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



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.


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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Review: Saudi Runaway Is a Raw and Immediate Chronicle of an Escape

Camera, character, and cameraperson are one throughout, and the effect is exquisitely suffocating.




Saudi Runaway
Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films

Susanne Regina Meures’s invitation into the filmic world of her exquisite Saudi Runaway is by way of a camera that moves as if attached to a body. It’s a mobility completely devoid of the vulgar familiarity of a GoPro, or the numb slickness of a dolly shot that only simulates the point of view of a character. We don’t yet know where the body is headed but we can feel its fear. Camera, character, and cameraperson are one here, and the effect is suffocating. We see people’s heads bare and covered. Our vision is fuzzy. Soon, though, the wind lifts what turns out to be a piece of a garment—the camera’s sartorial filter. We’re moving inside an abaya. That’s where we remain for most of the film: between the body of a young woman, Muna, plotting her escape from Saudia Arabia and the dark fabric of her garb.

The film’s handheld camera suggests a baby being held. Not just because of how tethered it often is to the cameraperson, but because our mostly hazy gaze suggests eyes just getting used to a terrifying world. By the time Muna tells us that she will try to record “everything” and that “it will be dangerous,” she’s stating the obvious. Though it pulsates with raw intimacy, Saudi Runaway does have its share of obvious elements, from the sound of music when we least need it, to one too many shots of a trapped bird, to Muna telling us, midway through the film, that “the majority of society is conservative.” But its conceptual device is so uncanny, so un-mediated by how Meures structures Muna’s original footage, that we can’t help but excuse the director’s attempts to turn the original fragments into a coherent narrative.

The camera in Saudi Runaway is so prosthetic, and its images all but birthed by Muna, that, at first, it’s difficult to accept that someone other than she is credited with directing the film. Must Westerners save brown women so that they can speak? However, Muna’s occasional prefacing of her murmured voiceover account with “Dear Sue” gives us a hint of a trans-national sisterly collaboration. The epistolary layer of Saudi Runaway isn’t fully explained, a technique often used in the essay film genre that helps give a video-diary aesthetic a sense of depth while maintaining its mystery. Is Sue the director or an imaginary friend? Is Sue a rhetorical device like one of Chris Marker addressees in Sans Soleil? Is Sue actually listening?

The fact that this writer sat immediately in front of both Muna and Meures at the film’s Kino International screening at this year’s Berlinale made the experience of watching it all the more eerie. Our real-life escapee was clearly now safe and sound in Germany, reacting in real time—with self-conscious sighs and sad moans—to the presentation of her ordeal.

On screen, we learn that Muna isn’t allowed to leave her family home without being escorted by a male relative. That she will only be allowed to drive if her future husband allows her to. That her father keeps possession of her passport, which she can only renew with his approval. “Be obedient and everything will be fine” is the advice that Muna’s grandmother gives her.

All of the film’s faces, apart from Muna’s, are perpetually pixilated, reminding us that these are images captured without her family members’ consent. That betrayal and guilt might be pre-requisites for deliverance. The pixilating effect also means Muna “covers” everyone else’s faces while liberating her own, her flight necessitating an exhilarating mix of precision, and risk, and anxiety. But, also, the anger of those she must dupe in order to leave them behind. “Do you really think you can go to paradise and leave me here in hell” is Muna’s mother’s reaction to her daughter’s courage. Although with the benefit of hindsight, she eventually anoints Muna’s newfound independence with a WhatsApp voice message praising her. As if freedom were contagious, experienceable by proxy, or the sheer power of imagination.

Director: Susanne Regina Meures Screenwriter: Susanne Regina Meures Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Swallow Is a Provocative Me Too Parable in Body-Horror Guise

Fortunately for the film, Carlo Mirabella-Davis continually springs scenes that either transcend or justify his preaching.




Photo: IFC Films

Writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s Swallow pivots on a queasy premise: the uncontrollable urge of a young trophy wife, Hunter (Haley Bennett), to swallow inedible objects. Hunter first ingests a marble, after touching it as if it’s a talisman, cherishing its assuring tactility. Later, Hunter carefully removes the marble from the toilet after passing it, cleaning it off and placing it on a tray as a trophy. The marble will soon be joined by a stickpin, a lock, and a variety of other increasingly disturbing things. But there’s another wrinkle of perversity to Hunter’s new hobby: She’s pregnant, and the possibility of these objects puncturing her developing child, no matter how irrational, haunts the film.

For a significant portion of Swallow’s running time, Mirabella-Davis maintains an aura of ambiguity, keeping the audience in a state of discomfort as to what Hunter’s ailment precisely means. There are plenty of hints even early on, as Hunter is married to a svelte GQ-ready hunk, Richie (Austin Stowell), who’s more interested in his phone and his job with his prosperous father, Michael (David Rasche), than his wife. Yet Mirabella-Davis initially resists doubling down on the sort of denouncements of the wealthy that come so easy to filmmakers. In his way, Richie seems to care about Hunter, and his mother, Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel), occasionally comforts her. The filmmaker’s initial refusal to totally render these people rich monsters only intensifies the scenario’s mystery and tension.

Mirabella-Davis is also willing to take Hunter to task for her own alienation, as people often tune her out because she has so efficiently rendered herself a dully accommodating and complacent Stepford wife. Her psychological disorder, known as pica, partially appears to be a response to her knowledge of this fact, serving as a contemptuous act of self-punishment, with perhaps an element of sexual gratification. The narrative contains multitudes of subtexts, and Bennett superbly modulates between learned impassivity and outright despair, capturing the pain of a kind of actress who has come to feel trapped in her role. This entrapment is formally complemented by an aesthetic that’s been very fashionable in art-house horror films lately: pristine, symmetrical compositions of stylish, remote residences that express the inhumanity of essentially living in a one-percent fashion catalogue.

