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

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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)

Invictus

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: Julien Temple’s Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan

The film is affectingly poignant in its frequently uncomfortable presentation of MacGowan’s physical ruination.

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Crock of Gold
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

The legend of Shane MacGowan, frontman for the Pogues and imbiber extraordinaire, looms large over Julien Temple’s alternately fantastical and down-to-earth documentary Crock of Gold. Since achieving international renown in the 1980s leading the biggest Irish band after U2—and just about the only one to fully celebrate and explore their Irishness—MacGowan carved out a position as one of rock’s most determined boozers, druggies, fighters, and all-around hellraisers. But though he had a Keith Richards-sized appetite, being on a smaller budget meant going without a protective rock-star bubble.

MacGowan’s kinetic and alcohol-fueled energy was a big part of the Pogues’s appeal, vividly captured here by the footage Temple includes of people roaring and dancing in packed concert venues. But time took its toll, as evidenced by MacGowan’s downward spiral of performances sabotaged by his copious drinking. Eventually, the slurred speech, physical decrepitude, and ever-more gnarled dentition spotted in the archival footage from the 1980s and ‘90s became like a self-fulfilling stereotype of the dedicated Irish drunk. While Temple includes a full view of MacGowan in his earlier form, the spiky-haired and Brendan Behan-worshipping punk balladeer, the story is told primarily through the lens of MacGowan’s racked and ruined present visage, prematurely aged and slurring his speech from a wheelchair. In MacGowan’s mind, he destroyed his body in pursuit of a different kind of legend entirely.

Much of the musician’s personal history is relayed via present-day interviews with interlocutors such as Johnny Deep—a friend of MacGowan’s and one of the film’s producers—former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. But here and there throughout Crock of Gold, MacGowan looks back over his own life, telling stories with a slow, slurring mumble punctuated by the occasional surly snap of pique or wheeze that approximates a laugh.

MacGowan acknowledges the problematic aspects of being the drunken Irishmen who hated British stereotypes of drunken Irishmen. “You want Paddy?” he asks rhetorically. “I’ll give you fucking Paddy.” But beyond the aggression that came from being a hyper-imaginative kid who hated the discrimination he felt being raised in 1960s England, he says that his creative drive was ultimately to create a different kind of legend. He wanted to do nothing less than save Irish culture. If not that, he wanted to at least resurrect the feeling that he had during the childhood summers he spent back in his extended family’s farmhouse in Tipperary (a one-time safe house for the I.R.A.), where even as a six-year-old he took part in the drinking and smoking and singing during the clan’s frequent all-night bashes.

MacGowan’s take on his culture is fiercely proud yet somewhat removed; his Irishness seems to come almost as much through literature and myth as through his family. Dreamy black-and-white recreations of a boy gamboling through Irish fields and archival footage of the Easter Rising and Ireland’s War of Independence fuel the sense that everything MacGowan strove for later in his art was in his mind a kind of fantasy crusade. “I did what I did for Ireland,” he says.

Raised mostly in England, MacGowan found the perfect outlet for that old poetry-infused rebel spirit when as a teenager he discovered his tribe in London’s punk scene. The raw chaos fit his natural state. After a several-month stay in Bedlam, his first concert was the Sex Pistols. Although this feels like a too-good story from a man who doesn’t mind gilding the lily, Temple includes grubby old footage showing MacGowan ecstatically pogo-ing just feet away from Johnny Rotten. Temple’s evocation of London street life in the period is short but vivid, in particular a segment set to “The Old Main Drag”, MacGowan’s semi-autobiographical song about a teenage hustler (“Just hand jobs,” he says with a grin in a later interview).

Wanting to “give tradition a kick in the ass” and make “Irish hip again,” MacGowan infused the lilt of traditional Irish music with a mixture of punk speed, wartime urgency, and late-night boozy romanticism. His recollections of the Pogues’s early years when their first three albums were met with increasing acclaim and popularity make clear that he knows that was the high point. The near-constant touring that followed the breakthrough success of 1988’s If I Should Fall from Grace with God seems to have pushed his addictions over the edge. Most everything after the ‘80s—the later albums of dwindling quality, varying side projects and break-ups, and late-career encomiums—are handled in mostly chronological but still somewhat blurred fashion by Temple in an approximation of how MacGowan likely remembers them. In this way, the film is of a piece with the ruinous spectacle that Temple’s Sex Pistols films covered and the fireside intimacy of Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, affectingly poignant in its frequently uncomfortable presentation of MacGowan’s physical ruination.

Director: Julien Temple Running Time: 124 min Year: 2020

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Review: Before Turning Histrionic, Uncle Frank Is a Tender Look at Outsider Kinship

Alan Ball quickly loses sight of the sense of power that fuels the film’s early moments when his characters basically just gaze at each other.

