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Understanding Screenwriting #57: The Concert, Cairo Time, A Film Unfinished, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #57: The Concert, Cairo Time, A Film Unfinished, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Concert, Cairo Time, A Film Unfinished, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, Dunkirk, I Was Monty’s Double, Rizzoli & Isles, Burn Notice but first…

Fan Mail: I think that it is only fair that since David Ehrenstein caught me misspelling Charles Walters’s last name as Waters some time ago I mention that in his comments on US#56 he misspelled Robert Rossen’s last name as Rosson. It is an honest mistake, since there was a family of Rossons connected with the business, the most notable being Harold, who was a great cinematographer from 1915 to 1967. I am not as crazy about Rossen’s Lillith (1964) as David is, but I agree that They Came to Cordura (1959) is a very interesting film, and I had thought about mentioning it in the item on Edge of Darkness, since it deals with the issues of heroism and cowardness. As for Rossen’s Alexander the Great (1956), it is not without its interest, but Rossen runs into the same problem Oliver Stone did in his 2004 film Alexander: Alexander had an epic life, but not a very dramatic one: He conquered the world and then he died.

The Concert (2009. Screenplay by Radu Mihaileanu and Alain-Michel Blanc in collaboration with Matthew Robbins, adaptation and dialogue by Radu Mihaileanu, based on a story by Héctor Cabello Reyes and Thierry Degrandi. 119 minutes.)

Worth the wait: This was the film that my wife and I intended to see when we ended up at Get Low (see US#55), and it is certainly more lighthearted than that film. This is one of the most purely entertaining movies of the year, and it’s also more than that in some rather sneaky ways. Before we get into all of that, I do need to warn you about the plot. As Michael Brooke so elegantly put it in his review in the August 2010 Sight & Sound, the “premise alone generates enough plot holes to accommodate an entire fleet of articulated lorries doing three-point turns.” A former conductor of the Bolshoi orchestra, now working as a janitor, intercepts a fax to the company director requesting the orchestra play a concert in a theater in Paris. Alexi, the conductor, rounds up a collection of his old musician friends, goes to Paris and gives a triumphant concert, with no rehearsal and with a young French violinist, Anne-Marie, playing a Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto she has never played before. Watch out for those articulated lorries!

Why does it work? It’s funny. As I tell my screenwriting students, you can get away with almost anything if you make us laugh. The writers are great at nailing down in the shortest possible time the peculiarities of the many characters, both Russian and French. They are perhaps even better at getting humor out of the cultural differences between the Russians and the French. Yes, sometimes those are cliches, but as Crash Davis reminds us, cliches are our friends. There is a running gag of two Jewish musicians trying to sell everything from caviar to Chinese cellphones to the French. It could be offensive, but by then we love the characters and want them to score big time. It is not just the cultural details the writers get right. Alexi was a top conductor thirty years ago, as was the man who fired him, Gavrilov. The musicians get Gavrilov to be their “manager” for the trip, but he is thirty years out of the loop as well. His demands alternately baffle the French (the restaurant where he wants to hold a dinner for the orchestra has gone out of business) and delight them (the theater owner, when he hears the fees the orchestra wants, notes to his assistant that those are “pre-Perestroika rates”). The film is very reminiscent of some of the late-‘60s Eastern European classics such as The Fireman’s Ball (1967), but with a definite post-communist slant. There is a great scene, a wedding given by a Russian mobster, that defines how Russia has changed in twenty years.

Another reason it all works is that the writers move the story along like the proverbial bat out of hell. The mechanics of setting up the concern and assembling the orchestra (this is a “mission” picture, just like The Guns of Navarone [1961] and The Dirty Dozen [1967]) start the picture off quickly, so by 45 minutes in the orchestra is lining up to go to the airport. And the details set up in the first half pay off in the second half. That wedding scene? It gives the orchestra its “sponsor,” a Russian mobster who thinks he is a cellist and assumes he is going to play in the orchestra. I thought the writers had forgotten about him until we see his situation during the concert. The Russian Gypsy violinist who arranges a lot of the “paperwork” turns out to make a musical connection with Anne-Marie that helps persuade her to do the concert. And when we get to Paris, yes, we are in Ninotchka (1939)-land, since Gavrilov is not as much an ex-communist as he wants people to believe. That gives us a simple but very effective contrast between the Party meeting he sets up in Paris, which is not well attended, and the concert, which is. Art triumphing over politics.

I mentioned earlier that it was more than just funny. We love these characters because they make us laugh, and when they are on-screen, stuff happens. So we will end up following them into a more serious storyline. Alexi asks for Anne-Marie as a soloist because he has her CDs, and we suspect there is some kind of connection. We begin to know for sure what it is when we meet her and her agent-manager. And then the writers pull the rug out from under us completely, taking us into darker areas than we have been. The connections are not what you think, and I will not spoil it for you by telling you any more than that.

The writers also pull of a great bit of sleight-of-hand in the concert. We will of course want to know what happens to all these people after the concert, and the writers give us a series of both verbal (Alexi telling Anne-Marie the rest of the story in voiceover) and visual (scenes of post-concert activities) montages. But they give them to us during the concert. If we had to watch the entire concert it might get visually monotonous, and giving us that information during the concert, we are then free to get the full emotional impact of the end of the concert.

My wife, who is a musician, often complains about actors pretending to play musical instruments. She thought Mélanie Laurent, who plays Anne-Marie, did the fingering brilliantly. Laurent was the one who blew up Hitler in Inglourious Basterds last year and I was too busy looking at her gorgeous and gorgeously expressive face to notice her hands, so we will just have to take my wife’s word for it.

Cairo Time (2009. Written by Ruba Nadda. 90 minutes.)

Cairo Time

Not as bad as Mademoiselle Chabon: You may remember from US#55 that as bad as Mademoiselle Chabon (2009), the French update of Brief Encounter (1945), was, I wondered if it was even possible in our time to do a story about people in love who split up because of duty and honor. With Cairo Time, the jury is still out on the question.

Juliette, a married magazine editor in her fifties, comes to Cairo to visit her husband, who works for the U.N. When she arrives, he is still in Gaza dealing with the situation there. He has asked his retired translator, Tarek, to pick up Juliette at the airport and take her to her hotel. She assumes he is going to be old and fat, and, boy, is he neither one. As Mark, the husband, continues to be stuck in Gaza, Tarek offers to show her around. He runs a café, but seems to have all the time in the world. So he and Juliette walk around Cairo. A lot. We see many pretty post-card shots of Cairo, but they are not very expressive. Look at the choices the writers made in Before Sunset (2004) as to where Jesse and Celine will walk in Paris, or to take an earlier example, how the Spanish Steps and the Mouth of Truth work in Roman Holiday (1953).

Juliette and Tarek talk a lot, but it is not very dramatic talk. We get very little of either person’s character. See the other films mentioned above on how to do it. Nadda also geeks one of the script’s more interesting ideas. At the airport, Tarek and Juliette run into Yasmeen and her daughter, who is getting married. Tarek and Yasmeen obviously know each other, but it takes forever for Nadda to get around to letting us know that Yasmeen was the love of Tarek’s life. She dumped him and married another guy, but is now a widow. Juliette and Tarek go to the wedding late in the picture. By that time we know they are attracted to each other, so it would make sense for Juliette, feeling guilty but wanting the best for Tarek, to push him to rekindle the flame with Yasmeen. Juliette suggests this, but Tarek says it wouldn’t proper. Maybe not in Egyptian culture, but wouldn’t that make it more dramatic? And then we could get a great scene of Tarek and Juliette sending each other off to their other loves. My tear ducts are swelling up just thinking about that scene. Instead, Tarek just passes her back to Mark when he shows up. Yes, that is a “happy” ending, except for the fact that Mark appears to have no character either.

