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Understanding Screenwriting #6: The Women, Appaloosa, The Closer, Burn Notice, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #6: The Women, Appaloosa, The Closer, Burn Notice, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Three act structure; The Women; Appaloosa; The Closer; Burn Notice; 90210, but first…

Fan Mail: Since there were no comments at press time on US#5, let me just give a welcome to Michael Peterson, who has started the Comics Column for House Next Door. There was a suggestion here a while back about starting such a column and I was delighted to see Keith picked up on. On the basis of the first column, Michael is obviously the perfect guy for the job. I particularly appreciated his comments on American Splendor, my favorite adaptation of a comic.

I do want to throw in a reply I made to a former student of mine who recently asked if I knew of any good scripts that were written with a five-act rather than a three-act structure. He wanted to know because his script appeared to have five acts. Since I have never been big on the whole act structure for films, here is what I replied to him:

“Just as you can divide any film into three acts, you can also divide it into five acts. I have a particular preference for four, but that’s only because I ran track in high school and one of my events was the mile run, which was four times around a quarter mile track. I just got used to thinking in terms of fours. If you think I am joking, look at all the screenwriting textbooks that talk about the three act structure but disagree on exactly how long each act should be. The main thing is to keep the story moving forward and keep us involved with the characters and the story. If you do that, nobody is going to count the acts, however they count them.

“The three-act structure, by the way, comes from the Broadway theatre of the 1930s and 40s. Almost no stage play written now uses three acts. They are either a long one-act, or two acts. Shakespeare, by the way, used what was then the traditional five acts, so I supposed you could use a film of one of his plays as an example. Is this whole question to settle a bar bet? I can’t imagine it has a serious purpose.”

That settles that. Now on to some films and television shows.

The Women(1936 stage play by Clare Boothe. 1939 film: screenplay by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin; based on the play by Clare Boothe; 132 minutes. 1956 film The Opposite Sex: screenplay by Fay Kanin and Michael Kanin; based on the play by Clare Boothe; 117 minutes. 2008 film: written by Diane English; based on the play by Clare Boothe Luce and the screenplay by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin; 114 minutes): While for many people, the most anticipated film of 2008 was either The Dark Knight or Iron Man, I had high hopes for the second remake of The Women.

What is odd about that is that I had never particularly liked the play or even the classic 1939 film adaptation. All those women being bitchy to each other got a little tiresome. To prepare for seeing the new version, however, I went back and read the play again and saw the 1939 film. And I liked them both a lot more than I had before. The play was written by Clare Boothe after she married the head of Time-Life, Henry Luce (in both the play and the 1939 and 1957 films she is only credited as Clare Boothe; the Luce was added for the newer version. I am not sure what she would have made of that). Boothe discovered that the New York City society women she was now hanging out with were spoiled brats. What struck me most reading the play this time is that Boothe fills the play with working class women who serve the rich ones as maids, cooks, nurses, et al. The working class women act as a Greek chorus, commenting on the stupidities of the rich. This gives the play a wider view of the world of women than its reputation would have it.

The first drafts of the 1939 film were done by Jane Murfin. In those days, before the Writers Guild took over the arbitration of writing credits, the studios tended to give the top credit to the writer who worked on the material last. Today, the Writers Guild of America has reversed the process and gives top billing to the writer who first worked on the project, since he or she has done most of the heavy lifting in shaping it for the screen. The screenplay generally follows the play, which tells the story of Mary, who learns her husband Stephen is having an affair with Crystal, a salesgirl. Mary’s girlfriends encourage her to deal with the situation in various ways as Mary tries to keep her pride. She loses her husband to Crystal, then at the end of the play outsmarts Crystal and appears to be about to get him back. The play is in three acts (see what I said above about Broadway shows in the thirties?), with twelve scenes in eleven different sets. Murfin uses all but one of the scenes. She drops the scene where Edith, one of Mary’s friends, has just given birth to yet another child. In the script for the film, Edith’s fecund nature, a running gag in the play, has been reduced to an early shot of her with several kids, and then a payoff joke later that she has eight children. She only has four children in the play, which still gives Boothe a great line from Mary to Edith: “Are you Catholic or just careless?” The line is not in the film, since it would never have gotten past the Catholic Legion of Decency at the time.

