Coming up in this column: Salt, Farewell, The Recruit, It’s Love I’m After, Strawberry Blonde, Canyon Passage, White Collar, Burn Notice, Mad Men, but first…
Fan mail: To pick up on a couple of comments from US#51 first. “B DeGuire” is defending film noir, which you will remember I am not a fan of. I can agree with much of what he says, but I am still not crazy about the genre.
“AStrayn” wondered about my implication that the sequel to Understanding Screenwriting will not be published. Here is the situation. The first book came out in April 2008, and it has done reasonably well. One person at its publisher, Continuum, told me there are fewer returns (bookstores sending back copies they do not sell) than there are from many other of their books. When I was in New York in July 2008, I talked to the folks at Continuum about ideas I had for three more books. The first would have been USII. At that point they were interested, although neither one of us wanted to do a contract at that point. I generally prefer working on spec, since that means I can do it my way. Then the recession hit in the fall of 2008. It has whacked the publishing business very hard. Continuum has pretty much decided to do textbooks and get out of doing more general books, which USII would be. Continuum is not alone in its belt-tightening. Other publishers are slimming down their list of books. One area being particularly hit hard is serious books about screenwriting (as opposed to those “Write a Screenplay by My Rules and you Will Make a Million Dollars by Tuesday”) books. This is not helped by the fact that two of the most heavily promoted “serious” books about screenwriting in recent years, David Kipen’s The Screiber Theory (2006) and Marc Norman’s What Happens Next (2007) were both a) dreadful books, and b) bad sellers. I have talked to several people about a number of publishers and they say publishers are all cutting back on books. I talked in US#20 about Claus Tieber, the Austrian film scholar, looking for an American publisher for his book. He never found one. So those of us who are in the business of writing about screenwriting are in for a tough few years. I am going to continue working on USII and will eventually find a publisher, whether it is Continuum or not. After all, my first book, the biography of Nunnally Johnson, was turned down by over thirty publishers, most of them twice, before it got published.
Meanwhile, the struggle goes on. In US#19, way back in early 2009, I mentioned I was doing a “resume enhancer,” a scholarly article for a book of essays. I completed the first draft and sent if off to Jennifer Smyth, the first-rate film historian who asked me to write it. She didn’t like it because it was not academic enough, e.g., I did not quote every other film scholar who has written on the subject, I did not neatly summarize everything, etc. I did a second draft that did a little more summarizing. She liked it better, but sent it off to one of the official readers for the British publisher. He really did not like it, at least partially because I quoted—gasp—screenwriters. Jennifer figured there was no way to get it past him and any other readers, so she dropped it from her book. I subsequently sent it to the prestigious Australian online scholarly journal Senses of Cinema. They recently published it. You can read it here.
And David Ehrenstein was back with some interesting tidbits on US#52. He thinks Christopher Nolan is Richard Thorpe compared to Resnais, although I think he is more Charles Waters, as long as we are going for really obscure directors. Actually, I like Inception a little more than my review would indicate, since it had a fairly high level of invention. Not unlike a Charles Waters musical. I also agree that we need to get Providence out on DVD. I have been hoping to see it for the third time for decades.
Salt (2010. Written by Kurt Wimmer. 100 minutes.)
Spy week at “Understanding Screenwriting,” Day One: It’s a typical spy movie opening. Evelyn Salt, our heroine, is being tortured in her underwear by the North Koreans. Was James Bond so skimpily dressed when the North Koreans tortured him in Die Another Day (2002)? We jump ahead two years. Salt and Winter, her sort-of-boss, are leaving their office for the day when they are called in to interrogate a walk-in. He’s a Russian who claims to have knowledge of a plan to kill the President of Russia when he is in New York for the funeral of the Vice President of the United States. And, he says, one of the Russian undercover agents involved is…Evelyn Salt. Now if this were a serious examination of the tradecraft of spying, there would be a lot of discussion about this. If the underwear didn’t already tell you what kind of picture this is the fact that Salt is put into custody and immediately, and imaginatively, escapes from a secure, locked down building does. It also tells us that this is a character who is going to do things on screen.
The escape is followed by a terrific chase using cars, buses, trucks and who knows what else. Salt is not only smart, but very athletic, which continues to build interest in her character. The fact that she stops in the middle of her escape to make sure the neighbor girl will babysit her dog while she’s on the run tells us she is a nice person. So we think she is probably not a Russian plant.
The chase is long enough that by the end of it we have pretty much figured out what the structure of the film is going to be. Salt is going to go to New York and in the big finish, she will stop the assassination, probably with the help of a nerdy computer geek. Guess again. The funeral starts less than half an hour into the picture and is over a little over half an hour in. And it ends with the Russian President being assassinated.
But, but, but…the dog.
If Wimmer throws us fast balls with the opening twenty minutes, the rest of the movie is nothing but sliders, curves, and scroogies. After the funeral, Salt contacts a group of people and we expect they will play an important part in the—whoops, they’re out of the picture within ten minutes after we meet them. Wimmer’s got a good change-up as well. He is playing with what we assume the structure of a film should be and keeping us off-balance. He’s helped a lot by having Angelina Jolie as Salt. A lot of the hype about this film has been that Salt was originally written for Tom Cruise and when he passed on it, it was rewritten for Jolie. Cruise, who is not stupid about his own career, probably recognized the part was not for him. Cruise is a very open actor, with hints of depth in his best performances (Born on the Fourth of July , Magnolia ). He is simply not mysterious on the screen the way Jolie is, and since we are constantly trying to figure Salt out, her presence is a major asset to the film. Matt Zoller Seitz’s wonderful review goes into that in more detail than I will here and probably better than I could. Matt is also right about Wimmer’s additional work tailoring it for Jolie adding a lot to the film.
The additional casting also plays games the way Wimmer’s script does. Pay particular attention to the casting of Andre Braugher in what appears to be the nothing role of the Secretary of Defense. You don’t hire someone with that power unless…
Farewell (2009. Original screenplay by Eric Raynaud, adaptation and dialogue by Christian Carion, based on the book Bonjour Farewell by Serguei Kostine. 113 minutes.)
Spy week at “Understanding Screenwriting,” Day Two: No Angie in her undies here. The one scene that seems about to be a chase never does, becoming instead a great payoff for a red herring planted earlier in the film. This is a much more realistic story about spying than Salt, but just as compelling in its own way.
It’s based on a true story about a Russian KGB colonel in Moscow, called Sergei here, who gives piles of secret information to a French engineer who works in Moscow. The focus in the film is on the relationship of Sergei and Pierre. We are never told how Pierre became Sergei’s go-to guy. Sergei knows Pierre’s boss and apparently approached him. The boss sent Pierre to what we see in the film is their first meeting. Sergei really does not want to deal with an amateur, but realizes it may be for the best when the French send a pro, who is immediately put under surveillance by the KGB. Sergei comes to trust and like Pierre, while Pierre becomes more and more upset at being a spy, for which he has had no training at all. Early on in the film we meet the wives of the two men and we get a lot of everybody’s domestic life. Sergei is constantly having difficulty dealing with his sulky teenage son, Igor, and is convinced that his wife is having an affair with another KGB man. Pierre’s wife is increasingly bothered by Pierre’s lying to her.
We see a lot of the tradecraft involved in the meetings of Sergei and Pierre: the neutral locations (including one in which Sergei gets his picture taken, but not by spies), the shifting methods of transportation. All very ordinary stuff. But then we hear what is being passed to the French and ultimately the Americans: it lives up to its reputation as information that helped the west win the Cold War, but it is mentioned very casually by the people involved. This is what day-to-day intelligence gathering and evaluation involves. The writers, including Carion, who also directed, make it as watchable as the action scenes in Salt.
Sergei is eventually caught by the KGB, and the picture slows down a little more than it should in the last hour, but it still gives us some terrific scenes. We have Sergei and his wife, Sergei and Igor, and a border crossing that is one of the more suspenseful scenes you are going to see this year. We also get scenes with President Mitterand of France and President Reagan. Reagan is played by Fred Ward, and there has been some criticism of his performance, one critic noting that he sounded more like Clint Eastwood than Reagan. But this is Reagan in his tough guy mode rather than his folksy mode, even if you don’t believe his sophisticated film analysis of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in one scene. And he is much more entertaining than the block of wood who plays the president in Salt. Willem Dafoe plays the head of the C.I.A., “Feeney” here but obviously based on William Casey, and he gets a good scene near the end that explains a lot of the political maneuvering over Sergei and his material.
If you want non-stop action, see Salt. If you want a more realistic look at the great game, see Farewell.