A Film Unfinished (2010. Written by Yael Hersonski. 88 minutes.)

A Film Unfinished

Structuring the documentary, take one: The students taking my Screenwriting class at Los Angeles City College are required to have taken the History of Documentary Film class as a prerequisite. Nearly all of them take it with me at LACC, but sometimes there are people who had what was in theory the equivalent course elsewhere. One time there was a student in that situation in the class. We were discussing an idea another student had pitched for a documentary and the “elsewhere” student said, “Documentaries aren’t structured. You just go out and film real life.” Everybody else in the class, who had taken the documentary class with me, turned in unison and looked at him with a “What planet are you from?” look. We straightened the fellow out fairly quickly and painlessly.

Sometimes the structure comes from writing the script in advance, as in Night Mail (1936). Sometimes the situation pretty much dictates the structure, as in Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963). And in Frederick Wiseman films, the complex structures (yes, plural) are worked out in the editing room. No matter how it is done, any good documentary has a structure.

The problem facing Yael Hersonski was this. She had a rough cut, without a soundtrack, of a Nazi documentary called The Ghetto. It had been filmed in the spring of 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto, but not completed, apparently because the Nazis started shipping Jews out of the Ghetto into the camps. For years, various shots from the film had been used as historical clips in other documentaries. Then a reel of outtakes was found, which very clearly showed that many of the shots were staged by the German camera crews. So how do you organize all of that into a film, and what else do you want or need to make it into a complete film?

Hersonski’s solution is not as simple as it may seem. She generally runs the rough cut in what we assume—she never out and out claims it—is the order of scenes in that cut. For all we know, she may have changed the order. But what do you do for a sound track? Hersonski and her researchers have found several useful items. One is the diary of the head of the Jewish community in the Ghetto, which includes several references to the film being shot. Another is a series of reports by the German officer in command, also including material about the making of the film. The first part of Hersonski’s film primarily uses those two sources. But well into the film, she begins to show us survivors of the Ghetto that she has tracked down. She has them watch, as much as they can, the German rough cut and comment on it. One woman comments on a scene in what looks to be a nice apartment that it would never have had flowers, as we see in the shot, because somebody would have eaten them. Still later in the film Hersonski begins to introduce the outtakes. What appears to be the reason for the making of the Nazi film was to show that while some Jews were starving, more well-to-do Jews were living a normal life. The outtakes are mostly setting up those “well-to-do” scenes. The final shots of the rough cut show one well-off Jew standing next to a not-so-well off one, then another double shot of two different people, and another. Finally, we get all the “doubles” in one shot. One woman among the “well-to-do” has one of the most haunting looks on her face I have ever seen. She may not have “known” what was going on, but she knew.

Finally, Hersonski introduces the most problematical element in her film. She learned that one of the cameramen on the film, Willy Wist, was interrogated about his experience. She has the transcript, but handles it as a reconstruction, with an actor “playing” Wist. Given the “reality” of the rest of the film, the reconstruction seems artificial, although it is so well done that many people will “believe” it. It is never specifically mentioned in the narration or the titles that it is a reconstruction. On the other hand, that may have been the only way to include the material. And how different is it really from the other actors who read the diaries and reports that make up the rest of the sound track? Still, in a film that is showing us the difference between truth and fiction on film, I find myself a little queasy about it. Only a little queasy, though, since Wist’s statements add a lot to the film. See the moral quandaries dealing with the truth can get you into?

A Film Unfinished, by the way, is part of a tradition of the last thirty years of using older documentaries to call into question the “truths” those films showed us. Look at Radio Bikini (1987), which compares the footage shot by the U.S. Government about the atomic bomb tests at the Bikini Islands with the comments shot more recently from those who were there. Or look at One Nation Under God (1993), which uses the way old documentaries dealt with homosexuality to undercut the ideas of the past. And that’s not even mentioning the documentaries of the last ten years that undercut the mainstream media coverage of… oh, sorry, school’s starting and I got into my “teaching the history of documentary” mode there for a minute.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2010. Written by Tamra Davis. 88 minutes.)

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

Structuring the documentary, take two: What do singer Britney Spears, actor Adam Sandler and the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat have in common? Other than that they were all once virgins, or at least purported to be? All of them starred in films directed by Tamra Davis. Davis directed Spears in Crossroads (2002), which is not nearly as bad as you might think. The writer on that one, by the way, was Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy. Davis also directed Sandler in Billy Madison (1995), and she now turns to Basquiat. Or technically speaking, turns back to Basquiat. In the mid-‘80s, Davis was working in art galleries in Los Angeles and met Basquiat. Tamra was a film student of mine at LACC earlier in the ‘80s, and in 1986 she and friend got a camera and recorded about twenty minutes of interviews with Baquiat. After he died in 1988, she shelved the material until a few years ago when she put it together as an adjunct for a showing of his work. That led to the current film.

The structural problem she had to solve was this: the interview was not enough material for a film by itself. The IMDb lists her A Conversation with Basquiat (2006), which was the short version done for the showing, as running 99 minutes, at least in France, but that’s why you should not believe everything you read on the Internet. So what do you do to turn it into a feature? The interview material is simply one structural element of the current film, and quite frankly it is not as compelling as the footage Hersonski has for A Film Unfinished. Basquiat is cute, but guarded in his responses, and not as articulate as one would hope. So Davis has structured the film as more a conventional biography, although she does not begin in his childhood, but when he first came to New York City at the age of 17. We get a certain amount of stock shots from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, plus home movies by Basquiat’s friends. We also get a lot of his artwork, starting with the graffiti and on into his later paintings. What is even more useful, although in ways Davis may not even appreciate, are the interviews with gallery owners, friends, lovers, agents and others. They put Basquiat into the context of his time and place, but they also put the Basquiat interview into context. Several people talk about his ambition and determination to be famous, and we can see him in the 1986 interview using what he takes to be his charm to make himself into a star. The interviews with the others also give us a vivid sense of his development as an artist.

As fascinating as the movie is, and as good as the descriptions of his art are, I still am not that much of a fan of his work. I don’t mind that it looks like graffiti, but it’s uninteresting graffiti. Maybe I am just more in tune with West Coast, Mexican-mural-influenced graffiti art. In any case, I remained a little dubious about the gushing that goes on by his friends and colleagues. I particularly got a sense of how inbred the New York City art world can be, an echo chamber in which the trendy artist flavor of the month can seem more important than he may be. There are hints that Basquiat understood that the fame he was working for was rather empty. The Los Angeles people who talk about him sort of fall into that trap as well, although one person suggests that if Basquiat had stayed in Los Angeles (he lived here for a brief period), he might have survived. Now that’s a shift in cultural attitudes we will all have to think about for a while.

Dunkirk (1958. Screenplay by David Divine and W.P. Lipscomb, based on the book Dunkirk by Ewen Butler and J.S. Bradford and the novel The Big Pickup by Elleston Trevor. 130 or 134 minutes, depending on your source.)

Dunkirk

John Mills, action star, take one: We tend to think about the late, great British film actor John Mills for his dramatic roles, even when he was playing military figures, as in Tunes of Glory (1959). But in 1958 he made a couple of films in which he was almost an action star. Dunkirk is the bad one, and I Was Monty’s Double, which is discussed below, is the good one.