Swallow is initially driven by a driving tension, as we’re led to wonder just how awful and crazy Hunter’s habit will become. The film is never as gross as one might fear, as Mirabella-Davis is less interested in shock-jock flourishes than in sincerely rendering Hunter’s physical pain and mental anguish; like Mike Flanagan, Mirabella-Davis is the rare humanist horror filmmaker. As such, Hunter’s choking—the most disturbing detail in the film—becomes a piercing affirmation of her struggle to feel something and be seen.

There’s a strange irony to the film’s second half. As Mirabella-Davis sets about explaining the meaning of Hunter’s predicament, Swallow grows simultaneously more poignant and pat. Dished out in pieces throughout the film, Hunter’s backstory has been self-consciously overstuffed with topical elements of women’s struggles against patriarchal atrocity, from casual objectification and condescension to rape to the struggle to be pro-choice in the United States. (Hunter’s mother is even said to be a right-wing religious fundamentalist.) This psychology eventually waters the evocative premise down with literal-mindedness, so that Swallow becomes less a body horror film than a Me Too parable.

Fortunately, Mirabella-Davis continually springs scenes that either transcend or justify his preaching. Later in the film, a nurse, Luay (Laith Nakli), is hired to keep watch over Hunter. As a refugee of the Syrian civil war, Luay is partially offered up as a device to score points on Hunter’s privilege (he memorably remarks that one doesn’t have time for mind problems when dodging bullets), though he also shows her profound compassion, most acutely when he climbs under the bed with Hunter in a moment of crisis, patting her back with an affection that we’ve never seen extended to her by anyone else.

Near the end of the film, Hunter holes up in a cheap motel, shoveling dirt into her mouth while watching soap operas that peddle the dream of marrying rich and hot—a sequence of profound and wrenching loneliness. And the film’s climax, in which Hunter tracks down a man from her past, Erwin (Denis O’Hare), is equally heartbreaking, exposing Hunter’s swallowing for what it truly is: an attempt at annihilation as atonement, as well as a self-defiling as paradoxical affirmation of control. Hunter resists her status as an accessory by swallowing others.

Cast: Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Denis O’Hare, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, Luna Lauren Velez, Laith Nakli, Babak Tafti Director: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Screenwriter: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 94 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Interview: Corneliu Porumboiu on The Whistlers and Playing with Genre

Porumboiu discusses the links between his latest and Police, Adjective, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.



Corneliu Porumboiu
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Anyone inured to the downward-facing schadenfreude of Corneliu Porumboiu’s prior features might be taken aback by The Whistlers, the Romanian auteur’s first foray into slick, international genre filmmaking. The title refers to a crime ring in the Canary Islands that uses a bird-whistling language to evade surveillance. A crooked cop named Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) successfully infiltrates the group, but his undercover status is increasingly compromised by his fixation on Gilda (Catrinel Menghia), the sultry girlfriend of the ringleader, as well as by the tight leash his commanding officer back in Bucharest has him on.

Lest anyone think Porumboiu is making a play for more commercial appeal, The Whistlers is choc-a-block with teasing allusions, including repurposed music like Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” and Jacques Offenbach’s “Baccharole” from The Tales of Hoffman, as well as cinephilic references: One expository dump happens during a screening of The Searchers, while a climactic set piece takes place at an abandoned movie set. I had the pleasure of picking Porumboiu’s brain for a few minutes after the film’s U.S. premiere last fall at the New York Film Festival about his toying with genre, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.

All your films are playful in my opinion, but with this one, you’re playing with genre.

If you had asked me four years ago if one of my films would have flashbacks, I would have said, “No, no way.” [laughs] With The Whistlers, the way it’s structured, I was interested in the process of learning the language. That determined the core of the film. After that, I knew I needed flashbacks so I can have different types of plot movements happening—so that the main character, Cristi, can look differently at things as they happen, because of language. Double-movement. A parallel structure. After that came the other characters in the film, who play specific roles for—in front of—the camera. Catrinel Menghia plays Gilda, which is an assumed name. We don’t know much about this character.

The femme fatale.

Right. She’s assuming that position. At the end of the day, this is a world of people chasing money. They’re using dialogue to have a fight, you know? So, I knew it was time to look back at the classical noirs. I watched some films and began pulling from them.

The film’s plotlines get increasingly convoluted as Cristi learns more about the world he’s stepped into, the threat of a double-cross always looming over him.

Well, at the end I think you get it all back. My focus was to arrive in the middle, to arrive at a type of cinema linked exclusively to his character, his personality. So, I was thinking in classical noir but not dominated by it.

This is your second time working with Vlad Ivanov, the first since Police, Adjective, nearly a decade ago. Was this role written for him?

Yes. Because in a way I was revisiting the character from Police, Adjective, starting from that. To me he’s an almost theological character. So, at the end of the day, I asked myself if this guy, who’s almost like a military officer, who has a very strict background, can his philosophy last? To find this guy 10 years after, what does he still believe in? Who is he now?

Tell me more the difference between then and now.

Well, in the last film he was someone who trusted a certain system, was a part of it. He had his own philosophy, he knew very well where his power was. A decade later he’s completely lost. He doesn’t know what he believes in anymore. I wanted the difference to be subtle but indisputable. He’s become obsessed with money, his motivations are more harsh.

Is there something about Romania’s economic situation that you’re linking this to?

