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Understanding Screenwriting #42: The Book of Eli, Valentine’s Day, Test Pilot, & More

Actors often say they take a role in a film because of the director.

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The Book of Eli
Photo: Warner Bros.

Coming up in this column: The Book of Eli, Valentine’s Day, Theater of War, Hamlet 2, Test Pilot, Prince Valiant, In the Line of Fire, Life Unxpected, Temple Grandin

The Book of Eli (2010. Written by Gary Whitta. 118 minutes)

A stranger comes into town…: I am not normally a fan of post-apocalyptic movies. My left brain always has trouble with the reality of the details. For example, if it is all arid and dusty, where do they get their food? Where do they get their refined gasoline to drive their motorcycles and trucks? Where do they get the bullets they fire off in great numbers? And so on. I had some of those problems with this movie, especially the bullets, but Whitta has thrown in a nice scene when The Man With No…, sorry, Eli, comes into a rundown town. He has not said much so far, as one might gather when one learns from Peter Clines’s article on the writing of the film in the January/February 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting that Whitta is a big fan of Sergio Leone and Toshirô Mifune samurai films. By the time he gets to town we already know he is a whiz with an industrial strength machete, having dispatched several hijackers on the road. We also know he doesn’t say much. Hey, if it worked for Eastwood, why not? So he goes into a store and negotiates swapping various stuff he has picked up along the way for other stuff he needs. I don’t know how much of the dialogue is in the script—most of it I would guess—but Denzel Washington as Eli and Tom Waits as the Shopkeeper get a nice rhythm going and we get a sense of what is now valuable and what is not any longer. If the rest of the film appeals to post-apocalyptic action junkies, this scene appeals to my left brain.

Eli is carrying, well, you can guess from the title of the film. What book? We assume early on that it is the Bible, but we are half-way into the film before Whitta tells us. In the early drafts he made it clearer earlier, but at the encouragement of his managers and the studio (Warner Bros), a lot of the religious material got cut down. Until Washington came on as the star and wanted some of it back. The balance the collaborators ended up with is good, since it does not make the film preachy. We are caught up with the characters and the situation. Carnegie, the town boss, wants the Bible because he can use it to increase his power. Chases and action ensue. The directors are the Hughes Brothers and they know how to stage action. I could have done without what the New Yorker blurb calls the “brown-and-white” photography. It probably did not help that I had caught about fifteen minutes (the arrival of Lawrence and Farraj at the deserted army post by the Suez Canal) of Lawrence of Arabia the night before I saw Eli, which does put the Brothers’ desert landscapes to shame. On the other hand, they do get the most out of the actors. Mila Kunis plays Solara, who becomes a follower of Eli. She was cast for her looks, which are perfect for the part, but as she showed two years ago in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, she has some acting chops, which are also on display here. She holds her own against Washington. The Brothers may get too much out of Gary Oldman. Whitta has him wounded in the leg early in the film, and Oldman has never met a shtick like a game leg that he didn’t like a little more than he should.

The two twists at the end are rather inventive, one having to do with the book Eli is carrying, and the other having to do with how it is used in relation to Oldman and his mistress in their final scene. On the other hand, the very end of the film is so blatantly setting up a sequel that it left a bad taste in my mouth. Yes, I’d like to see that actor again, but not necessarily in that part.

Valentine’s Day (2010. Screenplay by Katherine Fugate, story by Katherine Fugate and Abby Kohn & Marc Silverstein. 125 minutes)

Valentine's Day

Not as good as Love, Actually, but not as bad as He’s Not That Into You: Yes, here we have another all-star cast, multiple stories rom-com. And it is not as bad as some of the reviews would have you believe. Or maybe it just seemed better to me because I saw it after I read the reviews. Or it may be that I live in Los Angeles and loved all the LA-centric jokes. Of course, it is also not up to What’s Cooking? (2000), which is still the best contemporary film that captures the real LA. But it has its LA moments, including one at the very beginning. I wrote before about the importance of starting a comedy off with a nice joke, and here’s this film’s one: A fleet of pick-up trucks, each with a similar bush in the back, is driving down the street in a very affluent neighborhood. They dance around each other as they turn into separate driveways. O.K., that may not strike you as funny if you live in Manhattan, but in LA the dance of the gardeners’ trucks is funny.

Over that shot and several others of morning in LA, we get voiceover from a couple of radio personalities. This sounds like something leftover from earlier drafts of the script, when one of the writers probably assumed they were going to need something like Wolfman Jack in American Graffiti (1973) to tie it all together. They don’t and the more stories they added, the more useless the narration is. The idea that it is Valentine’s Day and we are going to watch a bunch of romantic couples is fairly clear fairly early. Richard Curtis used Christmas in much the same way in Love, Actually (2003), but Curtis was smart enough not to stick to just romantic love. In Curtis’s film, in addition to the romances, we have the rock star Billy Mack’s relationship with his manager and Daniel trying to be a good father to his stepson. That provides a nice counterbalance to the romantic stories. Here, with one late-entry twist, it is all romance, all the time, but at least the writers catch the romances at different points in their relationships. Curtis managed to balance nine stories in his script, but Fugate tries for more. Her writing is not sharp enough to make them all work. Curtis is the master of giving us quick, sharp characterizations. In Valentine’s Day, the characterization is at least better than it was in last year’s He’s Not That Into You. You may remember my complaint from US #20 on that film that we never find out what a lot of the people do for a living. Here it is clear, starting with, appropriately enough, Reed, who owns a flower shop. That’s a convenient way to connect him with several other people in the film. Several others have work relationships with each other over a variety of professions, not all of them in show business.

On the other hand, the lack of characterization leaves some of the actors more or less adrift. Anne Hathaway’s Liz comes off best because she not only has an office job, but moonlights in an even more interesting line of work, which gives Hathaway a chance to show some acting chops of hers we have not heard before. And gives her boss, Queen Latifah, a great payoff scene at the end of the film. Latifah is even funnier in the real scene than she is in the outtake of at the end. Several of the male characters are rather bland, including Dr. Copeland, Jason, and for most of the film, Holden, who gets a nice twist at the end. Felicia is a teenage ditz, and an actress new to me, Taylor Swift, gives the part some real topspin. Some reviewers have panned Swift, and while I am not sure I want to see her try Lady Macbeth very soon, she is good here. I have heard rumors both that she can also sing and not sing.

Actors often say they take a role in a film because of the director. The director here is Garry Marshall, and he has had enough success, at least commercially, with the rom-com genre to encourage all these actors to sign up. Stay through at least the first set of outtakes, since the last one is Julia Roberts having some fun with one of her previous adventures with Marshall. Better actors should look at the script than the director. Marshall directs the actors well (although I agree with the review in Variety that said the cinematography does the actresses no favors), but the script does not give them enough interesting stuff to do. See below for a script that does right by its stars.

Theater of War (2008. No writer credit, but directed and edited by John Walter. 95, 96 or 100 minutes, depending on your source)

Theater of War

Bertolt Brecht meets Mr. Ed: I did not know about this film at all when I came across it in my usual nighttime ramble. Before I turn off the television each night, I run down the guides Time-Warner provides for the assorted movie channels and set the DVR for what looks interesting. All the blurb on Sundance said on this one was it was a documentary about the production in 2006 in the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park of Brecht’s Mother Courage, with Meryl Streep as Mother. How had I missed that? (If I had been reading either Slant or The House Next Door in May 2008 I would have seen their reviews of it, but I didn’t come to The House until August of that year.) Well, it was not widely distributed, and I can see why.

Not that it is uninteresting. After all, you get to watch some of the brighter lights of the American Theatre put on a production of what is considered one of the great plays of the Twentieth Century. So we have a process, which can make for an interesting film. One problem is that we do not see much of the process. Streep’s performance seems pretty much the same in the rehearsals and the bits we see from the final performance. Streep at one point says she does not like to let people in to see the process, since it shows so much bad acting. Here it does not show so much bad acting as demonstrate why she was really miscast in the part. As one review (you can check out the few reviews of the film on the IMDb’s external review page) points out, she is a little too aristocratic for the part, and what we see of her performance is a little too mannered and fussy, as Streep can sometimes be.

