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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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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 coherent argument about the legacy of trauma.

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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 coherent 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.

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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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Review: Good Boys’s Raunchy Take on Tweendom Is the Same Old Shtick

Gene Stupnitsky’s film is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action.

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Good Boys
Photo: Universal Pictures

Gene Stupnitsky’s Good Boys is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action, though it lacks the Netflix show’s frankness and authenticity. While hearing sixth graders curse and exhibit their burgeoning sexual awareness constitutes the film’s entire gimmick, its coarse language and surprising displays of sexual material mask an inner timidity. In the post-“puberty monster” world ushered in by Big Mouth, a show that cares to acknowledge that girls also experience puberty, both the film’s jokes and easy coming-of-age morality tale seem tame, beautified for an audience it assumes will not want to confront the abjectness of tweens’ emotional and sexual imaginations.

That said, there are laughs to be had in Good Boys, many of them deriving from the main characters’ mistaken understanding of the adult world. Max (Jacob Tremblay), for example, believes that his college-age neighbor, Hannah (Molly Gordon), is a “nymphomaniac” because she has sex both on land and at sea. Thor (Brady Noon), who pretends to possess advanced knowledge and experience in all areas, misinterprets his parents’ sex toys as weapons. And Lucas (Keith L. Williams) comes to believe that Hannah and her friend, Lily (Midori Francis), are irredeemable drug addicts because they want to do the “sex drug” molly.

Max doesn’t know how to kiss girls, and his middle-school mind tells him that the best way to learn is by using his father’s (Will Forte) drone to spy on Hannah kissing her boyfriend, Benji (Josh Caras). That leads to Hannah and Lily taking the drone, and as recompense, Thor steals Hannah’s purse, which contains a vitamin bottle full of molly that the boys promptly lose. Part of the film’s at least outwardly risqué treatment of tween boyhood is that the boys’ possession of and efforts to procure a party drug drives much of the story. And that story is a chain of cause and effect that abides by the protagonists’ middle-school priorities: If Max doesn’t find more molly, he will lose his father’s drone, which means that he never gets to kiss a girl.

The cascading series of absurd situations that are driven by Max’s desire to kiss his crush, Brixlee (Millie Davis), includes the boys trashing a frat house, selling a sex doll to a weirdo (Stephen Merchant), and handing over the bottle full of molly to an oblivious cop (Sam Richardson). (This last bit is as tenuous as a dangling thread for conspicuously missing a punchline, almost as if the filmmakers never got around to shooting it.) In the end, the trio, the so-called “bean bag boys,” must learn that middle school will mean growing apart to some extent: Max is into girls and the sixth-grade social scene, Thor loves theater, and Lucas is a kindly nerd who enjoys card games. That these interests aren’t in the least mutually exclusive, particularly for Generation Z, proves beyond the film’s capacity to acknowledge.

Good Boys’s humor is by and large the same as that of any other male-centric R-rated comedy; if it differentiates itself from other iterations of the genre, it’s through a group of pre-teens making verbosely obscene comments and engaging in gross-out physical comedy. There’s a sense that Good Boys draws open a curtain and peeks into a rarely seen and dimly remembered space of tweendom. But it’s satisfied with just this peek—and as convincingly as the filmmakers can compel their child stars to enunciate obscene exclamations, the film never captures much of the feeling, of the world of childhood experience, in which they might be based. As a result, Good Boys never transcends its Superbad-but-with-11-year-olds shtick.

Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis, Izaac Wang, Millie Davis, Josh Caras, Will Forte, Retta, Lil Rel Howery, Sam Richardson, Stephen Merchant Director: Gene Stupnitsky Screenwriter: Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cold Case Hammarskjöld Is a Gonzo Look at an Unsolved Mystery

The film is about a mystery that isn’t solved, and how that inconclusiveness spotlights the insidious functions of society.

3

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Cold Case Hammarskjöld
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Like Oliver Stone’s JFK and David Fincher’s Zodiac, Mads Brügger’s documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld is about a mystery that isn’t solved, and how that inconclusiveness spotlights the insidious functions of society. Brügger also has in common with Stone and Fincher a visceral fascination with the minutiae of a particularly flabbergasting conspiracy theory. At one point near the end of the film, Brügger even comes clean, admitting that his investigation of the suspicious 1961 plane crash that killed United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld is mostly a pretense for allowing him to partake of a larger reportorial adventure that includes, among other things, Belgium assassins. By that point, though, Brügger needn’t bother with the confession, as his true obsessions are already quite clear.

