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Understanding Screenwriting #44: Ajami, Green Zone, Nights in Rodanthe, The 39 Steps, & More



Understanding Screenwriting #44: Ajami, Green Zone, Nights in Rodanthe, The 39 Steps, & More

Coming up in this column: Ajami, Green Zone, Nights in Rodanthe, The 39 Steps, White Feather, You Only Live Twice, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Parenthood, The Pacific

Ajami (2009. Written by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani. 120 minutes)

It might have worked: This is an intriguing idea for a movie. Copti and Shani, who also co-directed, are Palestinian and Israeli, respectively. The film is set in the multi-ethnic Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa. So we get storylines of Palestinians and Israelis both by themselves and together. The film is divided up into five chapters. In the first two chapters, we are introduced to the Palestinian characters, particularly Omar. Omar was the target of a hit man from another tribe, who was aiming to kill him because Omar’s uncle had killed one of the other tribe. Unfortunately the hit man kills a friend of Omar’s. Omar enlists the aid of Abu-Lias, the neighborhood fixer, to negotiate a settlement between Omar and the tribe. The negotiation scene is probably the best scene in the picture: dramatic, funny, and with great Middle Eastern texture. Omar goes to work for Abu-Lias to pay off the debt, and we meet several other characters Omar hangs out with. In the third chapter we meet an Israeli policeman, Dando, who is disturbed by the disappearance of his brother, whom he assumes has been killed. The fourth chapter brings the Israelis and Palestinians together, and the fifth chapter ties the stories together. So what went wrong?

In the first two chapters the Palestinians yell at each other. In the third chapter the Israelis yell at each other. In the fourth chapter the Palestinians and the Israelis yell at each other. In the fifth chapter every single character behaves as stupidly as they can so the filmmakers can have a tragic ending. Now from what we hear out of the Middle East, all that yelling at each other may be socially and politically accurate, and certainly stupid behavior is not unheard of in the area. But it just gets exhausting to watch. Yes, I know it is exhausting for those in the area to live through, but as writers they need to give us a little counterpoint. I have the same problem with this script as I did with the script for the 2005 film Crash (see US#9). I don’t know the Ajami neighborhood like I know Crash’s LA, so maybe they do behave that way. But that does not mean I have to watch them.

Green Zone (2010. Screenplay by Brian Helgeland, inspired by the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekara. 115 minutes)

Green Zone

More Middle East yelling, and not just among Middle Easterners: You probably know the rule of three in joke telling: never tell more than three jokes on one subject. You may not be aware of the rule of three in screenwriting. To establish a pattern, you need three activities. The first one is an event. The second is a coincidence. The third tells us there is a pattern. Green Zone opens shortly after the American invasion of Iraq. An army unit, run by Chief Warrant Officer Miller, is trying to find the fabled Weapons of Mass Destruction. Their intel (intelligence; Helgeland gets the terminology and the military attitudes right) says one load is in a warehouse. Which the regular army has not secured. At least one sniper is still active, along with the general chaos. Miller and his unit go in, taking out the sniper. There are no WMDs; there is only rusted machinery with ten years of pigeon shit on it. Nice opening scene, and now we need two more, right? Did you forget that Helgeland also wrote L.A. Confidential (1997) and Mystic River (2003)? OK, he also wrote The Postman (1997), but his draft of that had more than a little humor in it. When the area is secure, Miller says this is the third time they have come up empty. So you know you are going to have to run to keep up with the story, which I for one always love.

Miller goes to the administrators living in the Green Zone (if you don’t know what that is, start reading newspapers, or Chandrasekara’s book), who really don’t want Miller to look into this too deeply. But Miller is a traditional American hero, standing up to the establishment. I saw Green Zone in the afternoon, and that night I showed Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) in my History of Motion Pictures class at Los Angeles City College. Mr. Smith, meet CWO Miller. Miller is often as quiet as Smith, and he does not stutter as much, but he knows the right thing to do. Helgeland has created a great character, and he and Matt Damon make Miller one of the most convincing American military men I have ever seen on the screen. A lot has been made in the promotion for the film that it is by the director of The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), and the direction of the action scenes proves it, but Miller is no Jason Bourne. Bourne is only trying to figure out who he is; Miller knows who he is.

Miller and some of the American bureaucrats yell at each other, especially the Pentagon rep Clark Poundstone. Poundstone is one of those young neo-cons who went into Iraq with high ideals and even higher assumptions, nearly all of which turned out to be wrong. Paul Bremer III, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority during the time the film takes place, is mentioned but never shown. I can’t help but believe, however, that Greg Kinnear was cast as Poundstone because he looks like a younger Bremer. Lawne Dayne is a woman journalist who wrote a number of articles claiming inside information on the intel on the WMDs, an obvious variation of the New York Times’ infamous Judith Miller. CWO Miller’s best American ally is an old C.I.A. hand Martin Brown. Marjorie Miller, who covered Iraq before, during and after the invasion for the Los Angeles Times, notes in a great commentary piece on the movies about Iraq that is “Interesting to see Hollywood play C.I.A. agents as the good guys.” She’s right. And given all the warnings the Agency gave the Bush Administration, it’s certainly deserved.

Helgeland also handles the various Iraqi characters very well. Look at what he takes “Freddie,” who becomes Miller’s source and translator, through. After my problems with all the yelling in Ajami, I was delighted to see how subdued some of the discussions among the Iraqis were, particularly in the scene where the Baathist General Al Rawi has a conference with those of his associates who have not yet been captured. Look at the variety of reactions Helgeland gives to the different associates. Some yell, some don’t.

The script does run into problems toward the end. As Marjorie Miller points out, the film suggests that the promotion of the idea of WMDs was a conscious conspiracy, rather than as she more accurately notes, a willful belief by the Bush Administration in the bits of intelligence they wanted to be true. The film also, in the Mr. Smith tradition, assumes that one guy will set everything right. CWO Miller writes up a report and emails it not only to Lawne Dayne but to many other reporters. The implication is that this will blow the lid off the whole war, much in the way Mr. Smith’s sincerity in his filibuster made Senator Paine break down and admit his corruption in the Senate. Well, when have you ever seen an actual political figure admit to that? Listen to Rep. Massa and his explanations of “tickle houses” and the like. In real life, the news that much of the intel on the WMD came from a thoroughly discredited source did not appear to change the Bush Administration policies one bit. And the American public voted the following year to keep him in office.

Marjorie Miller deals with the issue of why the films about the Iraq war have not done well at the box office. She points out all the lies the Bush Administration told us going into the war, and says, “Maybe that’s why Americans haven’t been breaking down the doors to see these movies. The films serve as an uncomfortable reminder of our own gullibility, or fallibility.” She is dead on right about that. The film may be too late to help cause policy change on the one hand, and too soon for us to deal with the issues it brings up. The late Marvin Borowsky, my screenwriting teacher at UCLA, said that once when he pitched a baseball story to Darryl Zanuck, Zanuck told him it was too late for the last baseball movie cycle, and too soon for the next one.

