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Understanding Screenwriting #47: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Please Give, Date Night, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #47: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Please Give, Date Night, & More

Coming up in this column: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Please Give, Date Night, Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (play), Poets, Screenwriters and Classical Musicians, Johnny Eager, The Sound Barrier, Finishing the 2009/2010 TV Season, but first…

Fan mail: “Agor” took me to task for not appreciating David Simon and Treme, and he makes a very good defense of what Simon is up to, comparing it to an intricately structured novel. My problem was that I did not find the characters and the situations compelling enough to put in the time the show was going to require, just as I have occasionally started a novel that I just cannot get into. Many viewers will stick with Treme and I hope they enjoy the show.

Agor also points out that I am not really writing about Simon as much as HBO in the item on Treme. He’s right. I have liked some of Simon’s stuff before, especially Homicide: Life on the Street and the second season of The Wire. However, what I was getting at in the piece was the overall tone of HBO insisting it is superior to anything else on television. Sometimes it is, sometimes it is not. But as you may have noticed in this column I deal not only with the screenwriters and their work, but many other aspects of screenwriting. I have discussed on several occasions the screenwriting styles of major studios like MGM and Warner Brothers in their heyday. Simon is working for HBO because its approach fits his. In the column below, I spend some time on a stage adaptation of a film and a collaboration involving a screenwriter and a lot of other artists. After all, screenwriters do not work in a vacuum.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009. Screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, based on the novel by Steig Larsson. 152 minutes.)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

It’s not The Secret in Their Eyes, but it’s still pretty good: As occasionally happens, I will see a great film like The Secret in Their Eyes, and it is so good it colors the next similar film I see. Both The Secret in Their Eyes and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are long, complicated mystery-thrillers in which investigators track down information and people involved in crimes that happened years before. I went into detail about The Secret in Their Eyes in US#46, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the next film I saw. I have not been out to a lot of movies lately. My wife has been in and out of the hospital a couple of times in the last month, most recently for what was finally diagnosed as a fractured femur. She is now in rehab for it. It limited her mobility even before it was diagnosed, so we have not seen several films we both wanted to see, and dealing with her care has cut down my moviegoing, but care must be given. As the movie saying goes, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the one film she insisted on hobbling out to see before the fracture was diagnosed. She is a huge fan of mystery novels and television shows. It is rumored that the reason she has never read any of my books is that I have never murdered anyone in them. She had just finished reading the novel of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and wanted to see how they handled it in the film. She was very happy with the results. The novel is a huge thing, between 600 and 700 pages long. According to her, it goes into much more detail about virtually everything in the film. The novel takes much longer for its semi-disgraced journalist hero Mikael Blomkvist to find the details of the past crimes that are connected to the disappearance of Harriet Vanger nearly forty years before. In the film, Blomkvist and his partner Lisbeth Salander, a professional computer hacker with more oddities that just that tattoo, seem to zip through the cases so fast we can hardly keep up. As I have stated before, I always like a movie that makes me run to catch up. The primary reason I think this one is not quite up to The Secret in Their Eyes is that there is SO much plot that we don’t get into the characters as deeply as we do in the previous film.

The novel also takes longer at the end to track down where Harriet went, but the screenwriters were correct to jump right to it. We are at the end of a long movie and do not really want to wait around. By then we know Blomkvist and Lisbeth can find out anything. The film has dropped Blomkist’s ex-wife and kids, although there is a great, quick reference to his divorce and what it has meant to his mobility. One of the smartest moves the screenwriters made was to eliminate Blomkvist’s mentioning that he thinks Lisbeth has Asperger’s. She may well have, but if you mention it in a movie, then we will be looking at her behavior in terms of symptoms. By not mentioning it, we have to deal with Lisbeth in all her strangeness as written and as dazzlingly performed by Noomi Rapace. The novelist and the screenwriters have created a wonderful gallery of characters to surround her, especially the members of the Vanger family. One of Harriet’s aunts is given at the most three minutes on the screen, and the character and the performance are so compelling that I did not even realize until the end credits that she was played by Gunnel Lindblom, one of Ingmar Bergman’s great stars from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

In my very first column, I had an item about the French film Tell No One (2006) and I made the point that although it was an American novel, it was good that it fell into French hands. There is all kinds of gossip that there is going to be an American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I hope not. Yes, the title sounds like an Angelina Jolie film waiting to happen, and I am sure she would be good as Lisbeth, but it is similar to what we have seen her do. A lot. And the story is so embedded in Swedish history and culture that I cannot for the life of me see how it can easily be translated to America. So while some studio may pay some screenwriters several hundred thousand dollars-plus (and I am always in favor of screenwriters making a buck), I would be happier just to let this film be the single and singular adaptation of the novel.

Please Give (2010. Written by Nicole Holofcener. 90 minutes.)

Please Give

A little more tightly wound than usual: I have enjoyed Holofcener’s previous films, such as Walking and Talking (1996), Lovely and Amazing (2001), and Friends with Money (2006). Part of their charm and part of what can make them so irritating at the same time is that they are very, VERY loosely constructed: a variety of people, mostly women, talk about their lives, and every once in a while actually do something. Please Give starts off in the same way. Holofcener quickly introduces the main characters. Look at how much we learn in the first scene about Rebecca (that is, if you can tear your eyes away from the mammograms she takes). The same in a following scene with Kate and her teen daughter Abby. It is almost half an hour before we get a plot point of any kind. But nearly all of the casual conversation pays off in a variety of ways, unlike Holofcener’s previous films. Rebecca in the opening scene turns down an opportunity to go see “the leaves” out in the country and puts down the whole idea of a trip. Then she makes a later trip with her 90-year-old grandmother, a patient of Rebecca’s and the patient’s grandson whom everybody is trying to pair off with Rebecca. Likewise, the discussion between Kate and Abby over a pair of jeans pays off beautifully at the end. Rebecca’s sister Mary, the bitchy one, constantly complains about a girl she sees in a shop. I took that as just showing Mary’s character, which it does, but in a totally new way at the end of the film.

While they are all walking and talking in the streets of New York, I would not have been surprised to see Alvy and Rob or Lee and Elliott or Hannah and Holly pop into the picture. Holofcener worked as an editorial assistant on Hannah and Her Sisters and it’s rubbed off. But not in a bad way. Holfcener has Allen’s ability to create a great gallery of characters, which appeal to actors, especially women actors. Catherine Keener has been in all four of Holofcener’s films and, boy, are they on the same wavelength. Holofcener the writer knows that Keener can give us several conflicting emotions at the same time (irritation, guilt, love, empathy—the list goes on and on) and simultaneously keep the character from being unwatchable. Rebecca Hall turns Rebecca into a very Woody Allen-ish heroine. She obviously picked up the rhythm when she worked with him on Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and Holofcener as director lets her work it a little harder than she needed to. On the other hand, she has written a great role for Amanda Peet as Mary, who gives what is easily her best performance. Ever. Holofcener the writer has also provided two great parts for two actors of way beyond a certain age, Ann Guilbert and Lois Smith. Guilbert was Millie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Smith has been giving great performances since her film debut opposite James Dean in East of Eden in 1955. Both Guilbert and Smith do some of their best work here, especially in a scene in the back of a car going to see the leaves. Geezer power at work!

Date Night (2010. Written by Josh Klausner. 88 minutes.)

