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Understanding Screenwriting #59: The Town, Easy A, Going the Distance, & More



Understanding Screenwriting #59: The Town, Easy A, Going the Distance, & More

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)

The Town

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)

Easy A

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)

Going the Distance

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)

Something's Gonna Live

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)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

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)

Hollywood: A Third MemoirImagine 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)

California Dreamin'

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)

Captain Horatio Hornblower

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)

White Collar

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)

Mad Men

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.

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Review: Tommaso Both Rues and Relishes the Power of the Artist

Abel Ferrara’s film is about that precise feeling of living with an itch unscratched.




Photo: Kino Lorber

Many films have dealt with the highs and lows of addiction, even the challenges of recovery. Less common are films about living at length with sobriety, about the peace it can bring and the lingering absence that an addict in recovery must learn to accept. To live in recovery is to live with a kind of death: of your warped sense of normalcy for the sake of functionality. A quote from Peter Schjeldahl’s New Yorker piece “The Art of Dying” sums this tension up beautifully and painfully: “If you’re a real alcoholic, you will never feel quite right. Whatever you want will be a little bit out of reach. Can’t handle that? Get the fuck out of here and get drunk.” Abel Ferrara’s Tommaso is about that precise feeling of living with an itch unscratched, which the protagonist manages with a life of fetishistic interiority.

Here, Willem Dafoe again plays a surrogate of Ferrara: a filmmaker, Tommaso, living in Rome, where he can readily finance his arty productions. Early passages linger attentively on the everyday textures of Tommaso’s existence. He sips espresso served to him by a barista who asks him for updates on his life; studies Italian; shops for fresh produce at a nearby market; makes pasta for his much younger wife, Nikki (Cristina Chiriac), and their daughter; works on a script that will eventually turn into Ferrara’s Siberia; and coaches young and attractive actors on the art of feeling pure feelings for a role, without self-consciousness. For a while, Tommaso serves as a straight male aesthete’s dream of the successful artist’s way of being, as the protagonist is a good-looking, authoritative older man who enjoys financial freedom as well as the attention of young women. And he appears to be sensitive and thoughtful to boot.

This lovely idyll serves several purposes for Ferrara. Simply, this atmosphere offers a fulfillment of wishes, as it’s an act of masturbation and perhaps of self-congratulation, an impression that’s affirmed by the several excuses that are made for young female nudity. Yet Ferrara, a significant artist and a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, also understands that Tommaso’s open sensitivity and sensuality are ironically evasive.

After a while, we notice that we don’t see Nikki and their daughter that often. Gradually, we learn that Tommaso is a recovering addict, going to N.A. meetings that are populated by a few striking characters who offer realistic testimonials to the struggles of dependency. Evocatively, Tommaso talks of once trying to remake La Dolce Vita in Miami with an actor who was also an addict, and he shares a heartbreaking story of a daughter from a previous marriage asking if he was leaving the house, drunk, because of her. Tommaso’s tranquil rhythms are misleading, as we see that the protagonist has insulated himself not only from temptation but connection; his very fear of losing his family is what threatens to drive them away. Underneath his manners, Tommaso feels the alienation, the missing-ness, of living sober as an addict.

Tommaso has a glancing, sketchbook-like quality. Through elegant long takes and stately pace, the audience becomes privy to the entire spectrum of Tomasso’s daily physical and emotional experience. Certain episodes in the film occur with so little context that they don’t seem to be literally believable, yet they aren’t quite visually coded as fantasy, as many scenes in Siberia are. For one, when Nikki is seen making out with a man in a park where Tommaso is playing with their daughter, we can’t tell if this moment is real or a paranoid projection. But the distinction barely matters, as we’re confronting Tommaso’s emotional reality.

Another episode is even more strikingly specific: Tommaso is insulted that Nikki didn’t wake him for a family lunch. In the moment, one is sympathetic toward Tommaso, though Ferrara establishes just how often Tommaso is in his own world, whether he’s teaching classes, surveying Rome, or honing his script; he presents as courtly and empathetic in public, and to himself, while casually thinking mostly of himself, a resonance that Ferrara allows us to gradually discern. Nikki doesn’t check on him because it doesn’t occur to her that it would matter, an instinct that signifies her immaturity as well as his essential selfishness.

Ferrara has mastered a type of scene in which the ecstatic intersects with the ordinary. In Welcome to New York, a rapist’s prolonged physical humiliation upon his arrest and processing became a casual indictment of the legal system—complicated morally by the fact that he deserved it. In 4:44 Last Day on Earth, Ferrara stages an essay on the comforts of rarefied life upon its impending demise. In Tommaso, we’re allowed to feel both the comfort and limitation of prescribed rituals. In Tommaso’s case, said rituals, which include meditation in addition to his other daily activities, stave off and replace more damaging hungers. Late in the film, a shockingly violent encounter, potentially imaginary, embodies the fear addicts have of reverting to their worst and most impulsive tendencies.

