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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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Locarno Film Festival 2019: Technoboss, Echo, & A Voluntary Year

A striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival’s competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register.

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Technoboss
Photo: Locarno

Locarno often leans into its reputation as Europe’s most unapologetically highbrow summer festival, but a striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival’s competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register. Such as João Nicolau’s Technoboss, an unwaveringly deadpan musical comedy about an aging divorcé, Luís (Miguel Lobo Antunes), nearing the end of what seems to have been a tedious career selling and maintaining integrated security systems. His existence is far from enviable, as he’s past his prime as a salesman and baffled by modern technology, while his primary companion is his cat. To compound the overriding sense of ennui, Nicolau presents a decidedly drab vision of Portugal, all cramped offices, cluttered shop floors, and soulless hotels.

Luís, though, remains optimistic, as evinced by his tendency to burst into song as he drives between assignments, and by the quietly determined way in which he attempts to regain the affection of an old flame, Lucinda (Luisa Cruz), despite her apparent disdain for him. Antunes, in his first professional acting role, is compelling, with a perpetual twinkle in his eye that hints at a rich inner life. And while his vocal range is limited, to say the least, he brings an earnestness to the musical numbers that elevates them above mere quirky window dressing.

Ultimately, the film is too narratively slight and tonally monotonous to justify its two-hour running time. One running joke in particular, involving a smarmy executive who’s frequently heard off screen but never seen, runs out of steam in the final act. And yet, when viewed in close proximity to the likes of Park Jung-bum’s dreary crime drama Height of the Wave, which bafflingly won this year’s special jury prize, Technoboss is a breath of fresh air.

Runar Runarsson’s Echo isn’t exactly a laugh a minute: An early scene depicts the preparation for a child’s funeral, while subsequent sequences revolve around police brutality, domestic violence, and the lasting impact of childhood bullying. But it’s delightful to behold Runarsson’s sly execution of a formally bold premise. Clocking in at 79 minutes, the film is composed of 56 standalone vignettes connected by a Christmas setting. The constant narrative shifts are initially jarring, but recurring themes begin to emerge: rising social inequality in the aftermath of the financial crisis; the impact of modern technology on traditional ways of life; the drabness of winter and its impact on the country’s collective mental health.

Yet while the film’s underlying tone is melancholic, there are frequent bursts of pure comedy, from the absurd spectacle of abattoir workers bopping along to a jaunty rendition of “Jingle Bells” amid animal carcasses, to a farmer and her partner earnestly squabbling about the state of their relationship as they document the mating habits of their goats. Humor also arises through the juxtaposition of scenes. The haunting image of a boy in a coffin is followed by a clinical shot of a similarly motionless adult body, and it takes a moment to register that we’re looking at not another corpse, but rather a man lying under a tanning lamp. Later, a heartwarming kids’ nativity scene cuts abruptly to a shot of bikini-clad bodybuilders performing in a harshly lit, half-empty auditorium.

However, it’s Echo’s sincerity that really impresses. One sequence, in which an emergency services operator calmly reassures a child reporting a violent altercation between his parents, is remarkable in the way it hooks the viewer emotionally in mere seconds. The film ultimately coheres into a vivid portrait of contemporary Iceland that’s equal parts bleak and beguiling.

A Voluntary Year, co-directed by Berlin School alumni Ulrich Köhler and Henner Winckler, is a similarly bittersweet affair, walking a fine line between raw domestic drama and precision-engineered comedy of errors. Sebastian Rudolph stars as Urs, an off-puttingly pushy small-town doctor intent on packing his teenage daughter Jette (Maj-Britt Klenke) off to Costa Rica to volunteer in a hospital. Jette, though, would rather spend her gap year at home with her boyfriend, Mario (Thomas Schubert), who seems harmless enough but has been written off as a poisonous influence by Urs. A sequence of mishaps in the thrillingly unpredictable opening act gives the young couple a brief chance to take charge of their own futures, but the decision Jette hastily makes pushes her strained relationship with her father towards breaking point.

Köhler and Winckler do a fine job of eliciting sympathy for their deeply flawed characters. Jette is maddeningly indecisive and prone to overly dramatic outbursts, but her brash exterior masks deep-seated vulnerability. Meanwhile, it’s easy to share Urs’s disbelief that Jette should be even remotely infatuated with the woefully uncharismatic Mario, but the boy’s earnestness ultimately proves strangely endearing. Urs is much harder to warm to, as he’s the quintessential big fish in a small pond, clearly used to throwing his weight around and getting his own way. To add insult to injury, his handling of sensitive situations is often jaw-droppingly misjudged. And yet, the viewer is given a strong enough sense of his good intentions to at least partially root for him as he attempts to patch things up with Jette.