Date Night

Seeing it later: My wife and I were going to try to get to this one together, but the medical problems prevented that. As I mentioned, she loves mysteries, so hobbling out to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was OK, but as much as she loves Tina Fey…

So I did not get to see this until the end of its run. That’s after the mediocre reviews and the surprisingly persistent box office grosses. Yes, the writing in not as sharp as 30 Rock, but what is? What I think threw some reviewers off is that they assumed the script should be as good as 30 Rock. Yes, if we lived in a perfect world, but we don’t. Klausner (his other credits are on the Shrek movies) is not writing 30 Rock, he is writing a more conventional romantic comedy. And, more to the point, he is writing a star vehicle. Both Steve Carell’s show The Office and 30 Rock are ensemble shows. Here the focus is on Phil and Claire Foster, a nice married couple from New Jersey who simply try to have a nice dinner in New York City. It’s their movie. We spend more time with them than we do with anybody else. And Klausner has written great star parts for both Carell and Fey. Carell has already shown he can carry a picture (The 40-Year-Old Virgin [2005] and, in a character closer to this one, Dan in Real Life [2007]), and he is equally good here. Fey is the real surprise. One of the knocks against her when 30 Rock started was that she was a better writer than an actress. But she was always a better actress than she was given credit for, especially on 30 Rock. People assume that with Liz Lemon she is just playing herself. Yes and no. Her Claire here is not Liz, which probably upset critics more than it did general audiences. Klausner gives Fey a lot more to do than Fey gives herself as Liz, and Fey the actress delivers a real movie star performance here. 30 Rock episodes often seem rushed to me, and here she uses the additional time to give us several colors to the character.

Klausner has also written some nice supporting roles. They are not ensemble parts: they provide support for the stars. He has written a wonderful scene for James Franco and Mila Kunis as two sort-of blackmailers who are torn between screwing on the spot and escaping through a window. Klausner only gives them a couple of minutes of screen time, but they make the most of it.

Klausner has also written some good physical comedy, including a car chase. Yes, a car chase. In Manhattan. But it’s funny. As I tell my screenwriting students, you can get away with almost anything if you make the audience laugh. And if you make them laugh and enjoy it as well, you can get away with anything.

Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (Stage play. 2006. Adapted by Patrick Barlow, based on an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, based on the book by John Buchan. 115 minutes.)

Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps

Charles Bennett’s fat little English director strikes again: This play started in London in 2006, where it ran for 1,000 performances, then played Broadway a couple of years ago where it got nominated for a couple of Tonys. It has also played in seven other countries including Korea, Israel, and Italy. So why has it taken so long to get to L.A.? Maybe they knew some son of a bitch like me was waiting for it.

If you missed it in New York, the play is a very silly and very entertaining rehash of the 1935 movie, done in a wonderfully theatrical way, with only four actors (and the hand of an understudy) and limited props. As someone less interested in over-produced shows (although I have to admit I did like the production of Mary Poppins that flew into L.A. a few months ago), I always admire theatrical ingenuity used in place of money. I can see why the play has been a hit all over the world. But this is L.A., home of the movie business and film historians like me.

You may remember that when I wrote about the new film version in US#44, I kept referring to the 1935 film as Charles Bennett’s version. Look at the title of the play, and then look at the official credits. See Bennett’s name anywhere in there? OK, well, the play is adapted from the book, and in the 2008 film Lizzie Mickery went back to the book, but the title of the play announces that it is a stage version of the film. Maria Aitken, the play’s director, says in the program notes that “We almost do the film frame by frame…” The play follows the structure of Bennett’s script precisely. And Aitken goes on to say that “Patrick Barlow’s dialogue is at least 60 percent from the film.” OK, so why not credit both Bennett and Ian Hay who did the dialogue in the film? (I was in error in #44 when I said there was more than one writer of the dialogue.) Bennett, unlike his fat little English director, was perfectly willing to give his co-writer credit. In an interview with John Belton in the first of Patrick McGilligan’s classic series of Backstory books, Bennett says, “We brought in Ian Hay, who wrote some lovely dialogue.” Charles Barr, in his essential book, English Hitchock, identifies Hay as a screenwriter, light novelist and playwright.

So why not credit Bennett and Hay? I searched high and low in the program and there is no mention of them. The reason of course is that Hitchcock is, after nearly sixty years of the auteur theory, much better known to the public. So much so that several of the added gags refer to other Hitchcock movies, as in the farm wife telling Hannay not to go out the front window but the—pause—rear window. Some of these are funny, but a lot of them end up trivializing Hitchcock and the film.

So, again, why not credit Bennett and Hay? The day after I saw this production I happened to be talking to Charles Bennett’s son, John, and mentioned the lack of credit for his dad. He accepted that given the contracts of the times, the producers of the play (and there are a lot of them) were legally justified in not giving credit. On the other hand, his first reaction when I told him was simply, “Thieves.”

Screenwriters, Poets, and Classical Musicians

Gustavo Dudamel

Can’t we all just get along?: If you keep up to date on classical music you may have heard the Los Angeles Philharmonic has a hot new music director, Gustavo Dudamel, aka The Dude. Believe the hype. And if you caught him recently with the L.A. Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall, you know what I mean. One of the issues facing him, as it faced his predecessor, Esa Pekka Salonen, was how to deal with the fact that Los Angeles is the film capital of the world. What does a classical orchestra do with the long tradition of film music? One of Salonen’s solutions was to have the Phil record a terrific CD of Bernard Herrmann’s music. Another, which did not work out as well, was to commission short films to go along with commissioned music. It did not work out at all. In my 2001 book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, I describe one of the attempts:

“The stupidest audience I ever saw a movie with was a presumably middle-to- upper-class subscription audience at a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert. In October 1998, the Philharmonic conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and arts wunderkind Peter Sellars adapted some music by Jean Sibelius for the orchestra to play as a live accompaniment to the 1928 silent film The Wind. [Sellars could not be bothered to make a new film for the project, which died shortly thereafter.] The music sort of fit, but the audience began giggling at the beginning of the film, as sometimes happens at silent movie screenings. But the giggling continued, with the audience seemingly determined not only not to get into the film, but to trivialize it as much as they could. Mostly I think this was an example of the cultural divide in Los Angeles. The Philharmonic subscription audience is made up of people from Hancock Park east out through Pasadena, the type of people who have always looked down on movies as inferior to the other arts. If the same film had played on the west side of Los Angeles, at say UCLA or LACMA, the audience there would have very easily gotten into it, as I’ve seen them do with other silent films.”

One of the Dude’s big series of concerts this spring is called Americas and Americans, in which he brings together music from not only his native Venezuela, but from other South American countries. In the program for April 29 through May 2, we had a too-brief excerpt from Copland’s The Tender Land and a very lively (the Dude is nothing if not lively) reading of Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia dances. The major work was Antonio Estévez’s Cantata Criolla. It is based on Alberto Arvelo Torrealba’s poem Florentino and the Devil, which tells the story of Florentino, a traveling singer, who rides the plains of Venezuela and gets into a singing duel with the devil. The story sounds like the Venezuelan version of Robert Johnson meeting the devil at the crossroads. Rather than just let the music (orchestra, two choirs, and two soloists singing Florentino and the Devil) carry it, Dudamel and his collaborators decided to juice it up. First they got Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros [2000], Babel [2006]) to write what turned out to be a poem. It does not fit with the film prepared to play along with the Cantata Criolla, so it was read by three actors off and on during the evening. It is not particularly compelling. Disney Hall, which has great acoustics for music, is not so good for the spoken word, but even reading it in the program did not help. Better they should have had Arriaga develop a script for the film. The film’s director, Alberto Arvelo, the grandson of the author of Florentino and the Devil, ended up with a sort of Venezuelan Once Upon a Time in the West without that film’s speedy pace. He says in his Director’s Statement in the program, “From the point of view of the film, recreating the image of the South American plains has to do with something that goes beyond a horizontal world, where anything vertical, a tree or a streak of lightning, acquires an almost sacred connotation: recreating the plains has to do with the diminutive size of man in an immensity that can be both beautiful and suffocating, both deeply moving and horrific.” Doesn’t he just talk like a director? What we saw up on the screen was the figure of Florentino on his horse, riding slowly across the plains. Very slowly. And riding some more.

Essentially the balance of image and music was off. As often happens if filmmakers try to match their film to existing music, they don’t have enough story to cover the music. Film scoring is an art, and a lot of film music does not work particularly well in concert settings. Film music that does, whether in its original orchestrations or revised into a suite, usually has a speed and inventiveness that sets it apart from much classical music. On the other hand, there are many short classical pieces, such as overtures, that work in the same way as good film music.

Johnny Eager (1941. Screenplay by John Lee Mahin and James Edward Grant, story by James Edward Grant. 107 minutes.)

