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Understanding Screenwriting #43: Shutter Island, The Ghost Writer, The Messenger, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #43: Shutter Island, The Ghost Writer, The Messenger, & More

Coming up in this column: Shutter Island, The Ghost Writer, The Messenger, United States of Tara: First Season, but first:

Fan mail: Yay! We finally got some fan mail. Okay, it was for #41, and it came in after I had sent off #42, so I’m not getting to it until now, but still…

“Astrayn” likes that I commented on the Masterpiece Theatre pieces. There is another one coming up in #44, so watch for it. Astrayn didn’t like the Cranford films as much as I did, saying “it was as if Dickens was stripped of all the intrigue in his plots and only the quirky characters remained.” Good point, although I enjoyed hanging out with the characters. I did not see the new version of Emma, since between Clueless and the 1996 version, I am Emma-ed out for the moment.

“lee herbage” raises a whole pile of questions. First up was which of my books would I recommend “as a starting point?” Well, all of them of course. But seriously folks. I think you should start with FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film. It gives you a view of how the art and craft developed. If you are interested in learning how to do it, you might see if you can find my 1982 textbook Screenwriting. It follows the process of screenwriting rather than giving you rules. I have had as many nice comments about it from professional screenwriters as I have from amateurs who read it, since the pros think it captures what they go through. The “Annotated Study List” in that book is the forerunner of the book Understanding Screenwriting as well as this column. If you are particularly interested in television, then Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing is required reading. Those who have read most or all of my books think it is the best one.

“lee herbage” thinks I am “often circumspect about assigning blame for screenplays because of later rewrites.” That’s one reason; the other is that as a screenwriting instructor I have developed the habit of not taking a slashing approach to a student’s script, since my job is to help him or her improve it without destroying the writer. As to whether the director is at fault for messing up screenplays, the answer is NEARLY ALWAYS. I know directors claim they have taken this piece of shit screenplay and made something good out of it, but that is virtually never the case. Of all the films where I have also read the scripts, I know of only two where the film is better than the screenplay. One is Nunnally Johnson’s Casanova Brown (1944) where Nunnally ended up dropping the motivation for the hero to do what he does, but casting Gary Cooper in the lead made it work because we simply believe Gary Cooper is doing the right thing. The other was a student film written and directed by a student of mine. As the writer she never quite got one character more than a cliché, but since she was a professional actress, she got the actor to give the character more texture and nuance than he had in the script.

The second part of the question dealt with powerful directors who hire their own writers, and “lee herbage” unfortunately suggests that was true in the Nunnally Johnson-John Ford collaborations. Perhaps he should also read my 1980 biography of Nunnally, Screenwriter: The Life and Times of Nunnally Johnson. On the Johnson-Ford films, Nunnally did the scripts for Darryl Zanuck, the head of the studio, who later assigned Ford to direct them. On more recent films, the director is the producer, either in name, or in fact since the producer is “his” producer. So yes, scripts do get bent out of shape by the directors. FrameWork will give you several examples of that.

See, isn’t this fun when you send in comments? Keep them coming.

Shutter Island (2010. Screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. 138 minutes)

Shutter Island

Apprehension: I went into this one with mixed feelings. I very much liked the two previous films made from Lehane’s novels, the 2003 Mystic River and the 2007 Gone Baby Gone. They both had strong stories and strong characters, and those brought out the best in their directors. On the other hand, the previous pictures that Kalogridis worked on had not impressed me. She is rumored to have worked on the screenplay for Avatar, and I made my views on that one clear in US#38. I made my views clear on the 2004 Alexander, which she co-wrote with Oliver Stone and Christopher Kyle, in the book Understanding Screenwriting. Then there are the continuing problems I have with Shutter Island’s director, Martin Scorsese. I was impressed with his 1967 feature Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, since he seemed to have a new take on male fear of women’s sexuality (a guy freaks out and dumps a girl when he finds out she is not a virgin), but his films after that just repeated the theme rather than developing it. Unlike film critics, who acclaimed Raging Bull (1980) as the best film of the ‘80s (which tells you more about the critics and the ‘80s than it does about the film), I found the film very repetitive. I only stuck it out until the end to make sure that a former student of mine who worked on the picture actually showed up in the credits. I liked the first half of The Aviator (2004), but the second half totally missed what Ava Gardner was all about and spent way more time than it needed to on DiCaprio wearing Kleenex box slippers. The most recent film of his that I liked was The Departed (2006), and the reason I liked it was that Scorsese’s direction was…restrained. That’s not a word I would use for most of his other films, which seem to define over-directed. He seemed to realize he had a terrific script and great actors and was content to show both of them off instead of his skills. And my apprehension was not helped by Anthony Lane’s review of Shutter Island in the March 1 New Yorker, where he writes of Scorsese that “there is little or no evidence that he is armed with a sense of humor.” That line articulated what has always bothered me about Scorsese: he seems to be a totally humorless director. His direction of the 1995 Casino suggested he was completely unaware that he was making what everybody west of the Hudson river who did not grow up with the myths of gangsters knew was a comedy: Goodfellas Go to Las Vegas and Get their Clocks Cleaned by a Bunch of Cowboys.

So guess what? I got into the film immediately. A couple of U.S. marshals are going to a state prison for the criminally insane to investigate the disappearance of one of the prisoners. Creepy, and Scorsese’s over-direction (sound, brooding cinematography) suggests this is going to be a shaggy dog story, which as you know from US#37, I love. You either deal with this material realistically, as Frederick Wiseman did in his great 1967 documentary Titicut Follies, or else you go over the top as all those B movies Scorsese loves do. But Scorsese’s usual lack of restraint works nicely here. He may or may not get that several of Kalogridis’s lines are funny, just as Fritz Lang was clueless as to the funny lines in Nunnally Johnson’s script for the 1944 Woman in the Window. The actors, especially Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow, get it, and DiCaprio’s trying to be ‘50s tough guy Ralph Meeker works in the same vein whether DiCaprio and Scorsese get it or not.

Kalogridis’s structuring of the script is nicely paced, with the first suggestion that all is definitely not what it seems coming about half an hour into the picture. She then paces the additional revelations beautifully, even if most them turn out to be red herrings. They are fascinating red herrings, so much so that when the Big Twist comes, the red herrings have been more interesting than the “truth” the twist gives us. I looked at my watch when the Big Twist came, and I realized the movie was going to go on for another fifteen minutes. This is the biggest flaw in the script. Kalogridis has piled up over the course of the film a lot of information, much of which helps unsettle us about what may or may not be going on. That’s a good thing, given the material. But in the last fifteen minutes, she is explaining way more than she needs to, including a long flashback about DiCaprio’s character. She has trusted us to put stuff together before the Big Twist but not after it. We could make the connections that the script makes for us.

Kalogridis does provide some fascinating characters, or maybe parts of characters, for the actors to play. Scorsese is often over-the-top (the sound of matches being lit in a cell block sounds like a hurricane), but he’s smart enough to revert to his Departed style when he has a good actor’s scene. In the scene in the cave, he just sets his camera down and watches DiCaprio and Patricia Clarkson go at it. The scene provides information in the most dramatic way, with great opportunities for some terrific acting. Don’t believe everything they say or do and you may enjoy yourself.

The Ghost Writer (2010. Screenplay by Robert Harris and Roman Polanski, based on the novel The Ghost by Robert Harris. 128 minutes)

The Ghost Writer

More apprehension: If you know the films of Roman Polanski, then you go into this one expecting a little knowing wit (as opposed to the semi-knowing kind in Shutter Island). You get it right up front. A ghost writer, who is never identified by name, which is not as clunky as you might expect, gets a gig to rewrite a terrible first draft of a former British Prime Minister’s memoirs. He gets the gig in a very quick, funny scene in which the writers balance the writer, his agent, the publisher, and an editor who is totally clueless. The deal is made before Teddy and Chuck get off the boat in Shutter Island. The film flows smoothly from there, but a little too smoothly. We have some apprehension, especially for the Ghost, who is way in over his head. The characters generally are not as compelling as they might be, and while the acting is good, the actors have not been given that much to work with. Pierce Brosnan is the former PM and he does what he can, but his work here is not up to his work in, say, The Tailor of Panama (2001) or The Matador (2005). Tom Wilkinson has a long scene as a Harvard professor the Ghost discovers has something to do with the PM, and Wilkinson is excellent as always, but the scene is not as compelling as the two-hander in the cave in Shutter Island. The actor given the best scenes is Olivia Williams as the PM’s wife. There is more richness and texture to her role and her performance than there is with the others.

After the good opening scene, the picture is sluggish until the end, where the Ghost finally figures out the secret of the manuscript (things get a little DaVinci Code here). It’s a dandy secret, especially if you realize the PM is based on Tony Blair and his wife is based on Cherie Blair. I assume it is not “the truth” about the Blairs, but it’s still a wicked twist. And Harris and Polanski do not wait around after they deliver it, but set up a great final shot. The shot does more with a lot of paper floating in the wind than all of the floating paper shots in Shutter Island. Sometimes restraint is better. And sometimes it’s not.

