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Understanding Screenwriting #49: I Am Love, Winter’s Bone, This Is Korea!, Hot in Cleveland, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #49: I Am Love, Winter’s Bone, This Is Korea!, Hot in Cleveland, & More

Coming up in this column: I Am Love, Winter’s Bone, Video Slut: How I Shoved Madonna off an Olympic High Dive, Got Prince into a Pair of Tiny Purple Woolen Underpants, Ran Away from Michael Jackson’s Dad, and Got a Waterfall to Flow Backwards so I Could Bring Rock Videos to the Masses (book), This Is Korea!, The Desert Rats, Hot in Cleveland, Some Summer 2010 Television, but first…

Fan mail: If you read #48 right after its posting, you may have missed an interesting comment on it from Ed Sikov. He’s the author of On Sunset Boulevard, the great Billy Wilder biography I mentioned in the item on Stalag 17. I said in the column that Sikov had not told us what Wilder thought of the TV series Hogan’s Heroes, which bore a more than passing resemblance to Wilder’s film. Sikov commented that he did not include that because he never got to interview Wilder for the book. His description in his comments of meeting Wilder later is worth going back and looking at.

I suppose I picked up while reading his book that he had not interviewed Wilder (he mentions it in the Preface), but I had forgotten it in the twelve years since his book came out. His book is so good and so thoroughly researched that it does not make any difference. This goes to a point I have made about this column before: there are a lot of ways to understand screenwriting. You will notice sometimes I have quotes from the writers. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I discuss producers’ contributions, both good and bad, to screenplays. Sometimes I will discuss studios and networks and their part in the collaborative process. What I try to do in the column, and what Sikov does brilliantly in his book, is gather as great a variety of information as we can and organize it in ways that will educate and entertain readers. If you have any interest in Wilder, you probably have already read Sikov’s book. If you haven’t read it, it really is required reading.

I Am Love (2009. Screenplay by Luca Guadagnino & Barbara Alberti & Ivan Cotroneo & Walter Fasano, story by Luca Guadagnino. 120 minutes.)

I Am Love

Letters to Juliet goes to the art house: A serious, sweeping, romantic story set in Italy with one of our finest actresses in a part developed specifically for and with her. What could possibly go wrong? A lot, it turns out.

Guadagnino, who also directs, has worked with Tilda Swinton before on two films, and they have been talking about this one for several years. According to Peter Debruge’s article on the film in the May/June issue of Creative Screenwriting, Guadagnino came up with the original story, then worked with Alberti to fill in the details. Then Guadagnino had Cotroneo cut down the overlong script Guadagnino and Alberti had written. Guadagnino felt Cotroneo’s draft “lost complexity and pace,” so he worked with Fasano on another draft. They have all certainly created a star vehicle for Swinton, and she gives it everything she’s got. What got lost along the way was a lot of material on, for example, the problems of the Recchi family, which was influenced by Guadagnino’s love of Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family. What the writers ended up doing (and there were rewrites up through the production) was dropping everything else needed to make the film work as anything other than a vehicle.

I liked the opening shots of the film. If you know the film is set in Italy, you are expecting warmth and sun, but what we get are shots of Milan in the dead of winter, covered in snow. Who knew they had snow in Italy? Well, what other Italian films have you seen that had a lot of snow? Then we get a family dinner with the Recchis, who own a large textile business. It is Christmastime, but it is also the birthday of the grandfather, who is announcing he is turning over the business to his son and grandson. Because of the cuts in the script, we don’t really get to know the family members here, or get much beyond the change of the family business. Compare it to the opening half hour of The Godfather (1972) in which we get to know a lot of people and are introduced to a lot of plot lines. Or, more recently, the opening sequence in Summer Hours (2008, See US #27), where we get hints of the characters that are later developed. The other characters in I Am Love, especially the other family members, are generally not developed. I have written on many occasions about the importance of establishing characters and situations, and we will see in this film how not doing well in this opening scene—and elsewhere—hurts the film.

So we get sort of introduced to the family, but then we do not get any forward movement until 26 minutes into the film. (That is exactly when screenwriting guru Syd Field says the first plot point should come. I cannot imagine the four writers here read Field, but you never know.) The plot point here is a relatively small one: Emma (Swinton), the wife and mother, discovers her daughter, Elisabetta, is gay. And doesn’t have much of a reaction to it. Compare the lack of reaction to the Suarez family’s set of reactions to Justin coming out in the last episodes of Ugly Betty.

An hour into the two-hour movie, the story finally picks up with Emma falling in love with her son’s friend Antonio. She is a Russian who has married into this great Italian family; he appears to have a middle or lower-class background. What do they see in each other? We have no idea. They kiss, in an out-of-focus shot, or did they? It is not immediately clear if they did, or if it is just Emma’s fantasy. Swinton’s reaction in the next shot is interesting, but does not make clear that it was only a fantasy. A later fantasy appears to be one both of them are having, but again it is not clear. Anyway, they eventually start making love, out in the lovely Italian countryside. Relax, they are not freezing their privates; several months have passed since the first scene, and it is now summer. We literally get the birds (on the soundtrack) and bees (in close-up) as they roll around nude. The writers and the director fall into the classic problem of doing a sex scene: it is all too generic. We have no idea how THESE two people make love. Go back and look at the sex scenes between Nuke and Annie and Crash and Annie in Bull Durham (1988). Annie and Nuke do not do it the same way Annie and Crash do it.

Antonio is a chef, and Emma teaches him how to make a Russian soup she used to make for her son, Edoardo. You can see what is going to happen. Antonio prepares it for a big Recchi family dinner. Now how would you play the scene where Edoardo realizes what is going on? Simpler is better: he could see the soup and expressions of surprise, amusement, bafflement, jealousy, and realization can all cross his face. Nope, the writers give us a whole pile of cutaway shots that pound into our minds what he is thinking.

Later Emma and her husband, Tancredi, are in an empty church after a family tragedy. He gives her his coat to ward off the chill. She admits to her affair. His reaction? He takes back his coat. If Tancredi had been written and played as anything other than a block of wood, that detail could be telling. Here it’s not. It just seems silly. The writers have simply not established Tancredi well enough for it to pay off.

Emma decides to leave the family. The family housekeeper, who is presented as simply a loving soul, helps Emma pack. What other reactions can the housekeeper have? What if she says, “Take me with you”? Then what happens? No such luck. There is a moment as Emma is leaving where she faces Elisabetta. I think we are supposed to believe that Emma’s discovery of Elisabetta’s lesbianism has helped free her own inhibitions, but that has not been developed. If it had been, then Elisabetta’s slight nod of approval to her mother would have been a heart-stopping moment.

Emma leaves, leaving the door to the garden open. Well, it’s a nice garden—this is Italy after all—but Ibsen has pretty much told us that in situations like this, you slam the door.

Winter’s Bone (2010. Screenplay by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell. 100 minutes.)

Winter's Bone

Meanwhile, back in the real world…: In writing about Hamlet 2 in US#42 I mentioned it was one of those films that seemed to the audience at Sundance that it was a lot better than general audiences later thought it was. The same thing may be true, although not so drastically, with Winter’s Bone. The film won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which may tell you more about Sundance than it does about the film.

