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Understanding Screenwriting #38: Precious, The Princess and the Frog, Me and Orson Welles, The Big Sleep, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #38: Precious, The Princess and the Frog, Me and Orson Welles, The Big Sleep, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, The Princess and the Frog, Me and Orson Welles, Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice (book), The Big Trail, Remember the Night, The Big Sleep, Men of a Certain Age, 30 Rock, but first…

Fan Mail: In the last batch, there were only a couple of comments, both discussing a couple of movies I haven’t seen, so let’s get right to the good stuff.

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009. Screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher, based on the novel by Sapphire. 110 minutes): Not The Blind Side.

I know this has been a critics’ darling since Sundance, yadda, yadda, yadda, and I really wanted to like it, but since I have a reputation to uphold, I have to tell you that I did not think it was as good as The Blind Side, which covers similar territory.

Precious (to use the short form of the title—what an agent Sapphire must have) gets off to a reasonably good start. We see a red scarf in a nicely composed shot that tells us that however gritty the film is going to be, this is still going to be an aestheticized version, with the occasional beautiful imagery as a counterpoint. Given the horrible things I had read happen in the movie, that was a relief. And the director does follow through on that, although his visions of Precious’s dreams seem increasingly conventional. (Granted her dreams probably are, but the script handles this better.) Meanwhile the director shoots a lot of the “real” scenes in the shaky-cam style that is so annoying and which grates against the fantasy style.

The script starts with a voiceover by Precious and if you feel inclined to take one of my compare and contrast essay exams, write a paper comparing the lead character’s first-person voiceover in this film to Ryan Bingham’s in Up in the Air. He is a talker and talks in the voiceover just as he does in real life. He has such a gift of gab we want to hear whatever he has to say. Precious hardly ever speaks up in class, where we first see her. She’s the kind of quiet kid teachers tend to ignore. But her voiceover tells us her mind is working full-tilt and looking at the world in interesting ways. Even before she says anything in dialogue, we like her and want to follow her through the movie. Nice introduction to the character, and it sets up better than the visuals do the difference between her interior and exterior life.

So Precious, a quiet, obese, African-American sixteen year-old goes home to her apartment in Harlem in 1987. We meet Mary, her mother from Hell. Mary spends most of her time watching television and yelling at Precious. A little of this goes a long way. Mary is a one-note character and gets just as tiresome for us to watch as she must be for Precious to deal with. Yes, she does have some reasons to be angry with Precious, since her boyfriend, Precious’s father, has raped Precious and gotten her pregnant. Twice. The first baby has Down’s syndrome and lives with Mary’s mother. But Fletcher has not given Mary any counterpoint to play. Mo’Nique, the comedian and talk show host, plays Mary as well as she can, which is considerable, but the script limits what she can do. How about a moment, before the big scene at the end, where we get some sense that Mary loves Precious in one way or another. That would not only be more interesting for Mo’Nique to act as well as for us to watch, since it would make her even scarier than she already is—we and Precious would never be sure which Mary is showing up.

The white principal at Precious’s school gets her enrolled in an alternative school and Precious’s teacher, Ms. Rain, has her students write every day in their journals. We begin to get Precious’s words coming out and not just in voiceover. The process of education has begun, which is what the film is going to be about. And here it begins to get into conventional territory. The girls in the class are the standard-issue juvenile delinquents we have seen since The Blackboard Jungle (1955) and To Sir, With Love (1967). And Ms. Rain is the same paragon of virtue that Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier were in those two films, respectively. She announces in class the first day her name is Blu Rain, to laughter from the class. Now, what does the screenwriter do with that? Nothing. Would it have killed Fletcher to run in a gag about her parents being sixties hippies? She is played by Paula Paton, who like Mo’Nique does what she can, but the script limits her. If you objected to the white folks helping the overweight black boy in The Blind Side, notice that Ms. Rain is the lightest skinned black person in the film. And just to appeal to the liberal crowd, we and Precious find out she is gay. So of course she is a saint. Would it have killed them to make Ms. Rain a very dark-skinned black lesbian who is more butch than God? And her lover, who seems to walk around her apartment with half her robe off most of the time, is so understanding of Ms. Rain bringing Precious home to stay with them that I wanted to puke. Isn’t she getting tired of all this? The scene in the two women’s apartment lets Precious have a voiceover that, like the rest of the movie, is decidedly anti-male. (A male nurse is a slight exception to that.) If Ms. Rain and her lover were the only lesbians I’d met, I’d think they were all perfect as well. The Blind Side gives Leigh Anne and Miss Sue a lot more texture as characters than any of the supporting roles in this film, and manages to be politically incorrect about it as well. Since The Blind Side has both white and black characters, we get a view of race relations in America today. With Precious’s virtually all-black cast and limited story, we only get another view of the black underclass, and without the nuances that The Blind Side has. The brief scene with Michael’s mother in the latter film gives us a richer character than do all the Mary scenes in the former.

So Precious has her second baby and we get a couple of nice scenes in the hospital when her classmates come to visit. Then she has to go home and Mary goes full-tilt psycho, throwing them out and dropping a television set down the stairwell that nearly kills Precious and the baby. Meanwhile Precious has been telling her life story to Mrs. Weiss in the Welfare office and we are sneaking into Oprah country. The actress playing Mrs. Weiss is someone named Mariah Carey, only one of whose previous movies (The Bachelor [1999]) I have seen, and I don’t remember her from it. Like Mo’Nique and Paton she does what she can and does it very well. If she can resist Hollywood shaving off her moustache and trying to turn her into a glamor girl, Carey may have a future.

The big finish is an extended scene in the Welfare office in which Mary confesses that she let her boyfriend have sex with Precious, starting when she was three. The scene goes on forever, like an episode of Oprah, and not in a good way. There is very little drama to the scene (Mary would like Precious to come home, Precious understandably does not want to), just relentless confessing of how everybody feels. There is a reason why most therapy scenes are so boring to watch on film: they are all talk, and very little happens. That it happens here is part of the Oprah-ization of our culture: if we just talk about how we FEEL, everything will be OK. Because then we will all be self-empowered. Self-empowerment has its limitations, such as often making it difficult if not impossible to get along with other people. The self-help books make it clear you have to take charge of your own life, but they say very little about how you then deal with others. That’s because most self-help books are aimed at women who are trying to get over trying to be all things to all people and need to develop a little independence. Guys, for better and for worse, already have that independence and don’t need to learn how to do it. Imagine the scene in the Welfare office, but with Precious’s father wanting to get back together with her, and you can imagine the howls of protest from Oprah and her fans.

