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Understanding Screenwriting #68: The Fighter, Somewhere, Shanghai Express, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #68: The Fighter, Somewhere, Shanghai Express, & More

Coming Up in This Column: The Fighter, Somewhere, The Other Boleyn Girl, Pirate Radio, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, Slave Ship, Two and a Half Men, but first…

Fan Mail: “Asher” raised a whole lot of very good, thought-provoking points on my comments about The Tourist and its relationship to Hitchcock. He is baffled that I seemed to think it was better than Rear Window (1954). I don’t think it is, but I do think The Tourist makes its point about voyeurism a lot quicker than the Hitchcock film. I brought that up to show how the filmmakers are going beyond what Hitchcock did, which includes doing things more quickly than in earlier films. Like the Coens speeding up the opening of their new True Grit, filmmakers now use for their own purposes what has been done in the past. By the way, I think Rear Window is infinitely better than The Tourist, mainly because the script is better.

What provoked my thoughts most in Asher’s comments was his standing up for Hitchcock dealing more with the emotions of the characters than I said he did. I do think that Hitch is not generally as interested in character as such directors as William Wyler, Fred Zinnemann and George Stevens, to name three of his contemporaries. Hitch is most interested in getting great scenes. John Grierson, the father of documentary and an early film critic, made this point about Alfred Hitchcock in the early ‘30s, before he became ALFRED HITCHCOCK. But Asher makes a very good point that in some films Hitchcock does get into some emotional depths. Asher mentions Vertigo (1958), which I wouldn’t in this discussion, since while we do get Scottie’s emotions, one of the great limitations of the film is that we get nothing about the emotional life of the girl. I have for years encouraged screenwriters to do a remake of Vertigo from the point of view of the girl. But Asher is right on the money about Notorious (1946), which is as much a character study as a suspense film. The same is true of Shadow of a Doubt (1943). I am not convinced about Marnie (1964), which never quite goes as deep as it thinks it’s going. So thanks, Asher, for changing my mind, at least a little, about Charles Bennett’s Fat Little English Friend.

The Fighter (2010. Screenplay by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson, story by Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson and Keith Dorrington. 115 minutes.)

If you are going to do this movie, this is the way to do it: I must admit I have never been a big fan of boxing or boxing movies. The sight of two sweaty guys in their satin underwear beating each other to a bloody pulp does not appeal to my brand of testosterone. Charlie Chaplin’s 1915 Essanay two-reeler The Champion treats the subject of boxing will all the seriousness it should be treated with, which is to say, not much. The original Rocky (1976) is interesting less for its boxing than for how inventively Sylvester Stallone steals from On the Waterfront (1954) and Marty (1955). Raging Bull (1980) is repetitive and over-directed. On the other hand, the great 1996 documentary When We Were Kings is about a lot more than just boxing, and Million Dollar Baby (2004) is a wonderful character study (with a sweaty girl for me). The Fighter fits in that “on the other hand” category.

None of the writers on the film have extended lists of impressive credits, although Scott Silver wrote the 2002 Eminem film 8 Mile. The driving force behind the film was Mark Wahlberg, who plays Micky Ward. Wahlberg had long been fascinated by the real-life story of Micky, his step-brother Dicky, their mother Alice, and their family. Fortunately that led the writers to focus on the characters as much as the boxing. This is a family story, and it is a pip of a family. Micky is the straightest one in the family. Dicky had a brief boxing career, then slipped into drug use. He trains Micky, and Alice manages him. What could wrong with that? Nearly everything, which is what makes it interesting to watch. The writers pick up the story just before Micky is beaten rather badly in a match that was supposed to be an easy fight. Prior to that fight, Micky meets Charlene, a bartender, who pushes Micky to do more with his career. She is not just the typical ingenue, but tough enough to go up against Alice and, oh, did I forget to mention that Micky has six sisters? The writers are smart enough not to spend too much time defining each sister, so we get them pretty much the way Charlene does: as a pack ready to defend Micky against anything and anybody, especially her. Not only are all these characters based on real people, the writers make them very real on the screen. We all know lots of docudramas never manage that.