In 12:08 East of Bucharest, my characters defined themselves in relation to the revolution of 1989, and they believed in communication. In Police, Adjective, you have a boss imposing his own ideology from the top down. In Metabolism, it’s like a game: The director can’t assume his position at the top. Here, my characters don’t believe in anything, they just think in terms of fighting and winning. This is how we perceive the world now, I think.

The transition from value systems to anarchy, or at least a certain realpolitik—even working cooperatively, everyone is looking out for themselves.

I think after the economic crisis, the world changed drastically. I don’t know, the classical noir has a certain vision about the world that’s quite dark, yet was proper for that time. Maybe we can find some similarities today.

Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between this film and Infinite Football?

Infinite Football is about utopia—one man’s political, ideological utopia. He wants to change the game, and what his new game implies is a reflection of the history of Romania. His personal history. But I was doing it in a different way, so I did it like a work in progress.

And you figure into the film as well. You have personal history with these people. They talk to you, talk to the camera, pull you into the frame.

Well, it’s a personal project. Laurentiu, the subject, my friend, he may not have faith in the system, but he has faith in the game, or that his rules will prove themselves. This is the Don Quixote thing of it all.

Spanish and Romanian are not that far from one another, and in order to whistle, the main character has to break his messages down into units of Spanish syllables.

I saw a documentary on TV about La Gomera, the island in Spain. From that I learned about the language of whistling and became very curious. That was 10 years ago. I started to read about the language, and I went to the island where they were teaching it. It was then that I knew I wanted to do a film about the character from Police, Adjective. Being a film about language and codes, I thought I could play with genres; cinema at the end of the day is coding reality, after all. When I write, it’s like going back to the first act, and trying to be there, be present with the characters. Eventually it is them who move me into the story. I have a very particular way of writing. Police, Adjective had eight or nine drafts. I wanted the dialogue to be functional, transactional. And not to go too deep. Each of the characters has a double nature that can’t be opened too much. At the end of the day I’m making these movies for myself. You have to believe in what you’re doing, at least at the beginning of the shoot. [laughs]

I think the first 15 minutes of this film have more edits than all of Police, Adjective. Surely this switch-up is getting you questions from people.

The story called for this approach though. It pushed me to do that.

Critics love packaging things. The “Romanian New Wave,” epitomized by the slowness and realism of your earlier films, is a perfect example. Do you find these categories or tropes at all oppressive?

Well, the truth is it wasn’t a “movement” in the sense of something written down or programmatic. Young filmmakers started working in 2000 and, of course, critics outside Romania don’t know much about Romanian cinema before “us,” so it’s expected that they will put a stamp on new films coming out. For me, each of the directors has their own voice, their own way, developed on its own terms, and for me the movies are especially different now. I’m not offended, but it means I have to speak about my own cinema—none of these generalizations. These critics probably have not seen The Reenactment, or Reconstruction, by Lucian Pintillie, my mentor—the so-called “Old Wave.” This was a hugely important, inspiring film for all of us in my generation. He died before I finished shooting The Whistlers. Regarding Police, Adjective, he told me: “If you cut five or 10 minutes from this film, you’ll have a really good audience.” And I told him, “No.” [laughs]

The generalizations tend to break down, or that’s just the nature of an artist discussing their own work. And the idea of a “movement” implies a finitude or a strategy.

The Treasure was a fable, no? You could find the structure less threatening if you had seen my previous films. Maybe other films from Romania around the same time. But I began to try a nonlinear structure in my documentaries, then applied it to The Whistlers.

Do you prefer the original title, La Gomera, to The Whistlers?

I do think The Whistlers is better. But translated into Romanian, it doesn’t have the same power as La Gomera! Also, I wanted to avoid confusion with Gomorrah.

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Review: Autumn de Wilde’s Emma Takes a Classic for a Stylish, Ironic Spin

This lively adaptation plays up the novel’s more farcical elements, granting it a snappy, rhythmic pace.




Photo: Focus Features

Jane Austen’s Emma concerns the mishaps of a self-assured young country aristocrat who prides herself on her savoir faire but who remains, in the terms a certain modern adaptation, totally clueless. A light comedy neither broad enough to be farce nor pointed enough to be satire, the novel lends itself to interpretation as both, given the narrative’s manifold romantic misunderstandings and host of kooky, idle gentry. Without departing far from the text, director Autumn de Wilde’s lively new film adaptation emphasizes the more farcical elements of Austen’s second-longest novel, granting it a snappy, rhythmic pace.

The eponymous gentlewoman, the story’s only three-dimensional character, is played with impressive depth by Anya Taylor-Joy here. On screen, Emma can seem frivolous right up until the climactic moment that forces her into a self-confrontation, but Taylor-Joy’s open, expressive face, so often in close-up, captures Emma’s creeping uncertainty regarding her powers of judgment, as well as her own feelings, even as she continues to act the social butterfly. She’s aided by a screenplay by Eleanor Catton that doesn’t quite resolve the story’s main fault—its concluding romance counts as perhaps the least convincing of any of Austen’s works—but which preserves much of the complexity of its “handsome, clever, and rich” heroine, who must learn to abide by her judgment rather than her vanity.

Emma begins the film at the height of self-regard, the reigning socialite of the small countryside community of Highbury. The 20-year-old has recently made a match for her governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), arranging her marriage—well above her station—to the neighboring widower gentleman Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves). She elects Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a recently arrived schoolgirl of uncertain origins and inelegant manners, to be her next project. She teaches the naïve girl, enraptured by Emma’s ostentatious wealth and delicate bearing, to present herself as worthy of a genteel suitor, manipulating her into rejecting the proposal of hardy local farmer Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells) and to pursue the affections of the young vicar-about-town Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) instead.