The Messenger (2009. Written by Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman. 112 minutes)

The Messenger

A little too late, not that it would have helped: I had not seen this when it was briefly in theaters. It’s a small indie film, and it got nominated for two Oscars, including one for best original screenplay. Since I am curious as to what the writers branch of the Academy likes, I gave it a shot when it popped back into one theater, one showing a day in the run-up to the ballots being due. It had sounded like it might work as a film: We follow two army guys who notify the next of kin when a soldier dies. Unfortunately it doesn’t work, and not just because it is coming to us after The Hurt Locker (US#30) and Taking Chance (US#20).

In Taking Chance, we follow one officer accompanying the body of a dead soldier back home. We see one process from the beginning to the end, and we get a lot of fascinating details about how all this is done. We also get a lot of different reactions to what happens. In The Messenger we meet Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery, finishing his recuperation period and assigned to work with Captain Tony Stone on notifications. The indoctrination Stone gives Will is very flat, with none of the texture that we get (mostly visually) in Taking Chance. The same happens in the dialogue scenes that tell us about the characters: very flat and no texture. The duo goes out and makes their notifications. What reactions do they get? People cry. Well, sure. But the writers could have gone beyond that. Bogart once said that when you play a scene in which a gun is pointed at you, you do not have to act scared. The audience will assume you are scared and you can act other reactions. The writers could have given us a lot more variety in the reactions. In Taking Chance, the actions are not repeated in the way they are here. By the middle of the film, the writers have pretty much given up on showing the notifications and just stick with Will and Stone. They take a couple of girls off on a weekend, and unless I missed something, they just leave the girls at the cabin while they go off to an engagement party for Will’s former girlfriend. None of this is particularly well-observed, unlike the soldiers’ attitudes in The Hurt Locker.

In the middle of the film, Will gets emotionally involved with the widow of a soldier they have notified. That’s a no-no in that line of work, for all the obvious reasons. It seems to come from a lack of imagination on the writers’ part. The relationship is also not well-observed. We get a long, single-take scene in which they sort of agree not to have sex. If you are writing a scene that will be done in one take (Moverman also directed), it had better be brilliantly written (see my comments on one-take scenes in the item on Police, Adjective in US#40). And if you are writing a scene in which nothing happens, you also better be as good as the writers of Before Sunset (2004) are in the final scene of that film. You know this scene, and the character of the woman, are not well-written when I tell you that not even the great Samantha Morton can do anything with them.

So why did the writers branch nominate the script? I think because, paradoxically, the writing is so on-the-nose about the damage war does to not only soldiers but their next of kin. Screenwriters, who are used to having their great literary speeches cut out (and often cut for good reason), admire scripts that can be preachy, as in previous nominees such as Milk (2008) and Crash (2005) and this year’s Precious, just to name three recent ones that also won. Never underestimate the desire of screenwriters to preach.

United States of Tara: The First Season (2009. Various writers. Each episode 30 minutes)

United States of Tara

Goodbye Blockbuster, hello Netflix: Diablo Cody, the creator of this Showtime series, was not the first person to find the idea of multiple personalities funny. In the mid-‘50s, Nunnally Johnson was writing and directing the first film about the subject, The Three Faces of Eve (1957). It was based on the clinical study of a woman the two authors had treated in their psychiatric practice. Nunnally had enormous difficulty casting the title role. One person he sent the script to was Judy Garland. She was sure it must be a comedy. Nunnally took the films the doctors had made of the real “Eve” to Las Vegas to show Garland. Nunnally said later, “She got it like that.” She said, “You’ve got to swear that I play the part. We’ve got to cut our wrists and mingle our blood.” Nunnally replied, “That’s what I’m up here for, wrist cutting.” Garland subsequently backed out. Every other major actress turned him down as well, one saying that her psychiatrist felt it would harm her own treatment if she did the part. Nunnally went with the virtually unknown Joanne Woodward, who won the Oscar for her performance and subsequently played the psychiatrist role in the 1976 miniseries on the same subject, Sybil. Nunnally was doing his film seriously, and he called his friend Alistair Cooke to narrate the story. Cooke checked the book out to convince himself it was not a joke. There were still, of course, people who did not believe it. The late film critic Leslie Halliwell, in his comments that are still in the current edition of his Filmgoer’s Companion, wrote that “Alistair Cooke introduces this tall tale as if he believed it.”

Now, thanks at least in part to Three Faces of Eve and Sybil, we know that people with multiple personalities exist. It even has a new name, Dissociative Identity Disorder, or DID. So just as films like The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) began to play the Cold War in comedic terms after it had been going on for fifteen years, Diablo Cody apparently decided it was time to bring her brand of snark to the subject of multiple personalities. It is trickier than it sounds, and while Cody and her fellow writers generally succeed, it is not something you should try at home.

This past Christmas, Santa’s elf, otherwise known as my daughter, totally unaware that my neighborhood Blockbuster was going to close (see US#42), got me a trial subscription to Netflix, which she swears by. Since Showtime is one channel our package from Time-Warner does not include (they are protecting their own HBO, of course), I got the entire, twelve-episode first season of United States of Tara on DVD and watched it all. As you may remember from my comments on Juno and Jennifer’s Body (US#4 and #34, respectively), I am a big fan of Diablo Cody’s.

In Three Faces of Eve, Nunnally brings us very slowly to understand Eve’s condition, since we have to feel for the characters before he exposes us to this strange new—to the audience at the time—condition. In the “Pilot” episode, written by Cody, we come to the information very quickly. Tara is talking to a home video camera about her life and her work, but says, “I can’t seem to micromanage my daughter’s vagina,” which pretty much tells us we are in Diablo Cody territory. Her teenage daughter Kate comes home and finds Tara as T, the wild teenager. Kate tells her she likes her the best of all the “alters,” as the personalities are called. It becomes clear that the family, which includes Kate’s slightly younger brother Marshall, knows about her condition and that she has gone off her medications to try to deal directly with it. When Tara’s sister Charmaine comes around, she and Tara’s husband Max have a little heavy exposition for those who have not seen the previous films. Max is able to send the alters to “the shed” in the backyard, which serves as a place for them to cool down and turn back into Tara. Think of it as Superman’s phone booth. Tara later sees Kate making out with her boyfriend, and turns into Buck, the male, redneck alter. Buck watches Kate’s dance recital, then punches out Kate’s punkish boy friend. So by the end of the episode we have been introduced to Tara and her family and we have a sense of the situations they face. We have met two of Tara’s alters, but we suspect there are more. We also know from the tone of the writing that we are living in Diablo Cody’s world.

In Episode 2, “Aftermath,” also written by Cody, we see the family cleaning up after the adventures in the first one with T and Buck. When Tara runs into two women she knows, we see her turn into her third alter, a very ‘50s housewife, Alice. In the first episode we did not see the transformations, here we do. In the original films of the real Eve, she made her transformations instantaneously, but Johnson and Woodward slowed them down to make them more believable to 1957 audiences. Here the transformation goes fairly quickly, but we still see it taking place. In most of the first season’s episodes, the transformations are demonstrated by the costuming of the alters. In the commentary track on episode 8, the only one on the first season’s DVDs, Cody mentions they will be doing less of that in the second season. This is one of the advantages of having Toni Collette as Tara and her alters. Not only is Collette an immensely talented actress, she also has the ability to look different from role to role, and in this show from shot to shot. So the showrunners figured out that you do not necessarily need to spend the time on costume and makeup changes when Collette can do it all for you. One of the critical complaints some people had about Juno was that Cody made all the characters sound alike. As I mentioned in US#4, that is not really true. I also mentioned that Cody was great at creating characters in that film, and here she develops that even more. Both the dialogue and the characterization of the alters makes them very distinct.

It is not until Episode 3, “Work,” written by Cody, that we meet Dr. Ocean, Tara’s therapist. Tara is concerned that the alters are coming on to Max, which we have seen, and we have seen that Max has so far not taken them up on it. That might have been a little too weird, even for Cody, at least in the first season. (When Neil, Max’s partner in his gardening business, suggests that having sex with the alters must be like having a multi-pack cereal, Max assures him he is not having much cereal.) Once you establish the tone of the series, you can begin to play with it. Look at how much more M*A*S*H got away with in its later seasons than it did in its earlier ones. One issue this series will have to deal with is how much time we are going to spend in therapy sessions. The scene with Dr. Ocean in this episode is short, and we get the impression that Dr. Ocean may be out of her league with Tara and her alters. That’s an improvement over the usual Hollywood attitude that shrinks are wonderful and perfect. See my comments on Precious in US#38. Meanwhile Kate gets a job at a chain restaurant, having dropped the punk boyfriend in the first episode. Cody mentions in the commentary track that Kate originally started out as a not-particularly bright person, but that the actress Brie Larson gave them some smarter qualities and the writing began to move her in that direction. One of the advantages of writing for a group of actors that you know is you begin to realize what they can and cannot do, which is why the writing later in a series is often better in dealing with the characters as they have developed. Marshall has developed a crush on Jason, a hunky boy he sees at school, and Jason suggests Marshall join an experimental theater group Jason is part of. We also get a very interesting scene with Max and Buck at the end of the episode. Tara has made a “sex date” with Max, but when Max gets home, he finds Buck there. Well, both are straight, so they discuss the needs of men, and at Buck’s suggestion they dig out some porn DVDs to watch. Jill Soloway, the author of Episode 8, says in the commentary track that Max is “like the fantasy husband we have all created in the writers room.” Sometimes he is too good to be true, but then they give you a scene like this…

Episode 4, “Inspiration,” is the first one not written by Cody. One of the many, many tricky writing problems on this show is that, unlike many other series, a lot of this one is dependent on Diablo Cody’s attitude and tone. This is the first of two episodes written by Alexa Junge, whose credits include Big Love, The West Wing and Once & Again. Not an amateur, in other words. Tara discovers Max masturbating in the shower, isn’t upset, and calls it his “gentleman’s time,” which certainly sounds like Cody. But then we get another Dr. Ocean scene, and this one is more of a usual shrink scene. The plotting is more conventional than in the first three episodes, and Junge is not having as much fun with the alters as Cody did. In fact, we never see the alters in this episode.