Brügger is also the de facto host of Cold Case Hammarskjöld, and he has a penchant for hamming it up that brings to mind Werner Herzog. At the start of the film, as if seemingly ready for a safari, the Danish filmmaker is seen wearing an all-white uniform, which he claims is the wardrobe worn by the ultimate villain of his narrative. Brügger is holed up in a hotel with two African secretaries, Saphir Mabanza and Clarinah Mfengu, dictating to them the events we’re about to see. Both the wardrobe and the presence of these secretaries are gimmicks, and while the former is harmless, the latter is of questionable taste.

Much of the film pivots on various colonialist atrocities wrought in Africa by the British and other imperialist powers. And so it seems that Brügger wants the shock of these implications to register on the faces of Saphir and Clarinah, people who have a potentially intimate connection to his alternate history. In other words, he seems to have hired these women in order to achieve a sensational effect. To their credit, they don’t oblige him, and their sober intensity suggests that they don’t need a white man to tell them of the evils of the world.

Of course, Brügger isn’t trying to be likable, as he’s pointedly allergic to the pathos affected by Herzog and, more gallingly, Michael Moore. There’s something of an irony to many first-person documentaries: They prove that bad news often makes for good drama, with their makers all the while feeling the need to make a show of being enraged or saddened. Brügger, who resembles a slimmer Louis C.K., never once bothers with this pose, and his honesty gives Cold Case Hammarskjöld an aura of self-absorption that’s weirdly bracing and resonant in an age that’s dominated seemingly by nothing but conspiracy theories, “alternate facts” that suggest that reality is dictated by those with the most power. Brügger, a scrappy journalist, seeks truth as a means of accessing that very power, looking to cement his own name.

Brügger’s narrative is an intimidating thicket of dead ends, coincidences, and a seemingly endless procession of interviews with creepy elderly white men who almost certainly know more than they care to admit. Hammarskjöld was a drab-looking, pipe-smoking Swedish diplomat whom many assumed would be the very embodiment of minding the status quo of global politics, though he turned out to be an idealist who was especially concerned with the exploitation of the Congo. Several powers were vying for control of the Congo’s mineral resources, including Belgium, the Soviet Union, and Britain, and Hammarskjöld supported nothing less than revolution, leading to a costly U.N.-backed military mission in Katanga. On September 18, 1961, a U.N. plane carrying Hammarskjöld went down in a field in Northern Rhodesia—an area that’s now part of Zambia—eight miles from the Ndola airport, which Brügger memorably describes as a perfect “kill room” for being tucked away from prying eyes.

Following a labyrinthine trail, Brügger makes an intoxicatingly convincing case for the U.N. DC-6 crash, which killed Hammarskjöld and 15 others, as a murder conspiracy. Interviewing people who lived near the Ndola airport at the time, Brügger reveals that investigators didn’t pay any attention to these witnesses, who spoke of bursting, gunshot-like sounds and of fire coming from the plane—negligence that’s probably due as much to racism and a disinterest in the truth. Brügger also speaks with Charles Southall, a former official of the National Security Agency, who heard a recording of the crash that references a second plane and gunshots. Along the way, various potential smoking guns pop up, including a panel of metal riddled with what appears to be bullet holes, and, most ghastly, an ace of spades card that was placed on Hammarskjöld’s corpse, which was remarkably and inexplicably intact following the crash.

The documentary’s structure is somewhat loose, reflecting how detection often involves running in circles, discarding trails only to see them heat up again, and so forth. At times, Brügger’s transitions can be murky, as he’ll be talking to a new person before we can entirely digest how he arrived at this point. But the somewhat arbitrary quality of Cold Case Hammarskjöld becomes a significant source of its power, suggesting less a singular answer than a reality composed of a hundred half-truths. Eventually, Brügger homes in on a secret operation known as the South African Group for Maritime Research, or SAIMR, which becomes the object of the filmmaker’s obsession, to the point that Hammarskjöld is nearly forgotten.

