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.
Blu-ray Review: Aldo Lado’s Who Saw Her Die? on Arrow Video
Arrow’s sterling Blu-ray presentation should serve as an excellent character witness for Lado’s elegiac giallo.4.5
The early 1970s brought us two thrillers with all of the following elements: an estranged couple mourning the tragic death of a daughter; a grief-stricken sex scene crosscut with glimpses of its doleful aftermath; a series of murders occurring against the backdrop of Venice in the offseason; and a canal-bound funeral in a black-draped barge. The more famous, of course, is Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. The other is Aldo Lado’s less acknowledged giallo film Who Saw Her Die? But the real surprise here, given the Italian film industry’s not entirely undeserved reputation for the quick cash-in and cheapjack rip-off, is that Who Saw Her Die? actually came out first.
The film opens on a ski slope in France, as a young redheaded girl runs away from her nanny, only to have her head bashed in with a rock by a shadowy figure in black, a sequence seen largely through the killer’s subjective POV. Since violence against children is exceedingly rare in the giallo, even by the bloody standards of the genre, this is an especially shocking set piece. Indeed, the best point of comparison is with Lucio Fulci’s brilliant and disturbing Don’t Torture a Duckling, which came out the same year as Who Saw Her Die?
Both films feature a murderer who’s ultimately revealed to be a priest (or at least a man masquerading as one), whose bizarre motive for murder is to “save” the children from the moral pollution of modern society. Doubtless this coincidence has something to do with the shifting moral climate in Italy at the time, with the recent legalization of divorce and an increasing permissiveness toward depictions of sex and violence in popular culture. Who Saw Her Die? treats this broadmindedness with notable ambivalence, seeing as how its wealthiest and most cultured characters uniformly turn out to be deviants and sexual predators.
Lado introduces us to two of his main characters through a clever bit of visual trickery. We first see Franco Serpieri (George Lazenby) as he waits to greet someone among a group of arriving plane passengers. The camera picks up a pretty brunette woman, and crosscuts between the two as Franco proffers a heartfelt greeting. Only then do we hear an unexpectedly girlish voice in response, as the woman continues on, and Franco stoops down to hoist his daughter, Roberta (Nicoletta Elmi), into shot. Given her striking resemblance to the girl in the film’s prologue, you would not be altogether mistaken if you suspected that this does not bode well.
Throughout the first act, Lado uses his wintry Venetian locations to optimum atmospheric effect. He continually frames Roberta against eerie, nearly empty streets, bridges, and squares. (It doesn’t help that the caring, yet somewhat negligent Franco often leaves her to her own devices, either to pursue work or more personal pleasures.) The sense of foreboding that Lado carefully builds throughout Who Saw Her Die? is cleverly encoded even into the children’s games that Roberta participates in, none more so than the uncanny round dance whose chant supplies the principal motif for Ennio Morricone’s unsettling score. Lado shoots this whirling rondeau with a dizzying verve that would make Brian De Palma proud.
Roberta’s inevitable disappearance is signaled through an adroit visual metonym: the loud shutting of a local butcher shop’s doors. A subsequent shot of the charwoman mopping up a blood-spattered floor leaves little doubt about Roberta’s ultimate fate. Franco, like many a giallo hero before him, takes on the role of amateur detective once Roberta’s body turns up floating face down in the Venetian lagoon. (Female protagonists usually must battle against some sort of attempted gaslighting.) Because Franco is a struggling sculptor, most of the list of suspects happen to be members of his inner circle. Such emphasis on the artistic demimonde is an element of the giallo that was inaugurated by Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the film that almost singlehandedly revamped the genre for the ’70s.
The amount of bloodshed in the film’s murderous set pieces is fairly chaste when compared to other giallo titles, which isn’t to say these sequences aren’t executed with distinctive visual aplomb. The standout killing, via a pair of scissors, takes place against the sterile white preserves of an indoor aviary. And Lado even goes in for a bit of meta filmmaking when one potential eyewitness is garroted in a darkened movie theater. But the most spectacular moment comes when the child murderer finally gets his just desserts, a fiery finale Lado plays out several times over, with Morricone’s music swirling up into the stratosphere, before the killer finally—and rather rudely—comes to ground. Only a producer-imposed final line of dialogue serves to blunt the impact of this chilly, surprisingly elegiac giallo film.
Arrow Video’s new 2K presentation of Who Saw Her Die? represents a marked improvement over previous SD releases dating back to the film’s home-video debut as part of a 2002 Anchor Bay giallo box set. The Blu-ray image reveals more information on the right-hand side, appears darker overall, with less harsh whites, and displays far greater depth and clarity of detail. The English LPCM mono track is quite good, though it’s a shame that former 007 George Lazenby didn’t loop his own voice on the track. For the first time on domestic home video, the Italian-language track has been included. As always, it’s interesting to study the differences in dialogue between the two tracks. Fortunately, both of them do justice to one of the film’s strongest assets: a haunting score from Ennio Morricone that prominently features a heavily reverberated children’s chorus chillingly chanting the film’s Italian title over and over again.
Although it’s only infrequently scene-specific, author and critic Troy Howarth’s commentary covers a lot of giallo-related ground, from the give-and-take relationship between Italian genre filmmaking and more hifalutin arthouse cinema, to the evolution of the giallo genre over the years, arising as an idiosyncratic witches brew out of the cauldron of film noir, the Hitchcockian thriller, and the German krimi films. Howarth also extensively covers the careers of the principal cast and crew. In the featurette “I Saw Her Die,” director Aldo Lado discusses his early years working as assistant director for Bernardo Bertolucci, working on his other giallo-related titles (Short Night of Glass Dolls and Night Train Murders), the personal and professional vicissitudes behind being assigned to Who Saw Her Die?, the ethics of casting the film, and handling child actors. Lado also expresses his personal antipathy for the clergy and the changes to the film’s ending that were mandated by the producers.
The featurette “Nicoletta, Child of Darkness” provides a career-overview conversation with child actress Nicoletta Elmi. When it comes to What Saw Her Die?, Elmi really only remembers playing around both on- and off-set with Lazenby, as well as her one scene with the sterner, more imposing Adolfo Celi. Elmi relates an amusing anecdote about working with Dario Argento on Deep Red, decries the need for censorship (with regard to the themes of Who Saw Her Die?), and describes her own fraught relationship with the horror genre. “Once Upon a Time, in Venice…” features Francesco Barilla, the film’s charmingly opinionated co-writer, talking about his career as writer and occasional director, crafting bizarre secondary characters like the table tennis fanatic in Who Saw Her Die?, blending together various subgenres to optimum effect, and how he would have directed certain sequences in the film (including some very specific costume changes). Lastly, giallo authority Michael Mackenzie delves deeply into the film’s genre bona fides for “Giallo in Venice,” including the particularly gruesome flourish maestro Ennio Morricone built into his evocative score.
