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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: The White Crow Sees Art As Being Above and Beyond Politics

Ralph Fiennes’s film too conspicuously avoids an overt political perspective.

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White Crow
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Director Ralph Fiennes’s The White Crow, which tells the true story of ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s 1961 defection to France, opens in a small office in Leningrad, where ballet instructor Aleksander Ivanovich Pushkin (Fiennes, speaking lightly accented Russian) is assuring a security-apparatus bureaucrat that Nureyev’s defection isn’t political. “It’s about dance,” the soft-spoken Pushkin says. “He knows nothing about politics.”

We might consider that a manifesto for The White Crow itself, because throughout the film, the West, as embodied by thriving, early-‘60s Paris, is identified “apolitically” with individual freedom and artistic expression. Pushkin’s interview with the nameless bureaucrat serves as a framing device, within which the film cuts between three different timelines in Nureyev’s (Oleg Ivenko) life, culminating in his decision, under duress from the KGB, to defect to France.

The first of these timelines concerns Nureyev’s bleak childhood in Siberia. Famously, the dancer was born on a train, a scene that the film articulates in shorthand, with color-drained, blue-gray footage it will use for all its scenes set in war-torn Russia. Fiennes and screenwriter David Hare construct a correlation between Nureyev’s natal mobility and his adult need to go places, cutting from the train to the Mariinsky Ballet Company’s flight to Paris in 1961. In Paris, the arrogant Nureyev carelessly pushes the boundaries set by the company’s KGB chaperones, leaving the hotel before dawn to spend the morning in the Louvre, and staying out all night at gay clubs and cabarets with Westerners.

On the Paris social scene, he befriends Clara Saint (Adéle Exarchopoulos), a beautiful socialite whose main attraction for Nureyev appears to be that she’s recently bereaved (her fiancé recently died in a car accident). It’s here the film articulates one of its major themes, and one of Nureyev’s fascinations: the creation of beauty from ugliness. In the Louvre every morning, Nureyev contemplates Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, a Romantic depiction of death and suffering. So too, does Nureyev’s expressive dancing—traditionally feminine in its naked passion, according to him—turn the ugliness of his childhood into something beautiful.

Ultimately, the film suggests, the fiercely individualist Nureyev will defect because the West makes this transmutation of pain into beauty—that is, the expressive freedom of the individual artist—possible. It’s an historical argument that has basis in fact but which is troublesome here in its thoroughgoing de-politicization of art in the West. Unlike Paweł Pawlikowski’s masterful Cold War, which problematizes cultural authenticity in both communist Poland and ‘50s Paris, The White Crow presents Paris as the gateway to a realm of pure, unmediated self-expression. In reproducing the romantic cliché of the artist as tortured genius, this biopic is certainly not alone nor even the worst sinner, but its representation of art as a realm above and beyond politics is too idealized. It functions to make the West seem an aesthete’s utopia, even as the film appears to avoid an overt political perspective.

The film’s third timeline begins six years prior to the trip to Paris, with Nureyev’s arrival at the Mariinsky school in Leningrad. There, Nureyev insists on taking classes from Pushkin rather than from his assigned teacher, and he and Pushkin develop a personal friendship. The friendship is complicated by Nureyev’s barely concealed affair with Pushkin’s wife, Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova), and made all the more awkward by the young man’s clear sexual preference for men (it’s also implied that Pushkin himself is a closeted gay man).

Fiennes’s Pushkin ends up feeling one-note, always wearing the same tender expression, with affected gestures one suspects are meant to denote the grace of a former ballet dancer but seem all the time like the strategic choices of an actor acting. Ivenko, by contrast, disappears into his role, lending a depth to his ambitious and irascible character that makes the man sympathetic even as he thoughtlessly insults Clara and betrays Pushkin.

Despite Ivenko’s convincing performance, The White Crow is weighed down by its multifold flashback structure, particularly the monochromatic vignettes from the dancer’s childhood. While these flashbacks provide a psychological rationale for Nureyev’s incorrigible individualism and barely suppressed inner conflict, the digital color draining of these scenes increasingly feels like a cheap way of connoting the dire conditions of postwar Russia. Rather than merely oppressive, these flashbacks start to feel redundant, a quality one might attribute to the film’s overly elaborate narrative structure as a whole.