Johnny Eager

It just doesn’t sound right: The plotting is fine. We think Johnny Eager is an ex-con who is turning his life around, but then we discover he is an even bigger crime kingpin than he was when he went up the river. Later on, a guy we think has been killed turns up alive. And Johnny gets involved with the daughter of the judge who first sent him up. The production is MGM glossy, which I suppose is OK, since Johnny is supposed to be a rich crook. The casting is adequate, although Robert Taylor and Lana Turner do not have the kind of on-screen chemistry they apparently had off-screen. He’s a little two sedate for her. She was much better with Clark Gable.

The major problem is the dialogue. This is just far enough along after the early ‘30s gangster films that the kind of slangy dialogue would not work, and it is not yet up to the heyday of film noir. If you look at James Edward Grant’s filmography, you will see he was much better at writing action pictures for John Wayne, especially westerns. John Lee Mahin wrote star vehicles at MGM. It probably did not bother audiences in 1941, but watching this today, after nearly seventy years of films noir, you really miss the great dialogue the genre is noted for. Where are Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity [1944]), Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett (The Big Sleep [1946]), or Robert Towne (Chinatown [1974]) when you need them?

The Sound Barrier (1952. Written by Terence Rattigan. 118 minutes in Britain and on Turner Classic Movies, 109 minutes in original American release.)

The Sound Barrier

Slightly dated: I saw this film when I was about 10 or 11 and loved it. I hadn’t seen again until it showed up recently on Turner Classic Movies. I didn’t love it as much this time…

The film’s director, David Lean, wanted to do a film about civilian aviation. His producer, Alexander Korda, was reluctant, having had a flop on the subject a few years before the war. But he encouraged Lean to do some research on the subject. Lean came back with a notebook full of material, including ideas for several scenes. Korda suggested they get Terence Rattigan to do the script because, “I think he would be wonderful at this because he knows about airplanes [he had been a flyer during the war], he’s very inventive, and he does not despise the cinema.” Korda was wrong about that last one, but right about the other two. Rattigan took Lean’s notebooks and came up with a script that included several of the ideas but as Lean said, “Much better than mine.” But nobody was happy with the first draft. The story was based on the death of two sons of Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, one of the leading aircraft builders in Britain. Rattigan had written it as the conflict between the father and the sons. It was Korda, ever the creative producer, who threw out the idea that one of the sons should be a daughter. Rattigan realized a father-daughter conflict was better and made the whole thing work.

So Susan, the daughter of the de Havilland surrogate, Ridgefield, marries a former RAF pilot who goes to work as a test pilot for her father. This is after Ridgefield’s younger son, who is not all that keen on flying, is killed in a crash. So Tony, the son-in-law, is going to test jets and break the sound barrier. Of course, because he is the hero. Except Rattigan kills him off an hour and a half into the film, and it is his old flying partner Philip who succeeds. Well, it was the early ‘50s, and Rossellini and his writers had already shown us in Open City in 1945 that you could kill off a major character in a film well before the end. Tony’s death adds to the suspense of Philip’s successful try. If they killed off Tony, they could easily kill off Philip. (Yes, we all know now that it was an American, Chuck Yeager, who actually broke the sound barrier. When the film was being made, Yeager’s work was still classified and not known to the public. Lean and Korda panicked when it became known during the production of the film, but moved on with the production anyway. There are still people today who saw the film then who are convinced the Brits did it first.)

Rattigan’s script is good at characterization, but it does give us a little more exposition than we need now about what the sound barrier is. What dates the movie even more are the attitudes toward jet planes, which is worshipful in the extreme. At one point Tony flies Susan to Cairo for lunch. They watch a jet airliner take off, and the film treats it like, well, maybe like the taking off of a jet airline from Heathrow today, what with all the volcanic ash around. Hmm, maybe the picture is not as dated as I thought.

Finishing the 2009/2010 TV Season

Smashed TV

More or less: Here are some quick takes on some of the last shows of the seasons, and some that are not.

Modern Family sent the families off to Hawaii in “Airport 2010” (written by Dan O’Shannon & Bill Wrubel) and “Hawaii” (written by Paul Corrigan & Brad Walsh). Wait a minute! The show is only in its first season. Traditionally the “trip to Hawaii” episodes don’t come until the 3rd or 4th season after the writers have run out of ideas on what to do with the characters. Fortunately, the writers here had some interesting ideas. “Airport 2010” was set entirely in LAX before they ever got airborne. Sensible Claire hates to fly and gets drunk at the bar. Of all the members of the family, who would you put on the no-fly list? Their choice is Manny, who according to government records, went to Japan on business when he was four. “Hawaii” was a more conventional episode, but as usual, the writers are good about having storylines for everybody in the family that play off each other the same way multiple storylines did on Seinfeld.

30 Rock came up with three good episodes to finish off the season. My favorite was “The Moms” (written by Kay Cannon & Robert Carlock). TGS is celebrating Mother’s Day (have you forgotten the show started as being a comedy show for and about women?), and we get a plethora of mothers. Some of whom we have met, such as Elaine Stritch as Jack’s mom and Patti Lu Pone as Frank’s mom, and Jan Hooks as Jenna’s mom. Those three actresses alone could take over any show in town, but the writers have given each of them specific, concrete bits, just as Klausner gave his supporting actors in Date Night. You might think it overkill to bring in Patti Lu Pone for at the most five lines, but Lu Pone gives them everything she can. The same with Stritch and Hooks. And Anita Gillette, making a second appearance as Liz’s mom, sets Liz off to track down Buzz Aldrin, whom mom had a fling with. This leads to a great scene with Liz and Aldrin talking about what might have been and ending with the two of them howling at the moon. I take notes during these shows, but I can’t do it fast enough to have caught all the corners that scene went around.

In “Emanuelle in Dinosaur Land” (written by Matt Hubbard) Nancy, whom I had thought was off the show, arrives in New York and Jack is caught between her and Avery. More fun with Alec and Julianne, although their best scenes were in the next episode, “I do, I do,” (written by Tina Fey), where Jack has to decide between Nancy and Avery. Nancy meets Avery in the bathroom, and Fey is smart enough to give us only the opening part of the scene, so when Nancy goes back to Jack we don’t know what is going to happen. It isn’t pretty, but it is pretty fun. Nancy leaves, for good this time, but not before telling Jack that what she did last night to him was only 50% of what she could do. In “Dinosaur Land” Liz revisits and reviews her previous boyfriends, and in “I do, I do,” she meets a guy she thinks may be “the one.” He is a pilot who loves TGS, is delighted to learn Liz writes the Dr. Fart sketches, and thinks Sully Sullenberg should have just flown around the birds. Needless to say, Liz tells everybody he may be the one. He overhears her and leaves, but then comes back. OK, he is played by Matt Damon, who probably cannot stick around much longer than Julianne Moore, but a girl can hope.

In Plain Sight has not brought back Allison Pearson, which is too bad. Allison Janney has been hired for the new Matthew Perry show, so we probably won’t be seeing her again. A couple of episodes focused a little more on Marshall, which was as nice change of pace.

Castle, following up the two episodes with Jordan Shaw I mentioned in US#45, got both Castle and Beckett involved with others, just at the time when both were beginning to realize there might really be something between them.

The Good Wife ended up letting Alicia have the junior associate position at Lockhart Gardner in “Unplugged” (written by Karen Hall). The following week in “Hybristophilia” (written by Frank Pierson) Cary, who was upset at being let go, was hired by Peter’s enemy Childs, so we have not seen the last of him. If you want to understand why this is one of the best shows on television, go out to the Internet Movie Database and check the credits on those two writers.

