sometimes disappointingly narrow scope. Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

Director: Elizabeth Rynecki Screenwriter: Elizabeth Rynecki Distributor: First Run Features Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: If the Dancer Dances Diminishes Its Subject by Succumbing to Hagiography

The documentary is incessant about reminding us of the late Merce Cunningham’s achievements.

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If the Dancer Dances
Photo: Monument Releasing

More than once in Maia Wechsler’s If the Dancer Dances, a dance is described by one of numerous talking heads as existing only in the moment; once any movement or routine is complete, it essentially can never be replicated to an exacting degree. But the film inadvertently appears as if it’s trying to prove that poetic and insightful observation wrong, which becomes increasingly clear as we follow choreographer Stephen Petronio as he and his dance company work on a production of Merce Cunningham’s RainForest.

Wechsler’s depiction of the company seems unwilling to step out of Cunningham’s shadow, given the extent to which the members of the current production and Cunningham’s former pupils happily provide hagiographic accounts of the groundbreaking avant-garde choreographer and his work. In an about-face from the repeated description of dance’s unreplicable nature, the new RainForest’s choreographers and dancers set out to duplicate rather than interpret the work. The fawning over Cunningham, and the implication from the company that they’ll never be able to live up to his vision, only exposes an overbearing inferiority complex running throughout the documentary.

If the Dancer Dances really only comes to life when showcasing the company’s rehearsals, throughout camera movements that match the gracefulness of the dancers and compositions that incorporate multiple points of action. Wechsler’s observational methods in these sequences capture mini-dramas in themselves, such as when choreographers quietly confer, attempting to adjust the dance routine that’s playing out in front of them.

Still, rather than letting the audience simply observe the company at work and letting the process speak for itself, Wechsler incessantly reminds us of Cunningham’s monolithic presence via scores of interviews that laud his work process. The film’s constant lionizing of the man amid so much rehearsal footage has the unintended effect of sapping the dancers of agency. Throughout, it’s as if Wechsler is judging the company’s artistic decisions based on whether or not Cunningham himself would consider them right or wrong.

At one point in the film, a former colleague of Cunningham’s explains that the late choreographer, in an effort to ensure that his works felt fresh, tried to never be influenced by other productions. This anecdote rings of irony, given how the film includes numerous sequences of Petronio’s choreographers discussing how to ape Cunningham’s aesthetic in precise detail—and often in incomprehensibly abstract directions that even some of the dancers appear not to grasp. The film operates under the impression that for any present or future company to change any one aspect of Cunningham’s original vision would be blasphemous and offensive, which turns If the Dancer Dances less into the insightful backstage documentary it wants to be, and more into a gushing, sycophantic love letter.

Director: Maia Wechsler Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Film

Watch the Trailer for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix Series When They See Us

Netflix will release the series on May 31.

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When They See Us
Photo: Netflix

In 1989, the rape and near-murder of Trisha Meili in Central Park rocked the nation. A little over a year later, a jury convicted five juvenile males—four African-American and one Hispanic—to prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. In the end, the defendants spent between six and 13 years behind bars. Flashforward to 2002, after four of the five defendants had left prison, and Matias Reyes, a convicted murder and serial rapist serving a lifetime prison term, came forward and confessed to raping Meili. DNA evidence confirmed his guilt, and proved what many already knew about the so-called “Central Park jogger case”: that the police investigation of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, conducted at the beginning of the Giuliani era in New York City, was motivated less by a thirst for justice than it was by racial animus.

Last year, Oscar-nominated Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay announced that she would be making a series based on the infamous case, and since then hasn’t been shy, on Twitter and elsewhere, about saying that she will be putting Donald J. Trump in her crosshairs. Trump, way back in 1989, ran an ad in the Daily News advocating the return of the death penalty, and as recently as 2016, claimed that McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise are guilty of the crime for which they were eventually exonerated—behavior consistent with a presidential campaign that, like the case against the Central Park Five, was a full-time racist dog whistle.

Today, Netflix dropped the trailer for When They See Us, which stars Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood, Christopher Jackson, Joshua Jackson, Omar J. Dorsey, Adepero Oduye, Famke Janssen, Aurora Perrineau, William Sadler, Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Storm Reid, Dascha Polanco, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Justin Cunningham, Ethan Herisse, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, and Asante Blackk.

According to the official description of the series:

Based on a true story that gripped the country, When They See Us will chronicle the notorious case of five teenagers of color, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four part limited series will focus on the five teenagers from Harlem—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. Beginning in the spring of 1989, when the teenagers were first questioned about the incident, the series will span 25 years, highlighting their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.

See the trailer below:

Netflix will release When They See Us on May 31.

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Review: The Curse of La Llorona Is More Laugh Riot than Fright Fest

With The Curse of La Llorona, the Conjuring universe has damned itself to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.

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The Curse of La Llorona
Photo: Warner Bros.