Cast: Oleg Ivenko, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Ralph Fiennes, Raphaël Personnaz, Chulpan Khamatova, Sergei Polunin, Calypso Valois, Louis Hoffman, Olivier Rabourdin Director: Ralph Fiennes Screenwriter: David Hare Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 127 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: J.T. LeRoy Is a Scarcely Subjective Telling of Great Literary Hoax

It’s disappointing that so much of the film feels like mere tilling of the soil.

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J.T. Leroy
Photo: Universal Studios Home Entertainment Content Group

J.T. LeRoy was known as the author of three books across the late 1990s and early aughts. A reclusive, HIV-positive trans man, LeRoy was hailed as a wunderkind upon the publication of Sarah, which the San Francisco Chronicle boldly called “comically Dickensian.” In actuality, LeRoy never existed, as he was a persona, or avatar, willed to vivid life by writer Laura Albert as a means of saying what she felt she couldn’t say as herself.

As co-writer and director Justin Kelly’s film J.T. LeRoy begins, demand for LeRoy is at a fever pitch, perhaps even at a breaking point, as Albert (Laura Dern) is seen desperately recruiting her younger sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart), to play the part of this persona in public, with Albert assuming the role of LeRoy’s overbearing handler, “Speedie.” It’s a spectacular ruse that the pair managed to sustain for six years.

It’s hard to not look at such a weird set of circumstances and see its resultant mold-breaking controversy as foreshadowing, perhaps even enabling our present-day social-media moment and obsession with identity politics. As an examination of the power of celebrity and the easily muddled nature of truth, the film seems to implicitly understand that the creation and eventual exposure of the LeRoy hoax speaks to something deep in the heart of a culture in the midst of an identity crisis, but based on what’s on screen, it’s hard to say exactly what that is.

Highly aware of its own meta-textual richness, the film, adapted by Kelly and Knoop herself from her memoir Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy, is at its most interesting when it feels like its inhabiting rather than telling LeRoy’s story. When Speedy and LeRoy engage with fans and press in a haphazard fashion, there’s suspense in the spectacle of every question and answer that’s exchanged—that a grand ruse will be exposed at any moment.

Dern and Stewart convince us that such a stunt could be pulled off not so much in spite of but thanks to its utter absurdity, and among many standout details in the film is a moment when Speedy and LeRoy greet a collaborator (Courtney Love, one of many real-life celebrities who were enmeshed in the real-life saga) with a gift bag consisting of mini-onions, baked beans, and a neck pillow. Such details feel too strange to not be true, and they lend a sublime authenticity to the climactic images of Stewart, as LeRoy by way of Knoop, at the Cannes Film Festival—a cinematic black hole of sorts, with the spectators at the event horizon.

It’s disappointing, then, that so much of J.T. LeRoy feels like mere tilling of the soil. Cursive on-screen text and a ponderous, recurring voiceover lend the film the quality of a notebook doodle. Worse, though, are Kelly’s flat compositions and the script’s impersonal adherence to the beats of biopic storytelling. Aesthetically and narratively, the film lacks the fire—the slippery subjectivity—that we associate with the explosiveness of the J.T. LeRoy saga.

Though successful in presenting how something so outlandish could happen with such apparent ease, J.T. LeRoy fails to sufficiently probe the deeply personal needs of both authors and consumers that drive creation. Dern and Stewart do such a fine job of telling us how it feels to be someone else that you wish for the filmmaking to meet them at their level.

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jim Sturgess, Courtney Love, Diane Kruger Director: Justin Kelly Screenwriter: Justin Kelly, Savannah Knoop Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment Content Group Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Ang Lee’s Gemini Man, Starring Will Smith, Gets Official Trailer

Ang Lee’s three-year marriage to the 120fps format appears to be in strong shape.

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Gemini Man
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Ang Lee’s last film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, was praised on these pages for astoundingly animating the mind of its young soldier. The film, shot in 3D at a resolution of 4K, was supposed to be some kind of game-changer. But its 120fps format, which is almost three times the 48fps that Peter Jackson used for The Hobbit, annoyed just about everyone for resembling a soap opera or football game.

