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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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Film

Review: Saudi Runaway Is a Raw and Immediate Chronicle of an Escape

Camera, character, and cameraperson are one throughout, and the effect is exquisitely suffocating.

3.5

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Saudi Runaway
Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films

Susanne Regina Meures’s invitation into the filmic world of her exquisite Saudi Runaway is by way of a camera that moves as if attached to a body. It’s a mobility completely devoid of the vulgar familiarity of a GoPro, or the numb slickness of a dolly shot that only simulates the point of view of a character. We don’t yet know where the body is headed but we can feel its fear. Camera, character, and cameraperson are one here, and the effect is suffocating. We see people’s heads bare and covered. Our vision is fuzzy. Soon, though, the wind lifts what turns out to be a piece of a garment—the camera’s sartorial filter. We’re moving inside an abaya. That’s where we remain for most of the film: between the body of a young woman, Muna, plotting her escape from Saudia Arabia and the dark fabric of her garb.

The film’s handheld camera suggests a baby being held. Not just because of how tethered it often is to the cameraperson, but because our mostly hazy gaze suggests eyes just getting used to a terrifying world. By the time Muna tells us that she will try to record “everything” and that “it will be dangerous,” she’s stating the obvious. Though it pulsates with raw intimacy, Saudi Runaway does have its share of obvious elements, from the sound of music when we least need it, to one too many shots of a trapped bird, to Muna telling us, midway through the film, that “the majority of society is conservative.” But its conceptual device is so uncanny, so un-mediated by how Meures structures Muna’s original footage, that we can’t help but excuse the director’s attempts to turn the original fragments into a coherent narrative.

The camera in Saudi Runaway is so prosthetic, and its images all but birthed by Muna, that, at first, it’s difficult to accept that someone other than she is credited with directing the film. Must Westerners save brown women so that they can speak? However, Muna’s occasional prefacing of her murmured voiceover account with “Dear Sue” gives us a hint of a transnational sisterly collaboration. The epistolary layer of Saudi Runaway isn’t fully explained, a technique often used in the essay film genre that helps give a video-diary aesthetic a sense of depth while maintaining its mystery. Is Sue the director or an imaginary friend? Is Sue a rhetorical device like one of Chris Marker addressees in Sans Soleil? Is Sue actually listening?

The fact that this writer sat immediately in front of both Muna and Meures at the film’s Kino International screening at this year’s Berlinale made the experience of watching it all the more eerie. Our real-life escapee was clearly now safe and sound in Germany, reacting in real time—with self-conscious sighs and sad moans—to the presentation of her ordeal.

On screen, we learn that Muna isn’t allowed to leave her family home without being escorted by a male relative. That she will only be allowed to drive if her future husband allows her to. That her father keeps possession of her passport, which she can only renew with his approval. “Be obedient and everything will be fine” is the advice that Muna’s grandmother gives her.

All of the film’s faces, apart from Muna’s, are perpetually pixilated, reminding us that these are images captured without her family members’ consent. That betrayal and guilt might be prerequisites for deliverance. The pixilating effect also means Muna “covers” everyone else’s faces while liberating her own, her flight necessitating an exhilarating mix of precision, and risk, and anxiety. But, also, the anger of those she must dupe in order to leave them behind. “Do you really think you can go to paradise and leave me here in hell?” is Muna’s mother’s reaction to her daughter’s courage. Although with the benefit of hindsight, she eventually anoints Muna’s newfound independence with a WhatsApp voice message praising her. As if freedom were contagious, experienceable by proxy, or the sheer power of imagination.

Director: Susanne Regina Meures Screenwriter: Susanne Regina Meures Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Swallow Is a Provocative Me Too Parable in Body-Horror Guise

Fortunately for the film, Carlo Mirabella-Davis continually springs scenes that either transcend or justify his preaching.

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Swallow
Photo: IFC Films

Writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s Swallow pivots on a queasy premise: the uncontrollable urge of a young trophy wife, Hunter (Haley Bennett), to swallow inedible objects. Hunter first ingests a marble, after touching it as if it’s a talisman, cherishing its assuring tactility. Later, Hunter carefully removes the marble from the toilet after passing it, cleaning it off and placing it on a tray as a trophy. The marble will soon be joined by a stickpin, a lock, and a variety of other increasingly disturbing things. But there’s another wrinkle of perversity to Hunter’s new hobby: She’s pregnant, and the possibility of these objects puncturing her developing child, no matter how irrational, haunts the film.

For a significant portion of Swallow’s running time, Mirabella-Davis maintains an aura of ambiguity, keeping the audience in a state of discomfort as to what Hunter’s ailment precisely means. There are plenty of hints even early on, as Hunter is married to a svelte GQ-ready hunk, Richie (Austin Stowell), who’s more interested in his phone and his job with his prosperous father, Michael (David Rasche), than his wife. Yet Mirabella-Davis initially resists doubling down on the sort of denouncements of the wealthy that come so easy to filmmakers. In his way, Richie seems to care about Hunter, and his mother, Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel), occasionally comforts her. The filmmaker’s initial refusal to totally render these people rich monsters only intensifies the scenario’s mystery and tension.

Mirabella-Davis is also willing to take Hunter to task for her own alienation, as people often tune her out because she has so efficiently rendered herself a dully accommodating and complacent Stepford wife. Her psychological disorder, known as pica, partially appears to be a response to her knowledge of this fact, serving as a contemptuous act of self-punishment, with perhaps an element of sexual gratification. The narrative contains multitudes of subtexts, and Bennett superbly modulates between learned impassivity and outright despair, capturing the pain of a kind of actress who has come to feel trapped in her role. This entrapment is formally complemented by an aesthetic that’s been very fashionable in art-house horror films lately: pristine, symmetrical compositions of stylish, remote residences that express the inhumanity of essentially living in a one-percent fashion catalogue.