Episode 5, “Revolution” is also written by Junge, and she is getting closer to Cody’s tone. At a party Kate and Marshall have while Max and Charmaine are chasing down Tara, Kate and Marshall trash-talk about a girl Jason has brought to the party. The trash-talk is what we expect from Cody. On the other hand, the scene where Marshall gets upset at T for causing Tara to miss events at his school is very conventional drama, and would not have been out of place on Once & Again.

Episode 6, “Transition,” written by David Finkel & Brett Baer, has Tara’s parents, Bev and Frank, come to celebrate Charmaine’s birthday. It is clear that they do not know Marshall is gay, which Tara and her immediate family accept without qualm. We sort of guessed from the beginning that was the case with Marshall, and we have accepted it in the same way Tara and the others do. But they obviously have not told her parents. Tara seems to be getting through the parents’ visit without becoming an alter, but at the end she appears in a plastic tent, apparently a new alter. This sets up that we may be getting more alters as the series progresses. This episode also sets up that Tara was raped at boarding school, which is what everyone thinks caused the DID. Up until the end, this episode is more of a traditional family sitcom episode. Finkel & Baer’s credits include working as writers and producers on 30 Rock.

Episode 7, “Alterations,” is written by Cody, and we are back with the full Cody tone. We learned in 6 that Charmaine had bad plastic surgery on her breasts, leaving them uneven. She goes in for surgery, and expects to have Tara as her “post-surgery booby buddy,” to drive her home. Now which of the alters would you send in instead? Right, Buck show up, which gives us good scenes with Buck as his redneck sexist pig, but also as supportive. He ends up shampooing Charmaine’s hair, and when she remembers Tara doing it when they were younger, Buck turns back into Tara. You remember I said Tara showed up in the previous episode in a “plastic tent”? Here’s why Cody gets her own show. Her lines for Max to Dr. Ocean describe the new alter as “a weird poncho goblin.” When the shrink suggests Tara just wanted a whimsical alter, Max replies, “This isn’t whimsical. Tinkerbell is whimsical. This little fucker pisses on people.” While there are good lines in the episodes not written by Cody (and the lines may have been written by her and added to the script if she makes a pass on each script), there is not the consistency of the dialogue there is in Cody’s scripts. More importantly, there is not the consistency of tone with the characters.

Episode 8, “Abundance” is written by Jill Soloway, and is closest to Cody’s writing of the episodes not specifically written by Cody. Soloway’s credits include Six Feet Under as well as Grey’s Anatomy. Alice thinks she is pregnant, even though Max has never had sex with her, and she is convinced the pink on the pregnancy test that Max and Charmaine give her means she is having a girl. When she has her period, she assumes it is a miscarriage. The “experimental theater group” Jason got Marshall to join is a conservative religious group presenting a “Hell House.” That’s an environmental theater piece that tries to scare kids into not having sex or doing drugs. Soloway says on the commentary track that she had set one up as a lark (you can order a kit with the stuff you need from the guy who did the first one), which is where she got the idea for the storyline. Jason’s father is the minister in charge, and he tells Marshall that he knows why Marshall has joined the group. Marshall and we assume he knows that Marshall is gay and after Jason, but as we find out in later in the episode that the minister just thinks Marshall is trying to keep Jesus at a distance. Jason and Marshall get the job of buying “abortion meat” at a supermarket for the abortion section of the Hell House. Now that’s a detail you would expect in a Diablo Cody series. In the commentary track it is clear that Soloway and Cody are on the same wavelength.

Episode 9, “Possibility,” is written by David Iserson, whose first sitcom this is, but who wrote on twenty episodes of Saturday Night Live. Iserson gets Cody’s tone, as in a scene where Neil and Max discuss Tara’s assertion that Max is a “cowboy,” always trying to ride in and save her. But he also brings a sensitivity to the way he writes the characters that Cody and the other writers do not do as well. In this episode, Marshall has Jason over to the house and eventually kisses him. This is a nicely written scene, offbeat, within Cody’s range, but not snarky. Iserson’s tone adds a color to the palette of the show. You will notice the variety of previous credits for the non-Cody writers on the show. It should not surprise you that several of them have credits on shows that are not conventional sitcoms, nor that they have credits on cable shows such as Big Love and Six Feet Under. When staffing up a show with such a distinct sensibility, you need to be a lot more discriminating than on other shows. One of the recurring problems I have with Castle is that crime elements become very Law & Order, sometimes to the detriment of the comic tone that is part of the show.

Episode 10, “Betrayal,” is written by Chistopher Santos, his first writing credit, and like Iserson, he shows a sensitivity to the characters. T is at home when Jason and Marshall ride up on bicycles. Jason has at first ignored Marshall at school, then suggested the bike ride. When Max calls Marshall into the house, T asks Jason if he likes boys. His answers to that and to the question as to whether he is bisexual are “maybe.” T tries to make out with Jason, which causes Marshall to burn down the shed. Not as many laughs in this episode as there are in others, but we are getting deeper into the characters.

Episode 11, “Snow,” is Alexa Junge again. Dr. Ocean has terminated Tara’s treatment because she thinks she needs more advanced treatment. Tara admits herself to an in-patient facility, and we get more conventional therapy scenes with Dr. Holden and the staff there. Dr. Holden wants to delve into memories, which Tara has lost. Max is sent to a support group, which at least is seen in slightly comic terms as people prattle on about dealing with the DID people in their lives. Jason is sort of dropping Marshall, which leads Charmaine to call Jason “a bi-curious church monkey who is using you to find an edge.” We do get some haunting moments when Tara talks with a woman who is now “integrated,” i.e., has made her alters into her own one personality, but has not been able to see her children for several years. This pushes Tara to try to find out what happened to cause Tara’s alters.

Episode 12, “Miracle,” is the season finale and written by Cody, who is now bringing together several plot strands. Max has tracked down Tripp, the guy they are all assuming raped Tara at boarding school. He has agreed to meet with Tara and brings along his wife. He is not defensive or angry about being called out about this, since he has had regrets, even though he cannot exactly remember what happened either. Cody handles this scene very neatly by only giving us the beginning and ending of the discussion. We are able to figure out what has been said in the middle since, a) we get Tripp’s tone at the beginning, and b) we can pick up from the end of the discussion what the rest of it was. Lots of times you don’t have to show us everything everybody says. Cody cuts away after the start of the scene to scenes with Marshall talking to Charmaine in the hall. An aide comes by and asks them if they need anything, and Charmaine replies, “No, no, my sister is meeting with her rapist, so we’re just, you know, hangin’ out.” That’s a Cody line that captures the spirit of the series. Max is so upset with Tripp he leaves the room. As Tripp gets up to leave, he calls Tara T. T comes out and tells Tripp it was her night and she fucked him and his friend Mike. Buck makes an appearance as well, and Toni Collette really gets to show off. Nunnally did not have Woodward go through all of Eve’s personalities until the big scene at the end. In Eve the scene “cures” Eve, although in real life Eve developed several other different personalities. What happens here is that T’s appearance and comments make it clear that the night at the school was not the cause of the DID, but that the alters were out long before. So on the one hand we have answered one of the questions the season has been building to, but it has only opened up more questions to be dealt with in the second season. Tara comes back and we see the family at the dinner table, then going bowling. Tara tells Max it may be worse before it gets better. The three alters (T, Alice, and Buck) surround Tara, all of them smiling. In the synopsis of this episode on the DVD, this ending is described as Tara “realizes she’s not who she is in spite of the alters, but because of them.” I wrote in my notes at that point that that is a real “How Do You Show This?” moment, and Cody does not find any way to show that in that scene. Presumably in the second season, beginning in March, somebody may articulate that to somebody else.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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Locarno Film Festival 2019: Technoboss, Echo, & A Voluntary Year

A striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival’s competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register.

