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Understanding Screenwriting #69: Barney’s Version, The Dilemma, Modern Family, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #69: Barney’s Version, The Dilemma, Modern Family, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Barney’s Version, The Dilemma, Watching the Detectives, Friendly Persuasion, Harry’s Law, The Good Wife, Modern Family, Hot in Cleveland, Retired at 35, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein did not believe me when I wrote that Lee Garmes’s cinematography on Shanghai Express (1932) was better than Bert Glennon’s on Blonde Venus the same year. All I can say is look at the two films. The ideas for the cinematography may be von Sternberg’s, but the execution is the cinematographer’s, and you can see the difference. As for David saying that von Sternberg thought of the script, the words, the characters, and the plot as only partial elements (David’s italics), that explains why I have trouble with a lot of von Sternberg’s work. I like directors who show a little more respect for at least the idea of the script.

Barney’s Version (2010. Screenplay by Michael Konyves, based on the novel by Mordecai Richler. 132 minutes.)

Great actors in great scenes do not necessarily a great movie make: I haven’t read Richler’s novel, but after seeing this movie I did what I did after It’s Kind of a Funny Story (see US#63) and went into the Barnes & Noble next to the multiplex and skimmed the book. Even just skimming I can see its appeal, as well as its structure. Richler writes it in the first person, so the novel really is Barney Panofsky’s version of his life. His entire life. You can see the problems Konyves faced. Richler sets it up that a friend of Barney’s has written a novel based on Barney’s life and Barney wants to set the record straight. That gives Richler a reason to let Barney wander all over his life, since in a novel you can have all kinds of digressions. Many years ago a friend of mine who had been writing screenplays decided to attempt a novel. I had written a couple of books by then, and after she had been writing a while, she said to me, “How come you didn’t tell me writing a book was so much easier than a screenplay?” You have no length limitations, you can get inside people’s heads, and it does not have to be dramatic. Richler takes advantage of all of those.

Konyves tries to give the script a little more structure. In the film, the book Barney is upset about is a supposed true-crime book by the detective who investigated the presumed murder of Boogie. Boogie was Barney’s best friend, whom Barney caught in bed with his second wife. Boogie disappeared immediately thereafter, and the detective has been on the case ever since. Fine, that could provide a structure, but there is a lot more in the novel that Konyves wants to get in. So we get some sequences at the beginning of Barney and his first wife in Rome, then the second wife (complete with cliched Jewish wedding), and finally Barney’s romance and marriage with Miriam, his third wife. You can see in the film why Konyves did not want to give up on some of that material, since it gives him some great scenes. After the first wife dies, Barney is visited by her father, and we get a sad, funny confrontation between the father, played by Saul Rubinek, and Barney, played by Paul Giamatti. Shortly thereafter we get Barney and his dad Izzy meeting the second wife’s family. It is a terrific scene that shows us the difference between the well-off Jews on her side, and Barney’s working class, former street cop dad. Izzy is played by Dustin Hoffman, whom you may not think was born to play Giamatti’s father, but they are a perfect match in their scenes.

At the wedding to the second wife, who as written and played is the stereotype of a Jewish wife (I felt sorry for Minnie Driver in the part), Barney meets Miriam, the true love of his life. Konyves has given her several great scenes, and Rosamund Pike gives one of her richest performances. After Barney catches Boogie and the second wife in bed, there is a great Boogie-Barney scene that is not just the yelling and screaming you might expect, because we already know from Barney’s expression that he sees this as an opportunity. Boogie is played by Scott Speedman, late of Felicity, and this is one of his best performances. We are not sure exactly what happens at the end of the scene; we just know that Boogie has gone missing. But then we get a lot more scenes of Barney’s marriage to Miriam and its breakup, which seems rather rushed in the film. We do finally figure out what happened to Boogie. It is a much more inventive ending than Richler has, even if it does borrow from a CSI episode, not surprising in that the director Richard J. Lewis has been a writer, producer and director on that show.

In addition to the great scenes that don’t pull the film together, the other problem is Barney’s character. Miriam describes him at one point as “incorrigible,” and we are supposed to love him for that, but he strikes me on film as being merely very ill-mannered. I suspect in the novel, Barney’s descriptions and explanations of his behavior soften the blow, but here is a difference between a novel and a film. Even though the film is called Barney’s Version, we are still looking at him somewhat more objectively than we get him in the book. The behavior he can explain away in the book is a little too in-our-face in the film. Giamatti is wonderful, but the character gets a little tiring.

The Dilemma (2011. Written by Alan Loeb. 110 minutes.)

The Dilemma

Tone: This came from what’s known as a “producer’s idea.” Ordinarily writers should be very cautious about “producer’s ideas.” The late Marvin Borowsky, who taught screenwriting at UCLA to such Oscar winners as Francis Ford Coppola and Nancy Dowd, used to warn his students about “producer’s ideas.” That usually means an idea of ripping off another film, or a current trend, or just an idea that would hardly last a scene, let alone a film. At least in this case, the idea was not a bad one. Brian Grazer and his partner Ron Howard had been talking about an incident in which one of them had seen who he thought was the wife of a friend with another man. Then he realized it was not the wife, but the two began talking about what might happen if it was. What do you do in this situation? They called in Loeb and pitched the idea to him. According to a piece in the January/February 2011 issue of Creative Screenwriting, Loeb says his reaction was that there was no drama: of course you would have to tell the friend. But then Loeb began to talk to other people and got all kinds of different responses, many of which end up in the script.

Ronny Valentine and Nick Brannen are best friends and automotive engineers. Ronny has a longtime girl friend Beth, and Nick is married to Geneva. One day in a botanical garden Ronny sees Geneva with Zip, a guy who is definitely not her husband. So the question comes up. Loeb spins out several variations on it, along with the big project Ronny and Nick are presenting to a major car company: an electric car that sounds and vibrates like the great old cars of the ‘60s. That suggests the problem of the film as a whole. How are we to take their idea? Is it intended to be a serious proposal? In today’s world, it might be. Or is it intended as satire of men and their noisy toys? Loeb has not nailed down what the tone of this plot line is.

In the same way, he has not been consistent with the tone of the film. There are certain elements we are supposed to laugh at. Ronny falls into some poison plants in the garden, but the rash seems to go away quickly. Susan Warner, an executive at the major car company, sometimes talks like a guy, but Loeb has not delivered dialogue that would make that character work, and Queen Latifah is stranded onscreen in the part. For every sort of slapstick moment, there is a serious one. Near the end, Ronny’s family and friends stage an intervention because they think he is gambling. The intervention is written as half comedy (the leader is sort of a doofus) and half drama. As somebody commenting on the IMDb noted, there just are not that many funny lines. You can just imagine what Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder would have done with the situation. Or more recently Juno (2007) or last year’s The Kids Are All Right.

Ron Howard’s direction does not help, since he has not done a good comedy since, well, when? Maybe Parenthood in 1989, which does achieve the mixture of comedy and drama in the way this film would like to do. But Loeb’s script doesn’t manage it. Howard’s direction of the actors in the dramatic scenes is very good. Kevin James gives his best performance as Nick, and the reconciliation between Ronny and Beth is a nice scene, but it’s too late.

Watching the Detectives (2007. Written by Paul Soter. 94 minutes.)

Watching the Detectives

Writing badly for performance: As you know, one of my mantras is that if you are writing a screenplay, you are writing for performance: of the actors, the director, art director, et al. This film, which played at film festivals but never got a theatrical release, is an example of the writer trying to do that and going wrong.

The story is serviceable if familiar. Neil, almost a nerd, runs Gumshoe Video. We know he is devoted to film because in 2007 he only rents VHS tapes of classic movies and has no DVDs. Into his bland life comes Violet, all cutesy and fun and working to bring Neil out of what she thinks is his shell. After she hustles him into taking her to dinner, she gets him to go into the nearby Media Giant (read Blockbuster). They spend the night putting the DVDs in the wrong boxes. Later she sends two of her friends pretending to be cops to question Neil about the Media Giant caper. Just when Neil thinks they are about to sodomize him, Violet pops in and reveals it’s a joke. More hijinks ensue, and she eventually talks him into what he assumes is a fake holdup of a gambling club. Only it’s not fake, and after more hijinks they get out of town because, well, it’s true love.

