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

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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)

Parenthood

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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Film

Review: Saudi Runaway Is a Raw and Immediate Chronicle of an Escape

Camera, character, and cameraperson are one throughout, and the effect is exquisitely suffocating.

3.5

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Saudi Runaway
Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films

Susanne Regina Meures’s invitation into the filmic world of her exquisite Saudi Runaway is by way of a camera that moves as if attached to a body. It’s a mobility completely devoid of the vulgar familiarity of a GoPro, or the numb slickness of a dolly shot that only simulates the point of view of a character. We don’t yet know where the body is headed but we can feel its fear. Camera, character, and cameraperson are one here, and the effect is suffocating. We see people’s heads bare and covered. Our vision is fuzzy. Soon, though, the wind lifts what turns out to be a piece of a garment—the camera’s sartorial filter. We’re moving inside an abaya. That’s where we remain for most of the film: between the body of a young woman, Muna, plotting her escape from Saudia Arabia and the dark fabric of her garb.

The film’s handheld camera suggests a baby being held. Not just because of how tethered it often is to the cameraperson, but because our mostly hazy gaze suggests eyes just getting used to a terrifying world. By the time Muna tells us that she will try to record “everything” and that “it will be dangerous,” she’s stating the obvious. Though it pulsates with raw intimacy, Saudi Runaway does have its share of obvious elements, from the sound of music when we least need it, to one too many shots of a trapped bird, to Muna telling us, midway through the film, that “the majority of society is conservative.” But its conceptual device is so uncanny, so un-mediated by how Meures structures Muna’s original footage, that we can’t help but excuse the director’s attempts to turn the original fragments into a coherent narrative.

The camera in Saudi Runaway is so prosthetic, and its images all but birthed by Muna, that, at first, it’s difficult to accept that someone other than she is credited with directing the film. Must Westerners save brown women so that they can speak? However, Muna’s occasional prefacing of her murmured voiceover account with “Dear Sue” gives us a hint of a transnational sisterly collaboration. The epistolary layer of Saudi Runaway isn’t fully explained, a technique often used in the essay film genre that helps give a video-diary aesthetic a sense of depth while maintaining its mystery. Is Sue the director or an imaginary friend? Is Sue a rhetorical device like one of Chris Marker addressees in Sans Soleil? Is Sue actually listening?

The fact that this writer sat immediately in front of both Muna and Meures at the film’s Kino International screening at this year’s Berlinale made the experience of watching it all the more eerie. Our real-life escapee was clearly now safe and sound in Germany, reacting in real time—with self-conscious sighs and sad moans—to the presentation of her ordeal.

On screen, we learn that Muna isn’t allowed to leave her family home without being escorted by a male relative. That she will only be allowed to drive if her future husband allows her to. That her father keeps possession of her passport, which she can only renew with his approval. “Be obedient and everything will be fine” is the advice that Muna’s grandmother gives her.

All of the film’s faces, apart from Muna’s, are perpetually pixilated, reminding us that these are images captured without her family members’ consent. That betrayal and guilt might be prerequisites for deliverance. The pixilating effect also means Muna “covers” everyone else’s faces while liberating her own, her flight necessitating an exhilarating mix of precision, and risk, and anxiety. But, also, the anger of those she must dupe in order to leave them behind. “Do you really think you can go to paradise and leave me here in hell?” is Muna’s mother’s reaction to her daughter’s courage. Although with the benefit of hindsight, she eventually anoints Muna’s newfound independence with a WhatsApp voice message praising her. As if freedom were contagious, experienceable by proxy, or the sheer power of imagination.

Director: Susanne Regina Meures Screenwriter: Susanne Regina Meures Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Swallow Is a Provocative Me Too Parable in Body-Horror Guise

Fortunately for the film, Carlo Mirabella-Davis continually springs scenes that either transcend or justify his preaching.

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Swallow
Photo: IFC Films

Writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s Swallow pivots on a queasy premise: the uncontrollable urge of a young trophy wife, Hunter (Haley Bennett), to swallow inedible objects. Hunter first ingests a marble, after touching it as if it’s a talisman, cherishing its assuring tactility. Later, Hunter carefully removes the marble from the toilet after passing it, cleaning it off and placing it on a tray as a trophy. The marble will soon be joined by a stickpin, a lock, and a variety of other increasingly disturbing things. But there’s another wrinkle of perversity to Hunter’s new hobby: She’s pregnant, and the possibility of these objects puncturing her developing child, no matter how irrational, haunts the film.

For a significant portion of Swallow’s running time, Mirabella-Davis maintains an aura of ambiguity, keeping the audience in a state of discomfort as to what Hunter’s ailment precisely means. There are plenty of hints even early on, as Hunter is married to a svelte GQ-ready hunk, Richie (Austin Stowell), who’s more interested in his phone and his job with his prosperous father, Michael (David Rasche), than his wife. Yet Mirabella-Davis initially resists doubling down on the sort of denouncements of the wealthy that come so easy to filmmakers. In his way, Richie seems to care about Hunter, and his mother, Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel), occasionally comforts her. The filmmaker’s initial refusal to totally render these people rich monsters only intensifies the scenario’s mystery and tension.

Mirabella-Davis is also willing to take Hunter to task for her own alienation, as people often tune her out because she has so efficiently rendered herself a dully accommodating and complacent Stepford wife. Her psychological disorder, known as pica, partially appears to be a response to her knowledge of this fact, serving as a contemptuous act of self-punishment, with perhaps an element of sexual gratification. The narrative contains multitudes of subtexts, and Bennett superbly modulates between learned impassivity and outright despair, capturing the pain of a kind of actress who has come to feel trapped in her role. This entrapment is formally complemented by an aesthetic that’s been very fashionable in art-house horror films lately: pristine, symmetrical compositions of stylish, remote residences that express the inhumanity of essentially living in a one-percent fashion catalogue.

