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Understanding Screenwriting #62: Carlos, The Plainsmen, 30 Rock, & Mad Men



Understanding Screenwriting #62: Carlos, The Plainsmen, 30 Rock, & Mad Men

Coming Up in This Column: Carlos, The Plainsmen, 30 Rock, Mad Men

Carlos (2010. Written by Olivier Assayas and Daniel Franck, based on an idea by Daniel Leconte. 335 minutes)

I don’t know if this is a great movie, but… it’ll do until something better comes along. According to an interview with Assayas by David Thompson in the November 2010 issue of Sight & Sound, Assayas was sent about four pages of material by Daniel LeConte, the producer of the film. It was a summary of the life and career of the notorious terrorist “Carlos,” aka the Jackal. Assayas was interested in the character (always a good sign), but not the summary. So Leconte sent him research done by journalist Stephen Smith, an expert in the field. What Assayas discovered was that there was more material available about Carlos’s operation and the geopolitical background than he had thought. In other words, it was getting longer. The film was originally supposed to be a 90-minute film for French television. Assayas told that to Leconte, who was reluctant, but they got approval from Canal Plus to do two 90-minute films. Then Assayas sat down with Daniel Franck, a screenwriter attached to the project, and after one meeting they both realized that three hours was not going to be enough, especially when they got into the material on the attack on the OPEC meeting in Vienna in 1975. Back to Canal Plus and an OK for a three-part film. Now as you know, if you have read this column for any length of time, that I do not believe as a general rule that longer is better. Look at any “director’s cut” if you don’t believe me. Carlos is the exception that proves the rule. Yes, there is a 2 ½ hour version that will play theatres, and it may be wonderful, but try to see the full version.

Part One, the first 105 minutes, gets us off to a nice start. We see a guy we don’t know in bed with a pretty woman. OK, he may be our hero. He gets dressed, goes outside. And checks his car for any car bombs. Smart guy. He doesn’t find any, so he gets in the car, turns on the ig—KABOOM. He’s not quite as smart as he thought, and we are now on our toes, knowing anybody can get it at any time. What the writers have done in the rest of the first part is alternate the terrorists’ actions with quieter scenes with Carlos, whom we learn had set the car bomb in the opening scene, although we never learn exactly why.

The action scenes include the invasion of the French embassy at the Hague and two wonderfully bungled attempts to shoot down an airliner at Orly Airport in Paris. The writers pace these scenes throughout the first part, so you know during the dialogue scenes that there will be some blow-’em-up-real-good stuff coming soon. Carlos was so active that there will always be some action right around the corner. Indeed, Carlos is going around corners a lot. In US#30 I got on the script for last year’s Public Enemies because there was so much running around from one place to another. I wrote at the time that may be true of Dillinger’s life on the run, but it makes him rather shallow because the script then does not provide scenes that give us the character. Assayas and Franck give us the character scenes between the running around. In the first part we get scenes of Carlos, who never seemed to be without a girlfriend of one kind or another, using his “revolutionary” ideas to seduce women. We are never quite sure, especially in this part, how serious a revolutionary he is. Is he in it for his beliefs? Or for the adrenaline rush? Or both? The writers are certainly establishing Carlos as a man of action, but Part One speeds along so fast we don’t get any deeper into him. At this point. Which is part of what the writers are doing, setting up questions in our mind while holding our interest with the action. Carlos is not a sympathetic character, but we want to watch him because when he is on-screen, stuff happens. Not very nice stuff, true, but stuff.

By the end of Part One, Carlos has convinced Wadie Haddad, the chief terrorist of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), to let him handle their operations for Europe. We have seen Carlos cool and collected, but in the suspenseful scene where he kills two members of DST, the French security services, we also see he can be impulsive. So Haddad wants him to run the OPEC operation. Carlos and his crew, including Angie and Nada, two Germans, get off the streetcar at the OPEC meeting as Part One ends.

The first hour of the 110-minute Part Two is the OPEC operation. That’s a long time, but it is a change in rhythm from the first part of the movie, and we are perfectly willing to slow down, especially since we see Carlos in action. In several of the operations in the first part, we only see the people working for Carlos, and they are often close to incompetent. Carlos at OPEC is very competent, maybe a little too much so. When they first invade the conference room, one of the people Carlos inadvertently kills is the OPEC minister from Libya. This pisses off Qaddafi, whom we never see in the film, and ends any chance they can land in Libya as part of their escape. Carlos’s discussions with the various ministers tell us a lot about Carlos as well as the ministers. As does the outcome. Haddad wanted Carlos to kill the Saudi oil minister, but Carlos could not resist the opportunity to accept a $20 million ransom. Carlos and Haddad have a great scene where Haddad “fires” Carlos from his group, saying Carlos is now a celebrity and “celebrities don’t take orders.” Haddad assigns the next big operation to friends of Carlos, a group of pro-Palestine Germans. It is the highjacking of an Air France airliner, which they take to Entebbe. Needless to say, that does not end well for the terrorists.

Carlos now has to create his own group, financed by Baghdad. His previous friends are getting out of the business, either voluntarily or involuntarily. Angie, who was wounded in the OPEC operation, goes on the run. Nada is eventually arrested. Magdalena, a German woman, comes to Baghdad, and we get a great “job interview” scene between her and Carlos that ends with sex. His use of revolutionary rhetoric for seduction has become more complex.