Given all those characters and the actors who play them, it is not surprising that Wahlberg, as the main producer, talked David O. Russell into directing the film. Look at Russell’s work with actors playing family members in his 1994 Spanking the Monkey and his 1996 Flirting with Disaster. This was not a passion project for Russell; Wahlberg’s passion provided the energy for the film. Wahlberg as both an actor and producer knew that there were going to be a lot of opportunities for the other actors and it is to his credit as a producer that he encouraged the writers and Russell to let those characters have their moments. Look at Wahlberg in the opening scenes with Christian Bale’s Dicky, letting Dicky and Bale’s flamboyance carry the shots. Wahlberg knows that in this film he can be the quiet one, since he is surrounded by great actors like Bale, Melissa Leo as Alice, and a real change-of-pace Amy Adams as Charlene who will take care of the big emoting.

The writers also manage to make the film more compelling as it goes along, always a potential problem in boxing pictures. Micky is given the opportunity to go with another manager and get paid for training. Dicky tries to scare up the money so he won’t have to, which lands Dicky in prison—scare being the operative word. Micky goes with the other manager and wins a big fight, although on suggestions from Dicky via a prison phone. So when Dicky gets out of the slammer, he and Alice assume he is going back to training Micky. Family versus career. This is known as conflict, folks, and it is at the heart of drama. The writers are good enough that we see both sides of the issue. They give us a showdown between Charlene and Dicky in which they work out the ground rules of Dicky’s return. Why not a similar scene with Charlene and Alice? Because 1) it would be repetitive, and 2) for the final fight, we have to know what Dicky, who is in Micky’s corner, has agreed to. This makes that fight about the family and the characters as much as about boxing. Smart writing.

Somewhere (2010. Written by Sofia Coppola. 97 minutes.)

Somewhere

Daughter of Lost in Translation: Like everybody else in the known universe, I thought Sofia Coppola was terrible as Mary Corleone in The Godfather III (1990), but my feeling was that she was very badly directed by her father. The part called for her to be sexual and sensual and Dad really didn’t want to deal with that. Two years later she was very good in Inside Monkey Zetterland under somebody else’s direction. So it did not surprise me in her first directorial effort, The Virgin Suicides (1999), that her direction of the actors, especially the female ones playing the Lisbon sisters, was excellent. As I discussed in writing about Tetro (2009) in US#29, one of Francis’s limitations is the unevenness of his direction of actresses. You can understand why Sofia has focused on doing something in her films that her father does not do well in his. The best example of this was the performance of Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation (2003).

According to Jeremy Smith’s interview with Coppola in the November/December 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting, she was starting out to write a vampire movie (this was before the Twilight phenomenon), but the character of Johnny Marco keep coming into her brain. He is a movie star who is constantly showing up in all the gossip columns, although as she has drawn him in the script, we really do not know why. It is not clear how big a movie star he is. He is concerned that he is being followed and photographed, but we see no hard evidence that he is, and there is no payoff that this is ego on his part. We get a press conference and a photo session for his new film, but without any indication what the movie is about. If the writers of The Fighter give us a lot about the world of Micky and his family, Coppola is not giving us nearly enough. Yes, minimalism is her style, and it worked beautifully in Lost in Translation, but there we got enough details about the characters and the situations to hold our interest. Johnny is living at the legendary Chateau Marmont in Hollywood while he is in L.A., and we get some texture about the hotel, but not that much. Movie people stay there. Yeah, so?

Johnny ends up spending time with his daughter Cleo, who is about 11 or 12, but we do not get much detail about her either. She loves her dad, and in her best scene she is a little sullen about one of his bimbos having spent the night, but beyond that we do not get much. In the middle of the film, Johnny and Cleo go off to Italy for a few days so he can accept an award, but there is very little in terms of her reactions to the trip, the people she meets, or the events. Johnny is played by Stephen Dorff, and he does not have enough presence to hold the screen when Coppola’s script does not give him something to do. Alas, Coppola’s skill with actresses seems to have failed her as well with Elle Fanning as Cleo. Fanning has been adequate in other films, but neither the script nor the direction give her enough to do.