OK, we allow for a little suspension of disbelief in movies like this. In real life Neil would probably run in the other direction after the first date or so, but we are used to quirky girls who loosen guys up. Bringing Up Baby (1938) or The Lady Eve (1941), anyone? The problem here is that Soter has written Violet as all ditz all the time. We don’t see the intelligence that we saw in the heroines of Baby and Eve. Violet here is played by the usually wonderful Lucy Liu (why do you think I bothered to watch this when it came up on cable?), who certainly proved in Ally McBeal she could do smart and funny. Soter, who also directed, keeps pushing Liu to the extremes of quirkiness, which just gets annoying. Soter has not written the part well, nor did he rethink it when he cast Liu, nor did he get a good performance out of her.

Friendly Persuasion (1956. Screenplay by Michael Wilson, with uncredited contributions by Jessamyn West and Robert Wilder, based on the book by Jessamyn West. 137 minutes.)

Friendly Persuasion

Thee I do not love as much as I did in 1956: This film was a big hit in 1956 and hugely popular as well (the two are not the same thing at all) in spite of its being released with no credited screenwriter. The only writing credit on the original prints was “From the book by Jessamyn West.”

Frank Capra was the first director to take a shot at the material, a collection of stories about life among the Quakers in Southern Indiana in the early years of the Civil War. When he got back from World War II, this was one of the projects he began. He hired Michael Wilson to write the screenplay, but in the political climate of 1947, a film about a group of pacifists did not seem very commercial. When Capra went under contract to Paramount in the late ‘40s he brought the project with him, but the studio passed on it. Capra eventually sold it to William Wyler, who made it for Allied Artists in 1956. Capra’s biographer, Joseph McBride (Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success), suggests from his reading of the original manuscript of Capra’s memoir The Name Above the Title that Capra may have given up Friendly Persuasion because Michael Wilson had refused to answer questions for HUAC. One of McBride’s views of Capra is that in the HUAC period Capra was giving up on his left-wing friends and co-workers.

Wyler brought in the author of the stories, Jessamyn West, and she worked with Wyler’s brother Robert on revising the script. (The material on the project after the Wylers took it over is from Axel Madsen’s authorized biography William Wyler.) Wilson had come back from the war a determined pacifist and focused on one of the stories in the book, “The Battle of Finney’s Ford,” in which Josh, the son of the family, goes into combat but discovers he cannot kill. In the story, there is no battle, but Wilson felt it was more dramatic if the son was tested in battle and still maintains his convictions. Robert Wyler and West opened the script up a bit more, and it became more episodic. There are nice rustic scenes of the family and their farm and their pet goose, Samantha. On film these scenes today seem excessively cute, with humorous business in the Quakers using “thee” and “thy” instead of “you” and “your.” William Wyler was, unlike Capra, not a director who did cute very well, and the scenes trivialize the Quaker beliefs.

Jess, the father of the family, is played by Gary Cooper, and there was much discussion about whether he should take up his rifle and fight. Cooper assumed that his audience would want him to fight. On the other hand, John Huston, who read the script, thought that Jess should not even pick up his gun. The solution in the film is mixed. Josh, the son, goes to battle. He does kill Confederate soldiers, but he obviously feels conflicted about it. Jess does take up his rifle to go and find Josh, but runs into a Confederate soldier who wounds him. Jess gets the drop on him, but refuses to kill him, letting him go. Meanwhile, back at the farm, Confederate raiders have arrived. Eliza, Jess’s wife, tries to be pleasant to them, but when one of them tries to kill Samantha the goose, Eliza takes after him with a broom. Since she has been the most steadfast in her Quaker beliefs (only reluctantly letting Jess have an organ in the house, and then only in the attic), she should be just as emotionally upset at herself as Josh is, but the moment is played for laughs. The scenes in the second half of the film are more dramatic, and Wyler is more at home with them than he is in the first half. But the script never seriously tests the characters’ beliefs. There is no indication in the broom sequence that the family is in any real danger. Josh seems to recover from his battlefield experience very quickly, and Eliza’s “fall” is a comedy scene with no lasting effect on her.

When the film was completed, the credits submitted to the Writers Guild for arbitration listed Wilson, Robert Wyler and West. The arbitration panel awarded sole credit to Wilson. William Wyler said later, “I think it was a kind of backlash against the whole McCarthy trauma, with the Guild leaning over backwards so it couldn’t be accused of refusing Wilson anything on political grounds.” Keep in mind that directors are always upset when the writers they worked closest with are denied credit in the arbitration process. After the arbitration, Allied Artists refused to have Wilson’s solo credit on the film, since it felt it would have been too risky. The studio might have agreed to the three-way credit, but the Guild refused. Credits on the current prints of the film list only Michael Wilson.

Harry’s Law (2011. “Pilot,” written by David E. Kelley. 60 minutes.)

Harry's Law

David’s back and Kathy’s got him: David Kelley’s last few series have not done that well, but now he is back with one with some potential. It’s a law show, of course, since it’s Kelley, but the difference here is the main character. Harry is a patent attorney who has grown to hate patent law. After getting fired from the firm, a guy trying to kill himself drops on Harry, and on the way home from the hospital Harry is hit by a car driven by another lawyer. So Harry sets up a criminal law firm in a building that used to be shoe store. The shoes are still there, and Harry’s assistant Jenna sells the shoes between clients. Sounds like a David E. Kelly show, right? What makes it different is that the part of Harry, originally written for a man, has been taken on by Kathy Bates.

Bates brings not only her physical heft, but her emotional and intellectual heft, to the part. When she is opening the office in a not-so-nice part of town, Damien comes in and offers her “protection.” She pulls out her gun, takes a picture of him on her cellphone, tells him she knows lots of attorneys and cops, some of whom are not above going beyond the law, and says that if anything happens to her, bad things will happen to Damien and his family. Then she tells him that when, not if, he needs a lawyer, she will represent him for free in return for protection. She does not show him her Stephen King autographed sledgehammer from Misery (1990), but we can assume it is behind one of the shoe display cases.

This being a Kelley show, we have the beginnings of some interesting supporting characters, especially the local citizens. Jenna is not that well defined at the moment, but Adam Branch is. He is the lawyer whose car hit Harry, and to pay her back, he takes a leave from his rich law firm to work in her office. By the end of the pilot, he has decided to stay. Yes, his tirade in court bears more than a passing resemblance to Kelley-written tirades of the past, but I guess that is just to make us feel at home. The one annoying character is a deputy district attorney played by Paul McCrane, the obnoxious Dr. Romano on ER He repeats everything he says, which gets old quickly. I am not sure if he is going to be a regular or not. Let’s hope not.

The Good Wife (2011. “Two Courts,” written by Ted Humphrey. 60 minutes.)

The Good Wife

Jury duty: You may remember that I like the way this show, unlike most law shows, actually deals with juries. Here is another episode that does. Alicia and Will are representing a young man accused of killing his father before dad could change his will. Since the client has a pile of money, the firm hires a jury consultant to study the jury and make recommendations to the lawyers. For this he gets $60,000 a week. Well, he says he has an 80% success record. OK, now which of our characters do you pair him off with? If you said Kalinda, come to the head of the class and get your Guild card. Why Kalinda? Because she is even more observant of people than the consultant is. We can tell from her reactions that she knows he is full of shit. Since Blake, the other investigator Bond brought with him to the firm, now tells Kalinda he is her boss, she is not in a good frame of mind. When Will wants to make sure she is behind him in his move to keep the firm, she hits him up for a big raise. When he objects, she points out how much they are paying the consultant. When she delivers some interesting information about Bond and Blake to Will, she gets the raise as well as not having to report to Blake.

The consultant suggests ways to work the case, including bringing out the prejudice the judge seems to have against Will and his firm. It’s Kalinda, though, that suggests the lawyers imply the apartment manager may have killed the father. The consultant suggests focusing on a psychiatrist who seems to be the leader of the jury. When the case is over, the jury comes back in 20 minutes, and the consultant assures Alicia and Will it means a not guilty verdict. Guess again. It’s guilty. After the trial, Alicia talks to the shrink in the hallway, which lawyers are allowed to do. He realized, as jurors do, all the tricks both sides were playing and said they didn’t make any difference. Alicia asks him why the guilty verdict. He replies, “He did it.” Lawyers everywhere ought to watch this episode to learn a great truth about trials: in spite of what lawyers (and screenwriters who write about them) think, it is the case rather than the lawyers that most affect the outcome of a trial.