And so Precious does not go home with Mary, but takes off down the street with her two children. And the “take control of your own life” vibe of the last half of the movie suggests this is a good thing. Let’s recap: here is a now seventeen-year-old girl who is homeless, has two babies, one with Down’s Syndrome, no husband or other means of support, and no high school diploma or GED. I really don’t see that as a happy ending.

Avatar (2009. Written by James Cameron. 162 minutes): The emperor’s old clothes.

Avatar

Well, it’s not as bad as Titanic, which is a relief. We don’t have all that romantic dialogue with Kate and Leo that sounded like a bunch of song cues, and the final song over the credits is not sung in as screechy-voiced a way as “My Heart Will Go On.” And the water CGI effects are a vast improvement. If you want my detailed take on the script problems with Titanic, see the chapter on it in the book version of Understanding Screenwriting.

As more than one commentator on it has mentioned, Avatar borrows from a lot of movies. I am going to avoid even the minimal listmaking of sources I did in US#24 on Monsters and Aliens, but I will point out a few. The picture starts out with us on our way to a planet where a mining crew is at work. When we get there we feel right at home. The crew recalls the team in Cameron’s Aliens (1986). Here is Sigourney Weaver (not playing Ripley here, but always welcome, and she at least tries to give the humorless Cameron’s flat dialogue a little light touch) and there is a macho Latina fighter formerly played by Jenette Goldstein, currently played by the also always-welcome Michelle Rodriguez. So what’s going on? For all the location and crew’s familiarity, Cameron is still facing the bane of all science fiction movies: how do you establish the world we will be living in during the running time of the film. His answer is talk. Cameron immediately starts with voiceover narration by Jake Sully, the paraplegic Marine. Unfortunately, Sam Worthington plays Sully with a typical Marine clenched jaw, which means some of his narration is incomprehensible. There are quicker and better ways to set up the situation. The scientists at the base want to use Sully’s DNA, which is similar to his dead brother’s, to let him become an avatar: part human, part Na’vi, so he can learn about the Na’vi inhabitants of the planet. He agrees to this and lets himself be put in a sleeping pod and wakes up as his Na’vi self. Cameron handles these transitions nicely, but once he is out on the planet, the movie turns into Dances with Wolves (1990). Sully’s Na’vi learns to love the other Na’vi, especially Neytiri, the female who is appointed his minder. She is the most interesting character in the film, much more so than Angelina Jolie’s minder in Wanted. Thanks to Cameron’s writing, Zoe Saldana’s “performance,” and the way that performance has been manipulated by computers, she shows a greater variety of emotion than any other character in the film. It would be a much better picture if Cameron gave the other characters the kind of nuances he gives Neytiri. The other characters are pretty much one-note, although Sully has two notes that seem to contradict each other: in his human form he seems to be a gung-ho Marine. In his Na’vi form, he seems to be a sensitive guy. I suppose you could defend this as the planet making him into a nice guy, but the writing does not do it.

So what we get are other-planet versions of scenes we have seen before. At one point Sully must “break” a flying animal so he can ride it. For all the technological wizardry, it is a “breaking the horse” scene from a hundred westerns. The dialogue Cameron gives to the Na’vi sounds like the dialogue given to the Native Americans in westerns, which along with the computer-generated characters makes them awfully close to Jar Jar Binks. When the Na’vi rise up against the military, we are back in They Died With Their Boots On (1941) or Little Big Man (1970). Except that Cameron gets sloppy about the mechanics. Where did the Na’vi suddenly get the voice communicators in their necklaces? We have not seen any sign of that kind of technology in the film before. And where did the Na’vi get the weapons they now carry? OK, maybe they got some from the military, but that many? And where did the Improvised Explosive Devices Sully uses come from? You could say the final assault on the Na’vi, in addition to conjuring up the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now (1979), is also similar to battle with the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi (1983), except that Lucas is more inventive. He has the Ewoks fight in the way guerilla groups have always fought, rather than as Cameron does, turning them into a full-scale conventional army. And here the film reveals itself to be very much a Bush-era critique of the military. Cameron has given the military and the people dealing with them very Bush-era slogans, including “shock and awe.” The colonel leading the charge is very Rumsfeldian. So we are encouraged to cheer for the Na’vi, standing in for the Iraqis and Afghanis, defeating a very conventionally American-looking army. The father of my granddaughter’s boyfriend is on the politically conservative side, and this bothered him a lot about the film.

As I have mentioned many times in here, if you are writing for film, you are writing for performance. Normally I mean that in relation to the actors, but in a picture like this, you are also writing for the performance of the designers, CGI people, et al. For all the hype about Avatar being a “game changer,” the visuals and the effects are not all that stunning. The planet looks like a botanical garden designed by a lighting designer for a Vegas show: phosphorescent purple and blue plants. The performance capture works with Neytiri, but not as well with the others. And the 3-D does not add a thing to the picture. I ducked once when something was thrown out at the audience, but that was about it.

The audience I saw the picture with, on the Saturday morning after Christmas, seemed more dutiful than impressed. There were no “Awww” sounds and when the credits started, they got up to leave. When I saw the original Star Wars on opening day, the audience stayed through the credits applauding. Now granted, that audience had a little botanical help, but still…

The Princess and the Frog (2009. Screenplay by Ron Clements & John Musker, and Rob Edwards, story by Ron Clements & John Musker and Greg Erb and Jason Oremland, plus several other people who helped on the story and are listed in the film but not on the IMDb or the official website of the film. 97 minutes): The emperor’s old drawings.