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Uncle Frank
Photo: Amazon Studios

Alan Ball’s ‘70s-set Uncle Frank commences as a rare portrait of the love between an uncle and his niece. Beth (Sophia Lillis), a provincial teenager with cosmopolitan dreams, is in awe of her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), a gay man living in New York City, a very long way from his South Carolina roots. “Uncle Frank was different,” Beth tells us in voiceover as we watch her pine for him at a family get-together. He was different than everyone around her because he was a college professor, his fingernails were always clear, and he used aftershave. But mostly because she could listen to him all day.

That sequence is shot like a conversation between lovers, slow-motioned laughter and all. But this isn’t the budding of incestuous love. It’s the sort of veneration that children are sometimes lucky enough to feel for the one adult in their midst who’s freer than most. Which is perhaps why many a queer uncle learns very quickly how disrupting their presence can be in family affairs. Frank represents a certain elsewhere. He truly listens to Beth, which visibly feels like some kind of a first for her. At one point, he tells her what she needs to hear with kindness—namely to believe in her dreams, which is code for her to get the hell out of the South. Four years later, she’s an NYU freshman obsessed with Harper Lee, Jane Austen, and Mark Twain.

When Beth moves to New York and they start hanging out, Frank can’t hide his homosexuality for long. After all, he lives with his long-term partner, Wally (Peter Macdissi), and an iguana named Barbara Stanwyck. Beth has never interacted with gay people before but gets used to the idea very quickly. And it’s at this moment, when the distance between uncle and niece shortens, that Uncle Frank ceases to be a tender portrait of outsider kinship and transforms into a histrionic road movie with screwball intentions, more interested in plot twists than the characters themselves. It’s an unfortunate pivot, as Ball loses sight of the sense of power that fuels the film’s early moments when his characters basically just gaze at each other, basking in what the other has to give, and something queer is transmitted.

When Frank’s father (Stephen Root) passes away, he drives back to the family home with Beth in tow. Also tagging along in a separate car, and much to Frank’s chagrin, is Wally, effectively triggering a predictable series of alternately kooky and unfortunate events, all interspersed with traumatic flashbacks to the source of the animosity between Frank and his father. It’s a whirlwind of melodrama that, before arriving at the obligatory happy ending, harkens back to the film’s initial quietude when Beth, sitting across from Frank at a diner, asks him, “Did you always know you were gay?” He responds that he always knew he was different, and in this moment Ball lets the characters breathe again, framing them much as he did at the start of Uncle Frank—in the midst of bonding, as a different sort of inheritance is passed on.

Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root, Lois Smith, Jane McNeil, Caity Brewer, Hannah Black, Burgess Jenkins, Zach Sturm, Colton Ryan, Britt Rentschler, Alan Campell, Cole Doman, Michael Perez Director: Alan Ball Screenwriter: Alan Ball Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Croods: A New Age Is a Step Up that Still Leaves You Wanting More

The film is brightly colored, inventively designed, and constantly flirting with the outright psychedelic.

2.5

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The Croods: A New Age
Photo: Universal Pictures

Brightly colored, inventively designed, and constantly flirting with the outright psychedelic, The Croods: A New Age resembles what it might be like for a three-year-old to take an acid trip. Whereas its relatively subdued predecessor, directed by Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco, was grounded in some semblance of the real world, the sequel follows the path of another DreamWorks Animation series, Trolls, by packing as much manic energy and candy-coated visual excess into its runtime as it possibly can. The approach mostly improves on the limp family-comedy of the original, trading tired jokes about overprotective fathers for sprawling action sequences and a bevy of oddball creatures including wolf-spider hybrids, kung fu-fighting monkeys, and a King Kong-sized baboon with porcupine spikes.

Which isn’t to say that A New Age turns its back on the Crood family. In fact, it juggles a half-dozen or so emotional arcs pertaining to their daily lives, with the relationship between the feisty Eep (Emma Stone) and her conservative father, Grug (Nicolas Cage), once more at the heart of the narrative. As the film opens, the Croods, who’ve accepted Eep’s boyfriend, Guy (Ryan Reynolds), into the family fold, are desperately searching for food and safety when they happen upon an Edenic walled paradise owned by the technologically advanced Phil and Hope Betterman (Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann), who chafe at the boorish antics of the backwards Croods. Discovering that they knew Guy when he was a boy, the Bettermans contrive to kick the coarse cavemen off their property while stealing Guy away from Eep to live with them and create a family with their cheery daughter, Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran).

Though ostensibly existing in the prehistoric world, the Bettermans, with their turquoise jewelry and rope sandals, epitomize a certain kind of well-heeled contemporary liberalism, where a rehearsed casual demeanor masks a fundamental narrow-mindedness and even intolerance of the uncouthness of their perceived inferiors. They’re the kind of people who won’t let a struggling family stay for long on their unused property but will send them off with a passive-aggressive smile and gift basket full of fancy soaps. The Bettermans are surprisingly complex, thanks in large part to Dinklage and Mann’s nuanced voice acting. In particular, Dinklage finds droll humor in a man whose conceitedness belies an essentially good heart.