Nonetheless, Lee’s has remained committed to the format. His latest film, Gemini Man, tells the story of an aging assassin (played by Will Smith) who’s being chased by a younger clone of himself. Admittedly, the hyper-real textures of the film look more convincing than those of either Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk or The Hobbit. But you can make your own assessment from the two-minute trailer that Paramount Pictures released today:

Paramount Pictures will release Gemini Man on October 11.

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Review: Avengers: Endgame Is, Above All Else, a Triumph of Corporate Synergy

Every serious narrative beat in the film is ultimately undercut by pro-forma storytelling, or by faux-improvised humor.

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Avengers: Endgame
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

“Let’s get that son of a bitch,” says Captain America (Chris Evans) near the beginning of Anthony and Joe Russo’s Avengers: Endgame, the supposed big-screen finale to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we now know it. Cap, that sacred symbol of American might, is of course profaning Thanos (Josh Brolin), the purple colossus whose hand of fate, bedecked with the six Infinity Stones, erased half the world’s population during the cliffhanger climax of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War. The victims included many among the superheroic, several of whom have movies on the docket. So there’s no way the remaining commodities—I mean, Avengers—are going to go down without a fight.

It’ll take a while to get to the final showdown, of course. About two hours and 45 minutes of the three-hour running time, to be exact, all of it filled to bursting with goofy one-liners, aching stares into the middle distance, and lots and lots of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey digressions. Almost all of the Avengers’s founding team members are on hand, with a considerably more grizzled and cynical Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner) providing most of the pathos. Also in attendance are Scott “Ant-Man” Lang (Paul Rudd) and Carol “Captain Marvel” Danvers (Brie Larson), the latter of whose won’t-take-no-guff brashness is especially endearing to a certain gruff, hammer-wielding Asgardian.

I’d tell you more about the film, but then I’d have to kill myself at the spoiler-averse Marvel Studios’s behest. Even noting certain elements out of context—like, say, “Nerd Hulk” or “Lebowski Thor”—might be considered too revealing by the powers that be. So, let’s dance around the narrative architecture and instead ruminate on whether this 22nd entry in the MCU serves as a satisfying culmination of all that’s preceded it.

That’s a firm no, though the Russo brothers and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely certainly lean hard into the dewy-eyed, apocalyptic sturm und drang. You’d think they were putting the finishing touches on the Bible. There are allusions to The Leftovers, J.G. Ballard’s The Terminal Beach, and Picasso’s Guernica, though there’s never a sense, as in those works, that society is truly in irrevocable decay. It’s all good, even when it isn’t: Death is a mostly reversible ploy, and sacrifice is a self-centered concept, a burnish to the ego above all else. It’s telling that, in one scene, Captain America stops to admire his own ass.

There’s some fleeting fun to be had when Endgame turns into a sort of heist film, occasioning what effectively amounts to an in-motion recap of prior entries in the MCU. Yet every serious narrative beat is ultimately undercut by pro-forma storytelling (the emotional beats never linger, as the characters are always race-race-racing to the next big plot point), or by faux-improvised humor, with ringmaster Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr., so clearly ready to be done with this universe) leading the sardonic-tongued charge. Elsewhere, bona fide celebs like Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Natalie Portman are reduced to glorified extras. Even the glow of movie stardom is dimmed by the supernova that is the Marvel machine’s at best competently produced weightlessness.

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Danai Gurira, Benedict Wong, Jon Favreau, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Brolin, Evangeline Lilly, Tessa Thompson, Frank Grillo, Winston Duke Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo Screenwriter: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 181 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Festivals

Cannes Directors’ Fortnight Lineup Includes The Lighthouse, Zombi Child, and More

In addition to Directors’ Fortnight, the festival announced the films that would screen as part of the ACID lineup.

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The Lighthouse
Photo: A24

Five days after Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux revealed the films that would be competing for the Palm d’Or this year on the Croisette, the Cannes Film Festival has announced the films that will screen as part of the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight. Among those are Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, a dark fantasy horror film starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson shot on 35mm black-and-white film stock, and Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, which recounts the destiny of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who was famously said to have been turned him into a zombie.