The 1939 film’s director, George Cukor, was not entirely happy with the script and asked the legendary screenwriter and novelist (Gentleman Prefer Blondes) Anita Loos to come in and liven it up. It was Loos who wrote the opening scenes in which we see some of Mary’s friends in their natural habitats, as well as an introduction to what looks like a combination beauty salon and gym. Loos retains a surprising amount of Boothe’s raunchy wit. Miriam, a woman Mary meets at the ranch in Reno, where it was traditional for women to go to get relatively quick divorces, talks about the local cowhand as having “a big horse” and wonders if he can get his legs together. In the final scene of the play and film, there is a line from a woman about her married lover saying, “And he says: ’My wife always expects me home on Easter Sunday.’ So I says, ’What’s she expect you to do? Lay an egg?” Alas, most of the comments by the working class women have been cut, although a few survive, but they are not as hard-bitten as the ones in the play. The film, produced by MGM, has been sentimentalized, mostly by extended close-ups of Norma Shearer as the long-suffering Mary. It also pushes the glamor quotient by adding a fashion show, filmed in Technicolor (the rest of the film is black and white). Even the joys of Technicolor don’t keep it from stopping the show, and not in a good way. Neither Loos nor Cukor wanted it, but the studio did. On the other hand, Loos (probably) has written a much better farewell speech for Crystal than Boothe did. Boothe’s Crystal just tells Mary she has become a cat, but Loos and Joan Crawford’s Crystal is allowed a gallant exit speech.

In 1956, when the major studios were desperately remaking anything that had been a hit before, MGM remade The Women as The Opposite Sex. They turned it into a musical, alas a year before the perfect composer/lyricist for it, Stephen Sondheim, had his first Broadway show. And they added the male characters, who are off-stage and off-screen in the play and the 1939 film. None of these changes improved it, although a young Joan Collins is not terrible as Crystal. No Crawford, but not bad.

The main reason I was anticipating the 2008 remake is that it is written (and directed) by Diane English, best known as the creator of television’s Murphy Brown. Surely if there is anyone who could bring The Women up to date, it would be English. Murphy Brown, as well as Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s Designing Women and both the series and film of Sex and the City have given us a modern contemporary look at the wit of women. In fact, it may be that the play and 1939 film did not seem as bitchy as legend would have it because those series and films have made bitchiness more commonplace than it was in the thirties. After all, The New York Times said in its review of the 1939 film, “So marvelous that we believe every Hollywood studio should make at least one thoroughly nasty picture a year,” rightly implying that the studios did not.

The structure of the new film follows the structure of the 1939 film for nearly three-quarters of its running time, but with several new scenes in place of the last two scenes of the play and the 1939 film. The film is still about Mary and her husband being stolen by Crystal, but whereas Boothe’s play and Murfin and Loos’s screenplay was ruthlessly focused on that subject, English’s script wanders off onto a whole plethora of other subjects. English’s film is perhaps even more about the tradition of consumption of this class of women, but without much of Boothe’s satirical edge, which Murfin, Loos, and most likely MGM dulled a bit in the film. Perhaps this is because the new film is stuffed to the gills with tie-ins from big name firms nobody wanted to offend. While Boothe, Murfin and Loos spread the scenes around in various stores, much of the new version takes place at Sacks, which leads Sylvia, one of Mary’s friends, to tell one of Edith’s complaining kids that “Nobody. Hates. Sacks.” In Boothe’s world that would be satire, here it is simply affirmation. In Boothe’s world, only Nancy, a lady author, works (Nancy is a self-admitted virgin—who somehow was dressed in the 1939 film as very butch, which in turn may have led English to make the equivalent character in her script openly gay). Sylvia in this version is the editor of a fashion magazine. A little after midway in the film, we get so many scenes with Sylvia at work that we think the movie is becoming about her rather than Mary.