Brügger never entirely proves SAIMR’s existence, as he’s led to the organization via documents uncovered from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that are suspiciously on the nose, suggesting the stuff of bad spy fiction. SAIMR is said to be a private mercenary group, probably serving the U.N. in secret, and responsible for Hammarskjöld’s murder as well as a plot to kill the black population of Africa with cheap medical centers that are actually giving patients shots of the H.I.V. virus. This revelation is so operatically evil, so beyond the pale of a liberal’s worst fantasies, that it serves to transform Cold Case Hammarskjöld into a kind of political horror film. And Brügger, in his meticulous sense of sensationalism, does prove one point via his lack of answers: that he and his dogged collaborators are asking questions which should’ve been posed at much higher levels of multiple chains of government. In Brügger’s hands, the general indifference of the major world powers to the possible murder of a key political figure suggests nothing less than maintenance of a diseased hierarchy.

Director: Mads Brügger Screenwriter: Mads Brügger Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 122 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Blinded by the Light Is a Wet, Sloppy, Public Kiss to Bruce Springsteen

The film bottles a palpable emotion of unabashed joy, even when the rest of it seems to barely hold together.

2.5

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Blinded by the Light
Photo: New Line Cinema

As rebel icons go, Bruce Springsteen is as unlikely as they come. One does not, after all, tend to look to a man nicknamed “The Boss” for advice on raging against the machine. But in 1987 England under Margaret Thatcher, amid economic turmoil and fascist demonstrations, a British-Pakistani teenager, Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), hungers for a dissenting voice in his life. Javed is constantly at the whim of his domineering, recently laid-off father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), and his only real outlet for his troubles is writing poetry. But once his friend, Roops (Aaron Phagura), foists Born in the U.S.A. and Darkness on the Edge of Town cassettes upon him, Javed gets swept up in Springsteen’s music, hearing no small part of himself in the white American singer-singer’s working-class howl.

What follows in Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light is a wet, sloppy, public kiss to Springsteen that’s at once hackneyed and infectious. Inspired by co-screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor’s 2007 memoir Greetings from Bury Park, the film has a love for Springsteen’s music that feels raw and real. For one, it sees no shame in Javed and his pals dorkily dancing in the streets to “Born to Run,” as the filmmakers understand that teenage obsession really is that all-encompassing, so open-hearted that it naturally teeters into absolute corn.

Blinded by the Light is also endearing for not feeling like its edges have been sanded off. Indeed, you may find yourself worrying about Javed plastering the walls of his room exclusively in Springsteen posters, or about the way he gives a teasing, zombie-like moan to the stick-in-the-mud kid running the school radio station: “Bruuuuce.” There is, the film understands, a dizzying thrill to finding yourself in something that’s not even explicitly designed for you, like you’re in on a secret. Springsteen certainly wasn’t thinking of a British-Pakistani kid when writing his lyrics, but they speak to Javed anyway.

Chadha’s film bottles a palpable emotion of unabashed joy, even when the rest of the story seems to barely hold together. Its comedy is always mugging and its melodrama is especially heightened, and to the point that scenes are apt to trigger secondhand embarrassment, as when Javed and Roops chant Bruce lyrics at boys harassing them. Much of the drama feels like the narrative of a music video, which needs to be big and obvious enough so that viewers can recognize what’s happening based on the imagery and the music alone. But with the songs stripped away in Blinded by the Light’s latter half, the supporting characters and themes are left as stumbling, half-sketched husks. It becomes clear that the music cues fill in so many gaps, standing in for whatever nuance might have otherwise supported scenes like a parade confrontation that relies on the blaring “Jungleland” sax solo.

Cast: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Hayley Atwell, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Dean-Charles Chapman, Rob Brydon, Meera Ganatra Director: Gurdinder Chadha Screenwriter: Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurdinder Chadha, Sarfraz Manzoor Distributor: New Line Cinema Running Time: 117 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: 47 Meters Down: Uncaged Soars When It Disregards Characterization

The film wrings white-knuckle tension less through jump scares than from the darkness of a seemingly infinite void.