Swallow is initially marked by a driving tension, as we’re led to wonder just how awful and crazy Hunter’s habit will become. The film is never as gross as one might fear, as Mirabella-Davis is less interested in shock-jock flourishes than in sincerely rendering Hunter’s physical pain and mental anguish; like Mike Flanagan, Mirabella-Davis is the rare humanist horror filmmaker. As such, Hunter’s choking—the most disturbing detail in the film—becomes a piercing affirmation of her struggle to feel something and be seen.

There’s a strange irony to the film’s second half. As Mirabella-Davis sets about explaining the meaning of Hunter’s predicament, Swallow grows simultaneously more poignant and pat. Dished out in pieces throughout the film, Hunter’s backstory has been self-consciously overstuffed with topical elements of women’s struggles against patriarchal atrocity, from casual objectification and condescension to rape to the struggle to be pro-choice in the United States. (Hunter’s mother is even said to be a right-wing religious fundamentalist.) This psychology eventually waters the evocative premise down with literal-mindedness, so that Swallow becomes less a body horror film than a Me Too parable.

Fortunately, Mirabella-Davis continually springs scenes that either transcend or justify his preaching. Later in the film, a nurse, Luay (Laith Nakli), is hired to keep watch over Hunter. As a refugee of the Syrian civil war, Luay is partially offered up as a device to score points on Hunter’s privilege (he memorably remarks that one doesn’t have time for mind problems when dodging bullets), though he also shows her profound compassion, most acutely when he climbs under the bed with Hunter in a moment of crisis, patting her back with an affection that we’ve never seen extended to her by anyone else.

Near the end of the film, Hunter holes up in a cheap motel, shoveling dirt into her mouth while watching soap operas that peddle the dream of marrying rich and hot—a sequence of profound and wrenching loneliness. And the film’s climax, in which Hunter tracks down a man from her past, Erwin (Denis O’Hare), is equally heartbreaking, exposing Hunter’s swallowing for what it truly is: an attempt at annihilation as atonement, as well as a self-defiling as paradoxical affirmation of control. Hunter resists her status as an accessory by swallowing others.

Cast: Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Denis O’Hare, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, Luna Lauren Velez, Laith Nakli, Babak Tafti Director: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Screenwriter: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 94 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Interview: Corneliu Porumboiu on The Whistlers and Playing with Genre

Porumboiu discusses the links between his latest and Police, Adjective, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.

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Corneliu Porumboiu
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Anyone inured to the downward-facing schadenfreude of Corneliu Porumboiu’s prior features might be taken aback by The Whistlers, the Romanian auteur’s first foray into slick, international genre filmmaking. The title refers to a crime ring in the Canary Islands that uses a bird-whistling language to evade surveillance. A crooked cop named Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) successfully infiltrates the group, but his undercover status is increasingly compromised by his fixation on Gilda (Catrinel Menghia), the sultry girlfriend of the ringleader, as well as by the tight leash his commanding officer back in Bucharest has him on.

Lest anyone think Porumboiu is making a play for more commercial appeal, The Whistlers is choc-a-block with teasing allusions, including repurposed music like Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” and Jacques Offenbach’s “Baccharole” from The Tales of Hoffman, as well as cinephilic references: One expository dump happens during a screening of The Searchers, while a climactic set piece takes place at an abandoned movie set. I had the pleasure of picking Porumboiu’s brain after the film’s U.S. premiere last fall at the New York Film Festival about his toying with genre, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.

All your films are playful in my opinion, but with this one, you’re playing with genre.

If you had asked me four years ago if one of my films would have flashbacks, I would have said, “No, no way.” [laughs] With The Whistlers, the way it’s structured, I was interested in the process of learning the language. That determined the core of the film. After that, I knew I needed flashbacks so I can have different types of plot movements happening—so that the main character, Cristi, can look differently at things as they happen, because of language. Double-movement. A parallel structure. After that came the other characters in the film, who play specific roles for—in front of—the camera. Catrinel Menghia plays Gilda, which is an assumed name. We don’t know much about this character.

The femme fatale.

Right. She’s assuming that position. At the end of the day, this is a world of people chasing money. They’re using dialogue to have a fight, you know? So, I knew it was time to look back at the classical noirs. I watched some films and began pulling from them.

The film’s plotlines get increasingly convoluted as Cristi learns more about the world he’s stepped into, the threat of a double-cross always looming over him.

Well, at the end I think you get it all back. My focus was to arrive in the middle, to arrive at a type of cinema linked exclusively to his character, his personality. So, I was thinking in classical noir but not dominated by it.

This is your second time working with Vlad Ivanov, the first since Police, Adjective, nearly a decade ago. Was this role written for him?

Yes. Because in a way I was revisiting the character from Police, Adjective, starting from that. To me he’s an almost theological character. So, at the end of the day, I asked myself if this guy, who’s almost like a military officer, who has a very strict background, can his philosophy last? To find this guy 10 years after, what does he still believe in? Who is he now?

Tell me more the difference between then and now.

Well, in the last film he was someone who trusted a certain system, was a part of it. He had his own philosophy, he knew very well where his power was. A decade later he’s completely lost. He doesn’t know what he believes in anymore. I wanted the difference to be subtle but indisputable. He’s become obsessed with money, his motivations are more harsh.

Is there something about Romania’s economic situation that you’re linking this to?