See below for the full lineup, followed by the ACID slate.

Directors’ Fortnight Lineup:

Opening Film

Deerskin (Quentin Dupieux)

Official Selection

Alice and the Mayor (Nicolas Pariser)
And Then We Danced (Levan Akin)
The Halt (Lav Diaz)
Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää)
Song Without a Name (Melina León)
Ghost Tropic (Bas Devos)
Give Me Liberty (Kirill Mikhanvovsky)
First Love (Takashi Miike)
The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
Lillian (Andreas Horwath)
Oleg (Juris Kursietis)
Blow It to Bits (Lech Kowalski)
The Orphanage (Shahrbanoo Sadat)
Les Particules (Blaise Harrison)
Perdrix (Erwan Le Duc)
For the Money (Alejo Moguillansky)
Sick Sick Sick (Alice Furtado)
Tlamess (Ala Eddine Slim)
To Live to Sing (Johnny Ma)
An Easy Girl (Rebecca Zlotowski)
Wounds (Babak Anvari)
Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)

Closing Film

Yves (Benoît Forgeard)

Special Screenings

Red 11 (Roberto Rodriguez)
The Staggering Girl (Luca Guadagnino)

Shorts

Two Sisters Who Are Not Sisters (Beatrice Gibson)
The Marvelous Misadventures of the Stone Lady (Gabriel Abrantes)
Grand Bouquet (Nao Yoshigai)
Je Te Tiens (Sergio Caballero)
Movements (Dahee Jeong)
Olla (Ariane Labed)
Piece of Meat (Jerrold Chong and Huang Junxiang)
Ghost Pleasure (Morgan Simon)
Stay Awake, Be Ready (An Pham Thien)

ACID Lineup:

Features

Blind Spot (Pierre Trividic, Patrick-Mario Bernard)
Des Hommes (Jean-Robert Viallet, Alice Odiot)
Indianara (Aude Chevalier-Beaumel, Marcello Barbosa)
Kongo (Hadrien La Vapeur, Corto Vaclav)
Mickey and the Bear (Annabelle Attanasio)
Solo (Artemio Benki)
As Happy as Possible (Alain Raoust)
Take Me Somewhere Nice (Ena Sendijarevic)
Vif-Argent (Stéphane Batut)

Third Annual ACID Trip

Las Vegas (Juan Villegas)
Brief Story from the Green Planet (Santiago Loza)
Sangre Blanca (Barbara Sarasola-Day)

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Film

Review: Carmine Street Guitars Is a Beautiful Portrait of an Everyday Paradise

The film celebrates the thingness of things, as well as the assuring clarity and lucidity that can arise from devotion to knowledge.

3.5

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Carmine Street Guitars
Photo: Sphinx Productions

The concept of Carmine Street Guitars is simplicity itself. Director Ron Mann documents the legendary Greenwich Village guitar store of the film’s title over a period of five days, watching as mostly famous customers stroll in to peruse and play instruments and shoot the breeze with guitar maker Rick Kelly. There’s no voiceover, no overt narrative, and little orienting text—and none of the encounters in this film are structured or presented as info-bite-style interviews. Mann artfully sustains the illusion of someone who’s just hanging out, capturing whatever draws his attention. Consequentially, the documentary communicates the magic of this place even to someone who’s never been to New York City.

Mann has a knack for telling you more than he appears to be. Fashioning intimate compositions, he surveys Kelly and his apprentice, Cindy Hulej, as they build guitars together in companionable silence. Kelly and Hulej are a poignant study in contrasts: Kelly is a graying sixtysomething man with a bit of a belly, while Cindy is a lean twentysomething woman who, with her bright blond hair and multiple tattoos, suggests a rock star. Occasionally, Hulej will solicit Kelly’s approval for one of her designs or for the artwork or poetry she’s burning into the back of a guitar, which he grants with a humble hesitation that subtly says, “You don’t need my approval.” Meanwhile, up front in the store, Kelly’s mother answers the phone. At one point, she says she’s happy to be here, though, at her age, she’s happy to be anywhere.