Ferrara’s collaborations with Dafoe, including the extraordinary Pasolini, are studies of privilege, power, fantasy, and loneliness. They’re also surveys of Dafoe’s remarkably suggestive presence and physicality, as well as flirtations with European artiness. Tommaso is erotic in a manner that’s unusual for American films, suggesting that Ferrara has truly gotten Italy into his bloodstream. Almost every encounter here is freighted with the promise of sex—the kind that’s understood to be possible primarily because of Tommaso’s success and station. These wandering, episodic films are politically conscious, yet they’re also about the lurid pleasure of being a man with a certain degree of reputation. In Tommaso, Ferrara both rues and enjoys his protagonist’s power and insularity, which scans less as hypocrisy than as an honest admission of the difficulty of navigating the divide between accountability and temptation.

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Cristina Chiriac, Anna Ferrara, Stella Mastrantonio, Alessandra Scarci Director: Abel Ferrara Screenwriter: Abel Ferrara Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Shirley Is an Astonishingly Frenzied Portrait of Creation and Madness

Every scene in Josephine Decker’s film operates at a maximum frenzy fraught with subtext.




Photo: Neon

Even the most daring or imaginative films can get bogged down by moments of unnecessary exposition. By contrast, Josephine Decker’s Shirley doesn’t take any encounter as a given, as every scene operates at a maximum frenzy fraught with subtext—with sexual tension, bitterness, class and gender resentment, and acidic comedy that springs from the intersection of all of the aforementioned pressures. At any moment in this astonishing, frustrating film, we’re alternately in and out of the characters’ wavelengths, and continually forced to reorient our perceptions of the various relationships driving the narrative. Next to Decker’s films, the rigid staging of most cinematic conversations feels prim.

There are no ordinary images in Shirley. Decker and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen give the film a hazy look that suggests an act of recollection, in which autumnal colors bleed together while certain objects and portions of settings and actors pristinely peek through the frame. Meanwhile, the camera is often moving, as in Decker’s previous films, switching between point-of-view shots and compositions in which characters look directly at us, or homing in on close-ups that allow for other characters to enter scenes unnoticed, paving the way for jarring surprises. Individually, none of these devices is original to Decker, but she’s united them with a fluidity and a sensual puckishness that’s all her own.

Shirley and Decker’s prior film, Madeline’s Madeline, both concern the porous boundaries separating creativity from madness and collaboration from exploitation. Adapted by screenwriter Sarah Gubbins from the 2014 novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell, Shirley focuses on iconic short story author and novelist Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her life with her husband, professor and critic Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), in North Bennington, Vermont. Hyman is tenured at Bennington College, and he’s invited a newlywed couple, Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young), to live with him and Shirley for a period of time. Over several months, the two couples play escalating mind games as Shirley attempts to write a novel about the disappearance of a local college girl.

Shirley and Stanley and Rose and Fred often suggest the same couple from two different periods of time (before and after success), and Decker’s hallucinatory style occasionally leaves us wondering if the film is building toward this revelation. After all, Shirley and Stanley have what Fred at the very least wants: acclaim and status. Fred thinks he’s going to be Stanley’s apprentice and eventual successor, while Stanley seems to regard him as an errand boy. (Stanley also smugly recruits Rose as the housekeeper, or Shirley’s minder.)

Rose’s motivations are murkier: She’s pregnant and initially seems to enjoy playing housewife, until we learn that she quit college for Fred and the baby. It gradually comes to light that Shirley, already legendary for “The Lottery,” and who carries far more weight with Stanley than Rose appears to with Fred, also has something that Rose longs: respect. On the other hand, the romance between Rose and Fred feels kinder, more idealized, than the manipulative parlor games played by Shirley and Stanley, though this juxtaposition is ironic as well. Stanley and Shirley’s overt cruelty toward one another suggests truthfulness, a willingness to honor one another’s eccentricities, while Rose and Fred play into courtly tropes.

Shirley recalls Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Phantom Thread. Like the former, it features elaborate, self-consciously performative scenes of drunk and talented characters airing their resentments, turning their outbursts into a kind of weird and potentially cathartic poetry. And like the latter, it’s concerned with the atmosphere that a potentially disturbed artist must cultivate in order to create. The comparison to the Paul Thomas Anderson film may be particularly instructive, as Shirley also derives its emotional suspense by gradually revealing to viewers the “rules of the house.” In Phantom Thread, we learn that a young innocent is capable of ruthless adaptation that benefits her artist-lover’s need for domination while bettering her own station. In Shirley, we learn the extent to which each couple is manipulating the other, and how Shirley’s creative drive is also fueled by a form of role play.

The notion of role play is affirmed by the film’s stylized performances. Moss and Stuhlbarg deliver their lines as if they were stanzas, and the actors’ vocal precision is complemented by piercing physical gestures that suggest periods and commas. Stuhlbarg has never before been this gloriously full of himself, and he has a particularly evocative moment in which Stanley disparages Fred’s dissertation, stretching the word “derivative” out as if it were taffy. In another scene, Stanley coaxes the agoraphobic, alcoholic Shirley out of bed with a cigarette, tossing it to her like a snack. In such moments, we’re allowed to feel the intimacy as well as the cruelty of this relationship, qualities which are essentially inseparable. (Shirley needs Stanley to be a jerk so she can rebel against him, as this is the source of her inspiration—a notion that’s also reminiscent of Phantom Thread.)

