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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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The 25 Best Films of 2019

Many of the best films this year are concerned with indulgent, unbridled madness, offering formal excess as a parallel to our modern cacophony.

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The 25 Best Films of 2019
Photo: Netflix

This was a great, if bleak, year for cinema, full of mixed signals. As Disney consolidates a monopoly on popular culture, aided by a government that cheers corporate overreach, there are still too many scrappy, visionary films to count. Many such films were distributed by streaming sites like Amazon and Netflix, the latter of which is beginning to suggest 1990s-era Miramax, in terms of making fruitful risks that refute the mega-blockbuster mentality. But there’s a growing disconnect, between what’s available for most people to see and what critics champion, that parallels our era of growing political polarization.

More than ever, we live in an era in which people choose their own news and are hyper-focused on their own niches, which offers a paradox: While there’s freedom in such a lifestyle, it’s also deeply isolating. This context partially explains the exhilaration of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, insular works that, in their popularity and acclaim, recall the audience-unifying glories of ‘70s-era American pop cinema, and of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, an intoxicating, perhaps reactionary fantasy that rues the fading of a diseased patriarchal life that was nevertheless responsible for the comforts of pop culture.

Quentin Tarantino’s tender and transcendent film is, most explicitly, a paean to Hollywood’s ability to control an undivided public’s attention via he-men westerns and musicals and TV arcana. Tarantino, dangerously and daringly, glorifies a less obviously political cinema, implicitly regretting the divisions that would mark the ‘70s and the present. Such division fueled movies this year, that, while troubling, were undeniably in sync with America’s bitter underbelly, such as Todd Phillips’s Joker, Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, and S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete.

Many of the best films this year are concerned with indulgent, unbridled madness, offering formal excess as a parallel to our modern cacophony. One example is Harmony Korine’s extraordinary, absurdly overlooked The Beach Bum, a lurid and beautiful poem of privilege and self-absorption. Another is Bong Joon-ho’s smash hit Parasite, which suggests that every oppressed person oppresses someone lower on the food chain. This year, as political divisions deepen, cinema became more and more inventive with satirizing capitalism while simultaneously rendering its narcotic charms. There were also moments of immersive tranquility and introspection, offered by Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s The Gospel of Eureka, Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and Khalik Allah’s Black Mother, among others.

Do we suffer from too much? Are there too many films, too many hot takes, too much detritus to wade through? In an age of endless excess, the critic’s, and the audience’s, job is to discern patterns and meanings, to whittle chaos down to manageable stimuli. The best films of the year found artists grappling with this very chaos, mining the emotion of the spectacle of the political. Chuck Bowen

Click here for individual contributor ballots and a list of the films that ranked 26–50.


The Gospel of Eureka

25. The Gospel of Eureka

In 2014, Eureka Springs became the first city in Arkansas to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s The Gospel of Eureka doesn’t mention this fact, nor does it seek to explain why a town deeply rooted in Christian faith also has an outsized population of gay and non-binary citizens. The documentary isn’t a study of juxtaposition so much as an exploration of how the many strands of a person or location’s identity can’t easily be disentangled. Eureka Springs, both haunted by and economically beholden to the legacy of noted Christian nationalist Gerald L.K. Smith, proves a vivid backdrop through which to explore how neighbors overcome difference and embrace progress. Like October Country, Mosher and Palmieri’s latest is uniquely attuned to the fickle whims of history, politics, and biographical circumstance. Where their earlier film wondered how both the economics and personal trauma of war reverberated through a family struggling with decades of abuse, despair, and rebellion, this one communicates an atmosphere of persistent connection despite seemingly incongruous belief systems and lifestyles. The Gospel of Eureka’s overriding theme is mutability, and its one true enemy seems to be any form of dogmatism. Christopher Gray


