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Understanding Screenwriting #45: Tales from the Script, Waking Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #45: Tales from the Script, Waking Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, & More

Coming up in this column: Tales from the Script, Waking Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, How to Train Your Dragon, Ambush, Fort Worth, No Questions Asked, The Las Vegas Story, Some Spring 2010 Television, but first:

Fan mail: Matt Maul in his comments on US#44 obviously did not like You Only Live Twice (1967) as much as I did, and he is in some good company with several critics of the time and since. He did help me make my case for the Bond films being producers’ films, whether he intended to or not. He mentions that one of the Bond films he liked least was Never Say Never Again (1983). It stars Sean Connery of course, but it is not one of the Broccoli family-produced Bond films, which is one reason why it does not work as well as the others. Matt also mentions that he liked On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) which does not star Connery, but is produced by the Broccoli family. Aside from George Lazenby as Bond, it is one of the best made of the Bond films, and I think Matt is right to give some credit to the former editor of the series Peter Hunt, who directed it. He obviously understood what the Bond films were all about, even if he could not do anything about Lazenby. But then no other director has been able to either.

I also go along with Matt’s admiration of Ken Adam’s production designs, and as much as I love the volcano in You Only Live Twice, I would be hard put to say it was better than the war room in Dr. Strangelove (1964). My point about the volcano is that unlike a lot of big sets directors have built, this one is used, as opposed to say the forecourt of Babylon in Intolerance (1916), which Griffith never quite figured out how to use. And when is somebody going to find the footage of the food fight in the war room that originally was the end of Strangelove?

Thanks to “Agor” for saying this column is one reason he comes to the House Next Door. I myself read HND for all the stuff, since as Matt Zoller Seitz once said, you never know what is going to show up. And in answer to his question, I will be dealing with Treme in US#46. Meanwhile…

Tales from the Script (2009. Written by Peter Hanson and Robert Paul Herman, based on an idea by Robert Paul Herman. 105 minutes)

Tales From the Script

Lots of wonderful talking heads: For years I used to keep track of the number of books of interviews with screenwriters, but I had to give it up. There were simply too many. The appeal to an “author” of such a book is obvious. Screenwriters are smart, quick, literate, and have collected and burnished a lot of great stories that they are more than willing to tell. All you have to do is ask them. And they know how to do it, because storytelling is their life. And they know how to use the fewest number of words, because that’s their job. So I am guessing that the “idea” for this film that Herman came up with was simple: let’s interview a bunch of screenwriters on camera. Very often the single decision to make the picture is the most crucial one.

This is not to say it was as easy as it looks. First of all, they decided to include a LOT of screenwriters, 45 according to the cast list on IMDb. But what did I tell you about screenwriters being quick and able to tell stories in the fewest number of words? Then they included a great variety of screenwriters. Melville Shavelson’s credits go back to the early ‘40s, and he passed away while the film was being completed. Ari Rubin, the son of Bruce Joel Rubin, does not yet have a credit. There are big names like William Goldman and Paul Schrader and several you may never have heard of. As you would expect in a film about Hollywood screenwriting, there are not a lot of people of color.

I like the way the filmmakers have organized the film into sections, which at least gives the illusion of forward momentum. The sections are ones you might suspect, but I particularly liked the sections about dealing with directors and stars. In the old studio system, writers almost never talked to directors and stars, only to producers. Nowadays they have to talk to everybody. Ronald Shusett tells a wonderful tale of convincing Dino De Laurentiis to use his idea for King Kong Lives (1986), which unfortunately led to a terrible movie. Guinevere Turner’s comments on director Uwe Boll and what he did to her script of BloodRayne (2005) are even better. Justin Zackham’s description on the first reading of his script for The Bucket List (2007) with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson shows you what stars mean to writers.

The film recently played for one week in Los Angeles, and it is due to come out on DVD later in the spring. Or if you cannot wait, the book of the same title is now available. But see the movie as well, since it shows you what these guys (and gals) are like in a room pitching a story.

Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009. Screenplay by Patrick Pacheco. 86 minutes)

Waking Sleeping Beauty

Another great documentary from Disney: When we think Disney, we think animation. But old Uncle Walt got into making documentaries early on. In 1943 he was so taken with Alexander de Seversky’s book, Victory Through Air Power, that he made an animated documentary from it to promote strategic bombing as a way to win World War II. In the late ‘40s Disney started the True Life Adventure series of shorts and eventually features about nature, proving there was a commercial market for them. I recently saw the trailer for the new Disney Oceans, and shots it in could have come from the earlier TLA films Seal Island (1949) and Water Birds (1952). In the first season of his Disneyland television show in 1954-55, there was each week a mini-documentary about the progress on the building of the theme park, culminating in an entire one-hour program at the end of the season. Bill Foster, the director of that episode, was still amazed, over 30 years later when he talked to a class at LACC, that the film had won an Emmy, since it was essentially a “one-hour commercial.”

Recently Disney has done several documentaries on aspects of the history of the company. I wrote about The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story (2009) in US#27 and Walt & El Grupo (2008) in US#33. This new one is about the revival of Disney animation from 1984 to 1994. Success, as the saying goes, has a thousand fathers, and the filmmakers have interviews with nearly all of the prospective dads. Talk about an ego-fest! I had gotten the impression during those years that the major force behind the push in animation was Jeffrey “3D NOW AND FOREVER!!!” Katzenberg, but it appears, note I say appears, from the documentary that may just have been Katzenberg’s self-promotion. Keep in mind that the director of this film is Don Hahn, who was the producer of Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994). Hahn’s co-producer is Peter Schneider, who was the direct head of the animation unit during those years. To be fair, Schneider does not come off as an easy guy to work with. The filmmakers have collected interviews with nearly all the major players, and then bounce these off each other as off-screen narration. Sometimes the interviewees are just self-promoting, and sometimes they are reasonably honest. I was particularly struck by Katzenberg talking about a New York Times article promoting Katzenberg’s image that was published on the eve of the release of The Lion King. He recognized when he read it how arrogant he came across and, as he told his wife that morning, he knew he was through at Disney. Which turned out to be true.

If we hear the clashing egos, we also get some wonderful home movies the animation crews filmed of themselves at the time that show why the unit needed tough guys like Michael Eisner, Katzenberg, and Schneider to run the place. The artists were of course crazy. That’s why they are artists. And that’s why they needed the grown-up supervision their bosses provided. We like to think that artists deserve complete creative freedom, but they don’t, really. Every artist needs a good sounding board who can tell them when they are full of shit. Which they are more times than they would like to admit. The trick, which the Disney studio managed for ten years, was to keep the elements balanced. John Lasseter is now doing that at Pixar/Disney, although the theater people quoted in the article mentioned below dismiss the Pixar crowd as “boys with their toys” for not making the kind of animated musicals they did. Did I mention ego-fest? Meanwhile, Katzenberg is now balancing the elements at DreamWorks Animation, as we will see below. Maybe he was right about his contribution to Disney.

When the film opened in Los Angeles recently, there was an interesting article about it in the Los Angeles Times. Writing from New York, James C. Taylor pointed out that a lot of the impact of Disney animation in the period the movie deals with came from the theater people connected with the films. Peter Schneider had a theater background and later went into Disney Theatricals. He and his partner Tomas Schumacher there raised the ire of Los Angeles theater people by saying they were not going to try out the stage version of The Lion King in Los Angeles because L.A. was not a good theatre town. That’s the reason several of us refused to ever see the show. But there is evidence in the film that Taylor has a point. One of the most fascinating scenes is Howard Ashman, the lyricist on The Little Mermaid, working with Jodi Benson, who sings Ariel. Well, as we learned from Tales from the Script, writers do sometimes get to talk to performers these days. The scene is way too short, and Schneider says in the article that the entire session will be seen on the DVD. Nothing like a chance to see real creativity at work.

