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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: Kill It and Leave This Town Vividly Marries the Mundane and the Dreamlike

Mariusz Wilczyński’s animation style strikes an unlikely balance between the childlike and the proficient.

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Kill It and Leave This Town
Photo: Outsider Pictures

Composed of sketches in motion, against backdrops of lined paper with the wrinkles, smudges, and tape left visible, Polish artist and performer Mariusz Wilczyński’s Kill It and Leave This Town militates against the extinction of traditional animation techniques. Not for a moment is the viewer allowed to forget that these are drawings, sequenced to create the illusion of movement. If the magic of animation is resurrected in Wilczyński’s hands, it’s a dark magic, as familiar with the grotesque as it is the lyrical.

Kill It and Leave This Town explores the industrial city in Poland where Wilczyński grew up. Among factories humming with machinery, along dreary streets lined with beer cans where the only splashes of color are the red stripe of the Polish flag or the ribbon in an old lady’s hair, Wilczyński’s mother and father stumble through their lives. Wilczyński himself makes cameos from time to time, drawn as a naked giant, at once infantile and overgrown. In one scene, the father attempts to show the family a fairy tale titled “How Fiki Miki Mouse Sailed Across the Seas and Oceans from America” on a slide projector, raving and cursing when the device gets stuck between slides. In another, the mother babbles on her deathbed to a son too busy drawing to pay her any attention. The film borrows its form from poetry as opposed to traditional narrative cinema, resulting in a loose assemblage of vignettes that loop back on one another, recreating the associative activity of memory and imagination.

The film’s animation style strikes an unlikely balance between the childlike and the proficient. Dense spirals pouring out of smokestacks, a recurring motif, resemble smoke only insofar as they cite the scribbles that stand in for it in children’s drawings, whereas the sequence of a mortician’s hands sewing up the body of Wilczyński’s mother exhibits the cold precision of a draftsman. One scene on a trolley is rendered entirely by hand except for the windows, replaced with live-action film of rain droplets streaming down glass. Such atmospheric composites recall Don Hertzfelt’s Everything Will Be Okay, as well as Soyuzmultfilm classics like Yuri Norstein’s Hedgehog in the Fog. Tadeusz Nalepa’s score, with all the charm of someone improvising songs on a guitar, echoes the animation’s off-the-cuff quality.

Wilczyński exploits his medium to bind the mundane with the dreamlike, continuing a long tradition of Eastern European surrealism. In a scene at a fishmonger, the fish floating in a barrel of water become people ready to be gutted and beheaded. Later, Wilczyński’s mother stumbles off the trolley into an ominous figure, sheathed in a trench coat, hat, and gloves, who gives her change for the fare. When she asks, “Who the devil are you,” his head swivels around to reveal a talking cat, like Behemoth from Buglakov’s Master and Margarita, who claims to be “part of that power which wills forever evil, yet does forever good.”

Only in hand-drawn animation can such fairy-tale grotesqueries convince, in part because it never aims for photorealism; Wilczyński leaves in the free-hand scribbles and the stutter between frames for our imagination to iron out. Even in a city only accessible to memory, a world of the past constrained by poverty and despair, anything is possible for Wilczyński, as it must have seemed in childhood—and yet no possibility scrubs clean of the stain of death.

Cast: Krystyna Janda, Andrzej Chyra, Maja Ostaszewska, Małgorzata Kożuchowska Director: Mariusz Wilczyński Screenwriter: Mariusz Wilczyński Distributor: Outsider Pictures Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: 76 Days Is a Harrowing Document of the Covid Outbreak in Wuhan

The documentary may be the defining portrait of the dawning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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76 Days
MTV Documentary Films

Like Ai Weiwei’s Coronation, Hao Wu and Wiexi Chen’s 76 Days—co-directed by another journalist who chose to remain anonymous—documents the early days of the Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China. While Ai’s film manages to slip a number of pointed critiques of China’s authoritarian tactics passed the country’s typically hawk-eyed censors, 76 Days, which takes its title from the length of Wuhan’s lockdown early in 2020, presents China in a more universally flattering light. What the film lacks in political commentary, however, it makes up for with its tight focus on the daily grind of the medical staff and countless volunteers tirelessly working at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital.

Much of the film follows doctors and nurses, clad in protective gear, as they make their rounds, reassuring patients that everything will be fine, even as they’re only just beginning to understand the virus and how to treat it. The toll this regiment of 12-plus-hour days takes on the staff is palpable in virtually every frame, with insert shots of the medical team asleep on benches or slumped over in chairs speaking to the sheer exhaustion of being a cog in a medical machine, quickly churning through patients with no light at the end of the tunnel. One nurse, while being comforted as her dying father is taken away to quarantine, is ultimately told that she needs to remain composed so she can ready herself to return to work the next day.

