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Understanding Screenwriting #61: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #61: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, & More

Coming Up in This Column: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Whatever Works, Some Appreciations, Buffalo Bill, The Capture, The Good Wife, Modern Family, Law & Order: Los Angeles, Second Glances at New Fall 2010 TV Shows, but first…

Fan Mail: I cannot tell you how relieved I was when Fritz Novak’s comments showed up in the comments section on October 8th. Here I’d gone at least a little out of my way to whack HBO, Scorsese, gangster movies, and New Jersey fanboys, and for the first few days after the column was posted, nothing. Bupkiss. So I was glad to see Fritz speaking up. As for paying attention to audiences, I certainly do, although not to the detriment of what’s up there on the screen. See my book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing for further comments on movie audiences.

He gives me a hard time for dumping on gangster movies while continuing to discuss westerns, “the most played out genre of them all.” Yes, there is another western in this column. But a couple of things. First, I do tend to take an historical view of film and screenwriting, and I know that genres come in and out of fashion. I remember reading a paper at UCLA in about 1971 saying the gangster movie was dead. The Godfather came out the next year. The problem I have with Boardwalk Empire (and still have—you will later read my comments on episode two in this column) is that it is not doing anything fresh in the genre. Fritz says that the HBO style is slow because there is a lot of exposition. Well, in Boardwalk Empire, there really is not much exposition. In the first two episodes, I didn’t feel I was learning that much about the characters and the situations.

Fritz also tries to defend Scorsese’s sense of humor by bringing up Goodfellas (1990), which he finds “one of the funniest movies I’ve ever scene [sic].” I must admit I was not amused. Fritz points out that the characters in the film laugh at their own violence, but that does not make the film itself funny. Now, maybe if Lubitsch had directed it…

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010. Written by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, based on characters created by Stanley Weiser & Oliver Stone. 133 minutes)

Is this film necessary?: Oliver Stone, the co-writer and director of the 1987 film Wall Street, did not want to do a sequel. He avoided the writing of the new film and was not going to direct it until he read the script. He is not one of the credited writers and given that there are not any of the preachy monologues there were in the original, I am willing to believe his contribution to the script was minimal. He just directed it. And did such a good job that the picture is turning out to be one of his biggest hits in years. Hmm.

The order of the writing credits on the film suggest that Allan Loeb did the first drafts and Stephen Schiff did rewrites on it, but an article by Danny Munso in the March/April 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting says it was the other way around. Schiff had done a script well before the 2008 economic collapse. Neither Stone nor 20th Century-Fox was interested. As the implosion happened, Fox got interested and approached Loeb, who earlier got a stockbroker’s license. Fox wanted the script to deal with the collapse. And so it goes. Except that what I would take to be Schiff’s original story has nothing to do with the collapse.

The main story of the film is about a young stockbroker, Jacob, who is living with Gordon Gekko’s estranged daughter Winnie. Gekko is released from prison in 2001, carrying the manuscript of his memoirs he has been working on in the slammer. Fine, but then we jump to 2008 and the book is just coming out. What happened in the intervening years? I can’t imagine Gekko being turned down by thirty publishers. It’s a New York book and New York publishers would eat it up. Well, it obviously comes out in 2008 so Gekko could be around for the crash. Against Winnie’s advice, Jacob cozies up to Gekko to get ideas on how to get back at Bretton James, a Gekko-type senior stockbroker whom Jacob blames for the suicide of his mentor, Louis Zabel. Gekko is happy to help. And then the crash happens. People have meetings with government officials, sweat a lot, and then the story continues as though nothing had happened. Gekko turns out to be the Gekko we remember and uses Jacob and Winnie to put himself back in the game. You could take out the collapse scenes and the picture would work better. Loeb simply has not rethought the story enough. The collapse scenes are moderately interesting, but distracting from the main story. Since the movie, like the original, is an inside look at Wall Street, it can never get far enough outside the world to seriously critique the system. Yes, the stockbrokers sweat a little, but not that much. Yes, you can make a case that they were so obtuse they did not realize how bad it was—there are a few elements of that here—but the film could also make it clear, which it does not, that they were so arrogant that they assumed they would get out of it OK. Which of course many of them did. Many did not. We get very little sense of that in the film. It seems to come down to blaming Bretton James for the 2008 collapse, a very Hollywood thing to do.

Having said all that, there are some terrific elements in the script. Louis Zabel is a great part for Frank Langella, although we realize that he is given so many scenes early on that he is obviously going to be out of the picture fairly quickly. I particularly like Zabel’s discussion of a conversation he had with financial guys from Dubai in which he did not understand what they were talking about. James is a nice if conventional villain, and his boss, Jules Steinhardt, is one of Stone’s standard wise, moral old men. I was not sure until Steinhardt’s final scene why they bothered to get Eli Wallach for the part, but when you see the look on his face when the final deal goes down, you’ll understand. Tuco, anyone? Gekko is a wonderful character as always, although here he’s a little much of a good guy for too long before he resorts to being the real Gekko.

You’ll notice I have not mentioned Jacob or Winnie. Both are fairly standard issue parts. Jacob is not as innocent as Bud Fox was in the original. As Loeb told Danny Munso, they could not have another Bud because “The guys on Wall Street now have grown up there and were making hundreds of millions of dollars in their twenties. And that’s where Jacob is coming from. He’s not corruptible like Bud was because, perhaps, he may already be a little corrupted.” (Bud, by the way, shows up in a cameo, and he definitely has stayed corrupted.) Winnie is a straight-arrow type, but we do not get much beyond that. Stone has traditionally in his scripts underserved the women characters, but as a director here he does right by Carey Mulligan as Winnie.

Several people have complained about the “happy” ending in the final scene. I am on their side.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010. Written by Woody Allen. 98 minutes)

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

This year’s minor Woody: This is one of Allen’s ensemble films, and as usual he has gathered a great cast. Unfortunately, he has not given them that good a script to work with. Most of the storylines are ones we have seen before, nearly always done better. Alfie, the older man, leaving his older wife for a ditzy young girl and regretting it has been the subject of more films and television movies than you can shake a cane at. It’s not helped that the younger girl is a prostitute in the Mighty Aphrodite vein, although there is a nice scene when Alfie has his first appointment with her and does not quite know the etiquette of hookerdom. Ray, a younger guy, is having fantasies about Dia, the even younger girl across the courtyard. Brian De Palma has done many variations on that in his films. Sally, Ray’s wife, is dealing not only with Ray, but getting her career going. A modern woman’s multi-tasking was done much better in Callie Khouri’s great script for the underrated Something to Talk About (1995). Sally is the most interesting character in the film. She does get the best scene in the film where she tries to confess to her boss that she has feelings for him while he avoids the subject by only talking about their business relationship.

The most interesting storyline concerns Ray’s failed efforts as a novelist. A friend of his has, he thinks, died (wouldn’t he have checked? Or wouldn’t it have come out in the conversation with their mutual friends? ), leaving the only copy (yeah, right) of the novel he was working on with Ray. So Ray submits it as his own, and the publisher who hated Ray’s own novel loves it. And as it is going to be published, Ray discovers the original author is alive, but in a coma. And expected to recover. Reaction shot on Ray, end of story. But, but, what does Ray do about the situation? We never find out, which would have been much more interesting. Allen did something similar in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), where Hannah never learns that her husband Elliot and her sister Lee got it on. This is what I call the David Mamet flaw: the tendency not to complete the story. In one of his drafts for The Verdict (1982), Mamet didn’t bother to put in the verdict in the trial. In his script for the 1981 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, he dropped the plot twist that gave the story its name. Finish the story, guys.

Allen does use Voice of God narration here, but it’s not as annoying as it was in Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008).

Whatever Works (2009. Written by Woody Allen. 93 minutes)

Whatever Works

Last year’s minor Woody: Courtesy of Netflix I finally caught up with this one. It falls in the category of Allen’s obnoxious films. Sometimes his grumpy characters are funny and fun to be around for a couple of hours. For example, Alvy in Annie Hall (1977). Sometimes, particularly in the later years, the grumpy characters are like nails on a blackboard. For example, Harry in Deconstructing Harry (1997). Boris Yellnikoff is in the latter category, and Allen lets him go on and on and on. We just want to tell him to stuff a sock in it, even when you are agreeing with him. Allen’s idea is that he ends up letting a southern white trash girl named Melody stay in his apartment. I don’t believe for a minute that this Boris would do that, but as Johnny Carson used to say, you buy the premise, you buy the bit. The next big problem with the script is that Allen as both writer and director simply cannot imagine a southern white trash girl. He and the film stay on the surface. She is played by Evan Rachel Wood, normally a wonderful actress, and here completely mis-directed. Since the script gives her nothing of substance to play, she just turns twitchy. I know Allen does not like to talk to his actors, but he really needed to get her to chill out. She is giving a performance that might have work if she was playing Linda Ash in Mighty Aphrodite (1996), but is wrong for this part.