Nights in Rodanthe (2008. Screenplay by Ann Peacock and John Romano, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks. 97 minutes)

Nights in Rodanthe

You had me for the first hour: This is one of those that was sort of on my list to see when it was in theaters, but I never got around to until it showed up recently in the HBO rotation. Adrienne, a mother of two, is separated from her husband. Christopher Meloni plays the ex-husband in a picture that stars Richard Gere, so I am not sure how much writing you need to establish he is up to no good. Adreinne agrees to inn-sit for a friend of hers for a few days. The inn has one guest, Dr. Paul Flanner, and it is not clear at the beginning why he is in the North Carolina neighborhood. We eventually learn he is trying to visit the husband of a woman who died on his operating table. Paul and Adrienne talk and develop a friendship. Wait a minute, this is from a novel by Nicholas Sparks, who has made a fortune writing love stories. But that’s what nice about the first hour of the film: they are just friends. Adult friends. There is not a hint of romantic tension between them.

Then the storm hits the inn, which is seemingly isolated (although not so much as many shots would indicate; if you look closely at the reverse angles on the driveway you will see some signs of civilization) on a stretch of beach. And suddenly Paul and Adrienne are kissing. A lot. The scene ends with them still kissing and we have no idea if they slept together. They seem in love the next the morning, but we have not heard them say it to each other. They lark about hand in hand, and she convinces him to actually listen to the dead woman’s husband, although the writers (or the film editor) cut out the crucial scene where the two men make a breakthrough. I mentioned in writing about United States of Tara in the last column that sometimes you do not have to show everything that happens, but you have to be smart about what you do show, and the writers here are not. The writers, who have given us a lot of very precise detail about their growing friendship in the first hour, are now slacking off on the details about their love. We get nothing but movie conventions about their love affair and how it works out for them. Who would have thought that the friendship scenes would be more interesting than the romantic ones in an adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel?

The 39 Steps (2008. Screenplay by Lizzie Mickery, based on the novel by John Buchan. 90 minutes)

The 39 Steps

And yet another version: This is a British television version of the Buchan novel that popped up on PBS recently. No, it is not as good as the 1935 Charles Bennett version, but it has its moments. It is set in 1914, the period of the novel, and since the writer this time around is a woman, Richard Hannay is portrayed as the sexist gentleman he probably would have been. So Mickery matches him up with a smart suffragette, not just a smart blonde, as Bennett did. The Buchan novel has no women at all. Mickery’s choice produces some interesting conversation, although it is not as romantic and charming as Bennett and his dialogue writers created. Mickery carries her character even further, making her—spoiler alert!—one of the secret service operatives tracking down the German spy ring. This leads to several rushed twists and turns in the final minutes that become a bit tricky to follow, but it also helps explain how inventive the woman is at getting her and Hannay out of jams. And it means Mickery does not have to handcuff them together as Bennett does.

Mickery does make one dreadful mistake. When Hannay is being chased across Scotland, he is attacked, on an open hillside, by a bi-plane. That makes several passes at him. Firing machine guns. I suppose we can take that as a slight nod to Bennett’s fat little English director, who had a much better version of the scene in one of his later works. But still. Why would you even want to call attention to something the Master of Suspense did so well, knowing that on a television movie budget there is no way you can match it?

White Feather (1955. Screenplay by Delmar Daves and Leo Townsend, based on the story “My Great Aunt Appearing Day” by John Prebble. 102 minutes)

White Feather

A favorite example of mine: In my 1982 book Screenwriting I used this now mostly forgotten western as an example of “Do not promise what you are not going to deliver.” It is 1877 and surveyor Josh Tanner comes to the Wyoming territory. The first thing he finds is a white man with an arrow in his back. A Cheyenne arrow. He gets to Fort Laramie and learns that while the other tribes have signed the peace treaty moving them off their lands, the Cheyenne have not. In other words, we are going to get a big battle with the cavalry and the Cheyenne at the end of the film. The opening scenes promise us that.

So the colonel at the fort has Tanner go out and talk to the Cheyenne. Tanner and Little Dog, the chief’s son who is spoiling for a fight, become friends. Tanner sees the preparations the Cheyenne are making in case there is war. More promise of a big battle. Broken Hand, the chief, decides to sign the treaty. Little Dog and his buddy American Horse object. The Cheyenne are moving out, accompanied by the cavalry. The two younger Indians show up and taunt everybody. American Dog is killed. Boy, now we are in for it. Nothing happens. Little Dog makes an attack on the cavalry and is killed. The chief’s son, for God’s sake. Broken Hand accepts his son’s death and the Cheyenne ride off. No battle. Yea for civilization, maturity and peace among peoples, but the movie has not delivered what it promised us from the beginning. When I saw the film in 1955, audiences literally threw things at the screen at the end of the film.

In 1970 I did an oral history interview with Robert D. Webb, the director of the film, and naturally I asked about the ending. His take on it was that “The big climax of the picture is the defense of the two young Indians, and the sacrificing of themselves, against what we would call today the Establishment.” I can see his point, but they still threw things at the screen.

For those of you in film production, you might want to take a look at this movie as to how to get the most for your money. It was essentially a B-picture budget that Webb, his art director Jack Martin Smith, and his great cinematographer Lucien Ballard made look like it cost a lot more than it did. And if you get the DVD, do not even THINK about watching the full-screen version. Flip the DVD over and watch it widescreen. The script is, by the way, a very sympathetic look at the Cheyenne. And, unlike the better Broken Arrow five years before, Debra Paget as the Indian girl does not die tragically, but gets to marry the white guy. But, it’s still Debra Paget…

You Only Live Twice (1967. Screenplay by Roald Dahl, additional story material by Harold Jack Bloom, based on the novel by Ian Fleming. 117 minutes)

You Only Live Twice

Widescreen DVD #1: I mentioned in US#42 that this was one of the DVDs I picked up when my neighborhood Blockbuster was having its going out of business sale. Yes, it looks great on DVD on my large-screen TV. After all, its cinematographer was Freddie Young. OK, now that we have that out of the way…

This has always been one of my favorite Bond movies because it does so many things well. We have not only Young’s cinematography, but Ken Adam’s great set design (especially the volcano interior, one of the best-used gigantic sets in movie history), the action sequences (do not even think about watching the duel between Little Nellie and the helicopters in a pan-and-scan version), and the views of not only the Japanese landscape, but also of Japanese culture (everything from Sumo wrestling to small island weddings). All of that reminds that while some movies are stars’ movies, and some are directors’ movies, and some are even writers’ movie, the Bond pictures have always been producers’ movie. A film critic a few years ago suggested that to revitalize the franchise, the producers should bring in a name director. Among the names he dropped were Martin Scorsese (“You looking at me, Mr. Bond?”), Quentin Tarantino (“We in the SPECTRE-killin’ bidness, Mr. Bond, and bidness is good”), and James Cameron. Well, maybe the younger James Cameron. I remember coming out of an opening day showing of Cameron’s True Lies (1994) and heard someone behind me say, “That’s the best James Bond movie I ever saw.” On the other hand, I do not see Bond on Pandora. The point is that to put together a Bond film, you need producers who know how to make a movie of that kind, more than specific writers, directors, or stars. The reason the Bond franchise has continued so long is that it has had those producers. Originally it was the team of Harry Saltzman and Albert C. “Cubby” Broccoli, especially the latter. They had made a pile of low-budget films in the mid-‘50s, and Dr. No (1962) was just another one of those kinds of films. Until it took off. Broccoli basically ran the franchise until he passed it off to his daughter Barbara Broccoli and his stepson Michael G. Wilson in 1990. Just like any good family business.