Chinese Portrait

24. Chinese Portrait

As a recording apparatus, the camera no longer disturbs or announces its presence. It’s a ghost in the room, as banal as a limb. Xiaoshuai Wang restores the exceptional status of that most revolutionary of technical devices in Chinese Portrait, a series of short-lived tableaux vivants for which the gravitational pull of the camera is re-staged. The simplicity of bodies barely moving before a camera that brings their quotidian temporality into a halt is nothing short of a radical proposition in our digital era—in the context of a culture obsessed with using cameras precisely as anti-contemplation devices, and a film industry still so invested in producing artificial drama in order to tell its stories. In Chinese Portrait, there’s no need for storylines, tragedy, or spectacle for drama to emerge. The drama is in the minutia of the mise-en-scène, in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t. The drama is in the camera’s de-escalating force, its ability to refuse the endless excitation it could provide in favor of one little thing: elderly people stretching in a park, black and brown horses in a field, two of them licking each other’s backs. This is the camera not as a Pandora’s box, but as a sharp laser beam with curatorial intentions. Diego Semerene


The Competition

23. The Competition

Claire Simon’s The Competition follows the rigorous selection process for Paris’s iconic film and television school La Fémis, which every year accepts 60 new students, out of some 1,000 applicants. Throughout, Simon’s camera quietly observes the various phases of the selection process, aware that to best capture the anxiousness of a moment is to not embellish it. As a result, we come to take great pleasure in watching the most menial of tasks, such as a committee member counting numbers or checking boxes on a form. While those responsible for the selection process keep things mostly courteous among themselves during deliberations, it’s precisely when conflict emerges around a candidate that we realize how gracious Simon is with her subjects. It would have been easy to play up the drama or drum up miserabilist tales around the high hopes of candidates and the frustrations that follow. Simon focuses instead on how candidates trying to make a case for themselves are often self-contradicting, and as such difficult to truly assess; the film is also about the impossibility of objective criteria when it comes to such matters. The truly awful performances are never shown, only referred to in passing after they happened. This isn’t some reality show that allows us to revel in schadenfreude or root for charismatic underdogs. Semerene


Ad Astra

22. Ad Astra

Throughout Ad Astra, James Gray uses the grand metaphors of science fiction to mourn the distance between a father and son that’s so often internalized as self-alienation. This repression, Gray underlines, has utility in a rationalized society: Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is the perfect astronaut because nothing unnerves him, as testified to by his diligently recorded pulse rate, oxygen levels, and the other defining statistics of his thoroughly technologized body. The inhuman coldness his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), foisted upon him is precisely what enables him to survive his epic quest from Earth to Neptune. Among Ad Astra‘s more universal themes is coping with and moving beyond the sins of previous generations, with overtones that evoke the climate catastrophe that global capitalism has prepared for us. When Roy finally finds his elusive target, floating out there somewhere around the rings of Neptune, Gray captures a heartbreak that will be familiar to many: a confrontation between a grown son and his erstwhile hero, both appearing suddenly small, frail, and all too fallibly human. Pat Brown


Climax

21. Climax

Gaspar Noé’s Climax reminds us how pleasurable it can be when a filmmaker essentially discards plot for the sake of unhinged formalism. The film works on two levels, as it’s a celebration of body and movement, featuring astonishing and painful-looking choreography, as well as an examination of the sexual resentment that drives a mixed-race dancing troupe. In early passages, actors more or less speak to the camera, a device that suggests a blunt clearing of the air. Later, when the dancers succumb to the effects of LSD-spiked sangria, Climax becomes a brilliant fever dream, an orgy of raw, flamboyantly colored psychosis that’s truer to the spirit of Dario Argento’s Suspiria than Luca Guadignino’s recent remake. Above all else, Climax feels pure, as Noé cuts to the root of his obsession with the intersection between sex, violence, and power. It’s a horror musical of hard, beautiful nihilism. Bowen

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Slant’s Best Films of 2019: The Runners-Up and Individual Ballots

These are the films that just missed making it onto our list of the best films of 2019, and our contributors’ individual ballots.

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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

From Chuck Bowen’s introduction to Slant Magazine’s Top 25 Films of 2019: “This was a great, if bleak, year for cinema, full of mixed signals. As Disney consolidates a monopoly on popular culture, aided by a government that cheers corporate overreach, there are still too many scrappy, visionary films to count. Many such films were distributed by streaming sites like Amazon and Netflix, the latter of which is beginning to suggest 1990s-era Miramax, in terms of making fruitful risks that refute the mega-blockbuster mentality. But there’s a growing disconnect, between what’s available for most people to see and what critics champion, that parallels our era of growing political polarization.” Click here to read the feature and see if your favorite films of the year made our list. And see below for a list of the films that just missed making it onto our list, followed by our contributors’ individual ballots.