The Princess and the Frog

I am not sure you will entirely trust my judgment on this one, since I saw it immediately after Avatar and anything, especially if it was an hour shorter, would seem better. But this one had me at hello. We meet two little girls, Charlotte, a spoiled white southern belle, and Tiana, the black daughter of the woman who sews things for the white family. The seamstress is reading the story of the frog and the princess to the kids. Obviously the movie is going to be about the white girl, this being Disney and all. Except it’s not. We follow Tiana home with her mother. Wow, talk about a game changer: a black girl as a Disney princess. So we meet Tiana’s dad and see the happy family. We know the mom is not long for this world, since there is an over-abundance of dead mothers in Disney cartoons.

THE MOTHER DOES NOT DIE. Now that’s a real game changer, more so than anything in Avatar. In the Obama era, that is a bigger whoop than a mere black princess. OK, the father dies, but that’s a small price to pay. Tiana grows up to be voiced by Anika Noni Rose. You know she was wonderful in The No. 1 Lady’s Detective Agency (see US#23), but you may not know she started on Broadway in Caroline, or Change, and the writers have given her a lot to do here. She sings, she has great lines, which she delivers beautifully.

We pretty much know what is coming and the storytelling takes us there with great confidence. When John Lasseter, the head of Pixar, took over as head of all Disney animation, he made two basic decisions. The first was to get back into hand-drawn, or 2-D, animation. Now that’s class, since it would have been very self-protective of Lasseter just to stick to the computer animation that he has taken to such heights. His second decision was to bring back to the studio Clements and Musker, who worked on the last great spurt of Disney 2-D animation in the late eighties and early nineties. They know their medium. (The backstory of the film is from Danny Munso’s article in the November/December 2009 Creative Screenwriting.)

The writers have created a nice gallery of characters. They have provided a great setting by putting it in New Orleans. They have provided places for Randy Newman to write several terrific songs. And they don’t dawdle. After slogging through Avatar, it was nice to see something that not only has a great sense of humor, but does not waste a second of its 97 minutes. If you have to draw (almost) everything, you don’t waste time. The gags come quickly and do not overstay their welcome. The kids in the audience seemed to get the gags even quicker than I did, and I am no slouch in that area. The writers have also provided great opportunities for the performance of the designers. There are shots of the bayou that have a greater sense of three-dimensionality than anything in Avatar, and without those stupid glasses.

The storytelling is inventive, and no more so than at the end. The prince and Tiana are still frogs, and he has passed up the chance to kiss Charlotte, marry her, and use her money to get Tiana the restaurant she has been dreaming about. He and Tiana are in love and decide to live happily ever after as frogs in the bayou. OK, but the writers (and probably Lasseter, who has one of the best story minds in the business) understood that we really want to see Tiana and the prince back in human form (in an animated film? Yes, because we are so caught up in the story) and working her restaurant. So how to do it? You’ll have to see the movie, but the kids and I squealed with delight. And there was applause at the end of the film. Which there had not been for Avatar.

Me and Orson Welles (2008. Screenplay by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, based on the novel by Robert Kaplow. 114 minutes): Where is Mank when you need him?

Me and Orson Welles

The Palmos have worked behind the scenes on movies for years, she as a production manager and he as an assistant director, among other jobs. According to Peter Debruge’s article in the November/December 2009 Creative Screenwriting, they found the novel browsing in a bookstore. They started writing a screenplay from it without getting the rights. When they showed a draft to director Richard Linklater, with whom they had worked, he got the rights and directed the film. This is the Palmos’s first produced script, and they make a bunch of rookie mistakes.

The film follows Richard, a teenaged boy who gets picked to appear on stage with Orson Welles in his 1937 production of Julius Caesar. You remember the production, or at least the legends about it, don’t you? Welles had the cast dressed as contemporary fascists, borrowed the lighting scheme from Albert Speer’s “Cathedral of Lights” (see Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will for a demonstration), and had the cast turn machine guns on the audience and fire blanks at them. Aside from the modern costumes, the other two details are left out. We see that the lighting is spectacular, but there is no reference to Speer. Well, why not? Because the script already has a lot of bald-faced exposition, done in the most flat-footed way possible. I was wondering why that was so, and then I read Debruge’s article, and the giveaway is that the book was a “young adult” novel. Obviously the book had to explain to its young adult readers who the hell Orson Welles was and what he did. The Palmos, maybe correctly, assumed they had to do the same thing with a movie audience. I am not sure they did, and if they did, they could have laid the information in a little more subtly. The dialogue in general is very flat. What was called for was a real screenwriter to goose it up. (And if you don’t know that Mank was Herman J. Mankiewicz, maybe you shouldn’t yet be reading this column. Or rather, maybe it will be crucial for your education.)

The writers write some nice characters, especially Richard, the secretary Sonja, and Welles. Linklater’s direction tends to just sit and watch the characters talk and react, and the actors do a nice job. Zac Efron plays Richard and gets a lot more up on the screen that you might expect, given his High School Musical experience. Claire Danes, well, Claire Danes, enough said. Christian McKay is ten years too old for the 22 year-old Welles, but he has the look and the tone. Unfortunately, like the screenplay for Amelia (see US#36), the Palmos have not given him enough of the genius to play. The Speer reference and the machine guns simply would not have fit in with the “young adult” tone of the film.

And if you are going to make a film not just for young adults, why not go all the way, not only with the Wellesian style, but letting Richard sleep with Sonja. He turns down a perfect opportunity to do so. I can see why Kaplow handled it that way, but surely you could sneak it past the ratings board in a movie.

ScreenwritingScreenwriting: History, Theory and Practice (2009. Book by Steven Maras. 227 pages): Stop the Presses!

Academics take screenwriting seriously!

One of the problems I faced early in my career of writing about screenwriting was that academia generally did not take the study of screenwriting seriously. In those days (late 60s/70s) the auteur theory held sway. This affected the book publishing business as well. My biography of Nunnally Johnson was turned down by over thirty publishers, most of them twice, because I was determined to deal with his contributions as a screenwriter. When I insisted that was the heart of the book, one editor gave me a look that said, “What planet are you from? I read Andrew Sarris. I know directors make it up as they go along.”