The Recruit (2003. Written by Roger Towne and Kurt Wimmer and Mitch Glazer. 115 minutes.)
Spy week at “Understanding Screenwriting,” Day Three: In the course of the discussions of Covert Affairs with my various contacts with experience in Intelligence work, this film got mentioned by a couple of people. One said that C.I.A. alumni found the training scenes in here to be more accurate than in other films and especially Covert Affairs. This is why we do not allow the C.I.A. to be film critics in a democracy.
Yes, the first half may be accurate, but it is not all that interesting. Walter Burke, an Agency man, recruits James Clayton and we see some of the training at the Farm, as the Agency’s training site is called. The details are mildly entertaining, but nothing we have not seen or guessed at. Burke is the traditional tough teacher with no nuances, and Clayton is still in a huff because his father died in 1990. Not a word about his mother. Clayton assumes that his father was in the C.I.A., and Burke strings him along. We assume that what we see in the training is going to pay off later in the film, but very little of it does. In the training we get a briefing and demonstration on how to follow people, but Clayton and the others seem to have forgotten all about that when they get in the field. Compare that to the payoff in Farewell to Sergei telling Pierre not to make it hard on the people following him, since if he makes it easy on them, they will come to like him and be less suspicious of him.
In the second half of the film, Clayton is looking after one of his classmates, whom Burke tells him is trying to steal a big secret. This alas leads us to lot of typing-at-the-computer scenes, the bane of modern movies. We do get action scenes, but the big finish involves a plot twist that is there primarily to give Al Pacino, who plays Burke, one of his traditional arias. There is a nice twist on something he says later in the very final scene if you want to wait for it.
OK, secret agents, pop quiz to test your powers of observation: Other than being about the C.I.A., what else connects Salt and The Recruit? It’s right there in plain sight in the items on their two films. Go back and look.
Kurt Wimmer wrote on both of them. He was one of three writers on The Recruit, and the film very much has the feeling of having all its rough edges rounded off in the development process. In the case of Salt, the development process of turning it from a Tom Cruise vehicle to and Angelina Jolie vehicle appears to have made it better. The characters are more interesting and the twists are far more compelling.
Two more things from my friends who dealt with spooks. Agency alumni thought The Good Shepherd, the 2006 film on the early days of the O.S.S. and C.I.A., was an attack on the white male culture of the Agency. They also thought no spy worth his salt would have ignored Angelina Jolie the way her husband does in the film. Which may be why Jolie’s Salt is such a tough cookie.
It’s Love I’m After (1937. Screenplay by Casey Robinson, based on the story “Gentleman After Midnight” by Maurice Handline. 90 minutes.)
Pauline was right: I first read about this film in Pauline Kael’s 1968 book Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. She had a collection of program notes on 280 movies, including a paragraph on this one. She describes it as a “thoroughly incredible light farce” with Leslie Howard (Basil Underwood) and Bette Davis (Joyce Arden) as a couple of egotistical actors. She enjoyed the performances, noted that the there are typical ‘30s comedies characters like millionaires, butler, and heiresses. She writes that “The pace is sluggish and Archie Mayo’s direction (from Casey Robinson’s screenplay) is—to put it kindly—uninspired, but the movie is a rather pleasant bad movie.” When I disagreed with Kael’s judgement on a film, I completely disagreed with it; when I agreed I completely agreed. This is one of those times when I agreed. But it took me 42 years to get around to seeing the film. It’s one of those films that is not yet on DVD and has never been on tape. I’ve never come across it on television. It showed up this July as a part of a great series the UCLA Film Archives is running called “Rarities from the Warner Archive Collection.”
Basil and Joyce are actors who fight as much as they act. They are obviously the forerunner of Fred and Lilly in Kiss Me Kate (both the Broadway show and the 1953 film), and as Kael indicates, Howard and Davis are having a marvelous time cutting loose. Marcia West, the heiress, develops a mad crush on Basil, and her fiancé persuades Basil to go to her estate and act like a cad to help her get over the crush. Hijinks ensue. Robinson’s screenplay uses all those ‘30s character and situations well. We don’t usually think of Robinson as a comedy writer. His credits include swashbucklers like Captain Blood (1935), soap operas like Dark Victory (1939), and literary adaptations like Kings Row (1942). The script here is not a great screwball comedy script, but it is a good one. He sets up situations nicely, develops the complications well, and above all, gives the cast a lot of great stuff to say and do.
As Kael suggests, one problem is the direction by Archie Mayo. Mayo started in silent films, writing and directing silent comedy shorts, but none of his silent comedies are classics. He is better known for his Warner Brothers melodramas of the ‘30s like Bordertown (1935) and The Petrified Forest (1936). There is at least a Master’s thesis waiting to be written on why Mayo could not move successfully from silent to sound comedy. In It’s Love I’m After, he’s letting the actors be a little too farcical for the material, which really requires a slyer touch. His directing suffers in comparison with others in the field at the time, like Capra, Hawks, Leisen and Cukor. Watching this film, you can just imagine what one of those guys would have done with this. Preston Sturges, in the ‘40s, got his actors to work at this farcical level, but that was because he had written the characters that way. Robinson had not.
I think also there is a problem in the editing by Owen Marks. Marks, who was a great film editor (Casablanca , Treasure of the Sierra Madre , and East of Eden ), tends to hold too long on scenes. Eric Blore, one of the great supporting actors of the period, plays Basil’s butler Digges. He has some great bits, many of them involving his skill at bird-calling, but often Marks will hold on him for a few seconds after he has completed his bits and reactions. It kills the pacing of the film. Kevin Tent, one of the great contemporary film editors, was a student of mine at LACC. When I saw Election, the 1999 film he cut, I was struck by how precise his cutting was. There were laughs he got by cutting on exactly the right frame. One frame either way and the jokes would not have been funny. I am not sure he could have “saved” It’s Love I’m After, but he would have made it sharper.
Strawberry Blonde (1941. Screenplay by Julius J. Epstein & Philip G. Epstein, based on the play One Sunday Afternoon by James Hagan. 98 minutes.)
Second feature: The second feature at the UCLA Archive screening after It’s Love I’m After was this film. It is the second of three films made from the Hagan play. The first was made under the name of the play in 1933 while the play was still on Broadway. The third was a 1948 musical again made under the title of the play. That third version was directed by Raoul Walsh, who directed the second version. Don’t worry, there will not be a quiz later.
The current version was written by the Epstein twins, Julius and Philip. They had come to Warners a few years before and eventually developed a reputation for light comedy. Strawberry Blonde is not exactly light comedy, but it has some light touches. Biff Grimes is a dentist in turn-of-the-century New York. He is in love with Virginia, the local beauty. She marries his semi-friend Hugo, and Hugo becomes rich via some shady dealings in the construction business. Biff realizes Hugo and Virginia are not happy, and that he is much better off married to Amy. Amy starts out being something of a free-thinker, although the Epsteins (and perhaps the original play) undercut that when we find out her mother was not really a suffragette and she does not smoke cigarettes. The piece is an odd choice for Warner Brothers, the home of gangster movies and melodramas. Not to mention an odd choice for its director, Raoul Walsh, who was better known for his very macho adventure movies. Maybe it appealed to his sentimental side, although I am not sure Walsh had a sentimental side. I suspect that Walsh decided to do the musical version seven years later because Strawberry Blonde feels like a musical. There is an enormous amount of turn-of-the-century music played and sung, and I am surprised that in 1941 it did not occur to them to do it as a musical in the first, or second, place. Especially when you consider that James Cagney plays Biff and a young Rita Hayworth is Viriginia.
For reasons that defy understanding, the film was shot in black-and-white (well shot by the great James Wong Howe, but the print shown had been made with inconsistent illumination, so it varied from light to dark within scenes) instead of color. Maybe it was just Jack Warner being cheap, a not-unknown event in Hollywood.
Canyon Passage (1946. Screenplay by Ernest Pascal, based on the Saturday Evening Post novel by Ernest Haycox. 92 minutes.)
From the writer and producer of Stagecoach!: This one popped up a little while ago on Turner Classic Movies. You may or may not believe that I had not only never seen it, but never even heard of it before. In spite of the fact that it is from the writer and producer of Stagecoach, I loved it.
I have never been that much of a Stagecoach fan. Dudley Nichols’s screenplay does the original story no favors by hyping the Indian attack storyline, making the film rather ungainly. The Indian story begins at the start of the film, then ends 15 minutes before the end. The Ringo Kid story starts 20 minutes into the film and goes to the end. As I wrote in my book Screenwriting, “The characterization is clichéd, and the only reason the characters work at all in this version is that [John] Ford bullied the actors into believing them.” On the other hand, other Haycox stories have made some good movies. This is one of the best.
