Coming Up In This Column: The Town, Easy A, Going the Distance, Something’s Gonna Live, Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, Hollywood: A Third Memoir (book), California Dreamin’, Captain Horatio Hornblower, White Collar, Nikita, Mad Men, but first…
Stop the Presses: On the front page of the September 13-19, 2010, issue of Weekly Variety, Jeffrey (EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE IN 3-D NOW AND FOREVER!) Katzenberg was quoted as saying, “Consumers are more and more cautious. The lure of 3D is not panning out.”
Fan Mail: “AStrayn” took exception to my notion that “The Suitcase” episode of Mad Men would work as a stand-alone episode and felt I was saying that viewers who did not have a history with the show would “understand everything.” I never claimed they would “understand everything.” In any stand-alone episode of a serialized show, obviously people who already know the show will get the most out of it. But in a good stand-alone, which I think “The Suitcase” is, knowing all the backstory of the characters and the situations is not as crucial as it is for other episodes. That’s one of the reasons shows do them—so Emmy voters who may not watch the show on a regular basis can still appreciate them.
I agree with David E. that Lord Love a Duck (1966) is one of Lola Albright’s great performances, but I have to admit that the last time I saw the film, I did not like it as much as I had the first time. The big problem with the script is that Barbara Anne’s friend and mentor Alan is so obviously her gay best friend that it is completely unbelievable when he turns out to be straight and in love with her. Well, it was 1966, after all.
The Town (2010. Screenplay by Peter Craig and Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard, based on the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan. 124 minutes)
Not quite The Asphalt Jungle, but still good: I mentioned in my comments on The Badlanders (1958) that I thought the 1950 film of The Asphalt Jungle had one of the best combinations of plot and character in the robbery genre. The Town almost matches it, and in one way goes a little beyond it. As in most heist movies, we are sympathetic to the robbers. We find them exciting and dangerous and when they are on-screen, stuff happens. Here, as in Jungle, the criminals are real pros. In the first robbery sequence we see the gang knows enough to rip out the security camera tapes and cook them in a microwave. The leader is Doug MacRay, and not only is he good at his job, he is handsome (he’s played by Affleck, who also directed) and shows degrees of common sense and even sensitivity. Second in command is Jem, the hot-tempered one. He ends up taking a hostage during the robbery, which was not planned. The guys were wearing masks, but they are afraid she might have seen something. So Doug arranges a cute meet with her and begins to fall in love with her. Some of their scenes are a little overwritten, especially Doug’s tale of losing his mother, but the actors make them work. The hostage, a manager of the bank, is played by Rebecca Hall, who has gotten better and better as a film actress. We care for Doug and Claire, so watching it all go south is painful. There are also some very colorful supporting crooks, including “Fergie,” the local crime boss, and Doug’s father. You write great parts, you get great actors, such as Pete Postlewaite and Chris Cooper, as those last two, respectively. Not to mention Jeremy Renner as Jem.
In The Asphalt Jungle, the police commissioner supervising the case is a standard solid citizen, even if one of his detectives is corrupt. Frawley, the F.B.I. agent in charge of this case, is a much better drawn character. He is tough, smart, occasionally funny, and not above leaning on people, such as Claire and Krista, Doug’s ex-girlfriend (Blake Lively, who has been very bland in everything else I have seen her in, is a revelation here). And, since he is played by Jon Hamm, he is just as handsome as Doug is. In the second half of the film, our sympathy also goes out to him, since the gang’s activities, or at least Jem’s, have gotten more violent. And the gang in general is losing our sympathy. The writers, whether following the novel or not, give us three heist sequences. The first is the bank and the second is an armored car, which gives us a great slow-speed chase in the narrow streets of Boston. The third is Fenway Park after a big weekend, and here we really get turned off by the gang. Hey, they love their hometown, but they are still going to rob Fenway, for Christ’s sake? Needless to say, it does not go well. The ending is satisfactory on all counts.
Easy A (2010. Written by Brent V. Royal. 93 minutes)
You write good parts…: I’d call this one bright but not as sharp as it might be. The setup is terrific. Olive, a high school girl nobody seems to pay attention to, avoids (in a very funny scene) a weekend with her best friend Rhianna by claiming she has a date with a college boy. When Rhia bugs her for details in the rest room Monday at school, Olive makes up a story about having sex with the imaginary date. Word spreads very quickly (in a nice shot that is repeated a little more than it should be) and she has a “reputation.” Since Olive is reading The Scarlet Letter in class and is very smart, she decides to accept the reputation. She helps Brandon, a closeted gay guy, appear to be straight by pretending to have sex with him at a party (also a very funny scene). Don’t worry; Brandon gives up the pretense later on and gets a terrific payoff, which includes the tag to a line earlier in the picture that just seemed a one-off joke. Yes, Olive does get hit on by guys who really want to “do it,” but she is also asked by shy guys to pretend she did it with them. Then things get even more complicated.
The upside is that Olive is a terrific character. She is easily the smartest person in whatever room she is in, but she’s also the nicest. It’s a great starring role for Emma Stone, whom I mentioned in US#26 was “terrific” in last year’s Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. She’s got the smarts and the charm for the part and she delivers. She is also helped by the cinematographer, Michael Grady, who makes her and everybody else in the picture look really, really good. But Olive is not the only good character in the film. Her parents are odd, in the most interesting ways, and the parts attracted Stanley Tucci to play her dad and Patricia Clarkson to play her mom. They are not working at full power, but that’s not what’s required. Charm, and a light touch is. Clarkson and Stone have a scene together near the end on the hood of a car that is one of the great mother-daughter scenes in recent films. And wait, there’s more: Olive’s favorite teacher, Mr. Griffith, is Thomas Haden Church, and his wife, a guidance counselor who could use a little guidance, brings out another great performance from Lisa Kudrow. Not all the parts are that well written. The principal is standard issue huffy, but it is funny to see Malcolm McDowell, Mick Travis his ownself from If… (1968), on the other side of the barricades. Todd, the boy Olive ends up with, is rather blandly drawn. Yes, he is given a “motivation” for knowing what Olive is up to, but nothing is developed from that.
As bright as the film is, its satire is not as sharp as it could be. Olive’s nemesis is Marianne, a relentless Christian promoting abstinence. Royal could have gone a lot further with this character and the abstinence movement. And, alas, he does not give that character a payoff at the end, as he does the others. As with Georgie Minafer, we want to see her get her comeuppance. But then Orson Welles never actually showed us that comeuppance, either, so I guess Royal is in good company. Or maybe he is just thinking about a sequel: Easy A+.
Going the Distance (2010. Written by Geoff LaTulippe. 102 minutes)
Why is little Gertie from E.T. talking dirty?: Having a good time, from the look of it. Judd Apatow and the girls from Sex and the City may have a lot to answer for. While visually American movies have not gotten more sexually graphic, they have certainly gotten verbally more graphic. The boys in Apatow films never seem to shut up about sex and all its permutations. Sometimes, as in The 40 Year-Old Virgin, there is a little characterization as well, and those tend to be Apatow’s better films. In Sex and the City, both the TV show and the movies, it is the girls talking among themselves. Going the Distance tries to have it both ways, with both the boys and the girls talking dirty, sometimes to each other. Given that the picture has not performed that well at the box office, LaTulippe may have gone a bridge too far in the language area. Having the guys and the girls doing it together may have turned off some members of the audience. That may be the limit beyond which, at least for now, the audience won’t let you go. Or it may just be the sound of Drew Barrymore being crude that was too much. Foul language is awfully tricky to handle in an American film, since as a writer, you never quite know where the line is. In the new semester of my screenwriting class at Los Angeles City College, we have started looking at The 40 Year-Old Virgin in ten to fifteen minute segments. I will give you a more detailed reported at the end of the semester, but it is fascinating to see what Apatow and Steve Carell left in and what they took out in the theatrical release (we are looking at the unrated version) in terms of language.
I have to admit that my wife and I and the audience we saw Going the Distance with laughed a lot at the film. But then I was at Yale and in the Navy for four years each, and my wife worked with a bunch of male scientists for years, so there was nothing we have not heard before in one form or another. I was particularly taken with Erin’s (Barrymore) description of having oral sex performed on her, which has a great punchline. Nonetheless, the film has more than its share of flaws. Erin and Garrett meet just after another of his relationships breaks up and they connect very quickly. LaTulippe uses, and maybe overuses, their connections through pop culture as a fast way to establish them as a couple. He also includes a lot of generic “couple montages,” including the standard “larking about on the beach.” It’s long past time to put a moratorium on that. The first half-hour goes quickly, but then she has to leave New York City to go to Stanford, and in the second half-hour they try to deal with a long distance relationship. This includes a very funny phone sex scene. But in the third half-hour, the film gets very repetitive as they talk about what they can do about their situation. So the film slows down just when it should be speeding up. The solution they ultimately find is very much one for our time, and the final joke is nicely set up and played.