Shots of Kelly and Hulej working also allow one to savor the tactility of Carmine Street Guitars itself. Hulej works to the left of the back of the store, while Kelly stays to the right of it. Above Kelly is a storage of wooden planks taken from various landmarks of New York, such as Chumley’s and McSorley’s. Kelly poetically says that he likes to build guitars from the “bones of New York.” The resin dries out in older wood, allowing for more openings in the material which in turn yields greater resonation. Such fascinating details arise naturally in the film’s images and conversations. Over the course of Carmine Street Guitars, Kelly fashions a McSorley’s plank into an incredibly evocative guitar, as the gnarled wood gives it the appearance of possessing scar tissue. Near the end of the documentary, musician Charlie Sexton walks in and plays this guitar, and the idea of scar tissue takes on a different meaning. Sexton, Kelly, and the store itself are textured survivors of another era.

This is never explicitly stated in Carmine Street Guitars, but the film offers an analogue daydream in a 21st century that’s been nearly gentrified to death by corporations. The building next to Carmine Street Guitars was once used by Jackson Pollack and is now being sold by a yuppie real estate agent for six million dollars. The yuppie walks into the guitar shop, drooling over the potential sales opportunity, and his entrance feels like an obscenity—a return to the reality that we frequent stores like Carmine Street Guitars, and films like Carmine Street Guitars, in order to evade. It’s only at this point that Kelly’s democratic bonhomie hardens into defensive contempt, as he virtually refuses to speak to the agent. This episode haunts the film, suggesting a fate that can only be bidden off for so much longer.

Carmine Street Guitars celebrates the thingness of things, as well as the assuring clarity and lucidity that can arise from devotion to knowledge. Kelly’s guitar shop is a cocoon, a place of contemplation, and so it feels inevitable when Jim Jarmusch walks into the store. After all, Jarmusch’s recent films, like Only Lovers Left Alive and Paterson, also celebrate creation and erudition while ruing the arrival of a new culture that’s hostile to such desires. Kelly and Jarmusch talk about the filmmaker’s new guitar, which is partially made from Catalpa wood, leading to a riff on the trees that have been formative in each man’s life. In another moving interlude, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline searches for a guitar for frontman Jeff Tweedy, settling on an instrument that reflects Kelly’s own characteristic design: a telecaster with a dropped horn. Such moments reveal artisanship to be a form of communion, as a personal object for Kelly has been refashioned into a symbol of another artistic partnership.

These themes and associations bob under Carmine Street Guitars’s surface, as musicians noodle around with Kelly. This pregnant sense of implication is Mann’s supreme achievement, and as such the film risks being taken for granted as a charming little diversion, when it should be celebrated as a beautiful portrait of an everyday paradise. When Hulej weeps in gratitude, on her fifth anniversary of working for Carmine Street Guitars, you want to weep with her.

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Film

Review: Hyènas Brilliantly Chips Away at a City’s Colonialist Architecture

Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1992 film resonates primarily for its lacerating comedic writing and pacing.

4

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Hyènas
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Djibril Diop Mambéty spared no one when mercilessly depicting populations who were simultaneously eating themselves from within and being exploited by the economic interests of outside forces. Mambéty’s great Touki Bouki from 1973 viewed this dual process through the prism of the postcolonial relationship between Senegal and France. And in Mambéty’s second feature, 1992’s Hyènas, Senegal is pitted against larger global institutions, such as the World Bank, that prey on small nations whose financial instability makes them more likely to embrace warped logic and false promises at their own expense.

Mambéty confines the proceedings to Colobane, a small commune in Dakar, where its population and governmental order are turned upside down by the return of former resident Linguere Ramatou (Ami Diakhate), whose newfound wealth has become a subject of much dispute and angst within the community. The woman, who’s said by locals to be “richer than the World Bank,” becomes Mambéty’s stand-in for how an institutional form of thinking, with its financial rather than human emphasis, corrupts local interests by vacuously promising short-term riches to citizens that, in turn, produce long-term financial crises.

