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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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Love Before the Virus: Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s Newly Restored Passing Strangers

The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love.

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Passing Strangers
Photo: PinkLabel

One of the many pleasures to be had in watching Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s newly restored Passing Strangers derives from its status as a historical document, or a piece of queer ethnography. The 1974 film allows us to see but also feel what life was like for gay men during what some have called the golden age of unbridled sex before the AIDS epidemic. Bressan Jr.’s portrait of this history is simultaneously attuned to its sartorial, mediatic, erotic, and affective dimensions, which may come as a surprise to those unaccustomed to explicit sexual imagery being paired with social commentary. Pornography and poetry aren’t counterparts here. Rather, they’re bedfellows, one the logical continuation of the other. Money shots, for instance, aren’t accompanied by moaning or groaning, but by the sounds of a violin.

The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love. They devote so much of their lives to picking up strangers for sex, briefly and by the dozens, but not without secretly wishing that one of them might eventually stay. In this they may not differ much from their contemporary cruising heirs, though they do in their approach. It turns out that asking for a pen pal’s photo before a meetup in 1974 was considered creepy, and using Walt Whitman’s poetry as part of a sex ad was quite fruitful.

That’s exactly what 28-year-old Tom (Robert Carnagey), a bath-house habitué and telephone company worker living in San Francisco, does in the hopes of attracting something long term. The literal poetics of cruising speaks to 18-year-old Robert (Robert Adams), who responds to Tom’s newspaper ad right way. They meet in person and begin a love affair that could only be described as bucolic, including making love in fields of grass, on top of a picnic blanket, to the sound of waves and piano notes, and riding their bikes around town, much like the sero-discordant love birds of Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo do after partaking in a gangbang. In retrospect, promiscuity gains the tinge of an obsessive auditioning of “the one,” who, in Bressan Jr.’s sensual fairy tale, is bound to come along and save us from ourselves.

Passing Strangers, which originally screened at adult cinemas and gay film festivals, recalls Francis Savel’s 1980 porno Equation to an Unknown in how smut and romance are so intimately bound in the forms of queer intimacy that the film depicts. This may also be due to the dearth of gay cinematic representation at the time—of gay men perhaps needing to dream of prince charming and of bareback anal sex in the same movie session, satisfying the itch for love and for filth in one fell swoop. But while Equation to an Unknown is completely wrapped up in a fantasy glow, there’s something more realistic, or pragmatic, about Passing Strangers.

Tom’s voiceover narration, which takes the shape of disaffected epistolary exchanges with his newfound beloved, orients us through the action. Motivations are explained. At times, however, Bressan Jr. indulges in experimental detours. These are precisely the most beautiful, and atemporal, sequences in the film—scenes where sex is juxtaposed with the sound of a construction site or the buzzing of a pesky mosquito, or one where an audience of orgy participants give a round of applause after somebody ejaculates. And the film’s surrendering to moments of inexplicable poesis reaches its apex in a shot of a boy in clown makeup holding his mouth agape. It’s an exquisitely brief shot, indelible in its strangeness.

Newly restored from the original negative in a 2K scan, Passing Strangers is now available to stream on PinkLabel as part of The Bressan Project.

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Review: Tom Hanks Stubbornly Steers Greyhound into Sentimental Waters

With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play.

1.5

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Greyhound
Photo: Apple TV+

With his almost supernatural likeability, impeccable reputation, and penchant for appearing in films rooted in American history, Tom Hanks has become a national father figure. The actor’s ongoing project, particularly urgent as we seek to redefine our relationship with our history and iconography, is to remind us of when the United States actually rose to the occasion. Unsurprisingly, this project often centers on World War II, one of the least controversial pinnacles of American collaboration on the world stage.

Continuing this tradition, Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound concerns the efforts to provide Britain with troops and supplies via Allied naval convoys on the Atlantic, which German U-boat “wolf packs” stalk and sink, attempting to break a Western blockade. Adapted by Hanks from C.S. Forester’s novel The Good Shephard, the film is a celebration of duty and competency that’s so quaint it’s almost abstract, as it arrives at a time of chaos, selfish and blinkered American governing, and a growing bad faith in our notion of our own legacy.

Set over a few days in 1942, the film dramatizes a fictionalized skirmish in the real-life, years-long Battle of the Atlantic. The American destroyer Greyhound, leader of a convoy that includes Canadian and British vessels, is commanded by Ernest Krause (Hanks), an aging naval officer with no experience in battle. Text at the start of the film explains that there’s a portion of the Atlantic that’s out of the range of air protection, called the Black Pit, in which convoys are especially vulnerable to the wolf packs. For 50 hours, Krause and his crew will be tested and severely endangered as they seek to cross this treacherous stretch of the sea.

