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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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Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.

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Demolition Girl
Photo: Japan Cuts

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.

Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.

At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.

And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.

A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.

More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.

The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.

Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.

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Review: David Crosby: Remember My Name Sees a Legend Carrying On

The film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

2.5

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David Crosby: Remember My Name
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

One gets the sense when hearing David Cosby perform that, like many naturally gifted vocalists, he was born to express himself through song, and given his tumultuous personal and professional life, the act of singing may be the only means through which Crosby can briefly maintain an equilibrium amid so much chaos. Womanizing, drug abuse, and band breakups are certainly par for the course for countless musicians, especially those who came up in the late 1960s, but Crosby is an extreme case even by those standards. It’s difficult to think of another living musician more strongly and uniformly despised by his former bandmates and collaborators and, aside from Keith Richards, another whose continued survival is more shocking in light of what he’s put his body through.

Aided by Cameron Crowe, who, as a Rolling Stone writer, interviewed Crosby various times and is on hand here to again pick the musician’s brain, A.J. Eaton’s David Crosby: Remember My Name opens with a fairly standard music-doc overview that traces Crosby’s productive early years with the Byrds and his ascent to fame with both iterations of Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s no effort made to hide Crosby’s thorny personality or the chaos he brought to each of these early projects, but Eaton and Crowe seem initially content to butter Crosby up, joining him in waxing rhapsodic about his widespread influence and lasting importance as a musician.

The hagiographic tone slowly fades as the film moves past the perfunctory career retrospective and begins delving into the nitty-gritty details of Crosby’s bumpy road to stardom and his rapid descent into disgrace, spurred on by his decades-long battle with drug addiction. While Crosby often proves a tough nut to crack, rarely willing to linger too long on the painful moments of a life eventful enough to fill several documentaries, Crowe and Eaton eventually disarm him enough to tap into the frustrated, damaged, and regretful man hiding all those years beneath his patented walrus mustache and wispy, long hair. As Crosby discusses the petulance and rage he often unfairly directed at fellow bandmates and his mistreatment of many of his girlfriends, several of whom he got hooked on cocaine and heroin, one can sense not only the depth of his remorse and anguish, but also the resigned helplessness that little can be done in his twilight years to repair the many bridges he’s permanently scorched.

Throughout Remember My Name, archival interviews with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young make it abundantly clear that Crosby has alienated each of his former bandmates to such a degree that none of them will talk to him again. Only former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn appears in a newly recorded interview for the film, and he does so presumably only to describe how “insufferable” Crosby was as a fellow bandmate.

At nearly 80 years old, Crosby is happily married and in the midst of a creative resurgence with a string of acclaimed solo albums, but even these small joys are mitigated by his admission that he’s only touring, and thus often away from his wife, because he needs the money. During a leisurely drive with Crowe, Crosby visits his old stomping grounds in Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip and recounts those halcyon days when he lived with Joni Mitchell and sang his first song with Nash and Stills. But the magic of these locales has long since faded, leaving Crosby in an uncharacteristically introspective state and all too aware of how close he is to the end of his life. As he wistfully tells Crowe that he already has eight stents in his heart and will likely die in the next couple of years, the film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

Director: A.J. Eaton Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy

Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.

Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.

Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.

Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.

Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.

Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change

Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.

Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.

Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?

Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.

Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?

Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.

There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.

Yeah.

Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.

Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.

You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.

The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.

Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?

Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.

That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.

I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.

Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.

You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.

Right.

Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.

I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.

Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.

Yeah.

People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.

To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?

Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.

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American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell

Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.

A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.

Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.

If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.

Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.

Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.

As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.

Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.

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Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians

Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.

3.5

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I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Photo: Big World Pictures

Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.

For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.

A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.

Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.

Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.

Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.

Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust

The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.

I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?

Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.

Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.

To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.

Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.

Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?

Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.

Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.

It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.

How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?

Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.

How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”

Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.

Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?

No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.

You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?

I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.

My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”

And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.

I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.

It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]

On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.

That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!

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Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre

Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.

Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.

Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.

But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.

Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert

The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.

The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.

At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.

As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.

Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident

Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.

Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.

Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.

Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.

De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.

Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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