Another problem is that the film keeps shifting focus from the production. It cuts to Jay Cantor, a novelist and professor, pontificating to his class about Marx and Brecht, but mostly about Marx. And then shifting to a mini-biography of Brecht. And then to some very interesting scenes with Carl Weber, who was an assistant to Brecht. And then to a combination of a book of stills of the first production in 1949, along with recordings of that production, which starred Brecht’s wife Helene Weigel, who was much more suited to the part than Streep. Bits of these discursions are interesting, most are not.

What is interesting, but not necessarily in the way I think the filmmaker intended, is the idolatry of both Marx and Brecht that keeps popping up. It shows up not only in Cantor’s comments, but in those from Tony Kushner (who adapted the play) and some of the other artists connected with the show. Brecht was certainly a giant of Twentieth Century theater, but much of his work has dated badly, at least in some part because of his doctrinaire Marxism. One of the problems that middle left intellectuals have had since the collapse of the Soviet empire was making Marxism convincing for the next generation. Cantor’s class does not seem particularly impressed by it. In the early ‘90s there was a small film studies conference at UCLA in which a bunch of Marxist film historians tried to figure out a way to maintain their “authenticity” in view of the collapse of communism. They generally have not figured out how to do it, and the writings of several of them, such as David Bordwell, have gotten a lot less obviously Marxist than they were before.

What that means for the production of Mother Courage is that for purposes of putting on the play, the artists have to take the audience to live in Brecht’s Marxist world to make it at all convincing on stage. Joe Dougherty, who was a writer on the television show thirtysomething, told me in an interview for my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing, that when he went to write an episode, he “went into a thirtysomething trance.” A slyer version of that idea came from the comedian George Burns, who was one of the producers on the talking horse series, Mr. Ed. He used to sit in on the writers’ conferences. At first he did not say much, but one day he stated, “If you don’t believe the horse talks, you can’t do this show.” In some part of your brain, when you write a Mr. Ed episode, you have to believe the horse talks. When you do Mother Courage, in some part of your brain, you have to be a Brechtian Marxist.

The question, which the film avoids like the plague, is did audiences in 2006 want to go and live in that world? In a spectacular failure of nerve, Walter does not give us any indication of how the production was received. We get no reviews (they were not that good), and no interviews with audience members. Did they believe the horse talked, or did they just come to see Meryl Streep?

Hamlet 2 (2008. Written by Pam Brady & Andrew Fleming. 92 minutes)

Hamlet 2

William Shakespeare meets Mr. Ed: I saw Theater of War in the afternoon and at night watched this fictional version of the talking horse problem. I had seen the trailers for this film back in 2008, and thought it looked like it might be amusing, but it had not been in theaters long enough for me to see it. It popped up on HBO. Boy, was I glad I hadn’t paid $20 for my wife and me to see it in a theater.

Dana is an actor who has ended up teaching drama in a high school in Tucson, Arizona. He puts on play versions of famous films, such as his two-actor production of Erin Brockovich. He decides to do an original, a sequel to Hamlet in which Hamlet comes back in a time machine along with Jesus and lives happily ever after. Hey, if Mel Brooks can do The Producers (the original 1968 movie) and “Springtime for Hitler,” why not Hamlet 2 and “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus”? Two problems: It’s not sharp and it’s not funny.

Brooks’s screenplay is more tightly focused than you might remember. We have the storyline of putting on a flop and we have the outrageous play within the film. Here we have a very unfocused story about Dana trying to save the drama program at the school while dealing with his students while dealing with his wife who eventually runs off with their boarder while dealing with…well, you get the picture. None of these story elements are done in an interesting or funny way. Mostly what is supposed to be funny just turns out to be silly. Dana’s behavior would have gotten him kicked out of any school in the country. Steve Coogan does not help by overacting. Some other scenes have no comic fizz to them at all. The scene in which his wife tells him she is leaving is written and played perfectly straight. Several elements are brought in and then not developed, such as using the Gay’s Men’s Chorus of Tucson as essentially backup singers for the production.

The play and its production are also not focused. We know in The Producers that the author intends Springtime for Hitler to be a serious defense of Nazi Germany, and the jokes key off that. In the stage play Hamlet 2, Dana is sort of working out his issues with his father, but that is overpowered by the stagecraft, whereas in “Springtime for Hitler,” the stagecraft (i.e., the Busby Berkeley overhead shot) carry through on the joke. “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” is supposed to be just as transgressive as “Springtime for Hitler,” but we have no idea why, since it just seems one other element in the show.

So here we have an example of the talking horse syndrome in reverse. We see the delusions that Dana is under about his life and talent. He believes his horse can talk, but it can’t. And the writers of the film thought it was funny, and it wasn’t.

Except for one audience. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008 and got such a good response that Focus Films picked up the distribution rights for $10 million. It grossed less than $5 million when it was released. Hamlet 2 is only one of a number of films that made a terrific impact at a film festival, and not just Sundance, and then died at the box office. Because so many films at film festivals are so bad—I have come to believe that film festivals exist primarily to sucker people into seeing movies they would not otherwise pay to see—every so often a movie like Hamlet 2 will come along and seem better than it is. Sometimes an audience will believe a horse can talk, even when it has nothing funny to say.

Test Pilot (1938. Screenplay by Vincent Lawrence and Waldemar Young (and Howard Hawks and John Lee Mahin, uncredited), based on a story by Frank Wead. 118 minutes)

Test Pilot

The MGM style in its full glory: I mentioned in US#41 in talking about Libeled Lady that the MGM screenplay style was to provide scenes for its stars. This is a perfect example of that, and an entertaining one to boot. Clark Gable is Jim Lane, a test pilot. Spencer Tracy is Gunner, his mechanic. Myrna Loy is a Kansas farm girl Lane meets and marries when his plane crashes on her farm. The rest of the film follows the ups and downs not only of Lane’s flying, but of their marriage. Look at the scene on Loy’s porch when she comes back from a date with her fiance and Gable is waiting for her. In narrative terms it does not have to be that long, but it gives Gable and Loy a wonderful scene to play. Much later Gable and Tracy have been AWOL from Loy for five days and come back to the apartment. Look at what the writers provide for Gable and Tracy to do while trying to figure out how to tell Loy, in the next room, that they are back. Look at Loy telling Tracy what she thinks the three roads in her life might be. And look at the scene between Gable and Lionel Barrymore as his boss near the end. As a star vehicle, the script is wonderful.

The scenes with the stars get us into the emotions of the scenes and the situations, often in obvious ways. But sometimes the focus on stars throws the scenes off. After a pilot is killed, the other pilots get drunk and ignore his death. Gable has a good time playing a drunk scene, but we don’t get under the surface of the emotions the way Jules Furthman does in a similar scene in his screenplay for Only Angels Have Wings a year later. As you know, I am always a little dubious about the uncredited writers the IMDb lists, and especially so when it turns out to be a director. But it is possible that Hawks worked on this and then went off and had Furthman write that script, which is based on a story by Hawks. Furthman is a better writer than the two credited writers on Test Pilot, which is why Only Angels Have Wings is a better movie. But boy, if you love Gable, Tracy, and Loy, you may not care.

Prince Valiant (1954. Screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based on the comic strip by Hal Foster. 100 minutes)

One of the later not-so-funny ones: In writing about the legendary screenwriter Dudley Nichols in FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film, I mentioned that he is best known for his serious work, such as The Informer (1935), Stagecoach (1939) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943). But I added that some us prefer his later, lighter ones such as this and Heller in Pink Tights (1960). Maybe, maybe not.