Like I Am Love, it starts out OK. In this case we learn visually that seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly lives in a cabin the backwoods of Missouri, takes care of her younger brother and sister because their dad, Jessup, has taken off and their mom is sick. Then we get the clear set-up for the story. The local sheriff comes by to tell them that Jessup had put up the house as collateral for his bail. He’s skipped out and if he does not show up for court, the family will lose the house. So far, so good. Ree is going to try to track down Jessup. Since he spends his time cooking up meth in a variety of locations, that may not be so easy.

So Ree goes off to talk to people who may know where Jessup is, many of whom are relations, both close and distant. This is the backwoods after all. So we get scene after scene of Ree going to people’s houses/shacks, asking the woman of the house if they have seen Jessup, and then being run off by the man of the house, usually with a weapon. I am sure the characterizations of all these people are completely accurate, but they are not very interesting. They all have the same sullen look and attitude, and it gets real hard to tell them apart. You keep hoping Ree will run into somebody with a little emotional flare. Hell, I’d settle for somebody who cracks a smile once or twice. The writing is very repetitive. Backwoods folks don’t want to snitch on their relatives. We get a little beyond that in what we find out about Jessup, but not much. Ree is a plucky character, but only within the limits of her world. Yes, she gets off a couple of zingers at all her sullen relatives, but that is hardly enough to hold our interest. Several reviews of this film have compared it to Precious (2009), and I have several of the same problems with this one that I did with that one (see US#38 for details on Precious).

The writers do give us a potentially great scene, which Granik as director does not get as much out of as she could. Without giving anything away, Ree is taken to see Jessup, but not in the way she thinks. Her relatives instruct her on how to get the information she needs to save the family home. It is scary and creepy, but Granik and Rosellini seem to be missing a humor gene that could turn the scene into a classic. After all, remember what happens after Norman Bates pushes Marion’s car into the swamp?

Video Slut: How I Shoved Madonna off an Olympic High Dive, Got Prince into a Pair of Tiny Purple Woolen Underpants, Ran Away from Michael Jackson’s Dad, and Got a Waterfall to Flow Backwards so I Could Bring Rock Videos to the Masses (2010. Book by Sharon Oreck. 245 pages)

Video SlutSorry, but I just couldn’t resist: I have never been much of a fan of music videos for exactly the same reasons I have never been a fan of porno movies: not enough plot or character. I know that is very old-fashioned of me, but it is just one of my character flaws. So what am I doing even reading a memoir by one of the leading producers of music videos in the ’80 and ‘90s, let alone writing about it in “Understanding Screenwriting”?

Sharon Oreck, the author and producer, was a student of mine at Los Angeles City College in the mid-‘70s. She came to us as an unwed mother in her teens who had dropped out of high school. As she says in the book, the LACC Cinema program was a perfect fit for her. She made friends there that got her jobs working on low-budget features, which led to her producing music videos in 1984. Since I don’t watch music videos, I haven’t seen most of the ones she writes about, but the rest of you may have.

The book, as you might guess from the title, is hilarious, and I laughed my ass off all the way through it. Oreck is a wonderful writer. The book is also moving in several sections, where she deals with her pregnancy and her having to close down her company. It is also wonderfully observant about the people she dealt with, and not just the stars like Prince and the Jacksons, but also all the bodyguards, hangers-on, crew people, music executives, et al. From a distance, making movies and music videos sounds glamorous, but it is hard work, and you have to deal with gigantic egos. The book is one of the most accurate portrayals I have read on trying to work with people who think they are geniuses.

There is very little discussion in the book about the writing of scripts for videos, since the scripts are more vague concepts than scripts as we know them, which is exactly why I have problems with videos: they are all concept and very little development. For all the surrealism in them, they tend to be visually repetitive, since the genre generally requires continually cutting back to the performer at least pretending to sing. OK, you see, I can bring anything around to screenwriting. So now go read the book and laugh your ass off.

This Is Korea! (1951. Narration written by James Warner Bellah, Frank Nugent, and John Ford, all uncredited. 50 minutes.)

This is KoreaUnseen, and understandably so: You may be aware that John Ford made documentaries for the government during World War II. You may even have seen his classic 1942 film Battle of Midway. And if you are lucky, you may have already laughed your ass off watching his 1941 Navy film Sex Hygiene. This is Korea! you probably have missed, unless you caught it a few weeks ago when Turner Classic Movies ran it as part of a program of films about the Korean War.

Since Ford was still in the Navy Reserve when the Korean War broke out, the Navy asked him to do a film about the war. The war started in June 1950, and in early 1951 he and several cameramen went to Korea. They were there for a month, and then Ford came back to the States and cut the picture. One of Ford’s weaknesses as a director was the lack of a strong sense of structure. See my comments on Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) in US#15. Here he simply had a lot of unrelated footage and did not find a way to put it together. Unlike Battle of Midway or its closest relative, John Huston’s San Pietro (1945), which deal with specific battles, there is no dramatic structure. We see a collection of shots of Korean children (Huston puts the Italian children at the end of San Pietro in a wonderful montage; Ford just starts with a bunch of kids), then shots of American soldiers marching and fighting. Ford cuts away to military leaders he admires, but for no other reason than his admiration.

Ford got James Warner Bellah, who had written the stories Fort Apache and Yellow Ribbon were based on, to write a narration for the film. Ford also got Frank Nugent, who had written the scripts for those two, to write another narration. As Ford’s grandson Dan Ford says in his book Pappy: The Life of John Ford, “Nugent’s narration was more cinematic and logical, but it lacked the emotion and intensity of Bellah’s.” Ford edited the two versions into one. On Midway, he had had James Kevin MacGuinness rewrite Dudley Nichols poetic narration into something more emotional, and he was trying to do the same thing here, but the final narration in Korea is simply unfocused. Not unlike the war itself, which may have been the problem, as in the final section of the film, where the narration suggests that the soldiers do not know what the war was about, which contradicts the occasional fervent anti-communism of the first part.

The film was released briefly in theatres, with Herbert J. Yates, the head of Republic Pictures, which distributed it, and the Navy arguing who would get the profits. There were no profits, and the film slipped into oblivion.

The Desert Rats (1953. Written by Richard Murphy. 88 minutes.)

The Desert RatsAre we apologizing this year?: As I mentioned in US#15 while writing about Valkyrie (2008), in 1950 Nunnally Johnson wrote and produced The Desert Fox, an intelligent look at Field Marshal Rommel’s involvement in the July 20th plot to kill Hitler. The film was a hit, but there were complaints both in the United States and Britain about so sympathetic portrait of a German officer only five years after the end of the war. Normally studios do not make reparations for films that make money, but Fox followed Fox up with Rats three years later, and even a dunderhead critic like the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther thought that it showed signs of being an apology.