According to Raymond Benson’s very informative The James Bond Bedside Companion, Saltzman and Broccoli were going to make the next Bond novel in Fleming’s series, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the next film, but they thought the plot was too similar to Thunderball (1965). So they went with You Only Live Twice, which was more recently on the bestseller list. Ooops. Twice is about Bond tracking Blofeld to a castle in Japan and killing him for killing Bond’s wife in Secret Service. But if you haven’t made Secret Service yet… So this becomes the first Bond film to depart almost completely from its source. The producers loved the idea of location work in Japan. Broccoli toured the country and could not find a castle that would have fit the original story. He did find volcanic islands, and decided the SPECTRE headquarters should be in it. That was all he handed over to Roald Dahl, the novelist friend of Fleming’s who had never done a screenplay before. Well, not all, as Dahl recounted in a Playboy interview Benson quotes from. Broccoli told him he cannot mess with either the Bond character or “the girl formula.” We are only five films into the series, and the formula is set. There are three girls: the first one is an ally of Bond’s who gets killed early on, the second is anti-Bond whom he seduces, and the third helps Bond. Look at how Dahl handles them.

Since Dahl was writing for a producer, he was writing for all the production skills and techniques that Broccoli and his crew brought to the project, i.e., all those things I mentioned in the first paragraph that I liked about the film. The screenplay and the producers’ skills then orchestrate them into a rousing entertainment. Roald Dahl never wrote another Bond film.

I once talked to a college classmate of mine, Tom Mankiewicz, who wrote three of the Bond films of the ‘70s. He said that on the first one, you are all excited. You get to write a Bond film! Come up with all the gadgets and witty dialogue! On the second one, you have some stuff left over, but it’s a struggle to make it as good as your original ideas. And on the third one, you are just thinking all the time of who you have to screw to get off the project.

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976. Screenplay by Philip Kaufman and Sonia Chernus, based on a novel by Forrest Carter. 135 minutes)

The Outlaw Josey Wales

Widescreen DVD#2: Bruce Surtees’ great cinematography. Watch it. Enough said.

Then listen to the movie:

“We thought about it for a long time, ’Endeavor to persevere.’ And when we had thought about it long enough, we declared war on the Union.”

“When I get to likin’ someone, they ain’t around long.” “I notice when you get to DISlikin’ someone they ain’t around for long neither.”

“I didn’t surrender, but they took my horse and made him surrender. They have him pulling a wagon up in Kansas I bet.”

“You a bounty hunter?” / “A man’s got to do something for a living these days.”

“Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy.”

“How did you know which one was goin’ to shoot first?” / “Well, that one in the center: he had a flap holster and he was in no itchin’ hurry. And the one second from the left: he had scared eyes, he wasn’t gonna do nothin’. But that one on the far left: he had crazy eyes. Figured him to make the first move.” / “How ’bout the one on the right?” / “Never paid him no mind; you were there.” / ” I could have missed.”

“You know, we’re sure gonna show them redskins somethin’ tomorrow. No offense meant.” / ” None taken.”

“I guess we all died a little in that damn war.”

If you are a Clint Eastwood fan, you probably know most of those lines by heart and use them in everyday conversation. I used to work with a guy who said, “Endeavor to persevere” at least once a week. I have no idea where they come from: the novel or the drafts by Cernus and Kaufman. The novel was privately published and sent to Malpaso, Eastwood’s company. Robert Daley, Eastwood’s producer, picked it up and got hooked by it, as was Eastwood’s story editor Sonia Chernus. Chernus asked to be allowed to write the first draft, which she did. When Philip Kaufman was brought on to direct (Eastwood eventually replaced him), he did a draft. While the Writers Guild rules generally give the top credit to the first writer on the script, Kaufman asked Chernus if he could have it. It made no difference to her (as she told me in a 1984 interview I did with her), so she agreed. The novel had more about the politics of the Civil War and Reconstruction (not surprisingly since it turned out that “Forrest Carter” was really Asa Carter, a segregationist and speechwriter for Governor George Wallace), but Kaufman cut that, and he also solved the structural problem of the novel. In the novel Wales is chased by the Terrill and the Union Redlegs only until the middle of the book. Kaufman continued the chase until the end, when Wales kills Terrill. This gives the very episodic story a stronger structure, including the thematic structure of how the war affected everybody, as seen in the last line of dialogue quoted above.

Although no critic I’ve read noticed it, the film essentially retells the story of Virgil’s Aeneid in the post-Civil War period. Instead of escaping from Troy after the Trojan War, Josey Wales is escaping from the South, and like Aeneas he is collecting a new family to replace the wife and son who were killed by the Redlegs. Part of the strength of the script is the gallery of characters Wales meets, including the old Indian Lone Watie, who gets a lot of the best lines. They also pick up the Indian girl Little Moonlight, but with two twists. First, she is not played by Debra Paget, but by the Native American actress Geraldine Keams. Second, she does not fall in love with Wales, but with Lone Watie. Another member of the community is Grandma Sarah, a cantankerous Kansas woman who hates Southerners. The script’s twists include not only characters, but story turns. In writing about White Feather above, I gave it a hard time because it does not deliver a big battle. The Outlaw Josey Wales is one of the few films I know that builds to a shootout and then does not deliver it. Yes, we do get a gun battle when Terrill and his men show up at the farm Wales and his “family” have settled on. Yes, Wales does track down Terrill and kill him. So that satisfies our bloodlust. But then Wales goes into the saloon in the town and sees Fletcher, his former commanding officer who has ridden with Terrill. The two men avoid killing each other. It is a nice little “nothing happens” scene of the kind I talked about in US#43 in the item on The Messenger.

While there were a few positive reviews of Josey Wales at the time of its release (although almost none of those got that the film was Eastwood’s Bicentennial-end of the Vietnam War movie—look at that last line of dialogue again), most were terrible. The worst was in the New York Times. It was short, and being a Yankee paper, it noted that the film was more sympathetic to the southerners than the northerners, adding, “There is something cynical about this primitive one-sideness in what is not only a historical context, but happens to be our own historical context.” As I wrote in the chapter on Eastwood in my book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, “The man who wrote the review, Richard Eder, later won the 1987 Pulitizer Prize for his book reviews. I will leave it to you to decide what that tells you about the connections, or lack of them, between the east coast intellectual establishment and the mainstreams of American life.”

Parenthood (2010. “Pilot” and “Man vs. Possum” episodes written by Jason Katims. 60 minutes each)


It’s no Modern Family: This is about the third time around for this material. First it was the 1989 feature of the same name, then the short-lived 1990 television series. This time the showrunner is Jason Katims, who kept Friday Night Lights afloat, so he knows from multi-story dramas. Here we have the extended Braverman family. Zeek is the cranky patriarch, just like Jay on Modern Family. Except instead of a Latina trophy wife, he has a wife his own age, who so far has not said much. Their son Adam seems like a nice enough fellow and like Phil on Modern Family he has a smart blonde wife, Claire there, Kristina here. But Adam does not have any particularly distinguishing characteristics, unlike Phil’s insistence that he is the coolest dad in the world. There is a slacker son, Crosby, but he slacks. There are a pile of smaller kids/grandkids, but not one has the personality of Manny on, yep, you guessed it, Modern Family. And there is no one the equivalent of Cameron and Mitchell and their daughter.