Swallow is initially marked by a driving tension, as we’re led to wonder just how awful and crazy Hunter’s habit will become. The film is never as gross as one might fear, as Mirabella-Davis is less interested in shock-jock flourishes than in sincerely rendering Hunter’s physical pain and mental anguish; like Mike Flanagan, Mirabella-Davis is the rare humanist horror filmmaker. As such, Hunter’s choking—the most disturbing detail in the film—becomes a piercing affirmation of her struggle to feel something and be seen.

There’s a strange irony to the film’s second half. As Mirabella-Davis sets about explaining the meaning of Hunter’s predicament, Swallow grows simultaneously more poignant and pat. Dished out in pieces throughout the film, Hunter’s backstory has been self-consciously overstuffed with topical elements of women’s struggles against patriarchal atrocity, from casual objectification and condescension to rape to the struggle to be pro-choice in the United States. (Hunter’s mother is even said to be a right-wing religious fundamentalist.) This psychology eventually waters the evocative premise down with literal-mindedness, so that Swallow becomes less a body horror film than a Me Too parable.

Fortunately, Mirabella-Davis continually springs scenes that either transcend or justify his preaching. Later in the film, a nurse, Luay (Laith Nakli), is hired to keep watch over Hunter. As a refugee of the Syrian civil war, Luay is partially offered up as a device to score points on Hunter’s privilege (he memorably remarks that one doesn’t have time for mind problems when dodging bullets), though he also shows her profound compassion, most acutely when he climbs under the bed with Hunter in a moment of crisis, patting her back with an affection that we’ve never seen extended to her by anyone else.

Near the end of the film, Hunter holes up in a cheap motel, shoveling dirt into her mouth while watching soap operas that peddle the dream of marrying rich and hot—a sequence of profound and wrenching loneliness. And the film’s climax, in which Hunter tracks down a man from her past, Erwin (Denis O’Hare), is equally heartbreaking, exposing Hunter’s swallowing for what it truly is: an attempt at annihilation as atonement, as well as a self-defiling as paradoxical affirmation of control. Hunter resists her status as an accessory by swallowing others.

Cast: Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Denis O’Hare, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, Luna Lauren Velez, Laith Nakli, Babak Tafti Director: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Screenwriter: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 94 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Interview: Corneliu Porumboiu on The Whistlers and Playing with Genre

Porumboiu discusses the links between his latest and Police, Adjective, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.

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Corneliu Porumboiu
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Anyone inured to the downward-facing schadenfreude of Corneliu Porumboiu’s prior features might be taken aback by The Whistlers, the Romanian auteur’s first foray into slick, international genre filmmaking. The title refers to a crime ring in the Canary Islands that uses a bird-whistling language to evade surveillance. A crooked cop named Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) successfully infiltrates the group, but his undercover status is increasingly compromised by his fixation on Gilda (Catrinel Menghia), the sultry girlfriend of the ringleader, as well as by the tight leash his commanding officer back in Bucharest has him on.

Lest anyone think Porumboiu is making a play for more commercial appeal, The Whistlers is choc-a-block with teasing allusions, including repurposed music like Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” and Jacques Offenbach’s “Baccharole” from The Tales of Hoffman, as well as cinephilic references: One expository dump happens during a screening of The Searchers, while a climactic set piece takes place at an abandoned movie set. I had the pleasure of picking Porumboiu’s brain after the film’s U.S. premiere last fall at the New York Film Festival about his toying with genre, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.

All your films are playful in my opinion, but with this one, you’re playing with genre.

If you had asked me four years ago if one of my films would have flashbacks, I would have said, “No, no way.” [laughs] With The Whistlers, the way it’s structured, I was interested in the process of learning the language. That determined the core of the film. After that, I knew I needed flashbacks so I can have different types of plot movements happening—so that the main character, Cristi, can look differently at things as they happen, because of language. Double-movement. A parallel structure. After that came the other characters in the film, who play specific roles for—in front of—the camera. Catrinel Menghia plays Gilda, which is an assumed name. We don’t know much about this character.

The femme fatale.

Right. She’s assuming that position. At the end of the day, this is a world of people chasing money. They’re using dialogue to have a fight, you know? So, I knew it was time to look back at the classical noirs. I watched some films and began pulling from them.

The film’s plotlines get increasingly convoluted as Cristi learns more about the world he’s stepped into, the threat of a double-cross always looming over him.

Well, at the end I think you get it all back. My focus was to arrive in the middle, to arrive at a type of cinema linked exclusively to his character, his personality. So, I was thinking in classical noir but not dominated by it.

This is your second time working with Vlad Ivanov, the first since Police, Adjective, nearly a decade ago. Was this role written for him?

Yes. Because in a way I was revisiting the character from Police, Adjective, starting from that. To me he’s an almost theological character. So, at the end of the day, I asked myself if this guy, who’s almost like a military officer, who has a very strict background, can his philosophy last? To find this guy 10 years after, what does he still believe in? Who is he now?

Tell me more the difference between then and now.

Well, in the last film he was someone who trusted a certain system, was a part of it. He had his own philosophy, he knew very well where his power was. A decade later he’s completely lost. He doesn’t know what he believes in anymore. I wanted the difference to be subtle but indisputable. He’s become obsessed with money, his motivations are more harsh.

Is there something about Romania’s economic situation that you’re linking this to?

