Coming up in this column: The Young Victoria, The Last Station, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, Horton Foote: America’s Storyteller (book), Libeled Lady, Return to Cranford, The Good Wife, Some January 2010 Television, but first:
Fan mail: Nobody’s logged in yet, so we will get right to the main events.
The Young Victoria (2009. Written by Julian Fellowes. 105 minutes)
We are not all that amused: It sounds like a great idea: the love story of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Although we are most used to the stuffy dowager that Victoria became in her old age (see The Mudlark  for the genteel view), she obviously had some passion and intensity (see Mrs. Brown  for the livelier view). We haven’t, however, had much of the younger Victoria. The Brits tried in the 1937 film Victoria the Great, but as Leonard Maltin notes in his movie guides, it is rather “stodgy.” The current film is not particularly stodgy, but it is rather flat and literal. Fellowes, who wrote Gosford Park (2001) and is an actor, just simply has not dug deeply enough to make the characters come alive. Given his experience as an actor, and given the characters he created for Gosford Park, this is a real surprise.
Here is a scene that gives a good example of the problems in the script. Fellowes establishes early on that since Victoria is the queen, she has to be the one to ask Albert to marry her. It is also established that Albert knows this. So naturally we are expecting a proposal scene. We have those setup lines, but later in the film Fellowes jumps into the scene without any other preparation. We do not see her getting ready to meet Albert to propose. We get no sense of any concern on her part that he might say no. Yes, she knows he loves her, but my God, what if he really doesn’t? As a queen, what is she going to do if he doesn’t say yes? What about him? When does he realize what she is going to ask? In the film he sort of gets it from the beginning, but what if she hit him with this on an off-day? He’s a nice guy, but what if he had been distracted? Or what if he gets it while she’s just warming up and plays with her a little bit. As it stands, she asks, he says yes, they hug, end of scene. Many other scenes in the film have the same problem.
Fellowes may have fallen into the trap many screenwriters do of assuming that because the people and events are real, they do not need to be dramatized. Not true. The screenwriter has to make them come alive by giving them depth and texture. We get snippets of it in Fellowes’s script, particularly in the character of Lord Melbourne, Victoria’s first prime minister. King William is given some texture, but not much depth, and his widow Queen Adelaide is given a good scene or two with Victoria, but most of the others are one-note.
One of the early promoters of the film was Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, and you would think with her on board as a producer, the script would have been a lot livelier than it is. Where is some good old-fashioned toe-sucking when you need it?
The Last Station (2009. Screenplay by Michael Hoffman, based on the novel by Jay Parini. 112 minutes)
Stop the presses! Helen Mirren gives a not-so-perfect performance: Parini’s novel is a tricky one to adapt. It tells about the last days of Leo Tolstoy using three narrators. Hoffman decided to focus on one of them, Valentin, who is sent to be Tolstoy’s secretary by Chertkov, the head of the Tolstoyan movement. Valentin is a young, celibate believer in the movement, and Chertkov wants him to keep an eye on things at the Tolstoy estate, especially Tolstoy’s wife, Sofya. Chertkov is trying to persuade Tolstoy to change his will, leaving the copyrights to his work to the Russian people. Sofya is determined to keep them in the family. So Valentin is our “access character” who takes us into the Tolstoy compound.
As Hoffman writes and directs him, we get a closely detailed look at Valentin and his reactions to his experiences, at least in the beginning of the film. As we spend more and more time with the Tolstoys, Hoffman loses the focus a bit on Valentin. Hoffman makes Tolstoy himself a rich character, and Christopher Plummer gets all the nuances. Sofya unfortunately is a one-note character. She is either yelling at Tolstoy about his will or trying to seduce him. Hoffman does not provide the nuances for her. So Helen Mirren is going full blast through the entire film. Not surprisingly, she told Hoffman, “This is one of only two scripts I’ve ever read that I didn’t want to change anything.” Hoffman, talking to Peter Debruge in the January-February 2010 Creative Screenwriting, said that when he suggested changes in the script, Mirren talked him out of them. Well, if Helen Mirren tells you she wants to say your words exactly as you originally wrote them, would you object? Sometimes, however, writers and directors have to be tough bastards to make the film work. Chertkov is also a one-note character, and while Paul Giamatti gets as much out of his waxed moustache as Joe Pesci did with that hairpiece in JFK (1991), he gets tiresome as well. The film gets very repetitive and slow. My wife dozed off a couple of times in the film, but did not really feel she missed anything. There is probably a good ninety-minute film in the material.
The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond (2008. Screenplay by Tennessee Williams. 102 minutes)
Too bad Tenn is not around for a rewrite: When director Jodie Markell was studying acting in New York, a teacher showed her a copy of the screenplay Tennessee Williams had written in 1957. Markell became enchanted with it, and eventually got a producer to obtain the rights for her first film. The script is not awful, unless you have no taste for Williams’s Southern Gothic approach, but it clearly needed some revision. Markell made some minor changes, but not enough.
Fisher Willow is the daughter of a big landowner in the South in the 1920s. Off-screen in the script, but on-screen in the film, the landowner dynamites a levee to provide water for his land, and people are drowned. Since the film is very low budget, Markell should have left it off-screen, or done it in a much more expressionist way. It does not get the film off to a good start. As a result of the deaths, Fisher is shunned by polite society, but she is determined to be part of the debutante season. Well, sure, she is a Southern lady, and of course she wants that. But on the other hand, she is also a handful, sharp-tongued, always looking to cause trouble. She is older than the other debutante girls, she’s been to college and to Europe, and she spent time in a mental hospital in Europe. Williams does seem to be piling on the troubles here, but we get a sense of the two sides pushing and pulling on Fisher: She wants to be part of society, but she knows, unlike the other girls, that there is more to life than the closed-off Southern society. Since none of the regular boys will be her date for the parties, she asks Jimmy Dobyne to be her date. He is the grandson of a former governor, but his father is an alcoholic who runs the commissary on Fisher’s father’s property. Jimmy is a nice-looking guy who helps his dad out. That’s it. That’s all there is to Jimmy. He has no point of view of his own, no sense of irony, no sense of humor, no nothing. While Bryce Dallas Howard acts up a storm as Fisher, Chris Evans just stands there as Jimmy. It is like Blance Dubois without a Stanley, Maggie the Cat without a Brick, or Alexandra Del Lago without a Chance. What Markell needed to do was either rewrite Jimmy at least a little, or direct Evans better to give him more to do. At least let him crack a smile.
The dialogue is distinctly Williams. A lot of it is excessive, as often happens with Williams, but some of it is not so bad. His plotting, never his strong suit, is not that bad, although there are a couple of major holes when Fisher and Jimmy get to the main party in the film. Williams creates an ex-girlfriend for Jimmy, whose behavior gets weird at times, although she is one of Williams’s realists in her understanding of the way the world works. Williams also brings in the aunt of the woman throwing the party, which gives Ellen Burstyn a nice cameo. The best in the cast is Ann-Margaret as Fisher’s aunt. She shows a restraint that Williams’s writing does not always encourage, to put it politely. Ann-Margaret realizes that sometimes you can be more effective playing against the lines rather than with them. Bryce Dallas Howard should take lessons from the original Kitten with a Whip.