OK, this is not a half-hour comedy, so I don’t expect as many laughs, but as you can see from the previous paragraph, there is not much characterization in Parenthood. Since they have brought in a heavyweight cast (Craig T. Nelson, Bonnie Bedelia, Peter Krause, Monica Potter, and Lorelei Gilmore herself, Lauren Graham), you keep hoping they will give these actors something to do to earn their money. I have loved Bonnie Bedelia for forty years, but here she’s an extra. And unlike The Good Wife (see US#4 and especially US#35), the show is not giving me a sense that it has ideas on what it is going to do with all these characters. Or the situations, which so far have been fairly conventional. The scenes in which the young Max is being diagnosed as having Asperger’s are about as flat and literal as you can get. In the first episode, Katims sent Sarah, the daughter who has moved back in with her parents, out on a date recommended by her sister. The date and the sex scene that follows seemed rushed, as if Katims was in a hurry to get on to some other story. Subsequent episodes have shown no improvement.

The Pacific (2010. “Part One,” episode written by Bruce C. McKenna, based on the books Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie and With the Old Breed by Eugene B. Sledge, with additional material from Red Blood, Black Sand by Chuck Tatum and China Marine by Eugene B. Sledge. 60 minutes)

The Pacific

And they got there how?: We did not have HBO when Band of Brothers ran and I have not caught up with it either in reruns or on DVD, but being an ex-Navy man, I thought I would give The Pacific a look.

The miniseries is based on three real guys who fought with the Marines in the Pacific in World War II, and we meet all three in the first episode. One problem is that so far, they are not particularly interesting characters. I suspect McKenna fell into the trap I thought Julian Fellowes got caught in on The Young Victoria (see US#41): assuming that because they are real people they will be interesting on screen. They are not, or rather you have to make them interesting. And there are virtually no secondary characters so far, other than a quick cameo by Chesty Puller, a legendary Marine officer. And his cameo shows another problem with the writing. He is given the second scene in the film as he explains to a bunch of non-commissioned officers what the war is going to be about. His speech may be a literal transcription of what he said, but he was a Marine, not a writer. Look at the speech William Goldman gives General Horrocks in A Bridge Too Far (1977), in which the British general describes his unit’s job as like the cavalry riding to the rescue in a western. Where is Goldman’s wit when you need it?

That also suggests another problem: the series, based on the hype for it and the first episode, is so solemn and ponderous that it may just put you to sleep. Yes, it may be better made than, say, Battle Cry (see US#39), but it is not nearly as compelling. I know that Hanks and Spielberg want to pay tribute to the Marines who fought in the Pacific. God knows the Marines deserve it, but having known a Marine or two in my Navy days, I can guarantee you they are not as solemn nor as ponderous as The Pacific makes them out to be.

Here is another objection, which probably won’t bother you, but it bothered me. The reason I knew Marines in the Navy was that I served on an Attack Transport during the late unpleasantness in Vietnam. That is one of those big ships that carry a ton of Marines to where they need to go, then put them out in little boats and take them ashore. We get a couple of special effects shots of the ships, and a brief scene of the Marines going down the nets on the side of the ship to the boats, but no real sense of what an amphibious operation entails. It is one of the most complicated military procedures there is, and the United States Navy did it better than any other country’s Navy. Americans had the combination of the technology, organization, and skills at improvisation needed. The war in the Pacific was a naval war, and it took the Navy to get the Marines to all those islands you will see in the rest of the series. Yes, I know the series is about the Marines, but I’d buy it a lot more if there were at least a little acknowledgement of the Navy’s role. On the other hand, Hanks and Spielberg can tell that story next. The only film I know of that deals at all with the amphibious force is the 1956 Away All Boats, and it is not terrible, but merely adequate.

One other thing in favor of The Pacific. I was concerned that with Spielberg involved, the series would have been shot in that crappy desaturated color he used in Saving Private Ryan (1998) and which seems to have infected every film made ever since. If you look at the color films from the war in the Pacific (where most of the government’s color film stock went during the war), the color is eye-poppingly vivid. There is some desaturation in some scenes in The Pacific, and in the first episode, we never see how blue the sky in the Pacific is. On the other hand, they have had the digital colorist make the greens of Guadalcanal iridescent. I am not sure that is enough to drag me back to the series, but it certainly doesn’t hurt, except your eyes if you look at it too long.

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

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




Tigers Are Not Afraid
Photo: Shudder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Good Boys’s Raunchy Take on Tweendom Is the Same Old Shtick

Gene Stupnitsky’s film is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action.




Good Boys
Photo: Universal Pictures

Gene Stupnitsky’s Good Boys is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action, though it lacks the Netflix show’s frankness and authenticity. While hearing sixth graders curse and exhibit their burgeoning sexual awareness constitutes the film’s entire gimmick, its coarse language and surprising displays of sexual material mask an inner timidity. In the post-“puberty monster” world ushered in by Big Mouth, a show that cares to acknowledge that girls also experience puberty, both the film’s jokes and easy coming-of-age morality tale seem tame, beautified for an audience it assumes will not want to confront the abjectness of tweens’ emotional and sexual imaginations.

That said, there are laughs to be had in Good Boys, many of them deriving from the main characters’ mistaken understanding of the adult world. Max (Jacob Tremblay), for example, believes that his college-age neighbor, Hannah (Molly Gordon), is a “nymphomaniac” because she has sex both on land and at sea. Thor (Brady Noon), who pretends to possess advanced knowledge and experience in all areas, misinterprets his parents’ sex toys as weapons. And Lucas (Keith L. Williams) comes to believe that Hannah and her friend, Lily (Midori Francis), are irredeemable drug addicts because they want to do the “sex drug” molly.

Max doesn’t know how to kiss girls, and his middle-school mind tells him that the best way to learn is by using his father’s (Will Forte) drone to spy on Hannah kissing her boyfriend, Benji (Josh Caras). That leads to Hannah and Lily taking the drone, and as recompense, Thor steals Hannah’s purse, which contains a vitamin bottle full of molly that the boys promptly lose. Part of the film’s at least outwardly risqué treatment of tween boyhood is that the boys’ possession of and efforts to procure a party drug drives much of the story. And that story is a chain of cause and effect that abides by the protagonists’ middle-school priorities: If Max doesn’t find more molly, he will lose his father’s drone, which means that he never gets to kiss a girl.

The cascading series of absurd situations that are driven by Max’s desire to kiss his crush, Brixlee (Millie Davis), includes the boys trashing a frat house, selling a sex doll to a weirdo (Stephen Merchant), and handing over the bottle full of molly to an oblivious cop (Sam Richardson). (This last bit is as tenuous as a dangling thread for conspicuously missing a punchline, almost as if the filmmakers never got around to shooting it.) In the end, the trio, the so-called “bean bag boys,” must learn that middle school will mean growing apart to some extent: Max is into girls and the sixth-grade social scene, Thor loves theater, and Lucas is a kindly nerd who enjoys card games. That these interests aren’t in the least mutually exclusive, particularly for Generation Z, proves beyond the film’s capacity to acknowledge.

Good Boys’s humor is by and large the same as that of any other male-centric R-rated comedy; if it differentiates itself from other iterations of the genre, it’s through a group of pre-teens making verbosely obscene comments and engaging in gross-out physical comedy. There’s a sense that Good Boys draws open a curtain and peeks into a rarely seen and dimly remembered space of tweendom. But it’s satisfied with just this peek—and as convincingly as the filmmakers can compel their child stars to enunciate obscene exclamations, the film never captures much of the feeling, of the world of childhood experience, in which they might be based. As a result, Good Boys never transcends its Superbad-but-with-11-year-olds shtick.

Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis, Izaac Wang, Millie Davis, Josh Caras, Will Forte, Retta, Lil Rel Howery, Sam Richardson, Stephen Merchant Director: Gene Stupnitsky Screenwriter: Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cold Case Hammarskjöld Is a Gonzo Look at an Unsolved Mystery

The film is about a mystery that isn’t solved, and how that inconclusiveness spotlights the insidious functions of society.




Cold Case Hammarskjöld
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Like Oliver Stone’s JFK and David Fincher’s Zodiac, Mads Brügger’s documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld is about a mystery that isn’t solved, and how that inconclusiveness spotlights the insidious functions of society. Brügger also has in common with Stone and Fincher a visceral fascination with the minutiae of a particularly flabbergasting conspiracy theory. At one point near the end of the film, Brügger even comes clean, admitting that his investigation of the suspicious 1961 plane crash that killed United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld is mostly a pretense for allowing him to partake of a larger reportorial adventure that includes, among other things, Belgium assassins. By that point, though, Brügger needn’t bother with the confession, as his true obsessions are already quite clear.

Brügger is also the de facto host of Cold Case Hammarskjöld, and he has a penchant for hamming it up that brings to mind Werner Herzog. At the start of the film, as if seemingly ready for a safari, the Danish filmmaker is seen wearing an all-white uniform, which he claims is the wardrobe worn by the ultimate villain of his narrative. Brügger is holed up in a hotel with two African secretaries, Saphir Mabanza and Clarinah Mfengu, dictating to them the events we’re about to see. Both the wardrobe and the presence of these secretaries are gimmicks, and while the former is harmless, the latter is of questionable taste.

Much of the film pivots on various colonialist atrocities wrought in Africa by the British and other imperialist powers. And so it seems that Brügger wants the shock of these implications to register on the faces of Saphir and Clarinah, people who have a potentially intimate connection to his alternate history. In other words, he seems to have hired these women in order to achieve a sensational effect. To their credit, they don’t oblige him, and their sober intensity suggests that they don’t need a white man to tell them of the evils of the world.

Of course, Brügger isn’t trying to be likable, as he’s pointedly allergic to the pathos affected by Herzog and, more gallingly, Michael Moore. There’s something of an irony to many first-person documentaries: They prove that bad news often makes for good drama, with their makers all the while feeling the need to make a show of being enraged or saddened. Brügger, who resembles a slimmer Louis C.K., never once bothers with this pose, and his honesty gives Cold Case Hammarskjöld an aura of self-absorption that’s weirdly bracing and resonant in an age that’s dominated seemingly by nothing but conspiracy theories, “alternate facts” that suggest that reality is dictated by those with the most power. Brügger, a scrappy journalist, seeks truth as a means of accessing that very power, looking to cement his own name.

Brügger’s narrative is an intimidating thicket of dead ends, coincidences, and a seemingly endless procession of interviews with creepy elderly white men who almost certainly know more than they care to admit. Hammarskjöld was a drab-looking, pipe-smoking Swedish diplomat whom many assumed would be the very embodiment of minding the status quo of global politics, though he turned out to be an idealist who was especially concerned with the exploitation of the Congo. Several powers were vying for control of the Congo’s mineral resources, including Belgium, the Soviet Union, and Britain, and Hammarskjöld supported nothing less than revolution, leading to a costly U.N.-backed military mission in Katanga. On September 18, 1961, a U.N. plane carrying Hammarskjöld went down in a field in Northern Rhodesia—an area that’s now part of Zambia—eight miles from the Ndola airport, which Brügger memorably describes as a perfect “kill room” for being tucked away from prying eyes.

Following a labyrinthine trail, Brügger makes an intoxicatingly convincing case for the U.N. DC-6 crash, which killed Hammarskjöld and 15 others, as a murder conspiracy. Interviewing people who lived near the Ndola airport at the time, Brügger reveals that investigators didn’t pay any attention to these witnesses, who spoke of bursting, gunshot-like sounds and of fire coming from the plane—negligence that’s probably due as much to racism and a disinterest in the truth. Brügger also speaks with Charles Southall, a former official of the National Security Agency, who heard a recording of the crash that references a second plane and gunshots. Along the way, various potential smoking guns pop up, including a panel of metal riddled with what appears to be bullet holes, and, most ghastly, an ace of spades card that was placed on Hammarskjöld’s corpse, which was remarkably and inexplicably intact following the crash.

The documentary’s structure is somewhat loose, reflecting how detection often involves running in circles, discarding trails only to see them heat up again, and so forth. At times, Brügger’s transitions can be murky, as he’ll be talking to a new person before we can entirely digest how he arrived at this point. But the somewhat arbitrary quality of Cold Case Hammarskjöld becomes a significant source of its power, suggesting less a singular answer than a reality composed of a hundred half-truths. Eventually, Brügger homes in on a secret operation known as the South African Group for Maritime Research, or SAIMR, which becomes the object of the filmmaker’s obsession, to the point that Hammarskjöld is nearly forgotten.

Brügger never entirely proves SAIMR’s existence, as he’s led to the organization via documents uncovered from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that are suspiciously on the nose, suggesting the stuff of bad spy fiction. SAIMR is said to be a private mercenary group, probably serving the U.N. in secret, and responsible for Hammarskjöld’s murder as well as a plot to kill the black population of Africa with cheap medical centers that are actually giving patients shots of the H.I.V. virus. This revelation is so operatically evil, so beyond the pale of a liberal’s worst fantasies, that it serves to transform Cold Case Hammarskjöld into a kind of political horror film. And Brügger, in his meticulous sense of sensationalism, does prove one point via his lack of answers: that he and his dogged collaborators are asking questions which should’ve been posed at much higher levels of multiple chains of government. In Brügger’s hands, the general indifference of the major world powers to the possible murder of a key political figure suggests nothing less than maintenance of a diseased hierarchy.

Director: Mads Brügger Screenwriter: Mads Brügger Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 122 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Blinded by the Light Is a Wet, Sloppy, Public Kiss to Bruce Springsteen

The film bottles a palpable emotion of unabashed joy, even when the rest of it seems to barely hold together.




Blinded by the Light
Photo: New Line Cinema

As rebel icons go, Bruce Springsteen is as unlikely as they come. One does not, after all, tend to look to a man nicknamed “The Boss” for advice on raging against the machine. But in 1987 England under Margaret Thatcher, amid economic turmoil and fascist demonstrations, a British-Pakistani teenager, Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), hungers for a dissenting voice in his life. Javed is constantly at the whim of his domineering, recently laid-off father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), and his only real outlet for his troubles is writing poetry. But once his friend, Roops (Aaron Phagura), foists Born in the U.S.A. and Darkness on the Edge of Town cassettes upon him, Javed gets swept up in Springsteen’s music, hearing no small part of himself in the white American singer-singer’s working-class howl.

What follows in Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light is a wet, sloppy, public kiss to Springsteen that’s at once hackneyed and infectious. Inspired by co-screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor’s 2007 memoir Greetings from Bury Park, the film has a love for Springsteen’s music that feels raw and real. For one, it sees no shame in Javed and his pals dorkily dancing in the streets to “Born to Run,” as the filmmakers understand that teenage obsession really is that all-encompassing, so open-hearted that it naturally teeters into absolute corn.