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Technoboss
Photo: Locarno

Locarno often leans into its reputation as Europe’s most unapologetically highbrow summer festival, but a striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival’s competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register. Such as João Nicolau’s Technoboss, an unwaveringly deadpan musical comedy about an aging divorcé, Luís (Miguel Lobo Antunes), nearing the end of what seems to have been a tedious career selling and maintaining integrated security systems. His existence is far from enviable, as he’s past his prime as a salesman and baffled by modern technology, while his primary companion is his cat. To compound the overriding sense of ennui, Nicolau presents a decidedly drab vision of Portugal, all cramped offices, cluttered shop floors, and soulless hotels.

Luís, though, remains optimistic, as evinced by his tendency to burst into song as he drives between assignments, and by the quietly determined way in which he attempts to regain the affection of an old flame, Lucinda (Luisa Cruz), despite her apparent disdain for him. Antunes, in his first professional acting role, is compelling, with a perpetual twinkle in his eye that hints at a rich inner life. And while his vocal range is limited, to say the least, he brings an earnestness to the musical numbers that elevates them above mere quirky window dressing.

Ultimately, the film is too narratively slight and tonally monotonous to justify its two-hour running time. One running joke in particular, involving a smarmy executive who’s frequently heard off screen but never seen, runs out of steam in the final act. And yet, when viewed in close proximity to the likes of Park Jung-bum’s dreary crime drama Height of the Wave, which bafflingly won this year’s special jury prize, Technoboss is a breath of fresh air.

Runar Runarsson’s Echo isn’t exactly a laugh a minute: An early scene depicts the preparation for a child’s funeral, while subsequent sequences revolve around police brutality, domestic violence, and the lasting impact of childhood bullying. But it’s delightful to behold Runarsson’s sly execution of a formally bold premise. Clocking in at 79 minutes, the film is composed of 56 standalone vignettes connected by a Christmas setting. The constant narrative shifts are initially jarring, but recurring themes begin to emerge: rising social inequality in the aftermath of the financial crisis; the impact of modern technology on traditional ways of life; the drabness of winter and its impact on the country’s collective mental health.

Yet while the film’s underlying tone is melancholic, there are frequent bursts of pure comedy, from the absurd spectacle of abattoir workers bopping along to a jaunty rendition of “Jingle Bells” amid animal carcasses, to a farmer and her partner earnestly squabbling about the state of their relationship as they document the mating habits of their goats. Humor also arises through the juxtaposition of scenes. The haunting image of a boy in a coffin is followed by a clinical shot of a similarly motionless adult body, and it takes a moment to register that we’re looking at not another corpse, but rather a man lying under a tanning lamp. Later, a heartwarming kids’ nativity scene cuts abruptly to a shot of bikini-clad bodybuilders performing in a harshly lit, half-empty auditorium.

However, it’s Echo’s sincerity that really impresses. One sequence, in which an emergency services operator calmly reassures a child reporting a violent altercation between his parents, is remarkable in the way it hooks the viewer emotionally in mere seconds. The film ultimately coheres into a vivid portrait of contemporary Iceland that’s equal parts bleak and beguiling.

A Voluntary Year, co-directed by Berlin School alumni Ulrich Köhler and Henner Winckler, is a similarly bittersweet affair, walking a fine line between raw domestic drama and precision-engineered comedy of errors. Sebastian Rudolph stars as Urs, an off-puttingly pushy small-town doctor intent on packing his teenage daughter Jette (Maj-Britt Klenke) off to Costa Rica to volunteer in a hospital. Jette, though, would rather spend her gap year at home with her boyfriend, Mario (Thomas Schubert), who seems harmless enough but has been written off as a poisonous influence by Urs. A sequence of mishaps in the thrillingly unpredictable opening act gives the young couple a brief chance to take charge of their own futures, but the decision Jette hastily makes pushes her strained relationship with her father towards breaking point.

Köhler and Winckler do a fine job of eliciting sympathy for their deeply flawed characters. Jette is maddeningly indecisive and prone to overly dramatic outbursts, but her brash exterior masks deep-seated vulnerability. Meanwhile, it’s easy to share Urs’s disbelief that Jette should be even remotely infatuated with the woefully uncharismatic Mario, but the boy’s earnestness ultimately proves strangely endearing. Urs is much harder to warm to, as he’s the quintessential big fish in a small pond, clearly used to throwing his weight around and getting his own way. To add insult to injury, his handling of sensitive situations is often jaw-droppingly misjudged. And yet, the viewer is given a strong enough sense of his good intentions to at least partially root for him as he attempts to patch things up with Jette.

While it may not do this modest film any favors to make the comparison, there are shades of Maren Ade’s masterly Toni Erdmann in The Voluntary Year’s nuanced depiction of a fraught father-daughter relationship, and also in the way the filmmakers play the long game when it comes to delivering comic payoffs. An enigmatic narrative thread involving a migrant boy has a laugh-out-loud resolution that also neatly paves the way for a moving final scene.

The Locarno Film Festival ran from August 7—17.

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Interview: J. Hoberman Talks Make My Day, Ronald Reagan, and ‘80s Movie Culture

Hoberman discusses how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered Reagan’s presidency.

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They Live
Photo: Film at Lincoln Center

The poster boy of American conservatism, the bar to which all Republicans would unashamedly evaluate future candidates, and yet now seemingly lower on a weekly basis, Ronald Reagan was an ideal movie star with an idealized view of the past. His perfect America would be equivalent to the opening shots of red roses, green lawns, and white picket fences that kick off Blue Velvet, while America’s reality would be what transpires once Bobby Vinton’s song concludes and the swarming ants are revealed beneath the surface.

A time of Hollywood blockbusters and silver screen patriots, macho men and teens headed back to the future, the 1980s, while not considered a golden movie age, saw a symbiotic relationship between American film and the nation’s chosen leader. How else to account for Reagan proposing his “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative in March of 1983, a mere two months before the release of the year’s top grossing film, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi?

With his methodically researched new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman takes a sociological approach to discovering how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered the goings-on of our 40th president’s administration. And on the occasion of the book’s release and accompanying Film at Lincoln Center series, which samples feature films from the ‘80s, I spoke with Hoberman about the first Reagan screen performance he ever saw, being a working film critic during the “Age of Reagan,” and the unexpected rise of real estate mogul and Celebrity Apprentice host Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.

One of your most revered books is Vulgar Modernism, a collection of reviews and essays written during the ‘80s without the benefit, or trappings, of historical hindsight. Now 30-some-odd years later, you’ve taken a step back to take a look at the bigger picture of the decade. What was that experience like?

I should say that this book was the culmination of two earlier books, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War. Make My Day is the end of a trilogy. When I began writing the trilogy, I didn’t realize how central Reagan would be to it, but by the time I started Make My Day, he had become, in effect, the protagonist of the entire trilogy. Make My Day was different from the other two books. It’s not just that I lived through this period, but that I was then a working critic. How was I going to deal with that? In the earlier books, I went out of my way to quote critics and others who wrote about movies because I was very interested in how these films were initially received. In the case of Make My Day, however, it seemed absurd to quote other critics when I was there myself. It took me a while to come to that conclusion because my impulse wasn’t to put myself in the book and yet I realized that I would ultimately have to.

I found that my opinion of the various movies discussed hadn’t changed all that much. My opinion of Reagan was modified somewhat, in that I saw him as a more complicated figure than I did during the 1980s, but I also believe my response to him in the ‘80s was true to the moment. That’s why I included a number of longer pieces in the book, while also annotating them, so that one could see that I wasn’t just reusing the material without thinking about it.

You note that each volume can be read in chronological order, the order in which they were published, or as standalone installments. I took it up after finishing your and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies, and it felt like I was emerging from the pre-’80s underground to a Reaganized American society that had become depressingly anything but countercultural. What was it like being on the underground and Hollywood beat as a critic throughout those years?

I didn’t really start reviewing the blockbuster films until around 1984. I was the Village Voice’s second-string critic when Andrew Sarris, the first-string critic, fell ill, and I took his spot for a while. As a result, I was reviewing movies that I might otherwise not have. To make things interesting for myself, I began reviewing these movies from a political and ideological perspective. Even when Andy came back, that stayed with me. So, for example, there were a lot of action films during that period that Andy was very glad not to review, like Top Gun, but I did those while also reviewing foreign films, avant-garde films, documentaries, and so on. I always said that I could never be a first-string critic for a newspaper. I would have lost my mind having a steady diet of big Hollywood movies! I would have had to mix things up.

While midnight movies aren’t the primary focus of Make My Day, the underground did find a way into your reviews of ‘80s blockbusters. I recall a review in the Voice titled “White Boys: Lucas, Spielberg, and the Temple of Dumb” in which you tear down the nostalgic Indiana Jones prequel while praising Jack Smith’s nostalgic Normal Love. Was it maddening for you to review the latest Spielberg while underground artists concurrently made the same points to much smaller audiences?

That was really something that came from the heart. I was outraged by Temple of Doom, by its attitude, and I was really sick of these guys, Spielberg and Lucas. I wanted to bring out that there were other forms of filmmaking and other ways of dealing with this material. I was making a point, yes, but it was something that was fueled by emotion rather than reason.