Hmm, let’s see. Movie star and young woman hang out together in a hotel. Yes, it is reminiscent of Lost in Translation. In that film there was an undercurrent of sensual tension between Bob and Charlotte, which provided a simple structure for the film. Obviously there is not that between father and daughter here (Coppola is not making that kind of movie), but nothing replaces it. It is well into the movie before Cleo shows up, so we get a lot of setup that does not really set anything up. When Cleo and Johnny are together, they do not do much, certainly nothing that tells us about them. After Johnny takes her off to summer camp, he cries, but we are not sure why. Then we see him lying on an air mattress in the hotel pool and we watch as he floats out of the frame. That’s a great minimalist final shot. Except that the movie goes on for another ten minutes or so as Johnny drives out into the country and gets out of the car and walks along the road.

As disappointing as Somewhere is, let us not give up hope for Coppola. There is one short scene that suggests what the film, at least the Hollywood part of it, could have been. Johnny is doing a photo shoot with his co-star Rebecca. They are posing for the cameras, but between snatches of conversation we hear and their body language, we know they are not friends. Rebecca is Michelle Monaghan, and Coppola has directed her really well.

The Other Boleyn Girl (2008. Screenplay by Peter Morgan, based on the novel by Philippa Gregory. 115 minutes.)

The Other Boleyn Girl

Contemporary British screenwriters, take one: You would think that Peter Morgan would be the perfect screenwriter to adapt Gregory’s novel about Anne Boleyn and her sister Mary. His scripts about contemporary politicians include The Last King of Scotland and The Queen (both 2006), as well as Frost/Nixon (2008). He obviously understands politicians of all kinds. In 2003 he wrote a four-hour plus miniseries, Henry VIII, dealing with many of the same characters and situations as The Other Boleyn Girl. I am afraid on this one, which I finally caught up with on Netflix, he has gone to the well once too often.

One of the difficulties he faced was squeezing a 672-page novel into a film that runs less than two hours. The characterizations are very shallow, which is a problem as the plot twists and turns come fast and furious. We often cannot tell what the motivation for the main characters are. Mary, Anne’s sister, is a fairly straightforward nice young woman (unlike the real Mary, who was just as devious, if not more so, than Anne) and behaves accordingly. Anne’s motivations vary from shot to shot. Henry VIII wants to bed every woman in sight. That was certainly true of Henry, but there was a lot more to him than that. The Duke of Norfolk, who is manipulating the Boleyn girls and their family, is nothing but an obvious villain. I am surprised they did not give him a moustache to twirl. You know a script is not doing its job when terrific actors like Mark Rylance and Kristin Scott Thomas as the parents have one emotion each to play.

I would guess that the appeal of Gregory’s novel, and what I think is supposed to be the backbone of the film, is the relationship between the two sisters. Morgan does not make that relationship consistent, and there is no sisterly chemistry between Anne and Mary, not helped by their being no similar chemistry between the actors playing them, Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson. If the reason for doing this story as a film is to look at events that have been dealt with a lot in previous films from a different perspective, then you had better make that perspective an interesting one. Morgan doesn’t here.

Pirate Radio (2009. Written by Richard Curtis. 116 minutes.)

Pirate Radio

Contemporary British screenwriters, take two: Richard Curtis is one of the most prolific and commercially successful British screenwriter working today. Needless to say, given his commercial success, British critics tend to be very condescending towards him. Curtis started in television, most notably with two series, Spitting Image (1984) and Black Adder (1982-88). His first feature screenplay was the woefully underrated 1988 film The Tall Guy, which I usually watch once a year. How can you resist its presentation of a stage musical based on The Elephant Man? His most commercial successes were the two Bridget Jones films, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), and Love Actually (2003). The last one was his first time directing. Pirate Radio is second, and it is a disappointment. I had missed it in theaters, had it on my Netflix queue, and then it popped up on HBO.

As titles at the beginning tell us, in the ‘60s BBC radio did not play rock and roll music. This led to several entrepreneurial types to set up radio stations on ships off the coast of England to broadcast rock. Pirate Radio is a fictionalized account of one of them. Mostly we are watching a collection of DJ’s that Quentin, the ship’s owner, has hired. They are all colorful, but they do not do very much. There are several scenes of them sitting around talking that do not really go anywhere. The original cut of the film was 135 minutes, and I suspect there are more of those kinds of scenes in that cut.