And here’s the curious thing about writing and directing. Midway through the picture Marietta, Melody’s mother, shows up. She’s a ditz as well, better written than Melody, and Patricia Clarkson just knocks it out of the park. It may be that Clarkson is a more experienced actor than Wood and knows how to find the character, but my money is on the writing. As always.

Some Appreciations

Claude Chabrol

It has not been a good couple of months for screenwriters. Here are a few words on some of those who have left us lately.

Claude Chabrol, the great French writer-director, died on September 12th. We assume he was not murdered by the upper class French, who in his films always seemed about to murder somebody. But it would not surprise me to learn they had a hand in his death, since he nailed their attitudes so remorselessly for nearly sixty years. Like Eric Rohmer, whom I wrote about in US#40, Chabrol defined his own universe in his films, and it was always a pleasure, yes, a perverse pleasure, to go and visit. Even though I am not sure I want to live there. You can see what I mean in my comments on his film A Girl Cut in Two (2007) in US#5. Or look at Merci pour le chocolat (2000) or The Flower of Evil (2003).

Irving Ravetch died a week later, on the 19th. In some ways, you might call him the anti-Chabrol. He could write tough, as in his westerns, such as his story for Ten Wanted Men (1955), which I wrote about in US#28. There is toughness too in Hud (1963), but also sympathy for the characters who have to deal with Hud. Hud, Paul Newman’s looks aside, is a real son of a bitch. Ravetch wrote most of his stories and scripts with his wife, Harriet Frank Jr., and you can see why stars like Newman, McQueen, Wayne, James Garner and Sally Field wanted to do their scripts. When Field got into producing after winning an Oscar for her performance in Ravetch and Frank’s 1979 script for Norma Rae, she said, “I take everything to the Ravetches. About once a week, every Wednesday, I call up and say, ’Hey, guys, I’ve got something else for you.’” They rewarded her with one of her most charming films, Murphy’s Romance (1985). See what I mean about being the anti-Chabrol?

Stephen J. Cannell died on September 30th. Cannell and Roy Huggins had differing versions of how The Rockford Files was created. Huggins took more credit in his version, and Cannell took more in his. Yes, Jim Rockford is very much in the tradition of Bret Maverick, whom Huggins created for Garner. But The Rockford Files also has a little satirical sense that may have started with Huggins, but certainly was developed by Cannell. Look at some of Cannell’s episodes on The Great American Hero (1981-83). One of my connections with the intelligence community and Washington bureaucracies says that show may be one of the most accurate shows ever made about the government. And if you want serious, check out Cannell’s 1987-1990 series Wiseguy, a forerunner of The Sopranos. I never met Cannell when I was writing my book on the history of American television writing, but it is obvious from his output that, like most great television writers, he had an incredibly quick mind. He was also dyslexic. So what is your excuse for not writing?

William W. Norton died on October 2nd. You may not recognize the name as easily as you did Chabrol’s, Ravetch’s or Cannell’s, but you should look at his 1968 script The Scalphunters for a funny, sharp western about an illiterate white trapper and an educated former slave. He tended to write westerns and action-adventure movies like The McKenzie Break, a 1970 film about German prisoners of war trying to escape from a camp in Scotland. Norton had an adventurous life as well, according the Los Angeles Times obituary. He served in the Army in World War II, later joined the Communist Party, and when he retired from screenwriting at age 60, he got into gunrunning in Central America and for the IRA, which landed him in prison. He eventually sneaked back into the U.S. and died in Santa Barbara.

Buffalo Bill (1944. Screenplay by Aeneas McKenzie, Clements Ripley, and Cecile Kramer, based on a story by Frank Winch. 90 minutes)

Buffalo Bill

Too many cooks: William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody was one of the legendary figures of the American West, and it would probably take a twelve-hour miniseries to do justice to life and legend, which were inseparable. Ninety minutes isn’t going to cut it, and it doesn’t here. Sometimes when there are a lot of writers, the results can be fun. Most of the time, no. This one is in the most of the time category.

We get a nice entrance for Buffalo Bill. Indians attach a stagecoach carrying a senator and his daughter, but Cody arrives and drives them off. The occupants of the coach are unharmed, and being this is a studio (20th Century-Fox) production of the time, not a hair is out of place on the daughter, nor has her makeup been smudged, even though the coach overturned. Naturally Cody and the daughter are going to get married. But at the fort is an Indian girl with the incredibly Hollywood name of Dawn Starlight who is mooning after Cody. Nothing comes of this and she eventually dies in one of the battles. There is an old geezer sergeant in the Army named Chips who seems to have wandered in from a later John Ford movie and we spend more time than we need on him and his retirement. Cody does take the Grandduke Alexei on a buffalo hunt, but nothing much is made of this. Cody does end up killing his Indian friend Yellow Hand at the battle of Warbonnet Gorge in 1876, although the film leaves out Cody’s scalping the Indian and calling it “the first scalp for Custer,” who had just been killed at Little Big Horn.

The real Cody got into show business portraying himself in plays while he was still working on the frontier, spending his winters in theaters and his summers on the plains. Cody as portrayed in the film is just a stalwart American outdoorsman, without a hint of the showmanship of the original. We only get a snippet at the end of the film of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show (“Show” was never officially part of the title).

Obviously the script was done at Fox while Darryl Zanuck was off in the Army making war documentaries. He would never have let such a messy screenplay get made while he was there.

The Capture (1950. Written by Niven Busch. 91 minutes)

The Capture

Sometimes mediocre writing can still help a director: Niven Busch is probably best known as the author of the novel that became Duel In the Sun (1946), but he had a long string of credits as a screenwriter going back to the early ‘30s. In the ‘40s he began to produce as well as write so he could maintain some control over his films. Probably his best film from that period is the 1947 noir western Pursued. The Capture is in somewhat the same vein, but the script is not particularly sharp.

Lin Vanner is an American working in a Mexican oil field. The payroll is robbed and he goes the opposite direction from the posse and finds a man he thinks pulled the robbery. He shoots him and the man dies, and Vanner begins to have second thoughts as to whether the man was the robber. He leaves his job and ends up meeting the man’s widow and working on her ranch. When he figures out who really did the robbery (an official with the company), a posse pushed by the official comes after him.

Busch has been credited with bringing psychology to the westerns of the later ‘40s, and that’s true with this film. The most dramatic scene is not any of the chases, but a confrontation between Vanner and the widow in which he tells he has realized that she and her late husband were not in love. Because the film is produced by its writer, the entire film is a lot talkier than it needs to be. The dialogue scenes tend to go on longer than they should. The story is told in flashback as a wounded Vanner hides out with a priest, so we get a lot of voiceover narration, not all of it needed.

Soon after this film Busch gave up on Hollywood and went to live on a ranch. He found he spent six weeks writing a story, another six weeks doing the screenplay, and then a year producing the film. He figured he would rather spend his time writing novels, which he was very successful at. Meanwhile, in spite of the flaws in the script, the film was a turning point in the career of its director. The dramatic scenes are well handled, and the exteriors are good looking (although not in the DVD currently available, which looks as though it was transferred from a bad Super 8 print). The director is particularly good at setting up scenes. When Vanner arrives at the widow’s ranch, we know the layout of the ranch within a few shots. Dore Schary, who had been at RKO and was now taking over at MGM, looked at footage from The Capture at his screening room at home. One person there recalled, “Somebody in the room said, ’God, he’s good.’ He seemed to have a great deal of ability.” So the director went to see Schary and started moving from B pictures like The Capture to A pictures like Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and The Magnificent Seven (1960). He was John Sturges.

(The story about Schary and Sturges is from Glenn Lovell’s Sturges biography Escape Artist, and the other material about Busch is from an interview with him in Patrick McGilligan’s first Backstory collection of interviews.)

The Good Wife (2010. “Taking Control” written by Robert King and Michelle King. 60 minutes)

The Good Wife

“The Face” is back: We last left Alicia trying to decide whether to talk to Will on her cellphone or go up and support Peter. She goes up to support Peter, unfortunately leaving her cellphone with Eli Gold, never a smart thing to do. Peter calls and leaves a message that yes, they should call off their budding affair. Then he calls back and leaves another message that he loves her and wants to continue. Any guesses as to which message Eli deletes while Alicia is up there being the Good Wife? And that has consequences all the way through this episode and certainly future ones. Will obviously does not understand why Alicia is not talking to him about his second call, and she thinks they are broken up. Look at how the Kings play that off in the last scene of the episode, where Bond, the new partner, tells Alicia he is going to be her mentor. Because of the mix-up of the phone calls, we know she is wondering why Will is “dumping” her on Bond.