In 12:08 East of Bucharest, my characters defined themselves in relation to the revolution of 1989, and they believed in communication. In Police, Adjective, you have a boss imposing his own ideology from the top down. In Metabolism, it’s like a game: The director can’t assume his position at the top. Here, my characters don’t believe in anything, they just think in terms of fighting and winning. This is how we perceive the world now, I think.

The transition from value systems to anarchy, or at least a certain realpolitik—even working cooperatively, everyone is looking out for themselves.

I think after the economic crisis, the world changed drastically. I don’t know, the classical noir has a certain vision about the world that’s quite dark, yet was proper for that time. Maybe we can find some similarities today.

Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between this film and Infinite Football?

Infinite Football is about utopia—one man’s political, ideological utopia. He wants to change the game, and what his new game implies is a reflection of the history of Romania. His personal history. But I was doing it in a different way, so I did it like a work in progress.

And you figure into the film as well. You have personal history with these people. They talk to you, talk to the camera, pull you into the frame.

Well, it’s a personal project. Laurentiu, the subject, my friend, he may not have faith in the system, but he has faith in the game, or that his rules will prove themselves. This is the Don Quixote thing of it all.

Spanish and Romanian are not that far from one another, and in order to whistle, the main character has to break his messages down into units of Spanish syllables.

I saw a documentary on TV about La Gomera, the island in Spain. From that I learned about the language of whistling and became very curious. That was 10 years ago. I started to read about the language, and I went to the island where they were teaching it. It was then that I knew I wanted to do a film about the character from Police, Adjective. Being a film about language and codes, I thought I could play with genres; cinema at the end of the day is coding reality, after all. When I write, it’s like going back to the first act, and trying to be there, be present with the characters. Eventually it is them who move me into the story. I have a very particular way of writing. Police, Adjective had eight or nine drafts. I wanted the dialogue to be functional, transactional. And not to go too deep. Each of the characters has a double nature that can’t be opened too much. At the end of the day I’m making these movies for myself. You have to believe in what you’re doing, at least at the beginning of the shoot. [laughs]

I think the first 15 minutes of this film have more edits than all of Police, Adjective. Surely this switch-up is getting you questions from people.

The story called for this approach though. It pushed me to do that.

Critics love packaging things. The “Romanian New Wave,” epitomized by the slowness and realism of your earlier films, is a perfect example. Do you find these categories or tropes at all oppressive?

Well, the truth is it wasn’t a “movement” in the sense of something written down or programmatic. Young filmmakers started working in 2000 and, of course, critics outside Romania don’t know much about Romanian cinema before “us,” so it’s expected that they will put a stamp on new films coming out. For me, each of the directors has their own voice, their own way, developed on its own terms, and for me the movies are especially different now. I’m not offended, but it means I have to speak about my own cinema—none of these generalizations. These critics probably have not seen The Reenactment, or Reconstruction, by Lucian Pintillie, my mentor—the so-called “Old Wave.” This was a hugely important, inspiring film for all of us in my generation. He died before I finished shooting The Whistlers. Regarding Police, Adjective, he told me: “If you cut five or 10 minutes from this film, you’ll have a really good audience.” And I told him, “No.” [laughs]

The generalizations tend to break down, or that’s just the nature of an artist discussing their own work. And the idea of a “movement” implies a finitude or a strategy.

The Treasure was a fable, no? You could find the structure less threatening if you had seen my previous films. Maybe other films from Romania around the same time. But I began to try a nonlinear structure in my documentaries, then applied it to The Whistlers.

Do you prefer the original title, La Gomera, to The Whistlers?

I do think The Whistlers is better. But translated into Romanian, it doesn’t have the same power as La Gomera! Also, I wanted to avoid confusion with Gomorrah.

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Review: Autumn de Wilde’s Emma Takes a Classic for a Stylish, Ironic Spin

This lively adaptation plays up the novel’s more farcical elements, granting it a snappy, rhythmic pace.

3

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Emma
Photo: Focus Features

Jane Austen’s Emma concerns the mishaps of a self-assured young country aristocrat who prides herself on her savoir faire but who remains, in the terms a certain modern adaptation, totally clueless. A light comedy neither broad enough to be farce nor pointed enough to be satire, the novel lends itself to interpretation as both, given the narrative’s manifold romantic misunderstandings and host of kooky, idle gentry. Without departing far from the text, director Autumn de Wilde’s lively new film adaptation emphasizes the more farcical elements of Austen’s second-longest novel, granting it a snappy, rhythmic pace.

The eponymous gentlewoman, the story’s only three-dimensional character, is played with impressive depth by Anya Taylor-Joy here. On screen, Emma can seem frivolous right up until the climactic moment that forces her into a self-confrontation, but Taylor-Joy’s open, expressive face, so often in close-up, captures Emma’s creeping uncertainty regarding her powers of judgment, as well as her own feelings, even as she continues to act the social butterfly. She’s aided by a screenplay by Eleanor Catton that doesn’t quite resolve the story’s main fault—its concluding romance counts as perhaps the least convincing of any of Austen’s works—but which preserves much of the complexity of its “handsome, clever, and rich” heroine, who must learn to abide by her judgment rather than her vanity.

Emma begins the film at the height of self-regard, the reigning socialite of the small countryside community of Highbury. The 20-year-old has recently made a match for her governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), arranging her marriage—well above her station—to the neighboring widower gentleman Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves). She elects Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a recently arrived schoolgirl of uncertain origins and inelegant manners, to be her next project. She teaches the naïve girl, enraptured by Emma’s ostentatious wealth and delicate bearing, to present herself as worthy of a genteel suitor, manipulating her into rejecting the proposal of hardy local farmer Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells), and encouraging her to pursue the affections of the young vicar-about-town Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) instead.