Modern Family (2011. “Caught in the Act,” written by Steven Levitan & Jeff Richman. 30 minutes.)

Modern Family

Developing the idea: One storyline’s setup is simple. Phil and Claire’s three kids prepare them breakfast in bed and come into the bedroom just as, well, you saw the title of the episode. So then what do you do with that situation? In this case Phil and Claire stay in the bedroom trying to figure out how to handle this. That’s easy enough, but the writers have the kids sitting together downstairs trying to figure out how they are going to handle this. Before Phil and Claire come downstairs, the kids run away. The kids sit on a bench outside a convenience store and decide that the worst thing will be that their parents will want to talk to them about it. Ugh! Who wants that? So they decide they will just smile their way through “the talk.” We see them starting to do this before we get the flashback that tells us this is their plan. What all this does, especially the scenes with the kids, is give us a variety of attitudes about the events, which makes it more fun to watch than if it was all just gags.

Hot in Cleveland (2011. “Free Elka,” written by Suzanne Martin. 30 minutes.)

Hot in Cleveland

Spunk: So at the end of the last run of episodes, Elka was thrown into the slammer by Melanie’s cop boy friend for having a basement full of stolen goods. We open up with Elka, in her orange jumpsuit, playing the harmonica, then singing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” There are probably any number of actresses of a certain age and beyond who could make that funny, but Betty White does it without moving an eyebrow. Talk about your writing for performance. Then her cellmate tells her to stop singing under penalty of some punishment. The cellmate turns over and we see it is Mary Tyler Moore. Now what can you do with these two, given their collective seven hundred years of experience and forty years of working together? Some of the jokes are obvious, some are not. I liked that Martin did not have to go too far for the “I hate spunk” line filched from the first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

So the girls have to raise money for Elka’s bail. Victoria is supposedly rich, but she learns her financial manager has been arrested for tax evasion, and her reaction is, “I’ve been Madoffed,” which I thought was a funny line, but then I had never invested with Bernie. Hijinks ensue, Elka is freed, but it looks as though Joy is going to have to marry neighbor Rick to get a green card. Since he is played by Wayne “Newman!” Knight, you can see her reluctance.

No, the show is still not as smart and sophisticated as Modern Family or 30 Rock, but never underestimate the power of just plain funny.

Retired at 35 (2011. “Pilot,” written by Chris Case. 30 minutes.)

Retired at 35

Not yet even Hot in Cleveland, but maybe: This is put on by TVLand as a companion piece to Hot in Cleveland, and on the basis of the pilot it is not quite up to that level, but for reasons I’ll get to in a minute, it will be worth a second look.

David, a 35-year-old New Yorker, comes to visit his parents in Florida on his mother’s birthday. Yes, they are older and retired, but they seem to have lived there for a long time, since David runs into his old high school chum, Brandon, who is now a pool cleaner. At the bar where Brandon and David hang out, there is even the girl he had a crush on in high school, Jessica. But Ryan Michelle Bathe, who plays Jessica looks at least ten years younger than Jonathan McClain. So we get a lot of “old people in Florida” jokes while having a younger couple to root for. I mean, there are a lot of “old people in Florida” jokes.

David decides to quite the New York rat race and move in with Alan, his dad, especially after his mom, Elaine, decides to leave Alan and go off to Portugal to paint. Alan is played by George Segal and Elaine, who will be back in future episodes, is played by Jessica Walter. Yes, this is a far cry from Walter’s Lucille Bluth. So far, so-so. David and Brandon try to get Alan out on a date, and they set him up with Susan, a woman of a certain age they find at a Bingo game (see what I mean about the Florida jokes?). Alan gets a look at her and runs off, and Susan and David…end up in bed. Bet you did not see that coming. Or maybe you did, but stay tuned. David and Brandon are in the bar talking about what happened (it was apparently wonderful—go geezer power!) and in walks Alan…and Susan. They met up, he apologized, and here they are. Susan is a lot cooler about this than anybody else. Then Jessica (remember her?) comes over to the foursome and asks David how he knows…her mom. Now Bathe is very clearly black, and Susan is played by Christine Ebersole, who is white, which actually makes the joke work even better. So I for one am going to want to see where, if anywhere, they go with that.

Oh, yes, as one LA critic noted, George Segal apparently has it in his contract that he does get to play the banjo. That may or may not affect whether you want to watch the show.

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: Saudi Runaway Is a Raw and Immediate Chronicle of an Escape

Camera, character, and cameraperson are one throughout, and the effect is exquisitely suffocating.

3.5

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Saudi Runaway
Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films

Susanne Regina Meures’s invitation into the filmic world of her exquisite Saudi Runaway is by way of a camera that moves as if attached to a body. It’s a mobility completely devoid of the vulgar familiarity of a GoPro, or the numb slickness of a dolly shot that only simulates the point of view of a character. We don’t yet know where the body is headed but we can feel its fear. Camera, character, and cameraperson are one here, and the effect is suffocating. We see people’s heads bare and covered. Our vision is fuzzy. Soon, though, the wind lifts what turns out to be a piece of a garment—the camera’s sartorial filter. We’re moving inside an abaya. That’s where we remain for most of the film: between the body of a young woman, Muna, plotting her escape from Saudia Arabia and the dark fabric of her garb.

The film’s handheld camera suggests a baby being held. Not just because of how tethered it often is to the cameraperson, but because our mostly hazy gaze suggests eyes just getting used to a terrifying world. By the time Muna tells us that she will try to record “everything” and that “it will be dangerous,” she’s stating the obvious. Though it pulsates with raw intimacy, Saudi Runaway does have its share of obvious elements, from the sound of music when we least need it, to one too many shots of a trapped bird, to Muna telling us, midway through the film, that “the majority of society is conservative.” But its conceptual device is so uncanny, so un-mediated by how Meures structures Muna’s original footage, that we can’t help but excuse the director’s attempts to turn the original fragments into a coherent narrative.

The camera in Saudi Runaway is so prosthetic, and its images all but birthed by Muna, that, at first, it’s difficult to accept that someone other than she is credited with directing the film. Must Westerners save brown women so that they can speak? However, Muna’s occasional prefacing of her murmured voiceover account with “Dear Sue” gives us a hint of a transnational sisterly collaboration. The epistolary layer of Saudi Runaway isn’t fully explained, a technique often used in the essay film genre that helps give a video-diary aesthetic a sense of depth while maintaining its mystery. Is Sue the director or an imaginary friend? Is Sue a rhetorical device like one of Chris Marker addressees in Sans Soleil? Is Sue actually listening?

The fact that this writer sat immediately in front of both Muna and Meures at the film’s Kino International screening at this year’s Berlinale made the experience of watching it all the more eerie. Our real-life escapee was clearly now safe and sound in Germany, reacting in real time—with self-conscious sighs and sad moans—to the presentation of her ordeal.

On screen, we learn that Muna isn’t allowed to leave her family home without being escorted by a male relative. That she will only be allowed to drive if her future husband allows her to. That her father keeps possession of her passport, which she can only renew with his approval. “Be obedient and everything will be fine” is the advice that Muna’s grandmother gives her.

All of the film’s faces, apart from Muna’s, are perpetually pixilated, reminding us that these are images captured without her family members’ consent. That betrayal and guilt might be prerequisites for deliverance. The pixilating effect also means Muna “covers” everyone else’s faces while liberating her own, her flight necessitating an exhilarating mix of precision, and risk, and anxiety. But, also, the anger of those she must dupe in order to leave them behind. “Do you really think you can go to paradise and leave me here in hell?” is Muna’s mother’s reaction to her daughter’s courage. Although with the benefit of hindsight, she eventually anoints Muna’s newfound independence with a WhatsApp voice message praising her. As if freedom were contagious, experienceable by proxy, or the sheer power of imagination.