Horton Foote: America’S Storyteller (2009. Book by Wilborn Hampton. 292 pages)
Not what we were hoping for: Longtime readers of this column may remember the piece I did in US#21 on Horton Foote after he died last year. I admire him very much as a writer, even if the interview I did with him back in 1990 did not go well. So I was looking forward to this new biography. Hampton is one of the theater critics of the New York Times, as well as a long time journalist. He knew Foote and talked to him over the last several years of his life. Alas, that is pretty much the extent of his research. He did read both of Foote’s memoirs, but lists only four other books in his bibliography. He interviewed only five people, other than Foote’s family, who knew or worked with Foote. Talk about skimpy.
Hampton captures the gentleman side of Foote very well, but misses anything else about him. Hampton mentions at one point that Foote’s future wife Lillian was watching him direct a play and saw a side of Foote she had never seen before. Fine, but Hampton gives us no idea what the other side was. My guess is that it was the toughness I mentioned in my US piece. Later, Hampton mentions a situation in which Foote might lose his temper, but it is the only mention anywhere in the book that Foote might have had a temper.
Hampton also takes Foote at his word, particularly when Foote is talking about those he worked with. Foote was a gentleman and did not tell tales out of school, even when I am sure he knew better. Hampton appears to have very little knowledge of the film business. He believes Foote as taking Sam Spiegel at his word that it was the studio’s and not Spiegel’s fault that Lillian Hellman got hired to write the screenplay based on the Foote play and novel The Chase (1966). Foote understood human beings too well to believe a master manipulator like Spiegel for a second, but Hampton does not seem to understand that.
The big theme that Hampton misses almost entirely is what Foote’s career tells us about the changes in American television, film, and especially theater over the last seventy years. When Foote started writing stage plays in the late ‘30s, he of course wanted them to succeed on Broadway, as every playwright at the time did. What he discovered over the years was that as Broadway was more and more hostile to serious plays, there were other, better outlets for his work. His work for live television in the early ‘50s (“A Trip to Bountiful,” “A Young Lady of Property”) was well-suited to the intimacy of television, and, in the case of A Trip to Bountiful, a low-budget indie film in 1985. The same is true of his film work, notably the 1962 adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird and his 1983 original screenplay Tender Mercies, both of which won him Oscars. Hampton mentions, but does not seem to understand, the significance of the fact that many stage directors in the ‘80s first became aware of Foote’s work through his films. And those directors were not Broadway directors but regional theater and later Off-Broadway directors. By the last decades of Foote’s life, American theater had changed, and the regional theater movement, which was a mere sprig in Foote’s youth, had become enormously influential. It was the regional theater productions of Foote’s plays that eventually brought his work back to New York, which finally won him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama with The Young Man From Atlanta in 1995. The East Coast intellectual establishment was finally catching up with what was going on in America: its kinds of distinctions between the High Art of Broadway and the trivialities of film and regional theater had broken down completely. Hampton makes a point at the end of the book that Foote was not as well known as such playwrights as Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams because he did not have the kind of flamboyant personal life they did. Hampton is wrong. Foote was not as well known because he never had a major hit on Broadway, which for years defined in the East Coast intellectual establishment’s mind as to who was a major playwright. The intimacy of his writing was much more suited to live television, independent films, and regional and Off-Broadway theater than it was to the land of Wicked.
Libeled Lady (1936. Screenplay by Maurine Watkins, Howard Emmett Rogers, and George Oppenheimer, story by Wallace Sullivan. 98 minutes)
Disagreeing with Leonard: Leonard Maltin lists this one as four stars, his highest rating, but I would only give it two-and-a-half or maybe three. Yes, it is an MGM starfest, with Myrna Loy, William Powell, Spencer Tracy, and Jean Harlow, but they are not particularly well-served by the screenplay. Maurine Watkins wrote they play Chicago, which became the 1927 movie under that title, then the 1942 movie Roxie Hart, then the basis for the Broadway musical which was made into the 2002 film, so this was a writer who knew her way around newspaper comedies. Howard Emmett Rogers was a journeyman screenwriter whose name pops up on a variety of MGM films. According to the IMDb, he did the uncredited dialogue for the 1934 Jean Harlow film The Girl From Missouri (although the screenplay was co-written by Anita Loos, who hardly needed help on dialogue) and wrote the screenplay for the 1935 Myrna Loy-Spencer Tracy vehicle, Whipsaw. Rogers is best known in Hollywood history as being one of the most conservative screenwriters during the Red Scare. On the other hand, he also pointed out the hypocrisy of the left when they suddenly defended Hitler after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. George Oppenheimer’s credits are a little more impressive, since he wrote for everybody from the Marx Brothers to Errol Flynn. Wallace Sullivan’s credits are mostly stories and “contributor.” Keep in mind the writing credits for this film pre-date the current Writers Guild arbitration process and were decided on by the studio, in this case MGM, which was notorious for giving credit to the last writers who worked on the script more than the earlier writers.
The setup is that a newspaper has inadvertently run a story claiming socialite Connie Allenbury has helped break up a marriage. The story was dropped from later editions, but Connie’s father has been looking to get the newspaper for years. Haggerty, the editor, comes up with a scheme to have Bill Chandler, who is good at this stuff, expose Connie, thereby wrecking the libel case. Haggerty’s idea is that Chandler will marry, in name only, Haggerty’s fiancée Gladys, then accompany Connie back to the States from London. While on board the ship, Chandler will arrange to make it appear that Connie is carrying on with him, a married man. OK, plenty of ‘30s screwball newspaper comedies have plots that are just as ridiculous, but they usually have more narrative drive than this one. This script is constructed in a typical MGM way: The focus is less on the story and more on creating scenes for the stars. So the scenes with Connie (Loy) and Chandler (Powell) are charming and the best thing in the picture. I do not need at this point in time to discuss the chemistry Loy and Powell had, but it is on display here, and I might add that Loy was one of those actors like Cary Grant who had good chemistry with nearly everybody she worked with.
One problem is that the story goes on and on after they get back to New York, as though the writers kept trying to come up with further complications. By the end of the film the situation is so tangled that the final scene ends with everybody laughing and agreeing to fix things without any indication of how they are going to do it. Another problem is that the dialogue is not nearly a patch on the great dialogue that Riskin wrote for the Capra films, or that Hecht, MacArthur and Lederer came up with for the 1940 classic His Girl Friday. This is a particular problem for Harlow as Gladys. She is playing her usual wisecracking dame, but with very few good wisecracks. She really needed Loos or John Lee Mahin or the combination of George S. Kaufman, Edna Ferber, Frances Marion, Herman J. Mankiewicz, and Donald Ogden Stewart on Dinner at Eight (1933). Of course it also helped that the latter had George Cukor as director, while Jack Conway, the director here, is content to set up two-shots of the actors nose-to-nose yelling at each other.