Andropov, a Russian, comes to tell Carlos that they are offering $1 million for the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Needless to say, the pro-Palestinians would be delighted to get rid of the man who signed the Camp David accords. You don’t remember that it was Carlos who killed Sadat? Well, he didn’t. The writers structure this very nicely, with several mentions of the money that is out there for someone to take out Sadat and how difficult it is going to be. The preparations are ongoing, until a group of fundamentalists do the job, leaving Carlos and his crew with two wasted years of planning. Sometimes the amateurs can screw up the lives of the professionals. By the end of Part Two, Carlos has the backing of Syria. But the world is changing.

According to the Assayas interview, much of the material in the first hour of Part Three has been cut from the shorter theatrical version, which is too bad. The first two parts have dealt primarily with Carlos and his connections in the Middle East, but in Part Three, we begin to see how connected the terrorist groups were with the communist countries. One of the points Thompson brought up in his interview is that most movies about terrorist groups suggest they were a local or national phenomenon, whereas Carlos shows us the international connections. Part Three opens with Carlos, Magdalena, and Weinrich, a German collaborator, living in a safe house in Budapest. The Hungarian State Security Service knows they are there and also knows that it cannot bother them or the Soviet Union will cause problems. The Hungarians still try, without much success, to get information on Carlos using undercover hookers. The writers give us a couple of nervous, maybe even bumbling, Hungarian Security men who are sent to the house to tell Carlos they are going to take care of his security. Carlos is not impressed. The Stasi tell Carlos he is no longer welcome in East Berlin, since the East Germans are afraid the Western Intelligence services will bug them and track them down. We get a real sense of how complex the political connections are in the terrorist world, a situation that has only gotten worse in the years after Carlos.

Carlos sets up a bombing of an Arab newspaper in Paris, but it goes wrong. Magdalena fights a lot with Carlos because she does not want to stay cooped up in her darkroom forging passports (Carlos has to do it on his own, as opposed to the days when the PFLP provided all of that). She wants to do “field work,” so he lets her go on the bombing. But the person who left the Peugeot with the bomb in a parking garage forgot to give them the parking ticket and Magdalena gets arrested. Carlos sends letters demanding her release, without success. He sets off a bomb intended to kill Chirac, then the mayor of Paris, but it only wounds him and stiffens the French resolve to fight back. If other films on terrorist groups are hermetically sealed in the worlds of the groups, one of the great things about Carlos is that it has such a broad vision, at least in the longer version, of the place of those groups in the real world. This has the striking effect of showing, not telling, how mentally isolated such groups are. Which is why so many of their activities are ultimately counter-productive. I know of no other film that shows that.

The nervous Hungarian Security Service guys tell Carlos that Western Intelligence is on to him and they have to dismantle their safe house in Budapest. Carlos ends up in Syria, supposedly a “successful businessman.” Magdalena is finally released from prison. She almost got out once before, but was kidnapped by the French—yes, the same people who had her in prison—and turned over to the West Germans for another term. She joins him there, and they seem happy. But Syria doesn’t want him any more. Neither does Libya. The Berlin Wall has fallen, and the Cold War support with it. As Weinrich says to Carlos, “The war is over and we lost.” Carlos has a child with Magdalena and we see him chasing the child around the garden. This is likely a conscious reference to the garden scene with Don Corleone in The Godfather (1972)—two similar domesticated monsters. Magdalena gets fed up and takes the child with her to Venezuela? Why Venezuela? Because that is where Carlos is from. She is going to live with Carlos’s mother and brother. And what was the brother doing while Carlos was being a celebrity terrorist? Making a fortune in the construction business. The writers don’t beat us over the head with this, but just give it to us as a throwaway line. Like I say, the writers are very aware of the outside world, which I always admire in a screenplay.

Carlos and the girlfriend Magdalena knew he had are now in Khartoum. He is a teacher. In one short scene he is teaching guerilla tactics in a classroom, using as one of his textbooks Seven Pillars of Wisdom. By T.E. Lawrence. As in, of Arabia. Again, not stressed by the writers, but part of the pattern. At least one review of the film said that they felt the last half-hour or so goes on too long, and I can see what they mean, since we are waiting around for Carlos to get captured. Nothing blows up real good. But because of the context the writers have established in the first five hours, it makes every scene suspenseful. In this film, you never know when something is going to happen, which adds to the tension in the last thirty minutes. Carlos is finally captured, but in a very Carlos way. Ali, one of his connections to the Arab world, has to prove his loyalty to Syria, so he gives them Carlos’s address in Khartoum. Which Syria sells to the C.I.A.. But the C.I.A. don’t want him. So they trade him to the French, who definitely want him. So members of the DST—remember that Carlos killed some of their colleagues at the end of Part One?—pick him up and take him back to France. We don’t see the trial or Carlos in prison, but I am not sure we need to see that. What we do get in the end credits are photographs of the actors and their real-life counterparts and what happened, if known, to the real people. I was impressed by the casting and performances as the film was on, but even more so when I saw the photographs. The woman playing Nada does not bear a perfect physical resemblance to the original, but boy does she capture the attitude that comes across in the still photograph.

Now you may well ask, if there is all this good stuff in the script and the film, why were you quibbling at the beginning on whether it is a great film or not? As I was watching the film, I kept having niggling problems. I was not sure in Part One if they were getting into Carlos’s character as deeply as they could. Even in the remaining parts I had some reservations. On the other hand, they do suggest that Carlos was not that deep. He certainly was not an intellectual, and he used the revolutionary ideas as an excuse to get into action. Here I am reminded of the critics’ reaction to Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Many critics felt, and still feel, that the film does not get into Lawrence’s character as deeply as it should. I dealt with this in the book Understanding Screenwriting, where I wrote, that the film, instead of “explaining” his character, “shows us, which is what screenwriting ought to be about… One of the smartest comments in the original reviews was one critic’s line that Lawrence was most himself not in close-up, but in the long shots where he is riding a camel across the desert.” True for Lawrence, and maybe true for Carlos, but I still came away feeling I wanted a little more on Carlos. There is also the last half-hour, which could be shortened a bit. Maybe those are just minor complaints.