Bond is bringing with him a new staff, which includes a new investigator. We first meet him when Kalinda goes out to try to find some evidence in a house a potential witness has abandoned. The landlord is cleaning out the house and reluctantly lets Kalinda in after she flirts with him. She seems him dumping a bag of trash outside, goes out and finds the witness’s cellphone, but without the SIM card. She gets back to the office and discovers that the “landlord” is the new investigator and he has the SIM card. In other words, Kalinda is going to have to up her considerable game to play with him. That ought to be fun for us, if not for her.

And on the murder case Alicia is assigned by a judge, the current states attorney, Johnson, assigns Cary to take over first chair, since Cary thinks he can beat Alicia. He can’t, which ups the ante for both of them.

In other words, The Good Wife is back and on track.

Modern Family (2010. “The Kiss” written by Abraham Higginbotham. 30 minutes)

Modern Family

The perfect second-season episode: OK, in the first season we met the family and got a sense of where the pressure points are that are going to lead to hijinks. Now it’s time to expand and develop the characters and the situations. This episode does it as well as can be done.

Cameron and Mitchell are discussing public displays of affection, something that several viewers have been wondering about. After all, the straight characters get to kiss, but we have not seen Cam and Mitchell kiss. Obviously some of this comes from the network afraid audiences will go “Eeew!” and change the channel. But we love Cam and Mitchell and the audience for this show can probably deal with it. Mitchell points out that Jay, his dad, never kissed him. So when they all have family dinner, this comes up for discussion, and the big kiss we get is Jay kissing his son. On the lips, no less. And then in the background of a following shot we see Cam and Mitchell kiss.

Meanwhile Alex, Phil and Claire’s youngest daughter, is growing up and has a crush on a boy. Her slightly older sister Haley suggests she goes and confront the boy and tell him she wants to kiss him. Alex knocks on his door and says her piece when the boy opens the door. When Alex finishes, he opens the door further and reveals his team is standing there, listening all the while. Later Alex and the boy discuss it again and agree to kiss…later.

Meanwhile Gloria has decided to cook some of her grandmother’s Colombian recipes for the family dinner. We know Gloria is from Colombia, but aside from a few drug jokes, it hasn’t really been dealt with on the show. Now it is. Gloria has convinced Jay that tradition requires that he slap the meat before she cooks it and that he wears his shoes around his neck when the guests come. He buys it, although later Manny tells him that Gloria made up those “traditions.” I don’t know if I am just used to Sofía Vergara now or if she has grown a little more restrained or if the writers are not pushing it as much as they did in the first episodes. In any case, her Gloria seems less and less a cliched hot-blooded Latina. Not that she’s not still hot…

Law & Order: Los Angeles (2010. “Hollywood” episode written by Blake Masters, story by Dick Wolf. “Echo Park” episode written by Peter Blauner. 60 minutes each)

Law & Order: Los Angeles

Chung-chung, with palm trees: In the pilot “Hollywood” episode, we are definitely in Los Angeles. It starts with a car zipping through the streets of LA, with a crowd of paparazzi taking pictures of the starlet types who get out of the car. We see a lot of beautiful people, beautiful clubs, beautiful houses. The setup, about the robbing of houses of young starlet types, is inspired by a recent rash of such LA robberies. But we are also in Law & Order country. The setup is indeed from a real situation, but one of the things I have always loved, particularly about the mothership, is that while the setup is based on real events, the development starts almost immediately taking us into a fictional story. Here the robbers are not just a gang of kids, but people set up in a complicated plot by the mother of one of the starlets for reasons having to do with greed, lust, and all those other great motivations. The cops are fairly standard L&O issue, but nicely played by Skeet Ulrich and Corey Stoll. The deputy D.A. is played by the always-welcome Alfred Molina.

“Echo Park” introduces us to the detectives’ boss, Lt. Arleen Gonzalez, the equally always-welcome Rachel Ticotin, channeling her inner S. Epatha Merkerson. The District Attorney is now played by Peter Coyote, channeling Sam Waterston’s hair. The Deputy D.A. in this episode is played by Terrence Howard, who had the inspired notion to play him as soft-spoken. When was the last time you saw a soft-spoken lawyer? This episode’s story deals with the murder of a woman who was a former member of a wannna-be Mansion family sort of gang. The case has less to do with the gang than with the woman’s stay in prison and her release because of terminal cancer. The episode is another very Los Angeles story.

And a special shout-out to Dylann Brander and Megan Branman. And who are they? They are the casting directors for the series, and they follow in the great tradition of the L&O franchises of casting real actors, not just pretty faces. Look at the casting of the women in both episodes, or Jim Beaver as the father of the one of the robbers in “Hollywood.” There are a lot of great actors in Hollywood who don’t work in film and television that much, and I hope Brander and Branman continue to dig deeply into that pool, in the way the casting directors did for the original series.

Second Glances at Some New Fall 2010 Television Series

Boardwalk Empire

Boardwalk Empire: The second episode, “The Ivory Tower,” (written by Terence Winter) had all the problems I mentioned in writing about the first one in the last column. It is still slow, without any compensating rewards in terms of character or plot. I would have thought by the second episode the characters would have begun to show a little life, but F.B.I. Agent Van Alden is still a block of wood and Mrs. Schroeder is still sad.

The Defenders: Neither of the second two episodes got into specific Las Vegas crimes. In “Nevada v. Carter” (written by Peter Noah), Nick is defending a stripper accused of solicitation. OK, but it’s a story that could take place anywhere there are “gentleman’s clubs.” The “Blood Moon” episode (written by Treena Hancock & Melissa R. Beyed) of CSI the next night dealt with a vampire convention in Vegas, which was very Vegas. The showrunner of The Defenders is Carol Mendelson, who wrote 49 episodes of CSI, so it’s not like she doesn’t know Vegas.

Undercovers: “Devices” (written by J.J. Abrams & Josh Reims) was the third episode, and the production values were much more limited than they were for the pilot. Even so, the script is still bicker-and-banter. The script does mention several times that Sam and Steven have been out of the game for five years, but nothing is ever done with it. And the supporting characters are not being developed.

The Whole Truth: I am a bit surprised this one is not doing better in the ratings. But it may be that its basic gimmick is a turn-off for audiences. It follows a legal case, cutting back and forth from the prosecution to the defense. So it’s not emotionally clear who we are to supposed be rooting for. As soon as we think the prosecution has the suspect nailed, we get evidence to the contrary. I like the idea, and it’s been reasonably well-handled, but it may bother audiences who want things a little more clear-cut. The Defenders are obviously going to defend those who are innocent, while the L&O cops are going to track down the bad people. Maybe The Whole Truth would be a better fit on cable. It’s not ponderous enough for HBO, or light-hearted enough for USA, but how about TNT or FX?

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: We Are Little Zombies Is a Fun, Wildly Stylized Portrait of Grief

The film is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries.

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We Are Little Zombies
Photo: Oscilloscope

Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies follows the exploits of a group of tweens who meet at the funeral home where their deceased parents are being cremated. But, surprisingly, Hitari (Keita Ninomiya), Takemura (Mondo Okumura), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), and Ikiko (Satoshi Mizuno) are united less by sorrow and more by cool indifference, as they see their parents’ deaths as yet another tragedy in what they collectively agree is pretty much a “shit life.” As the socially awkward Hitari claims matter-of-factly in voiceover, “Babies cry to signal they need help. Since no one can help me, there’s no point in crying.”

Through a series of extended flashbacks, Nagahisa relates the kids’ troubled lives, never stooping to pitying or sentimentalizing them or their utter dismay with the adult world. The new friends’ deeply internalized grief and hopelessness are filtered wildly through a hyperreal aesthetic lens that’s indebted to all things pop, from psychedelia to role-playing games. It’s Nagashisa’s vibrant means of expressing the disconnect between the kids’ troubled lives and their emotionless reactions to the various tragedies that have befallen them.

With its chiptunes-laden soundtrack and chapter-like form, which mimics the levels of a video game, We Are Little Zombies will draw understandable comparisons to Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But it’s Nagisa Oshima’s Three Resurrected Drunkards that offers a more precise analogue to this film’s provocative rhyming of stylistic zaniness and extreme youthful alienation. Oshima’s anarchically playful farce stars the real-life members of the Folk Crusaders as a disaffected group of rebellious musicians, and when the kids of We Are Little Zombies decide to form a band to express themselves, they even perform a bossa nova version of the Folk Crusaders’s theme song for the 1968 film. This and the many other cultural touchstones in We Are Little Zombies are seamlessly weaved by Nagahisa into a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries, be they social media or a dizzying glut of pop-cultural creations.

