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Understanding Screenwriting #52: Inception, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Story of Louis Pasteur, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #52: Inception, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Story of Louis Pasteur, & More

Coming up in this column: Inception, The Girl Who Played with Fire, City Island, The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Life of Emile Zola, but first…

Fan mail: David Ehrenstein opened up the whole can of worms, as is David’s wont, this time about famous script doctors that I will get around to dealing with when I write about a film that brings it up. He mentions particularly Robert Towne’s contributions to Bonnie and Clyde. Towne himself tends to downplay his work on that film, and my friend Elaine Lennon, who did her doctoral dissertation on Towne, tends to agree with Towne. At least on that issue.

Inception (2010. Written by Christopher Nolan. 148 minutes.)

Chris, meet Fred and Alain. Fred and Alain, meet Chris: I was a little surprised to read the Monday after Inception opened that the post-50 year old crowd liked the film least of all the demographics. With all the concerns going in about whether audiences would be able to keep up with the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream storytelling, I figured an age group that began their filmgoing careers with the films of Federico Fellini and Alain Resnais would have no trouble following the film. In 8 ½ (1963) Fellini is a master at jumping from reality to dreams to the past to conditional tenses without ever losing the audience. The viewers always think they know where they are, at least until Fellini pulls the rug out from under them. And in Providence (1977), Resnais and screenwriter David Mercer whip up an extraordinarily evocative and emotionally moving game involving dreams and reality, so much so that the film has a totally different feeling and meaning the second time you see it. One of these days I will have to see it for a third time and see what it turns into then.

What may have happened with my age cohorts is that they know Fellini and Resnais too well and were therefore not as dazzled as the younger generation. What may also have happened is that they found those earlier films more emotionally satisfying than Inception. For all their playing around with the medium, Fellini and Resnais base their films in the emotional reality of the characters and use their assorted cinematic devices to get into their characters. According to Jeff Goldsmith’s excellent article “The Architect of Dreams” in the July/August 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting, Nolan was very aware of the problem, and as the story evolved over the years he tried to get deeper into the emotional elements of the story. The problem is that he did not, certainly not on the level of Fellini and Resnais. There are scenes, particularly in the second half of the film with Cobb and his wife Mal as well as those with the senior and junior Fischers that should move us more than they do. Unfortunately they have not been emotionally prepared for. The Fischers are pretty much generic warring father and son, and Mal is an emotional enigma, even after we learn sort of what she is up to.

Nolan had the original inspiration for the film when he was 16. If there is any general rule the Matrix films (1999-2003) and Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) should have taught studios, it is never EVER let directors make films they first thought up when they were in their teens. Inception is not as stupid as those movies because Nolan has at least tried to develop the characters, but he has been unable to balance the concept of the film and the characters. Over the last eighty-some years since Un Chien Andalou (1929), surrealism has been domesticated in films and television, and Nolan is aware that he can take the audience anywhere. He is also aware that because movies can go anywhere, there had better be a reason why we are going there. He does make that clear, like Fellini on a good day, and the film is relatively easy to follow if you are paying attention. Nolan does a very good job at keeping the levels of dream and reality clear, but those levels are often mechanical and not as emotionally evocative as they could be. When Cobb goes into the deepest level to find Mal, we get a world he and Mal constructed. It is visually imaginative, but emotionally rather generic. The places they lived in obviously have meaning for him and for her, but not so much for us, since we don’t know what specifically they mean to Cobb and Mal. Getting across what something means to the characters is one of the most difficult things a screenwriter has to do because you have to figure out how to show it. That usually involves a lot of setting up, which Nolan foregoes here to deal with the mechanics of the invading of dreams.

Another problem of letting directors make movies they first thought up when they were in their teens, especially science fiction ones, is that the movies tend to be completely humorless. There are one or two hints of what might be jokes in Inception. I particularly liked the one about rain showing up in a dream because one character forgot to pee before they started, but Nolan is almost as humorless a director as Scorsese and Lang (see US#43 for details on those guys). Leonardo DiCaprio used to bring a certain humor to his roles, as in Titanic (1997) and Catch Me If You Can (2002), but lately he has begun to fall into the Harrison Ford/Kevin Costner/Denzel Washington trap of wearing a mantle of great seriousness he assumes becomes a star of his stature. See below for a classic early example of the problem. DiCaprio’s ponderousness makes his Cobb less interesting than he could be. Ellen Page, as the architect of the dreams, has a couple of reaction shots that suggest she sees some humor in here, but they are only in the early part of the film. Chris, would it kill you to put in a couple of yuks? Fred and Alain did.

The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009. Screenplay by Jonas Frykberg, based on the novel by Steig Larsson. 129 minutes.)

The Girl Who Played With Fire

The last hour of Gone with the Wind: You may remember from US#47 that my wife managed to hobble out to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo before the fracture in her leg was diagnosed. She is now well on the road to recovery and walked well enough to get out to see this film recently, the second of the Lizbeth Salander movies. Unfortunately this one, with a different screenwriter than the first, is not a patch on Dragon.

I loved that Dragon moved at a lickety-split pace; this one drags badly. We are over half an hour into it before we get a connection between the story Blomkvist is working on (well, he’s not the one working on; a couple of freelancers are) and Lizbeth. Part of what made Dragon compelling on screen was the relationship between Blomkvist and Lizbeth, but in this film there are only together briefly in the final scene. This can work in a novel where the author can use all kinds of literary devices to make us feel the connection, but on screen we want to see them together. Blomkvist mooning over emails she sends is not the same as having them go at each other, in all senses, in front of our eyes.

Lizbeth here is not the bizarre Lizbeth we all know and love from the first one. Yes, she still has the tattoo, and a couple of nose rings, but other than that, she seems almost…normal. And who the hell wants a normal Lizbeth? This film also totally misses the social context of the first one. I mentioned in writing about Dragon that I thought it would be hard to do an American version since the central story of the Vanger family was so embedded in Swedish culture and history. That’s not true here. Yes, the chief villain was a Russian defector several years ago, but that has very little to do with the rest of the story. He could have been just any badass. I mentioned in writing about The Secret in Their Eyes that the filmmakers were very aware that they were making a movie, and not just an episode of a TV show. The criminal story here could easily have come out of Law & Order: SVU and in fact I seem to remember an episode of that show that dealt with a similar storyline. Yes, this film does tie it together with Lizbeth’s story, and we got a lot more backstory on Lizbeth than we did in the first one, but I am not sure that backstory tells us that much more than we already know. This whole film reminded me of the last hour of Gone with the Wind. In the first three hours, you get the pre-Civil War South, then the war, then the Reconstruction. In the last hour you have lost all that social context and end up with a lot of interior scenes of everybody dealing with their personal problems, which frankly, my dears, are not that interesting.

I particularly liked how the screenwriters of Dragon created, or picked up from the book, a wonderful gallery of supporting characters, particularly the Vanger family. Frykberg doesn’t do that here. The two reporters (well, one’s a sociologist) who bring the story to Blomkvist and Millennium are bland. The cops investigating the murders are standard issue. Neidermann is mostly reminiscent of Robert Shaw’s Grant in From Russia With Love (1963). Zala, the superbaddy, is like every other superbaddy you have ever seen, except his looks. He is supposed to be seventy, but his face is also supposed to be burned. He is played by a much younger actor with a makeup job that does not make him look anywhere close to seventy, even with the scars.

When a film goes wrong, especially if a sluggish pace is part of the problem, a viewer has the time and inclination to pick up on bits that don’t make sense. Here are four that bothered me: Lizbeth has a flashback of seeing Neidermann somewhere, but where did she see him before? Neither my wife nor I could figure it out. My wife thinks it was in a scene that was in the book but not in the film. Secondly, it is WAY too convenient that Lizbeth accidentally leaves her keys at the hospital when she visits Miriam. Third, how does Blomkvist know where Lizbeth is headed at the end? My wife’s mother was Swedish, so my wife realized that the one location Lizbeth finds is close to one the reporters find and tell Blomkvist about, but unless you know Swedish geography, you’re lost. Fourth, at the end, what happened to Neidermann? My wife says that in the book he thinks he sees a ghost and runs away. We get nothing that tells us that in the film. Let’s hope the third one in the trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2009), which will be released here in the fall, is more like Dragon and less like Fire. On the other hand, it is also co-written by Frykberg, so don’t get your hopes up.