In 12:08 East of Bucharest, my characters defined themselves in relation to the revolution of 1989, and they believed in communication. In Police, Adjective, you have a boss imposing his own ideology from the top down. In Metabolism, it’s like a game: The director can’t assume his position at the top. Here, my characters don’t believe in anything, they just think in terms of fighting and winning. This is how we perceive the world now, I think.

The transition from value systems to anarchy, or at least a certain realpolitik—even working cooperatively, everyone is looking out for themselves.

I think after the economic crisis, the world changed drastically. I don’t know, the classical noir has a certain vision about the world that’s quite dark, yet was proper for that time. Maybe we can find some similarities today.

Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between this film and Infinite Football?

Infinite Football is about utopia—one man’s political, ideological utopia. He wants to change the game, and what his new game implies is a reflection of the history of Romania. His personal history. But I was doing it in a different way, so I did it like a work in progress.

And you figure into the film as well. You have personal history with these people. They talk to you, talk to the camera, pull you into the frame.

Well, it’s a personal project. Laurentiu, the subject, my friend, he may not have faith in the system, but he has faith in the game, or that his rules will prove themselves. This is the Don Quixote thing of it all.

Spanish and Romanian are not that far from one another, and in order to whistle, the main character has to break his messages down into units of Spanish syllables.

I saw a documentary on TV about La Gomera, the island in Spain. From that I learned about the language of whistling and became very curious. That was 10 years ago. I started to read about the language, and I went to the island where they were teaching it. It was then that I knew I wanted to do a film about the character from Police, Adjective. Being a film about language and codes, I thought I could play with genres; cinema at the end of the day is coding reality, after all. When I write, it’s like going back to the first act, and trying to be there, be present with the characters. Eventually it is them who move me into the story. I have a very particular way of writing. Police, Adjective had eight or nine drafts. I wanted the dialogue to be functional, transactional. And not to go too deep. Each of the characters has a double nature that can’t be opened too much. At the end of the day I’m making these movies for myself. You have to believe in what you’re doing, at least at the beginning of the shoot. [laughs]

I think the first 15 minutes of this film have more edits than all of Police, Adjective. Surely this switch-up is getting you questions from people.

The story called for this approach though. It pushed me to do that.

Critics love packaging things. The “Romanian New Wave,” epitomized by the slowness and realism of your earlier films, is a perfect example. Do you find these categories or tropes at all oppressive?

Well, the truth is it wasn’t a “movement” in the sense of something written down or programmatic. Young filmmakers started working in 2000 and, of course, critics outside Romania don’t know much about Romanian cinema before “us,” so it’s expected that they will put a stamp on new films coming out. For me, each of the directors has their own voice, their own way, developed on its own terms, and for me the movies are especially different now. I’m not offended, but it means I have to speak about my own cinema—none of these generalizations. These critics probably have not seen The Reenactment, or Reconstruction, by Lucian Pintillie, my mentor—the so-called “Old Wave.” This was a hugely important, inspiring film for all of us in my generation. He died before I finished shooting The Whistlers. Regarding Police, Adjective, he told me: “If you cut five or 10 minutes from this film, you’ll have a really good audience.” And I told him, “No.” [laughs]

The generalizations tend to break down, or that’s just the nature of an artist discussing their own work. And the idea of a “movement” implies a finitude or a strategy.

The Treasure was a fable, no? You could find the structure less threatening if you had seen my previous films. Maybe other films from Romania around the same time. But I began to try a nonlinear structure in my documentaries, then applied it to The Whistlers.

Do you prefer the original title, La Gomera, to The Whistlers?

I do think The Whistlers is better. But translated into Romanian, it doesn’t have the same power as La Gomera! Also, I wanted to avoid confusion with Gomorrah.

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Review: Autumn de Wilde’s Emma Takes a Classic for a Stylish, Ironic Spin

This lively adaptation plays up the novel’s more farcical elements, granting it a snappy, rhythmic pace.

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Emma
Photo: Focus Features

Jane Austen’s Emma concerns the mishaps of a self-assured young country aristocrat who prides herself on her savoir faire but who remains, in the terms a certain modern adaptation, totally clueless. A light comedy neither broad enough to be farce nor pointed enough to be satire, the novel lends itself to interpretation as both, given the narrative’s manifold romantic misunderstandings and host of kooky, idle gentry. Without departing far from the text, director Autumn de Wilde’s lively new film adaptation emphasizes the more farcical elements of Austen’s second-longest novel, granting it a snappy, rhythmic pace.

The eponymous gentlewoman, the story’s only three-dimensional character, is played with impressive depth by Anya Taylor-Joy here. On screen, Emma can seem frivolous right up until the climactic moment that forces her into a self-confrontation, but Taylor-Joy’s open, expressive face, so often in close-up, captures Emma’s creeping uncertainty regarding her powers of judgment, as well as her own feelings, even as she continues to act the social butterfly. She’s aided by a screenplay by Eleanor Catton that doesn’t quite resolve the story’s main fault—its concluding romance counts as perhaps the least convincing of any of Austen’s works—but which preserves much of the complexity of its “handsome, clever, and rich” heroine, who must learn to abide by her judgment rather than her vanity.

Emma begins the film at the height of self-regard, the reigning socialite of the small countryside community of Highbury. The 20-year-old has recently made a match for her governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), arranging her marriage—well above her station—to the neighboring widower gentleman Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves). She elects Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a recently arrived schoolgirl of uncertain origins and inelegant manners, to be her next project. She teaches the naïve girl, enraptured by Emma’s ostentatious wealth and delicate bearing, to present herself as worthy of a genteel suitor, manipulating her into rejecting the proposal of hardy local farmer Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells), and encouraging her to pursue the affections of the young vicar-about-town Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) instead.