O’Connor plays Mr. Elton with palpable smarm, wearing a perpetual shit-eating grin above the ridiculous splayed-out collar of an early-19th-century Anglican vicar. Here, as elsewhere, de Wilde communicates much of what remains implicit in the novel (like Mr. Elton’s odiousness) via a tidy mise-en-scène redolent of Wes Anderson. The sterile pastels of the elegant clothing and the precise movements of both the aristocracy and their servants (who hover about in the background like strange automatons) give the film’s sudden eruptions of human neuroses a droll, punchy tone—as when Mr. Elton casually mentions that it may snow, and a dinner party suddenly erupts into chaos, the nervous guests rushing to the carriages to get back home.

It’s in one of those carriages that, in a scene played perhaps a bit too broadly, a slightly drunk Mr. Elton confronts Emma with the revelation that he’s been aiming to court her. Naturally, the news of Mr. Elton’s true affections devastates Harriet, whom Emma very belatedly realizes may have been well suited to Mr. Martin, though at this point Harriet has learned to think of the farmer as beneath her. Outraged at Emma’s tutoring of Harriet in the ways of class presumption is Martin’s landlord, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), a wealthy Highbury bachelor who, as brother to her brother-in-law, counts as family to Emma and her worry-wart father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy). In the lavishly decorated living rooms and salons of their immense estates, Emma and Mr. Knightley bicker in the way that unwitting lovers in Austen tend to, arguing verbosely about the propriety of introducing Harriet to high society.

Emma and Knightley later have occasion to debate the relative virtues of Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) and Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), who arrive separately in town under much whispered ballyhoo. The young and handsome Frank seems destined to ask for Emma’s hand; Jane, the orphaned niece of local gossip Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), is rumored to be heartbroken after forming an inappropriate attachment to her adopted sister’s husband. Emma is as flattered by Frank’s attentions as she is jealous of Jane’s level of gentlewomanly accomplishment. Catton and de Wilde extrapolate from the novel’s succession of social scenarios to make Emma’s doubt about the shifting social field more comically apparent: One of the funniest scenes has the ostensibly modest Jane follow up Emma’s dilettantish performance on the pianoforte with a beautiful, complex sonata, in front of the whole town.

Emma’s discomfort in her new situation will come to a head when she, with Frank’s encouragement, grossly abuses her privilege as a gentlewoman with a practiced wit, embarrassing herself and wounding an old friend. Emma is interested in such textures of early-19th-century society, if not in the latter’s pace. The film fits so much of Austen’s narrative in by judiciously condensing scenes to suit its more ironic tone, occasionally using transitional smash cuts to get right to the point. The result is a stylish, eminently watchable farce that, despite its old-England trappings, is every bit an update as it is an adaptation.

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Amber Anderson Director: Autumn de Wilde Screenwriter: Eleanor Catton Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack, Book

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Review: The Trouble with Being Born Is a Chilly Rumination on Memory

In the end, the film suffers from the same issue as its moody androids: enervation borne out of repetition.

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The Trouble with Being Born
Photo: Berlinale

The near future looks a lot like the present in Sandra Wollner’s The Trouble with Being Born, only bleaker and lonelier. That sense of isolation is conveyed right from the start. In the fantastically dreamy introduction, we float through a forest on a summery drift of whispering voiceover and buzzing insects before coming upon a father and young daughter next to a backyard pool. What looks like a relaxing day quickly reads as forced, even icy. While the girl (Lena Watson), Elli, stays by the pool, the father (Dominik Warta) goes inside, only to dash back out again when he sees Elli floating lifeless in the water. “Fuck,” he says. “Not again.” In the next scene, he’s using his phone to reboot the not-quite-drowned Elli.

An android whose deep black eyes and waxily smooth skin—evoking the eerie expressionlessness of Christiane’s face mask in Eyes Without a Face—are the very definition of the Uncanny Valley, Elli was built to replicate the father’s daughter, who disappeared 10 years before. Her reactions are slow and mannered, as though she were puzzling over a bug in her programming instead of playing like a human 10-year-old. Even though her actions are mostly set on a loop built out from scraps of what the father remembers of his daughter, Elli seems to take a mix-and-match approach to those implanted memories, obsessing like an amnesiac trying to make sense of a muddled past. At times, it’s unclear whether the lines in the voiceover (“Mum…doesn’t need to know everything”) are repeated from the human Elli or invented by the android Elli as a way of mimicking her biological predecessor.

The first half of The Trouble with Being Born is narratively thin but heavy with the promise of something more. Inklings of something disturbing in this isolated idyll, that too-close stare of the father and his dressing her just so, are eventually made explicit and disturbing. In one of the more effectively queasy body-horror moments ever put on film, the father removes Elli’s tongue and vagina for cleaning, leaving her naked on the counter. It’s a strikingly disgusting moment, pointing not just to the abuse he subjected his human daughter to, but the casual disdain with which he regards her replacement. But despite the power of this scene and a few others—particularly the wordless shot of Elli watching her father from a distance with the same restless curiosity of the cat flopped next to her, visualizing the unbridgeable gulf between “father” and “daughter”—Wollner continues to fill her film with too little story.

That problem becomes more acute once Elli runs away and the story shifts to another android-human relationship. After Elli is picked up by a passing motorist (Simon Hatzl) who then gifts her like a new toy to his elderly mother (Ingrid Burkhard), still mourning the little brother she lost 60 years before. The ease with which Elli is made into a boy—in the world of the film, reprogramming androids is about as complicated as restarting a smartphone—stands in stark contrast to the violent trauma of abuse that still lingers like a ghost in her flickeringly sentient CPU. But while the setting and the primary human character changes in the second half of the film, Wollner’s narrow view of her story means just more of the same glassy expressions and long maundering silences, like Tarkovsky without the existential pain. At some point, the mirroring begins to feel more like straight repetition without any significant revelation.

