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Understanding Screenwriting #55: Life During Wartime, Get Low, Flipped, Mademoiselle Chambon, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #55: Life During Wartime, Get Low, Flipped, Mademoiselle Chambon, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Life During Wartime, Get Low, Flipped, Mademoiselle Chambon, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, Caprice but first…

Fan Mail: I trust you all marked it down on your calendars. In his comments on US#54, David Ehrenstein and I actually seem to be in agreement over something. In this case it was the handling of the Jules-Paul affair in The Kids Are All Right. In regard to Phil Dunne’s comments on Jacques Tourneur, David returns with a quote from Fritz Lang from Contempt that “…on screen it’s pictures. Moving pictures they call it.” That’s absolutely true, and it is indeed the director’s job to find the pictures that will tell the story. Later on in this column you will get a nice demonstration of a director who doesn’t quite handle it right. In one of the great Kevin Brownlow documentaries (I think it is Hollywood: The Pioneers) he has an interview with Byron Haskin, a cinematographer and later director. Haskin is making fun of Michael Curtiz, of whom Peter Ustinov said in his memoir Dear Me that he “never learned American, let alone English, and he had forgotten his Hungarian, which left him in a limbo of his own, both entertaining and wild.” Haskin says that Curtiz used to walk around the set saying, “We visualize! We visualize!” Haskin thinks this is funny, but it struck me that it is the heart of directing.

“Doniphon” thinks the script for Way of the Gaucho (1952) was not very good, and Phil Dunne, who wrote it, would agree with him. Fox decided to produce the film primarily to use up money they had earned in Argentina, which Argentina had frozen. When Dunne and company got to Argentina, he discovered the book he had based the screenplay on was completely inaccurate. He also had to deal with Juan Peron’s “censors” who insisted on changes. Having heard about what happened, I am surprised the screenplay makes any sense at all. Doniphon says that Tourneur’s direction is the only reason people watch it today. It may be why Tourneur’s fans watch it, but people generally watch movies for all different kinds of reasons. The director is usually the least of those reasons. See my 2001 book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, especially the chapter on directors, for a detailed discussion of that issue.

Life During Wartime (2009. Written by Todd Solondz. 98 minutes.)

Life During Wartime

But I LIKED Happiness: I have always had mixed feelings about Solondz’s films, which I expect is exactly what he wants. There is always a nasty side to his work, but the dark humor makes it work in the best of his films. That was particularly true of the 1998 film Happiness, which dealt with three sisters and their family. The script for that film built to a powerful, creepy scene in which a pedophile talks about what he does. Life During Wartime is a sequel of sorts to Happiness, which immediately raises the question: do we really want to check in with these people twelve years later? Well, as Raymond the butler says in Citizen Kane, umm, yes and no.

These are not characters you would probably want to hang out with in real life, but they can be interesting for 98 minutes on screen. In the opening scene, Joy and her boyfriend Allen are having dinner, but she seems to be upset about something. The waitress comes to take their order, but when Allen asks about the specials, the waitress gets furious with him, since she recognizes him as a phone stalker. Then we go to another scene of a couple talking over food, Trish, the oldest sister, and her new boyfriend, Harvey. And then we get a whole lot more two people scenes, often over food. You would think Nora Ephron co-wrote the script. Some of the scenes are interesting and the acting is terrific in all of them, but visually if not verbally they are very repetitive. We are caught in Solondz’s world in which the one person who smiles, Tish, is seen as in denial. Solondz’s films are hermetically sealed universes, and in this case it gets rather tiresome.

The film is about forgiveness and whether it is possible, but the dialogue spells that out in the most obvious ways. Solondz can write nice, subtle scenes, but he can also be a rather clumsy writer. He does break up all the dialogue scenes with some nice wordless ones featuring Bill, Trish’s husband and her kids’ father. He is just getting out of prison and he comes down to Florida, where Trish has moved, to try to reconnect. We see him walking around, following people, and in one scene breaking into Trish’s house to see where she and his kids live. Eventually he tracks down his oldest son at college and confronts him. I think structurally this is supposed to be the equivalent of his admission scene at the end of Happiness, but it just does not have the same power.

Much has been made of Solondz’s recasting all the major roles. Looking at the two films together, which I have not done, I suspect you will get a master class in what different actors bring to the same part. For example, in Happiness, Joy is played by Jane Adams with a wonderful deadpan expression. Shirley Henderson’s Joy in the new film emphasizes the neediness of the character, which gets tiresome. Dylan Baker was astonishing as Bill in the first film, but Ciarán Hinds brings a totally different quality to the part. Hinds embodies the emotional exhaustion that Bill has developed as a result of his years in prison. As much as I love Baker, I am not sure that quality is in his range.

The title is a bit baffling. Yes, there are occasional references to the War on Terror, etc., but they seem more like throwaway lines than any serious attempt to make the issue part of the film. After all, Solondz is not really interested in social issues except as they impinge on his universe. One review I read suggested the “wartime” is the war within the family, but these folks are just rather grim as opposed to warlike.

Get Low (2010. Screenplay by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, story by Chris Provenzano & Scott Seeke. 100 minutes.)

Get Low

Well, it’s not as depressing as Is Anybody There?: The night before my wife and I saw Get Low, we watched a 2008 British film called Is Anybody There? on DVD. I’m not doing a full item on it because it was a real downer. Written by Peter Harness, it stars Michael Caine in another of his great performances. Caine plays Clarence, a retired magician who comes to stay in a retirement home, where he sort of makes friends with Edward, the 10 year-old-son of the owners. Edward has a morbid fascination with the dead and dying and hopes to communicate with Clarence when he dies. Clarence dies and appears to come back as a badger. The film is relentlessly dreary. So when we went out to a movie the next night, we were looking for something a little more lighthearted. Unfortunately the one we were aiming for was in a small auditorium and only had seats in the front row, and we know enough about the auditoriums in this theater to know we would both have cricks in our necks if we sat there. Get Low, which was on our list to see, started at the same time, so we gave it a shot instead.

The script is based on a story told to Seeke by his wife’s family about a hermit in Tennessee in the ‘30s who arranged his own funeral while he was still alive. You can see why we might not want to see this after Is Anybody There? Seeke and his friend Provenzano could not find any background information on the story, which meant they could make it up as they wanted to. Provenzano developed the first drafts of the script ten years ago and eventually it found its way to producer Dean Zanuck (yes, of that family; he is Darryl’s grandson and Richard’s son) in 2002. Zanuck got Robert Duvall to play Felix, the hermit. The director selected, Aaron Schneider, did a draft and then when Provenzano was unavailable, Mitchell was brought on. (The background is from an article by Peter Clines in the July/August Creative Screenwriting. You can also look at a WGA interview with Provenzano and Mitchell who, unlike a lot of “collaborators,” actually seem to get along even though one was rewriting the other.)