O’Connor plays Mr. Elton with palpable smarm, wearing a perpetual shit-eating grin above the ridiculous splayed-out collar of an early-19th-century Anglican vicar. Here, as elsewhere, de Wilde communicates much of what remains implicit in the novel (like Mr. Elton’s odiousness) via a tidy mise-en-scène redolent of Wes Anderson. The sterile pastels of the elegant clothing and the precise movements of both the aristocracy and their servants (who hover about in the background like strange automatons) give the film’s sudden eruptions of human neuroses a droll, punchy tone—as when Mr. Elton casually mentions that it may snow, and a dinner party suddenly erupts into chaos, the nervous guests rushing to the carriages to get back home.

It’s in one of those carriages that, in a scene played perhaps a bit too broadly, a slightly drunk Mr. Elton confronts Emma with the revelation that he’s been aiming to court her. Naturally, the news of Mr. Elton’s true affections devastates Harriet, whom Emma very belatedly realizes may have been well suited to Mr. Martin, though at this point Harriet has learned to think of the farmer as beneath her. Outraged at Emma’s tutoring of Harriet in the ways of class presumption is Martin’s landlord, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), a wealthy Highbury bachelor who, as brother to her brother-in-law, counts as family to Emma and her worry-wart father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy). In the lavishly decorated living rooms and salons of their immense estates, Emma and Mr. Knightley bicker in the way that unwitting lovers in Austen tend to, arguing verbosely about the propriety of introducing Harriet to high society.

Emma and Knightley later have occasion to debate the relative virtues of Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) and Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), who arrive separately in town under much whispered ballyhoo. The young and handsome Frank seems destined to ask for Emma’s hand; Jane, the orphaned niece of local gossip Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), is rumored to be heartbroken after forming an inappropriate attachment to her adopted sister’s husband. Emma is as flattered by Frank’s attentions as she is jealous of Jane’s level of gentlewomanly accomplishment. Catton and de Wilde extrapolate from the novel’s succession of social scenarios to make Emma’s doubt about the shifting social field more comically apparent: One of the funniest scenes has the ostensibly modest Jane follow up Emma’s dilettantish performance on the pianoforte with a beautiful, complex sonata, in front of the whole town.

Emma’s discomfort in her new situation will come to a head when she, with Frank’s encouragement, grossly abuses her privilege as a gentlewoman with a practiced wit, embarrassing herself and wounding an old friend. Emma is interested in such textures of early-19th-century society, if not in the latter’s pace. The film fits so much of Austen’s narrative in by judiciously condensing scenes to suit its more ironic tone, occasionally using transitional smash cuts to get right to the point. The result is a stylish, eminently watchable farce that, despite its old-England trappings, is every bit an update as it is an adaptation.

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Amber Anderson Director: Autumn de Wilde Screenwriter: Eleanor Catton Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack, Book

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Review: The Trouble with Being Born Is a Chilly Rumination on Memory

In the end, the film suffers from the same issue as its moody androids: enervation borne out of repetition.

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The Trouble with Being Born
Photo: Berlinale

The near future looks a lot like the present in Sandra Wollner’s The Trouble with Being Born, only bleaker and lonelier. That sense of isolation is conveyed right from the start. In the fantastically dreamy introduction, we float through a forest on a summery drift of whispering voiceover and buzzing insects before coming upon a father and young daughter next to a backyard pool. What looks like a relaxing day quickly reads as forced, even icy. While the girl (Lena Watson), Elli, stays by the pool, the father (Dominik Warta) goes inside, only to dash back out again when he sees Elli floating lifeless in the water. “Fuck,” he says. “Not again.” In the next scene, he’s using his phone to reboot the not-quite-drowned Elli.

An android whose deep black eyes and waxily smooth skin—evoking the eerie expressionlessness of Christiane’s face mask in Eyes Without a Face—are the very definition of the Uncanny Valley, Elli was built to replicate the father’s daughter, who disappeared 10 years before. Her reactions are slow and mannered, as though she were puzzling over a bug in her programming instead of playing like a human 10-year-old. Even though her actions are mostly set on a loop built out from scraps of what the father remembers of his daughter, Elli seems to take a mix-and-match approach to those implanted memories, obsessing like an amnesiac trying to make sense of a muddled past. At times, it’s unclear whether the lines in the voiceover (“Mum…doesn’t need to know everything”) are repeated from the human Elli or invented by the android Elli as a way of mimicking her biological predecessor.

The first half of The Trouble with Being Born is narratively thin but heavy with the promise of something more. Inklings of something disturbing in this isolated idyll, that too-close stare of the father and his dressing her just so, are eventually made explicit and disturbing. In one of the more effectively queasy body-horror moments ever put on film, the father removes Elli’s tongue and vagina for cleaning, leaving her naked on the counter. It’s a strikingly disgusting moment, pointing not just to the abuse he subjected his human daughter to, but the casual disdain with which he regards her replacement. But despite the power of this scene and a few others—particularly the wordless shot of Elli watching her father from a distance with the same restless curiosity of the cat flopped next to her, visualizing the unbridgeable gulf between “father” and “daughter”—Wollner continues to fill her film with too little story.

That problem becomes more acute once Elli runs away and the story shifts to another android-human relationship. After Elli is picked up by a passing motorist (Simon Hatzl) who then gifts her like a new toy to his elderly mother (Ingrid Burkhard), still mourning the little brother she lost 60 years before. The ease with which Elli is made into a boy—in the world of the film, reprogramming androids is about as complicated as restarting a smartphone—stands in stark contrast to the violent trauma of abuse that still lingers like a ghost in her flickeringly sentient CPU. But while the setting and the primary human character changes in the second half of the film, Wollner’s narrow view of her story means just more of the same glassy expressions and long maundering silences, like Tarkovsky without the existential pain. At some point, the mirroring begins to feel more like straight repetition without any significant revelation.