Blinded by the Light is also endearing for not feeling like its edges have been sanded off. Indeed, you may find yourself worrying about Javed plastering the walls of his room exclusively in Springsteen posters, or about the way he gives a teasing, zombie-like moan to the stick-in-the-mud kid running the school radio station: “Bruuuuce.” There is, the film understands, a dizzying thrill to finding yourself in something that’s not even explicitly designed for you, like you’re in on a secret. Springsteen certainly wasn’t thinking of a British-Pakistani kid when writing his lyrics, but they speak to Javed anyway.

Chadha’s film bottles a palpable emotion of unabashed joy, even when the rest of the story seems to barely hold together. Its comedy is always mugging and its melodrama is especially heightened, and to the point that scenes are apt to trigger secondhand embarrassment, as when Javed and Roops chant Bruce lyrics at boys harassing them. Much of the drama feels like the narrative of a music video, which needs to be big and obvious enough so that viewers can recognize what’s happening based on the imagery and the music alone. But with the songs stripped away in Blinded by the Light’s latter half, the supporting characters and themes are left as stumbling, half-sketched husks. It becomes clear that the music cues fill in so many gaps, standing in for whatever nuance might have otherwise supported scenes like a parade confrontation that relies on the blaring “Jungleland” sax solo.

Cast: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Hayley Atwell, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Dean-Charles Chapman, Rob Brydon, Meera Ganatra Director: Gurdinder Chadha Screenwriter: Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurdinder Chadha, Sarfraz Manzoor Distributor: New Line Cinema Running Time: 117 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: 47 Meters Down: Uncaged Soars When It Disregards Characterization

The film wrings white-knuckle tension less through jump scares than from the darkness of a seemingly infinite void.




47 Meters Down: Uncaged
Photo: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures

While Johannes Roberts’s 47 Meters Down was marred by strained dialogue and flat characterizations, it certainly knew how to instill a sense of dread in the audience. That film’s premise, about two sisters with conflicting personalities who take an adventurous excursion that goes horribly awry, carries over to 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, though this standalone film is less concerned with exploring its main characters’ familial relationship. And that’s mostly for the better, as it gives Roberts more than enough room to foreground the grueling terror of coming into contact with sharks in the ocean deep.

In its opening stretch, Uncaged aggressively runs the gamut of teen-movie clichés. Indeed, as soon as it’s done establishing the contentious relationship between two stepsisters, shy and awkward Mia (Sophie Nélisse) and outgoing and popular Sasha (Corinne Foxx), the film is flashing the girls’ frustration with their archeologist father, Grant (John Corbett), for spending too much time working. And then there’s Catherine (Brec Bassinger), the prototypical mean girl who fake-apologizes for foisting Mia into the pool outside the international all-girls high school they all attend in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. That Uncaged doesn’t end with Mia, accidentally or otherwise, throwing Catherine into a shark’s maw is the final proof that all of the film’s initially corny character work is in service of absolutely nothing.

Mercifully, though, the film quickly shifts into thriller mode once Sasha drags Mia off to a remote region of the Yucatán, where their father recently discovered a submerged Mayan city. Soon after Mia, Sasha, and the latter’s adventurous friends, Nicole (Sistine Rose Stallone) and Alexa (Brianne Tju), arrive at the site and enjoy a swim above the main entrance to the city, they decide to strap on scuba gear and plunge into the water in order to gawk at the ancient relics that lurk below the surface. One crashed city column later and the girls come face to face with a deadly species of sharks that has evolved to survive in the darkness of the labyrinthine system of caves and tunnels where marine life isn’t supposed to exist.

Roberts wastes no time ratcheting up the tension, and a stifling sense of claustrophobia, once the girls find themselves trapped underwater and are forced to navigate a series of increasingly tight passageways, all while trying to harness the dwindling supply of oxygen from their scuba tanks. The filmmakers sustain this vise-grip suspense as the girls continue to face an array of unexpected, increasingly challenging obstacles, which, in fairly realistic fashion, extends their time stuck below the surface alongside the blind yet vicious sharks. At one point, they discover a pocket of air that proves to be as much of a bane as it is a boon.

Throughout, Roberts makes ample use of negative space as Mia and company make their way through the Mayan city with flashlights in hand. All the while, the bubbles from their scuba gear and the clouds of dust caused by falling rocks intensify their feelings of disorientation and panic, while also helpfully obscuring the low-rent nature of the film’s CGI effects. If, toward the end of Uncaged, the impact of these visual tactics is dulled by a few too many “gotcha” moments, the film more or less keeps things efficiently moving, wringing white-knuckle tension less through jump scares than from the darkness of a seemingly infinite void.

Cast: Sistin Stallon, Corinne Foxx, Brianne Tju, Sophie Nelisse, Brec Bassinger, Khylin Rhambo, Davi Santos, John Corbett, Nia Long Director: Johannes Roberts Screenwriter: Ernest Riera, Johannes Roberts Distributor: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Amazing Johnathan Documentary Is Gratingly Self-Knowing

Over and over, the film reminds us that banking on a gimmick isn’t an adequate substitute for an incisive character portrait.




Photo: Hulu

Despite its title, Ben Berman’s The Amazing Johnathan Documentary isn’t exactly about comedian-cum-magician John Edward Szeles. The film initially seems like it will remain within the boundaries of conventional portraiture. We’re presented with clips of Szeles’s performances, talking-head interviews with his family and other comedians, and the news that he only has a year left to live due to a heart condition called cardiomyopathy. Then, a title card indicates that we’re a few years into the future and that Szeles has outlived his prognosis. He decides to start performing again—against his doctor’s wishes—and the looming prospect of death gives Berman enough material to supply this film.

Unfortunately, Berman’s plans for a straightforward documentary are thwarted by events beyond his control. Most notably, it comes to light that another documentary about Szeles’s life is being produced, apparently by the people behind Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. The news makes Berman visibly nervous, and The Amazing Johnathan Documentary soon devolves into an awkward account of its own completion, with Berman talking with the other documentary’s crew, worrying about his own film being overshadowed, and stressing out about the extent to which Szeles might favor the other project.

Szeles’s interviews with online publications, radio shows, and Berman himself readily—and redundantly—corroborate the filmmaker’s impression that his subject is more excited about the other documentary being made about him. Berman doesn’t ask questions that carve out the fullness of anyone on camera, as he seems more interested in making sure that we grasp the severity of his dilemma. By the time he interviews John’s parents in order to draw empathy from them, claiming that he “for once […] was making a documentary out of love and art,” The Amazing Jonathan Documentary comes to feel like an echo chamber of affirmation.

Much like Szeles’s own act—composed of prop gags built around simplistic puns, gross-out illusions, and jokes that riff on his ostensible inabilities as a magician—Berman’s film is convinced of its own cleverness. While The Amazing Johnathan Documentary hints at being a meta film about the hardships of documentary filmmaking, or a mirror to Berman’s own foibles as a person, it’s constantly cut short by a lack of foresight. At one point, Berman decides to smoke meth with Szeles—who’s revealed to have been addicted to the drug in the past—as an act of “gonzo journalism” and to make the documentary more “interesting,” though the moment is ultimately cut from the film for legal reasons. Later, when Szeles accompanies Criss Angel to the presentation of the latter’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Berman is forced to use press footage because he didn’t make the event. This resulted from a lack of communication between Berman and Szeles, illuminating their current rift, but Berman’s acknowledgement of this tension is emblematic of the film’s biggest failure: The lack of cooperation from Berman and Szeles isn’t outrageous enough to be amusing on its own, nor does it come across as anything more than run-of-the-mill discord among colleagues.