However, Moss also underscores the potential limitations of Decker’s florid excess, rendering Shirley climactically unhinged from the outset, riding high on the character’s flamboyant oddness, as she did with her roles in Her Smell and The Invisible Man. The former film had tonal contrast, allowing Moss to eventually ease up on the melodramatics and offer moments of delicate beauty. In The Invisible Man and Shirley, Moss puts on a hell of a show, but you’re conscious of the work behind her performance. Shirley’s always “on,” either drunk, enraged, manipulative, stumbling, glinting, castigating whoever’s around, or all of the above, allowing Moss to continually run at fever pitch; she’s the mad hatter as master of ceremonies, and she grows rather repetitive as the film itself comes to spin in circles. This self-consciousness is justified by the film’s final reveal, and by this conception of Shirley as a character, but it grows stifling nevertheless. Moss, like Shirley in general, is always in your face.

As with Madeline’s Madeline, there’s sentimentality running underneath Shirley’s bravura, as this is another film that glorifies madness as a tool of an artist’s trade—a way-too-common notion in cinema that cheapens the pain of madness itself. Decker implicitly presents Shirley’s neuroses as a weapon against sexism, as a refusal to merely be an administrator’s wife, which means that we’re introduced to the usual clichés of hypocritical women who bought into the system that Shirley fights. Shirley also, of course, serves as a warning to Rose, whom she conflates with the woman driving her novel, another person dashed by patriarchy.

Jackson’s writing isn’t this tidy. Eleanor, the lonely heart at the center of The Haunting of Hill House, isn’t a thesis marker, but a miserable, uncertain, talented, and intelligent person who’s potentially without a purpose, at least to herself; her pain is wrenching, while Moss renders Shirley’s craziness powerful and affirming. If there was more than just a hint of Eleanor’s vulnerability in Moss’s Shirley, this might have been an unruly classic. Decker is too mighty an artist to go in for trendy girl power. In fact, Decker, with her ferocious subjective poetry, could probably make a brilliant adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House.

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman, Odessa Young, Molly Fahey, Adelind Horan, Allen McCullough, Edward O’Blenis Director: Josephine Decker Screenwriter: Sarah Gubbins Distributor: Neon Running Time: 107 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Infiltrators Uneasily Marries the Real and the Performed

The film is never more compelling than when relying on footage of the real NIYA DREAMers.




The Infiltrators
Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

At the start of Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera’s The Infiltrators, photo-negative infrared shots conjure the imposing nature of border enforcement. The miles of fencing along the United States border with Mexico come through as a flickering whiteness, with the migrants walking across the desert suggesting truly alien forms. In voiceover, 22-year-old Marco Saavedra (Maynor Alvarado) discusses being undocumented and the intense fear that young immigrants and second-generation Americas have for their parents. Documentary footage depicts ICE and CBP agents arresting people like Marco in front of their families, tearful children giving press conferences, and the menacing detention facilities where undocumented persons are held in limbo. Then, Marco relates that as much as any immigrant would do to stay out of such a place, he hatched a plan to deliberately be placed in one.

Blending archival footage, interviews with real people, and dramatized reenactments, Ibarra and Rivera’s film traces the efforts of Marco and the group of radical DREAMers to which he belongs, the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, to assist detainees to prevent their deportation. The dramatizations frame the film as a thriller, one in which detainees have to constantly slip papers to each other and visit lawyers under the noses of guards who seethe with resentment. More than once, detainees are surprised with news of their sudden deportation, forcing Marco and his comrades on the outside to scramble to save them. Yet the most troubling aspect depicted here is how detention facilities, in which people are deliberately kept without being charged to limit their legal rights to attorneys, are designed to induce hopelessness. It isn’t the abruptness with which guards summon detainees to get on planes that causes the most stress here, but the purgatorial waiting that precedes it.

The juxtaposition of real and fictionalized elements, complete with chyrons identifying individuals and the actors playing them, isn’t exactly new to nonfiction filmmaking, and several documentarians have compellingly used such techniques to unpack the lines between performance and reality. At times in The Infiltrators, the real people involved in the story talk about how they approached their attempts to infiltrate detention facilities as actors, finding ways to look sufficiently guilty to officers who’re understandably quick to suspect why undocumented immigrants would volunteer to be deported. This dimension to the young adults’ actions is intriguing but left dangling by the film, which mostly sticks to unsuspenseful reenactments of Marco’s mildly clandestine activities within one detention center.

The film is never more compelling than when relying on footage of the real NIYA DREAMers, teenagers and twentysomethings who put themselves at severe risk by publicly protesting for their rights and those of their families and others like them. There’s far more urgency in watching Mohammed, a gay Iranian youth, confront politicians while at risk for deportation to a country he’s never known and is openly hostile to his sexual identity than there is in shots of Marco and others strategically handing off manila folders set to suspenseful music. The young people’s ability to create and exploit media for outreach likewise feels like an exciting subject that The Infiltrators fails to deeply explore, where it could have illuminated just how well activists can mobilize modern technology and media with minimal resources.

Cast: Maynor Alvarado, Chelsea Rendon, Manuel Uriza, Juan Gabriel Pareja, Vik Sahay Director: Cristina Ibarra, Alex Rivera Screenwriter: Alex Rivera, Aldo Velasco Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Aya Koretzky’s Around the World When You Were My Age

Across the film, the most idiosyncratic reactions of an ordinary human become real documents of human history.