Nagahisa’s aesthetic mirrors his main characters’ disconnect from reality, incorporating everything from stop-motion animation to pixelated scenes and overhead shots that replicate the stylings of 8-bit RPGs. At one point in We Are Little Zombies, an unsettling talk show appearance brings to mind what it would be like to have a bad acid trip on the set of an old MTV news program. Nagahisa accepts that the kids’ over-engagement with screen-based technology is inextricably embedded in their experience of reality and ultimately celebrates the sense of camaraderie and belonging that the foursome finds in pop artifacts and detritus. This is particularly evident once their band, the Little Zombies of the film’s title, starts to explore their antipathy toward and frustrations with a seemingly indifferent world.

The Little Zombies wield the same charming punk spirit as the film, and once instant fame reveals its viciously sharp teeth, Nagahisa doesn’t hold back from peering into the nihilistic abyss that stands before the kids. As in Three Resurrected Drunkards, We Are Little Zombies’s most despairing notes are couched in the distinctive language of pop culture. Hitari’s attempts to grab essential items before running away from the home of a relative (Eriko Hatsune) are staged as a video game mission. The band’s hit song—titled, of course, “We Are Little Zombies”—is an infectious, delightfully melodic banger all about their dispassionate existence. There’s even a fake death scene of the kids that, as in Three Resurrected Drunkards, effectively restarts the film’s narrative, allowing the characters to once again test their fate.

For all of this film’s reliance on the stylistic ticks of video games, its narrative arc isn’t limited to the typically linear journey embarked upon by many a gaming protagonist, and the foursome’s path leads neither to enlightenment nor even happiness per se. What they’ve discovered in the months since their parents’ deaths is a solidarity with one another, and rather than have them conquer their fears and anxieties, Nagahisa wisely acknowledges that their social disconnection will remain an ongoing struggle. He understands that by tapping into the unifying, rather than alienating, powers of pop culture, they’re better equipped to deal with whatever additional hard knocks that the modern world will inevitably throw their way.

Cast: Keita Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, Sena Nakajima, Kuranosukie Sasaki, Youki Kudoh, Sosuke Ikematsu, Eriko Hatsune, Jun Murakami, Naomi Nishida Director: Makoto Nagahisa Screenwriter: Makoto Nagahisa Distributor: Oscilloscope Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Palm Springs Puts a Fresh Spin on the Time-Loop Rom-Com

The film smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle.

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Palm Springs
Photo: Hulu

The pitch for Palm Springs likely went: “Edge of Tomorrow meets Groundhog Day but with a cool Coachella rom-com vibe.” All of those components are present and accounted for in Max Barbakow’s film, about two people forced to endure the same day of a Palm Springs wedding over and over again after getting stuck in a time loop. But even though the concept might feel secondhand, the execution is confident, funny, and thoughtful.

Palm Springs starts without much of a hook, sidling into its story with the same lassitude as its protagonist, Nyles (Andy Samberg). First seen having desultory sex with his shallow and always peeved girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner), Nyles spends the rest of the film’s opening stretch wandering around the resort where guests are gathered for the wedding of Misty’s friend, Tala (Camila Mendes), lazing around the pool and drinking a seemingly endless number of beers. “Oh yeah, Misty’s boyfriend” is how most refer to him with casual annoyance, and then he gives a winning wedding speech that one doesn’t expect from a plus-one.

The reason for why everything at the wedding seems so familiar to Nyles, and why that speech is so perfectly delivered, becomes clear after he entices the bride’s sister and maid of honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), to follow him out to the desert for a make-out session. In quick succession, Nyles is shot with an arrow by a mysterious figure (J.K. Simmons), Sarah is accidentally sucked into the same glowing vortex that trapped Nyles in his time loop, and she wakes up on the morning of the not-so-great day that she just lived through.

Although Palm Springs eventually digs into the knottier philosophical quandaries of this highly elaborate meet-cute, it takes an appealingly blasé approach to providing answers to the scenario’s curiosities. What initially led Nyles to the mysterious glowing cave in the desert? How has he maintained any semblance of sanity over what appears to be many years of this nightmare existence? How come certain people say “thank you” in Arabic?

This attitude of floating along the sea of life’s mysteries without worry parallels Nyles’s shrugging attitude about the abyss facing them. In response to Sarah’s panicked queries about why they are living the same day on repeat, Nyles throws out a random collection of theories: “one of those infinite time loop situations….purgatory….a glitch in the simulation we’re all in.” His ideas seem half-baked at first. But as time passes, it becomes clear that Nyles has been trapped at the wedding so long that not only has he lost all concept of time or even who he was before it began, his lackadaisical approach to eternity seems more like wisdom.

Darkly cantankerous, Sarah takes a while to come around to that way of thinking. Her version of the Kübler-Ross model starts in anger and shifts to denial (testing the limits of their time-loop trap, she drives home to Texas, only to snap back to morning in Palm Springs when she finally dozes off) before pivoting to acceptance. This segment, where Nyles introduces Sarah to all the people and things he’s found in the nooks and crannies of the world he’s been able to explore in one waking day, plays like a quantum physics rom-com with a video-game-y sense of immortality. After learning the ropes from Nyles (death is no escape, so try to avoid the slow, agonizing deaths), Sarah happily takes part in his Sisyphean games of the drunk and unkillable, ranging from breaking into houses to stealing and crashing a plane.

As places to be trapped for all eternity, this idyll doesn’t seem half bad at first. Barbakow’s fast-paced take on the pleasingly daffy material helps, as does the balancing of Milioti’s angry agita with Samberg’s who-cares recklessness. Eventually the story moves out of endlessly looping stasis into the problem-solution phase, with Sarah deciding she can’t waste away in Palm Springs for eternity. But while the question of whether or not they can escape via Sarah’s device for bridging the multiverse takes over the narrative to some degree, Palm Springs is far more interesting when it ruminates lightly on which puzzle they’re better off solving: pinning their hopes on escape or cracking another beer and figuring out how to be happy in purgatory. Palm Springs isn’t daring by any stretch, but it smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle that’s similar to Groundhog Day but without that film’s reassuring belief that a day can be lived perfectly rather than simply endured.

Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Millioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendez, Tyler Hoechlin, Chris Pang Director: Max Barbakow Screenwriter: Andy Siara Distributor: Neon, Hulu Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Hamilton Comes Home, Still Holding Conflicting Truths at Once

The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage.

3.5

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Hamilton
Photo: Disney+

The actual physical production of Hamilton has never been at the heart of the show’s fandom. Its lyrics have been memorized en masse, Hamilton-inspired history courses have been created across grade levels, and its references have invaded the vernacular, but, for most, Hamilton’s liveness has been inaccessible, whether due to geography or unaffordability. Hamilton the film, recorded over two Broadway performances in 2016 with most of the original Broadway cast, winningly celebrates the still-surprisingly rich density of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score and the show’s much-heralded actors. But this new iteration is most stunning in its devotion to translating Hamilton’s swirling, churning storytelling—the work of director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler—to the screen.

Most films of live theater feel partial and remote. There’s usually a sense that with every move of the camera we’re missing out on something happening elsewhere on stage. The autonomy of attending theater in person—the ability to choose what to focus on—is stripped away. But instead of delimiting what we see of Hamilton, this film opens up our options. Even when the camera (one of many installed around, behind, and above the stage) homes in on a lone singer, the shots tend to frame the soloists in a larger context: We can watch Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), but we can also track the characters behind him or on the walkways above him. Every shot is rife with detail and movement: the rowers escorting Alexander Hamilton’s (Miranda) body to shore, Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones) hovering beneath a stairway as Hamilton confesses his infidelities to Burr, ensemble members dancing in the shadows of David Korins’s imposing set. There’s no space to wonder what might be happening beyond the camera’s gaze.

Off-setting the cast album’s appropriate spotlight on the show’s stars, the film, also directed by Kail, constantly centers the ensemble, even when they’re not singing, as they enact battles and balls or symbolically fly letters back and forth between Hamilton and Burr. Audiences who mainly know the show’s music may be surprised by how often the entire cast is on stage, and even those who’ve seen Hamilton live on stage will be delighted by the highlighted, quirky individuality of each ensemble member’s often-silent storytelling.

Kail shows impressive restraint, withholding aerial views and shots from aboard the spinning turntables at the center of the stage until they can be most potent. The film also convincingly offers Hamilton’s design as a stunning work of visual art, showcasing Howell Binkley’s lighting—the sharp yellows as the Schuyler Sisters take the town and the slowly warming blues as Hamilton seeks his wife’s forgiveness—just as thoughtfully as it does the performances.