Michael Chaves’s The Curse of La Llorona opens in 17th-century Mexico with an all-too-brief rundown of the legend of La Llorona. This weeping woman (Marisol Ramirez) is quickly established as a mother who, in a fit of jealousy, drowned her two children in order punish her cheating husband. And after immediately regretting her actions, she commits suicide, forever damning herself to that liminal space between the land of the living and the dead, to snatch up wandering children to replace her own.

Flash-forward to 1973 Los Angeles, where we instantly recognize an echo of La Llorana’s parental anxieties in Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), a widowed mother of two who struggles to balance the demands of her job as a social worker for Child Protective Services and the pressures of adjusting to single parenthood. One might expect such parallels to be further expanded upon by The Curse of La Llorona, but it quickly becomes evident that the filmmakers are less interested in character development, narrative cohesion, or the myth behind La Llorona than in lazily transposing the film’s big bad into the Conjuring universe.

It’s no surprise, then, that La Llorona, with her beady yellow eyes, blood-drained skin, and rotted mouth and fingernails is virtually indistinguishable from the antagonist from Corin Hardy’s The Nun; just swap out the evil nun’s tunic and habit for a decaying wedding dress and you’d never know the difference. Even more predictably, The Curse of La Llorona relies heavily on a near-ceaseless barrage of jump scares, creaking doors and loud, shrieking noises as La Llorona first terrorizes and murders the detained children of one of Anna’s clients (Patricia Velasquez), before then moving on to haunting Anna and her kids (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou). But this family is so thinly conceived and their behavior so careless and illogical in the face of a known force of evil that viewers may find themselves less terrified by La Llorona than overjoyed by her reign of terror.

Once Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a curandero whose healing powers promise to lift La Llorona’s curse, arrives on the scene, the film makes a few concessions to Mexican cultural rituals, as well as offers brief but welcome respites of humor. But after the man rubs down the Garcia house with eggs and protects its borders with palo santo and fire tree seeds, The Curse of La Llorona continues unabated as a rote scare-a-thon. Every extended moment of silence and stillness is dutifully disrupted by sudden, overemphatic bursts of sound and fury that are meant to frighten us but are more likely to leave you feeling bludgeoned into submission.

All the while, any notions of motherhood, faith within and outside of the Catholic Church, and Mexican folklore that surface at one point or another are rendered both moot and undistinctive in the midst of so much slavish worshipping at the altar of franchise expansion. Indeed, by the time Annabelle’s Father Perez (Tony Amendola) pays a house visit in order to dutifully spout exposition about the series’s interconnected religious elements, it becomes clear that the Conjuring universe is damned to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.

Cast: Linda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Patricia Velasquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola Director: Michael Chaves Screenwriter: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Books

Review: David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood & W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch

Stratton goes beyond the production of Sam Peckinpah’s film, on to its impact and reception and legacy.

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Reinventing Hollywood

The 1940s were the decade in which Hollywood attained what we now term “classical” status, when the innovations and developments of cinema’s formative years coalesced into a high level of sophistication across all areas—technological, visual, narrative. The narrative element is the focus of Reinventing Hollywood, film historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Bordwell’s latest deep dive into the aesthetics of film.

Bordwell begins with a series of questions: “What distinctive narrative strategies emerged in the 1940s? Where did they come from? How did various filmmakers use them? How did the innovations change the look and sound of films?” He then proceeds with quite thorough answers across 500-plus pages. The narrative developments were gradual and cumulative. While the earliest narrative cinema was static and stagebound, inheriting principles of storytelling from theater and the most basic novelistic tendencies, a richer narrativity developed throughout the 1930s, when the visual language of silent cinema melded with the oral/aural elements of “talkies” to create a more systemized approach to narrative filmmaking.

As Bordwell notes at one point in Reinventing Hollywood, “[p]rinciples of characterization and plot construction that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s were reaffirmed in the early sound era. Across the same period there emerged a clear-cut menu of choices pertaining to staging, shooting and cutting scenes.” In short, it was the process whereby “talkies” became just “movies.” Narrative techniques specifically morphed and solidified throughout the ‘30s, as screenwriters and filmmakers pushed their way toward the discovery of a truly classical style.

While the idea of a menu of set choices may sound limiting, in reality the options were numerous, as filmmakers worked out a process of invention through repetition and experimentation and refinement. Eventually these narrative properties and principles became conventionalized—not in a watered-down or day-to-day way, but rather codified or systematized, where a sort of stock set of narrative devices were continually reworked, revamped, and re-energized. It’s what Bordwell calls “an inherited pattern” or “schema.”

Also in the ‘40s, many Hollywood films traded in what Bordwell terms “mild modernism”—a kind of light borrowing from other forms and advances in so-called high modernism, such as surrealism or stream-of-consciousness narratives like James Joyce’s Ulysses: high-art means for popular-art ends (Salvador Dalí’s work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound being a notable example). These techniques included omniscient point of view, the novelistic ability to traverse time and space (ideally suited for cinema), and involved flashback or dream sequences. This “borrowing of storytelling techniques from adjacent arts […] encouraged a quick cadence of schema and revision,” an environment of “…novelty at almost any price.”