Return to Cranford (2009. Created by Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin, written by Heidi Thomas, based on novels, short stories and essays by Elizabeth Gaskell. 180 minutes)
If you have to go back to Victorian England, this is the way to do it: A couple of years ago, PBS had a big hit with the BBC miniseries Cranford, a look at life in an English village in the 1840s. It was originally a huge hit in England as well, and the BBC commissioned the producers to do a sequel. See, it is not just Hollywood and the Transformers. So in January we had Return to Cranford, which was not an easy piece to write, as the original had also not been. Gaskell, who was a contemporary of the Brontes, wrote lovingly about the village she grew up in, but let us just say that narrative drive was not her strong suit. The material started out as stories in Charles Dickens’s magazine Household Words. They were so popular that Dickens ordered more, leading Gaskell to say, “If I knew I was going to write more of them, I wouldn’t have started to kill people off.” The problem the filmmakers faced was how to tie all the details into a narrative. As Birtwistle said, “We left two storylines from Cranford (the novel) out of the original series, so we did have some original material to go back to for this. We joined it together with another novellas [sic] and a short story she wrote about Cranford. We did the same process as the first with interweaving all the stories.” (The background for the film comes from a review by Mary McNamara and an article by Susan King in the Los Angeles Times.)
In the first miniseries, Matty Jenkyns’s sister Deborah died, and the new one picks up two years later. The main overall arc that Thomas uses is the coming of the railroad to Cranford. It is not the joyful occasion it is in so many American films. The ladies of the town, including Matty, are not at all happy about the possible disruption of the life of the village. So far, Lady Ludlow has refused to sell her land to the railroad, but when she dies, her son Septimus, who has been off spending the family fortune in Italy, comes back to sell the land. Another running story is the death of Martha, a friend of Matty’s, and Martha’s widower Jim, who now takes care of their baby. It is Jim’s decision to leave Cranford, since he thinks it will not grow without the railroad. That persuades Matty the railroad might be a good thing. The finale of the first of two parts is a trip on the train that Matty persuades the ladies of the town to take. Look at the reactions that Thomas has given the ladies. In part two, we get a romance between William Buxton, the son of one of the most important men in the village, and a lower class girl, Peggy. Mr. Buxton does not approve. Peggy is also dealing with her brother, who has stolen money from the railroad. Another storyline involves a teenaged boy who has been sent off to school by the financial arrangements of one of the townspeople. All those stories come together in a scene of a train wreck. In spite of that, the village accepts the railroad, and Matty uses her money to reopen the town assembly hall as a way to promote the idea of community.
As I mentioned in the item on The Young Victoria, Fellowes simply does not give his Victorians depth and texture. Thomas does. The characterizations of the townspeople, especially the ladies, are wonderful and varied. When one of them reacts to something, it is not just a general reaction, but a specific reaction that this character would have. Yes, it helps that they have Judi Dench as Matty, but it helps even more than they have given her a lot to do.
The Good Wife (2010. “Painkiller” episode written by Corinne Brinkerhoff. 60 minutes)
Firing on all cylinders: As I have mentioned before (US#34 and #35), I think this series is the best new show of the season. It started off very well, introducing us over several episodes to a variety of characters as well as stories. There have been the stand-alone cases each week, but also the continuing complexities of Alicia’s dealing with her imprisoned husband Pete. Now that all of that is set up, the writers are using it in interesting ways. This episode is a prime example of that.
Alicia is interviewing Molly, a potential nanny for the kids. We and Alicia like her, but Alicia’s mother-in-law doesn’t. Well, we know both Alicia and the mother-in-law, and Alicia is more likely to be right. Right? Nope. By the end of the episode it is clear that Molly is spectacularly unsuited to be a nanny, particularly for Alicia’s kids.
Alicia is called to a hospital, where a high school quarterback has died, likely of an overdose. Alicia’s firm is representing the hospital and the doctor, so Alicia has to tell the doctor not to talk to the boy’s family, even to offer his sympathies. While we can see the reasons for that, many lawsuits could have been avoided if someone in that situation had just spoken sympathetically to the family. Meanwhile, Kalinda is photographing every detail in the ER room. Ghoulish, but necessary from the law firm’s point of view. What other law series have you seen that gives you this kind of realistic detail?
When the hospital learns the doctor actually prescribed medications from his house rather than the hospital, the hospital drops their support of him. He wants Alicia to continue on the case. The firm, which represents the hospital, which pays them a lot, does not want Alicia to do it, but reluctantly lets her. Alicia talks to the quarterback’s mom, who is also a single mother raising kids on her own.
In the Peter story, Kalinda goes to see Peter in prison. She was fired by him once, but she is telling him that Childs, the current states attorney and the one who got Peter in trouble, wants her to report to Childs any inside info she has on Peter. Peter knows that Childs had wiretapped his home phone, so he asks Kalinda to agree to work for Childs to find out what is on the tapes. Now is Kalinda really working for Peter? Or is she doublecrossing him and working for Childs? We don’t know yet (other than in movie logic terms; Kalinda is one of the breakout characters in the show so the showrunners are not about to get rid of her).
Remember the sympathetic quarterback’s mom? Well, she is the one who got the high dose pills that killed her son. She got them from a dealer at the gym where she and her son worked out. He borrowed her pills. Obviously the case gets dropped.
Some January 2010 Television
Other things to watch while Jay and Conan duked it out: Desperate Housewives seems to be getting a little more serious than it has been in the past, at least if the episode “How About a Friendly Shrink?” (written by Jason Ganzel) is any indication. The episode begins with Katherine talking to a shrink in the hospital she is in. She is seriously re-examining her life and actions. She seems concerned about the truth, which seems awfully unlike the Katherine we have come to know. I kept expecting to find out she was pulling the shrink’s leg, but she was not. Later Lynette goes to talk to the therapist Tom is seeing, and she starts unburdening herself to her. Look, guys, if everybody on the show is going to go into therapy, take it seriously and come out all better, YOU DO NOT HAVE A SHOW. Maybe I need not have worried. In the next week’s episode, “The Glamorous Life” (written by David Flebotte) the snark was back. The therapist Tom and Lynette were seeing turned out to be a terrible actress in a community theater production, and when they told her she was bad, she kicked them out of therapy. That’s the Desperate Housewives we know and love.
Two and a Half Men’s “Yay, No Polyps” episode (story by Lee Aronsohn & Chuck Lorre, teleplay by Don Foster & Jim Patterson & Mark Roberts) got the usual gross-out jokes you would expect from Charlie getting a colonoscopy. The writers nicely handled the need to take laxatives the day before, but there was more going on than that. He told Chelsea that he had scheduled the colonoscopy so she would not drag him off to visit her parents in the Midwest. She made him go through with it, and drove him to the office for the procedure. Very often Chelsea has not seemed to see through Charlie’s schemes, but this one she did. As he is going in for the procedure, she tells him she has invited her parents to visit them instead. We have met her mother before, who is a bigot. We meet her father, Nate, this time, and he is a very macho type, nicely played by Stacy Keach, Mike Hammer his ownself. Nate takes Charlie and Alan out to a bar for drinks, and it becomes clear as the scene in the bar progresses that the dad is not quite as straight as we thought. He notices a gay couple kissing, but does not seem particularly upset. Then he gets to talking about his buddy from his submarine days in the Navy. In the tag at the end, we hear Nate and his wife arguing and Charlie takes Nate to the hotel, where Charlie meets the Navy buddy. He recounts all this to Chelsea, and then lays the kicker on her: The Navy buddy is black. The blackout line is Charlie asking Chelsea, “Can I be the one to tell your mother?”