While it may not do this modest film any favors to make the comparison, there are shades of Maren Ade’s masterly Toni Erdmann in The Voluntary Year’s nuanced depiction of a fraught father-daughter relationship, and also in the way the filmmakers play the long game when it comes to delivering comic payoffs. An enigmatic narrative thread involving a migrant boy has a laugh-out-loud resolution that also neatly paves the way for a moving final scene.

The Locarno Film Festival ran from August 7—17.

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Interview: J. Hoberman Talks Make My Day, Ronald Reagan, and ‘80s Movie Culture

Hoberman discusses how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered Reagan’s presidency.

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They Live
Photo: Film at Lincoln Center

The poster boy of American conservatism, the bar to which all Republicans would unashamedly evaluate future candidates, and yet now seemingly lower on a weekly basis, Ronald Reagan was an ideal movie star with an idealized view of the past. His perfect America would be equivalent to the opening shots of red roses, green lawns, and white picket fences that kick off Blue Velvet, while America’s reality would be what transpires once Bobby Vinton’s song concludes and the swarming ants are revealed beneath the surface.

A time of Hollywood blockbusters and silver screen patriots, macho men and teens headed back to the future, the 1980s, while not considered a golden movie age, saw a symbiotic relationship between American film and the nation’s chosen leader. How else to account for Reagan proposing his “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative in March of 1983, a mere two months before the release of the year’s top grossing film, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi?

With his methodically researched new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman takes a sociological approach to discovering how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered the goings-on of our 40th president’s administration. And on the occasion of the book’s release and accompanying Film at Lincoln Center series, which samples feature films from the ‘80s, I spoke with Hoberman about the first Reagan screen performance he ever saw, being a working film critic during the “Age of Reagan,” and the unexpected rise of real estate mogul and Celebrity Apprentice host Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.

One of your most revered books is Vulgar Modernism, a collection of reviews and essays written during the ‘80s without the benefit, or trappings, of historical hindsight. Now 30-some-odd years later, you’ve taken a step back to take a look at the bigger picture of the decade. What was that experience like?

I should say that this book was the culmination of two earlier books, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War. Make My Day is the end of a trilogy. When I began writing the trilogy, I didn’t realize how central Reagan would be to it, but by the time I started Make My Day, he had become, in effect, the protagonist of the entire trilogy. Make My Day was different from the other two books. It’s not just that I lived through this period, but that I was then a working critic. How was I going to deal with that? In the earlier books, I went out of my way to quote critics and others who wrote about movies because I was very interested in how these films were initially received. In the case of Make My Day, however, it seemed absurd to quote other critics when I was there myself. It took me a while to come to that conclusion because my impulse wasn’t to put myself in the book and yet I realized that I would ultimately have to.

I found that my opinion of the various movies discussed hadn’t changed all that much. My opinion of Reagan was modified somewhat, in that I saw him as a more complicated figure than I did during the 1980s, but I also believe my response to him in the ‘80s was true to the moment. That’s why I included a number of longer pieces in the book, while also annotating them, so that one could see that I wasn’t just reusing the material without thinking about it.

You note that each volume can be read in chronological order, the order in which they were published, or as standalone installments. I took it up after finishing your and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies, and it felt like I was emerging from the pre-’80s underground to a Reaganized American society that had become depressingly anything but countercultural. What was it like being on the underground and Hollywood beat as a critic throughout those years?

I didn’t really start reviewing the blockbuster films until around 1984. I was the Village Voice’s second-string critic when Andrew Sarris, the first-string critic, fell ill, and I took his spot for a while. As a result, I was reviewing movies that I might otherwise not have. To make things interesting for myself, I began reviewing these movies from a political and ideological perspective. Even when Andy came back, that stayed with me. So, for example, there were a lot of action films during that period that Andy was very glad not to review, like Top Gun, but I did those while also reviewing foreign films, avant-garde films, documentaries, and so on. I always said that I could never be a first-string critic for a newspaper. I would have lost my mind having a steady diet of big Hollywood movies! I would have had to mix things up.