Something’s Gonna Live (2010. Written by Daniel Raim. 80 minutes)
Not structuring the documentary: In US#57 I talked about the structuring of two of this year’s best documentaries, A Film Unfinished and Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. The filmmakers of both of those found intelligent ways to pull together the variety of material they had. Unfortunately Daniel Raim has not in this film.
In 2000 Raim did the highly acclaimed documentary The Man on Lincoln’s Nose. It was about the great art director Robert Boyle, who worked with Hitchcock on, as you may have guessed, North by Northwest, as well as several other of the Master’s films. In the current film Raim picks up Boyle again, as well as several of Boyle’s friends and colleagues. Mostly they all wander around Hollywood, Paramount studios (where they first met), and Bodega Bay, where Boyle and storyboard artist Harold Mickelson revisit the locations for their 1963 film The Birds. Some of this is amusing and nostalgic, but other than that there does not seem to be much point to it. Then Raim brings on two older cinematographers, Haskell Wexler and Conrad Hall, which gets us away from the discussions of art direction and production design. But Raim never finds a compelling shape for the footage he has.
On a more positive note, all of the artists talk about the importance of story to films. Although not one of them ever mentions screenwriters.
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010. No writer credit. 86 minutes)
Now this is how you do it: Unlike Something’s Gonna Live, this is a beautifully structured documentary about the great British cinematographer. I have no idea how much is on the cutting room floor, but everything, and I mean everything, in here has to do with why we are interested in seeing a movie about Cardiff. We get a few personal details, but not many. We do get a few “walking around” scenes, but those tend to be with who I assume is the director, Craig McCall, as he asks Cardiff about his work. Since this is a film, we can SEE the work. Yes, the cinematography of Black Narcissus (1947), which won Cardiff an Oscar, is gorgeous, but even clips from the film show how over-the-top the melodrama was in the film. Some of Cardiff’s directing credits are discussed, but not the awful ones, although he does talk about some of the potboilers he photographed. The structure of the film is more or less chronological, although I thought McCall was shrewd to avoid discussing working with Marilyn Monroe on The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) until very late in the picture, which sets up a degree of suspense among those of us who want to hear about that troubled shoot.
Hollywood: A Third Memoir (2010. Book by Larry McMurtry. 146 pages)
Imagine that: a screenwriter who is not bitter: Well, it helps that McMurtry thinks that his screenwriting work is his tertiary career. First, he is a novelist. Second, he is a bookseller who has owned a couple of bookstores. He first dealt with Hollywood when his 1961 novel Horseman, Pass By was made into the 1963 film Hud. Since then he has had novels adapted into films and television movies and miniseries, and he has done some screenwriting himself, most notably the 2005 adaptation of the Annie Proulx story Brokeback Mountain, for which he and his writing partner Diana Ossana won the Academy Award.
This thin, delightful volume recounts his adventures in the screen trade, and he is remarkably clear-eyed about the business. He is not settling scores, or bitching at what was done to his work. He even thinks the screenwriters of Hud made a mistake by keeping the ending of the novel and not improving it. He accepts Hollywood for what it is, and he enjoys the very interesting characters he meets there. And then he goes back to Texas or wherever he is living at the moment and gets back to work. Just like all real writers should.
California Dreamin’ (2007. Written by Cristian Nemescu and Tudor Voican, additional dialogue by Catherine Linstrum. 155 minutes)
Paisan, fifty-five years later: I am not sure if this was ever released theatrically in the United States, although it did play at a couple of film festivals in this country. It caught my eye when I was browsing on Netflix. It is Romanian and sounded not unlike some of the other Romanian films I had liked. A NATO train with what is probably spy equipment is stopped by a local railroad stationmaster in a small town in Romania. The stationmaster, Doiaru, is used to holding up trains so his associates can steal from them. The American Captain in charge of the train, Doug Jones, is none too happy about all this. His soldiers don’t mind, especially given the surprising number of young ladies in the village.
What struck me almost immediately is that the writers (Nemescu also directed) are picking up on one of the themes Rossellini had in Paisan (1946), which we talked about in US#58. We see the communications problems, both linguistic and cultural, between the Romanians and the Americans. Rossellini’s second theme, of how war corrupts, is not in play here, because Doiaru is already corrupt. The connection with Paisan hit me in an early scene as the soldiers get off their ship and onto the train. The English language dialogue, probably by Linstrum, is not written by anybody who ever had any experience with the American military.
Unfortunately the writers here are not up to Rossellini and Fellini and their associates. There is very little characterization, and what there is is straight off the rack. Doiaru is a small town corrupt official. His daughter, Monica, is a sullen 17-year-old who sees the soldiers as a way to get out of town. Captain Jones bellows a lot. Even with a Romanian Elvis impersonator and a bordello run by the town mayor, there is very little that is new or observant about the film. The Concert (2009—see US#57) is a lot fresher in dealing with its clash of cultures.
The running time of the film is also a problem. Nemescu, the director, died shortly after shooting was completed. So what we have in effect here is the rough cut of the film. It could easily be condensed by a good half-hour or more. That would not improve the script, but it might help the film. You could also do what I did. I watched the first half-hour of the DVD at normal speed, then the last two hours at twice normal speed. At least on my DVD player it still lets you read the subtitles, although you do have to be quick about it.
Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951. Screenplay by Ivan Goff & Ben Roberts and Aeneas MacKenzie, adapted from his novel by C.S. Forester. 117 minutes)
Time passes, attitudes change: I first saw this when it came out in 1951 and loved it. Well, I was nine or ten. I saw it again several years ago and it seemed rather stodgy. Then I ended up watching it one recent Saturday night on my wife’s smaller TV, since she had co-opted the wide screen one for the UCLA football game. Maybe it was the small screen, but it was not as bad as I thought the last time I saw it. Not anywhere as good as I thought it was when I first saw it, but still…
C.S. Forester started writing about the fictional Royal Navy hero Horatio Hornblower in the thirties. The Hornblower stories are set in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, and are very much the forerunner of the Master and Commander novels of Patrick O’Brian. In spite of the way the credits for the film read, Forester’s adaptation includes material from the first three novels. The Happy Return (1937) deals with the South American adventure in the first half of the film. A Ship of the Line (1938) is about fighting the French fleet. Flying Colors (also 1938) has the escape from the French on the Witch of Endor. As you might guess, given the script’s genesis, dramatic structure is not its strong point. Since Hornblower rescues Lady Barbara in South America, we follow their romance, which makes the film more of a love story than it needs to be. We do get plenty of sea battles and sword fights, and you can see why Warner Brothers first thought of Errol Flynn for Hornblower. By the time the first was ready for production, Flynn was thought to be too old, and he was replaced by Gregory Peck, who may be better than Flynn would have been.
The focus in the film, as in the novels that Forester had written up to that time, was on Hornblower as an adult. Later, Forester went back and wrote several novels about Hornblower’s younger days. When this film was made, Hollywood was still looking at adults for their leading men. From 1998 to 2003, the Brits made a wonderful series of made-for-TV movies about the young Hornblower, following his rise through the ranks. The young Hornblower, beautifully played by Ioan Gruffudd, is even more befuddled by women than the adult one was, and the TV movies stick to action and life in the British Navy of the period. Generally I prefer the TV movie versions, since they have time to develop characters and relationships in ways the feature does not. Ah yes, good writing will always triumph.
White Collar (2010. “Point Blank” episode written by Jeff Eastin. 60 minutes)
Oh my God! They killed Kenny: Or in this case, Mozzie. Well, maybe.
This was the half-season finale of White Collar, so nearly the entire episode was about Pete, Diana and Neal trying to bring former F.B.I. agent Fowler, whom they suspect of killing Kate, out into the open. This involves a plot to have Alex steal the box from Kate’s apartment safe and return it to the Russian Museum, which Neal assures Alex will take the heat off her. So she may at least temporarily be out of the series. The plan gets Fowler to show up at the Museum, but it turns out he didn’t plan to kill Kate. He bought the explosives, but his idea was that Neal and Kate would bail out of the plane before it blew up. Fowler was being blackmailed by somebody with a lot of clout, whom Fowler never met. He always met a go-between, whom we see.
And in the final scene the go-between walks up to Mozzie, who is sitting on a park bench, and shoots him. In the chest. And Mozzie appears to die. That was a shocker to me because Mozzie, as I have written about often, is a great supporting character for this show. I cannot believe they have really killed him. And of course, they probably have not, even if he looks very dead at the end of the episode. And take comfort, Mozzie lovers, he showed up in the promos that began the next week for the next mini-season of episodes in January. Well, that’s a relief. But they did give me a start.