2.5

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47 Meters Down: Uncaged
Photo: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures

While Johannes Roberts’s 47 Meters Down was marred by strained dialogue and flat characterizations, it certainly knew how to instill a sense of dread in the audience. That film’s premise, about two sisters with conflicting personalities who take an adventurous excursion that goes horribly awry, carries over to 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, though this standalone film is less concerned with exploring its main characters’ familial relationship. And that’s mostly for the better, as it gives Roberts more than enough room to foreground the grueling terror of coming into contact with sharks in the ocean deep.

In its opening stretch, Uncaged aggressively runs the gamut of teen-movie clichés. Indeed, as soon as it’s done establishing the contentious relationship between two stepsisters, shy and awkward Mia (Sophie Nélisse) and outgoing and popular Sasha (Corinne Foxx), the film is flashing the girls’ frustration with their archeologist father, Grant (John Corbett), for spending too much time working. And then there’s Catherine (Brec Bassinger), the prototypical mean girl who fake-apologizes for foisting Mia into the pool outside the international all-girls high school they all attend in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. That Uncaged doesn’t end with Mia, accidentally or otherwise, throwing Catherine into a shark’s maw is the final proof that all of the film’s initially corny character work is in service of absolutely nothing.

Mercifully, though, the film quickly shifts into thriller mode once Sasha drags Mia off to a remote region of the Yucatán, where their father recently discovered a submerged Mayan city. Soon after Mia, Sasha, and the latter’s adventurous friends, Nicole (Sistine Rose Stallone) and Alexa (Brianne Tju), arrive at the site and enjoy a swim above the main entrance to the city, they decide to strap on scuba gear and plunge into the water in order to gawk at the ancient relics that lurk below the surface. One crashed city column later and the girls come face to face with a deadly species of sharks that has evolved to survive in the darkness of the labyrinthine system of caves and tunnels where marine life isn’t supposed to exist.

Roberts wastes no time ratcheting up the tension, and a stifling sense of claustrophobia, once the girls find themselves trapped underwater and are forced to navigate a series of increasingly tight passageways, all while trying to harness the dwindling supply of oxygen from their scuba tanks. The filmmakers sustain this vise-grip suspense as the girls continue to face an array of unexpected, increasingly challenging obstacles, which, in fairly realistic fashion, extends their time stuck below the surface alongside the blind yet vicious sharks. At one point, they discover a pocket of air that proves to be as much of a bane as it is a boon.

Throughout, Roberts makes ample use of negative space as Mia and company make their way through the Mayan city with flashlights in hand. All the while, the bubbles from their scuba gear and the clouds of dust caused by falling rocks intensify their feelings of disorientation and panic, while also helpfully obscuring the low-rent nature of the film’s CGI effects. If, toward the end of Uncaged, the impact of these visual tactics is dulled by a few too many “gotcha” moments, the film more or less keeps things efficiently moving, wringing white-knuckle tension less through jump scares than from the darkness of a seemingly infinite void.

Cast: Sistin Stallon, Corinne Foxx, Brianne Tju, Sophie Nelisse, Brec Bassinger, Khylin Rhambo, Davi Santos, John Corbett, Nia Long Director: Johannes Roberts Screenwriter: Ernest Riera, Johannes Roberts Distributor: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Amazing Johnathan Documentary Is Gratingly Self-Knowing

Over and over, the film reminds us that banking on a gimmick isn’t an adequate substitute for an incisive character portrait.

1.5

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Photo: Hulu

Despite its title, Ben Berman’s The Amazing Johnathan Documentary isn’t exactly about comedian-cum-magician John Edward Szeles. The film initially seems like it will remain within the boundaries of conventional portraiture. We’re presented with clips of Szeles’s performances, talking-head interviews with his family and other comedians, and the news that he only has a year left to live due to a heart condition called cardiomyopathy. Then, a title card indicates that we’re a few years into the future and that Szeles has outlived his prognosis. He decides to start performing again—against his doctor’s wishes—and the looming prospect of death gives Berman enough material to supply this film.