O’Connor plays Mr. Elton with palpable smarm, wearing a perpetual shit-eating grin above the ridiculous splayed-out collar of an early-19th-century Anglican vicar. Here, as elsewhere, de Wilde communicates much of what remains implicit in the novel (like Mr. Elton’s odiousness) via a tidy mise-en-scène redolent of Wes Anderson. The sterile pastels of the elegant clothing and the precise movements of both the aristocracy and their servants (who hover about in the background like strange automatons) give the film’s sudden eruptions of human neuroses a droll, punchy tone—as when Mr. Elton casually mentions that it may snow, and a dinner party suddenly erupts into chaos, the nervous guests rushing to the carriages to get back home.

It’s in one of those carriages that, in a scene played perhaps a bit too broadly, a slightly drunk Mr. Elton confronts Emma with the revelation that he’s been aiming to court her, rather than Harriet, whose match with Martin she comes to accept, as it suits both Harriet’s social standing and the girl’s feelings. Outraged at Emma’s tutoring of Harriet in the ways of class presumption is Martin’s landlord, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), a wealthy Highbury bachelor who, as brother to her brother-in-law, counts as family to Emma and her ever-cantankerous father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy). In the lavishly decorated living rooms and salons of their immense estates, Emma and Mr. Knightley bicker in the way that unwitting lovers in Austen tend to, arguing verbosely about the propriety of introducing Harriet to high society.

Emma and Knightley later have occasion to debate the relative virtues of Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) and Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), who arrive separately in town under much whispered ballyhoo. The young and handsome Frank seems destined to ask for Emma’s hand; Jane, the orphaned niece of local gossip Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), is rumored to be heartbroken after forming an inappropriate attachment to her adopted sister’s husband. Emma is as flattered by Frank’s attentions as she is jealous of Jane’s level of gentlewomanly accomplishment. Catton and de Wilde extrapolate from the novel’s succession of social scenarios to make Emma’s doubt about the shifting social field more comically apparent: One of the funniest scenes has the ostensibly modest Jane follow up Emma’s dilettantish performance on the pianoforte with a beautiful, complex sonata, in front of the whole town.

Emma’s discomfort in her new situation will come to a head when she, with Frank’s encouragement, grossly abuses her privilege as a gentlewoman with a practiced wit, embarrassing herself and wounding an old friend. Emma is interested in such textures of early-19th-century society, if not in the latter’s pace. The film fits so much of Austen’s narrative in by judiciously condensing scenes to suit its more ironic tone, occasionally using transitional smash cuts to get right to the point. The result is a stylish, eminently watchable farce that, despite its old-England trappings, is every bit an update as it is an adaptation.

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Amber Anderson Director: Autumn de Wilde Screenwriter: Eleanor Catton Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack, Book

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Review: The Trouble with Being Born Is a Chilly Rumination on Memory

In the end, the film suffers from the same issue as its moody androids: enervation borne out of repetition.




The Trouble with Being Born
Photo: Berlinale

The near future looks a lot like the present in Sandra Wollner’s The Trouble with Being Born, only bleaker and lonelier. That sense of isolation is conveyed right from the start. In the fantastically dreamy introduction, we float through a forest on a summery drift of whispering voiceover and buzzing insects before coming upon a father and young daughter next to a backyard pool. What looks like a relaxing day quickly reads as forced, even icy. While the girl (Lena Watson), Elli, stays by the pool, the father (Dominik Warta) goes inside, only to dash back out again when he sees Elli floating lifeless in the water. “Fuck,” he says. “Not again.” In the next scene, he’s using his phone to reboot the not-quite-drowned Elli.

An android whose deep black eyes and waxily smooth skin—evoking the eerie expressionlessness of Christiane’s face mask in Eyes Without a Face—are the very definition of the Uncanny Valley, Elli was built to replicate the father’s daughter, who disappeared 10 years before. Her reactions are slow and mannered, as though she were puzzling over a bug in her programming instead of playing like a human 10-year-old. Even though her actions are mostly set on a loop built out from scraps of what the father remembers of his daughter, Elli seems to take a mix-and-match approach to those implanted memories, obsessing like an amnesiac trying to make sense of a muddled past. At times, it’s unclear whether the lines in the voiceover (“Mum…doesn’t need to know everything”) are repeated from the human Elli or invented by the android Elli as a way of mimicking her biological predecessor.

The first half of The Trouble with Being Born is narratively thin but heavy with the promise of something more. Inklings of something disturbing in this isolated idyll, that too-close stare of the father and his dressing her just so, are eventually made explicit and disturbing. In one of the more effectively queasy body-horror moments ever put on film, the father removes Elli’s tongue and vagina for cleaning, leaving her naked on the counter. It’s a strikingly disgusting moment, pointing not just to the abuse he subjected his human daughter to, but the casual disdain with which he regards her replacement. But despite the power of this scene and a few others—particularly the wordless shot of Elli watching her father from a distance with the same restless curiosity of the cat flopped next to her, visualizing the unbridgeable gulf between “father” and “daughter”—Wollner continues to fill her film with too little story.

That problem becomes more acute once Elli runs away and the story shifts to another android-human relationship. After Elli is picked up by a passing motorist (Simon Hatzl) who then gifts her like a new toy to his elderly mother (Ingrid Burkhard), still mourning the little brother she lost 60 years before. The ease with which Elli is made into a boy—in the world of the film, reprogramming androids is about as complicated as restarting a smartphone—stands in stark contrast to the violent trauma of abuse that still lingers like a ghost in her flickeringly sentient CPU. But while the setting and the primary human character changes in the second half of the film, Wollner’s narrow view of her story means just more of the same glassy expressions and long maundering silences, like Tarkovsky without the existential pain. At some point, the mirroring begins to feel more like straight repetition without any significant revelation.