Nikita (2010. “Pilot” episode, no writing created, but “developed by” Craig Silverstein. 60 minutes)
Not quite the end of American television as we know it: Back when the 1990 French film La Femme Nikita was playing in New York, The New Yorker’s weekly blurb for it was: “The end of French cinema as we know it.” It was an early film written and directed by Luc Besson, and when he created the part of a young woman criminal who is turned into a professional killer, he shaped the part specifically for Anne Parillaud. It made her a star. When Robert Getchell and Alexandra Seros adapted it into the 1993 American film Point of No Return, nobody bothered to think through what it would mean to the film to have Parillaud replaced by the very American Bridget Fonda. They failed to reconceive the part for her, the picture was a flop, and Fonda’s career took a hit from which it never recovered.
I never saw the Canadian-made television series based on the film that ran from 1997 to 2001. Nikita has been resurrected yet again, this time for an American-made series. Given all that is gone on before, we cannot watch her go through her training again, so the pilot starts with Nikita coming out of hiding and telling the Division she is out to destroy them. This is intercut with Alex, a young woman bank robber, going through the training. We find out at the end of the pilot that Nikita and Alex are in cahoots, although exactly what kind of cahoots we do not yet know.
Nikita in this case is Maggie Q, a protégé of Jackie Chan, so you know she has some nifty martial arts moves. A lot of them in the pilot. I mean, a LOT of them, and they get rather repetitive. I am not sure if she can carry an entire series. Partly it is that Nikita is presented as a stoic, but Q simply does not seem very expressive, even within the limitations of the part. She is certainly striking looking, both at rest and in action, but she may need more to hold our interest. Some of this is also the writing of the pilot as well, which is incredibly humorless. Her two nemeses are Michael, her former handler, and Percy, her former boss. They are played by Shane West and Xander Berkeley, who are usually great, but here are just required to scowl a lot. I may watch the show one more time, just to see if anybody, ever, cracks a smile.
Mad Men (2010. “The Summer Man” episode written by Lisa Alpert & Janet Leahy and Matthew Weiner. 62 minutes)
One step forward, one step sideways: Let’s take the sideways step first: What the hell were any of them thinking by having Don write a dippy little high school journal? It makes obvious all the stuff that the writing of this show usually keeps subtle and nuanced. If they ask for my vote, it’s drop it.
The forward step comes in a great, yes subtle and nuanced, scene in the elevator between Joan and Peggy. Peggy’s “boys” having been behaving like boys, assuming that when Joan went into Lane’s office, it was to have sex. The “older” guys at the agency seem paragons of feminism compared to this gang. Joey, one of the new kids, draws a pornographic cartoon of what he thinks Joan and Lane must be doing. Peggy sees it and criticizes it, but then Joey puts it up on their window facing Joan’s office. Peggy takes the cartoon into Don, who tells her to handle it, since “You don’t want me involved in this.” He tells her to yell at the guys or fire them. Peggy talks to Joey, who refuses to apologize to Joan, and Peggy fires him.
Now Peggy and Joan meet in the elevator. How would you write that scene? Here’s what the team comes up with. Joan is pissed that Peggy took control and fired Joey. She could have talked to one of her influential men friends and got him fired. Peggy says the result is the same, but Joan says not. Peggy’s actions reduce Joan to being a powerless secretary and Peggy to being a humorless bitch. Joan is still thinking of office sexual politics the way they have always been. She knows how to navigate those waters. Peggy does not want to play those games and is willing to take charge openly. We see in this short, dense scene the clash of cultures within the world of women that is going to evolve into the women’s movement and the backlashes against it. That’s the kind of writing we love on Mad Men. More please.
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.
Watch the Trailer for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix Series When They See Us
Netflix will release the series on May 31.
In 1989, the rape and near-murder of Trisha Meili in Central Park rocked the nation. A little over a year later, a jury convicted five juvenile males—four African-American and one Hispanic—to prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. In the end, the defendants spent between six and 13 years behind bars. Flashforward to 2002, after four of the five defendants had left prison, and Matias Reyes, a convicted murder and serial rapist serving a lifetime prison term, came forward and confessed to raping Meili. DNA evidence confirmed his guilt, and proved what many already knew about the so-called “Central Park jogger case”: that the police investigation of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, conducted at the beginning of the Giuliani era in New York City, was motivated less by a thirst for justice than it was by racial animus.
Last year, Oscar-nominated Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay announced that she would be making a series based on the infamous case, and since then hasn’t been shy, on Twitter and elsewhere, about saying that she will be putting Donald J. Trump in her crosshairs. Trump, way back in 1989, ran an ad in the Daily News advocating the return of the death penalty, and as recently as 2016, claimed that McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise are guilty of the crime for which they were eventually exonerated—behavior consistent with a presidential campaign that, like the case against the Central Park Five, was a full-time racist dog whistle.
Today, Netflix dropped the trailer for When They See Us, which stars Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood, Christopher Jackson, Joshua Jackson, Omar J. Dorsey, Adepero Oduye, Famke Janssen, Aurora Perrineau, William Sadler, Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Storm Reid, Dascha Polanco, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Justin Cunningham, Ethan Herisse, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, and Asante Blackk.
According to the official description of the series:
Based on a true story that gripped the country, When They See Us will chronicle the notorious case of five teenagers of color, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four part limited series will focus on the five teenagers from Harlem—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. Beginning in the spring of 1989, when the teenagers were first questioned about the incident, the series will span 25 years, highlighting their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.
See the trailer below:
Netflix will release When They See Us on May 31.
Review: The Curse of La Llorona Is More Laugh Riot than Fright Fest
With The Curse of La Llorona, the Conjuring universe has damned itself to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.1
Michael Chaves’s The Curse of La Llorona opens in 17th-century Mexico with an all-too-brief rundown of the legend of La Llorona. This weeping woman (Marisol Ramirez) is quickly established as a mother who, in a fit of jealousy, drowned her two children in order punish her cheating husband. And after immediately regretting her actions, she commits suicide, forever damning herself to that liminal space between the land of the living and the dead, to snatch up wandering children to replace her own.
Flash-forward to 1973 Los Angeles, where we instantly recognize an echo of La Llorana’s parental anxieties in Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), a widowed mother of two who struggles to balance the demands of her job as a social worker for Child Protective Services and the pressures of adjusting to single parenthood. One might expect such parallels to be further expanded upon by The Curse of La Llorona, but it quickly becomes evident that the filmmakers are less interested in character development, narrative cohesion, or the myth behind La Llorona than in lazily transposing the film’s big bad into the Conjuring universe.
It’s no surprise, then, that La Llorona, with her beady yellow eyes, blood-drained skin, and rotted mouth and fingernails is virtually indistinguishable from the antagonist from Corin Hardy’s The Nun; just swap out the evil nun’s tunic and habit for a decaying wedding dress and you’d never know the difference. Even more predictably, The Curse of La Llorona relies heavily on a near-ceaseless barrage of jump scares, creaking doors and loud, shrieking noises as La Llorona first terrorizes and murders the detained children of one of Anna’s clients (Patricia Velasquez), before then moving on to haunting Anna and her kids (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou). But this family is so thinly conceived and their behavior so careless and illogical in the face of a known force of evil that viewers may find themselves less terrified by La Llorona than overjoyed by her reign of terror.
Once Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a curandero whose healing powers promise to lift La Llorona’s curse, arrives on the scene, the film makes a few concessions to Mexican cultural rituals, as well as offers brief but welcome respites of humor. But after the man rubs down the Garcia house with eggs and protects its borders with palo santo and fire tree seeds, The Curse of La Llorona continues unabated as a rote scare-a-thon. Every extended moment of silence and stillness is dutifully disrupted by sudden, overemphatic bursts of sound and fury that are meant to frighten us but are more likely to leave you feeling bludgeoned into submission.
All the while, any notions of motherhood, faith within and outside of the Catholic Church, and Mexican folklore that surface at one point or another are rendered both moot and undistinctive in the midst of so much slavish worshipping at the altar of franchise expansion. Indeed, by the time Annabelle’s Father Perez (Tony Amendola) pays a house visit in order to dutifully spout exposition about the series’s interconnected religious elements, it becomes clear that the Conjuring universe is damned to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.
Cast: Linda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Patricia Velasquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola Director: Michael Chaves Screenwriter: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood & W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch
Stratton goes beyond the production of Sam Peckinpah’s film, on to its impact and reception and legacy.
The 1940s were the decade in which Hollywood attained what we now term “classical” status, when the innovations and developments of cinema’s formative years coalesced into a high level of sophistication across all areas—technological, visual, narrative. The narrative element is the focus of Reinventing Hollywood, film historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Bordwell’s latest deep dive into the aesthetics of film.