Alice in Wonderland (2010. Screenplay by Linda Woolverton, based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. 109 minutes)

Alice in Wonderland

Progress marches on—another live Disney mother: For all the hype and titles that tell us this is A TIM BURTON FILM, it’s really more A LINDA WOOLVERTON FILM. She is the screenwriter of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. And Mr. Hahn and Mr. Schneider, why the hell is she NOT in Waking Sleeping Beauty? Did I tell you about the latter being an ego-fest?

It was Woolverton who had the idea of a new take on Alice and her adventures, according to Peter Clines’s article on the film in the March/April 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting. It was her pitch to producing sisters Suzanne and Jennifer Todd that was taken to Disney back in 2006. Woolverton’s idea was “Wouldn’t it be cooler if she was older and went back?” Yes, Linda, it is. I always thought Alice was a little brat who deserved everything the Red Queen wanted to give her. Woolverton makes her a 19-year-old who is being forced by her mother into an engagement with a real twit. Her father, whom we meet briefly in the prologue, is very understanding. Woolverton had me at hello when the six-year-old Alice asks him, “Am I going around the bend?” He replies that all the best people are crazy. (Yes, a very young and already very strange Tim Burton shows up in Waking Sleeping Beauty.) His widow is not quite so understanding; sometimes a live mother is a problem. Avoiding the twit’s proposal, Alice slips down the rabbit hole, and meets her old friends. Except she thinks it is just a dream, like the other dreams she has had of the place. It takes her a while to twig that it’s real and she is the Chosen One. The place has gone to hell since she was there last, and it is up to her to set things right, which provides a dramatic structure Lewis Carroll could not be bothered with. This structure means turning her into a warrior princess. Mia Wasikowka, who plays Alice (brilliantly—she and Anne Hathway, who has a wonderfully ditzy turn as the White Queen, give the best performances in the film), and her stunt double Tarah Paige, make her completely convincing as she battles the Jabberwocky at the end.

Woolverton finished the screenplay in 2007 and it got the attention of Burton. According to Woolverton, his suggestions were mostly for different ways to do things, and the plot remained unchanged. She also talked to Johnny Depp, who plays the Mad Hatter, and his suggestions about the real mercury poisoning hatters developed made the character more “mercurial.” Woolverton says, “I went through the character and sort of re-vamped it according to some of his thoughts. It was very cool.” It may have been for her, but not necessarily for us. You can defend his performance intellectually, but compared to Wasikowska and Hathaway, it seems completely unfocused, with his accent shifting from scene to scene. Sometimes stars ought to be stomped on. And directors: Burton’s direction and visual look for the film are just as overly busy as Depp’s performance. I had the good fortune to see the film in 2-D rather than 3-D and I suspect it is even busier in 3-D.

How to Train Your Dragon (2010. Screenplay by Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders, based on the novel by Cressida Cowell. 98 minutes)

How to Train Your Dragon

Yeah, it’s in 3-D, Jeffrey. So?: DreamWorks animation had been working on this one for a while and not getting anywhere. Well, not anywhere they wanted to go. The kids’ novel it is based on is a slight, simple story of a pre-teen Viking boy who finds a baby dragon the size of an iguana and makes friends. The earliest drafts by various writers stuck pretty much to that, although they did add a girl who was not in the book to the mix. According to Peter Clines’s interview with Sanders and De Blois in the March 26 Creative Screenwriting Weekly, DreamWorks “loved the idea and aspects of the plot.” In October 2008, Jeffrey Katzenberg and another executive, Bill Damaschke, called in Chris Sanders to see if he wanted to have a go at it. He had worked on the stories for, among others, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin (1992), and co-wrote the screenplays for Mulan (1998) and Lilo and Stitch (2002). Sanders asked his co-writer on Lilo and Stitch, Dean DeBlois, to join him. (And where are they in Waking—oh, never mind.) The writers worked on a regular basis with Katzenberg and Damaschke. They made the kid, Hiccup, a teenager. They made the dragon, Toothless, the size of real dragon. The turned the girl Astrid into a star athlete (remember that Sanders had worked on Mulan). They had Hiccup fly the dragon, which he does not do in the book. They figured in an animated film he could not NOT fly the dragon. OK, sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