In the play, Little Mary, Mary’s 11 year-old daughter, is very observant about marriage, at one point commenting, “But Mother, even when the ladies do do things, they stop it when they get the lovie-dovies. … Ladies always end up so silly.” Almost none of that made it into the 1939 film, and none of that is in the current version. Instead we have Little Mary, now renamed Molly, worried about hitting puberty. Not quite the same thing.

While English retains some edge in the shopping scenes, she loses that edge completely when Mary begins to try the self-help route after Stephen leaves her. If there is any subject ripe for a no-holds barred satire, it is the self-help movement. Boothe and Loos would have had a field day with the subject, but English, like way too many people in Hollywood, takes it seriously (as Hollywood tends to with psychiatrists; when was the last time you saw a shrink as an object of fun in a Hollywood film?). Instead of Mary going off to Reno to get a divorce, she now goes off to a spa to find herself. Instead of the gallery of interesting characters the earlier Mary met at the ranch, the current Mary meets a Hollywood agent nicknamed the Countess, the equivalent of the real Countess in the earlier version. This leads to a scene with the usual satirical jabs at Hollywood, but it goes nowhere, since unlike the earlier Countess, who contributed to the plot, this one never appears again. See what I mean about a lack of focus?

So Mary finds herself, and rekindles her interest in dress design, yet another subplot that takes us away from the heart of the story. At least the fashion show in this version makes a plot point. And the clothes actually look like something a real woman might wear, as compared to most fashion shows in real life and the movies. There is even some indication at the end of the fashion show that Stephen may come back, but it gets lost in the hullabaloo of the fashion show and the inevitable run to the hospital when Edith has to give birth to yet another child. Edith has said earlier that she wants to keep having children until she has a boy. Guess what? This time she has a boy, the only male character to show up on screen. And he completely undercuts the focus of the film on the sisterhood of women. It should have been a girl baby.

English retains much of the structure of the Murfin-Loos screenplay, and she uses variations on some of the new scenes Murfin and Loos came up with. One scene from the 1939 film that is not in the play has Sylvia and Edith confronting Crystal at her work. It was probably Loos who wrote the scene, because it gives Crystal a whole range of attitudes to play when she is dealing with customers, on the phone with Stephen, and talking to Sylvia. Crawford is wonderful in the scene. Eva Mendes is Crystal this time around, and while you can more easily imagine a guy being immediately seduced by Mendes than Crawford, Mendes does not deliver the way Crawford does. This is not because Mendes is not yet the actor Crawford was, but because the scene has been so watered down there is not enough for her to work with. Likewise, English does not give Mendes anything like the gallant speech Loos gave Crawford.

English has said in interviews that she wanted to focus on the women as supportive friends rather than bitchy friends. This is probably what leads to the lack of focus. The problem simply is that she has not rethought the entire story in contemporary terms. In 1988 there was yet another remake of The Front Page called Switching Channels. The big idea behind it was to redo The Front Page in terms of television news. It simply did not work because the realities of television news kept bumping up against the mechanics of the original story. The year before, Broadcast News told a similar story of a triangle of people involved in television news, but James Brooks had completely re-imagined it in terms of what he knew and researched about television news. It was an infinitely better film than Switching Channels. The 2008 The Women is Switching Channels. What we need is the Broadcast News version of The Women.

Appaloosa(2008. Written by Robert Knott & Ed Harris. Based on the book by Robert B. Parker. 108 minutes): It is always nice to see a western on the big screen, where it belongs. Even better in this case, where it has more virtues than flaws.

Critics who have read Parker’s novel say that the film is faithful to the book, including large chunks of dialogue. The dialogue, especially between Cole and Hitch, the two free-lance lawmen hired to clean up the town of Appaloosa, is first rate. The men have worked together for twelve years and are as laconic talking to each other as two Sundance Kids with no Butch Cassidy beside them yacking away. The two actors, Ed Harris (Cole) and Viggo Mortensen (Hitch), under Harris’s direction, do as much as any two actors can with what Parker and the screenwriters have given them.