This sort of gentle satire on class divisions isn’t the most natural fit with the film’s sweeping prehistoric milieu, but the screenplay manages to strike a relatively deft balance between its character moments and the comedy-adventure set pieces that are the film’s real raison d’être. A New Age doles out its emotional beats with a refreshingly light touch, never allowing sentimentalism to overpower its buoyant sense of adventure. But aside from some delightfully crusty line readings by Cloris Leachman as Gran, the film is rarely laugh-out-loud funny. Indeed, the film is so packed full of incident that it rarely gives its jokes the space to land.

Similarly, its overall sense of spectacle is stronger than any particular image or scene. We’re never wanting for things to look at in the film—there’s nearly always some wacky creature or impossible Roger Dean-style landscape or virtuosic bit of animation onscreen—but we rarely get much chance to take any of them in before the film has moved on to the next thing. There’s plenty to look at in A New Age, but not a whole lot to truly savor.

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Cloris Leachman, Peter Dinklage, Leslie Mann, Kelly Marie Tran Director: Joel Crawford Screenwriter: Kevin Hageman, Dan Hageman, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Noir City: International 2020

The first international edition of the Noir City film festival in six years showcases the diversity and malleability of noir.

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The Fifth Horseman Is Fear
Photo: Sigma III Corporation

Noir City 18, presented by the Film Noir Foundation in San Francisco this January, shined a spotlight on 24 noir films from around the world. It was the first international edition of the festival in six years, and it showcased the diversity and malleability of the genre—the incredible range of formal, thematic, and narrative strategies that can fall under its umbrella. Now through November 29, a virtual edition of this year’s festival featuring many of the same films is open to noir afficionados the world over.

A handful of established classics are presented here, including Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos, as well as the only two American films in the lineup, each celebrating their 75th anniversaries, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour and John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven. But the remaining films on this year’s slate consist primarily of lesser established films like Robert Siodmak’s The Devil Strikes at Night and Helmut Kautner’s Black Gravel, as well as a few more widely known films not discussed in terms of their noir credentials, among them Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid and Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds.

This edition of Noir City: International further broadens the scope of what cinephiles traditionally think of as noir. But in stretching the boundaries of what constitutes a noir production, perhaps too far at times for some noir purists, the festival offers an exciting blend of undiscovered gems and more canonical films that, when reevaluated through the lens of noir, are ripe for both new interpretations and renewed appreciation.

One of more obscure titles this year is Zbyněk Brynych’s 1965 thriller The Fifth Horseman Is Fear, which, while set during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, makes no attempt to recreate the era. This approach allows Brynych’s Kafkaesque parable to achieve an immediacy and universality in its critique of authoritarianism that extends not only to the communist party running Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, but to virtually any brutal autocratic regime. Here, the Nazi soldiers and officers remain entirely off screen, overheard only occasionally as they speechify on the radio or in the distance outside, and the film instead summons most of the danger through the crippling, maddening aftereffects of widespread oppression that manifest in the fear and panic gripping seemingly every civilian character in the film.

Employing claustrophobic compositions, opaque plotting, jarring, sometimes disjointed editing, and a hauntingly atonal jazz score by Jirí Sternwald, Brynych crafts an environment of utter despair and confusion, where suspicions are cast in every direction and friends and neighbors turn on one another in order to survive. Chillingly, The Fifth Horseman Is Fear even blurs the psychological divide between the patients of an insane asylum and the unhinged behavior of the residents of Prague. And while that particular sequence recalls Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor from two years prior, Brynych’s nightmarishly surreal flourishes are innovative in their own right for the uneasy sense of paranoia that they rouse throughout, foreshadowing the more grim, disturbing films to come out of Czechoslovakia in the coming years, notably Juraj Herz’s The Cremator and Karel Kachyna’s The Ear.

Román Viñoly Barreto’s The Black Vampire, a 1953 Argentinian reimagining of Fritz Lang’s M, may not be as inventive as either Brynych or Lang’s films, but in approaching the material from the perspectives of women whose lives are adversely affected by the actions of the central child killer, it’s nonetheless quite fascinating and bold in its diversions from the original. Its feminist bent morphs the story into something entirely different than the Lang film, and in sympathizing primarily with mothers of the killers’ victims, along with a cabaret singer, Rita (Olga Zubarry), who witnessed one of the murders and fears for the safety of her child, Barreto’s film turns the oft-perceived misogyny of noir on its head.