This skeletal scenario has potential as a visceral thriller and as a celebration of Allied ingenuity and daring. Unfortunately, Hanks’s script never adds any meat to the skeleton. One can see Hanks’s passion for history in the loving details—in the references to depth charge supply, to windshield wipers freezing up, to the specific spatial relationships that are established (more through text than choreography) via the various vessels in this convoy. What Hanks loses is any sense of human dimension. In The Good Shephard, Krause is frazzled and insecure about leading men who’re all more experienced in battle than himself. By contrast, Krause’s inexperience is only mentioned in Greyhound as a testament to his remarkable, readymade leadership. The film’s version of Krause is stolid, undeterred, unshakably decent ol’ Tom Hanks, national sweetheart. As such, Greyhound suffers from the retrospective sense of inevitability that often mars simplified WWII films.

Greyhound’s version of Krause lacks the tormented grace of Hanks’s remarkable performance in Clint Eastwood’s Sully. This Krause also lacks the palpable bitterness of Hanks’s character in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, as well as the slyness that the actor brought to both Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can and Bridge of Spies. In Greyhound, Hanks falls prey to the sentimentality for which his detractors have often unfairly maligned him, fetishizing Krause’s selflessness in a manner that scans as ironically vain. As a screenwriter, Hanks throws in several writerly “bits” to show how wonderful Krause is, such as his ongoing refusal to eat during the Greyhound’s war with U-boats. (A three-day battle on an empty stomach seems like a bad idea.) Meanwhile, the crew is reduced to anonymous faces who are tasked with spouting jargon, and they are, of course, unquestionably worshipful of their commander, as are the voices that are heard from the other vessels in the convoy.

Schneider lends this pabulum a few eerie visual touches, as in the slinky speed of the German torpedoes as they barely miss the Greyhound, but the film is largely devoid of poetry. The stand-offs between the vessels are competently staged, but after a while you may suspect that if you’ve seen one torpedo or depth charge detonation you’ve seen them all. With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play. In short, Greyhound takes a fascinating bit of WWII history and turns it into a blockbuster version of bathtub war.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Karl Glusman, Stephen Graham, Elisabeth Shue, Tom Brittney, Devin Druid, Rob Morgan, Lee Norris, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Maximilian Osinski, Matthew Zuk, Michael Benz Director: Aaron Schneider Screenwriter: Tom Hanks Distributor: Apple TV+ Running Time: 91 min Rating: 2020 Year: PG-13

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Review: The Beach House’s Moodiness Is Dissipated by Shaky Characterization

The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action.

2

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The Beach House
Photo: Shudder

Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, in which a satellite crashes to Earth with an alien virus on board, is an expression of Space Age anxieties, about how the zeal to reach the stars could have unintended and dangerous consequences. In Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House, something lethal instead rises from the depths of the ocean, a kind of “alien” invasion coming up from below rather than down from the cosmos, better reflecting the environmental anxieties of our present day. It still feels like comeuppance for human hubris, but this time in the form of intraterrestrial, not extraterrestrial, revenge.

The potentially extinction-level event is played on a chamber scale as domestic drama. Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) are college sweethearts who go to his family’s beach house during the off-season, in a seemingly abandoned town, to work on their personal problems. They’re unexpectedly joined there by Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), old friends of Randall’s father, and the four agree to have dinner together. It’s then that Emily, an aspiring astrobiologist, conveniently provides some context for what’s about to happen, as she makes reverential conversation at the table about the mysterious depths of the sea and the sometimes extreme conditions in which new life can be created and thrive.

That night, while tripping balls on edibles, the couples look out and marvel at the sparkling, purple-tinged landscape outside their beach house. (The smell is less gloriously described as being like that of sewage and rotten eggs.) It’s not a hallucination, though, because whatever ocean-formed particulate is turning the night sky into a psychedelic dreamscape and the air cloudy is also making the characters sick. There’s some interesting and serendipitous overlap between the film’s central horror and our present Covid-19 crisis, as the malady seems to be airborne, affecting the lungs and making the characters cough. It also affects older people more quickly than the young, with the milder symptoms including exhaustion.

Brown emphasizes the oddness of nature with an eye for detail focused in close-up on, say, the eerie gooeyness of oysters, and by vivifying the film’s settings with bold colors: On the second night, the air glows mustard and red, recalling recent California wildfires. The ubiquitous haze also evokes John Carpenter’s The Fog and Frank Darabont’s The Mist, but other genre influences are also on display, from Cronenbergian body horror, as in the gory removal of a skin-burrowing worm, to zombie flicks, given the slowness of the hideously infected victims.

There’s not a lot of exposition about the illness, as Brown’s screenplay is primarily focused on Randall and Emily’s fight to survive the mysterious onslaught. But you probably won’t care if they do. The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action. The Beach House had convincingly argued that these two people shouldn’t be together, that their relationship has long passed its prime. He mocks her plans for advanced study and calls her life goals bullshit, even though he has none himself; he suggests that they move into the beach house, to live in a state of permanent vacation, while he tries to figure out what life means. When she’s high and getting sick and asking him for help, he dismisses her, lest it harsh his mellow. But instead of engineering his downfall, Midsommar-style, Emily does everything she can in the last third to help save him. It feels sudden, unearned, and unconvincing—enough to make you root for the monsters from the ocean floor.