City Island (2009. Written by Raymond De Felitta. 104 minutes.)

City Island

Boy, are marketing people really, truly pissed about this movie: Suppose one of my screenwriting students came in and pitched an idea for a film. It’s about a family, and every member has a secret or two he or she is hiding from the other members of the family. Vince, the dad, is a prison guard who wants to be an actor. Joyce, the wife, has told everybody she’s given up smoking but hasn’t. Vivian, the daughter, has not told the family she lost her scholarship and is now earning money as a stripper to be able to go back to college. Vince Jr., the son, watches porn on his computer. What would my reaction to the student’s pitch be? It sounds too schematic and mechanical. Everybody’s got a secret? Can you juggle all those and bring them all to a satisfactory conclusion? Well, De Felitta managed it. And to throw in another secret, which helps unveil all the others, Vince brings a prisoner, Tony, from his job to stay in the family home without telling the family that he is the son he had before he met Joyce.

De Felitta makes it all go. How? First, he makes the characters interesting beyond just their secrets. Look at the character details in the first family dinner. We also know the characters want things, not just to hide their secrets. Vince Jr. is not watching the usual kind of porn, and that leads to a relationship with a neighbor that turns out differently than we figured it would. Vince wants to be an actor, but he has very little confidence in his abilities. He is encouraged by Molly, his scene partner. The theme of secrets is carried through when their acting coach, Malakov, assigns the class an improv involving telling their partners their deepest secrets. De Felitta manages the neat trick of writing the Vince-Molly relationship so that we believe it is not a romantic one.

De Felitta then paces the script well, so that the secrets are revealed as we go along, not just in one rush at the end, although he has enough left for a big finish. He also helps his script by letting us know what the secrets are, so when somebody jumps to the wrong conclusion, we anticipate lively scenes when they discover the truth. De Felitta also makes elements serve more than one purpose. We think Vince Jr. is just being a dork when he talks to a pleasingly plump girl he knows and manages to piss off, but the girl shows up again by the end of the film. Tony “performs” the speech he used in prison to get guys to back off for Vince, and Vince uses it as part of an improv at an audition. And Malakov shows up outside the class in a way that is both funny and sad.

This is a small indie film, but as my mantra goes, you write good parts, you get good actors. Julianna “The Face” Margulies is wonderful, totally different as Joyce than she is on ER and The Good Wife. Andy Garcia is moving nicely from leading man roles to character leads, which is what Vince is. Alan Arkin is an obvious choice as Malakov, but he gives that scene a little extra zing.

OK, so it is a charming little film. It opened in March and is still running, having brought in about six and a half million dollars. Why is it pissing off marketing people? Because there was virtually no marketing budget for it. In other words, the audience found the film on its own and is turning out for it. OK, not in Toy Story 3 numbers, but enough so the film will probably break even. That’s a good thing, right? Not for marketing people. What happens if the industry realizes that most marketing spending is a waste of time and money? Guess whose jobs are on the line? Back in US#49, I reviewed Sharon Oreck’s book Video Slut. In it, she mentions producing one music video they had to rush into production. The record had come out and was selling well, and the marketing people couldn’t stand the idea that the record could sell itself without their help. So they wanted to get a video out so they could claim it helped the sales. And Sharon made the video. After all, it was her company on the line as well.

The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935. Story and screenplay by Pierre Collings and Sheridan Gibney. 85 minutes according to Leonard Maltin, 87 according to IMDb.)

The Story of Louis Pasteur

Scarface becomes Shirley Temple: In the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, Warner Brothers did a series of biographical films, nearly all starring George Arliss as assorted famous men of history: Voltaire, Alexander Hamilton, and Disraeli. The latter he played twice, once in a silent 1921 film and again with sound in 1929, which won him an Academy Award. You may remember from US#42 the quote from screenwriter Julien Josephson about the similarity of writing for Arliss and Shirley Temple: “…it’s the same formula: the bright little character gets the best of the grown-ups.”

When Darryl F. Zanuck left Warners in 1933 to form 20th Century Pictures, he took Arliss with him. Warners was busy making money with gangster pictures and early musicals, but they had a fondness for the prestige the Arliss films gave them. That is probably why they decided to do this film. The Arliss films were all under 90 minutes, as was this one. The question was, what actor could replace Arliss, who was a distinguished English theatrical gentleman of the old school? Well, Scarface of course. Warners had the star of Scarface and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (both 1932) under contract. Thomas Schatz, the author of the great study of the studio system The Genius of the System, says in his book that Warners thought of Paul Muni as showing the toughness of Cagney with the stage experience of Arliss. They gave him role of Louis Pasteur, and it worked. Paul Muni won the Oscar for his performance and became the primary star of the Warners biopics of the ‘30s.

The Story of Louis Pasteur follows the Arliss pattern. The hero “gets the best of the grownups” who disagree with his scientific work, and he still has time to twinkle in approval at young love, in this case his assistant, Dr. Martel and his daughter Annette. Arliss twinkled better than Muni, and this side of the “great men” was dropped in future films. Now, since we all know that Pasteur developed the system that keeps our milk healthy, the film is going to be about that. Nope. It is thrown away in a couple of lines early in the film, since the film starts after he has developed the process. Well, they are limited to 85 or 87 minutes, but I suspect that the writers focused on his latter efforts to develop vaccines against anthrax and rabies because they are more dramatic. The writers changed his work on anthrax from being done with chickens to being done with sheep, I suppose because sheep are more cuddly and dramatic than chickens. The problem with the script is that everybody who opposes Pasteur is seen as idiotic. This is often the case in scripts about the Great Men of History. Gibney and Collings are not as bad as writers of some other films. Dr. Martel at first has his reservations about Pasteur, but then becomes his assistant. Dr. Charbonnet is Pasteur’s primary opponent, and the writers give him a nice scene near the end when he and Pasteur come to terms.

The film was made for about $300,000 and was a considerable success, both commercially and artistically. Not only did Muni win an Oscar, but so did Collings and Gibney.

The Life of Emile Zola (1937. Screenplay by Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald, and Geza Herczeg, story by Heinz Herald and Geza Herczeg, source material Zola and His Time by Matthew Josephson. 116 minutes.)

The Life of Emile Zola

Muni on his way to becoming Mr. Paul Muni: The Story of Louis Pasteur proved that Muni could carry a biographical film. The studio began looking for a follow-up. According to Schatz (the background on this film is from his book), Heinz Herald, an agent, approached producer Henry Blanke with an idea for a film on novelist Emile Zola’s defense of Alfred Dreyfus, the French officer unjustly convicted of treason. Blanke and Muni liked the idea and Hal Wallis, then the supervisor of historical films, asked Herald and German expatriate writer Geza Herczeg to work up a treatment. The treatment, 18 pages long, emphasized the connections with Pasteur: “Pasteur fought bacteria, while Zola opposed lies…Like Pasteur, who had to face obstacles, Zola had to suffer from defamation, prison, flight and deportation.” They eventually turned it into a two-hundred page script, which would have run over three hours. That was given to Norman Reilly Raine, then a staff writer at Warners. Raine is best known for his Tugboat Annie stories in The Saturday Evening Post, which became a series of films. Raine did the final drafts of the script.

The film opens with two guys in a grubby room complaining about the cold and the broken windows. It is well into the scene before we learn they are Zola and his best friend, Paul Cezanne. Yeah, that Cezanne. The first half-hour of the film depicts Zola’s rise to fame as a writer covering subjects many find distasteful. The French Army is particularly upset over his book The Downfall, which attacks the army general staff and its handling of the Franco-Prussian War. By thirty minutes into the film, Zola is successful, and Cezanne thinks he is too successful and too comfortable. Muni, by the way, is better in this first part of the film. Like Olivier and Welles, he loved covering his face with makeup (when he got his Oscar for Pasteur, the only person he thanked was his makeup man), but playing the younger Zola, he is clean-shaven and more of his charm shows through. Then the beard and the wigs begin, along with a pince-nez he works like worry beads. There is very little of the Arliss slyness we caught in Pasteur and more of the eyeball rolling that became his default setting as an actor.

