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Understanding Screenwriting #53: Salt, Farewell, The Recruit, It’s Love I’m After, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #53: Salt, Farewell, The Recruit, It’s Love I’m After, & More

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“AStrayn” wondered about my implication that the sequel to Understanding Screenwriting will not be published.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.)

Salt

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.

By Salt.

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 [1989], Magnolia [1999]). 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.)

Farewell

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.)

The Recruit

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.)

It's Love I'm After

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 [1942], Treasure of the Sierra Madre [1948], and East of Eden [1955]), 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.)

Strawberry Blonde

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.)

Canyon Passage

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.)

White Collar

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.)

Burn Notice

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.)

Mad Men

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.

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Film

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

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

3.5

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Saudi Runaway
Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Swallow
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview: Corneliu Porumboiu on The Whistlers and Playing with Genre

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

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Corneliu Porumboiu
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

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

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

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

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

The femme fatale.

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

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

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

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

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

Tell me more the difference between then and now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Emma
Photo: Focus Features

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Trouble with Being Born
Photo: Berlinale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Malmkrog
Photo: Berlinale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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The Invisible Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Guns Akimbo Squanders a Nifty Setup with Excruciating Humor

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

1.5

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Guns Akimbo
Photo: Saban Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Assistant Is a Chilling Portrait of Workplace Harassment

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

3

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The Assistant
Photo: Bleecker Street Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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Wendy
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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