Cast: Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Maryann Nagel, Jake Weber Director: Jeffrey A. Brown Screenwriter: Jeffrey A. Brown Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Old Guard Is a Would-Be Franchise Starter with No New Moves

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action, the film is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts.

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The Old Guard
Photo: Netfflix

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard is a modestly successful attempt to build a new fountain of franchise content out of a comic series with nearly limitless potential for spin-offs. The story kicks into motion with a team of four mercenaries with unique powers and an ancient bond setting off to rescue some kidnapped girls in South Sudan. Charlize Theron brings her customarily steely intensity to the role of the group’s cynical, burnt-out leader, Andy, who isn’t crazy about the idea since she doesn’t trust Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the ex-C.I.A. agent who hired them. Given how long it turns out that Andy has been doing this sort of thing, you would imagine that her comrades would listen.

The mission turns out to be a set-up, and the would-be rescuers are wiped out in a barrage of bullets. Except not, because Andy and her team are pretty much unkillable. So as their enemies are slapping each other on the back and conveniently looking the other way, the mercenaries haul themselves to their feet, bodies healing almost instantaneously, bullets popping out of closing wounds. Payback is swift but interesting, because for reasons likely having to do with their being many centuries old—the youngest, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), fought for Napoleon—the four quasi-immortals like to use swords in addition to automatic weaponry.

Written with glints of pulpy panache by Greg Rucka, the comic’s originator, The Old Guard sets up a high-potential premise and proceeds to do not very much with it. Rucka’s conceit is that this tiny group are among the very few people on Earth to have been born essentially immortal. This can be a good thing, but it can also prove problematic, as it means that they watch everybody they know age and die—a trope that was already somewhat worn by the time Anne Rice used it throughout her novels about ever-suffering vampires.

The plot of the film does relatively little after the showdown in South Sudan besides introduce a new member of the mercenary team, Nile (KiKi Layne), establish that Andy is tiring of the wandering warrior life, and show the group plotting revenge on Copley only to have that turn into a rescue mission that conveniently brings them all back together again. As part of the run-up to that mission, new recruit Nile, a Marine who goes AWOL from Afghanistan with Andy after her fellow soldiers see her seemingly fatal knife wound magically heal and treat her as some kind of witch, is introduced to life as a nearly invincible eternal warrior.

That rescue plot is simple to the point of being rote. Billionaire Big Pharma bro Merrick (Harry Melling), seemingly made up of equal parts Lex Luthor and Martin Shkreli, kidnaps two of Andy’s team in the hope of harvesting their DNA for blockbuster anti-aging drugs. Unfortunately for the film, that takes two of its most personable characters temporarily out of action. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) had their meet-cute while fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades and have been wildly in love ever since. After the two are captured and mocked by Merrick’s homophobic gunsels, Joe delivers a pocket soliloquy on his poetic yearning: “His kiss still thrills me after a millennium.” The moment’s romantic burn is more poignant by being clipped to its bare-minimal length and presented with the casual confidence one would expect from a man old enough to remember Pope Urban II.

In other ways, however, The Old Guard fails to explore the effects of living such lengthy lives. Asked by Nile whether they are “good guys or bad guys,” Booker answers that “it depends on the century.” While Rucka’s hard-boiled lines like that can help energize the narrative, it can also suggest a certain flippancy. When the film does deal with crushing weight of historical memory, it focuses primarily on Andy, who’s been around so long that her name is shortened from Andromache the Scythian (suggesting she was once the Amazon warrior queen who fought in the battle of Troy). Except for a brief flashback illustrating the centuries-long escapades of Andy and Quynh (Veronica Ngo) fighting for vaguely defined positive principles (one involved rescuing women accused of witchcraft), we don’t see much of their past. Similarly, except for Andy’s increasing cynicism about the positive impact of their roaming the Earth like do-gooder ronin, they seem to exist largely in the present.

That present is largely taken up with combat, particularly as Booker, Andy, and Nile gear up to rescue Nicky and Joe. Prince-Bythewood handles these scenes with a degree of John Wick-esque flair: Why just shoot a Big Pharma hired gun once when you can shoot him, flip him over, and then stab and shoot him again for good measure? However tight, though, the action scenes’ staging is unremarkable, with the exception of one climactic moment that’s so well-choreographed from an emotional standpoint that the impossibility of a multiplex crowd hooting and clapping in response makes the film feel stifled by being limited to streaming.

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts. That will likely not stop further iterations from finding ways to plug these characters and their like into any historical moment that has room in it for high-minded mercenaries with marketable skills and a few centuries to kill.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling, Veronica Ngo Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood Screenwriter: Greg Rucka Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: We Are Little Zombies Is a Fun, Wildly Stylized Portrait of Grief

The film is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries.