Dunkirk is one of the last films made by Ealing Studios, which was much better known for its comedies. Charles Barr, the author of the great studio biography Ealing Studios, calls it “very dull indeed.” Far be it from me to disagree with Barr. The intent I expect was to do a big tribute to the efforts of the Navy and small boat owners to rescue several hundred thousand British troops from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940. As I wrote about in US#48, Darryl Zanuck did a much better job covering D-Day in The Longest Day (1962). The producer here was Michael Balcon, who simply did not have Zanuck’s flare. Notice the script is based on both a non-fiction book and a novel. It is very easy to guess which scenes come from which source. The scenes with the senior military are very flat and on the nose, and Balcon has not helped by casting virtually unknown British actors. Zanuck knew you needed stars to make the audience remember the characters in a picture of that size. The script is also rather clunky. We follow a group of six surviving British soldiers, led by Corporal Binns (John Mills), as they make their way to the beach and eventually get picked up. Those scenes are intercut with not only the senior officers, but with several civilians who end up bringing their boats to help the rescue. Zanuck insisted on short, to-the-point scenes, very much in the American manner, but Balcon let the scenes in this script go on much longer than they should have. We keep losing the thread of the different stories. Binns and his soldiers do see action, and Mills is certainly convincing as an enlisted man forced into a leadership position. The director, Leslie Norman, whom Barr calls “the most stolid of all the Ealing directors,” slows the pace down, and the film editor does not help by leaving in parts of the takes before and after the action. Undoubtedly they were trying to make it as long as they could to make it seem big and important. Longer is not better.

I Was Monty’s Double (1958. Screenplay by Bryan Forbes, based on the book I Was Monty’s Double by M.E. Clifton-James. 101 minutes.)

I Was Monty’s Double

John Mills, action star, take two: The storyline of this one is preposterous. The British are trying in 1944 to convince the Germans that the D-Day invasion is going to land anywhere other than Normandy. British Intelligence comes up with a hare-brained scheme to get an actor who is the spitting image of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery to pretend to be Monty on a tour of North Africa. The real Monty is in England preparing for the invasion, but the hope is the Germans will think that perhaps Monty will invade the south of France from North Africa. The Brits succeed well enough so that Hitler holds units in reserve in the south of France when D-Day finally comes. And the story, if not the film, is completely true. The actor involved, M.E. Clifton-James, wrote a best-selling book about it in the ‘50s and stars in the movie as himself, and as Montgomery.

One big advantage this film has is that the screenplay is by Bryan Forbes. Forbes was an actor in British films since the late ‘40s (he plays the young officer who helps stop the kidnapping at the end of this film) who started writing in the mid-‘50s. He later turned to directing with such films as King Rat (1965) and The Stepford Wives (1975). So he knows how to write terrific scenes for the actors to play. Turner Classic Movies ran these two John Mills films on a day devoted to Mills in late August. I watched them in the order I am writing about them, and the change from the lethargic Dunkirk to this one was immediately apparent. Mills is Major Harvey and in the first few minutes he arrives in a boat on the coast of England, gets off a train in London, eludes a man following him, and shows up at what we have to guess (because no one says it outright) is an office in British Intelligence. Whereupon he has a wonderful scene with his boss, Colonel Logan, about what they can get up to next. Forbes not only knows how to write for actors, but to make it amusing. We get a lot of the wit that Mills showed as Pip in Great Expectations (1946). It also helps that the director is John Guillermin, who knows how to keep things moving.

Harvey sees Clifton-James do a music hall cameo (look at how Forbes gets him to the music hall in the first place) and comes up with the idea of doubling Monty. Clifton-James the character is wonderfully self-effacing, as is Clifton-James the actor, which lends a whole down-to-earth quality to the film. Clifton-James the character observes the real Monty and then trains to be him. But he tells Harvey he cannot do it. Harvey insists, and finally has to take Clifton-James to see the real Monty, who will persuade him to do it. Ah, a central scene in the picture. Except we do not see it; we just see Clifton-James go into Monty’s trailer and later come out. Was the scene never in the script? Was it in the script and they decided they did not need it? Did they shoot it and find it did not work? We don’t know.

So then it is off to Gibraltar for the first leg of the tour. Forbes gives us a great scene with the Governor of Gibraltar, who invites to dinner with Monty a German businessman whom he knows will tell the Germans. Great idea, until they are walking into the room and the German happens to mention he has met Monty before. Forbes sets this up to give the great British character actor Michael Hordern (none of those unknowns as in Dunkirk) as the Governor a terrific reaction shot, and then builds the scene from there.

In real life “Monty” made the North African tour without incident and was then brought back to England and held in seclusion. Not very dramatic, so the last 15 minutes or so are a kidnapping attempt that John Mills in his action star mode foils. The movie, with its wit and suspense, has built up enough good will that we won’t get too angry with it.

This film is not yet on DVD, but TCM may run it again. However, don’t look for it under its original title. Even though the print shown had this title, it was listed in the schedule by its godawful American title, Hell, Heaven, or Hoboken. I am not going to waste your time or mine trying to explain that.

Rizzoli & Isles (2010. “Born to Run” episode written by David Gould. 60 minutes.)

Rizzoli & Isles

Finally, a good one: This is their best episode yet, and oddly enough, it is because it is less like the others. There is very little banter between R&I, and most of that is at the beginning as they get ready to run in the “Massachusetts” Marathon. It’s obviously the Boston Marathon, but given the plot I can see why everybody wanted to change the name.

So they start to run, and at the three-mile mark they discover a dead body in the street. What do you do? Well, they pretend the body is still alive and get it in an ambulance, but the crowd is so big they can’t get out. So they take it to a medical tent. Rizzoli calls it in and then the question becomes, do you stop the marathon? The script handles the cops and politicians dealing with that very well. They agree not to stop the race because a) it will cause panic and probably a riot, and b) this is a TV episode and they cannot afford a riot. Isles has to do a primitive autopsy and they discover the victim had been shot. At close range. The police eventually identify him as a guy who has had several lawsuits filed against him. And then Rizzoli’s brother, also a cop, finds another body, shot in the same way, at mile twelve. Now do you close down the race? Nope, and needless to say, Rizzoli and the cops figure out who is killing the runners and why and stop the last one.

So, it’s a plot we have not seen before, nicely developed, and with minimal mediocre banter. But can you build a show on that?

Burn Notice (2010. “Blind Spot” episode written by Michael Horowitz, “Guilty as Charged” episode written by Matt Nix. Each episode 60 minutes)

Burn Notice

Jesse knows: I mentioned in my comments on this show in US#56 that Jesse had not yet discovered that it was Michael who burned him. So guess what happens in these two episodes and look at how much it ups the tension. At the end of “Blind Spot,” Jesse tells Fi that he has found a security tape from across the street from his building that clearly shows Michael leaving the building at the time Jesse was burned. Jesse pulls a gun on Fi, but just leaves when she closes her eyes, expecting to be shot.

In “Guilty as Charged” Michael is trying to work out a deal with John Barrett, the technology mogul, to return the Bible that has the code, in return for which Barrett is supposed to tell him what the code unlocks. Maddie and Fi get a nice scene as they try to talk Jesse into persuading him to work with Michael. Jesse is reluctant, but at a meeting at a diner, also a good tense scene, he agrees not to kill Michael until after Michael has gotten the information from Barrett. Needless to say, the handover does not go well, with all kinds of unwanted people showing up. Jesse shoots Michael, but Sam and Fi realize he was shooting “through” Michael to kill the hood behind him. Michael and Barrett escape in a van with the metal briefcase that now has the Bible and the material it decodes. Barrett has told Michael it includes the names and addresses of the people who not only burned Jesse, but Michael and Simon as well. Michael, bleeding, grabs the wheel and crashes the van. It looks as though Barrett is dead, and Michael is bleeding out when he sees someone pick up the metal suitcase. Needless to say, this is the half-season finale, and we will have to wait until November to get the outcome.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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Review: Julien Temple’s Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan

The film is affectingly poignant in its frequently uncomfortable presentation of MacGowan’s physical ruination.