Around the World When You Were My Age
Photo: Crim Productions

Jiro Koretzky left his native Japan in 1979 for a year-long trip around the world, from Moscow all the way to Beirut, mostly traveling in his white Ford Taunus. Jiro spent time in Scandinavia, Yugoslavia, North Africa, and Syria, and by the time he was ready to fly back home, the young man had discovered the one thing missing from the hyper-organization of Japanese cities: passion. Almost four decades later, his daughter, filmmaker Aya Koretzky, happened upon a metallic box full of photographic slides and detailed diary entries that Jiro amassed during his journey and decided to make a film about it. The result is Around the World When You Were My Age, and it’s a beautiful tribute to her father’s passion.

The boxy format of Koretzky’s Bolex camera mimics the proportions of her father’s original 16mm and 35mm slides. This may give the impression of a filmmaker who’s merely stitching old swatches together, but Around the World When You Were My Age isn’t a found-footage film. Koretzky’s poetic interventions, through reenactment and narration, attest to a self-ethnography bearing the freshest of fruits. This is a case of cinematic intimacy that renders visible old transmissions between father and daughter as much as it yields new ones.

Here, Koretzky’s opening of her father’s box, where Jiro’s memories lay dormant for so long, is a kind of cracking of her symbolic DNA—the one that carries the key to the generational transmission of emotions instead of genetic material. Or, perhaps, the filmmaker’s unearthing of what the father once buried is something like the reading of a father’s will before his demise. Except the inheritance here has already been distributed throughout Koretzky’s upbringing: her artistic sensibility, her fondness for silence, and her peripatetic urge. As the unconscious and the ineffable are made tangible through the cinematic image in a delicate father-daughter duet, she now knows where her own passions came from.

Koretzky performs her excavations gently and respectfully, refusing the position of the filmmaker offspring hellbent on settling old scores or demystifying the presumable bliss of family albums. Instead, she performs the humble contemplation of those who are genuinely curious—the ones we would trust to peruse our most special private collections. Koretzy is open to whatever the archive happens to bring without hoping to impose order in what is, by design, volatile and loose, like the most inextinguishable of sensations. Around the World When You Were My Age, then, is much closer to a series of lyrical vignettes (shades of Jonas Mekas and Michel de Montaigne) than to what we have come to expect from filmmakers who utilize their own relatives to (re-)write family narratives.

Across the film, the most idiosyncratic reactions of an ordinary human become real documents of human history. We see what the world looked like in 1979 and what it felt like to exist in it as a foreign flaneur. We learn that Moscow felt so large that it was as if there was “no human scale,” that the comforts of Helsinki were only rivaled by its monotony and absence of human presence, that everything in Stockholm was expensive except for milk, and that in the south of Italy one could sense “the whole of Europe condensed” in one little instant, while eating spaghetti to the sound of an accordion played by the homeless.

The film’s voiceover, by father and daughter, mostly consists of readings from Jiro’s diary. But Koretzky also knows exactly when narration, no matter how pretty, must go quiet—so that the objects in the frame can speak for themselves. Some of the most memorable sequences in the film are when all we hear are the noises made by scissors, a broom, an analog camera, the waiving of a polaroid, a finger retracing a journey on a paper map, or a slug slithering on a globe. Sudden moments of complete silence also remind us that the filmmaker’s commitment isn’t necessarily to information or knowledge, but to the poetics of feeling.

Director: Aya Koretzky Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Vast of Night Is a Wistful Riff on the Intimacy of Radio Dramas

The filmmakers patiently savor the great thrill of genre stories: anticipation.




The Vast of Night
Photo: Amazon Studios

Early in The Vast of Night, there’s a striking tracking shot through the gymnasium of a high school in the fictional 1950s-era town of Cayuga, New Mexico. The gym is being prepared for the big basketball game that night, and we’re shown how various students and professionals work together to complete this task, talking over one another with a propulsive snappiness that evokes a Howard Hawks comedy. The sequence is exhilarating, especially because one doesn’t normally encounter such verbal and visual intricacy in a genre film. But it’s also misleading, as it suggests that The Vast of Night will involve a wide cast of characters, though it’s closer to a two-hander between a local radio DJ, Everett (Jake Horowitz), and a high school student, Fay (Sierra McCormick), who works the town switchboard and shares Everett’s fascination with radios, recorders, and the like.

As Everett and Fay converge inside the gym, director Andrew Patterson has the wit to allow us to believe that we’re discovering these characters for ourselves as the camera just happens to land on them. Right away, they radiate their intelligence in contrasting fashions: Everett is confident yet sarcastic, on the border of being a know-it-all, while Faye is earnest and attentive. They exist somewhat apart from the Cayuga community at large, and they quickly shunt off to their respective offices, the churches of their obsessions. The Vast of Night is a homage to genre shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, even featuring its own faux credits montage, but it’s truly a riff on the intimacy of radio dramas.