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We Are Little Zombies
Photo: Oscilloscope

Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies follows the exploits of a group of tweens who meet at the funeral home where their deceased parents are being cremated. But, surprisingly, Hitari (Keita Ninomiya), Takemura (Mondo Okumura), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), and Ikiko (Satoshi Mizuno) are united less by sorrow and more by cool indifference, as they see their parents’ deaths as yet another tragedy in what they collectively agree is pretty much a “shit life.” As the socially awkward Hitari claims matter-of-factly in voiceover, “Babies cry to signal they need help. Since no one can help me, there’s no point in crying.”

Through a series of extended flashbacks, Nagahisa relates the kids’ troubled lives, never stooping to pitying or sentimentalizing them or their utter dismay with the adult world. The new friends’ deeply internalized grief and hopelessness are filtered wildly through a hyperreal aesthetic lens that’s indebted to all things pop, from psychedelia to role-playing games. It’s Nagashisa’s vibrant means of expressing the disconnect between the kids’ troubled lives and their emotionless reactions to the various tragedies that have befallen them.

With its chiptunes-laden soundtrack and chapter-like form, which mimics the levels of a video game, We Are Little Zombies will draw understandable comparisons to Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But it’s Nagisa Oshima’s Three Resurrected Drunkards that offers a more precise analogue to this film’s provocative rhyming of stylistic zaniness and extreme youthful alienation. Oshima’s anarchically playful farce stars the real-life members of the Folk Crusaders as a disaffected group of rebellious musicians, and when the kids of We Are Little Zombies decide to form a band to express themselves, they even perform a bossa nova version of the Folk Crusaders’s theme song for the 1968 film. This and the many other cultural touchstones in We Are Little Zombies are seamlessly weaved by Nagahisa into a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries, be they social media or a dizzying glut of pop-cultural creations.

Nagahisa’s aesthetic mirrors his main characters’ disconnect from reality, incorporating everything from stop-motion animation to pixelated scenes and overhead shots that replicate the stylings of 8-bit RPGs. At one point in We Are Little Zombies, an unsettling talk show appearance brings to mind what it would be like to have a bad acid trip on the set of an old MTV news program. Nagahisa accepts that the kids’ over-engagement with screen-based technology is inextricably embedded in their experience of reality and ultimately celebrates the sense of camaraderie and belonging that the foursome finds in pop artifacts and detritus. This is particularly evident once their band, the Little Zombies of the film’s title, starts to explore their antipathy toward and frustrations with a seemingly indifferent world.

The Little Zombies wield the same charming punk spirit as the film, and once instant fame reveals its viciously sharp teeth, Nagahisa doesn’t hold back from peering into the nihilistic abyss that stands before the kids. As in Three Resurrected Drunkards, We Are Little Zombies’s most despairing notes are couched in the distinctive language of pop culture. Hitari’s attempts to grab essential items before running away from the home of a relative (Eriko Hatsune) are staged as a video game mission. The band’s hit song—titled, of course, “We Are Little Zombies”—is an infectious, delightfully melodic banger all about their dispassionate existence. There’s even a fake death scene of the kids that, as in Three Resurrected Drunkards, effectively restarts the film’s narrative, allowing the characters to once again test their fate.

For all of this film’s reliance on the stylistic ticks of video games, its narrative arc isn’t limited to the typically linear journey embarked upon by many a gaming protagonist, and the foursome’s path leads neither to enlightenment nor even happiness per se. What they’ve discovered in the months since their parents’ deaths is a solidarity with one another, and rather than have them conquer their fears and anxieties, Nagahisa wisely acknowledges that their social disconnection will remain an ongoing struggle. He understands that by tapping into the unifying, rather than alienating, powers of pop culture, they’re better equipped to deal with whatever additional hard knocks that the modern world will inevitably throw their way.

Cast: Keita Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, Sena Nakajima, Kuranosukie Sasaki, Youki Kudoh, Sosuke Ikematsu, Eriko Hatsune, Jun Murakami, Naomi Nishida Director: Makoto Nagahisa Screenwriter: Makoto Nagahisa Distributor: Oscilloscope Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Palm Springs Puts a Fresh Spin on the Time-Loop Rom-Com

The film smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle.

3

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Palm Springs
Photo: Hulu

The pitch for Palm Springs likely went: “Edge of Tomorrow meets Groundhog Day but with a cool Coachella rom-com vibe.” All of those components are present and accounted for in Max Barbakow’s film, about two people forced to endure the same day of a Palm Springs wedding over and over again after getting stuck in a time loop. But even though the concept might feel secondhand, the execution is confident, funny, and thoughtful.

Palm Springs starts without much of a hook, sidling into its story with the same lassitude as its protagonist, Nyles (Andy Samberg). First seen having desultory sex with his shallow and always peeved girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner), Nyles spends the rest of the film’s opening stretch wandering around the resort where guests are gathered for the wedding of Misty’s friend, Tala (Camila Mendes), lazing around the pool and drinking a seemingly endless number of beers. “Oh yeah, Misty’s boyfriend” is how most refer to him with casual annoyance, and then he gives a winning wedding speech that one doesn’t expect from a plus-one.