Although the staff’s sacrifice and composure under fire is amply documented, 76 Days never stoops to sentimentality, eschewing fawning talking-head interviews and a musical score. Throughout, we’re left brimming in the immediacy of the chaos at hand; only the glimpses we catch of patients who’ve spent weeks, sometimes months, in the hospital provide a concrete sense of time’s passage since the start of the lockdown. Most memorable of these patients is an elderly man who repeatedly leaves his room to wander around the hospital and is continually corralled by different nurses back to his room. His exploits lend the film a bit of levity even as his backstory, once revealed, makes his foibles all the more heartbreaking.

The nightmare of caring for thousands of patients during a pandemic also extends to the intake and discharge processes. This makes for a few touching and cathartic scenes once certain patients finally receive the approval to return home, such as when the aforementioned older gentleman receives applause and well wishes from many of the nursing staff as he exits the hospital. But the film’s most poignant moment comes when an endlessly patient young couple finally meets their newborn child for the first time several weeks after her birth.

These brief glimpses of joy are counterbalanced not only by the gravity of the pandemic as it’s being fought on the frontlines, but also by the cumbersome and often tragic logistical tasks that the hospital staff must perform, such as dealing with the belongings of the dead. Among said belongings is the still-functioning cellphone of one deceased patient that displays 31 missed messages, a mere hint of the suffering that even many of the healthy residents of Wuhan endured in those early days of the outbreak. 76 Days is full of small yet revelatory moments like this, and in keeping its gaze so firmly planted on both the medical staff and patients as they’re forced to navigate the uncharted territory of a deadly new virus, the film may be the defining portrait of the dawning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Director: Hao Wu, Wiexi Chen, Anonymous Distributor: MTV Documentary Films Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Soul More Sublimely Mediates on the Pull of Music Than It Does the Afterlife

In a troubling reversal from Pixar films past, it’s kids who will have to do the most heavy lifting to keep up here.

2.5

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Soul
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), the main character of Pixar’s Soul, is a jazz pianist living in Harlem who’s desperate for music gigs alongside his part-time job directing the disengaged middle schoolers in his band class. When the school principal offers him full-time hours with benefits, it feels more like a final surrender than a lifeline. The threat of lifelong mediocrity has tightened its grasp around every corner of Joe’s life. In a brilliant stroke, even the classic “When You Wish Upon a Star” tune that plays over the logo before most Disney movies is heard here as if played by Joe’s out-of-tune student ensemble.

Soul, directed by Pete Docter and co-directed by Kemp Powers, quickly reveals that Joe is anything but mediocre. Hearing melody in the wail of sirens and rhythm in the cacophony of a jackhammer, he has music in his, well, soul. When Joe catches his big break auditioning to play with a pro quartet, headlined by imperious jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), the film follows him into “the zone.” Not since Fantasia has a Disney film treated music with such reverence, as the seed of all the visual flowering that follows. As pinks and purples swirl around Joe and as his fingers coax unexpected harmonies from the keyboard (Jon Batiste provides the impassioned playing), Soul gives itself over fully to his music.

For these gloriously substantial few minutes, it’s jazz set to animation rather than the other way around. As such, it’s hard not to want Soul to be all about music, not just as metaphor but as the very real engine that drives the film’s characters forward. Music’s extraordinary impact is palpable when Joe’s face lights up as one of his students, Connie (Cora Champommier), leans into a trombone solo, and as Joe’s fingers escape his anxiety in their own improvisatory pursuit. Walk away 15 minutes into the film, at the end of what would make, on its own, a snazzy, sublime short, and you’ll have seen Pixar’s greatest, purest tribute to the arts.

But Joe’s joy, and soon the film’s, is cut short when he plummets down an open manhole, and finds himself—or, rather, his soul, depicted here as a blue-green turnip-shaped substance with glasses and a fedora—on the pathway to the Great Beyond. Refusing to face death, Joe hurtles into the void toward the Great Before, where not-yet-born souls obtain their personalities in a Youth Seminar. Mistaken for a celebrated psychologist, Joe’s soul is assigned a mentee, a cranky pre-human called 22 (Tina Fey) who refuses to cooperate: She’s unwilling, and, so far, unable to find the “spark” that will allow her to be born into a human body. Previous famous mentors have tried and failed (the soul of Carl Jung amusingly tells the difficult 22, “Stop talking—my unconscious mind hates you”), but Joe sees 22 as his ticket back to Earth.

It’s somewhere around here that Soul, co-written by Docter, Powers, and Mike Jones, starts to veer down its own wrong path, abandoning its accessible storytelling, along with that vitalizing jazz soundtrack, for a confusing maze of pseudo-spiritual planes of existence. Besides the Great Beyond and the Great Before, souls can also be in the Zone, where tuned-in artists like Joe sometimes find themselves while still alive, or in a desert of Lost Souls, which belong to people who’ve forgotten how to live (hedge fund managers, in particular, we’re told).

In this ever-evolving terrain occupied by 2D and 3D life forms, the film’s visual adventurousness takes off as contrasting animation styles collide. At the Youth Seminar, flat, geometric figures with transparent features direct the bulbous souls to where they can pick up personality traits (at the Excitable Pavilion, for example). Meanwhile, a New Age-inflected Mystics Without Borders subplot, with Graham Norton voicing the tripped-out Moonwind, adds a daringly vibrant psychedelic color palette to the gentle blues and greens of the Great Before. But as the categories of souls keep expanding, the rules for these overlapping worlds grow foggy, and by the time that Fey’s voice is coming out of Joe’s body in a switcheroo that’s never quite explained, it’s hard not to feel as if the film has lost track of its internal logic.