And when the cameras do go in for a close-up, they shade lyrics we may know by heart with new meaning. In “Wait for It,” Burr’s paean to practicing patience rather than impulsiveness, Odom (who won a Tony for the role) clenches his eyes shut as he sings, “I am inimitable, I am an original,” tensing as if battling to convince himself that his passivity is a sign of strength and not cowardice. When Eliza Hamilton (Philippa Soo) glances upward and away from her ever-ascendant husband as she asks him, “If I could grant you peace of mind, would that be enough?,” it’s suddenly crystal clear that she’s wondering whether taking care of Alexander would be enough for herself, not for him, her searching eyes foreshadowing her eventual self-reliance. And there’s an icky intimacy unachievable in person when Jonathan Groff’s mad King George literally foams at the mouth in response to the ingratitude of his colonies.

The production’s less understated performances, like Daveed Diggs’s show-stealing turn (also Tony-winning) in the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and Renée Elise Goldsberry’s fiery embodiment (yes, also Tony-winning) of the shrewd, self-sacrificing Angelica Schuyler Church, benefit, too, from the way that the film’s pacing latches onto Miranda’s propulsive writing. In Jefferson’s return home, “What’d I Miss,” the camera angles change swiftly as if to keep up with Diggs’s buoyancy.

Despite Christopher Jackson’s warm and gorgeous-voiced performance, George Washington remains Hamilton’s central sticking point. While Jefferson receives a dressing down from Hamilton for practicing slavery, Washington, who once enslaved over 200 people at one time at Mount Vernon, shows up in Hamilton as a spotless hero who might as well be king if he wasn’t so noble as to step down. There’s a tricky tension at Hamilton’s core: Casting performers of color as white founding “heroes” allows the master narrative to be reclaimed, but it’s still a master narrative. For audiences familiar with the facts, the casting of black actors as slave owners (not just Jefferson) is an unstated, powerful act of artistic resistance against the truths of the nation’s founding. But for those learning their history from Hamilton, especially young audiences, they will still believe in Washington’s moral purity, even if they walk away picturing the first president as Christopher Jackson.

But Hamilton is complex and monumental enough of a work to hold conflicting truths at once. In attempting to recraft our understanding of America’s founding, it may fall short. In forcibly transforming the expectations for who can tell what stories on which stages, Hamilton has been a game-changer. And as a feat of musical theater high-wire acts, Miranda’s dexterity in navigating decades of historical detail while weaving his characters’ personal and political paths tightly together is matched only by his own ingenuity as a composer and lyricist of songs that showcase his characters’ brilliance without distractingly drawing attention to his own.

Dynamized by its narrative-reclaiming, race-conscious casting and hip-hop score, and built around timeline-bending reminders that America may be perpetually in the “battle for our nation’s very soul,” Hamilton, of course, also lends itself particularly easily to 2020 connections. But the greater gift is that Hamilton will swivel from untouchability as Broadway’s most elusive, priciest ticket to mass accessibility at a moment of keen awareness that, to paraphrase George Washington, history has its eyes on us. The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage. That we are sharing Hamilton here and now offers as much hope as Hamilton itself.

Cast: Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Phillipa Soo Director: Thomas Kail Screenwriter: Ron Chernow, Lin-Manuel Miranda Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 160 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: In Family Romance, LLC, Reality and Fantasy Affectingly Collide

Throughout, it’s as though Werner Herzog were more witness than author, simply registering Japan being Japan.

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Family Romance, LLC
Photo: MUBI

Werner Herzog’s Family Romance, LLC presents Japan as a place where the technological follies of modernity that many see as embryonic in the West are allowed to blossom unabashedly. The Orientalism inherent to this myth, that of Japan as a high-tech dystopia where human alienation reaches its pathetic zenith, is somewhat masked here by the film’s style, which inhabits that strangely pleasurable cusp between fact and fiction. We are never quite sure of the extent to which situations and dialogues have been scripted and, as such, it’s as though Herzog were more witness than author, more passerby than gawker, simply registering Japan being Japan.

The film is centered around Ishii Yuichi, playing a version of himself, who owns a business that rents out human beings to act like paparazzi, family members, lovers, or bearers of good (albeit fake) news. One of his clients, for example, is a woman who wants to relive the moment when she won the lottery. We follow Ishii as he travels to his business calls, which may consist of going to a funeral home that offers coffin rentals by the hour for people to test out, or to a hotel where the clerks behind the helpdesk and the fish in the aquarium are robots.

The camera, otherwise, follows Ishii’s encounters with his 12-year-old “daughter,” Mahiro (Mahiro). The girl’s mother, Miki (Miki Fujimaki), has enlisted Ishii to play Mahiro’s missing father, who abandoned her when she was two, and make it seem as if he’s suddenly resurfaced. The film’s most interesting moments don’t arise from its largely obvious critiques of simulation, but from the human relationship between Ishii and Mahiro. In the end, the film’s smartest trick is getting the audience to genuinely feel for this young girl on screen, acting for us, all while scoffing at Ishii’s clients for scripting their own emotional experiences.

We know the relationship between Mahiro and Ishii to be false on multiple levels. They may not be professional actors, but they are very much acting, and their interactions nonetheless tap into something quite authentic and emotional. Although their kinship is an act of make-believe, it’s driven by similar malaises that plague “real” father-daughter relationships. Mahiro, who doesn’t meet Ishii until she’s a pre-teen and is presumably unaware that it’s all just an act, struggles to articulate feelings that overwhelm her. Asking for a hug from Ishii is a Herculean task for her. But granting her the hug is also a Herculean task for Ishii, who ultimately confesses to wondering whether his real family, too, has been paid by someone else to raise him. Must a father’s hug be so clinical even when he’s getting paid to do it?

Such moments as that awkward father-daughter hug, a scene where Mahiro gives Ishii an origami animal that she made for him (“It’s delicate, so be careful,” she says), and another where she confesses that she likes a boy all point to the ways in which feeling slips out of even the most perfectly scripted protocols. That’s a relief for the kind of society that Family Romance, LLC aims to critique, one where tidy transactions are meant to neuter the messy unpredictability of human interactions but fail. Emotion slips out despite diligent attempts to master it, forcing even those who stand to gain the most from hyper-controlled environments to eventually face the shakiness of their own ground. Ishii, for instance, is forced to reconsider his business model when Mahiro’s demand for love starts to affect him. Ishii’s fear that he may also have been swindled by actors posing as parents tells us that authors are subjects, too, and that the equation between reality and fantasy is never quite settled.

Cast: Ishii Yuichi, Mahiro, Miki Fujimaki, Umetani Hideyasu, Shun Ishigaki Director: Werner Herzog Screenwriter: Werner Herzog Distributor: MUBI Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Force of Nature, Much Like Mel Gibson, Is an Absolute Disaster

The film presents its scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena.

.5

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Force of Nature
Photo: Lionsgate

If cancel culture truly had the power its detractors ascribed to it, then Michael Polish’s Force of Nature would have probably never starred Mel Gibson. The film stars the one-time Hollywood idol as a trigger-happy retired cop who hurls insults like “cocksucker” at men who inconvenience him. By itself, casting Gibson as the kind of manic, violence-prone cop for which he was once known for playing speaks to the film’s defiantly conservative politics, its will to return to a cinematic era when violent white cops were viewed as good cops. But also having Gibson’s Ray toss out homophobic slurs almost turns this insipid action flick into a statement about Gibson himself, as if the actor’s own record of making such remarks should be viewed as the charmingly impolitic outbursts of an old-fashioned geezer.

Because Ray joins a multiethnic crew of good guys to save the day, we’re presumably meant to view his personality flaws as minor, the attributes of a classical cop masculinity that’s entered its dotage but ready to be awakened for one last shoot-out with big-city scum. The big city in this case is San Juan, Puerto Rico, which, as the film begins, is under siege by a hurricane. Set almost entirely in a cramped apartment building, Force of Nature is part Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, part The Raid: Redemption (or one of its many clones), attempting but failing to imitate both the former’s eccentric take on the clash of extreme personalities and extreme weather and the intensity of the latter’s kinetic, close-quarters action.

Despite being the biggest star on the bill, Gibson isn’t quite at the center of the narrative, even if the meaningless flash forward that opens Force of Nature, of Ray shooting at two figures in the rain, initially suggests otherwise. Ray plays second fiddle to Emile Hirsch’s point-of-view character, Cordillo, the San Juan police officer who refuses to learn a word of Spanish and might as well be wearing a MAGA hat. (“Where is el victim-o?” he asks regarding an incident at a supermarket early in the film.) Cordillo and his new partner, Peña (Stephanie Cayo), are assigned to help move San Juan’s residents to shelters, encountering Ray and his daughter, Troy (Kate Bosworth), at the apartment complex where Griffin (Will Catlett), Ray and Troy’s newly arrested neighbor, needs to feed his very hungry pet.