So Felix wants his funeral while he is still alive so he can hear the stories people tell about him. And in Frank Quinn, who runs a funeral parlor, he finds somebody who is willing to do it for him. Two things right away: the film is promising us we will hear a lot of people’s stories about Felix, but it welches on that deal. We occasionally get some suggestions of stories about Felix, but not that many, since it turns out Felix wants to tell his story to a crowd. This not only gives Robert Duvall, who makes Felix different from all the other older curmudgeons he has played recently, a wonderful aria to play, but it keeps the film from dribbling away with a lot of unrelated talk. The writers set up a lot of mysteries about Felix, giving us hints of his past, so that we are perfectly willing not to hear the stories of others as long as we get his story.

The second thing is the character of Frank Quinn. He’s funny. There is no equivalent character in Is Anybody There? and it makes all the difference. Whatever depressing elements there are in Get Low, and there are more than a few, they are lightened by Quinn. Especially since Bill Murray plays him. Duvall and Murray, whom you might not think would have great chemistry, do since, in these roles, they both fight to see who can underplay the other. You have to watch and listen closely to get everything they are doing, but it the results are very rewarding.

The downside of the film is its director, Aaron Schneider. He was the co-writer and director of the 2003 short film Two Soldiers, which won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. He is primarily a cinematographer, working in both theatrical films and television. Get Low is very good to look at, but often his choices of where to put the camera in relation to the actors are not the best. A shot may be a great shot, but it may not tell the story as well as some other angle. And the coverage he got leaves Schneider, who also edited the film, with some odd cuts. Every cinematographer I have ever known always thought he could direct the picture he was working on better than the director. But direction and cinematography are two very different crafts. Some people, like Steven Soderbergh, can do both. Schneider can’t yet, but he may learn.

Flipped (2010. Screenplay by Rob Reiner & Andrew Sheinman, based on the novel by Wendelin Van Draanen. 90 minutes.)

Flipped

Much less depressing than Life During Wartime: Writing about The Informant! in US#54, I discussed its use of the unreliable narrator. Here we have two narrators, both of them reliable, even though they are telling us very different things about the same events. If you think that makes for a lot of narration in this film, you are absolutely right. And every screenwriting textbook in the world will tell you to avoid narration. They are right. And the multiple narrators and piles of narration work perfectly here. Go figure.

The setup is simple: we are going to follow Bryce Lotski and Juli Baker through about six years of their lives, starting in grade school and ending in junior high. They live across the street from each other and sometimes he likes her and she doesn’t like him, and sometimes it is the reverse. What the script does (and I assume they get this from the book) is have Bryce and Juli narrate the film. Separately. In the opening scene we see Bryce and his family moving in and we get him telling us how he did not like Juli from the first time he saw her. Then we get Juli’s version of what happened. Yes, this could get very schematic, but it doesn’t. What the writers have done is make sure each time that Julie tells us her side, that tells us something more we, and Bryce, did not know. When we see one version, we look forward to seeing and hearing the other version, because the writers establish that pattern from the opening scenes. Late in the picture, there is a sequence where the junior high boys are raffled off as “basket boys,” complete with picnic baskets for a lunch with whichever girl bids the most for them. Bryce assumes because Juli has a pile of money with her that she intends to bid on him. Her version is very different.

The double narration works here at least partly because of the ages of the kids. They are, as kids those ages usually are, willing to change their minds on a dime. So we sort of need the narration to keep up with where each one of them is emotionally. The writers are also very, very good at setting up reactions for the actors to have that add to, or at least reflect off, the narration we hear.

In addition to Bryce and Juli, we also get their families and the writers give the family members a lot to play in their scenes. And a lot of variety to play, unlike Solondz in Life During Wartime. Flipped is intended as a much lighter film than Wartime, but the writers have given us a few surprising moments of depth with the older generation to help anchor the film.

The novel is set in the indeterminate present, but Rob Reiner, who also directs, wanted it set in a more innocent time. The film takes place from 1957 to 1963, and the writers and the production do not beat us over the head with the period detail. The costumes and cars are right, and even though I am not a particularly musical person, I appreciated the choices for the music of the period used on the soundtrack. It is not the usual relentlessly nostalgic stuff we have traditionally had in pictures like this.

So. There is no incest. No pedophilia. No car chases. No explosions. No “Rock Around the Clock.” Nobody dies. It stops before the Kennedy assassination. Enjoy, enjoy.

Mademoiselle Chambon (2009. Screenplay by Stéphane Brizé and Florence Vigon, based on the novel by Eric Holder. 101 minutes.)

Mademoiselle Chambon

I was so in the mood for this: The first ten minutes of this film is one of the worst openings of a movie I have ever seen. Every screenwriting textbook and every screenwriting instructor make the same point: the first ten pages of the script are crucial to get an agent to read it, to get a studio reader to read it, to get actors and directors to read it, and to capture the audience when the film is made. John Sayles once said you can do anything in the first ten minutes of a film, because you are establishing the world of the film. Brother Sayles and I should have a little talk about that “do anything” after he sees this movie.

We open on Jean, a construction guy, using a jackhammer. The particular sound effect they use this first time for the jackhammer is so obnoxious you want to scream. The other times we hear the jackhammer, the sound effect is less harsh. OK, that may be a directorial mistake. (Brizé directed as well as co-wrote.) But then we pick up on Jean, his wife Anne-Marie, and their son Jérémy on a picnic. Great, picnic on the grass, happy family. Jérémy is trying to understand his lessons on the direct object in a sentence. So they talk about it. And talk some more. And talk some more. About the “direct object,” for God’s sake. Well, I suppose Sayles is right: this first ten minutes establishes the world of the film: a long, talky, and slow world.

Needless to say, if the family is that happy at the beginning, bad stuff is going to happen. When Anne-Marie is unable to pick up their son at school, Jean does and meets the teacher, Véronique Chambon. Ah, sparks fly. Well, no, they don’t. She asks Jean to come to the French equivalent of career day and talk about his work. He does. Ah, sparks fly. No, but the camera slowly dollies in on her. This would suggest she is interested in him, but neither her expression nor his lecture justifies our imagining she is getting the hots for him. Later, we do know what makes him first interested in her. Then they jump into bed. Well, no they don’t. This film has been promoted as a French Brief Encounter (1945), in which a couple falls in love but manage not to consummate the affair. Except that Noel Coward’s lovers struggle over the effort they have to make not to sleep together. Jean and Véronique never break a sweat. And then, 85 minutes into the film, they do the nasty. That’s either too late (if they were going to do it, we want to see the outcome, as in Jules and Paul in The Kids Are All Right) or too early (leave it for the big finish). Jean has Véronique bring her violin to play for his father’s wedding, and hearing her play, Anne-Marie understands there may be something between Jean and Véronique. This is virtually the only scene in the entire film where we get a reaction that tells us about the emotions of any of the characters in the film.