Things have changed, as Maras’s book will show you. He is a Senior Lecturer and Chair of the Media and Communications Department at the University of Sydney (Australia), and his book looks at how academics have been dealing with, as the subtitle says, the history, theory, and practice of screenwriting. In very interesting ways, thank you very much. A lot of the issues that I have dealt with in relatively, OK, very, casual ways in this column are also being discussed among academics. You may get through the book quicker than I did, since I paused almost every page to think over the issues he was discussing. Sometimes I agreed with Maras and/or the people he was quoting, sometimes I didn’t. If you want to think seriously about screenwriting, you ought to pick this one up.

The Big Trail (1930. No credited screenplay. Story by Hal G. Evarts. 125 minutes): The big version.

The Big Trail

The old Fox studio had had a considerable success with John Ford’s 1924 The Iron Horse. When sound came in and they had a hit with the first western shot in sound, In Old Arizona (1929), the studio decided to shoot the works and do a big sound western in a new widescreen process called Grandeur. The studio got Evarts, who had written the story for William S. Hart’s last great western Tumbleweeds (1925), to come up with a story of a wagon train. Evarts sort of follows the story of The Iron Horse, with the hero, Breck Coleman, going along on the trek so he can get revenge on two men who killed his friend. That story is better integrated in The Big Trail than it is in The Iron Horse.

For years the only version that was available was the 35mm version shot simultaneously with the widescreen version, but Fox found the original and restored it. It plays better than the 35mm version because we get more of the epic scope of the trek. This would be writing for the performance of the 70mm camera. The problem is that the actors have not yet completely figured out how to say dialogue on film. Tully Marshall, whose film career essentially began playing the High Priest of Bel in Intolerance in 1916, adjusts better to sound than does former stage actor Tyrone Power (senior, the father of the better known one), who keeps pausing as he would on stage. Breck is played by a young guy just out of the prop department. His real name was Marion Morrison, but for this film the studio changed his name to John Wayne. He’s not bad, but he’s not “John Wayne” yet. And since the picture came out in early 1930 and only two theaters were equipped to show it in Grandeur, it bombed and Wayne went into B westerns until 1939. But if you have a big screen TV and you love westerns, you may find the movie entertaining.

Remember the Night (1940. Original Screenplay by Preston Sturges. 94 minutes): Writers versus directors.

Remember the Night

Mitchell Leisen, the director of this film, was almost single-handedly responsible for the move of screenwriters to directing in the early forties. Here is Billy Wilder on Leisen: “Leisen spent more time with Edith Head worrying about the pleats on a skirt than he did with us [Wilder and Charles Brackett] on the script. He didn’t argue over scenes. He didn’t know shit about construction. And he didn’t care. All he did was he fucked up the script…” And those are just the opening lines in a quote in Maurice Zolotow’s 1977 book Billy Wilder in Hollywood. Preston Sturges did not think too highly of Leisen either, and Remember the Night is the last script Sturges wrote before he turned to directing.

David Chierichetti, Leisen’s first biographer (Hollywood Director, 1973), is a little more sympathetic toward Leisen, but he did look at the scripts for this film. You can understand why Sturges disliked Leisen. According to Chierichetti, Sturges’s script was 130 pages, way too long for the kind of romantic drama the picture turned out to be. So Leisen cut it down. Mostly his cuts were long speeches Sturges had given to John Sargent, the deputy district attorney handling the case of Lee Leander, accused of shoplifting. As written by Sturges, Sargent is a fast-talking wheeler-dealer. Leisen thought, and he may have been right, that Fred MacMurray, who was cast as John, simply was not up to the demands of Sturges’s speeches. Or he may have simply thought that MacMurray was too much the all-American nice guy he had been playing in the thirties. It took Billy Wilder to see the darker side of MacMurray in Double Indemnity four years later; that MacMurray could have played Sturges’s character. The problem with Leisen’s cuts and his conventional direction of MacMurray is that when the plot requires us to see his manipulative side in the last twenty minutes of the film, we don’t believe it.

Some of Sturges’s comedy elements survive. The defense attorney at the beginning of the film would fit neatly into any other Sturges vehicle. Leisen did not cut his speeches. Lee Leander has the edge we expect of Sturges’s women. She is played by Barbara Stanwyck, whom Sturges used the next year in The Lady Eve. Leisen had a reputation as a woman’s director, and he certainly privileges Stanwyck over MacMurray in both the coverage and the composition and lighting of the shots. She of course delivers, but when did Stanwyck ever not deliver?

The story, which Sturges sets up so it is almost convincing (and Leisen does his part in these scenes with his direction of MacMurray and Stanwyck), has John not wanting Lee to spend Christmas in jail, since he got a continuance on her case. He is driving back home to Indiana for Christmas, and when he learns she grew up near his hometown, he takes her back with him. They meet her mother, who wants nothing to do with her (Sturges’s version was sharper: the mother had a second daughter who was also in trouble with the law). So John takes Lee home with him and his mother and aunt like her. Sturges satirizes small town America, some of which survives in the film, and some of which was shot but dropped. Leisen sets a quieter tone in the Indiana scenes than Sturges would have, and the film becomes more of a romantic drama than a romantic comedy. In other words, more of a Leisen film than a Sturges one. It is a nice movie of its kind, but thank God Preston started directing.

The Big Sleep (1946. Screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett & Jules Furthman, from the novel by Raymond Chandler. 114 minutes): Silence.

The Big Sleep

This is not a full-scale piece on the writing of this film, but just a minor note. The film was running on Turner Classic Movies, and I had it on while bringing in the groceries, talking on the phone, and some other stuff. I, like nearly everybody else in the known universe, love the dialogue in this film, but what struck me watching it in an off and on way was how silent a lot of the film is. There are a lot of moments in the film where there is no dialogue. We are watching Marlowe watch people and figuring out what possible actions he can take. They didn’t need dialogue, they had screenwriters. OK, except for Faulkner, but he was fun to have around.

Men of a Certain Age (2009. Various writers. 60-minute episodes): Why would we spend time with these people?