At the core of the Pixar model is an exploration of friendship within the familiar parameters of the buddy comedy—Joy and Sadness in Inside Out, Sully and Mike in Monsters, Inc., Marlin and Dory in Finding Nemo, all the way back to Toy Story’s Buzz and Woody—and Soul tries hard to plug into the transformative power of friendship in pairing Joe with 22. Despite Fey’s droll delivery, 22, who says she chooses to speak with the voice of a middle-aged white lady in order to be “annoying,” isn’t convincing enough as a fully formed character for their relationship, or Joe’s investment in 22’s decision to be born, to ever matter.

The contours of these worlds seem just hazy enough to land on the safe side of blasphemy; sometimes it seems like the film’s imprecision is a deliberate attempt to draw piecemeal from various belief systems and sidestep offending religious audiences by addressing the presence or absence of higher powers at all. But the viewers that seem most painfully left behind are the ones to which Soul should rightly matter the most: kids. Soul swirls with self-help lingo about finding your spark and seeking your purpose, but that’s almost entirely in the context of Joe’s midlife crisis, a sliver of the human experience with which children seem unlikely to resonate. In a troubling reversal from Pixar films past, which magnanimously welcomed grownups along for a sophisticated ride, it’s kids who will have to do the most heavy lifting to keep up here.

Coco’s take on the Land of the Dead and Inside Out’s representation of depression exemplify explorations of “grownup” topics with a probing awareness of the ways they also touch kids’ lives. For a while, it seems that Soul, in its treatment of the Great Before, will have a similar capacity for digging into big, unanswerable questions with care and clarity. But while most Pixar films pride themselves on presenting rich, fantastical responses to real-world wonderings, Soul keeps conjuring up visions that don’t correspond precisely enough to anything in the real world. It’s not clear whether the film ultimately offers a call to arms to pursue a passion or a warning that creative passion alone doesn’t provide for a fulfilling life.

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, Angela Bassett, Cora Champommier, Margo Hall, Daveed Diggs, Rhodessa Jones, Wes Studi Director: Pete Docter Screenwriter: Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Review: Black Bear Is an Unnerving Look at the Baggage that Fuels Creation

Shot through with darkly existentialist humor, the film finds Aubrey Plaza throwing a gauntlet to filmmakers who have typecast her in the past.

3

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Black Bear
Photo: Momentum Pictures

Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear belongs to a long tradition of sexual psychodrama, in which a handful of frustrated and privileged characters hole up in a remote place and exorcize their resentments. This tradition is so venerable that it was parodied by Christopher Guest over 30 years ago in The Big Picture, and there’s also a dark strand of existentialist humor running through this similarly self-conscious film.

Levine casts doubt on his narrative’s sense of reality in the opening sequence, wherein a young woman (Aubrey Plaza) is sitting on a pier in a swimsuit looking out at a vast foggy lake. After a moment, she rises and proceeds into a luxurious home, ascends a flight of stairs, and sits at a desk and smokes a cigarette. Soon, she begins to write in a notebook and the narrative segues into what’s presumably a dramatization of the story she fashions. This scene will be repeated several times in Black Bear, suggesting both a leitmotif and a temporal loop.

We then see this woman, Allison, being dropped off on a road a bit away from the home. Meeting Allison at the drop-off point is Gabe (Christopher Abbott), who immediately sets about flirting with her. It’s the sort of flirtation indulged by aspiring artists and self-conscious intellectuals-in-training, rife with deflections, fake-outs, and challenges to the nature of reality that complement the suggestion that the entire situation is possibly a projection of some kind. Allison and Gabe arrive at the residence to meet Blair (Sarah Gadon), who’s pregnant with Gabe’s child, which wasn’t mentioned when Gabe was probing Allison about her career as a filmmaker and, especially, her relationship status. The trio have a long and boozy dinner and air a variety of grievances, leading to a shocking accident.

Allison, initially suggesting a prototypical Plaza character, seemingly prizes hip detachment above all else, in the process enraging the judgmental Blair, who was hoping for help in persecuting Gabe for various slights. This characterization of Allison is a purposeful trap door—a sop to expectation that Levine detonates. In Black Bear’s first half, Allison is cast as a male fantasy—a sexy, seemingly willing and wandering artist who’s uninterested in Blair’s sermonizing about gender roles. In effect, Allison gratifies the submerged feelings of men and even women who may feel that women wish to be subjugated—feelings that are perversely validated in the moment by Blair’s caustic hectoring, which is realistic of the patter of the blowhard at parties who wishes to bore everyone into submission with rigid political views. The film’s early scenes are so stacked against Blair that one may forgive Gabe’s own simplistic speechifying, though such forgiveness may prompt us to examine our own biases.