Arrow Video’s sterling Blu-ray presentation should serve as an excellent character witness for Aldo Lado’s elegiac giallo.
Cast: George Lazenby, Anita Strindberg, Adolfo Celi, Dominique Boschero, Peter Chatel, Piero Vida, José Quaglio, Alessandro Haber, Nicolette Elmi, Rosemarie Lindt Director: Aldo Lado Screenwriter: Francesco Barilli, Massimo D'Avak Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 1972 Release Date: September 17, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: I Was at Home, But… Pushes Narrative to an Elliptical Breaking Point
Angela Schanalec’s film configures itself most potently in hindsight as a punch to the gut.3
Writer-director Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But…, in the spirit of Yasujiro Ozu’s I Was Born, But…, is technically a domestic drama—albeit one that takes its time revealing the nature of the fractured family at its center and frequently departs from their home. As in her prior feature, 2016’s The Dreamed Path, the German filmmaker has taken a fairly simple premise and built a multilayered series of narrative threads around it, one filled with the detours and inconsistencies of life as it’s experienced on a day-to-day basis. In doing so, Schanelec isn’t complicating or overthinking the familiar, but, rather, inviting her audience to rethink how these seemingly universal narratives function.
Grief is the unifying thread of I Was at Home, But…, though Schanalec gives us the lingering air of despondency well before identifying its source. In the first of many sudden, unexplained spasms of emotion in the film, a woman sprints through a courtyard and up a flight of stairs to embrace a boy being held in some kind of child services office—a scene cut into precise visual fragments by Schanalec’s stiffly choreographed style. After being offered many a context clue, we come to understand that this woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), is the mother of this child, Phillip (Jakob Lassalle), who’s earlier seen emerging from the woods at dawn, his dirtied yellow jacket and look of stone-faced torpor indicating a prolonged absence from his mother’s life. Phillip has a little sister, Flo (Clara Möller), who observes this zombified return, and together the three of them occupy a white-walled, high-ceilinged modern apartment in a gentrified part of Berlin, a home reverberating with the aftershock of a recently deceased patriarch.
These are the concrete details of the film’s scenario, but before they all have a chance to register, Schanalec offers a number of puzzling diversions: a scene of a dog hunting a rabbit before falling asleep in a barn alongside a donkey; a grade-school rehearsal of Hamlet, performed in an affectless, Straub-Huillet-evoking manner from a version of the play translated by Schanalec’s late husband, Jürgen Gosch; and an episode of Astrid purchasing a secondhand bicycle from a man (Alan Williams) who talks through a voice box. Each of these threads recur throughout the film, with the latter in particular amounting to something of a comically elongated red herring as the bike proves faulty and Astrid hassles the man for her money back—all of which can only be said to circuitously tie into Astrid’s emotional arc. Even less logically related to the film’s apparent central narrative is another subplot concerning the deteriorating relationship between Lars (Franz Rogowski), a teacher overseeing Phillip’s reintegration into school, and the man’s girlfriend, Claudia (Lilith Stangenberg).
The manner in which these various threads weave in and out of the scenes sketching the family relationship, commanding equal attention in the way Schanalec, working as her own editor, partitions screen time, makes it tough to call anything the “primary” focus of the film. Throughout I Was at Home, But…, its destabilizing ellipses and odd points of emphasis—a scene of Astrid at a supermarket, for instance, focuses only on her dog as it diligently waits outside with the shopping carts—discourage the viewer from fixating on anything beyond the present moment and its complexity, so that any natural impulse to chart the narrative’s larger trajectory or the psychological development of the characters is frustrated.
Fortunately, Schanalec’s staging is rarely less than compelling. Never as grandiose with her deep-focus master shots as Ruben Östlund, the filmmaker nonetheless shares with the Swedish auteur a preference for subtly off-kilter compositions, chilly soft light, and slick modern architecture, while her exacting use of sound—punctiliously ADR’d and selective—is what most closely aligns her with her frequently cited forebear: Robert Bresson.
This stark cinematic language, combined with a severe acting style in which even a dry cleaner’s assessment that a coat might not wash properly is spoken like a terminal diagnosis, makes I Was at Home, But… a decidedly dreary affair. But this is less a pose of artistic seriousness on Schanelec’s part than a strategic leveling of affect to make key moments register with the sharpness of real-life trauma. In the film’s most harrowing scene, Eggert unleashes a torrent of Method naturalism as her character violently recoils from the unwanted attention and embraces of her despondent children, whose company she’s gradually replacing with a tennis-playing boyfriend, Harald (Thorbjörn Björnsson). Later, Schanelec grants Astrid redemption in the heartbreakingly tender image of the woman holding Flo in an empty locker room after a swim practice, their damp bodies intermingled as one.
Similarly ameliorating the film’s air of formal severity is its subterranean sense of playfulness, which casually reveals itself in the background of frames, the silent pockets of conversation, and the latter halves of Schanelec’s long takes. Whether sliding a pair of student fencers into a frame as a somber conversation plays out in the foreground or observing as an already-malfunctioning bicycle topples over its flimsy kickstand, Schanalec periodically indulges a kind of drawn-out physical comedy, though it’s a dialectical joke in the film’s centerpiece that seems to have been most carefully engineered. In an extended tracking shot, as Astrid walks alongside a filmmaker (All the Cities in the North director Dane Komljen) and berates him over what she interprets as his film’s ethical malpractice of casting actors alongside real hospital patients, it becomes clear that she’s displacing her own pain about her husband and son, who’s troubled by a case of sepsis brought on by his disappearance. But the irony is that her withering critique of acting as a false façade arises in one of the film’s more commanding instances of capital-A acting. The scene closes with the nearest Schanalec gets to writing a howler: “Unbearably bad cinema,” she says, “but I still hope you get the professorship.”
The film is at its best in such instances, when Schanalec’s insight into trauma as a menace that asserts itself at inopportune and confusing moments is powerfully dramatized. It’s less successful when reaching for symbolic associations, as in the strikingly staged but inert passages of Shakespearean recitation that draw out connections between Hamlet and Astrid’s life, or in the strained, bookending bits of business involving the dog and the donkey. For her part, Schanalec has preached in interviews that an experiential, non-intellectual approach to watching her films is ideal, so it’s telling that, in spite of its occasional academicism, I Was at Home, But… configures itself most potently in hindsight as a punch to the gut.