The Runners-Up:

26. The Plagiarists
27. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
28. The Lighthouse
29. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
30. End of the Century
31. Ray & Liz
32. The Wild Pear Tree
33. Honeyland
34. In My Room
35. Agnès by Varda
36. Her Smell
37. Dragged Across Concrete
38. The Image Book
39. Diane
40. Asako I & II
41. I Lost My Body
42. Gemini Man
43. Shadow
44. In Fabric
45. Us
46. The Mountain
47. Our Time
48. Little Women
49. The Dead Don’t Die
50. Diamantino


The Ballots:


Chuck Bowen

1. The Irishman
2. An Elephant Sitting Still
3. Her Smell
4. The Beach Bum
5. Diane
6. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
7. Marriage Story
8. Pain and Glory
9. Climax
10. The Competition

Honorable Mention: High Flying Bird, One Child Nation, American Factory, The Souvenir, Grass, Ray & Liz, Dragged Agaainst Concrete, Uncut Gems, The Gospel of Eureka, Ash Is Purest White

Pat Brown

1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
2. Uncut Gems
3. Peterloo
4. Marriage Story
5. Midsommar
6. The Gospel of Eureka
7. The Farewell
8. The Souvenir
9. Transit
10. Ad Astra

Honorable Mention: Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Irishman, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Ash Is Purest White, John Wick 3: Parabellum, The Beach Bum, Knives Out, Luce, Synonyms, Us

Jake Cole

1. Ash Is Purest White
2. Uncut Gems
3. The Irishman
4. High Life
5. La Flor
6. The Souvenir
7. An Elephant Sitting Still
8. Parasite
9. Transit
10. Black Mother

Honorable Mention: I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, Ad Astra, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Pain & Glory, A Hidden Life, Asako I & II, The Wild Pear Tree, Little Women, End of the Century, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Clayton Dillard

1. Uncut Gems
2. Climax
3. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
4. La Flor
5. High Life
6. Ash is Purest White
7. Pain & Glory
8. In My Room
9. Gemini Man
10. The Competition

Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Atlantics, The Beach Bum, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Black Mother, Diamantino, Marriage Story, Ray & Liz, The Silence of Others, Under the Silver Lake

Ed Gonzalez

1. Transit
2. Long Day’s Journey into Night
3. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
4. Black Mother
5. Ad Astra
6. Peterloo
7. The Competition
8. Ray & Liz
9. The Irishman
10. Climax

Honorable Mention: The Souvenir, An Elephant Sitting Still, Parasite, Asako I & II, End of the Century, Marriage Story, The Gospel of Eureka, The Beach Bum, Dragged Across Concrete, The Plagiarists

Christopher Gray

1. Transit
2. Atlantics
3. Parasite
4. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
5. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
6. I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians
7. Us
8. End of the Century
9. Ash is Purest White
10. Dark Waters

Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Asako I & II, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Black Mother, An Elephant Sitting Still, La Flor, Gemini Man, The Irishman, The Souvenir, Uncut Gems

Wes Greene

1. Uncut Gems
2. Marriage Story
3. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
4. La Flor
5. Transit
6. A Hidden Life
7. In My Room
8. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
9. End of the Century
10. Ash Is Purest White

Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Diane, An Elephant Sitting Still, Her Smell, The Image Book, Parasite, Peterloo, The Plagiarists, The Souvenir, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

Oleg Ivanov

1. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
2. The Lighthouse
3. A Hidden Life
4. To Dust
5. Shadow
6. In Fabric
7. Pain & Glory
8. Aniara
9. Parasite
10. Rolling Thunder Revue

Honorable Mention: The Mountain, Diamantino, Rezo, The Wild Pear Tree, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, Her Smell, Birds of Passage, Hail Satan?, Leto, The Silence of Others

Joshua Minsoo Kim

1. The Plagiarists
2. An Elephant Sitting Still
3. Chinese Portrait
4. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
5. Uncut Gems
6. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
7. Parasite
8. Suburban Birds
9. Black Mother
10. Marriage Story