Bordwell begins with a series of questions: “What distinctive narrative strategies emerged in the 1940s? Where did they come from? How did various filmmakers use them? How did the innovations change the look and sound of films?” He then proceeds with quite thorough answers across 500-plus pages. The narrative developments were gradual and cumulative. While the earliest narrative cinema was static and stagebound, inheriting principles of storytelling from theater and the most basic novelistic tendencies, a richer narrativity developed throughout the 1930s, when the visual language of silent cinema melded with the oral/aural elements of “talkies” to create a more systemized approach to narrative filmmaking.
As Bordwell notes at one point in Reinventing Hollywood, “[p]rinciples of characterization and plot construction that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s were reaffirmed in the early sound era. Across the same period there emerged a clear-cut menu of choices pertaining to staging, shooting and cutting scenes.” In short, it was the process whereby “talkies” became just “movies.” Narrative techniques specifically morphed and solidified throughout the ‘30s, as screenwriters and filmmakers pushed their way toward the discovery of a truly classical style.
While the idea of a menu of set choices may sound limiting, in reality the options were numerous, as filmmakers worked out a process of invention through repetition and experimentation and refinement. Eventually these narrative properties and principles became conventionalized—not in a watered-down or day-to-day way, but rather codified or systematized, where a sort of stock set of narrative devices were continually reworked, revamped, and re-energized. It’s what Bordwell calls “an inherited pattern” or “schema.”
Also in the ‘40s, many Hollywood films traded in what Bordwell terms “mild modernism”—a kind of light borrowing from other forms and advances in so-called high modernism, such as surrealism or stream-of-consciousness narratives like James Joyce’s Ulysses: high-art means for popular-art ends (Salvador Dalí’s work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound being a notable example). These techniques included omniscient point of view, the novelistic ability to traverse time and space (ideally suited for cinema), and involved flashback or dream sequences. This “borrowing of storytelling techniques from adjacent arts […] encouraged a quick cadence of schema and revision,” an environment of “…novelty at almost any price.”
Such novelties included “aggregate” films that overlaid a plethora of storytelling techniques, such as Sam Wood’s 1940 adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed multiple protagonists, complex flashback sequences, and voiceover narration drawn from the most advanced theater. Perhaps no other film embodied these “novelties” so sharply as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, an “aggressive aggregate” that amounts to a specifically cinematic yet total work of art, weaving together not only narrative techniques such as multiple character or “prismatic” flashbacks (screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s term), but also drawing on elements from music, painting, and photography, as well as Welles’s first loves, theater and radio. In some ways, Citizen Kane may be seen as a kind of fulcrum film, incorporating nearly all that had come before it and anticipating most everything after.
Though Bordwell references the familiar culprits—Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kane—he doesn’t just stick with the A films, as he goes deep into the B’s (and even some C’s and D’s), in an effort to show the wide-ranging appeal and effectiveness of these narrative models no matter their technical execution. He also alternates chapters with what he calls Interludes—that is, more intensive readings illustrating a preceding chapter’s discussion, homing in on specific films, genres and filmmakers, and not always the ones which one might expect. There’s an interlude on Joseph Mankiewicz, for example, a sort of intellectual master of multi-protagonist films like All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa, and the truly original Preston Sturges, whose films pushed narrative norms to their absolute limits. There’s also an intriguing interlude on the boxing picture and the resiliency of certain narrative tropes—fighter refusing to throw the fight and thus imperiled by gangsters, for example—demonstrating how Hollywood’s “narrative ecosystem played host to variants.”
Reinventing Hollywood is a dense read. Its nearly 600 pages of text, including detailed notes and index, isn’t for the academically faint at heart. Often Bordwell offers frame-by-frame, even gesture-by-gesture analyses using accompanying stills, mining synoptic actions and tropes across multiple films of the era. The book can read strictly pedagogical at times, but overall, Bordwell’s writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon. Despite its comprehensive scholarly archeology (and such sweet academic euphemism as, say, “spreading the protagonist function”), the book is leveled at anyone interested in cinematic forms and norms.
The title is telling. Clearly, narrative cinema was already invented by the time the ‘40s rolled around, but in Hollywood throughout that decade it became so systematized that it progressed into something new, indeed something that exists through today: a narrative film style that’s evocative enough to affect any single viewer and effective enough to speak to a mass audience.
Part of the charm of what was invented in the ‘40s is the malleability of the product. Narrative standards and conventions were designed for maximum variation, as well as for revision and challenge. And perhaps no decade offered more revision and challenge than the 1960s, not only to film culture but world culture as a whole. By the mid-to-late ‘60s, the old Hollywood studio system had expired, leaving in its wake a splintered version of itself. Yet despite the dissolution of the big studios, the resilience of the classical film style engendered by those studios was still evident. Popular narrative films retained the clear presentation of action borne in earlier films, however much they shuffled and reimagined patterns and standards.
One such movie that both embraced and pushed against Hollywood standards is director Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch. It possesses such richness in both themes and execution, in form and content, that there’s a lot to mine. With its tale of a band of out-of-time outlaws scamming and lamming away their fatal last days in Mexico during the country’s revolution, it revels in and reveres western conventions as much as it revises them.
The film carries a personal elusive impact, particularly on first viewing. In The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, journalist and historian W.K. Stratton quotes filmmaker Ron Shelton on this phenomenon: “Something was different about this movie…it was more than [just another shoot-‘em-up] but I couldn’t figure out what…I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since.” The book examines the epic making of this epic film, and goes a good way toward explaining the reasons behind the film’s unique power. Stratton is a Texan and also a poet, and both of these credentials make him perhaps the ideal candidate for exploring this pure piece of western poetry.
Stratton maps the story of the film from germ to gem. Conceived in the early ‘60s by stuntman Roy N. Sickner as a somewhat typical “outlaw gringos on the lam” story, the property evolved over the course of the ensuing years as much as the country itself. America in 1967 and ‘68 was a vastly different place than it was in ‘63. Stratton notes how “[t]he picture…would never have been filmed had not circumstances come into precise alignment. It was the product of a nation torn by divisions unseen since the Civil War, a nation that was sacrificing thousands of its young to a war in Southeast Asia…a nation numbed by political assassination…where a youthful generation was wholesale rejecting values held by their parents.”
A film made in such turbulent times required its own turbulent setting. If America had become no country for old men, and Vietnam was no country for young men, then Mexico during the revolution was no country for either. Stratton gives brisk but detailed chapters on the Mexican Revolution, filling in the tumultuous history and social geography for what would become a necessarily violent film. But just as the film could never have been made in another time, it could also have never been made without Sam Peckinpah. As Stratton notes, Peckinpah was a Hollywood rarity, a director born in the actual American West who made actual westerns, and a maverick director who, like Welles, fought against the constraints of an industry in which he was a master. Peckinpah was a rarity in other ways as well. A heavy-drinking, light-fighting proto-tough guy who was also a devotee of Tennessee Williams (“I guess I’ve learned more from Williams than anyone”), Peckinpah was a storyteller who could break your heart as well as your nose. His second feature, the very fine Ride the High Country, was tough and tender; it was also, coincidentally, another story of old outlaws running out their time.
Stratton traces the entire trajectory of the film’s making, from the start-and-stop scripting to the early involvement of Lee Marvin, right on through to every aspect of production: its much-lauded gold-dust cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, who early in his career worked on Three Stooges comedies “…because it gave him a chance to experiment with camera trickery”); the elegant violence, or violent elegance, of its editing; and its casting and costuming.
The chapters on those last two elements are particularly rewarding. Costuming is a somewhat underlooked aspect of westerns, simply because the sartorial trappings seem so generic: hats, guns, boots, and bonnets. Yet period clothing is so essential to the texture of westerns because it can, or should, convey the true down and dirtiness of the time and place, the sweat, the swill and the stench. The Wild Bunch, like all great westerns, feels filthy. Wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson not only had the daunting task of providing authenticity in the costumes themselves—much of them period—but of overseeing the sheer volume of turnover. Because Peckinpah “planned to make heavy use of squibbing for the movie’s shoot-outs…[e]ach time a squib went off, it ripped a whole in a costume and left a bloody stain.” Considering the overwhelming bullet count of the film, in particular the barrage of the ending, it’s no wonder that “[a]ll the costumes would have to be reused and then reused again and again.”
But perhaps no aspect was more important to the success of Peckinpah’s film than its casting. While early on in the process Marvin was set to play the lead role of Pike Bishop, the actor, thankfully, bowed out, and after the consideration of other actors for the role, including Sterling Hayden and Charlton Heston, in stepped William Holden. As good as all the other actors could be, Holden projected more of the existential weariness of the Bishop character, a condition that Marvin’s coarseness, for example, might have effaced. Stratton agrees: “There could not have been a better matching of character and actor. Holden was a…deeply troubled man, a real-life killer himself…on a conditional suspended sentence for manslaughter [for a drunk driving accident, a case that was later dropped].”