Consider this as well. One thing a great movie does is make you see the world in its terms, which often affects the next movie or piece of art or music you see or hear. If you see D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic Intolerance, you will see its influence in almost every movie you see afterward. After I finished the last part of Carlos, I cued up on my DVR the “Harbor City” episode of Law & Order: Los Angeles (written by Judith McCreary). The speed and rhythm seemed very like Carlos. That night my wife and I went to see a new musical premiering at the Ahmanson Theater. It is Leap of Faith, based on the obscure 1992 film of the same name. The book for the show is written by Janus Cercone, who wrote the screenplay, and Glenn Slater, who also wrote the lyrics. It’s a hodgepodge of material, pushed together in a rather haphazard way. I kept thinking of Carlos, where the writers take an enormous range of material and find the ways to make it fit, in ways the musical never manages. And the next night, we heard the LA Philharmonic play Olivier Messiaen’s Turnagalila-symphonie, an eighty-minute epic consideration of love in all its forms. Messiaen used the long form the way Assayas and Franck do: to tie together multiple related themes. Messiaen and the screenwriters do it brilliantly. They made their work part of my world. You can’t ask for more than that.

The Plainsman (1936. Screenplay by Waldemar Young, Harold Lamb and Lynn Riggs, from material compiled by Jeanie Macpherson, based on stories by Courtney Ryley Cooper and Frank J. Wilstach, with additional uncredited writing by Wallace Smith, Stuart Anthony, and Virginia Van Upp. 113 minutes)

The Plainsman

Way too many cooks: When I was in a western mood a few weeks ago, I got this one from Netflix, along with Buffalo Bill (1944), which I wrote about in the last column. If too many writers spoiled that one, the boys and girls here really made a mess of this one. Well, not surpising. The producer-director of this was Cecil B. DeMille, and I talked about him and his 1939 film Union Pacific in US#30. Much of what I said there applies to this one. DeMille was coming off the lack of financial success of his 1935 spectacle The Crusades. (The background on the film, including the uncredited writers, is as before from Robert S. Birchard’s Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood.) Paramount wanted DeMille’s spectacle, but they really didn’t want to pay for it. DeMille first wanted to do a film on Buffalo Bill, which could have been a wonderful subject for him, but the 1935 film Annie Oakley had covered a lot of that. So he settled on Wild Bill Hickok as the main character, with Buffalo Bill as a supporting character (the two were friends) and Calamity Jane as the love interest. Hickok and Jane knew each other, but since she was as ugly and sin and seldom took a bath, there was probably not a romance. As in the later Union Pacific, DeMille had his writers focus on the love story. Paramount insisted DeMille use their biggest star, Gary Cooper, as Hickok, and DeMille got Jean Arthur for Jane, probably because a few month before The Plainsman went into production Cooper and Arthur had a great teaming in the 1936 film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. In that film they had Robert Riskin writing a great script for them. Not so here. There are some nice scenes, but nothing that shows them, especially Arthur, at their best.

Waldemar Young has been writing movies since the early silent era, and he was one of the writers on DeMille’s 1934 Cleopatra as well as The Crusades. Harold Lamb worked on The Crusades as well, and spent most of his time in the business with DeMille. Lynn Riggs, hmm, where have we heard that name before? Probably not for her screenplay credits, but as the author of the stage play Green Grow the Lilacs, which became the basis for the great American stage and later so-so screen musical, Oklahoma!. So at least two of the three writers knew the DeMille style: epic action and a love story, with not a lot of concern for dramatic structure or historical accuracy. The love story is very much a star vehicle for Cooper and Arthur, although as noted above, not a very good one. The epic elements have their limitations, and not just because of the budget restrictions the studio put on the film. I noted in writing about Union Pacific that a lot of it was shot on sound stages. That is even truer of The Plainsman. According to Birchard, 29 days of the original 46-day schedule were on the sound stages. Thirteen days were to be on the studio backlot. Only four days of principal photography were to be shot on locations near the studio. DeMille, unlike directors such as John Ford, Henry King and David Lean, appears to have preferred not to go on location. DeMille was a notorious control freak and he could control the production better on the lot. He did send director Arthur Rosson up to Montana to shoot a lot, and I mean a lot, of second unit footage of the cavalry, the Indians, and assorted other outdoor stuff. His footage was cut into the film, and used as rear projection on the sound stages. Like Union Pacific, it’s very stage-bound for a western. DeMille knew that was going to be how the film was done, so that was how he had the writers write the script.

In spite of all that, the picture was a big hit, and DeMille followed it up with more American historical films. They are not any better.

30 Rock (2010. “Live Show” written by Robert Carlock and Tina Fey. 30 minutes)

30 Rock

Boy, did this not work: Remember the Golden Age of American Television? It was the ‘50s and all the major shows were live. Yes, live. From New York City, the home of live theatre. None of this crappy little cheap filmed stuff that was syndicated to local stations. Live! It was great. Well, no, it really wasn’t all that great. While many of the television writers who worked in live television that I interviewed for Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing thought live television was great, some had their reservations. The late E. Jack Neuman told me, “The best of it was really a third-rate movie, the very best. [On] Playhouse 90 I was always thinking about what I could do on a movie set, and how terribly limited and awkward [it was].” And here comes 30 Rock to prove how right Neuman was.