When Véronique decides in the end to leave their town, Jean says he is going to come with her. She waits at the train station for him, but when he does not show up on the platform, she gets on the train and leaves. He has come to the station, but loses his nerve and does not join her. He goes back to his wife. Now go back and look at the similar train station sequences in Casablanca (1942), Brief Encounter, Love in the Afternoon (1957), and this year’s The Secret in Their Eyes. Enough said.

As you may gather from that list of train station scenes, I am a sucker for great romantic movies, particular when the lovers have to part because of duty and honor. One of my favorite lines in Roman Holiday is the Princess reacting to one of her staff reminding her of her responsibilities after she’s had her fling with the reporter: “If I were not completely aware of my duty, I would not have returned tonight. Or, indeed, ever again.” We don’t get a lot of romantic dramas like that much any more, which is why I had high hopes for Mademoiselle Chambon. It is not a good movie, but it may also just be the times we live in. I long since stopped trying to show Brief Encounter in my film history class at Los Angeles City College. The younger generation’s reaction to it was, “If they had the hots for each other, why didn’t they just, you know, do it?”

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (2009. Written by Serge Bromberg. 94 minutes in the American release.)

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno

Welcome to the ’60, take one: Henri-Georges Clouzot was one of the great pre-New Wave French film screenwriters and directors, with at least three certifiable classics to his filmography: Le Corbeau (1943), The Wages of Fear (1953) and Diabolique (1955), and another, Quai des Orfèvre (1947), that comes close. He was a master of putting the screws on his characters, who usually were not very nice people. In Diabolique, for example, a wife and a mistress collaborate on killing their husband/lover. Or so we think, but it turns out to be even worse than that. Both The Wages of Fear and Diabolique were international hits, and in 1964 he was one of a number of foreign directors of the time given more money than he was used to by American sources to make a film. L’inferno was to star one of the biggest European stars of the time, Romy Schneider, as Odette, a young wife whose husband Marcel (Serge Reggiani) grows increasingly convinced in his fantasies that she is being unfaithful to him. Sounds like material that was right in his wheelhouse. The film was never completed.

Several years ago, Serge Bromberg, a French documentary filmmaker, found himself stuck in an elevator for two hours with Clouzot’s widow and they got to talking about the film. Reels of footage that were shot still existed, mostly without the accompanying soundtracks. What Bromberg has done is make this documentary about the making and unmaking of the original film, using the original footage, interviews with surviving members of the cast and crew, and a couple of contemporary actors acting out scenes from Clouzot’s script. It is the best “unmaking of a movie” documentary since Lost in La Mancha (2002).

At the risk of sounding like a complete auteurist, the fault for the production falling apart was completely Clouzot’s. As his former crewmembers point out, in the past he had been a perfectionist, but a disciplined one. Now he had the money not to be. He kept shooting material, particularly for the fantasy sequences, that was not in the script, always a danger sign. He also had three complete film crews, with the idea that one would be setting up the next scenes while he shot the current scenes. That did not work out because he was by nature obsessive about detail and would not let anything be set up unless he was there to personally supervise it.

The other problem was that he had seen the New Wave films, the films of Antonioni, and especially Fellini’s 8 ½. Like most directors and would-be directors, he was fascinated by the way Fellini was playing around with cinema, including flashbacks, dreams, and fantasies. Clouzot recognized the great change that was taking place in international films and he wanted to be part of it. Unfortunately, he wasn’t very good at that. The scenes in the footage that work best are the black-and-white “realistic” scenes where Marcel is growing more and more psychotic. There is a good Clouzot movie in those scenes, but the fantasy scenes, shot in color, are bad late-‘60s hippy LSD trip scenes. Unlike Fellini he had no feel for that kind of imagery. The most stunning image in the film is one of the black-and-white shots involving Romy Schneider, nude, on railroad tracks with a train bearing down on her. And it’s not rear projection. It is a bad Fellini shot, but a perfect Henri-Georges Clouzot shot.

Clouzot drove the actors so hard that Serge Reggiani, who had worked with him before, walked off the film. Clouzot had a heart attack, and the film was never finished. Clouzot’s script, however, was eventually sold to Claude Chabrol, who was closer in artistic temperament to Clouzot than any of the other New Wave filmmakers. Chabrol made it into the 1994 film Hell, which I alas have not seen. Maybe Todd Solondz will do an American remake.

Caprice (1967. Screenplay by Jay Jayson and Frank Tashlin, story by Martin Hale and Jay Jayson. 98 minutes)

Caprice

Welcome to the ‘60s, take two, or, why are we watching a Doris Day movie?: Since we have been talking about spying and intelligence work a lot recently, I thought I would give this one a watch. It deals with industrial intelligence, one company spying on another, not a traditional subject in films, although last year’s Duplicity handled it very well, much better than this one.

The critical word on Caprice has been all over the map. Leonard Maltin lists it as a “Bomb” in his movie and video guides, but Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema puts it in italics in his listing of director Frank Tashlin’s film, Sarris’s designation of quality. Most of the user comments on the comment board on IMDb are not good, but Leslie Halliwell in his film guide gives it a star indicating there are some positive aspects to it. Halliwell’s thumbnail critique is “Incoherent kaleidoscope which switches from farce to suspense and Bond-style action, scattering in-jokes along the way. Bits of it however are funny, and it looks good.” I’m going to go with Halliwell on this one, although I like it less that I suspect he did. There was at least one scene in the middle of the picture that has stuck in my mind since I saw the film for the first time in 1967, so it was time to look at it again.

The film opens with very “Bond-style action” as two skiers zoom down the slopes of Switzerland, the one in black shooting at the one in white. The one in white dies and we go to an imitation-Maurice Binder credit sequence. Then Patricia is arrested by the French Sécurité and at the end of the scene we learn she has stolen plans for…a new underarm deodorant. The subject, as Frank Gilroy knew when he wrote about cosmetic thievery in Duplicity, is ripe for satire. But we do not get satire here. I don’t know what the original story was like, but subtle satire is not in Frank Tashlin’s wheelhouse. He got into films writing and directing cartoons, and he is best known for his slapstick comedies of the ‘50s with such living cartoons as Jerry Lewis and Jayne Mansfield. Patricia is played here by Doris Day, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Her specialty was perky, and nobody gave better perk than Day. The film is co-produced by her husband, Martin Melcher, and he made sure the film looked good. It is gorgeously photographed by the great Leon Shamroy, maybe a little too gorgeously. And Day is wearing very fashionable, mid-‘60s clothes. Fashionable if you were in your twenties, but Day was 45 the year this film was made. Her kind of perk at age 45 is a little hard to take. While she could do serious, as in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and light comedy, as in the 1959 Pillow Talk, being a serious spy in a partially serious film was not in her wheelhouse. And speaking of wheelhouses, her co-star was Richard Harris, trying to make a Hollywood career for himself, but light comedy was not what he did well. Day and Harris try, but there is no chemistry between them. The script does not help, since we are not sure in the beginning whether they are attracted to each other or not.