In the end, The Trouble with Being Born suffers from the same issue as its moody androids: enervation borne out of repetition. There are some attempts here and there to comment on the replacement of human connection with silicone facsimiles. We almost never see people together. The only time the mother, who spends much of her time walking her dog and wistfully pondering the past, is with another person is when her son drops off Elli. Shopping malls, car-choked roads, and distant skyscrapers dominate the landscape. But rather than truly exploring the ramifications of its futuristic conceit, whether from a broader societal or individualistic and relational perspective, the film just keeps looping back to the same luminously filmed but ultimately blank silences.

Cast: Lena Watson, Dominik Warta, Ingrid Burkhard, Jana McKinnon, Simon Hatzl Director: Sandra Wollner Screenwriter: Sandra Wollner, Roderick Warich Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog Wages a War Between Language and Cinema

It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic.

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Malmkrog
Photo: Berlinale

Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog is based on 19th-century Russian philosopher and mystic Vladimir Solovyov’s prophetic Three Conversations, which, through a series of dialectical maneuvers, addresses such topics as economic materialism, nationalism, and abstract moralism. The film takes place on a snow-covered hillside, where a large pastel-pink mansion sits and Puiu turns the philosophical into drama. Sheltered in the mansion’s walls are a small group of aristocrats that includes a politician, a general and his wife, and a young countess. It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic. A Christmas gathering stretches on in what seems to be real time, as the party’s high-minded philosophical and political chatter takes on an increasingly strained air.

That tension is heightened by the obstacles that Puiu uses to discombobulate his audience. Malmkrog is the Transylvanian village where the film takes place, yet the characters, who speak primarily in French, talk of being in Russia. And as they discuss imminent war and the potential outcomes of violence, it’s as if the film appears to exist outside of time and place. Doorways and mirrors obfuscate who’s involved in a conversation, and the characters move through the mansion as though compelled by spirits of the past, with cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru often lighting all those drawing rooms using only natural light sources. Malmkrog exudes a painterly expressiveness that’s a far cry from the cold, handheld aesthetic that typically defines the look of Puiu’s work and the Romanian New Wave as a whole.

The film’s first scene lasts nearly an hour and is a magnificent example of staging. The camera glides left and right, with each movement matched by a change in composition that the actors match as though dancing to the music behind their endless words. This balletic circularity, slow but constantly surprising, recalls Max Ophüls’s fixation on the oneiric, circular properties of time. In a surprising moment of violence, a number of characters die on a staircase, only for them to come back to life a scene later, and without comment from anyone. When Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard), the mansion’s wealthy owner and Malmkrog’s central figure, looks up the staircase, it’s as if he recalls what previously occurred there. The moment echoes one from Letter from an Unknown Woman where Joan Fontaine’s Lisa stares up the very staircase up which Louis Jourdan’s Stefan and another woman ascended years earlier.

Whenever Nikolai, who makes the domineering Stefan from Ophüls’s 1948 masterpiece seem meek by comparison, utters lines like “prayer is a soap for the soul,” he carries himself like the Sherlock Holmes of moral arbitration. But he’s closer to a 19th-century Ben Shapiro: a pompous rat obsessed with facts and logic, who won’t let a woman finish a point for fear that he won’t be able to counteract it with a cogent counter-argument. It’s not always clear to what extent Puiu is satirizing this type of behavior, given the spectacle of the man’s endless pontificating, and that the other characters only rarely undercut his words with references to his verbosity. Puiu clearly believes in Nikolai enough to make him the mouthpiece for Solovyov’s philosophizing, which makes it harder to buy to what extent these people are being sent up, and how much Puiu wants the viewer to eat up his words wholesale.

With our perspective held hostage in one place, memory and imagination blur into one. When Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité) reads from a book, the account of a vicious battle between Cossacks and bashi-bazouks, the effect is rapturous. In this claustrophobic endurance test, Puiu transports the viewer through language to a scene with the epic scope of the film’s runtime. He focuses on listening faces, themselves teleported to a different space.

Like his characters, Puiu wages his own war of discourses, in his case between language and cinema. Whenever Malmkrog seems to have settled into a formal rhythm, the filmmaker flips it, using a different device to interrogate how people talk, and to what extent they listen. One heightened dialogue exchange culminates with the main characters staring out of the window in complete stillness. Then Nikolai starts to move, unstuck from this tableau, and seemingly from time. The boundaries of reality keep getting pushed at, to the point that one almost expects the mansion’s walls to fall and reveal a film set. Later, he glides away from a tea reception to observe the servants, who silently rearrange the house and conceal their own power structure through glances and outbursts of violence that are hidden from the wealthy class. They are like spirits, pulling out chairs for aristocrats who don’t acknowledge them, clearing out items like empty champagne glasses that hint at the echo of a past time.

The creeping dread of history repeatedly overwhelms character and viewer, particularly during General Edouard’s (Ugo Broussot) screed on the world’s necessary “Europeanness,” which becomes a Buñuelian account of fascist tendencies and culminates in the film’s most shocking moment. His wife, the imperious, frizzy-haired Madeline (Agathe Bosch), obsesses over the authority behind language: who may speak, and how. This is the sneaky vessel for a larger discussion on power and control. Living in a religious nation, Nikolai posits, one must first understand what Christianity is, and define national identity from that. The characters situate this in the context of war, and a globe that’s shrinking in the face of technological progress.