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Crock of Gold
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

The legend of Shane MacGowan, frontman for the Pogues and imbiber extraordinaire, looms large over Julien Temple’s alternately fantastical and down-to-earth documentary Crock of Gold. Since achieving international renown in the 1980s leading the biggest Irish band after U2—and just about the only one to fully celebrate and explore their Irishness—MacGowan carved out a position as one of rock’s most determined boozers, druggies, fighters, and all-around hellraisers. But though he had a Keith Richards-sized appetite, being on a smaller budget meant going without a protective rock-star bubble.

MacGowan’s kinetic and alcohol-fueled energy was a big part of the Pogues’s appeal, vividly captured here by the footage Temple includes of people roaring and dancing in packed concert venues. But time took its toll, as evidenced by MacGowan’s downward spiral of performances sabotaged by his copious drinking. Eventually, the slurred speech, physical decrepitude, and ever-more gnarled dentition spotted in the archival footage from the 1980s and ‘90s became like a self-fulfilling stereotype of the dedicated Irish drunk. While Temple includes a full view of MacGowan in his earlier form, the spiky-haired and Brendan Behan-worshipping punk balladeer, the story is told primarily through the lens of MacGowan’s racked and ruined present visage, prematurely aged and slurring his speech from a wheelchair. In MacGowan’s mind, he destroyed his body in pursuit of a different kind of legend entirely.

Much of the musician’s personal history is relayed via present-day interviews with interlocutors such as Johnny Deep—a friend of MacGowan’s and one of the film’s producers—former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. But here and there throughout Crock of Gold, MacGowan looks back over his own life, telling stories with a slow, slurring mumble punctuated by the occasional surly snap of pique or wheeze that approximates a laugh.

MacGowan acknowledges the problematic aspects of being the drunken Irishmen who hated British stereotypes of drunken Irishmen. “You want Paddy?” he asks rhetorically. “I’ll give you fucking Paddy.” But beyond the aggression that came from being a hyper-imaginative kid who hated the discrimination he felt being raised in 1960s England, he says that his creative drive was ultimately to create a different kind of legend. He wanted to do nothing less than save Irish culture. If not that, he wanted to at least resurrect the feeling that he had during the childhood summers he spent back in his extended family’s farmhouse in Tipperary (a one-time safe house for the I.R.A.), where even as a six-year-old he took part in the drinking and smoking and singing during the clan’s frequent all-night bashes.

MacGowan’s take on his culture is fiercely proud yet somewhat removed; his Irishness seems to come almost as much through literature and myth as through his family. Dreamy black-and-white recreations of a boy gamboling through Irish fields and archival footage of the Easter Rising and Ireland’s War of Independence fuel the sense that everything MacGowan strove for later in his art was in his mind a kind of fantasy crusade. “I did what I did for Ireland,” he says.

Raised mostly in England, MacGowan found the perfect outlet for that old poetry-infused rebel spirit when as a teenager he discovered his tribe in London’s punk scene. The raw chaos fit his natural state. After a several-month stay in Bedlam, his first concert was the Sex Pistols. Although this feels like a too-good story from a man who doesn’t mind gilding the lily, Temple includes grubby old footage showing MacGowan ecstatically pogo-ing just feet away from Johnny Rotten. Temple’s evocation of London street life in the period is short but vivid, in particular a segment set to “The Old Main Drag”, MacGowan’s semi-autobiographical song about a teenage hustler (“Just hand jobs,” he says with a grin in a later interview).

Wanting to “give tradition a kick in the ass” and make “Irish hip again,” MacGowan infused the lilt of traditional Irish music with a mixture of punk speed, wartime urgency, and late-night boozy romanticism. His recollections of the Pogues’s early years when their first three albums were met with increasing acclaim and popularity make clear that he knows that was the high point. The near-constant touring that followed the breakthrough success of 1988’s If I Should Fall from Grace with God seems to have pushed his addictions over the edge. Most everything after the ‘80s—the later albums of dwindling quality, varying side projects and break-ups, and late-career encomiums—are handled in mostly chronological but still somewhat blurred fashion by Temple in an approximation of how MacGowan likely remembers them. In this way, the film is of a piece with the ruinous spectacle that Temple’s Sex Pistols films covered and the fireside intimacy of Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, affectingly poignant in its frequently uncomfortable presentation of MacGowan’s physical ruination.

Director: Julien Temple Running Time: 124 min Year: 2020

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Review: Before Turning Histrionic, Uncle Frank Is a Tender Look at Outsider Kinship

Alan Ball quickly loses sight of the sense of power that fuels the film’s early moments when his characters basically just gaze at each other.

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Uncle Frank
Photo: Amazon Studios

Alan Ball’s ‘70s-set Uncle Frank commences as a rare portrait of the love between an uncle and his niece. Beth (Sophia Lillis), a provincial teenager with cosmopolitan dreams, is in awe of her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), a gay man living in New York City, a very long way from his South Carolina roots. “Uncle Frank was different,” Beth tells us in voiceover as we watch her pine for him at a family get-together. He was different than everyone around her because he was a college professor, his fingernails were always clear, and he used aftershave. But mostly because she could listen to him all day.

That sequence is shot like a conversation between lovers, slow-motioned laughter and all. But this isn’t the budding of incestuous love. It’s the sort of veneration that children are sometimes lucky enough to feel for the one adult in their midst who’s freer than most. Which is perhaps why many a queer uncle learns very quickly how disrupting their presence can be in family affairs. Frank represents a certain elsewhere. He truly listens to Beth, which visibly feels like some kind of a first for her. At one point, he tells her what she needs to hear with kindness—namely to believe in her dreams, which is code for her to get the hell out of the South. Four years later, she’s an NYU freshman obsessed with Harper Lee, Jane Austen, and Mark Twain.

When Beth moves to New York and they start hanging out, Frank can’t hide his homosexuality for long. After all, he lives with his long-term partner, Wally (Peter Macdissi), and an iguana named Barbara Stanwyck. Beth has never interacted with gay people before but gets used to the idea very quickly. And it’s at this moment, when the distance between uncle and niece shortens, that Uncle Frank ceases to be a tender portrait of outsider kinship and transforms into a histrionic road movie with screwball intentions, more interested in plot twists than the characters themselves. It’s an unfortunate pivot, as Ball loses sight of the sense of power that fuels the film’s early moments when his characters basically just gaze at each other, basking in what the other has to give, and something queer is transmitted.

When Frank’s father (Stephen Root) passes away, he drives back to the family home with Beth in tow. Also tagging along in a separate car, and much to Frank’s chagrin, is Wally, effectively triggering a predictable series of alternately kooky and unfortunate events, all interspersed with traumatic flashbacks to the source of the animosity between Frank and his father. It’s a whirlwind of melodrama that, before arriving at the obligatory happy ending, harkens back to the film’s initial quietude when Beth, sitting across from Frank at a diner, asks him, “Did you always know you were gay?” He responds that he always knew he was different, and in this moment Ball lets the characters breathe again, framing them much as he did at the start of Uncle Frank—in the midst of bonding, as a different sort of inheritance is passed on.

Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root, Lois Smith, Jane McNeil, Caity Brewer, Hannah Black, Burgess Jenkins, Zach Sturm, Colton Ryan, Britt Rentschler, Alan Campell, Cole Doman, Michael Perez Director: Alan Ball Screenwriter: Alan Ball Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Croods: A New Age Is a Step Up that Still Leaves You Wanting More

The film is brightly colored, inventively designed, and constantly flirting with the outright psychedelic.