In the end, The Trouble with Being Born suffers from the same issue as its moody androids: enervation borne out of repetition. There are some attempts here and there to comment on the replacement of human connection with silicone facsimiles. We almost never see people together. The only time the mother, who spends much of her time walking her dog and wistfully pondering the past, is with another person is when her son drops off Elli. Shopping malls, car-choked roads, and distant skyscrapers dominate the landscape. But rather than truly exploring the ramifications of its futuristic conceit, whether from a broader societal or individualistic and relational perspective, the film just keeps looping back to the same luminously filmed but ultimately blank silences.

Cast: Lena Watson, Dominik Warta, Ingrid Burkhard, Jana McKinnon, Simon Hatzl Director: Sandra Wollner Screenwriter: Sandra Wollner, Roderick Warich Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog Wages a War Between Language and Cinema

It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic.




Photo: Berlinale

Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog is based on 19th-century Russian philosopher and mystic Vladimir Solovyov’s prophetic Three Conversations, which, through a series of dialectical maneuvers, addresses such topics as economic materialism, nationalism, and abstract moralism. The film takes place on a snow-covered hillside, where a large pastel-pink mansion sits and Puiu turns the philosophical into drama. Sheltered in the mansion’s walls are a small group of aristocrats that includes a politician, a general and his wife, and a young countess. It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic. A Christmas gathering stretches on in what seems to be real time, as the party’s high-minded philosophical and political chatter takes on an increasingly strained air.

That tension is heightened by the obstacles that Puiu uses to discombobulate his audience. Malmkrog is the Transylvanian village where the film takes place, yet the characters, who speak primarily in French, talk of being in Russia. And as they discuss imminent war and the potential outcomes of violence, it’s as if the film appears to exist outside of time and place. Doorways and mirrors obfuscate who’s involved in a conversation, and the characters move through the mansion as though compelled by spirits of the past, with cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru often lighting all those drawing rooms using only natural light sources. Malmkrog exudes a painterly expressiveness that’s a far cry from the cold, handheld aesthetic that typically defines the look of Puiu’s work and the Romanian New Wave as a whole.

The film’s first scene lasts nearly an hour and is a magnificent example of staging. The camera glides left and right, with each movement matched by a change in composition that the actors match as though dancing to the music behind their endless words. This balletic circularity, slow but constantly surprising, recalls Max Ophüls’s fixation on the oneiric, circular properties of time. In a surprising moment of violence, a number of characters die on a staircase, only for them to come back to life a scene later, and without comment from anyone. When Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard), the mansion’s wealthy owner and Malmkrog’s central figure, looks up the staircase, it’s as if he recalls what previously occurred there. The moment echoes one from Letter from an Unknown Woman where Joan Fontaine’s Lisa stares up the very staircase up which Louis Jourdan’s Stefan and another woman ascended years earlier.

Whenever Nikolai, who makes the domineering Stefan from Ophüls’s 1948 masterpiece seem meek by comparison, utters lines like “prayer is a soap for the soul,” he carries himself like the Sherlock Holmes of moral arbitration. But he’s closer to a 19th-century Ben Shapiro: a pompous rat obsessed with facts and logic, who won’t let a woman finish a point for fear that he won’t be able to counteract it with a cogent counter-argument. It’s not always clear to what extent Puiu is satirizing this type of behavior, given the spectacle of the man’s endless pontificating, and that the other characters only rarely undercut his words with references to his verbosity. Puiu clearly believes in Nikolai enough to make him the mouthpiece for Solovyov’s philosophizing, which makes it harder to buy to what extent these people are being sent up, and how much Puiu wants the viewer to eat up his words wholesale.

With our perspective held hostage in one place, memory and imagination blur into one. When Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité) reads from a book, the account of a vicious battle between Cossacks and bashi-bazouks, the effect is rapturous. In this claustrophobic endurance test, Puiu transports the viewer through language to a scene with the epic scope of the film’s runtime. He focuses on listening faces, themselves teleported to a different space.

Like his characters, Puiu wages his own war of discourses, in his case between language and cinema. Whenever Malmkrog seems to have settled into a formal rhythm, the filmmaker flips it, using a different device to interrogate how people talk, and to what extent they listen. One heightened dialogue exchange culminates with the main characters staring out of the window in complete stillness. Then Nikolai starts to move, unstuck from this tableau, and seemingly from time. The boundaries of reality keep getting pushed at, to the point that one almost expects the mansion’s walls to fall and reveal a film set. Later, he glides away from a tea reception to observe the servants, who silently rearrange the house and conceal their own power structure through glances and outbursts of violence that are hidden from the wealthy class. They are like spirits, pulling out chairs for aristocrats who don’t acknowledge them, clearing out items like empty champagne glasses that hint at the echo of a past time.

The creeping dread of history repeatedly overwhelms character and viewer, particularly during General Edouard’s (Ugo Broussot) screed on the world’s necessary “Europeanness,” which becomes a Buñuelian account of fascist tendencies and culminates in the film’s most shocking moment. His wife, the imperious, frizzy-haired Madeline (Agathe Bosch), obsesses over the authority behind language: who may speak, and how. This is the sneaky vessel for a larger discussion on power and control. Living in a religious nation, Nikolai posits, one must first understand what Christianity is, and define national identity from that. The characters situate this in the context of war, and a globe that’s shrinking in the face of technological progress.