For those who’ve seen Netflix’s Tiger King, it will be clear from the 100 pounds of meat that Griffin intends to feed his pet that the man illegally owns some kind of wild cat. And if this offbeat scenario doesn’t elicit the laughs it may be aiming for, that’s at least in part due to composer Kubilay Uner’s score, which applies Wagnerian bombast to nearly every narrative event, as if it could will the paper-thin plot into some kind of significance. The tonal inconsistencies, however, aren’t confined to this clash between image and soundtrack. On a visual level, it’s difficult to know what to make of the scene in which Griffin’s pet, kept entirely off screen, drags Griffin into its pitch-black den and mauls him in front of a not-quite-horrified Cordillo, while a gang that Ray identifies as high-end burglars begins a raid of the complex. Neither funny nor suspenseful, it’s a bewildering mash of visual codes.

Led by a ruthless figure known as John the Baptist (David Zayas), the burglars first make an appearance in the second of the film’s two prologues, in which John kidnaps an elderly woman to get into her safety deposit box, before executing her as well as his accomplice in plain sight—a scene that somewhat belies Ray’s later in-the-know description of the gang as clever plotters. The nature of their interest in Ray, Troy, and Griffin’s apartment building is left vague until a late reveal, a nonsensically belated introduction of the story’s MacGuffin that contributes to the feeling of arbitrariness that pervades the film.

While Peña and Ray confront John and his crew, Cordillo and Troy go off to find medical supplies, along the way developing a thoroughly underwritten and ill-conceived romance; Troy is abruptly drawn to Cordillo after he shares his history of accidental violence against a former girlfriend (Jasper Polish). Meanwhile, the wounded Griffin is left under the watch of Paul (Jorge Luis Ramos), a German about whom multiple characters ask, in all sincerity, if he’s a Nazi, and based solely on his white hair and nationality—certainly not on any arithmetic, as the seventysomething man appears far too young to have been a Nazi Party member.

It would all be material for a parody of cheap-action-flick sensibilities: the preoccupation with Nazism, the hollow romance, the valorization of white male rage barely masked behind a rudimentary psychologism. Unfortunately, Cory M. Miller’s screenplay presents all these scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena. The truth, of course, is that Force of Nature, much like the consequences of the hurricane that clearly inspired it, is a man-made disaster.

Cast: Emile Hirsch, Mel Gibson, Kate Bosworth, David Zayas, Stephanie Cayo, Will Catlett, Jasper Polish, Jorge Luis Ramos Director: Michael Polish Screenwriter: Cory M. Miller Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 91 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: John Lewis: Good Trouble Places a Hero in Dialogue with the Past

The film is well-outfitted with telling, thematically rich shards of historical information.

3

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John Lewis: Good Trouble
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

John Lewis isn’t easily rattled. As a nonviolent foot soldier for desegregation and voting rights in the 1960s, he was severely beaten on several occasions. As a U.S. representative since 1987, he’s contended with a Republican Party that has tacked steadily rightward. John Lewis: Good Trouble presents another, if much less demanding, test for the congressman: Watching his life unspool around him on three large screens in a darkened D.C. theater.

Dawn Porter’s authoritative documentary mixes contemporary and archival material, and the latter includes many rare images, including some that the 80-year-old civil rights pioneer himself had never seen. Porter and her crew decided to show their findings to the Georgia Democrat while simultaneously filming his reactions, and the emotions prompted by this experience are palpable but carefully modulated on his part. Like most successful politicians, Lewis knows how to stay on message, and it’s clear from the moments captured here that he long ago decided which of his private feelings would be elements of his public persona.

One example of this is Lewis’s story about his early desire to become a preacher. As a boy, he says, he would address the chickens on his sharecropper family’s Alabama farm but could never get them to say “amen.” Porter places this anecdote early in Good Trouble, amid comments from family members, so it plays like a revelatory glimpse at Lewis’s formative years. But the congressman, of course, began constructing his biography long before this particular documentary crew arrived. And Porter acknowledges this fact with a scene, toward the film’s end, where Lewis tells the story again during a get-together of former congressional staffers and it becomes clear that everybody in the room already knows it.

Good Trouble, which takes its title from Lewis’s advice to young activists to get into “what I call good trouble,” is partly a testimonial. It includes snippets of praise from Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as congressional new wavers Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who says she wouldn’t be where she is today without Lewis’s example. Yet the film also recalls moments when Lewis wasn’t in perfect sync with his allies, notably the bitter primary for the seat he now holds in Georgia’s 5th District. Lewis defeated Julian Bond by winning support of the district’s white voters, and by hinting that Bond had a drug problem. Earlier, Lewis had recoiled from the militancy of “Black Power” and lost his position in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Lewis doesn’t say much about these chapters in his life, just as he doesn’t reveal a lot when he gives tours of his homes in Atlanta and D.C. A widower, he seems to live alone, though a cat is glimpsed inside the Georgia house at one point. One of the documentary’s most personal stories, about his tearful reaction to the news that his great-great-grandfather registered to vote in 1867, is told not by the congressman but by cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., who unveiled the voter card on the show he hosts, Finding Your Roots. Good Trouble is well-outfitted with such telling shards of historical information, and Porter skillfully fits them together, assembling her subject’s biography thematically rather than chronologically.

Thus, a section on the young Lewis’s battle for African-American suffrage naturally begins in the 1960s before leading to 2014, when a Supreme Court ruling undermined the Voting Rights Act, and ultimately to the 2016 and 2018 elections swayed by voter suppression. The effect is illuminating, if not especially visceral. When the filmmakers arranged this kind of “This Is Your Life” for Lewis, they may not have elicited as much emotion as they’d hoped from the congressman. But they did fashion a microcosm of what the entire Good Trouble shows: the present in dialogue with the past, and a hero in the context of a larger movement.

Director: Dawn Porter

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Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020: Mon Amour, Film About a Father Who, & The Kiosk

There’s colossal might to a cinematic image achieved through the scrappiest of means.

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Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020
Photo: Arte France Cinéma

In the opening narration to his documentary Mon Amour, David Teboul recalls a message that his former lover, Frédéric, sent him in the middle of the night before taking his life: “It’s crazy how many things we must invent to keep us from just eating, shitting, and sleeping.” The great organizer of these “many things” we invent to convince ourselves to be something more than mere organisms is the belief in love. That, anyway, is the idea that organizes Mon Amour as Teboul travels from his native France to Siberia in order to interview locals about their experiences with love, as a way to mourn the end of his own love story.

What Teboul finds in Siberia is quite disheartening: that love, when it materializes in the figure of the lover, burns fast, and what seemed like a panacea to make our miserable world a livable place turns into the poison we call domesticity. Lovers become enemies we can’t get rid of. But the little bit of love that’s saved in the ashes of the deflated mirage that once promised to save us is once in a while rekindled through Teboul’s prodding as he interviews elderly couples who seem to articulate their feelings for the first time in ages.

The very dispositions of these individuals mimic the abyss between what was once a prospect of a pleasurable life and the crude reality of vodka and violence that replaced it. In the rare moments when someone sings the praises of togetherness, they do so by looking down or away, as if addressing their own partners when speaking about love would mean losing the little bit of honor they have left after putting up with so much betrayal.

Although Teboul interviews young people, too, the strongest portraits are those of the elderly, who, on some level, take advantage of their cinematic moment to air their grievances and, once in a while, admit gratitude. A very old-looking woman in her mid-60s who lost her sight from reading too much Pushkin late at night tells us that any other man would surely have left her long ago, but not her husband, who senses when she’s awake in the middle of the night, makes her tea, and tells her that if she dies he will follow her to the grave. Teboul’s questions can be refreshingly unexpected. As when he asks the woman what her husband’s favorite body part is. When she whispers the answer into his cute little mushroom ears, you sense that it’s the closest thing to an “I love you” that he will ever hear. We don’t know if his eyes water as she praises his ears, for he looks down and away, before then heart-breakingly saying, “The main thing is not to suffer, and not to make others suffer.”