Cast: Maren Eggert, Jakob Lassalle, Clara Möller, Lilith Stangenberg, Franz Rogowski, Thorbjörn Björnsson, Lucas Confurius, Wolfgang Michael Director: Angela Schanalec Screenwriter: Angela Schanalec Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Midnight Traveler Is a Harrowing Document of a Family’s Escape
The documentary doesn’t preclude itself from finding something like poetry in its subjects’ struggles.3.5
Afghani filmmaker Hassan Fazili’s documentary Midnight Traveler has the insular feel of a home movie, but at the same time, the family saga that it recounts can’t avoid placing itself within a larger geo-political context. The film, shot using three mobile phones, captures Fazili and his wife Fatima’s flight from war-torn Afghanistan to the West, along with their young daughters, Nargis and Zahra. The depiction of their journey across 3,500 miles does more than humanize the plight of refugees, so easily spoken of in the terms of mass demographics in the political discourse of Europe and America. It also gives this family’s desperate situation experiential weight, emphasizing the time and the spaces that define their struggle to reach an unknown destination in Europe.
A filmmaker whose documentary film about a Taliban leader has made him a wanted man in Afghanistan, Fazili brings a director’s eye to what may be taken as a representative experience for hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa: the clandestine trek across multiple borders on the path to a Western democracy, reliant at times on seedy smugglers and untrustworthy bureaucrats. Despite the nocturnal intrigue implied by its title, Midnight Traveler takes place mostly during the day, and focuses less on tension than on texture. The first-person camera takes in the details of a life indefinitely in suspense, the transitory homes the family fashions out of goat-inhabited basements in Afghanistan, shady enclaves in the Bulgarian woods, and the squalid rooms of a refugee camp in Sofia.
Balancing rough-edge verité with highly composed images and a meticulous structure, Midnight Traveler doesn’t preclude itself from finding something like poetry in its subjects’ struggles. A memorable scene has the bespectacled Nargis standing on the rocky shore of the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul, reacting giddily to the cool water splashing against her feet. We see what may well be Nargis’s first encounter with the sea through her father’s eyes, the boundless potential he sees in her reflected by the nearby expanse of the Black Sea.
The unsteadiness of mobile-phone video lends Midnight Traveler’s imagery an acute sense of intimacy, but we aren’t totally constrained to the perspective of the family’s patriarch. Fazili occasionally cedes control of his camera (and the voiceover narration) to Fatima or Nargis, who use it to log their own reactions to the family’s travails. Nargis weeps as she recounts witnessing right-wing Bulgarians pelt rocks at a group of refugees that includes her mother; in a lighter moment, Fatima tells the story of how she, an artist and filmmaker in her own right, turned Fazili, the son of a mullah, into an open-minded, secular man.
The documentary’s final act depicts the family’s life in a Serbian camp as they wait through an arcane asylum-application process—an experience that could be described as Kafkaesque but more in the style of the author’s short “Before the Law” parable than of his labyrinthine nightmares. Dreary boredom accompanies a sense of dread as the family waits for over a year to hear whether their application will even be reviewed. Committed to his project, Fazili shoots everything, not even putting down the camera throughout an argument he and Fatima have over his compliment of another female refugee. All the same, Fazili professes to struggling with applying his artistic ambitions to his family: When his youngest daughter, Zahra, goes missing in Serbia, he admits in voiceover that he considered recording as he searched for her through bushes, half expecting to find her dead body.
Although written text on screen periodically appears to fill in the inevitable narrative gaps of a documentary shot on the run, Fazili’s project draws a circle around his family and their immediate conditions. It’s a narrative approach reflected in the shallow focus of a Samsung phone’s camera. Glimpses at the outside world are oblique, perhaps sometimes intentionally vague: Faces of fellow refugees are blurred, and Midnight Traveler never zooms out to give us a sense of the grand, sheer sprawl of Istanbul or Sofia. We’re left feeling as lost and isolated as the Fazilis, in unfamiliar settings—anonymous city streets, goat-inhabited basements, Bulgarian forests—that we perceive only from their embodied perspectives.
The tight focus on the family’s travails belies a structuring absence in Midnight Traveler: the cause and history of the conflict that Fazili, Fatima, and their daughters are fleeing. There’s discussion of the Taliban but not of the other major force at play in war-torn Afghanistan: the United States-led coalition force that’s been fighting in the country for nearly two decades. That NATO now forces refugees from the destabilized region into legal limbo—that seeking help from the U.S., the leader of the coalition, doesn’t even appear to be within the realm of possibilities—may be the unspoken point of this harrowing film.
Director: Hassan Fazili Screenwriter: Emelie Mahdavian Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Interview: Rob Zombie on 3 from Hell, Manson, and the Charisma of Evil
Zombie discusses how he corrals his films’ furious sense of energy and how sex appeal can trump common moral sense.
Musician Rob Zombie is also one of the most original and distinctive of modern horror directors, having fused the theatricality of his concerts and videos with the tropes of Southern-fried slasher films to arrive at an aesthetic that captures the narcotic pull of violence. His films, which include House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects, The Lords of Salem, and the dramatically underrated Halloween II, often feature characters who are gutter poets and expert tenders to their own mythology in the tradition of Charles Manson.
Zombie’s villains also often suggest musicians themselves, as they’re elaborately outfitted and self-conscious of their murder sprees as a kind of performance art, which Zombie films up close with piercing intimacy, fetishizing power while also dramatizing the pain and humiliation of death in extremis. At their best, Zombie’s films are so unnerving because he plunges you unapologetically into their aggression and squalor, which he laces with shards of dark and even unexpectedly loony comedy. (In The Devil’s Rejects, a band of killers has an elaborate argument over whether or not to stop for ice cream.)
Zombie’s latest, 3 from Hell, continues the story of the filmmaker’s most famous characters, the Firefly clan of House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, played by Sid Haig, Bill Mosley, and Zombie’s wife, Sheri Moon Zombie. Last seen going out in a blaze of glory, the Firefly Clan, newly revived and captured by the law, of course embarks on another bender of ultraviolence. Richard Brake, the MVP of Zombie’s 31, plays a new killer who joins the clan, which eventually winds up in a Mexican town that bears a resemblance to the climactic setting of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Speaking on the phone with Zombie last week, we discussed how he corrals his films’ furious sense of energy, his love of screwing with typecasting, and how sex appeal can trump common moral sense.
Your films have a volatile and intimate style, and I’m curious about how you achieve that tone. Is there a rehearsal process? Do your actors need to work themselves up?
Well, we do try to rehearse whenever possible. Rehearsal time seems to be harder and harder these days for films. Have you seen 3 from Hell?
