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Understanding Screenwriting #64: Unstoppable, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Boxing Gym, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #64: Unstoppable, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Boxing Gym, & More

Coming Up in This Column: The Hero’s Journey, Unstoppable, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Wild Target, Four Lions, Boxing Gym, Two and a Half Men, Burn Notice.

Fan Mail: In the comments on US#63, “Juicer243” put an ad in for a site where he says that to “really understand screenwriting” you have to get the site’s take on the Hero’s Journey. No, learning about the mythology of the Hero’s Journey will not teach you a damned thing about screenwriting. It will only teach you what development executives think a movie has to have. The Hero’s Journey pattern of narratives in various cultures began in Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which is generally considered to be a ripoff of Sir James George Frazier’s epic late 19th-early 20th century study of comparative cultures. Campbell’s book would have been forgotten by now, except that George Lucas, trying to convince people that the first Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983) was more than just sci-fi movies for kids, promoted the film as being influenced by Campbell. Campbell, being something of a celebrity whore, bought into that and kept popping up on PBS with Lucas to explain it all for you. The Lucas films a) made more money than God, and b) established the teen-fan boy audience as the audience primarily aimed at by Hollywood. So it is not surprising that Campbell’s ideas, especially as promoted in Christopher Vogler’s 1998 book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, became the standard clichéd structure that Hollywood believes in.

The Hero’s Journey follows a young man as he is called to adventure, resists the call, gets supernatural help, goes through a bunch of trials, is tempted by Woman, wins out in the end, and returns to his world. It is more complicated than that, and you can look it up on Wikipedia if you want to. Needless to say, it is a rather limited view of what a movie can be, especially with its patriarchal, teen-boy fear of women. You may be able, of course, to fit several classic films into the archetype. Just off the top of my head, you can do it with Citizen Kane (1941), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) without breaking too much of a sweat.

On the other hand. Again just off the top of my head, here are some great or at least good classic scripts that do not fit into that paradigm: It Happened One Night (1934), The Thin Man (1934), Nothing Sacred (1937), His Girl Friday (1940), Brief Encounter (1945), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Gunfighter (1950), The Narrow Margin (1952), Roman Holiday (1953), Some Like it Hot (1959), Dr. Strangelove (1964), Blow-Up (1966), Chinatown (1974), Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979), Terms of Endearment (1983), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and Thelma & Louise (1992).

And here are some more I have written about recently in this column: The Town, Easy A, The Concert, Life During Wartime, Get Low, The Kids Are All Right, Please Give, The Secret in Their Eyes

And there are even more this time around, as you will see below.

Unstoppable (2010. Written by Mark Bomback. 98 minutes)

Unstoppable

Trains: Trains are wonderful cinematic toys. They huff, the puff, they go uphill, they go downhill, they go fast, they go slow, they get into wrecks. The movies have loved trains from the beginning. After all, Porter’s 1903 groundbreaker is not The Great Stagecoach Robbery, but The Great Train Robbery. We have had the building of railroads in The Iron Horse (1923) and Union Pacific (1939). Charles Bennett’s Fat Little English Friend loved trains. When somebody asked him why he did not make movies about airliners, Hitch said people can get off and on trains, but you can’t do that with airliners. We have had a lot of great train wrecks in Union Pacific and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). David Lean’s father worked for a British railroad, so I am sure there is something Oedipal about Lean’s wrecking trains in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia. And John Frankenheimer smashed up more than a few in The Train (1964).

With that buildup you are probably thinking I am going to dump on Unstoppable. Guess again. It is one of the great train movies of all time. Not necessarily a great movie, but definitely a great train movie. You may remember that in US#22 that I liked the action scenes in Race to Witch Mountain (2009), which was co-written by Mark Bomback. I liked his screenplay for Live Free or Die Hard (2007) even more, although it was over the top, but in an entertaining way. This script is even better, more focused and less over the top, but just as action packed.