Patterson’s tracking shots and big, soft, beautiful Scope images are clearly indebted to John Carpenter’s films. Yet Patterson has absorbed more than Carpenter’s pyrotechnical style, as he understands the melancholy soulfulness of the legend’s best work. With its obsession with radio callers, who gradually reveal a potential alien invasion, The Vast of Night most explicitly suggests the radio station-set scenes from The Fog if they were to be expanded to compose an entire film. Talking to people in radio land who recognize an eerie droning sound that comes through on a phone line, Everett and Faye clearly relish the collaboration of solving a mystery and of symbolically assembling their own radio thriller. And Patterson and screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger never break the incantatory spell with pointless freneticism, patiently savoring the great thrill of genre stories: anticipation.

The Vast of Night features several long monologues in which older people tell Everett and Faye of their experiences with clandestine military projects. Informed with a hushed intensity, these monologues allow various political resonances to seep into the narrative. For example, one caller (Bruce Davis) to Everett’s radio show doesn’t expect anyone to believe him because he’s black and elderly, a suspicion that he acknowledges with a poignant matter-of-factness. And as Everett and Faye hear increasingly odd stories, you may find yourself reconsidering that tracking shot at the start of the film, which captured a breadth of community from which Everett and Faye largely exclude themselves. They’re uncovering the sadness lurking under a small town—the racism, communist paranoia, and heartbreaks that cause people to yearn for a supernatural explanation as a way of evading their sense of helplessness.

Late into The Vast of Night, Patterson springs another tracking shot that reveals the proximity of Cayuga High School, the town’s switchboard, and the radio station to each other. They’re all close to one another but separated at night by gulfs of darkness and emptiness. The film doesn’t offer much in the way of a payoff, lacking the kinetic savagery of Bruce McDonald’s similarly themed Pontypool, but that’s the point. The lovely, wistful The Vast of Night pivots instead on a decidedly friendlier vision of localized culture, decades before corporations would unify most radio into a detached, impersonal stream of advertisements.

Cast: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer, Bruce Davis, Cheyenne Barton, Gregory Peyton, Mallorie Rodak, Mollie Milligan, Ingrid Fease, Pam Dougherty Director: Andrew Patterson Screenwriter: James Montague, Craig W. Sanger Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 91 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: On the Record Is a Richly Contextualized Look at Rape Culture

On the Record implicates nothing less than the entirety of American culture in hip-hop’s sins.




On the Record
Photo: HBO

Misogyny has been a sticking point for critics of hip-hop ever since the genre became a cultural phenomenon in the late 1980s and ‘90s. For those who not only value the artistry of hip-hop, but also recognize it as the defiant aesthetic expression of an oppressed population, calling out systemic sexism within that culture is a fraught undertaking. The accusation that rappers perpetuate demeaning ideas about women can also serve as ammunition for conservatives uncomfortable with black self-expression—and, moreover, can feed into historical representations of black men as inherently sexually aggressive.

As Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s documentary On The Record stresses, a fear of betraying black America as a whole has led to a culture of silence among black women involved in the music industry that may be even more pervasive than that in the white Hollywood circles where the Me Too movement has been the most visible. When they do come forward, these women are inevitably speaking against the backdrop of the sordid, shameful role black sexuality has played in America’s oppression of its black population—to the lynchings of black men on accusations of sexual transgression, to the Senate’s steamrolling of Anita Hill in 1992.

The film focuses on the sexual assault allegations that led to hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons’s 2017 fall from grace, and in particular on former Def Jam executive Drew Dixon’s mindset as she brings herself to tell her story to the New York Times. But thanks to dips into history that show the roots of black misogyny in the abuses and iniquities of a racist society, as well as a critical mass of testimonies from activists and academics that provide a contextual framework, On the Record implicates nothing less than the entirety of American culture in hip-hop’s sins. At the origin of black women’s reticence stands nothing other than slavery, the U.S.’s original sin, which began the dehumanizing tradition of treating black women as disposable sexual objects and viewing black men as potentially dangerous sexual predators.

Simmons’ victims’ sense of their own complex relations to such historical power structures emerges from the film’s lucid recounting of the sexual assault allegations against him. “I didn’t want to let the culture down,” Dixon explains of her decision to keep the fact that Simmons raped her in 1995 private for more than two decades. As a black woman, she felt she faced additional pressure to stay quiet and limit her—and Simmons’s—exposure. Beyond her concern about detonating the career of an important black figure, she recalls watching Hill’s testimony during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings and realizing that when a woman publicly accuses a man of serious sexual violations, the perverse result is that the perpetrator is able to align his reaction with that of the public, affecting disgust and outrage. As the accuser, she says, “you are defiled again because you have to tell people, and it’s on your lips.”

There’s a tragic irony here that a more literary-minded documentary might bring to the fore: that a musical form focused so intently on the power of the spoken word—and on the black voice in particular—gives rise, in its thoroughly capitalized form, to a culture that denies the voices of black women. Hip-hop attained mass appeal in part by leaning hard into hypermasculine display and “explicit” lyrics, but now, like the old boys’ club of the 1991 U.S. Senate, institutional hip-hop stands aghast at the words on the lips of abused women. Simmons has persisted in his denial of any wrongdoing whatsoever, and as with so many powerful men, the chorus that sprung up to defend him was only slightly tempered by the accelerating accumulation of accusers. (Dixon was among the first four accusers; there have been 16 more, many of whom appear in the documentary.)