I suspect the script problems came from Tashlin trying to make it into something he felt comfortable with. On the one hand it is a big, glossy vehicle for a major female star, but her costumes are trying to be trendy. On the other hand, it is obviously influenced by the Bond films. The slapstick calls to mind the Pink Panther films. And one of the in-jokes involves Patricia going to a movie theater that is playing Caprice, starring Doris Day and Richard Harris, which is the sort of self-reflexivity the French New Wave would love. I suspect that Tashlin was just as confused about the changes in film in the ‘60s as Clouzot was.

The action scenes, particularly the two skiing scenes, are rather ordinary, although that may be because we are now watching them after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) and the current Inception. The slapstick comedy sequences work the best. One involves Harris’s Christopher trying to get Patricia to admit she is working for her former boss against her current boss. She realizes he has a microphone in a sugar cube at an outdoor restaurant and does everything to drown out the sound, while Tashlin cuts away to her current boss trying to listen and reacting apoplectically to the other sounds.

Another slapstick scene is the one that stuck in my mind all these years. Patricia is trying to get a strand of hair off Su Ling, the sexy Chinese secretary to Stuart Clancy. Clancy has invented a water-resistant hair spray and Su Ling uses it. Patricia follows Su Ling to her home in the hills, and while Su Ling sunbathes on a deck built out over the hills, Patricia tries to cut a bit of her hair. This involves climbing out on the underside of the deck with a pair of garden shears, dealing with Su Ling’s large dog, and assorted other problems. Tashlin and his fellow writers have come up with a great slapstick scene, although, since Day was not particularly good at slapstick, it depends more on the writing and direction than it does the performance. The juxtaposition of Day’s stunt woman scrambling around as opposed to the nonchalance of Su Ling in her bikini is both funny and sexy at the same time, the sort of thing that Tashlin could bring off well. The rest of the script is the same sort of hodgepodge we have already discussed. It even ends up with a man dressed as a woman, possibly a nod to Psycho (1960).

There is another reason the deck scene stuck in my mind over the years. Su Ling is played by a young Chinese American actress named Irene Tsu. While I had seen a couple of pictures she had done before, this scene firmly implanted her in my mind. So much so that, five years later, when she enrolled in my History of the Motion Pictures class at LACC, I recognized her right away. It was the second semester I was teaching the course, and at the end of the semester I took some of the class time and had her tell the class about her experiences. She had worked with John Ford on 7 Women (1966) (Ford not only intimidated Irene, but Anne Bancroft as well) and Buster Keaton on the How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965). She said she was near tears when she saw Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925) in class because she knew nothing about his early days when she had worked with him.

Irene was fun to have as a student, both in that class and in my Screenwriting class. When I talked to her a few years ago, she asked me if she had been a “brat” in class. I said I would have described her instead as feisty. In the ‘60s she was one of only three Asian-American actresses who worked regularly in Hollywood. If you wanted dramatic/tragic, you went with France Nuyen. If you wanted perky girl-next-door, you went with Nancy Kwan. For glamor and humor, you went with Irene. One day I was walking on campus and saw her coming down the path towards me. When she got close, I put on a fan-boy face and said, “It’s, it’s…Nancy Kwan.” Irene, who is a friend of Kwan’s, may well have just lost a part to her. Anyway, she hauled off and slugged me in the arm. When I encouraged her to write scripts that dealt with her Chinese heritage, she eventually turned on me and said, “What do you want from me? I’m just a girl from New Rochelle, New York.” She was born in Shanghai, but came to this country when she was a small child.

I continued to follow Irene’s career after she left LACC. In 2006 my intrepid projectionist at LACC, Amos Rothbaum, scored a print of the 1996 Hong Kong film, Comrades: Almost a Love Story, in which Irene gives one of her best performances as an auntie to one of the major characters. I persuaded Irene to come to class and talk about the film and her career. Most of the men in the class fell in love with her, even though, as I reminded some of them later, she was old enough to be their mother. MILF. She still acts occasionally, although as she said that night, the only parts she gets offered these days are “Mothers, either with or without accents.” Which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about ageism, racism and sexism in Hollywood. You can check out Irene and her career on the IMDb.

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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Interview: J. Hoberman Talks Make My Day, Ronald Reagan, and ‘80s Movie Culture

Hoberman discusses how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered Reagan’s presidency.

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Photo: Film at Lincoln Center

The poster boy of American conservatism, the bar to which all Republicans would unashamedly evaluate future candidates, and yet now seemingly lower on a weekly basis, Ronald Reagan was an ideal movie star with an idealized view of the past. His perfect America would be equivalent to the opening shots of red roses, green lawns, and white picket fences that kick off Blue Velvet, while America’s reality would be what transpires once Bobby Vinton’s song concludes and the swarming ants are revealed beneath the surface.

A time of Hollywood blockbusters and silver screen patriots, macho men and teens headed back to the future, the 1980s, while not considered a golden movie age, saw a symbiotic relationship between American film and the nation’s chosen leader. How else to account for Reagan proposing his “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative in March of 1983, a mere two months before the release of the year’s top grossing film, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi?

With his methodically researched new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman takes a sociological approach to discovering how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered the goings-on of our 40th president’s administration. And on the occasion of the book’s release and accompanying Film at Lincoln Center series, which samples feature films from the ‘80s, I spoke with Hoberman about the first Reagan screen performance he ever saw, being a working film critic during the “Age of Reagan,” and the unexpected rise of real estate mogul and Celebrity Apprentice host Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.

One of your most revered books is Vulgar Modernism, a collection of reviews and essays written during the ‘80s without the benefit, or trappings, of historical hindsight. Now 30-some-odd years later, you’ve taken a step back to take a look at the bigger picture of the decade. What was that experience like?

I should say that this book was the culmination of two earlier books, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War. Make My Day is the end of a trilogy. When I began writing the trilogy, I didn’t realize how central Reagan would be to it, but by the time I started Make My Day, he had become, in effect, the protagonist of the entire trilogy. Make My Day was different from the other two books. It’s not just that I lived through this period, but that I was then a working critic. How was I going to deal with that? In the earlier books, I went out of my way to quote critics and others who wrote about movies because I was very interested in how these films were initially received. In the case of Make My Day, however, it seemed absurd to quote other critics when I was there myself. It took me a while to come to that conclusion because my impulse wasn’t to put myself in the book and yet I realized that I would ultimately have to.

I found that my opinion of the various movies discussed hadn’t changed all that much. My opinion of Reagan was modified somewhat, in that I saw him as a more complicated figure than I did during the 1980s, but I also believe my response to him in the ‘80s was true to the moment. That’s why I included a number of longer pieces in the book, while also annotating them, so that one could see that I wasn’t just reusing the material without thinking about it.