While midnight movies aren’t the primary focus of Make My Day, the underground did find a way into your reviews of ‘80s blockbusters. I recall a review in the Voice titled “White Boys: Lucas, Spielberg, and the Temple of Dumb” in which you tear down the nostalgic Indiana Jones prequel while praising Jack Smith’s nostalgic Normal Love. Was it maddening for you to review the latest Spielberg while underground artists concurrently made the same points to much smaller audiences?

That was really something that came from the heart. I was outraged by Temple of Doom, by its attitude, and I was really sick of these guys, Spielberg and Lucas. I wanted to bring out that there were other forms of filmmaking and other ways of dealing with this material. I was making a point, yes, but it was something that was fueled by emotion rather than reason.

Were there any Spielberg films, or Spielberg-adjacent films like Gremlins or Poltergeist, that you found less than risible throughout the Reagan years?

There were some that I preferred. I liked Gremlins quite a bit, and I enjoyed Back to the Future, which is Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. At the time, I didn’t much care for Poltergeist, but when I looked at it again for the book, I thought it was interesting in terms of its pathology. I should also say that I liked Jaws and E.T., to a degree, although it was no Blade Runner.

Though primarily concerned with Regan’s political reign, you also dig deep into his filmography, noting how his sole villainous role, in The Killers, has always prompted a vocal reaction from every audience you’ve watched it with. Why do you think that is?

Well, I’m not sure that’s still true. A friend recently saw The Killers at Film Forum and told me he was sort of shocked that people didn’t respond to the scene where Reagan slaps Angie Dickinson. The first time I saw The Killers, which was, I think, in June of 1969, I didn’t expect to see Reagan in it. I don’t think I had seen him in a movie before. I was well aware of who he was, of course, and I hated him because I had been at Berkeley the previous summer, when students were public enemy number one and there were disturbances every night—the whole thing was extremely compelling for me as a 19-year-old. The point I wanted to make was that my whole view of Reagan was predicated on The Killers. To me, he seemed to be playing himself. I had a very naïve response. I couldn’t understand why he would do the role. I mean, what crazy hubris prompted him to show what he dreamed of becoming on screen? I recognize my response as primitive, but it also demonstrates the power of movie images. I didn’t see him as acting, even though he clearly is. I saw it as him projecting his evil, bastardly essence.

Speaking of essence, it’s odd re-watching Donald Trump’s numerous cameos in American film and television. Unlike Reagan’s silver-screen presence, Trump literally always played himself: an obscenely rich braggadocio. Whereas Reagan’s “lovable” persona no doubt helped his later career in politics, Trump’s media appearances helped to fortify his reputation as an arrogant huckster.

This is the point I tried to make at the end of the book. I was surely thinking about Trump a lot while writing the book, but he only became president when I was close to finishing it. Trump may have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but it doesn’t come as a result of the movies. He’s a celebrity and a celebrity is someone who’s able to project a cartoon version of themselves, or a larger-than-life version of themselves, into the media world: TV, the tabloid press, and so on. Trump is being true to this persona. I didn’t really see Trump’s presidency coming. For me, he was a New York City character, a local celebrity who was regularly exposed in the Village Voice’s narrative of New York City corruption. I had no sense of how he existed to the rest of America, in Celebrity Apprentice. Clearly that’s what put him over, or at least helped to put him over. That and his appearances on Fox News as a kind of pundit and even his involvement with professional wrestling.

As you mention in your book, the uncomfortably awkward 1979 CBS Ted Kennedy sit-down interview with Roger Mudd ultimately derailed Kennedy’s attempt at a presidential run. It’s hard to imagine, given the feckless attempts by our current political leaders to appear like an everyman, that current presidential candidates’ chances could be derailed by the televised struggle to answer a basic question. If anything, we might view the guffaw as endearing and humanizing. Trump says dumb stuff on a daily basis, and we all just accept it. Have we become desensitized to politicians being put on the spot and not being able to come up with succinct answers?

I think it’s different for different candidates. Being the younger brother of J.F.K., who was the first real political star, created a lot of expectations. People credit Kennedy’s success in the 1960 election with his appearance in the first debate, for looking so much better than Nixon. That may be simplistic, but it’s not simplistic for people to think that TV had something to do with Kennedy becoming president. I think this is a case of “live by the sword, die by the sword,” that his brother just stumbled so badly in that interview, in what was essentially his television debut. He did go on all the way to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, but the myth of the Kennedy charm and invincibility was destroyed by that interview.