Director: Susanne Regina Meures Screenwriter: Susanne Regina Meures Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Swallow Is a Provocative Me Too Parable in Body-Horror Guise

Fortunately for the film, Carlo Mirabella-Davis continually springs scenes that either transcend or justify his preaching.

3

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Swallow
Photo: IFC Films

Writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s Swallow pivots on a queasy premise: the uncontrollable urge of a young trophy wife, Hunter (Haley Bennett), to swallow inedible objects. Hunter first ingests a marble, after touching it as if it’s a talisman, cherishing its assuring tactility. Later, Hunter carefully removes the marble from the toilet after passing it, cleaning it off and placing it on a tray as a trophy. The marble will soon be joined by a stickpin, a lock, and a variety of other increasingly disturbing things. But there’s another wrinkle of perversity to Hunter’s new hobby: She’s pregnant, and the possibility of these objects puncturing her developing child, no matter how irrational, haunts the film.

For a significant portion of Swallow’s running time, Mirabella-Davis maintains an aura of ambiguity, keeping the audience in a state of discomfort as to what Hunter’s ailment precisely means. There are plenty of hints even early on, as Hunter is married to a svelte GQ-ready hunk, Richie (Austin Stowell), who’s more interested in his phone and his job with his prosperous father, Michael (David Rasche), than his wife. Yet Mirabella-Davis initially resists doubling down on the sort of denouncements of the wealthy that come so easy to filmmakers. In his way, Richie seems to care about Hunter, and his mother, Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel), occasionally comforts her. The filmmaker’s initial refusal to totally render these people rich monsters only intensifies the scenario’s mystery and tension.

Mirabella-Davis is also willing to take Hunter to task for her own alienation, as people often tune her out because she has so efficiently rendered herself a dully accommodating and complacent Stepford wife. Her psychological disorder, known as pica, partially appears to be a response to her knowledge of this fact, serving as a contemptuous act of self-punishment, with perhaps an element of sexual gratification. The narrative contains multitudes of subtexts, and Bennett superbly modulates between learned impassivity and outright despair, capturing the pain of a kind of actress who has come to feel trapped in her role. This entrapment is formally complemented by an aesthetic that’s been very fashionable in art-house horror films lately: pristine, symmetrical compositions of stylish, remote residences that express the inhumanity of essentially living in a one-percent fashion catalogue.

Swallow is initially marked by a driving tension, as we’re led to wonder just how awful and crazy Hunter’s habit will become. The film is never as gross as one might fear, as Mirabella-Davis is less interested in shock-jock flourishes than in sincerely rendering Hunter’s physical pain and mental anguish; like Mike Flanagan, Mirabella-Davis is the rare humanist horror filmmaker. As such, Hunter’s choking—the most disturbing detail in the film—becomes a piercing affirmation of her struggle to feel something and be seen.

There’s a strange irony to the film’s second half. As Mirabella-Davis sets about explaining the meaning of Hunter’s predicament, Swallow grows simultaneously more poignant and pat. Dished out in pieces throughout the film, Hunter’s backstory has been self-consciously overstuffed with topical elements of women’s struggles against patriarchal atrocity, from casual objectification and condescension to rape to the struggle to be pro-choice in the United States. (Hunter’s mother is even said to be a right-wing religious fundamentalist.) This psychology eventually waters the evocative premise down with literal-mindedness, so that Swallow becomes less a body horror film than a Me Too parable.

Fortunately, Mirabella-Davis continually springs scenes that either transcend or justify his preaching. Later in the film, a nurse, Luay (Laith Nakli), is hired to keep watch over Hunter. As a refugee of the Syrian civil war, Luay is partially offered up as a device to score points on Hunter’s privilege (he memorably remarks that one doesn’t have time for mind problems when dodging bullets), though he also shows her profound compassion, most acutely when he climbs under the bed with Hunter in a moment of crisis, patting her back with an affection that we’ve never seen extended to her by anyone else.

Near the end of the film, Hunter holes up in a cheap motel, shoveling dirt into her mouth while watching soap operas that peddle the dream of marrying rich and hot—a sequence of profound and wrenching loneliness. And the film’s climax, in which Hunter tracks down a man from her past, Erwin (Denis O’Hare), is equally heartbreaking, exposing Hunter’s swallowing for what it truly is: an attempt at annihilation as atonement, as well as a self-defiling as paradoxical affirmation of control. Hunter resists her status as an accessory by swallowing others.

Cast: Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Denis O’Hare, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, Luna Lauren Velez, Laith Nakli, Babak Tafti Director: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Screenwriter: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 94 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Interview: Corneliu Porumboiu on The Whistlers and Playing with Genre

Porumboiu discusses the links between his latest and Police, Adjective, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.

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Corneliu Porumboiu
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Anyone inured to the downward-facing schadenfreude of Corneliu Porumboiu’s prior features might be taken aback by The Whistlers, the Romanian auteur’s first foray into slick, international genre filmmaking. The title refers to a crime ring in the Canary Islands that uses a bird-whistling language to evade surveillance. A crooked cop named Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) successfully infiltrates the group, but his undercover status is increasingly compromised by his fixation on Gilda (Catrinel Menghia), the sultry girlfriend of the ringleader, as well as by the tight leash his commanding officer back in Bucharest has him on.

Lest anyone think Porumboiu is making a play for more commercial appeal, The Whistlers is choc-a-block with teasing allusions, including repurposed music like Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” and Jacques Offenbach’s “Baccharole” from The Tales of Hoffman, as well as cinephilic references: One expository dump happens during a screening of The Searchers, while a climactic set piece takes place at an abandoned movie set. I had the pleasure of picking Porumboiu’s brain after the film’s U.S. premiere last fall at the New York Film Festival about his toying with genre, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.

All your films are playful in my opinion, but with this one, you’re playing with genre.

If you had asked me four years ago if one of my films would have flashbacks, I would have said, “No, no way.” [laughs] With The Whistlers, the way it’s structured, I was interested in the process of learning the language. That determined the core of the film. After that, I knew I needed flashbacks so I can have different types of plot movements happening—so that the main character, Cristi, can look differently at things as they happen, because of language. Double-movement. A parallel structure. After that came the other characters in the film, who play specific roles for—in front of—the camera. Catrinel Menghia plays Gilda, which is an assumed name. We don’t know much about this character.

The femme fatale.

Right. She’s assuming that position. At the end of the day, this is a world of people chasing money. They’re using dialogue to have a fight, you know? So, I knew it was time to look back at the classical noirs. I watched some films and began pulling from them.

The film’s plotlines get increasingly convoluted as Cristi learns more about the world he’s stepped into, the threat of a double-cross always looming over him.

Well, at the end I think you get it all back. My focus was to arrive in the middle, to arrive at a type of cinema linked exclusively to his character, his personality. So, I was thinking in classical noir but not dominated by it.

This is your second time working with Vlad Ivanov, the first since Police, Adjective, nearly a decade ago. Was this role written for him?

Yes. Because in a way I was revisiting the character from Police, Adjective, starting from that. To me he’s an almost theological character. So, at the end of the day, I asked myself if this guy, who’s almost like a military officer, who has a very strict background, can his philosophy last? To find this guy 10 years after, what does he still believe in? Who is he now?

Tell me more the difference between then and now.

Well, in the last film he was someone who trusted a certain system, was a part of it. He had his own philosophy, he knew very well where his power was. A decade later he’s completely lost. He doesn’t know what he believes in anymore. I wanted the difference to be subtle but indisputable. He’s become obsessed with money, his motivations are more harsh.

Is there something about Romania’s economic situation that you’re linking this to?

In 12:08 East of Bucharest, my characters defined themselves in relation to the revolution of 1989, and they believed in communication. In Police, Adjective, you have a boss imposing his own ideology from the top down. In Metabolism, it’s like a game: The director can’t assume his position at the top. Here, my characters don’t believe in anything, they just think in terms of fighting and winning. This is how we perceive the world now, I think.

The transition from value systems to anarchy, or at least a certain realpolitik—even working cooperatively, everyone is looking out for themselves.

I think after the economic crisis, the world changed drastically. I don’t know, the classical noir has a certain vision about the world that’s quite dark, yet was proper for that time. Maybe we can find some similarities today.

Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between this film and Infinite Football?