White Collar came back with new episodes and ran into a problem shows often do when they come up with a cliffhanger/twist at the end of a season or half-season. The twist was that Pete, the F.B.I. agent running Neal, the con man, was the man that Neal’s ex-girl friend had been dealing with. With the new episodes, this makes Pete a little darker and more serious than he has been, which threw off the balance of the show and made Tim DeKay’s performance a little straighter than it had been. It took them a couple of episodes to make clear that Pete is not “the man” who is running Kate, but is someone trying to find out who “the man” is. And that in turn got DeKay back into his more entertaining grove.
Burn Notice came back with an interesting opener (“A Dark Road,” written by Matt Nix). Yes, Michael is now looking for the guy who killed Diego, the contact that might get him in, and in later episodes he finds him. In the opening, in the “do-gooder” story, Michael had to send Madeline, his mom, to worm her way into the confidence of a clerk at the hall of records to get some, well, records. Nice to see a little more of Maddy. Even nicer that the clerk was played by Tyne Daly. You may be old enough to remember that Sharon Gless, who plays Maddy, and Tyne Daly co-starred in the ‘80s woman cop series Cagney and Lacey. What was nice about this episode was that neither one of them were playing a variation on Cagney or Lacey. Gless and Daly were just a couple of old actor friends playing together and having a good time. That shows some restraint on Nix’s part as both writer and showrunner.
Spartacus: Blood and Sand’s “Pilot,” written by Steven S. DeKnight, certainly lived up to the blood part of its subtitle. There was some, but not much, sand, but mostly there was a lot of slo-mo bloodletting. The inspiration was less the film Spartacus (1960) than Gladiator (2000) (complete with battle in the forest) and 300 (Lots of CGI backgrounds). Since this was basic cable, the home, as my daughter put it years ago, of “nipples and commercials,” we also got a lot of nudity, both male and female. Joel Silver, the producer of action movies, insists that there be a “wowee,” or action scene, every 10 minutes in his films. Here the wowee was the nudity, and the hype for the series was that eventually we will see Xena’s bare breasts, since Lucy Lawless is one of the stars. Men and women of varying persuasions may be delighted about that. While I don’t mind nudity, I would have preferred a little less borrowing in the script.
30 Rock brought back Nancy, but have not yet done that much with her. Still, the chemistry between Baldwin and Moore has been well served by the scripts.
Life Unexpected has been described at “Juno meets Gilmore Girls,” but so far it is not up to either one. The “Pilot” episode (written by Liz Tigelaar) sets up that Lux, a fifteen-year-old who has bounced around a variety of foster homes, is looking to get emancipated. Because of a paperwork foul-up (how convenient, but as Johnny Carson used to say, you buy the premise, you buy the bit), she has to track down her birth mother and father to get them to sign her form. As luck would have it (you buy the premise…), both are still in town (Portland). She finds her dad, Baze, first, and he lives over a bar and hangs out with other arrested adolescent males, including the token nerd and the token black guy. He thought that Cate, the woman he got pregnant the night of the senior prom in high school, had an abortion. Cate is a radio talkshow host whom, it turns out, Lux listens to all the time. Cate’s radio personality is that of a single woman who has dating problems, but her on-air partner Ryan is also her off-the-air partner. In this episode, Lux is sort of a smart-mouthed kid, although not in the same league as Juno, but by the second episode “House Inspected” (also written by Tigelaar) she had become more of a typical sensitive teenager, which is not nearly as much fun. Cate is much more professional than Baze, and the scene at the end of the pilot where she falls back into bed with him was totally unconvincing. Oh, yes, one other thing. None of them talk as fast as Rory and Lorelai. They and the show may get up to speed…
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.
Review: The White Crow Sees Art As Being Above and Beyond Politics
Ralph Fiennes’s film too conspicuously avoids an overt political perspective.2
Director Ralph Fiennes’s The White Crow, which tells the true story of ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s 1961 defection to France, opens in a small office in Leningrad, where ballet instructor Aleksander Ivanovich Pushkin (Fiennes, speaking lightly accented Russian) is assuring a security-apparatus bureaucrat that Nureyev’s defection isn’t political. “It’s about dance,” the soft-spoken Pushkin says. “He knows nothing about politics.”
We might consider that a manifesto for The White Crow itself, because throughout the film, the West, as embodied by thriving, early-‘60s Paris, is identified “apolitically” with individual freedom and artistic expression. Pushkin’s interview with the nameless bureaucrat serves as a framing device, within which the film cuts between three different timelines in Nureyev’s (Oleg Ivenko) life, culminating in his decision, under duress from the KGB, to defect to France.
The first of these timelines concerns Nureyev’s bleak childhood in Siberia. Famously, the dancer was born on a train, a scene that the film articulates in shorthand, with color-drained, blue-gray footage it will use for all its scenes set in war-torn Russia. Fiennes and screenwriter David Hare construct a correlation between Nureyev’s natal mobility and his adult need to go places, cutting from the train to the Mariinsky Ballet Company’s flight to Paris in 1961. In Paris, the arrogant Nureyev carelessly pushes the boundaries set by the company’s KGB chaperones, leaving the hotel before dawn to spend the morning in the Louvre, and staying out all night at gay clubs and cabarets with Westerners.
On the Paris social scene, he befriends Clara Saint (Adéle Exarchopoulos), a beautiful socialite whose main attraction for Nureyev appears to be that she’s recently bereaved (her fiancé recently died in a car accident). It’s here the film articulates one of its major themes, and one of Nureyev’s fascinations: the creation of beauty from ugliness. In the Louvre every morning, Nureyev contemplates Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, a Romantic depiction of death and suffering. So too, does Nureyev’s expressive dancing—traditionally feminine in its naked passion, according to him—turn the ugliness of his childhood into something beautiful.
Ultimately, the film suggests, the fiercely individualist Nureyev will defect because the West makes this transmutation of pain into beauty—that is, the expressive freedom of the individual artist—possible. It’s an historical argument that has basis in fact but which is troublesome here in its thoroughgoing de-politicization of art in the West. Unlike Paweł Pawlikowski’s masterful Cold War, which problematizes cultural authenticity in both communist Poland and ‘50s Paris, The White Crow presents Paris as the gateway to a realm of pure, unmediated self-expression. In reproducing the romantic cliché of the artist as tortured genius, this biopic is certainly not alone nor even the worst sinner, but its representation of art as a realm above and beyond politics is too idealized. It functions to make the West seem an aesthete’s utopia, even as the film appears to avoid an overt political perspective.
The film’s third timeline begins six years prior to the trip to Paris, with Nureyev’s arrival at the Mariinsky school in Leningrad. There, Nureyev insists on taking classes from Pushkin rather than from his assigned teacher, and he and Pushkin develop a personal friendship. The friendship is complicated by Nureyev’s barely concealed affair with Pushkin’s wife, Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova), and made all the more awkward by the young man’s clear sexual preference for men (it’s also implied that Pushkin himself is a closeted gay man).