Curtis does provide a few storylines, but they are not that compelling. One is the arrival on the boat of Carl, a kid in his late teens. He has been caught by his mom smoking both cigarettes and grass, and she has sent him off to the ship to hang out with his godfather, Quentin. As several people suggest, coming to this ship as punishment for smoking may be counterproductive. With Carl we get a typical and not very interesting coming of age story, complete with a girl he meets on the ship during visitors’ Saturdays. We just don’t care much about Carl. The other major storyline is the attempt by the British government to shut down the station. The main character here is Sir Alistair, a very prissy bureaucrat, and his new assistant, Twatt, both standard issue twits. They are played by Kenneth Branagh and Jack Davenport, and both have been much better elsewhere. Curtis has attracted a lot of wonderful actors, but he has not given them that much to do.

A title at the beginning tells us that half the British population of the time, mostly the younger half, listened to the pirate radios. We do get a series of montages of people on land listening to the station, which does pay off in the end. The ship begins to sink and hundreds of people come out in small boats to save the ship’s crew. Curtis never mentions the similarity to the rescue of the troops at Dunkirk, and I suppose for an English audience he did not need to, but it seems to me a lot more could be done with a comic version of Dunkirk.

Shanghai Express (1932. Screenplay by Jules Furthman, story by Harry Hervey. 80 minutes.)

Shanghai Express

Now Joe, this is how you do it: I was slapping Morocco (1930) upside the head in US#65 and said at the end of the item that I would deal with the much better Shanghai Express some time. Welcome to some time. It popped up on TCM and I DVR’d it. Before I had time to watch it, I saw a notice that the New Beverly Cinema, the great L.A. revival house, was going to run it on a double bill with Blonde Venus (1932). Hmm, watch it on television, or see Lee Garmes Oscar-winning cinematography in a 35mm print on a much larger screen?

My chief complaint about Morocco was that it moved at a snail’s pace. What may have caused that was that Jules (Code: Kael: “half”: done—see US#46 and #65) Furthman’s screenplay was somewhat underpopulated. We had the three main characters, but not a lot of other people. Furthman at least recognized the problem, and Shanghai Express is teeming with assorted characters. Some of them are probably from the story by Harry Hervey. Hervey was a novelist, who adapted a novel of his into the 1928 Broadway play Congai. The Internet Broadway Database is not as thorough as the IMDb, but the cast and set lists suggest it was, like Shanghai Express, set in the Far East, probably French Indo-China, and dealt with the relationships between western military men and the natives. His first film, The Devil Dancer (1927) also dealt with exotic locations, and starred two actors who later appeared in Shanghai Express, Clive Brook and Anna May Wong. Hervey later provided the story for the 1943 Night Plane from Chungking, although it may well have been the same story that Shanghai Express was based on, since the situations are not that much different.

With whatever Hervey provided him, Furthman gives us a great gallery of characters boarding a train from Peking to Shanghai in the middle of revolutionary upheavals in China. The characters are quickly drawn, but Furthman then gives them twists as the film progresses. To name only one, the French officer Major Lenard has been drummed out of the army and is only wearing his uniform so he will not be shamed in front of his daughter in Shanghai. The director Josef von Sternberg does not have time to dawdle like he did in Morocco. It may have helped that Marlene Dietrich’s command of English is more assured than it was in Morocco, which means her line readings are much better. Her Shanghai Lily meets the British military officer Doc Harvey, with whom she had an affair five years before. He knew her by a different name then and asks if she has gotten married. Dietrich gives a great reading to what may be the best line Furthman ever wrote: “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”

So after a minor Chinese revolutionary is taken away before the train leaves, we are on our way. And then the train is stopped by revolutionaries. It turns out Mr. Chang, a Eurasian businessman who told us he is ashamed of his white blood, is the leader of the revolution. He is looking for someone to use in trade for his arrested comrade. Since Harvey is going to Shanghai to operate on a high-level politician, Chang picks him, which is followed by a lot of negotiations between Chang, Lily (whom Chang wants to take away with him), and Harvey. Needless to say, Shanghai Lily is a little classier than everybody gives her credit for.