On the Record lets such abstract themes as who gets a voice in hip-hop remain mostly implicit. As in Dick’s The Hunting Ground, which Ziering produced and documented the prevalence of rape on college campuses, the filmmakers approach their subject with journalistic rigor, leaving the interpretation to Dixon and the other interviewees. “We all lose when brilliant women go away,” rues former Source writer Kiera Mayo toward the end of the film, reflecting on how, despite her successes, Dixon left the industry after continued harassment by Simmons and Arista chief L.A. Reid. It’s a melancholy realization. While the culture of ‘90s hip-hop has become an object of nostalgic longing akin to boomers’ beloved classic rock (as evidenced by films like Straight Outta Compton), On the Record suggests a different vision of the era—one that longs more for what could have been than what was.

Director: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering Distributor: HBO Max Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: As Melodrama, The High Note Barely Strikes a Chord

Everything here wraps up as tidily as it does in your average Hallmark Channel movie.




The High Note
Photo: Focus Features

Nisha Ganatra’s The High Note is ostensibly about the virtues of taking risks in art-making, of sacrificing the comforts of coasting on past successes for the hard-won rewards of creating something new. And yet the film itself is as formulaic as they come, an agglomeration of soap-operatic story beats and music-industry clichés whose low-key tone may be an attempt at channeling the naturalism of Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born but comes off instead as tentative, as if Ganatra were afraid of really leaning into the big, unruly emotions simmering beneath The High Note’s placid surface.

At the heart of the film is the ambition and self-doubt of Maggie Sherwood (Dakota Johnson), a personal assistant who dreams of producing records, and her boss, Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), a Diana Ross-like diva facing a crossroads in her career. Grace is deciding whether she wants to risk her legacy by releasing a new album or take the easy road by accepting an offer to headline her own show at Caesars Palace. Her longtime manager (Ice Cube) presses her to cash out with the Vegas residency, but Maggie encourages her—as much as she can, given her relatively junior position—to make some new music. Meanwhile, Maggie covertly produces her own mixes of Grace’s live recordings in the hopes that she can convince Grace to hire her instead of a slick EDM producer (Diplo, playing an air-headed version of himself) who wants to bury her soulful pipes under layers of Auto-Tune and pounding beats.

Flora Greeson’s screenplay is peppered with some clear-eyed wisdom about the entertainment world, such as its observations about the way that so much of the music industry is based around managing artists’ deep-seated insecurities. The characters’ occasional speechifying about the difficult position that women in music often face is on point, if a bit perfunctory, but more incisively, it’s used to subtly suggest the way that these very real obstacles can be used as scapegoats by people, like Grace, who are afraid to simply put themselves out there. But these brief moments of insight are largely overridden by the film’s weak-kneed plotting, repetitiveness, and corny contrivances. Practically every conflict the film raises is resolved just a few scenes later. The film never allows its characters to do anything cruel or mean or misguided without almost immediately absolving them of responsibility.

Nowhere is this tendency more prevalent than in a subplot involving Maggie’s relationship with a talented but self-doubting musician, David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Everything comes to a head when Maggie attempts to orchestrate a plan to get the opening act (Eddie Izzard) for Grace’s live-album release party to drop out, which will give David the opportunity to perform in front of a bunch of industry big wigs, not to mention Grace herself. While in a different film, this scheme might have served as a big hokey climax, here the whole thing summarily blows up in Maggie’s face, causing her to get fired by Grace and get dumped by David. But while that semi-subversion of our expectations is certainly welcome, The High Note simply trades one unconvincing plot contrivance for another when, just a few scenes later, a major revelation precipitates a rapid succession of reconciliations between characters.

Everything wraps up as tidily as it does in your average Hallmark Channel movie, with no character being forced to sacrifice anything or make a truly difficult decision. Maggie, Grace, and David all make up and record an album together (Maggie naturally produces), and the film closes with Grace and David performing a triumphant concert for a huge crowd of screaming fans as Maggie watches adoringly from backstage. The characters in The High Note talk a lot about the unfair challenges of the music world, but the film ultimately reaffirms what the audience already knows: that success has a lot more to do with who you know—and who you’re related to—than it does about hard work or artistic integrity.

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Zoë Chao, Ice Cube, June Diane Raphael, Deniz Akdeniz, Bill Pullman, Eddie Izzard, Diplo Director: Nisha Ganatra Screenwriter: Flora Greeson Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 113 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: In Darya Zhuk’s Crystal Swan, Touching Is Dreaming

Throughout the film, it’s as if mundane objects hold the remedies for the wretchedness of everyday life.




Crystal Swan
Photo: Loco Films

Darya Zhuk’s 1990s-set Crystal Swan centers around Velya (Alina Nasibullina), a young woman who refuses to conform to the provincial miserabilism of Belarusian life. Being a DJ, house music provides her with some much-needed escapism, but she dreams of fleeing to America—or, at least, a fantasy of America where every kid has their own bedroom and parents knock before they come in. That’s the antithesis of Velya’s life in Minsk, where her mother (Svetlana Anikey) spends her days chastising Velya and mourning the troubles caused by the collapse of communism: no money, no pension, no rules.