Okay, one scene in particular was difficult: the one where everybody’s held captive in the house, and the warden comes back with Baby. That scene was very difficult because in one room we have, I don’t know, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight actors. First of all, it’s a nightmare to block, because you got people going every which way and in every which direction. And it was just falling flat. The actors kept rehearsing and rehearsing and we could just not energize it. It just kept feeling stagey, and we were all confused because everybody was doing it right. And it was like, “What is the element that’s missing? Why is this not igniting the way it should?” It was driving us all crazy.
Was there any decisive “wrong” thing or was it a matter of fine-tuning everything?
It just wasn’t kicking off on the right foot. And we changed it so that Baby comes through the door, she’s excited at what’s going on and it was just something about that moment. We made one little tweak to how someone was going to do a line of dialogue, and it’s amazing how it created this domino effect and sent this energy through the room, and the whole scene just became crazy. But it’s really frustrating sometimes when you’re trying to figure things out because we’re all working on such a time constraint. It’s not like, “Ah, we got together and rehearsed for 12 weeks.” That was the first time those eight people had ever been in a room together you know, and we’re trying to make this explosive, very complicated scene happen. You keep searching until you figure it out.
I remember watching that long making-of extra on The Devil’s Rejects DVD, and it seemed then like that tight schedule was a source of inspiration. Is that fair to say?
The tight schedule is a blessing and a curse. But I think the curse part would’ve happened no matter what. I’ve made movies with much longer schedules and there’s never enough time. I’m sure when they were shooting Jaws on day 500 they were like, “We need more time!” I don’t think it matters how much time you have, you still don’t have enough time because you always think you can make it better. On most movies, actors shoot something and then go back to their trailer, they play video games, they take a nap, they read a book, they chit chat, have a cigarette. Nobody leaves the set when I’m shooting, because we never have enough down time for them to go anywhere. And that way, they’re always there and in the moment. And that’s what you need: You need to yell “action” and they’re still there. Because it’s really hard when you start a scene, whether it’s a high-energy scene or a low-energy scene, and then people break it down for a half hour while they change the lights. Actors just lose the vibe, and then they come back in and are like, “Ah, man, where was I? What was happening?” And whenever you break for lunch, it’s like, “Ah, crap.” There’s that after lunch lull where everybody comes back full and you gotta ramp everybody’s energy up. So the short schedule works, because we never stop, we never stop, we never stop. And I think the actors like it better because they don’t want to sit by themselves all day in a trailer. They wanna act. It’s like a play.
In 3 from Hell, I like the energy of Baby’s prison scenes, and I love Dee Wallace. Her role is a great bit of anti-typecasting.
Well, I like anti-typecasting. We’ve worked with Dee several times, and Sheri had worked with Dee quite a bit on Lords of Salem. So, I like when I know that actors have a good working energy together, because sometimes they don’t and that can be problematic. When I first offered Dee the role, she didn’t say yes right away. She was like, “Oh God, this is so different, I gotta think about it.” And then the next day she said yes. Because, you know, she usually plays the nice mom or the nice whatever, I guess she’s been typecast since E.T. But, you know, now you can be the mean, shitty lesbian prison guard. You’re an actor, you got it. [laughs]
What makes Dee really pop in this role is that the niceness isn’t entirely gone. The character is chilling because she has a strange vulnerability.
There’s a weird dynamic we wanted to create, where she’s not just this prison guard from something like The Big Bird Cage. Dee’s character is in awe of Baby and in love with her but hates her guts at the same time. I always like creating these weird relationships between the characters. Baby’s in Dee’s head and she knows it. To diverge for a second, I remember seeing this footage of Charles Manson. He was coming in to sit down to be interviewed by Tom Snyder or whoever. In the outtakes before the interview started, Manson was standing there bullshitting with the film crew. It’s so weird. He’s like, “Hey, man, where you from? Oh shit, man, I’ve been there before.” The crew doesn’t think of Manson as a murderer, he’s like a rock star to them. There’s this weird fascination because he’s so fucking famous. It’s a sick thing.
Your films have an edge because they’re willing to tap that fascination. You’re willing to leave moralism behind and groove on the charisma of these evil people. You’re honest about the cultural attraction to killers. Do you think of it that way?
Yeah, I totally do. The reason I can get away with the Fireflies doing what they do in these movies, and people liking them, is because they’re cool and charismatic and sexy. That’s who people are drawn to. If they were like hideous to look at and disgusting, audiences would say they’re horrible. But this guy looks like he’s, you know, Gregg Allman, and this girl looks like she’s like Farrah Fawcett, these guys are awesome! People are into them.
You have a good point. People don’t quite worship David Berkowitz the way they do Charles Manson. One has the sex factor.
Yeah, there’s a cool factor. Manson does look like Dennis Wilson or John Lennon. Though when you research, when Manson and the family shaved their heads and put the swastikas on their foreheads, they lost the youth culture. Before, people were outside the courthouse in L.A., and they were interviewing people, and some of them were wearing “free Manson” shirts. The Family was on the cover of Rolling Stone and all the hippie rags. But the swastikas made people think, “Okay, he’s not the cool hippie dude we thought he was.” Would Jimi Hendrix have been who he was if he was a big fat bald guy? No, it’s because he was fucking cool. Would the Beatles have been the Beatles if they were all ugly, stupid-looking dudes? No, it’s because everyone thought they were good-looking. That goes so far in the world. More now than ever.
Review: Young Ahmed Doesn’t Imagine the Inner Life of an Aspiring Radical
The Dardennes maintain a distance from Ahmed as a way of celebrating their refusal to reduce him to any easy psychological bullet points.2
With Young Ahmed, writer-director Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne apply their pared-down aesthetic to especially provocative subject matter: the radicalization of a teenager living in a small Belgium village. At the start of the film, Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) has already fallen in with a manipulative mentor, Imam Youssouf (Othmane Mouman), who sees everyone but himself as an apostate. Drinking in Youssouf’s teachings, which increasingly endorse jihad, Ahmed is immediately seen as closed-off and incapable of empathy, calling his mother (Claire Bodson) an alcoholic and harassing his teacher, Inès (Myriem Akheddiou), for daring to teach Arabic in a fashion that children find pleasurable.
Over the years, the Dardennes’ aversion to melodrama has been revelatory, allowing small moments to reverberate with an impact that underscores the profound majesty and terror inherent in everyday life. And, on the surface, Young Ahmed feels like a classic Dardenne production, as it’s been staged with their customary docudramatic urgency.