But with each scene, Puiu strips away the layers of his ornate style, so that by hour three, all that’s left is the close-up. With Nikolai’s straight face berating Olga, evangelizing on resurrection, the sophistication of the dialogue rarely matches that of Puiu’s aesthetic form. As Malmkrog becomes less ostentatious in style, the redundancy of its philosophizing becomes almost impossible to ignore, having made its conclusions about the inability of the intellectual class in combating fascism through language by the 100-minute mark. Puiu’s assaultive mass of a film speaks to modern times in its depiction of aristocrats indulging in comfortable platitudes as the world edges toward the precipice of chaos, but the Romanian auteur doesn’t entirely make the case for sticking around to listen.

Cast: Agathe Bosch, Frédéric Schulz-Richard, Diana Sakalauskaité, Ugo Broussot, Marina Palii, István Téglás Director: Cristi Puiu Screenwriter: Cristi Puiu Running Time: 200 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: For Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, the Cruelty Is the Point

The thrill of the film’s craftsmanship is inseparable from its main character’s abuse.




The Invisible Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

Elisabeth Moss brings unexpected shades to the flimsiest of roles, and she makes it look so easy. Even if you go into writer-director Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man blind, you will know what Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) did to his wife, Cecilia Kass (Moss), simply from the way she moves one of his hands from her belly. Across a taut and nerve-wracking opening sequence, Cecilia orchestrates what becomes increasingly clear is an elaborate escape. If it’s easy to overlook the hoariness with which the camera lingers at various points on some object that portends things to come, that’s because Moss never stops conveying the agony of the years-long abuse that Cecilia has endured, through the surreptitiousness of her gait and the way paralyzing bolts of fear shoot through her body.

That kind of talent only helps a film like The Invisible Man that doesn’t really care about abuse beyond its function as a plot device. After escaping Adrian’s clutches, Cecilia goes to live with a childhood friend (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter (Storm Reid). Or, rather, struggles to live, as leaving the house is too hard for Cecilia to bear. Cecilia never really stops talking about the control that Adrian exercised over her, even after she learns that he committed suicide, thus freeing her to finally put her life back together. But there’s a frustrating friction to such scenes, between an actress sincerely committed to expressing her character’s pain and a filmmaker interested in trauma only as far it whets our appetite for how a psychopathic tech magnate who specialized in optics could possibly torment his wife from beyond the grave.

With his directorial debut, Insidious 3, Whannell effectively goosed an otherwise insipid haunted-house attraction with clever twists on a franchise’s trite dependence on the jump scare. But it was Upgrade, which saw him freed of franchise responsibilities, as well as longtime collaborator James Wan, that felt closer to a coming-out party for the filmmaker. And it practically announced him as a master, if not of horror, then of evasion, for the way his acute sense of movement is so thrilling in the moment that it can make one overlook his rickety storytelling. Upgrade is a film that’s less suspicious of the not-so-brave new world of tomorrow that anti-authoritarian tech bros are rapidly ushering in than it is in awe of what their toys can do. Its meditation on vengeance is closer to justification: that it’s okay that a bro turned half-machine is going on a violent rampage because of what was done to his wife.

The Invisible Man, another distinctly male fantasy set in a more recognizable present-day San Francisco, has even less to say than that, though it seeks to also entertain us with all that a techie can do with one of his toys. And that it does, as in an impressive early scene inside James’s house where Cecilia walks out of the kitchen while making breakfast and a long shot unobtrusively captures a knife falling off the counter and the flame on one of the gas burners being turned to high. The frisson of unease to this and several other scenes, of a man hiding in not-so-plain sight as he mounts a spectacular show of gaslighting, is close to unbearable. And when the titular menace is finally glimpsed, if only intermittently, the straight shot of action-infused momentum that marks the sequence as he lays waste to a small army of police officers inside the hallway of a mental institution feels like a release, for Cecilia and the audience.

But to what end does Whannell really fashion all this style? In one scene, and only one scene, the film tells us that Cecilia is an architect, not to illuminate all that she’s capable of as a creative, but to allow for the moment where she shows up to an interview at an architecture firm and discovers that the samples of her work were removed from her portfolio. That scene, some 30 minutes into The Invisible Man, is the moment where the film starts to provoke a certain queasiness, where it becomes clear that Cecilia only exists, for Adrian and for Whannell, to be terrorized, to be held up in the air, to be flung across a room, to be punched, to not be believed, to be thought of as insane. And to be raped. That this violation happens off screen proves that Whannell has foresight, that he’s aware of the controversy that surrounded Hollow Man upon its release in 2000. But that we must be told that it also took place at an indeterminate time, almost as a matter of course, feels like an icky attempt at not having to actually grapple with the implications of the crime by casting doubt on it.

Out of sight, out of mind. That feels like Whannell’s mantra. Indeed, by the time it gets around to the business of Cecilia being believed, the film starts to collapse under the weight of an increasingly absurd series of plot reveals for the way she turns the tables on the invisible man to feel like anything but an afterthought. Even then, when her tormentor is right there out in the open, it’s still clear that Whannell only thinks of violence in terms of how it can be paid back. Which is to say, he’s consistent. Through to the end, you can’t get off on the thrill of this film’s craftsmanship without also getting off on the spectacle of more than just Cecilia brought to the brink of destruction. Like its style, The Invisible Man’s cruelty is the point.

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, Benedict Hardie Director: Leigh Whannell Screenwriter: Leigh Whannell Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 125 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Guns Akimbo Squanders a Nifty Setup with Excruciating Humor

Writer-director Jason Lei Howden’s humor might have been tolerable if his film was at least reasonably imaginative.