Structurally the script is nicely thought out. It is based on an incident in 2001 when a train got loose and traveled 60 miles without anyone aboard. In this case the train has several tank cars worth of dangerous chemicals on it. It goes off on its own because an idiot worker inadvertently leaves it in gear in the rail yard. One thing I like about the early scenes is that Bomback captures the reality of people figuring out what has gone wrong, scenes that remind of how well United 93 (2006) handled similar events. The smartest person around is Hooper, the rail yard manager, who begins to figure it all out. Hooper, alas, has to deal with a boss, Galvin, who comes up with an idea to stop the train that does not work out, to put it politely. Galvin also gets a phone conversation with the CEO of the railroad that in one question and three or four lines tells you almost as much about the economic collapse as Inside Job (2010) does. Good writing by Bomback there.

So it is up to Hooper and the working class to once again save the asses of the bosses. From before the train got loose, we have been following two workers on another train. Barnes, the engineer, is the older man, having worked on the railroad for 28 years and recently given notice that he is being let go with only half benefits. The conductor is the younger guy Colson. This is his first time with Barnes, and we get early scenes of Barnes taking Colson’s measure. Yes, we get some backstory on the two, but Bomback parses it out slowly. We finally get the information on both men’s marriage while they are in the cab of their train, trying to get up to seventy miles an hour—in reverse—to catch the runaway train. As Callie Khouri said about writing Thelma & Louise, “You can have people having meaningful conversations screaming down the highway at hundred and twenty miles an hour.” Look at the family details Bomback gives them in this scene. I mentioned in writing about Race to Witch Mountain that there were too many reaction shots, especially since the two kids did not express much. Barnes is Denzel Washington and Colson is Chris Pine, and they both give great movie star performances all the way through the film.

So, yeah, the trains. One is a runaway, one (well, only the engine by this time) is chasing it. Bomback uses a variation of the structure that Keaton used in The General (1927). Keaton’s Johnnie has his train stolen and he chases it in the first half, then gets the train back and is chased by a Union train in the second half. Bomback has Barnes and Colson just doing their job in the first half as Hooper and the others try to solve the problem, and then coming in to stop the train in the second half. By the time they get involved, we know how hard it is going to be. The trains are big and powerful. Kenneth Turan in his review in the Los Angeles Times compared the runaway train to one of the dinos in Jurassic Park (1993) and it may well have been the great sound design that suggested that. I would not be surprised to learn that some of the dino sounds were used as effects on the sound tracks here. Bomback is also lucky in his director. This is the movie Tony Scott was born to direct. As I mentioned in US#28 when writing about his ’09 version of The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3, Scott loves his stars, and in Bomback’s script the balance between stars and action is even better. Washington has lost the weight he gained for Pelham, and he can run around on the tops of the trains. Scott also avoids, for the most part, digital effects (they are used briefly when the train threatens to tip over). One thing about great train movies is that they don’t use models. Those are real trains on real collapsing bridges in The General and The Bridge on the River Kwai, and these are real trains in real locales here.

Oh, yeah, one other thing for you Hero’s Journey freaks. Hooper is played by Rosario Dawson. She is not a temptress. She is not evil. She is one of the smartest people in the room and pretty much in charge of the rescue. She’s clearly the best man for the job. Welcome to the 21st Century, fan boys.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2009. Screenplay by Ulf Ryberg, based on the book by Stieg Larsson. 147 minutes)

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Not as good as #1, but better than #2: You may remember from US#47 that I liked the first of the three films in this trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). It moved quickly and introduced us to a fascinating heroine, Lisbeth Salander. The screenwriters had done a great job in condensing the lengthy novel into a reasonable running time, all the while giving us some great characters and as well as showing how the story connected to Swedish history and culture. I had just seen the great The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) and I didn’t think Tattoo was quite up to it, since the plot kept us getting as deeply into the characters as Secrets did.