In the end, The Trouble with Being Born suffers from the same issue as its moody androids: enervation borne out of repetition. There are some attempts here and there to comment on the replacement of human connection with silicone facsimiles. We almost never see people together. The only time the mother, who spends much of her time walking her dog and wistfully pondering the past, is with another person is when her son drops off Elli. Shopping malls, car-choked roads, and distant skyscrapers dominate the landscape. But rather than truly exploring the ramifications of its futuristic conceit, whether from a broader societal or individualistic and relational perspective, the film just keeps looping back to the same luminously filmed but ultimately blank silences.

Cast: Lena Watson, Dominik Warta, Ingrid Burkhard, Jana McKinnon, Simon Hatzl Director: Sandra Wollner Screenwriter: Sandra Wollner, Roderick Warich Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog Wages a War Between Language and Cinema

It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic.

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Malmkrog
Photo: Berlinale

Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog is based on 19th-century Russian philosopher and mystic Vladimir Solovyov’s prophetic Three Conversations, which, through a series of dialectical maneuvers, addresses such topics as economic materialism, nationalism, and abstract moralism. The film takes place on a snow-covered hillside, where a large pastel-pink mansion sits and Puiu turns the philosophical into drama. Sheltered in the mansion’s walls are a small group of aristocrats that includes a politician, a general and his wife, and a young countess. It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic. A Christmas gathering stretches on in what seems to be real time, as the party’s high-minded philosophical and political chatter takes on an increasingly strained air.

That tension is heightened by the obstacles that Puiu uses to discombobulate his audience. Malmkrog is the Transylvanian village where the film takes place, yet the characters, who speak primarily in French, talk of being in Russia. And as they discuss imminent war and the potential outcomes of violence, it’s as if the film appears to exist outside of time and place. Doorways and mirrors obfuscate who’s involved in a conversation, and the characters move through the mansion as though compelled by spirits of the past, with cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru often lighting all those drawing rooms using only natural light sources. Malmkrog exudes a painterly expressiveness that’s a far cry from the cold, handheld aesthetic that typically defines the look of Puiu’s work and the Romanian New Wave as a whole.

The film’s first scene lasts nearly an hour and is a magnificent example of staging. The camera glides left and right, with each movement matched by a change in composition that the actors match as though dancing to the music behind their endless words. This balletic circularity, slow but constantly surprising, recalls Max Ophüls’s fixation on the oneiric, circular properties of time. In a surprising moment of violence, a number of characters die on a staircase, only for them to come back to life a scene later, and without comment from anyone. When Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard), the mansion’s wealthy owner and Malmkrog’s central figure, looks up the staircase, it’s as if he recalls what previously occurred there. The moment echoes one from Letter from an Unknown Woman where Joan Fontaine’s Lisa stares up the very staircase up which Louis Jourdan’s Stefan and another woman ascended years earlier.

Whenever Nikolai, who makes the domineering Stefan from Ophüls’s 1948 masterpiece seem meek by comparison, utters lines like “prayer is a soap for the soul,” he carries himself like the Sherlock Holmes of moral arbitration. But he’s closer to a 19th-century Ben Shapiro: a pompous rat obsessed with facts and logic, who won’t let a woman finish a point for fear that he won’t be able to counteract it with a cogent counter-argument. It’s not always clear to what extent Puiu is satirizing this type of behavior, given the spectacle of the man’s endless pontificating, and that the other characters only rarely undercut his words with references to his verbosity. Puiu clearly believes in Nikolai enough to make him the mouthpiece for Solovyov’s philosophizing, which makes it harder to buy to what extent these people are being sent up, and how much Puiu wants the viewer to eat up his words wholesale.

With our perspective held hostage in one place, memory and imagination blur into one. When Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité) reads from a book, the account of a vicious battle between Cossacks and bashi-bazouks, the effect is rapturous. In this claustrophobic endurance test, Puiu transports the viewer through language to a scene with the epic scope of the film’s runtime. He focuses on listening faces, themselves teleported to a different space.

Like his characters, Puiu wages his own war of discourses, in his case between language and cinema. Whenever Malmkrog seems to have settled into a formal rhythm, the filmmaker flips it, using a different device to interrogate how people talk, and to what extent they listen. One heightened dialogue exchange culminates with the main characters staring out of the window in complete stillness. Then Nikolai starts to move, unstuck from this tableau, and seemingly from time. The boundaries of reality keep getting pushed at, to the point that one almost expects the mansion’s walls to fall and reveal a film set. Later, he glides away from a tea reception to observe the servants, who silently rearrange the house and conceal their own power structure through glances and outbursts of violence that are hidden from the wealthy class. They are like spirits, pulling out chairs for aristocrats who don’t acknowledge them, clearing out items like empty champagne glasses that hint at the echo of a past time.

The creeping dread of history repeatedly overwhelms character and viewer, particularly during General Edouard’s (Ugo Broussot) screed on the world’s necessary “Europeanness,” which becomes a Buñuelian account of fascist tendencies and culminates in the film’s most shocking moment. His wife, the imperious, frizzy-haired Madeline (Agathe Bosch), obsesses over the authority behind language: who may speak, and how. This is the sneaky vessel for a larger discussion on power and control. Living in a religious nation, Nikolai posits, one must first understand what Christianity is, and define national identity from that. The characters situate this in the context of war, and a globe that’s shrinking in the face of technological progress.