Nichols was one of the most highly respected screenwriters of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and he did as much as anybody to help persuade people that screenwriting was a serious business. He wrote essays and articles about it, and with John Gassner published a couple of volumes of best screenplays. Nichols’s reputation has diminished, since many of his highly acclaimed scripts of the period seem clunky and ponderous now. The symbolism he writes in The Informer is thuddingly obvious, e.g., the wanted poster for the man he informs on following Gypo around like a little dog. Although he wrote intelligently about the differences between film and theatre, he still was a very wordy writer. Well, if you are drawn to material like Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), which he both wrote and directed, you probably love words. On the other hand, his script for the 1940 The Long Voyage Home breaks up O’Neill’s four one-act plays into an interesting film structure. But I generally prefer Nichols’s less ponderous scripts. Rawhide (1951) reverses his situation in Stagecoach by having a group of people held hostage by the bad guys in a stagecoach station rather than a moving stagecoach, and becomes a competent little western thriller in the process.

The script for Prince Valiant is simply not as lighthearted as it should be. Aside from his credit on Bringing Up Baby (1938), there is not a lot of comedy in Nichols’s filmography. He was one of the writers on Cecil B. De Mille’s The Crusades (1935), where his heavy-handedness fit with De Mille’s approach, but the basic material in Prince Valiant is just not that substantial. We do get some good jousting and some great second unit scenery of England and English castles in the then-new CinemaScope process. This makes one remember that this was the film the head of the studio Darryl Zanuck kept referring to when Elia Kazan and Budd Shulberg tried to set up On the Waterfront at Fox. Zanuck should have stuck to what he knew best.

In the Line of Fire (1993. Screenplay by Jeff Maguire. 128 minutes)

In the Line of Fire

Bye Bye, Blockbuster: I was out for a walk a few weeks ago and noticed that my neighborhood Blockbuster store was closing. I really appreciated having it a couple of blocks away so that on a day when I had a couple of hours, I would wander in and see if anything jumped off the shelves saying, “Watch me! Watch me!” But now it is closing, and they were having an “Everything Must Go!” sale. I limited myself to ten DVDs. Some were older (Drums Along the Mohawk [1939]), some were ones I wanted to upgrade from my Beta and VHS panned-and-scanned versions (You Only Live Twice [1967], The Outlaw Josey Wales [1976]), and some, like this one, were just targets of opportunity.

The project began many years before the film was released. Jeff Apple, the producer, was fascinated the Secret Service’s job of protecting the president. One of Clint Eastwood’s biographers, Patrick McGilligan indicates it was Maguire who came on the project late and added the interesting detail that Frank Horrigan had been with Kennedy’s motorcade at Dallas and was haunted by his failure. The fact that the producers were looking at older actors for some time suggests it may have been part of the earlier scripts by other writers, as well as Apple’s comments that he first got interested in the subject during the Lyndon Johnson administration. In any case, that was an element that the various studios which were approached hated. They all wanted the character made younger and hotter. Which would have turned this into just another cop chasing just another mad would-be killer. In Maguire’s script, Leary is fixated on Horrigan and his experience with Kennedy. While the script is terrific as a thriller, the Kennedy connection adds interesting textures to the film. As well as providing one of the richest characters Eastwood played in his career. Leary is a great role for John Malkovich, and Malkovich and Eastwood have a great on-screen chemistry. Eastwood was in the middle of post-production on Unforgiven (1992) when the project came to him, and did not want to direct it himself. The director was Wolfgang Petersen, whose American films until then had not matched his 1981 German success Das Boot. Aside from his insistence on doing more than just a couple of takes of each shot, he and Eastwood, who very seldom does more than two when he directs, got along well. The success of this film gave launched Petersen on a Hollywood career that included such hits as Air Force One (1997), The Perfect Storm (2000) and Troy (2004). Amazing what a good screenplay can do for a director’s career.

Maguire has also provided another interesting foil for Eastwood’s Horrigan, the younger female agent Lilly Raines. Rene Russo lightens up both Horrigan and Eastwood, and Eastwood has seldom seemed as charming as he does here. There are some wonderful dialogue scenes between them, and Rene Russo gives a great performance as Lilly. Much better than her performance the year before in Lethal Weapon 3. Well, she had some help. Not only is the Maguire script better, but the editing of her performance here is better. While writing in US #37 about The Blind Side, I mentioned that the cutting of a Mel Gibson film is quicker than that of an Eastwood picture because the rhythm of the two stars is different. Russo’s rhythm is closer to Eastwood’s, and the great editor Anne V. Coates does a beautiful job of cutting what Petersen has shot with Russo (and everybody else—it is one of the best edited films you will ever see). In Lethal Weapon 3, the cutting is faster and it often looks as though Russo is just getting started in a shot when it cuts to Gibson or something else. Just as writers have to write for performance, editors have to cut for performance as well.

Life Unexpected (2010. Episode “Turtle Undefeated,” written by Adele Lim. 60 minutes)

Turtle Undefeated

Bye, bye Lux: In US#41 I wrote that I thought this show might have possibilities, but by this episode (#5), it has worn out its welcome. Lux, whom I mentioned in the pilot was a potentially interesting character, got more and more conventional sensitive teenager as the episodes have progressed. Now she is like every other teenager on the CW and who wants to see that?

Cate and Baze, her unmarried parents, are still having the same arguments. In an earlier episode Cate mentioned on the air that she was the mother of an illegitimate child, but other than the mention of the radio station getting a few calls, nothing more was made of it. Ryan, her fiance, is still hanging around. At least Cate and Baze have not slept together again.

As indicated by the lack of reaction to the announcement of her child, the show is not getting into the material it keeps bringing up as deeply as it could. Two more examples from this episode: Lux arranges to have a party of her teen friends at her room over Baze’s bar. Cate is bothered that she is not involved. So she dresses up and goes to the party. Since Shiri Appleby, who plays Cate, does not look old enough to have a 16-year-old daughter, one guy at the party flirts with her. And nothing is made out of it. What is Cate’s reaction to this? Is she turned on? Grossed out? How much does she play with him before dumping him? Or before it is revealed she is Lux’s mom? And why don’t we see the boy’s reaction when she is revealed?

The second example: two of Lux’s friends from her homeless days crash the party. The middle class teens are a little put off. But what if they are not? What if the middle class kids think the homeless kids are exciting and dangerous? We all know people who like the bad boys or the bad girls or both, so why not play with that?
So I am afraid I am giving up on the show. Life is too short and there is too much else around.

Temple Grandin (2010. Teleplay by Christopher Monger and William Merritt Johnson, based on the books Emergence by Temple Grandin and Margaret Scarciano and Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin. 109 minutes)

Temple Grandin

Shirley Temple Grandin: The opening scene of this HBO film is a nice variation on the famous Francis Ford Coppola-Edmund North opening of Patton: Temple Grandin stands out and tells us who she is. Except that instead of being in front of an American flag, she is in one of those optical illusion rooms where nothing is quite as it seems. It is a perfect way to establish how the autistic Grandin sees the world. And Claire Danes makes Grandin just as compelling as Scott makes Patton, not only in this scene, but in the rest of the picture. Obligatory “back up the trucks” line: If this one is nominated for the pile of awards it should be, there are already enough pickup trucks in the movie they can use.

If you missed Peter Swanson’s review in Slant, Grandin was diagnosed as autistic when she was a child, then grew up to develop a variety of techniques for calming cattle before they are led off to slaughter. As the title of one of her books says, she thinks in pictures, and the room in the pre-credit sequence is not only an example of that, but shows up again in the main body of the film. The writers and the production staff use animation very effectively to let us see the world as Grandin sees it. The writers also provide some great character writing, not only for Danes, but for the rest of the cast. The opening sequences show us Grandin in her late teens at her aunt’s ranch for the summer, which establishes both Grandin and her aunt, a nice role for Catherine O’Hara. Grandin’s mother feels a lot of guilt for Grandin’s autism, and the writers give her a great moment at the end when Grandin tells an autism conference how much she owes her mom. Director Mick Jackson focuses on the mother’s reactions during the speech, and Julia Ormond, as she does in the rest of the film, delivers the best performance I have ever seen her give.