In order to obtain a tourist visa, Velya needs to show the American embassy that she has strong links to her place of residence. The jobless young woman pretends, then, that she’s a manager at a crystal-making factory, putting down a fake number for the workplace on the application form. But when she’s told that the embassy will call her back in the next few days, Velya rushes to find the home associated with the random number she made up.

Eventually, Velya discovers that the number belongs to a family in the countryside who are in the midst of making preparations for the wedding of their eldest son, Stepan (Ivan Mulin), a bitter young man traumatized by his days in the army and resigned to marrying a woman he doesn’t love. Velya ends up spending the next two days with the dysfunctional family as she tries to convince them to lie for her when the embassy calls. The presence of a weird girl from Minsk trying to use the supposed simpletons so she can flee to America makes some in the family resent her and others to question their previously held truths, as if Velya brought with her from the big city the prickly reminder that resignation is not all there is to life.

Zhuk crafts an exquisite tale of doom and gloom colored by a farcical ethos, from Velya’s no-holds-barred audacity and kookiness (shades of Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan) to the physical comedy-derived drunkenness as the lingua franca of family get-togethers. But the film’s most remarkable quality is perhaps the way Zhuk so delicately arranges these two currents—namely, the more absurd elements that initiate the film and the progressively visceral sequences where Velya might as well be the little girl with the dead cat in Sátántangó, a much more nihilistic take on post-Soviet desolation. In the latter moments, Velya assumes the position of the terrified child watching the pathetic theater of her elders through the window, and the desolate future that awaits her if she doesn’t run for the hills.

Crystal Swan is also rich in analogical pleasures, which are rooted in the film’s narrative premise and rife with metaphorical possibilities, as in the way Zhuk pays special attention to the materiality of ‘90s objects and the sounds they make. The entire plot revolves around a telephone that will supposedly ring. But when and if it does, will Velya be there to answer it? Will anyone be around to hear it? Bulky phonebooths, posters on teenager’s walls, the mechanical clicking of a photo camera—none of it feels like anodyne technological kinks.

When a VHS tape gets stuck in a VCR, people are forced to go outside and play. Cassette tapes appear as a potentially radical archive passed on to Stepan’s younger brother, Kostya (Ilya Kapanets), who may think twice—thanks to the liberating power of house music—about the naturalization of violence. It’s as if mundane objects hold the remedies for the wretchedness of everyday life. How they work and how they break appear as opportunities for daring to seize the possibility of going elsewhere and for debunking supposedly irreversible things.

Cast: Alina Nasibullina, Ivan Mulin, Yuriy Borisov, Svetlana Anikey, Ilya Kapanets, Anastasia Garvey, Lyudmila Razumova Director: Darya Zhuk Screenwriter: Helga Landauer, Darya Zhuk Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Lovebirds Is Weighed Down by Plot Incident and Silly Twists

Once the film shifts into a broader comedic register, it no longer capitalizes on Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae’s gift for gab.





Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae) are past the honeymoon phase depicted in the brief prologue to The Lovebirds. When we pick up with them four years later, they’re in the midst of a heated argument that, after some time, reveals itself to be about something far more petty than it first appears: whether they can win The Amazing Race.

At its best, Michael Showalter’s film revels in loose, digressive humor, as in a scene where Jibran and Leilani discuss the differences between a gangbang and an orgy. The couple is playful and clever in equal measure, yet every fight between them confirms that their relationship is past its due date. That is, until an encounter with a killer cop (Paul Sparks) on their way to a friend’s party that makes them realize that they’re better off together—at least until they can exonerate themselves for the crime that will likely be pinned on them.

The film’s opening act banks heavily on the chemistry between Nanjiani and Rae, who effortlessly bounce witty, seemingly improvised lines off one another. Throughout, you don’t doubt that their characters are still very much in love, even as you understand that they’ve grown tired of dealing with each other’s shortcomings. When the film rests primarily on Nanjiani and Rae’s verbal riffing, it’s quite winning and consistent in delivering jokes that are not only funny, but also speak to the root causes of Jibran and Leilani’s personality clashes.

While it’s initially content to keep its focus on the bickering duo as they continue to drive each other mad while trying to solve the murder they witnessed, The Lovebirds regrettably becomes weighed down by plot incident and silly twists. The film foists the couple into a bizarre underworld of political corruption, widespread blackmail, and sex cults, shifting into a significantly broader comedic register that no longer capitalizes on its stars’ gift for gab. As Jibran and Leilani’s relationship woes progressively take a back seat to the formulaic unfolding of a needlessly convoluted, and rather dull, mystery, The Lovebirds slowly derails as it settles into the predictable patterns of many of the action rom-coms that have come before it.

Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Issa Rae, Paul Sparks, Anna Camp, Kyle Bornheimer, Catherine Cohen, Barry Rothbart, Andrene Ward-Hammond, Moses Storm Director: Michael Showalter Screenwriter: Aaron Abrams, Brendan Gall Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Painter and the Thief Suggests an Intimate Hall of Mirrors

Throughout the documentary, Benjamin Ree upsets conventions, offering a moving portrait of two lost souls.