Infinite Football is about utopia—one man’s political, ideological utopia. He wants to change the game, and what his new game implies is a reflection of the history of Romania. His personal history. But I was doing it in a different way, so I did it like a work in progress.

And you figure into the film as well. You have personal history with these people. They talk to you, talk to the camera, pull you into the frame.

Well, it’s a personal project. Laurentiu, the subject, my friend, he may not have faith in the system, but he has faith in the game, or that his rules will prove themselves. This is the Don Quixote thing of it all.

Spanish and Romanian are not that far from one another, and in order to whistle, the main character has to break his messages down into units of Spanish syllables.

I saw a documentary on TV about La Gomera, the island in Spain. From that I learned about the language of whistling and became very curious. That was 10 years ago. I started to read about the language, and I went to the island where they were teaching it. It was then that I knew I wanted to do a film about the character from Police, Adjective. Being a film about language and codes, I thought I could play with genres; cinema at the end of the day is coding reality, after all. When I write, it’s like going back to the first act, and trying to be there, be present with the characters. Eventually it is them who move me into the story. I have a very particular way of writing. Police, Adjective had eight or nine drafts. I wanted the dialogue to be functional, transactional. And not to go too deep. Each of the characters has a double nature that can’t be opened too much. At the end of the day I’m making these movies for myself. You have to believe in what you’re doing, at least at the beginning of the shoot. [laughs]

I think the first 15 minutes of this film have more edits than all of Police, Adjective. Surely this switch-up is getting you questions from people.

The story called for this approach though. It pushed me to do that.

Critics love packaging things. The “Romanian New Wave,” epitomized by the slowness and realism of your earlier films, is a perfect example. Do you find these categories or tropes at all oppressive?

Well, the truth is it wasn’t a “movement” in the sense of something written down or programmatic. Young filmmakers started working in 2000 and, of course, critics outside Romania don’t know much about Romanian cinema before “us,” so it’s expected that they will put a stamp on new films coming out. For me, each of the directors has their own voice, their own way, developed on its own terms, and for me the movies are especially different now. I’m not offended, but it means I have to speak about my own cinema—none of these generalizations. These critics probably have not seen The Reenactment, or Reconstruction, by Lucian Pintillie, my mentor—the so-called “Old Wave.” This was a hugely important, inspiring film for all of us in my generation. He died before I finished shooting The Whistlers. Regarding Police, Adjective, he told me: “If you cut five or 10 minutes from this film, you’ll have a really good audience.” And I told him, “No.” [laughs]

The generalizations tend to break down, or that’s just the nature of an artist discussing their own work. And the idea of a “movement” implies a finitude or a strategy.

The Treasure was a fable, no? You could find the structure less threatening if you had seen my previous films. Maybe other films from Romania around the same time. But I began to try a nonlinear structure in my documentaries, then applied it to The Whistlers.

Do you prefer the original title, La Gomera, to The Whistlers?

I do think The Whistlers is better. But translated into Romanian, it doesn’t have the same power as La Gomera! Also, I wanted to avoid confusion with Gomorrah.

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Review: Autumn de Wilde’s Emma Takes a Classic for a Stylish, Ironic Spin

This lively adaptation plays up the novel’s more farcical elements, granting it a snappy, rhythmic pace.

3

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Emma
Photo: Focus Features

Jane Austen’s Emma concerns the mishaps of a self-assured young country aristocrat who prides herself on her savoir faire but who remains, in the terms a certain modern adaptation, totally clueless. A light comedy neither broad enough to be farce nor pointed enough to be satire, the novel lends itself to interpretation as both, given the narrative’s manifold romantic misunderstandings and host of kooky, idle gentry. Without departing far from the text, director Autumn de Wilde’s lively new film adaptation emphasizes the more farcical elements of Austen’s second-longest novel, granting it a snappy, rhythmic pace.

The eponymous gentlewoman, the story’s only three-dimensional character, is played with impressive depth by Anya Taylor-Joy here. On screen, Emma can seem frivolous right up until the climactic moment that forces her into a self-confrontation, but Taylor-Joy’s open, expressive face, so often in close-up, captures Emma’s creeping uncertainty regarding her powers of judgment, as well as her own feelings, even as she continues to act the social butterfly. She’s aided by a screenplay by Eleanor Catton that doesn’t quite resolve the story’s main fault—its concluding romance counts as perhaps the least convincing of any of Austen’s works—but which preserves much of the complexity of its “handsome, clever, and rich” heroine, who must learn to abide by her judgment rather than her vanity.

Emma begins the film at the height of self-regard, the reigning socialite of the small countryside community of Highbury. The 20-year-old has recently made a match for her governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), arranging her marriage—well above her station—to the neighboring widower gentleman Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves). She elects Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a recently arrived schoolgirl of uncertain origins and inelegant manners, to be her next project. She teaches the naïve girl, enraptured by Emma’s ostentatious wealth and delicate bearing, to present herself as worthy of a genteel suitor, manipulating her into rejecting the proposal of hardy local farmer Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells), and encouraging her to pursue the affections of the young vicar-about-town Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) instead.

O’Connor plays Mr. Elton with palpable smarm, wearing a perpetual shit-eating grin above the ridiculous splayed-out collar of an early-19th-century Anglican vicar. Here, as elsewhere, de Wilde communicates much of what remains implicit in the novel (like Mr. Elton’s odiousness) via a tidy mise-en-scène redolent of Wes Anderson. The sterile pastels of the elegant clothing and the precise movements of both the aristocracy and their servants (who hover about in the background like strange automatons) give the film’s sudden eruptions of human neuroses a droll, punchy tone—as when Mr. Elton casually mentions that it may snow, and a dinner party suddenly erupts into chaos, the nervous guests rushing to the carriages to get back home.

It’s in one of those carriages that, in a scene played perhaps a bit too broadly, a slightly drunk Mr. Elton confronts Emma with the revelation that he’s been aiming to court her. Naturally, the news of Mr. Elton’s true affections devastates Harriet, whom Emma very belatedly realizes may have been well suited to Mr. Martin, though at this point Harriet has learned to think of the farmer as beneath her. Outraged at Emma’s tutoring of Harriet in the ways of class presumption is Martin’s landlord, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), a wealthy Highbury bachelor who, as brother to her brother-in-law, counts as family to Emma and her worry-wart father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy). In the lavishly decorated living rooms and salons of their immense estates, Emma and Mr. Knightley bicker in the way that unwitting lovers in Austen tend to, arguing verbosely about the propriety of introducing Harriet to high society.

Emma and Knightley later have occasion to debate the relative virtues of Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) and Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), who arrive separately in town under much whispered ballyhoo. The young and handsome Frank seems destined to ask for Emma’s hand; Jane, the orphaned niece of local gossip Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), is rumored to be heartbroken after forming an inappropriate attachment to her adopted sister’s husband. Emma is as flattered by Frank’s attentions as she is jealous of Jane’s level of gentlewomanly accomplishment. Catton and de Wilde extrapolate from the novel’s succession of social scenarios to make Emma’s doubt about the shifting social field more comically apparent: One of the funniest scenes has the ostensibly modest Jane follow up Emma’s dilettantish performance on the pianoforte with a beautiful, complex sonata, in front of the whole town.

Emma’s discomfort in her new situation will come to a head when she, with Frank’s encouragement, grossly abuses her privilege as a gentlewoman with a practiced wit, embarrassing herself and wounding an old friend. Emma is interested in such textures of early-19th-century society, if not in the latter’s pace. The film fits so much of Austen’s narrative in by judiciously condensing scenes to suit its more ironic tone, occasionally using transitional smash cuts to get right to the point. The result is a stylish, eminently watchable farce that, despite its old-England trappings, is every bit an update as it is an adaptation.

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Amber Anderson Director: Autumn de Wilde Screenwriter: Eleanor Catton Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack, Book

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Review: The Trouble with Being Born Is a Chilly Rumination on Memory

In the end, the film suffers from the same issue as its moody androids: enervation borne out of repetition.