Such novelties included “aggregate” films that overlaid a plethora of storytelling techniques, such as Sam Wood’s 1940 adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed multiple protagonists, complex flashback sequences, and voiceover narration drawn from the most advanced theater. Perhaps no other film embodied these “novelties” so sharply as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, an “aggressive aggregate” that amounts to a specifically cinematic yet total work of art, weaving together not only narrative techniques such as multiple character or “prismatic” flashbacks (screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s term), but also drawing on elements from music, painting, and photography, as well as Welles’s first loves, theater and radio. In some ways, Citizen Kane may be seen as a kind of fulcrum film, incorporating nearly all that had come before it and anticipating most everything after.

Though Bordwell references the familiar culprits—Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kane—he doesn’t just stick with the A films, as he goes deep into the B’s (and even some C’s and D’s), in an effort to show the wide-ranging appeal and effectiveness of these narrative models no matter their technical execution. He also alternates chapters with what he calls Interludes—that is, more intensive readings illustrating a preceding chapter’s discussion, homing in on specific films, genres and filmmakers, and not always the ones which one might expect. There’s an interlude on Joseph Mankiewicz, for example, a sort of intellectual master of multi-protagonist films like All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa, and the truly original Preston Sturges, whose films pushed narrative norms to their absolute limits. There’s also an intriguing interlude on the boxing picture and the resiliency of certain narrative tropes—fighter refusing to throw the fight and thus imperiled by gangsters, for example—demonstrating how Hollywood’s “narrative ecosystem played host to variants.”

Reinventing Hollywood is a dense read. Its nearly 600 pages of text, including detailed notes and index, isn’t for the academically faint at heart. Often Bordwell offers frame-by-frame, even gesture-by-gesture analyses using accompanying stills, mining synoptic actions and tropes across multiple films of the era. The book can read strictly pedagogical at times, but overall, Bordwell’s writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon. Despite its comprehensive scholarly archeology (and such sweet academic euphemism as, say, “spreading the protagonist function”), the book is leveled at anyone interested in cinematic forms and norms.

The title is telling. Clearly, narrative cinema was already invented by the time the ‘40s rolled around, but in Hollywood throughout that decade it became so systematized that it progressed into something new, indeed something that exists through today: a narrative film style that’s evocative enough to affect any single viewer and effective enough to speak to a mass audience.

Part of the charm of what was invented in the ‘40s is the malleability of the product. Narrative standards and conventions were designed for maximum variation, as well as for revision and challenge. And perhaps no decade offered more revision and challenge than the 1960s, not only to film culture but world culture as a whole. By the mid-to-late ‘60s, the old Hollywood studio system had expired, leaving in its wake a splintered version of itself. Yet despite the dissolution of the big studios, the resilience of the classical film style engendered by those studios was still evident. Popular narrative films retained the clear presentation of action borne in earlier films, however much they shuffled and reimagined patterns and standards.

One such movie that both embraced and pushed against Hollywood standards is director Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch. It possesses such richness in both themes and execution, in form and content, that there’s a lot to mine. With its tale of a band of out-of-time outlaws scamming and lamming away their fatal last days in Mexico during the country’s revolution, it revels in and reveres western conventions as much as it revises them.

The film carries a personal elusive impact, particularly on first viewing. In The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, journalist and historian W.K. Stratton quotes filmmaker Ron Shelton on this phenomenon: “Something was different about this movie…it was more than [just another shoot-‘em-up] but I couldn’t figure out what…I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since.” The book examines the epic making of this epic film, and goes a good way toward explaining the reasons behind the film’s unique power. Stratton is a Texan and also a poet, and both of these credentials make him perhaps the ideal candidate for exploring this pure piece of western poetry.

Stratton maps the story of the film from germ to gem. Conceived in the early ‘60s by stuntman Roy N. Sickner as a somewhat typical “outlaw gringos on the lam” story, the property evolved over the course of the ensuing years as much as the country itself. America in 1967 and ‘68 was a vastly different place than it was in ‘63. Stratton notes how “[t]he picture…would never have been filmed had not circumstances come into precise alignment. It was the product of a nation torn by divisions unseen since the Civil War, a nation that was sacrificing thousands of its young to a war in Southeast Asia…a nation numbed by political assassination…where a youthful generation was wholesale rejecting values held by their parents.”

A film made in such turbulent times required its own turbulent setting. If America had become no country for old men, and Vietnam was no country for young men, then Mexico during the revolution was no country for either. Stratton gives brisk but detailed chapters on the Mexican Revolution, filling in the tumultuous history and social geography for what would become a necessarily violent film. But just as the film could never have been made in another time, it could also have never been made without Sam Peckinpah. As Stratton notes, Peckinpah was a Hollywood rarity, a director born in the actual American West who made actual westerns, and a maverick director who, like Welles, fought against the constraints of an industry in which he was a master. Peckinpah was a rarity in other ways as well. A heavy-drinking, light-fighting proto-tough guy who was also a devotee of Tennessee Williams (“I guess I’ve learned more from Williams than anyone”), Peckinpah was a storyteller who could break your heart as well as your nose. His second feature, the very fine Ride the High Country, was tough and tender; it was also, coincidentally, another story of old outlaws running out their time.