You note that each volume can be read in chronological order, the order in which they were published, or as standalone installments. I took it up after finishing your and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies, and it felt like I was emerging from the pre-’80s underground to a Reaganized American society that had become depressingly anything but countercultural. What was it like being on the underground and Hollywood beat as a critic throughout those years?

I didn’t really start reviewing the blockbuster films until around 1984. I was the Village Voice’s second-string critic when Andrew Sarris, the first-string critic, fell ill, and I took his spot for a while. As a result, I was reviewing movies that I might otherwise not have. To make things interesting for myself, I began reviewing these movies from a political and ideological perspective. Even when Andy came back, that stayed with me. So, for example, there were a lot of action films during that period that Andy was very glad not to review, like Top Gun, but I did those while also reviewing foreign films, avant-garde films, documentaries, and so on. I always said that I could never be a first-string critic for a newspaper. I would have lost my mind having a steady diet of big Hollywood movies! I would have had to mix things up.

While midnight movies aren’t the primary focus of Make My Day, the underground did find a way into your reviews of ‘80s blockbusters. I recall a review in the Voice titled “White Boys: Lucas, Spielberg, and the Temple of Dumb” in which you tear down the nostalgic Indiana Jones prequel while praising Jack Smith’s nostalgic Normal Love. Was it maddening for you to review the latest Spielberg while underground artists concurrently made the same points to much smaller audiences?

That was really something that came from the heart. I was outraged by Temple of Doom, by its attitude, and I was really sick of these guys, Spielberg and Lucas. I wanted to bring out that there were other forms of filmmaking and other ways of dealing with this material. I was making a point, yes, but it was something that was fueled by emotion rather than reason.

Were there any Spielberg films, or Spielberg-adjacent films like Gremlins or Poltergeist, that you found less than risible throughout the Reagan years?

There were some that I preferred. I liked Gremlins quite a bit, and I enjoyed Back to the Future, which is Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. At the time, I didn’t much care for Poltergeist, but when I looked at it again for the book, I thought it was interesting in terms of its pathology. I should also say that I liked Jaws and E.T., to a degree, although it was no Blade Runner.

Though primarily concerned with Regan’s political reign, you also dig deep into his filmography, noting how his sole villainous role, in The Killers, has always prompted a vocal reaction from every audience you’ve watched it with. Why do you think that is?

Well, I’m not sure that’s still true. A friend recently saw The Killers at Film Forum and told me he was sort of shocked that people didn’t respond to the scene where Reagan slaps Angie Dickinson. The first time I saw The Killers, which was, I think, in June of 1969, I didn’t expect to see Reagan in it. I don’t think I had seen him in a movie before. I was well aware of who he was, of course, and I hated him because I had been at Berkeley the previous summer, when students were public enemy number one and there were disturbances every night—the whole thing was extremely compelling for me as a 19-year-old. The point I wanted to make was that my whole view of Reagan was predicated on The Killers. To me, he seemed to be playing himself. I had a very naïve response. I couldn’t understand why he would do the role. I mean, what crazy hubris prompted him to show what he dreamed of becoming on screen? I recognize my response as primitive, but it also demonstrates the power of movie images. I didn’t see him as acting, even though he clearly is. I saw it as him projecting his evil, bastardly essence.

Speaking of essence, it’s odd re-watching Donald Trump’s numerous cameos in American film and television. Unlike Reagan’s silver-screen presence, Trump literally always played himself: an obscenely rich braggadocio. Whereas Reagan’s “lovable” persona no doubt helped his later career in politics, Trump’s media appearances helped to fortify his reputation as an arrogant huckster.

This is the point I tried to make at the end of the book. I was surely thinking about Trump a lot while writing the book, but he only became president when I was close to finishing it. Trump may have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but it doesn’t come as a result of the movies. He’s a celebrity and a celebrity is someone who’s able to project a cartoon version of themselves, or a larger-than-life version of themselves, into the media world: TV, the tabloid press, and so on. Trump is being true to this persona. I didn’t really see Trump’s presidency coming. For me, he was a New York City character, a local celebrity who was regularly exposed in the Village Voice’s narrative of New York City corruption. I had no sense of how he existed to the rest of America, in Celebrity Apprentice. Clearly that’s what put him over, or at least helped to put him over. That and his appearances on Fox News as a kind of pundit and even his involvement with professional wrestling.

As you mention in your book, the uncomfortably awkward 1979 CBS Ted Kennedy sit-down interview with Roger Mudd ultimately derailed Kennedy’s attempt at a presidential run. It’s hard to imagine, given the feckless attempts by our current political leaders to appear like an everyman, that current presidential candidates’ chances could be derailed by the televised struggle to answer a basic question. If anything, we might view the guffaw as endearing and humanizing. Trump says dumb stuff on a daily basis, and we all just accept it. Have we become desensitized to politicians being put on the spot and not being able to come up with succinct answers?

I think it’s different for different candidates. Being the younger brother of J.F.K., who was the first real political star, created a lot of expectations. People credit Kennedy’s success in the 1960 election with his appearance in the first debate, for looking so much better than Nixon. That may be simplistic, but it’s not simplistic for people to think that TV had something to do with Kennedy becoming president. I think this is a case of “live by the sword, die by the sword,” that his brother just stumbled so badly in that interview, in what was essentially his television debut. He did go on all the way to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, but the myth of the Kennedy charm and invincibility was destroyed by that interview.

Looking at subsequent presidents, Reagan certainly had an elastic sense of reality. But in his distortions and lies and misstatements, he was by and large upbeat and, when he wasn’t, he was at least coherent. Trump lies so continuously that you feel that that must be part of his appeal for his base, that he’s just going to make this stuff up. They think it’s funny or entertaining or maybe that it represents a “greater degree of authenticity.”

There had been a very interesting point made by Theodor W. Adorno about Hitler’s appeal. I’m not saying that Trump is Hitler, but he’s a demagogue and Hitler was too. Adorno, who lived through Hitler’s lies, made the point that intellectuals and serious people didn’t get Hitler’s appeal. Before he came to power, he just seemed like a clown. There was something ridiculous about Hitler’s assertions and his tantrums. What they didn’t realize was that’s precisely what his fans liked about him. I think that’s also the case with Trump and his supporters.

If Nashville, as you point out in the book, foresaw the real-life presidential assassination attempts that were soon to come, could you see the same cinematic influences happening today? Are there films today that you think are foreshadowing things that could come into fruition within our own political future?

Nashville was a movie made at a time when movies were much more central to American culture than they are now. It was made by a filmmaker, Robert Altman, who was directly addressing, as an artist, what was going on. I bracketed Nashville with Jaws because in some respects, Jaws is a similar movie, although I’m not sure if Spielberg was consciously making an allegory. Some things in the film are political, for example the behavior of the Mayor of Amity, but beyond that the movie itself was utterly central to American culture. There was nothing more important during the summer of 1975 than Jaws. There’s no movie that has that kind of centrality anymore, nor do movies as a whole.