The script in this case is by Richard Murphy, whom you may remember I have written favorably about before. In US#12, I suggested Fox put out a four-pack DVD of his films. The current script is one not up to the two I dealt with before, Boomerang! (1947) and Panic in the Streets (1950), even though it was nominated for an Oscar for best story and screenplay. The script deals with the British defense of Tobruk during the African campaign in 1941. Capt. Roberts, a Scottish officer (although Richard Burton makes him vocally Welsh), takes over a new unit of Australian soldiers. He tightens up the discipline, a plot line not unlike that of Fox’s much better 1949 film Twelve O’Clock High, and they put up a spirited and successful defense against Rommel. The script is rather lumpy and episodic. We get a first battle on the front lines, then a night raid against a German ammunition dump, and finally Roberts’s unit holding the perimeter until re-enforcements from Cairo arrive. In addition to all this there is Roberts’s relationship with an unlisted man, Tommy, who used to be his teacher years before. Tommy is something of a coward, but nothing much comes out of that.

The film seems an apology for The Desert Fox in two ways. First, it praises the Brits and the Aussies who beat Rommel. The second way is more interesting. James Mason plays Rommel both in Fox and here. In Fox, his Rommel is subtle, intelligent, witty, a bit vain and, like all the other Germans, he speaks the King’s English flawlessly. In Rats there is nothing subtle about him. He speaks German in his first two scenes, and then very guttural English in a scene where he talks to the captured Capt. Roberts. In other words, same actor, but the writing and the performance have turned the character into a conventional Nazi.

Oddly enough, I think it is the Roberts-Rommel scene that may have been what got the script its nomination. Even though Rommel is something of a cliché in the scene, we still see some of the intelligence we saw in Fox as he tries to get information out of Roberts. And Roberts is just as intelligent in parrying Rommel’s thrusts. It also helps, of course that you have James Mason and Richard Burton carrying your water.

Hot in Cleveland (2010. “Pilot” and “Who’s Your Momma?” episodes written by Suzanne Martin. Each episode 30 minutes.)

Hot in Cleveland

What do you believe?: In the opening scene of the pilot, Melanie, Joy and Victoria are on a plane flying to Paris for a vacation. The jokes start fast about these women being over the hill. I am sorry, but Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Mallick are not over the hill. Bertinelli does not look as though she has aged a day since she was a teenager in One Day at a Time back in the ‘70s. So the jokes do not have a ring of truth about them, which the best jokes usually do. But both the women characters and the show itself seem to buy into the Hollywood idea that any woman over the age of 21 is on a downhill slide. Now you might get away with having the women believe that, but it seems really stupid for the show to believe it. The show seems to think that the humor will be in making fun of the women’s ages rather than in the more transgressive approach of assuming the women are not over the hill and making the attitude that they are look ridiculous. And the women behave stupidly in the first scene as well, especially when they think the plane may crash. Wouldn’t at least one of them not shriek?

So the plane makes an emergency landing in Cleveland, the three women go into a bar and, lo and behold, the men look at them as though they are as attractive as they really are. Granted, the women are from L.A., so one can understand their surprise, but the show seems to think men finding women their own age attractive is a bizarre occurrence that can only happen in Cleveland. Melanie, who met her ex-husband and his younger trophy fiancee on the plane, hooks up with a plumber and spends the night with him. She decides to stay in Cleveland, even though she finds out later he is married. Joy and Victoria decide to stay with her in Cleveland for the two weeks they had planned to be in Paris. Obviously they will stay longer, or there is no series.

The second episode, “Who’s Your Momma?”, is a little bit better. Martin is not beating us over the head with the age business, but way too much of the show is still jokes rather than character humor. The women are not completely stupid in this episode, and Victoria’s hanging out at the Big ’n’ Easy store, where customers recognize her from her years on a soap opera makes sense. We get a potential character story arc with Joy, who dates a young man she realizes may be the son he had as a teenager and gave up for adoption. The scenes that work out that story are not as well written as they might be.

It remains to be seen as to whether the attitude of the show towards these three women can develop beyond the cliché. It also remains to be seen what the franchise of the show is. The setup for the show is that they are women of a certain age dealing with their new life, but the franchise is: what do they do? Lucy Ricardo wanted to get into show business. Detectives solve crimes. Doctors treat patients. What are we going to want to watch these women do for 13, 22, 44, or however many, episodes?

Some Summer 2010 Television

Justified

Just a few to catch up on:

Justified came to a nice conclusion, sort of leaving it up in the air as to how straight Boyd Crowder has really gone. The two drivers from Miami kill Bo, Boyd’s dad, and while Boyd had it in mind to kill him himself, he’s got to light out after the one surviving driver, because, well, they killed his Pa. The backwoods characters in this show are much more interesting than those in Winter’s Bone, which raises a question. The people at Sundance saw Bone before Justified began its run. Would that have liked it as much if they saw the film after they saw the show, as I did? Or would I have liked the film better if I had not been watching Justified?

In Plain Sight has not brought Allison Janney-Pearson back, but has alas brought sister Brandi back, along with a guy who claims to be Brandi and Mary’s stepbrother. Kill him and bring back Allison, please.

Burn Notice has returned. Michael woke up in a room somewhere, and Vaughn, who presumably is with the Company or the Organization or whatever they call it, congratulates Michael for leading them to Simon, who is now locked away. So Michael is back in everybody’s good graces, except that he knows the people who worked to get Simon free are still out there. So Vaughn puts Michael to work and his first job ends up unknowingly burning another spy, Jesse. Oops. Needless to say, Michael is sympathetic to Jesse’s predicament and offers to help him, without telling him it was him who burned him. Jesse says that he will find whoever burned him and kill him. So we have that to look forward to in this season. Meanwhile, Jesse joins the team, and the various writers have created an interesting situation of the new kid trying to fit into the threesome. Fi doesn’t like him, then does when he suggests some kind of violence. Jesse changes the group dynamics in some ways that are going to be fun to watch. Well, of course they will be.

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: Aya Koretzky’s Around the World When You Were My Age

Across the film, the most idiosyncratic reactions of an ordinary human become real documents of human history.

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Around the World When You Were My Age
Photo: Crim Productions

Jiro Koretzky left his native Japan in 1979 for a year-long trip around the world, from Moscow all the way to Beirut, mostly traveling in his white Ford Taunus. Jiro spent time in Scandinavia, Yugoslavia, North Africa, and Syria, and by the time he was ready to fly back home, the young man had discovered the one thing missing from the hyper-organization of Japanese cities: passion. Almost four decades later, his daughter, filmmaker Aya Koretzky, happened upon a metallic box full of photographic slides and detailed diary entries that Jiro amassed during his journey and decided to make a film about it. The result is Around the World When You Were My Age, and it’s a beautiful tribute to her father’s passion.

The boxy format of Koretzky’s Bolex camera mimics the proportions of her father’s original 16mm and 35mm slides. This may give the impression of a filmmaker who’s merely stitching old swatches together, but Around the World When You Were My Age isn’t a found-footage film. Koretzky’s poetic interventions, through reenactment and narration, attest to a self-ethnography bearing the freshest of fruits. This is a case of cinematic intimacy that renders visible old transmissions between father and daughter as much as it yields new ones.