This spot-on matching of actor to role extended all the way through to the rest of the Wild Bunch: Ernest Borgnine as Pike’s sidekick, Dutch Engstrom, emanating toward Pike an anguished love and loyalty; old-time actor Edmond O’Brien as old-timer Freddie Sykes; Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, Pike’s stoic ex-partner and now head of the pursuing posse; Jaime Sanchez as the doomed Mexican Angel; and perhaps most especially Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the wild, vile Gorch brothers. (While Oates was a member of what might be called Peckinpah’s stock company, Johnson was an estranged member of John Ford’s.)
Along with broad, illuminating biographies of these actors, Stratton presents informative material on many of the peripheral yet vital supporting cast. Because the film is set and was filmed in Mexico, much of it verisimilitude may be credited to Mexican talent. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Mexican film industry was second only to Hollywood in terms of quality product and critical prestige. Peckinpah drew from this talent pool for many of his film’s key characters, none more indelible than that of General Mapache (to whom the bunch sell guns and, by extension, their souls), one of the vilest, most distasteful figures in any American western. For this role, Peckinpah chose Emilio Fernández, a.k.a. El Indio, recognized and revered at that time as Mexico’s greatest director. Apparently, Fernandez’s scandalous and lascivious on-set behavior paralleled the unpredictable immorality of his character. Like almost everyone involved with this film, Fernandez was taking his part to the extreme.
Stratton goes beyond the production of The Wild Bunch, on to its impact and reception and legacy. A sensation upon its release, the film was both lauded and loathed for its raw violence, with some critics recognizing Peckinpah’s “cathartic” western for what it was, others seeing nothing but sick exploitation (including in its bloody treatment of Mexican characters). While other films of the time created similar buzz for their depiction of violence, notably Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (a film often compared to The Wild Bunch), the violence of Peckinpah’s film was as much moral as physical. All one need do is compare it to a contemporary and similarly storied film like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a winking high-jinks movie in which, in Marvin’s resonant phrase, “no one takes a shit.”
Everyone involved with The Wild Bunch attributes its power to Peckinpah and the environment he fostered in its making. “[S]omething remarkable was occurring at…rehearsal sessions,” writes Stratton. “Under Peckinpah’s direction, the actors went beyond acting and were becoming the wild bunch and the other characters in the movie.” Warren Oates confirms this sentiment: “…it wasn’t like a play…or a TV show […] It was our life. We were doing our fucking lives right there and lived it every day […] We were there in truth.”
Stratton considers The Wild Bunch “the last Western […] It placed a tombstone on the head of the grave of the old-fashioned John Wayne [films].” One may argue with this, as evidence shows that John Wayne—especially the Wayne of John Ford westerns—is still very much alive in the popular consciousness. Yet there is a fatal finality to The Wild Bunch, a sense of something lowdown being run down. The film is complex and extreme less in its physical violence than in its moral violence, as it transposes the increasing cynicism of 1968 to an equally nihilistic era, all while maintaining a moving elegiac aura. No image or action expresses this attitude clearer and more powerfully than the bunch’s iconic sacrificial end walk, four abreast, to rescue one of their own, to murder and be murdered into myth. If the film is a tombstone, Stratton’s book is a fit inscription.
David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood is now available from University of Chicago Press, and W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film is now available from Bloomsbury Publishing.
Review: The Heart of Someone Great Is in the Details of Female Friendship
The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman.2.5
Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Someone Great presents a vision of New York that makes the bustling metropolis feel like a small town. The film’s setting is a utopian playground where everyone seems to know everyone else and bumping into friends and acquaintances on the street is a regular occurrence. Robinson exploits the narrative possibilities of this framework, as all it takes for three friends, Jenny (Gina Rodriguez), Erin (DeWanda Wise), and Blair (Brittany Snow), to dive into another misadventure is to simply turn a corner.
The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman; surely it’s no coincidence that a James Joyce poster hangs in the background of one scene. Set to an eclectic, almost perpetual soundtrack of songs, the film follows Jenny, Erin, and Blair as they float on a wave of spontaneity. The friends are gung-ho about having one last night on the town, and as the they make plans to attend a music festival on the eve of Jenny moving to San Francisco, the film makes a vibrant show of every fallout, every sharp turn in mood and behavior across this journey, which also finds Jenny grappling with her recent breakup with Nate (Lakeith Stanfield), her boyfriend of nine years.
In the world of Someone Great, a flashily decorated room is an extension of a person’s personality, every object a vessel of human memories. Jenny is wounded, and the film tenaciously homes in how everything around her feels like a totem of lost love. Robinson elaborates on Jenny’s pain as much through the young woman’s exchanges with her two best friends, each dealing with their own emotional troubles, as through the neon-dappled flashbacks to Jenny and Nate’s time together. But if Jenny, Erin, and Blair’s scenes together are marked by an infectiousness fueled in no small part by Rodriguez, Wise, and Snow’s incredible rapport, the vignettes of Jenny and Nate’s past feel comparatively inert—an almost steady stream of generic and often awkward articulations of how it is to fall in and out of love.
Someone Great also gives itself over to a needlessly somber tone whenever Jenny reflects on her relationship with Nate, and the effect is so self-serious that you’d think she’s the first person to lose a lover in human history. Her breakup certainly stands in sharp contrast to Blair’s own split from her long-term boyfriend (Alex Moffat), the fallout of which is treated as an offhand (and very funny) joke. Fortunately, though, Robinson is always quick to reorient the focus of her film, sweetly underscoring throughout the value of Jenny’s friendship to Erin and Blair, and how their bond is bound to persist regardless of the hard knocks these women weather on the long and often bumpy road to romantic fulfillment.
Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow, DeWanda Wise, LaKeith Stanfield, Peter Vack, Alex Moffat, RuPaul Charles, Rosario Dawson Director: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Screenwriter: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 92 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Cannes Lineup Includes New Films by Terrence Malick, Céline Sciamma, & More
Perhaps as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t make it onto the lineup.
This morning, the lineup for the 72nd Cannes Film Festival was revealed, and just as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t. Most notably, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in America and James Gray’s Ad Astra were nowhere to be found. Gray, whose had four of his previous films appear in competition at the festival, is still working on Ad Astra, which seems destined at this point to make its premiere at a fall festival. As for Tarantino, who’s still editing this ninth feature ahead of its July 26 theatrical release, Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux told press this morning that there’s still a chance that Once Upon a Time in America could be added to the festival lineup in the upcoming weeks.
Terrence Malick will return to Cannes for the first time since winning the Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life with the historical drama and ostensibly mainstream-friendly A Hidden Life, previously known as Radegund. Ken Loach and the Dardennes, both double winners of the Palme d’Or, will also debut their latest works, Sorry We Missed You and Young Ahmed, respectively, in the competition program. As previously announced, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die will kick off the festival on May 14, and Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman will screen out of competition on May 16, two weeks before the film hits U.S. theaters. (The Director’s Fortnight and Critics Week selections will be announced at a later date.)
See below for a complete list of this year’s competition, Un Certain Regard, out of competition, and special and midnight screenings.
Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar
The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio
Wild Goose Lake, Yinan Diao
Parasite, Bong Joon-ho
Young Ahmed, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Oh Mercy! , Arnaud Desplechin
Atlantique, Mati Diop
Matthias and Maxime, Xavier Dolan
Little Joe, Jessica Hausner
Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach
Les Misérables, Ladj Ly
A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick
Nighthawk, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
The Whistlers, Corneliu Porumboiu
Frankie, Ira Sachs
The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma
It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman
Sybil, Justine Triet
Out of Competition
Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher
The Best Years of Life, Claude Lelouch
Maradona, Asif Kapadia
La Belle Epoque, Nicolas Bedos
Too Old to Die Young, Nicolas Winding Refn
Share, Pippa Bianco
Family Romance LLC, Werner Herzog
Tommaso, Abel Ferrara
To Be Alive and Know It, Alain Cavalier
For Sama, Waad Al Kateab and Edward Watts
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, Lee Won-Tae
Un Certain Regard
Invisible Life, Karim Aïnouz
Beanpole, Kantemir Balagov
The Swallows of Kabul, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobé Mévellec
A Brother’s Love, Monia Chokri
The Climb, Michael Covino
Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont
A Sun That Never Sets, Olivier Laxe
Chambre 212, Christophe Honoré
Port Authority, Danielle Lessovitz
Papicha, Mounia Meddour
Adam, Maryam Touzani
Zhuo Ren Mi Mi, Midi Z
Liberte, Albert Serra
Bull, Annie Silverstein
Summer of Changsha, Zu Feng
EVGE, Nariman Aliev
The 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival
As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory.