Compact tracking shots capture Ahmed’s escalating frustration, turning his attempts to protest his school and family into miniature studies of process. A few of these sequences are brilliant, particularly the long wind-up preceding the scene in which Ahmed tries to kill Inès for utilizing pop music as a teaching tool. The Dardennes emphasize the chilling carefulness with which Ahmed wraps a knife up in napkins; even in murder, he’s a diligent student, eager in his way to please and be heard. When Ahmed takes a swing at Inès, the Dardennes time it so that we are as shocked as she is, even though we’ve already witnessed an excruciatingly suspenseful scene in which Ahmed diligently makes his way up to her classroom.
But the Dardennes’ minimalism also feels like an evasive and self-congratulatory stunt in Young Ahmed. In many of their films, elliptical structures communicate the scattershot-ness of people’s lives, suggesting an endless string of calamity and confusion. Here, though, the ellipses suggest an unwillingness to imagine the inner life of an aspiring radical. The Dardennes’ decision to begin the film with Ahmed already in the sway of repressive, violent ideology is a deliberate one, so that his emotional fall won’t be the focus of the audience’s attention. Initially, the Dardennes don’t exactly engender pity for Ahmed, as that response would compromise their fetishizing of his impenetrability as a testament to their own humanist bona fides. In other words, the Dardennes maintain a distance from Ahmed as a way of celebrating their refusal to reduce him to any easy psychological bullet points, which ironically reduces him to something else: a signifier of their virtue.
Yet Ahmed’s seduction by Youssouf is still fleetingly “explained” with references to family trauma that unsurprisingly suggest that Ahmed has daddy issues and is looking for a mentor. The Dardennes don’t dramatize these traumas, as such events might destabilize the plaintive quotidian mood they cultivate throughout and require them to stretch and challenge the strict boundaries they’ve applied to this subject matter. Other key moments are astonishingly left off screen as well, such as when Ahmed’s mother learns that her son has attempted murder. Such scenes would probably provide the audience with an emotional catharsis, which would disrupt the traditional Dardenne formula of delaying such a crescendo until the final moment.
Young Ahmed is staked entirely on dolling out suggestive bread crumbs, until we’re finally permitted to cry when Ahmed learns the error of his ways—a moment that’s as pat as it is well-staged. In the end, the film is melodramatic, though it’s pitched at arthouse audiences who see themselves as superior to melodrama. In Robert Bresson’s work, delayed gratification suggests the holiness of all moments, climatic and ordinary alike—a state that the Dardennes have achieved in the past on their own stylistic terms. In Young Ahmed, though, this device empowers them to prune their thorny subject matter down to an inspirational punchline.
Cast: Idir Ben Addi, Myriem Akheddiou, Othmane Moumen, Olivier Bonnaud, Victoria Bluck, Claire Bodson, Amine Hamidou, Yassine Tarsimi, Cyra Lassman Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne Screenwriter: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Oh Mercy! Is a Bracing Study of Violence Born of Helplessness
Arnaud Desplechin evinces a glancing touch with showing how social tension and need inform law and crime.3
Arnaud Desplechin’s Oh Mercy! exudes a loose and anecdotal rhythm that refutes traditional three-act plotting. Based on a 2008 documentary, the film follows a police precinct in Roubaix as it pursues various cases, and Desplechin is bracingly concerned less with any isolated crime or character than he is in conveying simultaneousness by seizing on stray details. There’s a sense in Oh Mercy! of the dwarfing mechanics of maintaining process amid chaos, which is rare for films and common of perfunctory crime novels
Before the authorities in Desplechin’s film can comprehend an act of arson, a serial rapist commits another assault in a subway. And before someone can make sense of that action, a girl runs away. Police officers drift in and out of the frame making vivid impressions, such as Benoît (Stéphane Duquenoy), a beefy man who specializes in sex crimes and balks at handling the subway case, wondering why a woman can’t be assigned to address the needs of the young female victim. And presiding over the madness is the police captain, Yakoub Daoud (Roschdy Zem), a quiet and dignified model of patience and sobriety, who must navigate nesting strands of social tensions, on the personal as well as the political level.
Oh Mercy! is a striking stylistic departure for Desplechin. By the standards of florid pseudo auto-biopics such as Kings and Queen and Ismael’s Ghosts, this film is an exercise in formal and tonal restraint. Desplechin has cited The Wrong Man as an influence here, and one can see the Alfred Hitchcock film’s docudramatic legacy in prolonged sequences that savor the particulars of, say, taking fingerprints, or of advising a suspect to shed all potentially dangerous articles of clothing, such as a belt or the cord in a hoodie.
Considering the hyperbole of many of his prior films, Desplechin evinces a glancing touch with showing how social tension and need inform law and crime. Daoud, for instance, is of Algerian descent, and his whole family returned to their homeland a few years back. This information is revealed pointedly yet fleetingly and allowed to hang in the air, though Desplechin and Zem, in a tough and evocative performance, dramatize how the character uses his outsider status to play the role of the sage and the alien. Zem also explores—though tossed-off looks and the elegant stiffness of his posture—the loneliness of such a state.
Desplechin doesn’t speechify in Oh Mercy!, but Daoud’s ancestry obviously evokes France’s role in the Algerian War. And the crimes that plague Roubaix underscore the modern crisis of French neighborhoods that are succumbing to poverty, as people flee or steal and kill as small businesses dry up. Roubaix is said here to be rife with neighborhoods that people with common sense should avoid, and, as the crimes pile up, Desplechin communicates an impression of police officers trying in vain to stave off a gathering storm. Oh Mercy! is set around Christmastime, and the holiday lights seem to mock the austere and ramshackle buildings. For the first half of the film, few crimes have any resolution, and Desplechin’s devotion to loose, unfulfilled narrative strands is poignant and daringly risks frustration.
Oh Mercy! is partially disappointing because Desplechin doesn’t fulfill the thrilling randomness of his conceit, as the film does settle on a “big case,” though even in this narrative certain textures are distinctive. For one, that big case—the murder of an elderly woman for pitiful, petty reasons that are realistic of actual crimes—bleeds into the earlier arson case, as the witnesses of the latter are the perpetrators of the former. Are the murder and the arson connected? Desplechin is also content to let that possibility hang.
As Daoud, Benoît, and others question Claude (Léa Seydoux) and Marie (Sara Forestier) for the murder, Desplechin reveals the police to be earnest and inventive to the point of courting authoritarianism, particularly Daoud, a brilliant empath who uses his outsider status to identify the bitterness, the poverty, the alienation, that have driven Claude and Marie to kill more or less for the hell of it, turning it against them in increasingly manipulative measures. Desplechin’s allegiance to The Wrong Man is evident here in the sheer obsessive length of these sequences, as the assorted interrogations of Claude and Marie are essentially the entire second half of the film. Like Hitchcock, Desplechin wants us to feel the suspects’ entrapment.