Fiennes’s Pushkin ends up feeling one-note, always wearing the same tender expression, with affected gestures one suspects are meant to denote the grace of a former ballet dancer but seem all the time like the strategic choices of an actor acting. Ivenko, by contrast, disappears into his role, lending a depth to his ambitious and irascible character that makes the man sympathetic even as he thoughtlessly insults Clara and betrays Pushkin.
Despite Ivenko’s convincing performance, The White Crow is weighed down by its multifold flashback structure, particularly the monochromatic vignettes from the dancer’s childhood. While these flashbacks provide a psychological rationale for Nureyev’s incorrigible individualism and barely suppressed inner conflict, the digital color draining of these scenes increasingly feels like a cheap way of connoting the dire conditions of postwar Russia. Rather than merely oppressive, these flashbacks start to feel redundant, a quality one might attribute to the film’s overly elaborate narrative structure as a whole.
Cast: Oleg Ivenko, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Ralph Fiennes, Raphaël Personnaz, Chulpan Khamatova, Sergei Polunin, Calypso Valois, Louis Hoffman, Olivier Rabourdin Director: Ralph Fiennes Screenwriter: David Hare Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 127 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: J.T. LeRoy Is a Scarcely Subjective Telling of Great Literary Hoax
It’s disappointing that so much of the film feels like mere tilling of the soil.2
J.T. LeRoy was known as the author of three books across the late 1990s and early aughts. A reclusive, HIV-positive trans man, LeRoy was hailed as a wunderkind upon the publication of Sarah, which the San Francisco Chronicle boldly called “comically Dickensian.” In actuality, LeRoy never existed, as he was a persona, or avatar, willed to vivid life by writer Laura Albert as a means of saying what she felt she couldn’t say as herself.
As co-writer and director Justin Kelly’s film J.T. LeRoy begins, demand for LeRoy is at a fever pitch, perhaps even at a breaking point, as Albert (Laura Dern) is seen desperately recruiting her younger sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart), to play the part of this persona in public, with Albert assuming the role of LeRoy’s overbearing handler, “Speedie.” It’s a spectacular ruse that the pair managed to sustain for six years.
It’s hard to not look at such a weird set of circumstances and see its resultant mold-breaking controversy as foreshadowing, perhaps even enabling our present-day social-media moment and obsession with identity politics. As an examination of the power of celebrity and the easily muddled nature of truth, the film seems to implicitly understand that the creation and eventual exposure of the LeRoy hoax speaks to something deep in the heart of a culture in the midst of an identity crisis, but based on what’s on screen, it’s hard to say exactly what that is.
Highly aware of its own meta-textual richness, the film, adapted by Kelly and Knoop herself from her memoir Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy, is at its most interesting when it feels like its inhabiting rather than telling LeRoy’s story. When Speedy and LeRoy engage with fans and press in a haphazard fashion, there’s suspense in the spectacle of every question and answer that’s exchanged—that a grand ruse will be exposed at any moment.
Dern and Stewart convince us that such a stunt could be pulled off not so much in spite of but thanks to its utter absurdity, and among many standout details in the film is a moment when Speedy and LeRoy greet a collaborator (Courtney Love, one of many real-life celebrities who were enmeshed in the real-life saga) with a gift bag consisting of mini-onions, baked beans, and a neck pillow. Such details feel too strange to not be true, and they lend a sublime authenticity to the climactic images of Stewart, as LeRoy by way of Knoop, at the Cannes Film Festival—a cinematic black hole of sorts, with the spectators at the event horizon.
It’s disappointing, then, that so much of J.T. LeRoy feels like mere tilling of the soil. Cursive on-screen text and a ponderous, recurring voiceover lend the film the quality of a notebook doodle. Worse, though, are Kelly’s flat compositions and the script’s impersonal adherence to the beats of biopic storytelling. Aesthetically and narratively, the film lacks the fire—the slippery subjectivity—that we associate with the explosiveness of the J.T. LeRoy saga.
Though successful in presenting how something so outlandish could happen with such apparent ease, J.T. LeRoy fails to sufficiently probe the deeply personal needs of both authors and consumers that drive creation. Dern and Stewart do such a fine job of telling us how it feels to be someone else that you wish for the filmmaking to meet them at their level.
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jim Sturgess, Courtney Love, Diane Kruger Director: Justin Kelly Screenwriter: Justin Kelly, Savannah Knoop Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment Content Group Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Ang Lee’s Gemini Man, Starring Will Smith, Gets Official Trailer
Ang Lee’s three-year marriage to the 120fps format appears to be in strong shape.
Ang Lee’s last film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, was praised on these pages for astoundingly animating the mind of its young soldier. The film, shot in 3D at a resolution of 4K, was supposed to be some kind of game-changer. But its 120fps format, which is almost three times the 48fps that Peter Jackson used for The Hobbit, annoyed just about everyone for resembling a soap opera or football game.
Nonetheless, Lee’s has remained committed to the format. His latest film, Gemini Man, tells the story of an aging assassin (played by Will Smith) who’s being chased by a younger clone of himself. Admittedly, the hyper-real textures of the film look more convincing than those of either Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk or The Hobbit. But you can make your own assessment from the two-minute trailer that Paramount Pictures released today:
Paramount Pictures will release Gemini Man on October 11.
Review: Avengers: Endgame Is, Above All Else, a Triumph of Corporate Synergy
Every serious narrative beat in the film is ultimately undercut by pro-forma storytelling, or by faux-improvised humor.1.5
“Let’s get that son of a bitch,” says Captain America (Chris Evans) near the beginning of Anthony and Joe Russo’s Avengers: Endgame, the supposed big-screen finale to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we now know it. Cap, that sacred symbol of American might, is of course profaning Thanos (Josh Brolin), the purple colossus whose hand of fate, bedecked with the six Infinity Stones, erased half the world’s population during the cliffhanger climax of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War. The victims included many among the superheroic, several of whom have movies on the docket. So there’s no way the remaining commodities—I mean, Avengers—are going to go down without a fight.
It’ll take a while to get to the final showdown, of course. About two hours and 45 minutes of the three-hour running time, to be exact, all of it filled to bursting with goofy one-liners, aching stares into the middle distance, and lots and lots of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey digressions. Almost all of the Avengers’s founding team members are on hand, with a considerably more grizzled and cynical Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner) providing most of the pathos. Also in attendance are Scott “Ant-Man” Lang (Paul Rudd) and Carol “Captain Marvel” Danvers (Brie Larson), the latter of whose won’t-take-no-guff brashness is especially endearing to a certain gruff, hammer-wielding Asgardian.
I’d tell you more about the film, but then I’d have to kill myself at the spoiler-averse Marvel Studios’s behest. Even noting certain elements out of context—like, say, “Nerd Hulk” or “Lebowski Thor”—might be considered too revealing by the powers that be. So, let’s dance around the narrative architecture and instead ruminate on whether this 22nd entry in the MCU serves as a satisfying culmination of all that’s preceded it.