Yes, this episode was done live, once for the East Coast and once for the West Coast. I saw the West Coast feed, so if you want to tell me the East Coast version was better, you can try, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me. Doing it live killed the rhythm of the show, which is based on short, quick scenes. Here they dragged out the scenes to the point of killing the jokes. There were what I take to be some joke references to doing a live show, but they were not particularly subtle and often played directly to the camera, which also not part of the world of 30 Rock. Because of the limitations of the live studio in which they were broadcasting from, the sets looked a lot smaller and cheaper than the ones in the filmed episodes. See what E. Jack Neuman meant? And the live audience also threw off the acting, since the actors had to wait for the audience reactions. This led to the actors overacting, which also killed what funny stuff there was in the screenplay. The quick subtlety of the show was lost. Back to film, please, where you can do it right.

Mad Men (2010. “Tomorrowland” written by Jonathan Igla and Matthew Weiner. 62 minutes)

Mad Men

And so ends one of the best seasons of Mad Men: You know now that I like Mad Men, in spite of it moving at a snail’s pace during the first few seasons. One thing I loved most about this season was that they picked up the pace, without losing any of the other elements that make the show so great: great characters, great scenes, and a wonderful sense of the period the show is set in. Most of those elements are present in this episode. Don has written off Lucky Strike and any tobacco clients with his ad in the New York Times, but he’s got a meeting with the American Cancer Society. They are interested in starting an anti-smoking campaign and why not get the best guy around to do it? And Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce needs the business, since they haven’t landed a new client in weeks.

Betty fires Carla, the Black nanny who has been with them forever, since she let Glen, the creepy little boy, say goodbye to Sally. Don is upset that Betty did this now, since he is taking the kids on a trip to California and he was expecting Carla to take care of them while he was in meetings. Geez, who can he get at the last minute to go to California? Well, Megan, his new secretary, was good with Sally several episodes back when she showed up at her dad’s office. See how Weiner and the gang have been setting things up? Now what would have happened if Mrs. Blankenship had not died? Actually, Mrs. Blankenship as a nanny could have been fun…

Meanwhile Peggy learns that Topaz pantyhose has fired their agency. How does she find out? Her lesbian friend brings around a model who was part of the fired ad campaign. Harry Crane is busy flirting with her, but Peggy sees an opportunity and arranges a meeting with the guys at Topaz. Peggy being Peggy, she comes up with a couple of ideas on the spot, and she lands the first big account SCDP has gotten in weeks. Boy, is that going to be a big deal at the office. Not so fast.

Because of budget limitations (do you want to pay to recreate the Disneyland of the mid-’60?), we don’t see Don and the kids go to Disneyland, but we hear about it, but not so much we miss the scenes there. Mostly we see the kids and Megan in the hotel swimming pool. Don, who had sex once with Megan in the office, has sex with her again in California. After all, she has seen him with Stephanie, Anna’s niece, and knows he is a good guy. Megan tells him, “I know who you are now,” which probably means more to Don than Megan intends. He later tells her, “I feel like myself with you.” You can understand the impact of that on Don, who has very seldom felt like himself anywhere. No wonder he proposes, using Anna’s engagement ring from the “real” Don Draper that Stephanie has told him Anna wanted him to have.

So when they get back to SCDP, Don tells Joan, Lane, and Roger, who are a bit gobsmacked. Even more gobsmacked is Peggy, for about six million reasons. See the advantage of the way the writers for the series have developed the Don-Peggy relationship? Is she pissed because she wanted Don for herself? Wanted him sexually, or just professionally? Or is she pissed, as she says to Joan in a wonderful scene, because his news has overshadowed hers in everybody’s mind. Remember the elevator scene in “The Summer Man”? Their relationship is developing as well

My God, what about Faye, the audience analyst he’s been sleeping with? He calls her, and she refuses to meet him. That’s smart writing. It’s better to do this scene on the phone so we can have some “privileged moments,” as actors call them, with her. Faye is not happy.

Joan has a nice phone conversation with her husband. Remember that abortion she had? Well, neither she nor anybody else ever said she went through with it. She’s still pregnant, but has convinced her husband it’s his. Joan is very persuasive, as we know. And what is Roger going to think when she goes all swelly-belly in the office?

Don ends up at his old house to meet with a real estate agent, and who shows up with Betty. She is not surprised he is getting married again, and she knows without being told that it is the secretary. We can tell she’s a little envious. Things are not going well with her and Henry.

So, we have come through a season in which the new agency got its start, and went through a rocky period. It’s also been a season that has seen Don more depressed and disconnected than we have ever seen him before. It’s a season where Peggy is coming into her own in all kinds of ways.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for the next season.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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Review: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets Is an Elegiac Mosaic of Disillusionment

It’s in certain characters’ trajectories that the Ross brothers locate the tragic soul of the bar.




Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Photo: Utopia

In a 1946 essay for London’s Evening Standard, George Orwell wrote: “And if anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it.” In other words, the British author was on the lookout for the ideal watering hole, which he argues requires a combination of these specific offerings as well as more ineffable qualities. But the article’s thrust isn’t so simple, as Orwell spends the first three-quarters of it describing in detail a bar that doesn’t exist, referred to by the fictitious moniker of “The Moon Under Water.” You might think that you’re reading a rare lifestyle report from your favorite anti-totalitarian author, only to suddenly be made aware of your victimhood in a little literary sleight of hand.

