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Understanding Screenwriting #40: Police, Adjective, The White Ribbon, Invictus, Sherlock Holmes, & More



Understanding Screenwriting #40: Police, Adjective, The White Ribbon, Invictus, Sherlock Holmes, & More

Coming up in this column: Police, Adjective, The White Ribbon, Invictus, Eric Rohmer and Natalie Carter, Sherlock Holmes, In Which We Serve, O. Henry’s Full House, How I Met Your Mother, but first:

Fan mail: Since this is the first column I have written since we moved over to Slant, I want to welcome any new readers we have picked up. When I started the column in August 2008, I said that the purpose of the column was to Bring The Gospel of the Importance of Screenwriting to the Heathen of New York City. I must say the Heathen have been very hospitable, and usually weigh in with interesting comments. I notice that so far there have been no comments on US#39, which I hope is just a temporary glitch, because the comments from readers make the column a lot more fun for me, even when the readers give me a hard time about something I said. So log in, folks. And here’s some stuff you can log in about:

Police, Adjective (2009. Written by Corneliu Porumboiu. 113 minutes)

Time, Romanian style: I was a big fan of Porumboiu’s 2006 film 12:08 East of Bucharest, which deals with a group of Romanians recalling how they were all involved in the revolution that overthrew Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1989. The film ends with a spectacular sequence. No, not a recreation of the revolution, but a long scene of a television talk show in which three of the characters we have followed discuss which of them got involved when and which should really be considered hangers-on of the revolution. Porumboiu, who directed, just sets his camera down and looks at the trio in almost a single take as they rewrite their own and others’ history. The sequence is typical of what is called the Romanian New Wave, which includes such films as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007). All three of those films, as well as Police, Adjective, play around with the prolonging of time. The Romanians are not the only ones of course. Jonathan Romney in the February 2010 issue of Sight & Sound calls the films that play with time in this way “Slow Cinema,” and he gives several examples, none of them Romanian. American films, with a few exceptions, try to move as quickly as possible, but the Romanians are perfectly willing to let a film or a sequence run not only in real time, but in longer than real time, if such a thing is possible. It can be frustrating for viewers used to American tempi, but it can also be hypnotic.

Police, Adjective is a little bit of both. Cristi is a cop who has been assigned to shadow a teenage boy who is suspected of selling drugs. On Law & Order, the cops would have gotten several misleading clues by the first commercial break and nailed him by the half-hour mark. Porumboiu is more interested in showing how boring and repetitious surveillance is. We watch Cristi follow the kid, pick up their cigarette butts to test for drugs, follow the kid and his friends some more, and some more and some more. Porumboiu breaks up those scenes with long discussions done in real time, often in long single takes. Cristi talks to the prosecutor about his doubts about the case, but the prosecutor tells him to do what his captain asks him to do. Cristi has a couple of long discussions with his wife, the first about a popular song that his wife insists on playing at full volume and then deconstructing for Cristi. The second is a discussion in changes in the Romanian language. Both scenes tell us a lot about Cristi and his wife, but they also set up what you might consider the climactic scene of the film. Cristi and a fellow cop go in to see the captain, whom we have not seen before. Cristi says it goes against his moral conscience to arrest the kid when he is convinced the kid is only using and not selling. The captain talks him out of it by having his assistant get a Romanian dictionary and having Cristi read the passages on police, the law, and moral conscience. As with the final scene of 12:08 East of Bucharest the conversation is done in real time, mostly in one take, with a stationary camera. The dialogue pulls us into the scene and gives us a sense of how the police process is being corrupted.

I am not sure that final scene works as well as the one in Bucharest. Partly it may be that Bucharest was the first of the Romanian films I saw and the scene was such a surprise. Partly it may be that in Bucharest, we have several other scenes and other characters, written and shot in different ways so that the final scene stands out more. In Police, Adjective we are only focused on Cristi, who is not as compelling a character as those in Bucharest. The similar dialogue scenes before the final scenes on the one hand set up the final scene. On the other hand, they may take away a bit from its impact, since it is not that different from the dialogue scenes we have seen before.