Men of a Certain Age

Several critics have liked this new show, but having seen three episodes, it does not really work for me. The setup is that three guys in their late forties, Joe, Owen and Terry, go for hikes in the hills, sit around in a restaurant and talk about their problems. OK, if their problems were that interesting to hear about. Joe runs a party supply store, which could provide the writers with interesting characters to come for Joe to deal with. No such luck. Joe also has a gambling problem, which introduced us to his bookie, who is not that interesting either. Owen is a car salesman, working at his father’s dealership. How are you going to make a car salesman sympathetic to an audience? They haven’t found a way. His father is always on his case, so Owen seems like a wuss not to stand up to him. Owen is played by Andre Braugher, and the role does not play to his strength, which is a primal power. Terry is an unsuccessful actor who is the epitome of the Peter Pan Syndrome. None of the supporting characters show any signs of breaking out as somebody worth watching as well.

30 Rock (2009. “Secret Santa” episode. Written by Tina Fey. 30 minutes): Tina Fey’s Christmas present to Alec Baldwin.

30 Rock

So just after I got done in my last column complaining that this season of 30 Rock has been uninspired, Tina Fey uncorks not only the best episode of the season, but one of their best episodes ever. As often, there are several plot lines. The first is Liz’s decision to give Jack a Christmas present, although she is warned by Jack’s assistant that Jack is, who would have guessed, the master of giving presents. After several false starts on her part, she and Jack decide to give presents that cost no money. More false starts on Liz’s part. Jack ends up giving her a ticket from a “gender neutral” production of The Crucible in high school in which she played John Proctor. And it’s framed in wood from the school’s stage. And you thought the reference to the production was just a throwaway gag in an earlier scene. Obviously Liz’s present, whatever it will be, is fated to be a big disaster. Yes and no.

Jack, meanwhile, is dealing with NBC/Universal (the show has not caught up yet with the company being bought by Comcast, but that may well bring out the best in the writers) having purchased You.Face, the social networking site. Yes, the name is obvious, but out of it comes a high school friend of Jack’s, Nancy, contacting him. He acted with her in a show in high school. He got to kiss her, but only in the show, and had a mad crush on her. She is coming to New York with her teenage kids and would like to see him. She shows up in Jack’s office and, be still my heart, it’s Julianne Moore. In an earthy mode as a lower-class Boston native, complete with accent. Great idea for a character to pair off with Jack, and even more inspired to get Moore. You would expect something more elegant with her, but if Meryl Streep can have as much fun as she is having these days in a variety of roles, why not Moore? The scenes between Nancy and Jack are terrific, giving us a romantic side to Jack we have not seen, as well as a look at where he started as a person. And the chemistry between Moore and Baldwin is breathtaking. They have dinner, but don’t kiss. She has to go back to Boston on the train the next morning, but the train gets delayed. She comes to his office and they kiss, and she goes back to her husband. How come the train was delayed? Liz called in a bomb threat to Pennsylvania Station as a Christmas present to Jack.

Which in turn reaffirms Kenneth’s belief in God, since the F.B.I. arrives at the office to arrest the three writers whose phone Liz had used to call in the threat. The writers had pretended to be of another, made-up religion to get out of Kenneth’s elaborate Secret Santa system. This got Kenneth questioning God, since He had not punished them. And now they get punished, and his faith is restored. As well as mine in the show. Thanks Tina, that was a great present.

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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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.

I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?

Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.

Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.

To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.

Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.

Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?

Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.

Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.

It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.

How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?

Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.

How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”

Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.

Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?

No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.

You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?

I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.

My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”

And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.

I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.

It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]

On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.

That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!

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Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre

Aaron Henry is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

Aaron Henry’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.

Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.

Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.

But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.

Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brad Smith, Jeff Pope, Andra Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert

The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.

The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.

At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.

As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.

Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident

Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.

1.5

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.

Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.

Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.

Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.

De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.

Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Crawl Is Fun and Economical but Lacks Go-for-Broke Inventiveness

The film is more straight-faced than Alexandre Aja’s prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws.

2.5

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Crawl
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Unlike the giddily crass Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is a quiet beast of a film. It’s built not on a foundation of over-the-top gore, but on a series of escalations. As a hurricane barrels toward Florida, ace swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) becomes worried after her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), doesn’t return her phone calls. She travels to her old family home and finds him unconscious in the house’s flooded crawl space, with large alligators swimming in the water.

Early on, the camera often lingers on the deceptive stillness of the rising water for maximum suspense. Haley and her father are trapped in the house with no more than the tools they can find or already have on hand, MacGyvering their very survival out of shovels, flashlights, and flares. The best parts of the film slyly set up those tools and other objects, including a swing set and a rat trap, only to bring them back at some later, climactic moment.

If Crawl, then, is an easily digestible piece of workmanlike thrills, its only real bit of gristle is its po-faced father-daughter bonding. Haley and Dave are somewhat estranged; the family home was meant to have been sold off after Dave’s recent divorce from Haley’s mother; and flashbacks to childhood swim meets show father and daughter tempting fate with flagrantly ironic use of the term “apex predator.” In the face of certain death, they cobble their relationship back together through Hallmark-card platitudes while sentimental music plays on the film’s soundtrack. It’s the absolute thinnest of familial drama, and it will do little to redirect your emotional investment away from the survival of the family dog.

Between these family moments, of course, the flood waters run red as people get got by gators. Aja is prone to lingering in prolonged closeup on things like a protruding bone being shoved back into place, but he otherwise seems to have gotten the most inspired bits of underwater violence out of his system with Piranha 3D. Crawl is more straight-faced than his prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws. And while these moments are suspenseful, with nail-biting scrapes involving a handgun, some loose pipes, and one particularly clever shower-door maneuver, there’s precious little of the go-for-broke invention or outrageousness that might have made the film more than a fun and economical thriller.

Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Morfydd Clark Director: Alexandre Aja Screenwriter: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Farewell Thoughtfully Braids the Somber and the Absurd

The film taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

3.5

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The Farewell
Photo: A24

In the opening scene of writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Chinese grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), affectionately referred to as Nai Nai by her family, and her Chinese-American granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), have a warm, affectionate phone conversation in which each woman incessantly lies to the other. A professionally adrift, financially bereft millennial whose writing ambitions have come to naught, Billi lets her grandmother believe her life is busy and full of social engagements; for her part, Nai Nai insists that she’s at her sister’s house, rather than in a drably decorated doctor’s office. Wang frames Nai Nai against the kitschy, oversized picture of a lagoon that hangs on the wall, as if to emphasize the flimsiness of the illusions the pair is painting for one another.