The story focuses on the two as they deal with the local bad guy, Bragg (Jeremy Irons, borrowing the same imitation of John Huston that Daniel Day-Lewis used in There Will Be Blood). One of the flaws in the script is that we do not know exactly what Bragg does, or why he needs his gang of men to do it. They are useful to threaten Cole and Hitch at several points in the story, but they seem to have no other function. As several critics have pointed out, the film has some family resemblance to both Rio Bravo (without all the waiting around Howard Hawks wanted in Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett’s screenplay) and both versions of 3:10 to Yuma. There are enough twists and turns so that Appaloosa never seems like a mere ripoff. Narratively it is a lot more interesting than the trailers for it would lead you to believe, with a number of surprising twists and turns.

One set of those twists involve Annie, a widow who arrives in town shortly after Cole and Hitch do. The writing never sets up those twists (although the first big one is telegraphed earlier than it should be) as well as it could, and then does not develop them well. Because of these writing flaws, Renée Zellweger, who is not awful here, is rather at sea in the part. If you do not have it on the page, the actors cannot give it to you, and Harris as director cannot push her into giving a better performance than the script can support.

On the non-screenwriting side of the film, it should be noted that Viggo Mortensen has a great hat. Never underestimate the importance of great hats in westerns.

The Closer (2008. Episode “Time Bomb” written by Steven Kane. 60 minutes): I have been dealing with opening episodes of series, so how about a couple of half-season finales? The summer series of The Closer ended with this episode, and the second half of the series will show up in January. In this episode, there are at least two elements that connect to continuing stories.

In an earlier episode this season, “Sudden Death,” the brother of Det. Julio Sanchez was killed and he went a little crazy trying to find the murderer. There have been references to his dealing with this in the intervening episodes. “Time Bomb” deals, as the title suggests, with a set of bombs a bunch of teenage boys had planted at a mall. In the final shootout with the one remaining teenage boy, Sanchez is seriously wounded. In the half-season cliffhanger, he is being airlifted to a hospital. We are supposed to be concerned as to whether he will survive. After all, we have seen him through the death of his brother, which has made him a little more prominent in the last few episodes than previously. Extra-textually, this may tell us that the producers were giving the actor playing Sanchez, Raymond Cruz, a nice send-off as he leaves the show. Or the producers are knowingly doing this thinking the audience is going to think this. Or Cruz has been lobbying for more money and the producers are taking a hard negotiating stance. I have not heard any rumors about him wanting to leave the show, but he’s not a big star like William Peterson on CSI, so rumors may not have hit the media. (Yes, that is a real possibility. Honestly.) We will just have to wait until January.

The other plot thread is the closing down of Deputy Chief Johnson’s Priority Homicide Unit, which she has managed to manipulate into being turned into the Major Crimes Division. In the previous episode, “Tijuana Brass,” her boss, Chief Pope, made the change. The only real reference to it in this episode is an observation that now being Major Crimes as opposed to Priority Homicide means they cannot get the medical examiner to the scene of the crime as quickly as they did before. After setting that up, it turns out the ME is late because of a family matter. So the change in names may or may not play out later.

Since I am writing on The Closer for the first time, let me mention how good the show has been at developing the other members of Deputy Chief Johnson’s squad. Every one of them gets at least a line or two in each episode and, most importantly, a couple of good reaction shots. Since we know the people, a quick reaction shot tells us what they are thinking. Reaction shots are the lifeblood of screenwriting and filmmaking.

Burn Notice (2008. Episode “Good Soldier” written by Alfredo Barrios Jr. 60 minutes): The setup for this series is that spy Michael Weston was given a “burn notice,” effectively taking him out of the spy business, closing all his bank accounts, keeping him from access to any of his former compatriots, etc. It happened in Miami (but luckily we do not get as many shots of bikini babes as we do in CSI: Miami) where his mother and ne’er-do-well brother live, along with a couple of friends who still talk to him: Sam, an ex-F.B.I. agent, and Fiona, an ex-IRA gunrunner. Michael takes jobs helping people.