Were there any Spielberg films, or Spielberg-adjacent films like Gremlins or Poltergeist, that you found less than risible throughout the Reagan years?

There were some that I preferred. I liked Gremlins quite a bit, and I enjoyed Back to the Future, which is Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. At the time, I didn’t much care for Poltergeist, but when I looked at it again for the book, I thought it was interesting in terms of its pathology. I should also say that I liked Jaws and E.T., to a degree, although it was no Blade Runner.

Though primarily concerned with Regan’s political reign, you also dig deep into his filmography, noting how his sole villainous role, in The Killers, has always prompted a vocal reaction from every audience you’ve watched it with. Why do you think that is?

Well, I’m not sure that’s still true. A friend recently saw The Killers at Film Forum and told me he was sort of shocked that people didn’t respond to the scene where Reagan slaps Angie Dickinson. The first time I saw The Killers, which was, I think, in June of 1969, I didn’t expect to see Reagan in it. I don’t think I had seen him in a movie before. I was well aware of who he was, of course, and I hated him because I had been at Berkeley the previous summer, when students were public enemy number one and there were disturbances every night—the whole thing was extremely compelling for me as a 19-year-old. The point I wanted to make was that my whole view of Reagan was predicated on The Killers. To me, he seemed to be playing himself. I had a very naïve response. I couldn’t understand why he would do the role. I mean, what crazy hubris prompted him to show what he dreamed of becoming on screen? I recognize my response as primitive, but it also demonstrates the power of movie images. I didn’t see him as acting, even though he clearly is. I saw it as him projecting his evil, bastardly essence.

Speaking of essence, it’s odd re-watching Donald Trump’s numerous cameos in American film and television. Unlike Reagan’s silver-screen presence, Trump literally always played himself: an obscenely rich braggadocio. Whereas Reagan’s “lovable” persona no doubt helped his later career in politics, Trump’s media appearances helped to fortify his reputation as an arrogant huckster.

This is the point I tried to make at the end of the book. I was surely thinking about Trump a lot while writing the book, but he only became president when I was close to finishing it. Trump may have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but it doesn’t come as a result of the movies. He’s a celebrity and a celebrity is someone who’s able to project a cartoon version of themselves, or a larger-than-life version of themselves, into the media world: TV, the tabloid press, and so on. Trump is being true to this persona. I didn’t really see Trump’s presidency coming. For me, he was a New York City character, a local celebrity who was regularly exposed in the Village Voice’s narrative of New York City corruption. I had no sense of how he existed to the rest of America, in Celebrity Apprentice. Clearly that’s what put him over, or at least helped to put him over. That and his appearances on Fox News as a kind of pundit and even his involvement with professional wrestling.

As you mention in your book, the uncomfortably awkward 1979 CBS Ted Kennedy sit-down interview with Roger Mudd ultimately derailed Kennedy’s attempt at a presidential run. It’s hard to imagine, given the feckless attempts by our current political leaders to appear like an everyman, that current presidential candidates’ chances could be derailed by the televised struggle to answer a basic question. If anything, we might view the guffaw as endearing and humanizing. Trump says dumb stuff on a daily basis, and we all just accept it. Have we become desensitized to politicians being put on the spot and not being able to come up with succinct answers?

I think it’s different for different candidates. Being the younger brother of J.F.K., who was the first real political star, created a lot of expectations. People credit Kennedy’s success in the 1960 election with his appearance in the first debate, for looking so much better than Nixon. That may be simplistic, but it’s not simplistic for people to think that TV had something to do with Kennedy becoming president. I think this is a case of “live by the sword, die by the sword,” that his brother just stumbled so badly in that interview, in what was essentially his television debut. He did go on all the way to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, but the myth of the Kennedy charm and invincibility was destroyed by that interview.

Looking at subsequent presidents, Reagan certainly had an elastic sense of reality. But in his distortions and lies and misstatements, he was by and large upbeat and, when he wasn’t, he was at least coherent. Trump lies so continuously that you feel that that must be part of his appeal for his base, that he’s just going to make this stuff up. They think it’s funny or entertaining or maybe that it represents a “greater degree of authenticity.”

There had been a very interesting point made by Theodor W. Adorno about Hitler’s appeal. I’m not saying that Trump is Hitler, but he’s a demagogue and Hitler was too. Adorno, who lived through Hitler’s lies, made the point that intellectuals and serious people didn’t get Hitler’s appeal. Before he came to power, he just seemed like a clown. There was something ridiculous about Hitler’s assertions and his tantrums. What they didn’t realize was that’s precisely what his fans liked about him. I think that’s also the case with Trump and his supporters.

If Nashville, as you point out in the book, foresaw the real-life presidential assassination attempts that were soon to come, could you see the same cinematic influences happening today? Are there films today that you think are foreshadowing things that could come into fruition within our own political future?

Nashville was a movie made at a time when movies were much more central to American culture than they are now. It was made by a filmmaker, Robert Altman, who was directly addressing, as an artist, what was going on. I bracketed Nashville with Jaws because in some respects, Jaws is a similar movie, although I’m not sure if Spielberg was consciously making an allegory. Some things in the film are political, for example the behavior of the Mayor of Amity, but beyond that the movie itself was utterly central to American culture. There was nothing more important during the summer of 1975 than Jaws. There’s no movie that has that kind of centrality anymore, nor do movies as a whole.

A number of television shows seemed to be predicting Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election. There were shows like Madam Secretary and Veep and Homeland, strong, female, political heroes, or, in the case of Veep, comic. But what were they compared to Celebrity Apprentice? Those aforementioned shows were very feeble in terms of reaching an audience and I think it was more a projection of the people who made it. When I look at movies now, and I have to say that I don’t see as many movies as I used to, I see some that seem to manifest things that are in the air. Jordan Peele’s Get Out would be the best example of this. That movie was made and conceived while Obama was president, but it certainly projected the post-Trump mood. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is interesting because, on the one hand, it’s a movie about 1969, and yet it’s also a movie about 2019. It can’t help but manifest some of our current fantasies and tensions. But even if it had a bigger audience than Nashville, people just aren’t taking it the same way.

And Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood presents a cinematic take that has a romanticized, almost fetishistic view of a 1969 that never truly existed, at least not the way Tarantino wishes it did…

Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it. I would put it somewhat differently, but we can let people discover for themselves if they haven’t seen it!

The book also talks a great deal about the revisionism and idealization of specific time periods that were said to represent wholesome Americana. The ‘50s is a big one, but as you point out, the movies’ view of the ‘50s were drastically different from the one the world actually experienced. I remember growing up in the ‘90s convinced Happy Days was a TV show not just about the ‘50s, but from the ‘50s itself.

That makes perfect sense, and I think other people share that same experience. The genius of that show is that it portrayed the ‘50s “as it should have been.” Jean Baudrillard has a memorable description of walking in to see Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 black-and-white film The Last Picture Show and, for a moment, thinking it was actually a movie from the period it depicted: the early ‘50s. It was a hyper-real version of it. That’s what Happy Days was. I think Reagan’s genius was to be able to do that on a larger scale, to conjure up an idealized ‘60s almost out of whole cloth, vague memories, old television, and old movies in his own conviction, even if that was ultimately a fantasy. It was an idealization of the period.

On the occasion of your book’s release, you’ve programmed a selection of double features for an upcoming series at Film at Lincoln Center. Outside of a closeness in release dates, like The Last Temptation of Christ and They Live, what went into the pairing up of certain titles?

I appreciate that question. I really love the concept of double bills. Whenever it’s possible, I like to teach using double bills, because then the movies can talk to each other—and I don’t have to talk as much. Ideally the movies should comment on each other. The reason for including The Last Temptation of Christ was a bit tricky. I thought that the response that it got certainly looked forward to the culture wars of the ‘90s. There was such hostility directed toward that movie and, by extension, the movie industry as a whole. As Trump would say, it was as “an enemy of the people.” And to me, They Live seems to be the bluntest, most direct critique of Reaganism ever delivered, and it was delivered at the very, very end of his presidency. In a sense, it was already over, as the film came out just before the 1988 presidential election. I see both They Live and The Last Temptation as political movies, one overtly political and one that was taken in a political manner.

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Review: Vita & Virginia Leaves the Nuances of a Love Affair to the Imagination

The film frequently falls back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.

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Vita & Virginia
Photo: IFC Films

When capricious socialite and writer Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) first glimpses Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) at a bohemian party in Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia, the latter is the midst of a dance, her head leaning back and arms freely swaying in the air. It’s an uncharacteristic moment of outgoingness for the author, who by this time in the early 1920s has had only modest success, and the throbbing ambient techno music that underscores the scene lends her and Vita’s desires a strange and striking modernity. But the film doesn’t fully commit to such anachronistic flourishes in its portrait of the two women’s tumultuous love affair, instead frequently falling back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.