The producer is Walter Wanger, who produced Stagecoach, and according to Robert Osborne in his introduction on TCM, Wanger wanted to reunite at least some of the cast of that film for this one. He did not manage to do that, but he did get a good script from Ernest Pascal. Pascal was very active in the Screen Writers Guild, serving one term as president in the ‘30s, but his filmography is not particularly distinguished. This may be his best script.
Although nominally a western, it is more a frontier story, bearing a slight resemblance to Drums Along the Mohawk (1939). The setting is a small town in Oregon in the 1850s, and the film is in the great tradition of westerns that deal with the tension between individuality and community. There is at least a scholarly article if not a Master’s thesis on the theme of individuality and community in this film. The film begins in Portland where we first meet Logan Stuart. He has come to town on business and he is all business. By ten minutes in, we known he is an in-charge sort of person. One of his tasks is to pick up Lucy, the sort-of fiancée of his friend George, and take her back to the town. We get the trek, against gorgeous Oregon scenery, meeting a variety of neighbors as we go. They include a woman Logan is interested in, Caroline, who is staying with the Dances. But wait a minute. Logan is played by Dana Andrews, the star of the picture, and Lucy is played by Susan Hayward, another star, and Caroline is “just” the British actor Patricia Roc. So why is Logan not interested in Lucy? Well, she belongs to George. And George is played by Brian Donlevy, who made his reputation playing villains (Sgt. Markoff in the 1939 version of Beau Geste, to name the most obvious one). But here he is a nice guy. Pascal lets us know he is weak, given to gambling and probably not entirely faithful to Lucy. Pascal has created in George one of the more complex characters that Donlevy played in his career. You would not see this in a traditional western.
Logan runs a freight service, George a bank, and they are very much involved with the community. Both help out, although George reluctantly, when the community gets together to build a house for a young couple. The house-building is interrupted by Indians, and the film makes a nice point that the Indians do not object to the settlers moving in, but they do object to them building houses, since it says they own the land.
The town bully is Honey Bragg, and Pascal and/or Haycox has given him some light touches as well. Honey is played by Ward Bond, and Pascal has, as he did with Donlevy, created a richer character than Bond usually played. Honey comes into town specifically to fight Logan, and Logan has to agree, since as the townspeople tell him, “The town wants it” i.e., the fight. Logan beats Honey and Honey leaves down. It is much later in the picture when we see Honey kill the horses that Logan and Lucy are riding on, and later than that when we see him about to attack two Indian girls he sees swimming. That attack sets the Indians off, and the house we saw built is burned down. Honey is caught between the Indians and the community, whose people turn their back on him, and the Indians kill him. Several of the community members we have come to know and love are killed. Logan decides he is finally ready to settle down in the town, but Caroline refuses to move into town. In a very nice moment, she says she prefers living at the Dance’s farm out in the wilderness. Since George has been killed in all the action, Logan and Lucy do end up with each other.
We get all of that in 92 minutes. I did not even mention there are songs written and sung by Hoagy Carmichael, including the Oscar-nominated “Ole Buttermilk Sky.”
White Collar (2010. “Need to Know” episode written by Joe Henderson. 60 minutes.)
Always nice to have a black lesbian around: In US#31 I talked about the first episodes of this series, and I mentioned that Diana, the black lesbian F.B.I. agent, was dropped after a few episodes and was replaced by a straight Latina. As much as I love straight Latinas, I was glad to see that this season they brought back Diana. They also made a specific point of Peter and the others welcoming her back. The advantage of having her as part of the team showed up in this episode. Peter and Neal are trying to take down a corrupt politician. Diana is helping Peter trying to find “the box” for Neal, and she comes to his house one night with information. The politician has sent out spies and they take pictures of Peter and Diana. They show them to Neal, who is working undercover for the politician. Thinking quickly, Neal tells the politician that Diana is a high-priced call girl. The politician knows a pimp who runs call girls and thinks they can use Diana to get dirty stuff for blackmail on Peter. A meeting is setup at a party between the pimp and Diana. He tells her that as an “audition” he wants her to pick out somebody at the party and get him to hand over $10,000 in cash. Neal is there and she picks him. While they wait around in a hotel room for Peter and Mozzie (of course) to come up with the money, Neal tries to work his charm on Diana, even though he knows she is gay. What this leads to are a couple of nice scenes in which they bond as friends, much better than if it were just a straight, pardon the expression, seduction scene.
The storyline is that Neal gets the politician to draw attention from the F.B.I. investigation by pretending to be against a large development in his district, saying instead he wants a playground for “Timmy Nolan,” a completely fictitious kid. The large development is also fictitious. In other words, he is “wagging the dog,” as in the 1997 movie of the same name. Which nobody mentions in the entire episode. Which I for one find highly unlikely. Everybody in politics knows about Wag the Dog.
One peculiarity of these first episodes of this run of White Collar is the relative absence of Tiffani Thiessen as Elizabeth, Peter’s wife. She does not appear in this episode, and had only one scene in each of the first two. The scenes looked as though she was green-screened in. I was afraid she was being written out, which would be too bad, because she is a nice counterpoint to the plotting. But an eventual check of the Internet told me that Thiessen had been pregnant during the spring. She had a daughter in June and is going to be back in the last episodes of this run.
Burn Notice (2010. “Past & Future Tense” episode written by Jason Tracey. 60 minutes.)
Spy week at “Understanding Screenwriting,” Day Four: Burn Notice is moving along nicely, integrating the other burned spy Jesse into the team. This episode, however, was one of their weaker ones, which is too bad, since it had great promise. A conference of intelligence professionals takes place in Miami. Our guys spot a Russian wet ops (assassination) team. They kidnap one of team and get him to tell them who their target is. He’s a retired C.I.A. guy named Paul Anderson. As Sam points out to Michael after they meet Paul, he’s the “ghost of Christmas future.” So Tracey is going for the idea that Paul is what Michael might become. Except that is never developed. Instead we get banter between Michael and Paul, who is played by Burt Reynolds. Now you would think Reynolds and Jeffrey Donovan could do banter with all four hands tied behind their backs. But Tracey just does not give good banter. Their scenes fall flat, and the idea of Paul being a spectre for Michael never gets up a head of steam. Hey, we all have our off days.
Mad Men (2010. “Public Relations” episode written by Matthew Weiner. 60 minutes.)
It’s ba-a-a-ck: Things are not going well for Don Draper. I don’t just mean all that last season stuff about his former company collapsing and his wife divorcing him. That’s chicken feed. Besides, he’s started a new company and as he finally admits to a reporter at the end of the episode, he is the star of the new company. But being a star has its problems. The episode opens on an uncomfortable Don being interviewed by a reporter from Advertising Age. Don, a man who holds his secrets in, is not giving the guy anything. When the interview is published, one of their clients drops them because they are not mentioned in the article. Then Don tells off another potential client and throws him out of the office. Don’s in trouble because he seems unable to do the things he does best: sell and persuade. At the end of the episode, he is back on track a little, given a better interview with a reporter from the Wall Street Journal that Bert Cooper has set him up with. Things may get better for Don. But we all hope not. No, we do hope they do. No, we don’t. And so it goes.
Early in the episode Roger has fixed Don up with a date, his first real one since the divorce (later we see what he has been doing for sexual release in the meanwhile, and it’s not nice). The girl is a friend of Roger’s wife Jane. She looks like Don’s ex-wife Betty, but she is her own character. Writers who want to learn how to establish a character as quickly and deeply as possible should study this scene in detail. Look at how much Weiner gives us about her in just a couple of minutes. That’s great writing, even if we never see the girl again.
A personal note. I have mentioned in passing that I was on the East Coast during the time of Mad Men and that I think the show captures the nuances and attitudes of the time perfectly. In this episode, Henry, Betty’s new boyfriend, suggests that on the weekend after Thanksgiving 1964, when Don has the kids, he and Betty should get away for a day or two. The place he suggests: The Griswold Inn in Essex, Connecticut. I know it’s a perfect romantic inn because about two weeks after Henry and Betty would have been there, my wife and I spent our honeymoon there.
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.
Review: Tigers Are Not Afraid Wrings Preciousness from a Drug War’s Carnage
It never resolves its commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly coherent argument about the legacy of trauma.2
Writer-director Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a tapestry of flourishes. All are inseparable from Mexico’s gangland carnage, but its most memorable one is also rooted in magical-realist tradition, namely 100 Years of Solitude. The novel tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, and in one particularly exacting and vivid passage, master fabulist Gabriel García Márquez details how the seemingly eternal Ursula Iguarán learns of her son José Arcadio’s death after a trickle of blood from his body winds its way through war-torn Macondo, around corners, across terraces, down steps, and over curbs, before finally arriving at his mother’s doorstep. “Holy mother of God,” she says.