But with each scene, Puiu strips away the layers of his ornate style, so that by hour three, all that’s left is the close-up. With Nikolai’s straight face berating Olga, evangelizing on resurrection, the sophistication of the dialogue rarely matches that of Puiu’s aesthetic form. As Malmkrog becomes less ostentatious in style, the redundancy of its philosophizing becomes almost impossible to ignore, having made its conclusions about the inability of the intellectual class in combating fascism through language by the 100-minute mark. Puiu’s assaultive mass of a film speaks to modern times in its depiction of aristocrats indulging in comfortable platitudes as the world edges toward the precipice of chaos, but the Romanian auteur doesn’t entirely make the case for sticking around to listen.

Cast: Agathe Bosch, Frédéric Schulz-Richard, Diana Sakalauskaité, Ugo Broussot, Marina Palii, István Téglás Director: Cristi Puiu Screenwriter: Cristi Puiu Running Time: 200 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: For Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, the Cruelty Is the Point

The thrill of the film’s craftsmanship is inseparable from its main character’s abuse.

1.5

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The Invisible Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

Elisabeth Moss brings unexpected shades to the flimsiest of roles, and she makes it look so easy. Even if you go into writer-director Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man blind, you will know what Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) did to his wife, Cecilia Kass (Moss), simply from the way she moves one of his hands from her belly. Across a taut and nerve-wracking opening sequence, Cecilia orchestrates what becomes increasingly clear is an elaborate escape. If it’s easy to overlook the hoariness with which the camera lingers at various points on some object that portends things to come, that’s because Moss never stops conveying the agony of the years-long abuse that Cecilia has endured, through the surreptitiousness of her gait and the way paralyzing bolts of fear shoot through her body.

That kind of talent only helps a film like The Invisible Man that doesn’t really care about abuse beyond its function as a plot device. After escaping Adrian’s clutches, Cecilia goes to live with a childhood friend (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter (Storm Reid). Or, rather, struggles to live, as leaving the house is too hard for Cecilia to bear. Cecilia never really stops talking about the control that Adrian exercised over her, even after she learns that he committed suicide, thus freeing her to finally put her life back together. But there’s a frustrating friction to such scenes, between an actress sincerely committed to expressing her character’s pain and a filmmaker interested in trauma only as far it whets our appetite for how a psychopathic tech magnate who specialized in optics could possibly torment his wife from beyond the grave.

With his directorial debut, Insidious 3, Whannell effectively goosed an otherwise insipid haunted-house attraction with clever twists on a franchise’s trite dependence on the jump scare. But it was Upgrade, which saw him freed of franchise responsibilities, as well as longtime collaborator James Wan, that felt closer to a coming-out party for the filmmaker. And it practically announced him as a master, if not of horror, then of evasion, for the way his acute sense of movement is so thrilling in the moment that it can make one overlook his rickety storytelling. Upgrade is a film that’s less suspicious of the not-so-brave new world of tomorrow that anti-authoritarian tech bros are rapidly ushering in than it is in awe of what their toys can do. Its meditation on vengeance is closer to justification: that it’s okay that a bro turned half-machine is going on a violent rampage because of what was done to his wife.

The Invisible Man, another distinctly male fantasy set in a more recognizable present-day San Francisco, has even less to say than that, though it seeks to also entertain us with all that a techie can do with one of his toys. And that it does, as in an impressive early scene inside James’s house where Cecilia walks out of the kitchen while making breakfast and a long shot unobtrusively captures a knife falling off the counter and the flame on one of the gas burners being turned to high. The frisson of unease to this and several other scenes, of a man hiding in not-so-plain sight as he mounts a spectacular show of gaslighting, is close to unbearable. And when the titular menace is finally glimpsed, if only intermittently, the straight shot of action-infused momentum that marks the sequence as he lays waste to a small army of police officers inside the hallway of a mental institution feels like a release, for Cecilia and the audience.

But to what end does Whannell really fashion all this style? In one scene, and only one scene, the film tells us that Cecilia is an architect, not to illuminate all that she’s capable of as a creative, but to allow for the moment where she shows up to an interview at an architecture firm and discovers that the samples of her work were removed from her portfolio. That scene, some 30 minutes into The Invisible Man, is the moment where the film starts to provoke a certain queasiness, where it becomes clear that Cecilia only exists, for Adrian and for Whannell, to be terrorized, to be held up in the air, to be flung across a room, to be punched, to not be believed, to be thought of as insane. And to be raped. That this violation happens off screen proves that Whannell has foresight, that he’s aware of the controversy that surrounded Hollow Man upon its release in 2000. But that we must be told that it also took place at an indeterminate time, almost as a matter of course, feels like an icky attempt at not having to actually grapple with the implications of the crime by casting doubt on it.

Out of sight, out of mind. That feels like Whannell’s mantra. Indeed, by the time it gets around to the business of Cecilia being believed, the film starts to collapse under the weight of an increasingly absurd series of plot reveals for the way she turns the tables on the invisible man to feel like anything but an afterthought. Even then, when her tormentor is right there out in the open, it’s still clear that Whannell only thinks of violence in terms of how it can be paid back. Which is to say, he’s consistent. Through to the end, you can’t get off on the thrill of this film’s craftsmanship without also getting off on the spectacle of more than just Cecilia brought to the brink of destruction. Like its style, The Invisible Man’s cruelty is the point.

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, Benedict Hardie Director: Leigh Whannell Screenwriter: Leigh Whannell Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 125 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Guns Akimbo Squanders a Nifty Setup with Excruciating Humor

Writer-director Jason Lei Howden’s humor might have been tolerable if his film was at least reasonably imaginative.