Unlike the Hitchcock of The Wrong Man, Desplechin fosters a conflicted, disturbing kind of double empathy: Daoud, largely a good man, becomes a debatably justified tyrant, especially when he handcuffs himself to Claude and questions her in a confrontation that has a sexual intimacy, and Claude and Marie, killers, are unmistakably tragic. The film’s master image is among the greatest images of Desplechin’s career: the women, recreating their strangulation of the victim for the police, briefly hold their hands together under the victim’s pillow. Here, Desplechin links unforgiveable violence with ferocious human need.
Cast: Roschdy Zem, Léa Seydoux, Sara Forestier, Antoine Reinartz, Sébastien Delbaere, Christophe Filbien, Damien Giloteaux, Jérémy Brunet, Stéphane Duquenoy Director: Arnaud Desplechin Screenwriter: Arnaud Desplechin, Léa Mysius Running Time: 119 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Marriage Story Is a Blistering Look at the Charred Aftermath of Love
Throughout, the subtle glimpses of a couple’s lingering affection for one another complicate the bitterness of their separation.3
Like most of Noah Baumbach’s films, Marriage Story initially occupies a rather nebulous spot between broad-strokes comedy and raw melodrama. For one, its depiction of the challenges of a young couple’s divorce makes plenty of room for inside jokes about the art word and its oddball denizens. But as the initially amicable split between an acclaimed New York playwright, Charlie (Adam Driver), and his actress wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), takes a sour turn, the film becomes more acerbic, fixating on how familiarity breeds contempt. At one point, we catch a glimpse of old magazine profile of the couple—written at the height of their artistic collaboration and domestic bliss—titled “Scenes from a Marriage,” a throwaway allusion to Ingmar Bergman that’s also a winking promise of the decline and fall to come.
At first looking to handle their divorce without the involvement of lawyers, Charlie and Nicole hit a rough patch when latter, who gave up a Hollywood career to move to New York and act in Charlie’s avant-garde plays, heads back to Los Angeles to shoot a television pilot, taking with her the couple’s young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). While in town, the various divorcées on set encourage Nicole to lawyer up, and she takes a meeting with divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), a yuppie whose breezy chattiness can turn on a dime to cold-blooded strategic talk over how to win a court battle that Nicole doesn’t even want to be a part of.
Nicole, so passive at the start of her meeting with Nora, is initially marginalized within the frame by cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s camera, isolated in a corner of the room in angled compositions that make her look smaller than she really is. But as she begins to talk about her relationship, Nicole almost subconsciously begins to assert herself, getting up and walking around Nora’s office like she owns the place. Gradually, Marriage Story reorients the camera around Nicole, pushing closer until she dominates the frame. In an instant, you can sense that her meekness has been replaced by outrage at Charlie’s accumulated microaggressions.
Abruptly, an ostensibly pain-free divorce turns ugly, with Nicole serving a bewildered and hurt Charlie with legal papers. As Johansson plays up Nicole’s increasingly steely resolve against Charlie, Driver emphasizes Charlie’s bafflement as he’s forced to keep flying between New York and L.A. to meet with what few attorneys in town Nicole didn’t consult with first, thus limiting his options. As Henry grows more literally and emotionally distant from his father, Charlie is set adrift, haplessly attempting to retain his child’s love and keep his cool with Nicole.
At first, the film’s portrait of Charlie’s shortcomings, of the way he directs everyone in his life as if they were starring in one of his plays, is almost forgiving. Indeed, Charlie is so mild-mannered that Nicole’s vindictive behavior toward him comes to feel monstrous in its overreaction. But just as Baumbach’s understanding of Nicole starts to verge on the misogynistic, the film abruptly course-corrects, shedding light onto how much of Charlie’s ostensibly kind nature is a mask for a deliberately controlling, narcissistic personality. And in a handful of scenes, Marriage Story homes in on just how perceptive Nicole was of his manipulations, forcing us to reconsider the justifiability of her rage against her husband.
Baumbach executes this sudden clarification of Charlie’s true self with incisive aplomb, and in no small part with the help of Driver’s emotionally charged pivot toward manifesting the depths of Charlie’s toxic entitlement. Nicole’s unyielding resolve to open Charlie’s eyes to his worst flaws culminates in a furious argument between the two in which Driver rips the mask off of Charlie’s ostensible patience and good-faith attempts at an amicable split. The more heated the two get, the deeper they reach into their arsenal of repressed grievances to craft more savage criticisms of the other’s failings. Baumbach uses arrhythmic shot-reverse-shot patterns throughout the film to stress the latent tension in Charlie and Nicole’s interactions, but here each cut adds an element of danger, following the rapid escalation of fury between the frayed couple to the point that one expects violence at any second.
As dark as it gets, Marriage Story regularly offsets its tension with comic relief, particularly in a strong set of supporting performances. Alan Alda shines as Charlie’s genteel divorce attorney, Bert Spitz, who reassures his client that they won’t go all the way to court but must act as if they are, which, in a twisted bit of legal logic worthy of Joseph Heller, only makes a court battle all the more likely. And when a court-appointed social worker (Mary Hollis Inboden) comes to evaluate Charlie’s behavior around Henry, she exudes a stiff politeness, somehow both quizzical and clinically disinterested. This makes for erratic rhythms in conversation that, as a befuddled Charlie attempts to pass her inspection, cast the woman as both straight man and foil. “Do you ever observe married couples,” Charlie asks at one point, desperate to fill the frequent silence left by her visit. “No,” she responds, the confusion in her voice her first outward display of emotion. “Why would I?”
But the film’s prevailing mood is one of flailing anger and pain. Even at its most blistering, though, Marriage Story contains small moments of grace in which Nicole and Charlie reflexively help or comfort each other. These subtle glimpses of their lingering affection for one another and familiarity complicate the bitterness of their separation. Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference,” and only two people who were once as deeply in love as Nicole and Charlie were could have spent so long observing every minute detail of their partner to become so obsessed with each other’s flaws in the first place.
Cast: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Julie Hagerty, Azhy Robertson, Ray Liotta, Mary Hollis Inboden Director: Noah Baumbach Screenwriter: Noah Baumbach Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 135 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Villains Serves Up Gratingly Quirky Case-and-Mouse Hijinks
Maika Monroe’s engaging performance serves only to highlight how feeble and unconvincing the rest of the film is.1.5
It’s emblematic of the problems with Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s blackly comic thriller Villains that by far the most compelling thing in the film is its end credits sequence. Set to Courtney Barnett’s grungy punk anthem “Pedestrian at Best,” the animated end titles are an explosion of whacked-out Day-Glo excess, suggesting a film of raucousness and acidity rather than the gratingly quirky cat-and-mouse game to which they’re attached.