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The Trouble with Being Born
Photo: Berlinale

The near future looks a lot like the present in Sandra Wollner’s The Trouble with Being Born, only bleaker and lonelier. That sense of isolation is conveyed right from the start. In the fantastically dreamy introduction, we float through a forest on a summery drift of whispering voiceover and buzzing insects before coming upon a father and young daughter next to a backyard pool. What looks like a relaxing day quickly reads as forced, even icy. While the girl (Lena Watson), Elli, stays by the pool, the father (Dominik Warta) goes inside, only to dash back out again when he sees Elli floating lifeless in the water. “Fuck,” he says. “Not again.” In the next scene, he’s using his phone to reboot the not-quite-drowned Elli.

An android whose deep black eyes and waxily smooth skin—evoking the eerie expressionlessness of Christiane’s face mask in Eyes Without a Face—are the very definition of the Uncanny Valley, Elli was built to replicate the father’s daughter, who disappeared 10 years before. Her reactions are slow and mannered, as though she were puzzling over a bug in her programming instead of playing like a human 10-year-old. Even though her actions are mostly set on a loop built out from scraps of what the father remembers of his daughter, Elli seems to take a mix-and-match approach to those implanted memories, obsessing like an amnesiac trying to make sense of a muddled past. At times, it’s unclear whether the lines in the voiceover (“Mum…doesn’t need to know everything”) are repeated from the human Elli or invented by the android Elli as a way of mimicking her biological predecessor.

The first half of The Trouble with Being Born is narratively thin but heavy with the promise of something more. Inklings of something disturbing in this isolated idyll, that too-close stare of the father and his dressing her just so, are eventually made explicit and disturbing. In one of the more effectively queasy body-horror moments ever put on film, the father removes Elli’s tongue and vagina for cleaning, leaving her naked on the counter. It’s a strikingly disgusting moment, pointing not just to the abuse he subjected his human daughter to, but the casual disdain with which he regards her replacement. But despite the power of this scene and a few others—particularly the wordless shot of Elli watching her father from a distance with the same restless curiosity of the cat flopped next to her, visualizing the unbridgeable gulf between “father” and “daughter”—Wollner continues to fill her film with too little story.

That problem becomes more acute once Elli runs away and the story shifts to another android-human relationship. After Elli is picked up by a passing motorist (Simon Hatzl) who then gifts her like a new toy to his elderly mother (Ingrid Burkhard), still mourning the little brother she lost 60 years before. The ease with which Elli is made into a boy—in the world of the film, reprogramming androids is about as complicated as restarting a smartphone—stands in stark contrast to the violent trauma of abuse that still lingers like a ghost in her flickeringly sentient CPU. But while the setting and the primary human character changes in the second half of the film, Wollner’s narrow view of her story means just more of the same glassy expressions and long maundering silences, like Tarkovsky without the existential pain. At some point, the mirroring begins to feel more like straight repetition without any significant revelation.

In the end, The Trouble with Being Born suffers from the same issue as its moody androids: enervation borne out of repetition. There are some attempts here and there to comment on the replacement of human connection with silicone facsimiles. We almost never see people together. The only time the mother, who spends much of her time walking her dog and wistfully pondering the past, is with another person is when her son drops off Elli. Shopping malls, car-choked roads, and distant skyscrapers dominate the landscape. But rather than truly exploring the ramifications of its futuristic conceit, whether from a broader societal or individualistic and relational perspective, the film just keeps looping back to the same luminously filmed but ultimately blank silences.

Cast: Lena Watson, Dominik Warta, Ingrid Burkhard, Jana McKinnon, Simon Hatzl Director: Sandra Wollner Screenwriter: Sandra Wollner, Roderick Warich Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog Wages a War Between Language and Cinema

It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic.

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Malmkrog
Photo: Berlinale

Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog is based on 19th-century Russian philosopher and mystic Vladimir Solovyov’s prophetic Three Conversations, which, through a series of dialectical maneuvers, addresses such topics as economic materialism, nationalism, and abstract moralism. The film takes place on a snow-covered hillside, where a large pastel-pink mansion sits and Puiu turns the philosophical into drama. Sheltered in the mansion’s walls are a small group of aristocrats that includes a politician, a general and his wife, and a young countess. It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic. A Christmas gathering stretches on in what seems to be real time, as the party’s high-minded philosophical and political chatter takes on an increasingly strained air.

That tension is heightened by the obstacles that Puiu uses to discombobulate his audience. Malmkrog is the Transylvanian village where the film takes place, yet the characters, who speak primarily in French, talk of being in Russia. And as they discuss imminent war and the potential outcomes of violence, it’s as if the film appears to exist outside of time and place. Doorways and mirrors obfuscate who’s involved in a conversation, and the characters move through the mansion as though compelled by spirits of the past, with cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru often lighting all those drawing rooms using only natural light sources. Malmkrog exudes a painterly expressiveness that’s a far cry from the cold, handheld aesthetic that typically defines the look of Puiu’s work and the Romanian New Wave as a whole.

The film’s first scene lasts nearly an hour and is a magnificent example of staging. The camera glides left and right, with each movement matched by a change in composition that the actors match as though dancing to the music behind their endless words. This balletic circularity, slow but constantly surprising, recalls Max Ophüls’s fixation on the oneiric, circular properties of time. In a surprising moment of violence, a number of characters die on a staircase, only for them to come back to life a scene later, and without comment from anyone. When Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard), the mansion’s wealthy owner and Malmkrog’s central figure, looks up the staircase, it’s as if he recalls what previously occurred there. The moment echoes one from Letter from an Unknown Woman where Joan Fontaine’s Lisa stares up the very staircase up which Louis Jourdan’s Stefan and another woman ascended years earlier.

Whenever Nikolai, who makes the domineering Stefan from Ophüls’s 1948 masterpiece seem meek by comparison, utters lines like “prayer is a soap for the soul,” he carries himself like the Sherlock Holmes of moral arbitration. But he’s closer to a 19th-century Ben Shapiro: a pompous rat obsessed with facts and logic, who won’t let a woman finish a point for fear that he won’t be able to counteract it with a cogent counter-argument. It’s not always clear to what extent Puiu is satirizing this type of behavior, given the spectacle of the man’s endless pontificating, and that the other characters only rarely undercut his words with references to his verbosity. Puiu clearly believes in Nikolai enough to make him the mouthpiece for Solovyov’s philosophizing, which makes it harder to buy to what extent these people are being sent up, and how much Puiu wants the viewer to eat up his words wholesale.

With our perspective held hostage in one place, memory and imagination blur into one. When Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité) reads from a book, the account of a vicious battle between Cossacks and bashi-bazouks, the effect is rapturous. In this claustrophobic endurance test, Puiu transports the viewer through language to a scene with the epic scope of the film’s runtime. He focuses on listening faces, themselves teleported to a different space.

Like his characters, Puiu wages his own war of discourses, in his case between language and cinema. Whenever Malmkrog seems to have settled into a formal rhythm, the filmmaker flips it, using a different device to interrogate how people talk, and to what extent they listen. One heightened dialogue exchange culminates with the main characters staring out of the window in complete stillness. Then Nikolai starts to move, unstuck from this tableau, and seemingly from time. The boundaries of reality keep getting pushed at, to the point that one almost expects the mansion’s walls to fall and reveal a film set. Later, he glides away from a tea reception to observe the servants, who silently rearrange the house and conceal their own power structure through glances and outbursts of violence that are hidden from the wealthy class. They are like spirits, pulling out chairs for aristocrats who don’t acknowledge them, clearing out items like empty champagne glasses that hint at the echo of a past time.

The creeping dread of history repeatedly overwhelms character and viewer, particularly during General Edouard’s (Ugo Broussot) screed on the world’s necessary “Europeanness,” which becomes a Buñuelian account of fascist tendencies and culminates in the film’s most shocking moment. His wife, the imperious, frizzy-haired Madeline (Agathe Bosch), obsesses over the authority behind language: who may speak, and how. This is the sneaky vessel for a larger discussion on power and control. Living in a religious nation, Nikolai posits, one must first understand what Christianity is, and define national identity from that. The characters situate this in the context of war, and a globe that’s shrinking in the face of technological progress.