I do like Grandin’s defense for helping calm cattle before killing them, that we owe them respect, given what we are doing to them. I am not sure it completely overcame my queasiness about her work, but as a lover of hamburgers it would be hypocritical of me to complain too much. It helps that the writers don’t push the issue any more than they do. In the second half of the film, as Grandin is trying to persuade cattlemen to try her ideas, the film gets a bit repetitive. They don’t understand and dismiss her and in the end she is right. The scenes reminded me of a story Philip Dunne told me. He was working with a screenwriter named Julien Josephson on Suez (1938). Josephson had written pictures for George Arliss, the imperious British actor who played historical figures like Disraeli and Cardinal Richelieu. Josephson had also written movies for Shirley Temple. Dunne asked him, “Julien, that’s quite a switch, isn’t it? You move from Shirley Temple to George Arliss and back.” Josephson replied, “No, it’s the same formula: the bright little character gets the best of the grown-ups.” Monger and Johnson and Danes convince us that Temple Grandin is the “bright little character.”

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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Film

Review: Sunless Shadows Is a Wrenching View of Patriarchal Power in Iran

Mehrdad Oskouei’s documentary is striking for the way its subjects describe horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language.

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Sunless Shadows
Photo: Cinema Guild

Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams is striking for the way that it unhurriedly paints a portrait of its subjects, a group of teenage girls at a juvenile detention center in Iran, before then shocking us with matter-of-factly stated admissions of murder. At first, you may find yourself trying to determine the documentary’s reason for being, alongside wanting to know the girls’ reasons for being incarcerated. We sense that the film is supposed to have a cumulative effect, built on prolonged observation followed by intellectual reflection—until we hear one of the girls say, point blank, that she killed her father. Her no-nonsense statement is in chilling lockstep with the lack of prudishness to Oskouei’s line of questioning throughout Starless Dreams. Whether he’s asking the detainees for their names or details about their traumas and crimes, his disembodied voice maintains the same level of cool.

Sunless Shadows, Oskouei’s second look at the same detention facility, initially focuses on its subjects describing horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language. When a girl remembers the abuse she suffered, all that matters is her words. Redolent of Claude Lanzmann’s approach, Oskouei strips his images to their barest bones as his subjects openly speak about their traumas, as if trying to avoid aestheticizing their pain.

In Sunless Shadows, though, Oskouei eventually digresses from this no-frills approach. By design, the film lacks the astonishment of Starless Dreams, suggesting a great story being told anew and now given over to a sort of formula. A similar relationship can be drawn between Joshua Oppenheimer’s harrowing The Act of Killing and its follow-up, The Look of Silence. Order is the essential culprit in both filmmakers’ attempts to take a second look at the same subject matter. The first film takes advantage of the emotional possibilities of shock or fright, but the force of an unexpected blow is difficult to repeat. By the time we come to the second film, we’re already literate in and, in some ways, inoculated by the banality of evil.

At times, Oskouei also uses a more readily recognizable setup for his interviews. Although most of sequences here take place in the girls’ dormitories, with them sitting haphazardly on the floor surrounded by their bunkbeds, Sunless Shadows is punctuated by interviews with the girls’ mothers, who are also incarcerated (and on death row), and scenes where each girl enters a room and looks straight into the camera to address the family member they’ve killed. These moments bring to mind a reality TV confessional, and their gracelessness is replicated by sequences where the girls’ family members are presumably watching this footage and crying.

The film rekindles the aura of Starless Dreams more faithfully when it doesn’t try to dress up the scenario that links them—patriarchy as an interminable metastasis—with forms that deny the dramatic sufficiency of the girls’ accounts. Theirs are stories of parent-child relations mediated by chicken-carving knives, of a father driving to the desert with the intention of pummeling his daughter to death, of sons fighting tooth and nail for their mother’s execution, unless she pays up. Overtly calculated mise-en-scène in this context feels like an affront.

It’s refreshing, then, when Oskouei harkens back to the core of his project, the ultimately futile killing of the father, the acting out of the unthinkable, the avowing of the unsayable. He does this when he allows language do the talking by itself and when he reduces the cinematic encounter to a matter of language: sincere questions followed by disarming answers. As when the filmmaker asks one of the girls, “Is killing difficult?” To which the girl answers, unwaveringly, “At the time you feel nothing, except for the joy of having done it.”

Director: Mehrdad Oskouei Screenwriter: Mehrdad Oskouei Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 74 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Song Without a Name Boldly Confronts a Legacy of Marginalization

The film is strikingly fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale.

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Song Without a Name
Photo: Film Movement

Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) wakes up in the early hours of the morning to walk with her husband, Leo (Lucio Rojas), into Lima from their shack in a coastal shantytown on the outskirts of the city. Because she has few alternatives, her late-stage pregnancy doesn’t deter her as she sits in the street selling potatoes to passersby. It’s only natural, then, that when she hears a health clinic’s radio ad offering care to pregnant women, it sounds like a godsend. But once Georgina gives birth to her daughter, the clinic whisks the child off for some supposed medical tests, shoos her out the door, and then seems to vacate the location entirely. In an instant, her life is upended, but as Song Without a Name sensitively makes clear, the indigenous Georgina’s degradation is an all too familiar one in Peruvian society.

Though Melina León’s feature-length directorial debut is set in 1988, it appears as if it’s been beamed from an even earlier time. Its images, captured in boxy Academy ratio, are visibly aged, its faded edges and conspicuously distorted elements bringing to mind an old photograph. As a result, the scenes depicting government officials disregarding the needs of the indigenous Georgina gain a grave sense of timelessness, a feeling emphasized by the lack of period-specific markers amid the ramshackle houses. The events become detached from their specific historical backdrop, suggesting nothing less than the perpetuity of disenfranchisement.

In Song Without a Name, the only person who lends Georgina a sympathetic ear is Pedro (Tommy Párraga), a journalist who, as a gay man, understands what it means to be an outsider, though he initially tries to pass her story off to someone else, as he’s reporting on a paramilitary death squad whose handiwork he observes early in the film. And just when you think that León is going to steer the film into the terrain of a conventional investigative thriller, she remains fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale, through the despair on people’s faces as much as through the formal touches that reflect it.

The film’s backdrop is tumultuous, and the characters have to move on from the kidnapping without truly wanting to because they need to eat, to pay for the roof over their heads, to live. In a haunting moment that evokes how tragedy diminishes the connection between people, Georgina mournfully stays in bed as Leo goes to work alone, but not before he leaves a handprint on the window, barely visible in the black and white of the frame.

León depicts anguish in such stark, all-encompassing terms that she risks overplaying her hand at times, like one scene that positions the closeted Pedro and his lover, Isa (Maykol Hernández), on opposite sides of a thick line of tiles that’s only made more prominent by the camera’s distant position. But mostly, she weaves an atmosphere that borders on ethereal through the jerky distortions of Georgina walking home at night and the ease with which certain pieces of Pedro’s investigation seem to fall into place. León channels Georgina’s devastation to particularly powerful effect in one long take where the mother is taken out of the clinic but continues pleading and crying, unseen, from the other side of the door. Across the minute-long shot, Georgina is determined not to go away, and the scene fades to black with such painful slowness that she seems to be prolonging the transition through force of will, beyond the point where the audience might normally look away.

Cast: Pamela Mendoza, Tommy Párraga, Lucio Rojas, Maykol Hernández, Lidia Quispe Director: Melina León, Michael J. White Screenwriter: Melina León Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Beyoncé’s Black Is King Is a Visual Love Letter to the Black Diaspora

The visual album proposes a pan-African vision of legacy, abundance, and unity.

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Black Is King
Photo: Disney+

For Beyoncé, it’s no longer enough for us to listen to her music. We must witness and viscerally feel it. Which is why the visual album is increasingly becoming her preferred mode of expression. As she did with last year’s The Lion King: The Gift soundtrack, the singer recruited heavyweights from West African dance music like Nigeria’s WizKid and Ghana’s Shatta Wale, as well as emerging artists like South Africa’s Busiswa, to star in Black Is King, which Beyoncé based on the music from The Gift. Out of a dazzling fusion of the hottest R&B and Afrobeat trends, this visual album proposes a pan-African vision of legacy, abundance, and unity, making it Beyoncé’s most wide-reaching and ambitious effort yet.