Who said writing Romanian screenplays was easy?

The White Ribbon (2009. Written by Michael Haneke. 144 minutes)

The White Ribbon

Time, German style: This is one of Haneke’s subtle films, more Hidden (2005) than Funny Games (1997 & 2007), which means you really have to pay attention, especially after the narrator tells you up front that he cannot vouch for the truth of much of what we are about to see. The narrator is the older version of a young teacher in a German village in 1913-14 who is telling us about a set of strange occurrences in the village. And why should we pay attention? Because Haneke’s narrator tells us it may reveal something about what happened in Germany later. I may have to reconsider my “subtle” description of the film on the basis of that bit of narration alone. With that line, Haneke has told us how to look at the meaning of what he is going to show you. If the same occurrences happened in an English village of the period, they would not have the same resonance Haneke gives them for us with that one line.

In an interview in the December 2009 Sight and Sound, Haneke said he wanted to get the film off to a fast start, even at the risk of confusing the audience. He felt the audience would catch up. I have to admit it took me a while because we are introduced to a large cast of characters, a lot of whom are similar. (The casting of the film is superb, with the faces looking very 1913-14; printing the film in black and white also helps establish the period.) One of the most inventive elements in Haneke’s script is something I have never seen anybody else try, let along bring off. Haneke will have a scene with one of the families in the film and then cut to another family in a similar kind of scene. It usually takes a couple of seconds to realize we are now in a different house with a different group of people. That should be confusing, but it is not, although I am not sure why. What it does do is give the audience a sense of the town as a community, with similar attitudes.

In theory we are trying to solve the mystery of who has been setting up accidents, beatings, fires, etc. It is a mystery that never gets solved, although the narrator thinks he knows who committed them. But when he presents his suggestions to the town pastor, the pastor rebuffs him. The teacher thinks the children of the town have done them, but the pastor cannot believe it of his and the town’s children. We can because we have seen the way the adults treat the children. Haneke’s first draft would have run three-and-a-half hours, and the material that got cut to get it down to the current running time showed the children having mock trials. It would have made the film more explicit and not as compelling. It is enough that we see several harrowing scenes of the grownups arguing with each other and treating their kids badly for us to believe in the teacher’s point of view. Many of those scenes are long, some done in one take, and they show us how deeply embedded the attitudes are in village. The time Haneke spends on those scenes, both as writer and director, pays off in our understanding of the world he is showing us.

Invictus (2009. Screenplay by Anthony Peckham, based on the book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation, by John Carlin. 134 minutes)


Time, Eastwood style: The information above on the script is a bit misleading. Anthony Peckham, who had been raised in South Africa, is a screenwriter living in the United States. A producer he had worked with before approached him about a book proposal the producer had received. The book would deal with the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. Peckham prepared a pitch that he and the producer took to Morgan Freeman. Freeman had long wanted to play Mandela, even before Mandela said in public that he wanted Freeman to play him in a movie. Freeman liked the book idea and his company came up with money for Peckham to go to Spain to talk to John Carlin. Carlin had been a journalist in South Africa from 1989 to 1995, and it was his book proposal that Peckham had seen. Peckham looked at all Carlin’s research and began writing the script as Carlin began writing the book. (All of this is from Adam Stovall’s article on the film in the November/December 2009 Creative Screenwriting.)