But with each scene, Puiu strips away the layers of his ornate style, so that by hour three, all that’s left is the close-up. With Nikolai’s straight face berating Olga, evangelizing on resurrection, the sophistication of the dialogue rarely matches that of Puiu’s aesthetic form. As Malmkrog becomes less ostentatious in style, the redundancy of its philosophizing becomes almost impossible to ignore, having made its conclusions about the inability of the intellectual class in combating fascism through language by the 100-minute mark. Puiu’s assaultive mass of a film speaks to modern times in its depiction of aristocrats indulging in comfortable platitudes as the world edges toward the precipice of chaos, but the Romanian auteur doesn’t entirely make the case for sticking around to listen.

Cast: Agathe Bosch, Frédéric Schulz-Richard, Diana Sakalauskaité, Ugo Broussot, Marina Palii, István Téglás Director: Cristi Puiu Screenwriter: Cristi Puiu Running Time: 200 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: For Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, the Cruelty Is the Point

The thrill of the film’s craftsmanship is inseparable from its main character’s abuse.

1.5

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The Invisible Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

Elisabeth Moss brings unexpected shades to the flimsiest of roles, and she makes it look so easy. Even if you go into writer-director Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man blind, you will know what Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) did to his wife, Cecilia Kass (Moss), simply from the way she moves one of his hands from her belly. Across a taut and nerve-wracking opening sequence, Cecilia orchestrates what becomes increasingly clear is an elaborate escape. If it’s easy to overlook the hoariness with which the camera lingers at various points on some object that portends things to come, that’s because Moss never stops conveying the agony of the years-long abuse that Cecilia has endured, through the surreptitiousness of her gait and the way paralyzing bolts of fear shoot through her body.

That kind of talent only helps a film like The Invisible Man that doesn’t really care about abuse beyond its function as a plot device. After escaping Adrian’s clutches, Cecilia goes to live with a childhood friend (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter (Storm Reid). Or, rather, struggles to live, as leaving the house is too hard for Cecilia to bear. Cecilia never really stops talking about the control that Adrian exercised over her, even after she learns that he committed suicide, thus freeing her to finally put her life back together. But there’s a frustrating friction to such scenes, between an actress sincerely committed to expressing her character’s pain and a filmmaker interested in trauma only as far it whets our appetite for how a psychopathic tech magnate who specialized in optics could possibly torment his wife from beyond the grave.

With his directorial debut, Insidious 3, Whannell effectively goosed an otherwise insipid haunted-house attraction with clever twists on a franchise’s trite dependence on the jump scare. But it was Upgrade, which saw him freed of franchise responsibilities, as well as longtime collaborator James Wan, that felt closer to a coming-out party for the filmmaker. And it practically announced him as a master, if not of horror, then of evasion, for the way his acute sense of movement is so thrilling in the moment that it can make one overlook his rickety storytelling. Upgrade is a film that’s less suspicious of the not-so-brave new world of tomorrow that anti-authoritarian tech bros are rapidly ushering in than it is in awe of what their toys can do. Its meditation on vengeance is closer to justification: that it’s okay that a bro turned half-machine is going on a violent rampage because of what was done to his wife.

The Invisible Man, another distinctly male fantasy set in a more recognizable present-day San Francisco, has even less to say than that, though it seeks to also entertain us with all that a techie can do with one of his toys. And that it does, as in an impressive early scene inside James’s house where Cecilia walks out of the kitchen while making breakfast and a long shot unobtrusively captures a knife falling off the counter and the flame on one of the gas burners being turned to high. The frisson of unease to this and several other scenes, of a man hiding in not-so-plain sight as he mounts a spectacular show of gaslighting, is close to unbearable. And when the titular menace is finally glimpsed, if only intermittently, the straight shot of action-infused momentum that marks the sequence as he lays waste to a small army of police officers inside the hallway of a mental institution feels like a release, for Cecilia and the audience.

But to what end does Whannell really fashion all this style? In one scene, and only one scene, the film tells us that Cecilia is an architect, not to illuminate all that she’s capable of as a creative, but to allow for the moment where she shows up to an interview at an architecture firm and discovers that the samples of her work were removed from her portfolio. That scene, some 30 minutes into The Invisible Man, is the moment where the film starts to provoke a certain queasiness, where it becomes clear that Cecilia only exists, for Adrian and for Whannell, to be terrorized, to be held up in the air, to be flung across a room, to be punched, to not be believed, to be thought of as insane. And to be raped. That this violation happens off screen proves that Whannell has foresight, that he’s aware of the controversy that surrounded Hollow Man upon its release in 2000. But that we must be told that it also took place at an indeterminate time, almost as a matter of course, feels like an icky attempt at not having to actually grapple with the implications of the crime by casting doubt on it.

Out of sight, out of mind. That feels like Whannell’s mantra. Indeed, by the time it gets around to the business of Cecilia being believed, the film starts to collapse under the weight of an increasingly absurd series of plot reveals for the way she turns the tables on the invisible man to feel like anything but an afterthought. Even then, when her tormentor is right there out in the open, it’s still clear that Whannell only thinks of violence in terms of how it can be paid back. Which is to say, he’s consistent. Through to the end, you can’t get off on the thrill of this film’s craftsmanship without also getting off on the spectacle of more than just Cecilia brought to the brink of destruction. Like its style, The Invisible Man’s cruelty is the point.

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, Benedict Hardie Director: Leigh Whannell Screenwriter: Leigh Whannell Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 125 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Guns Akimbo Squanders a Nifty Setup with Excruciating Humor

Writer-director Jason Lei Howden’s humor might have been tolerable if his film was at least reasonably imaginative.

1.5

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Guns Akimbo
Photo: Saban Films

For much of Jason Lei Howden’s Guns Akimbo, Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) is in his jammies, because getting dressed is difficult when your hands are nailed to pistols. Eating and using the bathroom are no easy feat either. With this, the film hits on an amusing setup for physical comedy, as Miles can do little but stumble about as he strives to drive a car or use his phone with his nose. He also must avoid being shot by Nix (Samara Weaving), his designated opponent in a kill-or-be-killed online competition called Skizm. But the film ultimately fails to capitalize on its concept and gets smothered by its smug, abrasive tone.

Miles is a coder for a video game titled Nuts Bust 2, one of too-many examples of the film’s groan-inducing comedy. He’s also a bizarrely self-aware depiction of an internet troll, as Miles admits via narration that, in order to feel worthwhile, he seeks out arguments in comment sections and reports “offensive content.” When he goes to Skizm’s chatroom to tell the viewers off, he runs afoul of the organization’s facial-tattooed leader, Riktor (Ned Dennehy), who at one point says, “I’m going to do a poo-poo in my pantaloons,” because why not? Those guns for hands and his forced participation in Skizm are Miles’s punishment.

Most of Guns Akimbo’s dialogue squanders an intriguing concept through truly excruciating attempts at humor, oscillating between snide comments, gay panic jokes, and capital-A attitude-laden one-liners. In one scene, Miles remarks that the world looks “so HD” because, with gun-hands, he can’t go outside with his face in his phone.

The humor might have been tolerable if the film was at least reasonably imaginative. Radcliffe really digs into Miles’s sniveling bafflement and the expressive Weaving clearly has a lot of hammy fun as the unhinged Nix. But too much of Guns Akimbo consists of unremarkable car chases and gun fights that hardly feel transformed at all by Miles’s unique predicament. We watch a lot of people fire a lot of guns against a lot of concrete backdrops, except Howden deploys a hyperactive camera style that’s always zooming around the characters in slow motion or fast forward. He appears to be going for the Neveldine/Taylor style of films like Crank and Gamer, except he’s not nearly as inventive and most of his flourishes outright distract from the action choreography, sometimes obscuring it altogether.

Worse, Guns Akimbo strains to be self-aware, with Miles assuring audiences via narration that this isn’t one of those stories where he wins back his ex-girlfriend, Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), in the end. And it’s weirdly self-congratulatory for a film that visibly revels in torturing Weaving’s character and eventually has Nova kidnapped for the big climax anyway. The film has even less to say about the sort of obsessive spectatorship that makes up the story’s backdrop, as though simply depicting reality-TV audiences and internet users as assholes is some profound statement. Luckily, unlike Miles, viewers have a say in the matter. They aren’t bolted to the couch and the remote isn’t nailed into their hands; they’re free to quit watching at any time, or simply opt not to watch this obnoxious film at all.