Remarkably, the film’s emotional intensity is inseparable from its parlor game-like self-consciousness, especially when Allison’s “cool girl” demeanor is unexpectedly demolished. At its halfway mark, Black Bear effectively reboots itself, switching the core identities of the women, with only Gabe tellingly gaining more power in the process. Suddenly, Allison becomes the vulnerable and rejected party, and Plaza imbues her transformed character with a raw and frenzied anguish. Plaza throws a gauntlet to filmmakers who have typecast her in the past, while Levine plumbs the various forms of subjugation that fuel the creative process.

In Black Bear’s second half, the remote house is now a set for an independent film with a plot that roughly re-stages the earlier clashes between Allison, Blair, and Gabe, who are now reimagined as two actresses and the director, respectively. The film thusly expands beyond the confines of a chamber play to include a micro community, with sustained, confidently intricate set pieces—reminiscent of the game-show scenes in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia—that explore the exhilaration and terror of corralling dozens of working parts and personalities to create something palatable for audiences. Both films understand such corralling to thrive in part on exploitation, and in the case of Black Bear, the film-within-a-story-within-the-film is constructed around Gabe’s gaslighting of Allison, which Levine stages with a sense of unnerving intimacy that might playfully echo his own experience working with his spouse, filmmaker and actress Sophie Takal, who’s among Black Bear’s co-producers.

Levine is hunting big game in Black Bear, as the film reflects to varying degrees the influence of dozens of self-reflective film classics, mostly notably Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. If Black Bear feels too neat, a little too resolved as a game, it may be because the framing device gives us a convenient exit, though even the conclusion isn’t without ambiguities. Given that both stories are sex triangles fueled by exploitation, you may be driven to wonder if Plaza’s writer is attempting to find a way to channel real trauma. Or, perhaps more disturbingly, she’s conjuring it out of thin air, accessing unvarnished pain out of sheer talent and for the hell of it. This coda restores the smug Plaza stereotype to an extent, while alluding to the vast emotional undertow it suppresses.

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon, Lindsay Burdge, Alexander Koch, Paola Lázaro, Jennifer Kim, Shannon O’Neill, Grantham Coleman, Haitao Zeng, Lou Gonzalez Director: Lawrence Michael Levine Screenwriter: Lawrence Michael Levine Distributor: Momentum Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Survival Skills Surreally Straddles the Line Between Parody and Pathos

Survival Skills feels like something you’d stumble upon on Adult Swim circa 2014.

2.5

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Survival Skills
Photo: Cranked Up Films

Purporting to be an actual VHS-shot police training video unearthed from the last gasp of the Reagan era, Survival Skills feels like something you’d stumble upon on Adult Swim circa 2014, sandwiched between Too Many Cooks and reruns of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Yet writer-director Quinn Armstrong’s debut feature resists indulging the easy trappings of our current cultural obsession with ‘80s-era aesthetics as it digs into some rather contentious and particularly timely subject matter.

Survival Skills opens on a training guide introducing his lesson on a stagy classroom set. Credited as the Narrator, he’s played by Stacy Keach, a recognizable enough personality to immediately break any illusion of found-footage “authenticity.” But seeing as Armstrong will continue to break the fourth wall and experiment with meta-fictional ideas throughout, Keach, with his never-failing gravitas, becomes the perfect chaperone for this cracked video project.

The Narrator’s first order of business is creating the ideal police trainee, filtering the expected qualities needed for the job through an ancient computer system to end up with Jim Williams (Vayu O’Donnell), an all-American goody-two-shoes who we’ll follow through his first year on the force in quaint Middletown, U.S.A. Speaking in insufferably chipper soundbites, Jim acts and sounds exactly like someone who you’d see in the kind of stilted training video that Survival Skills spoofs throughout. But as we enter Jim’s video world, the joke becomes that he’s almost the only one here who behaves this way, while his hardened partner—curiously named Allison Lohmann (Erika Kreutz), in what must be some kind of inside joke—and the people they encounter are all perplexed by his alien manner. No matter, though, as Jim continues to take his cues from the Narrator’s booming voice, which seems to be heard solely by him.

The line between the staged world and the real one blurs even further when Jim and Allison are tasked with responding to a domestic violence call involving a married couple, the Jennings. After the cops diffuse the situation, Mr. Jennings (Bradford Farwell) assures them that everything is okay while Mrs. Jennings (Emily Chisholm) sheepishly nods along, but Jim can’t shake the feeling that something is off. Defying orders from his superiors (and the natural progression of the training video), Jim begins a quixotic attempt to rescue Mrs. Jennings and her daughter (Madeline Anderson) from a situation that no one but him seems to particularly care about, while the Narrator desperately tries to steer him back on track.

Unlike many a throwback that adopts a retro look and doesn’t offer much beyond hollow non sequiturs (Jack Henry Robbins’s VHYes instantly comes to mind), the film avoids cheapening its domestic-abuse storyline by using its formal conceit to also highlight another absurdity that Jim must confront: the impossibility of positive, meaningful police work within a broken legal (and social) system. The only lesson Jim can ultimately take away from his training is how to not get too involved, while his well-meaning suggestions to Mrs. Jennings that she flee her husband and file charges provoke immediate scorn from the same person he’s trying to help, since she’s already well aware how stacked the system is against her.