Unfortunately, Berman’s plans for a straightforward documentary are thwarted by events beyond his control. Most notably, it comes to light that another documentary about Szeles’s life is being produced, apparently by the people behind Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. The news makes Berman visibly nervous, and The Amazing Johnathan Documentary soon devolves into an awkward account of its own completion, with Berman talking with the other documentary’s crew, worrying about his own film being overshadowed, and stressing out about the extent to which Szeles might favor the other project.

Szeles’s interviews with online publications, radio shows, and Berman himself readily—and redundantly—corroborate the filmmaker’s impression that his subject is more excited about the other documentary being made about him. Berman doesn’t ask questions that carve out the fullness of anyone on camera, as he seems more interested in making sure that we grasp the severity of his dilemma. By the time he interviews John’s parents in order to draw empathy from them, claiming that he “for once […] was making a documentary out of love and art,” The Amazing Jonathan Documentary comes to feel like an echo chamber of affirmation.

Much like Szeles’s own act—composed of prop gags built around simplistic puns, gross-out illusions, and jokes that riff on his ostensible inabilities as a magician—Berman’s film is convinced of its own cleverness. While The Amazing Johnathan Documentary hints at being a meta film about the hardships of documentary filmmaking, or a mirror to Berman’s own foibles as a person, it’s constantly cut short by a lack of foresight. At one point, Berman decides to smoke meth with Szeles—who’s revealed to have been addicted to the drug in the past—as an act of “gonzo journalism” and to make the documentary more “interesting,” though the moment is ultimately cut from the film for legal reasons. Later, when Szeles accompanies Criss Angel to the presentation of the latter’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Berman is forced to use press footage because he didn’t make the event. This resulted from a lack of communication between Berman and Szeles, illuminating their current rift, but Berman’s acknowledgement of this tension is emblematic of the film’s biggest failure: The lack of cooperation from Berman and Szeles isn’t outrageous enough to be amusing on its own, nor does it come across as anything more than run-of-the-mill discord among colleagues.

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary seems born out of necessity rather than intent—a side effect of Berman needing to find a sensible ending for the film. We eventually find out that Always Amazing, the other documentary being made about Szeles, actually has no connection to Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. And in a desperate, last-ditch stab at coherence, Berman ends up getting Simon Chinn—the Oscar-winning producer behind those films—to sign on as his executive producer. The moment feels like a consolation prize for those who had to sit through so much ego-massaging on Berman’s part. It’s a final stroke of luck for the filmmaker, but it also suggests a bandage being placed on a gunshot wound, reminding us again that banking on a gimmick isn’t an adequate substitute for an incisive character portrait.

Director: Ben Berman Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Aquarela Viscerally Attests to Mother Nature’s Fight for Survival

At heart, Aquarela is a war film: a cacophonous survey of the global battle between man and water.

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Aquarela
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

On the surface, Victor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela suggests a conventional nature doc, filled as it is with breathtaking images that attest to Mother Nature’s might and majesty. But at heart, it’s a war film: a cacophonous survey of the global battle between man and water. The film’s wide array of visual evidence showing people in brutal disharmony with their surroundings presents a compelling case that as humanity continues to assault the planet through climate change, our Earth is fighting back twice as hard.

The film opens with a series of scenes in which a group of Russian officials traipse around a large expanse of ice, periodically stabbing at it with long poles. It takes a while before we understand that they’ve been tasked with recovering automobiles that have fallen through the frozen body of water, which has started to thaw earlier in the season than normal. In one nail-biting sequence, a car speeds along the ice before, without warning, abruptly falling through and disappearing beneath the surface. A rescue crew saves the driver and passenger in a chaotic sequence in which no one’s safety seems guaranteed, not even those behind the camera, whom we never see but whose terror is palpable in the nervous camerawork.

From a sequence of a sailboat operated by a single woman battling a fierce storm to shots in which giant chunks of ice that have fallen off a glacier bob up and down in the water like gigantic breaching whales, Aquarela doesn’t lack for simultaneously awesome and terrifying images. There’s a ferociousness and churning volatility to the film’s view of nature—a point heavily underlined by Eicca Toppinen’s heavy metal-inflected score. Though not quite as abrasive as Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan, which utilized an arsenal of GoPro cameras to create a turbulent, viscerally unsettling document of a commercial fishing trawler’s voyage at sea, Aquarela evinces a similar desire to overwhelm and discombobulate its audience. Kossakovsky employs a deeply immersive sound design that emphasizes the rough swoosh of waves and the shattering cracks of thawing glaciers.