Vita’s deviousness and unpredictability does, for a time, make for some compelling proto-feminist drama, thanks in large part to Arterton’s bold performance. Vita is amusingly blasé in the face of both her heiress mother, Lady Sackville (Isabella Rossellini), who protests to her dressing as a man and openly having affairs with women, and her diplomat husband, Harold (Rupert Penry-Jones), completely dismissing his concerns about maintaining their marriage of convenience. Elsewhere, Debicki is left with the difficult task of dramatizing Virginia’s escalating strife, and with little help from a script that basically skirts over the serious mental health issues that plagued Woolf throughout her life. In fact, Virginia’s joys and struggles as they arise from Vita’s hot-and-cold treatment of her are rarely given any concrete form aside from the occasional ham-fisted touch of CGI-enhanced magical realism, as when vines grow out of the woodwork when Virginia returns home after first sleeping with Vita.

Outside of these moments, Virginia’s interiority is given similarly blunt expression through her relationships with her passive yet understanding husband, Leonard (Peter Ferdinando), her lively artist sister, Vanessa (Emerald Fennell), and Vanessa’s roommate, the flamboyant painter Duncan Grant (Adam Gillen). Each of these archetypes always seems to be conveniently on hand to explicitly outline the details of Virginia’s emotional state. The only time her thoughts and emotions, as well as Vita’s, are articulated with any nuance is through a series of epistolary interludes that see Arterton and Debicki reading the love letters that Sackville-West and Woolf wrote to one another. And yet, these moments are so awkwardly and unimaginatively incorporated into the film, with the actresses speaking their words directly into the camera, that the letters’ flowery language is effectively drained of its poeticism.

Vita & Virginia eventually lands on Woolf writing her breakthrough novel, Orlando, which was inspired by her relationship with Sackville-West. But as Button gives us only a vague sense of what drew these two vastly different women together, she leaves to the imagination how Sackville-West had such a lasting and profound effect on one of the great authors of the 20th century. In Orlando, Woolf writes, “Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth.” There’s more ambiguity, complexity, or passion in that one line regarding the elusive and illusory qualities of Vita’s love for Virginia than there is in all of Button’s film.

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isabella Rossellini, Rupert Penry-Jones, Peter Ferdinando, Emerald Fennell, Gethin Anthony, Rory Fleck Byrne, Karla Crome Director: Chanya Button Screenwriter: Chanya Button Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ready or Not Ribs the One Percent with More Laughs than Horror

Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot.

2.5

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Ready or Not
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s horror film Ready or Not is centered around a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek, and if that sounds unconscionably silly, at least the filmmakers are aware of that. Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy’s screenplay embraces the inherent absurdity of this premise, concocting an elaborate narrative justification as to why a bunch of grown-ups would be engaged in a murderous version of the classic kids’ game. It all boils down to a family ritual: Anyone marrying into the obscenely wealthy Le Domas clan must play a game at midnight on their wedding night, and this game, which is selected at random by a puzzle box, could be anything from old maid to checkers.

Bright-eyed good girl Grace (Samara Weaving), who’s just wedded the family’s favorite son, Alex (Mark O’Brien), gets picked to play hide-and-seek, and that’s where the trouble begins. Because while the other games proceed in perfectly ordinary fashion, the Le Domases have made a violent mythology surrounding this one game: The family must capture its newest member and slaughter them in a ritual sacrifice before sunrise, or else each family member will be cursed to die. And so, the Le Domases give Grace time to hide anywhere she likes in their sprawling country manor before they set out with rifles and crossbows to find her.

Gradually, the convoluted family mythology comes to overtake the goofy simplicity of the film’s premise, and to the point that one is apt to forget that a game of hide-and-seek is even going on. But Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett keep things lively with a lavish visual style that nods toward Kubrick’s The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, and even Barry Lyndon, while still maintaining an identity of its own. Lit mostly with candles, the sprawling villa in which the film mostly takes place assumes a creepy aura reminiscent of the opulently spooky house in Robert Wise’s The Haunting. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett’s mildly showy use of long takes and lithe camera movements exhibit an ironic grandiosity that suits the film’s light-hearted sadism.

Funny but not quite a comedy, Ready or Not, to its credit, leans in to the arbitrariness of its own myths and rules. Some of the members of the Le Domas clan aren’t even sure they believe in their family curse, and they bicker over whether they should be allowed to utilize modern technology, such as their mansion’s security cameras, to track Grace down. But the film’s constant reiteration and reevaluation of the Le Domases’ goofy traditions can sometimes make things feel repetitive and slightly exhausting, impressions which are enhanced by the lackadaisical handling of the film’s kills. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett primarily employ violence for laughs, but they frequently flub the punchline with a confusingly quick edit or an awkwardly shaky handheld shot. Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot. But this gonzo capper has the effect of retroactively diminishing the tame, uninventive bloodshed that preceded it.

Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O'Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Nicky Guadagni, Elyse Levesque, John Ralston Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett Screenwriter: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Jawline Takes a Measured Look at Social Media Stardom

The film is refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.

3

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Jawline
Photo: Hulu

The perma-glossy avatar of our profit-minded social media era is the cheery influencer, that species of professional bon vivant who seems perpetually more put together than anyone could be. Liza Mandelup’s debut documentary feature, Jawline, traces the dynamics that drive such influencers, their intensely adoring fans, and the malicious managers who try to turn a profit on them, and it’s refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.

The film begins on Austyn Tester, a sweet, poor Tennessee teen with a few thousand followers across Instagram, Twitter, Musical.ly, and YouNow who’s itching to escape his hometown and become an online celebrity. Mandelup mostly focuses on his daily efforts toward achieving that fame, including his semi-disciplined uploading regimen and the many retakes required to snag the perfect post. He spends much of his times posting, singing, and assuaging his young fans’ personal frustration on live chat. Only a slight variant on his actual personality, Austyn’s online brand, a “follow your dreams, no matter what” sort of positivity, would be unremarkable if it weren’t for its apparent impact on his teen girl fans.

Several of these fans are interviewed throughout the film. Each one is grappling with unique problems, from abusive families to bullying, though all of them justify their interest in Austyn and his peers for their willingness to listen, emphasizing the therapeutic effect of his livestreams. Jawline displays a certain evenhandedness here. The girls’ intense reliance on a stranger for comfort is uncomfortable to watch, but the film doesn’t trivialize this dependence. In an act of fan service, Austyn meets with a small group of girls at a local mall where their intense affections make themselves plain. Mandelup records them pushing an uncomfortable Austyn to ride around motorized stuffed animals so they can post it on Instagram, all the while demanding affirmations from him. Later, one girl forces him to share his phone number with her. Here, Jawline suggests a limit to his affection for them, if it ever existed, as well as the emotionally transactional nature of the relationship between fan and influencer.

The libidinal peak of this surreal relationship, though, occurs when Austyn and other influencers go on tour, performing shows for adoring fans with the hopes of upping their follower count in the process. On stage, the teens pose with fans, sing, and dance, all without any clear knack for it, in what amount to in-person livestreams. In this moment, there isn’t much that can be said about these largely cookie-cutter performers except that they’re toned, twinky, and peppy, and their fans love them for it. Mandelup’s footage of their displays is transfixing, not because the performances are spectacular—the shows are expensive to attend but often happen in dingy unadorned venues—but because the nearly contentless shows are only about the fans’ adulation. From an outsiders’ perspective, there’s a dizzying mismatch between the palpable intensity of their fervor and what they’re actually responding to.

How to relate to teen girls, how to monetize what’s relatable, and how to make the content more relatable and more profitable? These are the sorts of questions pondered by social media talent manager Michael Weist. He’s great to watch in the way reality TV villains are, as his success is propelled by a well-known combo of business sense, greed, and probable chicanery (appropriately, he finds himself in legal trouble by the film’s end). Around 21 years old, Weist has somehow marketed himself into a role as an authority figure on social media stardom, roping in young wannabe celebs and growing their followings. He’s turned a house in L.A. into a content factory, living there with his clients while haranguing them into posting, recording, and being on call 24/7 for their needs. Ever-candid, Weist reveals his long game at one point without being prompted: to run influencers through the content mill before they’re old enough to drink, at which point he can move on to the next hot prospect seeking fame.

At the heart of Weist’s efforts is the exploitation of Austyn’s more successful colleagues to commodify young girls’ emotions. Jawline is most fascinating when it tracks this process in action. Mandelup doesn’t draw as much attention to it as she could, meandering through IRL details that don’t quite elucidate or explain as much as they pretend to and don’t measure up to the retina-display realities of virtual stardom. A similar problem shows up in the documentary’s way of depicting tween girls. One notable scene involves slow-motion portraits of the fans accompanied by their disembodied voiceovers explaining why they spend so much time online. The scene is conceived in the spirit of chromatic maximalism, with the girls brightly lit against floral-print and pastel backgrounds, in a manner that humanizes their experience but flattens their differences, as if one were the precondition of the other. The style presents their range of justifications for standom as more or less equivalent to each other, reducing these girls to the same faceless morass of drives that Weist cashes in on.

More importantly, while Jawline’s depictions of predatory managers, overblown hopes, and obsessive followers spell out reasons to be despondent about the way this economy works, the film doesn’t look past its narrow horizon. There’s little indication of how this phenomenon is so profitable or how wide reaching this it is. Instead, Jawline offers a deflationary, measured suggestion that the current crop of influencers differs only in quantity from celebrity cults in Hollywood or the music industry. The latest iteration of celebrity is just monetizing a new type of media. All that’s really changed is that the stars burn dimmer and fade younger.