Here, Koretzky’s opening of her father’s box, where Jiro’s memories lay dormant for so long, is a kind of cracking of her symbolic DNA—the one that carries the key to the generational transmission of emotions instead of genetic material. Or, perhaps, the filmmaker’s unearthing of what the father once buried is something like the reading of a father’s will before his demise. Except the inheritance here has already been distributed throughout Koretzky’s upbringing: her artistic sensibility, her fondness for silence, and her peripatetic urge. As the unconscious and the ineffable are made tangible through the cinematic image in a delicate father-daughter duet, she now knows where her own passions came from.

Koretzky performs her excavations gently and respectfully, refusing the position of the filmmaker offspring hellbent on settling old scores or demystifying the presumable bliss of family albums. Instead, she performs the humble contemplation of those who are genuinely curious—the ones we would trust to peruse our most special private collections. Koretzy is open to whatever the archive happens to bring without hoping to impose order in what is, by design, volatile and loose, like the most inextinguishable of sensations. Around the World When You Were My Age, then, is much closer to a series of lyrical vignettes (shades of Jonas Mekas and Michel de Montaigne) than to what we have come to expect from filmmakers who utilize their own relatives to (re-)write family narratives.

Across the film, the most idiosyncratic reactions of an ordinary human become real documents of human history. We see what the world looked like in 1979 and what it felt like to exist in it as a foreign flaneur. We learn that Moscow felt so large that it was as if there was “no human scale,” that the comforts of Helsinki were only rivaled by its monotony and absence of human presence, that everything in Stockholm was expensive except for milk, and that in the south of Italy one could sense “the whole of Europe condensed” in one little instant, while eating spaghetti to the sound of an accordion played by the homeless.

The film’s voiceover, by father and daughter, mostly consists of readings from Jiro’s diary. But Koretzky also knows exactly when narration, no matter how pretty, must go quiet—so that the objects in the frame can speak for themselves. Some of the most memorable sequences in the film are when all we hear are the noises made by scissors, a broom, an analog camera, the waiving of a polaroid, a finger retracing a journey on a paper map, or a slug slithering on a globe. Sudden moments of complete silence also remind us that the filmmaker’s commitment isn’t necessarily to information or knowledge, but to the poetics of feeling.

Director: Aya Koretzky Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Vast of Night Is a Wistful Riff on the Intimacy of Radio Dramas

The filmmakers patiently savor the great thrill of genre stories: anticipation.

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The Vast of Night
Photo: Amazon Studios

Early in The Vast of Night, there’s a striking tracking shot through the gymnasium of a high school in the fictional 1950s-era town of Cayuga, New Mexico. The gym is being prepared for the big basketball game that night, and we’re shown how various students and professionals work together to complete this task, talking over one another with a propulsive snappiness that evokes a Howard Hawks comedy. The sequence is exhilarating, especially because one doesn’t normally encounter such verbal and visual intricacy in a genre film. But it’s also misleading, as it suggests that The Vast of Night will involve a wide cast of characters, though it’s closer to a two-hander between a local radio DJ, Everett (Jake Horowitz), and a high school student, Fay (Sierra McCormick), who works the town switchboard and shares Everett’s fascination with radios, recorders, and the like.

As Everett and Fay converge inside the gym, director Andrew Patterson has the wit to allow us to believe that we’re discovering these characters for ourselves as the camera just happens to land on them. Right away, they radiate their intelligence in contrasting fashions: Everett is confident yet sarcastic, on the border of being a know-it-all, while Faye is earnest and attentive. They exist somewhat apart from the Cayuga community at large, and they quickly shunt off to their respective offices, the churches of their obsessions. The Vast of Night is a homage to genre shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, even featuring its own faux credits montage, but it’s truly a riff on the intimacy of radio dramas.

Patterson’s tracking shots and big, soft, beautiful Scope images are clearly indebted to John Carpenter’s films. Yet Patterson has absorbed more than Carpenter’s pyrotechnical style, as he understands the melancholy soulfulness of the legend’s best work. With its obsession with radio callers, who gradually reveal a potential alien invasion, The Vast of Night most explicitly suggests the radio station-set scenes from The Fog if they were to be expanded to compose an entire film. Talking to people in radio land who recognize an eerie droning sound that comes through on a phone line, Everett and Faye clearly relish the collaboration of solving a mystery and of symbolically assembling their own radio thriller. And Patterson and screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger never break the incantatory spell with pointless freneticism, patiently savoring the great thrill of genre stories: anticipation.

The Vast of Night features several long monologues in which older people tell Everett and Faye of their experiences with clandestine military projects. Informed with a hushed intensity, these monologues allow various political resonances to seep into the narrative. For example, one caller (Bruce Davis) to Everett’s radio show doesn’t expect anyone to believe him because he’s black and elderly, a suspicion that he acknowledges with a poignant matter-of-factness. And as Everett and Faye hear increasingly odd stories, you may find yourself reconsidering that tracking shot at the start of the film, which captured a breadth of community from which Everett and Faye largely exclude themselves. They’re uncovering the sadness lurking under a small town—the racism, communist paranoia, and heartbreaks that cause people to yearn for a supernatural explanation as a way of evading their sense of helplessness.

Late into The Vast of Night, Patterson springs another tracking shot that reveals the proximity of Cayuga High School, the town’s switchboard, and the radio station to each other. They’re all close to one another but separated at night by gulfs of darkness and emptiness. The film doesn’t offer much in the way of a payoff, lacking the kinetic savagery of Bruce McDonald’s similarly themed Pontypool, but that’s the point. The lovely, wistful The Vast of Night pivots instead on a decidedly friendlier vision of localized culture, decades before corporations would unify most radio into a detached, impersonal stream of advertisements.

Cast: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer, Bruce Davis, Cheyenne Barton, Gregory Peyton, Mallorie Rodak, Mollie Milligan, Ingrid Fease, Pam Dougherty Director: Andrew Patterson Screenwriter: James Montague, Craig W. Sanger Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 91 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: On the Record Is a Richly Contextualized Look at Rape Culture

On the Record implicates nothing less than the entirety of American culture in hip-hop’s sins.

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On the Record
Photo: HBO

Misogyny has been a sticking point for critics of hip-hop ever since the genre became a cultural phenomenon in the late 1980s and ‘90s. For those who not only value the artistry of hip-hop, but also recognize it as the defiant aesthetic expression of an oppressed population, calling out systemic sexism within that culture is a fraught undertaking. The accusation that rappers perpetuate demeaning ideas about women can also serve as ammunition for conservatives uncomfortable with black self-expression—and, moreover, can feed into historical representations of black men as inherently sexually aggressive.

As Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s documentary On The Record stresses, a fear of betraying black America as a whole has led to a culture of silence among black women involved in the music industry that may be even more pervasive than that in the white Hollywood circles where the Me Too movement has been the most visible. When they do come forward, these women are inevitably speaking against the backdrop of the sordid, shameful role black sexuality has played in America’s oppression of its black population—to the lynchings of black men on accusations of sexual transgression, to the Senate’s steamrolling of Anita Hill in 1992.