At the end of the first season, Carla, who knows why Michael was burned, contacted him, and this half season has had as its continuing storyline Michael’s attempts to find out from her who burned him and why. Those story elements are generally the B, or secondary story, of any episode they appear in, but the promotion for the finale of the half season was that he would finally learn who burned him. No such luck. He thinks he has figured out what Carla has been using him for: to set up a sniper doing an assassination. Michael thinks if he can stop the assassination, he can get back in the “company’s” good graces. Carla, however, has set him up yet again, and the episode ends with him narrowly escaping death as a bomb planted in his house explodes.

The upside is the show will get a new set for the winter episodes, but the downside is that it drags out any resolution of his overall situation. The writers may be writing themselves into a hole with this storyline. If Michael finds out and can get off the burn list, the nature of the show changes. See Mr. Peepers (1952-1955) or Moonlighting (1985-1989) as examples of shows with that problem. The writers of course could find a creative way to make his finding out make things worse for him rather than better. If the writers keep dragging out the story, we may give up on the show. See Twin Peaks (1990-1991) for the classic example of this.

90210 (2008. Episode “The Bubble” written by Dailyn Rodriguez. 60 minutes): The characters have not gotten more layered since I wrote about this show in US#5, and the plotting is just as klunky. In this episode, Dixon, the black adopted son in the Wilson family, accidentally knocks loose a wing mirror on another student’s car and tries to pay for it himself rather than report it on the insurance. Eventually Harry, his dad, finds out and … offers to pay the cash himself, with Dixon paying him off. That is known as letting your characters off too easily.

Again, the older characters are underutilized. One of the casting inspirations of the show was to hire Jessica Walter, Lucille Bluth herself, as Tabitha Wilson, Harry’s former movie star mother. When the director of the high school stage show has to leave for personal reasons, Tabitha volunteers to take over. The scenes of Tabitha terrorizing the kids in the show are wonderful, but Annie, her granddaughter, is embarrassed. So she is replaced by Brenda. Shannen Doherty is no Jessica Walter.

The hype for this episode centered on Kelly and Brenda having a fight, just like the good old days. It’s not a fight per se, just a mild argument over the fact that the guy Kelly likes has actually talked to Brenda and understandably asked her about the father of Kelly’s child. Brenda told him nothing, obviously, because the show has still not figured out which male cast member of the original they can get to re-appear. If you were not listening closely you might think that Dylan was identified as the father in this scene, but he wasn’t. Brenda just tells Kelly that she, Kelly, is still in love with Dylan. Which doesn’t mean squat.

The nominal leads of the show are the two Wilson kids, Dixon and his sister Annie, but at least in this episode the focus is more on the beautiful rich bitch Naomi. Partly that is because she is the most active of all the characters, constantly stirring up trouble. Partly because she is played by AnnaLynne McCord, a young actress with what used to be Charlize Theron’s face and the ability to smolder effectively on-screen. Viewers of Nip/Tuck will remember her as the omni-sexual Eden, who made out with men, women, small furry animals, and venetian blinds. The quality serves her well here.

I am afraid I am going to have to stop watching 90210, however. I am diabetic and the show has already given me more than the American Diabetes Association’s annual limit of cute teen-aged girl hair tosses.

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: Jumanji: The Next Level Finds a Series Stuck in Repeat Mode

The moments in which the film’s blockbuster stars play memorably against type are quickly subsumed by the ugly chaos of the action.

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Jumanji: The Next Level
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji: The Next Level visibly strains to justify its existence beyond the desire for profit. The wild success of its predecessor guaranteed another entry in the series, but there’s so little reason for its characters to return to the video game world of Jumanji that this film struggles to orient them toward a collision course with destiny.

Now scattered to the winds of collegiate life, Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and Bethany (Madison Iseman) keep in touch via group text as they plan a reunion over winter break. Kasdan shoots these moments with excruciating pauses that would seem a deliberate reflection of the awkward cadences of texting were the characters’ in-person conversations not every bit as stilted and arrhythmic. It’s hardly any wonder, then, that Spencer, already so anxiety-ridden, is driven to such insecurity over the possibility that the members of his friend group went their separate ways that he reassembles the destroyed Jumanji game in order to feel some of the heroism he did during the gang’s earlier adventure.