One of Mambéty’s primary strengths is how his sense of detail instantly brings the locations of his films to life. Hyènas opens within the market owned by Dramaan (Mansour Diouf), a beloved local merchant whose generosity with patrons is almost immediately apparent, as he allows several customers to purchase expensive goods on credit rather than having them pay up front. Mambéty establishes each nook and cranny of the market’s space through a series of static shots that gradually reveal the amount of people—none of which offer payment for their acquisitions—toiling around the premises. When Dramaan’s wife (Faly Gueye) appears, and Dramaan says, out of her earshot, that she disapproves of his business practices, it’s the first suggestion in Mambéty’s carefully plotted script that mutual trust is the first casualty in the exchange of money between people linked to differing motivations. As the Colobane community takes even greater advantage of Dramaan later in the film, Hyènas further turns the man’s plight into an absurdist tale of capitalism’s follies.

Linguere’s return to Colobane provides the film with its driving plot device, as she announces to the population that she will pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the community in exchange for Dramaan’s murder. Linguere was abandoned by Dramaan years prior after giving birth to their daughter and has come back with the sole intention of wreaking havoc on the man’s life. At least, it initially seems that way; in a later scene, Linguere explains, “The world has made me a whore,” and so she plans to “turn the world into a whorehouse.”

Mambéty imagines how Linguere’s wealth co-signs her agenda of revenge; her dangling of expensive goods over the heads of locals hungry for their piece of the pie is akin to the lie of global monetary cooperation promised by organizations like the International Monetary Fund. Senegal, once again, becomes dependent on global rather than local sources of income and exchange. Mambéty, though, follows the thematic example set by Ousmane Sembène’s Xala, in which a Senegalese politician’s sexual impotence is a symbol of his corruption, by refusing to exonerate local officials within Senegal for their complicity in embracing Westernization. When Dramaan meets with Colobane’s mayor (Mamadou Mahourédia Gueye) to discuss the bounty that’s been placed on his head, the latter says, “[Leopold] Senghor himself went for a walk with the Queen of England…if we were savages, they would not come here.” By implicating the mayor’s deference to Western forms of knowledge and self-definition, Mambéty deftly wrestles with the complexity of corruption’s reach.

Despite its rather serious and finally tragic appraisal of Senegal’s quagmire within the world system, Hyènas resonates primarily for its lacerating comedic writing and pacing. As Dramaan comes to mistakenly believe that he will be elected Colobane’s next mayor, only to learn that, in fact, he’s more likely to be killed before an election takes place, Mambéty ratchets up the film’s ludicrousness to simultaneously critique the Senegalese government and widespread consumerism, and with equal ferocity. This is best encapsulated by the moment where Dramaan realizes that everyone who isn’t paying him seems to own the same, new pair of yellow boots made in Burkina Faso. Dramaan’s market, filled with foreign goods ranging from European tobacco to Coca-Cola, is itself exploiting its owner; the man has paid a high price for quality only for the local marketplace to abuse his ambitions.

These ideas also propelled Touki Bouki, in which a pair of college-aged youths from Dakar, a city adored with so many Pepsi logos and Mobil oil towers, (dream of migrating to France. In a memorable scene from that film, a pair of French professors dismiss Senegal’s local culture by articulating the distinctly colonialist logic of France’s superiority. While Hyènas forgoes such an explicit drag of French supremacy, the film’s lucid indignation and satirical take on Senegal’s raw deal proves just as convincing.

Cast: Ami Diakhate, Mansour Diouf, Calgou Fall, Faly Gueye, Mamadou Mahourédia Gueye, Issa Ramagelissa Samb, Dijbril Diop Mambéty Director: Djibril Diop Mambéty Screenwriter: Djibril Diop Mambéty Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 1992

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Film

Review: Chasing Portraits Is Welcome Personal Testimony, but Its Scope Is Narrow

Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

2.5

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Chasing Portraits
Photo: First Run Features

Before World War II, Poland’s Jewish population was the largest in Europe, numbering over three million. Afterward, only 10% of that populace remained. Although the current right-wing Polish government prefers to suppress this fact, the 300,000 surviving Jews faced continued persecution at the hands of gentile Poles—themselves the victims (though to a much lesser degree) of Nazi persecution. Today, when the number of Jews in Poland is well under 10,000, one can visit the old Jewish quarters in cities like Warsaw and Krakow, where street kiosks sell small plastic caricatures of Hasidic Jews. On the streets, though, you’re unlikely to encounter any actual Hasids.