While mostly pulling off this tricky balancing act of humor and real-life horror, Survival Skills doesn’t quite go far enough in its critiques, especially in a climate where police-community relations are more frayed than ever. The whimsical mechanics of Armstrong’s world occasionally take precedence over the thematic issues at play, making it strange at times that Jim, who for all intents and purposes is a glorified android (Allison tellingly nicknames him “Robocop”), becomes so obsessed with this one case when he can barely read the room in any other setting. This dichotomy is even more pronounced in scenes with Jim’s hyperbolically domesticated wife, Jenny (Tyra Colar), who, while being the only other person in the film to behave in the same pre-programmed way, is clearly undergoing a stifled breakdown of her own. In these moments, Armstrong hints at but doesn’t fully comment on the correlation between the pressures of police work and domestic violence in police families.

The final act of Survival Skills, however, still intrigues, with Jim’s impossible quandary causing his idyllic existence to come unglued at the seams. Armstrong forcefully dives headfirst into the deep end of the meta pool, staging an aptly surreal revenge climax before Keach’s narrator concludes with a blunt lesson in the futility of policing. It’s a sentiment that ultimately resonates beyond the film’s stylistic posturing.

Cast: Stacy Keach, Vayu O’Donnell, Spencer Garrett, Ericka Kreutz, Tyra Colar, Emily Chisholm, Bradford Farwell Director: Quinn Armstrong Screenwriter: Quinn Armstrong Distributor: Cranked Up Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: I’m Your Woman Is an Unresolved Grab at Feminist Revisionism

Julia Hart drains the crime film genre of its macho bluster without replacing it with anything.

1.5

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I’m Your Woman
Photo: Amazon Studios

Julia Hart’s I’m Your Woman is, in practice, a feminist response to the decidedly male-centric crime genre. Rather than follow a hoodlum named Eddie (Bill Heck) as he eludes his gangster cohorts, the film tracks Eddie’s wife, Jean (Rachel Brosnahan), and their baby, Harry, as the latter are inducted into an underworld witness protection program. Such a premise has immense potential, especially given that Jean knows little about Eddie’s profession and that anyone could be an enemy looking to get back at him through her and Harry. A head of paranoid steam, resonant of Jean’s indentured status as a “kept” woman, could have been built up by the film, but Hart and co-screenwriter Jordan Horowitz are barely invested in engendering suspense. Instead, I’m Your Woman is content to have us cheer Jean as she comes into her own apart from Eddie’s lies and manipulations—except that she never does, which appears to be an accidentally achieved irony on the filmmakers’ part.

I’m Your Woman is set in the 1970s, in conjunction with the second and third waves of feminism, and more pressingly so that Hart may have reason to offer the retro pop songs and ostentatious set designs that are common of films replicating the era. A strange opening scene, in which Eddie presents the mysteriously acquired Harry to Jean as one might an impulse purchase from a fancy store, establishes above all Jean’s complacency, which would shame a stereotypical American housewife of the 1950s, let alone the ‘70s. Indeed, Jean is so accommodating, defenseless, and opinion-less that she resembles a cult member, and as such you may wonder how she’s held the firebrand Eddie’s attention. As proffered here, these details are stereotypical and unconvincing, existing only as easy thematic signifiers.

None of this might matter if I’m Your Woman were remotely serviceable as a thriller, but it’s composed of a thicket of incoherent exposition, with a cipher at its center. Jean often hears rumors of what’s happening to Eddie while he’s hiding somewhere else, mostly as related by her primary protector, Cal (Arinzé Kene), and these stories suggest the conventional male-centric narrative that’s being consciously elided by Hart and Horowitz. But this gambit backfires, given that the story that Cal relates to Jean, however convoluted, is more exciting than the one we actually see play out on screen. At times, I’m Your Woman appears to be tipping its hat to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Gloria—two films, both made by men, that are far more curious about the inner lives of women than this one. Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes didn’t see their heroines merely as embodiments of an agenda, but also as volatile, intelligent, furious living and breathing human beings.

By contrast, nothing seems to elicit a recognizably human emotion from Jean. Once she’s sprung from life as Eddie’s plus one, Jean remains supernaturally passive—entirely reactive and played by the usually inventive Brosnahan in a monotonal stupor that nulls Hart’s theme of female empowerment. Jean is almost killed several times, and commits murder in self-defense, all without evincing remorse, panic, or jubilation at facing extremities of human existence, which Hart films perfunctorily without offering even scraps of the sort of basic narrative context that might’ve made these sequences thrilling. In other words, Hart drains the crime film genre of its macho bluster without replacing it with anything, only to restore said bluster belatedly and halfheartedly once she’s run her single idea into the ground.