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary seems born out of necessity rather than intent—a side effect of Berman needing to find a sensible ending for the film. We eventually find out that Always Amazing, the other documentary being made about Szeles, actually has no connection to Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. And in a desperate, last-ditch stab at coherence, Berman ends up getting Simon Chinn—the Oscar-winning producer behind those films—to sign on as his executive producer. The moment feels like a consolation prize for those who had to sit through so much ego-massaging on Berman’s part. It’s a final stroke of luck for the filmmaker, but it also suggests a bandage being placed on a gunshot wound, reminding us again that banking on a gimmick isn’t an adequate substitute for an incisive character portrait.

Director: Ben Berman Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Aquarela Viscerally Attests to Mother Nature’s Fight for Survival

At heart, Aquarela is a war film: a cacophonous survey of the global battle between man and water.




Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

On the surface, Victor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela suggests a conventional nature doc, filled as it is with breathtaking images that attest to Mother Nature’s might and majesty. But at heart, it’s a war film: a cacophonous survey of the global battle between man and water. The film’s wide array of visual evidence showing people in brutal disharmony with their surroundings presents a compelling case that as humanity continues to assault the planet through climate change, our Earth is fighting back twice as hard.

The film opens with a series of scenes in which a group of Russian officials traipse around a large expanse of ice, periodically stabbing at it with long poles. It takes a while before we understand that they’ve been tasked with recovering automobiles that have fallen through the frozen body of water, which has started to thaw earlier in the season than normal. In one nail-biting sequence, a car speeds along the ice before, without warning, abruptly falling through and disappearing beneath the surface. A rescue crew saves the driver and passenger in a chaotic sequence in which no one’s safety seems guaranteed, not even those behind the camera, whom we never see but whose terror is palpable in the nervous camerawork.

From a sequence of a sailboat operated by a single woman battling a fierce storm to shots in which giant chunks of ice that have fallen off a glacier bob up and down in the water like gigantic breaching whales, Aquarela doesn’t lack for simultaneously awesome and terrifying images. There’s a ferociousness and churning volatility to the film’s view of nature—a point heavily underlined by Eicca Toppinen’s heavy metal-inflected score. Though not quite as abrasive as Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan, which utilized an arsenal of GoPro cameras to create a turbulent, viscerally unsettling document of a commercial fishing trawler’s voyage at sea, Aquarela evinces a similar desire to overwhelm and discombobulate its audience. Kossakovsky employs a deeply immersive sound design that emphasizes the rough swoosh of waves and the shattering cracks of thawing glaciers.

Through a variety of cinematographic gestures—picturesque long shots, underwater footage, and tracking shots of waves—Kossakovsky gives us a wide view of the diversity of forms that water takes on Earth. Massive fields of drift ice are juxtaposed against ocean water that seems viscous and almost as black as oil. But Aquarela isn’t merely interested in showcasing water’s different states of matter, as it also constructs a subtle but distinct narrative in which water itself is the protagonist in a war for its own survival. After one particularly violent sequence of glaciers cracking apart, we see a disquieting shot of jagged, broken ice that suggests a battlefield strewn with the bodies of fallen soldiers. But later in the film, it’s as if the water is avenging itself on humankind with a series of hurricanes and torrential downpours.

Aquarela ultimately closes with the image of a rainbow appearing across Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall. If that sounds like a serene coda, it feels more like the mournful calm after a particularly harrowing catastrophe. Someday, this battle between nature and humanity will end, but Kossakovsky suggests that there will be no victors on either side, only victims.

Director: Victor Kossakovsky Screenwriter: Victor Kossakovsky, Aimara Reques Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 89 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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The 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time

These films are fearless in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own.



Blade Runner
Photo: Warner Bros.

“The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by the 100 boldly imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a visionary depiction of a near-future dystopia, is almost impossible to imagine as a work of prose fiction. Strip away the Art Deco glory of its towering cityscapes and factories and the synchronized movements of those who move through those environments and what’s even left? It’s no accident that some of the greatest cinematic adaptations of sci-fi novels bear only a passing resemblance to their source material. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, simply mines some of the concepts from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about human-looking androids, using them as the raw material for a haunting urban future-noir that owes more to visual artists like Moebius and Antonio Sant’Elia than it does to Dick himself. Then there’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which transfigures Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s briskly paced novella Roadside Picnic into a slow, mesmerizing journey into an uncanny space.

Ballard may have been right that literary sci-fi has provided all the interesting themes and ideas for which sci-fi in general has become known, but he failed to grasp how cinema has expanded our understanding of sci-fi by pricking at our collective visual consciousness. The titles on our list of the 100 best sci-fi movies of all time have shown us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed. Some of these depictions are humorous, others haunting. Some rely on complicated special effects, others use none at all. But they’re united by their fearlessness in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own. Keith Watson

Altered States

100. Altered States (Ken Russell, 1980)

Ken Russell’s psychedelic Altered States examines one man’s egregious deflection of paternal responsibility in the name of scientific innovation. Fantasy and self-indulgence are the most powerful narcotics in the film—drugs that allow Harvard scientist Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) to flirt with an increasingly volatile dream state where, as he puts it, “time simply obliterates.” Consumed by religious repression and self-guilt regarding his father’s painful death from cancer decades ago, Eddie becomes addicted to medicating his own primal urges through lengthy self-deprivation experiments. The theme of escape dominates the film, especially during Eddie’s visit with a native tribe from Central Mexico where a peyote session causes Eddie to hallucinate, visualized by Russell as a nightmarish dreamscape of striking imagery. It’s an incredibly subjective sequence, placing the viewer inside Eddie’s headspace during a lengthy and jarring slide show from hell. Lava flows, sexual acts, and animal disembowelment all crash together, images that take on even more symbolic meaning later in the film when Eddie begins to evolve physically into a simian form. Glenn Heath Jr.

Tomorrow I'll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea

99. Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (Jindřich Polák, 1977)

A film as brilliantly constructed as it is titled, Jindřich Polák’s Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea is a swinging comedy about a secret cabal of Nazis who’ve discovered the secret of time travel and are intent on using it to go back to World War II and supply Hitler with an atomic bomb. The plot also involves a pair of twins, mistaken identities, and anti-ageing pills, and yet, despite having to keep all these narrative balls in the air, the film never feels convoluted or over-stuffed. Instead, it’s a delightfully wacky farce that treats its potentially terrifying premise with cheerfully irreverent humor, exemplified by the film’s opening credits, which feature archival footage of Hitler manipulated to make it look like he’s boogieing to disco music. And if all that’s still not enough, Polák’s film also offers a nifty showcase of some of the grooviest low-budget futuristic production design the ‘70s Soviet bloc had to offer. Watson

Flash Gordon

98. Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980)

A gleefully cheesy throwback to the sci-fi serials of yesteryear, Mike Hodges’s Flash Gordon is as pure a camp spectacle as you’re likely to find. A glitzy—at times garish—extravaganza of brightly colored sets, skin-baring costumes, and otherworldly vistas that wouldn’t seem out of place in the gatefold of a Yes album, the film is silly and cartoonish in the best sense of those terms. Featuring such outlandish characters as the fu manchu-sporting villain Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow), Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed, bare-legged and sporting giant metallic wings), and the blank-eyed beefcake at the center of it all, Flash (Sam J. Jones), the film is very much in on its own joke. Produced by Dino de Laurentiis to cash in on the post-Star Wars mania for space-opera flicks, Flash Gordon ultimately has more in common with tongue-in-cheek cult musicals like Phantom of the Paradise and Xanadu than it does with George Lucas’s action-packed monomyth. That’s thanks in large part to the rip-roaring soundtrack by Queen, whose spirited pomposity seamlessly complements the film’s flamboyant comic-strip visual delights. Watson