Black Is King is largely inseparable from Disney’s live-action remake of the The Lion King, and to a fault at times. The project follows the arc of the film’s plot, personifying the animal characters with human actors. A young prince (Folajomi Akinmurele), the human stand-in for young Simba, falls from grace and embarks on a coming-of-age odyssey that eventually leads him back home to reclaim the throne. Throughout, large-scale sets, wide shots of the Saharan desert, and eye-catching dance routines distract from this plot. Indeed, it’s difficult to catch when the young prince grows into a young man (Nyaniso Dzedze) as the two actors abruptly switch places between songs without warning, and the introduction of an underdeveloped subplot involving a mysterious artifact may leave viewers scratching their heads.

But Black Is King is no traditional cinematic experience, because it’s performance, symbolism, and music that are integral to it, not any narrative minutiae. To wit, unlike the original version of the album, the deluxe edition of The Gift, which was released alongside Black Is King, forgoes the intermissions lifted from The Lion King’s dialogue, as if to suggest that the songs speak for themselves, without strict adherence to the film it draws from as inspiration.

Beyoncé, who co-directed the visual album, interprets Simba’s reclaiming of the throne for her ends; his royal lineage is evocative of the rich cultural heritage of Africa and her people, and his homecoming is representative of the Black diaspora’s turning to that heritage as a source of strength. The animated and live-action versions of the The Lion King are beloved, if not equally so, and they remain among the few Disney films to be set in Africa, but as they’re both devoid of Black bodies, there’s something galvanizing about witnessing the lavishness of The Lion King interpreted by Black actors, dancers, and musicians.

Black Is King will inevitably be criticized for its ostentatious display of wealth and ostensible failure to represent the day-to-day realities of African countries—which is to say, what the rest of the world hastily and egregiously presumes to be struggle and impoverishment. The visual album’s purpose isn’t to draft some documentary-style exegesis, but to illustrate an imaginative wonderland of possibility and celebration. Black Is King may well be steeped in the opulence of drifting, pimped-out cars (“Ja Ara E”), and a head-spinning wardrobe of designer clothing (“Water”), but this grandiosity is empowering and subversive in its own way. The “Mood 4 Eva” sequence boasts a splendor fit for a Baz Luhrmann film, complete with a breathtaking synchronized swimming routine. Generations of families, from regal grandparents to rambunctious five-year-olds, reside in a mansion and partake in elitist traditions brought to the African continent by European colonizers. All the while, white servants wait on them as they drink tea and play tennis in a verdant garden.

Although Black Is King preaches the moral that Black kingship amounts to responsible manhood, Black femininity is just as integral to Beyoncé’s conceptualization of the visual album. As an unidentified male speaker relates in one voiceover: “Many times, it’s the women that reassemble us. Men taught me some things, but women taught me a whole lot more.” Beyoncé embodies a maternal figure at several points, cradling a baby in “Bigger” and playing a handclap game with her daughter, Blue Ivy, in “Brown Skin Girl.”

It’s this last song that is the film’s most stirring dedication to Black women. Overhead shots of a ballroom depict a formation of debutante dancers, fanning in and out like a flower in bloom. Interspersed throughout are glamor shots of the dark-skinned women Beyoncé sings praise of: Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, and Kelly Rowland. For all of its larger-than-life grandeur, Black Is King still succeeds in conveying the stark intimacy between two people in a scene in which Rowland and Beyoncé share an embrace and gaze at each other lovingly.

If The Gift is a love letter to Africa—as Beyoncé herself described the album—then Black Is King is a love letter to the Black diaspora. In her narration, Beyoncé remarks of “lost languages [that] spill out of our mouths,” and an American flag bearing the red, black, and green of Pan-Africanism proudly waves during “Power.” Like the ‘90s hip-hop MCs who espoused Afrocentricity before her, Beyoncé turns to the African motherland to reconstruct a heritage and identity stolen by slavery and the erosion of time. At the film’s beginning, young Simba hurtles toward Earth from among the stars, leaving the streak of a comet’s tail behind him. No matter how far you stray from home, Beyoncé reminds viewers throughout Black is King that the great Black ancestors can immediately be felt in the stars they inhabit in the night skies.

Cast: Beyoncé, Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, Kelly Rowland, Folajomi Akinmurele, Connie Chiume, Nyaniso Ntsikelelo Dzedze, Nandi Madida, Warren Masemola, Sibusiso Mbeje, Fumi Odeje, Stephen Ojo, Mary Twala, Blue Ivy Carter Director: Emmanuel Adjei, Blitz Bazawule, Beyoncé Screenwriter: Beyoncé, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Clover Hope, Andrew Morrow Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 85 min Rating: NA Year: 2020

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Review: Waiting for the Barbarians Loses Its Apocalyptic Power on Screen

Ciro Guerra never quite finds an imagistic equivalent to the novel’s subtly hallucinogenic atmosphere.

2.5

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Waiting for the Barbarians
Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

“Pain is truth. All else is subject to doubt,” intones the stone-faced Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) in Waiting for the Barbarians, explaining his interrogation methods. The line might as well be the slogan of both J.M. Coetzee’s 1980 novel and director Ciro Guerra’s film adaptation. An agent of an unnamed empire, Holl has arrived at a colonial outpost to essentially produce truth via pain. Horrifying the Magistrate (Mark Rylance) who oversees the remote outpost, Joll captures and tortures members of the local nomadic tribe, forcing them to articulate the “truth” that the Empire needs: that these so-called barbarians are planning an assault on the Empire’s frontier.

Coetzee’s novel, published at the height of South African apartheid, is written in an allegorical mode that, through its nonspecific frontier geography and generalized designation for its protagonists, broadens its scope to address colonialism as a whole. At the same time, though, Coetzee imbues the psychosomatic effects of colonial systems with an unnerving specificity, his clipped prose achieving a paradoxical expressionist realism in its descriptions of the bleak nonplace of the frontier and the depiction of the Magistrate’s inner life. But as true as the film stays to its source—Coetzee wrote the adaption himself—Guerra never quite finds an imagistic equivalent to the novel’s apocalyptic, subtly hallucinogenic atmosphere.

The film’s narration lacks that sense of interiority that makes Waiting for the Barbarians on the page more than a simple moral tale; the anguish of the Magistrate and the barbarian stragglers held captive in the outpost aren’t expressionistically reflected in the exterior world, and the adaptation excises the dream sequences and reveries that Coetzee intersperses throughout the book. The scorched-desert oranges of Chris Menges’s cinematography communicate a sense of the oppressive frontier environment, but the staging of the Magistrate’s moral awakening and fall from imperial favor tends toward the cold and distanced. A degree of alienation may be an intended effect—the titular gerund “waiting” already indicates the story’s Beckettian overtones—but Lucretia Martel’s Zama much more impressively, and hauntingly, blends listless existentialism and colonial brutality.

As a man who believes himself to be kindly and modest, even as he serves in a position of authority, Rylance crafts an instantly recognizable and sympathetic performance of naïve white guilt. Still, the Magistrate’s arc of moral awakening has a tidiness that belies the rough frontier setting. In an early scene, the middle-aged colonial functionary confesses that he has no ambitions toward imperial heroism—that, hopefully, posterity will remember merely that “with a nudge here, a touch there, I kept the world on its course.” Through a series of tribulations that force the reality of empire into visual and tactile perception, he will realize that he has been complicit in a “world course” of endless war and extermination—proving, in a sense different than he intended it, Joll’s thesis that pain leads to truth.

The Magistrate turns out to be virtually alone in his opposition to the regime of brutalization that Joll installs in the outpost. With his brusque disposition and strange accoutrements (his sunglasses are a novelty in the world of the story, and they have a peculiar, knotted design here), Joll is a Deppian villain if ever there was one. Thankfully, though, the actor doesn’t let his embodiment of faceless power slip into cartoonish mugging, as Joll mostly works as a Kafkaesque embodiment of cynical authoritarian severity. It may be simply that Joll doesn’t get enough screen time to cross the line between allegory and parody, as he’s briefly replaced by Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson), a less outwardly “civilized” iteration of the imperial thug whom the Magistrate finds in Joll’s place after returning from an excursion to the desert.