Barreto villainizes not only the killer, but also the lead detective, Bernard (Roberto Escalada), whose hypocrisy—both in his domineering behavior on the job, as when he keeps a suspect he knows is innocent in detention, and his betrayal of his disabled wife (Gloria Castilla)—undermines his positioning of himself as the moral voice of reason. Cinematographer Aníbal González Paz, who also shot another gorgeous, under-the-radar Argentinian noir, 1958’s Rosaura at 10 O’Clock, uses an impressionistic visual palette, rife with chiaroscuro lighting and canted camera angles to create a heightened sense of disorientation that mirrors the volatility of a society in which injustices regularly occur on both sides of the law.

While The Fifth Horseman Is Fear and The Black Vampire fall on the more disturbing, thematically weighty end of the noir spectrum, Henri Verneuil’s Any Number Can Win is a much lighter offering, though it’s quite an assured and stylish piece of mainstream entertainment. Verneuil, first and foremost, understands the simple surface pleasures noir can provide, be it gazing at a stone-faced Jean Gabin patiently skulking in the back of a Rolls Royce as he watches his master plan beginning to unfold or Alain Delon comically hamming it up as he uses his charm and sex appeal to fool everyone in the casino resort he plans to rob.

As delightful as it is to behold all the sharply written tête-à-têtes between Gabin and Delon—the former as the aging, implacable professional, and the latter as the virile, headstrong apprentice—it’s during the quieter, more deliberately paced third act that Veurneuil’s control of tempo and mood really shines. Generating a white-knuckle tension worthy of Jules Dassin’s Rififi, and capped off with a brilliant reworking of the ending of another ‘50s classic—to say which one would spoil the surprise—Any Number Can Win is a prime example of a film, and filmmaker, that was unfairly maligned by the cinephiles and critics of the French New Wave, and which has only just recently begun to recover its reputation.

Noir City: International runs through November 30.

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Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Is a Moving Swan Song for Chadwick Boseman

Boseman meticulously charts the breakdown of a man discovering that pursuit and escape are inextricably intertwined.

3

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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Photo: Netflix

In the canny opening moments of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the camera swoops over the heads of two black men sprinting through the woods at night, tripping over branches in their haste. The sequence, calculatingly staged to evoke an antebellum-era escape, invites our assumptions about who these men might be and from whom or what they might be running, but it turns out that the two men are just music fans on the move to catch a concert performance by Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the Southern singer dubbed “Mother of the Blues.”

It’s a pain-to-pleasure illusion that runs in reverse throughout the rest of George C. Wolfe’s film, which has been thoughtfully, gently adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson from August Wilson’s 1984 play. Though Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), here a fictionalized version of the real-life pioneering recording artist, may command sell-out crowds and booming record sales, she also knows what she ultimately represents for the white managers and producers who profit from her talent: “They don’t care nothing about me,” she explains early in the film. “All they want is my voice.” Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom chips away at the seeming triumph of a celebrated chanteuse to reveal the bitter truths below the surface.

Ma Rainey, gilded and painted, is playing a part. With gold teeth and coarse coats of makeup highlighting a face often frozen in a withering sneer, most often directed at the white men who pay her but sometimes at the rogue trumpeter in her band, Levee (Chadwick Boseman), or at her chorus-girl lover, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), she’s miles away from vulnerability.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place over the course of a few hours in the recording studio where Ma presides over her deferential manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), disgruntled producer, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), and her four-man band, which, in addition to Boseman’s Levee, includes Toledo (Glynn Turman) on piano, Slow Drag (Michael Potts) on bass, and Cutler (Colman Domingo) on trombone. For Ma Rainey, as long as the microphones are on, she has total power, and she relishes in elongating that reign through the power of refusal: she won’t sing until she has her Coke; she won’t move on until her nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), who stutters, perfectly delivers the introduction to the recording; and she won’t sign the release form that would liberate her white manager and producer from her say-so.

Davis, coarsely, tauntingly, slowly slurping on that Coca-Cola, communicates Ma Rainey’s premeditated defiance: As long as she controls the recording session, she rules over the white men who crave her sound, her strength and talent arising not in spite of her black body, but through it. And if that simultaneous tribute to, and desecration of, her artistry is ultimately heartbreaking to her, Ma Rainey isn’t about to let them see through her armor.

For the rest of the band, though, things are different. Levee has visions of forming his own band, of getting his original songs recorded, of winning over Ma Rainey’s beloved Dussie Mae. His jaded bandmates have seen it all by now, though, and they know Levee’s cocksure dreams will backfire. What they cannot anticipate are the frightening ways in which Levee’s grief has already hardened into powder kegs. If Ma finds small, sustaining triumph in refusal, Levee leans heavily on the blinding comforts of denial, and Boseman offers a deliriously frantic performance of contradictory extremes that eclipses the rest of the film when he’s at his most urgent and sweltering. Of the other bandmates, it’s Turman’s Toledo who most memorably emerges from Levee’s shadow: He’s the oldest of the musicians and the clearest-eyed in his surety that the rewards of individual artistic glory, the kind that Ma embraces and Levee pursues, will make scant difference in improving black lives in lasting ways.