The film focuses on the sexual assault allegations that led to hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons’s 2017 fall from grace, and in particular on former Def Jam executive Drew Dixon’s mindset as she brings herself to tell her story to the New York Times. But thanks to dips into history that show the roots of black misogyny in the abuses and iniquities of a racist society, as well as a critical mass of testimonies from activists and academics that provide a contextual framework, On the Record implicates nothing less than the entirety of American culture in hip-hop’s sins. At the origin of black women’s reticence stands nothing other than slavery, the U.S.’s original sin, which began the dehumanizing tradition of treating black women as disposable sexual objects and viewing black men as potentially dangerous sexual predators.

Simmons’ victims’ sense of their own complex relations to such historical power structures emerges from the film’s lucid recounting of the sexual assault allegations against him. “I didn’t want to let the culture down,” Dixon explains of her decision to keep the fact that Simmons raped her in 1995 private for more than two decades. As a black woman, she felt she faced additional pressure to stay quiet and limit her—and Simmons’s—exposure. Beyond her concern about detonating the career of an important black figure, she recalls watching Hill’s testimony during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings and realizing that when a woman publicly accuses a man of serious sexual violations, the perverse result is that the perpetrator is able to align his reaction with that of the public, affecting disgust and outrage. As the accuser, she says, “you are defiled again because you have to tell people, and it’s on your lips.”

There’s a tragic irony here that a more literary-minded documentary might bring to the fore: that a musical form focused so intently on the power of the spoken word—and on the black voice in particular—gives rise, in its thoroughly capitalized form, to a culture that denies the voices of black women. Hip-hop attained mass appeal in part by leaning hard into hypermasculine display and “explicit” lyrics, but now, like the old boys’ club of the 1991 U.S. Senate, institutional hip-hop stands aghast at the words on the lips of abused women. Simmons has persisted in his denial of any wrongdoing whatsoever, and as with so many powerful men, the chorus that sprung up to defend him was only slightly tempered by the accelerating accumulation of accusers. (Dixon was among the first four accusers; there have been 16 more, many of whom appear in the documentary.)

On the Record lets such abstract themes as who gets a voice in hip-hop remain mostly implicit. As in Dick’s The Hunting Ground, which Ziering produced and documented the prevalence of rape on college campuses, the filmmakers approach their subject with journalistic rigor, leaving the interpretation to Dixon and the other interviewees. “We all lose when brilliant women go away,” rues former Source writer Kiera Mayo toward the end of the film, reflecting on how, despite her successes, Dixon left the industry after continued harassment by Simmons and Arista chief L.A. Reid. It’s a melancholy realization. While the culture of ‘90s hip-hop has become an object of nostalgic longing akin to boomers’ beloved classic rock (as evidenced by films like Straight Outta Compton), On the Record suggests a different vision of the era—one that longs more for what could have been than what was.

Director: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering Distributor: HBO Max Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: As Melodrama, The High Note Barely Strikes a Chord

Everything here wraps up as tidily as it does in your average Hallmark Channel movie.

1.5

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The High Note
Photo: Focus Features

Nisha Ganatra’s The High Note is ostensibly about the virtues of taking risks in art-making, of sacrificing the comforts of coasting on past successes for the hard-won rewards of creating something new. And yet the film itself is as formulaic as they come, an agglomeration of soap-operatic story beats and music-industry clichés whose low-key tone may be an attempt at channeling the naturalism of Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born but comes off instead as tentative, as if Ganatra were afraid of really leaning into the big, unruly emotions simmering beneath The High Note’s placid surface.

At the heart of the film is the ambition and self-doubt of Maggie Sherwood (Dakota Johnson), a personal assistant who dreams of producing records, and her boss, Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), a Diana Ross-like diva facing a crossroads in her career. Grace is deciding whether she wants to risk her legacy by releasing a new album or take the easy road by accepting an offer to headline her own show at Caesars Palace. Her longtime manager (Ice Cube) presses her to cash out with the Vegas residency, but Maggie encourages her—as much as she can, given her relatively junior position—to make some new music. Meanwhile, Maggie covertly produces her own mixes of Grace’s live recordings in the hopes that she can convince Grace to hire her instead of a slick EDM producer (Diplo, playing an air-headed version of himself) who wants to bury her soulful pipes under layers of Auto-Tune and pounding beats.

Flora Greeson’s screenplay is peppered with some clear-eyed wisdom about the entertainment world, such as its observations about the way that so much of the music industry is based around managing artists’ deep-seated insecurities. The characters’ occasional speechifying about the difficult position that women in music often face is on point, if a bit perfunctory, but more incisively, it’s used to subtly suggest the way that these very real obstacles can be used as scapegoats by people, like Grace, who are afraid to simply put themselves out there. But these brief moments of insight are largely overridden by the film’s weak-kneed plotting, repetitiveness, and corny contrivances. Practically every conflict the film raises is resolved just a few scenes later. The film never allows its characters to do anything cruel or mean or misguided without almost immediately absolving them of responsibility.

Nowhere is this tendency more prevalent than in a subplot involving Maggie’s relationship with a talented but self-doubting musician, David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Everything comes to a head when Maggie attempts to orchestrate a plan to get the opening act (Eddie Izzard) for Grace’s live-album release party to drop out, which will give David the opportunity to perform in front of a bunch of industry big wigs, not to mention Grace herself. While in a different film, this scheme might have served as a big hokey climax, here the whole thing summarily blows up in Maggie’s face, causing her to get fired by Grace and get dumped by David. But while that semi-subversion of our expectations is certainly welcome, The High Note simply trades one unconvincing plot contrivance for another when, just a few scenes later, a major revelation precipitates a rapid succession of reconciliations between characters.

Everything wraps up as tidily as it does in your average Hallmark Channel movie, with no character being forced to sacrifice anything or make a truly difficult decision. Maggie, Grace, and David all make up and record an album together (Maggie naturally produces), and the film closes with Grace and David performing a triumphant concert for a huge crowd of screaming fans as Maggie watches adoringly from backstage. The characters in The High Note talk a lot about the unfair challenges of the music world, but the film ultimately reaffirms what the audience already knows: that success has a lot more to do with who you know—and who you’re related to—than it does about hard work or artistic integrity.

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Zoë Chao, Ice Cube, June Diane Raphael, Deniz Akdeniz, Bill Pullman, Eddie Izzard, Diplo Director: Nisha Ganatra Screenwriter: Flora Greeson Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 113 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: In Darya Zhuk’s Crystal Swan, Touching Is Dreaming

Throughout the film, it’s as if mundane objects hold the remedies for the wretchedness of everyday life.

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Crystal Swan
Photo: Loco Films

Darya Zhuk’s 1990s-set Crystal Swan centers around Velya (Alina Nasibullina), a young woman who refuses to conform to the provincial miserabilism of Belarusian life. Being a DJ, house music provides her with some much-needed escapism, but she dreams of fleeing to America—or, at least, a fantasy of America where every kid has their own bedroom and parents knock before they come in. That’s the antithesis of Velya’s life in Minsk, where her mother (Svetlana Anikey) spends her days chastising Velya and mourning the troubles caused by the collapse of communism: no money, no pension, no rules.

In order to obtain a tourist visa, Velya needs to show the American embassy that she has strong links to her place of residence. The jobless young woman pretends, then, that she’s a manager at a crystal-making factory, putting down a fake number for the workplace on the application form. But when she’s told that the embassy will call her back in the next few days, Velya rushes to find the home associated with the random number she made up.