Director: Liza Mandelup Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 99 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Brittany Runs a Marathon Is a Moralizing Buzzkill of a Comedy

The film is inspirational only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.

1.5

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Brittany Runs a Marathon
Photo: Amazon Studios

Watching writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Brittany Runs a Marathon is a bit like listening to a runner describe a motivational poster—the type with a single-word slogan below a stock photograph—that inspired them to persevere as they trained themselves to be a serious runner. Sensing that such overt preachiness would be irksome, the film cloaks its proselytizing in self-aware jokes about how much more pleasurable sitting around is than running and a token acknowledgment that there’s nothing wrong with being out of shape. But the screenplay’s cute, if somewhat insipid, humor doesn’t prevent the film from feeling self-righteous. Indeed, for a comedy about a woman who makes a personal decision to get in shape, Brittany Runs a Marathon sure engages in a lot of moralizing.

At the start of the film, twentysomething Brittany (Jillian Bell) is overweight and working part time as an usher for a small off-Broadway theater, which somehow provides enough income for her to regularly drink champagne at high-end clubs with her roommate, Gretchen (Alice Lee). Walking back to their Queens apartment after nights of hard drinking and eating greasy food, they often catch their uptight, bougie neighbor, Catherine (Erica Hernandez), going out for an early morning run, seemingly judging them for their indulgence. It’s only a matter of time, then, before Brittany is informed by a Yelp-recommended doctor (Patch Darragh) that her lifestyle has led to elevated blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass index—and an ominous close-up on the doctor’s chart shows us that she’s crossed over into obese terrain.

And so Brittany begins running, ill-advisedly, in her beat-up Chuck Taylors, which she soon upgrades to spotless, turquoise New Balances. Catherine, for some reason forgiving of Brittany’s persistent churlishness, introduces the young woman to a local running club. What follows is surely intended to inspire laughs of recognition in audience members who picked up running in adulthood, as the neophyte Brittany hangs out at the back of the group with a fellow reformed slacker, Seth (Micah Stock). The new trio sets themselves an ambitious goal: to complete the New York Marathon the following November.

The film makes jokes about how hard running can be, but there’s an earnestness behind such humor that leaves certain sacred cows untouched. Most of these have to do with the self—namely, self-discipline, self-love, and self-actualization. As the film sees it, all those things can be realized through running. Seth may joke about how ready he is to stop, or how much he’d rather be doing something else, but he keeps going, and if Brittany cheats on her diet and eats some cheese fries, it’s portrayed as a dramatic, shameful misstep. We’re told over and over that Brittany is valued by her friends, old and new, because she’s funny, but we see scant evidence of this, particularly as her devotion to running takes on a quite pious dimension.

Arriving for comic relief and romantic interest is Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who works the night shifts at the same house-sitting service where Brittany has begun picking up hours during the day to fund her marathon training. Casually trashing the house they’re meant to be looking after, Jern supplies Brittany Runs a Marathon with the levity that began to evaporate from the film as soon as Brittany started exercising. But as her flirtatiously contentious relationship with Jern deepens, the other parts of her life become a plodding series of confrontations. Her improving self-image emboldens Brittany to kick Gretchen to the curb, accusing her friend of having always viewed her as a “fat sidekick.”

It’s a fair enough grievance for the character to have, but at a certain point in Brittany’s active defense of herself, the film takes on a self-righteous tone, associating its protagonist’s newfound healthy living with virtuousness and seeing Gretchen as despicable for her profligate lifestyle. Brittany Runs a Marathon’s positioning of exercise as a moral triumph is nothing more than a marketing technique, as Colaizzo’s film is “inspirational” only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.

Cast: Jillian Bell, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Michaela Watkins, Lil Rel Howrey, Micah Stock, Mikey Day, Alice Lee, Dan Bittner, Peter Vack, Patch Darragh Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo Screenwriter: Paul Downs Colaizzo Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Official Secrets Is an Ambitious Muckraking Thriller Prone to Melodrama

Gavin Hood wrings suspense out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts.

2.5

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Official Secrets
Photo: IFC Films

Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets is a muckraking thriller that revels in wonderfully lived-in details as well as generic biopic platitudes. The film tells a story that might have caused a sensation in Britain and the U.S. had it not been drowned out by those nations’ war machines. In 2003, Katherine Gun, a British translator for an intelligence agency, leaked an email in which the American National Security Agency urged for surveillance of pivotal members of the U.N. Security Council. This operation was for the purpose of blackmailing the U.N. into voting for the American invasion of Iraq (which President George W. Bush authorized later that year anyway, without the U.N.’s approval). Katherine leaked this email, and faced prosecution from her government under the Official Secrets Act of 1989.

In the film’s first half, the filmmakers offer a fastidious glimpse at how the press responds to Katherine’s (Kiera Knightley) whistleblowing. Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), Martin Bright (Matt Smith), and Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) are anti-war reporters for The Observer, which is in favor of the war and eager to maintain its relationship with Tony Blair’s government. Hood wrings suspense, and docudramatic fascination, out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts. Various jargon in the N.S.A. email is decoded, as insiders weigh its legitimacy. An intensification of surveillance is referred to as a “surge effort,” intelligence sources are “product lines,” and so forth.

This sort of commitment to texture is reminiscent of the novels of John Le Carré, as are the juicy scenes in which Beaumont and Bright reach out to people in the MI6 and the British government. Though Hood isn’t a moody stylist in the key of, say, Alan J. Pakula, his handling of the film’s actors is sharp, as their crisp and musical cadences allow the audience to understand that every spoken word matters, and that, if the reporters misstep at any time, they could potentially lose more than their contacts.

Katherine is eventually defended by an attorney, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), who has vast experience with human rights cases and with working within the labyrinthine British government. Fiennes’s probing, tormented, erudite charisma is always pleasurable, but this section of Official Secrets, meant to provide the legal counterpoint to the journalism thread, is shortchanged, as Hood starts to juggle too many balls at once. Interspersed with Emmerson’s adventurous interpretation of the Official Secrets Act are moments in which Katherine must rush to prevent her Turkish-Kurdish husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), from being deported out of an obvious retaliation against Katherine. These scenes are unimaginatively staged and unmoving—a sop to melodrama that temporarily halts the film’s procedural momentum.

It’s strange that the domestic dimension of the protagonist’s life should feel like clutter, which underscores a larger issue with Official Secrets: Katherine herself isn’t especially compelling as rendered here, as she almost entirely operates in the formula mode of aggrieved, persecuted, self-righteous avenger. A major ellipsis in the narrative is telling, as the British government forces Katherine to wait almost a year in limbo before deciding whether or not to persecute her, which Hood skips to keep the story moving. The emotional toil of such a year could’ve provided a personal counterpoint to the film’s political gamesmanship. As it is, the filmmaker reduces Katherine to a supporting character in her own story.

Cast: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Indira Varma, MyAnna Buring, Rhys Ifans, Tamsin Greig, Jack Farthing, Hattie Morahan, Conleth Hill, Katherine Kelly, Kenneth Cranham, Hanako Footman, Adam Bakri Director: Gavin Hood Screenwriter: Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein, Gavin Hood Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Tigers Are Not Afraid Wrings Preciousness from a Drug War’s Carnage

It never resolves its commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma.

2

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Tigers Are Not Afraid
Photo: Shudder

Writer-director Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a tapestry of flourishes. All are inseparable from Mexico’s gangland carnage, but its most memorable one is also rooted in magical-realist tradition, namely 100 Years of Solitude. The novel tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, and in one particularly exacting and vivid passage, master fabulist Gabriel García Márquez details how the seemingly eternal Ursula Iguarán learns of her son José Arcadio’s death after a trickle of blood from his body winds its way through war-torn Macondo, around corners, across terraces, down steps, and over curbs, before finally arriving at his mother’s doorstep. “Holy mother of God,” she says.

Ursula comprehends the truth of that thread of blood even before it leads her back to her son’s body. By contrast, the protagonist of Tigers Are Not Afraid, Estrella (Paola Lara), prevaricates so as to put distance between herself and the horrors around her. “We forget who we are, when the things from outside come to get us,” she says in voiceover at the start of the film. She doesn’t see the line of blood that runs from a dead man’s head and follows her all the way home until it’s already tracing a path across her living room floor and up a wall, finally creating the shape of an insect on a dress that hangs from the ceiling. Estrella’s mother is missing, and in this moment, the girl seems to know that she’s being sent a message, which she won’t learn to decipher until she becomes more fluent in the language of fairy tales.

At its most assured, Tigers Are Not Afraid strikingly literalizes the idea of the ties that bind, suggesting how the living and the dead walk hand in hand, almost as a matter of course, in a modern-day Mexico where 160,000 have been killed and 53,000 have disappeared since the beginning of the drug war in 2006. Before Estrella stumbles upon the aforementioned dead man’s body, you get the sense that today isn’t the first time she’s seen boys use police tape as limbo sticks, or dragged her fingers across walls riddled with bullet holes. Which isn’t to say that the girl is desensitized to this violence. She seems to almost exist at a remove from it, and López sensitively syncs the swaying of her camera to the girl’s visible numbness.