In the book, some of the dragons are friendly to the Vikings and some are not. Sanders and DeBlois made them all the bad guys, which creates more dramatic tension when Hiccup befriends one. Unfortunately, it also means the film starts off with an over-the-top attack on the Viking village that plays like something out of a really bad Michael Bay film (no, that’s not redundant). The final battle with the biggest dragon of them all is also Michael Bay-like. In between, some of what was probably the charm of the book comes through. Yes, Hiccup is a typical nerdy teen, and do we really need another one of those? But when he discovers Toothless and realizes he is missing part of his tailfin, Hiccup uses his day job as an assistant to the local blacksmith to design and build an artificial fin. If the mechanics look a little familiar here, it is because the writers are big fans of Hayao Miyazaki. Film is good for showing process and the training scenes here are beautiful examples of that. The first flight—and boy were they right to include Hiccup flying the dragon—is such a sheer delight I assumed it was from the book, but it is not. The flight Hiccup and Toothless take Astrid on is as charming as the flight Superman takes Lois on in the 1978 Superman. And then it is back to the action.

Tell you what. Come in 15 minutes into the movie and leave when the last battle starts and you will probably enjoy it more.

Ambush (1950. Screenplay by Marguerite Roberts, based on a story by Luke Short. 90 minutes)

Ambush

Meanwhile, back at Fort Apache: When they say they don’t make movies like they used to, this is the kind of movie they are talking about. First of all, it’s a western. And a relatively modest western at that. But one with a bunch of stars in it (Robert Taylor, John Hodiak, Arlene Dahl), since this was an MGM production. And it is in black-and-white. It’s not great, but it’s not terrible either.

Luke Short wrote a pile of western novels and stories, many of them made into films. The screenwriter in this case, Marguerite Roberts, started writing films in the ‘30s, and spent the early part of her career at MGM, where her credits include such star vehicles as the 1941 Clark Gable-Lana Turner Honky Tonk. Shortly after Ambush, she was blacklisted and did not have an on-screen credit for ten years. In the second part of her career, she wrote the script she is best remembered for, the 1969 film True Grit, which won John Wayne his Oscar. Whoa! Wait a minute! John Wayne agreeing to appear in a script that a once-blacklisted writer had written? People in Hollywood were often not as doctrinaire about the connections between their professional and political lives as legend would have it. If you were Wayne, would you have turned down True Grit for political reasons?

Besides, Roberts appears to have had an ability to get along with the right-wingers in Hollywood. Ambush was produced and directed by Sam Wood, just as much a virulent anti-Communist as Wayne, which explains the literal flag-waving in the final scene at the fort. I suspect that Wood wanted to do this film to show he could bring off a classic western the way Ford had two years before with Fort Apache. He can’t, but that may explain why the script makes such an effort to identify some of the cavalry soldiers as Irish. And it may explain why the fort sequences were shot at the fort built for Fort Apache out in the northwestern part of the San Fernando Valley. According to David Rothel’s entertaining book An Ambush of Ghosts: A Personal Guide to Favorite Western Film Locations, the fort was used in western movies and television shows throughout the ‘50s. It may look like Fort Apache in Ambush, but it does not feel like it. Sam Wood was not John Ford.

The script for Ambush is fairly straightforward stuff. A prospector and scout, Kinsman, is talked into helping the cavalry run down the renegade Indian Diablito, since he has kidnapped a white woman. Her sister shows up at the fort to encourage the expedition, and Kinsman falls in love with her. This is only one of two love triangles that bog down the central part of the film, as Roberts gives the stars emotional moments to play. Before you assume this is because she was a woman, keep in mind she wrote a lot of westerns, and Sam Wood usually directed more emotional dramas, like the 1942 Kings Row. Never make assumptions about women writers in Hollywood.