A number of television shows seemed to be predicting Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election. There were shows like Madam Secretary and Veep and Homeland, strong, female, political heroes, or, in the case of Veep, comic. But what were they compared to Celebrity Apprentice? Those aforementioned shows were very feeble in terms of reaching an audience and I think it was more a projection of the people who made it. When I look at movies now, and I have to say that I don’t see as many movies as I used to, I see some that seem to manifest things that are in the air. Jordan Peele’s Get Out would be the best example of this. That movie was made and conceived while Obama was president, but it certainly projected the post-Trump mood. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is interesting because, on the one hand, it’s a movie about 1969, and yet it’s also a movie about 2019. It can’t help but manifest some of our current fantasies and tensions. But even if it had a bigger audience than Nashville, people just aren’t taking it the same way.

And Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood presents a cinematic take that has a romanticized, almost fetishistic view of a 1969 that never truly existed, at least not the way Tarantino wishes it did…

Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it. I would put it somewhat differently, but we can let people discover for themselves if they haven’t seen it!

The book also talks a great deal about the revisionism and idealization of specific time periods that were said to represent wholesome Americana. The ‘50s is a big one, but as you point out, the movies’ view of the ‘50s were drastically different from the one the world actually experienced. I remember growing up in the ‘90s convinced Happy Days was a TV show not just about the ‘50s, but from the ‘50s itself.

That makes perfect sense, and I think other people share that same experience. The genius of that show is that it portrayed the ‘50s “as it should have been.” Jean Baudrillard has a memorable description of walking in to see Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 black-and-white film The Last Picture Show and, for a moment, thinking it was actually a movie from the period it depicted: the early ‘50s. It was a hyper-real version of it. That’s what Happy Days was. I think Reagan’s genius was to be able to do that on a larger scale, to conjure up an idealized ‘60s almost out of whole cloth, vague memories, old television, and old movies in his own conviction, even if that was ultimately a fantasy. It was an idealization of the period.

On the occasion of your book’s release, you’ve programmed a selection of double features for an upcoming series at Film at Lincoln Center. Outside of a closeness in release dates, like The Last Temptation of Christ and They Live, what went into the pairing up of certain titles?

I appreciate that question. I really love the concept of double bills. Whenever it’s possible, I like to teach using double bills, because then the movies can talk to each other—and I don’t have to talk as much. Ideally the movies should comment on each other. The reason for including The Last Temptation of Christ was a bit tricky. I thought that the response that it got certainly looked forward to the culture wars of the ‘90s. There was such hostility directed toward that movie and, by extension, the movie industry as a whole. As Trump would say, it was as “an enemy of the people.” And to me, They Live seems to be the bluntest, most direct critique of Reaganism ever delivered, and it was delivered at the very, very end of his presidency. In a sense, it was already over, as the film came out just before the 1988 presidential election. I see both They Live and The Last Temptation as political movies, one overtly political and one that was taken in a political manner.

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Review: Vita & Virginia Leaves the Nuances of a Love Affair to the Imagination

The film frequently falls back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.

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Vita & Virginia
Photo: IFC Films

When capricious socialite and writer Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) first glimpses Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) at a bohemian party in Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia, the latter is the midst of a dance, her head leaning back and arms freely swaying in the air. It’s an uncharacteristic moment of outgoingness for the author, who by this time in the early 1920s has had only modest success, and the throbbing ambient techno music that underscores the scene lends her and Vita’s desires a strange and striking modernity. But the film doesn’t fully commit to such anachronistic flourishes in its portrait of the two women’s tumultuous love affair, instead frequently falling back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.

Vita’s deviousness and unpredictability does, for a time, make for some compelling proto-feminist drama, thanks in large part to Arterton’s bold performance. Vita is amusingly blasé in the face of both her heiress mother, Lady Sackville (Isabella Rossellini), who protests to her dressing as a man and openly having affairs with women, and her diplomat husband, Harold (Rupert Penry-Jones), completely dismissing his concerns about maintaining their marriage of convenience. Elsewhere, Debicki is left with the difficult task of dramatizing Virginia’s escalating strife, and with little help from a script that basically skirts over the serious mental health issues that plagued Woolf throughout her life. In fact, Virginia’s joys and struggles as they arise from Vita’s hot-and-cold treatment of her are rarely given any concrete form aside from the occasional ham-fisted touch of CGI-enhanced magical realism, as when vines grow out of the woodwork when Virginia returns home after first sleeping with Vita.

Outside of these moments, Virginia’s interiority is given similarly blunt expression through her relationships with her passive yet understanding husband, Leonard (Peter Ferdinando), her lively artist sister, Vanessa (Emerald Fennell), and Vanessa’s roommate, the flamboyant painter Duncan Grant (Adam Gillen). Each of these archetypes always seems to be conveniently on hand to explicitly outline the details of Virginia’s emotional state. The only time her thoughts and emotions, as well as Vita’s, are articulated with any nuance is through a series of epistolary interludes that see Arterton and Debicki reading the love letters that Sackville-West and Woolf wrote to one another. And yet, these moments are so awkwardly and unimaginatively incorporated into the film, with the actresses speaking their words directly into the camera, that the letters’ flowery language is effectively drained of its poeticism.

Vita & Virginia eventually lands on Woolf writing her breakthrough novel, Orlando, which was inspired by her relationship with Sackville-West. But as Button gives us only a vague sense of what drew these two vastly different women together, she leaves to the imagination how Sackville-West had such a lasting and profound effect on one of the great authors of the 20th century. In Orlando, Woolf writes, “Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth.” There’s more ambiguity, complexity, or passion in that one line regarding the elusive and illusory qualities of Vita’s love for Virginia than there is in all of Button’s film.

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isabella Rossellini, Rupert Penry-Jones, Peter Ferdinando, Emerald Fennell, Gethin Anthony, Rory Fleck Byrne, Karla Crome Director: Chanya Button Screenwriter: Chanya Button Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ready or Not Ribs the One Percent with More Laughs than Horror

Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot.

2.5

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Ready or Not
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s horror film Ready or Not is centered around a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek, and if that sounds unconscionably silly, at least the filmmakers are aware of that. Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy’s screenplay embraces the inherent absurdity of this premise, concocting an elaborate narrative justification as to why a bunch of grown-ups would be engaged in a murderous version of the classic kids’ game. It all boils down to a family ritual: Anyone marrying into the obscenely wealthy Le Domas clan must play a game at midnight on their wedding night, and this game, which is selected at random by a puzzle box, could be anything from old maid to checkers.

Bright-eyed good girl Grace (Samara Weaving), who’s just wedded the family’s favorite son, Alex (Mark O’Brien), gets picked to play hide-and-seek, and that’s where the trouble begins. Because while the other games proceed in perfectly ordinary fashion, the Le Domases have made a violent mythology surrounding this one game: The family must capture its newest member and slaughter them in a ritual sacrifice before sunrise, or else each family member will be cursed to die. And so, the Le Domases give Grace time to hide anywhere she likes in their sprawling country manor before they set out with rifles and crossbows to find her.