2.5

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The Croods: A New Age
Photo: Universal Pictures

Brightly colored, inventively designed, and constantly flirting with the outright psychedelic, The Croods: A New Age resembles what it might be like for a three-year-old to take an acid trip. Whereas its relatively subdued predecessor, directed by Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco, was grounded in some semblance of the real world, the sequel follows the path of another DreamWorks Animation series, Trolls, by packing as much manic energy and candy-coated visual excess into its runtime as it possibly can. The approach mostly improves on the limp family-comedy of the original, trading tired jokes about overprotective fathers for sprawling action sequences and a bevy of oddball creatures including wolf-spider hybrids, kung fu-fighting monkeys, and a King Kong-sized baboon with porcupine spikes.

Which isn’t to say that A New Age turns its back on the Crood family. In fact, it juggles a half-dozen or so emotional arcs pertaining to their daily lives, with the relationship between the feisty Eep (Emma Stone) and her conservative father, Grug (Nicolas Cage), once more at the heart of the narrative. As the film opens, the Croods, who’ve accepted Eep’s boyfriend, Guy (Ryan Reynolds), into the family fold, are desperately searching for food and safety when they happen upon an Edenic walled paradise owned by the technologically advanced Phil and Hope Betterman (Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann), who chafe at the boorish antics of the backwards Croods. Discovering that they knew Guy when he was a boy, the Bettermans contrive to kick the coarse cavemen off their property while stealing Guy away from Eep to live with them and create a family with their cheery daughter, Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran).

Though ostensibly existing in the prehistoric world, the Bettermans, with their turquoise jewelry and rope sandals, epitomize a certain kind of well-heeled contemporary liberalism, where a rehearsed casual demeanor masks a fundamental narrow-mindedness and even intolerance of the uncouthness of their perceived inferiors. They’re the kind of people who won’t let a struggling family stay for long on their unused property but will send them off with a passive-aggressive smile and gift basket full of fancy soaps. The Bettermans are surprisingly complex, thanks in large part to Dinklage and Mann’s nuanced voice acting. In particular, Dinklage finds droll humor in a man whose conceitedness belies an essentially good heart.

This sort of gentle satire on class divisions isn’t the most natural fit with the film’s sweeping prehistoric milieu, but the screenplay manages to strike a relatively deft balance between its character moments and the comedy-adventure set pieces that are the film’s real raison d’être. A New Age doles out its emotional beats with a refreshingly light touch, never allowing sentimentalism to overpower its buoyant sense of adventure. But aside from some delightfully crusty line readings by Cloris Leachman as Gran, the film is rarely laugh-out-loud funny. Indeed, the film is so packed full of incident that it rarely gives its jokes the space to land.

Similarly, its overall sense of spectacle is stronger than any particular image or scene. We’re never wanting for things to look at in the film—there’s nearly always some wacky creature or impossible Roger Dean-style landscape or virtuosic bit of animation onscreen—but we rarely get much chance to take any of them in before the film has moved on to the next thing. There’s plenty to look at in A New Age, but not a whole lot to truly savor.

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Cloris Leachman, Peter Dinklage, Leslie Mann, Kelly Marie Tran Director: Joel Crawford Screenwriter: Kevin Hageman, Dan Hageman, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Noir City: International 2020

The first international edition of the Noir City film festival in six years showcases the diversity and malleability of noir.

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The Fifth Horseman Is Fear
Photo: Sigma III Corporation

Noir City 18, presented by the Film Noir Foundation in San Francisco this January, shined a spotlight on 24 noir films from around the world. It was the first international edition of the festival in six years, and it showcased the diversity and malleability of the genre—the incredible range of formal, thematic, and narrative strategies that can fall under its umbrella. Now through November 29, a virtual edition of this year’s festival featuring many of the same films is open to noir afficionados the world over.

A handful of established classics are presented here, including Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos, as well as the only two American films in the lineup, each celebrating their 75th anniversaries, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour and John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven. But the remaining films on this year’s slate consist primarily of lesser established films like Robert Siodmak’s The Devil Strikes at Night and Helmut Kautner’s Black Gravel, as well as a few more widely known films not discussed in terms of their noir credentials, among them Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid and Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds.

This edition of Noir City: International further broadens the scope of what cinephiles traditionally think of as noir. But in stretching the boundaries of what constitutes a noir production, perhaps too far at times for some noir purists, the festival offers an exciting blend of undiscovered gems and more canonical films that, when reevaluated through the lens of noir, are ripe for both new interpretations and renewed appreciation.

One of more obscure titles this year is Zbyněk Brynych’s 1965 thriller The Fifth Horseman Is Fear, which, while set during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, makes no attempt to recreate the era. This approach allows Brynych’s Kafkaesque parable to achieve an immediacy and universality in its critique of authoritarianism that extends not only to the communist party running Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, but to virtually any brutal autocratic regime. Here, the Nazi soldiers and officers remain entirely off screen, overheard only occasionally as they speechify on the radio or in the distance outside, and the film instead summons most of the danger through the crippling, maddening aftereffects of widespread oppression that manifest in the fear and panic gripping seemingly every civilian character in the film.

Employing claustrophobic compositions, opaque plotting, jarring, sometimes disjointed editing, and a hauntingly atonal jazz score by Jirí Sternwald, Brynych crafts an environment of utter despair and confusion, where suspicions are cast in every direction and friends and neighbors turn on one another in order to survive. Chillingly, The Fifth Horseman Is Fear even blurs the psychological divide between the patients of an insane asylum and the unhinged behavior of the residents of Prague. And while that particular sequence recalls Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor from two years prior, Brynych’s nightmarishly surreal flourishes are innovative in their own right for the uneasy sense of paranoia that they rouse throughout, foreshadowing the more grim, disturbing films to come out of Czechoslovakia in the coming years, notably Juraj Herz’s The Cremator and Karel Kachyna’s The Ear.

Román Viñoly Barreto’s The Black Vampire, a 1953 Argentinian reimagining of Fritz Lang’s M, may not be as inventive as either Brynych or Lang’s films, but in approaching the material from the perspectives of women whose lives are adversely affected by the actions of the central child killer, it’s nonetheless quite fascinating and bold in its diversions from the original. Its feminist bent morphs the story into something entirely different than the Lang film, and in sympathizing primarily with mothers of the killers’ victims, along with a cabaret singer, Rita (Olga Zubarry), who witnessed one of the murders and fears for the safety of her child, Barreto’s film turns the oft-perceived misogyny of noir on its head.

Barreto villainizes not only the killer, but also the lead detective, Bernard (Roberto Escalada), whose hypocrisy—both in his domineering behavior on the job, as when he keeps a suspect he knows is innocent in detention, and his betrayal of his disabled wife (Gloria Castilla)—undermines his positioning of himself as the moral voice of reason. Cinematographer Aníbal González Paz, who also shot another gorgeous, under-the-radar Argentinian noir, 1958’s Rosaura at 10 O’Clock, uses an impressionistic visual palette, rife with chiaroscuro lighting and canted camera angles to create a heightened sense of disorientation that mirrors the volatility of a society in which injustices regularly occur on both sides of the law.

While The Fifth Horseman Is Fear and The Black Vampire fall on the more disturbing, thematically weighty end of the noir spectrum, Henri Verneuil’s Any Number Can Win is a much lighter offering, though it’s quite an assured and stylish piece of mainstream entertainment. Verneuil, first and foremost, understands the simple surface pleasures noir can provide, be it gazing at a stone-faced Jean Gabin patiently skulking in the back of a Rolls Royce as he watches his master plan beginning to unfold or Alain Delon comically hamming it up as he uses his charm and sex appeal to fool everyone in the casino resort he plans to rob.