In the second half hour, Zola is slowly drawn into the Dreyfus affair by Mrs. Dreyfus (one of the few errors I found in Schatz’s book is that he says that Mrs. Dreyfus is played by Josephine Hutchinson, who played Pasteur’s wife; Dreyfus’s wife is Gale Sondergaard) and by his friend Anatole France. The drama begins to pick up and go beyond the simple “get the best of the grownups” of Pasteur. The writers are using the longer running time to develop the story and characters in more depth. They even give us elements we do not need, as in a scene in the first half-hour where Zola meets the model for Nana. What we have here are the beginnings of the mature Warner Brothers narrative style of the ‘30s and ‘40s: piling on as much as you can get into the picture. While I love Schatz’s book, neither his nor others about the studio system got into the different narrative styles of the studios. (Sorry, that’s me being a little self-serving at Schatz’s expense; FrameWork, my book on the history of American screenwriting, which does lay out the studio narrative styles, did not come out until after he had written his book.)

Although Zola is very much a star vehicle, the writers give us a lot of other characters and provide scenes for them. Joseph Schildkraut won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Dreyfus. Zola is given a nice speech when he reads to his friends his letter to the president of France accusing the army, but then in his trial for libel, the other characters do all the talking. Or at least until Zola’s summing up, which the director William Dieterle shoots in a single five-minute-plus take. Muni is a like a pig in slop, addressing the camera as the jury. If you like ham, you’ll love this scene. But it works. The film is so full of life and details (this film cost nearly $700,000, over twice what Pasteur cost) that it manages to contain the excesses of Muni’s performance. A performance, by the way, that is richer and more varied than his Oscar-winning Pasteur.

The Life of Emile Zola won the Oscar for Best Picture, and the writers for Best Screenplay. Muni was nominated but did not win. But he was so important to Warners as their prestige star that he was soon being billed as “Mr. Paul Muni.” He shortly thereafter left Hollywood, supposedly dissatisfied, at least according to Wickipedia this week. Read Schatz’s book for details about the behind-the-scenes problems on the making of this film and you will see why Hollywood was glad to see Muni and his ego get out of town.

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: Duet for Cannibals Is an Intriguing Mix of Pastiche and Parody

Susan Sontag’s debut film serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of her more well-known written work.

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Duet for Cannibals
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Writing on Persona for Sight & Sound in 1967, Susan Sontag rhapsodized about Ingmar Bergman’s unorthodox handling of narrative, praising his decision to utilize the story structure as a “thematic resource” rather than a means of dispensing a coherent plot. “Images and dialogue are given which the viewer cannot help but find puzzling,” she wrote, “not being able to decipher whether certain scenes take place in the past, present or future; and whether certain images and episodes belong to ‘reality’ or ‘fantasy’.”

Two years later, after securing funding from the renowned film production company Sandrews, Sontag made Duet for Cannibals, her own attempt at capturing a slipstream-like roundelay of events, and in Swedish no less. Like Persona, her directorial debut hazards a similar bid for the arrangement of narrative as “variations on a theme,” and while the results aren’t quite on the same level as Bergman, they represent a respectable, effort on Sontag’s part to both break down narrative convention and advance her own personal ideas.

The story deals with a baroque series of escalating mind games between Bauer (Lars Ekborg), a famed German leftist living in exile in Stockholm, and Tomas (Gösta Ekman), his young assistant. Taking on the position from a mixture of politically sympathetic curiosity and financial desperation, Tomas and his relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Ingrid (Agneta Ekmanner), is put under heavy strain. This worsens as Bauer demands more and more of his time, forcing him to take up residence in his apartment, to better serve at his beck and call. Things only get more confusing when Ingrid herself enters the fray, paired against Bauer’s unstable Italian wife, Francesca (Adriana Asti), in a rectangle of dysfunctional connection.

Embarking on its own Bergmanesque fantasia, the film slips freely, often confusingly, between realist and surrealist crosscurrents. In one memorable moment, Tomas and Ingrid go on a boating date that ends abruptly when he spots his employer on shore; he leaps out of the boat to join him, leaving Ingrid behind on the water. The occurrence of such disjunctions itself becomes a form of comedy, as scene after scene quavers between straight-faced severity and utter absurdism. At one point, Tomas’s frustrating encounter with one of Bauer’s dictaphone recordings segues into a head-to-head dispute, the characters’ interpersonal borders proving as porous as those of the film itself. Instances like this prove Bauer’s complete mastery over his domain, promoting the possibility that this entire enterprise is some kind of twisted attempt to cuckold himself, ensnaring his novice employee by using his vivacious wife as bait.

His actual intent remains mysterious, establishing him as the cryptic on-screen analogue to Sontag’s destabilizing formal approach. Whether we’re witnessing the tectonic plates of text and subtext colliding roughly with one another, or just an elaborate gag at the expense of viewers primed to expect impenetrable, pretentious weirdness from their Euro art cinema, is never entirely clear. The film’s ultimate liability, in fact, is that it can’t seem to decide if it’s doing pastiche or parody. It’s clearest thematic throughline remains the metaphorical transfer of horrid, self-serving behavior—disguised as rigorous intellectual purity—forced down from one generation to another. Qualities of the older couple become imprinted upon the younger, in an unnerving mode that mixes the scholarly and the familial, with a marked sexual undertone that seems requisite to this kind of boundary-pushing experimentation.

Yet the sort of theorizing that Duet for Cannibals demands is bound to inevitably draw inquisitive viewers toward the type of analytical over-examination that Sontag railed against in “Against Interpretation,” one of her most famous essays and the basis of much of her work from this time period. The most plausible, and rewarding, explanation may then be that her directorial debut represents a cross-medium introduction of this theory of sensual liberation into the cinematic bloodstream, antagonizing viewers as a further nudge to lay off the heavy textual lifting. It’s a lesson that may hold even greater relevance today, when the internet allows every inch of any given film to be picked over with a fine-toothed comb.

It also doesn’t hurt that Duet for Cannibals is frequently hilarious: An acidulous, dry humor runs beneath its formal provocations, from Bauer slowly spreading shaving cream over his car windshield to obscure the view inside, to a toned, briefs-clad man holding a handstand through the entirety of a pivotal dramatic scene. In this regard, the film feels ahead of its time, while totally leftfield in others. An interesting, if tonally inconsistent, experiment, it serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of its maker’s more well-known written work.

Cast: Gösta Ekman Jr., Lars Ekborg, Adriana Asti, Agneta Ekmanner, Stig Engström Director: Susan Sontag Screenwriter: Susan Sontag Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1969

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Review: The Good Liar Is Ambivalent to Both Genre and History

An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow.

2.5

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The Good Liar
Photo: Warner Bros.

An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow. For the most part, the film successfully marries the levity of con-artist hijinks, the suspenseful ambiguity of a Hitchcockian romance, and the heightened realism of a postwar spy adventure. But like so many pulpish mysteries, its resolution fails to neatly tie up these elements, and though it’s never especially difficult to anticipate at least the general direction in which the plot’s twists are taking us, it’s an enjoyable couple of hours, held together by strong performances and an unpretentious presentation.

For reasons dictated by the protagonists’ ages and historically specific backstories, The Good Liar is set in 2009. British retirees Roy (Ian McKellan) and Betty (Helen Mirren) first meet on an online dating service, initially going by the respective pseudonyms of Brian and Estelle. Once these initial, foreshadowing lies have been dispelled, the two begin an adorably tepid romance, all handshakes and polite compliments. Betty hesitantly invites Roy over to her place when the restaurant where they planned to meet turns out to be closed. They watch Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and the two have a cordial debate about whether the film’s ahistorical representation poisons the minds of the young.

Of course, the Roy that Betty knows is a lie: Hardly a retiree, the octogenarian is an active, high-level financial scammer. We’re acquainted to Roy’s alter ego as he abandons his cane and strides ably into a strip club—a shot presented in low angle so as to capture some gratuitous nudity on the dancers’ raised platform. Roy proceeds to a private booth, where he and his partner in crime, Vincent (Jim Carter), are meeting with a pair of investors (Mark Lewis Jones and Stefan Kalipha) they’ve planning to scam out of their money. This subplot will eventually spill over into the main romantic plot, though through a more circuitous route than expected.