Through a variety of cinematographic gestures—picturesque long shots, underwater footage, and tracking shots of waves—Kossakovsky gives us a wide view of the diversity of forms that water takes on Earth. Massive fields of drift ice are juxtaposed against ocean water that seems viscous and almost as black as oil. But Aquarela isn’t merely interested in showcasing water’s different states of matter, as it also constructs a subtle but distinct narrative in which water itself is the protagonist in a war for its own survival. After one particularly violent sequence of glaciers cracking apart, we see a disquieting shot of jagged, broken ice that suggests a battlefield strewn with the bodies of fallen soldiers. But later in the film, it’s as if the water is avenging itself on humankind with a series of hurricanes and torrential downpours.

Aquarela ultimately closes with the image of a rainbow appearing across Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall. If that sounds like a serene coda, it feels more like the mournful calm after a particularly harrowing catastrophe. Someday, this battle between nature and humanity will end, but Kossakovsky suggests that there will be no victors on either side, only victims.

Director: Victor Kossakovsky Screenwriter: Victor Kossakovsky, Aimara Reques Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 89 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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The 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time

These films are fearless in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own.

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Blade Runner
Photo: Warner Bros.

“The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by the 100 boldly imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a visionary depiction of a near-future dystopia, is almost impossible to imagine as a work of prose fiction. Strip away the Art Deco glory of its towering cityscapes and factories and the synchronized movements of those who move through those environments and what’s even left? It’s no accident that some of the greatest cinematic adaptations of sci-fi novels bear only a passing resemblance to their source material. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, simply mines some of the concepts from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about human-looking androids, using them as the raw material for a haunting urban future-noir that owes more to visual artists like Moebius and Antonio Sant’Elia than it does to Dick himself. Then there’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which transfigures Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s briskly paced novella Roadside Picnic into a slow, mesmerizing journey into an uncanny space.

Ballard may have been right that literary sci-fi has provided all the interesting themes and ideas for which sci-fi in general has become known, but he failed to grasp how cinema has expanded our understanding of sci-fi by pricking at our collective visual consciousness. The titles on our list of the 100 best sci-fi movies of all time have shown us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed. Some of these depictions are humorous, others haunting. Some rely on complicated special effects, others use none at all. But they’re united by their fearlessness in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own. Keith Watson


Altered States

100. Altered States (Ken Russell, 1980)

Ken Russell’s psychedelic Altered States examines one man’s egregious deflection of paternal responsibility in the name of scientific innovation. Fantasy and self-indulgence are the most powerful narcotics in the film—drugs that allow Harvard scientist Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) to flirt with an increasingly volatile dream state where, as he puts it, “time simply obliterates.” Consumed by religious repression and self-guilt regarding his father’s painful death from cancer decades ago, Eddie becomes addicted to medicating his own primal urges through lengthy self-deprivation experiments. The theme of escape dominates the film, especially during Eddie’s visit with a native tribe from Central Mexico where a peyote session causes Eddie to hallucinate, visualized by Russell as a nightmarish dreamscape of striking imagery. It’s an incredibly subjective sequence, placing the viewer inside Eddie’s headspace during a lengthy and jarring slide show from hell. Lava flows, sexual acts, and animal disembowelment all crash together, images that take on even more symbolic meaning later in the film when Eddie begins to evolve physically into a simian form. Glenn Heath Jr.