Orwell’s playful essay provides the inspiration for Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, a quasi-real-time portrait of what might be seen as an ideal dive bar by today’s standards, though filmmaker brothers Bill and Turner Ross eschew Orwell’s rug-pulling. Here, we’re never let in on the fact that the Roaring 20s, the Las Vegas haunt that serves as the film’s setting, is actually located in the Rosses’ hometown of New Orleans, or that its denizens are actually a motley crew of Louisiana drinkers (one looks like Elliott Gould, another like Seymour Cassel) that the filmmakers recruited and primed for their roles. This edifice of fakery is critical to the film’s meaning. As Orwell opined for a more perfect world where such a social space could exist, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets fabricates its own rosy vision of social unity, drunkenly commiseration, and aesthetic perfection, if only to deliberately undercut this idealism through the staging of its narrative around the bar’s final night and the election of Donald Trump.

The Roaring 20s may not be everyone’s idea of perfection. After an Altmanesque credit sequence establishing the bar’s exterior in zooming telephoto shots, the audience’s first glimpse at the interior finds custodian-cum-freeloader Michael Martin being broken from his early-afternoon slumber by the arriving bartenders and helped promptly to a swig of whiskey, and events from this point forward tap into a similar reservoir of pity and humor. Where the beauty emerges is in the intimacy and familiarity with which the patrons are able to relate to one another as more and more alcohol is consumed. For much of the film, egos, tempers, and prejudices fall away as more and more regulars pile into the bar, increasingly constituting a diverse cross section of what appear to be outer Vegas wanderers and failures.

Limiting views of the surrounding city to brief, bleary interludes shot on an un-color-calibrated Panasonic DVX100b, the Ross brothers center the action squarely around the bar, lending everything a brownish pink patina that suggests the view through a bottle of Fireball and draping every hangable surface with off-season Christmas lights. Taken as part of a dialogue with such gems from the canon of booze-soaked cinema as Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery and Eagle Pennell’s Last Night at the Alamo, this auburn glow distinguishes Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets as more texturally expressive than photographically verisimilar—a film that approximates a night of inebriation rather than merely memorializing it.

Having used two cameras over the course of their 18-hour shoot, the Rosses are able to rely on montage editing to foster a sense of omniscience without losing the feeling of temporal continuity. The result is a film whose attention jumps sporadically to different bits of conversation and activity just as the beer-saturated brain of your average pub-dweller might. Part of this seamless integration of perspectives has to do with the film’s dynamic and precise use of music, which blends non-diegetic Rhodes-piano noodlings from composer Casey Wayne McAllister with popular songs heard within the bar both on the jukebox and in impromptu sing-alongs. Unconcerned with airs of documentary objectivity, the Ross brothers allow themselves to essentially play disc jockeys, and within this framework many of their choices for background needle drops land with a certain poetic gravitas, complementing, contradicting, or in some cases even guiding the emotional temperature of the room.

Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler” is heard twice, first played by a bartender on an acoustic guitar to get the early evening energy going and later on the jukebox when much of that energy has dissipated, while Jhené Aiko’s desolate breakup ballad “Comfort Inn Ending” provides contrapuntal accompaniment to the evening’s one flare-up of macho tempers. Most affecting is when A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems” underscores a shot of an embittered but tender war vet, Bruce Hadnot, glowering at the end of the bar—a lengthily held beat that will be relatable to anyone who’s ever found introspection in the midst of pummeling noise. Each example hints at the melancholy direction that the film ultimately takes, and like any DJ worth their salt, the Rosses manage the transition from euphoria to pathos gradually and imperceptibly.

While all who enter the Roaring 20s achieve some kind of emotional arc before departing thanks to the filmmakers’ democratic distribution of their attentions, there are a few who emerge as main characters, and it’s in their trajectories that Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets locates the tragic soul of the bar. Michael is one of them. Beginning the day as a freewheeling conversationalist, ripping drinks and catching up with whoever rolls through, he spends the dwindling hours of the night in a dazed stupor on a corner sofa, pathetically asserting to a fellow bar patron that “there is nothing more boring than someone who used to do stuff and just sits in a bar.” In a few instances, the Ross brothers cede the floor to the bar’s security cameras, whose detachment and “objectivity” eschew the warmth of the filmmakers’ ground-level cameras, rendering the bar as little more than a physical space. Seen from this cold, inhuman eye, Michael registers as lonely, beaten-down, and insignificant.

Similarly positioned on the margins of the sociable space created by the Roaring 20s, and often identified by its more imposing and strange attractions (such as the Stratosphere and Pyramid casinos), Las Vegas plays a role analogous to the bar’s security cameras. As seen through a motion-blurred, sepia-toned camera, the city represents a reality of false hopes that’s failed the film’s humble pleasure seekers—whether in the form of dead-end jobs that have led them away from their passions or in a military industrial complex that treats its servants as interchangeable. At one point, Bruce brings up Trump on the occasion of his recent election, confidently proffering grave predictions for his presidency. The subject doesn’t get touched again, but it’s a subtext for the whole film—not the Trump presidency per se, but the mere fact of pessimism in the face of leadership. Like Orwell’s “The Moon Under Water,” the Roaring 20s seen in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets doesn’t really exist. Even if it did, no one would save it, which makes the desperation with which its denizens hang on to it all the more touching.

Director: Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross Distributor: Utopia Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Relic Is a Lushly Metaphoric Vision of a Splintered Family

The film heralds the arrival a bold and formidable voice in horror cinema.




Photo: IFC Midnight

Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), don’t say much on the drive to Grandma Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) house. The old woman is missing, and when Sam crawls through the doggy door into the home, she looks around with concern, absorbed until Kay knocks impatiently at the door to be let in. Still no words. The women of Relic aren’t exactly close, as evidenced by the palpable coldness between Kay and Sam as they look through this cluttered abode. Edna’s forgetfulness having grown exhausting, Kay tells a cop that she hasn’t spoken to her eightysomething mother in weeks. And the guilt is written on Kay’s face, even in the distant shot that frames her within the walls of the police station.