Soon, Spencer’s friends discover what he did and go into Jumanji to get him, the twist this time being that everyone gets assigned to a different player than they were last time, complicating their grasp of the game’s mechanics. But making matters worse is that Jumanji also sucks in Spencer’s grandfather, Eddie (Danny DeVito), who gets assigned Spencer’s old hero, Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), as well as Eddie’s estranged business partner and friend, Milo (Danny Glover), who’s placed into the body of zoologist Frankling Finbar (Kevin Hart).

The sight of Johnson and Hart shaking up their stale partnership by play-acting as old men briefly enlivens The Next Level after 40 minutes of laborious setup and leaden jokes. Watching the Rock scrunch up his face as he strains to hear anyone and speaking every line in a high, nasal whine with halting confusion does get old after a while, but there’s an agreeable hint of his tetchy, anxious performance in Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales to be found here.

Hart may be even better, tempering his exhausting manic energy by running to the other extreme to parody Glover’s deliberate manner of speaking. The actor draws out every sentence into lugubrious asides and warm pleasantries even in the midst of danger. In the film’s only laugh-out-loud moment, Milo spends so much time spouting asinine facts that he fails to prevent Eddie from losing a player life, prompting a baffled and anguished Milo to lament, “Did I kill Eddie by talking too slow, just like he always said I would?”

But such moments, in which the film’s blockbuster stars play against type, are quickly subsumed by the ugly chaos of the action. There’s no sense of escalation to The Next Level, with each set piece almost instantly collapsing into a busy spectacle of eluding stampeding animals, running across rope bridges, and taking on waves of enemies. There’s no weight to any of these sequences, nor to the game’s new villain, a brutal conqueror (Rory McCann) who embodies all the laziness of the writing of antagonists for hastily assembled sequels.

Likewise, for all the emphasis on video game characters who can be swapped out on a whim, it’s the players themselves who come across as the most thinly drawn and interchangeable beneath their avatars. None of the kids have any real personality, merely a single defining quirk that makes it easy to identify them when their avatars mimic them. And when the film pauses to address some kind of character conflict, be it Spencer and Martha’s ambiguous relationship or Eddie and Milo’s attempts at reconciliation, it only further exposes the film’s meaninglessness. The original 1995 film, disposable as it may be, finds actual pathos in its menacing escalation of horrors and the existential terror of contemplating a lifetime stuck in the game as the world moved on. The Next Level, on the other hand, is a moribund, hollow exercise, dutifully recycling blockbuster and video game tropes without complicating either.

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Ser’Darius Blain, Morgan Turner, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Awkwafina, Rhys Darby, Rory McCann Director: Jake Kasdan Screenwriter: Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 123 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Chinese Portrait Is a Grand Reckoning with the Passage of Time

The drama here is in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t.

3.5

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Chinese Portrait
Photo: Cinema Guild

As a recording apparatus, the camera no longer disturbs or announces its presence. It’s a ghost in the room, as banal as a limb. Xiaoshuai Wang restores the exceptional status of that most revolutionary of technical devices in Chinese Portrait, a series of short-lived tableaux vivants for which the gravitational pull of the camera is re-staged.

The simplicity of bodies barely moving before a camera that brings their quotidian temporality into a halt is nothing short of a radical proposition in our digital era—in the context of a culture obsessed with using cameras precisely as anti-contemplation devices, and a film industry still so invested in producing artificial drama in order to tell its stories. In Chinese Portrait, there’s no need for storylines, tragedy, or spectacle for drama to emerge. The drama is in the minutia of the mise-en-scène, in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t. The drama is in the camera’s de-escalating force, its ability to refuse the endless excitation it could provide in favor of one little thing: elderly people stretching in a park, black and brown horses in a field, two of them licking each other’s backs. This is the camera not as a Pandora’s box, but as a sharp laser beam with curatorial intentions.