That’s a firm no, though the Russo brothers and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely certainly lean hard into the dewy-eyed, apocalyptic sturm und drang. You’d think they were putting the finishing touches on the Bible. There are allusions to The Leftovers, J.G. Ballard’s The Terminal Beach, and Picasso’s Guernica, though there’s never a sense, as in those works, that society is truly in irrevocable decay. It’s all good, even when it isn’t: Death is a mostly reversible ploy, and sacrifice is a self-centered concept, a burnish to the ego above all else. It’s telling that, in one scene, Captain America stops to admire his own ass.
There’s some fleeting fun to be had when Endgame turns into a sort of heist film, occasioning what effectively amounts to an in-motion recap of prior entries in the MCU. Yet every serious narrative beat is ultimately undercut by pro-forma storytelling (the emotional beats never linger, as the characters are always race-race-racing to the next big plot point), or by faux-improvised humor, with ringmaster Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr., so clearly ready to be done with this universe) leading the sardonic-tongued charge. Elsewhere, bona fide celebs like Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Natalie Portman are reduced to glorified extras. Even the glow of movie stardom is dimmed by the supernova that is the Marvel machine’s at best competently produced weightlessness.
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Danai Gurira, Benedict Wong, Jon Favreau, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Brolin, Evangeline Lilly, Tessa Thompson, Frank Grillo, Winston Duke Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo Screenwriter: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 181 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Cannes Directors’ Fortnight Lineup Includes The Lighthouse, Zombi Child, and More
In addition to Directors’ Fortnight, the festival announced the films that would screen as part of the ACID lineup.
Five days after Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux revealed the films that would be competing for the Palm d’Or this year on the Croisette, the Cannes Film Festival has announced the films that will screen as part of the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight. Among those are Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, a dark fantasy horror film starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson shot on 35mm black-and-white film stock, and Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, which recounts the destiny of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who was famously said to have been turned him into a zombie.
See below for the full lineup, followed by the ACID slate.
Directors’ Fortnight Lineup:
Deerskin (Quentin Dupieux)
Alice and the Mayor (Nicolas Pariser)
And Then We Danced (Levan Akin)
The Halt (Lav Diaz)
Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää)
Song Without a Name (Melina León)
Ghost Tropic (Bas Devos)
Give Me Liberty (Kirill Mikhanvovsky)
First Love (Takashi Miike)
The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
Lillian (Andreas Horwath)
Oleg (Juris Kursietis)
Blow It to Bits (Lech Kowalski)
The Orphanage (Shahrbanoo Sadat)
Les Particules (Blaise Harrison)
Perdrix (Erwan Le Duc)
For the Money (Alejo Moguillansky)
Sick Sick Sick (Alice Furtado)
Tlamess (Ala Eddine Slim)
To Live to Sing (Johnny Ma)
An Easy Girl (Rebecca Zlotowski)
Wounds (Babak Anvari)
Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)
Yves (Benoît Forgeard)
Red 11 (Roberto Rodriguez)
The Staggering Girl (Luca Guadagnino)
Two Sisters Who Are Not Sisters (Beatrice Gibson)
The Marvelous Misadventures of the Stone Lady (Gabriel Abrantes)
Grand Bouquet (Nao Yoshigai)
Je Te Tiens (Sergio Caballero)
Movements (Dahee Jeong)
Olla (Ariane Labed)
Piece of Meat (Jerrold Chong and Huang Junxiang)
Ghost Pleasure (Morgan Simon)
Stay Awake, Be Ready (An Pham Thien)
Blind Spot (Pierre Trividic, Patrick-Mario Bernard)
Des Hommes (Jean-Robert Viallet, Alice Odiot)
Indianara (Aude Chevalier-Beaumel, Marcello Barbosa)
Kongo (Hadrien La Vapeur, Corto Vaclav)
Mickey and the Bear (Annabelle Attanasio)
Solo (Artemio Benki)
As Happy as Possible (Alain Raoust)
Take Me Somewhere Nice (Ena Sendijarevic)
Vif-Argent (Stéphane Batut)
Third Annual ACID Trip
Las Vegas (Juan Villegas)
Brief Story from the Green Planet (Santiago Loza)
Sangre Blanca (Barbara Sarasola-Day)
Review: Carmine Street Guitars Is a Beautiful Portrait of an Everyday Paradise
The film celebrates the thingness of things, as well as the assuring clarity and lucidity that can arise from devotion to knowledge.3.5
The concept of Carmine Street Guitars is simplicity itself. Director Ron Mann documents the legendary Greenwich Village guitar store of the film’s title over a period of five days, watching as mostly famous customers stroll in to peruse and play instruments and shoot the breeze with guitar maker Rick Kelly. There’s no voiceover, no overt narrative, and little orienting text—and none of the encounters in this film are structured or presented as info-bite-style interviews. Mann artfully sustains the illusion of someone who’s just hanging out, capturing whatever draws his attention. Consequentially, the documentary communicates the magic of this place even to someone who’s never been to New York City.
Mann has a knack for telling you more than he appears to be. Fashioning intimate compositions, he surveys Kelly and his apprentice, Cindy Hulej, as they build guitars together in companionable silence. Kelly and Hulej are a poignant study in contrasts: Kelly is a graying sixtysomething man with a bit of a belly, while Cindy is a lean twentysomething woman who, with her bright blond hair and multiple tattoos, suggests a rock star. Occasionally, Hulej will solicit Kelly’s approval for one of her designs or for the artwork or poetry she’s burning into the back of a guitar, which he grants with a humble hesitation that subtly says, “You don’t need my approval.” Meanwhile, up front in the store, Kelly’s mother answers the phone. At one point, she says she’s happy to be here, though, at her age, she’s happy to be anywhere.
Shots of Kelly and Hulej working also allow one to savor the tactility of Carmine Street Guitars itself. Hulej works to the left of the back of the store, while Kelly stays to the right of it. Above Kelly is a storage of wooden planks taken from various landmarks of New York, such as Chumley’s and McSorley’s. Kelly poetically says that he likes to build guitars from the “bones of New York.” The resin dries out in older wood, allowing for more openings in the material which in turn yields greater resonation. Such fascinating details arise naturally in the film’s images and conversations. Over the course of Carmine Street Guitars, Kelly fashions a McSorley’s plank into an incredibly evocative guitar, as the gnarled wood gives it the appearance of possessing scar tissue. Near the end of the documentary, musician Charlie Sexton walks in and plays this guitar, and the idea of scar tissue takes on a different meaning. Sexton, Kelly, and the store itself are textured survivors of another era.
This is never explicitly stated in Carmine Street Guitars, but the film offers an analogue daydream in a 21st century that’s been nearly gentrified to death by corporations. The building next to Carmine Street Guitars was once used by Jackson Pollack and is now being sold by a yuppie real estate agent for six million dollars. The yuppie walks into the guitar shop, drooling over the potential sales opportunity, and his entrance feels like an obscenity—a return to the reality that we frequent stores like Carmine Street Guitars, and films like Carmine Street Guitars, in order to evade. It’s only at this point that Kelly’s democratic bonhomie hardens into defensive contempt, as he virtually refuses to speak to the agent. This episode haunts the film, suggesting a fate that can only be bidden off for so much longer.