Wolfe, best known as the razor-witted playwright of The Colored Museum and the original director of Angels in America, takes a hands-on approach in sending sparks of activity through the film’s claustrophobic spaces. In the small basement room where the band practices as they await Ma Rainey’s arrival, the camera often ricochets from man to man, as frenetic as the film’s briefer depiction of the Chicago streets above. Successful in the early scenes at animating what could otherwise feel static on screen, that perpetual motion may also somewhat undercut the boiling stillness that eventually erupts. Wilson’s trademark undercurrent of simmering rage against the divine—the same desperate resistance that distinguishes the climaxes of plays like Fences and The Piano Lesson—only sneaks in occasionally, and, when Levee’s restless hopelessness explodes into destructive action, it neither feels wrenchingly inevitable nor cathartically shocking.

That’s not through any fault of Boseman’s. Indeed, though Davis’ gritty, authoritarian presence at the mic complexingly layers the seductive highs of stardom and the exhausting veneer of Ma Rainey’s temporary, performative power, it’s Boseman who most movingly gives voice to the ghosts that haunt Wilson’s play. In his final role, Boseman meticulously charts the breakdown of a man discovering, within the mirages of 1920s blackness, that pursuit and escape, fleeing from and running toward, are inextricably intertwined.

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Glynn Turman, Jeremy Shamos, Colman Domingo, Taylour Paige, Jonny Coyne, Michael Potts, Joshua Harto, Dusan Brown Director: George C. Wolfe Screenwriter: Ruben Santiago-Hudson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 94 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Happiest Season Is Paint-by-Numbers but Earns Its Emotional Payoff

The film translates the often difficult realities of a specific kind of marginalized love into a story with broad appeal.

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Happiest Season
Photo: Hulu

Clea DuVall’s Happiest Season isn’t a radical holiday movie. Indeed, from a certain, say, militant queer-feminist perspective, it might be considered a counterrevolutionary one. Early on, it asserts its comfort with outdated notions of coupledom that are peddled by the average romantic comedy when Abby (Kristen Stewart) tells her friend John (Dan Levy) that she’s planning to propose to her girlfriend, Harper (Mackenzie Davis), on Christmas morning. Abbey reveals not only this affront to John’s anti-heteronormative inclinations, but that she’s going to first ask for the blessing of Harper’s father, Ted (Victor Garber). “Way to stick it to the patriarchy, really well done,” John archly replies.

The rest of the film, like Abby, proves eager to mimic the innumerable non-gay Christmas movies that preceded it, trotting out the quirky family, the handsome hometown ex-boyfriend, the misunderstood suitor, the betrayal that must be rectified, and the final holiday moral—namely, that family is important. The plot of Happiest Season is best summed up, in short, as “gay Meet the Parents.” But this assimilationist bent certainly doesn’t stop Duvall’s film, which is stacked with a supporting cast of solid comic performers like Levy, from sharpening humor that surely seemed mild on the page. It’s even much more affecting than most of its heteronormative predecessors, in large part because the stakes of its comedy of errors are greater than whether or not one man “lets” another man into the family.

Abby and Harper begin Happiest Season as a blissfully happy couple, still young and in love enough to risk trouble with stunts like sneaking onto a stranger’s roof to gaze at neighborhood Christmas lights, and, when they’re chased away, pausing their flight to make out in an alley—a clean alley, though, as they live in post-gentrification Pittsburgh. In the heat of the moment, Harper invites Abby, whose family died tragically some years ago, to come home with her for Christmas. It’s only when they’re on the road that Harper finally brings herself to confess that she’s lied to Abby about being out to her parents; that her family believes Abby is her (straight) roommate; and that she told them that she invited Abby along because she’s an orphan.

Harper, it turns out, is the favorite daughter of an important local family whose priorities are dominated by her mild-mannered but ambitious father, the very embodiment of soft patriarchy. Ted’s running for mayor, and Harper can’t risk causing a scandal in her small Pennsylvania town by coming out in the middle of his campaign. We’ll learn that, in addition, favorite-child Harper also has to maintain her edge in her lifelong competition with her humorless, extremely hetero older sister, Sloane (Alison Brie). With these characters’ gazes fixed on Harper’s strange new roommate, the masquerade that Abby’s forced into grows increasingly difficult—particularly as Harper’s first love, Riley (Aubrey Plaza), appears on the scene and lends Abby both a sympathetic ear and surprising insights into Harper’s past.