Eventually, Velya discovers that the number belongs to a family in the countryside who are in the midst of making preparations for the wedding of their eldest son, Stepan (Ivan Mulin), a bitter young man traumatized by his days in the army and resigned to marrying a woman he doesn’t love. Velya ends up spending the next two days with the dysfunctional family as she tries to convince them to lie for her when the embassy calls. The presence of a weird girl from Minsk trying to use the supposed simpletons so she can flee to America makes some in the family resent her and others to question their previously held truths, as if Velya brought with her from the big city the prickly reminder that resignation is not all there is to life.

Zhuk crafts an exquisite tale of doom and gloom colored by a farcical ethos, from Velya’s no-holds-barred audacity and kookiness (shades of Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan) to the physical comedy-derived drunkenness as the lingua franca of family get-togethers. But the film’s most remarkable quality is perhaps the way Zhuk so delicately arranges these two currents—namely, the more absurd elements that initiate the film and the progressively visceral sequences where Velya might as well be the little girl with the dead cat in Sátántangó, a much more nihilistic take on post-Soviet desolation. In the latter moments, Velya assumes the position of the terrified child watching the pathetic theater of her elders through the window, and the desolate future that awaits her if she doesn’t run for the hills.

Crystal Swan is also rich in analogical pleasures, which are rooted in the film’s narrative premise and rife with metaphorical possibilities, as in the way Zhuk pays special attention to the materiality of ‘90s objects and the sounds they make. The entire plot revolves around a telephone that will supposedly ring. But when and if it does, will Velya be there to answer it? Will anyone be around to hear it? Bulky phonebooths, posters on teenager’s walls, the mechanical clicking of a photo camera—none of it feels like anodyne technological kinks.

When a VHS tape gets stuck in a VCR, people are forced to go outside and play. Cassette tapes appear as a potentially radical archive passed on to Stepan’s younger brother, Kostya (Ilya Kapanets), who may think twice—thanks to the liberating power of house music—about the naturalization of violence. It’s as if mundane objects hold the remedies for the wretchedness of everyday life. How they work and how they break appear as opportunities for daring to seize the possibility of going elsewhere and for debunking supposedly irreversible things.

Cast: Alina Nasibullina, Ivan Mulin, Yuriy Borisov, Svetlana Anikey, Ilya Kapanets, Anastasia Garvey, Lyudmila Razumova Director: Darya Zhuk Screenwriter: Helga Landauer, Darya Zhuk Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Lovebirds Is Weighed Down by Plot Incident and Silly Twists

Once the film shifts into a broader comedic register, it no longer capitalizes on Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae’s gift for gab.

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Lovebirds

Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae) are past the honeymoon phase depicted in the brief prologue to The Lovebirds. When we pick up with them four years later, they’re in the midst of a heated argument that, after some time, reveals itself to be about something far more petty than it first appears: whether they can win The Amazing Race.

At its best, Michael Showalter’s film revels in loose, digressive humor, as in a scene where Jibran and Leilani discuss the differences between a gangbang and an orgy. The couple is playful and clever in equal measure, yet every fight between them confirms that their relationship is past its due date. That is, until an encounter with a killer cop (Paul Sparks) on their way to a friend’s party that makes them realize that they’re better off together—at least until they can exonerate themselves for the crime that will likely be pinned on them.

The film’s opening act banks heavily on the chemistry between Nanjiani and Rae, who effortlessly bounce witty, seemingly improvised lines off one another. Throughout, you don’t doubt that their characters are still very much in love, even as you understand that they’ve grown tired of dealing with each other’s shortcomings. When the film rests primarily on Nanjiani and Rae’s verbal riffing, it’s quite winning and consistent in delivering jokes that are not only funny, but also speak to the root causes of Jibran and Leilani’s personality clashes.

While it’s initially content to keep its focus on the bickering duo as they continue to drive each other mad while trying to solve the murder they witnessed, The Lovebirds regrettably becomes weighed down by plot incident and silly twists. The film foists the couple into a bizarre underworld of political corruption, widespread blackmail, and sex cults, shifting into a significantly broader comedic register that no longer capitalizes on its stars’ gift for gab. As Jibran and Leilani’s relationship woes progressively take a back seat to the formulaic unfolding of a needlessly convoluted, and rather dull, mystery, The Lovebirds slowly derails as it settles into the predictable patterns of many of the action rom-coms that have come before it.

Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Issa Rae, Paul Sparks, Anna Camp, Kyle Bornheimer, Catherine Cohen, Barry Rothbart, Andrene Ward-Hammond, Moses Storm Director: Michael Showalter Screenwriter: Aaron Abrams, Brendan Gall Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Painter and the Thief Suggests an Intimate Hall of Mirrors

Throughout the documentary, Benjamin Ree upsets conventions, offering a moving portrait of two lost souls.

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The Painter and the Thief
Photo: Neon

For The Painter and the Thief, director Benjamin Ree filmed Oslo-based painter Barbora Kysilkova for three years as she befriended Karl-Bertil Nordland, a drug addict who was convicted of stealing two of her paintings from a museum. The documentary initially thrives on forms of misdirection, as Ree allows us to believe that we’re watching a traditional study of contrasts: between an established professional woman and a tormented bad boy. We’re also led to assume, potentially by our own prejudices, that Kysilkova will be the film’s central consciousness, with Nordland as an intimidating and remote “other.” Through skillful chronological scrambling that consistently redefines moments, underscoring the subjectivity of each person, Ree upsets these conventions, offering a moving portrait of two lost souls.

The Painter and the Thief suggests an intimate hall of mirrors, in which artistic creation parallels addiction. Kysilkova responds to Nordland’s life force, basing several drawings on him, while Ree utilizes them both for his cinema, while Nordland at times consumes drugs, particularly during a painful relapse. No person is singularly understood as being “used” here, as the various relationships are symbiotic, with Nordland’s addiction suggesting a substitute for the intoxication that Kysilkova and Ree achieve through art-making. Nordland has the soul of an artist as well, as he’s sensitive, observant, and given to poetic observations, suggesting a vessel who’s looking for a purpose, which Ree and Kysilkova each provide. (You may wish that Ree had brought himself more into his own frames, adding another mirror and deepening the film’s auto-critical texture in the tradition of, say, Robert Greene’s work, but Ree probably, and understandably, didn’t wish to distract from his commanding subjects.)

In a primordially powerful moment, Nordland weeps when he sees the first photoreal canvas that Kysilkova has rendered of him, as she’s turned him into an elegant man in a white hoodie swishing a glass of red wine. In her lifelike yet slightly stylized paintings, Kysilkova physicalizes Nordland’s dreams of stability and respectability, granting him the gift of her attention. The paintings allow Nordland to enter a world he felt beyond him, symbolically rejoining community after years of the semi-isolation that’s fostered by addiction. Little of these impressions are directly expressed, which would dilute the spell, but Ree’s intimate compositions allow us to feel as if we can read the stirrings of Kysilkova and Nordland’s souls.