Stratton traces the entire trajectory of the film’s making, from the start-and-stop scripting to the early involvement of Lee Marvin, right on through to every aspect of production: its much-lauded gold-dust cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, who early in his career worked on Three Stooges comedies “…because it gave him a chance to experiment with camera trickery”); the elegant violence, or violent elegance, of its editing; and its casting and costuming.

The chapters on those last two elements are particularly rewarding. Costuming is a somewhat underlooked aspect of westerns, simply because the sartorial trappings seem so generic: hats, guns, boots, and bonnets. Yet period clothing is so essential to the texture of westerns because it can, or should, convey the true down and dirtiness of the time and place, the sweat, the swill and the stench. The Wild Bunch, like all great westerns, feels filthy. Wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson not only had the daunting task of providing authenticity in the costumes themselves—much of them period—but of overseeing the sheer volume of turnover. Because Peckinpah “planned to make heavy use of squibbing for the movie’s shoot-outs…[e]ach time a squib went off, it ripped a whole in a costume and left a bloody stain.” Considering the overwhelming bullet count of the film, in particular the barrage of the ending, it’s no wonder that “[a]ll the costumes would have to be reused and then reused again and again.”

But perhaps no aspect was more important to the success of Peckinpah’s film than its casting. While early on in the process Marvin was set to play the lead role of Pike Bishop, the actor, thankfully, bowed out, and after the consideration of other actors for the role, including Sterling Hayden and Charlton Heston, in stepped William Holden. As good as all the other actors could be, Holden projected more of the existential weariness of the Bishop character, a condition that Marvin’s coarseness, for example, might have effaced. Stratton agrees: “There could not have been a better matching of character and actor. Holden was a…deeply troubled man, a real-life killer himself…on a conditional suspended sentence for manslaughter [for a drunk driving accident, a case that was later dropped].”

This spot-on matching of actor to role extended all the way through to the rest of the Wild Bunch: Ernest Borgnine as Pike’s sidekick, Dutch Engstrom, emanating toward Pike an anguished love and loyalty; old-time actor Edmond O’Brien as old-timer Freddie Sykes; Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, Pike’s stoic ex-partner and now head of the pursuing posse; Jaime Sanchez as the doomed Mexican Angel; and perhaps most especially Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the wild, vile Gorch brothers. (While Oates was a member of what might be called Peckinpah’s stock company, Johnson was an estranged member of John Ford’s.)

Along with broad, illuminating biographies of these actors, Stratton presents informative material on many of the peripheral yet vital supporting cast. Because the film is set and was filmed in Mexico, much of it verisimilitude may be credited to Mexican talent. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Mexican film industry was second only to Hollywood in terms of quality product and critical prestige. Peckinpah drew from this talent pool for many of his film’s key characters, none more indelible than that of General Mapache (to whom the bunch sell guns and, by extension, their souls), one of the vilest, most distasteful figures in any American western. For this role, Peckinpah chose Emilio Fernández, a.k.a. El Indio, recognized and revered at that time as Mexico’s greatest director. Apparently, Fernandez’s scandalous and lascivious on-set behavior paralleled the unpredictable immorality of his character. Like almost everyone involved with this film, Fernandez was taking his part to the extreme.

Stratton goes beyond the production of The Wild Bunch, on to its impact and reception and legacy. A sensation upon its release, the film was both lauded and loathed for its raw violence, with some critics recognizing Peckinpah’s “cathartic” western for what it was, others seeing nothing but sick exploitation (including in its bloody treatment of Mexican characters). While other films of the time created similar buzz for their depiction of violence, notably Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (a film often compared to The Wild Bunch), the violence of Peckinpah’s film was as much moral as physical. All one need do is compare it to a contemporary and similarly storied film like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a winking high-jinks movie in which, in Marvin’s resonant phrase, “no one takes a shit.”

Everyone involved with The Wild Bunch attributes its power to Peckinpah and the environment he fostered in its making. “[S]omething remarkable was occurring at…rehearsal sessions,” writes Stratton. “Under Peckinpah’s direction, the actors went beyond acting and were becoming the wild bunch and the other characters in the movie.” Warren Oates confirms this sentiment: “…it wasn’t like a play…or a TV show […] It was our life. We were doing our fucking lives right there and lived it every day […] We were there in truth.”