Peckham did two drafts and Freeman sent it to Clint Eastwood. Unlike a lot of people in Hollywood, Eastwood does not like the development process. If he likes a script, he makes it, end of story. Frances Fisher, who was in Unforgiven (1992), said that was the only shooting script she had ever seen with all white pages (white pages are original pages, rewrites are printed on different colored pages). Well, look at Eastwood’s credits and you can see it generally works for him. Sometimes, as with Bird (1988) or The Bridges of Madison County (1995), another draft or two would not have been a bad idea. With Invictus, a little more focus might have helped. Peckham collected wonderful material from Carlin, including the scenes of Mandela’s bodyguards, white and black, bonding over the game. Peckham extended that into a running subplot of the bodyguards and their racial animosity toward each other, and as much as I liked those scenes, I am not sure they are all needed. The same thing is true with a lot of the scenes of Mandela. Yes, Freeman is one of the producers and the star, and he gives a great performance, but I am not sure all of that material is needed as well. On the other hand, a lot of Peckham’s additional characters help the reaction shots of them during the game pay off very well at the end.

Without having seen the actual screenplay, I suspect most of the problem is that Eastwood as director and producer has not had the film cut as sharply as he could have. The final game scenes go on, and on, and on. And, oh yes, on. I am glad it was full employment week for the CGI team who filled the stadium, but just a couple of sweeping shots of the grandstands would make the point more vividly than all the ones we see. Eastwood has always favored a slow pace, both as an actor and a director, but here he’s almost Romanian.

The Marquise of OEric Rohmer and Natalie Carter

I think I am in love: Eric Rohmer, the great French writer/director, died on January 11th. I was reminded of the story of the funeral of Ernst Lubitsch. William Wyler said to Billy Wilder, “It’s so sad. No more Lubtisch.” To which Wilder replied, “Worse. No more Lubitsch pictures.” I loved Rohmer’s films because they were so distinct and such a pleasure. After seeing a bunch of big, stupid films, it was such a delight to slip into a Rohmer film, live in Rohmer’s world, and just listen. While a lot of people thought his films were too talky, I thought the talk was great because, like all great screen dialogue, it played against what his characters thought and felt. They were always trying to think their way out of being human. And failing, thank God, which is not as trivial an issue as some of Rohmer’s critics thought it to be. I suppose I should discuss a scene or two from one of his films, but I tend not so much to remember scenes or even individual films but the whole of his work. Alas, no more Rohmer films.

Meanwhile. In the January 11-17 issue of Weekly Variety there was a section on Unifrance Rendez-Vous, an upcoming Paris film festival. The section had a two-page piece on new filmmakers titled “Gallic Talent on Fast Track.” The first thing that struck me was that of the ten boxes, three were for writers. Not something you would expect from the land of auteurism. But the French have begun to appreciate scripts and screenwriters. What really struck me was this quote from screenwriter Natalie Carter: “In France there is a tendency to make narcissistic films about trivial matters. I like to broaden the focus and bring some lightness and impertinence into each story.” Au revoir Eric, bienvenue cher Natalie.

Sherlock Holmes (2009. Screenplay by Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg, screen story by Lionel Wigram and Michael Robert Johnson, based on characters, novels and stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 128 minutes)

Sherlock Holmes

Sweeney Todd meets Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin: This is certainly not your father’s Sherlock Holmes. Or your grandfather’s. Or your great-grandfather’s. But it is not as far from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes as we were all afraid it was going to be. I am not sure you really need to re-imagine Holmes as a 21st Century action hero, but if you have to, this was probably the way to do it. Lionel Wigram, the writer-producer who got the project going, loved the original stories. He discovered in going back over them that Conan Doyle makes references to Holmes’s physical skills, but does not show them. As Wigram told Peter Clines in the November/December 2009 Creative Screenwriting, he realized, “I can make Holmes an action hero without actually betraying the character or betraying what Conan Doyle set out to do. All I have to do is put on screen what he made happen off-screen.” What Wigram and the other writers then do is use the scenes where Holmes is explaining how he figures stuff out as a nice counterpoint to the action sequences. This probably is why the script is not as offensive to me as it might be to devotees of the earlier film and television versions of Holmes. An earlier version of the script had Holmes chasing Lord Blackwood all over Europe and Asia, but that seemed too conventional. They keep him in Victorian London in a collection of sets that look left over from Sweeney Todd (2007) and which fit the story they tell.