Tomorrow I'll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea

99. Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (Jindřich Polák, 1977)

A film as brilliantly constructed as it is titled, Jindřich Polák’s Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea is a swinging comedy about a secret cabal of Nazis who’ve discovered the secret of time travel and are intent on using it to go back to World War II and supply Hitler with an atomic bomb. The plot also involves a pair of twins, mistaken identities, and anti-ageing pills, and yet, despite having to keep all these narrative balls in the air, the film never feels convoluted or over-stuffed. Instead, it’s a delightfully wacky farce that treats its potentially terrifying premise with cheerfully irreverent humor, exemplified by the film’s opening credits, which feature archival footage of Hitler manipulated to make it look like he’s boogieing to disco music. And if all that’s still not enough, Polák’s film also offers a nifty showcase of some of the grooviest low-budget futuristic production design the ‘70s Soviet bloc had to offer. Watson


Flash Gordon

98. Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980)

A gleefully cheesy throwback to the sci-fi serials of yesteryear, Mike Hodges’s Flash Gordon is as pure a camp spectacle as you’re likely to find. A glitzy—at times garish—extravaganza of brightly colored sets, skin-baring costumes, and otherworldly vistas that wouldn’t seem out of place in the gatefold of a Yes album, the film is silly and cartoonish in the best sense of those terms. Featuring such outlandish characters as the fu manchu-sporting villain Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow), Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed, bare-legged and sporting giant metallic wings), and the blank-eyed beefcake at the center of it all, Flash (Sam J. Jones), the film is very much in on its own joke. Produced by Dino de Laurentiis to cash in on the post-Star Wars mania for space-opera flicks, Flash Gordon ultimately has more in common with tongue-in-cheek cult musicals like Phantom of the Paradise and Xanadu than it does with George Lucas’s action-packed monomyth. That’s thanks in large part to the rip-roaring soundtrack by Queen, whose spirited pomposity seamlessly complements the film’s flamboyant comic-strip visual delights. Watson


The Invisible Man

97. The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933)

James Whale’s anarchically playful The Invisible Man is an outlier among Universal’s line of classic monster movies. More of an inventive mash-up of black comedy and sci-fi than true horror, the film is an incendiary piece of speculative fiction that counterbalances its cautionary-tale tropes by perpetually reveling in the chaos its megalomaniacal protagonist stirs up, even as his intensifying violent impulses shift from harmlessly prankish to straight-up lethal. This pervasive sense of moral ambiguity is only strengthened by Whale’s decision to keep Claud Rains’s Dr. Jack Griffin invisible until the film’s closing seconds and elide his character’s backstory altogether. Griffin’s unknowability and cryptic motivations are mirrored in his literal invisibility, allowing his corruption and unquenchable thirst for power to take on a universal quality that implicates the audience even as it as it entertains them. Derek Smith


The Brother from Another Planet

96. The Brother from Another Planet (John Sayles, 1984)

A gentle-hearted satire on race and the immigrant experience, John Sayles’s The Brother from Another Planet follows an unnamed mute extra-terrestrial (Joe Morton) who, after crash-landing in the Hudson River, navigates life in the Big Apple. The hook, of course, is that while this “brother” hails from a far-off planet, to the people of New York, he looks like just another black guy. This premise, which could’ve been mined for easy laughs or obvious platitudes about racism, is instead, in Sayles’s hands, a sensitive, socially observant fable about the difficulties of assimilation. The brother is, in all senses of the term, an alien: far from home, isolated from those around him, unsure how to navigate local social interactions, and, ultimately, unsure if he belongs in this world at all. Bolstered by Morton’s soulful lead performance—few have ever made the act of listening so compelling to watch—Sayles’s film is science fiction at its most succinct and humane. Watson


Days of Eclipse

95. Days of Eclipse (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1988)

Aleksandr Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse opens with a majestic birds’ eye view tracking shot of a desolate desert landscape. As the camera speeds up, it descends from the heavens, violently crashing into the ground in a poverty-stricken Turkmenistani community. The shot invokes a metaphorical image of invasion, and after a hard cut, we’re offered a blistering glimpse of that invasion’s impact: a landscape neglected to the point of decay, crumbling amid the oppressive heat and other inexplicable natural phenomena. Alternating between drab sepia tones and more vividly colorful footage, Sokurov films a multicultural community through the disoriented, foreign eyes of Malyanov (Aleksei Ananishnov), a Russian physician sent on a vague mission to bring modern science to the village. But Malyanov remains a stranger in a strange land, unable to commune with the shell-shocked villagers, whose trauma and desperation has rendered them alien to all outsiders. Like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God, both also based on novels by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Days of Eclipse transforms an ordinary landscape into something mystical and otherworldly. And in this film in particular, it perfectly embodies the unbridgeable disconnect between colonizer and colonized. Smith