So, Furthman’s script is faster and fuller than his one for Morocco. It also gives von Sternberg a chance to do what he can do best: fill up the screen with the train, the other characters, the extras and the sets. Von Sternberg has gained a reputation over the years as having been very involved in the lighting of his films, but Lee Garmes in an interview with Charles Higham in Higham’s Hollywood Cameramen said, “He left the lighting to me at all times. He was very particular about one thing only: sets.” We will see the truth this in the next von Sternberg-Dietrich film Blonde Venus (1932). Fortunately Furthman’s script gives von Sternberg several great sets to play with, which he does very well, although the original set for the slum the train stops in was, at von Sternberg’s insistence, so close to the tracks that the train would have smashed into it unless they rebuilt it.

Blonde Venus (1932. Screenplay by Jules Furthman and S.K. Lauren, from, uncredited, a story by Jules Furthman and Josef von Sternberg. 93 minutes.)

Blonde Venus

Domestic rather than exotic melodrama: In writing about Morocco, I indicated Blonde Venus was one of the “exotic” films Furthman wrote for von Sternberg. Seeing it as the second feature at the New Beverly, I have to revise that comment. I was thinking, as does anybody else who has seen the film, of the sequence near the beginning where Dietrich’s character enters, dressed as a gorilla (although it is obviously a double in the suit, who simply does not move the way Dietrich ever did), takes off the gorilla head, and sings “Hot Voodo.” That’s about as exotic as they come.

Unfortunately the script the scene appears in is more a domestic melodrama than an exotic one. Equally unfortunately, neither Furthman, von Sternberg, nor Dietrich had any feel for cinematic domesticity. We think we are in the usual exotic territory in the opening: English scientist Ned Faraday and some American friends are hiking in some German woods when they discover, carefully hidden by lots of von Sternberg leaves and vines, a group of German actresses skinny dipping in a pool. Ned is attracted to Helen and poof, we are five years later. They are married and have a son. The domestic scenes start. Ned has contacted radium poisoning in his work and only expensive treatment from a mentor of his in Germany gives any hope of curing him. So Helen goes to work in a cabaret (cue the gorilla), dealing with a lot of earthy show business types. She gets the money for the operation from gambler-playboy Nick, and then has an affair with him. Very ‘30s realistic domestic drama. Where is John Stahl when you need him? Ned is cured, comes back sooner than expected and learns the truth about Helen and Nick (mostly from a couple of gossiping neighbors, the liveliest characters in the film, or at least the ones with the best lines). Helen runs away. Taking their son Johnny with her. Mother love? From Dietrich? As you are beginning to realize, there is really an absence of a throughline to the script, as we jump from scene to scene and character to character. Helen and the boy are on the road, eluding the Missing Persons detective after them. He finally catches up to her, but doesn’t realize who she is. She knows who he is, and in the single interesting scene in the film (aside from the singing gorilla, of course), she almost seduces him. The kid goes back to dad, and a single cut later, Helen is the toast of Paris as a nightclub singer. We have no idea how she got from here to there. Nick finds her in Paris, brings her back to New York, where she eventually returns to Ned and her son.

You can find some thematic connections with other Furthman and von Sternberg films. Ned is older than Helen, like Monsieur Le Bessiare, Amy’s fiancee in Morocco, and she leaves him for a younger, handsomer (Gary Cooper there, Cary Grant here) guy. As the film progresses, Helen becomes a woman of the world, like Amy and Shanghai Lily, but she doesn’t seem to enjoy as much as the two earlier characters did. And as the quote from Lee Garmes suggests, there are a lot of sets here. Especially striking is a shanty town where the detective finds her. It is all picturesque slats, so we get some von Sternberg shadows. The cinematographer here is not Lee Garmes, however, but Bert Glennon. Glennon was a Hollywood professional, shooting such films as the Stagecoach (1939), Destination Tokyo (1943), and House of Wax (1953), but he wasn’t on the level of Lee Garmes. The lighting in Blonde Venus is not up to Garmes’s standard. See them together if you don’t believe me.

Slave Ship (1937. Screenplay by Sam Hellman, Lamar Trotti, Gladys Lehman, story by William Faulkner, based on the novel The Last Slaver by George S. King. 92 minutes by my count, 100 minutes on IMDb.)