If, with its “exposed breasts connote shady dealings” rhetoric, this introduction to the seedy Roy lands a bit too hard, McKellan’s performance is more successful in threading together the multiple sides of the man. Even before Roy’s criminal associates start alluding to his dark past, McKellan suggests the weight of a troubled history in his character’s actions. He communicates a sadness and resentment that isn’t manifest in the dialogue, even as Roy takes evident pleasure in the money scams he runs on investors and, eventually, on Betty.

The Good Liar is the type of neatly fabricated mystery in which every emphasized detail will prove to be significant, so when Betty’s grandson, Steven (Russell Tovey), explains that his dissertation topic is the Nazi architect Albert Speer, one can guess that WWII will play some role in the resolution of Roy and Betty’s romantic arc. When Betty suggests a continental vacation—first stop, Berlin—it’s fairly obvious that a confrontation with Roy’s shrouded war history is in the mix. Still, the final third of the film proves to be more deeply rooted in ‘40s Germany than even the pointed discussion of Speer suggests, but don’t look to the film for any particular insight into wartime Germany or the experiences of the “greatest generation.” Here, the war serves mostly as a dramatic facilitator of final twist rather than a lived experience.

Eventually, Betty, who, as the duped party throughout, comes off as far less intelligent than the former Oxford professor she’s meant to be, gets some narrative agency. But it comes so late, and in the form of a twist whose general outlines we can sense from very early on, that it hardly avoids feeling tokenistic. Playing the part of sweet Betty, fooled into all manner of duplicitous arrangements with Roy, Mirren has comparatively little to do. At times, you may expect the film to become a kind of geriatric Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but the expected turn comes too late for Betty to really get in on any action. Unlike Inglourious Basterds, with which it self-consciously contrasts itself, The Good Liar isn’t interested in a challenging remix of either genre or history—content instead with mild, safely conventional entertainment.

Cast: Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter, Mark Lewis Jones, Céline Buckens, Nell Williams, Phil Dunster, Laurie Davidson, Jóhannes Kaukur Jóhannesson Director: Bill Condon Screenwriter: Jeffrey Hatcher, Nicholas Searle Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 109 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters Spreads the News, Without Embellishment

Haynes’s film intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate.

2.5

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Dark Waters
Photo: Focus Features

Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters is the sort of film that may win awards and plaudits, even as it’s poised to be overlooked for its craftsmanship. Haynes and screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan communicate their story—a true one about the ways corporate greed can lead to irreparable health crises and environmental damage—without an ounce of pretense, which also means that they risk making it seem indistinguishable from other recent topical films like Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight. Yet while it doesn’t rewrite the book on the legal thriller genre, Dark Waters also intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate. Faint praise, perhaps, but this film aims to spread the news rather than bask in its own glory.

In 1998, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia, attempts to enlist Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) to file suit against DuPont. The chemical company, it seems, has been dumping toxic chemicals in a landfill near Tennant’s farm, polluting its creek and killing its livestock. As an attorney for a firm that defends corporations, Bilott initially refuses the case but eventually goes to bat for Tennant: Bilott grew up in West Virginia and becomes emotionally invested in protecting the land he loved as a child.

In the course of his investigation, Bilott discovers links between cancers and birth defects in the Parkersburg community and Dupont’s unregulated manufacture and disposal of PFOA (or C8), an indestructible chemical prevalent in many everyday household products. Yet what should be an open-and-shut case of corporate malfeasance and corruption drags on for years due to Dupont’s legal maneuvering, which costs Bilott his health and many of Bill’s clients their patience and social inclusion in Parkersburg, a Dupont company town to its core.

Dark Water’s strong suit is its central performances. As Bilott, Ruffalo provides a bristling tension in exploring the grey area between moral conviction and obsession as the lawyer’s selflessness borders on single-mindedness. And a scene-stealing Camp uses his bulk, not to mention a convincing rural drawl, to impart various shades of frustration, outrage, sadness, and disillusionment in the face of Tennant’s near-helpless situation. Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, can only do so much in the role of Bilott’s wife, Sarah, who seems to exist only to criticize others, be it her husband for his tunnel vision or his senior partner, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), for taking Bilott’s self-sacrifice for granted. Given Sarah’s intriguing backstory (she gave up a career in law to become a housewife), as well as Haynes’s predilection for exploring complex women, her characterization feels especially thin.

More important, perhaps, than any of these characters is West Virginia itself. The state isn’t featured often on film, which is a shame since it possesses an abundance of natural beauty. Of course, you won’t see that in Dark Waters, as Edward Lachman’s cinematography evokes the spoilage of that beauty by employing sickly, desaturated blues and greens, especially in outdoor winter scenes where you can practically feel the despair emanating from the screen. In this sense, the film harkens back to Haynes’s Safe, where toxicity appeared to suffuse the protagonist’s ordinary surroundings. The environmental details of Dark Waters reinforce the depth and expansiveness of Dupont’s crime, so that by the time John Denver’s signature “Take Me Home, Country Roads” ironically, if inevitably, plays during one of Bilott’s deflating drives through Parkersburg, Haynes has made the audience feel that this isn’t some remote, godforsaken hamlet, but rather the entire polluted planet.

Still, the best parts of Dark Waters may make you wish that there was more of Haynes in it. The filmmaker hasn’t written one of his own projects since the outstanding Mildred Pierce miniseries, but whereas Carol and Wonderstruck at least continued the director’s thematic and aesthetic preoccupations in their investigation of outcasts searching for romantic and familial connections, Dark Waters feels relatively faceless. Aside from its color scheme, there isn’t much in the film that’s particularly or uniquely cinematic; this is a dramatic rather than a visual showcase, and one often confined to legal conversations in generic offices, meeting rooms, and courts of law. But perhaps it’s to Haynes’s credit that he lets the drama speak for itself, instead of feeling the need to embellish it. After all, the point of this film is to depict how an enormous human and environmental tragedy initially affects a small community, with Tennant, Bilott, and Parkersburg suffering the full-force C-8 blast first and hardest.

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Bill Camp, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, Louisa Krause Director: Todd Haynes Screenwriter: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 126 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Charlie’s Angels Has Good Intentions but Lives in La-La Land

All the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal the film’s creative conservatism.

1.5

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Charlie’s Angels
Photo: Columbia Pictures

As a minor cultural institution, Charlie’s Angels has, in all its TV and film incarnations, operated as a kind of Rorschach test: Fans see it flying the female empowerment flag by bringing women into the traditionally male detective genre, while critics by and large view it as a symptom of feminist backlash, objectifying its stars in the service of campy male fantasy. Now, by diversifying its cast and placing a female writer-director, Elizabeth Banks, at its helm, the new Charlie’s Angels attempts to remove all political doubt: These Angels are woke and answer to no man, not even one issuing orders from a speaker box. The intention is pure, but in the end, the emancipatory aims of this reboot exist only in la-la land, its feminism failing to resonate beyond the cynicism of corporate rebranding.

Mostly remembered as a montage of iconic images, the 1970s Aaron Spelling-produced TV series was actually a bore, its success depending solely on the charisma of its lead actresses; the two early-aughts films, both directed by McG, were 100% cheesecake, hypersexualizing its actresses in what amounted to glorified music videos. The new Charlie’s Angels moves well and at least puts forth a semblance of reality, with a few moments hinting at the tense, moody spy thriller it might have been. Yet the dominant strain of its DNA is the Generic Action Movie, and all the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal its creative conservatism.

The plot centers on the usual stuff of spies and saboteurs. Not yet an official Angel, Elena (Naomi Scott) works for a company that’s run by an Elon Musk type (Sam Claflin) and creates an electronics product that possesses deadly potential. When her superiors bury her report on its risks, Elena enlists the Angels—Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska)—to help blow the whistle. But sinister parties, of course, want the gadget for themselves, and most of the film consists of a series of car chases, break-ins, and stakeouts as the Angels pursue the MacGuffin in the name of global security. Speaking of global: Charlie’s private investigation firm is now an international business, with multiple Bosleys leading their own teams of lady spies. And in a first for the franchise, our Angels’ Bosley is played by a woman (Banks).