Guns Akimbo
Photo: Saban Films

For much of Jason Lei Howden’s Guns Akimbo, Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) is in his jammies, because getting dressed is difficult when your hands are nailed to pistols. Eating and using the bathroom are no easy feat either. With this, the film hits on an amusing setup for physical comedy, as Miles can do little but stumble about as he strives to drive a car or use his phone with his nose. He also must avoid being shot by Nix (Samara Weaving), his designated opponent in a kill-or-be-killed online competition called Skizm. But the film ultimately fails to capitalize on its concept and gets smothered by its smug, abrasive tone.

Miles is a coder for a video game titled Nuts Bust 2, one of too-many examples of the film’s groan-inducing comedy. He’s also a bizarrely self-aware depiction of an internet troll, as Miles admits via narration that, in order to feel worthwhile, he seeks out arguments in comment sections and reports “offensive content.” When he goes to Skizm’s chatroom to tell the viewers off, he runs afoul of the organization’s facial-tattooed leader, Riktor (Ned Dennehy), who at one point says, “I’m going to do a poo-poo in my pantaloons,” because why not? Those guns for hands and his forced participation in Skizm are Miles’s punishment.

Most of Guns Akimbo’s dialogue squanders an intriguing concept through truly excruciating attempts at humor, oscillating between snide comments, gay panic jokes, and capital-A attitude-laden one-liners. In one scene, Miles remarks that the world looks “so HD” because, with gun-hands, he can’t go outside with his face in his phone.

The humor might have been tolerable if the film was at least reasonably imaginative. Radcliffe really digs into Miles’s sniveling bafflement and the expressive Weaving clearly has a lot of hammy fun as the unhinged Nix. But too much of Guns Akimbo consists of unremarkable car chases and gun fights that hardly feel transformed at all by Miles’s unique predicament. We watch a lot of people fire a lot of guns against a lot of concrete backdrops, except Howden deploys a hyperactive camera style that’s always zooming around the characters in slow motion or fast forward. He appears to be going for the Neveldine/Taylor style of films like Crank and Gamer, except he’s not nearly as inventive and most of his flourishes outright distract from the action choreography, sometimes obscuring it altogether.

Worse, Guns Akimbo strains to be self-aware, with Miles assuring audiences via narration that this isn’t one of those stories where he wins back his ex-girlfriend, Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), in the end. And it’s weirdly self-congratulatory for a film that visibly revels in torturing Weaving’s character and eventually has Nova kidnapped for the big climax anyway. The film has even less to say about the sort of obsessive spectatorship that makes up the story’s backdrop, as though simply depicting reality-TV audiences and internet users as assholes is some profound statement. Luckily, unlike Miles, viewers have a say in the matter. They aren’t bolted to the couch and the remote isn’t nailed into their hands; they’re free to quit watching at any time, or simply opt not to watch this obnoxious film at all.

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Samara Weaving, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Ned Dennehy, Rhys Darby, Grant Bowler, Edwin Wright Director: Jason Lei Howden Screenwriter: Jason Lei Howden Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Assistant Is a Chilling Portrait of Workplace Harassment

The film is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as its main character.




The Assistant
Photo: Bleecker Street Media

With The Assistant, writer-director Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in the Tribeca offices of a film mogul, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing much of its resonance. Offices encourage professional functionality as a way of divorcing people from themselves, leading them to make actions without a sense of complicity. What starts small—throwing co-workers under the bus, neglecting friends due to punishing work hours—can blossom over time into people enabling atrocity under the guise of “doing what they’re told.”

With this psychology in mind, Green fashions The Assistant as a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae. The film opens with a young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), being picked up from her apartment for work so punishingly early that it’s almost impossible to tell if it’s morning or night. By 8 a.m., she’s been making copies, printing documents, reading emails, and tending to office errands for hours. Other employees gradually drift in, talking obligatorily of their weekends off—a privilege that Jane isn’t accorded.

In these early scenes, Green conjures a peculiar, very palpable dread, her precise, anal-retentive compositions suggesting what might happen if David Fincher were to adapt Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” This dread springs from two places, as the visual palette is silvery and moody, evoking a potential corporate thriller, though the film refuses to move beyond the expository stage and gratify this expectation, and so we fear that we may be trapped with Jane in her tedium. We are, and this is by Green’s moral schematic.

The Assistant is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as Jane. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the film mogul is only evoked via male pronouns (he’s never seen but often referenced and occasionally heard over the phone, usually in a torrent of rage against Jane for her inability to talk down his wife, who knows of his infidelity). Jane brings another assistant the wrong sandwich, and he treats her cruelly; it never occurs to him, or anyone else, to thank Jane for the tasks she performs for everyone in the office. At best, Jane’s co-workers regard her with a kind of pitying befuddlement, as if she’s not quite real. When Jane eats, it’s quickly and without pleasure, and she’s always alert to being watched. No one speaks of their personal lives. Green springs one perceptive, poignant detail after another, especially when the mogul compliments Jane via email just as she thinks he’s reached his limit with her. This is, of course, a major tool of the master manipulator: praise when least expected, and only enough to keep the person in your sphere of influence and at your mercy.

Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere. Jane finds an earring in the mogul’s office, which is repeatedly seen from a distance through its open door and becomes a chilling symbol for the mogul himself, suggesting his unshakable presence even in absence. There are jokes made about his couch, which Jane cleans. Young, beautiful women are brought into the office at late hours, and are referenced by both male and female employees with contempt. Growing fearful for one of the women, Jane tries to complain to an unsympathetic H.R. officer who sets about gaslighting her. It becomes evident that we’re watching—from the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit person—a parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Green’s grasp of Jane’s indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable.