Honorable Mention: Atlantics, Grass, Honeyland, The Irishman, The Lighthouse, Non-Fiction, Our Time, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Ray & Liz, Varda by Agnes

Carson Lund

1. Transit
2. The Irishman
3. The Souvenir
4. A Hidden Life
5. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
6. The Plagiarists
7. The Mountain
8. Ray & Liz
9. The Beach Bum
10. Dragged Across Concrete

Honorable Mention: The Hottest August, Dark Waters, Marriage Story, Atlantics, Empty Metal, Uncut Gems, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Ad Astra, High Life, Our Time

Sam C. Mac

1. Ash Is Purest White
2. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
3. Waves
4. Chinese Portrait
5. The Beach Bum
6. Uncut Gems
7. Asako I & II
8. The Gospel of Eureka
9. A Hidden Life
10. Pasolini

Honorable Mention: Long Day’s Journey into Night, Grass, 3 Faces, Peterloo, Our Time, Transit, The Plagiarists, Shadow, In Fabric, Suburban Birds

Niles Schwartz

1. The Irishman
2. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
3. The Souvenir
4. A Hidden Life
5. Pain & Glory
6. Peterloo
7. Atlantics
8. Climax
9. The Dead Don’t Die
10. Transit

Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Black Mother, Diane, Dragged Across Concrete, High Flying Bird, Marriage Story, Parasite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Rolling Thunder Revue, Uncut Gems

Diego Semerene

1. Agnès by Varda
2. The Wild Pear Tree
3. I Lost My Body
4. Ash is Purest White
5. The Competition
6. Chinese Portrait
7. Parasite
8. Sauvage
9. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
10. Honeyland

Honorable Mention: Long Day’s Journey into Night, 3 Faces, Atlantics, What You Gonna Do When the World Is on Fire?, Knife + Heart, Non-Fiction, Celebration, The Image Book, Black Mother, Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Derek Smith

1. Uncut Gems
2. La Flor
3. Transit
4. The Souvenir
5. Parasite
6. Atlantics
7. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
8. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
9. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
10. The Beach Bum

Honorable Mention: Ad Astra, Ash is the Purest White, Black Mother, Diamantino, A Hidden Life, High Life, Honeyland, The Hottest August, The Irishman, Marriage Story

Keith Uhlich

1. Peterloo
2. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
3. La Flor
4. The Irishman
5. Pain & Glory
6. Domino
7. The Gospel of Eureka
8. Chained for Life
9. Under the Silver Lake
10. Atlantics

Honorable Mention: The Dead Don’t Die, The Farewell, Gemini Man, A Hidden Life, High Flying Bird, Knives Out, In Fabric, Our Time, Shadow, Transit

Keith Watson

1. Parasite
2. Uncut Gems
3. The Image Book
4. The Lighthouse
5. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
6. High Life
7. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
8. The Irishman
9. The Gospel of Eureka
10. Honeyland

Honorable Mention: Ash Is Purest White, Chinese Portrait, Climax, Cold Case Hammarskjöld, Hustlers, Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Mountain, Our Time, Los Reyes, The Souvenir

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Review: Seberg Is an Ill-Defined Ode to an Icon of the French New Wave

Throughout, the filmmakers occlude the most fascinating and potentially powerful elements of Jean Seberg’s history.

2

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Seberg
Photo: Amazon Studios

During her return to Hollywood in the late 1960s, Jean Seberg became a visible supporter of the Black Panther Party. This put her on the watch list of J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I., and, hounded by their surveillance and muckraking, she would die of an apparent suicide in 1979. It’s a tragic story, but on its face, it’s not material for a political thriller, even if Benedict Andrews’s Seberg tries halfheartedly to make it one.

In transforming Seberg’s life into a plot-heavy narrative of secrets, intrigue, and betrayals, the filmmakers occlude the most fascinating and potentially powerful elements of her history. And, along the way, they do something of a disservice to the actress’s memory by stopping short of depicting her tragic end—concluding the film, of all places, at the end of a redemptive arc for Jack Solomon, an F.B.I. agent played by Jack O’Connell.