Ursula comprehends the truth of that thread of blood even before it leads her back to her son’s body. By contrast, the protagonist of Tigers Are Not Afraid, Estrella (Paola Lara), prevaricates so as to put distance between herself and the horrors around her. “We forget who we are, when the things from outside come to get us,” she says in voiceover at the start of the film. She doesn’t see the line of blood that runs from a dead man’s head and follows her all the way home until it’s already tracing a path across her living room floor and up a wall, finally creating the shape of an insect on a dress that hangs from the ceiling. Estrella’s mother is missing, and in this moment, the girl seems to know that she’s being sent a message, which she won’t learn to decipher until she becomes more fluent in the language of fairy tales.
At its most assured, Tigers Are Not Afraid strikingly literalizes the idea of the ties that bind, suggesting how the living and the dead walk hand in hand, almost as a matter of course, in a modern-day Mexico where 160,000 have been killed and 53,000 have disappeared since the beginning of the drug war in 2006. Before Estrella stumbles upon the aforementioned dead man’s body, you get the sense that today isn’t the first time she’s seen boys use police tape as limbo sticks, or dragged her fingers across walls riddled with bullet holes. Which isn’t to say that the girl is desensitized to this violence. She seems to almost exist at a remove from it, and López sensitively syncs the swaying of her camera to the girl’s visible numbness.
That sensitivity, however, proves to be a kind of redundancy. Throughout Tigers Are Not Afraid, López effectively conjures an aura of ordinariness, but she never resolves her commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly coherent argument about the legacy of trauma. The film concerns Estrella and a group of orphaned boys going head to head with a cartel after young El Shine (Juan Ramón López) swipes a gun and phone from the treacherous El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), and when that narrative isn’t picking up signals from the supernatural realm, you sense its allegiance to so many films indebted to the neorealist tradition, from Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados to Héctor Babenco’s Pixote. Tigers Are Not Afraid is alive to the harsh reality of its main characters’ lives, though at times it feels as if López’s only means of accessing that truth is by conspicuously shaking her camera.
As for the film’s supernatural flourishes, none are as inspired as that thread of blood that trails Estrella at various points. Little flying creatures suggest visitors from Guillermo del Toro’s cabinet of curiosities, while a gathering of ghosts inside an expansive, derelict building brings to mind a Silent Hill freak-out. And in the case of the tiger graffiti on a wall that comes to life at one point, there isn’t even the sense that we’re watching the dead’s handiwork. After a while, death’s intrusions come to feel more cosmetic than substantial.
Early in the film, López fascinatingly suggests that Estrella’s perception of the world, after a teacher grants her three wishes, is both shield and sword. But after the girl uses one of those wishes to commit an act of brutality, the film’s fairy-tale conceit reveals itself as an engine for easy absolution. By the time the girl arrives at an understanding of her world that isn’t too far removed from the logic of her opening voiceover, Tigers Are Not Afraid has so given itself over to feeling the innocence of cocooning that it only effectively haunts us with its preciousness.
Cast: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas, Tenoch Huerta, Nery Arredondo, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero Director: Issa López Screenwriter: Issa López Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 83 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette Serves Up Lifetime-Grade Chestnuts of Wisdom
The film is a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.1.5
The opening passages of Where’d You Go, Bernadette include a handful of scenes in which an agoraphobic architect and mother, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), restlessly expresses her internal thoughts inside the empty rooms of her Seattle mansion. Observed in flowing Steadicam shots, these soliloquies—recorded and translated to text by Manjula, the digital assistant on Bernadette’s smartphone—give space to reflect on how the woman’s eclectic furnishings grow out of her racing mental landscape. And in performing them, Blanchett offers the rare cinematic spectacle of a mother in her alone time, compelled to let her imagination and anxieties loose outside the pressures of maternal duty. In these moments, the film, an unapologetically straightforward adaptation of Maria Semple’s best-selling novel, briefly takes on the tone of something candidly personal.
It’s a shame, then, that Where’d You Go, Bernadette is cloyingly beholden to the demands of its crowd-pleasing narrative arc—that of a creative woman driven to ennui by motherhood and middle age yet rescued from the brink by an inspiring vacation and the love of her family. It’s nice, reassuring stuff, not false by any standard, but told with such didacticism and cuteness that one can’t help but be bewildered by the fact that the film was co-written and directed by Richard Linklater. Where the Texas auteur’s leisurely paced Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!! excel in their attention to the nuanced spectacle of characters changing over time, Where’d You Go, Bernadette plays like all of its air has been sucked out in the interest of plot progression, which it conducts with the workshopped efficiency of a television movie mindful of commercial breaks. In fact, with its coverage-dependent mise-en-scène, off-the-rack musical score, and tacked-on bookending voiceovers, Linklater’s latest feels strangely close to something Lifetime might have churned out in the early aughts.
The film establishes its narrative conflicts quickly and bluntly, often through dialogue, simple juxtaposition, and, in one particularly dull case, a YouTube mini-documentary about Bernadette that plays in full in order to clarify her backstory. A brilliant and influential architect in the midst of a long hiatus after a demoralizing relocation and a series of miscarriages, she displaces her creative frustration on her city and its inhabitants, including her prosperous, TED Talks-giving husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup); stuffy neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig); and Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), a gossipy associate of Elgie and friend of Audrey. Her only routine source of joy is her wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), who loves her unconditionally and whom she treats perhaps a bit too much like a peer.
Symptomatic of Linklater’s always-generous worldview, the film sees Bernadette’s quirks not as deficiencies, but as inevitable side effects of life’s persistent curveballs. When the character refers to herself as a “creative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares,” it’s clear that the filmmaker endorses that assessment, and perhaps even recognizes it as a description of his own artistic career. For all their suspicion toward Bernadette, Elgie and Audrey aren’t characterized entirely negatively either, for each is given a path to redemption, and Wiig’s portrayal of her character’s transition from belligerence to empathy in particular is one of the highpoints of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
Rather, in true boomer fashion, Linklater reserves his cynicism for technology, kickstarting the film’s third act with the contrived revelation that Manjula is actually a Russian-operated phishing scheme seeking to steal Bernadette’s identity. This development briefly gets a Department of Homeland Security agent, Marcus Strang (James Urbaniak), and a therapist, Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer), caught up in the narrative, but it’s all really just a busy preamble to the Antarctica family vacation that’s hinted at from the very first scene. Bernadette has her reservations about the trip, Bee thinks it will be cathartic for the family, Elgie is too preoccupied with his career to concern himself with the logistics, and the shadowy forces behind Manjula are poised to swoop in and cause chaos during the scheduled dates.
What ends up happening is neither the transporting escape Bee wants nor the complete disaster Manjula intends to enact, but something messily in between that triggers a coordinated stream of life lessons—and a few uninspired drone shots of icebergs. Indeed, in its eagerness to diagnose Bernadette’s existential impasse, the film lays on thick the kind of back-patting chestnuts of wisdom that have become increasingly common in Linklater’s recent films, groaners like “Popularity is overrated” and “You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna do.” Such sentiments have always been window dressing in Linklater’s nonchalantly libertarian body of work, but if in many cases his films have tacitly acknowledged the limits of language to articulate life’s mysteries, here there’s very little sense of a frontier to be explored. If Bernadette is Linklater and Blanchett’s collaborative expression of the right balance between parenting and artistry, it’s a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening—and privileged—idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Emma Nelson, Zoe Chao, James Urbaniak, Judy Greer Director: Richard Linklater Screenwriter: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, Vincent Palmo Jr. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 130 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
The film is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.2
With What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, Roberto Minervini returns to the American South to tell the stories of several African-Americans living in New Orleans, over the summer of 2017. These stories are so self-contained that the documentary comes to suggest an anthology film, which, in this case, has been organized around a pervading theme of how political and personal textures intersect in everyday black life. And in the tradition of the anthology film, Minervini’s material is also variable, suggesting that the filmmaker could’ve been more ruthless in the editing room and less beholden to the pleasures of his self-consciously neat aesthetic.
Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Minervini’s subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew that’s clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titus’s inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocence—an impression that’s affirmed later in the film when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titus’s hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness that’s bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love that’s deeply poignant.