In her trip to Warsaw in search of her great-grandfather’s lost paintings, Chasing Portraits director Elizabeth Rynecki stumbles across these figurines. As she observes in voiceover, there’s nothing overtly demeaning about the miniature, jovial, cartoonish Jews, but the image they project doesn’t feel right, given local history. And one must agree that there’s an undeniable aspect of minstrelsy to them: Unlike her great-grandfather Moshe’s textured scenes of Jewish life in Warsaw, they’re almost certainly not self-representations. Given the Jewish culture that was destroyed in Poland—and whose richness is embodied by Moshe’s few surviving paintings—the grinning trinkets seem all the more like frivolous kitsch.

Rynecki’s discovery of these unsettling souvenirs is potentially one of the most interesting parts of Chasing Portraits, given that she happens across them while on the trail of lost Jewish art. As a curator at a Warsaw museum observes to the filmmaker, Moshe’s work depicts traditional moments of Jewish culture in a distinctly modern sensibility, attesting to the robustness of the Jewish culture on the eve of its destruction. In this way, his paintings are the opposite of the post-facto plastic caricatures, and Rynecki’s confrontation with the mass-produced simulacra of absent Jews is a moment when her highly personal documentary almost extends toward a wider perspective. But she doesn’t linger for too long on what the Holocaust and Judaism mean in Poland today, as she’s on her way to ask a private collector named Wertheim about how his family managed to acquire some of Moshe’s works.

Rynecki’s insular approach works well early on in the film, when she, in conversations with her father, outlines who her great-grandfather was and what his surviving paintings mean to the family. Of around 800 works that Moshe painted before he was murdered at the Majdanek death camp, just over 100 survive in the possession of the family, with an unknown number in the hands of private collections and Polish museums. That much is a miracle, but Rynecki—more so, it seems, than her father, a Holocaust survivor himself—wants to discover more. In the film, we see her consult with historians, compose emails to private collectors, and read excerpts of her grandfather George’s memoirs, in preparation for her trip to Poland.

Chasing Portraits is about Rynecki’s investigative process rather than Moshe’s paintings themselves; in voiceover, she narrates each step of her process as she takes on the role of amateur historian. And in maintaining an intense focus on her investigation—how she reads out the emails she writes to institutions, and shows us footage from each flight she takes from one corner of the world to another—the film raises probing questions that it dutifully bypasses. Her encounters with the Wertheim family are a case in point: The first Wertheim brother claims the family own paintings by Moshe because they bought it from a farmer, but the second tells the more plausible story that they have the paintings because their parents, resistance fighters hiding in the Polish woods, raided them from a bombed-out train.

In Rynecki’s narrative, these conflicting stories become a personal conundrum: If the paintings were looted rather than bought, she may be able to make a claim on them. In the end, it’s Rynecki’s growth, her decision about whether or not to become a claimant, that structures the film. But this approach means skirting over other thematic threads that might have emerged from this project, such as the ethics of museum versus private ownership of recovered art like Moshe’s, the meaning of art in desperate times, the politics of remembrance in Poland. Chasing Portraits is thus valuable as part of an expansive mosaic of personal testimonies to the legacy of the Holocaust, but it’s a documentary of sometimes disappointingly narrow scope. Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

Director: Elizabeth Rynecki Screenwriter: Elizabeth Rynecki Distributor: First Run Features Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Film

Review: If the Dancer Dances Diminishes Its Subject by Succumbing to Hagiography

The documentary is incessant about reminding us of the late Merce Cunningham’s achievements.

2

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If the Dancer Dances
Photo: Monument Releasing

More than once in Maia Wechsler’s If the Dancer Dances, a dance is described by one of numerous talking heads as existing only in the moment; once any movement or routine is complete, it essentially can never be replicated to an exacting degree. But the film inadvertently appears as if it’s trying to prove that poetic and insightful observation wrong, which becomes increasingly clear as we follow choreographer Stephen Petronio as he and his dance company work on a production of Merce Cunningham’s RainForest.