Looking at subsequent presidents, Reagan certainly had an elastic sense of reality. But in his distortions and lies and misstatements, he was by and large upbeat and, when he wasn’t, he was at least coherent. Trump lies so continuously that you feel that that must be part of his appeal for his base, that he’s just going to make this stuff up. They think it’s funny or entertaining or maybe that it represents a “greater degree of authenticity.”

There had been a very interesting point made by Theodor W. Adorno about Hitler’s appeal. I’m not saying that Trump is Hitler, but he’s a demagogue and Hitler was too. Adorno, who lived through Hitler’s lies, made the point that intellectuals and serious people didn’t get Hitler’s appeal. Before he came to power, he just seemed like a clown. There was something ridiculous about Hitler’s assertions and his tantrums. What they didn’t realize was that’s precisely what his fans liked about him. I think that’s also the case with Trump and his supporters.

If Nashville, as you point out in the book, foresaw the real-life presidential assassination attempts that were soon to come, could you see the same cinematic influences happening today? Are there films today that you think are foreshadowing things that could come into fruition within our own political future?

Nashville was a movie made at a time when movies were much more central to American culture than they are now. It was made by a filmmaker, Robert Altman, who was directly addressing, as an artist, what was going on. I bracketed Nashville with Jaws because in some respects, Jaws is a similar movie, although I’m not sure if Spielberg was consciously making an allegory. Some things in the film are political, for example the behavior of the Mayor of Amity, but beyond that the movie itself was utterly central to American culture. There was nothing more important during the summer of 1975 than Jaws. There’s no movie that has that kind of centrality anymore, nor do movies as a whole.

A number of television shows seemed to be predicting Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election. There were shows like Madam Secretary and Veep and Homeland, strong, female, political heroes, or, in the case of Veep, comic. But what were they compared to Celebrity Apprentice? Those aforementioned shows were very feeble in terms of reaching an audience and I think it was more a projection of the people who made it. When I look at movies now, and I have to say that I don’t see as many movies as I used to, I see some that seem to manifest things that are in the air. Jordan Peele’s Get Out would be the best example of this. That movie was made and conceived while Obama was president, but it certainly projected the post-Trump mood. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is interesting because, on the one hand, it’s a movie about 1969, and yet it’s also a movie about 2019. It can’t help but manifest some of our current fantasies and tensions. But even if it had a bigger audience than Nashville, people just aren’t taking it the same way.

And Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood presents a cinematic take that has a romanticized, almost fetishistic view of a 1969 that never truly existed, at least not the way Tarantino wishes it did…

Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it. I would put it somewhat differently, but we can let people discover for themselves if they haven’t seen it!

The book also talks a great deal about the revisionism and idealization of specific time periods that were said to represent wholesome Americana. The ‘50s is a big one, but as you point out, the movies’ view of the ‘50s were drastically different from the one the world actually experienced. I remember growing up in the ‘90s convinced Happy Days was a TV show not just about the ‘50s, but from the ‘50s itself.

That makes perfect sense, and I think other people share that same experience. The genius of that show is that it portrayed the ‘50s “as it should have been.” Jean Baudrillard has a memorable description of walking in to see Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 black-and-white film The Last Picture Show and, for a moment, thinking it was actually a movie from the period it depicted: the early ‘50s. It was a hyper-real version of it. That’s what Happy Days was. I think Reagan’s genius was to be able to do that on a larger scale, to conjure up an idealized ‘60s almost out of whole cloth, vague memories, old television, and old movies in his own conviction, even if that was ultimately a fantasy. It was an idealization of the period.

On the occasion of your book’s release, you’ve programmed a selection of double features for an upcoming series at Film at Lincoln Center. Outside of a closeness in release dates, like The Last Temptation of Christ and They Live, what went into the pairing up of certain titles?

I appreciate that question. I really love the concept of double bills. Whenever it’s possible, I like to teach using double bills, because then the movies can talk to each other—and I don’t have to talk as much. Ideally the movies should comment on each other. The reason for including The Last Temptation of Christ was a bit tricky. I thought that the response that it got certainly looked forward to the culture wars of the ‘90s. There was such hostility directed toward that movie and, by extension, the movie industry as a whole. As Trump would say, it was as “an enemy of the people.” And to me, They Live seems to be the bluntest, most direct critique of Reaganism ever delivered, and it was delivered at the very, very end of his presidency. In a sense, it was already over, as the film came out just before the 1988 presidential election. I see both They Live and The Last Temptation as political movies, one overtly political and one that was taken in a political manner.