Fort Worth (1951. Screenplay by John Twist. 80 minutes)

Fort WorthThe advantages of writing for a big studio: You may remember that in US#17 I gave you a list of ingredients in the 1939 Warner Brothers epic western Dodge City. Included in that were a race between a stagecoach and a train, and a fight in a burning railroad baggage car. Guess what shows up in this film? The very same footage.

This was not uncommon in the days of the major studios, and it still happens. Material that is shot for one of their expensive A-pictures gets recycled for an A-/B+ picture like this to give it a little more size. Somebody, whether it is the writer, the producer, or the studio executive, thinks “Hmm, you remember that great scene in Dodge City? We can use that here.” So the writer is instructed to build, if not the entire story, at least a scene or two around the material that was already shot. On How to Train Your Dragon, DeBlois and Sanders had a similar situation. They had to fit what they were doing with what had already been designed for the film. As Sanders said, “So there was a little bit of…a puzzle. In the best sense.”

At Warners they did that a lot in the ‘50s when they went into television, which made their television series look a lot more lavishly produced than the syndicated series smaller companies were making. The second season episode of Maverick entitled “The Brasada Spur” makes no sense at all in terms of story as Bart Maverick gets involved with railroad men. The story ends up with a spectacular head-on train collision and brawl that was taken from the 1945 Warners’ release Saratoga Trunk.

In more recent times, studios buy footage from each other. The 1976 Universal release Midway begins with footage of Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo from the 1944 MGM classic Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. The footage was in black-and-white, but tinted to look sepia-toned. The model shots of the Japanese carriers are from a Japanese film. With the exception of a guard tower falling over, all the footage of the attack on Midway Island is made up of footage, including outtakes shot, but not used, from Fox’s 1970 Tora! Tora! Tora!.

No Questions Asked (1951. Screenplay by Sidney Sheldon, story by Berne Giler. 80 minutes)

No Questions Asked

A good idea, but: How about this for a movie: A lawyer, working for an insurance company, hears his boss say the company would be glad to pay to get back stolen property, no questions asked, if it will save them having to pay out the insurance claims. Keiver, the lawyer, starts getting back a LOT of stolen stuff. The cops are not happy. The crooks are not either, because they don’t trust Keiver. Throw in an ex-girlfriend who may not be a nice person, and hijinks ensue. So what went wrong?

The story is by Berne Giler, who wrote just about every kind of story you could imagine for both movies and television. The screenplay was turned over to Sidney Seldon. Yes, that Sidney Sheldon, who after a long career in movies got into writing best-selling potboiler novels. In his movie days, though, Sheldon specialized in comedies and musicals. He won his Oscar in 1947 for the story for The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, then did the scripts for the 1948 Easter Parade and the 1950 Annie Get Your Gun. He later created two famous TV series, The Patty Duke Show (1963-66) and I Dream of Jeannie (1965-69). You see anything in there that would suggest an ability to do film noir? The plotting here is lackluster and there are not nearly enough interesting and interestingly sleazy characters to make it go.

There is one good line. When Keiver is about to introduce his current girlfriend Joan to his ex, Ellen, Joan’s comment is simply, “Goodie.” It helps that you have Lina Lamont her ownself, Jean Hagen, delivering it.

The Las Vegas Story (1952. Screenplay by Earl Felton and Harry Essex, and uncredited, Paul Jarrico, story by Jay Dratler. 88 minutes)

The Las Vegas Story

Casablanca goes to Las Vegas: Here’s the story. A woman and her husband show up in a party town. The woman runs into an old boyfriend she dumped some time back because of the war. The husband gets into trouble with the local law, and the ex-boyfriend helps out.