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Samara Weaving, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Ned Dennehy, Rhys Darby, Grant Bowler, Edwin Wright Director: Jason Lei Howden Screenwriter: Jason Lei Howden Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Assistant Is a Chilling Portrait of Workplace Harassment

The film is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as its main character.

3

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The Assistant
Photo: Bleecker Street Media

With The Assistant, writer-director Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in the Tribeca offices of a film mogul, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing much of its resonance. Offices encourage professional functionality as a way of divorcing people from themselves, leading them to make actions without a sense of complicity. What starts small—throwing co-workers under the bus, neglecting friends due to punishing work hours—can blossom over time into people enabling atrocity under the guise of “doing what they’re told.”

With this psychology in mind, Green fashions The Assistant as a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae. The film opens with a young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), being picked up from her apartment for work so punishingly early that it’s almost impossible to tell if it’s morning or night. By 8 a.m., she’s been making copies, printing documents, reading emails, and tending to office errands for hours. Other employees gradually drift in, talking obligatorily of their weekends off—a privilege that Jane isn’t accorded.

In these early scenes, Green conjures a peculiar, very palpable dread, her precise, anal-retentive compositions suggesting what might happen if David Fincher were to adapt Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” This dread springs from two places, as the visual palette is silvery and moody, evoking a potential corporate thriller, though the film refuses to move beyond the expository stage and gratify this expectation, and so we fear that we may be trapped with Jane in her tedium. We are, and this is by Green’s moral schematic.

The Assistant is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as Jane. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the film mogul is only evoked via male pronouns (he’s never seen but often referenced and occasionally heard over the phone, usually in a torrent of rage against Jane for her inability to talk down his wife, who knows of his infidelity). Jane brings another assistant the wrong sandwich, and he treats her cruelly; it never occurs to him, or anyone else, to thank Jane for the tasks she performs for everyone in the office. At best, Jane’s co-workers regard her with a kind of pitying befuddlement, as if she’s not quite real. When Jane eats, it’s quickly and without pleasure, and she’s always alert to being watched. No one speaks of their personal lives. Green springs one perceptive, poignant detail after another, especially when the mogul compliments Jane via email just as she thinks he’s reached his limit with her. This is, of course, a major tool of the master manipulator: praise when least expected, and only enough to keep the person in your sphere of influence and at your mercy.

Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere. Jane finds an earring in the mogul’s office, which is repeatedly seen from a distance through its open door and becomes a chilling symbol for the mogul himself, suggesting his unshakable presence even in absence. There are jokes made about his couch, which Jane cleans. Young, beautiful women are brought into the office at late hours, and are referenced by both male and female employees with contempt. Growing fearful for one of the women, Jane tries to complain to an unsympathetic H.R. officer who sets about gaslighting her. It becomes evident that we’re watching—from the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit person—a parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Green’s grasp of Jane’s indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable.

Yet The Assistant also feels too narrow, too comfortable with its thesis. The rendering of the mogul as an unseen specter is effective but also dime-store lurid in the tradition of mediocre horror movies, and this device also conveniently absolves Green of having to wrestle with how a Weinstein type might live with himself. George Huang’s similarly themed 1994 film Swimming with Sharks, which is mostly inferior to The Assistant, benefited from such a friction, as its own Weinstein surrogate (played by Kevin Spacey) had a magnetism that complicated and enriched the script’s anger. There’s also something insidious about Green’s evasion, as the mogul’s absence elevates him, mythologizes him, which reflects how people low on the power ladder see powerful exploiters. But Green physicalizes this idea without standing outside of it, challenging it, or contextualizing it; she traps us in a monotonous hell and leaves us there. Her fury with Weinstein and his ilk contains an element of awe.

Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, Stéphanye Dussud, Juliana Canfield, Alexander Chaplin, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bregje Heinen Director: Kitty Green Screenwriter: Kitty Green Distributor: Bleecker Street Media Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy Is a Half-Hearted Spin on Peter Pan

Wendy veers awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never accruing any lasting emotional impact.

2

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Wendy
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Like Beasts of the Southern Wild before it, Wendy unfolds through the eyes of a child. Benh Zeitlin’s sophomore feature puts a new spin on Peter Pan, and not only because it takes on the perspective of a 10-year-old Wendy Darling (Devin France). The film’s modern-rustic settings and costumes and relative lack of fantastical elements—notwithstanding the presence of a majestic, glowing sea creature, referred to as “mother,” who may hold the secret to reversing time—also play a large part in re-envisioning J.M. Barrie’s classic. But Zeitlin’s brand of magical realism strains in its conflicting desires to both demystify Neverland (never mentioned by name in the film), chiefly by grounding it in a rather prosaic reality, and imbue the story with all the enchanting qualities we’ve come to expect from fantasies of everlasting childhood. Like its version of Peter (Yashua Mack), Wendy wants to fly, yet, because of its self-imposed restrictions, it never quite gets off the ground.

Across this tale of a child lurching toward adulthood, there’s a sense of wonder and awe to the sea creature’s brief appearances, and to Wendy’s initial encounters with the free-spirited Peter, who playfully eggs her on from atop the train that regularly roars across the barren, rural locale that houses her family’s rundown diner. But Wendy’s whimsical flourishes, from Dan Romer’s incessantly rousing score to Wendy’s breathy and all-too-mannered voiceover, brush awkwardly against the film’s dour conception of a Neverland drained of all its magic and grandeur. Despite this, Zeitlin strives to capture an unbridled sense of childlike exuberance as kids cavort around the rugged cliffside vistas of the remote volcanic island that Peter calls home. But lacking any of the mystical features typically associated with them, Peter and his cohorts’ behaviors appear overly precocious to the point of ludicrousness; it’s almost as if they’re performing a twee, optimistic rendition of Lord of the Flies.

Unlike Quvenzhané Wallis, whose magnetic presence imbued Beasts of the Southern Wild with a pervasive warmth and soulfulness, Mack is an unfortunately listless presence as Peter. Several years younger than Wendy and her twin brothers, Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin), Peter appears, more often than not, like a six-year-old playing dress-up. His utter lack of charisma and gusto renders him an ill-fitting avatar for boisterous youthfulness, while his occasionally domineering, yet still unimposing, demeanor hardly makes him out to be the inspirational figure that the film ultimately wants him to be. Not only does he allow one boy to drown at one point, he chops off the hand of another to prevent him from aging.

Such events position Wendy as a twisted take on Peter Pan, but these moments are never given room to breathe. Rather, they’re uniformly undermined by the film cutting back to the idyllic adventures of children, in lockstep with Zeitlin’s relentless pursuit of galvanizing his audience through a gleefully idealized vision of the world. This jarring intrusion of darker elements into the story makes for bizarre clashes in tone, leaving Wendy to veer awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never to accrue any lasting emotional impact. When Peter buoyantly declares that “to grow up is a great adventure,” one is left to wonder not only why the boy who never grows up would, out of nowhere, embrace this worldview, but why Wendy, or any of the other children, would want to follow such a troubling figure on that journey.

As Wendy stumbles into its final act, where adult pirates attempt to use Wendy as bait to catch the giant sea creature, it becomes even more convoluted, contradictory, and murky in what it’s trying to say about growing up. Wendy eventually begins to stand up to and question Peter, both for his mistreatment of her brother and his harshness toward the adults Peter has excommunicated to an impoverished community on the outskirts of the island. But no sooner does she chide Peter than she’s back on his side, cheering him on as he fights off an admittedly cleverly devised Captain Hook. It’s as if she, much like the film, can’t seem to settle on whether Peter’s a hero or a borderline psychopath, or if childhood is a magical time to live in permanently or a necessary step on the way to adulthood. Rather than meaningfully subverting audience expectations, Wendy instead plays like a half-hearted twist on the familiar tale that ultimately doesn’t change the moral at the core of countless other Peter Pan adaptations: childhood is magical, and growing up is scary but inevitable.

Cast: Tommie Lynn Milazzo, Shay Walker, Devin France, Stephanie Lynn Wilson, Ahmad Cage, Gage Naquin, Krzysztof Meyn, Gavin Naquin, Romyri Ross Director: Benh Zeitlin Screenwriter: Benh Zeitlin, Eliza Zeitlin Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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