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Review: Vita & Virginia Leaves the Nuances of a Love Affair to the Imagination

The film frequently falls back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.

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Vita & Virginia
Photo: IFC Films

When capricious socialite and writer Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) first glimpses Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) at a bohemian party in Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia, the latter is the midst of a dance, her head leaning back and arms freely swaying in the air. It’s an uncharacteristic moment of outgoingness for the author, who by this time in the early 1920s has had only modest success, and the throbbing ambient techno music that underscores the scene lends her and Vita’s desires a strange and striking modernity. But the film doesn’t fully commit to such anachronistic flourishes in its portrait of the two women’s tumultuous love affair, instead frequently falling back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.

Vita’s deviousness and unpredictability does, for a time, make for some compelling proto-feminist drama, thanks in large part to Arterton’s bold performance. Vita is amusingly blasé in the face of both her heiress mother, Lady Sackville (Isabella Rossellini), who protests to her dressing as a man and openly having affairs with women, and her diplomat husband, Harold (Rupert Penry-Jones), completely dismissing his concerns about maintaining their marriage of convenience. Elsewhere, Debicki is left with the difficult task of dramatizing Virginia’s escalating strife, and with little help from a script that basically skirts over the serious mental health issues that plagued Woolf throughout her life. In fact, Virginia’s joys and struggles as they arise from Vita’s hot-and-cold treatment of her are rarely given any concrete form aside from the occasional ham-fisted touch of CGI-enhanced magical realism, as when vines grow out of the woodwork when Virginia returns home after first sleeping with Vita.

Outside of these moments, Virginia’s interiority is given similarly blunt expression through her relationships with her passive yet understanding husband, Leonard (Peter Ferdinando), her lively artist sister, Vanessa (Emerald Fennell), and Vanessa’s roommate, the flamboyant painter Duncan Grant (Adam Gillen). Each of these archetypes always seems to be conveniently on hand to explicitly outline the details of Virginia’s emotional state. The only time her thoughts and emotions, as well as Vita’s, are articulated with any nuance is through a series of epistolary interludes that see Arterton and Debicki reading the love letters that Sackville-West and Woolf wrote to one another. And yet, these moments are so awkwardly and unimaginatively incorporated into the film, with the actresses speaking their words directly into the camera, that the letters’ flowery language is effectively drained of its poeticism.

Vita & Virginia eventually lands on Woolf writing her breakthrough novel, Orlando, which was inspired by her relationship with Sackville-West. But as Button gives us only a vague sense of what drew these two vastly different women together, she leaves to the imagination how Sackville-West had such a lasting and profound effect on one of the great authors of the 20th century. In Orlando, Woolf writes, “Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth.” There’s more ambiguity, complexity, or passion in that one line regarding the elusive and illusory qualities of Vita’s love for Virginia than there is in all of Button’s film.

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isabella Rossellini, Rupert Penry-Jones, Peter Ferdinando, Emerald Fennell, Gethin Anthony, Rory Fleck Byrne, Karla Crome Director: Chanya Button Screenwriter: Chanya Button Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ready or Not Ribs the One Percent with More Laughs than Horror

Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot.

2.5

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Ready or Not
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s horror film Ready or Not is centered around a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek, and if that sounds unconscionably silly, at least the filmmakers are aware of that. Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy’s screenplay embraces the inherent absurdity of this premise, concocting an elaborate narrative justification as to why a bunch of grown-ups would be engaged in a murderous version of the classic kids’ game. It all boils down to a family ritual: Anyone marrying into the obscenely wealthy Le Domas clan must play a game at midnight on their wedding night, and this game, which is selected at random by a puzzle box, could be anything from old maid to checkers.

Bright-eyed good girl Grace (Samara Weaving), who’s just wedded the family’s favorite son, Alex (Mark O’Brien), gets picked to play hide-and-seek, and that’s where the trouble begins. Because while the other games proceed in perfectly ordinary fashion, the Le Domases have made a violent mythology surrounding this one game: The family must capture its newest member and slaughter them in a ritual sacrifice before sunrise, or else each family member will be cursed to die. And so, the Le Domases give Grace time to hide anywhere she likes in their sprawling country manor before they set out with rifles and crossbows to find her.