Juxtaposed with this coming-of-age youth narrative are stories of a recovering crack addict, Judy Hill, who’s realized her dream of opening a bar, and of a local chapter of the New Black Panthers, which is investigating and protesting several murders, such as the recent decapitation and burning of a local black man. Intellectually, one can see why Minervini believes these threads belong together, as they both illustrate how African-Americans foster their own infrastructures as a reaction to the corruption and indifference of governments on various levels. But Minervini’s cross-cutting shortchanges both of these story threads. Minervini reveals preciously little about the principle murder that the New Black Panthers are seeking to avenge, using it vaguely as a symbol of Southern atrocity at large, and the practical details of operating Judy’s bar are reduced to sketches. In both cases, the specifics of the subjects’ concerns haven’t been entirely dramatized.
In certain portions of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, particularly those featuring the New Black Panthers, Minervini taps into reservoirs of anger that are nearly at odds with his chilly formalism. The film was shot by D.P. Diego Romero in pristine black and white, with long takes that drink in the details of the landscapes and people’s bodies. One is often encouraged to savor the beauty of the lighting, especially in Judy’s bar, and Minervini eschews typical documentary devices like narration and interviews. In terms of gliding, sumptuous style, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, as both films verge on turning class struggles into moving coffee-table books.
We’re supposed to feel as if we’ve slipped effortlessly into the lives of Minervini’s subjects, which might have been possible if more time had been devoted to pivotal moments. If Minervini wasn’t able to capture the moment when Judy learns that she must close the bar, then perhaps he could’ve wrestled with his inability to capture it. Judy demands a meta-textual approach anyway, as she is a highly charismatic and self-absorbed person who is often clearly performing for the camera, most gratingly when she responds to her mother’s fear of homelessness with a monologue about her own generosity. A filmmaker like Robert Greene might’ve challenged Judy and utilized her for a riff on the power of self-mythology, but Minervini prizes his faux-objectivity; he’s more interested in mood than process or character. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.
Director: Roberto Minervini Screenwriter: Roberto Minervini Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Good Boys’s Raunchy Take on Tweendom Is the Same Old Shtick
Gene Stupnitsky’s film is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action.2
Gene Stupnitsky’s Good Boys is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action, though it lacks the Netflix show’s frankness and authenticity. While hearing sixth graders curse and exhibit their burgeoning sexual awareness constitutes the film’s entire gimmick, its coarse language and surprising displays of sexual material mask an inner timidity. In the post-“puberty monster” world ushered in by Big Mouth, a show that cares to acknowledge that girls also experience puberty, both the film’s jokes and easy coming-of-age morality tale seem tame, beautified for an audience it assumes will not want to confront the abjectness of tweens’ emotional and sexual imaginations.
That said, there are laughs to be had in Good Boys, many of them deriving from the main characters’ mistaken understanding of the adult world. Max (Jacob Tremblay), for example, believes that his college-age neighbor, Hannah (Molly Gordon), is a “nymphomaniac” because she has sex both on land and at sea. Thor (Brady Noon), who pretends to possess advanced knowledge and experience in all areas, misinterprets his parents’ sex toys as weapons. And Lucas (Keith L. Williams) comes to believe that Hannah and her friend, Lily (Midori Francis), are irredeemable drug addicts because they want to do the “sex drug” molly.
Max doesn’t know how to kiss girls, and his middle-school mind tells him that the best way to learn is by using his father’s (Will Forte) drone to spy on Hannah kissing her boyfriend, Benji (Josh Caras). That leads to Hannah and Lily taking the drone, and as recompense, Thor steals Hannah’s purse, which contains a vitamin bottle full of molly that the boys promptly lose. Part of the film’s at least outwardly risqué treatment of tween boyhood is that the boys’ possession of and efforts to procure a party drug drives much of the story. And that story is a chain of cause and effect that abides by the protagonists’ middle-school priorities: If Max doesn’t find more molly, he will lose his father’s drone, which means that he never gets to kiss a girl.
The cascading series of absurd situations that are driven by Max’s desire to kiss his crush, Brixlee (Millie Davis), includes the boys trashing a frat house, selling a sex doll to a weirdo (Stephen Merchant), and handing over the bottle full of molly to an oblivious cop (Sam Richardson). (This last bit is as tenuous as a dangling thread for conspicuously missing a punchline, almost as if the filmmakers never got around to shooting it.) In the end, the trio, the so-called “bean bag boys,” must learn that middle school will mean growing apart to some extent: Max is into girls and the sixth-grade social scene, Thor loves theater, and Lucas is a kindly nerd who enjoys card games. That these interests aren’t in the least mutually exclusive, particularly for Generation Z, proves beyond the film’s capacity to acknowledge.
Good Boys’s humor is by and large the same as that of any other male-centric R-rated comedy; if it differentiates itself from other iterations of the genre, it’s through a group of pre-teens making verbosely obscene comments and engaging in gross-out physical comedy. There’s a sense that Good Boys draws open a curtain and peeks into a rarely seen and dimly remembered space of tweendom. But it’s satisfied with just this peek—and as convincingly as the filmmakers can compel their child stars to enunciate obscene exclamations, the film never captures much of the feeling, of the world of childhood experience, in which they might be based. As a result, Good Boys never transcends its Superbad-but-with-11-year-olds shtick.
Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis, Izaac Wang, Millie Davis, Josh Caras, Will Forte, Retta, Lil Rel Howery, Sam Richardson, Stephen Merchant Director: Gene Stupnitsky Screenwriter: Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cold Case Hammarskjöld Is a Gonzo Look at an Unsolved Mystery
The film is about a mystery that isn’t solved, and how that inconclusiveness spotlights the insidious functions of society.3
Like Oliver Stone’s JFK and David Fincher’s Zodiac, Mads Brügger’s documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld is about a mystery that isn’t solved, and how that inconclusiveness spotlights the insidious functions of society. Brügger also has in common with Stone and Fincher a visceral fascination with the minutiae of a particularly flabbergasting conspiracy theory. At one point near the end of the film, Brügger even comes clean, admitting that his investigation of the suspicious 1961 plane crash that killed United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld is mostly a pretense for allowing him to partake of a larger reportorial adventure that includes, among other things, Belgium assassins. By that point, though, Brügger needn’t bother with the confession, as his true obsessions are already quite clear.
Brügger is also the de facto host of Cold Case Hammarskjöld, and he has a penchant for hamming it up that brings to mind Werner Herzog. At the start of the film, as if seemingly ready for a safari, the Danish filmmaker is seen wearing an all-white uniform, which he claims is the wardrobe worn by the ultimate villain of his narrative. Brügger is holed up in a hotel with two African secretaries, Saphir Mabanza and Clarinah Mfengu, dictating to them the events we’re about to see. Both the wardrobe and the presence of these secretaries are gimmicks, and while the former is harmless, the latter is of questionable taste.
Much of the film pivots on various colonialist atrocities wrought in Africa by the British and other imperialist powers. And so it seems that Brügger wants the shock of these implications to register on the faces of Saphir and Clarinah, people who have a potentially intimate connection to his alternate history. In other words, he seems to have hired these women in order to achieve a sensational effect. To their credit, they don’t oblige him, and their sober intensity suggests that they don’t need a white man to tell them of the evils of the world.
Of course, Brügger isn’t trying to be likable, as he’s pointedly allergic to the pathos affected by Herzog and, more gallingly, Michael Moore. There’s something of an irony to many first-person documentaries: They prove that bad news often makes for good drama, with their makers all the while feeling the need to make a show of being enraged or saddened. Brügger, who resembles a slimmer Louis C.K., never once bothers with this pose, and his honesty gives Cold Case Hammarskjöld an aura of self-absorption that’s weirdly bracing and resonant in an age that’s dominated seemingly by nothing but conspiracy theories, “alternate facts” that suggest that reality is dictated by those with the most power. Brügger, a scrappy journalist, seeks truth as a means of accessing that very power, looking to cement his own name.
Brügger’s narrative is an intimidating thicket of dead ends, coincidences, and a seemingly endless procession of interviews with creepy elderly white men who almost certainly know more than they care to admit. Hammarskjöld was a drab-looking, pipe-smoking Swedish diplomat whom many assumed would be the very embodiment of minding the status quo of global politics, though he turned out to be an idealist who was especially concerned with the exploitation of the Congo. Several powers were vying for control of the Congo’s mineral resources, including Belgium, the Soviet Union, and Britain, and Hammarskjöld supported nothing less than revolution, leading to a costly U.N.-backed military mission in Katanga. On September 18, 1961, a U.N. plane carrying Hammarskjöld went down in a field in Northern Rhodesia—an area that’s now part of Zambia—eight miles from the Ndola airport, which Brügger memorably describes as a perfect “kill room” for being tucked away from prying eyes.