Two and a Half Men came up with a surprisingly mediocre episode, “Gumby with a Pokey” (teleplay by Don Foster, Eddie Gorodetsky, & Mark Roberts, story by Chuck Lorre, Lee Aronshon, Dave Richardson & Cuck Lorre). The log line was that Alan and Jake go on a road trip while Charlie is visited by ghosts of former girlfriends. OK, so we are in Christmas Carol/Ghosts of Girlfriends Past territory. Except we are not. Way too much time is spent with Alan and Jake, and the gathering of the “ghosts” suggests more the harem scene in Fellini’s 8 ½ than Dickens or McConaughey. There are jokes, but it never really goes anywhere, or gets as much out of the situation as Fellini and his writers do. I am all in favor of stealing from the best, but if you do, at least try to live up to your source.

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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Love Before the Virus: Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s Newly Restored Passing Strangers

The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love.

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Passing Strangers
Photo: PinkLabel

One of the many pleasures to be had in watching Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s newly restored Passing Strangers derives from its status as a historical document, or a piece of queer ethnography. The 1974 film allows us to see but also feel what life was like for gay men during what some have called the golden age of unbridled sex before the AIDS epidemic. Bressan Jr.’s portrait of this history is simultaneously attuned to its sartorial, mediatic, erotic, and affective dimensions, which may come as a surprise to those unaccustomed to explicit sexual imagery being paired with social commentary. Pornography and poetry aren’t counterparts here. Rather, they’re bedfellows, one the logical continuation of the other. Money shots, for instance, aren’t accompanied by moaning or groaning, but by the sounds of a violin.

The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love. They devote so much of their lives to picking up strangers for sex, briefly and by the dozens, but not without secretly wishing that one of them might eventually stay. In this they may not differ much from their contemporary cruising heirs, though they do in their approach. It turns out that asking for a pen pal’s photo before a meetup in 1974 was considered creepy, and using Walt Whitman’s poetry as part of a sex ad was quite fruitful.

That’s exactly what 28-year-old Tom (Robert Carnagey), a bath-house habitué and telephone company worker living in San Francisco, does in the hopes of attracting something long term. The literal poetics of cruising speaks to 18-year-old Robert (Robert Adams), who responds to Tom’s newspaper ad right way. They meet in person and begin a love affair that could only be described as bucolic, including making love in fields of grass, on top of a picnic blanket, to the sound of waves and piano notes, and riding their bikes around town, much like the sero-discordant love birds of Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo do after partaking in a gangbang. In retrospect, promiscuity gains the tinge of an obsessive auditioning of “the one,” who, in Bressan Jr.’s sensual fairy tale, is bound to come along and save us from ourselves.

Passing Strangers, which originally screened at adult cinemas and gay film festivals, recalls Francis Savel’s 1980 porno Equation to an Unknown in how smut and romance are so intimately bound in the forms of queer intimacy that the film depicts. This may also be due to the dearth of gay cinematic representation at the time—of gay men perhaps needing to dream of prince charming and of bareback anal sex in the same movie session, satisfying the itch for love and for filth in one fell swoop. But while Equation to an Unknown is completely wrapped up in a fantasy glow, there’s something more realistic, or pragmatic, about Passing Strangers.

Tom’s voiceover narration, which takes the shape of disaffected epistolary exchanges with his newfound beloved, orients us through the action. Motivations are explained. At times, however, Bressan Jr. indulges in experimental detours. These are precisely the most beautiful, and atemporal, sequences in the film—scenes where sex is juxtaposed with the sound of a construction site or the buzzing of a pesky mosquito, or one where an audience of orgy participants give a round of applause after somebody ejaculates. And the film’s surrendering to moments of inexplicable poesis reaches its apex in a shot of a boy in clown makeup holding his mouth agape. It’s an exquisitely brief shot, indelible in its strangeness.

Newly restored from the original negative in a 2K scan, Passing Strangers is now available to stream on PinkLabel as part of The Bressan Project.

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Review: Tom Hanks Stubbornly Steers Greyhound into Sentimental Waters

With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play.

1.5

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Greyhound
Photo: Apple TV+

With his almost supernatural likeability, impeccable reputation, and penchant for appearing in films rooted in American history, Tom Hanks has become a national father figure. The actor’s ongoing project, particularly urgent as we seek to redefine our relationship with our history and iconography, is to remind us of when the United States actually rose to the occasion. Unsurprisingly, this project often centers on World War II, one of the least controversial pinnacles of American collaboration on the world stage.

Continuing this tradition, Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound concerns the efforts to provide Britain with troops and supplies via Allied naval convoys on the Atlantic, which German U-boat “wolf packs” stalk and sink, attempting to break a Western blockade. Adapted by Hanks from C.S. Forester’s novel The Good Shephard, the film is a celebration of duty and competency that’s so quaint it’s almost abstract, as it arrives at a time of chaos, selfish and blinkered American governing, and a growing bad faith in our notion of our own legacy.

Set over a few days in 1942, the film dramatizes a fictionalized skirmish in the real-life, years-long Battle of the Atlantic. The American destroyer Greyhound, leader of a convoy that includes Canadian and British vessels, is commanded by Ernest Krause (Hanks), an aging naval officer with no experience in battle. Text at the start of the film explains that there’s a portion of the Atlantic that’s out of the range of air protection, called the Black Pit, in which convoys are especially vulnerable to the wolf packs. For 50 hours, Krause and his crew will be tested and severely endangered as they seek to cross this treacherous stretch of the sea.

This skeletal scenario has potential as a visceral thriller and as a celebration of Allied ingenuity and daring. Unfortunately, Hanks’s script never adds any meat to the skeleton. One can see Hanks’s passion for history in the loving details—in the references to depth charge supply, to windshield wipers freezing up, to the specific spatial relationships that are established (more through text than choreography) via the various vessels in this convoy. What Hanks loses is any sense of human dimension. In The Good Shephard, Krause is frazzled and insecure about leading men who’re all more experienced in battle than himself. By contrast, Krause’s inexperience is only mentioned in Greyhound as a testament to his remarkable, readymade leadership. The film’s version of Krause is stolid, undeterred, unshakably decent ol’ Tom Hanks, national sweetheart. As such, Greyhound suffers from the retrospective sense of inevitability that often mars simplified WWII films.

Greyhound’s version of Krause lacks the tormented grace of Hanks’s remarkable performance in Clint Eastwood’s Sully. This Krause also lacks the palpable bitterness of Hanks’s character in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, as well as the slyness that the actor brought to both Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can and Bridge of Spies. In Greyhound, Hanks falls prey to the sentimentality for which his detractors have often unfairly maligned him, fetishizing Krause’s selflessness in a manner that scans as ironically vain. As a screenwriter, Hanks throws in several writerly “bits” to show how wonderful Krause is, such as his ongoing refusal to eat during the Greyhound’s war with U-boats. (A three-day battle on an empty stomach seems like a bad idea.) Meanwhile, the crew is reduced to anonymous faces who are tasked with spouting jargon, and they are, of course, unquestionably worshipful of their commander, as are the voices that are heard from the other vessels in the convoy.

Schneider lends this pabulum a few eerie visual touches, as in the slinky speed of the German torpedoes as they barely miss the Greyhound, but the film is largely devoid of poetry. The stand-offs between the vessels are competently staged, but after a while you may suspect that if you’ve seen one torpedo or depth charge detonation you’ve seen them all. With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play. In short, Greyhound takes a fascinating bit of WWII history and turns it into a blockbuster version of bathtub war.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Karl Glusman, Stephen Graham, Elisabeth Shue, Tom Brittney, Devin Druid, Rob Morgan, Lee Norris, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Maximilian Osinski, Matthew Zuk, Michael Benz Director: Aaron Schneider Screenwriter: Tom Hanks Distributor: Apple TV+ Running Time: 91 min Rating: 2020 Year: PG-13

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Review: The Beach House’s Moodiness Is Dissipated by Shaky Characterization

The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action.

2

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The Beach House
Photo: Shudder

Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, in which a satellite crashes to Earth with an alien virus on board, is an expression of Space Age anxieties, about how the zeal to reach the stars could have unintended and dangerous consequences. In Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House, something lethal instead rises from the depths of the ocean, a kind of “alien” invasion coming up from below rather than down from the cosmos, better reflecting the environmental anxieties of our present day. It still feels like comeuppance for human hubris, but this time in the form of intraterrestrial, not extraterrestrial, revenge.