Stratton considers The Wild Bunch “the last Western […] It placed a tombstone on the head of the grave of the old-fashioned John Wayne [films].” One may argue with this, as evidence shows that John Wayne—especially the Wayne of John Ford westerns—is still very much alive in the popular consciousness. Yet there is a fatal finality to The Wild Bunch, a sense of something lowdown being run down. The film is complex and extreme less in its physical violence than in its moral violence, as it transposes the increasing cynicism of 1968 to an equally nihilistic era, all while maintaining a moving elegiac aura. No image or action expresses this attitude clearer and more powerfully than the bunch’s iconic sacrificial end walk, four abreast, to rescue one of their own, to murder and be murdered into myth. If the film is a tombstone, Stratton’s book is a fit inscription.

David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood is now available from University of Chicago Press, and W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film is now available from Bloomsbury Publishing.

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Review: The Heart of Someone Great Is in the Details of Female Friendship

The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman.

2.5

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Someone Great
Photo: Netflix

Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Someone Great presents a vision of New York that makes the bustling metropolis feel like a small town. The film’s setting is a utopian playground where everyone seems to know everyone else and bumping into friends and acquaintances on the street is a regular occurrence. Robinson exploits the narrative possibilities of this framework, as all it takes for three friends, Jenny (Gina Rodriguez), Erin (DeWanda Wise), and Blair (Brittany Snow), to dive into another misadventure is to simply turn a corner.

The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman; surely it’s no coincidence that a James Joyce poster hangs in the background of one scene. Set to an eclectic, almost perpetual soundtrack of songs, the film follows Jenny, Erin, and Blair as they float on a wave of spontaneity. The friends are gung-ho about having one last night on the town, and as the they make plans to attend a music festival on the eve of Jenny moving to San Francisco, the film makes a vibrant show of every fallout, every sharp turn in mood and behavior across this journey, which also finds Jenny grappling with her recent breakup with Nate (Lakeith Stanfield), her boyfriend of nine years.

In the world of Someone Great, a flashily decorated room is an extension of a person’s personality, every object a vessel of human memories. Jenny is wounded, and the film tenaciously homes in how everything around her feels like a totem of lost love. Robinson elaborates on Jenny’s pain as much through the young woman’s exchanges with her two best friends, each dealing with their own emotional troubles, as through the neon-dappled flashbacks to Jenny and Nate’s time together. But if Jenny, Erin, and Blair’s scenes together are marked by an infectiousness fueled in no small part by Rodriguez, Wise, and Snow’s incredible rapport, the vignettes of Jenny and Nate’s past feel comparatively inert—an almost steady stream of generic and often awkward articulations of how it is to fall in and out of love.

Someone Great also gives itself over to a needlessly somber tone whenever Jenny reflects on her relationship with Nate, and the effect is so self-serious that you’d think she’s the first person to lose a lover in human history. Her breakup certainly stands in sharp contrast to Blair’s own split from her long-term boyfriend (Alex Moffat), the fallout of which is treated as an offhand (and very funny) joke. Fortunately, though, Robinson is always quick to reorient the focus of her film, sweetly underscoring throughout the value of Jenny’s friendship to Erin and Blair, and how their bond is bound to persist regardless of the hard knocks these women weather on the long and often bumpy road to romantic fulfillment.

Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow, DeWanda Wise, LaKeith Stanfield, Peter Vack, Alex Moffat, RuPaul Charles, Rosario Dawson Director: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Screenwriter: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 92 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Festivals

Cannes Lineup Includes New Films by Terrence Malick, Céline Sciamma, & More

Perhaps as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t make it onto the lineup.

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Pain and Glory
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

This morning, the lineup for the 72nd Cannes Film Festival was revealed, and just as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t. Most notably, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in America and James Gray’s Ad Astra were nowhere to be found. Gray, whose had four of his previous films appear in competition at the festival, is still working on Ad Astra, which seems destined at this point to make its premiere at a fall festival. As for Tarantino, who’s still editing this ninth feature ahead of its July 26 theatrical release, Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux told press this morning that there’s still a chance that Once Upon a Time in America could be added to the festival lineup in the upcoming weeks.

Terrence Malick will return to Cannes for the first time since winning the Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life with the historical drama and ostensibly mainstream-friendly A Hidden Life, previously known as Radegund. Ken Loach and the Dardennes, both double winners of the Palme d’Or, will also debut their latest works, Sorry We Missed You and Young Ahmed, respectively, in the competition program. As previously announced, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die will kick off the festival on May 14, and Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman will screen out of competition on May 16, two weeks before the film hits U.S. theaters. (The Director’s Fortnight and Critics Week selections will be announced at a later date.)

See below for a complete list of this year’s competition, Un Certain Regard, out of competition, and special and midnight screenings.