Voyage to the End of the Universe

94. Voyage to the End of the Universe (Jindřich Polák, 1963)

While some Czech New Wave filmmakers in the 1960s explored the interconnected social and political foibles of people in their home country, Jindrich Polák’s effects-laden Voyage to the End of the Universe trades the oppressed Soviet-ruled Czech Republic for the outer reaches of the cosmos. The journey of the starship Ikarie XB-1 in searching for life on another planet isn’t without the Czech New Wave’s notable playfulness when detailing how travelers cope with the monotony of space travel (here’s looking at you, dance party sequence), though Polák expresses a darkly fatalistic worldview as well. If the haunting sequence of Ikarie XB-1 crew members finding a doomed ship that went on a similar mission is any indication, Polák suggests that sheer advancements in innovation and searching for a new life-sustaining planet is ultimately an exercise in futility, since human life, in both the individual sense and as a species, will end at some point. It seems we might as well, like the film’s bored cosmonauts, just simply let go and dance the night away. Wes Greene


The Thing from Another World

93. The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951)

Legend has it that The Thing from Another World was helmed not by its credited director, Christian Nyby, but by producer Howard Hawks. The film certainly provides ample evidence to suggest that such a covert switch occurred, as the its controlled atmosphere of dread and abundant rapid-fire repartee between the primary players seem to have been molded according to Hawks’s trademark template. Regardless, what remains most remarkable about the film is its continued ability to function as both a taut science-fiction thriller and a telling snapshot of the Cold War paranoia beginning to sweep the country in post-WWII America. The story, about the battle between a group of stranded military personnel and an alien creature fueled by human blood, is a model of economic storytelling. The conflict between Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) is one between Force and Reason, and represents a debate over whether America should cope with its Soviet adversaries through military confrontation or intellectual and diplomatic study. Given the ‘50s political climate, it’s no surprise that the film’s climax answers such a question by painting the sympathetic Carrington as a danger to mankind and the violent Hendry as a heroic warrior. Nick Schager


The World’s End

92. The World’s End (Edgar Wright, 2013)

Edgar Wright wrapped up his Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy with The World’s End, a rollicking alien-invasion ode to boozing up and moving on that bests even Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz in its comingling of hilarious buddy humor, aesthetically electric action, and genre shout-outsmanship. The story of a group of high school friends reunited to complete a famed pub crawl at the behest of their once-great, now-pitiful leader (Simon Pegg), only to find that their sleepy rural England hometown has been turned into a picture-perfect haven for extraterrestrial cyborg pod people, Wright’s film is a blistering barrage of contentious one-liners and CG-ified mayhem. Staged with the director’s usual high-wire dexterity and bolstered a cast that handles whip-crack dialogue with giddy aplomb, it’s the filmmaker’s most exciting, inventive, and purely entertaining mash-up to date—not to mention, in its alternately sympathetic and critical portrait of a man-child navigating the literal and figurative pitfalls of growing up, also his most heartfelt. Schager


Liquid Sky

91. Liquid Sky (Slava Tsukerman, 1982)

The world of Slava Tsukerman’s cult classic suggests the neon-tinged flipside of Warhol’s Factory. Anne Carlisle memorably plays dual roles: as Jimmy, a male model with a raging drug addiction, and Margaret, a bisexual girl who could easily pass for Aimee Mann during her ‘Til Tuesday days. Otto von Wernherr (Madonna enemy and early collaborator) plays a German scientist chasing after an alien spacecraft that visits the Earth in order to feed off the opium-producing receptors inside the brains of heroin users. During sexual orgasm, these receptors produce a sensation similar to the feeling produced by the brain during the absorption of heroin. The film’s aliens (visually represented using negative film stock of a blood-shot eye) feed off of this pleasure principle, spontaneously combusting humans as they engage in sexual intercourse. Aliens, drugs, clubs, orgasms, and big hair! On its crazed surface, Liquid Sky is a celebration of the ‘80s counter-culture. But more than three decades after its release, the bad behavior and paranoia depicted here seemingly foreshadows both the ramifications of said culture’s sexual indiscretions and a nation’s political naïveté. Ed Gonzalez

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