Yet The Assistant also feels too narrow, too comfortable with its thesis. The rendering of the mogul as an unseen specter is effective but also dime-store lurid in the tradition of mediocre horror movies, and this device also conveniently absolves Green of having to wrestle with how a Weinstein type might live with himself. George Huang’s similarly themed 1994 film Swimming with Sharks, which is mostly inferior to The Assistant, benefited from such a friction, as its own Weinstein surrogate (played by Kevin Spacey) had a magnetism that complicated and enriched the script’s anger. There’s also something insidious about Green’s evasion, as the mogul’s absence elevates him, mythologizes him, which reflects how people low on the power ladder see powerful exploiters. But Green physicalizes this idea without standing outside of it, challenging it, or contextualizing it; she traps us in a monotonous hell and leaves us there. Her fury with Weinstein and his ilk contains an element of awe.

Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, Stéphanye Dussud, Juliana Canfield, Alexander Chaplin, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bregje Heinen Director: Kitty Green Screenwriter: Kitty Green Distributor: Bleecker Street Media Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy Is a Half-Hearted Spin on Peter Pan

Wendy veers awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never accruing any lasting emotional impact.




Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Like Beasts of the Southern Wild before it, Wendy unfolds through the eyes of a child. Benh Zeitlin’s sophomore feature puts a new spin on Peter Pan, and not only because it takes on the perspective of a 10-year-old Wendy Darling (Devin France). The film’s modern-rustic settings and costumes and relative lack of fantastical elements—notwithstanding the presence of a majestic, glowing sea creature, referred to as “mother,” who may hold the secret to reversing time—also play a large part in re-envisioning J.M. Barrie’s classic. But Zeitlin’s brand of magical realism strains in its conflicting desires to both demystify Neverland (never mentioned by name in the film), chiefly by grounding it in a rather prosaic reality, and imbue the story with all the enchanting qualities we’ve come to expect from fantasies of everlasting childhood. Like its version of Peter (Yashua Mack), Wendy wants to fly, yet, because of its self-imposed restrictions, it never quite gets off the ground.

Across this tale of a child lurching toward adulthood, there’s a sense of wonder and awe to the sea creature’s brief appearances, and to Wendy’s initial encounters with the free-spirited Peter, who playfully eggs her on from atop the train that regularly roars across the barren, rural locale that houses her family’s rundown diner. But Wendy’s whimsical flourishes, from Dan Romer’s incessantly rousing score to Wendy’s breathy and all-too-mannered voiceover, brush awkwardly against the film’s dour conception of a Neverland drained of all its magic and grandeur. Despite this, Zeitlin strives to capture an unbridled sense of childlike exuberance as kids cavort around the rugged cliffside vistas of the remote volcanic island that Peter calls home. But lacking any of the mystical features typically associated with them, Peter and his cohorts’ behaviors appear overly precocious to the point of ludicrousness; it’s almost as if they’re performing a twee, optimistic rendition of Lord of the Flies.

Unlike Quvenzhané Wallis, whose magnetic presence imbued Beasts of the Southern Wild with a pervasive warmth and soulfulness, Mack is an unfortunately listless presence as Peter. Several years younger than Wendy and her twin brothers, Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin), Peter appears, more often than not, like a six-year-old playing dress-up. His utter lack of charisma and gusto renders him an ill-fitting avatar for boisterous youthfulness, while his occasionally domineering, yet still unimposing, demeanor hardly makes him out to be the inspirational figure that the film ultimately wants him to be. Not only does he allow one boy to drown at one point, he chops off the hand of another to prevent him from aging.

Such events position Wendy as a twisted take on Peter Pan, but these moments are never given room to breathe. Rather, they’re uniformly undermined by the film cutting back to the idyllic adventures of children, in lockstep with Zeitlin’s relentless pursuit of galvanizing his audience through a gleefully idealized vision of the world. This jarring intrusion of darker elements into the story makes for bizarre clashes in tone, leaving Wendy to veer awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never to accrue any lasting emotional impact. When Peter buoyantly declares that “to grow up is a great adventure,” one is left to wonder not only why the boy who never grows up would, out of nowhere, embrace this worldview, but why Wendy, or any of the other children, would want to follow such a troubling figure on that journey.

As Wendy stumbles into its final act, where adult pirates attempt to use Wendy as bait to catch the giant sea creature, it becomes even more convoluted, contradictory, and murky in what it’s trying to say about growing up. Wendy eventually begins to stand up to and question Peter, both for his mistreatment of her brother and his harshness toward the adults Peter has excommunicated to an impoverished community on the outskirts of the island. But no sooner does she chide Peter than she’s back on his side, cheering him on as he fights off an admittedly cleverly devised Captain Hook. It’s as if she, much like the film, can’t seem to settle on whether Peter’s a hero or a borderline psychopath, or if childhood is a magical time to live in permanently or a necessary step on the way to adulthood. Rather than meaningfully subverting audience expectations, Wendy instead plays like a half-hearted twist on the familiar tale that ultimately doesn’t change the moral at the core of countless other Peter Pan adaptations: childhood is magical, and growing up is scary but inevitable.

Cast: Tommie Lynn Milazzo, Shay Walker, Devin France, Stephanie Lynn Wilson, Ahmad Cage, Gage Naquin, Krzysztof Meyn, Gavin Naquin, Romyri Ross Director: Benh Zeitlin Screenwriter: Benh Zeitlin, Eliza Zeitlin Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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