Here’s why you need screenwriters and producers who help, like Hal Wallis on Casablanca, instead of screwing it up, like Howard Hughes on this one. The Casablanca screenplay is teeming with rich characters, lots of plot turns, and great texture. The main cast of characters here is skimpy. In addition to the woman, her husband, the ex-boyfriend, we have a folksy sheriff, who is not a patch on Renault’s “poor, corrupt official.” We have a piano player, and he has a little more to do than Sam, but is not as crucial to the plot. I suppose they have cast Hoagy Carmichael so that people will think of his Cricket in the 1944 To Have and Have Not, but that was already a rip-off of Casablanca. The insurance investigator tracking down the husband I suppose is the equivalent of Colonel Strasser, but he is not as sleek nor as shifty. There is about 50 minutes of story here, if that, and we keep waiting around for it to get going. The murder at the heart of the story does not take place until nearly an hour into it. As for texture, we get a lot more second unit shots of Vegas than we need, and the interiors shot on the RKO lot give us nothing to look at.

This was one of the films Hughes produced when he ran RKO, and his main creative contribution here is to have as many close-ups as he can squeeze in of his star Jane Russell. Well, I have loved Jane Russell ever since I hit puberty. There are two kinds of straight men in the world: those who love Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and those who love Monroe. As a guy who has always liked smart women, I prefer Russell. But still. She does get to show a bit of a lighter side here, as well as that great sullen look that made her a star in Hughes’ 1943 The Outlaw. What, you thought it was just her cleavage? The problem is that Hughes, unlike Wallis, was simply unable to focus on what Fitzgerald called “The Whole Equation” of producing a film. If you want a more detailed examination of what that meant in filmmaking at RKO during the Hughes years, read the section in Richard Fleischer’s memoir Just Tell Me When to Cry on the making, unmaking, and remaking of the 1951 film His Kind of Woman.

Hughes, who had no sympathy for the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, still took Jarrico’s name off the credits of the film when Jarrico was blacklisted. Both the Screen Writers Guild, the forerunner of the Writers Guild of America, and Jarrico sued Hughes and both lost. Not one of America’s finest hours, but in the long run, it may be just as well Jarrico did not have his name on the film. Except for a nice helicopter chase at the end, there is not a lot you would want credit for.

Some Spring 2010 Television

TV

Some quick takes: First of all, I have given up on Parenthood and The Pacific, for reasons discussed in US#44.

30 Rock finished the Jack and Nancy story with a line that she has gone back to her husband, so we probably won’t be getting Alec and Julianne having fun anymore. On the upside, the various writers have been having a lot of fun with NBC’s sale to “Kabletown.” Why not call it by its real name: Comcast? Simply so they can get some great moments out of 91% of Kabletown’s profits coming out of cable porn, as “Don Geiss, American Hope,” written by Jack Burditt & Tracey Wigfield, tells us.

Justified’s pilot, “Fire in the Hole,” written by Graham Yost, did not turn me on. It is based on a story of the same name by Elmore Leonard and the episode did not have that distinctive Leonard tone in either character or dialogue. Leonard’s characters see the world in unusual but not always the most accurate ways and that vision comes out in their dialogue. I figured that if the show could not get it right working from a Leonard story, there probably was not much hope for the rest of the series. Guess again, Tom. This is why you have to look at more than the pilot. Once they got away from the original story, the tone got more Leonard rather than less. Go figure. Maybe they were less intimidated. Raylan Givens is a U.S. marshal who guns down a gangster in Miami after telling him to get out of town. For his sins, Raylan is sent back to his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky. He knows the people there, and they know him, not always for the best in either case. The show is introducing us to those characters fairly slowly, but at least, unlike Parenthood, you have a sense there are characters there. In the second episode, “Riverbrook,” also by Yost, there is a nice scene with Raylan sitting around on a stakeout in a car with another deputy, just talking. It’s what we expect from Leonard.

Saving Grace came back and I am still having a hard time understanding anything Holly Hunter and several of the other actors are saying. Would it kill them to open their mouths? In the “Let’s Talk” episode, written by Sibyl Gardner & Annie Brunner, there was a lot more about religion than about detective work, which since the show is in its last episodes, makes sense. It makes sense, but it doesn’t make it dramatic.