The Painter and the Thief
Photo: Neon

For The Painter and the Thief, director Benjamin Ree filmed Oslo-based painter Barbora Kysilkova for three years as she befriended Karl-Bertil Nordland, a drug addict who was convicted of stealing two of her paintings from a museum. The documentary initially thrives on forms of misdirection, as Ree allows us to believe that we’re watching a traditional study of contrasts: between an established professional woman and a tormented bad boy. We’re also led to assume, potentially by our own prejudices, that Kysilkova will be the film’s central consciousness, with Nordland as an intimidating and remote “other.” Through skillful chronological scrambling that consistently redefines moments, underscoring the subjectivity of each person, Ree upsets these conventions, offering a moving portrait of two lost souls.

The Painter and the Thief suggests an intimate hall of mirrors, in which artistic creation parallels addiction. Kysilkova responds to Nordland’s life force, basing several drawings on him, while Ree utilizes them both for his cinema, while Nordland at times consumes drugs, particularly during a painful relapse. No person is singularly understood as being “used” here, as the various relationships are symbiotic, with Nordland’s addiction suggesting a substitute for the intoxication that Kysilkova and Ree achieve through art-making. Nordland has the soul of an artist as well, as he’s sensitive, observant, and given to poetic observations, suggesting a vessel who’s looking for a purpose, which Ree and Kysilkova each provide. (You may wish that Ree had brought himself more into his own frames, adding another mirror and deepening the film’s auto-critical texture in the tradition of, say, Robert Greene’s work, but Ree probably, and understandably, didn’t wish to distract from his commanding subjects.)

In a primordially powerful moment, Nordland weeps when he sees the first photoreal canvas that Kysilkova has rendered of him, as she’s turned him into an elegant man in a white hoodie swishing a glass of red wine. In her lifelike yet slightly stylized paintings, Kysilkova physicalizes Nordland’s dreams of stability and respectability, granting him the gift of her attention. The paintings allow Nordland to enter a world he felt beyond him, symbolically rejoining community after years of the semi-isolation that’s fostered by addiction. Little of these impressions are directly expressed, which would dilute the spell, but Ree’s intimate compositions allow us to feel as if we can read the stirrings of Kysilkova and Nordland’s souls.

We first see the thief through the painter’s eyes. Tall, with a lean, tatted-up frame, Nordland is charismatic and sexy, suggesting an outlaw version of actor Timothy Olyphant. There’s something else about Nordland that perhaps only people with experience with addiction will be especially alive to: His visceral emotional pain suggests a perpetual atonement for his wrongdoings, and this atonement suggest the potential for transcendence, which appeals to artists and people with savior complexes, such as Kysilkova.

Transcendence arrives much later when Nordland goes to prison for another crime, after a lengthy stay in a hospital for a car accident that nearly killed him, and gradually cleans up, grows out a beard, and puts flesh as well as muscle on his body. Nordland is a stubborn survivor who’s willing to suffer for the camera and canvas alike; he’s volatile, profoundly lucky, and seems to achieve a hard-won grace. Drinking coffee with Kysilkova near the end of The Painter and the Thief, he’s softer, cuddlier, and less threatening that he was before prison, and, rediscovering carpentry, he’s even becoming an artist. At a certain point in the film, Nordland resembles less a subject of Kysilkova’s than an old coconspirator.

The viewer also sees the painter through the thief’s eyes, though these alternating perspectives harmonize as Ree continues to hopscotch around in time, offering more context and allowing us to grow to love both people equally. While Kysilkova sees Nordland, Ree sees both of them, to whom he has astonishing access. Meanwhile, Nordland also sees more of Kysilkova than she probably knows, as Ree has an acute understanding of how people can damn near smell one another’s pain, finding their own emotional water level. Kysilkova was once abused by a boyfriend and fled to Oslo to escape him. Devastated, she gave up painting for a while until a new boyfriend helped to rehabilitate her self-confidence. And the first painting she created upon her rebirth, “Swan Song,” is one of the ones that Nordland stole with an accomplice who wasn’t caught. This resonance is almost too good to be true, as Nordland almost literally accessed the secret heart of Kysilkova’s torment.

One of the film’s most palpable tensions is pointedly undiscussed. Kysilkova and Nordland appear to be attracted to one another, and they touch and converse with the sort of casual sureness that usually arises from sustained romance. Perhaps Ree believes that the distinction between a sexual and artistic union is unimportant or none of our business, though Kysilkova’s boyfriend is clearly concerned at times. And maybe the distinction doesn’t matter, as Kysilkova and Nordland have enjoyed a relationship that seems to have healed them, allowing them to face their gnawing hatred of themselves. Whatever labels are applied and whatever other additional actions were taken, Ree has caught a love story in a bottle.

Regardless of their romantic status, The Painter and the Thief ends with an unmistakable consummation: on a medium shot of Kysilkova’s painting of the pair laying intimately on a couch together, Kysilkova’s face replacing that of Nordland’s ex-girlfriend, the actual model for the painting. This is a projection of Kysilkova’s, perhaps of a desire she won’t or can’t actualize, which she instead utilizes to fashion a beguiling, idealized communion. In this canvas, the various social distinctions between Kysilkova and Nordland have been obliterated. Ree has enabled two people to broker a connection on camera in front of us. To capture such a birth, or to at least appear to, is to perform a kind of magic act.

Director: Benjamin Ree Distributor: Neon Running Time: 102 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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