The potentially extinction-level event is played on a chamber scale as domestic drama. Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) are college sweethearts who go to his family’s beach house during the off-season, in a seemingly abandoned town, to work on their personal problems. They’re unexpectedly joined there by Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), old friends of Randall’s father, and the four agree to have dinner together. It’s then that Emily, an aspiring astrobiologist, conveniently provides some context for what’s about to happen, as she makes reverential conversation at the table about the mysterious depths of the sea and the sometimes extreme conditions in which new life can be created and thrive.

That night, while tripping balls on edibles, the couples look out and marvel at the sparkling, purple-tinged landscape outside their beach house. (The smell is less gloriously described as being like that of sewage and rotten eggs.) It’s not a hallucination, though, because whatever ocean-formed particulate is turning the night sky into a psychedelic dreamscape and the air cloudy is also making the characters sick. There’s some interesting and serendipitous overlap between the film’s central horror and our present Covid-19 crisis, as the malady seems to be airborne, affecting the lungs and making the characters cough. It also affects older people more quickly than the young, with the milder symptoms including exhaustion.

Brown emphasizes the oddness of nature with an eye for detail focused in close-up on, say, the eerie gooeyness of oysters, and by vivifying the film’s settings with bold colors: On the second night, the air glows mustard and red, recalling recent California wildfires. The ubiquitous haze also evokes John Carpenter’s The Fog and Frank Darabont’s The Mist, but other genre influences are also on display, from Cronenbergian body horror, as in the gory removal of a skin-burrowing worm, to zombie flicks, given the slowness of the hideously infected victims.

There’s not a lot of exposition about the illness, as Brown’s screenplay is primarily focused on Randall and Emily’s fight to survive the mysterious onslaught. But you probably won’t care if they do. The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action. The Beach House had convincingly argued that these two people shouldn’t be together, that their relationship has long passed its prime. He mocks her plans for advanced study and calls her life goals bullshit, even though he has none himself; he suggests that they move into the beach house, to live in a state of permanent vacation, while he tries to figure out what life means. When she’s high and getting sick and asking him for help, he dismisses her, lest it harsh his mellow. But instead of engineering his downfall, Midsommar-style, Emily does everything she can in the last third to help save him. It feels sudden, unearned, and unconvincing—enough to make you root for the monsters from the ocean floor.

Cast: Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Maryann Nagel, Jake Weber Director: Jeffrey A. Brown Screenwriter: Jeffrey A. Brown Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Old Guard Is a Would-Be Franchise Starter with No New Moves

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action, the film is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts.

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The Old Guard
Photo: Netfflix

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard is a modestly successful attempt to build a new fountain of franchise content out of a comic series with nearly limitless potential for spin-offs. The story kicks into motion with a team of four mercenaries with unique powers and an ancient bond setting off to rescue some kidnapped girls in South Sudan. Charlize Theron brings her customarily steely intensity to the role of the group’s cynical, burnt-out leader, Andy, who isn’t crazy about the idea since she doesn’t trust Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the ex-C.I.A. agent who hired them. Given how long it turns out that Andy has been doing this sort of thing, you would imagine that her comrades would listen.

The mission turns out to be a set-up, and the would-be rescuers are wiped out in a barrage of bullets. Except not, because Andy and her team are pretty much unkillable. So as their enemies are slapping each other on the back and conveniently looking the other way, the mercenaries haul themselves to their feet, bodies healing almost instantaneously, bullets popping out of closing wounds. Payback is swift but interesting, because for reasons likely having to do with their being many centuries old—the youngest, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), fought for Napoleon—the four quasi-immortals like to use swords in addition to automatic weaponry.

Written with glints of pulpy panache by Greg Rucka, the comic’s originator, The Old Guard sets up a high-potential premise and proceeds to do not very much with it. Rucka’s conceit is that this tiny group are among the very few people on Earth to have been born essentially immortal. This can be a good thing, but it can also prove problematic, as it means that they watch everybody they know age and die—a trope that was already somewhat worn by the time Anne Rice used it throughout her novels about ever-suffering vampires.

The plot of the film does relatively little after the showdown in South Sudan besides introduce a new member of the mercenary team, Nile (KiKi Layne), establish that Andy is tiring of the wandering warrior life, and show the group plotting revenge on Copley only to have that turn into a rescue mission that conveniently brings them all back together again. As part of the run-up to that mission, new recruit Nile, a Marine who goes AWOL from Afghanistan with Andy after her fellow soldiers see her seemingly fatal knife wound magically heal and treat her as some kind of witch, is introduced to life as a nearly invincible eternal warrior.

That rescue plot is simple to the point of being rote. Billionaire Big Pharma bro Merrick (Harry Melling), seemingly made up of equal parts Lex Luthor and Martin Shkreli, kidnaps two of Andy’s team in the hope of harvesting their DNA for blockbuster anti-aging drugs. Unfortunately for the film, that takes two of its most personable characters temporarily out of action. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) had their meet-cute while fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades and have been wildly in love ever since. After the two are captured and mocked by Merrick’s homophobic gunsels, Joe delivers a pocket soliloquy on his poetic yearning: “His kiss still thrills me after a millennium.” The moment’s romantic burn is more poignant by being clipped to its bare-minimal length and presented with the casual confidence one would expect from a man old enough to remember Pope Urban II.

In other ways, however, The Old Guard fails to explore the effects of living such lengthy lives. Asked by Nile whether they are “good guys or bad guys,” Booker answers that “it depends on the century.” While Rucka’s hard-boiled lines like that can help energize the narrative, it can also suggest a certain flippancy. When the film does deal with crushing weight of historical memory, it focuses primarily on Andy, who’s been around so long that her name is shortened from Andromache the Scythian (suggesting she was once the Amazon warrior queen who fought in the battle of Troy). Except for a brief flashback illustrating the centuries-long escapades of Andy and Quynh (Veronica Ngo) fighting for vaguely defined positive principles (one involved rescuing women accused of witchcraft), we don’t see much of their past. Similarly, except for Andy’s increasing cynicism about the positive impact of their roaming the Earth like do-gooder ronin, they seem to exist largely in the present.

That present is largely taken up with combat, particularly as Booker, Andy, and Nile gear up to rescue Nicky and Joe. Prince-Bythewood handles these scenes with a degree of John Wick-esque flair: Why just shoot a Big Pharma hired gun once when you can shoot him, flip him over, and then stab and shoot him again for good measure? However tight, though, the action scenes’ staging is unremarkable, with the exception of one climactic moment that’s so well-choreographed from an emotional standpoint that the impossibility of a multiplex crowd hooting and clapping in response makes the film feel stifled by being limited to streaming.

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts. That will likely not stop further iterations from finding ways to plug these characters and their like into any historical moment that has room in it for high-minded mercenaries with marketable skills and a few centuries to kill.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling, Veronica Ngo Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood Screenwriter: Greg Rucka Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: We Are Little Zombies Is a Fun, Wildly Stylized Portrait of Grief

The film is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries.

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We Are Little Zombies
Photo: Oscilloscope

Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies follows the exploits of a group of tweens who meet at the funeral home where their deceased parents are being cremated. But, surprisingly, Hitari (Keita Ninomiya), Takemura (Mondo Okumura), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), and Ikiko (Satoshi Mizuno) are united less by sorrow and more by cool indifference, as they see their parents’ deaths as yet another tragedy in what they collectively agree is pretty much a “shit life.” As the socially awkward Hitari claims matter-of-factly in voiceover, “Babies cry to signal they need help. Since no one can help me, there’s no point in crying.”

Through a series of extended flashbacks, Nagahisa relates the kids’ troubled lives, never stooping to pitying or sentimentalizing them or their utter dismay with the adult world. The new friends’ deeply internalized grief and hopelessness are filtered wildly through a hyperreal aesthetic lens that’s indebted to all things pop, from psychedelia to role-playing games. It’s Nagashisa’s vibrant means of expressing the disconnect between the kids’ troubled lives and their emotionless reactions to the various tragedies that have befallen them.