Kristen Stewart plays Seberg as a basically honest but somewhat impulsive woman whose fragility is almost always apparent, given the unsteady gazes and fidgety movements that are Stewart’s trademarks as an actor. It’s a performance that lacks a certain specificity. Even if Seberg suffered from doubts, she could put on a certain small-town Midwestern solidness, as is apparent in interviews from the ‘60s. Stewart’s indifferent imitation of the real Seberg’s diction-coach-inflected Midwestern accent also sticks out for its inconsistency, constantly pulling the viewer out of 1968 and muddling our sense of who this woman is meant to be.

But if Stewart’s Seberg is vaguely drawn, she’s a Rembrandt portrait in comparison to the cardboard F.B.I. agent that Andrews and screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse construct as the secondary main character. The film constantly intercuts between Seberg’s activism and bid for Hollywood stardom and Solomon’s surveillance of and growing sympathy for her. A decent, milquetoast G-man, Solomon essentially exists here to recuperate the image of the F.B.I., even as he’s portrayed as being in charge of the campaign against Seberg. While his hypermasculine colleagues trade racist jokes and exploit their male privilege—patently illustrated in an extraneous scene in which his partner, Carl (Vince Vaughn), essentially commits domestic abuse over dinner—Solomon is set up as the idealized model of an F.B.I. agent, a consummate professional interested only in uncovering crimes.

Admittedly, some of the more interesting parts of Seberg come from Solomon’s research: As he watches iconic moments from the actress’s career, recreated by Stewart, he begins to assemble a portrait of a woman damaged by both Hollywood’s and the federal government’s efforts to control her life. In scenes that might have had more impact if either character had more definition, Seberg imprints herself on Solomon through black-and-white footage and surveillance tapes, and, at times, Seberg gestures toward a Hollywoodized version of The Lives of Others. Eventually, Solomon begins informing on himself, making anonymous phone calls to Seberg to tell her she’s under watch. But Solomon is too conveniently good, too isolated from the reactionary “boy’s club” culture of the F.B.I., for his transformation to carry much weight. Furthermore, this fabricated character functions to glom a handy moral redemption onto a story that would not appear to have many good feels readily available to it.

In fact, there’s much here that feels too convenient. For one, the filmmakers downplay the radicalness of supporting the Black Panther Party and their allies in 1968. The story is told from a perspective in which lending such support is almost transparently the right thing to do, even if it flies in the face of Hoover’s F.B.I. This is admirable, in a sense, but it gives us little impression of the tumult and uncertainty of American society in the late ‘60s. For a film about a period of unrest and the icon at the center of Godard’s aesthetically groundbreaking Breathless, it’s also markedly conventional. Andrews plays it safe with his framing and storytelling, not capturing much of a sense of atmosphere in his depiction of a society and a Hollywood institution undergoing waves of turmoil and reorganization.

Furthermore, the filmmakers’ choices regarding narrative focus are telling: Solomon’s half of the story drives the most important pieces of the plot—since it’s the surveillance that ruins Seberg’s relationships and fractures her sanity. Meanwhile, her lover, the black radical Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), and his wife (Zazie Beetz) are turned into functionaries of the main white characters. Surely these historical figures, too, experienced mental anguish at the hands of the F.B.I.’s surveillance apparatus, but their oppression, when discussed here, becomes mere background to Seberg’s breakdown. Once again, black liberation becomes white people’s story, as Seberg’s connection with a movement composed principally of black people is subordinated to the film’s gratuitous interest in planting a good man in the F.B.I. Unable to imagine and unwilling to explore what oppression truly feels like, it contents itself with saying the right things and centering white people as the sole agents of history.

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Jack O’Connell, Anthony Mackie, Margaret Qualley, Zazie Beetz, Yvan Attal, Vince Vaughn, Stephen Root, Colm Meaney, Gabriel Sky Director: Benedict Andrews Screenwriter: Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Black Christmas Takes a Simplistic Stab at the Battle of the Sexes

Sophia Takal’s remake elides the thorny, complicated nature of the original’s sexual politics.