The writers have also developed the relationship between Holmes and Watson into a real bromance, which makes them reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy getting into and out of scrapes. The tone of the relationship then affects Holmes’s relation with Irene Adler and Watson’s engagement to Mary Morstan. Neither of the women characters are particularly well drawn. Rachel MdAdams is not that convincing as femme fatale Irene, and Kelly Reilly as Mary is done a considerable disservice not so much by the script but by the desaturated color, which wipes out her normal light red hair and freckles. The scripting of Holmes and Watson is much more detailed and give Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson a lot to do.
The big action setpieces are inventive. I particularly liked the one that ends up with Holmes and Watson inadvertently sending a not quite completed ship down the skids into the water. It casually sinks in the background in a two-shot of Holmes and Watson. It is basically a silent movie gag. Downey has said in interviews that playing such an iconic figure as Holmes was similar to playing Chaplin in 1992. You can occasionally catch Downey twitching just the way his Chaplin did.

About the only way you can tell that Guy Ritchie was the director is that several very big, mean-looking thugs have been written into the film for him. My eight-year-old grandson loved watching Holmes zap them with an early form of a taser. Fun for the whole family.

In Which We ServeIn Which We Serve (1942. Written by Noël Coward. 115 minutes)

“Mad Dogs and Englishmen” meets Rosebud: Almost from the beginning of his career as a playwright and actor in the twenties, people were trying to write off Noël Coward. He was too witty, too charming, too gay (in both senses of the word) and, in spite of all that, was way too prolific. Anybody with that light a touch could not possibly have written 140 plays, but he did, as well as countless songs such as “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” “Mad About the Boy,” “Sail Away,” and “Why Must the Show Go On.” Check out the IMDb on Coward and see how many of his songs have shown up recently in films. And how many of his plays have been adapted for films and especially for television.

Coward did not just do light comedy. In the late twenties he wrote the play Cavalcade, the history of a British upper class family from the Boer War to the twenties. It was made into a film by Fox in 1931 and won the Academy Award for Best Picture, although it is one of the more unwatchable Best Picture winners. Coward had nothing to do with the screenplay for it.

In Which We Serve was his first real attempt at screenwriting, and he started out badly. According to Kevin Brownlow, Coward was asked by Lord Louis Mountbatten to find out what sort of films sailors in the Royal Navy wanted to see. While Coward was checking that out, he heard Mountbatten tell the horrifying story of having his destroyer HMS Kelly sunk out from under him off Crete in 1941. Coward thought the story of this one destroyer would make a film and Mountbatten agreed, although he wanted a fictionalized version so he would not be seen as self-aggrandizing, which he was. Coward read the first draft of the script to a group that included some producers and a film editor who had been recommended as a sort of co-director for Coward, but who had never directed a film before. The reading went on for three hours and the script was, as Brownlow calls it, “a sort of maritime Cavalcade” covering the story of the Navy from 1922 to 1941. One estimate was that it would have run six to eight hours on film.

Everybody tried to convince Coward that while in a film you could go everywhere and do everything, you really didn’t need to. The film editor, David Lean, asked if Coward had seen Citizen Kane, which had just been released in English. Coward had not. According to Brownlow’s definitive Lean biography, Lean said later, “He went off to see it, and from Kane he got the idea of flashbacks. Quick as a knife, he took the narrative, cut it up, introduced the Carley float, which was a sort of raft all these ships carried, and he used the men clinging to the Carley float to jump from one part of the story to another.”

It is not as simple as that, nor as simple as Citizen Kane. In Kane we get the flashbacks in the order in which the reporter talks to people. It takes us by the hand. In Which We Serve does not do that, although it does have the annoying, very ‘40s habit of having the screen go all watery when we go into a flashback. Well, they are in the ocean, but still. What this script does is jump from one man’s flashbacks to another, and sometimes it includes several in one sequence. The major characters we follow are Captain Kinross (based on Mountbatten, with Coward virtually copying many of his speeches), Chief Petty Officer Hardy and Ordinary Seaman Blake. At one point, Coward cuts from Christmas celebrations of the families of the three men without going back to the float. The immediate juxtaposition of the three similar scenes gives us a vivid sense of the class differences between the men and their lives.