The reason for why everything at the wedding seems so familiar to Nyles, and why that speech is so perfectly delivered, becomes clear after he entices the bride’s sister and maid of honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), to follow him out to the desert for a make-out session. In quick succession, Nyles is shot with an arrow by a mysterious figure (J.K. Simmons), Sarah is accidentally sucked into the same glowing vortex that trapped Nyles in his time loop, and she wakes up on the morning of the not-so-great day that she just lived through.

Although Palm Springs eventually digs into the knottier philosophical quandaries of this highly elaborate meet-cute, it takes an appealingly blasé approach to providing answers to the scenario’s curiosities. What initially led Nyles to the mysterious glowing cave in the desert? How has he maintained any semblance of sanity over what appears to be many years of this nightmare existence? How come certain people say “thank you” in Arabic?

This attitude of floating along the sea of life’s mysteries without worry parallels Nyles’s shrugging attitude about the abyss facing them. In response to Sarah’s panicked queries about why they are living the same day on repeat, Nyles throws out a random collection of theories: “one of those infinite time loop situations….purgatory….a glitch in the simulation we’re all in.” His ideas seem half-baked at first. But as time passes, it becomes clear that Nyles has been trapped at the wedding so long that not only has he lost all concept of time or even who he was before it began, his lackadaisical approach to eternity seems more like wisdom.

Darkly cantankerous, Sarah takes a while to come around to that way of thinking. Her version of the Kübler-Ross model starts in anger and shifts to denial (testing the limits of their time-loop trap, she drives home to Texas, only to snap back to morning in Palm Springs when she finally dozes off) before pivoting to acceptance. This segment, where Nyles introduces Sarah to all the people and things he’s found in the nooks and crannies of the world he’s been able to explore in one waking day, plays like a quantum physics rom-com with a video-game-y sense of immortality. After learning the ropes from Nyles (death is no escape, so try to avoid the slow, agonizing deaths), Sarah happily takes part in his Sisyphean games of the drunk and unkillable, ranging from breaking into houses to stealing and crashing a plane.

As places to be trapped for all eternity, this idyll doesn’t seem half bad at first. Barbakow’s fast-paced take on the pleasingly daffy material helps, as does the balancing of Milioti’s angry agita with Samberg’s who-cares recklessness. Eventually the story moves out of endlessly looping stasis into the problem-solution phase, with Sarah deciding she can’t waste away in Palm Springs for eternity. But while the question of whether or not they can escape via Sarah’s device for bridging the multiverse takes over the narrative to some degree, Palm Springs is far more interesting when it ruminates lightly on which puzzle they’re better off solving: pinning their hopes on escape or cracking another beer and figuring out how to be happy in purgatory. Palm Springs isn’t daring by any stretch, but it smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle that’s similar to Groundhog Day but without that film’s reassuring belief that a day can be lived perfectly rather than simply endured.

Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Millioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendez, Tyler Hoechlin, Chris Pang Director: Max Barbakow Screenwriter: Andy Siara Distributor: Neon, Hulu Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Hamilton Comes Home, Still Holding Conflicting Truths at Once

The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage.

3.5

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Hamilton
Photo: Disney+

The actual physical production of Hamilton has never been at the heart of the show’s fandom. Its lyrics have been memorized en masse, Hamilton-inspired history courses have been created across grade levels, and its references have invaded the vernacular, but, for most, Hamilton’s liveness has been inaccessible, whether due to geography or unaffordability. Hamilton the film, recorded over two Broadway performances in 2016 with most of the original Broadway cast, winningly celebrates the still-surprisingly rich density of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score and the show’s much-heralded actors. But this new iteration is most stunning in its devotion to translating Hamilton’s swirling, churning storytelling—the work of director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler—to the screen.

Most films of live theater feel partial and remote. There’s usually a sense that with every move of the camera we’re missing out on something happening elsewhere on stage. The autonomy of attending theater in person—the ability to choose what to focus on—is stripped away. But instead of delimiting what we see of Hamilton, this film opens up our options. Even when the camera (one of many installed around, behind, and above the stage) homes in on a lone singer, the shots tend to frame the soloists in a larger context: We can watch Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), but we can also track the characters behind him or on the walkways above him. Every shot is rife with detail and movement: the rowers escorting Alexander Hamilton’s (Miranda) body to shore, Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones) hovering beneath a stairway as Hamilton confesses his infidelities to Burr, ensemble members dancing in the shadows of David Korins’s imposing set. There’s no space to wonder what might be happening beyond the camera’s gaze.

Off-setting the cast album’s appropriate spotlight on the show’s stars, the film, also directed by Kail, constantly centers the ensemble, even when they’re not singing, as they enact battles and balls or symbolically fly letters back and forth between Hamilton and Burr. Audiences who mainly know the show’s music may be surprised by how often the entire cast is on stage, and even those who’ve seen Hamilton live on stage will be delighted by the highlighted, quirky individuality of each ensemble member’s often-silent storytelling.