Carmine Street Guitars celebrates the thingness of things, as well as the assuring clarity and lucidity that can arise from devotion to knowledge. Kelly’s guitar shop is a cocoon, a place of contemplation, and so it feels inevitable when Jim Jarmusch walks into the store. After all, Jarmusch’s recent films, like Only Lovers Left Alive and Paterson, also celebrate creation and erudition while ruing the arrival of a new culture that’s hostile to such desires. Kelly and Jarmusch talk about the filmmaker’s new guitar, which is partially made from Catalpa wood, leading to a riff on the trees that have been formative in each man’s life. In another moving interlude, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline searches for a guitar for frontman Jeff Tweedy, settling on an instrument that reflects Kelly’s own characteristic design: a telecaster with a dropped horn. Such moments reveal artisanship to be a form of communion, as a personal object for Kelly has been refashioned into a symbol of another artistic partnership.
These themes and associations bob under Carmine Street Guitars’s surface, as musicians noodle around with Kelly. This pregnant sense of implication is Mann’s supreme achievement, and as such the film risks being taken for granted as a charming little diversion, when it should be celebrated as a beautiful portrait of an everyday paradise. When Hulej weeps in gratitude, on her fifth anniversary of working for Carmine Street Guitars, you want to weep with her.
Review: Hyènas Brilliantly Chips Away at a City’s Colonialist Architecture
Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1992 film resonates primarily for its lacerating comedic writing and pacing.4
Djibril Diop Mambéty spared no one when mercilessly depicting populations who were simultaneously eating themselves from within and being exploited by the economic interests of outside forces. Mambéty’s great Touki Bouki from 1973 viewed this dual process through the prism of the postcolonial relationship between Senegal and France. And in Mambéty’s second feature, 1992’s Hyènas, Senegal is pitted against larger global institutions, such as the World Bank, that prey on small nations whose financial instability makes them more likely to embrace warped logic and false promises at their own expense.
Mambéty confines the proceedings to Colobane, a small commune in Dakar, where its population and governmental order are turned upside down by the return of former resident Linguere Ramatou (Ami Diakhate), whose newfound wealth has become a subject of much dispute and angst within the community. The woman, who’s said by locals to be “richer than the World Bank,” becomes Mambéty’s stand-in for how an institutional form of thinking, with its financial rather than human emphasis, corrupts local interests by vacuously promising short-term riches to citizens that, in turn, produce long-term financial crises.
One of Mambéty’s primary strengths is how his sense of detail instantly brings the locations of his films to life. Hyènas opens within the market owned by Dramaan (Mansour Diouf), a beloved local merchant whose generosity with patrons is almost immediately apparent, as he allows several customers to purchase expensive goods on credit rather than having them pay up front. Mambéty establishes each nook and cranny of the market’s space through a series of static shots that gradually reveal the amount of people—none of which offer payment for their acquisitions—toiling around the premises. When Dramaan’s wife (Faly Gueye) appears, and Dramaan says, out of her earshot, that she disapproves of his business practices, it’s the first suggestion in Mambéty’s carefully plotted script that mutual trust is the first casualty in the exchange of money between people linked to differing motivations. As the Colobane community takes even greater advantage of Dramaan later in the film, Hyènas further turns the man’s plight into an absurdist tale of capitalism’s follies.
Linguere’s return to Colobane provides the film with its driving plot device, as she announces to the population that she will pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the community in exchange for Dramaan’s murder. Linguere was abandoned by Dramaan years prior after giving birth to their daughter and has come back with the sole intention of wreaking havoc on the man’s life. At least, it initially seems that way; in a later scene, Linguere explains, “The world has made me a whore,” and so she plans to “turn the world into a whorehouse.”
Mambéty imagines how Linguere’s wealth co-signs her agenda of revenge; her dangling of expensive goods over the heads of locals hungry for their piece of the pie is akin to the lie of global monetary cooperation promised by organizations like the International Monetary Fund. Senegal, once again, becomes dependent on global rather than local sources of income and exchange. Mambéty, though, follows the thematic example set by Ousmane Sembène’s Xala, in which a Senegalese politician’s sexual impotence is a symbol of his corruption, by refusing to exonerate local officials within Senegal for their complicity in embracing Westernization. When Dramaan meets with Colobane’s mayor (Mamadou Mahourédia Gueye) to discuss the bounty that’s been placed on his head, the latter says, “[Leopold] Senghor himself went for a walk with the Queen of England…if we were savages, they would not come here.” By implicating the mayor’s deference to Western forms of knowledge and self-definition, Mambéty deftly wrestles with the complexity of corruption’s reach.
Despite its rather serious and finally tragic appraisal of Senegal’s quagmire within the world system, Hyènas resonates primarily for its lacerating comedic writing and pacing. As Dramaan comes to mistakenly believe that he will be elected Colobane’s next mayor, only to learn that, in fact, he’s more likely to be killed before an election takes place, Mambéty ratchets up the film’s ludicrousness to simultaneously critique the Senegalese government and widespread consumerism, and with equal ferocity. This is best encapsulated by the moment where Dramaan realizes that everyone who isn’t paying him seems to own the same, new pair of yellow boots made in Burkina Faso. Dramaan’s market, filled with foreign goods ranging from European tobacco to Coca-Cola, is itself exploiting its owner; the man has paid a high price for quality only for the local marketplace to abuse his ambitions.
These ideas also propelled Touki Bouki, in which a pair of college-aged youths from Dakar, a city adored with so many Pepsi logos and Mobil oil towers, (dream of migrating to France. In a memorable scene from that film, a pair of French professors dismiss Senegal’s local culture by articulating the distinctly colonialist logic of France’s superiority. While Hyènas forgoes such an explicit drag of French supremacy, the film’s lucid indignation and satirical take on Senegal’s raw deal proves just as convincing.
Cast: Ami Diakhate, Mansour Diouf, Calgou Fall, Faly Gueye, Mamadou Mahourédia Gueye, Issa Ramagelissa Samb, Dijbril Diop Mambéty Director: Djibril Diop Mambéty Screenwriter: Djibril Diop Mambéty Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 1992
Review: Chasing Portraits Is Welcome Personal Testimony, but Its Scope Is Narrow
Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.2.5
Before World War II, Poland’s Jewish population was the largest in Europe, numbering over three million. Afterward, only 10% of that populace remained. Although the current right-wing Polish government prefers to suppress this fact, the 300,000 surviving Jews faced continued persecution at the hands of gentile Poles—themselves the victims (though to a much lesser degree) of Nazi persecution. Today, when the number of Jews in Poland is well under 10,000, one can visit the old Jewish quarters in cities like Warsaw and Krakow, where street kiosks sell small plastic caricatures of Hasidic Jews. On the streets, though, you’re unlikely to encounter any actual Hasids.
In her trip to Warsaw in search of her great-grandfather’s lost paintings, Chasing Portraits director Elizabeth Rynecki stumbles across these figurines. As she observes in voiceover, there’s nothing overtly demeaning about the miniature, jovial, cartoonish Jews, but the image they project doesn’t feel right, given local history. And one must agree that there’s an undeniable aspect of minstrelsy to them: Unlike her great-grandfather Moshe’s textured scenes of Jewish life in Warsaw, they’re almost certainly not self-representations. Given the Jewish culture that was destroyed in Poland—and whose richness is embodied by Moshe’s few surviving paintings—the grinning trinkets seem all the more like frivolous kitsch.