Wracked with guilt over his complicity in the Empire’s campaign of torture and murder, the Magistrate takes in a native woman, identified only as the Girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan), whose ankles have been broken by Joll and Mandel’s uniformed goons. The Magistrate’s mostly chaste obsession with the Girl, whom he views as a means of soothing his white guilt, leads to his becoming a pariah in his own town, and the regime of torture he passively opposed is turned into a crucible for his new understanding of the barbarians’ plight.

There’s nothing particularly challenging or incisive about the notion that our main character must go through great pain to become a better person, and Guerra’s scenes of transmogrification through pain aren’t made to hit home in the way they do in the novel. However, it’s much to the film’s credit that it doesn’t see symbolic gestures on the part of oppressors—like the Magistrate’s Jesus-like washing of the Girl’s feet—as sufficient or effective acts of reparation. The story’s guilty conscience exceeds that of its protagonist, and the film, in the end, evinces the awareness that the unnamed but unambiguously European society at its center will be at the mercy of the “barbarians” that colonialism has invented.

Cast: Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Robert Pattinson, Sam Reid Director: Ciro Guerra Screenwriter: J.M. Coetzee Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: A Thousand Cuts Sounds the Alarm on Rodrigo Duterte’s Tyranny

The film uses endangered press freedom in the Philippines to illustrate the threat posed to liberal democracy by weaponized social media.

3

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A Thousand Cuts
Photo: Frontline

Centered on a heroic narrative that’s almost drowned out by the bleakness of its surrounding material, Ramona S. Diaz’s A Thousand Cuts uses endangered press freedom in the Philippines to illustrate the threat posed to liberal democracy by weaponized social media. Fortunately, Diaz resists the urge felt by many artists to see all geopolitical matters through the lens of America’s decaying polity. Still, it’s impossible not to feel the shadow of Donald Trump in the documentary when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte tells crusading journalist Maria Ressa that her lonely, besieged, and truth-telling outlet is “fake news.” What works for one would-be autocrat apparently works for another.

Ressa is the executive editor of Rappler, a buzzy Philippines news site fighting disinformation at the source by optimizing itself for maximum social media dissemination. A sprite of cheery efficiency who seems happiest when presenting people with horrific facts, Ressa delivers a dire, if unsurprising, message when she says that “lies laced with anger and hate spread fastest” on social media. She adds that her country is particularly fertile ground for such viral firestorms, given that the average Filipino spends approximately 10 hours a day online.

While A Thousand Cuts appears more engaged in the flesh-and-blood conflicts of cutthroat Filipino politics, it highlights one of Ressa’s more impactful data dives: of a self-amplifying network of 26 fake accounts effectively spreading false Duterte propaganda to over three million people. The result of such dissemination ranges from fast-spreading memes (calling Rappler’s many female reporters “presstitutes”) to mobs (angry Duterte fans live-streaming from Rappler’s lobby while supportive posts call for the journalists to be raped, murdered, and beheaded). As is the case with strongmen the world over, the animus behind all this virtual bile is the reporting of inconvenient truths. All throughout the film, which commences in 2018 and follows the government’s anti-Rappler campaign through a court decision in June 2020, Ressa and her reporters put out punchy stories about potential corruption in Duterte’s family and how his anti-drug vigilante campaign led to thousands of killings in shadowy circumstances.

A Thousand Cuts presents this as a lopsided battle. Rappler’s upright, mostly young colleagues try to discern the real story behind a smokescreen of spin. Meanwhile, Duterte mesmerizes crowds with his surreally rambling speeches, careening from claims that a bullet is the best way to stop drug abuse to talking about the size of his penis. At the same time, we see his surrogates barnstorming around the country like fascist carnival barkers whipping up crowds. The president’s head of police, Bato Dela Rosa, is a bald and clowning bruiser who mixes bloodthirsty declarations of his eagerness to kill for his boss with off-key ballads. While Rosa goes for WWE appeal, girl-group performer and pro-Duterte mean girl Mucho Uson seems more like what would happen if a Pussycat Doll were employed by Steve Bannon.

The film is most darkly enthralling when it’s showing this combat (albeit a mostly physically distanced one) between a cartoonish villain like Duterte and underdogs like Ressa. In addition to bringing a frisson of interpersonal drama to the narrative, the almost existential conflict shows in stark terms just how much the country has to lose. The conflict over press freedom ranges from legal harassment to a barrage of violent threats. Some of the film’s most wrenching moments are the testimonials from Rappler’s inspiring writers, who are as dedicated as Ressa but not as seemingly impervious to the atmosphere of constant menace created by the sense of impunity implied by Duterte’s bullying swagger. “I’m terrified every day,” says Patricia Evangelista, wiry with tension and fear. “Maria doesn’t scare easily. I do.”

A Thousand Cuts loses some steam when it departs the hot conflict of the Philippines for the cooler environs of Manhattan. There, on a couple occasions that we see later in the film, Ressa speaks at or is honored by a number of gala first-world events, from the Atlantic Festival to a shindig with Amal and George Clooney. While these moments are likely there to show Ressa in more relaxed settings, they seem far less necessary than what’s happening back in the Philippines. Ressa’s happy-warrior personality shines so brightly in this film that watching her fight the good fight is all the humanizing she requires. “We are meant to be a cautionary tale,” Ressa says about her battle for press freedom and the democratic rule of law in an environment increasingly choked off by vitriol and propaganda. “We are meant to make you afraid.” Sounding an alarm meant to be heard around the wired world, her film does just that.

Director: Ramona S. Diaz Distributor: PBS Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: I Used to Go Here Mines Cringe Comedy from Collegiate Nostalgia

The film is almost sadistically driven to turn a woman’s trip down memory lane into fodder for cringe humor.

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I Used to Go Here
Photo: Gravitas Ventures

Following the unceremonious cancellation of the book tour for her recently released debut novel, 35-year-old Kate (Gillian Jacobs) is suddenly afflicted with the existential angst that can result from taking stock of one’s life. Kris Rey’s lightly comedic I Used to Go Here proceeds to chart the aftermath of Kate’s personal and professional disappointments after she’s pulled in various directions by her desperate struggle for acceptance. And in doing so, the film initially taps into the insecurities that plague many a professional writer. But once Kate starts to cope with her subpar book sales by taking her old professor, David (Jemaine Clement), up on his offer for her to speak at her alma mater, I Used to Go Here begins to indulge all manner of collegiate nostalgia, trafficking in the clichés of so many works concerned with adults who struggle to recapture the hopefulness of their youth.

For her part, Jacobs is rather convincing at portraying the exhausting mental gymnastics that some artists do in order to appear confident and successful in public, while licking their wounds in private. Rey, however, grows increasingly disinterested in probing Kate’s state of emotional instability in any meaningful way, instead leaning into the sheer awkwardness of situations wherein Kate attempts to relive her glory days. Indeed, there’s an almost discomfiting sadism to the manner in which Rey has Kate grapple with one embarrassment after another as the young woman tries to regain some semblance of self-respect.

From the baby shower where Kate is forced to take a picture with three pregnant friends and hold up a book as her proxy child, to the uncomfortable revelation that David’s wife, Alexis (Kristina Valada-Viars), doesn’t like Kate’s writing, I Used to Go Here relentlessly stacks the deck against Kate. In fact, her failings are laid on so thick that it becomes impossible to imagine how she ever managed to get a legitimate book deal in the first place. By the time she’s had her third blow-out with her bed-and-breakfast host (Cindy Gold), her ex-fiancé stops returning her calls, and her much awaited New York Times book review is revealed to be emphatically negative, it’s clear that the film primarily sees Kate as a mere avatar for every struggling artist, leading her through broadly comic stations of the writer’s cross as her dreams of fame and success crumble on the very same campus on which they were birthed.