In 2014, on the occasion of the fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, even as I took the opportunity to raise a glass to an event that encourages audiences, especially younger ones, to acknowledge and embrace the past, I indulged in a little public worrying over the festival’s move toward including a heavier schedule of more “modern” films whose status as classics seemed arguable, at the very least. The presence of Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Goodbye Girl on the festival’s slate that year seemed geared toward guaranteeing that Richard Dreyfuss would make a couple of appearances, causing me not only to wonder just what constitutes a “classic” (a question this festival seems imminently qualified to answer), but also just how far down the road to appeasement of movie stars TCMFF would be willing to travel in order to bring in those festivalgoers willing to pony up for high-priced, top-tier passes.
If anything, subsequent iterations have indicated that, while its focus remains on putting classic films in front of appreciative audiences and encouraging the restoration and preservation of widely recognized and relatively obscure films, the festival’s shift toward popular hits and the folks attached to them seems to be in full swing. And from a commercial point of view, who could credibly argue against feting 1980s and ‘90s-era celebrities who can still bring the glitz and glamour, especially as it becomes increasingly more difficult to secure appearances from anyone directly involved in the production of 60-to-80-year-old films? One has to believe that the numbers would favor booking films which could afford “sexier” in-person attendees like Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, and Rob Reiner, and maybe for a good portion of the TCMFF crowd that showed up to celebrate the festival’s 10th anniversary this year, that sort of thinking is perfectly in line with what they expect for their money.
Of course, the flip side of that coin is an opening-night gala devoted to the celebration of When Harry Met Sally, which isn’t the first film I would think of to announce to the world that TCMFF is celebrating a milestone. It’s been 10 years since the festival launched, and its mother channel is celebrating 25 years on the air this year—and, okay, the Rob Reiner-helmed, Nora Ephron-scripted comedy is now 30 years young. But I really wonder, beyond When Harry Met Sally’s most famous scene, which is all but stolen by the director’s mother and her delivery of the memorable zinger “I’ll have what she’s having,” if this dated rom-com really means enough to audiences to be included among a TCMFF schedule of films ostensibly more qualified to be considered as classics. Maybe it does. Because objections like that one were forced to fly in the face of the rest of the TCMFF 2019 schedule, populated as it was by other equally questionable attractions like Sleepless in Seattle, Steel Magnolias, Hello, Dolly!, and Out of Africa, all of which crowded screen space in the festival’s biggest auditoriums.
Speaking of amour, it was that most mysterious of emotions that was the biggest rationale other than filthy lucre for clogging the schedule with not one but two Meg Ryan “classics,” a weeper that’s broad by even the standards of borderline-campy weepers, a bloated musical nobody seems to like, a would-be epic best picture winner, and even the bromantic sentimental indulgences of the Honorary Greatest Movie for Men Who Don’t Love Movies. Because the theme of TCMFF 2019, “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies,” virtually guaranteed that room would be made for some of the festival’s least enticing and overseen selections, under subheadings like “Better with Age” (Love in the Afternoon, Marty), “Bromance” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Shawshank Redemption), and, in a love letter to not romance but instead a movie studio, “A Celebration of 20th Century Fox” (Hello, Dolly!, Working Girl, Star Wars). Of course, each of those subheadings had their glories as well (I’ll get to those in a second, after I stop complaining), but it’s worth noting these selections because they seem clearly representative of the sort of programming choices that have become more dominant in the second half of TCMFF’s storied and much appreciated existence, choices that may signal a further shift away from discoveries, oddities, and rarities and toward even more mainstream appeasement in its near future.
For all of the problems that seem to be becoming hard-wired into TCMFF’s business model, however, there was plenty to get excited about as well, even when one of the weaker overall schedules in terms of cinephile catnip made maximizing the festival experience a little more challenging than usual. If that “Love in the Movies” header seemed at first a bit too generic, it also proved elastic enough to accommodate some pretty interesting variations on a obvious theme, from dysfunctional relationships (A Woman Under the Influence, whose star, Gena Rowlands, had to back out of a scheduled pre-screening appearance), to erotic obsession (Mad Love, Magnificent Obsession), to habitual obsession (Cold Turkey, Merrily We Go to Hell), to romance of a more straightforward nature rendered in various shades of not-at-all-straightforward cinematic splendor (Sunrise, Sleeping Beauty, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Tarzan and His Mate). Why, there was even a couple of straight shots of undiluted movie love in the form of François Truffaut’s Day for Night, adorned by an in-person visitation from the film’s star, Jacqueline Bisset, and a grand screening of my favorite film, Robert Altman’s Nashville, which Pauline Kael once famously described as “an orgy for movie lovers.”
My own obsessions this year ran, as they usually do, toward the unfamiliar. Six of the 11 films I saw were new to me, including the obscure, ultra-cheap film noir Open Secret, which pits John Ireland against a secret society of small-town Nazi sympathizers; the deliriously racy and surprisingly violent adventure of Tarzan and His Mate, entertainingly introduced by Star Wars sound wizard Ben Burtt and special effects whiz Craig Barron, whose pre-film multimedia presentation electronically deconstructed the Tarzan yell; and James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge, starring Mae Clarke and Kent Douglass. Also among them were two major surprises: Dorothy Arzner’s romantic drama Merrily We Go to Hell, a gloriously cinematic roller coaster of love, codependency, and betrayal starring Fredric March, forever testing the audience’s tolerance for the boundaries of bad behavior, and Sylvia Sidney, who displays a range that will surprise younger audiences who may only know her from her later work; and the rollicking, hilarious, fast-paced snap-crackle-punch of All Through the Night, in which a gaggle of Runyonesque Broadway gamblers headed up by Humphrey Bogart develop an uncharacteristic patriotic streak when they uncover a Nazi conspiracy brewing in the back alleys of the neighborhood.
As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory. My two favorite experiences at the festival this year were screenings of F.W. Murnau’s almost indescribably gorgeous and primally moving Sunrise and a beautiful DCP of Nashville, with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and actors Jeff Goldblum, Keith Carradine, and Ronee Blakely in attendance. (At one point, Blakely held court like Barbara Jean in rambling pre-meltdown mode and innocently gave away the ending of the film.) The joy contained in the five hours of those two films wasn’t necessarily matched by the gorgeous restoration of Anthony Mann’s powerful Winchester ’73, the exquisitely expressionist delirium of Karl Freund’s Mad Love, or the revelation of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, with its roots in the music of Tchaikovsky, as the partial fulfillment of the ambitions of Fantasia, the studio’s great folly. But then again, it didn’t have to be. It’s enough that those are all movies worthy of and inspired by true movie love, which is precisely what they were received with by TCMFF audiences.
Of course, the obsessive, orgiastic nature of movie love is itself the underlying subtext of any film festival, but at TCMFF that subtext is consistently resonant enough that it seems inextricable from any given moment during the long four-day Hollywood weekend over which it unspools. Some festivalgoers get dolled up in vintage clothes and five pounds of customized TCM-style flair to express it. Others rattle on endlessly about their irrational devotion to Star X and Director Y, or how some obscure B noir blew their goddamn minds, and they’re usually surrounded by a pack of fans with similarly hyperbolic stories to tell. And still others just tilt their heads down and barrel through the long lines, breathlessly scurrying between theaters in pursuit of something they’ve never seen or perhaps never even heard of. (I’ll let you speculate as to which category I belong, though I will say I have never worn a fedora or brandished a silver-tipped walking stick in public.) A good friend and former TCMFF regular once told me that the best way to be cured of a particular obsession is to suddenly find yourself surrounded by those whose individual enthusiasms match or exceed your own, and sometimes it seems that the first-world trials of the TCMFF experience as they have accumulated over the past five or so years, and contrasted as they have been by the multitude of peaks the festival has offered its most ardent fans, have been devoted to road-testing that theory.
However, no matter what TCMFF devotees do or say in between programming slots, the movies remain, providing a constant opportunity to either plumb the depths of cinema history or to simply go for the good times. With all intentions pitched toward continued prosperity, the greatest challenge for TCMFF as it enters its second decade might be finding a better balance between those deep dives and the allure of skimming the perhaps more lucrative shallows. And if genuinely great films and even greater chances to experience films one can only experience in a setting like TCMFF keep getting slotted out in favor of familiar dreck like When Harry Met Sally and Steel Magnolias, it isn’t unreasonable to imagine that TCMFF 2029 might, to its inevitable detriment, look and feel considerably less classic than it does now. No, it’s not time for sackcloth and ashes just yet when it comes to this beloved fest. But I’d be lying if I said, to purloin and repurpose the concluding sentiment of one of this year’s big TCMFF attractions, that the ultimate resolution of that dilemma don’t worry me just a little bit.
The TCM Classic Film Festival ran from April 11—14.