With its chiptunes-laden soundtrack and chapter-like form, which mimics the levels of a video game, We Are Little Zombies will draw understandable comparisons to Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But it’s Nagisa Oshima’s Three Resurrected Drunkards that offers a more precise analogue to this film’s provocative rhyming of stylistic zaniness and extreme youthful alienation. Oshima’s anarchically playful farce stars the real-life members of the Folk Crusaders as a disaffected group of rebellious musicians, and when the kids of We Are Little Zombies decide to form a band to express themselves, they even perform a bossa nova version of the Folk Crusaders’s theme song for the 1968 film. This and the many other cultural touchstones in We Are Little Zombies are seamlessly weaved by Nagahisa into a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries, be they social media or a dizzying glut of pop-cultural creations.

Nagahisa’s aesthetic mirrors his main characters’ disconnect from reality, incorporating everything from stop-motion animation to pixelated scenes and overhead shots that replicate the stylings of 8-bit RPGs. At one point in We Are Little Zombies, an unsettling talk show appearance brings to mind what it would be like to have a bad acid trip on the set of an old MTV news program. Nagahisa accepts that the kids’ over-engagement with screen-based technology is inextricably embedded in their experience of reality and ultimately celebrates the sense of camaraderie and belonging that the foursome finds in pop artifacts and detritus. This is particularly evident once their band, the Little Zombies of the film’s title, starts to explore their antipathy toward and frustrations with a seemingly indifferent world.

The Little Zombies wield the same charming punk spirit as the film, and once instant fame reveals its viciously sharp teeth, Nagahisa doesn’t hold back from peering into the nihilistic abyss that stands before the kids. As in Three Resurrected Drunkards, We Are Little Zombies’s most despairing notes are couched in the distinctive language of pop culture. Hitari’s attempts to grab essential items before running away from the home of a relative (Eriko Hatsune) are staged as a video game mission. The band’s hit song—titled, of course, “We Are Little Zombies”—is an infectious, delightfully melodic banger all about their dispassionate existence. There’s even a fake death scene of the kids that, as in Three Resurrected Drunkards, effectively restarts the film’s narrative, allowing the characters to once again test their fate.

For all of this film’s reliance on the stylistic ticks of video games, its narrative arc isn’t limited to the typically linear journey embarked upon by many a gaming protagonist, and the foursome’s path leads neither to enlightenment nor even happiness per se. What they’ve discovered in the months since their parents’ deaths is a solidarity with one another, and rather than have them conquer their fears and anxieties, Nagahisa wisely acknowledges that their social disconnection will remain an ongoing struggle. He understands that by tapping into the unifying, rather than alienating, powers of pop culture, they’re better equipped to deal with whatever additional hard knocks that the modern world will inevitably throw their way.

Cast: Keita Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, Sena Nakajima, Kuranosukie Sasaki, Youki Kudoh, Sosuke Ikematsu, Eriko Hatsune, Jun Murakami, Naomi Nishida Director: Makoto Nagahisa Screenwriter: Makoto Nagahisa Distributor: Oscilloscope Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Palm Springs Puts a Fresh Spin on the Time-Loop Rom-Com

The film smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle.

3

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Palm Springs
Photo: Hulu

The pitch for Palm Springs likely went: “Edge of Tomorrow meets Groundhog Day but with a cool Coachella rom-com vibe.” All of those components are present and accounted for in Max Barbakow’s film, about two people forced to endure the same day of a Palm Springs wedding over and over again after getting stuck in a time loop. But even though the concept might feel secondhand, the execution is confident, funny, and thoughtful.

Palm Springs starts without much of a hook, sidling into its story with the same lassitude as its protagonist, Nyles (Andy Samberg). First seen having desultory sex with his shallow and always peeved girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner), Nyles spends the rest of the film’s opening stretch wandering around the resort where guests are gathered for the wedding of Misty’s friend, Tala (Camila Mendes), lazing around the pool and drinking a seemingly endless number of beers. “Oh yeah, Misty’s boyfriend” is how most refer to him with casual annoyance, and then he gives a winning wedding speech that one doesn’t expect from a plus-one.

The reason for why everything at the wedding seems so familiar to Nyles, and why that speech is so perfectly delivered, becomes clear after he entices the bride’s sister and maid of honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), to follow him out to the desert for a make-out session. In quick succession, Nyles is shot with an arrow by a mysterious figure (J.K. Simmons), Sarah is accidentally sucked into the same glowing vortex that trapped Nyles in his time loop, and she wakes up on the morning of the not-so-great day that she just lived through.

Although Palm Springs eventually digs into the knottier philosophical quandaries of this highly elaborate meet-cute, it takes an appealingly blasé approach to providing answers to the scenario’s curiosities. What initially led Nyles to the mysterious glowing cave in the desert? How has he maintained any semblance of sanity over what appears to be many years of this nightmare existence? How come certain people say “thank you” in Arabic?

This attitude of floating along the sea of life’s mysteries without worry parallels Nyles’s shrugging attitude about the abyss facing them. In response to Sarah’s panicked queries about why they are living the same day on repeat, Nyles throws out a random collection of theories: “one of those infinite time loop situations….purgatory….a glitch in the simulation we’re all in.” His ideas seem half-baked at first. But as time passes, it becomes clear that Nyles has been trapped at the wedding so long that not only has he lost all concept of time or even who he was before it began, his lackadaisical approach to eternity seems more like wisdom.

Darkly cantankerous, Sarah takes a while to come around to that way of thinking. Her version of the Kübler-Ross model starts in anger and shifts to denial (testing the limits of their time-loop trap, she drives home to Texas, only to snap back to morning in Palm Springs when she finally dozes off) before pivoting to acceptance. This segment, where Nyles introduces Sarah to all the people and things he’s found in the nooks and crannies of the world he’s been able to explore in one waking day, plays like a quantum physics rom-com with a video-game-y sense of immortality. After learning the ropes from Nyles (death is no escape, so try to avoid the slow, agonizing deaths), Sarah happily takes part in his Sisyphean games of the drunk and unkillable, ranging from breaking into houses to stealing and crashing a plane.

As places to be trapped for all eternity, this idyll doesn’t seem half bad at first. Barbakow’s fast-paced take on the pleasingly daffy material helps, as does the balancing of Milioti’s angry agita with Samberg’s who-cares recklessness. Eventually the story moves out of endlessly looping stasis into the problem-solution phase, with Sarah deciding she can’t waste away in Palm Springs for eternity. But while the question of whether or not they can escape via Sarah’s device for bridging the multiverse takes over the narrative to some degree, Palm Springs is far more interesting when it ruminates lightly on which puzzle they’re better off solving: pinning their hopes on escape or cracking another beer and figuring out how to be happy in purgatory. Palm Springs isn’t daring by any stretch, but it smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle that’s similar to Groundhog Day but without that film’s reassuring belief that a day can be lived perfectly rather than simply endured.

Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Millioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendez, Tyler Hoechlin, Chris Pang Director: Max Barbakow Screenwriter: Andy Siara Distributor: Neon, Hulu Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Hamilton Comes Home, Still Holding Conflicting Truths at Once

The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage.

3.5

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Hamilton
Photo: Disney+

The actual physical production of Hamilton has never been at the heart of the show’s fandom. Its lyrics have been memorized en masse, Hamilton-inspired history courses have been created across grade levels, and its references have invaded the vernacular, but, for most, Hamilton’s liveness has been inaccessible, whether due to geography or unaffordability. Hamilton the film, recorded over two Broadway performances in 2016 with most of the original Broadway cast, winningly celebrates the still-surprisingly rich density of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score and the show’s much-heralded actors. But this new iteration is most stunning in its devotion to translating Hamilton’s swirling, churning storytelling—the work of director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler—to the screen.