Kail shows impressive restraint, withholding aerial views and shots from aboard the spinning turntables at the center of the stage until they can be most potent. The film also convincingly offers Hamilton’s design as a stunning work of visual art, showcasing Howell Binkley’s lighting—the sharp yellows as the Schuyler Sisters take the town and the slowly warming blues as Hamilton seeks his wife’s forgiveness—just as thoughtfully as it does the performances.

And when the cameras do go in for a close-up, they shade lyrics we may know by heart with new meaning. In “Wait for It,” Burr’s paean to practicing patience rather than impulsiveness, Odom (who won a Tony for the role) clenches his eyes shut as he sings, “I am inimitable, I am an original,” tensing as if battling to convince himself that his passivity is a sign of strength and not cowardice. When Eliza Hamilton (Philippa Soo) glances upward and away from her ever-ascendant husband as she asks him, “If I could grant you peace of mind, would that be enough?,” it’s suddenly crystal clear that she’s wondering whether taking care of Alexander would be enough for herself, not for him, her searching eyes foreshadowing her eventual self-reliance. And there’s an icky intimacy unachievable in person when Jonathan Groff’s mad King George literally foams at the mouth in response to the ingratitude of his colonies.

The production’s less understated performances, like Daveed Diggs’s show-stealing turn (also Tony-winning) in the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and Renée Elise Goldsberry’s fiery embodiment (yes, also Tony-winning) of the shrewd, self-sacrificing Angelica Schuyler Church, benefit, too, from the way that the film’s pacing latches onto Miranda’s propulsive writing. In Jefferson’s return home, “What’d I Miss,” the camera angles change swiftly as if to keep up with Diggs’s buoyancy.

Despite Christopher Jackson’s warm and gorgeous-voiced performance, George Washington remains Hamilton’s central sticking point. While Jefferson receives a dressing down from Hamilton for practicing slavery, Washington, who once enslaved over 200 people at one time at Mount Vernon, shows up in Hamilton as a spotless hero who might as well be king if he wasn’t so noble as to step down. There’s a tricky tension at Hamilton’s core: Casting performers of color as white founding “heroes” allows the master narrative to be reclaimed, but it’s still a master narrative. For audiences familiar with the facts, the casting of black actors as slave owners (not just Jefferson) is an unstated, powerful act of artistic resistance against the truths of the nation’s founding. But for those learning their history from Hamilton, especially young audiences, they will still believe in Washington’s moral purity, even if they walk away picturing the first president as Christopher Jackson.

But Hamilton is complex and monumental enough of a work to hold conflicting truths at once. In attempting to recraft our understanding of America’s founding, it may fall short. In forcibly transforming the expectations for who can tell what stories on which stages, Hamilton has been a game-changer. And as a feat of musical theater high-wire acts, Miranda’s dexterity in navigating decades of historical detail while weaving his characters’ personal and political paths tightly together is matched only by his own ingenuity as a composer and lyricist of songs that showcase his characters’ brilliance without distractingly drawing attention to his own.

Dynamized by its narrative-reclaiming, race-conscious casting and hip-hop score, and built around timeline-bending reminders that America may be perpetually in the “battle for our nation’s very soul,” Hamilton, of course, also lends itself particularly easily to 2020 connections. But the greater gift is that Hamilton will swivel from untouchability as Broadway’s most elusive, priciest ticket to mass accessibility at a moment of keen awareness that, to paraphrase George Washington, history has its eyes on us. The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage. That we are sharing Hamilton here and now offers as much hope as Hamilton itself.

Cast: Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Phillipa Soo Director: Thomas Kail Screenwriter: Ron Chernow, Lin-Manuel Miranda Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 160 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: In Family Romance, LLC, Reality and Fantasy Affectingly Collide

Throughout, it’s as though Werner Herzog were more witness than author, simply registering Japan being Japan.

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Family Romance, LLC
Photo: MUBI

Werner Herzog’s Family Romance, LLC presents Japan as a place where the technological follies of modernity that many see as embryonic in the West are allowed to blossom unabashedly. The Orientalism inherent to this myth, that of Japan as a high-tech dystopia where human alienation reaches its pathetic zenith, is somewhat masked here by the film’s style, which inhabits that strangely pleasurable cusp between fact and fiction. We are never quite sure of the extent to which situations and dialogues have been scripted and, as such, it’s as though Herzog were more witness than author, more passerby than gawker, simply registering Japan being Japan.

The film is centered around Ishii Yuichi, playing a version of himself, who owns a business that rents out human beings to act like paparazzi, family members, lovers, or bearers of good (albeit fake) news. One of his clients, for example, is a woman who wants to relive the moment when she won the lottery. We follow Ishii as he travels to his business calls, which may consist of going to a funeral home that offers coffin rentals by the hour for people to test out, or to a hotel where the clerks behind the helpdesk and the fish in the aquarium are robots.

The camera, otherwise, follows Ishii’s encounters with his 12-year-old “daughter,” Mahiro (Mahiro). The girl’s mother, Miki (Miki Fujimaki), has enlisted Ishii to play Mahiro’s missing father, who abandoned her when she was two, and make it seem as if he’s suddenly resurfaced. The film’s most interesting moments don’t arise from its largely obvious critiques of simulation, but from the human relationship between Ishii and Mahiro. In the end, the film’s smartest trick is getting the audience to genuinely feel for this young girl on screen, acting for us, all while scoffing at Ishii’s clients for scripting their own emotional experiences.