Review: Instant Dreams Intimately Ponders a Casualty of the Digital Age
Willem Baptist’s film is a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital.2.5
Throughout Instant Dreams, director Willem Baptist returns to footage from “The Long Walk,” the 1970 short film in which Polaroid co-founder Edwin H. Land pulled from his coat a black device that bears an uncanny resemblance to an iPhone. Land envisioned a day in which instant photos could be taken by a device the size of a wallet, which we would use to document every moment of our lives. This dream came spectacularly true, of course, beyond even Land’s wildest fantasies, ironically paving the way for Polaroid’s irrelevancy. Polaroid stopped manufacturing instant film in 2008, an event which Baptist rues as a symptom of our increasing impersonality as a globalized culture that’s grown to take its information overload for granted. “The Long Walk” haunts Baptist’s documentary as a kind of death prophecy.
Seen in stock footage—and in the famous photo on a 1947 cover of the New York Times in which he holds up a snapshot of himself, nearly appearing to have two heads—Land proves to be one of Instant Dreams’s most fascinating and enigmatic figures. In a contemporary light, pictures taken by Polaroid instant cameras have an eerie and poignant power, as their imperfections, such as their blotchy yet vibrant colors, evoke expressionistic art. These photographs reflect the frailty and subjectivity of time, while digital images are ageless, changeable, easily distributed ciphers. The power of Polaroid pictures resides in the effort they require to create, as people had to carry a bulky camera around and wait several seconds before producing a fully developed snapshot. Following several Polaroid cultists, Baptist shares their lament for an intimate and communal culture that’s potentially been forgotten in the wake of our ability to have pristine images whenever we want them.
Stephen Herchen is a scientist who helped to buy the last remaining Polaroid factory in the Netherlands, and he’s working with a group of specialists to revive the technology, as instant film was born of a complex chemical recipe that Herchen has yet to crack. (Baptist looks on as Herchen’s pictures take nearly 30 minutes to develop, rather than a few seconds.) Meanwhile, New York magazine city editor Christopher Bonanos, author of the book Instant: The Story of Polaroid, documents the growth of his son with his stash of Polaroid film, and German artist Stefanie Schneider takes photographs with the expired stock that she keeps in the vintage refrigerator of a trailer that’s parked somewhere in the California desert.
Herchen, Bonanos, and Schneider speak over the documentary’s soundtrack, which Baptist assembles into a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital. The filmmaker portrays analog as a kind of magic, born of a conjuring which he dramatizes with trippy images of photographic chemicals, while digital technology is represented by chilly metallic graphics that connote anonymous efficiency. (Instant Dreams exudes that simultaneously real and staged quality of an Errol Morris film.) It’s a sentimental vision, and one that provokes a question that Baptist doesn’t attempt to address: In a time of technological marvel, in which we carry what are essentially supercomputers around in our pockets, why are so many of us so miserable, so convinced that we’re living in a dark age?
The rage and ennui of our present culture is cultivated by the ease of modern media, in which we’re eternally plugged into stimulation that cancels itself out, leaving us feeling both stuffed and hollow, as well as interchangeable with one another as receptacles for corporate product. Our primary camera is now our phone, which can do hundreds of other tasks, while the Polaroid instant camera only takes pictures, relics which cannot be shared with the click of a button with other people. To long for the Polaroid, or for other objects of nostalgia such as VHS tapes, is to long for a sense of specialness and remoteness. The subjects of Baptist’s documentary seek disconnection from the cultural hive mind.
These meanings are often only implicit in Instant Dreams, and it’s a pity that Herchen and Bonanos aren’t more overtly in tune with their yearnings. They tend to speak in platitudes, which Baptist attempts to render mystical with hallucinatory imagery and a retro synth-y score that’s reminiscent of Vangelis’s compositions for Blade Runner. While Instant Dreams offers an appealingly nostalgic trance-out, it’s often short on detail, especially in terms of Herchen’s struggle to create the instant film technology, which Baptist reduces to exchanges of jargon in atmospheric laboratories. The film’s ruminations gradually grow repetitive and unfocused, especially when Baptist branches off into a fourth narrative, following a young woman who savors digital technology the way that the other subjects do Polaroids.
Schneider steals Instant Dreams from her co-stars, however, taking bold photos of young women out in the desert, cannily milking the limitations of the expired film stock to create mini canvases that suggest fever dreams. One scene is unexpectedly erotic: Schneider takes a bath in a tub outside with a beautiful model, their legs intermingling as the latter tells of a dream that suggests a metaphor for instant film. This image embodies the intimacy that Baptist’s subjects believe Polaroid stock to represent, merging the film’s emotional ambitions with its hypnotic aesthetic. In such moments, Instant Dreams truly comes alive.
Director: Willem Baptist Screenwriter: Willem Baptist Distributor: Synergetic Distribution Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
Review: Rafiki Is a Feat of Representation, If Familiar in Execution
The audacity of the film’s assertion of a queer African identity shouldn’t be overlooked.2.5
Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki is a salvo in an ongoing cultural war in Kenya over the rights of LGBTQ people, and as such, it’s difficult, and maybe even irresponsible, to judge the film in a vacuum. Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya—punishable with up to 14 years in prison—and Kahiu’s film is officially banned in the country, though that ban was temporarily lifted for a week last fall so that it might qualify for an Oscar nomination. As a romantic drama, Rafiki turns out to be conventional in most senses except that its star-crossed lovers are two women—but then, particularly in Kenya, that makes all the difference.
Rafiki’s radicalism, hardly evident in its form or narrative structure, becomes more apparent when the film is situated in the context of state censorship and socio-culturally dominant homophobia. Adapted by Kahiu and co-writer Jenna Cato Bass from a short story by Monica Arac de Nyeko, the film takes its cue from that most over-alluded-to of romantic texts, Romeo and Juliet, complete with feuding families, illicit liaisons, and impossible love.
Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are the daughters of two small-business magnates opposing each other in an upcoming city council election. They live on the outskirts of Nairobi, in an area characters refer to as Slopes, which Kaihu presents as a relatively secluded community. The story plays out over a limited number of distinctive locations—such as the church that Kena and Ziki’s families attend and consists of a purple-clad Anglican preacher leading sermons under a purple tent and a food stand where the young denizens of Slopes eat, with its nearby van on blocks where Kena and Ziki can have some privacy.
As young romantics are wont to do, the two women fall in love despite the immense familial and social pressure to avoid anything of the kind. And in addition to the mutual animosity of their respective families, they have the stigma that homosexuality carries among their friends to worry about. Kena hangs out with a pair of hypermasculine guys who routinely hurl epithets at the taciturn man everyone in the neighborhood knows is gay; when Ziki’s clique of friends start suspecting Kena is her lover, they react with a surprising outburst of violence. With its handful of locations and its small cast, Rafiki emphasizes the inescapable social gaze this queer couple is subjected to: The supporting characters are liable to pop up in any given place, making anywhere but the abandoned van a potentially threatening space for the two women.
In a country in which homosexuality is seen by a majority of the population as imported Western decadence, the audacity of the film’s assertion of a queer African identity shouldn’t be overlooked. Rafiki announces its intent with defiant opening credits, streaked with spray-painted neon colors and blasting feminist African hip-hop. But this rebellious energy also dissipates rapidly after the credits: While Christopher Wessels’s cinematography is drawn to saturated colors that recall the punkish animation of the credits, there’s a staid quality to the film that belies the intensity of the visuals. Major scenes play out with characters summarizing their feelings in sketchy dialogue, as when Kena’s mother (Nini Wacera) exposits Kenyan women’s motivations for being more homophobic than men in the midst of an argument.
While Kahiu proved herself a visionary filmmaker with her 2009 short film Pumzi, her visual ideas here are often sentimental short cuts: slow-motion close-ups of a smiling Ziki to suggest the character’s sexual longing for Kena, and slow-motion shots of birds in flight to symbolize the couple’s desire for freedom. Ziki herself, with her flashy, colorful braids and broadly sketched character arc, is little more than a romantic fantasy—and perhaps purposefully, as Kena is clearly the main character, drawn to Ziki at least in part because of her distinctive look. But it seems odd that a romance about two women should recapitulate a structure in which only one of the pair—the one in the position of looking—gets a full character arc. Regardless, Rafiki’s slotting of two African women into this familiar romantic structure represents a radical and important upending of contemporary Kenyan sexual mores.
Cast: Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva, Neville Misati, Jimmy Gathu, Nini Wacera, Patricia Amira, Muthoni Gathecha, Dennis Musyoka, Nice Githinji, Charlie Karumi, Patricia Kihoro Director: Wanuri Kahiu Screenwriter: Wanuri Kahiu, Jenna Cato Bass Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: The Half-Baked Under the Silver Lake Is in Love with the Image of Itself
Even after the film (quite entertainingly) explains itself, it never feels like more than a howl of frustration and cynicism.2
David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake, a pastiche of cinematic representations of Los Angeles wrapped in a retro-fetishistic detective story, infiltrates the glittery, vapid underbelly of La-La Land, where aspiring starlets pay their rent doing sex work and popular culture turns out to be even more monolithic than one imagines. Within a few scenes, Mitchell establishes a grammar whose endless referentiality takes on a conspiratorial cast. Shortly after seeing a squirrel fall from the sky (shades of Magnolia), a layabout named Sam (Andrew Garfield) sits on his courtyard porch with a pair of binoculars, ogling a nude woman and then a self-possessed, dog-toting blonde sunning herself by his complex’s pool.