Following a labyrinthine trail, Brügger makes an intoxicatingly convincing case for the U.N. DC-6 crash, which killed Hammarskjöld and 15 others, as a murder conspiracy. Interviewing people who lived near the Ndola airport at the time, Brügger reveals that investigators didn’t pay any attention to these witnesses, who spoke of bursting, gunshot-like sounds and of fire coming from the plane—negligence that’s probably due as much to racism and a disinterest in the truth. Brügger also speaks with Charles Southall, a former official of the National Security Agency, who heard a recording of the crash that references a second plane and gunshots. Along the way, various potential smoking guns pop up, including a panel of metal riddled with what appears to be bullet holes, and, most ghastly, an ace of spades card that was placed on Hammarskjöld’s corpse, which was remarkably and inexplicably intact following the crash.
The documentary’s structure is somewhat loose, reflecting how detection often involves running in circles, discarding trails only to see them heat up again, and so forth. At times, Brügger’s transitions can be murky, as he’ll be talking to a new person before we can entirely digest how he arrived at this point. But the somewhat arbitrary quality of Cold Case Hammarskjöld becomes a significant source of its power, suggesting less a singular answer than a reality composed of a hundred half-truths. Eventually, Brügger homes in on a secret operation known as the South African Group for Maritime Research, or SAIMR, which becomes the object of the filmmaker’s obsession, to the point that Hammarskjöld is nearly forgotten.
Brügger never entirely proves SAIMR’s existence, as he’s led to the organization via documents uncovered from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that are suspiciously on the nose, suggesting the stuff of bad spy fiction. SAIMR is said to be a private mercenary group, probably serving the U.N. in secret, and responsible for Hammarskjöld’s murder as well as a plot to kill the black population of Africa with cheap medical centers that are actually giving patients shots of the H.I.V. virus. This revelation is so operatically evil, so beyond the pale of a liberal’s worst fantasies, that it serves to transform Cold Case Hammarskjöld into a kind of political horror film. And Brügger, in his meticulous sense of sensationalism, does prove one point via his lack of answers: that he and his dogged collaborators are asking questions which should’ve been posed at much higher levels of multiple chains of government. In Brügger’s hands, the general indifference of the major world powers to the possible murder of a key political figure suggests nothing less than maintenance of a diseased hierarchy.
Director: Mads Brügger Screenwriter: Mads Brügger Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 122 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Blinded by the Light Is a Wet, Sloppy, Public Kiss to Bruce Springsteen
The film bottles a palpable emotion of unabashed joy, even when the rest of it seems to barely hold together.2.5
As rebel icons go, Bruce Springsteen is as unlikely as they come. One does not, after all, tend to look to a man nicknamed “The Boss” for advice on raging against the machine. But in 1987 England under Margaret Thatcher, amid economic turmoil and fascist demonstrations, a British-Pakistani teenager, Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), hungers for a dissenting voice in his life. Javed is constantly at the whim of his domineering, recently laid-off father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), and his only real outlet for his troubles is writing poetry. But once his friend, Roops (Aaron Phagura), foists Born in the U.S.A. and Darkness on the Edge of Town cassettes upon him, Javed gets swept up in Springsteen’s music, hearing no small part of himself in the white American singer-singer’s working-class howl.
What follows in Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light is a wet, sloppy, public kiss to Springsteen that’s at once hackneyed and infectious. Inspired by co-screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor’s 2007 memoir Greetings from Bury Park, the film has a love for Springsteen’s music that feels raw and real. For one, it sees no shame in Javed and his pals dorkily dancing in the streets to “Born to Run,” as the filmmakers understand that teenage obsession really is that all-encompassing, so open-hearted that it naturally teeters into absolute corn.
Blinded by the Light is also endearing for not feeling like its edges have been sanded off. Indeed, you may find yourself worrying about Javed plastering the walls of his room exclusively in Springsteen posters, or about the way he gives a teasing, zombie-like moan to the stick-in-the-mud kid running the school radio station: “Bruuuuce.” There is, the film understands, a dizzying thrill to finding yourself in something that’s not even explicitly designed for you, like you’re in on a secret. Springsteen certainly wasn’t thinking of a British-Pakistani kid when writing his lyrics, but they speak to Javed anyway.
Chadha’s film bottles a palpable emotion of unabashed joy, even when the rest of the story seems to barely hold together. Its comedy is always mugging and its melodrama is especially heightened, and to the point that scenes are apt to trigger secondhand embarrassment, as when Javed and Roops chant Bruce lyrics at boys harassing them. Much of the drama feels like the narrative of a music video, which needs to be big and obvious enough so that viewers can recognize what’s happening based on the imagery and the music alone. But with the songs stripped away in Blinded by the Light’s latter half, the supporting characters and themes are left as stumbling, half-sketched husks. It becomes clear that the music cues fill in so many gaps, standing in for whatever nuance might have otherwise supported scenes like a parade confrontation that relies on the blaring “Jungleland” sax solo.
Cast: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Hayley Atwell, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Dean-Charles Chapman, Rob Brydon, Meera Ganatra Director: Gurdinder Chadha Screenwriter: Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurdinder Chadha, Sarfraz Manzoor Distributor: New Line Cinema Running Time: 117 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: 47 Meters Down: Uncaged Soars When It Disregards Characterization
The film wrings white-knuckle tension less through jump scares than from the darkness of a seemingly infinite void.2.5
While Johannes Roberts’s 47 Meters Down was marred by strained dialogue and flat characterizations, it certainly knew how to instill a sense of dread in the audience. That film’s premise, about two sisters with conflicting personalities who take an adventurous excursion that goes horribly awry, carries over to 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, though this standalone film is less concerned with exploring its main characters’ familial relationship. And that’s mostly for the better, as it gives Roberts more than enough room to foreground the grueling terror of coming into contact with sharks in the ocean deep.
In its opening stretch, Uncaged aggressively runs the gamut of teen-movie clichés. Indeed, as soon as it’s done establishing the contentious relationship between two stepsisters, shy and awkward Mia (Sophie Nélisse) and outgoing and popular Sasha (Corinne Foxx), the film is flashing the girls’ frustration with their archeologist father, Grant (John Corbett), for spending too much time working. And then there’s Catherine (Brec Bassinger), the prototypical mean girl who fake-apologizes for foisting Mia into the pool outside the international all-girls high school they all attend in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. That Uncaged doesn’t end with Mia, accidentally or otherwise, throwing Catherine into a shark’s maw is the final proof that all of the film’s initially corny character work is in service of absolutely nothing.
Mercifully, though, the film quickly shifts into thriller mode once Sasha drags Mia off to a remote region of the Yucatán, where their father recently discovered a submerged Mayan city. Soon after Mia, Sasha, and the latter’s adventurous friends, Nicole (Sistine Rose Stallone) and Alexa (Brianne Tju), arrive at the site and enjoy a swim above the main entrance to the city, they decide to strap on scuba gear and plunge into the water in order to gawk at the ancient relics that lurk below the surface. One crashed city column later and the girls come face to face with a deadly species of sharks that has evolved to survive in the darkness of the labyrinthine system of caves and tunnels where marine life isn’t supposed to exist.
Roberts wastes no time ratcheting up the tension, and a stifling sense of claustrophobia, once the girls find themselves trapped underwater and are forced to navigate a series of increasingly tight passageways, all while trying to harness the dwindling supply of oxygen from their scuba tanks. The filmmakers sustain this vise-grip suspense as the girls continue to face an array of unexpected, increasingly challenging obstacles, which, in fairly realistic fashion, extends their time stuck below the surface alongside the blind yet vicious sharks. At one point, they discover a pocket of air that proves to be as much of a bane as it is a boon.
Throughout, Roberts makes ample use of negative space as Mia and company make their way through the Mayan city with flashlights in hand. All the while, the bubbles from their scuba gear and the clouds of dust caused by falling rocks intensify their feelings of disorientation and panic, while also helpfully obscuring the low-rent nature of the film’s CGI effects. If, toward the end of Uncaged, the impact of these visual tactics is dulled by a few too many “gotcha” moments, the film more or less keeps things efficiently moving, wringing white-knuckle tension less through jump scares than from the darkness of a seemingly infinite void.