Most films of live theater feel partial and remote. There’s usually a sense that with every move of the camera we’re missing out on something happening elsewhere on stage. The autonomy of attending theater in person—the ability to choose what to focus on—is stripped away. But instead of delimiting what we see of Hamilton, this film opens up our options. Even when the camera (one of many installed around, behind, and above the stage) homes in on a lone singer, the shots tend to frame the soloists in a larger context: We can watch Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), but we can also track the characters behind him or on the walkways above him. Every shot is rife with detail and movement: the rowers escorting Alexander Hamilton’s (Miranda) body to shore, Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones) hovering beneath a stairway as Hamilton confesses his infidelities to Burr, ensemble members dancing in the shadows of David Korins’s imposing set. There’s no space to wonder what might be happening beyond the camera’s gaze.

Off-setting the cast album’s appropriate spotlight on the show’s stars, the film, also directed by Kail, constantly centers the ensemble, even when they’re not singing, as they enact battles and balls or symbolically fly letters back and forth between Hamilton and Burr. Audiences who mainly know the show’s music may be surprised by how often the entire cast is on stage, and even those who’ve seen Hamilton live on stage will be delighted by the highlighted, quirky individuality of each ensemble member’s often-silent storytelling.

Kail shows impressive restraint, withholding aerial views and shots from aboard the spinning turntables at the center of the stage until they can be most potent. The film also convincingly offers Hamilton’s design as a stunning work of visual art, showcasing Howell Binkley’s lighting—the sharp yellows as the Schuyler Sisters take the town and the slowly warming blues as Hamilton seeks his wife’s forgiveness—just as thoughtfully as it does the performances.

And when the cameras do go in for a close-up, they shade lyrics we may know by heart with new meaning. In “Wait for It,” Burr’s paean to practicing patience rather than impulsiveness, Odom (who won a Tony for the role) clenches his eyes shut as he sings, “I am inimitable, I am an original,” tensing as if battling to convince himself that his passivity is a sign of strength and not cowardice. When Eliza Hamilton (Philippa Soo) glances upward and away from her ever-ascendant husband as she asks him, “If I could grant you peace of mind, would that be enough?,” it’s suddenly crystal clear that she’s wondering whether taking care of Alexander would be enough for herself, not for him, her searching eyes foreshadowing her eventual self-reliance. And there’s an icky intimacy unachievable in person when Jonathan Groff’s mad King George literally foams at the mouth in response to the ingratitude of his colonies.

The production’s less understated performances, like Daveed Diggs’s show-stealing turn (also Tony-winning) in the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and Renée Elise Goldsberry’s fiery embodiment (yes, also Tony-winning) of the shrewd, self-sacrificing Angelica Schuyler Church, benefit, too, from the way that the film’s pacing latches onto Miranda’s propulsive writing. In Jefferson’s return home, “What’d I Miss,” the camera angles change swiftly as if to keep up with Diggs’s buoyancy.

Despite Christopher Jackson’s warm and gorgeous-voiced performance, George Washington remains Hamilton’s central sticking point. While Jefferson receives a dressing down from Hamilton for practicing slavery, Washington, who once enslaved over 200 people at one time at Mount Vernon, shows up in Hamilton as a spotless hero who might as well be king if he wasn’t so noble as to step down. There’s a tricky tension at Hamilton’s core: Casting performers of color as white founding “heroes” allows the master narrative to be reclaimed, but it’s still a master narrative. For audiences familiar with the facts, the casting of black actors as slave owners (not just Jefferson) is an unstated, powerful act of artistic resistance against the truths of the nation’s founding. But for those learning their history from Hamilton, especially young audiences, they will still believe in Washington’s moral purity, even if they walk away picturing the first president as Christopher Jackson.

But Hamilton is complex and monumental enough of a work to hold conflicting truths at once. In attempting to recraft our understanding of America’s founding, it may fall short. In forcibly transforming the expectations for who can tell what stories on which stages, Hamilton has been a game-changer. And as a feat of musical theater high-wire acts, Miranda’s dexterity in navigating decades of historical detail while weaving his characters’ personal and political paths tightly together is matched only by his own ingenuity as a composer and lyricist of songs that showcase his characters’ brilliance without distractingly drawing attention to his own.

Dynamized by its narrative-reclaiming, race-conscious casting and hip-hop score, and built around timeline-bending reminders that America may be perpetually in the “battle for our nation’s very soul,” Hamilton, of course, also lends itself particularly easily to 2020 connections. But the greater gift is that Hamilton will swivel from untouchability as Broadway’s most elusive, priciest ticket to mass accessibility at a moment of keen awareness that, to paraphrase George Washington, history has its eyes on us. The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage. That we are sharing Hamilton here and now offers as much hope as Hamilton itself.

Cast: Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Phillipa Soo Director: Thomas Kail Screenwriter: Ron Chernow, Lin-Manuel Miranda Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 160 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: In Family Romance, LLC, Reality and Fantasy Affectingly Collide

Throughout, it’s as though Werner Herzog were more witness than author, simply registering Japan being Japan.

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Family Romance, LLC
Photo: MUBI

Werner Herzog’s Family Romance, LLC presents Japan as a place where the technological follies of modernity that many see as embryonic in the West are allowed to blossom unabashedly. The Orientalism inherent to this myth, that of Japan as a high-tech dystopia where human alienation reaches its pathetic zenith, is somewhat masked here by the film’s style, which inhabits that strangely pleasurable cusp between fact and fiction. We are never quite sure of the extent to which situations and dialogues have been scripted and, as such, it’s as though Herzog were more witness than author, more passerby than gawker, simply registering Japan being Japan.

The film is centered around Ishii Yuichi, playing a version of himself, who owns a business that rents out human beings to act like paparazzi, family members, lovers, or bearers of good (albeit fake) news. One of his clients, for example, is a woman who wants to relive the moment when she won the lottery. We follow Ishii as he travels to his business calls, which may consist of going to a funeral home that offers coffin rentals by the hour for people to test out, or to a hotel where the clerks behind the helpdesk and the fish in the aquarium are robots.

The camera, otherwise, follows Ishii’s encounters with his 12-year-old “daughter,” Mahiro (Mahiro). The girl’s mother, Miki (Miki Fujimaki), has enlisted Ishii to play Mahiro’s missing father, who abandoned her when she was two, and make it seem as if he’s suddenly resurfaced. The film’s most interesting moments don’t arise from its largely obvious critiques of simulation, but from the human relationship between Ishii and Mahiro. In the end, the film’s smartest trick is getting the audience to genuinely feel for this young girl on screen, acting for us, all while scoffing at Ishii’s clients for scripting their own emotional experiences.

We know the relationship between Mahiro and Ishii to be false on multiple levels. They may not be professional actors, but they are very much acting, and their interactions nonetheless tap into something quite authentic and emotional. Although their kinship is an act of make-believe, it’s driven by similar malaises that plague “real” father-daughter relationships. Mahiro, who doesn’t meet Ishii until she’s a pre-teen and is presumably unaware that it’s all just an act, struggles to articulate feelings that overwhelm her. Asking for a hug from Ishii is a Herculean task for her. But granting her the hug is also a Herculean task for Ishii, who ultimately confesses to wondering whether his real family, too, has been paid by someone else to raise him. Must a father’s hug be so clinical even when he’s getting paid to do it?

Such moments as that awkward father-daughter hug, a scene where Mahiro gives Ishii an origami animal that she made for him (“It’s delicate, so be careful,” she says), and another where she confesses that she likes a boy all point to the ways in which feeling slips out of even the most perfectly scripted protocols. That’s a relief for the kind of society that Family Romance, LLC aims to critique, one where tidy transactions are meant to neuter the messy unpredictability of human interactions but fail. Emotion slips out despite diligent attempts to master it, forcing even those who stand to gain the most from hyper-controlled environments to eventually face the shakiness of their own ground. Ishii, for instance, is forced to reconsider his business model when Mahiro’s demand for love starts to affect him. Ishii’s fear that he may also have been swindled by actors posing as parents tells us that authors are subjects, too, and that the equation between reality and fantasy is never quite settled.

Cast: Ishii Yuichi, Mahiro, Miki Fujimaki, Umetani Hideyasu, Shun Ishigaki Director: Werner Herzog Screenwriter: Werner Herzog Distributor: MUBI Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Force of Nature, Much Like Mel Gibson, Is an Absolute Disaster

The film presents its scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena.