There’s a delicate balance between comedy and distress that the films needs to strike in relation to Harper’s multilayered betrayal, because the scenario pulls double duty: It’s amusing when her oblivious, bougie family keeps treating Abby like a refugee from a Victorian orphanage, but wrenching when Abby must watch her would-be fiancée flirt with her old boyfriend, Connor (Jake McDorman), to keep up appearances. Sometimes, DuVall doesn’t quite find this balance, and what’s meant as frivolous comedy elicits anxiety. At times it’s more intuitive to be feel distressed by Abby’s plight—like when she’s arrested by overzealous mall cops (Timothy Simons and Lauren Lapkus) because she’s mistaken as a shoplifter after Harper ditches her to hobnob with Ted’s campaign donors—than amused by it.

But then, it’s remarkable that a film that’s in so many ways a paint-by-numbers romantic comedy actually delivers to much emotional heft. If by Happiest Season’s midway point it’s easy to write off Harper as too privileged and selfish to be truly worth all this trouble, Stewart makes Abby’s decision not to immediately split believable by leaning into her wallflower persona, communicating silent heartbreak and confusion on the margins of her character’s jittery, awkward interactions with the denizens of Squaresville, PA. It might be going too far to call DuVall’s film groundbreaking, but like the best rom-coms, it smuggles a few nuggets of truth into its predictable formula, translating the often difficult realities of a specific kind of marginalized love into a story with broad appeal.

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Dan Levy, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Mary Holland, Mary Steenburgen, Victor Garber, Jake McDorman, Ana Gasteyer, Michelle Buteau, Sarayu Blue, Burl Moseley Director: Clea DuVall Screenwriter: Clea DuVall Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 102 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: The Two Sights Hypnotically Ruminates on Corporeality and Oblivion

With his first solo feature, Joshua Bonnetta is again contemplating death and the traces it leaves behind.

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The Two Sights
Photo: Cinema Guild

It’s become something of a cliché for experimental docufiction hybrids to be shot on 16mm, and at this point it might even be safe to say that such works have kept Kodak from discontinuing production on the film stock. While the use of small-gauge celluloid within this body of work has occasionally felt pro forma, even in some cases pointlessly fetishistic, one of its more conscientious practitioners is multidisciplinary artist Joshua Bonnetta, whose 2011 conceptual travelogue American Colour traced the lifespan of the now-extinct Kodachrome stock—on which the film was shot—from the final Kansas-based lab to process it back to its origin place in Rochester, New York. And his last feature, El Mar La Mar, co-directed with Sensory Ethnography Lab alum J.P. Sniadecki, embraced grain and other material defects as a corollary to the film’s emphasis on natural decay in the Sonoran Desert, site of an unconscionable death toll from unsuccessful border crossings.

In his newest and first solo feature, The Two Sights, Bonnetta is again contemplating death and the traces it leaves behind, this time in the remote climes of Scotland’s northern archipelago. Operating in such an exceedingly beautiful region, however, Bonnetta might as well have just chosen film for its pictorial incentives. A waterlogged expanse of misty steppes and vertiginous drops into crystal-blue waters, the Outer Hebrides islands in which the film is set—Barra, Berneray, Harris, Lewis, and North Uint—total a population of just over 20,000 people, and Bonnetta keeps them largely out of frame, preferring instead to ruminate on grandiose bisections of land and sky. Composed of a series of mostly static shots, the film is visually reminiscent of Peter Hutton’s Iceland-set Skagafjördur, though Bonnetta, at least as interested in the sonic dimensions of cinema as he is in its pictorial qualities, centers a large portion of The Two Sights’s meaning on its soundtrack. That prioritization is rather forcefully apparent when the director himself plants a boom mic in the center of the film’s opening shot.

This moment, which comes halfway through the shot, triggers a sudden shift in the soundtrack from one field recording to another, making it apparent that what we heard prior wasn’t actually tethered to the image. That’s a hint that much of the sound to come will be layered and orchestrated rather than simply recorded along with the image—a truth that perhaps sounds self-evident when stated in this way, but which Bonnetta suggests may not be top of mind to audiences of films that appear to document objective reality. And while The Two Sights certainly does appear to be just that, there’s much to imply that Bonnetta is constructing a more multilayered tapestry, an archive of the unseen.

On its surface, the film presents a smattering of voiceover testimonials from unseen Hebrides residents, who relate stories of strange happenings on the islands, most involving deaths or hauntings. The stories of these lost souls are never visualized, though Bonnetta pairs them with footage that feels roughly analogous, if not like an outright projection of a mental image. One fishermen’s recollection of getting dangerously caught in an eddy while seeking lobster is accompanied by shots around a fishing boat, with one floor-level angle of water lapping up on the vessel seeming to conjure up an approximation of his experience. Another distressing tale of a man’s confrontation with a beached whale finds Bonnetta’s camera surveying a shoreline, as if encouraging us to project our imaginations onto the scene.