Cast: Rachel Brosnahan, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Arinzé Kene, Frankie Faison, Marceline Hugot, James McMenamin, Jarrod DiGiorgi, Bill Heck, James Charles, Justin Charles Director: Julia Hart Screenwriter: Julia Hart, Jordan Horowitz Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 120 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Superintelligence Keeps a Lid on Melissa McCarthy’s Comic Energy

The big disappointment of the film is that McCarthy’s performance is all Jekyll and no Hyde.

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Superintelligence
Photo: HBO Max

Melissa McCarthy successfully transitioned from television to film playing outcasts who chafe at conventional standards of appearances and manners. The exhilaration of the actress’s performances, especially in Paul Feig comedies like Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy, resides in the volcanic force she lends characters who might be reduced in to wallflowers in your run-of-the-mill production. Such visceral comic energy represents a revenge-of-the-oppressed transcendence, as these vehicles find a diminutive, overweight middle-aged woman stealing productions out from under more traditionally sophisticated stars via the profound force of her personality and talent. McCarthy is a veritable superstar-as-everyperson, which is a rare pose for an actor to convincingly master.

The big disappointment, then, of Ben Falcone’s Superintelligence is that McCarthy’s performance is all Jekyll and no Hyde. At first, Carol (McCarthy), a computer programmer who quit her job years ago out of frustration with corporate heartlessness, appears to be the sort of stunted ne’er-do-well that the actress specializes in playing. Superintelligence’s early scenes are its sharpest, parodying how Google- and Apple-type companies attempt to launder the complacency they demand from consumers and employees alike with therapeutic babble about wellness and self, which Carol isn’t able to convincingly sell. After a botched interview for a new dating site amusingly called Badankadonk, the viewer is primed to wait patiently for Carol’s rage to explode in characteristic McCarthy fashion, as a satirical rebuke against the faux-progressive hivemind of our social media age, yet this combustion never occurs.

Superintelligence is less a parody of modern consumerism than a bland gene splice of a rom-com and a 1980s-era film in which a loner befriends either an alien, a robot, or, in this case, a sentient, super-intelligent program voiced—in another amusing touch—by James Corden. Porting a narrative with such a distinctly Cold War-era makeup into the modern day also has satiric potential, for suggesting the similarity between past and present anxieties about technology run amok. And this commonality is acknowledged by the film in exactly one joke, in which the sentient program emulates the computer from John Badham’s WarGames in order to screw with characters who’re all old enough to get the reference.

Falcone and screenwriter Steve Mallory soon skimp on another wellspring for comedy, as the program gifts Carol with wealth and fashionable baubles—the sorts of privileged things that she comes to resent less once she’s capable of attaining them. Such hypocrisy, alive and well in virtually every present-day American, is acknowledged in a few fleeting jokes and soon forgotten, and even the general premise of a super-intelligent program as a kind of modern god-slash-genie is sidelined. Superintelligence is a junkyard of missed opportunities, as the unutilized ideas and gimmicks are revealed to exist as window dressing adorning a simple, frictionless kind of comedy-of-remarriage between Carol and the man who got away, George (Bobby Cannavale), who’s defined only by his sweetness and availability.

Superintelligence is probably intended by Falcone, McCarthy’s husband and regular collaborator, as a conventional star vehicle in which McCarthy plays the sort of wistful lonely heart that was once monopolized by the likes of Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock. The film’s conventionality is meant to show that McCarthy needn’t always play the tormented weirdo with reserves of inner rage; she can also be a regular lead with regular problems with a regularly good-looking man as her “one and only.” But such generic and insidiously conformist attitudes, though born of reverence, insult and inhibit McCarthy’s talents.

McCarthy was authentically weird, profane, and confident, and therefore sexy, when playing a character who stood up to all those sexist men in Spy, which positioned her opposite of Jason Statham romantically without treating it as a big deal. By contrast, Falcone self-consciously lionizes McCarthy as an avatar of normalized romantic longing, trapping her in the process. The filmmakers here fatally forget that we love Melissa McCarthy because she isn’t a princess.

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Bobby Cannavale, James Corden, Brian Tyree Henry, Jean Smart, Ben Falcone, Josh McKissic Director: Ben Falcone Screenwriter: Steve Mallory Distributor: HBO Max Running Time: 108 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Review: Julien Temple’s Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan

The film is affectingly poignant in its frequently uncomfortable presentation of MacGowan’s physical ruination.

3

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Crock of Gold
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

The legend of Shane MacGowan, frontman for the Pogues and imbiber extraordinaire, looms large over Julien Temple’s alternately fantastical and down-to-earth documentary Crock of Gold. Since achieving international renown in the 1980s leading the biggest Irish band after U2—and just about the only one to fully celebrate and explore their Irishness—MacGowan carved out a position as one of rock’s most determined boozers, druggies, fighters, and all-around hellraisers. But though he had a Keith Richards-sized appetite, being on a smaller budget meant going without a protective rock-star bubble.