We know the relationship between Mahiro and Ishii to be false on multiple levels. They may not be professional actors, but they are very much acting, and their interactions nonetheless tap into something quite authentic and emotional. Although their kinship is an act of make-believe, it’s driven by similar malaises that plague “real” father-daughter relationships. Mahiro, who doesn’t meet Ishii until she’s a pre-teen and is presumably unaware that it’s all just an act, struggles to articulate feelings that overwhelm her. Asking for a hug from Ishii is a Herculean task for her. But granting her the hug is also a Herculean task for Ishii, who ultimately confesses to wondering whether his real family, too, has been paid by someone else to raise him. Must a father’s hug be so clinical even when he’s getting paid to do it?

Such moments as that awkward father-daughter hug, a scene where Mahiro gives Ishii an origami animal that she made for him (“It’s delicate, so be careful,” she says), and another where she confesses that she likes a boy all point to the ways in which feeling slips out of even the most perfectly scripted protocols. That’s a relief for the kind of society that Family Romance, LLC aims to critique, one where tidy transactions are meant to neuter the messy unpredictability of human interactions but fail. Emotion slips out despite diligent attempts to master it, forcing even those who stand to gain the most from hyper-controlled environments to eventually face the shakiness of their own ground. Ishii, for instance, is forced to reconsider his business model when Mahiro’s demand for love starts to affect him. Ishii’s fear that he may also have been swindled by actors posing as parents tells us that authors are subjects, too, and that the equation between reality and fantasy is never quite settled.

Cast: Ishii Yuichi, Mahiro, Miki Fujimaki, Umetani Hideyasu, Shun Ishigaki Director: Werner Herzog Screenwriter: Werner Herzog Distributor: MUBI Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Force of Nature, Much Like Mel Gibson, Is an Absolute Disaster

The film presents its scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena.

.5

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Force of Nature
Photo: Lionsgate

If cancel culture truly had the power its detractors ascribed to it, then Michael Polish’s Force of Nature would have probably never starred Mel Gibson. The film stars the one-time Hollywood idol as a trigger-happy retired cop who hurls insults like “cocksucker” at men who inconvenience him. By itself, casting Gibson as the kind of manic, violence-prone cop for which he was once known for playing speaks to the film’s defiantly conservative politics, its will to return to a cinematic era when violent white cops were viewed as good cops. But also having Gibson’s Ray toss out homophobic slurs almost turns this insipid action flick into a statement about Gibson himself, as if the actor’s own record of making such remarks should be viewed as the charmingly impolitic outbursts of an old-fashioned geezer.

Because Ray joins a multiethnic crew of good guys to save the day, we’re presumably meant to view his personality flaws as minor, the attributes of a classical cop masculinity that’s entered its dotage but ready to be awakened for one last shoot-out with big-city scum. The big city in this case is San Juan, Puerto Rico, which, as the film begins, is under siege by a hurricane. Set almost entirely in a cramped apartment building, Force of Nature is part Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, part The Raid: Redemption (or one of its many clones), attempting but failing to imitate both the former’s eccentric take on the clash of extreme personalities and extreme weather and the intensity of the latter’s kinetic, close-quarters action.

Despite being the biggest star on the bill, Gibson isn’t quite at the center of the narrative, even if the meaningless flash forward that opens Force of Nature, of Ray shooting at two figures in the rain, initially suggests otherwise. Ray plays second fiddle to Emile Hirsch’s point-of-view character, Cordillo, the San Juan police officer who refuses to learn a word of Spanish and might as well be wearing a MAGA hat. (“Where is el victim-o?” he asks regarding an incident at a supermarket early in the film.) Cordillo and his new partner, Peña (Stephanie Cayo), are assigned to help move San Juan’s residents to shelters, encountering Ray and his daughter, Troy (Kate Bosworth), at the apartment complex where Griffin (Will Catlett), Ray and Troy’s newly arrested neighbor, needs to feed his very hungry pet.

For those who’ve seen Netflix’s Tiger King, it will be clear from the 100 pounds of meat that Griffin intends to feed his pet that the man illegally owns some kind of wild cat. And if this offbeat scenario doesn’t elicit the laughs it may be aiming for, that’s at least in part due to composer Kubilay Uner’s score, which applies Wagnerian bombast to nearly every narrative event, as if it could will the paper-thin plot into some kind of significance. The tonal inconsistencies, however, aren’t confined to this clash between image and soundtrack. On a visual level, it’s difficult to know what to make of the scene in which Griffin’s pet, kept entirely off screen, drags Griffin into its pitch-black den and mauls him in front of a not-quite-horrified Cordillo, while a gang that Ray identifies as high-end burglars begins a raid of the complex. Neither funny nor suspenseful, it’s a bewildering mash of visual codes.