As Bonnetta offers these fill-in-the-blank visual inducements, his soundtrack performs a similar act, blending—via long, imperceptible cross-fades—field sounds recorded by the director himself with archival audio sourced from the region. With the exceptions of folk-music clippings that are most obviously archived, the distinctions between past and present material become nearly impossible to discern and indeed negligible, as Bonnetta’s subject is, after all, the layering of history atop the current moment. The visual devices that he employs create impressions of liminality, of a fine line between corporeality and oblivion—namely through shots that would seem to be dead photographs were it not for the dance of grain or one single plane of movement, flipped camera perspectives that don’t immediately register as such, subtle plays with manual aperture shifts, and plenty of water reflections.

A similar impression is evoked by one resident when describing the entirety of the Hebrides region, which she calls “a thin place” where there’s “little distinction between heaven and earth.” That same mystery is, of course, tantamount to the allure of celluloid, it being a medium that preserves the past while at the same time being impermanent. The Two Sights hypnotically embodies something of a paranormal investigation, all the more haunting for being unable to extricate itself completely from the void opened up by its subjects.

Director: Joshua Bonnetta Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Collective Is a Searing Chronicle of Institutional Corruption

The film fiercely reminds us that without investigative reporting there’s no democracy.

3.5

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Collective
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

On October 30, 2015, a fire breaks out during a free rock concert at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, Romania. The club has no fire exits. Twenty-seven people are killed right away and 180 are injured. Dozens more die soon after, many of them not because of the severity of their burns, but from bacterial infections contracted while in intensive care—and this after the Romanian government assured the victims that they would receive the same medical care that they would receive in Germany. The government’s attempts to save face begin to crumble and mass protests spread across Romania.

In Collective, Alexander Nanau trails investigative reporters exposing the astonishing offshore fraud scheme involving hospital disinfectants which led to dozens of avoidable deaths in the wake of the fire. Hexi Pharma, the company that provided the antiseptics to hundreds of hospitals diluted them at 10 times the recommended ratio, leading doctors to operate with bacteria-laden scalpels and maggots to grow from the unwashed bodies of the survivors.

What follows is a familiar public relations spectacle that institutions unleash once their criminal incompetence has come to light: a cringe-inducing display of corporate speak, barefaced lies, evasion of responsibility, and crooked in-house investigations that find no wrongdoing. Nanau’s unobtrusive camera follows the events as they unfold, which puts the viewer in the anxiety-giving position of television audiences enthralled by the most surreal of breaking-news cycles. Collective inhabits that cinematic sweet spot where the national specificity of a film’s subject matter gives palpable rendition to a rather universal logic.

It turns out that corruption is a dormant metastasis. And uncovering it is like opening a Pandora’s box, finding another box inside, and another one after that, each filled with a stranger-than-fiction plot twist and each more rotten than the other. Collective attests to the political urgency, and the documentary-esque realism, of Romanian filmmakers working in the realm of fiction, such as Cristian Mungiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, and Calin Peter Netzer. Those filmmakers’ stories can, in fact, look tame in retrospect, as Nanau’s film unveils a national health care system where doctors bribe their managers so they can be transferred to clinics where patients are known to offer heftier bribes to the doctors who will operate on them.

In the documentary, the sleuthing aimed at restoring the integrity of a community, however belatedly, is the work of reporters undaunted by the potentially lethal consequences of speaking truth to power, through reportage, press briefings, and TV appearances. Collective pays considerable attention to the collaborative nature of journalism and its minutia—the research, the phone calls, the laying out of a webpage, the brainstorming with colleagues, the intimidation and counter-attacks. The film reminds us that without investigative reporting there’s no democracy, and that traditional expectations around impartiality and objectivity may be untenable in the face of horror. It proves that journalistic integrity is achieved not through neutrality, but by pledging fierce allegiance to the public’s interest.

Director: Alexander Nanau Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Jiu Jitsu Falls Short of Its Predator-Meets-Mortal Kombat Promise

Nicolas Cage’s amusing turn as a kooky hermit with an affinity for newspaper hats often feels awkwardly spliced into the film.

1.5

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Jiu Jitsu
Photo: The Avenue

Despite his prominent placement on the poster, Nicolas Cage isn’t the central element of Dimitri Logothetis’s Jiu Jitsu. Rather, Alain Moussi plays the main character, Jake, a conveniently amnesiac fighter in a group that battles a silent interstellar warrior, Brax (Ryan Tarran), who emerges from a portal in a Burmese temple every six years, demanding hand-to-hand combat or else he’ll destroy the Earth. But for as much as that premise may suggest Predator by way of Mortal Kombat, the film doesn’t display the mounting tension and proficient choreography that would otherwise make the material sing.