Indeed, the film has a female-led, rather than female-focused, bent. Having nothing to do with the story, the opening credits sequence features a celebratory montage of girls from around the world, and the finale and end credits reveal Charlie’s agency to be run by women, a far cry from the TV series’s patriarchal framing: “Once upon a time there were three little girls…now they work for me. My name is Charlie.” Banks’s coup de grace “twist” on the Charlie’s Angels formula is diversity in casting, as the Angels are played by one out actress and two of color.

Stewart is the film’s most potentially interesting presence. In the opening scene, Sabina seduces a bad guy by wearing an ultra-femme disguise that includes a cascade of flowing blond hair, and when removing it to enter fight mode, she reveals a dyed, short-cropped butch ‘do. Yet the rest of the film fails to develop the code-switching possibilities of her character or anyone else’s. There’s a slew of nearly preternatural wardrobe changes (at one point, Sabina dons a jockey’s outfit for some reason), but that’s been par for the course in the world of Charlie’s Angels since the Ford administration, with much of the franchise’s appeal residing in the material fetishism attendant in an endless game of dress-up. Like their predecessors, these Angels look glamorous and gorgeous while fighting crime, and while Stewart’s queerness may qualify her objectification, and actually makes her more of a subject (as when she sneaks a lascivious peek at an attractive woman), it’s only in a relative sense. Overall, her on-screen appearance is lensed as much for exploitative pleasure as vicarious admiration.

One major appeal of the Charlie’s Angels properties is seeing men consistently underestimate the physical and intellectual capability of its female leads. But because she dares nothing visually or dramatically original, Banks prevents the Angels from exhibiting unique or surprising traits. The Angels’ bios are strictly single-line affairs: Sabina is rebellious and sarcastic, Jane is steely and professional, and Elena is goofy and wide-eyed. And all of them quip and banter in similarly sitcom-ish rhythms. Ultimately, Banks believes it’s enough that queer and brown women perform the same suspense-free action set pieces and combat choreography that their white male counterparts have performed since time immemorial.

In contrast to McG’s films, which took place in the realm of a live-action candy-colored cartoon, the world of this Charlie’s Angels vaguely resembles our own, giving Banks the opportunity to show what real—or at least real-er—women can do in seriously intense and perilous situations. But save for a few stressed situations and unique notes (such as Luis Gerardo Méndez’s Q-like Saint, who’s both the Angels’ weapons expert and their health advisor and spiritual guru), this film is so much disposable entertainment. It’s too frenetic, tongue in cheek, and impersonal to extend its vague feminism to true individualism.

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, Sam Claflin, Noah Centineo, Jonathan Tucker, Nat Faxon, Chris Pang, Luis Gerardo Méndez Director: Elizabeth Banks Screenwriter: Elizabeth Banks Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Interview: Lauren Greenfield on The Kingmaker and Threats to Democracy

Greenfield discusses how the film relates to her body of work and the warnings Americans ought to heed from it.

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Photo: Showtime Documentary Films

When it comes to documenting stories about the dark underbelly of wealth in contemporary society, Lauren Greenfield is like a moth drawn to a flame. A photographer by trade who has ventured into documentary filmmaking, Greenfield broke out in 2012 with The Queen of Versailles, a “riches-to-rags” tale of how billionaire Florida couple Jackie and Robert Siegel attempted to build an American equivalent to Versailles. Their absurd ambition amounts to their folly as construction kicks off at the height of the Great Recession and strains their precarious finances, leaving the mansion unfinished. Greenfield continued this theme in her 2018 documentary Generation Wealth, a companion film to her monograph of the same name that follows multiple less bombastic tales of how an unfettered pursuit of opulence and glamour results in deep emptiness.

Greenfield’s new documentary, The Kingmaker, began with her interest in another powerful symbol for the hollowness of wealth and power. In the Philippines, former First Lady Imelda Marcos evicted the native population of Calauit Island, located in the Calamian Archipelago, and replaced the inhabitants with African animals. Though the regime of her husband, Ferdinand E. Marcos, fell and drove the family into exile and disrepute, the animals remained. Generations later, the creatures’ inbreeding and the general disarray of the island’s ecosystem appears to be a fitting testament to the corruption and incompetence of their rule.

And yet, once Greenfield began to sit with the octogenarian Imelda Marcos, she found a subject spinning an alternate story, as well as a populace willing to believe it. The Kingmaker portrays the unfolding of a terrifying period in the history of the Philippines of how a political dynasty can rewrite the history of human rights abuses and corruption in order to return to power. While events continue to unfold in the country, the necessary forces and people are in place to pave the way for Imelda’s son, Bongbong Marcos, to assume the presidency in 2022.

I spoke with Greenfield prior to The Kingmaker’s premiere at DOC NYC to discuss how the documentary relates to her body of work as a whole as well as the warnings Americans ought to heed from it as a similar political dynamic to the one in the Philippines develops stateside.

You’ve said elsewhere that you liked Imelda on a personal level, but much like The Queen of Versailles, The Kingmaker itself remains a little ambiguous so the audience can come to their own conclusions about the subject. How do you finesse that ambiguity in your filmmaking and in the editing process?

It’s a little bit different with Imelda Marcos because I came in knowing the history. I was more interested in the paradox between the fact that when you’re with her, she’s kind and generous and personable, versus the terrible consequences of the huge human rights abuses she was complicit with. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I think she’s nice, let’s let the audience come to that conclusion.” I felt journalistically, ethically, and historically that I need to give the audience the information so they could see that what she was doing was telling untruths. So they could see that she was an unreliable narrator. That’s why, when I realized that about her, I brought in other voices that the audience would instinctively feel are credible.

It’s a little bit of a different journey because, in the beginning, you’re sucked into her personality, which is lovely and charismatic, and I wanted people to see that. It was the key to her political success. But, even by the end of the first act, when you know she’s depopulated an indigenous population to bring in the animals to her pet project island, I think you can’t abide by that anymore. By the time you hear about martial law and torture, you’re not thinking she’s nice anymore. Jackie Siegel was another journey because you start out thinking she’s horrible, and then you end up kind of rooting for her. For Imelda, I wanted to show her humanity, but it’s a paradox of how can a human do these terrible things and not feel any remorse.

When you started filming Imelda, you thought maybe the film would become a redemption story? At what point did you begin to realize that wasn’t going to play out?

I was still hoping for it, even at the very end—that maybe she’d have some kind of revelation. I thought there’d be a moment where she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t see it that way.” But looking back now, I was being naïve. Of course, this is not her first rodeo. She’s talked to the press a million times. During the election, I realized they were just going to lean into their story. There was a TV interview that Bongbong did, and the reporter said, “Are you going to say you’re sorry? Are you going to say you’re sorry for martial law?” That’s what people really wanted, for him to apologize. And he said, “What do I have to apologize for? Should I apologize for the roads? The infrastructure? The building that happened during that period? If I hurt somebody, I would apologize, but what do I have to apologize for?” When I heard that a few months into the election campaign, I realized they were going to lean into the story, into their rewriting of history that those were the good times, and they weren’t going to apologize. It’s kind of a Trumpian move: never apologize, never say you’re wrong, just say, “It was good, it was great!” And then people will eventually believe you.

Isn’t the film, at least for Imelda, a redemption story? She’s restoring honor to the family name and, in doing so, putting some power behind their wealth, which has become a little toothless in the absence of actual clout.

Well, she is trying to whitewash history. That’s her goal, politically, and it’s why she chose to participate in the film. She wants to put out her version of the Marcos legacy. That’s not what I meant by “redemption story.” I meant her having a moral moment of realizing she’s done something wrong. She does tell herself that she’s doing something good. I do believe she thinks she’s doing good, and that she believes her own story.

Everyone tells themselves a story of their life that makes sense, but the difference between the visions of grandeur of people like Imelda and Jackie Siegel and the average person is that they can manipulate reality to become their fantasy using wealth.

Her story helps her survive. It pushes her to keep going. Deep down, she feels like she’s doing the right thing. If she felt like she was doing terrible things, it would get in her way. It’s a strategic story that helps her live with it and get a young electorate on board for a comeback.

I found it a little difficult to discern toward the end: Does Imelda and the rest of the Marcos family see the contradictions in boosting a candidate like Rodrigo Duterte, who runs against the perceived corruption of a system only to re-legitimize a self-dealing former dynasty? Or is the irony completely lost on them?