We first see the thief through the painter’s eyes. Tall, with a lean, tatted-up frame, Nordland is charismatic and sexy, suggesting an outlaw version of actor Timothy Olyphant. There’s something else about Nordland that perhaps only people with experience with addiction will be especially alive to: His visceral emotional pain suggests a perpetual atonement for his wrongdoings, and this atonement suggest the potential for transcendence, which appeals to artists and people with savior complexes, such as Kysilkova.

Transcendence arrives much later when Nordland goes to prison for another crime, after a lengthy stay in a hospital for a car accident that nearly killed him, and gradually cleans up, grows out a beard, and puts flesh as well as muscle on his body. Nordland is a stubborn survivor who’s willing to suffer for the camera and canvas alike; he’s volatile, profoundly lucky, and seems to achieve a hard-won grace. Drinking coffee with Kysilkova near the end of The Painter and the Thief, he’s softer, cuddlier, and less threatening that he was before prison, and, rediscovering carpentry, he’s even becoming an artist. At a certain point in the film, Nordland resembles less a subject of Kysilkova’s than an old coconspirator.

The viewer also sees the painter through the thief’s eyes, though these alternating perspectives harmonize as Ree continues to hopscotch around in time, offering more context and allowing us to grow to love both people equally. While Kysilkova sees Nordland, Ree sees both of them, to whom he has astonishing access. Meanwhile, Nordland also sees more of Kysilkova than she probably knows, as Ree has an acute understanding of how people can damn near smell one another’s pain, finding their own emotional water level. Kysilkova was once abused by a boyfriend and fled to Oslo to escape him. Devastated, she gave up painting for a while until a new boyfriend helped to rehabilitate her self-confidence. And the first painting she created upon her rebirth, “Swan Song,” is one of the ones that Nordland stole with an accomplice who wasn’t caught. This resonance is almost too good to be true, as Nordland almost literally accessed the secret heart of Kysilkova’s torment.

One of the film’s most palpable tensions is pointedly undiscussed. Kysilkova and Nordland appear to be attracted to one another, and they touch and converse with the sort of casual sureness that usually arises from sustained romance. Perhaps Ree believes that the distinction between a sexual and artistic union is unimportant or none of our business, though Kysilkova’s boyfriend is clearly concerned at times. And maybe the distinction doesn’t matter, as Kysilkova and Nordland have enjoyed a relationship that seems to have healed them, allowing them to face their gnawing hatred of themselves. Whatever labels are applied and whatever other additional actions were taken, Ree has caught a love story in a bottle.

Regardless of their romantic status, The Painter and the Thief ends with an unmistakable consummation: on a medium shot of Kysilkova’s painting of the pair laying intimately on a couch together, Kysilkova’s face replacing that of Nordland’s ex-girlfriend, the actual model for the painting. This is a projection of Kysilkova’s, perhaps of a desire she won’t or can’t actualize, which she instead utilizes to fashion a beguiling, idealized communion. In this canvas, the various social distinctions between Kysilkova and Nordland have been obliterated. Ree has enabled two people to broker a connection on camera in front of us. To capture such a birth, or to at least appear to, is to perform a kind of magic act.

Director: Benjamin Ree Distributor: Neon Running Time: 102 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Inheritance Is Elevated by Simon Pegg’s Effective Anti-Typecasting

Pegg occasionally fulfills the nightmarish potential of the film’s fairy-tale premise.

2.5

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Inheritance
Photo: Vertical Entertainment

Vaughn Stein’s Inheritance pivots on a good sick joke that suggests a near-literalization of the idiom “skeleton in the closet.” Lauren Monroe (Lily Collins) is a district attorney who pursues Wall Street hustlers as symbolic atonement for the wealth of her family, which includes a congressman brother, William (Chace Crawford), and a father, Archie (Patrick Warburton), who seems to be involved in a little bit of everything. William is running for reelection while Lauren is trying a huge case, and it’s believed that her victory will cement her brother’s own. But Archie dies suddenly, his will nearly stiffing Lauren of his money, though there are mysterious instructions left behind for her to investigate a family secret. Under the woods on the Monroe property is a bunker containing a man who calls himself Morgan (Simon Pegg) and claims to have been imprisoned by Archie down there for years.

The notion of a mogul keeping a prisoner underground on his property is delectably strange, suggesting the sickness—a true soul rot—of Archie’s ego. Morgan also resonates as an embodiment of Lauren’s fear that she can’t be free of her family’s sins, and that, if nudged by opportunity and desperation, she’s capable of committing those same sins. As Morgan says, if Lauren’s as good as she believes herself to be, she’d immediately spring him from his cage; instead, she plays a game of cat and mouse, somewhat reminiscent of the relationship at the center of The Silence of the Lambs, in which she hectors and consoles Morgan into revealing why Archie would take such insane effort and risk to contain him. Lauren even asks a question that will have occurred to most viewers: Why didn’t Archie just bump Morgan off?

The resolution of the film’s mystery is ordinary, though that isn’t surprising given that Matthew Kennedy’s script is host to all sorts of missed opportunities. Based on the opening montage, one expects the narrative to ping-pong between Lauren’s big case, William’s reelection campaign, and Lauren’s verbal duels with Morgan, but the various subplots are essentially left hanging by an ending that seems to be missing scenes. Inheritance also lacks the obsessive sense of interiority of a great thriller; it’s almost entirely composed of plot, with only passing emotional reverberations, which might’ve been stronger if Morgan’s presence were vividly shown to have an effect on Lauren’s relationships with her work and family, or if she had been more tempted to indulge her father’s potential penchant for evil. Lauren lacks the fevered torment and poignant self-loathing of Clarice Starling, as she’s essentially a tour guide leading us through the traps that Stein and Kennedy have devised.

Yet Inheritance is enjoyable nevertheless, mostly for Pegg’s effective anti-typecasting. Slim, with long gray hair and a region-less American accent, the actor informs a potentially gimmicky character with striking elegance. There’s an unexpectedly lovely moment when Lauren takes Morgan out of the bunker and he savors the darkness of the surrounding woods, observing that “it’s more beautiful than I remembered.” Pegg invests such scenes with pathos, allowing Morgan’s crisp voice to become momentarily, poetically halting. And Pegg occasionally fulfills the nightmarish potential of this fairy-tale premise, allowing one to savor the film’s central question: Is Morgan a figure in the key of Hansel or of the big bad wolf?

Cast: Lily Collins, Simon Pegg, Connie Nielsen, Patrick Warburton, Chace Crawford, Michael Beach, Marque Richardson, Rebecca Adams, Alec James, Josh Murray, Mariyah Frances, Lydia Hand Director: Vaughn Stein Screenwriter: Matthew Kennedy Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Trip to Greece Is a Bittersweet Tale of Mortality and Transience

The series’s ambient preoccupation with death is foregrounded more than ever before with this film’s main dramatic subplot.