In Plain Sight also came back, but a bit livelier than Saving Grace. In “When Mary Met Marshall,” written by Brynn Malone, we not only get flashbacks of when Mary and Marshall met on a case, but the introduction of Allison Pearson, a senior U.S. Marshal who has come to Albuquerque to examine the budget of the WitSec office. It is established before she shows up that she is a political appointee and not highly thought of. So who walks in the door as Allison but Allison Janney, C.J. Craig from The West Wing, which leads to a great in-joke about Allison and the President. Now here is somebody who can stand up to Mary McCormack’s Mary. Allison leaves at the end of the episode but promises to come back, since she admits she is impressed by Mary calling her on leaving her security badge where one of the witnesses could use it to escape from the building. I for one look forward to seeing Allison and Mary going head to head.

Castle did something similar in its two parter, “Tick, tick, tick,” written by Moira Kirkland, and “Boom,” written by Elizabeth Davis. A case brings in Jordan Shaw, an F.B.I. Special Agent, whom Castle is entranced by, because she is even better at her job than Beckett is at hers. So Beckett is a little jealous, which everybody else assumes must be because she and Castle are sleeping together. They’re not, but nobody is convinced. This all ups the pressure on finding the serial killer who is obsessed with “Nikki Heat,” the version of Beckett Castle has created in his novels. The addition of Jordan really gave a jolt to the show, but there was no indication at the end of the two-parter that she would be back. And she is played by Dana Delany, who at least for now has a day job over at Desperate Housewives, but given the way Marc Cherry kills off people…

The Good Wife came up with a doozy of an episode with “Doubt,” written by Robert King & Michelle King & Barry Schkolnick. Way back in US#34 I mentioned that I liked that the first episode this show got into some details about the jury on a case, something most law shows never do. I wrote at the time that I hoped they would do it again, and with this episode they have. Gosh, do you suppose somebody connected with the show actually reads this column? Don’t bet the farm on it. I suspect the writers just saw an opportunity that was too good to pass up. The episode begins with the jury coming into the jury room talking about the case the way real juries do, e.g., somebody vaguely remembers that Alicia is the wife of a politician who got caught in a sex scandal, but they get the details wrong. The jurors noticed that Alicia was there to support the defendant, a college girl accused of murder. As we go through the case, we cut back to the jury room and get their take on the participants: lawyers, witnesses, people in the courtroom. Late in the jury’s deliberation, one male juror says that he feels they were not given enough information. I have been on five juries and everybody on the juries always feels that way. In discussing the question of reasonable doubt, the man says he feels he has “reasonable ignorance,” which nails it beautifully. Just as they have reached the verdict, the judge comes in and tells them they are excused. The defendant has taken a plea bargain. The last thing we see is that the jury had voted her “not guilty.” Yeah, that’s the way the American judicial system works. And thank God for that, because if it didn’t, we wouldn’t have all these great lawyer shows.

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

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

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

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right.

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Crawl Is Fun and Economical but Lacks Go-for-Broke Inventiveness

The film is more straight-faced than Alexandre Aja’s prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws.

2.5

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Crawl
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Unlike the giddily crass Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is a quiet beast of a film. It’s built not on a foundation of over-the-top gore, but on a series of escalations. As a hurricane barrels toward Florida, ace swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) becomes worried after her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), doesn’t return her phone calls. She travels to her old family home and finds him unconscious in the house’s flooded crawl space, with large alligators swimming in the water.

Early on, the camera often lingers on the deceptive stillness of the rising water for maximum suspense. Haley and her father are trapped in the house with no more than the tools they can find or already have on hand, MacGyvering their very survival out of shovels, flashlights, and flares. The best parts of the film slyly set up those tools and other objects, including a swing set and a rat trap, only to bring them back at some later, climactic moment.

If Crawl, then, is an easily digestible piece of workmanlike thrills, its only real bit of gristle is its po-faced father-daughter bonding. Haley and Dave are somewhat estranged; the family home was meant to have been sold off after Dave’s recent divorce from Haley’s mother; and flashbacks to childhood swim meets show father and daughter tempting fate with flagrantly ironic use of the term “apex predator.” In the face of certain death, they cobble their relationship back together through Hallmark-card platitudes while sentimental music plays on the film’s soundtrack. It’s the absolute thinnest of familial drama, and it will do little to redirect your emotional investment away from the survival of the family dog.