As delightful as it is to behold all the sharply written tête-à-têtes between Gabin and Delon—the former as the aging, implacable professional, and the latter as the virile, headstrong apprentice—it’s during the quieter, more deliberately paced third act that Veurneuil’s control of tempo and mood really shines. Generating a white-knuckle tension worthy of Jules Dassin’s Rififi, and capped off with a brilliant reworking of the ending of another ‘50s classic—to say which one would spoil the surprise—Any Number Can Win is a prime example of a film, and filmmaker, that was unfairly maligned by the cinephiles and critics of the French New Wave, and which has only just recently begun to recover its reputation.

Noir City: International runs through November 30.

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Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Is a Moving Swan Song for Chadwick Boseman

Boseman meticulously charts the breakdown of a man discovering that pursuit and escape are inextricably intertwined.

3

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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Photo: Netflix

In the canny opening moments of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the camera swoops over the heads of two black men sprinting through the woods at night, tripping over branches in their haste. The sequence, calculatingly staged to evoke an antebellum-era escape, invites our assumptions about who these men might be and from whom or what they might be running, but it turns out that the two men are just music fans on the move to catch a concert performance by Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the Southern singer dubbed “Mother of the Blues.”

It’s a pain-to-pleasure illusion that runs in reverse throughout the rest of George C. Wolfe’s film, which has been thoughtfully, gently adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson from August Wilson’s 1984 play. Though Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), here a fictionalized version of the real-life pioneering recording artist, may command sell-out crowds and booming record sales, she also knows what she ultimately represents for the white managers and producers who profit from her talent: “They don’t care nothing about me,” she explains early in the film. “All they want is my voice.” Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom chips away at the seeming triumph of a celebrated chanteuse to reveal the bitter truths below the surface.

Ma Rainey, gilded and painted, is playing a part. With gold teeth and coarse coats of makeup highlighting a face often frozen in a withering sneer, most often directed at the white men who pay her but sometimes at the rogue trumpeter in her band, Levee (Chadwick Boseman), or at her chorus-girl lover, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), she’s miles away from vulnerability.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place over the course of a few hours in the recording studio where Ma presides over her deferential manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), disgruntled producer, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), and her four-man band, which, in addition to Boseman’s Levee, includes Toledo (Glynn Turman) on piano, Slow Drag (Michael Potts) on bass, and Cutler (Colman Domingo) on trombone. For Ma Rainey, as long as the microphones are on, she has total power, and she relishes in elongating that reign through the power of refusal: she won’t sing until she has her Coke; she won’t move on until her nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), who stutters, perfectly delivers the introduction to the recording; and she won’t sign the release form that would liberate her white manager and producer from her say-so.

Davis, coarsely, tauntingly, slowly slurping on that Coca-Cola, communicates Ma Rainey’s premeditated defiance: As long as she controls the recording session, she rules over the white men who crave her sound, her strength and talent arising not in spite of her black body, but through it. And if that simultaneous tribute to, and desecration of, her artistry is ultimately heartbreaking to her, Ma Rainey isn’t about to let them see through her armor.

For the rest of the band, though, things are different. Levee has visions of forming his own band, of getting his original songs recorded, of winning over Ma Rainey’s beloved Dussie Mae. His jaded bandmates have seen it all by now, though, and they know Levee’s cocksure dreams will backfire. What they cannot anticipate are the frightening ways in which Levee’s grief has already hardened into powder kegs. If Ma finds small, sustaining triumph in refusal, Levee leans heavily on the blinding comforts of denial, and Boseman offers a deliriously frantic performance of contradictory extremes that eclipses the rest of the film when he’s at his most urgent and sweltering. Of the other bandmates, it’s Turman’s Toledo who most memorably emerges from Levee’s shadow: He’s the oldest of the musicians and the clearest-eyed in his surety that the rewards of individual artistic glory, the kind that Ma embraces and Levee pursues, will make scant difference in improving black lives in lasting ways.

Wolfe, best known as the razor-witted playwright of The Colored Museum and the original director of Angels in America, takes a hands-on approach in sending sparks of activity through the film’s claustrophobic spaces. In the small basement room where the band practices as they await Ma Rainey’s arrival, the camera often ricochets from man to man, as frenetic as the film’s briefer depiction of the Chicago streets above. Successful in the early scenes at animating what could otherwise feel static on screen, that perpetual motion may also somewhat undercut the boiling stillness that eventually erupts. Wilson’s trademark undercurrent of simmering rage against the divine—the same desperate resistance that distinguishes the climaxes of plays like Fences and The Piano Lesson—only sneaks in occasionally, and, when Levee’s restless hopelessness explodes into destructive action, it neither feels wrenchingly inevitable nor cathartically shocking.

That’s not through any fault of Boseman’s. Indeed, though Davis’ gritty, authoritarian presence at the mic complexingly layers the seductive highs of stardom and the exhausting veneer of Ma Rainey’s temporary, performative power, it’s Boseman who most movingly gives voice to the ghosts that haunt Wilson’s play. In his final role, Boseman meticulously charts the breakdown of a man discovering, within the mirages of 1920s blackness, that pursuit and escape, fleeing from and running toward, are inextricably intertwined.

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Glynn Turman, Jeremy Shamos, Colman Domingo, Taylour Paige, Jonny Coyne, Michael Potts, Joshua Harto, Dusan Brown Director: George C. Wolfe Screenwriter: Ruben Santiago-Hudson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 94 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Happiest Season Is Paint-by-Numbers but Earns Its Emotional Payoff

The film translates the often difficult realities of a specific kind of marginalized love into a story with broad appeal.

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Happiest Season
Photo: Hulu

Clea DuVall’s Happiest Season isn’t a radical holiday movie. Indeed, from a certain, say, militant queer-feminist perspective, it might be considered a counterrevolutionary one. Early on, it asserts its comfort with outdated notions of coupledom that are peddled by the average romantic comedy when Abby (Kristen Stewart) tells her friend John (Dan Levy) that she’s planning to propose to her girlfriend, Harper (Mackenzie Davis), on Christmas morning. Abbey reveals not only this affront to John’s anti-heteronormative inclinations, but that she’s going to first ask for the blessing of Harper’s father, Ted (Victor Garber). “Way to stick it to the patriarchy, really well done,” John archly replies.

The rest of the film, like Abby, proves eager to mimic the innumerable non-gay Christmas movies that preceded it, trotting out the quirky family, the handsome hometown ex-boyfriend, the misunderstood suitor, the betrayal that must be rectified, and the final holiday moral—namely, that family is important. The plot of Happiest Season is best summed up, in short, as “gay Meet the Parents.” But this assimilationist bent certainly doesn’t stop Duvall’s film, which is stacked with a supporting cast of solid comic performers like Levy, from sharpening humor that surely seemed mild on the page. It’s even much more affecting than most of its heteronormative predecessors, in large part because the stakes of its comedy of errors are greater than whether or not one man “lets” another man into the family.

Abby and Harper begin Happiest Season as a blissfully happy couple, still young and in love enough to risk trouble with stunts like sneaking onto a stranger’s roof to gaze at neighborhood Christmas lights, and, when they’re chased away, pausing their flight to make out in an alley—a clean alley, though, as they live in post-gentrification Pittsburgh. In the heat of the moment, Harper invites Abby, whose family died tragically some years ago, to come home with her for Christmas. It’s only when they’re on the road that Harper finally brings herself to confess that she’s lied to Abby about being out to her parents; that her family believes Abby is her (straight) roommate; and that she told them that she invited Abby along because she’s an orphan.