But with each scene, Puiu strips away the layers of his ornate style, so that by hour three, all that’s left is the close-up. With Nikolai’s straight face berating Olga, evangelizing on resurrection, the sophistication of the dialogue rarely matches that of Puiu’s aesthetic form. As Malmkrog becomes less ostentatious in style, the redundancy of its philosophizing becomes almost impossible to ignore, having made its conclusions about the inability of the intellectual class in combating fascism through language by the 100-minute mark. Puiu’s assaultive mass of a film speaks to modern times in its depiction of aristocrats indulging in comfortable platitudes as the world edges toward the precipice of chaos, but the Romanian auteur doesn’t entirely make the case for sticking around to listen.

Cast: Agathe Bosch, Frédéric Schulz-Richard, Diana Sakalauskaité, Ugo Broussot, Marina Palii, István Téglás Director: Cristi Puiu Screenwriter: Cristi Puiu Running Time: 200 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: For Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, the Cruelty Is the Point

The thrill of the film’s craftsmanship is inseparable from its main character’s abuse.

1.5

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The Invisible Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

Elisabeth Moss brings unexpected shades to the flimsiest of roles, and she makes it look so easy. Even if you go into writer-director Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man blind, you will know what Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) did to his wife, Cecilia Kass (Moss), simply from the way she moves one of his hands from her belly. Across a taut and nerve-wracking opening sequence, Cecilia orchestrates what becomes increasingly clear is an elaborate escape. If it’s easy to overlook the hoariness with which the camera lingers at various points on some object that portends things to come, that’s because Moss never stops conveying the agony of the years-long abuse that Cecilia has endured, through the surreptitiousness of her gait and the way paralyzing bolts of fear shoot through her body.

That kind of talent only helps a film like The Invisible Man that doesn’t really care about abuse beyond its function as a plot device. After escaping Adrian’s clutches, Cecilia goes to live with a childhood friend (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter (Storm Reid). Or, rather, struggles to live, as leaving the house is too hard for Cecilia to bear. Cecilia never really stops talking about the control that Adrian exercised over her, even after she learns that he committed suicide, thus freeing her to finally put her life back together. But there’s a frustrating friction to such scenes, between an actress sincerely committed to expressing her character’s pain and a filmmaker interested in trauma only as far it whets our appetite for how a psychopathic tech magnate who specialized in optics could possibly torment his wife from beyond the grave.

With his directorial debut, Insidious 3, Whannell effectively goosed an otherwise insipid haunted-house attraction with clever twists on a franchise’s trite dependence on the jump scare. But it was Upgrade, which saw him freed of franchise responsibilities, as well as longtime collaborator James Wan, that felt closer to a coming-out party for the filmmaker. And it practically announced him as a master, if not of horror, then of evasion, for the way his acute sense of movement is so thrilling in the moment that it can make one overlook his rickety storytelling. Upgrade is a film that’s less suspicious of the not-so-brave new world of tomorrow that anti-authoritarian tech bros are rapidly ushering in than it is in awe of what their toys can do. Its meditation on vengeance is closer to justification: that it’s okay that a bro turned half-machine is going on a violent rampage because of what was done to his wife.

The Invisible Man, another distinctly male fantasy set in a more recognizable present-day San Francisco, has even less to say than that, though it seeks to also entertain us with all that a techie can do with one of his toys. And that it does, as in an impressive early scene inside James’s house where Cecilia walks out of the kitchen while making breakfast and a long shot unobtrusively captures a knife falling off the counter and the flame on one of the gas burners being turned to high. The frisson of unease to this and several other scenes, of a man hiding in not-so-plain sight as he mounts a spectacular show of gaslighting, is close to unbearable. And when the titular menace is finally glimpsed, if only intermittently, the straight shot of action-infused momentum that marks the sequence as he lays waste to a small army of police officers inside the hallway of a mental institution feels like a release, for Cecilia and the audience.

But to what end does Whannell really fashion all this style? In one scene, and only one scene, the film tells us that Cecilia is an architect, not to illuminate all that she’s capable of as a creative, but to allow for the moment where she shows up to an interview at an architecture firm and discovers that the samples of her work were removed from her portfolio. That scene, some 30 minutes into The Invisible Man, is the moment where the film starts to provoke a certain queasiness, where it becomes clear that Cecilia only exists, for Adrian and for Whannell, to be terrorized, to be held up in the air, to be flung across a room, to be punched, to not be believed, to be thought of as insane. And to be raped. That this violation happens off screen proves that Whannell has foresight, that he’s aware of the controversy that surrounded Hollow Man upon its release in 2000. But that we must be told that it also took place at an indeterminate time, almost as a matter of course, feels like an icky attempt at not having to actually grapple with the implications of the crime by casting doubt on it.

Out of sight, out of mind. That feels like Whannell’s mantra. Indeed, by the time it gets around to the business of Cecilia being believed, the film starts to collapse under the weight of an increasingly absurd series of plot reveals for the way she turns the tables on the invisible man to feel like anything but an afterthought. Even then, when her tormentor is right there out in the open, it’s still clear that Whannell only thinks of violence in terms of how it can be paid back. Which is to say, he’s consistent. Through to the end, you can’t get off on the thrill of this film’s craftsmanship without also getting off on the spectacle of more than just Cecilia brought to the brink of destruction. Like its style, The Invisible Man’s cruelty is the point.

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, Benedict Hardie Director: Leigh Whannell Screenwriter: Leigh Whannell Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 125 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Guns Akimbo Squanders a Nifty Setup with Excruciating Humor

Writer-director Jason Lei Howden’s humor might have been tolerable if his film was at least reasonably imaginative.