The second film, The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009), was a letdown. The story sounded like a Law & Order: SVU retread and moved at a snail’s pace. It did not have as interesting a collection of supporting characters as the first film, and the storyline about the man who turned out to be Lisbeth’s father, Zalachenko, did not take us as deeply into the culture as the story in the first film did. The script also made Lisbeth seem almost normal, which is not very interesting.

Hornet’s falls somewhere between the two. Lisbeth is now in the hospital, having been shot and beaten up by her father and her stepbrother, Neiderman. She is charged with several murders stemming from the shootout at the end of Fire. Lisbeth spends the first hour of the film in the hospital and the second hour plus on trial. So we are not going to see her running around like we did in the first film. But the Lisbeth here is not the “normal” girl we saw in Fire. She is in shock, almost catatonic, but we can see in her eyes that her, shall we say, unusual mind is working. Noomi Rapace gives a very different performance here, one of the most minimalist performances I have ever seen. It is the same character, but who is now in another situation, and Rapace’s instincts for how to act that are phenomenal. Her Lisbeth here connects with the one we saw in the first film, but not in any obvious way. Would-be actors should look at the first and the third films and try to figure out how she does that.

Lisbeth’s supporters are gathering information to help her case, as well as keep her alive. Mikael Blomkvist is back in action, as opposed to the other two investigators in Fire. Yes, we do not get that many scenes between him and Lisbeth, which I complained about in Fire, but you get a sense that they are together here even when they are not. That was not true in Fire. Lisbeth gets more scenes with Annika, Blomkvist’s sister, who is representing her. Blomkvist is also getting help from a government commission whose job is to protect the constitution. When they first approach Blomkvist, I was even more suspicious of them than he was. After all, the whole thrust of the three films is that Blomkvist and Lisbeth and their kind are individuals up against the power of the state and its institutions. Blomkvist has a moment of hesitation and then agrees to work with them, which I, not having read the novel, assumed would come to no good end. But they are the good guys, which is a little too conservative, conventional, and, especially, convenient for what has been a radical trilogy.

There are other interesting characters as well, such as the young doctor treating Lisbeth. He’s just a nice guy who wants to help, and is willing to bend the rules a bit to help her. Given all the older guys who nearly all pond scum, having a nice one around is a nice change. Unlike the end of Fire, we do find out what happens to Neiderman. I think he is better used in this film than the previous one. He seemed a conventional thug in that one, and here he is an implacable killing machine, if you see the difference. We even get a sense here that he might be feeling a little lonely without his and Lisbeth’s father. Lisbeth did not kill her father in Fire, but one of his old protectors does early on in the film.

One of the pleasures of the film is watching all the narrative elements from the first two fall into place. There were a lot of loose ends in Fire, but that often happens in the middle film of a trilogy. I mentioned at the end of my comments on Fire that the writer of it, Jonas Frykberg, was going to be back on the third one, but that credit apparently did not stand, and Ulf Ryberg gets the sole credit here. Both Fire and Hornet’s are directed by the same guy, but Hornet’s is a better film and feels better directed. A good script makes a director look better than a bad script does.

Wild Target (2010. Screenplay by Lucinda Coxson, based on the screenplay for Cible émouvante (1993) by Pierre Salvadori. 98 minutes)

Wild Target

Me and Netflix: I think I first came across a reference to this film in the British film magazine Sight & Sound, and somehow I got the impression that it was not being released in theatres, but only on DVD. So I went out to my Netlix Queue and tried to add it. It ended up in that section at the bottom of the page called Saved DVDs, which appears to be films that Netflix knows exists but have not gotten around to adding to their six bazillion films. Shortly thereafter a trailer showed up for it in an actual movie theatre. And then the film appeared in the same movie theatre. So I went to see it.