Slave Ship

Certainly a subject for further research: In 1935 the doddering Fox Film Corporation was merged with the up and coming 20th Century Pictures. Darryl F. Zanuck, the boss of the latter company, took over as head of production. He knew he had to make more films for the bigger studio, so he asked one of his top writers, Nunnally Johnson, to produce films other than those he wrote. Zanuck wanted Nunnally to help other writers develop scripts. Unfortunately, as Nunnally told me, “I couldn’t tell other people how to write.” When I interviewed him thirty years later, he had very little recollection of the films he produced, including this one.

Nunnally had worked with Faulkner the year before on The Road to Glory, and both men realized Faulkner was not a very good screenwriter. When Faulkner was asked about his contribution to this film, he said, “I’m a motion picture doctor. When they run into a section they don’t like, I rework it and continue to rework it until they do like it. In Slave Ship, I reworked sections. I don’t write scripts. I don’t know enough about it.” (The quote is from Tom Dardis’s book Some Time in the Sun.) About the only thing that struck me watching the film recently that was at all Faulknerian was the prologue in which the bad luck of the ship that becomes the slaver is detailed. Bad things happened in the past and continue to affect the present.

Sam Hellman and Gladys Lehman were journeyman screenwriters and appear to have worked together on several films in the ‘30s. Most of their other collaborations were on Shirley Temple movies, which raises the question of why they were assigned to this project, which is about a captain of the slave ship determined to get out of the business but opposed by his crew. Perhaps they were brought on to deal with the character of Swifty, the young cabin boy played by Mickey Rooney. Lamar Trotti was well into his career at this time, with several big films to his credit, so he may have been brought on to finish the script Hellman and Lehman started. Keep in mind the credits listed above were assigned by the studio, since this was several years before the Screen Writers Guild took over the credit arbitration process.

Long before the auteur theory took hold, film critics, especially those on the East Coast, tended to pay more attention to the directors than the writers. The credits for this film can suggest why. There is, as was common practice of the time, only one director credited, Tay Garnett in this case. On the other hand, there are four studio writers on the picture and the associate producer is also a writer. Much easier to pretend that it all comes from the director. Perhaps some day a film historian will go into the Fox story archives, which are at the University of Southern California, and figure out who did what on this interesting little film. It was a minor hit in its day, and the scenes below decks with the slave cargo are striking, even if no black character is given a full characterization. That would have to wait for Tamango in 1958, Roots in 1977 and Amistad in 1997.

Two and a Half Men (2011. “Skunk, Dog Crap, and Ketchup,” teleplay by Lee Aronsohn & Chuck Lorre & Don Reo & David Richardson, story by Alissa Neubauer. 30 minutes.)

Two and a Half Men

Getting to know Lyndsey: For several episodes, Alan has been dating Lyndsey, but we haven’t learned much about her. We know she is a divorced mom, with an idiot teenaged son who is a friend of Jake’s. In the opening three minutes of this episode, we learn more about her than we have in the other nine episodes put together. The writing in this scene is sharp and detailed. Lyndsey is having trouble sleeping since Alan is talking in his sleep. She comes out to the living room where Charlie is looking at odds on various sports. Lyndsey makes several smart betting suggestions and it turns out she worked in a sports gambling shop in Las Vegas. She then started a candle shop in Los Angeles, with bookmaking in the back room. As she says, the IRS got suspicious of a candle shop making a quarter of a million a year without selling a single candle. She was also in a softcore (notice it’s not hardcore) porn movie in college, called “Cinnamon Buns” (which leads to some nice business later when a tube of Cinnamon Buns in found in the fridge). Charlie points out he and Lyndsey seem to have more in common that Lyndsey and Alan. She shoots Charlie down right away, telling him that she’s done dealing with guys she has to dip in ammonia before she will touch them. She goes back to bed, and Charlie wonders out loud if he is that bad. From off-screen comes Lyndsey’s “Yes.”

So what we now have, after these three or four minutes, is a smart woman who’s got Charlie’s number and is not about to be seduced by him. That’s a nice addition to the show, and a lot can be done with her. I hope for all our sakes she does not fall into Charlie’s bed.

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.

3.5

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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.

2.5

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Relic
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.

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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.

1.5

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Greyhound
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.

2

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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.

2

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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.

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We Are Little Zombies
Photo: Oscilloscope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Palm Springs
Photo: Hulu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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Hamilton
Photo: Disney+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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Family Romance, LLC
Photo: MUBI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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