MacGowan’s kinetic and alcohol-fueled energy was a big part of the Pogues’s appeal, vividly captured here by the footage Temple includes of people roaring and dancing in packed concert venues. But time took its toll, as evidenced by MacGowan’s downward spiral of performances sabotaged by his copious drinking. Eventually, the slurred speech, physical decrepitude, and ever-more gnarled dentition spotted in the archival footage from the 1980s and ‘90s became like a self-fulfilling stereotype of the dedicated Irish drunk. While Temple includes a full view of MacGowan in his earlier form, the spiky-haired and Brendan Behan-worshipping punk balladeer, the story is told primarily through the lens of MacGowan’s racked and ruined present visage, prematurely aged and slurring his speech from a wheelchair. In MacGowan’s mind, he destroyed his body in pursuit of a different kind of legend entirely.

Much of the musician’s personal history is relayed via present-day interviews with interlocutors such as Johnny Deep—a friend of MacGowan’s and one of the film’s producers—former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. But here and there throughout Crock of Gold, MacGowan looks back over his own life, telling stories with a slow, slurring mumble punctuated by the occasional surly snap of pique or wheeze that approximates a laugh.

MacGowan acknowledges the problematic aspects of being the drunken Irishmen who hated British stereotypes of drunken Irishmen. “You want Paddy?” he asks rhetorically. “I’ll give you fucking Paddy.” But beyond the aggression that came from being a hyper-imaginative kid who hated the discrimination he felt being raised in 1960s England, he says that his creative drive was ultimately to create a different kind of legend. He wanted to do nothing less than save Irish culture. If not that, he wanted to at least resurrect the feeling that he had during the childhood summers he spent back in his extended family’s farmhouse in Tipperary (a one-time safe house for the I.R.A.), where even as a six-year-old he took part in the drinking and smoking and singing during the clan’s frequent all-night bashes.

MacGowan’s take on his culture is fiercely proud yet somewhat removed; his Irishness seems to come almost as much through literature and myth as through his family. Dreamy black-and-white recreations of a boy gamboling through Irish fields and archival footage of the Easter Rising and Ireland’s War of Independence fuel the sense that everything MacGowan strove for later in his art was in his mind a kind of fantasy crusade. “I did what I did for Ireland,” he says.

Raised mostly in England, MacGowan found the perfect outlet for that old poetry-infused rebel spirit when as a teenager he discovered his tribe in London’s punk scene. The raw chaos fit his natural state. After a several-month stay in Bedlam, his first concert was the Sex Pistols. Although this feels like a too-good story from a man who doesn’t mind gilding the lily, Temple includes grubby old footage showing MacGowan ecstatically pogo-ing just feet away from Johnny Rotten. Temple’s evocation of London street life in the period is short but vivid, in particular a segment set to “The Old Main Drag”, MacGowan’s semi-autobiographical song about a teenage hustler (“Just hand jobs,” he says with a grin in a later interview).

Wanting to “give tradition a kick in the ass” and make “Irish hip again,” MacGowan infused the lilt of traditional Irish music with a mixture of punk speed, wartime urgency, and late-night boozy romanticism. His recollections of the Pogues’s early years when their first three albums were met with increasing acclaim and popularity make clear that he knows that was the high point. The near-constant touring that followed the breakthrough success of 1988’s If I Should Fall from Grace with God seems to have pushed his addictions over the edge. Most everything after the ‘80s—the later albums of dwindling quality, varying side projects and break-ups, and late-career encomiums—are handled in mostly chronological but still somewhat blurred fashion by Temple in an approximation of how MacGowan likely remembers them. In this way, the film is of a piece with the ruinous spectacle that Temple’s Sex Pistols films covered and the fireside intimacy of Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, affectingly poignant in its frequently uncomfortable presentation of MacGowan’s physical ruination.

Director: Julien Temple Running Time: 124 min Year: 2020

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Review: Before Turning Histrionic, Uncle Frank Is a Tender Look at Outsider Kinship

Alan Ball quickly loses sight of the sense of power that fuels the film’s early moments when his characters basically just gaze at each other.

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Uncle Frank
Photo: Amazon Studios

Alan Ball’s ‘70s-set Uncle Frank commences as a rare portrait of the love between an uncle and his niece. Beth (Sophia Lillis), a provincial teenager with cosmopolitan dreams, is in awe of her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), a gay man living in New York City, a very long way from his South Carolina roots. “Uncle Frank was different,” Beth tells us in voiceover as we watch her pine for him at a family get-together. He was different than everyone around her because he was a college professor, his fingernails were always clear, and he used aftershave. But mostly because she could listen to him all day.

That sequence is shot like a conversation between lovers, slow-motioned laughter and all. But this isn’t the budding of incestuous love. It’s the sort of veneration that children are sometimes lucky enough to feel for the one adult in their midst who’s freer than most. Which is perhaps why many a queer uncle learns very quickly how disrupting their presence can be in family affairs. Frank represents a certain elsewhere. He truly listens to Beth, which visibly feels like some kind of a first for her. At one point, he tells her what she needs to hear with kindness—namely to believe in her dreams, which is code for her to get the hell out of the South. Four years later, she’s an NYU freshman obsessed with Harper Lee, Jane Austen, and Mark Twain.