The drama here is also in Chinese Portrait’s very concept, which is similar to that of Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames, where motion is born out of prolonged stillness, and to that of Susana de Sousa Dias’s works on the effects of Portuguese dictatorship, Obscure Light and 48, where stillness is all there is, photographs namely, and yet so much moves. Wang’s film also bears a kinship with Agnès Varda’s later work, where a human being is made singular in a fast-moving world by standing still and recognizing the device that records them. Both Varda and Wang seem to see sacrilege in taking the camera for granted. A couple of tableaux in Chinese Portrait derail the notion of the individual embossed from their habitat by the camera’s insistent gaze, as in a group of men kneeling down to pray, their backs to the audience, and a later segment of a crowd standing entirely motionless in the middle of an abandoned construction site, sporting scarves and winter jackets, staring at the camera in unison.

Something remains quite alive and oddly “natural” within the documentary’s portraits as Wang’s mostly still subjects inhabit the gap between staging and posing by appearing disaffected. Or perhaps they’re stunned by modernity’s deadlock. Everyone seems perpetually in transit yet perpetually stuck. Wang’s fleeting portraits feature Chinese folk confronting the lens in their everyday environments, but not all of them react to the camera’s might in the same way. Some stand still and stare while others look away, but they’re all largely aware of the recording device singling them out as muses of the landscape.

The portraits offer evidence of differing temporalities in this numbingly fast world, too convinced of its universal globalism. Evidence of conflicting temporalities within worlds, too, as some subjects in the same frame bother to stop and others go on about their lives. In a provincial alleyway, various men sit on stoops from foreground to background. Some stare into the horizon—that is, a cemented wall, the film’s most recurring motif. Others refuse to allow the viewers to be the only ones looking. Several bathers on a sandy beach stare at the off-camera ocean, except for one man wearing a large fanny pack, certainly staring at us behind his shades. At a construction site, an excavator digs while another worker sits on a slab of concrete, gawking at us as we gawk at them. A man rests his hands on his hoe to look at the camera with a half-smile, like someone from the 1980s, who may approach the cameraperson to ask what channel this is for and when he can expect to be on television.

Through the sheer power of blocking, the methodical positioning of elements in the frame, Wang reaches back to a time when there was an interval, a space for waiting and wondering, between an image being taken and an image being seen. Another temporality, indeed, captured by cameras, not telephones. That was back when sharpie scribbles would don the tail end of film reels, which are kept in the frame here by Wang, as one portrait transitions into the next. The filmmaker’s urgent reminder seems to be that it’s not all just one continual flow. Time can actually stop, and we can choose to look or to look away.

Director: Xiaoshuai Wang Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 79 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Bombshell Is a Collection of Quirks in Search of a Trenchant Criticism

The film is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Roger Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.

1.5

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Bombshell
Photo: Lionsgate

With Bombshell, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph make heroes of the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the late chairman and CEO of Fox News who was accused by several former employees—including star anchors Megyn “Santa Just Is White” Kelly and Gretchen Carlson—of sexual harassment in 2016. The filmmakers keenly depict these women’s courage and fixate on the toxic culture at Fox that fostered so much fear and intimidation, but Bombshell is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.

The film begins in the summer of 2016 with the Republican Party presidential debate in Iowa, where Kelly (Charlize Theron), the moderator, confronts Donald Trump with highlights of his long history of misogyny. This grilling, and her increasingly—if relatively—feminist stance on the Fox News daytime program The Kelly File, is met by backlash from the ascendant Trump cult, as well as Ailes (John Lithgow), whose professional relationship with Kelly at first seems productive in spite of its combativeness. Meanwhile, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from another Fox program, The Real Story, possibly for her own newfound—if, again, relative—feminism, and counters by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes.

Waiting for colleagues to make similar accusations in order to bolster her case, Carlson is left twisting in the wind by a collective fearful silence—a silence that even fierce former victim Kelly obeys—while Ailes and his litigation team prepare a defense. A third storyline involves “millennial evangelical” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing the many ambitious young women who suffered Ailes’s demeaning treatment in order to get ahead at Fox and the other organizations for which he worked.