It is about Victor Maynard, a hitman who—wait a minute. A hitman? I hate movies about hitmen. If you believe American movies and television, most American men work as either hitmen or cops or both. I discourage students in my screenwriting class from writing about hitmen, given the plethora of films featuring them. I ask my students, “How many of you know any actual hitmen?” Usually no hands go up, although one time I had a class in which three or four hands went up. I think they were joking. Most American movies about hitmen are hot, sweaty action movies, with very high body counts and more blood being shed on screen than is good for viewers’ mental or moral health.

Every so often, however, I do find a hitman movie appealing. Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) has a great idea: a hitman goes back to his high school reunion, and gets a lot out of it until the final shootout, which gets excessive. You Kill Me (2007) also has a great idea—a hit man goes to Alcoholics Anonymous—but then does not development well. Wild Target also has an interesting idea: Victor ends up trying to protect his target, Rose, from other hitmen who are trying to kill her. She has run a con involving a forged painting on Ferguson, who does not take that lightly. Victor is given the contract, but he ends up killing somebody else who is trying to kill her. OK, you see where this is going. She is attractive, they fall in love, kill the bad guys, and live happily ever after. But Coxson, and presumably Salvadori in his original script, don’t get there in any obvious ways. For example, Victor is very fastidious and even his mother thinks he may be gay. He’s never really thought about it, and when he does, he begins to wonder himself. This leads to a terrific scene between Victor and Tony, a young guy who becomes Victor’s apprentice without realizing what it is that Victor really does. Victor comes into the bathroom while Tony is taking a bath, and we and Victor think he may be about to make a pass at Tony. But they sort of discuss it and Victor realizes he’s not gay after all.

Tony can be rather dense. He is nicely played, by the way, by a young British actor named Rupert Grint, whom I have not seen before, although his IMDb filmography shows he has been in a number of films about a British private school. But the reason Tony does not know Victor’s occupation is that Victor has told him and Rose that he is a private investigator. Look at how long Coxson keeps that pretense up until he finally tells them what he does.

If Tony is rather dense, Rose is always on. We never quite know, and suspect she might not know herself, whether she is acting or not. When she finally falls in love with Victor, it’s funny because we don’t know how much she believes it herself. She appears to be acting for herself. Emily Blunt, who has done good work elsewhere, is really at the top of her game here. She played the title role in the 2009 film The Young Victoria, but as I mentioned US#41, the script did not give her much to play. Coxson’s script gives her a lot to play, with a lot of different colors: smart, messy, playful, seductive, bitchy, etc. and Blunt devours it whole.

Victor is Bill Nighy and he does not play it like the romantic lead, which makes him much more effective. His mother is the great Eileen Atkins and Coxson has written a couple of wonderful scenes for her as well.

The tone is one of deadpan comedy of the kind I admired in Red (2010) in the last column, but without all the excessive explosions of that film. If you liked Red for the same reasons I did, you will probably like Wild Target.

Four Lions (2010. Written by Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain, & Christopher Morris, with additional writing by Simon Blackwell. 103 minutes by my count, 101 minutes by Sight & Sound, 97 minutes by IMDb)

Four Lions

Well, they haven’t blown up the theater yet: The poster for this English film is rather simple. We have a picture of a crow with something duct taped to his chest. In the large space above him, the word “funny” is repeated several times, each one attributed to a film critic or quote whore. A crow with duct tape is funny? Well, yes, in the context of the film. The story is about five would-be terrorists in Northern England bumbling their way into an attack on the London Marathon. Funny? Yes, definitely. Well, why not? The history of film has seen a lot of dark comedies, even before both Red and Wild Target. Look at Keaton’s The General, which gets one of its biggest laughs from a Union sniper being impaled by a wayward sword. Or Kubrick’s Dr. Stangelove (1964), which gets a few yuks out of nuclear annihilation. All you have to do is have the guts to do it and, more importantly, pay attention to your subject.