That sensitivity, however, proves to be a kind of redundancy. Throughout Tigers Are Not Afraid, López effectively conjures an aura of ordinariness, but she never resolves her commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma. The film concerns Estrella and a group of orphaned boys going head to head with a cartel after young El Shine (Juan Ramón López) swipes a gun and phone from the treacherous El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), and when that narrative isn’t picking up signals from the supernatural realm, you sense its allegiance to so many films indebted to the neorealist tradition, from Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados to Héctor Babenco’s Pixote. Tigers Are Not Afraid is alive to the harsh reality of its main characters’ lives, though at times it feels as if López’s only means of accessing that truth is by conspicuously shaking her camera.

As for the film’s supernatural flourishes, none are as inspired as that thread of blood that trails Estrella at various points. Little flying creatures suggest visitors from Guillermo del Toro’s cabinet of curiosities, while a gathering of ghosts inside an expansive, derelict building brings to mind a Silent Hill freak-out. And in the case of the tiger graffiti on a wall that comes to life at one point, there isn’t even the sense that we’re watching the dead’s handiwork. After a while, death’s intrusions come to feel more cosmetic than substantial.

Early in the film, López fascinatingly suggests that Estrella’s perception of the world, after a teacher grants her three wishes, is both shield and sword. But after the girl uses one of those wishes to commit an act of brutality, the film’s fairy-tale conceit reveals itself as an engine for easy absolution. By the time the girl arrives at an understanding of her world that isn’t too far removed from the logic of her opening voiceover, Tigers Are Not Afraid has so given itself over to feeling the innocence of cocooning that it only effectively haunts us with its preciousness.

Cast: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas, Tenoch Huerta, Nery Arredondo, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero Director: Issa López Screenwriter: Issa López Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 83 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette Serves Up Lifetime-Grade Chestnuts of Wisdom

The film is a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.

1.5

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

The opening passages of Where’d You Go, Bernadette include a handful of scenes in which an agoraphobic architect and mother, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), restlessly expresses her internal thoughts inside the empty rooms of her Seattle mansion. Observed in flowing Steadicam shots, these soliloquies—recorded and translated to text by Manjula, the digital assistant on Bernadette’s smartphone—give space to reflect on how the woman’s eclectic furnishings grow out of her racing mental landscape. And in performing them, Blanchett offers the rare cinematic spectacle of a mother in her alone time, compelled to let her imagination and anxieties loose outside the pressures of maternal duty. In these moments, the film, an unapologetically straightforward adaptation of Maria Semple’s best-selling novel, briefly takes on the tone of something candidly personal.

It’s a shame, then, that Where’d You Go, Bernadette is cloyingly beholden to the demands of its crowd-pleasing narrative arc—that of a creative woman driven to ennui by motherhood and middle age yet rescued from the brink by an inspiring vacation and the love of her family. It’s nice, reassuring stuff, not false by any standard, but told with such didacticism and cuteness that one can’t help but be bewildered by the fact that the film was co-written and directed by Richard Linklater. Where the Texas auteur’s leisurely paced Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!! excel in their attention to the nuanced spectacle of characters changing over time, Where’d You Go, Bernadette plays like all of its air has been sucked out in the interest of plot progression, which it conducts with the workshopped efficiency of a television movie mindful of commercial breaks. In fact, with its coverage-dependent mise-en-scène, off-the-rack musical score, and tacked-on bookending voiceovers, Linklater’s latest feels strangely close to something Lifetime might have churned out in the early aughts.

The film establishes its narrative conflicts quickly and bluntly, often through dialogue, simple juxtaposition, and, in one particularly dull case, a YouTube mini-documentary about Bernadette that plays in full in order to clarify her backstory. A brilliant and influential architect in the midst of a long hiatus after a demoralizing relocation and a series of miscarriages, she displaces her creative frustration on her city and its inhabitants, including her prosperous, TED Talks-giving husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup); stuffy neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig); and Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), a gossipy associate of Elgie and friend of Audrey. Her only routine source of joy is her wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), who loves her unconditionally and whom she treats perhaps a bit too much like a peer.

Symptomatic of Linklater’s always-generous worldview, the film sees Bernadette’s quirks not as deficiencies, but as inevitable side effects of life’s persistent curveballs. When the character refers to herself as a “creative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares,” it’s clear that the filmmaker endorses that assessment, and perhaps even recognizes it as a description of his own artistic career. For all their suspicion toward Bernadette, Elgie and Audrey aren’t characterized entirely negatively either, for each is given a path to redemption, and Wiig’s portrayal of her character’s transition from belligerence to empathy in particular is one of the highpoints of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

Rather, in true boomer fashion, Linklater reserves his cynicism for technology, kickstarting the film’s third act with the contrived revelation that Manjula is actually a Russian-operated phishing scheme seeking to steal Bernadette’s identity. This development briefly gets a Department of Homeland Security agent, Marcus Strang (James Urbaniak), and a therapist, Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer), caught up in the narrative, but it’s all really just a busy preamble to the Antarctica family vacation that’s hinted at from the very first scene. Bernadette has her reservations about the trip, Bee thinks it will be cathartic for the family, Elgie is too preoccupied with his career to concern himself with the logistics, and the shadowy forces behind Manjula are poised to swoop in and cause chaos during the scheduled dates.

What ends up happening is neither the transporting escape Bee wants nor the complete disaster Manjula intends to enact, but something messily in between that triggers a coordinated stream of life lessons—and a few uninspired drone shots of icebergs. Indeed, in its eagerness to diagnose Bernadette’s existential impasse, the film lays on thick the kind of back-patting chestnuts of wisdom that have become increasingly common in Linklater’s recent films, groaners like “Popularity is overrated” and “You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna do.” Such sentiments have always been window dressing in Linklater’s nonchalantly libertarian body of work, but if in many cases his films have tacitly acknowledged the limits of language to articulate life’s mysteries, here there’s very little sense of a frontier to be explored. If Bernadette is Linklater and Blanchett’s collaborative expression of the right balance between parenting and artistry, it’s a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening—and privileged—idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Emma Nelson, Zoe Chao, James Urbaniak, Judy Greer Director: Richard Linklater Screenwriter: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, Vincent Palmo Jr. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 130 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

The film is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.

2

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What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
Photo: KimStim

With What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, Roberto Minervini returns to the American South to tell the stories of several African-Americans living in New Orleans, over the summer of 2017. These stories are so self-contained that the documentary comes to suggest an anthology film, which, in this case, has been organized around a pervading theme of how political and personal textures intersect in everyday black life. And in the tradition of the anthology film, Minervini’s material is also variable, suggesting that the filmmaker could’ve been more ruthless in the editing room and less beholden to the pleasures of his self-consciously neat aesthetic.

Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Minervini’s subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew that’s clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titus’s inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocence—an impression that’s affirmed later in the film when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titus’s hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness that’s bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love that’s deeply poignant.

Juxtaposed with this coming-of-age youth narrative are stories of a recovering crack addict, Judy Hill, who’s realized her dream of opening a bar, and of a local chapter of the New Black Panthers, which is investigating and protesting several murders, such as the recent decapitation and burning of a local black man. Intellectually, one can see why Minervini believes these threads belong together, as they both illustrate how African-Americans foster their own infrastructures as a reaction to the corruption and indifference of governments on various levels. But Minervini’s cross-cutting shortchanges both of these story threads. Minervini reveals preciously little about the principle murder that the New Black Panthers are seeking to avenge, using it vaguely as a symbol of Southern atrocity at large, and the practical details of operating Judy’s bar are reduced to sketches. In both cases, the specifics of the subjects’ concerns haven’t been entirely dramatized.

In certain portions of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, particularly those featuring the New Black Panthers, Minervini taps into reservoirs of anger that are nearly at odds with his chilly formalism. The film was shot by D.P. Diego Romero in pristine black and white, with long takes that drink in the details of the landscapes and people’s bodies. One is often encouraged to savor the beauty of the lighting, especially in Judy’s bar, and Minervini eschews typical documentary devices like narration and interviews. In terms of gliding, sumptuous style, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, as both films verge on turning class struggles into moving coffee-table books.

We’re supposed to feel as if we’ve slipped effortlessly into the lives of Minervini’s subjects, which might have been possible if more time had been devoted to pivotal moments. If Minervini wasn’t able to capture the moment when Judy learns that she must close the bar, then perhaps he could’ve wrestled with his inability to capture it. Judy demands a meta-textual approach anyway, as she is a highly charismatic and self-absorbed person who is often clearly performing for the camera, most gratingly when she responds to her mother’s fear of homelessness with a monologue about her own generosity. A filmmaker like Robert Greene might’ve challenged Judy and utilized her for a riff on the power of self-mythology, but Minervini prizes his faux-objectivity; he’s more interested in mood than process or character. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.

Director: Roberto Minervini Screenwriter: Roberto Minervini Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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