Competition
Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar
The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio
Wild Goose Lake, Yinan Diao
Parasite, Bong Joon-ho
Young Ahmed, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Oh Mercy! , Arnaud Desplechin
Atlantique, Mati Diop
Matthias and Maxime, Xavier Dolan
Little Joe, Jessica Hausner
Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach
Les Misérables, Ladj Ly
A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick
Nighthawk, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
The Whistlers, Corneliu Porumboiu
Frankie, Ira Sachs
The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma
It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman
Sybil, Justine Triet

Out of Competition
Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher
The Best Years of Life, Claude Lelouch
Maradona, Asif Kapadia
La Belle Epoque, Nicolas Bedos
Too Old to Die Young, Nicolas Winding Refn

Special Screenings
Share, Pippa Bianco
Family Romance LLC, Werner Herzog
Tommaso, Abel Ferrara
To Be Alive and Know It, Alain Cavalier
For Sama, Waad Al Kateab and Edward Watts

Midnight Screenings
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, Lee Won-Tae

Un Certain Regard
Invisible Life, Karim Aïnouz
Beanpole, Kantemir Balagov
The Swallows of Kabul, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobé Mévellec
A Brother’s Love, Monia Chokri
The Climb, Michael Covino
Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont
A Sun That Never Sets, Olivier Laxe
Chambre 212, Christophe Honoré
Port Authority, Danielle Lessovitz
Papicha, Mounia Meddour
Adam, Maryam Touzani
Zhuo Ren Mi Mi, Midi Z
Liberte, Albert Serra
Bull, Annie Silverstein
Summer of Changsha, Zu Feng
EVGE, Nariman Aliev

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Features

The 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival

As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory.

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TCM Classic Film Festival
Photo: John Nowak

In 2014, on the occasion of the fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, even as I took the opportunity to raise a glass to an event that encourages audiences, especially younger ones, to acknowledge and embrace the past, I indulged in a little public worrying over the festival’s move toward including a heavier schedule of more “modern” films whose status as classics seemed arguable, at the very least. The presence of Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Goodbye Girl on the festival’s slate that year seemed geared toward guaranteeing that Richard Dreyfuss would make a couple of appearances, causing me not only to wonder just what constitutes a “classic” (a question this festival seems imminently qualified to answer), but also just how far down the road to appeasement of movie stars TCMFF would be willing to travel in order to bring in those festivalgoers willing to pony up for high-priced, top-tier passes.

If anything, subsequent iterations have indicated that, while its focus remains on putting classic films in front of appreciative audiences and encouraging the restoration and preservation of widely recognized and relatively obscure films, the festival’s shift toward popular hits and the folks attached to them seems to be in full swing. And from a commercial point of view, who could credibly argue against feting 1980s and ‘90s-era celebrities who can still bring the glitz and glamour, especially as it becomes increasingly more difficult to secure appearances from anyone directly involved in the production of 60-to-80-year-old films? One has to believe that the numbers would favor booking films which could afford “sexier” in-person attendees like Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, and Rob Reiner, and maybe for a good portion of the TCMFF crowd that showed up to celebrate the festival’s 10th anniversary this year, that sort of thinking is perfectly in line with what they expect for their money.

Of course, the flip side of that coin is an opening-night gala devoted to the celebration of When Harry Met Sally, which isn’t the first film I would think of to announce to the world that TCMFF is celebrating a milestone. It’s been 10 years since the festival launched, and its mother channel is celebrating 25 years on the air this year—and, okay, the Rob Reiner-helmed, Nora Ephron-scripted comedy is now 30 years young. But I really wonder, beyond When Harry Met Sally’s most famous scene, which is all but stolen by the director’s mother and her delivery of the memorable zinger “I’ll have what she’s having,” if this dated rom-com really means enough to audiences to be included among a TCMFF schedule of films ostensibly more qualified to be considered as classics. Maybe it does. Because objections like that one were forced to fly in the face of the rest of the TCMFF 2019 schedule, populated as it was by other equally questionable attractions like Sleepless in Seattle, Steel Magnolias, Hello, Dolly!, and Out of Africa, all of which crowded screen space in the festival’s biggest auditoriums.

Speaking of amour, it was that most mysterious of emotions that was the biggest rationale other than filthy lucre for clogging the schedule with not one but two Meg Ryan “classics,” a weeper that’s broad by even the standards of borderline-campy weepers, a bloated musical nobody seems to like, a would-be epic best picture winner, and even the bromantic sentimental indulgences of the Honorary Greatest Movie for Men Who Don’t Love Movies. Because the theme of TCMFF 2019, “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies,” virtually guaranteed that room would be made for some of the festival’s least enticing and overseen selections, under subheadings like “Better with Age” (Love in the Afternoon, Marty), “Bromance” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Shawshank Redemption), and, in a love letter to not romance but instead a movie studio, “A Celebration of 20th Century Fox” (Hello, Dolly!, Working Girl, Star Wars). Of course, each of those subheadings had their glories as well (I’ll get to those in a second, after I stop complaining), but it’s worth noting these selections because they seem clearly representative of the sort of programming choices that have become more dominant in the second half of TCMFF’s storied and much appreciated existence, choices that may signal a further shift away from discoveries, oddities, and rarities and toward even more mainstream appeasement in its near future.