Coward has not only written a great star part for himself, but wonderful roles for a terrific ensemble of actors. Unlike Battle Cry (see US#39), the focus is not on the sex lives of the men, but on their romantic and familial attachments. It is like the play of Cavalcade but with a broader view, something that Coward continued two years later in his play and film This Happy Breed.

Turner Classic Movies ran this in early January as part of the 75th anniversary of the New York Film Critics. TCM was running films that won the best of the year critics’ award that were different from the Oscar Best Pictures. In Which We Serve beat out Mrs. Miniver. Both films are about the British in the early years of World War II, but Mrs. Miniver is another unwatchable Best Picture now, with only one brief shot in a pub that looks authentically British. The rest looks like what it was: MGM’s idea of England. In Which We Serve, studio shots and all, is the real deal.

O. Henry's Full HouseO. Henry’s Full House (1952. Various writers. 117 minutes)

Writers versus directors: In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, British filmmakers did three movies based on short stories by W. Somerset Maugham, Quartet (1948), Trio (1950) and Encore (1951). The success of those inspired 20th Century-Fox to try the same thing with the stories of O. Henry. The idea was that a different writer would write a script for a story, and a different director would direct each one. As Henry King, one of the five directors involved, told me in an oral history interview I did with him in 1970-71, most of the directors did not take the assignment seriously, since they were making a short film rather than a feature. The screenwriters took it a little more seriously, and it is an interesting film to look at in terms of how the directors did or did not bring off the scripts.

The Cop and the Anthem (screenplay by Lamar Trotti, directed by Henry Koster) is one of the two best written of the five. Trotti of course was one of the major screenwriters at Fox until his death in 1952. In this script he is working in a slightly more literate vein than he usually did, since O. Henry has the major character, a vagrant named Soapy, talking in an elevated style. Soapy is played by Charles Laughton and his pal Horace by David Wayne. Koster has let both of them overact. The best performance is by the young Marilyn Monroe, who is only on-screen for a minute or so. She hits exactly the right notes her part calls for.

The Clarion Call (screenplay by Richard Breen, directed by Henry Hathway) is about a detective who realizes an old friend of his is probably a murderer. He can’t arrest the friend because he owes him a thousand dollars. The friend gives a passing newspaper editor a hard time for not cracking the case. The editor’s paper offers a thousand-dollar reward for information on the murder. The detective collects the reward, pays off the friend, then arrests him. Nice story, but both Breen and Hathaway let the murderer go on longer than they should. This is particularly a problem in Hathaway’s direction of Richard Widmark, who has been encouraged by Hathaway to play the murderer as if he were Tommy Udo, the part that made Widmark a star in Hathaway’s 1947 Kiss of Death.

The Last Leaf (screenplay by Ivan Goff & Ben Roberts, directed by Jean Negulesco) is rather plodding. We see where it is going very early on, and both the script and Negulesco’s direction assume we don’t know. There are very few twists and turns in the story until the last twist, and then the script and direction beat it home.

The Ransom of Red Chief (screenplay uncredited, but written by Nunnally Johnson, directed by Howard Hawks) is the worst of the lot. Nunnally was so upset with Hawks’s direction he asked that his name be removed from the credits, which it was. The story is about two con men on the run who decide to kidnap the son of the most important man in a small town. Unfortunately the kid is a holy terror, and the father makes the kidnappers pay him to take the kid off their hands. Nunnally had written it with Clifton Webb and William Demarest in mind for the kidnappers, but the film ended up with Fred Allen and Oscar Levant in the roles. They are too similar in style to work as a team, and not as good actors as Webb and Demarest. Nunnally felt Hawks’s direction was too farcical, but watching it today, my feeling was that it was not farcical enough. Hawks’s direction has no energy to it. He may have been trying, unsuccessfully, to pick up on the small town rhythms of Nunnally’s dialogue, much of which is still in the film. Johnson had a similar problem with John Ford on Tobacco Road (1941). Nunnally was from Georgia, where Tobacco Road was set, and he said to me about Ford, “Since he didn’t know anything about [Georgia] crackers [an early form of “redneck”], except me, and he did know about the Irish, he simply changed them all into Irishmen.” The Ransom of Red Chief episode was so flat that it was later cut from release prints, but it has been restored.