Villains pits an ostensibly lovable pair of offbeat outlaws, Jules (Maika Monroe) and Mickey (Bill Skarsgård), against an oddball husband-and-wife duo, George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick), whose impeccable manners and stuck-in-the-‘70s aesthetic belies their complete sociopathy. The film opens on Jules and Mickey haphazardly, but successfully, robbing a convenience store before promptly running out of gas not long after making their getaway. What seems like the setup for a jokey riff on the Bonnie and Clyde story takes a darker turn when the drug-addled duo breaks into a nearby house hoping to steal a car or at least siphon some gas only to find a young girl (Blake Baumgartner) chained up in the basement. Just as Jules and Mickey are deciding what to do with the kid, George and Gloria arrive home, setting off a game of brinkmanship between the two couples.
While Berk and Olsen manage a few clever twists, there’s no sense of stakes throughout, and in no small part because the four main characters feel less like real people caught up in a dangerous situation than repositories of phony eccentricities. George and Gloria’s house, furnished in the style of the late 1970s, with burnt-orange couches and an antique cathode-ray TV, is too impeccably art-directed to feel like anything other than a film set. His smooth-talking salesman patter is overwritten, robbing the character of any truly sinister edge. And while her bizarre behavior—she seduces Mickey with a burlesque routine and treats a baby doll as if it were her infant son—is supposedly motivated by her mental instability, it comes off more like the filmmakers’ desperate attempts to get a rise out of the audience.
Jules and Mickey are a bit more down to earth but scarcely more believable, mostly because Villains feels the need to keep underlining the zaniness of their criminality as, for example, they struggle to figure out how to rob a cash register and snort cocaine for energy the way Popeye eats spinach. It doesn’t help that the performances tend toward the mannered and over-the-top. Donovan and Sedgwick adopt the exaggerated Southern drawl of a televangelist couple, while Skarsgård is shouty and demonstrative. Only Monroe really strikes the right balance between the absurd and the sincere, finding a sense of vulnerability within Jules’s naïve dreaminess. But her sensitive, engaging performance stands out too sharply, ultimately serving only to highlight how feeble and unconvincing the rest of the film is.
Cast: Bill Skarsgård, Maika Monroe, Jeffrey Donovan, Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Baumgartner, Noah Robbins Director: Dan Berk, Robert Olsen Screenwriter: Dan Berk, Robert Olsen Distributor: Alter Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: The Laundromat Flimsily Addresses the Panama Papers Scandal
Steven Soderbergh takes a macro approach to the scandal, though the results, with rare exception, are vexingly micro.1.5
Steven Soderbergh takes a macro approach to the true-life Panama Papers scandal with The Laundromat, though the results, with rare exception, are vexingly micro. Smug one-percenters Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) and Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman, speaking in an uproariously broad German accent) are the often on-screen narrators of the film. They’re the heads of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca & Co., which provided offshore financial services to shady clientele (Wall Street types, arms merchants and dictators, Margaret Thatcher’s son, etc.) until a leak by an anonymous source, still known only as “John Doe,” brought the company down in 2016 and led to global repercussions.
From the showy first scene (Soderbergh once again serves as director of photography under his usual pseudonym, Peter Andrews), the dapperly dressed Fonseca and Mossack act like the wronged heroes of an ages-old saga. They pompously begin their story at the start of humanity, the two of them, like gods in tailored suits, gifting a group of cavemen the means to make fire. In the same shot, the duo descends into a gaudy nightclub where they attempt to explain, Big Short-style, the enduring power of money and the ways in which shell companies shield the super-rich from taxes. It’s a to-camera lecture that’s drier than the Sahara Desert. Though the woozy ennui that quickly sets in seems somewhat intentional, as if Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, adapting Jake Bernstein’s 2017 book Secrecy World, are making the point that schemes like this are by their nature insipid and impossible to explain. The less sense it all makes, the better protection for those massive liquid assets.
There is, of course, an ample human cost to all the wheeling and dealing. Some of the money Mossack Fonseca oversaw was connected to a low-cost insurance company that sold a fraudulent policy to Shoreline Cruises, the tourist outfit behind the 2005 Ethan Allen boat accident on Lake George, in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, that claimed 21 lives. Soderbergh very effectively recreates that tragedy here, focusing in particular on retiree Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), whose husband, Joe (James Cromwell), drowns after the vessel capsizes. Ellen launches her own investigation when the insurance payout from Joe’s death proves a pittance and the “golden years” existence she hoped for slips away. (Sharon Stone pops up as an officious realtor who snatches the Las Vegas apartment of Ellen’s dreams right out from under her.) Ellen, however, is more of a recurring protagonist since The Laundromat takes a Traffic approach narratively, jumping around the globe for a series of visually color-coded vignettes that focus on different, and seemingly disparate, characters.
There’s a noirish encounter between the Ethan Allen’s bewildered Captain Perry (Robert Patrick) and the agitated go-between, Matthew Quirk (David Schwimmer), who bought the illicit insurance policy that’s landed Shoreline Cruises in hot water. Elsewhere, a ludicrously wealthy man (Nonso Anozie), preparing for a party in his sun-soaked mansion, navigates the fall-out from an affair by attempting to buy the silence of both his daughter (Jessica Allain) and his wife (Nikki Amuka-Bird) with a portfolio that’s ostensibly, but not actually, worth millions. But the best in a largely banal show is a gut-busting visit to a dusty south-of-the-border bar where Will Forte and Chris Parnell, playing characters credited as “Doomed Gringo #1” and “Doomed Gringo #2,” discuss Neil Diamond and run afoul of a cartel boss.
As in Soderbergh’s Traffic, all of these bits and pieces are connected, in this case to Mossack Fonseca’s underhanded business practices. And also like Traffic, The Laundromat flirts with and occasionally tips over into racist stereotyping, as in a chilly Far East vignette in which Matthias Schoenaerts plays a debonair man of mystery named Maywood who’s poisoned by a woman, Gu Kailai (Rosalind Chao), who has high-up connections to the Chinese government and very much acts the part of the nefarious Dragon Lady seductress.
Streep herself is involved in another kind of ethnically based narrative wrinkle, though it’s something of a spoiler to say exactly how. (Best to just note that Ellen Martin isn’t the only role that the actress plays here.) The particulars of this choice are staggeringly ill-advised. Though they do act as foundation for The Laundromat’s impressive coup-de-cinema finale in which Streep sheds several chameleonic skins and offers a fourth-wall-shattering call to arms—a bold climax in no way worthy of the flimsy film that precedes it.