I’m not sure that there’s a lot of irony there. Even though he pretends he’s one of the people, working class, talks trash, and swears, he’s actually from a place of privilege. There’s also a lot of corruption going on in this government. When Bongbong was campaigning, he also said he was going to go against corruption. That’s what everybody says. The reality is that Duterte’s father was in Ferdinand Marcos’s cabinet. Duterte looks up to Marcos. He’s threatened martial law. He likes the idea of the strongman. So, I think that they’re pretty aligned.

I was more surprised that Bongbong would align with Duterte because Bongbong was Western-educated and has the veneer of a legitimate politician, so I was surprised that he would go with somebody responsible for so many street killings. But, at the end of the day, it’s political. They made an alliance that’s helped them both. They could give Duterte support for becoming president, and in return they got the hero’s burial that Imelda has wanted for decades. Duterte backed the sister, Imee, for senate, and she won—as did every candidate that Duterte backed. Going into the next election, Duterte’s backing is extremely important.

A thread through your work is that people suffering from the adverse effects of wealth tend to cast themselves as victims in their own stories. From your experience, do you think that narrative holds any water? Or is it just a survival technique?

Yeah, I don’t think we need to shed any tears for Imelda. What I’m trying to do here, and in Generation Wealth, is to focus on the one percent and look at how it affects everybody else. That’s the important thing: looking at the long-term consequences of the Marcos regime and how the abuse of wealth and power affects everybody else. I came in looking at that through the animal island, but that’s really symbolic for how the Philippines was hurt by how the Marcos family, in taking five to 10 billion dollars, hurt development, created persistent poverty, and made the people vulnerable to bringing back another strongman and supporting people like Bongbong Marcos, but especially Duterte. Benigno Aquino, the president when I was filming and son of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, said his father told him you can’t have democracy when you’re hungry. That’s what we see in the Philippines, democracy being threatened because people’s basic needs are not being met.

It almost feels like we’re doomed to live in a plutocracy forever.

That’s the irony. That’s what was so sad. It’s also similar to Trump, as people’s needs were not being met, so they voted for change only to have somebody who’s really on the side of the wealthy. It’s ironic that these people get brought in by the support of the working class. But in the Philippines, you’re not even talking about the working class. You’re talking about deep, deep poverty where people are getting money, food, or clothing in exchange for votes. And especially without proper information, the history not being taught in the schoolbooks or not as many outlets of independent journalism, it’s very hard for a democracy to thrive.

You’ve noted that Imelda is yet another adherent of the “dictator chic” style—the gauche, in-your-face extravagance that attracts aspiring autocrats from Trump to Saddam Hussein. As someone who observes the intersection of wealth and aesthetics, do you have any theories about why this phenomenon cuts across the globe?

In a way, that was a little bit more of what I looked at in Generation Wealth. There’s an aspirational nobility that people with power want, like being a king or a queen. You see that in the portrait of Imelda at the beginning of the film and in some of the commissioned portraiture she did—and, for that matter, some of what the Siegels did. You can see the love for gold that Trump has. I think it’s an association with nobility, especially for the nouveau riche and people who are ambitiously climbing their way up.

As someone who’s studied and documented wealth across the world, what do you make of this moment in America where it seems like a large portion of the country worships an opulent, self-proclaimed wealthy leader and another large portion finds inspiration in politicians who are rallying people against the idea of concentrated wealth?

Well, I definitely think we’re at a really precarious time at the moment, because the amount of inequality we have right now is dangerous for any society or democracy. And dangerous economically. We have this myth of the American dream where anyone can go from rags to riches. I think that’s what’s standing between us and revolution, even though many people are not sharing in the spoils of our economy. It’s because of this “keeping up with the Kardashians” mindset. In Generation Wealth, I looked at how in the space of a generation, people went from “keeping up with the Joneses,” their neighbors, to keeping up with the Kardashians, these ultra-wealthy people they see on TV. It’s so unrealistic, and yet there’s this deep myth in the culture that you can become that one day, through a reality show or whatever it is. Obama called that out more than two decades ago when he was a lawyer. The thing about Donald Trump is that people think they can be him one day, or maybe their child can be him. There’s this illusion that keeps people accepting the status quo.

And then I think there’s a waking up happening, particularly among young people, that that’s not going to happen, and that there’s some real rot. The game is rigged, and what they’re telling us is the goal—being rich—isn’t actually making people happy. Especially on the millennial side, there are signs of people waking up and wanting something different. The problem is that the culture and corporate capitalism are so slanted toward keeping the status quo. Just money in politics, for example, and the disinformation from social media. We saw it in the Philippines, we saw it here, we saw it with Brexit. That’s the thing Andy Bautista [former head of the Philippines’ Presidential Commission on Good Government] keeps telling me about the Philippines: If you have money, you have speech because you can put forward lies on social media and convince people of that. And it’s kind of like that here as well.

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Review: The Hottest August Is a Rich Patchwork of Discontented Voices

Brett Story’s documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division.

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The Hottest August
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Throughout The Hottest August, director Brett Story asks her interview subjects—a collection of mostly working-class, outer-borough residents of New York City—for their feelings about the future. More interesting than these people’s answers are the way their faces change as they process the question, invariably morphing into an ironic smirk. From there, the responses are despairing, even at their most hopeful, as nearly every subject answers with a summation of their career goals or their desire to earn more money.

Our collective failure to reckon with the onward march of climate change and vulture capitalism is the often unspoken subject of this structuralist documentary, which was filmed over the course of August 2017. Though Story makes her themes clear in a voiceover narrative (recited by Clare Coulter) that combines the director’s own writings with those of Karl Marx, Zadie Smith, and Annie Dillard, the people in The Hottest August have other things on their minds. A college student who works at a call center for wealthy investors describes herself as an “entrepreneur,” while a man driving a food truck has to move out of his apartment the following day without having found a new home. Periodically, the artist Ayodamola Okunseinde wanders the streets as a character he calls “The Afronaut,” clad in an Afro-futuristic spacesuit designed to encourage others to consider their own futures.

Even without this surreal image, the film’s photography (by Derek Howard) has an alien vibe, emphasizing humans that look rather small amid the buildings, beaches, and blockades they navigate every day. Apart from a ‘20s-themed costume party on Governor’s Island, a few public parks, and, of course, a subway car, most of the landscapes in The Hottest August are weirdly underpopulated. This is appropriate for a film that seems equally inspired by Chris Marker’s sci-fi-inflected essay films and Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer, and also for a work that must invariably address the gentrification of New York’s neighborhoods.

The middle- and upper-class New Yorkers glimpsed in The Hottest August are most often seen peering through windows or standing in desolate corporate courtyards. Gridlike compositions of air-conditioning units are dotted with running flat-screen televisions or films projected onto white walls. The public square is hard to locate, and Story finds them where she can: a Black Lives Matter rally where black speakers address an overwhelmingly white crowd; a Staten Island cop bar where politics are deemed verboten until one ex-police officer goes on a rant against a mythical welfare queen; a recreational softball league that descends into a near brawl; or the beach, where most of the subjects Story talks to are underemployed.

Near the beach in the Rockaways, one small home has been raised multiple stories on stacks of wooden pallets. Those closest to the water ignore post-Hurricane Sandy evacuation notices and dismiss climate change as Al Gore’s ploy to get rich and speaking with certainty that the hurricane’s status as a “100-year storm” means that they’re safe for another century. That’s not the most immediate delusion to be found in The Hottest August, which spends a few scenes with working-class Italian-American couple who gradually express their frustration with a diversifying neighborhood, culminating in an actual “I’m not racist, but” monologue.

Where Story’s previous film, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, meticulously depicted how the tentacles of mass incarceration creep into civic life, The Hottest August is a more loosely guided snapshot of generalized resentment. People are mad at the rich, who they also want to be. And then there are those clever enough to seek to profit from the ambient rage of the era: an entrepreneur who runs an industrial space where clients can destroy everything in sight, or a hipster from a VR company who barely believes his own bullshit about the automation revelation yielding a universal basic income where all will be free to do as they please.

With The Hottest Summer, Story puts on display a New York City that’s very different from the one depicted in Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, where every corner and office is teeming with representations of active, often progressive political and social discourse. While there are moments of grace and whimsy in here (a woman on a bench texting next to a duck, a smart young skateboarder who rides Story for interviewing some loudmouthed teens in the same park), the documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division, where millions of selves who have by and large given up on one another.