Though Relic is her debut feature, Natalie Erika James demonstrates a confident grasp of tone and imagery throughout the film. She and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff strikingly conjure an ominous stillness, particularly in the scenes set inside Edna’s increasingly unfamiliar home, where the characters appear as if they’re being suffocated by the walls, railing, low ceilings, and doorways. Relic fixates on rotting wood, the monolithic scope of the Australian woods, and the colors on Edna’s front door’s stained-glass window that meld, eventually, into a single dark spill, as though the house is infected by the old cabin that haunts Kay’s dreams.

Edna soon reappears, unable to explain where she’s been and complicating an already distant family dynamic. The interactions between the three women are marked by an exhaustion that’s clearly informed by past experience—a feeling that Edna’s disappearance was almost expected. But not even James’s command behind the camera can quite elevate just how hard Relic falls into the shorthand of too many horror movies with old people at their center: the unthinking self-harm, the wandering about in the night, the pissing of oneself.

The film remains restrained almost to a fault, revealing little about its characters and their shared histories. Though some of this vagueness could be attributed to Relic’s central metaphor about dementia, the general lack of specificity only grows more apparent in the face of the film’s oldsploitation standbys, leaving us with precious little character to latch onto.

But such familiar elements belie Relic’s truly inventive climax, an abrupt shift into a visceral nightmare that tears apart notions of body and space and then sews them back together in a new, ghastly form. James resists bringing the film’s subtext to the forefront, in the process imbuing her enigmatic images with a lasting power, turning them into ciphers of broader ideas like abandonment, responsibility, and resentment as they relate to the withering human figure. Never relenting with its atmosphere of suffocating decay, the final stretch of Relic, if nothing else, heralds the arrival a bold and formidable voice in horror cinema.

Cast: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote Director: Natalie Erika James Screenwriter: Natalie Erika James, Christian White Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Love Before the Virus: Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s Newly Restored Passing Strangers

The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love.



Passing Strangers
Photo: PinkLabel

One of the many pleasures to be had in watching Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s newly restored Passing Strangers derives from its status as a historical document, or a piece of queer ethnography. The 1974 film allows us to see but also feel what life was like for gay men during what some have called the golden age of unbridled sex before the AIDS epidemic. Bressan Jr.’s portrait of this history is simultaneously attuned to its sartorial, mediatic, erotic, and affective dimensions, which may come as a surprise to those unaccustomed to explicit sexual imagery being paired with social commentary. Pornography and poetry aren’t counterparts here. Rather, they’re bedfellows, one the logical continuation of the other. Money shots, for instance, aren’t accompanied by moaning or groaning, but by the sounds of a violin.

The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love. They devote so much of their lives to picking up strangers for sex, briefly and by the dozens, but not without secretly wishing that one of them might eventually stay. In this they may not differ much from their contemporary cruising heirs, though they do in their approach. It turns out that asking for a pen pal’s photo before a meetup in 1974 was considered creepy, and using Walt Whitman’s poetry as part of a sex ad was quite fruitful.

That’s exactly what 28-year-old Tom (Robert Carnagey), a bath-house habitué and telephone company worker living in San Francisco, does in the hopes of attracting something long term. The literal poetics of cruising speaks to 18-year-old Robert (Robert Adams), who responds to Tom’s newspaper ad right way. They meet in person and begin a love affair that could only be described as bucolic, including making love in fields of grass, on top of a picnic blanket, to the sound of waves and piano notes, and riding their bikes around town, much like the sero-discordant love birds of Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo do after partaking in a gangbang. In retrospect, promiscuity gains the tinge of an obsessive auditioning of “the one,” who, in Bressan Jr.’s sensual fairy tale, is bound to come along and save us from ourselves.

Passing Strangers, which originally screened at adult cinemas and gay film festivals, recalls Francis Savel’s 1980 porno Equation to an Unknown in how smut and romance are so intimately bound in the forms of queer intimacy that the film depicts. This may also be due to the dearth of gay cinematic representation at the time—of gay men perhaps needing to dream of prince charming and of bareback anal sex in the same movie session, satisfying the itch for love and for filth in one fell swoop. But while Equation to an Unknown is completely wrapped up in a fantasy glow, there’s something more realistic, or pragmatic, about Passing Strangers.

Tom’s voiceover narration, which takes the shape of disaffected epistolary exchanges with his newfound beloved, orients us through the action. Motivations are explained. At times, however, Bressan Jr. indulges in experimental detours. These are precisely the most beautiful, and atemporal, sequences in the film—scenes where sex is juxtaposed with the sound of a construction site or the buzzing of a pesky mosquito, or one where an audience of orgy participants give a round of applause after somebody ejaculates. And the film’s surrendering to moments of inexplicable poesis reaches its apex in a shot of a boy in clown makeup holding his mouth agape. It’s an exquisitely brief shot, indelible in its strangeness.

Newly restored from the original negative in a 2K scan, Passing Strangers is now available to stream on PinkLabel as part of The Bressan Project.

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Review: Tom Hanks Stubbornly Steers Greyhound into Sentimental Waters

With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play.




Photo: Apple TV+

With his almost supernatural likeability, impeccable reputation, and penchant for appearing in films rooted in American history, Tom Hanks has become a national father figure. The actor’s ongoing project, particularly urgent as we seek to redefine our relationship with our history and iconography, is to remind us of when the United States actually rose to the occasion. Unsurprisingly, this project often centers on World War II, one of the least controversial pinnacles of American collaboration on the world stage.