.5

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Force of Nature
Photo: Lionsgate

If cancel culture truly had the power its detractors ascribed to it, then Michael Polish’s Force of Nature would have probably never starred Mel Gibson. The film stars the one-time Hollywood idol as a trigger-happy retired cop who hurls insults like “cocksucker” at men who inconvenience him. By itself, casting Gibson as the kind of manic, violence-prone cop for which he was once known for playing speaks to the film’s defiantly conservative politics, its will to return to a cinematic era when violent white cops were viewed as good cops. But also having Gibson’s Ray toss out homophobic slurs almost turns this insipid action flick into a statement about Gibson himself, as if the actor’s own record of making such remarks should be viewed as the charmingly impolitic outbursts of an old-fashioned geezer.

Because Ray joins a multiethnic crew of good guys to save the day, we’re presumably meant to view his personality flaws as minor, the attributes of a classical cop masculinity that’s entered its dotage but ready to be awakened for one last shoot-out with big-city scum. The big city in this case is San Juan, Puerto Rico, which, as the film begins, is under siege by a hurricane. Set almost entirely in a cramped apartment building, Force of Nature is part Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, part The Raid: Redemption (or one of its many clones), attempting but failing to imitate both the former’s eccentric take on the clash of extreme personalities and extreme weather and the intensity of the latter’s kinetic, close-quarters action.

Despite being the biggest star on the bill, Gibson isn’t quite at the center of the narrative, even if the meaningless flash forward that opens Force of Nature, of Ray shooting at two figures in the rain, initially suggests otherwise. Ray plays second fiddle to Emile Hirsch’s point-of-view character, Cordillo, the San Juan police officer who refuses to learn a word of Spanish and might as well be wearing a MAGA hat. (“Where is el victim-o?” he asks regarding an incident at a supermarket early in the film.) Cordillo and his new partner, Peña (Stephanie Cayo), are assigned to help move San Juan’s residents to shelters, encountering Ray and his daughter, Troy (Kate Bosworth), at the apartment complex where Griffin (Will Catlett), Ray and Troy’s newly arrested neighbor, needs to feed his very hungry pet.

For those who’ve seen Netflix’s Tiger King, it will be clear from the 100 pounds of meat that Griffin intends to feed his pet that the man illegally owns some kind of wild cat. And if this offbeat scenario doesn’t elicit the laughs it may be aiming for, that’s at least in part due to composer Kubilay Uner’s score, which applies Wagnerian bombast to nearly every narrative event, as if it could will the paper-thin plot into some kind of significance. The tonal inconsistencies, however, aren’t confined to this clash between image and soundtrack. On a visual level, it’s difficult to know what to make of the scene in which Griffin’s pet, kept entirely off screen, drags Griffin into its pitch-black den and mauls him in front of a not-quite-horrified Cordillo, while a gang that Ray identifies as high-end burglars begins a raid of the complex. Neither funny nor suspenseful, it’s a bewildering mash of visual codes.

Led by a ruthless figure known as John the Baptist (David Zayas), the burglars first make an appearance in the second of the film’s two prologues, in which John kidnaps an elderly woman to get into her safety deposit box, before executing her as well as his accomplice in plain sight—a scene that somewhat belies Ray’s later in-the-know description of the gang as clever plotters. The nature of their interest in Ray, Troy, and Griffin’s apartment building is left vague until a late reveal, a nonsensically belated introduction of the story’s MacGuffin that contributes to the feeling of arbitrariness that pervades the film.

While Peña and Ray confront John and his crew, Cordillo and Troy go off to find medical supplies, along the way developing a thoroughly underwritten and ill-conceived romance; Troy is abruptly drawn to Cordillo after he shares his history of accidental violence against a former girlfriend (Jasper Polish). Meanwhile, the wounded Griffin is left under the watch of Paul (Jorge Luis Ramos), a German about whom multiple characters ask, in all sincerity, if he’s a Nazi, and based solely on his white hair and nationality—certainly not on any arithmetic, as the seventysomething man appears far too young to have been a Nazi Party member.

It would all be material for a parody of cheap-action-flick sensibilities: the preoccupation with Nazism, the hollow romance, the valorization of white male rage barely masked behind a rudimentary psychologism. Unfortunately, Cory M. Miller’s screenplay presents all these scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena. The truth, of course, is that Force of Nature, much like the consequences of the hurricane that clearly inspired it, is a man-made disaster.

Cast: Emile Hirsch, Mel Gibson, Kate Bosworth, David Zayas, Stephanie Cayo, Will Catlett, Jasper Polish, Jorge Luis Ramos Director: Michael Polish Screenwriter: Cory M. Miller Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 91 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: John Lewis: Good Trouble Places a Hero in Dialogue with the Past

The film is well-outfitted with telling, thematically rich shards of historical information.

3

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John Lewis: Good Trouble
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

John Lewis isn’t easily rattled. As a nonviolent foot soldier for desegregation and voting rights in the 1960s, he was severely beaten on several occasions. As a U.S. representative since 1987, he’s contended with a Republican Party that has tacked steadily rightward. John Lewis: Good Trouble presents another, if much less demanding, test for the congressman: Watching his life unspool around him on three large screens in a darkened D.C. theater.

Dawn Porter’s authoritative documentary mixes contemporary and archival material, and the latter includes many rare images, including some that the 80-year-old civil rights pioneer himself had never seen. Porter and her crew decided to show their findings to the Georgia Democrat while simultaneously filming his reactions, and the emotions prompted by this experience are palpable but carefully modulated on his part. Like most successful politicians, Lewis knows how to stay on message, and it’s clear from the moments captured here that he long ago decided which of his private feelings would be elements of his public persona.

One example of this is Lewis’s story about his early desire to become a preacher. As a boy, he says, he would address the chickens on his sharecropper family’s Alabama farm but could never get them to say “amen.” Porter places this anecdote early in Good Trouble, amid comments from family members, so it plays like a revelatory glimpse at Lewis’s formative years. But the congressman, of course, began constructing his biography long before this particular documentary crew arrived. And Porter acknowledges this fact with a scene, toward the film’s end, where Lewis tells the story again during a get-together of former congressional staffers and it becomes clear that everybody in the room already knows it.

Good Trouble, which takes its title from Lewis’s advice to young activists to get into “what I call good trouble,” is partly a testimonial. It includes snippets of praise from Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as congressional new wavers Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who says she wouldn’t be where she is today without Lewis’s example. Yet the film also recalls moments when Lewis wasn’t in perfect sync with his allies, notably the bitter primary for the seat he now holds in Georgia’s 5th District. Lewis defeated Julian Bond by winning support of the district’s white voters, and by hinting that Bond had a drug problem. Earlier, Lewis had recoiled from the militancy of “Black Power” and lost his position in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Lewis doesn’t say much about these chapters in his life, just as he doesn’t reveal a lot when he gives tours of his homes in Atlanta and D.C. A widower, he seems to live alone, though a cat is glimpsed inside the Georgia house at one point. One of the documentary’s most personal stories, about his tearful reaction to the news that his great-great-grandfather registered to vote in 1867, is told not by the congressman but by cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., who unveiled the voter card on the show he hosts, Finding Your Roots. Good Trouble is well-outfitted with such telling shards of historical information, and Porter skillfully fits them together, assembling her subject’s biography thematically rather than chronologically.

Thus, a section on the young Lewis’s battle for African-American suffrage naturally begins in the 1960s before leading to 2014, when a Supreme Court ruling undermined the Voting Rights Act, and ultimately to the 2016 and 2018 elections swayed by voter suppression. The effect is illuminating, if not especially visceral. When the filmmakers arranged this kind of “This Is Your Life” for Lewis, they may not have elicited as much emotion as they’d hoped from the congressman. But they did fashion a microcosm of what the entire Good Trouble shows: the present in dialogue with the past, and a hero in the context of a larger movement.

Director: Dawn Porter Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 97 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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