Director: Brett Story Distributor: Grasshopper Film

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Review: I Lost My Body Finds Poetry in Tracing Life’s Uncertainties

It focuses equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable.

3

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I Lost My Body
Photo: Netflix

Naofel (Hakim Faris) has a small birthmark between the knuckles of his right hand’s pointer and middle fingers. This would be the appendage’s most distinctive characteristic if not for the fact that, after being severed from Naofel’s body, it develops a will of its own. Throughout I Lost My Body, the hand skitters around of its own accord, using its fingers to crawl out of the hospital lab where it was kept following Naofel’s grim accident. Jérémy Clapin’s animated film chronicles the journey of that hand through, among other places, the rooftops and gutters of Paris, into a river and across a highway, in an attempt to reunite with its owner, dodging animals and cars along the way.

Do hands have memories? Naofel’s right hand certainly seems to. As the wayward appendage propels itself through the air with an open umbrella or flicks a lighter to fend off a bunch of subway rats, flashbacks recall the young man’s troubled, lonely life. He feels adrift, barely present in a world that seems only to have harsh words and unhappiness for him. He’s at odds with the relatives who took him in after the death of his parents in a car accident, and his half of a shared room is unfurnished save for the mattress placed directly on the floor. He works as a pizza delivery boy, but he isn’t a particularly good one, as he’s often late and, in one scene, scatters his pizza boxes into the street after crashing his bike into a car.

Many of I Lost My Body’s flashbacks foreground Naofel’s hand as though presenting its perspective. People and objects loom above it, its digits taking up wide swaths of the frame as they cling with insect-like precision to boxes or hold a microphone in their grip. Tight close-ups capture the fingers tapping random objects or emerging from the sand, and there are even POV shots of the hand peeking out from a dumpster or prodding the plastic bag it’s wrapped in. These sequences are a great showcase for the film’s subdued, naturalistic, and, above all, detail-rich hand-drawn animation: We see fidgeting fingers grabbing onto a locker door, a pigeon laboriously nudging the hand out of a gutter, and Naofel penciling lines onto blocks of wood that he’ll later trace over with a saw in his woodworking apprenticeship.

The metaphor at the heart of the film seems deceptively obvious: disconnection from the world and other people, literalized through a hand severed from its rightful body. But Clapin complicates that metaphor every step of the way, as in a flashback where Naofel’s father explains to him that, in order to catch a fly, the boy must aim where the fly will be rather than where it is. But knowing how to catch the fly doesn’t necessarily make the task any easier to accomplish, and the film’s depiction of fate follows a similarly unpredictable trajectory.

Through images of loneliness, as in a wooden igloo cobbled together on a rooftop, I Lost My Body builds an atmosphere of isolation and, above all, uncertainty. Because while Naofel takes his father’s advice to heart, his own attempts to live unpredictably, ahead of fate, do not always work out for him. His infatuation with Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois), initially so stirring as they close their eyes to listen to the rain and the wind from separate ends of an apartment intercom, goes in a few stalkerish directions. She rejects him for being a creep, and Naofel ironically comes to find fulfillment not in a relationship, as he had hoped, but in the woodworking he initially took up only to impress Gabrielle. I Lost My Body finds poetry in tracing life’s uncertainties, focusing equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable, as one part of a delicate whole.

Cast: Hakim Faris, Victoire Du Bois, Patrick d'Assumçao Director: Jérémy Clapin Screenwriter: Jérémy Clapin, Guillaume Laurant Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Report Is Noncommittal on the Moral Morass of the Dubya Era

In the end, it can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s flawed human fabric.

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The Report
Photo: Amazon Studios

The moral morass of the George W. Bush era is surveyed and scrutinized in writer-director Scott Z. Burns’s The Report, a true-life docudrama that bears all the visually monochromatic, thematically jaundiced hallmarks of Burns’s collaborations, as screenwriter, with Steven Soderbergh. Burns even manages to slightly best his mentor with his second solo feature. Compared to Burns and Soderbergh’s most recent joint effort—the feeble, scattershot Netflix-produced satire The LaundromatThe Report zeroes in on its incendiary sociopolitical subject with laser focus. That still doesn’t mean it adequately challenges preconceived notions about an especially dark period in American history.

The film’s title refers to the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, a 6,700-page document that took a long, hard, and unflattering look at the C.I.A.’s post-9/11 use of detention and torture—or, in politico parlance, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Daniel Jones, the committee’s lead investigator, is the protagonist, and he’s played by Adam Driver with a reserved sternness and solemnity that’s occasionally leavened by full-throated flashes of righteous indignation. Jones is all work, no play, and it’s evident that Burns intends this forbearing crusader as an audience surrogate. Yet Daniel mostly remains a cipher, a human enigma attempting, with Sisyphean effort, to expose and unravel the most sadistic and inhumane institutional practices.

It can be fascinating, of course, to watch a film that’s purely about process, revealing of the ways that those tied to an operation come off as cogs in a Moloch-like machine. And it helps, at least initially, that Driver is so good at conveying a total single-mindedness. When Jones looks around the cloistered, colorless basement office that will serve as headquarters for his investigation, he’s like an artist glancing at a blank canvas. For Jones, the swamp isn’t something to be drained, but to dip his brush in. And he’s painting a picture for an audience that, for the most part, is likely to undercut and minimize his efforts.

Burns is clearly reappropriating and remixing cinematic lessons learned from Alan J. Pakula’s starry Watergate exposé All the President’s Men. Jones’s boss, senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, letting her wig do most of the acting), assumes the role of Ben Bradlee-esque overseer. Archival footage of many of the big names in the torture debate (such as Dubya and Dick Cheney) is peppered throughout. And there’s even a paranoia-tinged encounter between Jones and a Deep Throat-like figure played with nauseated edge by Tim Blake Nelson.

The margins of The Report are filled to the brim with character actors doing creditably yeoman work, among them Corey Stoll as Cyrus Clifford, Jones’s pragmatic lawyer, Jon Hamm as chiding National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, Ted Levine as officious C.I.A. Director John Brennan, and Matthew Rhys as a New York Times reporter desperate for a scoop. Elsewhere, Maura Tierney and Michael C. Hall, as a pair of ideologically adaptable bureaucrats, headline the sections of the decade-plus narrative that detail the nitty gritty of the enhanced interrogation program, waterboarding most definitely included.

Cinematographer Eigil Bryld shoots these latter sequences with a sickly green-orange tinge that one supposes is meant to convey ethical queasiness. Whereas the scenes featuring Jones and his team poring over papers and presenting their findings to functionaries in various stages of outrage (or not) tend toward the icy blues or the ultra-high-def neutrality of a David Fincher production. Ever-shifting color temperatures aside, The Report is rarely stimulating. Its conscious detachment from the events it portrays proves not so much analytical as noncommittal. The closest it comes to picking a side is a tossed-off moment in which Jones throws some scowling shade at a TV commercial for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which was rather unconvincingly sold during its release as a work of objective nonpartisanship.

It’s strange, then, that Burns tosses a flagrantly uncritical bone in The Report’s final scenes, as John McCain, often held up as a model of principled dissent, is shown passionately decrying the United States’s torture program on the Senate floor. As in many a Hollywood production about American transgression, Burns ultimately can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s monumentally flawed human fabric.

Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Ted Levine, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, Corey Stoll, Maura Tierney, Jon Hamm Director: Scott Z. Burns Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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The Best Stephen King Movies, Ranked

We’ve compiled the best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

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The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Stephen King is one of the most influential of all contemporary writers, an artist who followed Richard Matheson’s example in wedding irrational horror with the surreal minutiae of everyday American life. The most distinctive elements of King’s remarkably vast bibliography—his exacting and uncanny empathy for working-class people and his loose, pop-culture-strewn prose—are rarely accounted for in the dozens of films that have been made from his novels and stories, which often predictably emphasize his propulsive plotting. Consequently, these adaptations often resemble routine genre films with a smattering of King’s dialogue, which sounds better on the page than when performed by often self-conscious actors who look as if they’d rather be anywhere than trapesing around a simulation of King’s beloved Maine. But a number of excellent films have been made from the author’s writing, either by doubling down on the neurotic naïveté of the author’s Americana or by striking new ground, recognizing that a good film needs to be a movie, rather than a literal-minded act of CliffsNotes-style embalming. To commemorate the recent release of Cell, we’ve compiled the 10 best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the countless, mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 8, 2015.