1.5

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Guns Akimbo
Photo: Saban Films

For much of Jason Lei Howden’s Guns Akimbo, Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) is in his jammies, because getting dressed is difficult when your hands are nailed to pistols. Eating and using the bathroom are no easy feat either. With this, the film hits on an amusing setup for physical comedy, as Miles can do little but stumble about as he strives to drive a car or use his phone with his nose. He also must avoid being shot by Nix (Samara Weaving), his designated opponent in a kill-or-be-killed online competition called Skizm. But the film ultimately fails to capitalize on its concept and gets smothered by its smug, abrasive tone.

Miles is a coder for a video game titled Nuts Bust 2, one of too-many examples of the film’s groan-inducing comedy. He’s also a bizarrely self-aware depiction of an internet troll, as Miles admits via narration that, in order to feel worthwhile, he seeks out arguments in comment sections and reports “offensive content.” When he goes to Skizm’s chatroom to tell the viewers off, he runs afoul of the organization’s facial-tattooed leader, Riktor (Ned Dennehy), who at one point says, “I’m going to do a poo-poo in my pantaloons,” because why not? Those guns for hands and his forced participation in Skizm are Miles’s punishment.

Most of Guns Akimbo’s dialogue squanders an intriguing concept through truly excruciating attempts at humor, oscillating between snide comments, gay panic jokes, and capital-A attitude-laden one-liners. In one scene, Miles remarks that the world looks “so HD” because, with gun-hands, he can’t go outside with his face in his phone.

The humor might have been tolerable if the film was at least reasonably imaginative. Radcliffe really digs into Miles’s sniveling bafflement and the expressive Weaving clearly has a lot of hammy fun as the unhinged Nix. But too much of Guns Akimbo consists of unremarkable car chases and gun fights that hardly feel transformed at all by Miles’s unique predicament. We watch a lot of people fire a lot of guns against a lot of concrete backdrops, except Howden deploys a hyperactive camera style that’s always zooming around the characters in slow motion or fast forward. He appears to be going for the Neveldine/Taylor style of films like Crank and Gamer, except he’s not nearly as inventive and most of his flourishes outright distract from the action choreography, sometimes obscuring it altogether.

Worse, Guns Akimbo strains to be self-aware, with Miles assuring audiences via narration that this isn’t one of those stories where he wins back his ex-girlfriend, Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), in the end. And it’s weirdly self-congratulatory for a film that visibly revels in torturing Weaving’s character and eventually has Nova kidnapped for the big climax anyway. The film has even less to say about the sort of obsessive spectatorship that makes up the story’s backdrop, as though simply depicting reality-TV audiences and internet users as assholes is some profound statement. Luckily, unlike Miles, viewers have a say in the matter. They aren’t bolted to the couch and the remote isn’t nailed into their hands; they’re free to quit watching at any time, or simply opt not to watch this obnoxious film at all.

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Samara Weaving, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Ned Dennehy, Rhys Darby, Grant Bowler, Edwin Wright Director: Jason Lei Howden Screenwriter: Jason Lei Howden Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Assistant Is a Chilling Portrait of Workplace Harassment

The film is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as its main character.

3

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The Assistant
Photo: Bleecker Street Media

With The Assistant, writer-director Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in the Tribeca offices of a film mogul, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing much of its resonance. Offices encourage professional functionality as a way of divorcing people from themselves, leading them to make actions without a sense of complicity. What starts small—throwing co-workers under the bus, neglecting friends due to punishing work hours—can blossom over time into people enabling atrocity under the guise of “doing what they’re told.”

With this psychology in mind, Green fashions The Assistant as a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae. The film opens with a young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), being picked up from her apartment for work so punishingly early that it’s almost impossible to tell if it’s morning or night. By 8 a.m., she’s been making copies, printing documents, reading emails, and tending to office errands for hours. Other employees gradually drift in, talking obligatorily of their weekends off—a privilege that Jane isn’t accorded.

In these early scenes, Green conjures a peculiar, very palpable dread, her precise, anal-retentive compositions suggesting what might happen if David Fincher were to adapt Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” This dread springs from two places, as the visual palette is silvery and moody, evoking a potential corporate thriller, though the film refuses to move beyond the expository stage and gratify this expectation, and so we fear that we may be trapped with Jane in her tedium. We are, and this is by Green’s moral schematic.

The Assistant is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as Jane. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the film mogul is only evoked via male pronouns (he’s never seen but often referenced and occasionally heard over the phone, usually in a torrent of rage against Jane for her inability to talk down his wife, who knows of his infidelity). Jane brings another assistant the wrong sandwich, and he treats her cruelly; it never occurs to him, or anyone else, to thank Jane for the tasks she performs for everyone in the office. At best, Jane’s co-workers regard her with a kind of pitying befuddlement, as if she’s not quite real. When Jane eats, it’s quickly and without pleasure, and she’s always alert to being watched. No one speaks of their personal lives. Green springs one perceptive, poignant detail after another, especially when the mogul compliments Jane via email just as she thinks he’s reached his limit with her. This is, of course, a major tool of the master manipulator: praise when least expected, and only enough to keep the person in your sphere of influence and at your mercy.

Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere. Jane finds an earring in the mogul’s office, which is repeatedly seen from a distance through its open door and becomes a chilling symbol for the mogul himself, suggesting his unshakable presence even in absence. There are jokes made about his couch, which Jane cleans. Young, beautiful women are brought into the office at late hours, and are referenced by both male and female employees with contempt. Growing fearful for one of the women, Jane tries to complain to an unsympathetic H.R. officer who sets about gaslighting her. It becomes evident that we’re watching—from the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit person—a parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Green’s grasp of Jane’s indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable.