The Invisible Man

97. The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933)

James Whale’s anarchically playful The Invisible Man is an outlier among Universal’s line of classic monster movies. More of an inventive mash-up of black comedy and sci-fi than true horror, the film is an incendiary piece of speculative fiction that counterbalances its cautionary-tale tropes by perpetually reveling in the chaos its megalomaniacal protagonist stirs up, even as his intensifying violent impulses shift from harmlessly prankish to straight-up lethal. This pervasive sense of moral ambiguity is only strengthened by Whale’s decision to keep Claud Rains’s Dr. Jack Griffin invisible until the film’s closing seconds and elide his character’s backstory altogether. Griffin’s unknowability and cryptic motivations are mirrored in his literal invisibility, allowing his corruption and unquenchable thirst for power to take on a universal quality that implicates the audience even as it as it entertains them. Derek Smith

The Brother from Another Planet

96. The Brother from Another Planet (John Sayles, 1984)

A gentle-hearted satire on race and the immigrant experience, John Sayles’s The Brother from Another Planet follows an unnamed mute extra-terrestrial (Joe Morton) who, after crash-landing in the Hudson River, navigates life in the Big Apple. The hook, of course, is that while this “brother” hails from a far-off planet, to the people of New York, he looks like just another black guy. This premise, which could’ve been mined for easy laughs or obvious platitudes about racism, is instead, in Sayles’s hands, a sensitive, socially observant fable about the difficulties of assimilation. The brother is, in all senses of the term, an alien: far from home, isolated from those around him, unsure how to navigate local social interactions, and, ultimately, unsure if he belongs in this world at all. Bolstered by Morton’s soulful lead performance—few have ever made the act of listening so compelling to watch—Sayles’s film is science fiction at its most succinct and humane. Watson

Days of Eclipse

95. Days of Eclipse (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1988)

Aleksandr Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse opens with a majestic birds’ eye view tracking shot of a desolate desert landscape. As the camera speeds up, it descends from the heavens, violently crashing into the ground in a poverty-stricken Turkmenistani community. The shot invokes a metaphorical image of invasion, and after a hard cut, we’re offered a blistering glimpse of that invasion’s impact: a landscape neglected to the point of decay, crumbling amid the oppressive heat and other inexplicable natural phenomena. Alternating between drab sepia tones and more vividly colorful footage, Sokurov films a multicultural community through the disoriented, foreign eyes of Malyanov (Aleksei Ananishnov), a Russian physician sent on a vague mission to bring modern science to the village. But Malyanov remains a stranger in a strange land, unable to commune with the shell-shocked villagers, whose trauma and desperation has rendered them alien to all outsiders. Like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God, both also based on novels by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Days of Eclipse transforms an ordinary landscape into something mystical and otherworldly. And in this film in particular, it perfectly embodies the unbridgeable disconnect between colonizer and colonized. Smith

Voyage to the End of the Universe

94. Voyage to the End of the Universe (Jindřich Polák, 1963)

While some Czech New Wave filmmakers in the 1960s explored the interconnected social and political foibles of people in their home country, Jindrich Polák’s effects-laden Voyage to the End of the Universe trades the oppressed Soviet-ruled Czech Republic for the outer reaches of the cosmos. The journey of the starship Ikarie XB-1 in searching for life on another planet isn’t without the Czech New Wave’s notable playfulness when detailing how travelers cope with the monotony of space travel (here’s looking at you, dance party sequence), though Polák expresses a darkly fatalistic worldview as well. If the haunting sequence of Ikarie XB-1 crew members finding a doomed ship that went on a similar mission is any indication, Polák suggests that sheer advancements in innovation and searching for a new life-sustaining planet is ultimately an exercise in futility, since human life, in both the individual sense and as a species, will end at some point. It seems we might as well, like the film’s bored cosmonauts, just simply let go and dance the night away. Wes Greene

The Thing from Another World

93. The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951)

Legend has it that The Thing from Another World was helmed not by its credited director, Christian Nyby, but by producer Howard Hawks. The film certainly provides ample evidence to suggest that such a covert switch occurred, as the its controlled atmosphere of dread and abundant rapid-fire repartee between the primary players seem to have been molded according to Hawks’s trademark template. Regardless, what remains most remarkable about the film is its continued ability to function as both a taut science-fiction thriller and a telling snapshot of the Cold War paranoia beginning to sweep the country in post-WWII America. The story, about the battle between a group of stranded military personnel and an alien creature fueled by human blood, is a model of economic storytelling. The conflict between Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) is one between Force and Reason, and represents a debate over whether America should cope with its Soviet adversaries through military confrontation or intellectual and diplomatic study. Given the ‘50s political climate, it’s no surprise that the film’s climax answers such a question by painting the sympathetic Carrington as a danger to mankind and the violent Hendry as a heroic warrior. Nick Schager

The World’s End

92. The World’s End (Edgar Wright, 2013)

Edgar Wright wrapped up his Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy with The World’s End, a rollicking alien-invasion ode to boozing up and moving on that bests even Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz in its comingling of hilarious buddy humor, aesthetically electric action, and genre shout-outsmanship. The story of a group of high school friends reunited to complete a famed pub crawl at the behest of their once-great, now-pitiful leader (Simon Pegg), only to find that their sleepy rural England hometown has been turned into a picture-perfect haven for extraterrestrial cyborg pod people, Wright’s film is a blistering barrage of contentious one-liners and CG-ified mayhem. Staged with the director’s usual high-wire dexterity and bolstered a cast that handles whip-crack dialogue with giddy aplomb, it’s the filmmaker’s most exciting, inventive, and purely entertaining mash-up to date—not to mention, in its alternately sympathetic and critical portrait of a man-child navigating the literal and figurative pitfalls of growing up, also his most heartfelt. Schager

Liquid Sky

91. Liquid Sky (Slava Tsukerman, 1982)

The world of Slava Tsukerman’s cult classic suggests the neon-tinged flipside of Warhol’s Factory. Anne Carlisle memorably plays dual roles: as Jimmy, a male model with a raging drug addiction, and Margaret, a bisexual girl who could easily pass for Aimee Mann during her ‘Til Tuesday days. Otto von Wernherr (Madonna enemy and early collaborator) plays a German scientist chasing after an alien spacecraft that visits the Earth in order to feed off the opium-producing receptors inside the brains of heroin users. During sexual orgasm, these receptors produce a sensation similar to the feeling produced by the brain during the absorption of heroin. The film’s aliens (visually represented using negative film stock of a blood-shot eye) feed off of this pleasure principle, spontaneously combusting humans as they engage in sexual intercourse. Aliens, drugs, clubs, orgasms, and big hair! On its crazed surface, Liquid Sky is a celebration of the ‘80s counter-culture. But more than three decades after its release, the bad behavior and paranoia depicted here seemingly foreshadows both the ramifications of said culture’s sexual indiscretions and a nation’s political naïveté. Ed Gonzalez

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