Led by a ruthless figure known as John the Baptist (David Zayas), the burglars first make an appearance in the second of the film’s two prologues, in which John kidnaps an elderly woman to get into her safety deposit box, before executing her as well as his accomplice in plain sight—a scene that somewhat belies Ray’s later in-the-know description of the gang as clever plotters. The nature of their interest in Ray, Troy, and Griffin’s apartment building is left vague until a late reveal, a nonsensically belated introduction of the story’s MacGuffin that contributes to the feeling of arbitrariness that pervades the film.

While Peña and Ray confront John and his crew, Cordillo and Troy go off to find medical supplies, along the way developing a thoroughly underwritten and ill-conceived romance; Troy is abruptly drawn to Cordillo after he shares his history of accidental violence against a former girlfriend (Jasper Polish). Meanwhile, the wounded Griffin is left under the watch of Paul (Jorge Luis Ramos), a German about whom multiple characters ask, in all sincerity, if he’s a Nazi, and based solely on his white hair and nationality—certainly not on any arithmetic, as the seventysomething man appears far too young to have been a Nazi Party member.

It would all be material for a parody of cheap-action-flick sensibilities: the preoccupation with Nazism, the hollow romance, the valorization of white male rage barely masked behind a rudimentary psychologism. Unfortunately, Cory M. Miller’s screenplay presents all these scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena. The truth, of course, is that Force of Nature, much like the consequences of the hurricane that clearly inspired it, is a man-made disaster.

Cast: Emile Hirsch, Mel Gibson, Kate Bosworth, David Zayas, Stephanie Cayo, Will Catlett, Jasper Polish, Jorge Luis Ramos Director: Michael Polish Screenwriter: Cory M. Miller Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 91 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: John Lewis: Good Trouble Places a Hero in Dialogue with the Past

The film is well-outfitted with telling, thematically rich shards of historical information.

3

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John Lewis: Good Trouble
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

John Lewis isn’t easily rattled. As a nonviolent foot soldier for desegregation and voting rights in the 1960s, he was severely beaten on several occasions. As a U.S. representative since 1987, he’s contended with a Republican Party that has tacked steadily rightward. John Lewis: Good Trouble presents another, if much less demanding, test for the congressman: Watching his life unspool around him on three large screens in a darkened D.C. theater.

Dawn Porter’s authoritative documentary mixes contemporary and archival material, and the latter includes many rare images, including some that the 80-year-old civil rights pioneer himself had never seen. Porter and her crew decided to show their findings to the Georgia Democrat while simultaneously filming his reactions, and the emotions prompted by this experience are palpable but carefully modulated on his part. Like most successful politicians, Lewis knows how to stay on message, and it’s clear from the moments captured here that he long ago decided which of his private feelings would be elements of his public persona.

One example of this is Lewis’s story about his early desire to become a preacher. As a boy, he says, he would address the chickens on his sharecropper family’s Alabama farm but could never get them to say “amen.” Porter places this anecdote early in Good Trouble, amid comments from family members, so it plays like a revelatory glimpse at Lewis’s formative years. But the congressman, of course, began constructing his biography long before this particular documentary crew arrived. And Porter acknowledges this fact with a scene, toward the film’s end, where Lewis tells the story again during a get-together of former congressional staffers and it becomes clear that everybody in the room already knows it.

Good Trouble, which takes its title from Lewis’s advice to young activists to get into “what I call good trouble,” is partly a testimonial. It includes snippets of praise from Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as congressional new wavers Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who says she wouldn’t be where she is today without Lewis’s example. Yet the film also recalls moments when Lewis wasn’t in perfect sync with his allies, notably the bitter primary for the seat he now holds in Georgia’s 5th District. Lewis defeated Julian Bond by winning support of the district’s white voters, and by hinting that Bond had a drug problem. Earlier, Lewis had recoiled from the militancy of “Black Power” and lost his position in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Lewis doesn’t say much about these chapters in his life, just as he doesn’t reveal a lot when he gives tours of his homes in Atlanta and D.C. A widower, he seems to live alone, though a cat is glimpsed inside the Georgia house at one point. One of the documentary’s most personal stories, about his tearful reaction to the news that his great-great-grandfather registered to vote in 1867, is told not by the congressman but by cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., who unveiled the voter card on the show he hosts, Finding Your Roots. Good Trouble is well-outfitted with such telling shards of historical information, and Porter skillfully fits them together, assembling her subject’s biography thematically rather than chronologically.

Thus, a section on the young Lewis’s battle for African-American suffrage naturally begins in the 1960s before leading to 2014, when a Supreme Court ruling undermined the Voting Rights Act, and ultimately to the 2016 and 2018 elections swayed by voter suppression. The effect is illuminating, if not especially visceral. When the filmmakers arranged this kind of “This Is Your Life” for Lewis, they may not have elicited as much emotion as they’d hoped from the congressman. But they did fashion a microcosm of what the entire Good Trouble shows: the present in dialogue with the past, and a hero in the context of a larger movement.

Director: Dawn Porter Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 97 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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