For all of the problems that seem to be becoming hard-wired into TCMFF’s business model, however, there was plenty to get excited about as well, even when one of the weaker overall schedules in terms of cinephile catnip made maximizing the festival experience a little more challenging than usual. If that “Love in the Movies” header seemed at first a bit too generic, it also proved elastic enough to accommodate some pretty interesting variations on a obvious theme, from dysfunctional relationships (A Woman Under the Influence, whose star, Gena Rowlands, had to back out of a scheduled pre-screening appearance), to erotic obsession (Mad Love, Magnificent Obsession), to habitual obsession (Cold Turkey, Merrily We Go to Hell), to romance of a more straightforward nature rendered in various shades of not-at-all-straightforward cinematic splendor (Sunrise, Sleeping Beauty, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Tarzan and His Mate). Why, there was even a couple of straight shots of undiluted movie love in the form of François Truffaut’s Day for Night, adorned by an in-person visitation from the film’s star, Jacqueline Bisset, and a grand screening of my favorite film, Robert Altman’s Nashville, which Pauline Kael once famously described as “an orgy for movie lovers.”

My own obsessions this year ran, as they usually do, toward the unfamiliar. Six of the 11 films I saw were new to me, including the obscure, ultra-cheap film noir Open Secret, which pits John Ireland against a secret society of small-town Nazi sympathizers; the deliriously racy and surprisingly violent adventure of Tarzan and His Mate, entertainingly introduced by Star Wars sound wizard Ben Burtt and special effects whiz Craig Barron, whose pre-film multimedia presentation electronically deconstructed the Tarzan yell; and James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge, starring Mae Clarke and Kent Douglass. Also among them were two major surprises: Dorothy Arzner’s romantic drama Merrily We Go to Hell, a gloriously cinematic roller coaster of love, codependency, and betrayal starring Fredric March, forever testing the audience’s tolerance for the boundaries of bad behavior, and Sylvia Sidney, who displays a range that will surprise younger audiences who may only know her from her later work; and the rollicking, hilarious, fast-paced snap-crackle-punch of All Through the Night, in which a gaggle of Runyonesque Broadway gamblers headed up by Humphrey Bogart develop an uncharacteristic patriotic streak when they uncover a Nazi conspiracy brewing in the back alleys of the neighborhood.

As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory. My two favorite experiences at the festival this year were screenings of F.W. Murnau’s almost indescribably gorgeous and primally moving Sunrise and a beautiful DCP of Nashville, with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and actors Jeff Goldblum, Keith Carradine, and Ronee Blakely in attendance. (At one point, Blakely held court like Barbara Jean in rambling pre-meltdown mode and innocently gave away the ending of the film.) The joy contained in the five hours of those two films wasn’t necessarily matched by the gorgeous restoration of Anthony Mann’s powerful Winchester ’73, the exquisitely expressionist delirium of Karl Freund’s Mad Love, or the revelation of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, with its roots in the music of Tchaikovsky, as the partial fulfillment of the ambitions of Fantasia, the studio’s great folly. But then again, it didn’t have to be. It’s enough that those are all movies worthy of and inspired by true movie love, which is precisely what they were received with by TCMFF audiences.

Of course, the obsessive, orgiastic nature of movie love is itself the underlying subtext of any film festival, but at TCMFF that subtext is consistently resonant enough that it seems inextricable from any given moment during the long four-day Hollywood weekend over which it unspools. Some festivalgoers get dolled up in vintage clothes and five pounds of customized TCM-style flair to express it. Others rattle on endlessly about their irrational devotion to Star X and Director Y, or how some obscure B noir blew their goddamn minds, and they’re usually surrounded by a pack of fans with similarly hyperbolic stories to tell. And still others just tilt their heads down and barrel through the long lines, breathlessly scurrying between theaters in pursuit of something they’ve never seen or perhaps never even heard of. (I’ll let you speculate as to which category I belong, though I will say I have never worn a fedora or brandished a silver-tipped walking stick in public.) A good friend and former TCMFF regular once told me that the best way to be cured of a particular obsession is to suddenly find yourself surrounded by those whose individual enthusiasms match or exceed your own, and sometimes it seems that the first-world trials of the TCMFF experience as they have accumulated over the past five or so years, and contrasted as they have been by the multitude of peaks the festival has offered its most ardent fans, have been devoted to road-testing that theory.

However, no matter what TCMFF devotees do or say in between programming slots, the movies remain, providing a constant opportunity to either plumb the depths of cinema history or to simply go for the good times. With all intentions pitched toward continued prosperity, the greatest challenge for TCMFF as it enters its second decade might be finding a better balance between those deep dives and the allure of skimming the perhaps more lucrative shallows. And if genuinely great films and even greater chances to experience films one can only experience in a setting like TCMFF keep getting slotted out in favor of familiar dreck like When Harry Met Sally and Steel Magnolias, it isn’t unreasonable to imagine that TCMFF 2029 might, to its inevitable detriment, look and feel considerably less classic than it does now. No, it’s not time for sackcloth and ashes just yet when it comes to this beloved fest. But I’d be lying if I said, to purloin and repurpose the concluding sentiment of one of this year’s big TCMFF attractions, that the ultimate resolution of that dilemma don’t worry me just a little bit.