When Beth moves to New York and they start hanging out, Frank can’t hide his homosexuality for long. After all, he lives with his long-term partner, Wally (Peter Macdissi), and an iguana named Barbara Stanwyck. Beth has never interacted with gay people before but gets used to the idea very quickly. And it’s at this moment, when the distance between uncle and niece shortens, that Uncle Frank ceases to be a tender portrait of outsider kinship and transforms into a histrionic road movie with screwball intentions, more interested in plot twists than the characters themselves. It’s an unfortunate pivot, as Ball loses sight of the sense of power that fuels the film’s early moments when his characters basically just gaze at each other, basking in what the other has to give, and something queer is transmitted.

When Frank’s father (Stephen Root) passes away, he drives back to the family home with Beth in tow. Also tagging along in a separate car, and much to Frank’s chagrin, is Wally, effectively triggering a predictable series of alternately kooky and unfortunate events, all interspersed with traumatic flashbacks to the source of the animosity between Frank and his father. It’s a whirlwind of melodrama that, before arriving at the obligatory happy ending, harkens back to the film’s initial quietude when Beth, sitting across from Frank at a diner, asks him, “Did you always know you were gay?” He responds that he always knew he was different, and in this moment Ball lets the characters breathe again, framing them much as he did at the start of Uncle Frank—in the midst of bonding, as a different sort of inheritance is passed on.

Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root, Lois Smith, Jane McNeil, Caity Brewer, Hannah Black, Burgess Jenkins, Zach Sturm, Colton Ryan, Britt Rentschler, Alan Campell, Cole Doman, Michael Perez Director: Alan Ball Screenwriter: Alan Ball Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Croods: A New Age Is a Step Up that Still Leaves You Wanting More

The film is brightly colored, inventively designed, and constantly flirting with the outright psychedelic.

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The Croods: A New Age
Photo: Universal Pictures

Brightly colored, inventively designed, and constantly flirting with the outright psychedelic, The Croods: A New Age resembles what it might be like for a three-year-old to take an acid trip. Whereas its relatively subdued predecessor, directed by Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco, was grounded in some semblance of the real world, the sequel follows the path of another DreamWorks Animation series, Trolls, by packing as much manic energy and candy-coated visual excess into its runtime as it possibly can. The approach mostly improves on the limp family-comedy of the original, trading tired jokes about overprotective fathers for sprawling action sequences and a bevy of oddball creatures including wolf-spider hybrids, kung fu-fighting monkeys, and a King Kong-sized baboon with porcupine spikes.

Which isn’t to say that A New Age turns its back on the Crood family. In fact, it juggles a half-dozen or so emotional arcs pertaining to their daily lives, with the relationship between the feisty Eep (Emma Stone) and her conservative father, Grug (Nicolas Cage), once more at the heart of the narrative. As the film opens, the Croods, who’ve accepted Eep’s boyfriend, Guy (Ryan Reynolds), into the family fold, are desperately searching for food and safety when they happen upon an Edenic walled paradise owned by the technologically advanced Phil and Hope Betterman (Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann), who chafe at the boorish antics of the backwards Croods. Discovering that they knew Guy when he was a boy, the Bettermans contrive to kick the coarse cavemen off their property while stealing Guy away from Eep to live with them and create a family with their cheery daughter, Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran).

Though ostensibly existing in the prehistoric world, the Bettermans, with their turquoise jewelry and rope sandals, epitomize a certain kind of well-heeled contemporary liberalism, where a rehearsed casual demeanor masks a fundamental narrow-mindedness and even intolerance of the uncouthness of their perceived inferiors. They’re the kind of people who won’t let a struggling family stay for long on their unused property but will send them off with a passive-aggressive smile and gift basket full of fancy soaps. The Bettermans are surprisingly complex, thanks in large part to Dinklage and Mann’s nuanced voice acting. In particular, Dinklage finds droll humor in a man whose conceitedness belies an essentially good heart.

This sort of gentle satire on class divisions isn’t the most natural fit with the film’s sweeping prehistoric milieu, but the screenplay manages to strike a relatively deft balance between its character moments and the comedy-adventure set pieces that are the film’s real raison d’être. A New Age doles out its emotional beats with a refreshingly light touch, never allowing sentimentalism to overpower its buoyant sense of adventure. But aside from some delightfully crusty line readings by Cloris Leachman as Gran, the film is rarely laugh-out-loud funny. Indeed, the film is so packed full of incident that it rarely gives its jokes the space to land.

Similarly, its overall sense of spectacle is stronger than any particular image or scene. We’re never wanting for things to look at in the film—there’s nearly always some wacky creature or impossible Roger Dean-style landscape or virtuosic bit of animation onscreen—but we rarely get much chance to take any of them in before the film has moved on to the next thing. There’s plenty to look at in A New Age, but not a whole lot to truly savor.

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Cloris Leachman, Peter Dinklage, Leslie Mann, Kelly Marie Tran Director: Joel Crawford Screenwriter: Kevin Hageman, Dan Hageman, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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