Gradually, the convoluted family mythology comes to overtake the goofy simplicity of the film’s premise, and to the point that one is apt to forget that a game of hide-and-seek is even going on. But Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett keep things lively with a lavish visual style that nods toward Kubrick’s The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, and even Barry Lyndon, while still maintaining an identity of its own. Lit mostly with candles, the sprawling villa in which the film mostly takes place assumes a creepy aura reminiscent of the opulently spooky house in Robert Wise’s The Haunting. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett’s mildly showy use of long takes and lithe camera movements exhibit an ironic grandiosity that suits the film’s light-hearted sadism.

Funny but not quite a comedy, Ready or Not, to its credit, leans in to the arbitrariness of its own myths and rules. Some of the members of the Le Domas clan aren’t even sure they believe in their family curse, and they bicker over whether they should be allowed to utilize modern technology, such as their mansion’s security cameras, to track Grace down. But the film’s constant reiteration and reevaluation of the Le Domases’ goofy traditions can sometimes make things feel repetitive and slightly exhausting, impressions which are enhanced by the lackadaisical handling of the film’s kills. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett primarily employ violence for laughs, but they frequently flub the punchline with a confusingly quick edit or an awkwardly shaky handheld shot. Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot. But this gonzo capper has the effect of retroactively diminishing the tame, uninventive bloodshed that preceded it.

Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O'Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Nicky Guadagni, Elyse Levesque, John Ralston Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett Screenwriter: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Jawline Takes a Measured Look at Social Media Stardom

The film is refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.

3

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Jawline
Photo: Hulu

The perma-glossy avatar of our profit-minded social media era is the cheery influencer, that species of professional bon vivant who seems perpetually more put together than anyone could be. Liza Mandelup’s debut documentary feature, Jawline, traces the dynamics that drive such influencers, their intensely adoring fans, and the malicious managers who try to turn a profit on them, and it’s refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.

The film begins on Austyn Tester, a sweet, poor Tennessee teen with a few thousand followers across Instagram, Twitter, Musical.ly, and YouNow who’s itching to escape his hometown and become an online celebrity. Mandelup mostly focuses on his daily efforts toward achieving that fame, including his semi-disciplined uploading regimen and the many retakes required to snag the perfect post. He spends much of his times posting, singing, and assuaging his young fans’ personal frustration on live chat. Only a slight variant on his actual personality, Austyn’s online brand, a “follow your dreams, no matter what” sort of positivity, would be unremarkable if it weren’t for its apparent impact on his teen girl fans.

Several of these fans are interviewed throughout the film. Each one is grappling with unique problems, from abusive families to bullying, though all of them justify their interest in Austyn and his peers for their willingness to listen, emphasizing the therapeutic effect of his livestreams. Jawline displays a certain evenhandedness here. The girls’ intense reliance on a stranger for comfort is uncomfortable to watch, but the film doesn’t trivialize this dependence. In an act of fan service, Austyn meets with a small group of girls at a local mall where their intense affections make themselves plain. Mandelup records them pushing an uncomfortable Austyn to ride around motorized stuffed animals so they can post it on Instagram, all the while demanding affirmations from him. Later, one girl forces him to share his phone number with her. Here, Jawline suggests a limit to his affection for them, if it ever existed, as well as the emotionally transactional nature of the relationship between fan and influencer.

The libidinal peak of this surreal relationship, though, occurs when Austyn and other influencers go on tour, performing shows for adoring fans with the hopes of upping their follower count in the process. On stage, the teens pose with fans, sing, and dance, all without any clear knack for it, in what amount to in-person livestreams. In this moment, there isn’t much that can be said about these largely cookie-cutter performers except that they’re toned, twinky, and peppy, and their fans love them for it. Mandelup’s footage of their displays is transfixing, not because the performances are spectacular—the shows are expensive to attend but often happen in dingy unadorned venues—but because the nearly contentless shows are only about the fans’ adulation. From an outsiders’ perspective, there’s a dizzying mismatch between the palpable intensity of their fervor and what they’re actually responding to.

How to relate to teen girls, how to monetize what’s relatable, and how to make the content more relatable and more profitable? These are the sorts of questions pondered by social media talent manager Michael Weist. He’s great to watch in the way reality TV villains are, as his success is propelled by a well-known combo of business sense, greed, and probable chicanery (appropriately, he finds himself in legal trouble by the film’s end). Around 21 years old, Weist has somehow marketed himself into a role as an authority figure on social media stardom, roping in young wannabe celebs and growing their followings. He’s turned a house in L.A. into a content factory, living there with his clients while haranguing them into posting, recording, and being on call 24/7 for their needs. Ever-candid, Weist reveals his long game at one point without being prompted: to run influencers through the content mill before they’re old enough to drink, at which point he can move on to the next hot prospect seeking fame.