Between these family moments, of course, the flood waters run red as people get got by gators. Aja is prone to lingering in prolonged closeup on things like a protruding bone being shoved back into place, but he otherwise seems to have gotten the most inspired bits of underwater violence out of his system with Piranha 3D. Crawl is more straight-faced than his prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws. And while these moments are suspenseful, with nail-biting scrapes involving a handgun, some loose pipes, and one particularly clever shower-door maneuver, there’s precious little of the go-for-broke invention or outrageousness that might have made the film more than a fun and economical thriller.

Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Morfydd Clark Director: Alexandre Aja Screenwriter: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Farewell Thoughtfully Braids the Somber and the Absurd

The film taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

3.5

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The Farewell
Photo: A24

In the opening scene of writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Chinese grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), affectionately referred to as Nai Nai by her family, and her Chinese-American granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), have a warm, affectionate phone conversation in which each woman incessantly lies to the other. A professionally adrift, financially bereft millennial whose writing ambitions have come to naught, Billi lets her grandmother believe her life is busy and full of social engagements; for her part, Nai Nai insists that she’s at her sister’s house, rather than in a drably decorated doctor’s office. Wang frames Nai Nai against the kitschy, oversized picture of a lagoon that hangs on the wall, as if to emphasize the flimsiness of the illusions the pair is painting for one another.

The sequence calls to mind the advantage of audio-only phone calls: for allowing us to more easily maintain the falsehoods that comprise a not insignificant portion of our relationships. Given that minor mistruths prop up our most basic social connections, Wang focuses The Farewell on the moral quandary of whether a big lie—specifically, culturally contingent situations—might actually be an expression of genuine love. The film takes up the question with a tone of melancholic drollery, a sense of irony that doesn’t lose touch with the human feelings at its core. The Farewell is “based on an actual lie,” evidently an episode from Wang’s life, and its careful mixture of the somber and the absurd rings true to life.

As it turns out, Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer, but Billi’s father’s family elects to lie to the woman about her MRI results, an action that’s evidently within the bounds of Chinese law. But as Billi’s assimilated immigrant father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), points out to his brother, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), during a crisis of conscience, such a thing is both frowned upon in America and prosecutable. Struggling even more with the decision, of course, is the more Americanized Billi, who can’t reconcile her Western notions of love and the sanctity of the individual with the widespread practice of lying to family members about their impending deaths.

To create a cover for a family visit to Beijing, the family forces Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Hanwei), who lives in Japan, to marry his girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), of three months. This plan provides plenty of fodder for Wang’s dry humor, as the family attempts to maintain the veneer of celebration while also bidding farewell to their ostensibly clueless matriarch, who’s confused by Hao Hao and Aiko’s lack of affection and the generally dour mood that predominates in the lead-up to the wedding. It’s potential material for a farce, but even in its funny moments, Wang’s film is contemplative rather than frenetic, preferring to hold shots as her characters gradually, often comically adjust to the reality that Nai Nai will soon be gone.

Awkwafina, hitherto notable mostly for her comic supporting roles, gives a revelatory lead performance as Billi, the thirtysomething prone to bouts of adolescent sullenness. Perhaps playing a Bushwick-based, first-generation-American creative type isn’t much of a stretch for the Queens-born rapper/actress, but she immediately brings to the role the depth of lived experience: We believe from the first frames in the long-distance love between Billi and her grandmother, and the existential crisis the young woman feels as she negotiates two cultures’ differing approaches to death and disease. In taking us to Beijing through Billi’s eyes, which are often blinking back tears as she says goodbye without articulating “goodbye,” The Farewell’s morose but not hopeless comedy taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Hanwei Director: Lulu Wang Screenwriter: Lulu Wang Distributor: A24 Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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