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



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.)


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

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




Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



Photo: Janus Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Photo: Paramount Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Farewell Thoughtfully Braids the Somber and the Absurd

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




The Farewell
Photo: A24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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