Harper, it turns out, is the favorite daughter of an important local family whose priorities are dominated by her mild-mannered but ambitious father, the very embodiment of soft patriarchy. Ted’s running for mayor, and Harper can’t risk causing a scandal in her small Pennsylvania town by coming out in the middle of his campaign. We’ll learn that, in addition, favorite-child Harper also has to maintain her edge in her lifelong competition with her humorless, extremely hetero older sister, Sloane (Alison Brie). With these characters’ gazes fixed on Harper’s strange new roommate, the masquerade that Abby’s forced into grows increasingly difficult—particularly as Harper’s first love, Riley (Aubrey Plaza), appears on the scene and lends Abby both a sympathetic ear and surprising insights into Harper’s past.

There’s a delicate balance between comedy and distress that the films needs to strike in relation to Harper’s multilayered betrayal, because the scenario pulls double duty: It’s amusing when her oblivious, bougie family keeps treating Abby like a refugee from a Victorian orphanage, but wrenching when Abby must watch her would-be fiancée flirt with her old boyfriend, Connor (Jake McDorman), to keep up appearances. Sometimes, DuVall doesn’t quite find this balance, and what’s meant as frivolous comedy elicits anxiety. At times it’s more intuitive to be feel distressed by Abby’s plight—like when she’s arrested by overzealous mall cops (Timothy Simons and Lauren Lapkus) because she’s mistaken as a shoplifter after Harper ditches her to hobnob with Ted’s campaign donors—than amused by it.

But then, it’s remarkable that a film that’s in so many ways a paint-by-numbers romantic comedy actually delivers to much emotional heft. If by Happiest Season’s midway point it’s easy to write off Harper as too privileged and selfish to be truly worth all this trouble, Stewart makes Abby’s decision not to immediately split believable by leaning into her wallflower persona, communicating silent heartbreak and confusion on the margins of her character’s jittery, awkward interactions with the denizens of Squaresville, PA. It might be going too far to call DuVall’s film groundbreaking, but like the best rom-coms, it smuggles a few nuggets of truth into its predictable formula, translating the often difficult realities of a specific kind of marginalized love into a story with broad appeal.

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Dan Levy, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Mary Holland, Mary Steenburgen, Victor Garber, Jake McDorman, Ana Gasteyer, Michelle Buteau, Sarayu Blue, Burl Moseley Director: Clea DuVall Screenwriter: Clea DuVall Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 102 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: The Two Sights Hypnotically Ruminates on Corporeality and Oblivion

With his first solo feature, Joshua Bonnetta is again contemplating death and the traces it leaves behind.

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The Two Sights
Photo: Cinema Guild

It’s become something of a cliché for experimental docufiction hybrids to be shot on 16mm, and at this point it might even be safe to say that such works have kept Kodak from discontinuing production on the film stock. While the use of small-gauge celluloid within this body of work has occasionally felt pro forma, even in some cases pointlessly fetishistic, one of its more conscientious practitioners is multidisciplinary artist Joshua Bonnetta, whose 2011 conceptual travelogue American Colour traced the lifespan of the now-extinct Kodachrome stock—on which the film was shot—from the final Kansas-based lab to process it back to its origin place in Rochester, New York. And his last feature, El Mar La Mar, co-directed with Sensory Ethnography Lab alum J.P. Sniadecki, embraced grain and other material defects as a corollary to the film’s emphasis on natural decay in the Sonoran Desert, site of an unconscionable death toll from unsuccessful border crossings.

In his newest and first solo feature, The Two Sights, Bonnetta is again contemplating death and the traces it leaves behind, this time in the remote climes of Scotland’s northern archipelago. Operating in such an exceedingly beautiful region, however, Bonnetta might as well have just chosen film for its pictorial incentives. A waterlogged expanse of misty steppes and vertiginous drops into crystal-blue waters, the Outer Hebrides islands in which the film is set—Barra, Berneray, Harris, Lewis, and North Uint—total a population of just over 20,000 people, and Bonnetta keeps them largely out of frame, preferring instead to ruminate on grandiose bisections of land and sky. Composed of a series of mostly static shots, the film is visually reminiscent of Peter Hutton’s Iceland-set Skagafjördur, though Bonnetta, at least as interested in the sonic dimensions of cinema as he is in its pictorial qualities, centers a large portion of The Two Sights’s meaning on its soundtrack. That prioritization is rather forcefully apparent when the director himself plants a boom mic in the center of the film’s opening shot.

This moment, which comes halfway through the shot, triggers a sudden shift in the soundtrack from one field recording to another, making it apparent that what we heard prior wasn’t actually tethered to the image. That’s a hint that much of the sound to come will be layered and orchestrated rather than simply recorded along with the image—a truth that perhaps sounds self-evident when stated in this way, but which Bonnetta suggests may not be top of mind to audiences of films that appear to document objective reality. And while The Two Sights certainly does appear to be just that, there’s much to imply that Bonnetta is constructing a more multilayered tapestry, an archive of the unseen.

On its surface, the film presents a smattering of voiceover testimonials from unseen Hebrides residents, who relate stories of strange happenings on the islands, most involving deaths or hauntings. The stories of these lost souls are never visualized, though Bonnetta pairs them with footage that feels roughly analogous, if not like an outright projection of a mental image. One fishermen’s recollection of getting dangerously caught in an eddy while seeking lobster is accompanied by shots around a fishing boat, with one floor-level angle of water lapping up on the vessel seeming to conjure up an approximation of his experience. Another distressing tale of a man’s confrontation with a beached whale finds Bonnetta’s camera surveying a shoreline, as if encouraging us to project our imaginations onto the scene.

As Bonnetta offers these fill-in-the-blank visual inducements, his soundtrack performs a similar act, blending—via long, imperceptible cross-fades—field sounds recorded by the director himself with archival audio sourced from the region. With the exceptions of folk-music clippings that are most obviously archived, the distinctions between past and present material become nearly impossible to discern and indeed negligible, as Bonnetta’s subject is, after all, the layering of history atop the current moment. The visual devices that he employs create impressions of liminality, of a fine line between corporeality and oblivion—namely through shots that would seem to be dead photographs were it not for the dance of grain or one single plane of movement, flipped camera perspectives that don’t immediately register as such, subtle plays with manual aperture shifts, and plenty of water reflections.

A similar impression is evoked by one resident when describing the entirety of the Hebrides region, which she calls “a thin place” where there’s “little distinction between heaven and earth.” That same mystery is, of course, tantamount to the allure of celluloid, it being a medium that preserves the past while at the same time being impermanent. The Two Sights hypnotically embodies something of a paranormal investigation, all the more haunting for being unable to extricate itself completely from the void opened up by its subjects.

Director: Joshua Bonnetta Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Collective Is a Searing Chronicle of Institutional Corruption

The film fiercely reminds us that without investigative reporting there’s no democracy.

3.5

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Collective
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

On October 30, 2015, a fire breaks out during a free rock concert at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, Romania. The club has no fire exits. Twenty-seven people are killed right away and 180 are injured. Dozens more die soon after, many of them not because of the severity of their burns, but from bacterial infections contracted while in intensive care—and this after the Romanian government assured the victims that they would receive the same medical care that they would receive in Germany. The government’s attempts to save face begin to crumble and mass protests spread across Romania.

In Collective, Alexander Nanau trails investigative reporters exposing the astonishing offshore fraud scheme involving hospital disinfectants which led to dozens of avoidable deaths in the wake of the fire. Hexi Pharma, the company that provided the antiseptics to hundreds of hospitals diluted them at 10 times the recommended ratio, leading doctors to operate with bacteria-laden scalpels and maggots to grow from the unwashed bodies of the survivors.