1.5

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Guns Akimbo
Photo: Saban Films

For much of Jason Lei Howden’s Guns Akimbo, Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) is in his jammies, because getting dressed is difficult when your hands are nailed to pistols. Eating and using the bathroom are no easy feat either. With this, the film hits on an amusing setup for physical comedy, as Miles can do little but stumble about as he strives to drive a car or use his phone with his nose. He also must avoid being shot by Nix (Samara Weaving), his designated opponent in a kill-or-be-killed online competition called Skizm. But the film ultimately fails to capitalize on its concept and gets smothered by its smug, abrasive tone.

Miles is a coder for a video game titled Nuts Bust 2, one of too-many examples of the film’s groan-inducing comedy. He’s also a bizarrely self-aware depiction of an internet troll, as Miles admits via narration that, in order to feel worthwhile, he seeks out arguments in comment sections and reports “offensive content.” When he goes to Skizm’s chatroom to tell the viewers off, he runs afoul of the organization’s facial-tattooed leader, Riktor (Ned Dennehy), who at one point says, “I’m going to do a poo-poo in my pantaloons,” because why not? Those guns for hands and his forced participation in Skizm are Miles’s punishment.

Most of Guns Akimbo’s dialogue squanders an intriguing concept through truly excruciating attempts at humor, oscillating between snide comments, gay panic jokes, and capital-A attitude-laden one-liners. In one scene, Miles remarks that the world looks “so HD” because, with gun-hands, he can’t go outside with his face in his phone.

The humor might have been tolerable if the film was at least reasonably imaginative. Radcliffe really digs into Miles’s sniveling bafflement and the expressive Weaving clearly has a lot of hammy fun as the unhinged Nix. But too much of Guns Akimbo consists of unremarkable car chases and gun fights that hardly feel transformed at all by Miles’s unique predicament. We watch a lot of people fire a lot of guns against a lot of concrete backdrops, except Howden deploys a hyperactive camera style that’s always zooming around the characters in slow motion or fast forward. He appears to be going for the Neveldine/Taylor style of films like Crank and Gamer, except he’s not nearly as inventive and most of his flourishes outright distract from the action choreography, sometimes obscuring it altogether.

Worse, Guns Akimbo strains to be self-aware, with Miles assuring audiences via narration that this isn’t one of those stories where he wins back his ex-girlfriend, Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), in the end. And it’s weirdly self-congratulatory for a film that visibly revels in torturing Weaving’s character and eventually has Nova kidnapped for the big climax anyway. The film has even less to say about the sort of obsessive spectatorship that makes up the story’s backdrop, as though simply depicting reality-TV audiences and internet users as assholes is some profound statement. Luckily, unlike Miles, viewers have a say in the matter. They aren’t bolted to the couch and the remote isn’t nailed into their hands; they’re free to quit watching at any time, or simply opt not to watch this obnoxious film at all.

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Samara Weaving, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Ned Dennehy, Rhys Darby, Grant Bowler, Edwin Wright Director: Jason Lei Howden Screenwriter: Jason Lei Howden Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Assistant Is a Chilling Portrait of Workplace Harassment

The film is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as its main character.

3

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The Assistant
Photo: Bleecker Street Media

With The Assistant, writer-director Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in the Tribeca offices of a film mogul, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing much of its resonance. Offices encourage professional functionality as a way of divorcing people from themselves, leading them to make actions without a sense of complicity. What starts small—throwing co-workers under the bus, neglecting friends due to punishing work hours—can blossom over time into people enabling atrocity under the guise of “doing what they’re told.”

With this psychology in mind, Green fashions The Assistant as a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae. The film opens with a young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), being picked up from her apartment for work so punishingly early that it’s almost impossible to tell if it’s morning or night. By 8 a.m., she’s been making copies, printing documents, reading emails, and tending to office errands for hours. Other employees gradually drift in, talking obligatorily of their weekends off—a privilege that Jane isn’t accorded.

In these early scenes, Green conjures a peculiar, very palpable dread, her precise, anal-retentive compositions suggesting what might happen if David Fincher were to adapt Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” This dread springs from two places, as the visual palette is silvery and moody, evoking a potential corporate thriller, though the film refuses to move beyond the expository stage and gratify this expectation, and so we fear that we may be trapped with Jane in her tedium. We are, and this is by Green’s moral schematic.

The Assistant is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as Jane. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the film mogul is only evoked via male pronouns (he’s never seen but often referenced and occasionally heard over the phone, usually in a torrent of rage against Jane for her inability to talk down his wife, who knows of his infidelity). Jane brings another assistant the wrong sandwich, and he treats her cruelly; it never occurs to him, or anyone else, to thank Jane for the tasks she performs for everyone in the office. At best, Jane’s co-workers regard her with a kind of pitying befuddlement, as if she’s not quite real. When Jane eats, it’s quickly and without pleasure, and she’s always alert to being watched. No one speaks of their personal lives. Green springs one perceptive, poignant detail after another, especially when the mogul compliments Jane via email just as she thinks he’s reached his limit with her. This is, of course, a major tool of the master manipulator: praise when least expected, and only enough to keep the person in your sphere of influence and at your mercy.

Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere. Jane finds an earring in the mogul’s office, which is repeatedly seen from a distance through its open door and becomes a chilling symbol for the mogul himself, suggesting his unshakable presence even in absence. There are jokes made about his couch, which Jane cleans. Young, beautiful women are brought into the office at late hours, and are referenced by both male and female employees with contempt. Growing fearful for one of the women, Jane tries to complain to an unsympathetic H.R. officer who sets about gaslighting her. It becomes evident that we’re watching—from the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit person—a parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Green’s grasp of Jane’s indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable.