Bombshell operates in a style that has become numbingly de rigueur since Oliver Stone’s W., in which political and corporate corruption are presented in a dramatic yet amiably humorous style that takes the edge off any potentially trenchant critique. Fourth walls are broken, jokes punctuate scenes, and the ambiance remains oddly congenial despite the purportedly suffocating and repressive environment of the Fox News offices.

Thankfully, there are moments when the actors transcend the too-casual tone. Lithgow portrays Ailes not merely as a dirty old man, but as a pitiful control freak whose disgusting actions unwittingly reveal a deep insecurity. The tensely coiled Kelly is a mass of contradictions, and one argument that she has with her husband, Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass), over an embarrassingly fawning follow-up interview with Trump is memorable for allowing Theron to reveal the strain imposed on Kelly by conflicting personal, professional, and political allegiances. Robbie—frequently playing off a versatile Kate McKinnon’s co-worker/lover—moves from bubbly naïveté to painful humiliation with convincing subtlety.

And yet, Bombshell is predicated on several dubious ideas that ultimately blunt its power. The film relishes the downfall of a public figure, as well as the growing chaos of a divided Fox News. By the end of the film, we’re expected to feel righteous satisfaction when justice comes to Ailes in the form of a disgraceful resignation. But such a response can only feel hollow when the country continues to suffer from widespread problems cultivated by Fox from the same sexist, callous, and exploitative worldview at the root of Ailes’s behavior. The film only briefly and tangentially explores this worldview, and mostly uses it to simply highlight conservative hypocrisy and the general sliminess of the Fox organization.

Bombshell also delights in referencing battles fought among high-profile public figures, emphasizing the kind of inside baseball that the media routinely focuses on instead of more complex and endemic manifestations of national issues. Rather than understand Ailes’s harassment in relation to the sexism so deeply embedded in American corporate media and culture, the filmmakers reduce that sorry tradition to the confines of the Fox News offices and elite legal channels. This approach allows viewers to understand the organizational and legal pressures that made it so hard for Carlson and others to speak out about Ailes, but once Carlson files her charges, the abuse that she and others endured becomes overshadowed by competitive backroom negotiations and maneuverings.

The film reinforces this emphasis with gratuitous appearances by actors playing famous Fox News personalities (Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity) who are tangential to the narrative, as well as cutesy direct-address segments meant to make us feel in the know about the world of Fox. This is the stuff that Roach, who’s mostly directed broad comedies, and Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short, clearly relish, but rather than connecting with the viewer through these strategies, Bombshell mostly feels insular, remote, and superficial. It would be nice if for once an accessible mainstream film took on the institutional powers that detrimentally shape our world with anger and incisiveness rather than a bemused concern.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Charles Randolph Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity

Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.

2.5

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Richard Jewell
Photo: Warner Bros.

Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.

Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.

Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.

Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.

In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.

In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)

Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.

Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.

Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate

This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.

2.5

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Cunningham
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.

Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.

Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”

As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.

In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.

Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.

Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line

There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.

1.5

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The Two Popes
Photo: Netflix

Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.

This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.

The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.

Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.

The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.

Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.

That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.

As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.

The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.

Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence

The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.

3

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Empty Metal
Photo: Factory 25

The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.

Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).

Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.

Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”

Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.

Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.

By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.

Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.

Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother

It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.

3

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The Disappearance of My Mother
Photo: Kino Lorber

Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.

The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).

Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.

It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.

That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.

Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”

In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.

Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality

Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.

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Eddie Redmayne
Photo: Amazon Studios

“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.

The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.

Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.

During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.

Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.

What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?

What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.

I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.

As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?

It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.

How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.

Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.

You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?

We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.

Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.

[laughs]

That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?

I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.

Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?

Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.

You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?

That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.

Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?

When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.

Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?

Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.

The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?

I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!

I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.

That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.

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Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.

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Midnight Family
Photo: 1091 Media

Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.

For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.

Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.

Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.

Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.

Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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