Stand by Me

10. Stand by Me (1986)

Those who accuse Stand by Me of indulging shameless boomer nostalgia are missing the point, as that’s precisely what the film is about. Director Rob Reiner dials down the violent hopelessness of King’s source material (the novella The Body), but still emphasizes the cruelty and loneliness that mark four boys’ coming-of-age odyssey to see the corpse of a young man nearly their age. The film is framed as one of the grown boy’s remembrances, as he attempts to spin his unreconciled feelings into the more tangible stuff of…coming-of-age fiction. At times it’s hokey, and, yes, the soundtrack does some major emotional heavy lifting, but the feast of excellent acting compensates greatly, particularly by Wil Wheaton, Kiefer Sutherland, and River Phoenix. Stand by Me remains one of the best adaptations of King’s more sentimental non-horror writing, and it’s far superior to preachy, insidiously insulting staples like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.


Creepshow

9. Creepshow (1982)

Still one of the great comic-book movies in that it approximates the actual tactile act of reading and flipping through a magazine, ideally on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a can of soda by your side. George Romero directed from King’s original script, which pays homage to EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and the filmmaker displays a visual confidence and tonal flexibility that’s reminiscent of his Dawn of the Dead. The bright, deep, and garish cinematography is both beautiful and disturbing, enriching King’s gleefully vicious writing while providing a framework for the lively performances of a game, celebrity-rich cast. The film straddles an ideal line between straight-faced seriousness and parody, particularly in the unnerving climax of a story in which we can hear the pained gurgling of aquatic zombies.


Silver Bullet

8. Silver Bullet (1985)

A creepy drive-in horror movie that throws a werewolf into a boy’s sentimental coming-of-age tale. Based on King’s slim Cycle of the Werewolf, which was released with gorgeous illustrations by artist Bernie Wrightson, Silver Bullet weds evocative imagery with spare plotting that allows each scene to breathe, giving the film an nightmarish free-associative energy. There are several boffo sequences, particularly when the werewolf seizes a man’s baseball bat, his paw shown to be beating the man to death from below thick fog, or when the wolf is outsmarted by the protagonist, one of his eyes blown to pieces by a bottle rocket. Speaking of the monster, the movie has one of the great wolf designs, which suggests a huge, bitter, upstanding bear with a terrifying snout. The human identity of the creature is a great, characteristically blasphemous King twist.


Dolores Claiborne

7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)

Five years after her career-making performance in Misery, Kathy Bates returned to Stephen King territory with Dolores Claiborne, which, like the book, disappointed nearly everyone for not being a typical horror story, instead combining the traditions of martyred-woman melodrama with gothic mystery. Critics, who only seem capable of praising melodrama when it’s directed by one of their pre-approved canon placeholders (like Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk), also turned their noses up at Dolores Claiborne, and it’s a real shame. Both the novel and the film get at the heart of King’s preoccupations with sexism and classicism, spinning a fractured narrative of a mother, her daughter, the man who nearly ruined their lives, and the all-encompassing pitilessness of aging. Yes, the film is behaviorally broad, but this broadness is utilized by the reliably underrated director, Taylor Hackford, as a form of catharsis. And Bates’s performance as the titular character is positively poetic. Her delivery of a monologue about Dolores’s work routine particularly locate the weird, qualified dignity of thanklessness, reveling in the pride and transcendence that can be wrestled from menial-ness. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Dolores Claiborne has the feel of King’s voice.


Misery

6. Misery (1990)

No one performs King’s dialogue like Kathy Bates. She embraces and owns the moving cuckoo logic of his best orations, understanding that they’re almost always rooted in class anxiety. The most disturbing quality of Misery, both the novel and the film, is the fact that we relate to Annie Wilkes, psychotic “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (superbly played in the film by James Caan), more than we do her victims. Bates is so intimately in tune with Annie that we feel for her when she fails to impress Paul, somehow temporarily forgetting that she’s holding him hostage and torturing him. Annie is yet another of King’s unleashed nerds, a repressed soul seeking actualization, but she isn’t sentimentalized, instead embodying the ferocious self-absorption that fuels obsession, leading to estrangement. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman regrettably trim King’s most ambitiously subjective material, but they compensate by focusing pronouncedly on the cracked love story at the narrative’s center.

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Film

Review: Last Christmas Wears Its Sloppy Heart on Its Kitschy Sleeve

There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.

1.5

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Last Christmas
Photo: Universal Pictures

Multiple times in Last Christmas, Kate and her immigrant parents (Emma Thompson and Boris Isakovic) say that they hail from the “former Yugoslavia,” a rather outdated and strangely non-specific way of referring to their origins. When Kate comforts an Eastern European couple on the bus after they’re accosted by a Brexiter, they excitedly but vaguely ask her, “You’re from our country?” At this point, Last Christmas has begun to sound downright evasive, and you may wonder if the filmmakers even know where Kate’s family is supposed to come from. To screenwriters Bryony Kimmings and Emma Thompson, such details would appear to be extraneous to this anti-Brexit Christmas Carol. Merely tacking an affirmation of immigrant rights onto a familiar Christmas narrative about selflessness requires little more than an evocation of a general Slavic-ness about the characters.

Another element that Paul Feig’s film keeps pointedly indistinct is the nature of a recent illness that the twentysomething Kate (Emilia Clarke) has endured. Clearly depressed in the wake of a major health event, the aspiring singer is ostentatiously selfish, exploiting what remains of her friends’ and her boss’s good will. Currently homeless, she travels with a roller suitcase from crash pad to crash pad, drinking heavily, bringing home one-night stands, and openly flirting with customers at work. Kate is employed full time at a Christmas shop in London whose wisecracking owner (Michelle Yeoh) goes by the name Santa. At one point, Santa expresses distress at Kate’s haggard, disheveled state because she doesn’t want the young woman to drop dead. “I don’t have enough tinsel to cover your body,” she worries.

The grounds for Santa’s concern that a woman in her mid-20s may be killed by the lifestyle lived by many Londoners in their mid-20s is left open because its ultimate reveal three-quarters of the way through the film points toward one of the silliest twist endings in recent memory. We only learn what happened to Kate when she reveals the scar from an operation to Tom (Henry Golding), the beautiful, saintly man she begins seeing after finding him bird-watching outside the Christmas shop. Suffice it to say, Last Christmas is “inspired by” the Wham! song of the same name, specifically one line—and one line only—from its chorus.

Kate loves George Michael—one imagines she feels a bond with the late singer, the son of a Balkan immigrant himself, though the filmmakers leave this unexplored—and thus Last Christmas attempts to remake some of his most well-known songs into seasonally appropriate tunes. Obligatory montages to “Faith” and “Freedom” speed us through parts of Kate’s Tom-facilitated rehabilitation from cynical wastrel to Christmas-spirited patron of the homeless, though these segments are brief, cutting off the songs before we realize they have absolutely nothing to do with the jolly Christmas vibes that the film attempts to give off. Even “Last Christmas” is only heard in snippets, lest we realize that the song’s lyrics have little to do with seasonal giving and charity, and everything to do with regret, hurt, and resentment.

Last Christmas counts on our absorbing the sugary sound of Michael’s music but none of its substance. This is perhaps the film’s fatal flaw, and it’s not unrelated to its evasiveness regarding Kate’s origins and its simplistic affirmation of liberal outrage at Brexit. There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters—true from the beginning, but particularly after its last-act reveal—that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.

Besides the general sound of Michael’s music, Last Christmas clearly draws influence from classic Christmas-themed films like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Shop Around the Corner. Such films, though, earned their Christmas miracles and holiday moralizing by grounding their stories in a sense of the community created by bonds between fully realized characters. Clarke works hard to make the messy, perpetually flustered Kate relatable, but the film surrounds the character with a community as kitschy and false as the trinkets she sells in Santa’s shop.

Cast: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Emma Thompson, Michelle Yeoh, Boris Isakovic, Lydia Leonard Director: Paul Feig Screenwriter: Bryony Kimmings, Emma Thompson Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Video

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