Yet The Assistant also feels too narrow, too comfortable with its thesis. The rendering of the mogul as an unseen specter is effective but also dime-store lurid in the tradition of mediocre horror movies, and this device also conveniently absolves Green of having to wrestle with how a Weinstein type might live with himself. George Huang’s similarly themed 1994 film Swimming with Sharks, which is mostly inferior to The Assistant, benefited from such a friction, as its own Weinstein surrogate (played by Kevin Spacey) had a magnetism that complicated and enriched the script’s anger. There’s also something insidious about Green’s evasion, as the mogul’s absence elevates him, mythologizes him, which reflects how people low on the power ladder see powerful exploiters. But Green physicalizes this idea without standing outside of it, challenging it, or contextualizing it; she traps us in a monotonous hell and leaves us there. Her fury with Weinstein and his ilk contains an element of awe.

Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, Stéphanye Dussud, Juliana Canfield, Alexander Chaplin, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bregje Heinen Director: Kitty Green Screenwriter: Kitty Green Distributor: Bleecker Street Media Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy Is a Half-Hearted Spin on Peter Pan

Wendy veers awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never accruing any lasting emotional impact.

2

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Wendy
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Like Beasts of the Southern Wild before it, Wendy unfolds through the eyes of a child. Benh Zeitlin’s sophomore feature puts a new spin on Peter Pan, and not only because it takes on the perspective of a 10-year-old Wendy Darling (Devin France). The film’s modern-rustic settings and costumes and relative lack of fantastical elements—notwithstanding the presence of a majestic, glowing sea creature, referred to as “mother,” who may hold the secret to reversing time—also play a large part in re-envisioning J.M. Barrie’s classic. But Zeitlin’s brand of magical realism strains in its conflicting desires to both demystify Neverland (never mentioned by name in the film), chiefly by grounding it in a rather prosaic reality, and imbue the story with all the enchanting qualities we’ve come to expect from fantasies of everlasting childhood. Like its version of Peter (Yashua Mack), Wendy wants to fly, yet, because of its self-imposed restrictions, it never quite gets off the ground.

Across this tale of a child lurching toward adulthood, there’s a sense of wonder and awe to the sea creature’s brief appearances, and to Wendy’s initial encounters with the free-spirited Peter, who playfully eggs her on from atop the train that regularly roars across the barren, rural locale that houses her family’s rundown diner. But Wendy’s whimsical flourishes, from Dan Romer’s incessantly rousing score to Wendy’s breathy and all-too-mannered voiceover, brush awkwardly against the film’s dour conception of a Neverland drained of all its magic and grandeur. Despite this, Zeitlin strives to capture an unbridled sense of childlike exuberance as kids cavort around the rugged cliffside vistas of the remote volcanic island that Peter calls home. But lacking any of the mystical features typically associated with them, Peter and his cohorts’ behaviors appear overly precocious to the point of ludicrousness; it’s almost as if they’re performing a twee, optimistic rendition of Lord of the Flies.

Unlike Quvenzhané Wallis, whose magnetic presence imbued Beasts of the Southern Wild with a pervasive warmth and soulfulness, Mack is an unfortunately listless presence as Peter. Several years younger than Wendy and her twin brothers, Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin), Peter appears, more often than not, like a six-year-old playing dress-up. His utter lack of charisma and gusto renders him an ill-fitting avatar for boisterous youthfulness, while his occasionally domineering, yet still unimposing, demeanor hardly makes him out to be the inspirational figure that the film ultimately wants him to be. Not only does he allow one boy to drown at one point, he chops off the hand of another to prevent him from aging.

Such events position Wendy as a twisted take on Peter Pan, but these moments are never given room to breathe. Rather, they’re uniformly undermined by the film cutting back to the idyllic adventures of children, in lockstep with Zeitlin’s relentless pursuit of galvanizing his audience through a gleefully idealized vision of the world. This jarring intrusion of darker elements into the story makes for bizarre clashes in tone, leaving Wendy to veer awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never to accrue any lasting emotional impact. When Peter buoyantly declares that “to grow up is a great adventure,” one is left to wonder not only why the boy who never grows up would, out of nowhere, embrace this worldview, but why Wendy, or any of the other children, would want to follow such a troubling figure on that journey.

As Wendy stumbles into its final act, where adult pirates attempt to use Wendy as bait to catch the giant sea creature, it becomes even more convoluted, contradictory, and murky in what it’s trying to say about growing up. Wendy eventually begins to stand up to and question Peter, both for his mistreatment of her brother and his harshness toward the adults Peter has excommunicated to an impoverished community on the outskirts of the island. But no sooner does she chide Peter than she’s back on his side, cheering him on as he fights off an admittedly cleverly devised Captain Hook. It’s as if she, much like the film, can’t seem to settle on whether Peter’s a hero or a borderline psychopath, or if childhood is a magical time to live in permanently or a necessary step on the way to adulthood. Rather than meaningfully subverting audience expectations, Wendy instead plays like a half-hearted twist on the familiar tale that ultimately doesn’t change the moral at the core of countless other Peter Pan adaptations: childhood is magical, and growing up is scary but inevitable.

Cast: Tommie Lynn Milazzo, Shay Walker, Devin France, Stephanie Lynn Wilson, Ahmad Cage, Gage Naquin, Krzysztof Meyn, Gavin Naquin, Romyri Ross Director: Benh Zeitlin Screenwriter: Benh Zeitlin, Eliza Zeitlin Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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