Rynecki’s discovery of these unsettling souvenirs is potentially one of the most interesting parts of Chasing Portraits, given that she happens across them while on the trail of lost Jewish art. As a curator at a Warsaw museum observes to the filmmaker, Moshe’s work depicts traditional moments of Jewish culture in a distinctly modern sensibility, attesting to the robustness of the Jewish culture on the eve of its destruction. In this way, his paintings are the opposite of the post-facto plastic caricatures, and Rynecki’s confrontation with the mass-produced simulacra of absent Jews is a moment when her highly personal documentary almost extends toward a wider perspective. But she doesn’t linger for too long on what the Holocaust and Judaism mean in Poland today, as she’s on her way to ask a private collector named Wertheim about how his family managed to acquire some of Moshe’s works.
Rynecki’s insular approach works well early on in the film, when she, in conversations with her father, outlines who her great-grandfather was and what his surviving paintings mean to the family. Of around 800 works that Moshe painted before he was murdered at the Majdanek death camp, just over 100 survive in the possession of the family, with an unknown number in the hands of private collections and Polish museums. That much is a miracle, but Rynecki—more so, it seems, than her father, a Holocaust survivor himself—wants to discover more. In the film, we see her consult with historians, compose emails to private collectors, and read excerpts of her grandfather George’s memoirs, in preparation for her trip to Poland.
Chasing Portraits is about Rynecki’s investigative process rather than Moshe’s paintings themselves; in voiceover, she narrates each step of her process as she takes on the role of amateur historian. And in maintaining an intense focus on her investigation—how she reads out the emails she writes to institutions, and shows us footage from each flight she takes from one corner of the world to another—the film raises probing questions that it dutifully bypasses. Her encounters with the Wertheim family are a case in point: The first Wertheim brother claims the family own paintings by Moshe because they bought it from a farmer, but the second tells the more plausible story that they have the paintings because their parents, resistance fighters hiding in the Polish woods, raided them from a bombed-out train.
In Rynecki’s narrative, these conflicting stories become a personal conundrum: If the paintings were looted rather than bought, she may be able to make a claim on them. In the end, it’s Rynecki’s growth, her decision about whether or not to become a claimant, that structures the film. But this approach means skirting over other thematic threads that might have emerged from this project, such as the ethics of museum versus private ownership of recovered art like Moshe’s, the meaning of art in desperate times, the politics of remembrance in Poland. Chasing Portraits is thus valuable as part of an expansive mosaic of personal testimonies to the legacy of the Holocaust, but it’s a documentary of sometimes disappointingly narrow scope. Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.
Director: Elizabeth Rynecki Screenwriter: Elizabeth Rynecki Distributor: First Run Features Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: If the Dancer Dances Diminishes Its Subject by Succumbing to Hagiography
The documentary is incessant about reminding us of the late Merce Cunningham’s achievements.2
More than once in Maia Wechsler’s If the Dancer Dances, a dance is described by one of numerous talking heads as existing only in the moment; once any movement or routine is complete, it essentially can never be replicated to an exacting degree. But the film inadvertently appears as if it’s trying to prove that poetic and insightful observation wrong, which becomes increasingly clear as we follow choreographer Stephen Petronio as he and his dance company work on a production of Merce Cunningham’s RainForest.
Wechsler’s depiction of the company seems unwilling to step out of Cunningham’s shadow, given the extent to which the members of the current production and Cunningham’s former pupils happily provide hagiographic accounts of the groundbreaking avant-garde choreographer and his work. In an about-face from the repeated description of dance’s unreplicable nature, the new RainForest’s choreographers and dancers set out to duplicate rather than interpret the work. The fawning over Cunningham, and the implication from the company that they’ll never be able to live up to his vision, only exposes an overbearing inferiority complex running throughout the documentary.
If the Dancer Dances really only comes to life when showcasing the company’s rehearsals, throughout camera movements that match the gracefulness of the dancers and compositions that incorporate multiple points of action. Wechsler’s observational methods in these sequences capture mini-dramas in themselves, such as when choreographers quietly confer, attempting to adjust the dance routine that’s playing out in front of them.
Still, rather than letting the audience simply observe the company at work and letting the process speak for itself, Wechsler incessantly reminds us of Cunningham’s monolithic presence via scores of interviews that laud his work process. The film’s constant lionizing of the man amid so much rehearsal footage has the unintended effect of sapping the dancers of agency. Throughout, it’s as if Wechsler is judging the company’s artistic decisions based on whether or not Cunningham himself would consider them right or wrong.
At one point in the film, a former colleague of Cunningham’s explains that the late choreographer, in an effort to ensure that his works felt fresh, tried to never be influenced by other productions. This anecdote rings of irony, given how the film includes numerous sequences of Petronio’s choreographers discussing how to ape Cunningham’s aesthetic in precise detail—and often in incomprehensibly abstract directions that even some of the dancers appear not to grasp. The film operates under the impression that for any present or future company to change any one aspect of Cunningham’s original vision would be blasphemous and offensive, which turns If the Dancer Dances less into the insightful backstage documentary it wants to be, and more into a gushing, sycophantic love letter.
Director: Maia Wechsler Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Watch the Trailer for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix Series When They See Us
Netflix will release the series on May 31.
In 1989, the rape and near-murder of Trisha Meili in Central Park rocked the nation. A little over a year later, a jury convicted five juvenile males—four African-American and one Hispanic—to prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. In the end, the defendants spent between six and 13 years behind bars. Flashforward to 2002, after four of the five defendants had left prison, and Matias Reyes, a convicted murder and serial rapist serving a lifetime prison term, came forward and confessed to raping Meili. DNA evidence confirmed his guilt, and proved what many already knew about the so-called “Central Park jogger case”: that the police investigation of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, conducted at the beginning of the Giuliani era in New York City, was motivated less by a thirst for justice than it was by racial animus.
Last year, Oscar-nominated Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay announced that she would be making a series based on the infamous case, and since then hasn’t been shy, on Twitter and elsewhere, about saying that she will be putting Donald J. Trump in her crosshairs. Trump, way back in 1989, ran an ad in the Daily News advocating the return of the death penalty, and as recently as 2016, claimed that McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise are guilty of the crime for which they were eventually exonerated—behavior consistent with a presidential campaign that, like the case against the Central Park Five, was a full-time racist dog whistle.
Today, Netflix dropped the trailer for When They See Us, which stars Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood, Christopher Jackson, Joshua Jackson, Omar J. Dorsey, Adepero Oduye, Famke Janssen, Aurora Perrineau, William Sadler, Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Storm Reid, Dascha Polanco, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Justin Cunningham, Ethan Herisse, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, and Asante Blackk.
According to the official description of the series:
Based on a true story that gripped the country, When They See Us will chronicle the notorious case of five teenagers of color, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four part limited series will focus on the five teenagers from Harlem—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. Beginning in the spring of 1989, when the teenagers were first questioned about the incident, the series will span 25 years, highlighting their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.
See the trailer below:
Netflix will release When They See Us on May 31.
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