At the heart of Weist’s efforts is the exploitation of Austyn’s more successful colleagues to commodify young girls’ emotions. Jawline is most fascinating when it tracks this process in action. Mandelup doesn’t draw as much attention to it as she could, meandering through IRL details that don’t quite elucidate or explain as much as they pretend to and don’t measure up to the retina-display realities of virtual stardom. A similar problem shows up in the documentary’s way of depicting tween girls. One notable scene involves slow-motion portraits of the fans accompanied by their disembodied voiceovers explaining why they spend so much time online. The scene is conceived in the spirit of chromatic maximalism, with the girls brightly lit against floral-print and pastel backgrounds, in a manner that humanizes their experience but flattens their differences, as if one were the precondition of the other. The style presents their range of justifications for standom as more or less equivalent to each other, reducing these girls to the same faceless morass of drives that Weist cashes in on.

More importantly, while Jawline’s depictions of predatory managers, overblown hopes, and obsessive followers spell out reasons to be despondent about the way this economy works, the film doesn’t look past its narrow horizon. There’s little indication of how this phenomenon is so profitable or how wide reaching this it is. Instead, Jawline offers a deflationary, measured suggestion that the current crop of influencers differs only in quantity from celebrity cults in Hollywood or the music industry. The latest iteration of celebrity is just monetizing a new type of media. All that’s really changed is that the stars burn dimmer and fade younger.

Director: Liza Mandelup Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 99 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Brittany Runs a Marathon Is a Moralizing Buzzkill of a Comedy

The film is inspirational only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.

1.5

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Brittany Runs a Marathon
Photo: Amazon Studios

Watching writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Brittany Runs a Marathon is a bit like listening to a runner describe a motivational poster—the type with a single-word slogan below a stock photograph—that inspired them to persevere as they trained themselves to be a serious runner. Sensing that such overt preachiness would be irksome, the film cloaks its proselytizing in self-aware jokes about how much more pleasurable sitting around is than running and a token acknowledgment that there’s nothing wrong with being out of shape. But the screenplay’s cute, if somewhat insipid, humor doesn’t prevent the film from feeling self-righteous. Indeed, for a comedy about a woman who makes a personal decision to get in shape, Brittany Runs a Marathon sure engages in a lot of moralizing.

At the start of the film, twentysomething Brittany (Jillian Bell) is overweight and working part time as an usher for a small off-Broadway theater, which somehow provides enough income for her to regularly drink champagne at high-end clubs with her roommate, Gretchen (Alice Lee). Walking back to their Queens apartment after nights of hard drinking and eating greasy food, they often catch their uptight, bougie neighbor, Catherine (Erica Hernandez), going out for an early morning run, seemingly judging them for their indulgence. It’s only a matter of time, then, before Brittany is informed by a Yelp-recommended doctor (Patch Darragh) that her lifestyle has led to elevated blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass index—and an ominous close-up on the doctor’s chart shows us that she’s crossed over into obese terrain.

And so Brittany begins running, ill-advisedly, in her beat-up Chuck Taylors, which she soon upgrades to spotless, turquoise New Balances. Catherine, for some reason forgiving of Brittany’s persistent churlishness, introduces the young woman to a local running club. What follows is surely intended to inspire laughs of recognition in audience members who picked up running in adulthood, as the neophyte Brittany hangs out at the back of the group with a fellow reformed slacker, Seth (Micah Stock). The new trio sets themselves an ambitious goal: to complete the New York Marathon the following November.

The film makes jokes about how hard running can be, but there’s an earnestness behind such humor that leaves certain sacred cows untouched. Most of these have to do with the self—namely, self-discipline, self-love, and self-actualization. As the film sees it, all those things can be realized through running. Seth may joke about how ready he is to stop, or how much he’d rather be doing something else, but he keeps going, and if Brittany cheats on her diet and eats some cheese fries, it’s portrayed as a dramatic, shameful misstep. We’re told over and over that Brittany is valued by her friends, old and new, because she’s funny, but we see scant evidence of this, particularly as her devotion to running takes on a quite pious dimension.