The Gift of the Magi (screenplay by Walter Bullock, directed by Henry King) is the best of the bunch. Bullock was primarily a songwriter who occasionally wrote screenplays, although none of his other scripts that I am familiar with are as good as this one. Maybe he was just better at the shorter length. This one is about a poor young couple who doesn’t know what to give each other for Christmas. She cuts and sells her beautiful hair to buy him a fob for the family watch he carries. He sells the watch to buy her a comb set for her hair. Like The Last Leaf we can pretty much see where it is going, but Bullock gives us twists and turns along the way. We follow her to get her hair cut and buy the fob, but we don’t see what he has bought for her until after he has opened her present and seen she has cut her hair. King, who was one of the best directors of actors in Hollywood, gets livelier performances from Jeanne Crain and Farley Granger than any other director did. Bullock has written a nice scene with the barber who cuts her hair, and King does not let Fritz Feld, who usually overacts, get carried away. Likewise, King restrains Sig Ruman as the jeweler in the nice little scene where she buys the fob.

Arthur Knight, in his classic 1957 film history book The Liveliest Art, wrote about the film as an example of a studio production. Mentioning that there were five directors, he wrote, “Yet when the picture appeared it was impossible to detect any stylistic differences. It might have been the work of a single individual. And in a sense, it was—the corporate individual known as 20th Century-Fox. The quality of the film’s photography and sound, its settings, the characteristically lively tempo of its editing all bore the unmistakable stamp of the Fox personality.” Knight simply was not looking deeply enough. And it probably never occurred to him to think about the differences in the writers.

How I Met Your Mother (2010. Episode “Girls vs. Suits” written by Carter Bays & Craig Thomas. 30 minutes)

How I Met Your Mother

We meet her—no we don’t: We know that Ted will meet “Mother” at school and that she was in his class. So this episode starts out with him beginning to date Cindy, a grad student who is not actually in his class, but was in the class he stumbled into on his first teaching day. Ted’s narration before the first commercial break leads us to think she is the one. She is cute, and they hit it off. But she is not “Mother.” She has serious roommate issues, not helped by Ted liking the stuff in her apartment that all turn out to be her roommate’s. As the episode progresses, Ted’s narration makes it clear the roommate is “Mother,” but we still don’t see her, and he does not meet her. Cindy is certainly not going to introduce them. Near the end of the episode, Ted gets a brief glimpse of “Mother’s” bare foot as she goes from the shower to her room, but it is not enough to make him go into her room and introduce himself. Bays & Thomas, the showrunners, have promised us we will get to meet “Mother” this season. It will be about time.

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: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets Is an Elegiac Mosaic of Disillusionment

It’s in certain characters’ trajectories that the Ross brothers locate the tragic soul of the bar.




Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Photo: Utopia

In a 1946 essay for London’s Evening Standard, George Orwell wrote: “And if anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it.” In other words, the British author was on the lookout for the ideal watering hole, which he argues requires a combination of these specific offerings as well as more ineffable qualities. But the article’s thrust isn’t so simple, as Orwell spends the first three-quarters of it describing in detail a bar that doesn’t exist, referred to by the fictitious moniker of “The Moon Under Water.” You might think that you’re reading a rare lifestyle report from your favorite anti-totalitarian author, only to suddenly be made aware of your victimhood in a little literary sleight of hand.