The sequence calls to mind the advantage of audio-only phone calls: for allowing us to more easily maintain the falsehoods that comprise a not insignificant portion of our relationships. Given that minor mistruths prop up our most basic social connections, Wang focuses The Farewell on the moral quandary of whether a big lie—specifically, culturally contingent situations—might actually be an expression of genuine love. The film takes up the question with a tone of melancholic drollery, a sense of irony that doesn’t lose touch with the human feelings at its core. The Farewell is “based on an actual lie,” evidently an episode from Wang’s life, and its careful mixture of the somber and the absurd rings true to life.

As it turns out, Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer, but Billi’s father’s family elects to lie to the woman about her MRI results, an action that’s evidently within the bounds of Chinese law. But as Billi’s assimilated immigrant father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), points out to his brother, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), during a crisis of conscience, such a thing is both frowned upon in America and prosecutable. Struggling even more with the decision, of course, is the more Americanized Billi, who can’t reconcile her Western notions of love and the sanctity of the individual with the widespread practice of lying to family members about their impending deaths.

To create a cover for a family visit to Beijing, the family forces Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Hanwei), who lives in Japan, to marry his girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), of three months. This plan provides plenty of fodder for Wang’s dry humor, as the family attempts to maintain the veneer of celebration while also bidding farewell to their ostensibly clueless matriarch, who’s confused by Hao Hao and Aiko’s lack of affection and the generally dour mood that predominates in the lead-up to the wedding. It’s potential material for a farce, but even in its funny moments, Wang’s film is contemplative rather than frenetic, preferring to hold shots as her characters gradually, often comically adjust to the reality that Nai Nai will soon be gone.

Awkwafina, hitherto notable mostly for her comic supporting roles, gives a revelatory lead performance as Billi, the thirtysomething prone to bouts of adolescent sullenness. Perhaps playing a Bushwick-based, first-generation-American creative type isn’t much of a stretch for the Queens-born rapper/actress, but she immediately brings to the role the depth of lived experience: We believe from the first frames in the long-distance love between Billi and her grandmother, and the existential crisis the young woman feels as she negotiates two cultures’ differing approaches to death and disease. In taking us to Beijing through Billi’s eyes, which are often blinking back tears as she says goodbye without articulating “goodbye,” The Farewell’s morose but not hopeless comedy taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Hanwei Director: Lulu Wang Screenwriter: Lulu Wang Distributor: A24 Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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Review: The Lion King Remake Finds Its Place in the Circle of Consumption

This ostentatiously expensive remake is reliant on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.

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The Lion King
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It’s somewhat paradoxical to critique Disney’s recent series of “live-action” remakes for precisely repeating the narratives, emotional cues, shot sequences, and soundscapes of their earlier animated versions. More than young children, who might well be content watching the story in vibrant 2D, it’s the parents who are the target audience of this new take on The Lion King, which aims to light up adults’ nostalgia neurons. In this sense, Jon Favreau’s film achieves its goals, running through a text beloved by an entire generation almost line for line, and shot for shot—with some scenes extended to reach the two hours seemingly required of Hollywood tentpoles. Throughout, though, one gets the impression that there’s something very cheap at the core of this overtly, ostentatiously expensive film, reliant as it is on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.

The new film differs from its source in simulating a realistic African savannah and wildlife through digital animation and compositing, but it doesn’t provide anything resembling a genuinely new idea, visually or dramatically. Favreau meticulously recreates the framing and montage of 1994’s The Lion King as he runs through the unaltered storyline. The young lion prince Simba (voiced as a cub by JD McCrary and as a grown lion by Donald Glover) witnesses his father Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones) seemingly accidental death by stampede. Unknown to Simba, his uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), murdered his own brother, but the jealous would-be heir manipulates the rambunctious young lion into accepting the blame for his father’s death. In self-exile, Simba represses his guilt by adopting the carefree philosophy of meercat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), until his long-lost betrothed, Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter), happens across him and convinces him to return to reclaim his throne.

The film’s world, as conceived by Favreau’s camera and an army of CG animators, is far less expressive than the one Disney’s original artists created in 1994. Tied to the idea of recompositing a reality, the filmmakers take less license in making the elephant graveyard where malicious hyenas Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), Azizi (Eric André), and Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key) live a fantastical, nightmarish terrain, and they constrain the choreography of the animals during Simba’s performance of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” to the bounds of actual animal physiology. Such musical sequences suffer under the regime of realism: Scar’s villainous exposition song, “Be Prepared,” appears in a truncated version spoken more than sung by Ejiofor, effectively robbing the original song of its devious exuberance.

The characters’ faces are also less pliable, less anthropomorphized—their demeanor harder to read—than in the traditional animation format of the original film. This isn’t necessarily a hindrance to crafting an affecting story (see Chris Noonan’s Babe), but the closeness with which Favreau hews to the original film means that the moments crafted for the earlier medium don’t quite land in this one. Scar isn’t nearly so menacing when he’s simply a gaunt lion with a scar, and Nala and Simba’s reunion isn’t as meaningful when their features can’t soften in humanlike fashion when they recognize each other. The Lion King invites—indeed, attempts to feed off of—reference to the original but consistently pales in comparison.

There’s another important difference one feels lurking in the margins of this film. The attitude of the first Lion King toward nature approached something like deference. The original film isn’t flawless: In its depiction of a patrilineal kingdom being saved from a usurper and his army of lazy serfs by the rightful heir, it questionably projected human politics into a nonhuman world. But it was an ambitious project by the then comparatively modest Walt Disney Studios to craft an expressive, living portrait of the animal kingdom. In contrast, there’s a hubristic quality to this CG-infused remake, as if Disney is demonstrating that its digitally fabricated imagery can fully capture the reality of a healthy, autonomous animal world—at a historical moment when that world is in danger of being totally snuffed out by the human race’s endless cycles of production and reproduction. The subject of this tiresome retread is ultimately less the “circle of life” and more the circle of consumption.