Gradually, the convoluted family mythology comes to overtake the goofy simplicity of the film’s premise, and to the point that one is apt to forget that a game of hide-and-seek is even going on. But Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett keep things lively with a lavish visual style that nods toward Kubrick’s The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, and even Barry Lyndon, while still maintaining an identity of its own. Lit mostly with candles, the sprawling villa in which the film mostly takes place assumes a creepy aura reminiscent of the opulently spooky house in Robert Wise’s The Haunting. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett’s mildly showy use of long takes and lithe camera movements exhibit an ironic grandiosity that suits the film’s light-hearted sadism.

Funny but not quite a comedy, Ready or Not, to its credit, leans in to the arbitrariness of its own myths and rules. Some of the members of the Le Domas clan aren’t even sure they believe in their family curse, and they bicker over whether they should be allowed to utilize modern technology, such as their mansion’s security cameras, to track Grace down. But the film’s constant reiteration and reevaluation of the Le Domases’ goofy traditions can sometimes make things feel repetitive and slightly exhausting, impressions which are enhanced by the lackadaisical handling of the film’s kills. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett primarily employ violence for laughs, but they frequently flub the punchline with a confusingly quick edit or an awkwardly shaky handheld shot. Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot. But this gonzo capper has the effect of retroactively diminishing the tame, uninventive bloodshed that preceded it.

Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O'Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Nicky Guadagni, Elyse Levesque, John Ralston Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett Screenwriter: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Jawline Takes a Measured Look at Social Media Stardom

The film is refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.

3

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Jawline
Photo: Hulu

The perma-glossy avatar of our profit-minded social media era is the cheery influencer, that species of professional bon vivant who seems perpetually more put together than anyone could be. Liza Mandelup’s debut documentary feature, Jawline, traces the dynamics that drive such influencers, their intensely adoring fans, and the malicious managers who try to turn a profit on them, and it’s refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.

The film begins on Austyn Tester, a sweet, poor Tennessee teen with a few thousand followers across Instagram, Twitter, Musical.ly, and YouNow who’s itching to escape his hometown and become an online celebrity. Mandelup mostly focuses on his daily efforts toward achieving that fame, including his semi-disciplined uploading regimen and the many retakes required to snag the perfect post. He spends much of his times posting, singing, and assuaging his young fans’ personal frustration on live chat. Only a slight variant on his actual personality, Austyn’s online brand, a “follow your dreams, no matter what” sort of positivity, would be unremarkable if it weren’t for its apparent impact on his teen girl fans.

Several of these fans are interviewed throughout the film. Each one is grappling with unique problems, from abusive families to bullying, though all of them justify their interest in Austyn and his peers for their willingness to listen, emphasizing the therapeutic effect of his livestreams. Jawline displays a certain evenhandedness here. The girls’ intense reliance on a stranger for comfort is uncomfortable to watch, but the film doesn’t trivialize this dependence. In an act of fan service, Austyn meets with a small group of girls at a local mall where their intense affections make themselves plain. Mandelup records them pushing an uncomfortable Austyn to ride around motorized stuffed animals so they can post it on Instagram, all the while demanding affirmations from him. Later, one girl forces him to share his phone number with her. Here, Jawline suggests a limit to his affection for them, if it ever existed, as well as the emotionally transactional nature of the relationship between fan and influencer.

The libidinal peak of this surreal relationship, though, occurs when Austyn and other influencers go on tour, performing shows for adoring fans with the hopes of upping their follower count in the process. On stage, the teens pose with fans, sing, and dance, all without any clear knack for it, in what amount to in-person livestreams. In this moment, there isn’t much that can be said about these largely cookie-cutter performers except that they’re toned, twinky, and peppy, and their fans love them for it. Mandelup’s footage of their displays is transfixing, not because the performances are spectacular—the shows are expensive to attend but often happen in dingy unadorned venues—but because the nearly contentless shows are only about the fans’ adulation. From an outsiders’ perspective, there’s a dizzying mismatch between the palpable intensity of their fervor and what they’re actually responding to.

How to relate to teen girls, how to monetize what’s relatable, and how to make the content more relatable and more profitable? These are the sorts of questions pondered by social media talent manager Michael Weist. He’s great to watch in the way reality TV villains are, as his success is propelled by a well-known combo of business sense, greed, and probable chicanery (appropriately, he finds himself in legal trouble by the film’s end). Around 21 years old, Weist has somehow marketed himself into a role as an authority figure on social media stardom, roping in young wannabe celebs and growing their followings. He’s turned a house in L.A. into a content factory, living there with his clients while haranguing them into posting, recording, and being on call 24/7 for their needs. Ever-candid, Weist reveals his long game at one point without being prompted: to run influencers through the content mill before they’re old enough to drink, at which point he can move on to the next hot prospect seeking fame.

At the heart of Weist’s efforts is the exploitation of Austyn’s more successful colleagues to commodify young girls’ emotions. Jawline is most fascinating when it tracks this process in action. Mandelup doesn’t draw as much attention to it as she could, meandering through IRL details that don’t quite elucidate or explain as much as they pretend to and don’t measure up to the retina-display realities of virtual stardom. A similar problem shows up in the documentary’s way of depicting tween girls. One notable scene involves slow-motion portraits of the fans accompanied by their disembodied voiceovers explaining why they spend so much time online. The scene is conceived in the spirit of chromatic maximalism, with the girls brightly lit against floral-print and pastel backgrounds, in a manner that humanizes their experience but flattens their differences, as if one were the precondition of the other. The style presents their range of justifications for standom as more or less equivalent to each other, reducing these girls to the same faceless morass of drives that Weist cashes in on.

More importantly, while Jawline’s depictions of predatory managers, overblown hopes, and obsessive followers spell out reasons to be despondent about the way this economy works, the film doesn’t look past its narrow horizon. There’s little indication of how this phenomenon is so profitable or how wide reaching this it is. Instead, Jawline offers a deflationary, measured suggestion that the current crop of influencers differs only in quantity from celebrity cults in Hollywood or the music industry. The latest iteration of celebrity is just monetizing a new type of media. All that’s really changed is that the stars burn dimmer and fade younger.

Director: Liza Mandelup Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 99 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Brittany Runs a Marathon Is a Moralizing Buzzkill of a Comedy

The film is inspirational only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.

1.5

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Brittany Runs a Marathon
Photo: Amazon Studios

Watching writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Brittany Runs a Marathon is a bit like listening to a runner describe a motivational poster—the type with a single-word slogan below a stock photograph—that inspired them to persevere as they trained themselves to be a serious runner. Sensing that such overt preachiness would be irksome, the film cloaks its proselytizing in self-aware jokes about how much more pleasurable sitting around is than running and a token acknowledgment that there’s nothing wrong with being out of shape. But the screenplay’s cute, if somewhat insipid, humor doesn’t prevent the film from feeling self-righteous. Indeed, for a comedy about a woman who makes a personal decision to get in shape, Brittany Runs a Marathon sure engages in a lot of moralizing.