Cast: Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Jeffrey Wright, Melissa Rauch, Jeff Michalski, Jane Morris, Robert Patrick, David Schwimmer, Cristela Alonzo, Larry Clarke, Will Forte, Chris Parnell, Nonso Anozie, Larry Wilmore, Jessica Allain, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Matthias Schoenarts, Rosalind Chao, Kunjue Li, Ming Lo, James Cromwell, Sharon Stone Director: Steven Soderbergh Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: To the Ends of the Earth Masterfully Reckons with the Nature of Fear
With his latest, Kiyoshi Kurosawa celebrates the conquering of fear as our greatest hope against the world’s horrors.4
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films are, by and large, intensely fixated on representing the experience of fear, and the range of human preoccupations that generate it: burgeoning technological development, encroaching environmental disaster, ecological instability, the lingering presence of the dead, and, of course, our capacities and limitations as individuals. More recently, the Japanese auteur has illustrated just how foundational, and persuasive, that fear is to the human psyche through a more stripped-down aesthetic. And this approach led him to a logical terminus: 2016’s Creepy, a seemingly straightforward procedural that, in its absence of any real explanation for the violent behaviors that its characters are prone to, put forth the chilling suggestion that no less than our free will itself is innately negated by the insurmountable influence of our own fear.
Kurosawa’s latest represents an even more radical departure for the filmmaker, as he abandons his typically taut narrative framework for a film squarely focused on character—a strategy that results in the his most intricately rendered portrait of the psychology of fear to date. To the Ends of the Earth is not, by any measure, a horror film, but it uses aesthetic and philosophical foundations that Kurosawa laid in his genre work to insinuate tensions and anxieties lurking beneath the serene surface of everyday life. The film’s setup could almost be interpreted as a kind of self-aware joke: A Japanese camera crew arrive in Uzbekistan with the purpose of shooting footage for a travel show and become increasingly frustrated over not having enough usable material. As such, generally little in the way of incident occurs for much of the film. However, To the Ends of the Earth isn’t just a meandering film born of an auteur’s plane ticket to a foreign country: If Kurosawa is less interested in narrative dynamics, it’s because he’s focused on an acute understanding of societally and sociologically conditioned behavior.
Yoko (Atsuko Maeda) is a diligent and unwavering TV host, and the sole woman traveling with the camera crew. When the cameras are on her, she performs energetically and enthusiastically, without hesitation—wolfing down a bowl of undercooked rice with aplomb and toughing out multiple turns on a ludicrously raucous amusement park ride, all so that her cohorts can “get the shot.” Off camera, though, a very different Yoko appears: a docile young woman whose exchanges with her director, Yoshioko (Shota Sometani), and cameraman, Iwao (Ryo Kase), are marked by an obvious impression that, as a woman, she reacts subordinately to the men who give her instructions, even when doing so puts her wellbeing at risk. Yoko’s gender likewise colors her interactions with the Uzbeks she encounters: One man bristles at taking her out in his boat, and another shows great concern for her safety when she’s on the park ride, but only in a way that infantilizes her, as he initially assumes that Yoko is “under age,” then refers to her as a “child” even after it’s explained to him that she’s an adult.
The film seems at first to position itself as a study on how gender roles inform the different ways that Yoko is treated by the countryman with whom she’s traveling, and by the local Uzbeks. But Kurosawa has only just begun to develop his underlying thesis by this point. As Yoko strikes out on her own, exploring the landscape of an entirely foreign Uzbekistan, she’s guided by both her curiosity and her considerable cautiousness, two poles of her personality that determine behavior in a variety of spaces, from the more sparsely populated residential areas, to the densely crowded marketplaces, to the sprawling plains beyond the city.
Since Yoko herself doesn’t speak the language, Kurosawa chooses not to subtitle the Uzbek dialogue spoken throughout To the Ends of the Earth, and this decision, combined with the use of a filmic grammar that often feels ported over from the director’s horror films (dramatic lighting, wide frames that emphasize an individual’s feelings of alienation, and eerie silences), serves to envelop us in the psychological space of a young woman whose emotional engagement with a foreign culture, as well as her careerist ambitions and her ability to be open with those around her, are subject to ingrained fears and anxieties.
Kurosawa elevates his film above exploitation of these feelings with a pair of sequences that gesture toward profound understanding. In the first, Yoko hears the distant sound of a woman singing, enters into an imposing building from which the voice emanates, and wanders through a series of rooms, with Kurosawa’s camera tracking behind her. Each room has its own unique design and distinctive color scheme, and as Kurosawa begins to match-cut between them, Yoko seems as if she’s being surreally transported through some unconscious space. Finally, the rooms lead to a lavish concert hall, the lights dim, and Kurosawa cuts from a close-up of Yoko’s face in shadow to a wide shot of a stage, where Yoko suddenly, and disarmingly, launches into a Japanese rendition of Edith Piaf’s “Hymne à l’amour.”
Soon after, Yoko awakes in her hotel room, unsure if what she experienced was dream or reality, and we’re left unsure as to what the liberated charge of her performance is really meant to represent. But later, a translator for Yoko and her crew, Temur (Adiz Rajabov), explains the history behind the Navoi Theater, the building that Yoko may or may not have already visited. Temur explains that the theater was built by Japanese POWs in World War II, who carefully followed the instructions of their captors in crafting six waiting rooms, each designed according to a different Uzbek regional style. Timur marvels at the story of men who “had been enemy combatants,” but who worked hard and created something transcendent. The scene concludes, with a close-up of Yoko, as she processes what she’s heard.
Just as the Navoi Theater was a catalyst for Japanese prisoners to transcend the horrors of war, the story of its construction impresses upon Yoko the possibility of liberating herself from her own deepest fears about the world. The rest of the film, then, imbues its most harrowing moments—including a chase sequence and a sudden threat to Yoko’s boyfriend back in Tokyo—with a new emotional and philosophical gravitas. This shift also serves to recontextualize Kurosawa’s horror aesthetics as a means of progressing to the film’s final moment of catharsis. “Even if the sky falls and the Earth goes to pieces/I won’t be afraid,” sings Yoko with absolute conviction—a declaration that, it cannot be discounted, also serves to punctuate a career spent crafting apocalyptic narratives depicting the ruin of humanity. With To the Ends of the Earth, Kurosawa celebrates the conquering of fear as our greatest hope against the world’s horrors.
Cast: Atsuko Maeda, Shôta Sometani, Ryo Kase, Adiz Rajabov, Tokio Emoto Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa Screenwriter: Kiyoshi Kurosawa Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
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