Cast: Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, John Kani, JD McCrary, John Oliver Director: Jon Favreau Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson, Brenda Chapman Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Rojo Is a Chilly Allegory for the Distance Between Classes

It masterfully sustains a sense of “wrongness” that will be felt even by those unfamiliar with Argentina’s history.

3

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Rojo
Photo: Distrib Films

With Rojo, writer-director Benjamín Naishtat conjures a haunting aura of debauched boredom, evoking a climate in which something vast yet barely acknowledged is happening under the characters’ noses. Though the film is set in Argentina in 1975, on the cusp of a coup and at the height of the Dirty War, when U.S.-backed far-right military groups were kidnapping, torturing, and killing perceived liberal threats, these events are never explicitly mentioned. Instead, the characters do what people choosing to ignore atrocity always have, talking around uncomfortable subjects and focusing on the mundane textures of their lives. Meanwhile, Naishtat expresses Argentina’s turmoil via symbols and sequences in which aggression erupts out of seemingly nowhere, actualizing the tension that’s hidden in plain sight. Throughout the film, Naishtat masterfully sustains a sense of “wrongness” that will be felt even by audiences who’re unfamiliar with Argentina’s history.

The film opens with a home being emptied of its belongings—an image that will come to scan as a metaphor for a country that’s “cleaning house.” Naishtat then springs an odd and creepy encounter between a famous attorney, Claudio (Darío Grandinetti), and a man who will eventually come to be known as “the hippie” (Diego Cremonesi). Claudio is sitting at a stylish restaurant minding his own business and waiting for his wife, Susana (Andrea Frigerio), when the hippie storms in and demands that Claudio give up his table. The hippie reasons that he’s ready to eat now, while Claudio is inhabiting unused space. Claudio gives up the table and proceeds, with his unexpected civility in the face of the hippie’s hostility, to humiliate this interloper. And this scene reflects how skillful Naishtat is at tying us in knots: In the moment, Claudio is the sympathetic party, but this confrontation becomes a parable of how people like the hippie are being pushed out—“disappeared”—by a country riven with political divisions.

Tensions between Claudio and the hippie escalate, and the hippie eventually shoots himself in the face with a pistol. Rather than taking the man to the hospital, Claudio drives him out to the desert, leaving his body there and allowing him to die. What’s shocking here is the matter-of-fact-ness of Claudio’s actions; based on his demeanor, Claudio might as well be carrying trash out to the dump, and he moves on with his life, returning to work and basking in the adulation that his profession has granted him. In a conventional thriller, this moral trespass would be the driving motor of the film, yet Naishtat drops the incident with the hippie for the majority of Rojo’s running time, following Claudio as he networks and engages in other scams.

Naishtat emulates, without editorializing, the casualness of his characters, and so Rojo is most disturbing for so convincingly suggesting idealism to be dead—with gritty brownish cinematography that further suggests a sensorial muddying. With little-to-no sense of stability, of faith in a social compass, the characters here often emphasize what should be trivial happenings. Susana’s decision to drink water at a gathering, rather than coffee or tea, becomes a kind of proxy gesture for the resistance that her and her social class are failing to show elsewhere, while a comic disappearance during a magic show macabrely mirrors the government’s killing and kidnapping of dissidents. Rojo’s centerpiece, however, is an eclipse that engulfs a beach in the color red, as Susana wanders a wooded area lost while Claudio, lacking sunglasses, blocks his eyes. The color red is also associated with communism, of course, as if the targets of this regime are demanding to be recognized.

Rojo eventually reprises the hippie narrative, as a famed Chilean detective, Sinclair (Alfredo Castro), comes hounding Claudio for answers, yet this development is soon revealed to be an elaborate fake-out. Out in the desert, one’s primed to expect the ruthlessly intelligent Sinclair to provide the wandering narrative a catharsis by forcing Claudio to take responsibility for something. But these men, both wealthy and respected, are of the same ilk. Though they’re each bound by routine and pretense, the death of lower classes means equally little to both of them. At this point, it’s clear that Rojo is less a thriller than a brutally chilly satire, concerning men who have the privilege, like other people who haven’t been deemed expendable by their government, to playact, offering ceremonial outrage that gratifies their egos while allowing a diseased society that benefits them to carry on with business as usual.

Cast: Darío Grandinetti, Andrea Frigerio, Alfredo Castro, Laura Grandinetti, Rafael Federman, Mara Bestelli, Claudio Martínez Bel, Abel Ledesma, Raymond E. Lee Director: Benjamín Naishtat Screenwriter: Benjamín Naishtat Distributor: Distrib Films Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Art of Self-Defense Totters Between Raw Ferocity and Lifeless Comedy

The dojo of this film is the ultimate unsafe space, a place of deadpan irony and appalling brutality.

2

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The Art of Self-Defense
Photo: Bleecker Street

Writer–director Riley Stearns is a fan and practitioner of jiu-jitsu, which he’s credited with making him healthier and less lazy. Yet the filmmaker’s sophomore feature, The Art of Self-Defense, would seem to posit martial arts as the epitome of toxic masculinity. The dojo here is the ultimate unsafe space, a fight club stripped of Fincherian chic, which Stearns replaces with deadpan irony and appalling brutality.

The film centers on an accounts auditor, Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), the platonic ideal of a hypomasculine twerp. He tells people his name like it’s a question, and his favorite music is “adult contemporary.” Even his pet dachshund reads as a loser: scrawny, with disproportionate features. Such meekness attracts the ire of bullies: his inanimate answering machine surreally berates him; French tourists in a coffee shop laugh at him (in French, which they don’t realize he understands); and, most seriously, a motorcycle gang nearly beats him to death. He’s just that kind of guy, so contemptibly inadequate that people want to hurt him.