Wechsler’s depiction of the company seems unwilling to step out of Cunningham’s shadow, given the extent to which the members of the current production and Cunningham’s former pupils happily provide hagiographic accounts of the groundbreaking avant-garde choreographer and his work. In an about-face from the repeated description of dance’s unreplicable nature, the new RainForest’s choreographers and dancers set out to duplicate rather than interpret the work. The fawning over Cunningham, and the implication from the company that they’ll never be able to live up to his vision, only exposes an overbearing inferiority complex running throughout the documentary.

If the Dancer Dances really only comes to life when showcasing the company’s rehearsals, throughout camera movements that match the gracefulness of the dancers and compositions that incorporate multiple points of action. Wechsler’s observational methods in these sequences capture mini-dramas in themselves, such as when choreographers quietly confer, attempting to adjust the dance routine that’s playing out in front of them.

Still, rather than letting the audience simply observe the company at work and letting the process speak for itself, Wechsler incessantly reminds us of Cunningham’s monolithic presence via scores of interviews that laud his work process. The film’s constant lionizing of the man amid so much rehearsal footage has the unintended effect of sapping the dancers of agency. Throughout, it’s as if Wechsler is judging the company’s artistic decisions based on whether or not Cunningham himself would consider them right or wrong.

At one point in the film, a former colleague of Cunningham’s explains that the late choreographer, in an effort to ensure that his works felt fresh, tried to never be influenced by other productions. This anecdote rings of irony, given how the film includes numerous sequences of Petronio’s choreographers discussing how to ape Cunningham’s aesthetic in precise detail—and often in incomprehensibly abstract directions that even some of the dancers appear not to grasp. The film operates under the impression that for any present or future company to change any one aspect of Cunningham’s original vision would be blasphemous and offensive, which turns If the Dancer Dances less into the insightful backstage documentary it wants to be, and more into a gushing, sycophantic love letter.

Director: Maia Wechsler Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Film

Watch the Trailer for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix Series When They See Us

Netflix will release the series on May 31.

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When They See Us
Photo: Netflix

In 1989, the rape and near-murder of Trisha Meili in Central Park rocked the nation. A little over a year later, a jury convicted five juvenile males—four African-American and one Hispanic—to prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. In the end, the defendants spent between six and 13 years behind bars. Flashforward to 2002, after four of the five defendants had left prison, and Matias Reyes, a convicted murder and serial rapist serving a lifetime prison term, came forward and confessed to raping Meili. DNA evidence confirmed his guilt, and proved what many already knew about the so-called “Central Park jogger case”: that the police investigation of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, conducted at the beginning of the Giuliani era in New York City, was motivated less by a thirst for justice than it was by racial animus.

Last year, Oscar-nominated Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay announced that she would be making a series based on the infamous case, and since then hasn’t been shy, on Twitter and elsewhere, about saying that she will be putting Donald J. Trump in her crosshairs. Trump, way back in 1989, ran an ad in the Daily News advocating the return of the death penalty, and as recently as 2016, claimed that McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise are guilty of the crime for which they were eventually exonerated—behavior consistent with a presidential campaign that, like the case against the Central Park Five, was a full-time racist dog whistle.

Today, Netflix dropped the trailer for When They See Us, which stars Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood, Christopher Jackson, Joshua Jackson, Omar J. Dorsey, Adepero Oduye, Famke Janssen, Aurora Perrineau, William Sadler, Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Storm Reid, Dascha Polanco, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Justin Cunningham, Ethan Herisse, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, and Asante Blackk.

According to the official description of the series:

Based on a true story that gripped the country, When They See Us will chronicle the notorious case of five teenagers of color, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four part limited series will focus on the five teenagers from Harlem—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. Beginning in the spring of 1989, when the teenagers were first questioned about the incident, the series will span 25 years, highlighting their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.

See the trailer below:

Netflix will release When They See Us on May 31.

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