Orwell’s playful essay provides the inspiration for Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, a quasi-real-time portrait of what might be seen as an ideal dive bar by today’s standards, though filmmaker brothers Bill and Turner Ross eschew Orwell’s rug-pulling. Here, we’re never let in on the fact that the Roaring 20s, the Las Vegas haunt that serves as the film’s setting, is actually located in the Rosses’ hometown of New Orleans, or that its denizens are actually a motley crew of Louisiana drinkers (one looks like Elliott Gould, another like Seymour Cassel) that the filmmakers recruited and primed for their roles. This edifice of fakery is critical to the film’s meaning. As Orwell opined for a more perfect world where such a social space could exist, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets fabricates its own rosy vision of social unity, drunkenly commiseration, and aesthetic perfection, if only to deliberately undercut this idealism through the staging of its narrative around the bar’s final night and the election of Donald Trump.

The Roaring 20s may not be everyone’s idea of perfection. After an Altmanesque credit sequence establishing the bar’s exterior in zooming telephoto shots, the audience’s first glimpse at the interior finds custodian-cum-freeloader Michael Martin being broken from his early-afternoon slumber by the arriving bartenders and helped promptly to a swig of whiskey, and events from this point forward tap into a similar reservoir of pity and humor. Where the beauty emerges is in the intimacy and familiarity with which the patrons are able to relate to one another as more and more alcohol is consumed. For much of the film, egos, tempers, and prejudices fall away as more and more regulars pile into the bar, increasingly constituting a diverse cross section of what appear to be outer Vegas wanderers and failures.

Limiting views of the surrounding city to brief, bleary interludes shot on an un-color-calibrated Panasonic DVX100b, the Ross brothers center the action squarely around the bar, lending everything a brownish pink patina that suggests the view through a bottle of Fireball and draping every hangable surface with off-season Christmas lights. Taken as part of a dialogue with such gems from the canon of booze-soaked cinema as Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery and Eagle Pennell’s Last Night at the Alamo, this auburn glow distinguishes Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets as more texturally expressive than photographically verisimilar—a film that approximates a night of inebriation rather than merely memorializing it.

Having used two cameras over the course of their 18-hour shoot, the Rosses are able to rely on montage editing to foster a sense of omniscience without losing the feeling of temporal continuity. The result is a film whose attention jumps sporadically to different bits of conversation and activity just as the beer-saturated brain of your average pub-dweller might. Part of this seamless integration of perspectives has to do with the film’s dynamic and precise use of music, which blends non-diegetic Rhodes-piano noodlings from composer Casey Wayne McAllister with popular songs heard within the bar both on the jukebox and in impromptu sing-alongs. Unconcerned with airs of documentary objectivity, the Ross brothers allow themselves to essentially play disc jockeys, and within this framework many of their choices for background needle drops land with a certain poetic gravitas, complementing, contradicting, or in some cases even guiding the emotional temperature of the room.

Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler” is heard twice, first played by a bartender on an acoustic guitar to get the early evening energy going and later on the jukebox when much of that energy has dissipated, while Jhené Aiko’s desolate breakup ballad “Comfort Inn Ending” provides contrapuntal accompaniment to the evening’s one flare-up of macho tempers. Most affecting is when A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems” underscores a shot of an embittered but tender war vet, Bruce Hadnot, glowering at the end of the bar—a lengthily held beat that will be relatable to anyone who’s ever found introspection in the midst of pummeling noise. Each example hints at the melancholy direction that the film ultimately takes, and like any DJ worth their salt, the Rosses manage the transition from euphoria to pathos gradually and imperceptibly.

While all who enter the Roaring 20s achieve some kind of emotional arc before departing thanks to the filmmakers’ democratic distribution of their attentions, there are a few who emerge as main characters, and it’s in their trajectories that Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets locates the tragic soul of the bar. Michael is one of them. Beginning the day as a freewheeling conversationalist, ripping drinks and catching up with whoever rolls through, he spends the dwindling hours of the night in a dazed stupor on a corner sofa, pathetically asserting to a fellow bar patron that “there is nothing more boring than someone who used to do stuff and just sits in a bar.” In a few instances, the Ross brothers cede the floor to the bar’s security cameras, whose detachment and “objectivity” eschew the warmth of the filmmakers’ ground-level cameras, rendering the bar as little more than a physical space. Seen from this cold, inhuman eye, Michael registers as lonely, beaten-down, and insignificant.