That scene evokes, among other films, Rear Window, In a Lonely Place, and Lolita, though Sam is no damaged matinee idol. Instead, he’s a no-rent riff on Elliott Gould’s riff on Philip Marlowe, unemployed and horny, and days from being evicted from his apartment. Sam is pointedly in no hurry to find work or cash; rather, he’s relentlessly distracted by women and strange happenings, like news of a rash of dog killings in East L.A. or a string of mysterious geometric signifiers scrawled on apartment walls. His unheroic quest is propelled by the girl by the pool, who he briefly comes to know as Sarah (Riley Keough) before—after a brief, unconsummated relationship—she disappears, taking on a totemic meaning that pushes Sam to tie together the increasingly odd and nefarious events happening around him.
Like Mitchell’s The Myth of the American Sleepover and It Follows, Under the Silver Lake is steeped in nostalgia and exists in an indistinct time. Though Sam carries an iPhone and peeps on a friend’s (Topher Grace) neighbor with the assistance of a video-equipped helicopter drone, the film’s ubiquitous cultural icons dwell in most of the previous century, including B noirs, Hollywood romances, and old issues of Playboy and Nintendo Power. In both Sam’s addled logic and the film’s visual code, all of these artifacts are clues of one kind or another.
A zine-maker chronicling the forgotten history of the neighborhood and Hollywood scandals further convolutes Sam’s journey, offering an interpretational lodestar in the form of a mid-century cereal box with a treasure map on its back. The artist is played by Patrick Fischler, instantly recognizable as the man who suffers a waking nightmare at Winkie’s in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. The casting confirms yet another evident inspiration for Under the Silver Lake, whose cinematography (by Mike Gioulakis) expresses a slightly dirty, ambient unease even in glittering daylight or at industry parties featuring odd performance artists.
Under the Silver Lake navigates its thicket of references with breezy confidence, undergirded by Disasterpeace’s lush, menacing score. But as with the more efficient It Follows, it’s never evident what the film’s subtexts are meant to add up to. Even after the film (quite entertainingly) explains itself, during a lengthy musical medley with a brutal climax, it never feels like more than a howl of frustration and cynicism. Mitchell’s L.A. proves to be a sort of zombie culture, one whose artists are fed notes and messages from hidden ghostwriters and where originality was unceremoniously wiped out some decades ago. Every party is designed to be an experience, but every experience is forced and fundamentally hollow.
Oddly, Under the Silver Lake comes to feel as complacent as the milieu it’s satirizing, due in large part to the void of ambition and tact at its center. Sam is at once the film’s avatar, audience surrogate, and object of ridicule. He’s forsaken worldly duties for the sake of his dick, and rather incidentally stumbles into an elaborate riddle about the meaning of art and the rot underneath his neighborhood. Sam’s enthusiasm for amateur detective work is meant to be as shaggy and winning as his other behavior is off-putting, but there’s something askew about both Garfield’s effortful performance and Mitchell’s idea of his main character.
Talking with a fitful speech impediment in lackadaisical tones, Garfield swerves from a state of passive narcolepsy to addled, sometimes aggro enthusiasm with minimal cause. Throughout the film, Sam accepts frequent offers of sex with a vacant, glassy countenance, and at one point vigorously masturbates over a vision board of naked women. He also castigates the homeless and beats up a group of marauding teenagers. Sometimes he feels like an analogue to a Reddit troll, and at others his quest for meaning seems entirely earnest. Sam is meant to be confounding, but it’s unclear if he’s meant to be so incoherent.
These problems are in step with a film that’s in complete control of its imagery but remains half-baked in its ideology and execution. Maybe it’s apropos that a film so critical of predominant cultural modes feels so oppressively patriarchal in its attitude and rolodex of references: A reading of Under the Silver Lake can accommodate how one alternative subculture (comic books) has been subsumed into and now monopolizes an entire industry, but if Mitchell’s film is about those left behind and adrift in its wake, why wouldn’t it address those almost entirely left out of the conversation? It’s difficult not to question the composition of Mitchell’s chosen milieu as its impressive artifice comes to feel entirely perfunctory, and one is left to choke on the exhaust of Under the Silver Lake loopy daisy chain of references and its disconnected series of blasé shock tactics.
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace, Patrick Fischler, Jimmi Simpson, Riki Lindhome Director: David Robert Mitchell Screenwriter: David Robert Mitchell Distributor: A24 Running Time: 139 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: Little Woods Is a Thriller That Thinks It’s Too Good for Thrills
Nia DaCosta indulges one of rural quasi-thriller’s most tiresome gambits: humorlessness as a mark of high seriousness.2
Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods belongs to a subgenre of American indie cinema concerned with poor people trying to hold on to the stability they’ve managed to carve out for themselves in forbidding places. This subgenre of film bears the influence of the western and the procedural character studies of the Dardennes and the Romanian New Wave, and it often treats disenfranchised populations as exhibits in a kind of zoo. The characters in these films are often seen only in terms of how they affirm a political thesis statement, as their individualities are eclipsed in the filmmakers’ minds by their social neediness. No matter how well-meaning such theses may be, the films usually feel incurious and condescending.
Unlike, say, Frozen River, Little Woods isn’t exactly condescending, but it lacks the poetry of the respective films of Kelly Reichardt and Debra Granik, masters of what can be called the rural quasi-thriller. Reichardt and Granik offer punishing visions of America that are nevertheless attuned to the incidental moments that enliven even fraught existences, while DaCosta often falls prey to the clichés of the subgenre. She familiarly presents lower working-class men as hairy and drunken brutes who talk only of their inherent misery, and women as living in perpetual reaction to these men’s hostilities. DaCosta, then, indulges one of the genre’s most tiresome gambits: humorlessness as a mark of high seriousness.
Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James) are sisters, via Ollie’s adoption by Deb’s now deceased mother, who live in an oil boomtown in North Dakota. The sisters are defined in terms of their desperation—through the dictates of a thriller structure—and DaCosta doles out their involved and stereotypical backstory in dribs and drabs. Ollie is the good sister, who stood by her mother while Deb was involved in her own personal calamities, having a son she can’t afford to raise with a drunk and absent father, Ian (James Badge Dale). Ollie turned to selling OxyContin on the black market, with Ian’s help, to pay for her mother’s medical bills. Eventually caught running drugs back from Canada, Ollie is now on the verge of finishing her probation as supervised by her probation officer, Carter (Lance Riddick). And, of course, on the eve of getting a respectable new job, Ollie will be pulled back into the classic Final Score.
DaCosta has a fine feel for the texture of her film’s boomtown setting, particularly in the evocative scenes in which Ollie sells the poor oil workers coffee and sandwiches at cheaper prices than the local restaurants. But the characters are dully familiar. Ollie is a saint with no apparent inner life, with no opinions or desires that don’t immediately bolster the plot. Thompson gives the role her usual intensity, though Ollie is stubbornly defined by the steadfast earnestness that’s common of protagonists in this sort of film. She refers to taking pleasure in selling black market drugs, but we never see that emotion in her face, which might’ve given Little Woods an ambiguous sense of exhilaration. And a significant detail of Ollie’s identity is pointedly ignored: that she’s an attractive woman of color who appears to live in a place that’s populated mostly by undereducated and oversexed white men. Though Ollie is harassed by men in sexualized altercations, the effect of her seeming dislocation on her identity is pushed aside. Deb, meanwhile, is a MacGuffin: a device for returning Ollie to the drug business in a fashion that doesn’t sully the latter’s unimpeachable principles.
Whenever DaCosta appears to be on the verge of staging a scene intent on surprising the audience, the writer-director nips it in the bud to move on to the next preprogrammed narrative beat. This tendency is especially galling during a scene where Deb tells Ian that she’s pregnant again and that she intends to have an abortion. We’re primed by the formula of the rural quasi-thriller, which is often intensely critical of machismo, for Ian to have a disgusting outburst. Instead, Ian gets down on his knees and puts his head between Deb’s legs, as if praying, and weeps. Unforgivably, DaCosta doesn’t treat this moving moment with the respect it’s due, cutting away from it after a second or two so as to keep the film moving along at an impersonal pace. Little Woods is concerned with topical “relevance” at the expense of drama—or, more bluntly, it’s a thriller that thinks it’s too good for thrills.
Cast: Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Luke Kirby, Lance Reddick, James Badge Dale, Elizabeth Maxwell, Luci Christian, Morgana Shaw Director: Nia DaCosta Screenwriter: Nia DaCosta Distributor: Neon Running Time: 105 min Rating: R Year: 2018