Cast: Sistin Stallon, Corinne Foxx, Brianne Tju, Sophie Nelisse, Brec Bassinger, Khylin Rhambo, Davi Santos, John Corbett, Nia Long Director: Johannes Roberts Screenwriter: Ernest Riera, Johannes Roberts Distributor: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: The Amazing Johnathan Documentary Is Gratingly Self-Knowing
Over and over, the film reminds us that banking on a gimmick isn’t an adequate substitute for an incisive character portrait.1.5
Despite its title, Ben Berman’s The Amazing Johnathan Documentary isn’t exactly about comedian-cum-magician John Edward Szeles. The film initially seems like it will remain within the boundaries of conventional portraiture. We’re presented with clips of Szeles’s performances, talking-head interviews with his family and other comedians, and the news that he only has a year left to live due to a heart condition called cardiomyopathy. Then, a title card indicates that we’re a few years into the future and that Szeles has outlived his prognosis. He decides to start performing again—against his doctor’s wishes—and the looming prospect of death gives Berman enough material to supply this film.
Unfortunately, Berman’s plans for a straightforward documentary are thwarted by events beyond his control. Most notably, it comes to light that another documentary about Szeles’s life is being produced, apparently by the people behind Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. The news makes Berman visibly nervous, and The Amazing Johnathan Documentary soon devolves into an awkward account of its own completion, with Berman talking with the other documentary’s crew, worrying about his own film being overshadowed, and stressing out about the extent to which Szeles might favor the other project.
Szeles’s interviews with online publications, radio shows, and Berman himself readily—and redundantly—corroborate the filmmaker’s impression that his subject is more excited about the other documentary being made about him. Berman doesn’t ask questions that carve out the fullness of anyone on camera, as he seems more interested in making sure that we grasp the severity of his dilemma. By the time he interviews John’s parents in order to draw empathy from them, claiming that he “for once […] was making a documentary out of love and art,” The Amazing Jonathan Documentary comes to feel like an echo chamber of affirmation.
Much like Szeles’s own act—composed of prop gags built around simplistic puns, gross-out illusions, and jokes that riff on his ostensible inabilities as a magician—Berman’s film is convinced of its own cleverness. While The Amazing Johnathan Documentary hints at being a meta film about the hardships of documentary filmmaking, or a mirror to Berman’s own foibles as a person, it’s constantly cut short by a lack of foresight. At one point, Berman decides to smoke meth with Szeles—who’s revealed to have been addicted to the drug in the past—as an act of “gonzo journalism” and to make the documentary more “interesting,” though the moment is ultimately cut from the film for legal reasons. Later, when Szeles accompanies Criss Angel to the presentation of the latter’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Berman is forced to use press footage because he didn’t make the event. This resulted from a lack of communication between Berman and Szeles, illuminating their current rift, but Berman’s acknowledgement of this tension is emblematic of the film’s biggest failure: The lack of cooperation from Berman and Szeles isn’t outrageous enough to be amusing on its own, nor does it come across as anything more than run-of-the-mill discord among colleagues.
The Amazing Johnathan Documentary seems born out of necessity rather than intent—a side effect of Berman needing to find a sensible ending for the film. We eventually find out that Always Amazing, the other documentary being made about Szeles, actually has no connection to Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. And in a desperate, last-ditch stab at coherence, Berman ends up getting Simon Chinn—the Oscar-winning producer behind those films—to sign on as his executive producer. The moment feels like a consolation prize for those who had to sit through so much ego-massaging on Berman’s part. It’s a final stroke of luck for the filmmaker, but it also suggests a bandage being placed on a gunshot wound, reminding us again that banking on a gimmick isn’t an adequate substitute for an incisive character portrait.
Director: Ben Berman Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Aquarela Viscerally Attests to Mother Nature’s Fight for Survival
At heart, Aquarela is a war film: a cacophonous survey of the global battle between man and water.3
On the surface, Victor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela suggests a conventional nature doc, filled as it is with breathtaking images that attest to Mother Nature’s might and majesty. But at heart, it’s a war film: a cacophonous survey of the global battle between man and water. The film’s wide array of visual evidence showing people in brutal disharmony with their surroundings presents a compelling case that as humanity continues to assault the planet through climate change, our Earth is fighting back twice as hard.
The film opens with a series of scenes in which a group of Russian officials traipse around a large expanse of ice, periodically stabbing at it with long poles. It takes a while before we understand that they’ve been tasked with recovering automobiles that have fallen through the frozen body of water, which has started to thaw earlier in the season than normal. In one nail-biting sequence, a car speeds along the ice before, without warning, abruptly falling through and disappearing beneath the surface. A rescue crew saves the driver and passenger in a chaotic sequence in which no one’s safety seems guaranteed, not even those behind the camera, whom we never see but whose terror is palpable in the nervous camerawork.
From a sequence of a sailboat operated by a single woman battling a fierce storm to shots in which giant chunks of ice that have fallen off a glacier bob up and down in the water like gigantic breaching whales, Aquarela doesn’t lack for simultaneously awesome and terrifying images. There’s a ferociousness and churning volatility to the film’s view of nature—a point heavily underlined by Eicca Toppinen’s heavy metal-inflected score. Though not quite as abrasive as Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan, which utilized an arsenal of GoPro cameras to create a turbulent, viscerally unsettling document of a commercial fishing trawler’s voyage at sea, Aquarela evinces a similar desire to overwhelm and discombobulate its audience. Kossakovsky employs a deeply immersive sound design that emphasizes the rough swoosh of waves and the shattering cracks of thawing glaciers.
Through a variety of cinematographic gestures—picturesque long shots, underwater footage, and tracking shots of waves—Kossakovsky gives us a wide view of the diversity of forms that water takes on Earth. Massive fields of drift ice are juxtaposed against ocean water that seems viscous and almost as black as oil. But Aquarela isn’t merely interested in showcasing water’s different states of matter, as it also constructs a subtle but distinct narrative in which water itself is the protagonist in a war for its own survival. After one particularly violent sequence of glaciers cracking apart, we see a disquieting shot of jagged, broken ice that suggests a battlefield strewn with the bodies of fallen soldiers. But later in the film, it’s as if the water is avenging itself on humankind with a series of hurricanes and torrential downpours.
Aquarela ultimately closes with the image of a rainbow appearing across Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall. If that sounds like a serene coda, it feels more like the mournful calm after a particularly harrowing catastrophe. Someday, this battle between nature and humanity will end, but Kossakovsky suggests that there will be no victors on either side, only victims.
Director: Victor Kossakovsky Screenwriter: Victor Kossakovsky, Aimara Reques Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 89 min Rating: PG Year: 2018
The 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time
These films are fearless in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own.
“The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by the 100 boldly imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a visionary depiction of a near-future dystopia, is almost impossible to imagine as a work of prose fiction. Strip away the Art Deco glory of its towering cityscapes and factories and the synchronized movements of those who move through those environments and what’s even left? It’s no accident that some of the greatest cinematic adaptations of sci-fi novels bear only a passing resemblance to their source material. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, simply mines some of the concepts from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about human-looking androids, using them as the raw material for a haunting urban future-noir that owes more to visual artists like Moebius and Antonio Sant’Elia than it does to Dick himself. Then there’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which transfigures Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s briskly paced novella Roadside Picnic into a slow, mesmerizing journey into an uncanny space.
Ballard may have been right that literary sci-fi has provided all the interesting themes and ideas for which sci-fi in general has become known, but he failed to grasp how cinema has expanded our understanding of sci-fi by pricking at our collective visual consciousness. The titles on our list of the 100 best sci-fi movies of all time have shown us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed. Some of these depictions are humorous, others haunting. Some rely on complicated special effects, others use none at all. But they’re united by their fearlessness in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own. Keith Watson
100. Altered States (Ken Russell, 1980)
Ken Russell’s psychedelic Altered States examines one man’s egregious deflection of paternal responsibility in the name of scientific innovation. Fantasy and self-indulgence are the most powerful narcotics in the film—drugs that allow Harvard scientist Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) to flirt with an increasingly volatile dream state where, as he puts it, “time simply obliterates.” Consumed by religious repression and self-guilt regarding his father’s painful death from cancer decades ago, Eddie becomes addicted to medicating his own primal urges through lengthy self-deprivation experiments. The theme of escape dominates the film, especially during Eddie’s visit with a native tribe from Central Mexico where a peyote session causes Eddie to hallucinate, visualized by Russell as a nightmarish dreamscape of striking imagery. It’s an incredibly subjective sequence, placing the viewer inside Eddie’s headspace during a lengthy and jarring slide show from hell. Lava flows, sexual acts, and animal disembowelment all crash together, images that take on even more symbolic meaning later in the film when Eddie begins to evolve physically into a simian form. Glenn Heath Jr.
99. Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (Jindřich Polák, 1977)
A film as brilliantly constructed as it is titled, Jindřich Polák’s Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea is a swinging comedy about a secret cabal of Nazis who’ve discovered the secret of time travel and are intent on using it to go back to World War II and supply Hitler with an atomic bomb. The plot also involves a pair of twins, mistaken identities, and anti-ageing pills, and yet, despite having to keep all these narrative balls in the air, the film never feels convoluted or over-stuffed. Instead, it’s a delightfully wacky farce that treats its potentially terrifying premise with cheerfully irreverent humor, exemplified by the film’s opening credits, which feature archival footage of Hitler manipulated to make it look like he’s boogieing to disco music. And if all that’s still not enough, Polák’s film also offers a nifty showcase of some of the grooviest low-budget futuristic production design the ‘70s Soviet bloc had to offer. Watson
98. Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980)
A gleefully cheesy throwback to the sci-fi serials of yesteryear, Mike Hodges’s Flash Gordon is as pure a camp spectacle as you’re likely to find. A glitzy—at times garish—extravaganza of brightly colored sets, skin-baring costumes, and otherworldly vistas that wouldn’t seem out of place in the gatefold of a Yes album, the film is silly and cartoonish in the best sense of those terms. Featuring such outlandish characters as the fu manchu-sporting villain Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow), Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed, bare-legged and sporting giant metallic wings), and the blank-eyed beefcake at the center of it all, Flash (Sam J. Jones), the film is very much in on its own joke. Produced by Dino de Laurentiis to cash in on the post-Star Wars mania for space-opera flicks, Flash Gordon ultimately has more in common with tongue-in-cheek cult musicals like Phantom of the Paradise and Xanadu than it does with George Lucas’s action-packed monomyth. That’s thanks in large part to the rip-roaring soundtrack by Queen, whose spirited pomposity seamlessly complements the film’s flamboyant comic-strip visual delights. Watson
97. The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933)
James Whale’s anarchically playful The Invisible Man is an outlier among Universal’s line of classic monster movies. More of an inventive mash-up of black comedy and sci-fi than true horror, the film is an incendiary piece of speculative fiction that counterbalances its cautionary-tale tropes by perpetually reveling in the chaos its megalomaniacal protagonist stirs up, even as his intensifying violent impulses shift from harmlessly prankish to straight-up lethal. This pervasive sense of moral ambiguity is only strengthened by Whale’s decision to keep Claud Rains’s Dr. Jack Griffin invisible until the film’s closing seconds and elide his character’s backstory altogether. Griffin’s unknowability and cryptic motivations are mirrored in his literal invisibility, allowing his corruption and unquenchable thirst for power to take on a universal quality that implicates the audience even as it as it entertains them. Derek Smith
96. The Brother from Another Planet (John Sayles, 1984)
A gentle-hearted satire on race and the immigrant experience, John Sayles’s The Brother from Another Planet follows an unnamed mute extra-terrestrial (Joe Morton) who, after crash-landing in the Hudson River, navigates life in the Big Apple. The hook, of course, is that while this “brother” hails from a far-off planet, to the people of New York, he looks like just another black guy. This premise, which could’ve been mined for easy laughs or obvious platitudes about racism, is instead, in Sayles’s hands, a sensitive, socially observant fable about the difficulties of assimilation. The brother is, in all senses of the term, an alien: far from home, isolated from those around him, unsure how to navigate local social interactions, and, ultimately, unsure if he belongs in this world at all. Bolstered by Morton’s soulful lead performance—few have ever made the act of listening so compelling to watch—Sayles’s film is science fiction at its most succinct and humane. Watson
95. Days of Eclipse (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1988)
Aleksandr Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse opens with a majestic birds’ eye view tracking shot of a desolate desert landscape. As the camera speeds up, it descends from the heavens, violently crashing into the ground in a poverty-stricken Turkmenistani community. The shot invokes a metaphorical image of invasion, and after a hard cut, we’re offered a blistering glimpse of that invasion’s impact: a landscape neglected to the point of decay, crumbling amid the oppressive heat and other inexplicable natural phenomena. Alternating between drab sepia tones and more vividly colorful footage, Sokurov films a multicultural community through the disoriented, foreign eyes of Malyanov (Aleksei Ananishnov), a Russian physician sent on a vague mission to bring modern science to the village. But Malyanov remains a stranger in a strange land, unable to commune with the shell-shocked villagers, whose trauma and desperation has rendered them alien to all outsiders. Like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God, both also based on novels by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Days of Eclipse transforms an ordinary landscape into something mystical and otherworldly. And in this film in particular, it perfectly embodies the unbridgeable disconnect between colonizer and colonized. Smith
94. Voyage to the End of the Universe (Jindřich Polák, 1963)
While some Czech New Wave filmmakers in the 1960s explored the interconnected social and political foibles of people in their home country, Jindrich Polák’s effects-laden Voyage to the End of the Universe trades the oppressed Soviet-ruled Czech Republic for the outer reaches of the cosmos. The journey of the starship Ikarie XB-1 in searching for life on another planet isn’t without the Czech New Wave’s notable playfulness when detailing how travelers cope with the monotony of space travel (here’s looking at you, dance party sequence), though Polák expresses a darkly fatalistic worldview as well. If the haunting sequence of Ikarie XB-1 crew members finding a doomed ship that went on a similar mission is any indication, Polák suggests that sheer advancements in innovation and searching for a new life-sustaining planet is ultimately an exercise in futility, since human life, in both the individual sense and as a species, will end at some point. It seems we might as well, like the film’s bored cosmonauts, just simply let go and dance the night away. Wes Greene
93. The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951)
Legend has it that The Thing from Another World was helmed not by its credited director, Christian Nyby, but by producer Howard Hawks. The film certainly provides ample evidence to suggest that such a covert switch occurred, as the its controlled atmosphere of dread and abundant rapid-fire repartee between the primary players seem to have been molded according to Hawks’s trademark template. Regardless, what remains most remarkable about the film is its continued ability to function as both a taut science-fiction thriller and a telling snapshot of the Cold War paranoia beginning to sweep the country in post-WWII America. The story, about the battle between a group of stranded military personnel and an alien creature fueled by human blood, is a model of economic storytelling. The conflict between Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) is one between Force and Reason, and represents a debate over whether America should cope with its Soviet adversaries through military confrontation or intellectual and diplomatic study. Given the ‘50s political climate, it’s no surprise that the film’s climax answers such a question by painting the sympathetic Carrington as a danger to mankind and the violent Hendry as a heroic warrior. Nick Schager
92. The World’s End (Edgar Wright, 2013)
Edgar Wright wrapped up his Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy with The World’s End, a rollicking alien-invasion ode to boozing up and moving on that bests even Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz in its comingling of hilarious buddy humor, aesthetically electric action, and genre shout-outsmanship. The story of a group of high school friends reunited to complete a famed pub crawl at the behest of their once-great, now-pitiful leader (Simon Pegg), only to find that their sleepy rural England hometown has been turned into a picture-perfect haven for extraterrestrial cyborg pod people, Wright’s film is a blistering barrage of contentious one-liners and CG-ified mayhem. Staged with the director’s usual high-wire dexterity and bolstered a cast that handles whip-crack dialogue with giddy aplomb, it’s the filmmaker’s most exciting, inventive, and purely entertaining mash-up to date—not to mention, in its alternately sympathetic and critical portrait of a man-child navigating the literal and figurative pitfalls of growing up, also his most heartfelt. Schager
91. Liquid Sky (Slava Tsukerman, 1982)
The world of Slava Tsukerman’s cult classic suggests the neon-tinged flipside of Warhol’s Factory. Anne Carlisle memorably plays dual roles: as Jimmy, a male model with a raging drug addiction, and Margaret, a bisexual girl who could easily pass for Aimee Mann during her ‘Til Tuesday days. Otto von Wernherr (Madonna enemy and early collaborator) plays a German scientist chasing after an alien spacecraft that visits the Earth in order to feed off the opium-producing receptors inside the brains of heroin users. During sexual orgasm, these receptors produce a sensation similar to the feeling produced by the brain during the absorption of heroin. The film’s aliens (visually represented using negative film stock of a blood-shot eye) feed off of this pleasure principle, spontaneously combusting humans as they engage in sexual intercourse. Aliens, drugs, clubs, orgasms, and big hair! On its crazed surface, Liquid Sky is a celebration of the ‘80s counter-culture. But more than three decades after its release, the bad behavior and paranoia depicted here seemingly foreshadows both the ramifications of said culture’s sexual indiscretions and a nation’s political naïveté. Ed Gonzalez
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