Teboul juxtaposes these portraits with digressions about his simultaneously wonderful and dismal times with Frédéric. These reflections borrow from Hiroshima Mon Amour, which Teboul watched as a child and has haunted him ever since. Frédéric, like Emmanuelle Riva’s character in that film, was also from Nevers. In these poetic detours, we see barely lit naked bodies meant to represent Teboul and his ghostly lover, recalling the opening of Alain Resnais’s film. It often feels like these autobiographical avowals, plagued by unnecessary classical music, belong to a different film. But they’re symbolically important, if not indispensable, as if Teboul was offering a self-implicating gift in exchange for awakening the long dormant intimacies of strangers.

Film About a Father Who

An image from Lynne Sachs’s Film About a Father Who. © Lynne Sachs

The absence of love, and our insistence on spending our entire lives looking for it anyway, is also at the core of Lynne Sachs’s Film About a Father Who. Sheffield Doc/Fest is screening several of Sachs’s documentaries on its streaming platform. For Film About a Father Who, Sachs spent over three decades amassing footage (from Super 8 to digital) of her father, an eccentric salesman from Utah who lived a Hugh Hefner kind of life, neglecting his children and hosting a different girlfriend almost every night at his official family home. Lots and lots of them got pregnant, which resulted in Sachs having what feels like hundreds of siblings, whose testimonials she collects here. Some didn’t know who their father was until they were adults. Others, in order to protect themselves from so much hurt, still think of him as a kind of godfather.

The title of the film is an obvious play on Film About a Woman Who…, Yvonne Rainer’s experimental masterpiece about heteronormativity and monogamy. Rainer’s approach is acerbic, perhaps even folkloric, in the sense that her film portrays one specific woman wallowing in the sinking boat of heterosexual coupledom at the same time that it tells the archetypal tale of heterosexual domesticity writ large. Sachs’s approach feels a lot less multi-layered. Film About a Father Who is so fast-paced and Sachs’s narration so detached, or literal, that it can seem more like an underdeveloped absurdist comedy as random siblings keep turning up out of nowhere to give a brief account of their contradicting feelings toward their father. One of Sachs’s many sisters recounts how their father was arrested for possession of weed when they were kids and how she didn’t know whether to weep or jump with joy at the time. But the family constellation in Sachs’s film is so vast we never spend enough time with any one single relative to see them as something other than an element.

There’s a sort of North American pragmatic froideur in the film, also present in self-ethnographic films like Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, that Rainer queers through stylistic experimentation, and that Teboul completely avoids by surrendering to melancholia with gusto. There isn’t much of a point in self-ethnographies where filmmakers protect their vulnerability through intellectualization, or prod their family wounds with a 10-foot pole. At one point in her narration, Sachs tells her audience that Film About a Father Who isn’t a portrait but, rather, her attempt to understand “the asymmetry of my conundrum.” The film is also shot in such a matter-of-fact manner that you may forget that the father is actually the filmmaker’s. It doesn’t help that the father himself pleads the fifth on every question and Sachs often directs her camera elsewhere, toward her siblings, instead of letting it linger on the silent and sad remnants of an aging womanizer.

Alexandra Pianelli also captures aging bodies in The Kiosk, but in a very different fashion. Her film was entirely shot on her phone, which was mostly stuck to her head, and without her ever leaving the tiny area behind the cash register of her family’s press kiosk in a posh area of Paris. We never see the world outside of Pianelli’s field of vision from her counter, and yet it feels like she shows us the entire mechanics of the contemporary world.

The Kiosk

An image from Alexandra Pianelli’s The Kiosk. © Les Films de l’oeil sauvage

The film’s subjects are mostly the elderly regulars who seem to show up at the kiosk everyday, for magazines and for Pianelli’s company. Pianelli crafts a tale of hopeful pessimism about humans’ relationship to otherness by explaining the ecosystem of her trade—namely, the slow decline of the printing industry in France and how the physical circulation of ideas can be the only connection to the world for an aging population that doesn’t master digital technology and for whom kiosks play the role of cafés, pubs, or even the analyst’s couch.

When filmmaker Pedro Costa said, at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, that all one needs to make a great film is “three flowers and a glass of water,” not “money, cars, and chicks,” this is what he means: the colossal might of the cinematic image achieved through the scrappiest of means. The Kiosk is a master class in filmmaking resourcefulness. Pianelli paints a portrait of our times through simple drawings that she makes of her clients, makeshift props and miniature sets made out of cardboard, and the anachronic gadgets around her workstation: a cassette tape player, an early-19th-century clock, coin holders that bear her great-grandparents’ fingerprints, and the very publications that she sells. Pianelli’s no-nonsense voiceover glues these elements together with the stunning honesty of the unflappable young Parisian for whom difference is an existential aphrodisiac. There’s no affectedness here. It’s as if a refined cinematic object accidently emerged on the road to her making an artisanal project for the sheer pleasure of making something out of dead time.

Pianelli humanizes the figure of the press kiosk clerk who, in turn, humanizes the strangers she comes across, from seniors who spend more time with her than with their own children to the Bangladeshi asylum seeker who goes to her for legal help. In one sequence, Pianelli witnesses a homeless man insistently offering his metro-ticket money to a bourgeois lady upset that the machine won’t take her credit card. We also learn that the demographics of the clientele per day of the week is contingent on what kinds of publications come out on which day, as well as which niche newspapers are the most anti-Semitic, anti-Arab, or pro-monarchy.

Pianelli lets the serious emerge but doesn’t dwell on it. Seriousness often comes wrapped up in quirkiness and play, as when she plays a guessing game with the audience, telling us what a random customer will buy before they open their months, solely based on what they wear, and always she gets it right. Men in suits and ties go for either the newspaper Le Figaro or Les Echos, while the well-coiffed ladies who don fur coats gravitate toward Voici, unless Kate Moss’s ass is on the cover of a nearby fashion magazine.

At one point, Pianelli says that she considers herself a seller of dreams. By this she means that each magazine at the kiosk stokes a different fantasy, from a supermodel body to a nation without Arabs. But The Kiosk makes Pianelli a saleswoman of a very different sort. Instead of working as the intermediary between vulnerable denizens and the idealized images that tease and haunt them, she cobbles a much more original fantasy through the bodies they actually have. The kiosk becomes the prototype for the most utopian vision of the public library, or any old space inhabited by a curious mind—an ebullient infinity of poetry and care.

Sheffield Doc/Fest’s online platform will be available to all public audiences from June 10—July 10.

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Review: My Spy Is a Clumsy Mix of Comedy, Action, and Romance

Peter Segal’s film is pulled in so many different directions that it comes to feel slack.

1.5

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My Spy
Photo: Amazon Studios

From Arnold Schwarzenneger in Kindergarten Cop to Dwayne Johnson in The Game Plan, pairing an oversized, hyper-masculine actor with a cute and precocious youngster has long been a staple of Hollywood family-friendly entertainment, as well as something of a rite of passage for action stars since the 1990s. And now, with My Spy, it’s Dave Bautista’s turn to ward off an array of villains with the help of a spunky, three-foot tall sidekick.

To its credit, Peter Segal’s film at least has the decency to cop to its derivativeness throughout, with several shots that cheekily poke fun at characters slow-walking away from explosions and one character calling out how a scene feels eerily similar to the famous fight scene near a propeller plane in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But these occasional self-referential nods prove to be only fleeting distractions from how antiquated and unimaginative My Spy is much of the time, and how clumsily it tends to its mixture of comedy, action, and romance.

The film’s mismatched duo consists of nine-year-old Sophie (Chloe Colman) and JJ (Bautista), a C.I.A. operative who’s spying on the girl and her mother, Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley), with the help of his tech officer, Bobbi (Kristen Schaal). It’s all for a good reason, as Sophie’s Uncle Marquez (Greg Bryk) not only recently murdered her father, but is now caught up in some shady Russian dealings that have put Sophie and her mother in danger. But these more nefarious threats fade to the background as soon as the film starts to fixate on Sophie’s concerns about being the new girl at school, as well as her blackmailing of JJ, which results in the beefcake being uncomfortably forced into the role of surrogate father.

Given that JJ is still reeling from his prior overseas combat experience and Kate is coping with the fresh challenges of single motherhood and a time-consuming job, My Spy too readily foreshadows their later romantic entanglement. And while Bautista and Fitz-Henley share a charming, easy repartee, and Coleman has impressive comic timing for a child actor, the film is pulled in so many different directions that it comes to feel slack. JJ’s efforts alone are split three ways, as he’s not only dealing with becoming a long-term father figure to Sophie and partner to Kate, both of whom force him to confront his trauma, but he’s also stuck with Bobbi, who hero-worships him and wants to learn all his tricks of the trade.