1.5

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Black Christmas
Photo: Universal Pictures

Bob Clark’s 1974 Canadian horror classic Black Christmas depends, for effect, on the terrifying unknowability of its killer, and delights in a twisted web of psychosexual tensions. As a proto-slasher film set in a sorority house, it’s also surprisingly celebratory of female agency and empowerment, particularly through its normalized depiction of women discussing abortion a mere five years after Canada officially legalized the procedure. Sophia Takal’s remake, however, elides the thorny, complicated nature of the original’s sexual politics, transforming what was once a terrifyingly ambiguous male threat upon unsuspecting women into an explicit and hackneyed embodiment of the patriarchy itself in the form of a fraternity of hooded, Skull and Bones-esque alpha males.

Takal and co-screenwriter April Wolfe obviously aim to update Black Christmas for the Me Too era, but they settle for hollow wish fulfillment rather than meaningful social critique. When Kris (Aleyse Shannon), the most politically active of the core group of sorority girls in the film, steps up to a group of emphatically evil frat boys—“You messed with the wrong sisters!”—it’s apparent that the filmmakers are less interested in actually dissecting the precepts and effects of college rape culture and the patriarchal dominance still coursing through our institutions of higher learning than they are in clumsily upending that male authority with increasingly pedantic signposts of “don’t tread on me” girl power.

It’s a shame because Takal exhibits a deep sensitivity toward her main protagonist, Riley (Imogen Poots), which is particularly evident in the film’s depiction of the young woman’s trauma from being drugged and raped three years ago by Brian (Ryan McIntyre), the former president of DKO, Hawthorne College’s most prestigious fraternity. It’s both moving and amusing to see Riley, after years of not being believed, and several of her sorority sisters perform a clever twist on “Up on the Housetop” at DKO’s Christmas party, for the way it calls out rape culture and deliberately embarrasses Brian upon his return to campus. But following this scene, Black Christmas’s condemnation of toxic masculinity is dulled as it goes about painting both its male and female characters in broader and broader strokes.

Carey Elwes’s misogynist Professor Gelson, who’d be twirling his mustache if he had one, is a virtual clone of acclaimed psychologist Jordan Peterson, and he’s surrounded by a fleet of interchangeable, cartoonishly villainous dudebros involved in some shady dealings at DKO that shift from the harmlessly cliché to the patently absurd. The women of this remake don’t exactly fare much better, as they’re constantly lauded for their strength and loyalty—most ridiculously in a lengthy digression during which the sorority sisters are compared to ants—yet with the exception of Riley, they never rise above their paper-thin conceptions.

The filmmakers’ overly simplistic depiction of good and evil is mitigated to some degree by the presence of Landon (Caleb Eberhardt), the awkward white-knight character whose compassion and respect for Riley serves as a much-needed, though muted, contrast to the rampant machismo and fragility that defines so many of the film’s other male characters. But as the large horde of black-masked and hooded men spread across campus, slaughtering sorority girls with reckless abandon, Black Christmas builds to a strained confrontation between the sexes that doesn’t fall into any sort of gray area when it comes to its depiction of male-female conflict. Instead, the film hammers home the same simplistic, however valid, points about male sovereignty on college campuses that it’s already made at least a dozen times.

With this third act’s introduction of supernatural elements linked to a mysteriously powerful black liquid that leaks from within the college founder’s bust, Black Christmas goes completely off the rails, setting up an action set piece that makes the “Marvel Women assemble” moment from Avengers: Endgame seem slyly deployed by comparison. Takal is gleeful in her depiction of the patriarchy getting its comeuppance, but her expression of female empowerment is misguided for succumbing to revenge fantasy, suggesting that the path toward equality lies in the very same forms of violence that men have enacted upon women for centuries.

Cast: Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady, Caleb Eberhardt, Cary Elwes, Simon Mead, Madelaine Adams, Zoë Robins, Ryan McIntyre Director: Sophia Takal Screenwriter: Sophia Takal, April Wolfe Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 92 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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

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

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Jumanji: The Next Level
Photo: Columbia Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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Chinese Portrait
Photo: Cinema Guild

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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Bombshell
Photo: Lionsgate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity

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

2.5

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Richard Jewell
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate

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

2.5

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Cunningham
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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The Two Popes
Photo: Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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