Christopher Morris is the director as well as one of the writers and he has been whacking the eccentricities of British public life since the early ‘90s. (The background on and quote from Morris are from Ben Walters’ article on the film in the June 2010 issue of Sight & Sound.) Morris started in radio, then moved to television, where he is best known for a 1997-2001 series called Brass Eye, which parodied British politicians and celebrities. His co-writers here, Jesse Armstrong and Simon Blackwell, worked on the 2005-2009 series The Thick of It, which was the basis for the 2009 feature In the Loop. Armstrong and Blackwell were two of the writers on the feature as well. So these guys know their way around comedy, and particularly parody of public utterances. What Morris did was spend three years of research about terrorism, talking to experts, police, imams and many Muslims. He kept finding that, as he said, “Terrorist cells have the same group dynamics as stag parties and five-a-side football teams.” And he learned that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohamed spent two hours looking for a costume that would not make him look fat when he recorded his video.

So Four Lions begins with the first four would-be terrorists we will follow trying to record their final statements. As one of them admits later, it turns out to be mostly bloopers. The recording is a funny scene that gets the film off to a good start, but the writers are not just doing jokes. They are establishing the particular characters of these men. Omar is the leader. He is the smartest and the most organized. He is also married and has a son, both of whom support him killing himself as a martyr. The dynamic between Omar and his wife is so ordinary that it becomes completely unsettling. Waj is the rather dense one of the group, and Faisal is the klutz who comes up with the idea of strapping a bomb to the crow. That ends badly for both of them. Barry is the one white guy in the group who says at one point, “Woman talking back. People playing stringed instruments. It’s the End of Days.” Hassan, who joins the group shortly after the film begins, is younger and so dumb he lets a local girl in to dance in his apartment while all his bomb-making materials are laid out on the table. But she’s so dumb she doesn’t realize what they are.

As the quote from Morris makes clear, he is on to the fact that most terrorists do not join the movement out of religious fervor, but to hang out with the people they get along with. The most religious person in the film is Omar’s brother, who wants nothing to do with the terrorists. He is, of course, the one the police are spying on and whom they pick up. The attack on the Marathon ends badly for all, and because we know the characters, we are a bit saddened by their demise at the same time we are glad they have been taken out.

Four Lions is a real high-wire act that is both funny and moving, and avoids the several hundred ways it could have gone wrong. This may be one reason why the film has so far in this country not been met with protests from Muslim groups. I suspect that moderate Muslims understand the film and also understand that the terrorists are funny in a dark way. Still, one cannot be too careful. In Los Angeles, the film is being run at a theater in the Landmark chain. It is not, however, playing at the chain’s flagship, the Landmark multiplex at the upscale Westside Pavillion. It is playing at a one-screen theater in Westwood Village. So if the theater does get bombed, it will only take out one screen rather than a whole multiplex. So far, so good.

Boxing Gym (2010. Directed and edited by Frederick Wiseman. 91 minutes)

Boxing Gym

Not, alas, one of the Master’s best: I have been a Wiseman fan from the beginning, and I show at least one of his films every semester is my History of Documentary Film class. This one is his most recent, but it does not hold together. Yes, we are in anh institution (Lord’s Gym in Austin, Texas), but we don’t get a lot of interesting interaction between the owner and the customers who come to study boxing. The usual Wiseman pattern is to have several sequences that add up over the course of the film. The sequences here don’t. I think the sparring match near the end is supposed to show what all the training leads to. It is just a sparring match, not a real fight, so it does not provide the climax that closing sequences in his film often do (the banquet in Racetrack [1985], the final case in Welfare [1975]). In the best of Wiseman you get great scenes that he ties together, but that does not happen here.

Two and a Half Men (2010. “Springtime on a Stick” episode written by Eddie Gorodestky & Jim Patterson. 30 minutes)

Two and a Half Men

Also not at their best: As you know if you have read a lot of these columns, I am a big fan of this show. Generally the writers have a nice mixture of funny and raunchy, sometimes more raunchy than they need, but still funny. This episode is completely off-balance, very raunchy and not very funny. Not being funny makes the raunch seem ever worse.