This parade of humiliating experiences is given a brief respite as Kate’s bonds with Hugo (Josh Wiggins), a college student who admires her work and with whom she shares a real, albeit short-lived, connection. It’s the lone relationship in the film that feels truly authentic, and it’s when Kate is with Hugo that we begin to get a sense of who she is and what informed her personal life before her professional one fell apart. But soon Kate is being pitted against David’s new star pupil, April (Hannah Marks), who is, of course, revealed to be Hugo’s girlfriend. It’s a particularly trite way of highlighting the stark contrasts between who Kate was in her youth and who she’s become in the decade-plus since, and it’s par for the course in a film driven to turn a woman’s trip down memory lane into fodder for cringe humor.

Cast: Gillian Jacobs, Jemaine Clement, Kate Micucci, Hannah Marks, Jorma Taccone, Zoe Chao, Josh Wiggins, Forrest Goodluck, Jennifer Joan Taylor, Rammel Chan Director: Kris Rey Screenwriter: Kris Rey Distributor: Gravitas Ventures Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Like Its Characters, She Dies Tomorrow Stays in a Holding Pattern

Perhaps as a result of her attempting to avoid all matter of clichés, not just of genre, Amy Seimetz revels in vagueness.

2.5

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She Dies Tomorrow
Photo: Neon

For a while, Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow seems like a chamber play about a single woman in a tailspin. Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) wanders her recently purchased, relatively empty house, drinking wine, playing opera on vinyl on repeat, and shopping for leather jackets online. Sheil, one of the rawest actors working in American cinema, informs these actions with wrenching agony, communicating the lost-ness, the emptiness of profound depression, which Seimetz complements with surrealist formalism. Lurid colors bleed into the film’s frames, suggesting that Amy is potentially hallucinating, and there are shards of barely contextualized incidents that suggest violent flashbacks or memories. And the subtlest touches are the most haunting, such as the casual emphasis that Seimetz places on Amy’s unpacked boxes, physicalizing a life in perpetual incompletion.

Seimetz and Sheil, who collaborated on the filmmaker’s feature-length debut, Sun Don’t Shine, and the first season of The Girlfriend Experience, are intensely intuitive artists, and Seimetz, an extraordinary actor in her own right, is almost preternaturally in tune with Sheil. The first act of She Dies Tomorrow is a cinematic mood ring in which Seimetz invites Sheil to explore the emotional spectrums of alienation. This stretch of the film is poignant and almost intangibly menacing, redolent of the final 30 minutes of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, which also bridged mental illness with surrealist fantasy and horror-film tropes.

Despite its undeserved reputation as an inscrutable riddle to be solved, Mulholland Drive ended on a note of devastating, cathartic clarity. In She Dies Tomorrow, however, Seimetz pointedly doesn’t give the audience closure, which is meant to communicate the endless work of mental health as well as the lingering aura of doom that seems to be a permanent part of modern life. These are laudable ambitions in theory, but as it expands on its high-concept premise, the film comes to feel more and more, well, theoretical, trapped as an idea in its author’s mind, rather than existing as a fully living and breathing work.

Amy is suffering from more than depression. She’s convinced that she’s going to die, which her friend, Jane (Jane Adams), attributes to Amy’s falling off the wagon. But this fatalistic sensation is revealed to be contagious, as Jane councils Amy and then returns to her own home to find that she also feels with utter conviction that her hours are numbered. Seimetz then springs a startling and resonant surprise: Jane, a totem of stability to Amy, visits the house of her brother, Jason (Chris Messina), and his wife, Susan (Katie Aselton), where she’s seen as an alternately annoying and pitiable kook. Rarely has a filmmaker captured so delicately how we play different roles in different people’s lives, our identities shifting with an ease that’s scary when one gives it a moment of thought. The ease of this self-erasure, or self-modification, suggests instability, for which the film’s communicable death fear is in part a metaphor.

Eventually, though, She Dies Tomorrow goes into a holding pattern. We’re trapped with a half dozen people as they writhe in fear, proclaiming endlessly the approaching expiration of their lives. Seimetz doesn’t offer conventional horror thrills, but she stints on existential ruminations too. After Brian (Tunde Adebimpe), a friend of Jason and Susan, is driven by a death fear to commit a startling act, his girlfriend, Tilly (Jennifer Kim), says to him that she’s been waiting for Brian’s ailing father to die so she could break up with him after a certain waiting period with a clear conscience. And because this confession is delivered in offhanded and robotic fashion, you may wonder why Tilly wants to leave Brian.

We learn nothing else about their relationship, and so this confession feels like a conceit—an acknowledgment of the hypocrisies and evasions of grief—without the detail and immediacy of drama. Such scenes, commandingly acted and possessed of unrealized potential, are a disappointment after the film’s visceral first act. Later on in She Dies Tomorrow, there’s a moment with Jane and several other women laying by a poolside that has incredible visual power—bridging zoning out in the sun with complacent disenchantment with death with the power of taking control of female identity—but it’s similarly left hanging.

Perhaps as a result of her attempting to avoid all matter of clichés, not just of genre, Seimetz revels in vagueness. The notion of a communicable fear of death leads the characters to talk, minimally, of seizing the day, which is a cliché in itself. Seimetz is principally concerned with mood, with stylized dread that’s created by lingering on everyday objects and the use of slow motion and frenzied color schemes. Jane is a struggling artist who takes pictures of protozoa-like things blown up by a microscope, and Seimetz lingers on these to suggest that an explanation for life’s mysteries, or at least those of She Dies Tomorrow, are nearly within sight.

The apocalyptic atmosphere that Seimetz conjures here, especially among the privileged characters, is reminiscent of Karyn Kasuma’s The Invitation. That film’s ending was also disappointingly ordinary, but Kasuma gave her protagonists more room to breathe, revealing in their desperation, bitterness, and suffocating superficiality. In She Dies Tomorrow, Seimetz only gets that close to Amy and Jane, before splintering her film into off into missed opportunities. And given the film’s ambitions, that sense of squandering may be intentional.

Cast: Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Chris Messina, Kentucker Audley, Jennifer Kim, Katie Aselton, Tunde Adebimpe, Josh Lucas, Michelle Rodriguez, Adam Wingard, Madison Calderon, Director: Amy Seimetz Screenwriter: Amy Seimetz Distributor: Neon Running Time: 84 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Jessica Swale’s Summerland Revels in Recycling Tales As Old As Time

Throughout, the film’s characters exhibit little life outside of their moments of tragedy and symbolic connections.

1.5

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Summerland
Photo: IFC Films

Writer-director Jessica Swale’s Summerland does a maddening double Dutch between cliché-laden genre modes. It is, by turns, a melancholic reverie on England’s home-front struggles during World War II and the looming end of an empire, a melodrama about a child teaching a crotchety spinster how to love, and a remembrance of a lesbian love affair. Each of these kinds of stories are typically prone to treacly sentiment, and when thrown together here, the end result is a film whose characters only seem to exist as vessels of pathos, exhibiting little life outside of their moments of tragedy and symbolic connection.

We first meet Alice (Penelope Wilton), a reclusive author and scholar, in her dotage, bristling at unwanted visitors to her seaside cottage in Kent. The film then flashes back to the war, with a younger Alice (Gemma Arterton) writing in the same home. Though tormented by local youths and resented by townsfolk for her antisocial behavior, Alice is perfectly content with solitude, until she learns that she’s been placed in charge of Frank (Lucas Bond), a boy evacuated from London as the Blitz rages on. Alice is, of course, outraged, and struggles to fob the child off onto anyone else in the United Kingdom, insisting that she must live under self-imposed isolation in order to focus on her research into pagan myths.

From the moment Frank arrives on her doorstep, there’s never any doubt that Alice will warm up to the child, and it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t obsess over her emotional thawing. But the boy’s presence does reawaken Alice’s suppressed memories of a romance she once shared with a young writer, Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), during their university days. Their relationship suffered from their shared fear of discovery, and as it flits between past and present, Summerland never takes the time to build its characters, only providing simplistic glimpses of Alice’s past that are restricted to such overplayed images as the accidental brushing of hands and tear-stricken admissions of the impossibility of her being with Vera.