What follows is a familiar public relations spectacle that institutions unleash once their criminal incompetence has come to light: a cringe-inducing display of corporate speak, barefaced lies, evasion of responsibility, and crooked in-house investigations that find no wrongdoing. Nanau’s unobtrusive camera follows the events as they unfold, which puts the viewer in the anxiety-giving position of television audiences enthralled by the most surreal of breaking-news cycles. Collective inhabits that cinematic sweet spot where the national specificity of a film’s subject matter gives palpable rendition to a rather universal logic.

It turns out that corruption is a dormant metastasis. And uncovering it is like opening a Pandora’s box, finding another box inside, and another one after that, each filled with a stranger-than-fiction plot twist and each more rotten than the other. Collective attests to the political urgency, and the documentary-esque realism, of Romanian filmmakers working in the realm of fiction, such as Cristian Mungiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, and Calin Peter Netzer. Those filmmakers’ stories can, in fact, look tame in retrospect, as Nanau’s film unveils a national health care system where doctors bribe their managers so they can be transferred to clinics where patients are known to offer heftier bribes to the doctors who will operate on them.

In the documentary, the sleuthing aimed at restoring the integrity of a community, however belatedly, is the work of reporters undaunted by the potentially lethal consequences of speaking truth to power, through reportage, press briefings, and TV appearances. Collective pays considerable attention to the collaborative nature of journalism and its minutia—the research, the phone calls, the laying out of a webpage, the brainstorming with colleagues, the intimidation and counter-attacks. The film reminds us that without investigative reporting there’s no democracy, and that traditional expectations around impartiality and objectivity may be untenable in the face of horror. It proves that journalistic integrity is achieved not through neutrality, but by pledging fierce allegiance to the public’s interest.

Director: Alexander Nanau Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Jiu Jitsu Falls Short of Its Predator-Meets-Mortal Kombat Promise

Nicolas Cage’s amusing turn as a kooky hermit with an affinity for newspaper hats often feels awkwardly spliced into the film.

1.5

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Jiu Jitsu
Photo: The Avenue

Despite his prominent placement on the poster, Nicolas Cage isn’t the central element of Dimitri Logothetis’s Jiu Jitsu. Rather, Alain Moussi plays the main character, Jake, a conveniently amnesiac fighter in a group that battles a silent interstellar warrior, Brax (Ryan Tarran), who emerges from a portal in a Burmese temple every six years, demanding hand-to-hand combat or else he’ll destroy the Earth. But for as much as that premise may suggest Predator by way of Mortal Kombat, the film doesn’t display the mounting tension and proficient choreography that would otherwise make the material sing.

From a technical perspective, large chunks of this sci-fi martial arts film don’t quite hold together. Logothetis uses longer-than-usual takes for several early action scenes, but the results are deeply unflattering to the film’s stuntmen since most of the characters’ blows look weak and unconvincing, while mediocre sound design and overuse of slow-motion only highlight the issue rather than disguise it. Throughout, ugly comic book art serves as transitions and occasional establishing shots. And strangest of all, the film fails to create a sense that the actors share the same space even in basic dialogue scenes.

Cage’s amusing turn as Wylie, an idiosyncratic hermit with an affinity for newspaper hats and an insistence on calling Brax “the spaceman,” often feels awkwardly spliced into the film. Most group shots show a stand-in from the back or at a distance, with all characters except Jake appearing to give him the silent treatment. Perhaps the most shocking moment in the film is a cut to Frank Grillo’s Harrigan finally, though still vaguely, reacting to something Wylie says after long stretches where the hermit might as well be Jake’s imaginary friend.

Still, Jiu Jitsu’s shoddy production isn’t without its diverting charm. For one, the film manages to offset Moussi’s void of charisma by bouncing him between more dynamic actors like Cage, Jaa, and Grillo, while Tarran’s portrayal of Brax as a guy in a suit rather than a CGI creation gives him a tangible, Power Rangers-like sense of presence. We even get a bizarrely memorable first-person sequence that follows Moussi until he momentarily steps out from behind the camera’s point of view, engages in a fight, and then seems to absorb the camera into his body as he’s knocked into the lens. Even though Logothetis succeeds at very little of what he’s experimenting with—he even botches a recreation of the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Carl Weathers handshake from Predator—it isn’t totally boring to see him try.

Cast: Alain Moussi, Nicolas Cage, Frank Grillo, Rick Yune, Marie Avgeropoulos, Tony Jaa, JuJu Chan, Eddie Steeples, Ryan Tarran Director: Dimitri Logothetis Screenwriter: Dimitri Logothetis, James McGrath Distributor: The Avenue Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Embattled Is an MMA Drama Told as an Afterschool Special

The film muddies its sense of moral righteousness by suggesting that violence and vengeance can only be defeated by more of the same.

2

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Embattled

With his slick sense of style and brash, arrogant swagger, Cash Boykins (Stephen Dorff) feels like a clear nod to MMA fighter Conor McGregor. For his part, Dorff nails the verbal bravado and many of the physical tics of his real-life counterpart, but unfettered machismo is pretty much Cash’s sole defining trait in Nick Sarkisov’s Embattled, which fails to sufficiently interrogate the character’s inner turmoil or explore the circumstances that led him to become the bitter, enraged man that we see on screen.

The film’s paper-thin story tells us that Cash was abusive toward his first wife, Susan (Elizabeth Reaser), and their two boys, and we sense the looming shadow that he casts over their lives. That he’s seemingly kinder to his second wife, Jade (Karrueche Tran), and taken a recent interest in his older son Jett’s (Darren Mann) nascent MMA career initially suggests that he may be turning over a new leaf. But rather than show the humanity or psychological conflict of a man looking to make up for lost time, David McKenna’s screenplay revels in the force of his being as he berates Jett during practice and refers to his ex-wife and their younger special-needs son, Quinn (Colin McKenna), with hostile epithets.

Cash’s borderline cartoonish villainy makes it difficult for the audience to emotionally invest in the film. Even as the man’s contentious relationship with his older son leads to the 18-year-old emerging as the most sympathetic character, the subplots involving Jett’s conflicts indulge in all sorts of clichés. Scenes where Jett takes care of Quinn, looking out for him both at home and at school while their mother works extra hours to make ends meet, are overly familiar, though they bring a much-welcome tenderness to the film. But the storylines involving Jett’s ups and downs in math class and his setting his mom up with Quinn’s teacher, Mr. Stewart (Donald Faison), exude the garden-variety sentimentality of an Afterschool Special and feel particularly trite in comparison to Jett’s intense preparing to enter the MAA ring.

In the film’s last act, after a leaked video showing Jett knocking Cash out during a private dispute goes viral, there’s a wild and preposterous tonal shift. As the MMA league throws tens of millions of dollars at setting up a fight between the reigning world champion and his extremely inexperienced teenage son, Embattled becomes something akin to a revenge fantasy. Given the astronomical disparity in skill between the older and younger Boykins, the fight, and the half-hour leading up to it, is difficult to take seriously. But in positioning this fight as something of a hurdle that Jett needs to clear in order to put his troubled past behind him, Embattled commits a more egregious misstep, muddying its sense of moral righteousness by suggesting that violence and vengeance can only be defeated by more of the same.

Cast: Stephen Dorff, Elizabeth Reaser, Darren Mann, Donald Faison, Said Taghmaoui, Karrueche Tran, Drew Starkey, Ava Capri Director: Nick Sarkisov Screenwriter: David McKenna Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 117 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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