At the start of the film, twentysomething Brittany (Jillian Bell) is overweight and working part time as an usher for a small off-Broadway theater, which somehow provides enough income for her to regularly drink champagne at high-end clubs with her roommate, Gretchen (Alice Lee). Walking back to their Queens apartment after nights of hard drinking and eating greasy food, they often catch their uptight, bougie neighbor, Catherine (Erica Hernandez), going out for an early morning run, seemingly judging them for their indulgence. It’s only a matter of time, then, before Brittany is informed by a Yelp-recommended doctor (Patch Darragh) that her lifestyle has led to elevated blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass index—and an ominous close-up on the doctor’s chart shows us that she’s crossed over into obese terrain.

And so Brittany begins running, ill-advisedly, in her beat-up Chuck Taylors, which she soon upgrades to spotless, turquoise New Balances. Catherine, for some reason forgiving of Brittany’s persistent churlishness, introduces the young woman to a local running club. What follows is surely intended to inspire laughs of recognition in audience members who picked up running in adulthood, as the neophyte Brittany hangs out at the back of the group with a fellow reformed slacker, Seth (Micah Stock). The new trio sets themselves an ambitious goal: to complete the New York Marathon the following November.

The film makes jokes about how hard running can be, but there’s an earnestness behind such humor that leaves certain sacred cows untouched. Most of these have to do with the self—namely, self-discipline, self-love, and self-actualization. As the film sees it, all those things can be realized through running. Seth may joke about how ready he is to stop, or how much he’d rather be doing something else, but he keeps going, and if Brittany cheats on her diet and eats some cheese fries, it’s portrayed as a dramatic, shameful misstep. We’re told over and over that Brittany is valued by her friends, old and new, because she’s funny, but we see scant evidence of this, particularly as her devotion to running takes on a quite pious dimension.

Arriving for comic relief and romantic interest is Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who works the night shifts at the same house-sitting service where Brittany has begun picking up hours during the day to fund her marathon training. Casually trashing the house they’re meant to be looking after, Jern supplies Brittany Runs a Marathon with the levity that began to evaporate from the film as soon as Brittany started exercising. But as her flirtatiously contentious relationship with Jern deepens, the other parts of her life become a plodding series of confrontations. Her improving self-image emboldens Brittany to kick Gretchen to the curb, accusing her friend of having always viewed her as a “fat sidekick.”

It’s a fair enough grievance for the character to have, but at a certain point in Brittany’s active defense of herself, the film takes on a self-righteous tone, associating its protagonist’s newfound healthy living with virtuousness and seeing Gretchen as despicable for her profligate lifestyle. Brittany Runs a Marathon’s positioning of exercise as a moral triumph is nothing more than a marketing technique, as Colaizzo’s film is “inspirational” only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.

Cast: Jillian Bell, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Michaela Watkins, Lil Rel Howrey, Micah Stock, Mikey Day, Alice Lee, Dan Bittner, Peter Vack, Patch Darragh Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo Screenwriter: Paul Downs Colaizzo Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Official Secrets Is an Ambitious Muckraking Thriller Prone to Melodrama

Gavin Hood wrings suspense out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts.

2.5

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Official Secrets
Photo: IFC Films

Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets is a muckraking thriller that revels in wonderfully lived-in details as well as generic biopic platitudes. The film tells a story that might have caused a sensation in Britain and the U.S. had it not been drowned out by those nations’ war machines. In 2003, Katherine Gun, a British translator for an intelligence agency, leaked an email in which the American National Security Agency urged for surveillance of pivotal members of the U.N. Security Council. This operation was for the purpose of blackmailing the U.N. into voting for the American invasion of Iraq (which President George W. Bush authorized later that year anyway, without the U.N.’s approval). Katherine leaked this email, and faced prosecution from her government under the Official Secrets Act of 1989.

In the film’s first half, the filmmakers offer a fastidious glimpse at how the press responds to Katherine’s (Kiera Knightley) whistleblowing. Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), Martin Bright (Matt Smith), and Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) are anti-war reporters for The Observer, which is in favor of the war and eager to maintain its relationship with Tony Blair’s government. Hood wrings suspense, and docudramatic fascination, out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts. Various jargon in the N.S.A. email is decoded, as insiders weigh its legitimacy. An intensification of surveillance is referred to as a “surge effort,” intelligence sources are “product lines,” and so forth.

This sort of commitment to texture is reminiscent of the novels of John Le Carré, as are the juicy scenes in which Beaumont and Bright reach out to people in the MI6 and the British government. Though Hood isn’t a moody stylist in the key of, say, Alan J. Pakula, his handling of the film’s actors is sharp, as their crisp and musical cadences allow the audience to understand that every spoken word matters, and that, if the reporters misstep at any time, they could potentially lose more than their contacts.

Katherine is eventually defended by an attorney, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), who has vast experience with human rights cases and with working within the labyrinthine British government. Fiennes’s probing, tormented, erudite charisma is always pleasurable, but this section of Official Secrets, meant to provide the legal counterpoint to the journalism thread, is shortchanged, as Hood starts to juggle too many balls at once. Interspersed with Emmerson’s adventurous interpretation of the Official Secrets Act are moments in which Katherine must rush to prevent her Turkish-Kurdish husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), from being deported out of an obvious retaliation against Katherine. These scenes are unimaginatively staged and unmoving—a sop to melodrama that temporarily halts the film’s procedural momentum.

It’s strange that the domestic dimension of the protagonist’s life should feel like clutter, which underscores a larger issue with Official Secrets: Katherine herself isn’t especially compelling as rendered here, as she almost entirely operates in the formula mode of aggrieved, persecuted, self-righteous avenger. A major ellipsis in the narrative is telling, as the British government forces Katherine to wait almost a year in limbo before deciding whether or not to persecute her, which Hood skips to keep the story moving. The emotional toil of such a year could’ve provided a personal counterpoint to the film’s political gamesmanship. As it is, the filmmaker reduces Katherine to a supporting character in her own story.

Cast: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Indira Varma, MyAnna Buring, Rhys Ifans, Tamsin Greig, Jack Farthing, Hattie Morahan, Conleth Hill, Katherine Kelly, Kenneth Cranham, Hanako Footman, Adam Bakri Director: Gavin Hood Screenwriter: Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein, Gavin Hood Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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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 compelling argument about the legacy of trauma.

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Tigers Are Not Afraid
Photo: Shudder

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 compelling 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

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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.

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

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

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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.

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What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
Photo: KimStim

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

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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.

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Good Boys
Photo: Universal Pictures

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

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