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The Trip to Greece
Photo: IFC Films

Though its tone is set by the effortlessly charming, mostly improvised back and forth between its two stars, Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip series has often succeeded in exploring some relatively weighty topics, including aging, masculinity, and the nature of fame. Under the pretext of reviewing local restaurants for a newspaper, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon take a tour of historic regions around the world, and the films (edited down from six-part TV shows initially broadcast in the U.K.) have increasingly used their locations’ historical significance to cast these trips in a philosophical light. Previous installments were structured around trips taken by William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and now, The Trip to Greece sees the pair retracing the journey of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, from Turkey through modern Macedonia and Greece.

Among the pleasures of this series are Coogan and Brydon’s virtuoso celebrity impressions. Their competitive deconstruction of the vocal textures of Michael Caine was one particular highlight, proving not just hilarious but also fascinating on a technical level. There are some diminishing returns on this front in the final installment, though Brydon’s career-spanning Dustin Hoffman recital is a worthy addition to the canon. The progression of the films up to this point has also seen these compulsive impersonations, and other impromptu riffs, settle pleasingly into a leitmotif that suggests ideas of performance and identity.

Along with the notion of retracing the steps of some imposing cultural predecessors, the pair’s bantering hints subtly at the roleplay that’s often forced upon them, by their profession and their advancing years. Brydon mostly embraces the responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood, and his status as a “light entertainment” figure, while Coogan’s philandering and restless yearning for prestige casts him as the romantic hero of the tale. The conflict is spelled out plainly in one scene in The Trip to Greece, where the pair pose for photos with comedy and tragedy masks. This kind of gentle, surface-level symbolism has usually served the series’s themes in a more intriguing way than its occasional forays into contrived drama.

While this might seem an odd criticism to level at actors portraying themselves, there’s the sense that four successive installments of these travelogues have perhaps made the leads a little too comfortable in their respective roles. Despite the frequent references to Coogan ultimately being defined by the various iterations of beloved comedy creation Alan Partridge, he has now played himself on screen almost as often as his most famous character. This marks the sixth time he’s appeared as some version of the insecure, self-aggrandizing persona on which Patridge itself was based, with The Trip preceded by A Cock and Bull Story (another collaboration with Brydon and Winterbottom), and before that a segment in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes. The conceit has become familiar enough that it no longer generates the same amount of meta-textual tension that it once did, but it’s still refreshingly honest, and Brydon’s more grounded self-portrayal continues to serve as an effective foil.

The series’s ambient preoccupation with death is foregrounded more than ever before with this film’s main dramatic subplot, which sees Coogan worriedly inquiring about the health of his elderly father, who’s hospitalized back home in England. In one of the most lyrical moments in the whole series, he dreams that he’s being rowed along a body of water, before confronting his dad on the shore. Alluding to the dead being ferried across to the underworld in Greek mythology, this also foreshadows the inevitable outcome of the storyline, and brings an even deeper undercurrent to the mostly unspoken loneliness of his character.

As usual, the climactic moment of pathos is juxtaposed with a more light-hearted moment of familial joy, as Brydon’s wife, Sally (Rebecca Johnson), arrives to accompany him for the final leg of the trip—at the exact moment that Coogan leaves to pay his respects to his departed father. This synchronicity is an effective way of marrying together the film’s contrasting moods within its own strictly realist framework. The reassuring consistency of Winterbottom’s series over the last decade may have called for a more satisfying ending than The Trip to Greece offers, though it’s perhaps fitting that a bittersweet tale of mortality and transience should ultimately expose some of its own limitations but still leave us wanting more.

Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan, Rebecca Johnson, Marta Barrio, Tim Leach, Cordelia Bugeja, Justin Edwards, Richard Clews, Kareem Alkabbani Director: Michael Winterbottom Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Take Me Somewhere Nice Is a Beacon of Hope for Bosnia’s Future

It ends as a sincere story about a young woman’s emotional reconciliation with her alien, perpetually troubled place of origin.

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Take Me Somewhere Nice
Photo: Pupkin Film

Ena Sendijarevic’s Take Me Somewhere Nice doesn’t take us anywhere of the sort, even if much of its major action transpires amid scenic south-Balkan landscapes. A road-trip comedy with a caustic sense of irony and a hard emotional shell, it looks askance at nice places, whether that means the comfortable bourgeois settings of wealthy Western Europe or the verdant cliffs of the Bosnian coast. Sendijarevic brings a specifically Balkan world-weariness to the classically American form of the road movie, a disaffection that suffuses both her characters and her compositions, but by film’s end, even the highways of the former Yugoslavia prove that they can facilitate a journey of self-discovery.

The film’s scenario echoes, to some extent, Jim Jarmusch Stranger than Paradise: A young woman visits her and his friend, and after some listless sitting around, the trio goes on a fruitless journey. Here, though, the young woman, Alma (Sara Luna Zoric), is the daughter of Bosnian immigrants living in Holland, and she’s returning to her home country to visit her ailing father. And her cousin, Emir (Ernad Prnjavorac), and his buddy, Denis (Lazar Dragojevic), aren’t your typical Jarmuschian hipster losers. Emir’s affectless bearing has a distinct severity, and more than a tinge of misogyny; at one point, he and Denis essentially kidnap Alma after she refuses a ride from them, for which the jaded young woman quickly forgives them.

Emir resents Alma because she and her mother fled Bosnia during the war and never returned. When Alma first arrives in Sarajevo, he’s pointedly callous, refusing to give her a ride to the remote hospital where her father lies dying, and leaving her to fend for herself in a city and country she doesn’t really know. Although Denis becomes, after a fashion, Alma’s romantic interest, it’s the development of Emir’s relation to her that speaks most to Take Me Somewhere Nice’s concerns with homeland and heritage. Late in Sendijarevic’s film, Alma accuses Emir of being a nationalist as their old-model car shambles over uneven rural roads. He insists he’s a patriot: “One is based on hatred, the other on love.”

Despite Emir’s excursus on the meaning of patriotism, love isn’t readily apparent in his actions, or in the world of the film. Estranged from her father since he returned to Bosnia at the turn of the millennium, Alma clearly doesn’t know how to feel about him or about the homeland with which the film symbolically aligns him. But between the drolly symmetric compositions and excessively neutral affects that comprise much of Take Me Somewhere Nice, Sendijarevic smuggles in moments that border on emotional authenticity. Midway through her cross-country trip to the hospital, Alma is distracted by the serene beauty of the surrounding mountains while at a rest stop—missing her bus and losing all of her luggage. The next night, stranded at a hotel and dependent on strangers’ charity, she stares up at a starry night sky unclouded by the urban glow of the urbanized, first-world Europe she knows best.

It’s not terribly surprising, then, when Take Me Somewhere Nice ends with a small, allegorical glimmer of hope for Bosnia’s future, even after cultivating a bitingly ironic tone and alluding to some of the nastier aspects of life in the nation—like the store of water barrels Alma needs for clean bathing water in Sarajevo, or the macho bruisers who jump Denis for unwittingly using their lawn chairs to lounge on the beach. From beneath the defensive layers of distanced comic despair that Sendijarevic has built emerges a sincere story about Alma’s emotional reconciliation with her alien, perpetually troubled place of origin.

Cast: Sara Luna Zoric, Lazar Dragojevic, Ernad Prnjavorac, Sanja Buric Director: Ena Sendijarevic Screenwriter: Ena Sendijarevic Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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