Similarly positioned on the margins of the sociable space created by the Roaring 20s, and often identified by its more imposing and strange attractions (such as the Stratosphere and Pyramid casinos), Las Vegas plays a role analogous to the bar’s security cameras. As seen through a motion-blurred, sepia-toned camera, the city represents a reality of false hopes that’s failed the film’s humble pleasure seekers—whether in the form of dead-end jobs that have led them away from their passions or in a military industrial complex that treats its servants as interchangeable. At one point, Bruce brings up Trump on the occasion of his recent election, confidently proffering grave predictions for his presidency. The subject doesn’t get touched again, but it’s a subtext for the whole film—not the Trump presidency per se, but the mere fact of pessimism in the face of leadership. Like Orwell’s “The Moon Under Water,” the Roaring 20s seen in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets doesn’t really exist. Even if it did, no one would save it, which makes the desperation with which its denizens hang on to it all the more touching.

Director: Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross Distributor: Utopia Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Relic Is a Lushly Metaphoric Vision of a Splintered Family

The film heralds the arrival a bold and formidable voice in horror cinema.




Photo: IFC Midnight

Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), don’t say much on the drive to Grandma Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) house. The old woman is missing, and when Sam crawls through the doggy door into the home, she looks around with concern, absorbed until Kay knocks impatiently at the door to be let in. Still no words. The women of Relic aren’t exactly close, as evidenced by the palpable coldness between Kay and Sam as they look through this cluttered abode. Edna’s forgetfulness having grown exhausting, Kay tells a cop that she hasn’t spoken to her eightysomething mother in weeks. And the guilt is written on Kay’s face, even in the distant shot that frames her within the walls of the police station.

Though Relic is her debut feature, Natalie Erika James demonstrates a confident grasp of tone and imagery throughout the film. She and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff strikingly conjure an ominous stillness, particularly in the scenes set inside Edna’s increasingly unfamiliar home, where the characters appear as if they’re being suffocated by the walls, railing, low ceilings, and doorways. Relic fixates on rotting wood, the monolithic scope of the Australian woods, and the colors on Edna’s front door’s stained-glass window that meld, eventually, into a single dark spill, as though the house is infected by the old cabin that haunts Kay’s dreams.

Edna soon reappears, unable to explain where she’s been and complicating an already distant family dynamic. The interactions between the three women are marked by an exhaustion that’s clearly informed by past experience—a feeling that Edna’s disappearance was almost expected. But not even James’s command behind the camera can quite elevate just how hard Relic falls into the shorthand of too many horror movies with old people at their center: the unthinking self-harm, the wandering about in the night, the pissing of oneself.

The film remains restrained almost to a fault, revealing little about its characters and their shared histories. Though some of this vagueness could be attributed to Relic’s central metaphor about dementia, the general lack of specificity only grows more apparent in the face of the film’s oldsploitation standbys, leaving us with precious little character to latch onto.

But such familiar elements belie Relic’s truly inventive climax, an abrupt shift into a visceral nightmare that tears apart notions of body and space and then sews them back together in a new, ghastly form. James resists bringing the film’s subtext to the forefront, in the process imbuing her enigmatic images with a lasting power, turning them into ciphers of broader ideas like abandonment, responsibility, and resentment as they relate to the withering human figure. Never relenting with its atmosphere of suffocating decay, the final stretch of Relic, if nothing else, heralds the arrival a bold and formidable voice in horror cinema.

Cast: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote Director: Natalie Erika James Screenwriter: Natalie Erika James, Christian White Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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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.



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.




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.




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.




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.




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.




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.




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.




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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