Continuing this tradition, Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound concerns the efforts to provide Britain with troops and supplies via Allied naval convoys on the Atlantic, which German U-boat “wolf packs” stalk and sink, attempting to break a Western blockade. Adapted by Hanks from C.S. Forester’s novel The Good Shephard, the film is a celebration of duty and competency that’s so quaint it’s almost abstract, as it arrives at a time of chaos, selfish and blinkered American governing, and a growing bad faith in our notion of our own legacy.

Set over a few days in 1942, the film dramatizes a fictionalized skirmish in the real-life, years-long Battle of the Atlantic. The American destroyer Greyhound, leader of a convoy that includes Canadian and British vessels, is commanded by Ernest Krause (Hanks), an aging naval officer with no experience in battle. Text at the start of the film explains that there’s a portion of the Atlantic that’s out of the range of air protection, called the Black Pit, in which convoys are especially vulnerable to the wolf packs. For 50 hours, Krause and his crew will be tested and severely endangered as they seek to cross this treacherous stretch of the sea.

This skeletal scenario has potential as a visceral thriller and as a celebration of Allied ingenuity and daring. Unfortunately, Hanks’s script never adds any meat to the skeleton. One can see Hanks’s passion for history in the loving details—in the references to depth charge supply, to windshield wipers freezing up, to the specific spatial relationships that are established (more through text than choreography) via the various vessels in this convoy. What Hanks loses is any sense of human dimension. In The Good Shephard, Krause is frazzled and insecure about leading men who’re all more experienced in battle than himself. By contrast, Krause’s inexperience is only mentioned in Greyhound as a testament to his remarkable, readymade leadership. The film’s version of Krause is stolid, undeterred, unshakably decent ol’ Tom Hanks, national sweetheart. As such, Greyhound suffers from the retrospective sense of inevitability that often mars simplified WWII films.

Greyhound’s version of Krause lacks the tormented grace of Hanks’s remarkable performance in Clint Eastwood’s Sully. This Krause also lacks the palpable bitterness of Hanks’s character in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, as well as the slyness that the actor brought to both Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can and Bridge of Spies. In Greyhound, Hanks falls prey to the sentimentality for which his detractors have often unfairly maligned him, fetishizing Krause’s selflessness in a manner that scans as ironically vain. As a screenwriter, Hanks throws in several writerly “bits” to show how wonderful Krause is, such as his ongoing refusal to eat during the Greyhound’s war with U-boats. (A three-day battle on an empty stomach seems like a bad idea.) Meanwhile, the crew is reduced to anonymous faces who are tasked with spouting jargon, and they are, of course, unquestionably worshipful of their commander, as are the voices that are heard from the other vessels in the convoy.

Schneider lends this pabulum a few eerie visual touches, as in the slinky speed of the German torpedoes as they barely miss the Greyhound, but the film is largely devoid of poetry. The stand-offs between the vessels are competently staged, but after a while you may suspect that if you’ve seen one torpedo or depth charge detonation you’ve seen them all. With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play. In short, Greyhound takes a fascinating bit of WWII history and turns it into a blockbuster version of bathtub war.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Karl Glusman, Stephen Graham, Elisabeth Shue, Tom Brittney, Devin Druid, Rob Morgan, Lee Norris, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Maximilian Osinski, Matthew Zuk, Michael Benz Director: Aaron Schneider Screenwriter: Tom Hanks Distributor: Apple TV+ Running Time: 91 min Rating: 2020 Year: PG-13

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Review: The Beach House’s Moodiness Is Dissipated by Shaky Characterization

The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action.




The Beach House
Photo: Shudder

Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, in which a satellite crashes to Earth with an alien virus on board, is an expression of Space Age anxieties, about how the zeal to reach the stars could have unintended and dangerous consequences. In Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House, something lethal instead rises from the depths of the ocean, a kind of “alien” invasion coming up from below rather than down from the cosmos, better reflecting the environmental anxieties of our present day. It still feels like comeuppance for human hubris, but this time in the form of intraterrestrial, not extraterrestrial, revenge.

The potentially extinction-level event is played on a chamber scale as domestic drama. Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) are college sweethearts who go to his family’s beach house during the off-season, in a seemingly abandoned town, to work on their personal problems. They’re unexpectedly joined there by Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), old friends of Randall’s father, and the four agree to have dinner together. It’s then that Emily, an aspiring astrobiologist, conveniently provides some context for what’s about to happen, as she makes reverential conversation at the table about the mysterious depths of the sea and the sometimes extreme conditions in which new life can be created and thrive.

That night, while tripping balls on edibles, the couples look out and marvel at the sparkling, purple-tinged landscape outside their beach house. (The smell is less gloriously described as being like that of sewage and rotten eggs.) It’s not a hallucination, though, because whatever ocean-formed particulate is turning the night sky into a psychedelic dreamscape and the air cloudy is also making the characters sick. There’s some interesting and serendipitous overlap between the film’s central horror and our present Covid-19 crisis, as the malady seems to be airborne, affecting the lungs and making the characters cough. It also affects older people more quickly than the young, with the milder symptoms including exhaustion.

Brown emphasizes the oddness of nature with an eye for detail focused in close-up on, say, the eerie gooeyness of oysters, and by vivifying the film’s settings with bold colors: On the second night, the air glows mustard and red, recalling recent California wildfires. The ubiquitous haze also evokes John Carpenter’s The Fog and Frank Darabont’s The Mist, but other genre influences are also on display, from Cronenbergian body horror, as in the gory removal of a skin-burrowing worm, to zombie flicks, given the slowness of the hideously infected victims.