Arriving for comic relief and romantic interest is Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who works the night shifts at the same house-sitting service where Brittany has begun picking up hours during the day to fund her marathon training. Casually trashing the house they’re meant to be looking after, Jern supplies Brittany Runs a Marathon with the levity that began to evaporate from the film as soon as Brittany started exercising. But as her flirtatiously contentious relationship with Jern deepens, the other parts of her life become a plodding series of confrontations. Her improving self-image emboldens Brittany to kick Gretchen to the curb, accusing her friend of having always viewed her as a “fat sidekick.”

It’s a fair enough grievance for the character to have, but at a certain point in Brittany’s active defense of herself, the film takes on a self-righteous tone, associating its protagonist’s newfound healthy living with virtuousness and seeing Gretchen as despicable for her profligate lifestyle. Brittany Runs a Marathon’s positioning of exercise as a moral triumph is nothing more than a marketing technique, as Colaizzo’s film is “inspirational” only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.

Cast: Jillian Bell, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Michaela Watkins, Lil Rel Howrey, Micah Stock, Mikey Day, Alice Lee, Dan Bittner, Peter Vack, Patch Darragh Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo Screenwriter: Paul Downs Colaizzo Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Official Secrets Is an Ambitious Muckraking Thriller Prone to Melodrama

Gavin Hood wrings suspense out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts.

2.5

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Official Secrets
Photo: IFC Films

Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets is a muckraking thriller that revels in wonderfully lived-in details as well as generic biopic platitudes. The film tells a story that might have caused a sensation in Britain and the U.S. had it not been drowned out by those nations’ war machines. In 2003, Katherine Gun, a British translator for an intelligence agency, leaked an email in which the American National Security Agency urged for surveillance of pivotal members of the U.N. Security Council. This operation was for the purpose of blackmailing the U.N. into voting for the American invasion of Iraq (which President George W. Bush authorized later that year anyway, without the U.N.’s approval). Katherine leaked this email, and faced prosecution from her government under the Official Secrets Act of 1989.

In the film’s first half, the filmmakers offer a fastidious glimpse at how the press responds to Katherine’s (Kiera Knightley) whistleblowing. Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), Martin Bright (Matt Smith), and Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) are anti-war reporters for The Observer, which is in favor of the war and eager to maintain its relationship with Tony Blair’s government. Hood wrings suspense, and docudramatic fascination, out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts. Various jargon in the N.S.A. email is decoded, as insiders weigh its legitimacy. An intensification of surveillance is referred to as a “surge effort,” intelligence sources are “product lines,” and so forth.

This sort of commitment to texture is reminiscent of the novels of John Le Carré, as are the juicy scenes in which Beaumont and Bright reach out to people in the MI6 and the British government. Though Hood isn’t a moody stylist in the key of, say, Alan J. Pakula, his handling of the film’s actors is sharp, as their crisp and musical cadences allow the audience to understand that every spoken word matters, and that, if the reporters misstep at any time, they could potentially lose more than their contacts.

Katherine is eventually defended by an attorney, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), who has vast experience with human rights cases and with working within the labyrinthine British government. Fiennes’s probing, tormented, erudite charisma is always pleasurable, but this section of Official Secrets, meant to provide the legal counterpoint to the journalism thread, is shortchanged, as Hood starts to juggle too many balls at once. Interspersed with Emmerson’s adventurous interpretation of the Official Secrets Act are moments in which Katherine must rush to prevent her Turkish-Kurdish husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), from being deported out of an obvious retaliation against Katherine. These scenes are unimaginatively staged and unmoving—a sop to melodrama that temporarily halts the film’s procedural momentum.

It’s strange that the domestic dimension of the protagonist’s life should feel like clutter, which underscores a larger issue with Official Secrets: Katherine herself isn’t especially compelling as rendered here, as she almost entirely operates in the formula mode of aggrieved, persecuted, self-righteous avenger. A major ellipsis in the narrative is telling, as the British government forces Katherine to wait almost a year in limbo before deciding whether or not to persecute her, which Hood skips to keep the story moving. The emotional toil of such a year could’ve provided a personal counterpoint to the film’s political gamesmanship. As it is, the filmmaker reduces Katherine to a supporting character in her own story.

Cast: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Indira Varma, MyAnna Buring, Rhys Ifans, Tamsin Greig, Jack Farthing, Hattie Morahan, Conleth Hill, Katherine Kelly, Kenneth Cranham, Hanako Footman, Adam Bakri Director: Gavin Hood Screenwriter: Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein, Gavin Hood Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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

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

2

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Tigers Are Not Afraid
Photo: Shudder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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