From a technical perspective, large chunks of this sci-fi martial arts film don’t quite hold together. Logothetis uses longer-than-usual takes for several early action scenes, but the results are deeply unflattering to the film’s stuntmen since most of the characters’ blows look weak and unconvincing, while mediocre sound design and overuse of slow-motion only highlight the issue rather than disguise it. Throughout, ugly comic book art serves as transitions and occasional establishing shots. And strangest of all, the film fails to create a sense that the actors share the same space even in basic dialogue scenes.

Cage’s amusing turn as Wylie, an idiosyncratic hermit with an affinity for newspaper hats and an insistence on calling Brax “the spaceman,” often feels awkwardly spliced into the film. Most group shots show a stand-in from the back or at a distance, with all characters except Jake appearing to give him the silent treatment. Perhaps the most shocking moment in the film is a cut to Frank Grillo’s Harrigan finally, though still vaguely, reacting to something Wylie says after long stretches where the hermit might as well be Jake’s imaginary friend.

Still, Jiu Jitsu’s shoddy production isn’t without its diverting charm. For one, the film manages to offset Moussi’s void of charisma by bouncing him between more dynamic actors like Cage, Jaa, and Grillo, while Tarran’s portrayal of Brax as a guy in a suit rather than a CGI creation gives him a tangible, Power Rangers-like sense of presence. We even get a bizarrely memorable first-person sequence that follows Moussi until he momentarily steps out from behind the camera’s point of view, engages in a fight, and then seems to absorb the camera into his body as he’s knocked into the lens. Even though Logothetis succeeds at very little of what he’s experimenting with—he even botches a recreation of the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Carl Weathers handshake from Predator—it isn’t totally boring to see him try.

Cast: Alain Moussi, Nicolas Cage, Frank Grillo, Rick Yune, Marie Avgeropoulos, Tony Jaa, JuJu Chan, Eddie Steeples, Ryan Tarran Director: Dimitri Logothetis Screenwriter: Dimitri Logothetis, James McGrath Distributor: The Avenue Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Embattled Is an MMA Drama Told as an Afterschool Special

The film muddies its sense of moral righteousness by suggesting that violence and vengeance can only be defeated by more of the same.

2

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Embattled

With his slick sense of style and brash, arrogant swagger, Cash Boykins (Stephen Dorff) feels like a clear nod to MMA fighter Conor McGregor. For his part, Dorff nails the verbal bravado and many of the physical tics of his real-life counterpart, but unfettered machismo is pretty much Cash’s sole defining trait in Nick Sarkisov’s Embattled, which fails to sufficiently interrogate the character’s inner turmoil or explore the circumstances that led him to become the bitter, enraged man that we see on screen.

The film’s paper-thin story tells us that Cash was abusive toward his first wife, Susan (Elizabeth Reaser), and their two boys, and we sense the looming shadow that he casts over their lives. That he’s seemingly kinder to his second wife, Jade (Karrueche Tran), and taken a recent interest in his older son Jett’s (Darren Mann) nascent MMA career initially suggests that he may be turning over a new leaf. But rather than show the humanity or psychological conflict of a man looking to make up for lost time, David McKenna’s screenplay revels in the force of his being as he berates Jett during practice and refers to his ex-wife and their younger special-needs son, Quinn (Colin McKenna), with hostile epithets.

Cash’s borderline cartoonish villainy makes it difficult for the audience to emotionally invest in the film. Even as the man’s contentious relationship with his older son leads to the 18-year-old emerging as the most sympathetic character, the subplots involving Jett’s conflicts indulge in all sorts of clichés. Scenes where Jett takes care of Quinn, looking out for him both at home and at school while their mother works extra hours to make ends meet, are overly familiar, though they bring a much-welcome tenderness to the film. But the storylines involving Jett’s ups and downs in math class and his setting his mom up with Quinn’s teacher, Mr. Stewart (Donald Faison), exude the garden-variety sentimentality of an Afterschool Special and feel particularly trite in comparison to Jett’s intense preparing to enter the MAA ring.

In the film’s last act, after a leaked video showing Jett knocking Cash out during a private dispute goes viral, there’s a wild and preposterous tonal shift. As the MMA league throws tens of millions of dollars at setting up a fight between the reigning world champion and his extremely inexperienced teenage son, Embattled becomes something akin to a revenge fantasy. Given the astronomical disparity in skill between the older and younger Boykins, the fight, and the half-hour leading up to it, is difficult to take seriously. But in positioning this fight as something of a hurdle that Jett needs to clear in order to put his troubled past behind him, Embattled commits a more egregious misstep, muddying its sense of moral righteousness by suggesting that violence and vengeance can only be defeated by more of the same.

Cast: Stephen Dorff, Elizabeth Reaser, Darren Mann, Donald Faison, Said Taghmaoui, Karrueche Tran, Drew Starkey, Ava Capri Director: Nick Sarkisov Screenwriter: David McKenna Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 117 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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