Yet The Assistant also feels too narrow, too comfortable with its thesis. The rendering of the mogul as an unseen specter is effective but also dime-store lurid in the tradition of mediocre horror movies, and this device also conveniently absolves Green of having to wrestle with how a Weinstein type might live with himself. George Huang’s similarly themed 1994 film Swimming with Sharks, which is mostly inferior to The Assistant, benefited from such a friction, as its own Weinstein surrogate (played by Kevin Spacey) had a magnetism that complicated and enriched the script’s anger. There’s also something insidious about Green’s evasion, as the mogul’s absence elevates him, mythologizes him, which reflects how people low on the power ladder see powerful exploiters. But Green physicalizes this idea without standing outside of it, challenging it, or contextualizing it; she traps us in a monotonous hell and leaves us there. Her fury with Weinstein and his ilk contains an element of awe.

Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, Stéphanye Dussud, Juliana Canfield, Alexander Chaplin, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bregje Heinen Director: Kitty Green Screenwriter: Kitty Green Distributor: Bleecker Street Media Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy Is a Half-Hearted Spin on Peter Pan

Wendy veers awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never accruing any lasting emotional impact.

2

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Wendy
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Like Beasts of the Southern Wild before it, Wendy unfolds through the eyes of a child. Benh Zeitlin’s sophomore feature puts a new spin on Peter Pan, and not only because it takes on the perspective of a 10-year-old Wendy Darling (Devin France). The film’s modern-rustic settings and costumes and relative lack of fantastical elements—notwithstanding the presence of a majestic, glowing sea creature, referred to as “mother,” who may hold the secret to reversing time—also play a large part in re-envisioning J.M. Barrie’s classic. But Zeitlin’s brand of magical realism strains in its conflicting desires to both demystify Neverland (never mentioned by name in the film), chiefly by grounding it in a rather prosaic reality, and imbue the story with all the enchanting qualities we’ve come to expect from fantasies of everlasting childhood. Like its version of Peter (Yashua Mack), Wendy wants to fly, yet, because of its self-imposed restrictions, it never quite gets off the ground.

Across this tale of a child lurching toward adulthood, there’s a sense of wonder and awe to the sea creature’s brief appearances, and to Wendy’s initial encounters with the free-spirited Peter, who playfully eggs her on from atop the train that regularly roars across the barren, rural locale that houses her family’s rundown diner. But Wendy’s whimsical flourishes, from Dan Romer’s incessantly rousing score to Wendy’s breathy and all-too-mannered voiceover, brush awkwardly against the film’s dour conception of a Neverland drained of all its magic and grandeur. Despite this, Zeitlin strives to capture an unbridled sense of childlike exuberance as kids cavort around the rugged cliffside vistas of the remote volcanic island that Peter calls home. But lacking any of the mystical features typically associated with them, Peter and his cohorts’ behaviors appear overly precocious to the point of ludicrousness; it’s almost as if they’re performing a twee, optimistic rendition of Lord of the Flies.

Unlike Quvenzhané Wallis, whose magnetic presence imbued Beasts of the Southern Wild with a pervasive warmth and soulfulness, Mack is an unfortunately listless presence as Peter. Several years younger than Wendy and her twin brothers, Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin), Peter appears, more often than not, like a six-year-old playing dress-up. His utter lack of charisma and gusto renders him an ill-fitting avatar for boisterous youthfulness, while his occasionally domineering, yet still unimposing, demeanor hardly makes him out to be the inspirational figure that the film ultimately wants him to be. Not only does he allow one boy to drown at one point, he chops off the hand of another to prevent him from aging.

Such events position Wendy as a twisted take on Peter Pan, but these moments are never given room to breathe. Rather, they’re uniformly undermined by the film cutting back to the idyllic adventures of children, in lockstep with Zeitlin’s relentless pursuit of galvanizing his audience through a gleefully idealized vision of the world. This jarring intrusion of darker elements into the story makes for bizarre clashes in tone, leaving Wendy to veer awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never to accrue any lasting emotional impact. When Peter buoyantly declares that “to grow up is a great adventure,” one is left to wonder not only why the boy who never grows up would, out of nowhere, embrace this worldview, but why Wendy, or any of the other children, would want to follow such a troubling figure on that journey.

As Wendy stumbles into its final act, where adult pirates attempt to use Wendy as bait to catch the giant sea creature, it becomes even more convoluted, contradictory, and murky in what it’s trying to say about growing up. Wendy eventually begins to stand up to and question Peter, both for his mistreatment of her brother and his harshness toward the adults Peter has excommunicated to an impoverished community on the outskirts of the island. But no sooner does she chide Peter than she’s back on his side, cheering him on as he fights off an admittedly cleverly devised Captain Hook. It’s as if she, much like the film, can’t seem to settle on whether Peter’s a hero or a borderline psychopath, or if childhood is a magical time to live in permanently or a necessary step on the way to adulthood. Rather than meaningfully subverting audience expectations, Wendy instead plays like a half-hearted twist on the familiar tale that ultimately doesn’t change the moral at the core of countless other Peter Pan adaptations: childhood is magical, and growing up is scary but inevitable.

Cast: Tommie Lynn Milazzo, Shay Walker, Devin France, Stephanie Lynn Wilson, Ahmad Cage, Gage Naquin, Krzysztof Meyn, Gavin Naquin, Romyri Ross Director: Benh Zeitlin Screenwriter: Benh Zeitlin, Eliza Zeitlin Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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