And that is to say nothing of the half-baked subplot involving the Russian crooks (Vieslav Krystyan and Jean-Michel Nadeau), or the gay couple (Devere Rogers and Noah Dalton Danby) that appears to have stumbled in from the set of a ‘90s sitcom. Schaal’s unrestrained zaniness ensures that a few jokes land here and there, but My Spy is ultimately sunk by a reliance on clichéd character types—the emotionally distant vet, the overworked single mom, the isolated new kid at school—that leaves it feeling like several mildly amusing after-school specials were stitched together with a handful of action scenes tossed in for good measure.

Where to Watch My Spy:

Cast: Dave Bautista, Chloe Coleman, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Kristen Schaal, Greg Bryk, Ken Jeong, Nicola Correia-Damude, Devere Rogers, Noah Dalton Danby Director: Peter Segal Screenwriter: Erich Hoeber, Jon Hoeber Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 101 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: The Audition Grapples with the Consequences of Oppressive Discipline

With great clarity, the film conveys how discipline can be directed both inward and outward.

3

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The Audition
Photo: Strand Releasing

A film about the oppressive discipline of classical musicianship, Ina Weisse’s The Audition recalls The Piano Teacher, only with the erotic grotesqueries dialed all the way down. Nina Hoss, like Isabelle Huppert in Michael Haneke’s film, plays a middle-aged music teacher whose fragile sense of self becomes entwined with a new student. Here, though, the student isn’t a peer but a young high school violinist, Alexander (Ilja Monti), and her projections onto him, mercifully, are more about her own perceived failures than any shameful sexual hang-ups. Even if it takes us to some rather dark places, Weisse’s spin on the tortured psyche of a professional female musician is more humanistic than Haneke’s.

Weisse, a violinist herself, clearly knows the pressures of high-caliber musicianship. The film aptly opens with an audition in which we see the impassive administrators of a Berlin youth conservatory, including Anna (Hoss), evaluating young teens taking turns playing orchestral instruments on stage. Although each of them has prepared multiple pieces to play, the judges consistently cut them off moments through their first piece—an unforgiving intimidation tactic that introduces us to the film’s portrait of music education as a regime of oppression.

Anna’s cold exterior is momentarily broken by Alexander’s audition, which, however much his performance of a difficult piece by Édouard Lalo moves her, fails to fully impress her colleagues. Gradually we learn that Alexander’s visible nervousness is part of what draws her to him, as Anna suffers from a nervous condition that led her to retire from an orchestra and become an instructor, and continues to manifest itself in a daily inability to make decisions, as in an early scene in which she repeatedly changes orders and then tables when out to dinner with her husband, Philippe (Simon Abkarian). “Whenever I play, I’m thinking of how I’ll fail,” she later confesses to Christian (Jens Albinus), a colleague with whom she’s having an affair.

Anna takes Alexander on as her student, to prepare him for their school’s intermediate exam—also referred to in the dialogue as an audition. The film’s German title, Das Vorspiel, has two meanings—“audition” and “prologue”—and most of Weisse and Daphne Carizani’s screenplay, in fact, could be seen as a kind of prologue, centered around the series of rehearsals preceding Alexander’s big performance for the conservatory, tracking their gradual devolution into punishing routines. Anna begins directing her own self-punishing thoughts onto the vulnerable young boy, at one point forcibly clipping his fingernails.

The filmmakers let us into Anna’s life through compact scenes that often open in media res, or end abruptly in the midst of a character’s movement. It’s a subtle way of communicating the anxiety encroaching on the order of Anna’s world. Glimpses of Philippe, a luthier who runs a shop below their apartment, handling her with kids’ gloves, and of her son Jonas’s (Serafin Mishiev) neutral responses to her presence, come to be emplaced within the atmosphere of alienation that Anna’s unraveling sense of discipline has produced. Anna, of course, knows that her insecurities themselves actually lie at the root of the problems in her life—a neurotic feedback loop of inner despair that Hoss captures wordlessly in her performance as a woman who puts on an increasingly fractured stone face for the outside world.

Discipline can be directed both inward and outward, as personal rigor or as interpersonal punitiveness. Anna has been raised in a culture of self-discipline, as a line from her father (Thomas Thieme) intimates. “Your mother always saw her illness as a lack of discipline,” he reminds Anna, a recollection that neatly sums up the cultural and possible genetic roots of her issues. The Audition is about the relation between those inward and outward senses of discipline, as the strict self-control that Anna has internalized cracks, turns outward in imperious, borderline violent behavior, and eventually shatters.

It all builds toward a tragic conclusion that may have better served the narrative by letting the consequences of Anna’s unglamorous breakdown remain as understated as Hoss’s captivating performance. Nevertheless, The Audition captures with clarity an irony at the base of accomplished musical expression: the conflict between interiority and imposed technique, which can be fraught with repressed frustration and resentment.

Cast: Nina Hoss, Simon Abkarian, Jens Albinus, Ilja Monti, Serafin Mischiev, Thomas Thieme Director: Ina Weisse Screenwriter: Ina Weisse, Daphne Carizani Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: As Political Satire, Irresistible Too Often Pulls Its Punches

Jon Stewart’s amiable satire tries to show that you can make light political comedy in the Trump era.

2.5

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Irresistible
Photo: Focus Features

Is it possible to make a light political satire in the Trump era? Jon Stewart’s amiable and occasionally quite funny Irresistible makes a credible, if not fully successful, effort to do just that. While not all of the film’s punches land, its low-key confidence in its characters, snappy dialogue, and disinterest in pandering to heartland stereotypes (positive or negative) makes for a decently thoughtful, but not exactly groundbreaking, comedy.

After a scene-setting and soul-depressing 2016 election audio montage, the film proper begins in the economically depressed small town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin. Jack (Chris Cooper), a local farmer, makes an impromptu speech at a council meeting in which he rails against Republican Mayor Braun’s (Brent Sexton) move to demand IDs for town services. Called “Hero Marine Stands Up for Immigrants” on YouTube, the speech is shown to Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell), a star Democratic consultant who’s looking for a way to get himself and his party out of their post-election depression. Calling Jack a guy who makes “Joe the Plumber look like Dukakis in mom jeans,” Gary seizes on him as a vessel for winning back the heartland.

Acclimating to life in flyover country is a rough transition for this creature of the Beltway. But while Stewart’s screenplay tries to mine some yuks out of a very familiar fish-out-of-water scenario—in one scene, Gary turns the radio from the country station to “Fresh Air” and sighs in relief—it focuses more on Gary’s desperate need to turn Jack into a polished and gleaming West Wing hero capable of rallying a demoralized political infrastructure. The stakes get ramped up quickly, particularly once the Republicans realize what Gary is up to and turn this rinky-dink mayoral race into a multi-million-dollar referendum on the nation.

Carell’s knack for playing small-minded, explosively anger-prone, and relentlessly clueless men supplies most of Irresistible’s laughs early on. Fortunately, just when the appeal of the cringe comedy threatens to wear off, Gary’s nemesis appears in the form of a soulless GOP operative, Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne, playing the role as a gleeful mercenary). The mixture of her cynical appetite for battle (“Twenty bucks says I do better with fear than you do with shame”), Gary’s frustrated desire for a win, and a strong dose of sexual tension gives their scenes a nearly Preston Sturges-like vibe at times.

Too often, though, the film seems to be pulling its punches. The satire is so heavily focused on the D.C. consultants crashing around the sleepy town of Deerlaken that it seems to forget the actual political differences that brought them there in the first place. Even though the reason for that is ultimately explained in a not entirely satisfactory third-act twist, it leaves a good part of this ostensibly political story feeling somewhat light on substance.

Irresistible will likely be criticized for not taking a harsher tone in the face of incipient fascism, and there’s some merit to that critique. The film’s both-sidesism is particularly noticeable in one scene where Faith rolls out her Koch brothers-esque billionaire backers, only to have Gary present his own billionaire liberal backer, Elton Chambers (Bill Irwin clowning as an animated-corpse-like octogenarian held upright by a mechanical exoskeleton). But this feels less like Stewart ducking the issue than taking the longer view.

The film doesn’t focus its ire on Trump, conservatives, and the like, but rather on the cable news and consultant infrastructure that was accelerating America’s collapsing democratic polity long before anybody in a red baseball cap screamed “Lock her up!” and will continue to do so after Trump leaves the White House. This makes sense from Stewart, who went after Glenn Beck back in 2010 not through white-hot invective, but by holding a rally dedicated to polite, level-headed disagreement. These are desperate times, but if Stewart wants to tack toward a more Frank Capra vein, that’s just fine. We already have one Adam McKay.

Cast: Steve Carell, Rose Byrne, Chris Cooper, Mackenzie Davis, Topher Grace, Natasha Lyonne, Will Sasso, C.J. Wilson, Brent Sexton, Debra Messing, Bill Irwin Director: Jon Stewart Screenwriter: Jon Stewart Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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