The revelation of Alice’s romantic life is the first of a series of twists that drive the remainder of the story, frequently at the expense of giving the actors room to breathe. Swale comes from the world of theater, and it shows in her functional compositions, which often frame the characters against the English countryside, typically in long shot and static medium-close-ups of them stagily expounding upon their feelings, almost as if they were playing to the cheap seats. And the film’s dialogue is perennially on the nose, as when Alice abruptly goes on a rant about religion and its suppressiveness that’s so obvious that even young, naïve Frank appears to understand that she’s really talking about her sexuality. And as each new dramatic upheaval shoves the slightest hints of subtle character growth out of the frame, the actors are reduced to repeatedly shuffling through the same gestures of shock and grief.

By constantly darting between so many overlapping forms of misery and longing, Summerland never gives its characters any interiority, making them purely reactive agents to the hell to which Swale subjects them. Though the film, surprisingly, concludes on a hopeful note, it indulges every dour cliché along the way, which, when paired with Swale’s drab direction, effectively saps the energy out of its many demonstrative moments of sorrow.

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay, Lucas Bond Director: Jessica Swale Screenwriter: Jessica Swale Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Review: The Fight Is a Humanizing Look at the ACLU’s Fight for Civil Rights

The film justly draws attention to the perpetual work that must go into preserving democratic institutions.

2.5

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The Fight

Wearing its allegiances on its sleeve, Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman, and Elyse Steinberg’s snappy The Fight often succeeds at making the travails of civil rights lawyers in the Trump era visually and emotionally engaging. It follows five lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union as they shuttle between New York, Washington D.C., and the Southwest, spearheading efforts to counter numerous assaults on the rights of immigrants, women, and transgender people. The film might be described with equal accuracy as a humanizing look behind the headlines or as a particularly slick ACLU fundraising video.

After evoking American liberals’ most concentrated moment of collective trauma by playing audio from Trump’s inauguration over the production company logos, the film jumps into a prologue showing ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt obtaining a stay on Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban.” After this (later overturned) legal win, Gelernt becomes the lead on the ACLU’s lawsuits over child separation at the U.S.-Mexico border, while colleagues Brigitte Amiri, Dale Ho, and the team of Lee Block and Chase Strangio work on abortion rights for detained migrants, the notorious “citizenship question” proposed for the 2020 census, and trans rights in the military.

Lawyering and court proceedings become fast-paced and heroic in the filmmakers’ depiction of the crusading attorneys. Film crews follow them as they file briefs, struggle to balance family and work life, cope with surprising rulings, and—in a moment of unrehearsed farce—do battle with Microsoft Word’s imperfect dictation feature. Some behind-the-scenes moments have a rehearsed, reality-TV quality to them, like Block and Strangio’s stilted discussion of why Block should take the lead on the trans rights case, even though Strangio is the only trans lawyer at the organization—a decision that had clearly already been made before the cameras started rolling. On the whole, however, the documentary achieves the narrative flow it strives for, presenting its somewhat nerdy heroes rising to face the left’s most infamous bêtes noirs—like when Amiri presents a case before a pre-Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh.

A limitation on the film’s project is that the sexiest part of a civil rights attorney’s job—delivering soaring speeches about right and wrong to impassive figures dressed in the black robes of authority—isn’t accessible to cameras. Federal courts allow audio but not video recording, so for the latter the filmmakers substitute minimally animated illustrations, inspired by courtroom sketches but rendered in much more stylized fashion—expressively shaded and, for some reason, dominated by autumnal hues.

The animated sequences emblematize the film’s main fault: how it emphasizes easy visual appeal at the expense of a more interrogative approach. The title sequence is a fast-paced montage of news footage sliding in and out of shifting panels that subdivide the screen. It’s a motif that’s repeated throughout the film, and resembles the opening credits of Parks and Recreation, as if consciously channeling the Obama-era optimism of liberal millennials’ beloved sitcom. Following a theme, then, the first third of The Fight also introduces us to the ACLU’s New York offices as an energetic, offbeat space: Among the generally youthful staff, the middle-aged and out-of-the-loop Gelernt, his iPhone perpetually on the brink of battery death, comes off here as a more competent version of Parks and Rec’s Jerry Gergich.

Despite how often the film tries to be consumable at the expense of being thorough, at The Fight’s best moments, it both humanizes figures who only appear in the news stories as one-dimensional side notes and provides deeper context for viral footage that has defined the Trump era, like that of migrant children being reunited with their parents. And while the whole has been engineered to not overtax viewers with details of legal labor, it also contains illuminating tidbits of courtroom strategy—like when Block and Strangio page through candidates for the perfect plaintiff to represent in a class-action suit, or when Ho describes the oblique angle at which one must approach arguments around government officials’ racial bias. There’s a more complex documentary on the legal front in the struggle against authoritarianism waiting to be made, but The Fight’s lionization of the ACLU justly draws attention to the perpetual work that must go into preserving democratic institutions.

Director: Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 96 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Flesh and Blood at 35: Medieval Ironies

By all accounts, this should have been Paul Verhoeven’s Vera Cruz.

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Flesh and Blood
Photo: Orion Pictures

Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh and Blood is styled on screen as Flesh + Blood, as though the filmmaker were consciously working out an algorithm to account for his artistic sensibilities. By all accounts, this should have been his Vera Cruz: a down-and-dirty medieval romp that adumbrates the fallout of former partners in carnage parting ways and turning on each other. But the burdens of helming a logistically convoluted international co-production, wrangling a diverse and opinionated cast, and running the gauntlet of studio interference in the central storyline inevitably took their toll. What resulted is a solid actioner with flashes of brilliance. Outrageous in its unabashed blend of ultraviolence and profanation, Flesh and Blood stands as another testament to its director’s determination not to push the envelope, but rather to fail to recognize the envelope’s very existence in the first place.

In other words, Flesh and Blood is the anti-Ladyhawke, that other Middle Ages-set epic starring Rutger Hauer to come out in 1985. In place of the latter’s lush romanticism, complete with tortured shape-shifting lovers separated by a churchman’s curse, and a helpful little burglar played by Ferris Bueller, we’re treated over the course of the film to the more dubious spectacle of a gang rape and a catapult flinging plague-ridden dog carcass into a besieged stronghold. “Pretty strong meat there,” as the sniffling film critic in “Sam Peckinpah’s ’Salad Days,’” one of Monty Python’s funniest sketches, would have observed. However compromised the central conceit, moments of brazen effrontery help Flesh and Blood effectively shatter the staid sheen of chivalry studiously cultivated by many a medieval film.

Then, too, there’s Verhoeven’s cheeky appropriation of religious iconography for more sanguinary martial purposes. Early on, the sword-for-hire Martin (Hauer) unearths a statue of St. Martin of Tours, a saint with a sword, which the mercenary band of brothers’ resident cardinal (Ronald Lacey) promptly declares a sign from God above. Throughout Flesh and Blood, they will use this relic as a tool for divination to guide their way (with questionable results). Late in the film, Verhoeven brilliantly frames a shot with the saint in the background and Martin, a veritable double in the flesh, whetting his sword in the foreground. Needless to say, Martin’s proclivities are far from sanctified (witness the aforementioned sexual assault).

Beyond the portentous irony contained in these saintly invocations, Verhoeven doubtless has a larger point: Throughout history, relics and iconography have been used as armaments in battles between cultures and religions. They have a double meaning, seemingly proclaiming: “Not only is your god my devil, but my god has sanctioned, through martial figures like Martin of Tours, the deployment of all-too-earthly means by which to prove it.” In the end, the film’s greatest irony, and the often-pedestrian narrative’s most brilliant stroke, isn’t to decide in favor or against Martin. He’s of a piece with his nature, and he leaves the story as he entered it: unchanged and unbowed by the carnage he’s both witness to and agent of.

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