It gets off to a bad start when Charlie comes in on Jake and a girl from school. Charlie’s drunk, which is just creepy under the circumstances. It is one thing to be that way around Jake, another around a teenaged girl. Alan ends up inviting his and Charlie’s mother Evelyn to dinner for her birthday, but as they are driving her there, she has to stop at a pharmacy to pick up some…lubricant. She meets Charlie’s pharmacist Russell and he gets invited to dinner as well. And he brings a date. And he’s stoned. Usually the writers can come up with some funny stuff about situations like that, but not here.

Burn Notice (2010. “Eyes Open” episode written by Jason Tracey. 60 minutes)

Burn Notice

Michael’s back: So Michael survived the shooting, Barrett is dead, and Michael and the gang are tracking down Barrett’s henchman who picked up the suitcase. It has the “Bible” in it that has information on who burned Michael. Jesse even agrees to help, although he is still sulking over Michael having been the one who burned him. So this season begins.

What was interesting about this episode was that Tracey has given Jeffrey Donovan, who plays Michael, a little more to do in the acting range. Traditionally Michael has smirked a lot as he deals with the bad guys. Donovan gives great smirk, which is why we love him. But in this episode, he is stretched as an actor in a couple of ways. One is that Michael is still recovering from his wounds, so he is not quite as agile physically and even mentally as he normally is. The other is that Michael goes sort of undercover to contact a serial killer and pretend to be his biggest fan. Michael usually does not play a toady, even undercover, but he does here and it’s a nice change of pace for Donovan. Sometimes series writers have give their leads something more to play so they don’t go out of their minds with boredom.

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: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy

Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.

Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.

Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.

Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.

Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.

Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change

Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.

Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.

Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?

Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.

Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?

Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.

There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.

Yeah.

Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.

Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.

You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.

The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.

Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?

Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.

That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.

I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.

Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.

You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.

Right.

Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.

I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.

Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.

Yeah.

People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.

To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?

Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.

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American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell

Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.

A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.

Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.

If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.

Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.

Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.

As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage form Streetwise of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.

Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.

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Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians

Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.

3.5

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I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Photo: Big World Pictures

Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.

For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.

A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.

Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.

Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.

Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.

Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust

The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.

I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?

Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.

Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.

To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.

Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.

Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?

Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.

Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.

It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.

How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?

Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.

How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”

Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.

Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?

No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.

You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?

I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.

My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”

And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.

I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.

It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]

On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.

That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!

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Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre

Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.

Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.

Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.

But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.

Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert

The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.

The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.

At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.

As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.

Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident

Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.

1.5

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.

Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.

Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.

Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.

De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.

Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Crawl Is Fun and Economical but Lacks Go-for-Broke Inventiveness

The film is more straight-faced than Alexandre Aja’s prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws.

2.5

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Crawl
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Unlike the giddily crass Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is a quiet beast of a film. It’s built not on a foundation of over-the-top gore, but on a series of escalations. As a hurricane barrels toward Florida, ace swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) becomes worried after her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), doesn’t return her phone calls. She travels to her old family home and finds him unconscious in the house’s flooded crawl space, with large alligators swimming in the water.

Early on, the camera often lingers on the deceptive stillness of the rising water for maximum suspense. Haley and her father are trapped in the house with no more than the tools they can find or already have on hand, MacGyvering their very survival out of shovels, flashlights, and flares. The best parts of the film slyly set up those tools and other objects, including a swing set and a rat trap, only to bring them back at some later, climactic moment.

If Crawl, then, is an easily digestible piece of workmanlike thrills, its only real bit of gristle is its po-faced father-daughter bonding. Haley and Dave are somewhat estranged; the family home was meant to have been sold off after Dave’s recent divorce from Haley’s mother; and flashbacks to childhood swim meets show father and daughter tempting fate with flagrantly ironic use of the term “apex predator.” In the face of certain death, they cobble their relationship back together through Hallmark-card platitudes while sentimental music plays on the film’s soundtrack. It’s the absolute thinnest of familial drama, and it will do little to redirect your emotional investment away from the survival of the family dog.