The TCM Classic Film Festival ran from April 11—14.

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Film

Review: Instant Dreams Intimately Ponders a Casualty of the Digital Age

Willem Baptist’s film is a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital.

2.5

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Instant Dreams
Photo: Synergetic Distribution

Throughout Instant Dreams, director Willem Baptist returns to footage from “The Long Walk,” the 1970 short film in which Polaroid co-founder Edwin H. Land pulled from his coat a black device that bears an uncanny resemblance to an iPhone. Land envisioned a day in which instant photos could be taken by a device the size of a wallet, which we would use to document every moment of our lives. This dream came spectacularly true, of course, beyond even Land’s wildest fantasies, ironically paving the way for Polaroid’s irrelevancy. Polaroid stopped manufacturing instant film in 2008, an event which Baptist rues as a symptom of our increasing impersonality as a globalized culture that’s grown to take its information overload for granted. “The Long Walk” haunts Baptist’s documentary as a kind of death prophecy.

Seen in stock footage—and in the famous photo on a 1947 cover of the New York Times in which he holds up a snapshot of himself, nearly appearing to have two heads—Land proves to be one of Instant Dreams’s most fascinating and enigmatic figures. In a contemporary light, pictures taken by Polaroid instant cameras have an eerie and poignant power, as their imperfections, such as their blotchy yet vibrant colors, evoke expressionistic art. These photographs reflect the frailty and subjectivity of time, while digital images are ageless, changeable, easily distributed ciphers. The power of Polaroid pictures resides in the effort they require to create, as people had to carry a bulky camera around and wait several seconds before producing a fully developed snapshot. Following several Polaroid cultists, Baptist shares their lament for an intimate and communal culture that’s potentially been forgotten in the wake of our ability to have pristine images whenever we want them.

Stephen Herchen is a scientist who helped to buy the last remaining Polaroid factory in the Netherlands, and he’s working with a group of specialists to revive the technology, as instant film was born of a complex chemical recipe that Herchen has yet to crack. (Baptist looks on as Herchen’s pictures take nearly 30 minutes to develop, rather than a few seconds.) Meanwhile, New York magazine city editor Christopher Bonanos, author of the book Instant: The Story of Polaroid, documents the growth of his son with his stash of Polaroid film, and German artist Stefanie Schneider takes photographs with the expired stock that she keeps in the vintage refrigerator of a trailer that’s parked somewhere in the California desert.

Herchen, Bonanos, and Schneider speak over the documentary’s soundtrack, which Baptist assembles into a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital. The filmmaker portrays analog as a kind of magic, born of a conjuring which he dramatizes with trippy images of photographic chemicals, while digital technology is represented by chilly metallic graphics that connote anonymous efficiency. (Instant Dreams exudes that simultaneously real and staged quality of an Errol Morris film.) It’s a sentimental vision, and one that provokes a question that Baptist doesn’t attempt to address: In a time of technological marvel, in which we carry what are essentially supercomputers around in our pockets, why are so many of us so miserable, so convinced that we’re living in a dark age?

The rage and ennui of our present culture is cultivated by the ease of modern media, in which we’re eternally plugged into stimulation that cancels itself out, leaving us feeling both stuffed and hollow, as well as interchangeable with one another as receptacles for corporate product. Our primary camera is now our phone, which can do hundreds of other tasks, while the Polaroid instant camera only takes pictures, relics which cannot be shared with the click of a button with other people. To long for the Polaroid, or for other objects of nostalgia such as VHS tapes, is to long for a sense of specialness and remoteness. The subjects of Baptist’s documentary seek disconnection from the cultural hive mind.

These meanings are often only implicit in Instant Dreams, and it’s a pity that Herchen and Bonanos aren’t more overtly in tune with their yearnings. They tend to speak in platitudes, which Baptist attempts to render mystical with hallucinatory imagery and a retro synth-y score that’s reminiscent of Vangelis’s compositions for Blade Runner. While Instant Dreams offers an appealingly nostalgic trance-out, it’s often short on detail, especially in terms of Herchen’s struggle to create the instant film technology, which Baptist reduces to exchanges of jargon in atmospheric laboratories. The film’s ruminations gradually grow repetitive and unfocused, especially when Baptist branches off into a fourth narrative, following a young woman who savors digital technology the way that the other subjects do Polaroids.

Schneider steals Instant Dreams from her co-stars, however, taking bold photos of young women out in the desert, cannily milking the limitations of the expired film stock to create mini canvases that suggest fever dreams. One scene is unexpectedly erotic: Schneider takes a bath in a tub outside with a beautiful model, their legs intermingling as the latter tells of a dream that suggests a metaphor for instant film. This image embodies the intimacy that Baptist’s subjects believe Polaroid stock to represent, merging the film’s emotional ambitions with its hypnotic aesthetic. In such moments, Instant Dreams truly comes alive.

Director: Willem Baptist Screenwriter: Willem Baptist Distributor: Synergetic Distribution Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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