Wandering the lonely streets of his unnamed city, Casey happens upon one of the film’s few populated spaces: a karate studio where Anna (Imogen Poots) provides a group of children with the affirmation and social support system Casey so desperately craves. “I want to be,” he says, “what intimidates me.” When he joins the adult class, he gets something extra from the studio’s sensei (Alessandro Nivola): a heaping side of male chauvinism. Soon, Casey is studying German—a manlier language than French, says the sensei—and listening to metal. He also stops petting his dog, so as not to coddle it, changes his desktop wallpaper at work to bare breasts, and punches his accommodating boss in the throat for being friendly.

Nivola dominates The Art of Self-Defense as his sensei does his loyal students, achieving alpha-male status with well-articulated arrogance, while Poots provides a valuable counter voice as Anna, calling attention to the preposterousness of that sexism as a talented and powerful woman, held back by the gender roles ingrained in this system of unarmed combat. (A scene in which Anna recounts an attempted sexual assault against her at the dojo, for which she was subsequently blamed and punished, is particularly affecting.) And Eisenberg’s Casey is the easily influenced straight man caught between the two, drawn to the pride and confidence offered by the sensei but also to the compassionate strength embodied by Anna.

The whole cast, however, struggles with Stearns’s overarching tone, and his screenplay’s occasional wit is usually delivered by the actors in such a deadpan that it flatlines. The contrasting flashes of ultraviolence, on the mat and off, thus have no counterbalance, leaving The Art of Self-Defense tottering between raw ferocity and lifeless comedy.

Stearns’s 2014 feature-length debut, Faults, was a tightly constructed and alluringly mysterious riff on similar issues, about the malleability of a man who lacks confidence. But it was unpredictable in its depiction of the slowly changing power dynamic between its characters; the film broke down and unmoored its audience along with its protagonist, a deprogrammer of cult members tricked into becoming one. In this film, though, the plot twists are telegraphed early. The hero is overly coded as pathetic, and we’re invited to laugh at him with the French tourists, not only to shake our heads at his brief, incel-like transformation into an overcompensating bro, but finally to find comfort in his use of violence to depose his violent sensei. The stakes seem low: Casey rejects the manipulative madman, a blackmailer with a black belt, who harnessed karate’s power for ill, but Steans is careful to vindicate karate itself, which might please its admirers but leave everyone else feeling indifferent.

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Phillip Andre Botello, David Zellner, Steve Terada Director: Riley Stearns Screenwriter: Riley Stearns Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Sword of Trust Is an Amiable Look at Southern Disillusionment

Marc Maron’s commanding aura of regret gives the film, despite its missed opportunities, an emotional center.

2.5

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Sword of Trust
Photo: IFC Films

Like most Lynn Shelton films, Sword of Trust is amiable and humanistic almost to a fault. The filmmaker has a gift for oddball humor, and for allowing her actors to form memorable and moving rapports, yet with the exception of Your Sister’s Sister, there often seems to be little at stake in her work. Sword of Trust often feels similarly slight, even though it’s about the legacy of the American Civil War and the “post-truth” crisis that’s currently plaguing the country. An engaging tension between tone and theme animates the film, but you may wish that Shelton had approached her material with more focus.

Much of the film is set in an Alabaman pawn shop presided over by Mel, who’s played by Marc Maron and who resembles every character the actor-comedian played since enjoying a career resurgence with his series Maron (episodes of which Shelton directed). Like Maron himself, Mel is a lovable curmudgeon, a recovering addict who utilizes his past troubles as a signifier of his hard-won wisdom and humility, which he laces with acidic humor and sharp timing. Since Maron, a spin-off of his “WTF” podcast, Maron has grown astonishingly as an actor, with a rumpled charisma that suggests 1970s-era legends like Elliott Gould. Unlike most comedians acting in films, Maron isn’t afraid to slow down his performative biorhythms, which is especially evident in a lovely early scene in Sword of Trust when Mel sees an ex (Shelton) and silently trundles toward the front of the shop closer to her, clearly weighing his words.

Shelton takes her time acclimating the audience to life in Mel’s pawn shop. Mel has a lackadaisical millennial assistant, Nathaniel (Jon Bass), who’s enthralled with internet conspiracy theories, and he enjoys ice teas with Jimmy (Al Elliott), an elderly African-American man who runs a nearby restaurant. These loose observational moments are Shelton’s specialty, and she subtly allows us to grasp the sadness of her characters. These people have forged a kind of liberal bohemian idyll in the middle of a red state, but they’re lonely, drifting through life. Maron telegraphs this loneliness in how he has Mel appraise objects, with a weariness that suggests a need for both connection and money.

Kicking the film’s plot in gear is a couple, Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins), who inherit from Cynthia’s deceased grandfather a Union sword that a cult of truthers believes to be evidence that the South won the Civil War. This is a spectacular idea for a satire of our modern age—in which memes and online mythology warp discourse—that Shelton reduces mostly to an inciting incident and a MacGuffin. Cynthia and Mary partner with Mel to sell the sword to the cult, which leads to a few surprisingly scary-flaky scenes that momentarily jolt the film’s easygoing vibes. Particularly eerie is a scene with Hog Jaws, a truther henchman who’s played by Toby Huss with an unusually casual sense of menace. This is a man who doesn’t need to threaten people because he understands he’s inherently threatening.

Given its narrative involving a Jewish man pretending to take reactionary Southern values seriously, Sword of Trust at times suggests a kind of sketch-TV version of BlackKklansman. Shelton sees the truthers as bigoted buffoons, as symptoms of people’s current need to follow their own ideology, regardless of facts and carefully nurtured online, but with few exceptions, she doesn’t bring the tension between the liberals and the good-old-boys to a head. The filmmaker comes very close to suggesting that everyone has their reasons, even hateful fanatics—a potentially explosive implication in itself that, in this context, deflates the satire. One wishes that the film’s political textures had been nurtured, as they are essentially window dressing for what becomes a miniature coming-of-age road-trip comedy, the sort of indie that used to be common in the ‘90s. Yet Maron’s commanding aura of regret gives Sword of Trust an emotional center despite its missed opportunities.

Cast: Marc Maron, Jon Bass, Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Toby Huss, Dan Bakkedahl, Lynn Shelton, Al Elliott, Timothy Paul, Whitmer Thomas Director: Lynn Shelton Screenwriter: Lynn Shelton, Michael Patrick O’Brien Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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