Between these family moments, of course, the flood waters run red as people get got by gators. Aja is prone to lingering in prolonged closeup on things like a protruding bone being shoved back into place, but he otherwise seems to have gotten the most inspired bits of underwater violence out of his system with Piranha 3D. Crawl is more straight-faced than his prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws. And while these moments are suspenseful, with nail-biting scrapes involving a handgun, some loose pipes, and one particularly clever shower-door maneuver, there’s precious little of the go-for-broke invention or outrageousness that might have made the film more than a fun and economical thriller.

Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Morfydd Clark Director: Alexandre Aja Screenwriter: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Farewell Thoughtfully Braids the Somber and the Absurd

The film taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

3.5

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The Farewell
Photo: A24

In the opening scene of writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Chinese grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), affectionately referred to as Nai Nai by her family, and her Chinese-American granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), have a warm, affectionate phone conversation in which each woman incessantly lies to the other. A professionally adrift, financially bereft millennial whose writing ambitions have come to naught, Billi lets her grandmother believe her life is busy and full of social engagements; for her part, Nai Nai insists that she’s at her sister’s house, rather than in a drably decorated doctor’s office. Wang frames Nai Nai against the kitschy, oversized picture of a lagoon that hangs on the wall, as if to emphasize the flimsiness of the illusions the pair is painting for one another.

The sequence calls to mind the advantage of audio-only phone calls: for allowing us to more easily maintain the falsehoods that comprise a not insignificant portion of our relationships. Given that minor mistruths prop up our most basic social connections, Wang focuses The Farewell on the moral quandary of whether a big lie—specifically, culturally contingent situations—might actually be an expression of genuine love. The film takes up the question with a tone of melancholic drollery, a sense of irony that doesn’t lose touch with the human feelings at its core. The Farewell is “based on an actual lie,” evidently an episode from Wang’s life, and its careful mixture of the somber and the absurd rings true to life.

As it turns out, Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer, but Billi’s father’s family elects to lie to the woman about her MRI results, an action that’s evidently within the bounds of Chinese law. But as Billi’s assimilated immigrant father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), points out to his brother, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), during a crisis of conscience, such a thing is both frowned upon in America and prosecutable. Struggling even more with the decision, of course, is the more Americanized Billi, who can’t reconcile her Western notions of love and the sanctity of the individual with the widespread practice of lying to family members about their impending deaths.

To create a cover for a family visit to Beijing, the family forces Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Hanwei), who lives in Japan, to marry his girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), of three months. This plan provides plenty of fodder for Wang’s dry humor, as the family attempts to maintain the veneer of celebration while also bidding farewell to their ostensibly clueless matriarch, who’s confused by Hao Hao and Aiko’s lack of affection and the generally dour mood that predominates in the lead-up to the wedding. It’s potential material for a farce, but even in its funny moments, Wang’s film is contemplative rather than frenetic, preferring to hold shots as her characters gradually, often comically adjust to the reality that Nai Nai will soon be gone.

Awkwafina, hitherto notable mostly for her comic supporting roles, gives a revelatory lead performance as Billi, the thirtysomething prone to bouts of adolescent sullenness. Perhaps playing a Bushwick-based, first-generation-American creative type isn’t much of a stretch for the Queens-born rapper/actress, but she immediately brings to the role the depth of lived experience: We believe from the first frames in the long-distance love between Billi and her grandmother, and the existential crisis the young woman feels as she negotiates two cultures’ differing approaches to death and disease. In taking us to Beijing through Billi’s eyes, which are often blinking back tears as she says goodbye without articulating “goodbye,” The Farewell’s morose but not hopeless comedy taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Hanwei Director: Lulu Wang Screenwriter: Lulu Wang Distributor: A24 Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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