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

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

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Sunless Shadows
Photo: Cinema Guild

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Song Without a Name
Photo: Film Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Black Is King
Photo: Disney+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Waiting for the Barbarians
Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Thousand Cuts
Photo: Frontline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I Used to Go Here
Photo: Gravitas Ventures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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She Dies Tomorrow
Photo: Neon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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Summerland
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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The Fight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Flesh and Blood at 35: Medieval Ironies

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

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Flesh and Blood
Photo: Orion Pictures

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

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

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

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

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