There’s not a lot of exposition about the illness, as Brown’s screenplay is primarily focused on Randall and Emily’s fight to survive the mysterious onslaught. But you probably won’t care if they do. The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action. The Beach House had convincingly argued that these two people shouldn’t be together, that their relationship has long passed its prime. He mocks her plans for advanced study and calls her life goals bullshit, even though he has none himself; he suggests that they move into the beach house, to live in a state of permanent vacation, while he tries to figure out what life means. When she’s high and getting sick and asking him for help, he dismisses her, lest it harsh his mellow. But instead of engineering his downfall, Midsommar-style, Emily does everything she can in the last third to help save him. It feels sudden, unearned, and unconvincing—enough to make you root for the monsters from the ocean floor.

Cast: Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Maryann Nagel, Jake Weber Director: Jeffrey A. Brown Screenwriter: Jeffrey A. Brown Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Old Guard Is a Would-Be Franchise Starter with No New Moves

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action, the film is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts.




The Old Guard
Photo: Netfflix

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard is a modestly successful attempt to build a new fountain of franchise content out of a comic series with nearly limitless potential for spin-offs. The story kicks into motion with a team of four mercenaries with unique powers and an ancient bond setting off to rescue some kidnapped girls in South Sudan. Charlize Theron brings her customarily steely intensity to the role of the group’s cynical, burnt-out leader, Andy, who isn’t crazy about the idea since she doesn’t trust Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the ex-C.I.A. agent who hired them. Given how long it turns out that Andy has been doing this sort of thing, you would imagine that her comrades would listen.

The mission turns out to be a set-up, and the would-be rescuers are wiped out in a barrage of bullets. Except not, because Andy and her team are pretty much unkillable. So as their enemies are slapping each other on the back and conveniently looking the other way, the mercenaries haul themselves to their feet, bodies healing almost instantaneously, bullets popping out of closing wounds. Payback is swift but interesting, because for reasons likely having to do with their being many centuries old—the youngest, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), fought for Napoleon—the four quasi-immortals like to use swords in addition to automatic weaponry.

Written with glints of pulpy panache by Greg Rucka, the comic’s originator, The Old Guard sets up a high-potential premise and proceeds to do not very much with it. Rucka’s conceit is that this tiny group are among the very few people on Earth to have been born essentially immortal. This can be a good thing, but it can also prove problematic, as it means that they watch everybody they know age and die—a trope that was already somewhat worn by the time Anne Rice used it throughout her novels about ever-suffering vampires.

The plot of the film does relatively little after the showdown in South Sudan besides introduce a new member of the mercenary team, Nile (KiKi Layne), establish that Andy is tiring of the wandering warrior life, and show the group plotting revenge on Copley only to have that turn into a rescue mission that conveniently brings them all back together again. As part of the run-up to that mission, new recruit Nile, a Marine who goes AWOL from Afghanistan with Andy after her fellow soldiers see her seemingly fatal knife wound magically heal and treat her as some kind of witch, is introduced to life as a nearly invincible eternal warrior.

That rescue plot is simple to the point of being rote. Billionaire Big Pharma bro Merrick (Harry Melling), seemingly made up of equal parts Lex Luthor and Martin Shkreli, kidnaps two of Andy’s team in the hope of harvesting their DNA for blockbuster anti-aging drugs. Unfortunately for the film, that takes two of its most personable characters temporarily out of action. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) had their meet-cute while fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades and have been wildly in love ever since. After the two are captured and mocked by Merrick’s homophobic gunsels, Joe delivers a pocket soliloquy on his poetic yearning: “His kiss still thrills me after a millennium.” The moment’s romantic burn is more poignant by being clipped to its bare-minimal length and presented with the casual confidence one would expect from a man old enough to remember Pope Urban II.

In other ways, however, The Old Guard fails to explore the effects of living such lengthy lives. Asked by Nile whether they are “good guys or bad guys,” Booker answers that “it depends on the century.” While Rucka’s hard-boiled lines like that can help energize the narrative, it can also suggest a certain flippancy. When the film does deal with crushing weight of historical memory, it focuses primarily on Andy, who’s been around so long that her name is shortened from Andromache the Scythian (suggesting she was once the Amazon warrior queen who fought in the battle of Troy). Except for a brief flashback illustrating the centuries-long escapades of Andy and Quynh (Veronica Ngo) fighting for vaguely defined positive principles (one involved rescuing women accused of witchcraft), we don’t see much of their past. Similarly, except for Andy’s increasing cynicism about the positive impact of their roaming the Earth like do-gooder ronin, they seem to exist largely in the present.

That present is largely taken up with combat, particularly as Booker, Andy, and Nile gear up to rescue Nicky and Joe. Prince-Bythewood handles these scenes with a degree of John Wick-esque flair: Why just shoot a Big Pharma hired gun once when you can shoot him, flip him over, and then stab and shoot him again for good measure? However tight, though, the action scenes’ staging is unremarkable, with the exception of one climactic moment that’s so well-choreographed from an emotional standpoint that the impossibility of a multiplex crowd hooting and clapping in response makes the film feel stifled by being limited to streaming.

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts. That will likely not stop further iterations from finding ways to plug these characters and their like into any historical moment that has room in it for high-minded mercenaries with marketable skills and a few centuries to kill.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling, Veronica Ngo Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood Screenwriter: Greg Rucka Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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

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




We Are Little Zombies
Photo: Oscilloscope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Palm Springs
Photo: Hulu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Photo: Disney+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Family Romance, LLC
Photo: MUBI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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